As our airplane flies low over the Zambezi River I count numerous elephants and hippos grazing along the verdant banks and wallowing in the cool river current. We circle back to land on the dusty, dirt runway and as the plane doors open, I am blasted by a hot breeze that offers little relief. From the airstrip, it is a short drive to the river where we board a boat for Sausage Tree Camp where I will be spending the next three nights. I am visiting the park at the tail end of the dry season and in another six weeks when the rains come the camp shuts down. Life is centered around the river not only for guests but also for the animals. Despite arriving well after the lunch hour, the kitchen has set aside a plate of food which I enjoy from a raised platform with a view of the river and with what seems like a hundred elephants dotting the landscape for as far as I can see.
All of the guiding at Sausage Tree is private and there are a range of activities to chose from safari drives, walks, boat cruises, fishing, and canoeing. Most of the guests were there for the tiger fishing, but given my fish phobia I opted for safari drives and boat cruises. The game is not as dense as other parks I have visited, making this an ideal location for a seasoned safari goer who is interested in spotting some of the lesser known animals or in observing animal behaviors. This isn’t the place where you are going to check off the big five in one drive. While I did see lions, leopards, more elephants than I have ever seen, hippos, impala, water bucks, and some ginormous troops of baboons, other iconic animals like zebra, giraffe, rhinos, and wildebeest are either scarce or not present in the park. Unlike parks and reserves in South Africa, no power lines criss cross the horizon and lights from distant villages or lodges are non-existent. The park feels remote and some of the techniques like creating firebreaks, setting controlled burns, and pumping water into small dams or water holes that you see in South Africa are non existent. While this is a national park, night drives and off-roading are permitted.
Part of what I enjoyed about the Lower Zambezi National Park and the guiding at Sausage Tree Camp is that my guide focused on the smaller things. We spent 15 minutes watching an ant colony relocate, 20 minutes discussing termites, and more time than is typically spent learning about the pivotal role of trees in the bush. Slowing down yielded many firsts for me, including a civet sleeping under a tree during daylight and not one but two porcupines on a night drive.
We dedicated an entire drive to tracking a leopard and her cubs. We knew she was in the area, but it wasn’t until we heard baboons alarm calling and then moving en masse to surround a tree that they had chased her in to, did we locate her. The tree was covered in thick vines and she wasn’t visible, but the baboon activity told us she was hidden under the leaves. We opted to have drinks nearby, but after another baboon assault, we drove to the tree and patiently waited for the sun to set and the baboons to roost. Sure enough after the baboons had retreated to the trees to slumber, she slunk out of the thicket with her one remaining cub. The guide was unsure if the baboons caught the other cub or if she lost it over the course of the day as they had spotted her with two cubs that morning. It was thrilling to witness the baboons cornering a leopard because it seemed improbable that baboons could win out over a leopard, but my guide guestimated that the baboons had a 50% chance of killing a full grown leopard.
Other special moments included a sunrise boat cruise where we spent an hour with a small breeding herd of elephants on the river. Observing massive elephants from the water provides a wonderful perspective to watch them play, feed, and interact. The camp also planned a surprise bush dinner and best of all a lunch in the river. We dined under a tent set up in the middle of the river promising to alert the person seated across the table if a crocodile snuck up from behind. But nothing is quite a special as ambling out of bed at 5:30 in the morning to brush your teeth, and getting pooped on by a monkey that drops a pellet next to the basin, on your head, and on your leg.
The camp has eight tents, although tent doesn’t quite capture or do justice to the rooms. Despite being rather rustic, they are also incredibly luxurious. The bathrooms are al fresco which made for some serious night debates about whether the lions calling were in camp or a safe distance away. It ends up they spent every night in camp while I was there making some of those midnight dashes to the toilet a bit precarious. Each room has a deck overlooking the river which yielded amazing hippo and elephant viewing during the down hours between activities. Given the daytime heat, I spent the heat of the day in the gigantic lap pool floating and staring at the elephants that were seemingly always feeding in front of the lodge.
I have been wanting to visit Zambia for safari and this brief experience has me itching to go back in the near future.