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LEFT: A GIRAFFE in South Luangwa National Park. Right: Elephants in the wild. PICTURES: MARGARET CHISANGA

Luangwa: Fun that never quite happened

SOMETIMES, the most random on-the-spur decisions bring out the best life- changing experiences in our lives.

A spontaneous trip to South Luangwa National Park on a blessed Monday, proved that the experience of re-aligning with nature can rejuvenate one’s spirit to work even harder. Well, at least for me it did. And I think it did for all the presidents of Zambia who have been known to take working holidays there every once in a while. President Lungu was here as recently as August 2017.
Located in Eastern Province, about an hour and a half drive from Chipata City, on a tarred road filled with activities from the communities located close to the road, lays South Luangwa National Park. According to the Zambiatourism website, there are 60 different animal species and over 400 different bird species in South Luangwa National Park. The place swarms with such wildlife; it’s akin to being right in the middle of the 1994 American animated epic musical film The Lion King, in the scene where elephants, kudus and buffaloes sing in the valley.
The only difference is that in this valley of the Luangwa River, where the game park is located, the lions have a roar much louder than the Lion King’s Mufasa and teeth way sharper than his brother Scars. And the real lions are actually more beautiful, kingly and stately in sight.
Ours is a trip planned by the angels, as our tour guide, Ackim, spots a pride of lions barely 10 minutes’ drive into the park. The pride has decided to take an afternoon nap in some shrubs just off the sign-post indicating Mushroom Lodge and the Elephant Loop.
We drive as close as possible and stare at the King of the Jungle and his royal family. A beautiful cub I will call Simba separates itself from the pride and curiously moves closer to our tour van, and out of the corner of my eye I notice a huge mane come into form as the lion rises its head to observe its young. For one split second, ‘my heart jumps into my mouth’, as the late Zambian comedian Daniel Kanengoki (Sauzande) would put it. But Ackim assures us that we are safe as long as we stay quiet and calm.
The mane on the lion, played up as nature’s crown on her chosen king of the beasts, is nicely thick, lush and dark, set around sharp eyes staring at us, this lion is obviously the current dominant male of this pride. There is an equal measure of fear and admiration as we take pictures. After some minutes, Ackim motions that it’s time to move on and slowly begins to drive off. I could have stayed here forever.
Established in 1972, the park covers an area of about 9,050 km² and is governed by the department of Natural Parks and Wildlife under the Ministry of Tourism and Arts.
Trails from the park’s lodges wander past baobab trees, herds of elephants and rare Thornicroft’s giraffes. There are a number of lodges spread out in the game park. These include Mushroom Lodges, Zikomo Safari Camp, Croc Valley Camp, Track and Trail River Camp. However, many tourists come for daily game drives organised by different tour operators employing tour guides to take people round the park. It is very affordable and comes highly recommended by yours truly.
British conservationist Norman Carr was influential in setting up South Luangwa National Park. Norman Carr broke the mould of track-and-hunt safari and created conservation-based tourism. His memory is etched in the park in a lot of ways, as we spot his name on signs-posts indicating trail routes.
However, not everyone appreciates the value of conserving nature and wildlife. Although the park is generally well-protected, poachers still find their way into the park, wiping out impala, kudus and wildebeest for meat. The elephant population has also been under serious pressure. According to the Norman Carr Safaris website, research indicates that the black rhino was wiped out by 1987.
Poachers are not the only threat as climate change seems to be slowly taking its toll on the natural habitat. On this particular, several dead hippos are spotted in the shallow waters of the Luangwa River. Ackim explains that hippos prefer to dwell in cool waters, but as the waters run dry due to heat, they are forced to survive the slightly warmer waters. Not all of them survive.
As we stand gazing at the hippos and crocodiles across the Luangwa River, where the game management area lies, we spot makeshift huts on the dry river beds. Three men stand in the sand.
“Those are supposed to be fishermen waiting for the hippos to go out and graze in the evenings before they can go out and fish. It is very dangerous as just yesterday, a man was mauled by a hippo when he got too close,” he said.
I was contemplating spending a night in the game park, to fully understand the nocturnal nature of the wildlife, and maybe spot a leopard, but that was before Ackim gave us a break down of some of the prices to lodge per night. Suffice to say, the ordinary middle to upper middle class might not be able to afford two nights. But I will be back, there is so much to learn in this game park.
The exhilarating feeling I get from communing so closely with nature’s greatest and yet most dangerous beings leaves me with a resolve in my heart to make this world safer for such wildlife. This is an important decision, considering presidents have made serious cabinet reshuffles after a few nights in this wildlife sanctuary.