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Destination: Zambia

Still 'Old' Africa

This little-visited country is rich in animal life, but gets few visitors to its upscale safari camps

March 02, 1997|JON K. TILLINGHAST | Tillinghast is an attorney and freelance journalist from Juneau, Alaska

SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, Zambia — The leopard had killed an aardvark roughly its own weight and pulled the carcass up a sausage tree. There it was safe from the hyenas gathered at the tree's base, and from the pride of 22 lions whose territory the leopard shared.

The night after the kill, the leopard lay sprawled across a limb of that tree, the aardvark devoured. There was no need for the leopard to hunt that night, and no reason to stir when our Land Cruiser paused to admire him. I have spent about a year, over the past six, exploring Africa's game parks, and my private moments with leopards, free from the clatter and lights of other safari vehicles, were rather special.

The BBC also stopped by that evening, and left unimpressed. Its crew had been filming leopards here for two years. There are about 300 leopards in this park, and the sight of one groggy cat raised little interest.

For his part, the lion pride's dominant male was off mating, while the pride's other females tended the cubs. And so the zebra, the giraffe, the baboon, the waterbuck, the wildebeest, the bushbuck, the impala, the lechwe, the puku and the kudu--all of whom inhabit the park in such abundance--passed the night in peace.

Indeed, but for the splashing of elephants crossing the river, and the munching of hippos out for an evening graze, this was a quiet August night in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

Back at camp, Robin and Jo Pope's staff were spreading out the chutneys and chicken, and opening the South African wines. Each of Nkwali Camp's 12, $210-a-night beds were occupied that evening--a rarity in a country where safari camps operate at 30% capacity. This night was near the end of my five weeks in Zambia in 1996, and like most Zambia pilgrims, I was daily struck by the near absence of other travelers.

As Norman Carr complained: "All our neighbors are booming in tourism, but we're barely holding our own." An injustice, he maintained, since "our product here is every bit as good as our neighbors'."

Carr, 85, counts 60 years of promoting Zambian safaris. In 1949, he persuaded South Luangwa's Chief Nsefu to open a tribally owned safari camp. It was the first tourist camp in then Northern Rhodesia, the first tribally owned tourist camp in all of Africa, "and the chief thought it was a crazy idea," Carr added.

Nonetheless, the camp earned $200 in its first year, "which was great wealth in those days, and which all went into the chief's pocket."

Then, in the 1950s, Carr surveyed the frontiers of newly established Kafue National Park, the second-largest game park in Africa, and built five tourist camps in that vast wilderness.

The crowds never came to Kafue, nor to almost anywhere in Zambia. Even 3,600-square-mile South Luangwa National Park will today see only 5,000 international travelers over its six-month May to October high season, and South Luangwa is Zambia's most popular park.

Though only 13 degrees south of the equator, the park mimics a proper English woodland. Tidy groves of ebony and mahogany wander along the Luangwa River, and vast miombo forests turn yellow and purple from winter's frost. Rain is regular, rivers are plentiful, and at 2,000 feet above sea level, the dry winter season is temperate. Indeed, from April to July, the valley's average nighttime low is 38.

It is a singularly agreeable venue for watching animals. And there is considerable wildlife to watch: 25% of the world's hippos wallow in Zambia's rivers, and along stretches of the Luangwa River there are more than 100 per mile. In 1995, the British Broadcasting Co. chose South Luangwa for its documentary on hippos, and in 1997 will be returning to film the park's equally ubiquitous crocodiles. So choked with hippos and crocs is the Luangwa that no rafting company will float it.

South Luangwa's inarguable allure, however, fell victim to external forces. The bankruptcy of Zambia Airways left in-country transit to an oft-changing cast of local entrepreneurs. Flights within the country are still occasional, costly and often complex, while equipment and fuel delays not infrequently leave travelers stewing in some bare-bones airport.

And while the rates at Zambia's $200- to $250-a-night (including all meals) luxury safari camps compare favorably to their more costly counterparts in Botswana and Zimbabwe, the neglect of its state-owned and more economical tourist camps, and the country's sparse and unpleasant road system, have combined to discourage more budget-minded travelers.

And so, that quiet August evening on the Luangwa last year was shared by maybe 70 international travelers scattered over half a dozen camps--hardly the kind of numbers calculated to excite Zambian economists.

For any romantic possessed by Old Africa, however, it's a different story. And throughout this still-wild country, an eclectic band of expatriates and quixotic residents is rekindling that romance.

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