The African wild: No distractions, just splendid isolation
To experience the wilds of Africa, you need to forget the outside world for a while. Adrian Mourby travels to two new retreats in Zambia and Malawi
Sunday 05 October 2008
It was dark when the 4x4 pulled into Zungulila. We had driven all afternoon, past wallowing hippos, trumpeting elephants and huge herds of buffalo. Civilisation, as represented by the two-room Mfuwe international airport, seemed a very long way away. We were 50 miles into the Zambian bush and still no sign of even a tent peg. Eventually, I could wait no longer.
"Are we nearly there?" I asked Brian my driver.
"About half an hour," he beamed. I was sure we'd got lost hours ago and he just wasn't telling me.
Suddenly, we rounded a corner and there was a brand new thatched stockade and inside a group of people waving in greeting. Prominent in the line-up were the ranger Steve Mvula and Englishwoman Zilha Fellowes, the manager. Once Zilha had introduced everyone she asked me if I needed anything after my long journey.
"My mobile phone doesn't seem to work," I mumbled. "Is there an internet connection here?" No. In fact, there was no contact with the outside world whatsoever, no radio, no satellite communication. There wasn't even any electricity, so there went any chance of recharging my laptop.
Seeing my face fall Zilha asked if I would like a drink in the bar.
"I don't suppose you have any ice ..." I said.
"Oh yes, Brian brought ice down with you in a cool box."
Things were looking up.
Zungulila is about as away from it all as you can get this side of sitting up a pole like the early Christian Stylites. It's a riverside camp consisting of four fixed tents and a dining room-cum-bar area that has a thatched roof and sand floor. All five buildings overlook a broad tributary of the Luangwa river.
Lighting is by candles and storm lanterns, but there is hot water in the shower thanks to a wood-burning boiler attached to each tent. Twenty minutes later I was clean, refreshed and sitting in the bar with ice cubes tinkling in my South African chardonnay.
Over supper Zilha and Steve told me about how I was staying in the latest and most remote "walking" lodge operated by the Bushcamp Company in the South Luangwa National Park. This area is famed for its walking safaris. People do not come here for game drives, of which there are masses all over southern Africa. The Bushcamp Company's motto is that you see Africa from a vehicle but you feel, hear and smell it on foot.
"And some people just come to get away from everything," said Zilha. "No camp sleeps more than eight. This isn't where you come for your first taste of Africa. This is for people who've seen the Big Five and want something different."
I had to agree. I'd spent too many hours as a prisoner of 4x4 safaris, taking in the natural world through my telephoto lens.
Zilha and I spent the rest of the evening explaining to Steve how odd the English are and laughing a lot while someone kept topping up my ice cubes. This was the kind of isolation I could get used to.
The next morning I was awakened at 6am by a voice outside my tent telling me it was time for my walking safari with Steve. You get to know a great deal about animal droppings on a walking safari. Steve expertly identified elephant and buffalo, lion and impala, porcupine and aardvark excreta. He also showed me impala middens and white piles of hyena faeces that bleach in the sun.
Not since the days of changing my children's nappies have I spent so much time looking at poo. Nevertheless, there is a visceral thrill about walking through Africa at first light knowing that you might come across an elephant or lion at any moment. Of course, it helps if there's a guy out in front with a gun just in case you do.
After wading across the shallow Kapamba river, we stopped for a tea break. Apart from a few defecating impala and some skittish warthogs, it had been all flora and no fauna so far. Steve was sorry. Yesterday, he'd watched lions sharing a kill but I was enjoying just having my feet on the ground rather than relying on my zoom lens to bring me close to Africa.
There was a lot that I liked, especially the red butterfly-shaped leaves of the mopane tree, the stunning green leaves of the sausage tree with its enormous killer seed pods. Steve confirmed that if you're under one of those when it drops, you die.
As we returned across the Kapamba I saw that Zilha was lugging an ice box into the river. She had set up brunch in the water for us. At Bushcamp, any meal apart from dinner is brunch. And sitting with your feet in the river certainly was a great way to cool off after four hours tramping through the bundu.
A few silent days later I flew down Lake Malawi in search of another remote hideaway that has just opened. Pumulani is much more luxurious than Zungulila but there was still no mobile phone reception.
The lodge is the brainchild of Robin Pope, one of East Africa's safari gurus. It's perched on a hillside not far from the original site of Livingstonia, the mission station raised in 1875 to carry on the work of David Livingstone. The shoreline of Lake Malawi looks like Greece. Stick a white domed church down below and you'd swear this was the Cyclades.
My host was a tall blond South African called Mark McKenzie who urged me to join a trip in Pumulani's locally built dhow, a great way to see the shoreline. On board were Luckio and MBwana, the crew of two, plus Dan and Felicity, the only other guests. They were honeymooning here from London, and were voluble about how much they loved Lake Malawi.
By the end of our sunset voyage and some excellent wine I could see why. The creak of the sailboat, the rhythm of the waves and the songs of the fishermen in their dugouts were hypnotically restful.
The next morning I breakfasted alone above the lake on a terrace. Apart from some vervet monkeys performing perfunctory sex acts by the infinity pool, I had the place to myself. In the distance I could make out a village on the shore.
This, Mark told me, was Kasanka. Luckio was from there. In fact, he could take me over if I wanted to visit. So this is what I did, with MBwana piloting Pumulani's shiny new speedboat.
As we drew close, the shore filled with children, who thought it the funniest thing ever when I waved to them. They followed Luckio and me all the way round the village with its wide main street where market stalls were just sheets spread out in the dust.
There were also two brick shops. A jolly lady waved from one of them so I went to look through the grille at her treasury of sweets, watches, toiletries and medicines. The village adults were distant and friendly as long as I didn't try to photograph them, but the kids wanted nothing more than to be snapped and screamed with terror and delight when I showed them their images on the digital screen. Only one boy asked for anything. He might have been 11 and strode over purposefully from his family's hut.
"Hello sir, what is your name?"
"My name is Adrian."
"Can you give me a pen?"
"I'm afraid I have no pens with me."
He then thanked me politely and left. I had the feeling that boy would go far. Give him a few years and I bet he'll have introduced mobile phone coverage and internet cafés all round the lake.
When I got back to the shore, Mark met me in a golf buggy and drove us to an absolutely splendid view of the lake. I watched the yellow spotted hyraxes scuttle up and down the rocks like guinea pigs on speed then turned my eyes to the haze hanging over the far horizon. For a moment, all was serene.
"Is that fog?" I asked.
Mark shook his head. "Smoke. The local Chewa people start fires to clear the hillsides above so they can get about easily. The problem with fires is they destroy trees, which weakens the grip on the soil, and when all the soil is washed down as silt, that will destroy the shoreline habitat for fish."
At Pumulani, Mark was facing the dilemma that besets so many conservationists. How do you convince the locals that changing their traditional ways will benefit them in the end, when all they see is wealthy foreigners living in great comfort?
It wasn't until later, as we returned to that comfort and the certainty of an excellent lunch, that I remembered to ask: "I don't suppose you have a Wi-Fi connection, do you?"
"Well, actually we do," Mark admitted.
Maybe I wasn't going to get away from it completely after all.
How to get there
Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk ) offers a seven-night safari staying at the Bushcamp Company's walking trail camp Zungulila in Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris' new lodge Pumulani on Lake Malawi from £2,900 per person, based on two sharing, including all international and internal flights, transfers, full board and safari activities.
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