In one of Earth’s least-touched places, you’ll find dazzling dunes and amaz­ing an­i­mals

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - By Kathryn Romeyn travel@la­times.com

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.

Martin Har­vey Getty Images

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.

Kathryn Romeyn

A HIPPO shows who’s boss in Zam­bia’s Luangwa River.

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