Navigating round hippos, catching tiger fish, and getting up close and personal with elephants - it's all part of the experience when you're on safari in the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia
The early morning mist drifts from the Chifungulu channel as we slip from camp. Sunken hippos surface with a snort, looking like mini whales, their breath illuminated by the sun. We reach the Zambezi, gaining speed in the fast speedboat.
Soon we stop, and drift slowly downstream. Friday, our guide, expertly baits our hooks with ox heart, dropping the lines overboard, and we wait, watching for game, spying elephant, zebra, water birds and more on the river banks. We listen to the ‘onk onk’ of the hippos and the scream of fish eagles; otherwise, it’s silent. Suddenly, the line is snatched and a spectacular striped tiger fish leaps from the water. After battling for several minutes, the fish is exhausted and guided to the landing net. It weighs 3kg - not bad for a first tiger.
Two more fish arrive before we return to Sausage Tree Camp. En route, we encounter a pride of lions crossing between islands. We didn’t expect lions would voluntarily swim, but the whole pride made it, including the cubs. It's dangerous for them, for the river is infested with crocodiles.
Arriving at camp, we are led to a shallow part of the river, where a table and chairs are set up for lunch, with umbrellas and tablecloths. We sit, feet in the Zambezi, drinking cold beer and wine, and eating superb home-cooked food. The guides kept an eagle eye out for hippos and crocs who might want to join us.
Sausage Tree is a small camp of just 10 tents, all situated on the banks of the Chifungulu Channel of the Lower Zambezi. Each tent is of Moorish style, with white canvas roof, reed walls and hard floors, furnished with four-poster beds and simple local chairs, tables and ornaments. There's a central restaurant and bar area, which overlooks a fallen sausage tree (hence the camp's name), and an outdoor swimming pool, which sits on a raised deck overlooking the river. The camp is all-inclusive (which, in many cases, includes animals visiting your tent or the bar area). The staff are dedicated and offer what can only be described as six-star service, but it is understated and you feel immediately relaxed and at home.
After several memorable days here, we opt to canoe to the sister camp, Old Mondoro, 25km downstream. We set off at dawn, accompanied by two guides, who provide valuable expertise in how to navigate around the hippos and crocodiles. We take a small Zambezi channel, and soon spot a leopard on the bank; however, it sees us and quickly slinks off. We see flocks of egrets perched in trees and Goliath herons taking off gracefully as we approach, and catch glimpses of blue as malachite kingfishers dart away. Where the river narrows, we encounter pods of hippos; this is the most testing part, needing our guides Victor and Chris to get us safely past.
After three hours, we cross the Zambezi to Chikwenya Island, encountering a herd of elephants crossing from Zambia to Zimbabwe. At lunchtime we stop, to find a boat from camp has transported tables, chairs and a delicious cooked lunch - just what was required after a hard morning’s paddling.
After lunch, it’s only an hour to Old Mondoro. On arrival, we are greeted by several large bull elephants eating their way through the camp. We were able to watch these animals for over an hour, as they worked their way around several of the reed huts.
Old Mondoro consists of only five rooms, which are made of reeds, with a tented roof, and have a small deck overlooking the river. Showers are on request, with the staff bringing hot water in a wheelbarrow to the large bucket showers that are hauled up a tree near each room. A central restaurant and bar area overlooks the river, and provides excellent food and drink on an all-inclusive basis. This camp is unfenced, and animals visit regularly.
Both camps offer a wide range of activities: as well as fishing and canoeing, there are day and night game drives, walking safaris and boat trips of the river and channels - all in a world-class location.
Access to the Lower Zambezi is from Lusaka, with several operators offering daily flights to Jeki or Royal airstrips, where you will be met and transferred to the river for a speedboat trip to the camp.