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Lower Zambezi National Park

 

Crocodile on the banks of the Lower Zambezi
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The Lower Zambezi National Park

Safety on Safari

On safari, you may be surprised at how indifferent some animals appear in the presence of people, but remember that they are still very much wild animals. Always keep a safe distance and never leave your vehicle or stray from your walking safari or canoeing guide. Few, if any, camps in Zambia have fences to keep animals out, so respect the fact that you are a privileged visitor in a wild environment and act accordingly.

After the chaotic turbulence of Victoria Falls and the confinement of Lake Kariba, the Zambezi River enters a gentle, unimpeded phase as it slowly spreads out across the Lower Zambezi valley. Over the millennia, the river has left traces of its wanderings in the form of abandoned watercourses and pools. These, along with silt-enriched islands and flood plains, have created a densely vegetated, wildlife-rich haven protected by the 4092km2 (1579 sq mile) Lower Zambezi National Park. Although animals (and tourists) are concentrated near the river, the park also encompasses the higher ground of the rift valley escarpment rising to the north. These slopes are covered in broadleaf woodland which gives way to mopane forest interspersed with winterthorn acacia on the valley floor. Closer to the river, the vegetation becomes more riotous with other species, like fig and ebony, jostling for space. Across the Zambezi lies Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. It is not unusual for elephants and other wildlife to swim from one country to the other – benefiting from the protected areas lining both sides of the river. Wildlife The Lower Zambezi National Park is one of the best places in Zambia to see elephant. Herds of more than 100 individuals are a spectacular sight. After one or two days in the park, you may well have identified a good repertoire of elephant behaviour – from sleeping under the shady canopy of the winterthorns to wading across river channels in search of fresh island forage. Buffalo are another common sight. Herds of several hundred can often be seen grazing on islands, flocks of cattle egrets flapping around them like loose laundry.

Other large mammals include hippo and zebra, plus a variety of antelopes such as waterbuck, kudu, impala, eland, bushbuck and wildebeest. Unfortunately, black rhino were eradicated by poachers in the 1980s and the national park is also conspicuous for its absence of giraffe. Lower Zambezi National Park has a healthy population of predators – among them several thriving prides of lion. Leopard are also occasionally spotted during night drives, along with other nocturnal species such as honey badger, hyena, porcupine and civet. If you are very lucky you may spot a cheetah. The bird life is stunning. The dramatic, almost gull-like, cry of the African fish eagle is quintessential Zambezi. Look out for these majestic raptors perched on dead trees near the water’s edge or, if you are very lucky, swooping down to snatch a fish with outstretched talons. Other commonly sighted species include white-fronted bee-eaters which dig into the sandy river bank to create nesting colonies. Watch them darting from halfsubmerged branches to catch flying insects. Pied, giant and malachite kingfishers also haunt the river margins, along with cormorants, egrets and storks. For something a little more unusual, keep your binoculars handy for redwinged pratincole, narina trogon and Meyer’s parrot.

Activities

Game Drives and Walks
As well as traditional game drives (most rewarding during early morning and late afternoon when the midday heat has subsided and animals are more active), many camps and lodges can arrange night drives and walking safaris. Do not, however, be tempted to wander off on your own. With the Lower Zambezi’s high densities of elephant, buffalo and hippo, this can be extremely dangerous. There is also little point in going off to explore when a couple of hours sitting quietly in your camp will often yield numerous sightings of birds and other wildlife.

Fishing
Many lodges in the area provide rods and tackle. The Lower Zambezi, home to 75 fish species, offers one of the finest freshwater angling experiences in the world. As well as tiger fish and bream, one of the most sought-after species is vundu – a type of large catfish which is apparently lured by strong-smelling soap.

Canoe Trips
Everything from a one-hour paddle in a quiet backwater to a ten-day camping expedition is available. Canoeing on the Zambezi might appear to be an epic undertaking. However, as long as you go with the flow and remember to knock before entering hippo territory, it is actually a very relaxing and rewarding way to spot the Lower Zambezi’s wildlife. It is true that surprised hippos can be irritable and, with their impressive tusk-like canines, they do appear to be well equipped to dice you into Zambezi-style ratatouille. Just remember that regular tapping on the side of your canoe usually makes them surface and allows you to steer clear. Your guide will also be well aware of the locations of the various hippo pods, allowing you to observe the extraordinary, bubbling, grunting antics of these wonderful creatures from a respectful distance. As for crocodiles – don’t worry. No sooner will you have spotted one basking on a sandbank than the chances are it will slip quietly into the water and vanish from view. Nothing in the Zambezi is intent on tipping you out of your canoe. A typical canoe trip from a camp or lodge in or near the park will involve two or three hours of intermittent paddling and drifting. Two-person, Canadian-style canoes are usually used. They have plenty of leg room and, more importantly if it’s a sundowner trip, there’s also space for a cool box packed with drinks. The huge advantage of canoeing over other forms of safari transport is the absence of a noisy engine. Imagine drifting silently past a group of browsing elephants and being able to hear their stomachs rumbling! Under paddle-power, keen bird-watchers may well be able to pinpoint rarities by their calls, while photographers will have none of the potential vibration problems of taking pictures from a vehicle. Generally speaking, distance is not a great issue when it comes to canoeing on the Zambezi. You will probably see (and hear) more by slowly exploring a few hundred metres than by charging off into the distance in a blur of blazing paddles. However, if you have the time to spare there are several superb options for overnight canoe safaris, lasting anything from three to ten days. The Lower Zambezi can be canoed from Kariba Dam to its confluence with the Luangwa River at the Mozambique border – a distance of around 200km (125 miles). Most people choose to canoe a shorter, three- or fourday section – the most popular lying between Chirundu and the Lower Zambezi National Park. Two other interesting sections include Kariba Gorge and, slightly further downstream, Mpata Gorge.

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