In one of Earth’s least-touched places, you’ll find dazzling dunes and amazing animals
BY AMANDA JONES >>> As my older daughter prepared last summer to take off for college, there was just one thing left to do: Kidnap her and take her someplace where there is little Wi-Fi, no boyfriend and no threat of exams. It had to be lovely, exciting and adventurous, somewhere we could forge memories she would have forever. ¶ That place was Namibia. ¶ Namibia isn’t Africa’s rock star. Although it has animals, they are scattered over a wide area, so people visit here once they’ve had enough of traditional driving safaris. ¶ The country, with 2.3 million people living on land twice the size of California, is graced with enormous natural beauty — a rugged Atlantic coast, desert, bluffs, wide river systems and the world’s largest sand dunes. ¶ It also has desert-adapted lions and desert elephants, oryx, ostrich and cheetah, but most people come to Namibia because it’s safe, friendly and among the most untouched countries on Earth.
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia — Less than an hour after stepping off the airplane here, I had already witnessed elephants drinking from the mighty Zambezi River, watched baboons monkeying around on an ivory beach and stared down a bloat of hippos soaking on a sandbar.
These kinds of encounters would become routine during a 10-day water-centric Zambian safari.
Many African wildlife safaris are land-based, but my family and I, as aquaphiles, structured ours around the rivers of this landlocked country.
We love bodies of water, swimming, diving, surfing and rowing on them. We chose Zambia — on the advice of veteran guide Michael Lorentz, chief executive of Passage to Africa — because it was away from the crowds at such popular safari sites as South Africa’s Kruger National Park or Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Our trip would take us first to Livingstone, then to the 1,580square-mile Lower Zambezi National Park (site of Sausage Tree, our temporary home and one of only seven camps), and finally down to the South Luangwa River Valley, the birthplace of walking safaris. We toured in aluminum speedboats and canoes, sometimes sailing alongside dried-up riverbeds in a specially modified Land Cruiser, rarely seeing another soul.
Instead of people, we came across crocodiles gliding through the water, their knobby heads only half-visible, and elephants using their tusks to shake the seed pods ( “elephant rattles”) out of winter thorn trees, then sucking them up with their vacuum-like trunks.
As the sun shaded the sky gold, Steven, our guide in South Luangwa, delivered us to a handful of director’s chairs on a sandy waterfront.
Our entertainment: hundreds of carmine bee-eaters — small, fast birds with coral breasts, crimson wings, jade heads and cerulean tails — engaged in aerial acrobatics above the riverbank where they nest.
We hopped a pontoon boat and “went out for lunch,” dining on couscous-crusted tilapia on Wedding Island, one of the Zambezi’s little land masses.
In the steaming middays at Sausage Tree, we found relief in the infinity pool, watching water buffaloes roam across the river and elephants cross into our “front yard.”
Bilimungwe, an eco-friendly camp where we stayed later, had no electricity, so we drenched our kikois and, wrapped in these East African sarongs, sprawled on lounge chairs above the watering hole, waiting for a breeze. (The elephants, meanwhile, stayed cool by bathing in muddy holes.)
After 10 days, I craved more. I was hooked.
GEMSBOK traverse the ripples of a dune in the Namib Desert, leaving f leeting footprints in the sand. Visitors are drawn to Namibia’s wide-open grandeur.
A HIPPO shows who’s boss in Zambia’s Luangwa River.