As the angry elephant charges toward me, I wonder if this moment will be scarier than yesterday.
Accompanied by a guard with a rifle, I had been roaming the Lower Zambezi National Park — without a jeep to protect me or escape in.
Vulnerable in the vastness and sparseness of the savannah, I felt hundreds of eyes upon me, as lions, leopards and zebras silently watched my every move.
It was far too quiet for a place full of wildlife. Were they getting ready to attack? What if all of them ran at me at once?
How accurate was this guy’s aim? How old and rusty was his rifle? What if he killed an animal in its own home to save my stupid tourist life?
I might be smiling but I was terrified.
The truth is I was perfectly safe, because Africa’s wild animals have learned to regard all humans as potential killers, so they keep their distance.
But not today’s elephant.
He’s annoyed by my group of three women chatting in the back of a Land Rover, stopping to take his photo, so he suddenly starts charging at us at astonishing speed.
“Go, go, goooo!!!” we scream at our driver, who slams on the accelerator as we flee in a burst of dust.
Looking behind, we can’t believe the tetchy patchyderm is still chasing us. With ears flapping and trunk trumpeting, he’s not giving up.
Much shouting and swearing later, we get away and pull over at a shady spot for a soothing sundowner drink.
Our guide, Moses, explains the young male was intoxicated from eating the fermented fruit of the marula tree. Whether this lore is true or not (scientists disagree), it reminds us that the wilderness is full of unknowns and unpredictability.
But what is a safari if there’s no chance of a mauling? People don’t go to the jungle, dressed up in their hats and khakis, to come home without a near-death story.
And it’s not over yet.
We spend too long on our gin & tonic, so it’s already getting dark. A bigger problem is the tide has risen in the river that we need to cross to get back to our lodge.
It looks impossibly deep to drive through, but there’s no other way.
Without any option, we put our trust in the Toyota and our hearts in our mouths as we enter the rapidly rising river. Water starts pouring into the vehicle as Moses attempts a miracle (and I resist a joke about parting the seas). Scooping our feet from the flooding floor, we shriek louder than a flock of African fish eagles.
As the jeep approaches the other side, our relief is short-lived.
Suddenly the headlights illuminate a huge crocodile in the shallows, directly in front of us.
Our screams hit a higher pitch as Moses ploughs ahead to reach the steep riverbank and get us out of there. It’s such a sloshing, bumpy ride that I can’t tell if we run over the reptile.
“That was a log,” Moses assures us, “he got away.”
However, he also asks that we do not report this incident to his boss or write about it in our magazines.
Chongwe River House never looked so weirdly welcoming. Like something out of The Flintstones, this private home is carved from white rock, with glass-less windows and a thatched roof. The furniture is made from fallen winterthorn trees, with branches snaking up the walls.
Dining under the starry sky, we agree not to do another night safari.
This is a big call coming from one of my companions, Jennifer Byrne, a former 60 Minutes journalist who has reported from war-torn countries.
The other two women include a photographer on assignment for Vogue, and Jane Corbett-Jones, the Australian PR representative for Norman Carr Walking Safaris (since acquired by Time+Tide).
This awesome foursome spent the week transfixed by dazzles of zebras crowding into each other, gangly giraffes peering over treetops, a leopard scooting down a tree, and even more rarely spotted, an aardvark. We saw creatures I’d never heard of, such as a genet, and watched a wily pack of painted dogs hunting antelopes.
The birdlife is just as diverse, from woodpeckers to vultures, and lots of tiny kingfishers flashing at you like the blink of a blue eye.
Our favourite character was an impala with a mess of twigs and leaves stuck in his antlers. There are two theories: he accidentally picks them up when brushing past a tree or he does it on purpose to look dominant. Either way, the visual effect is pure ‘village idiot’. Whenever we see a similarly adorned deer, it never fails to crack us up in fits of laughter.
Zambia’s national parks have no fences, so these are the wildest of wild animals, wandering free around campsites, crops and towns. Compared to more famous safari destinations, there are relatively few tourists, which enhances the remoteness as well as the game viewing.
Ours is the only boat on the Chongwe River, where we go angling for tiger fish. And we’re the only people canoeing down the Zambezi. Sounds delightful until you encounter a pod of hippopotamus, and suddenly your wooden canoe feels a lot like a toothpick, heading straight for the mouths of the world’s most dangerous beasts.
Luckily, they just give us these death stares but let us pass.
Leaving this lush valley, we spend the next three nights at Chinzombo, in South Luangwa. At this ultimate glamping site, each tented villa has a four-poster bed and private pool. Barking baboons leap around outside your tent, while honking hippos graze like cows on the grass.
After dinner, we unwind at Chinzombo’s riverside bar, where the bartender has worked for 30 years. On the walls are old photos of the late Norman Carr, a hunter-turned-conservationist, who pioneered the concept of taking people to observe animals instead of shooting them.
Contrary to his surname, Carr invented walking safaris. He also set up the first game reserve in Zambia in the 1950s, and was the first foreigner to involve the land’s traditional owners in resource management. Our local guide, Shaddy, was recruited two decades ago.
Between him, Moses and the bartender, they must have heard a thousand versions of the exciting elephant chase and the croc-filled river crossing. Probably happens every day.
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