Fiona Bruce: Our first family safari
Eleven hours earlier, we’d boarded a flight at Heathrow, the low sky a leaden grey, throwing down a light drizzle on our heads. Now we were suddenly thrust into a David Attenborough documentary; a brilliant blue sky untroubled by a single cloud, rich red soil spiked with thorn bushes and a herd of elephants ripping bark off the trees just in front of us. Timid impalas on impossibly slender legs nibbling at the grass as baboons chased each other through the branches of the acacia trees. Touching down at the airstrip in the middle of the Zambian bush was instant immersion into another world. My two children shed their teenage torpor in an instant and were transfixed by the drama around them – and that lasted the duration of the entire trip. Our first stop was Chongwe House – imagine the most luxurious thatched cottage built by Fred Flintstone and you’re halfway there. There are no straight lines, no doors or windows and wildlife is all around you.
From the monkeys that try to sneak into your room to the river just in front where you can watch warthogs, buffaloes, crocodiles, hippos – all from the comfort of the deck with a gin and tonic in your hand. I lay on a sun lounger to catch forty winks after the overnight flight to be woken by a family of elephants who’d come to drink in the river. They walked so close to the deck, I could have reached out and touched them. Matt, our South African tour guide, arrived to take us on our first game drive. He’s a man who loves his job and loves the animals, greeting his favourite elephant with, “Hello, big girl”, and hippos with, “Hello, big fatty”. His enthusiasm was infectious. Whether he was taking us fishing, on a walking safari, a canoe trip up the river or bouncing us through the bush in his landrover, he was full of fascinating nuggets of information – who knew there was such a thing as a mashed potato bush?
And it really does smell of mashed potato with melted butter, perfectly complemented by the ubiquitous sausage tree. The children were fascinated by the nearness of danger. If Matt told them a crocodile was a pitiless predator who would eat you as soon as look at you, they wanted to know how it would eat you. Snap us in half, crush us, drown us, deathroll us at the bottom of the river? The list was endless and much in my mind as we paddled down a narrow tributary of the Zambezi river. We’d drifted past many snoozing crocodiles (and I held my breath past each one), but then a huge one spotted us and slid silently off the bank into the water. I could see only its eyes as it glided purposefully towards our flimsy canoe. The ever reassuring Matt, sitting behind me, murmured that we were in no danger at all. Only afterwards did my husband tell me that Matt had lifted his paddle high above his head, ready to whack the croc if it tried to attack. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.
Next stop Chinzombo in the South Luangwa National Park. The blurb provided by the travel agency promised that Chinzombo is a bush camp that ‘breaks the mould.’ It does – and then some. I felt as if I’d stepped into a Vogue safari shoot, the lodge is the ultimate in tasteful, luxurious design. It’s all brand spanking new but the emphasis is on heritage with timber, khaki canvas and leather. The library in the central seating/eating area is filled with books and mementoes, on the walls are black and white photos of Norman Carr in the fifties and sixties, the founder of the safari company and adopted father of two lions that accompanied him everywhere. Our tented lodge, one of six, was enormous with pillow soft loungers on an outside deck where you could dip into the plunge pool or lie back and watch the wildlife gathering at the river below. The hippos snorting underwater was a comforting sound as I dropped off to sleep, like being serenaded by an orchestra of tubas. Or the elephants outside the lodge one night, so close, I could hear their ears flapping.
In case you’re thinking it all sounds too cosseted and cushy to be an authentic bush experience, I’ve got to tell you I absolutely loved it. And once we were out on our walking safari, it was the real deal. We spied a group of hyenas about a hundred and fifty yards away, ripping apart an impala. We could hear its bones cracking. Almost entirely hidden in the long grass were three leopards, looking disgruntled even from a distance as their kill was devoured. Suddenly one took advantage of a moment’s inattention by the hyenas, darted forward, snatched the impala carcass and dragged it up a tree as quickly and effortlessly as if it weighed nothing at all. The speed and power were terrifying to behold.
A couple of days spent at Mchenja lodge, further into the national park was a drive into lion country. I knew for sure when I was woken on our first night by the unmistakable sound of a lion’s guttural cough, so close I could hear its paws padding in the dusty soil just outside our tent. I couldn’t get back to sleep until hours later. Here the terrain was very different, reminiscent of first world war landscapes, featureless but for the tree stumps – the trees felled not by continuous shelling but by elephants ripping off the bark and leaving behind only dying shards of timber, poking jagged shapes into the sky. Among the herds of elephants, we saw lions aplenty, never for me an entirely comfortable experience. As we sat in our customised jeep watching a lion relaxing in the long grass no less than a metre or two away, I kept wondering if the lion was thinking it was snack time.
It was preying on my mind too when we walked into the bush with our guide Simon. But after half an hour or so I was too diverted by the masterclass in animal footprints to be anxious. From the tiny elephant shrewprints, as tiny as if made by my little finger to prints made by elephants themselves, great circles in the dust with a deeper indentation at the front where the elephant dragged its massive foot forwards before lifting it clear of the ground. And then there was the endless supply of different droppings – so fascinating, who knew? Elephant dollops (a handy football), giraffe pellets (make very nice earrings apparently) and impala droppings (if you scoop up a handful when still warm, the pellets dance in your hand like jumping beans).
We were new to safari and new to Zambia but we’d managed to find ourselves in the perfect place. On our last evening as I watched dozens of ravening crocodiles tear apart a hippo carcass half submerged in the river, I have to admit it did cross my mind that it might be a relief to return home where nothing wanted to eat me. But our days in the bush had been an unforgettable experience. And I’ll never watch those David Attenborough documentaries in the same way again. Perhaps next time I bump into him at BBC Broadcasting House, I could suggest he devote a new series to the enthralling varieties of dung. I reckon it’s a ratings winner…
Published in the Telegraph 31 January 2014