The conservation triumphs and new luxury camps in Zambia's Lower Zambezi National Park

As elephant numbers rebound following a celebrated conservation scheme and new luxury camps take root, this lesser-visited corner of Africa is establishing itself as one of the continent’s most exciting safari destinations.

River safari on the Zambezi near Time and Tide Chongwe Camp.

Photograph by Time + Tide Chongwe Camp
By Sarah Marshall
Published 19 Nov 2022, 08:00 GMT

Depending on the season, rivers whirl and eddy in a variety of colours, shrinking and swelling with the rains on a never-ending journey from source to sea. Shades of brackish brown, pea green and milky grey are all common, but if the waters ever stain red, Zambia’s Tonga people raise an alarm.

According to ancient local legends, a fiery flow is a trail left by river god Nyami Nyami, a humongous serpent-like creature who lives in Lake Kariba. His last show of strength was a mighty one: angered by the construction of a dam on the Zambezi River in the 1950s, Nyami Nyami is said to have summoned a series of unprecedented natural disasters. Storms and flash floods raised rivers over the rooftops of villages, causing a level of devastation rarely seen in the Zambezi Valley.

If superstitious locals feared this was Nyami Nyami’s revenge for separating him from his wife, Kitapo, upstream, it didn’t impede the infrastructure project — the dam was restarted and finally completed in 1958. Some say the leviathan has been tamed by this feat of hydroelectric engineering, but still, as I paddle through the calm waters of the Inkalange Channel, a gently meandering offshoot of the mighty Zambezi River, I can’t help but scan the waters for the signature scarlet bloom of his wake. 

River safari on the Zambezi near Time and Tide Chongwe Camp.

Photograph by Time + Tide Chongwe Camp

The captain of my canoe is Hastings Muhonga. Growing up in a community close by, the safari guide has witnessed the ebb and flow of fortunes in the Lower Zambezi National Park, one of Zambia’s most important wildlife sanctuaries. Despite being several hundred miles away, the dam reshaped the landscape we’re enjoying today. Areas further along the river, like this one, drained, he explains to me. New islands emerged as the waters lowered, and forests of mahogany and winter thorn trees started to grow. But the impact of humans on the natural world didn’t stop there.

“There was a time when we were being hammered by poachers,” Hastings whispers in a low voice, doing his best not to disturb a black-winged stilt stealthily prowling for bugs on the bank. “Animals were rapidly disappearing.” But a combination of conservation and community efforts have increased wildlife numbers in this fertile valley, generating more tourists, new investors and lodges, and even applications for UNESCO to designate the national park as Zambia’s first Biosphere Reserve.

One of the area’s most charismatic residents is the elephant, a species never far from Zambezi’s floodplains and riverbanks. As part of its daily ritual, a thirsty herd arrives at the water’s edge to take a final drink before sunset, mere feet from us. Tossing back their trunks in the fading light, the elephants spray the sky with a golden mist, as baboons scurry into the treetops seeking safe places to roost for the night. 

Light-footed African jacanas hop across a leafy pontoon of water hyacinths, hippos yawn and chortle, and a sweet smell of caper flowers fills the crisp, evening air on land that, before the dam, would’ve been underwater. Despite Nyami Nyami’s furious protestations, the dam has — according to Hastings — opened the floodgates to more life. “I know it’s strange to say, but these islands, trees, birds and animals are partly here because of that dam,” he says.

Once the sun has set and the baboons have raced to their roosts, Hastings paddles us back to Time and Tide Chongwe House, an open-to-the elements private cottage located at a confluence of the Chongwe and Zambezi Rivers, just beyond the boundary of the park. I spend my first night here. Plaster pillars of vines and tree trunks appear to support the walls and, while reclining in an al fresco bathtub, it’s possible to watch buffalo scramble down the dusty, ochre riverbanks. After dark, snuffles and shifting shadows suggest plenty of animal movement, but I sleep soundly knowing a night watchmen will keep any bigger predators at bay.

Impala on the plains of Lower Zambezi National Park.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

The exclusive use of a guide and vehicle is part of the package at Chonge House, so I have the luxury of setting off for an earlier-than-usual game drive the following morning. I’m keen to see the dawn. Hastings tells me we’ll reach the park in around 20 minutes, providing the water level of the channels we need to ford are low enough, but our adventure starts as soon as we leave the lodge. Giving me barely a nod of acknowledgement, two bleary-eyed male lions skulk from the bushes like a couple of hardy revellers stumbling home. 

There’s a gripping tension in the air as night becomes day, forcing some creatures to snatch at the cover of darkness while others eagerly grapple for the first rays of light. Running, roaring, honking, chirruping — the forest becomes a frenzy of activity until the sun finally lifts and the valley exhales a sigh of relief. 

But one urgent growl continues. Following the source of the sound, we drive to the riverbank, where tree roots cling to crumbling terracotta cliffs. Up top, a young male leopard is licking his bloody wounds, gazing right through us into the thicket beyond where more rumblings reveal a mating couple. Hastings suggests the female has cast this spurned suitor aside in favour of a new partner. Thick, impenetrable bushes make it impossible to glimpse the pair, but trying to unravel the story is nevertheless thrilling — even more so because we’ll never know for sure.

Squatting below a cluster of spindly date palms, an olive baboon picks through elephant dung for pieces of fruit softened by digestion. As breakfasts go, it’s fairly unappealing — although not as putrid as the foul feast we find a hyena devouring a few minutes later.

View across the fertile valley of the Lower Zambezi.

Photograph by Time + Tide Chongwe Camp

“I thought he’d be here,” says Hastings, screwing up his nose in disgust at the smell. Tearing at a leathery piece of skin, the hyena is chewing the two-month-old remains of an elephant. It wasn’t a victim of poachers, Hastings insists. “It died due to illness, but the hyenas have made sure nothing has gone to waste.” 

From the late 1970s up until as recently as 2016, an epidemic of ivory poaching saw elephant numbers plummet in the Lower Zambezi. But the tide has turned: now elephants can be seen everywhere.

I find them wading across the river, using their trunks as a snorkel; or clambering on their back legs to reach the tasty pods of a winter thorn tree; and even outside my tent back at the Time and Tide Chongwe Camp, the larger, multi-tent sister camp to the cottage, where I move to spend the next couple of days.

At midday, once temperatures have risen, herds come down from the forest to drink. Looking up, I watch one bull glide almost silently past my A-frame. Only a thin layer of netting separates us; I can see every fold and wrinkle of his rugged skin and my cheeks bristle with the coolness of his breath.

Conservation in action

A former tourist guide and lodge owner turned professional conservationist, Ian Stevenson has played an instrumental role in the protection and restoration of the Lower Zambezi’s elephant population. As the CEO of NGO Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), he operates from a base a short boat ride upriver from where I’m staying.

When I arrive, the newly decorated offices are buzzing with activity in preparation for meetings with community elders and educational outreach classes with local schools. Stacked in one corner are heavy khaki canvas backpacks belonging to the Kufadza (meaning ‘unity’) — Zambia’s first all-female, anti-poaching community scout unit, who are preparing to head out on patrol. 

“When I started flying down here 20 years ago, I’d take off and see 20 poachers’ bushmeat drying racks in a morning,” says Australian-born Ian, recalling the early days of CLZ, when a small team worked from a cluster of canvas tents. “Lion prides were moving from one carcass to another. We were being hit hard. In 2015 alone, which was the peak of the crisis, we lost 107 elephants. Now, it’s significantly less.” 

A ranger and Lolebezi guide scan for lions on a walking safari in Lower Zambezi National Park.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Nominated in 2020 for a Tusk Conservation Award — the conservation world’s equivalent to the Oscars — Ian was personally thanked by the charity’s royal patron, Prince William, for his innovative and effective efforts in combatting poaching locally. It was largely due to the efforts of CLZ, which works closely with the Zambian government’s Department of National Parks & Wildlife, that only a handful of elephants have been lost to poaching in recent years. While Ian isn’t at liberty to reveal the exact numbers for 2022 yet, they’re some of the lowest on record he assures me. 

Outside, beneath the beating sun, trainer Adamson Phiri is running through anti-poaching exercises with his tracking dog. Sniffing furiously, the nasally honed hound is able to detect the tiniest shaving of a pangolin scale or rhino horn inside a collection of sealed cardboard boxes. As we walk around the gardens, Ian tells me about plans for a community programme aimed at training local dogs to do this work. They would, he says, be better adapted to heat and disease than the imported breeds currently used. He even believes it would be possible to equip a hyena with detection skills.  

There are also plans to repopulate the park with locally extinct species — the aim being to benefit the ecosystem and, as a secondary bonus, boost tourism. First up would be the eland, a large, spiral-horned antelope, which Ian hopes to introduce within the next year or two. Once sufficient security systems are in place, black rhino — last seen here in the 1990s — could be next. “Years ago, at the height of the poaching crisis, several rhinos from Lower Zambezi were moved to southern Zimbabwe in a bid to save the remaining gene pool, so the right genetics are still there,” insists Ian, who’s confident the project will one day go ahead, once the necessary groundwork has been done.

An adult lion spotted on a dawn safari in Lower Zambezi National Park.

Photograph by Time + Tide Chongwe Camp

Looming in the background of all Ian’s projects, however, is the ongoing threat of a large, open-cast copper mine that’s been proposed for the park. CLZ is part of a consortium of NGOs currently lobbying the government to reject the plans.

“This is one of Africa’s biggest waterways, millions of people and animals rely on it,” says Ian. He’s referring to the Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-longest river, which flows through six countries on its 1,700-mile 
journey from northwest Zambia into the Indian Ocean — forming the mighty Victoria Falls along the way.

“If it became contaminated, it would be a global disaster. Communities downriver are supportive because they’re being offered jobs, but they don’t understand the risk. There are a million reasons why it shouldn’t go ahead.”

Trainer Adamson Phiri, of Conservation Lower Zambezi, carries out anti-poaching exercises with his tracking dog.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Bulls and baboons

A large portion of CLZ’s funding comes from tourism partners in the park and in neighbouring, community-owned game management area. As part of a membership scheme, camps and lodges contribute up to $1,000 (£880) a month. The most recent member is Lolebezi, which opened in June. A 90-minute boat ride from Time and Tide Chongwe Camp, it occupies one of the most beautiful and isolated spots in the park.
 
When I arrive, a bull elephant has settled outside my room, leaving a trail of chewed winter thorn pods behind him. Baboons, unfazed by my presence, are scampering over an assault course of fallen branches, and the silhouettes of shy kudu dart through pools of amber afternoon light. Beneath a cathedral of winter thorn, ebony, fig and mahogany trees, there’s an air of serenity, broken only by the soothing coos of a cape turtle dove.

 A pair of elephants, one of the species making a remarkable comeback.
 

Photograph by Time + Tide Chongwe Camp

Bowing to the hierarchy of the natural world, I take my pew on a tree trunk and wait for my hungry elephant friend to finish his meal and drift slowly back into the forest.

“It’s like being in an oil painting,” enthuses Beks Ndlovu, founder and CEO of African Bush Camps (one of only a few Black African-owned safari companies), which manages Lolebezi. “The different layers: the floodplain, the islands, the acacia forest.”

A former guide, Beks started his career in the Lower Zambezi. “I fell in love with this place because of the intensity of the wildlife and the diverse landscape,” he reminisces that evening, stoking the flames of a fire-pit overlooking the water. “I really believe the Zambezi is one of the world’s most iconic rivers. From hippos and elephants to communities living in the Zambezi basin, so much is dependent on it.”

But it’s not only the natural setting that wows guests when they arrive at Lolebezi. A far cry from the simple canvas set-ups of rustic safari camps, the polished property is more akin to a boutique hotel. In the main area, a cocktail bar with a marble counter feels straight out of Manhattan, as is a breakfast smoothie station with more superfood ingredients than a Planet Organic health store.

My room, one of eight, opens onto a secluded stretch of the Zambezi riverfront; I can shower, bathe in bubbles or dip in a plunge pool while watching elephants wade across to grassy islands. A high-tech heating system and sophisticated mood lighting are arguably a little superfluous for the bush. Instead, I prefer to leave the glass doors open at night, allowing the sounds of bellowing hippos and wailing ibis to serenade me to sleep. 

Elevated walkways around Lolebezi offer views across the Zambezi.

Photograph by Lolebezi

Regardless of all the fancy trimmings, though, it’s the animal stars that steal the show. On a morning walk, I follow the paw prints of a male lion; during a sunset cruise, I watch industrious little bee-eaters pockmark the banks with their nesting burrows; and on a night drive, I trail a leopard as it skulks through long, concealing wisps of grass.

Recently, Beks tells me, National Geographic came to film the Lower Zambezi’s pack of 40-plus wild dogs, which have developed a rare skill for hunting adult buffaloes. Keen to see what had drawn the camera crew here, we spend two days in the same area, monitoring activity around a wild dog carcass that’s attracting lions from across the park. With bated breath, we watch as a hungry mother hides her young cubs in the thicket and spurns the advances of an amorous male to steal a few mouthfuls of food.

But it’s not always the action that keeps me hooked. Sometimes the subtle details are equally as thrilling: glistening spider webs clinging to bushes like freshly spun cotton wool; the squeal of a hunting fish eagle; a full moon setting as the sun begins to rise.

Fast or slow, in the background, the Zambezi river is a constant fixture. And although I never detect any evidence of Nyami Nyami’s bloody trails, there’s still a sanguine quality to this water, an eternal source of life.  

Getting there & around

There are no direct flights from the UK to Zambia. Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Qatar Airways fly from London or Manchester into Lusaka via their respective hubs. 
Average flight time: 15h.
Proflight Zambia operates domestic flights to Royal Airstrip (for Time and Tide Chongwe Camp) or Jeki Airstrip (for Lolebezi). 

When to go 

Most camps in and around Lower Zambezi National Park only open from mid-March to November. The best time for spotting wildlife is July (11C to 25C) to October (19C to 34C), when the heat pushes animals to the river. The rainy season (late November to early April) brings peak humidity (with highs of 33C) and most roads are inaccessible, so activities are done by boat. 

Where to stay

Time and Tide Chongwe House. From $815 (£735) per person, full board. 
Time and Tide Chongwe Camp. From $730 (£658) per person, full board.
Lolebezi. From £590 per person to £1,490 per person, full board, depending on the season. Open year-round.

More info

Zambia Tourism.
Bradt Guide to Zambia. RRP: £18.99

How to do it

Abercrombie & Kent has a five-night trip to Zambia, with three nights, full-board, at Time and Tide Chongwe Camp and two nights at Lolebezi, from £6,995 per person, based on two sharing. Includes flights, transfers and conservancy fees. abercrombiekent.co.uk

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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