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Where the Wild Things Are

By DAVE LOWERRE

© St. Petersburg Times


Every day in Africa -- whether it is spent on safari, in a city or visiting a thatch-roofed village -- is better than the last. It doesn't matter what you have seen on previous trips. It doesn't matter where you have been or whom you were with. Even if only old haunts are revisited, there is always something to widen the eyes and still the tongue.

You can be sure that in Africa your senses will be overloaded. I am sometimes back at home for months before the trip's experiences coalesce into stories that can be told over dinner. I often find myself wondering, "Did that really happen to me?" Zambezi canoe safari

Hippos are dangerous only if approached too closely. Our guide, James, said that he has only once been in a canoe that was attacked. (It was a good story, and parts of it may be true.)

Four days canoeing the Zambezi River through Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park meant 50 miles of slaloming around countless hippopotamuses. There was almost always a hippo in sight.

It might have been just one hippo feeding on a grassy bank. Sometimes, 10 or 12 broad backs crowded a sandbar in the middle of the wide river. Always, it was their eyes and ears, maybe 50 pairs at a time, poking up from the waterline.

At night, hippos grunted in the darkness. A couple wandered through our camp, loudly chewing grass right outside my tent.

After a while, they actually got kind of boring. But more than hippos live along the river that divides Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Elephants often allowed canoes to drift by almost within a trunk's reach. Herds of buffalo, impala and other regulars crowded meadows along the shore. Birds came in every shape and color.

Some of the best sights, though, came after leaving the canoes and hiking into the bush.

Every day included a walk through the grassy woodlands along the river. One day, James knelt to talk about elephant dung when a leopard jumped out of the tree over our heads. We were able to follow him by listening to the shrieks of monkeys and baboons.

Another day, we saw a huge bull elephant feeding in a copse of acacia trees. We followed the elephant as he moved from tree to tree, eating the pods that had fallen.

Our feet froze to the ground when the bull suddenly turned and came rushing at us, ears flapping and trunk waving. He stopped just 18 feet away, kicking dirt on us and our cameras with his final step.

James had never raised his gun, and was chuckling, "That's just his way of telling us not to touch his acacia pods," he said.

The Zambezi's crocodiles are extremely shy and slid into the water as soon as they saw a canoe. They weren't given much thought until lunch time.

Then the canoes were anchored on a shallow sandbar in the middle of the river. Stools and a table were set up in about a foot of water. It was a cool way to break the midday heat that built up to over 100 degrees.

While we enjoyed the river, the staff was breaking last night's camp and moving it downriver to the next site. We would float to shore about an hour before sundown to find our screened tents already pitched. Showers -- taken from hot water bags hanging from a tree branch -- were followed by drinks and snacks around the fire.

Dinners were as good as can be cooked over a wood fire and were illuminated by a candelabrum. These meals were consistently tasty, hearty and varied.

The same talents were not demonstrated during other meals, however. They were repetitive, often canned and occasionally meager. The lack of fresh local fruits was not the fault of the caterer, though. Fresh fruit is banned in the park because elephants will do anything to get it. Tafika Safari Camp

Just about any safari camp in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park can show you lions and leopards and herds of elephants.

But only at Tafika, one of the newest and smallest camps in the remote Luangwa Valley, can you soar like a fish eagle over the misty, meandering river.

Sure, Tafika offers the usual game drives through one of southern Africa's great wildernesses. It is an untamed paradise, where huge herds of something-or-other are common. Predators are often approached to within yards as they feed on their latest kill.

During Tafika's walking safaris, guides point out medicinal plants and animal tracks and explain that the local name for giraffes, nyama likiti, means "tall meat." Armed escorts ensure safety as all sorts of big-game animals are seen, and sometimes necessarily avoided.

But it is Tafika's two-seat, micro-light airplane that sets the camp apart.

It is more a large kite with a small motor (and even smaller seats) than it is an airplane, but that is part of its charm. One passenger likened it to "riding a bicycle in the sky." E. T., phone Africa.

It is only from the air that the undammed river's meandering course can be fully appreciated. The Luangwa continually turns back on itself, creating muddy oxbows in the brown, flat landscape.

Elephants, including dirty ones lurking in thickets, can be see from quite high up. Even smaller impala and wart hogs remain visible from high overhead.

The buzzing of the motor does not seem to alarm the wildlife. Hippos basking in the water stare up but appear unconcerned. So do herds of antelope, cape buffalo and other game animals. Their heads all turn as one to watch the craft pass.

Flights are scheduled at dawn. Later in the day, the strong thermals that build in the African heat can be, according to pilot and camp owner John Coppinger, "a little bit tricky."

Tafika accepts only eight guests at one time. It is a luxurious, intimate little camp where one's drink preference is quickly learned and remembered. Food is bountiful and fresh, especially considering the great distances to supply points.

Go there. Chikwenya Safari Camp

Safari guides have seen it all, so it was exciting when our guide said, "I've never seen this before!"

He was talking about the four male lions that were stalking us across a dry riverbed.

At first, they were just lying on the riverbank, doing kitty things. They preened, rolled on their backs and catnapped.

Our group of five tourists was a couple hundred yards away. We were standing beside our safari vehicle, drinks in hand, watching the sun set behind them.

Then one of our group bellowed like a buffalo. The lions quickly dropped down the embankment and started moving toward us. About a hundred yards out, they split into two pairs and started to move along our flanks.

The lions lost interest in us as soon as we retreated to the safety of the vehicle. They regrouped, then chased some zebras into the darkness.

Hard to believe? Probably. But lots of things at Chikwenya, a luxurious, 16-bed camp on the edge of Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park, defy belief.

At night, guests are not allowed outside their chalets unless accompanied by an armed guard. Two huge buffalo spent one night 10 feet from my door and had to be chased away before I could go to breakfast. But that is nothing.

The previous owner's daughter must use a wheelchair because of a lion attack. In a separate incident, another young girl was taken from camp and eaten. Children are no longer allowed at Chikwenya.

Waterbuck, impala and monkeys routinely wander Chikwenya's fringes. Only 50 yards from the camp's kitchen, we saw a leopard stalking a bushbuck.

There is even more game outside camp.

The area's wildness makes Chikwenya's comforts all the more amazing.

The staff pampers guests and may provide the best safari grub in Zimbabwe and beyond: fresh avocado, spinach-garlic salad, grease-free fried fish and, of course, a well-stocked bar.

The camp's game scouts can't guarantee a lion encounter, but they are smart and work hard. In addition to leading the two daily game drives, they maintain photographic blinds and guide anglers to excellent tiger fishing. Tiger fish are ferocious, toothy creatures that make long, hard runs when hooked.

Chikwenya's roomy chalets feature twin beds with mosquito netting and private, roofless bathrooms. Electricity is generated from dusk to an early lights-out. Jo'burg vice

The police said I was very lucky.

Usually, the armed robbers on Jeppe Street cut their victims before emptying their pockets. My thief merely held his knife to my face while his friends -- four, I am told -- went through my pockets. They were very quick.

I chased the last one around a corner, but he vanished into the colorful, bustling Johannesburg street scene I had wanted to explore.

The three undercover policemen driving by saw only me running around the corner. They said they thought I might be a thief, so they chased me. It was only when they saw my torn pockets that they realized what was happening.

The police caught one robber. Not the one with the knife, but the one with my traveler's checks and a little cash. I was already headed to my Holiday Inn (where they had said it was perfectly safe to go out, just don't carry a purse or camera), when someone grabbed my shoulder.

I thought I was being robbed again, but no.

"Excuse me, sir. I am the police. We have caught the man who robbed you."

A crowd gathered when the police produced the thief. A face in the crowd asked me if it was really the one who robbed me.

"Give him to us," he said to the cops. "We will kill him now."

My three policemen gave me a nice tour of the central jail, then drove me back to my hotel. We were halfway there when a call came over the radio about a bank robbery in progress.

They switched on the siren of their unmarked minivan, and we were off to the races. It started with a fast U-turn across seemingly impenetrable traffic. Cars and pedestrians scattered as we raced the wrong way down one-way streets.

My three heroes ran into the bank, guns drawn, but soon came out. The thieves had been caught by someone else. We were standing around, letting the adrenaline wear off, when I asked one of the cops if he had ever been shot. He took off his shirt to show the wounds of seven bullets.

The South African press claims the country has the world's highest murder rate. Rival taxicab companies kill each other's drivers and customers in their quest for market domination. Carjackings, robberies and assaults are commonplace. The prisons overflow. The wealthy are fleeing the cities for lives behind guarded walls in the suburbs.

It is a scary place. But despite the crime, South Africa is a lovely place of richly varied landscapes. It is still safe for tourists to visit, provided precautions are taken.

Do not travel independently; book a guided tour. Never leave the safety of that group. Crystal Beach resident Dave Lowerre formerly operated a business in Africa and took most of these adventures during a return trip last year. If you go:

Many safari camps in Zambia and Zimbabwe are reached only by charter flights. Rates vary greatly but are almost always exorbitant.

September and October are best for game-viewing, but midday temperatures can be unbearably hot. Canoeing the Zambezi: Natureways, and several other canoe outfitters, offers four- or five-night safaris on the Zambezi, usually between May 1 and Oct. 31. Five-night tours average about $1,450 per person.

Natureways Canoe Safari can be booked through Abercrombie and Kent at (800) 323-7308. Chikwenya: Chikwenya is open from April 1 to Nov. 15. Rates are $300 per person per night and include everything, even alcohol and cigarettes. Chikwenya Safari Camp can be booked through Abercrombie and Kent at (800) 323-7308. Tafika: Tafika is open from May to November. Rates of $250 per day per person include everything except plane rides, which are $50 for 15-20 minutes.

Ask for chalet No. 3. White-fronted bee-eaters, very colorful and acrobatic birds, perch in the mahogany tree in front of the porch, waiting to catch bugs on the wing. And a pretty yellow bird, a crested barbot, attacks its image every morning in the bathroom mirror.

Tafika Safari Camp can be contacted by e-mail at Remote@zamnet.zm.

Originally published April 20, 1997



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