He said it so quietly that I almost missed it. I was leaning out the side of the safari truck, gazing at the night sky spilling over with stars. The gurgle of the engine and the constant rocking had almost lulled me to sleep. It had been about 30 minutes since we had seen an animal of note, and that was the fleeting vision of a hyena taking cover in the bushes.
“There’s a leopard up ahead,” said our safari guide, with no fanfare at all. He quickly maneuvered the truck off the road and tried to get closer.
“Wait! What? NO. Really?”
I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t losing his mind! A leopard was like seeing a unicorn. At this point on Intrepid’s Cape Town to Zanzibar trip, I had already been on safaris at Etosha in Namibia, Chobe in Botswana and Matobo in Zimbabwe. Every time we met our guides, they asked us what we were hoping to see and we would always chime in with “Leopards!” The guide would then shake his head and dismiss the possibility because they are so elusive. I went to the place that has the densest population of leopards on the planet, Matobo Park, and there wasn’t even the hint of a leopard in the vicinity.
But now, I was in Zambia, in South Luangwa Park, on the last game drive before crossing in to Malawi.
I leaned forward, and squinted into the distance, following the beam of light that they were shining from the hood of the truck. Sure enough, there was a cat on the horizon. He had changed direction and was walking directly toward the truck.
“Leopard!”, I whispered, to no-one in particular.
He was a stunningly beautiful creature with a heart-shaped spot on his back leg. He stopped beside the truck, panting from the heat. For a moment I felt like he might launch up into the seat beside me, but he quickly made a move across the front of the vehicle. The headlights illuminated everything gorgeous about him. It made me emotional.
I had finally seen the ‘Big Five’. In the safari world, the Big Five are Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo, Lion, Elephant and Leopard. Elephants were the easiest to find. I had hopped a River Cruise in Chobe and came across elephants swimming just off the edge of the boat, fuzzy babies standing between their mother’s legs, and whole breeding heads of elephants making their way to the water.
But, in Zambia, I was dangling my feet in the pool at our camp when a guy at the bar came over and said, “Um, ma’am…elephant.” Fast forward to Carla ducking behind a pool chair as a rather boisterous bull elephant made his way around the pool, merrily pulling out all the plants and verily decimating the trees and shrubs. Welcome to our camp, Mr. Elephant.
At this camp, I had upgraded to a cool safari tent with an attached bathroom. All I had to contend with was a rather savage baboon fight outside my tent at 3am and a line of crocodiles staring at me from the river…oh, and a herd of curly-horned kudu that circled me on the way to the tent that night. Hm, there was that elephant looking into my bathroom window too. Okay, I may have also had to wrestle a large brown lizard out of my tent. And a frog.
What I’m getting at here is that, in Zambia, I felt like I was among the animals. We didn’t have to go to a “park” to see them, they were literally surrounding us, wherever we went. Our first night camping on the outskirts of Lusaka had us negotiating around some cheeky zebras that liked to kick if you got too close, and there was a massive giraffe just walking through the parking lot. There was a snake being super chill on the rafter of the bar and warthogs running around looking for their zebra buddies.
I felt entirely outnumbered.
Zambia’s “ALL-animals-ALL-the-time” feel may have stolen the show, but there is much to be appreciated about this country that doesn’t involve safaris. As our Intrepid truck headed from camp to camp, we passed through little villages that provided a wealth of sights. Some days our journeys covered a lot of road, so villages were welcome stops – not just so we could put our eyes on something different, but because there was always a bathroom (of varying standards) and snacks.
When I was a kid, the train passed through my town at 2pm every day. The railway crossing was at the end of my street and, if I was playing outside, I could feel the rumble of the train before I could hear it. I would drop whatever I was doing and run as fast as I could to the end of the street to wave at the conductor in hopes that he would blow his horn and wave back.
He always did. And it made me feel special.
Pulling into a village in an overland vehicle caused the same reaction in Zambia. Kids would drop what they were doing and come running, screaming “OY YAY! OY YAY!” and waving frantically.
I was hanging out the window yelling, “HELLOOOOO!” back to them when I turned my head to find one of my travel mates hanging out the neighbouring window, taking it all in. “I’ve never felt more loved than I do here…and from total strangers,” she said.
The sun was beating in the windows and pinking-up my skin, but I was loath to close the curtains for fear of missing such lovely interactions. It’s here that I realized that I might have made that conductor feel special too.
We arrived at camp after a long day of travel, but a few of us were feeling spunky and decided to go for a night on the town in Lusaka, the capital. We wanted to dance! After arranging a couple of cabs to drive us to a club, taking the world’s longest detour around a closed highway, we found ourselves at ‘Chicago’. Chicago was clearly a very elite bar that the upper echelon of society went to. We lasted about 10 minutes and headed back to our cabs.
“Take us where YOU guys would go dancing!”
The concrete was shaking as we walked up to the club, the metal on the side of the building was clanging from reverberation, the back beat was so intense my heart was bouncing off my rib cage and we were not even inside. There was not a muzungu in sight, except for us! We had found where the locals go.
It was mind-numbingly loud. We got a few sideways glances as we found a table and ordered drinks. But, the locals embraced us and dancing was had by all! At the end of the day, it felt like a club you would find in Canada – music was similar, as were the shout-outs to the ladies, the bathroom drama, the snogging in the corner, the guys who don’t dance wishing they were the guys that do dance.
So, yes, many of Zambia’s charms revolve around the animals. But there’s much more than that.
Travel to me is this: When I’m 90 years old, sitting on my veranda, sharing my wisdom with the town youngsters, I can talk all about my close encounters with the wilds of Southern Africa.
But I can also say, “I remember this one time I went clubbing in Lusaka…”
Ready to have the adventure of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group trips in Zambia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Rob Lendon, Carla Powell x3, Rob Lendon.)