Something large, moving very quickly on the riverbank to my left, interrupted my meditative state.  As I looked up and became fully aware of what was happening, I saw the enormous frame of a hippopotamus step off the precipice and plunge ten metres down the sheer riverbank into the shallows below.  Speeding towards the scene of this bizarre incident, the boat was abuzz with a multitude of questions and very few answers.  The poor beast was unable to move and the sickening sound of its groans signalled that the end was not far away.  Thankfully, its suffering lasted no longer than a couple of minutes before its life on the planet expired and our group was left in silence to ponder the mystery of this extraordinary natural event that we had borne witness to. 

Despite this rather macabre beginning to our stay at the magnificent Baines River Camp, there was a definite sense among our group that this trip was going to throw up many glorious surprises.  We were not to be disappointed. 

This was my first trip to Zambia and my first experience of the Zambezi River, a mighty beast that snakes 3 540 km, through 6 different countries, before emptying into the Indian Ocean.  With a basin stretching across an area a little under 1.5 million square kilometres, it is a truly impressive force of nature, serving to sustain a large number of villages and an abundance of wildlife.  From the magical colours of the different bee-eater species to the lurking menace of the many crocodiles populating this waterway, we were kept spellbound for the 5 days we were fortunate enough to spend in this Eden.  

There can’t be too many better ways to start the day, and I certainly couldn’t think of any at the time, than boating down the Zambezi in an easterly direction as the sun, displayed amidst the smoky haze as a crimson ball, inches its way up from the watery horizon.  Brilliant hues of pink and purple, reflected in the water, form the backdrop for your morning meditation.  A thousand or more red-billed quelea fly up in unison from an island of reeds and snake across the brightening sky.  From our luxurious accommodations at Baines, it is a 30-minute cruise downstream to the Lower Zambezi National Park.  Waiting for us on the bank is our guide and vehicle, and as we leave the hypnotic atmosphere of the river, we are transported into another dreamlike world, a landscape awash with dawn’s golden glow.

Situated across the river from Zimbabwe’s famous Mana Pools Reserve, the Lower Zambezi National Park is part of a massive wildlife sanctuary, with it alone covering an area of more than 4000 square kilometres.  It is a wilderness of startling beauty and provides spectacular opportunities to get up close and personal with the game that populates the area.  What I was instantly blown away by, however, was the proliferation of gigantic trees grouped together to form forests that beg to be explored.  Towering Winter Thorns, dwarfing even the largest of animals, provide valuable resources for the many species that call this land home.  Evidence of this was provided with an incredibly memorable elephant sighting late one morning.  A very large, well-matured, elephant bull lumbered towards our stationary vehicle, put his head against a giant Winter Thorn, no more than five metres from us, and shook with all his might causing a raucous downpour of seed pods.  As if materializing out of thin air, elephants big and small emerged from all sides, moving swiftly towards the buffet of tasty Acacia pods.  No one, it seemed, was going to miss out on the manna provided by the big guy.

Not only were we fortunate enough to witness such a special event, but we were also in the company of Dr. Johan Marais, an elephant expert, photographer and author of Great Tuskers of Africa.   Baines River Camp offers specialist safari workshops, one of which involves an in-depth look these giant land mammals and is facilitated by Johan.  It was incredible to learn so much about the complex world of elephants over the course of our stay on the banks of the Zambezi.

If we were a little concerned that opportunities to observe and appreciate other wildlife would be limited due to the focus on elephants, our fears were well and truly allayed on the first morning.  Moments after beginning our drive into the forest, having left the river behind, we were treated to a close-up look at coalition of 6 young male lions lying serenely on the forest floor.  In the branches above and behind, out of harms way, a number of vociferous baboons were making their feelings towards the lions perfectly clear.  This sighting was a sign of things to come and we saw over the next few days just how prolific baboons are in the area, often congregating in huge numbers.  We were also not starved of seeing more lions, with our final morning serving up a rather grisly view of the aforementioned coalition feasting on an unfortunate hippo.  The scratch marks on the hippo’s hide told the story of a gruesome battle that had taken place during the night.  As we watched the lions gorge themselves, we wondered aloud whether our fallen hippo from the first morning was perhaps trying to escape a similar fate as it plunged headlong into the river below.

With the senses operating at full capacity, trying to absorb as many of the sights, sounds and smells as possible, a healthy appetite is never far away.  Fortunately for us, our hosts at Baines were there to satisfy our culinary needs every step of the way.  The breakfast and lunch stops were always at a picture-perfect spot, usually next to a channel of the Zambezi, and invariably allowed us to gaze upon elephants, impala, waterbuck or warthog from a leisurely distance.  With the sense of taste also operating at optimum levels, there was no shortage of delighted moans as we availed ourselves of the feasts before us.  Back at the lodge, dinner was always a sumptuous family affair, including a dinner under the stars to round off our stay.

At no stage during our time in this wild paradise did I feel uninspired or yearn for home.  We were treated to a dizzying array of special moments, some spectacular, others beautiful in their simplicity.  From watching an African Fish Eagle swoop down from its perch and use its impressive talons to pull a Tiger fish out of the Zambezi, to being stared at by a massive herd of buffalo, all seeking shade under the great canopy provided by the forest of Winter Thorns.  From observing herds of elephants reveling in the opportunity to cover themselves with mud and dust, to the peace and tranquility of canoeing down the Nkalangi channel as the multitude of white-fronted bee-eaters swooped and soared around us.  The Lower Zambezi delighted us again and again.  Churches, mosques, temples and shrines may be beautiful and special to many people, but this was my place of worship.  A place where the world is as it’s meant to be.  This was my happy place. 

Written by Garth Kingwill