Hippo Highways: Day 2 of our Walking Safari

After a light breakfast and some coffee, we left for our second day of walking. Why do three women from Texas love Hippo Highways? Because in Africa, even flat isn’t flat!

Hippo in the Luangwa River Yawns
In the late afternoons, hippos yawn A LOT. After spending most of the day in the water, they’re having an oxygen deprivation issue. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.
Sausage tree on the banks of a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia
A sausage tree on the banks of a lagoon. It won’t be long before this lagoon dries out. Photograph, Ann Fisher

The first night in Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC), a camp that moves location each evening, our tents had been on the banks of the Luangwa river.

After a light breakfast and some coffee, we left for our second day of walking. Before long, we were skirting a lagoon. In South Luangwa, these come and go with the rainy season — and this lagoon was ribboning down to a slender line of green.

By the time August comes around, it will be completely gone until the rains return. At this point though, we still needed the makeshift log bridge Braston had laid across at the beginning of the season.

Log bridge across a lagoon, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Our guide, Braston, gives Carolyn a hand across the makeshift bridge. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hippo Highways

All animals make tracks, and many create trails. On our three days of walking safari in the Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris, we developed a special appreciation for hippos.

When you’re the third largest land mammal in the world, you don’t make trails. Trails are for sissies, um . . . antelope. Hippos — hippos make HIGHWAYS.

Why do three women from Texas love Hippo Highways? Because in Africa, even flat isn’t flat!

Uneven ground in Luangwa National Park caused by elephant tracks
The terrain can be challenging. Even “flat” ground is often heavily pockmarked with deep animal tracks, and you find yourself carefully picking your way through. Good hiking boots with ankle support are a MUST! Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We were not in a mountainous or even hilly part of the continent, but to assume that a flat savannah is indeed flat is to grossly underestimate what a herd of elephant or buffalo can do to a swathe of mud.

Once the rains finish for the season, the mud hardens into fields of deeply pockmarked concrete. Walking across these spaces requires constant concentration and balance.

But when you find a hippo highway through a field like the one above, they have pounded all that stuff flat. Yes, a living, breathing bulldozer of an animal weighing 3,000 to 9,000 pounds (1,360 – 4,082 kilograms) can pretty much flatten anything!

Hippo in a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park.
I may look funny, but I’m BIG, I’m BAD, and I’m just sayin’ — don’t be messing with hippos! Photograph, Cat Gassiot.
Show Us Some Respect! A Few Hippo Facts
Length: 10.8 to 16.5 feet (3.3 to 5 m)

Height: up to 5.2 feet (1.6 m) tall, from hooves to shoulders

Average female weighs 3,000 lbs (1,400 kg)

Males weigh 3,500 to 9,920 lbs. (1600-4,500 kg)

Lifespan: 40 to 50 years

They can remain underwater for up to 6 minutes at a time.

Speed: up to 19 mph (32 kph), on land

Razor sharp tusks

3rd largest mammal on the planet (Elephants & White Rhino are larger)

They live in social groups called “pods” or “bloats,” — average size of 15 hippos, with one dominant male.

In dry periods, pods may be forced to live right next to one another, in groups of up to 40 — causing a lot of fights between males.

They’re aggressive, considered to be the most dangerous animal in Africa. Hippos kill app. 2,900 humans each year.

Hippo highway from the Luangwa river up and over the steep bank.
Hippo highway from the Luangwa river up and over the steep bank. Hippo highways are perfect human trails for traversing steep banks of rivers and oxbow lakes. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Hippos leave the rivers and lagoons each evening, traveling as far as five miles, and spend four to five hours grazing. As they do so, they forge massive trails to get over river banks.

They consume around 80 lbs. of vegetation overnight, which is not much, considering their body mass. Since they live sedentary lives, spending more than 16 hours each day standing in the water and sleeping on river banks, they can get by with this modest quantity.

Often they are far from the river, and because they hold their heads down when they walk, “seeing” their way home doesn’t really work. They mark their trails with droppings — and as an unusual hippo hallmark, they spread their poo out, making a strong scent signal that helps them find their way back to their lagoon or river quickly.

Nile Cabbage in South Luangwa National Park.
Braston shows us some Nile cabbage and other aquatic plants the hippos drag with them. One of the great parts of being on a walking safari is getting to touch and hold things like this. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

As they leave the lagoons, hippos often drag great clumps of Nile cabbages out, trailing their long roots along with them. We watched baboons, puku, and impala enjoying these leave-behinds several times.

Our Day

The early morning was sunny with a cloudless sky, and after leaving the lagoon and following a hippo highway across a field of elephant tracks, we found a troop of baboons underneath ebony trees, playing and feeding.

In the near distance, a small herd of elephants grazed on trees and shrubs. We stood and watched for some time. Two juvenile elephants were near the baboons, much closer to us than the family.

The baboons were occupied with baboon things — grooming, the young playing, the males staying alert for signs of predators. We were content to stay and watch for as long as we could — for as long as we remained downwind of the elephants. Sure enough, when the breeze shifted, and the adult females smelled us, one crossed the small field quickly, concerned for the youngsters. It was time for us to walk on.

Elephants and baboons South Luangwa National Park Zambia.
We stood and watched the baboons and the young elephants until the wind shifted — and the protective mother hurried to find out about the human smell. Photographs, Cat Gassiot
Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris
Our second location for our bush camp was in a grove of large mahogany trees. Here you’re looking toward the dining table and full bar in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

By the time we arrived at our second camp in a grove of mahogany trees, the morning breeze had gone still, and it was warm — we’d had a sweaty end to the walk.

We tossed our day packs around the campaign table and had a look about the new camp.

I dug into the bar’s ice chest and came up with the perfect antidote to hot and sweaty: a Windhoek Lager beer. Cat and Carolyn settled in to visit and review the pictures, then Braston rejoined us after checking that everything was ship-shape with the new camp site.

It wasn’t long before Boniface was ready to serve lunch, which was outstanding as usual.

Windhoek Lager beer from Namibia
Windhoek beer from Namibia. Very good! Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

After lunch comes siesta time, and my sister, my daughter and I quickly found that this was the best time of day for a shower. What does a shower look like on a walking safari with Robin Pope? Better than anything I’ve had camping!

The shower screen was sturdy and private, and on the ground was a raised platform covered with a bamboo mat so that you weren’t standing in mud. The shower came from an Igloo container attached to a rope and slung over a sturdy branch. The camp team brought heated water and filled the Igloo for each of us, and a great rain water shower head rigged under the Igloo let you control water. I’m SO spoiled now that I may never go back to camping on my own!

I took a long nap after my shower, and woke for afternoon tea ready for the second walk. Clouds had rolled in while we were sleeping, and the afternoon was breezy and cooler.

The afternoon walk took us first along an oxbow lake that was once the main channel of the Luangwa river. We found groups of bachelor hippos in the pockets of water that hadn’t yet disappeared. Our presence startled one of them, and he came charging up the bank and trotted swiftly away. It is startling to see how fast this guy moved!

Catherine got a still sequence of the hippo running, but I’ve chosen instead to show you a video from Johan Vermeulen of a hippo chase he caught a few years ago in South Luangwa National Park that gives you a better idea of how swift and dangerous a motivated hippo can be!

Leaving the oxbow behind, we turned and wove our way in and out of thickets along the high bank of the Luangwa river. We would disappear into trees and dense growth, only to pop out again in a clearing on the riverbank — like windows looking out onto the great river.

We met Isaac and the Range Rover a little way down the Luangwa for sundowners. The clouds had broken up a bit, enough to give us some sunset color reflected on the water . . . a lovely end to our day with cocktails and wine, the sounds of hippos calling, and the gradual fading of light. Braston regaled us with one of his many tales, which proved to rival Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The sun sets on our second evening in Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris.
The sun sets on our second evening in Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris. Photograph, Ann Fisher

Braston’s Story of How the Hippo Came to Live in the River

Once upon a time, hippos were covered in long fur and lived on the savannahs of Africa eating grass.

One day, there was a terrible fire. The hippos ran like the wind to escape, but they were caught. Before they could get away, the fire burned away all of their beautiful fur. They ran to the great river and were saved, but without their fur, their skin was delicate, and the fierce African sun scorched them painfully. They decided they would live in the river.

The crocodiles were displeased, and came to hippos saying, “Look, good animals, this will not work. We are happy that you were saved, but there are FAR to many of you, and you are very large. The food on the river — well, there just isn’t enough. We cannot have you eating our meat . . . we will ALL starve!”

And the hippos said, “No, crocodiles you are wrong. You see, we are vegetarians, and we only eat grass and plants. We can make this work — at night we will go ashore and feed, while the sun is down and our skins will not burn.”

The crocodiles eyed the hippos warily, not trusting that they wouldn’t eat all of their food. So the hippos said, “We have an idea, so that you will know we are telling the truth — whenever we go ashore, we will spread out our poo, and that way you can see that all we are eating is plants.”

And to this day, all hippos go ashore to graze, and they spread their poo along their hippo highways.

Hippo mother and child napping next to the Luangwa River.
Hippo mother and child napping next to the Luangwa River. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Elephant in South Luangwa National Park
In her hills and hollows, in her wrinkles, perhaps . . . there is the topography of the whole earth. African Elephant. Photograph, Ann Fisher

If you enjoyed this, head over to
Walking Safari, Day One:

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training.

To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close. [excerpt]


 

Review: Flying Emirates Business Class through Dubai to Africa

Traveling from Houston, Texas, to Lusaka, Zambia, was the longest trip my family had ever taken. We review our Emirates Business Class flight from Houston through Dubai to Lusaka, Zambia.

Arab Emirates plane
We flew Emirates Business Class through Dubai, on the way to our safari in Zambia. Photograph, iStock Photos.

Traveling from Houston, Texas, to Lusaka, Zambia, was the longest trip my family had ever taken.

Regardless of which route we might choose, we would be in transit for around 36 – 40 hours, with the flight and layover times combined. My sister and I looked at flights and carriers for weeks before choosing our Emirates flight through Dubai to Lusaka. We had friends who had raved about their experience flying Emirates to Rome the previous year.

There was no way I was going regular economy on these long flights. Our initial plan was to purchase Premium Economy seats — probably either through British Airways or KLM, but we watched ticket prices, and continued to look at all flight classes.

We were lucky; after watching fares for about three weeks on all airlines, we saw the Emirates business class on this flight fall by $1K per ticket (fall 2016), and we went for it. It was an airfare sale just after Thanksgiving. At that point, it was about $1.2K more per ticket than Premium Economy on the other airlines we were considering, so right at $4K per ticket. Yes, it was still expensive. Business class is.

One way to look at this. If we’re flying for 36 hours, the additional cost per hour to have business class seats on Emirates was $33 per hour, per person, for the trip.

Emirates Business Class Houston to Dubai
On Emirates, both food and service in business class were outstanding. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

While the total travel time was similar to the other carriers we looked at (Delta, British Airways, KLM, Air France, to name a few), it was the only airline that would get us there is one stop, rather than two. We would fly to Dubai, have an overnight layover, and get on a plane for our six hour flight to Lusaka at 9:30 the next morning.

One of the airlines I looked at had a total trip time that was shorter, but we would arrive in Lusaka at 1:35 a.m.! Who wants to arrive at a strange airport in Africa in the middle of the night, I ask you?

Business class is always such a treat! Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

I’ve flown business class on Delta, British Airways, and KLM to Europe in the last few years. Emirates is in a class by itself. Included in our Emirates Business Class fare: Roundtrip limo service from my home to the Houston airport, hotel rooms at Le Meridien at the Dubai Airport — plus dinner and breakfast, and car service.

While we all know that the price of these services comes nowhere near the difference between a Premium Economy and Business Class ticket, it’s not chump change either. Roundtrip car service in Houston: $250, with tips. Overnight at Le Meridien is not expensive, $110 per room. Fine dinner and breakfast, $70 per person. I’d say one person could expect the value to be in the neighborhood of $400-$500 if you were traveling alone.

On our flights between Houston and Dubai, our Boeing 777-300ER did have the new lay-flat seats. Between Dubai and Lusaka, they were angled.

Add lay-flat beds on the fifteen hour flight – Houston to Dubai (17 hours on the return flight), then pitched-angle beds from Dubai to Lusaka, and only one airport stop instead of two, and we were pretty gosh-darned happy.

Note for those considering Emirates Business class: All Emirates Airbus A380 flights have lay flat seats in Business Class. Their Boeing 777-300ER have mixed equipment. Additionally, Emirates Boeing 777-300ER Business Class cabins are in a 2-3-2 configuration, which means there are three seats in the center. This is very poor design. I had the center seat, but since I knew my seat mates, it wasn’t so problematic to get out. Otherwise, I’d avoid that seat at all costs.

I dislike angled seats; I find them impossible to sleep in — so this is something to investigate if you have a flight leg on one of their Boeing 777-300ER planes. Check the flight equipment and call Emirates to be sure what to expect.

Emirates Business Class Food
Appetizer: Mezze — small plate of differently flavored hummus. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The quality of service from every part of our experience with Emirates was outstanding. On the plane, business class service was comparable to my experience with British Airways and KLM, and a step up from my experience with Delta. It is in other ways that Emirates exceeds expectations: the limo service, hotel service, and small things like — rather than loading business and first class passengers first, they want you to relax in the lounge for as long as possible putting you onboard. There was still time for a glass of champagne!

Meal service on Emirates was very good. Better than business class on British Airways, KLM, or Delta? Um. I didn’t think so. About the same really.

The lamb dish I had on one of the dinners was particularly good — probably the best meal I’ve ever had in the air, otherwise, I thought the food was comparable. The soups were great, and my daughter was a big advocate of their desserts. The wines available were outstanding. Presentation of the food: appetizers, cheese plates, and desserts — outstanding. Entree presentation — not as appealing.

The I.C.E. entertainment system on Emirates was the most extensive I’ve ever seen. There were more than 2,500 movies and televisions shows to choose from, as well as a huge selection of games.

Emirates Business Class Bulgari Amenity package
The Emirates Business Class amenity package from Bulgari. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Amenities package, you ask? Bulgari, thank you very much; one of the nicest I’ve seen. The sleeping mask and socks came in a separate package, so the cosmetic bag was full of Bulgari lotion, perfume, tissues, a nice makeup compact, full-size toothbrush with holder, and a comb-brush. None of this is that important to me — I do use the mask, socks, and toothbrush, but don’t care much about the other things — but I know for some people this is a meaningful perk. Sorry guys. I didn’t  get a look at the male version of amenities :-).

Overall, we were very pleased with our decision to fly with Emirates, and I would certainly do it again. I fly a combination of classes, from regular economy to first class, and I make the choice depending on length of flight and ticket costs. The way I look at super-long flights is this: I consider what I’d spend on a nice hotel, drinks, a good dinner and wine, lunches, breakfasts, and then I look at the cost of the base ticket, premium economy, and business class. And then I make decisions. On our trip to Africa, the 36 hour transit time could have been awful — and instead, my daughter, my sister, and I had fun — we didn’t dread the trip coming home.

Interior of Dubai Airport
The airport in Dubai is modern and well-organized, — very easy for Americans, Canadians, and Europeans to navigate. However, and this is a big problem: the airport has a poor track record of adequate helped for the disabled. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Who Should Avoid Transit Through Dubai?

Many flights load from stairs on the tarmac at the Dubai airport.

People with mobility problems.

While many aspects of transit through Dubai were very easy, and I would certainly fly through this airport again, I wanted to note what I see as a big problem.

At the airport in Dubai, there is wheelchair service, but many flights load directly on the tarmac with steps. Our flights to and from Lusaka were like this. We saw one woman who’d had a wheelchair in the airport, go by foot on the bus out to the plane, and then climb the steps to board. I am not sure what they do for passengers who are not able to make this climb.

After doing further reading, it would seem that the airport in Dubai has a poor track record of working with passengers with disabilities, that there are often not enough wheelchairs for people who need them. Investigate further if this is a concern, either you, or someone in your party.

Dubai Airport exterior
Dubai Airport. Photograph, Shutterstock.

Walking Safari: Day One

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training. To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

Elephant in South Luangwa National Park
In her hills and hollows, in her wrinkles, perhaps . . . there is the topography of the whole earth. African Elephant. Photograph, Ann Fisher

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training.

Imagine stretching out your hands and running them over the face of the elephant there, just there in the picture, above.

Feel the smooth tusks, and let your fingers run up across the wide variety of skin, craggy with wrinkles. Hear her breath, and let her ruffle your hair with her trunk. Smell the grassiness of the twigs and leaves she chews.

To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

The word safari means an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat. “Safari” entered the English language in 1869, from Swahili,  but was originally from the Arabic term safara, meaning to travel. To walk in the bush, to be with the animals on foot is the truest experience of the phrase, “to be on safari.”

We walked from 6:30 until about 10:45 in the morning, when we walked into Luangwa Bush Camp. This temporary, true camp rotates between four camp sites.

Luangwa Bush Camp walking safari Robin Pope Safaris
We stopped for a tea break each morning, and Bishod would prepare tea or coffee for all of us. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We met our guide Braston at breakfast that morning, and he covered the basics: we walk single file, always single file, with Chris on the lead with the rifle. If there is anything, we hold still, maintain the line.

Was I afraid? That first morning, I admit that I was uncomfortable. I’d just met Braston, Chris, and Bishod, and here we were walking into the bush with them. The night before we’d seen a pride of lions.

We’d barely been walking twenty minutes when we surprised a hippo who then went crashing through the thicket, right past us, to get away. We all froze, just as instructed.

It was wonderful.

Hyena South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The hyena waits, listening, sifting the air for smells, for clues there may be a kill to find, to steal. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Crocodile feeds on hippo carcass
The day before we started our walking safari, I was looking at the geese with my camera when suddenly a crocodile lunged out of the water to feed on the hippo.

We walked around one of the many lagoons, this one where we’d seen  a croc feeding on a dead hippo the day before. The smell of decay was strong and sweet, the body still almost completely intact.

The hippo was too far out in the water for the lion and hyena to get to, and the crocs would not really be able to break into the carcass until decay advances further, softening the tissue.

Rounding the side of another lagoon, we spotted a hyena, walked along near the den — she trotted off, but stayed close. Hyena in different parts of Africa behave differently. In some places, hyenas hunt like other predators.

Hyena Poop
No, they aren’t ping pong balls — it’s hyena poop, white as snow from all the bones they eat. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

In South Luangwa, food is plentiful, and the hyena act as scavengers — and rarely take a kill themselves.

Part of a walking safari is tracking — learning about animals and spoor — and quite surprisingly for us, hyena poop is white! They consume so much calcium as they eat bone that the stuff stands out like it’s lit from within, it’s so bright.

Baby Giraffe South Luangwa National Park Zambia
When we first came upon the tower of giraffes, this baby sprinted towards the safety of its mom. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
a Tower of Giraffes
We settled in for tea, and the giraffes returned their focus to breakfasting on leaves. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We spent thirty minutes or so watching a tower of giraffes — yes, learning the British collective words for animals, great fun! Braston suggested it was time to take a break and have some tea, and we found a spot very close to our long-necked friends. Morning tea and giraffes — what could be better?

Chris walked around several of the bushes in our immediate vicinity, checking to be sure everything was safe, and Braston designated one for our latrine needs. Yes, if you’re going to walk in the bush on a remote African safari, you’re going to poop in the bush, just like the hyena :-).

Crocodile tracks South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The arrows point out the drag line of the crocodile’s tail, the sweeping scratch marks of its claws, and the close-up shows the scale pattern in the tracks. Fascinating stuff!

Following tea, we spent close to another two hours walking, stopping to examine lion tracks, crocodile tracks — which consist of a tail dragging line and scaly foot prints, and porcupine tracks. Braston broke open aardvark dung to show the ant remains speckled inside of it. Our favorite animal path? The hippo highways — trails the hippos make in their nocturnal grazing forays into the bush, as they string necklaces of Nile cabbage out behind them.

Luangwa Bush Camp Tent, Robin Pope Safaris walking safari
Our first tent at Luangwa Bush Camp. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Around 10:30, we paused to watch a “business” of mongoose cross our trail before walking into our camp. After four hours out in the bush, it was lovely to walk to Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC) with everything set up and waiting for us. Braston showed us the layout — our tents, two pit latrines with comfy toilet seats, a bucket shower rig, and a full bar. All just for us. LBC maximum capacity is three tents, a total of six guests, but we had it all to ourselves.

Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris Walking Safari
Catherine reviews photographs — our view at this location? A large pod of hippos on the great Luangwa River. Alternate collective word for hippos: a “bloat” :-). Photographs, Ann Fisher.

Our wonderful young camp cook, Boniface, served lunch at 11:30 on a table looking out on the hippos, and afterwards it was time for siesta.

Catherine sacked out in our tent, finding the beds very comfy — mattresses on the floor of the tent, made up with soft cotton sheets and coverlet. I settled in one of the camp chairs to write and watch the hippo family, who had decided that the morning standing in the river had quite exhausted all of them. It was time for a pod-wide afternoon sunbath-nap combo.

I was working on an account of the day in my journal, when I was surprised to hear an extraordinarily loud snoring. I looked at the hippos, but then realized it was coming from behind me. It was Catherine!

Hippos nap on the river beach of the Luangwa
Siesta for all! The hippos snooze away the warm middle of the day. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Following our afternoon tea we walked back out of camp to explore further. Just before sunset, Isaac met us with the Range Rover at the agreed location near the lagoon. We watched the sun go down, and the lovely fingernail moon begin to show itself, and enjoyed our world of bird song and frogs, and the whooshing blow of a hippo surfacing. It was a good time to be quiet, enjoy our wine, and watch the evening come.

Sunset on a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park
Sunset on the lagoon – magical time. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Female Leopard Luangwa National Park Zambia
Beautiful female leopard on the hunt. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

When we finally clambered up into the Rover, it was time for a bit of night game-driving. I remember saying to Carolyn, “the day has been perfect. It doesn’t make any difference to me if we see nothing at all.”

The day had one more gift for us, a female leopard on the hunt. We stayed with her only briefly.

We were tired and it was time for everyone to go their own way.

Our first day of the walking safari had been perfect, and we arrived back in camp to find it full of warm kerosene light, and Boniface with dinner nearly ready.

Dinner in Luangwa Bush Camp
Cat, Carolyn, and Braston talk about the day while we wait for dinner. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing our safari in Zambia. We spent 12 days with Robin Pope Safaris: 8 days on game drives at Tena Tena, Nsefu, and Luangwa River camp.

Read the first installment of safari series here, Our African Safari in Zambia:

 

Our African Safari in Zambia

Male Leopard in South Luangwa National Park.
Male leopard in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. We spent more than an hour one morning with him and his mate. We were the only people there. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

So, you want to go on safari in Africa. But where?

To say that the continent is vast is a gross understatement. Africa holds more than 20 percent of the Earth’s total land mass. Only Asia outstrips it in size, at 30 percent. In comparison, North America is third, with 16 percent, while Europe is sixth, with just under 7 percent of the world’s land.

Kenya, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, Mount Kilamanjaro, and Victoria Falls rate as some best-known parts of the continent, but it also makes them some of the most heavily traveled.

I knew one thing.

I did NOT want to spend the money to go to Africa and feel like I was on some domestic game drive in the United States.

ten vehicles and tourists follow a lion in Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.
Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania. A herd of cars and tourists follow a lion. This is NOT WHAT I WANTED! Photograph from Shutterstock.

Choosing Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris

I was fortunate to know a couple who have traveled many, many times to multiple parts of Africa. Bob and Andrea both recommended we look at Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia for our first trip. I’d subscribed to Robin Pope’s It’s Monday Newsletter several years ago, and have been regularly entertained with their photographs and stories.

Getting our business wasn’t a slam dunk for Robin Pope though — whenever I go someplace new, I do a LOT of research.

Yellow baboon mother and baby near a lagoon, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
Yellow baboon mother and baby spend the late afternoon with their troop near a lagoon. Photograph, Ann Fisher

When my sister and I started discussing this safari trip we did homework on Abercrombie and Kent, Tauck, Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic travel, and several African safari operators, one of which was Robin Pope. We read about Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia.

In the end, we chose to book with Robin Pope based on the kind of experience we wanted to have: high end, very small and personal groups, and the kinds of animals we were likely to see — and — for what we found to be competitive price, based on the level of service and accommodations.

If you are thinking about a safari, I’d recommend the same process. Do some reading, watch documentaries of different parts of Africa, make a list of animals that are must-sees for you, choose several potential countries that match your desires, and then dig into the range of tours that are out there. Decide on your budget and trip length. See what fits with your budget and your priorities — and as we all know, this is a very individual thing. Several of our camp hosts also recommended reading the web forum Safari Talk as a much better place to read safari reviews than Trip Advisor.

If you’re looking for the best safari companies in Africa, it’s not unusual that Americans look for either American or at least European tour companies, just out of a sense of comfort. The reality, though, is that you’re going to find the best safaris through local operators — and that’s what the big companies are doing. They put together experiences with local companies, repackage them, and charge you a higher price.

This blog article is the second post of a five part series on our experience on safari in Zambia, and I shall do my best to give you a complete overview of our trip. The first part of the series was Preparing for an African Safari.

Zambia is a landlocked country in southern Africa. Once a colony of the United Kingdom known as Northern Rhodesia, Zambia gained its independence in 1964. Image: Harve Pino, 123RF Stock Photos.

Our Safari Itinerary

Robin Pope  has a list of standard safari packages that should please a wide range of plans. You’ll find thirty-five different options that give lots of combinations — time in the South Luangwa National Park, visits to Victoria Falls, combination safari-beach getaways, and special focuses like honeymoon or family-oriented safaris. They put together a custom itinerary for us. We decided we wanted to stay in the South Luangwa National Park for our entire trip — to focus completely on maximum time with the animals there.

Our itinerary:

The RPS camps each have an outstanding video that will give you a very accurate view of the feel of that camp. You’ll find it on the right on each camp page — see the red arrow.



Our first camp — Tena Tena

Our first home in Zambia was Tena Tena, the flagship camp of the Robin Pope company. Roughly translated, it means “temporary home.”

We arrived around 7:00 p.m. from the small airport in Mfuwe, and were greeted  by our camp hostess, Shannon, with warm cloths to clean off the dust from the road. We stopped at our tents before heading to the bar for a drink and orientation. Of course, it was completely dark. June is winter in Zambia, and the sun goes down around 5:20. We saw our tent-rooms by lamp-light and then one of the night watchmen walked us over to the bar.

Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.
Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.

Daily Schedule:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up knock at your tent flap 🙂
  • 5:45 a.m. Breakfast
  • 6:15 – 6:30 – Leave for morning game drive
  • 8:30 – 8:45 – Stop for morning tea
  • 10:30 Arrive back in camp
  • 11:30 a.m. Lunch
  • Siesta
  • 3:30 p.m. Tea
  • 4:00 p.m. Afternoon game drive
  • Stop at a beautiful location, enjoy sundowners
  • Night game drive
  • Arrive back in camp in time to freshen up, normally 7:15 – 7:30, and go for a drink
  • 8:00 p.m. Dinner

Tena is on the banks of the Luangwa River in an area with multiple hippo pods — and man, do they talk!

When we first arrived, there were so many LOUD noises. We were exhausted from two days of traveling, it was dark, and we were constantly thinking, “what is that?!” and “What was THAT??” The night was full of hippo calls, and then came the lion later, not long after we’d gone to bed.

Hippo Vocalization – hit play!

Frog in the Tena Tena bathroom
This little frog shared our bathroom at Tena Tena. Photograph, Ann Fisher

After one day, we were used to it, and the sounds became a normal part of life, no longer alarming.

We loved our tented homes at Tena Tena. The bathrooms are outdoors, surrounded by a wall that varies in height, and covered by a draped mesh top. There is a lot of space between the tents, and the brush around you creates plenty of privacy. You will have a few bathroom visitors: tree frogs and a preying mantis came to see us.

There are only six tents, which means that the camp has a maximum capacity of 12 people. Small, private, and personal are all good words to describe Tena Tena.

Bathrooms at Robin Pope Safaris Tena Tena camp
My sister, god bless her, captured the bathroom at Tena — wonderful experience, private, yet outdoors. You do need to be okay with a few visitors! You’re looking out of the tent at the sink area, then you can see the sink and the edge of the tent, and then the toilet. The shower is out there, of course, as well. Photographs, Carolyn Fisher.

The design work at Tena is stunning. Natural wood, bark intact, edges the undulating plaster walls. Fabric for bed covers and cushions is cotton or wool in natural colors of dusty greens, greys, creams accented with bright splashes of burnt orange or blue for contrast.

Each afternoon, guests gathered at the bar for tea before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Don’t worry coffee drinkers — which would be me! There’s plenty of good French press coffee as well! As we visited with other guests, our guides would prepare the kit for the game drive: the all important question, “What would you like for sundowners?”

My sister Carolyn and daughter Cat enjoy a cup of coffee before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Stopping for mid-morning tea (or coffee) break. The Toyota Landcruisers used for the game drives were tough but comfortable.

If you have four people in your group, you will always have your own vehicle. There were three of us in our party, and over twelve days, we had other people join us on just four game drives. Almost all of the RPS game drive vehicles are roofless Toyota Landcruisers. The seats are comfortable, and always covered with a clean fleece blanket. Roofless vehicles — this is VERY important. No photographer wants to have a vehicle roof screwing up shots.

Animals that we saw on the Tena game drives: Many, many impala, puku, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, hyena, several types of mongoose, African water buffalo. So many different kinds of birds, I can’t list them all! Big cats: Lion — two evening sightings, and leopard — both by day and at night — this was in just two days of drives at Tena Tena. Over the whole twelve day trip, we saw lions and leopards many times over!

And the biggest thing of all, the most important thing to me, is what we didn’t see. We didn’t see many people, at all. It started in Africa for us: we have fallen in love with safaris — hopelessly, amazingly.

I’ll end here with a video overview of our time at Tena Tena. It was magical!

Nsefu pride of lions on a night game drive from the camp at Tena Tena. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
On one of our night game drives at Tena Tena, we ran across six members of the Nsefu pride of lions. Amazing to be so close to these mighty cats! Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the first in a multi-article series on our safari in Zambia. Find the second part, Walking Safari: Day One, here:

 




Preparing for an African Safari

It’s such a huge bucket list trip for me that I don’t know how to express what a big deal this is. I’m still pinching myself. Getting ready for a safari: insurance, health concerns, and what to bring: luggage options, and packing list

Cub with full grown male lion
Lions. Cub checks out dad. Photograph, Krylov1991 – iStock Photos.

We’re going to Zambia on safari! 

It’s such a huge bucket list trip for me that I don’t know how to express what a big deal this is. I’m still pinching myself.

Ten years ago, a dear colleague who taught at my college talked about his trips to Africa with his wife. They’ve been so many times now, they’ve lost count. Bob told me — when you’re able to go on safari, we’d say, take Robin Pope.

Zebra sighting. Walking in the bush in Zambia.
Zebra sighting. Walking in the bush in Zambia. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope Safaris.

Robin Pope grew up in Zambia in the 1960’s. He began doing safari work in 1975, and ten years later, launched his own business, Robin Pope Safaris with his first camp at Tena Tena. In 1991 Robin Pope began offering walking safaris — the very first of their kind in Africa. Today, the company has ten different camps and lodges they either own or use to put together a variety of safari options tailored to their guests’ interests.

I signed up for the Robin Pope Safari (RPS) newsletter, never thinking we could really be able to do a trip to Africa. Every week, the “It’s Monday” newsletter came in. Some weeks I had the time to read it, and I would daydream about what they were doing. It’s one of the happiest things that arrives in my email inbox each week.

Last fall, my sister Carolyn and I started talking about doing a safari trip in Africa. We both did research, looking at many companies, and finally decided we liked Robin Pope best for us. Deciding factors for choosing Robin Pope Safaris: very small safari groups, great reviews, beautiful camps and lodges, variety of itineraries offered, and of course, the advice from my friends Bob and Andrea.

Overview video of Robin Pope Safaris:

I was very interested in Robin Pope’s walking safaris, but since my daughter Catherine is only eighteen, we could not do a complete mobile walking safari (must be 21 years old). We could, however, do a three day bush camping experience in the Luangwa area as part of our trip. Catherine is a girlie girl– I look forward to seeing how this goes! 🙂

Room at the Tena Tena camp of Robin Pope Safaris.
Room at the Tena Tena camp of Robin Pope Safaris. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope.
Luangwa River Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris.
Bush camping with Robin Pope along the Luangwa River. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope.

We’ll be on safari for 12 days in Zambia, with three nights each at the RPS permanent camps: Tena Tena, Luwangwa River Camp, and Nsefu — all very luxurious and comfortable. I am perhaps most excited about the three nights we’ll out doing mobile bush camping. I can hardly wait!

Videos from Robin Pope Safaris on their camp at Tena Tena and mobile bush camping:


Health Concerns, Travel Insurance, and Medical Evacuation Insurance for Africa

Health and safety while traveling abroad need to be, must be, high our priority list.

Before choosing our African safari, we visited the U.S. Department of State to review current information on the countries we were considering. Look up the country you are considering on the government website, and the State Department lists all requirements for entry (visas) and exit, current health information and suggested vaccinations, and any security concerns. Visit the State Department website for information on any country you might visit.

To get vaccinations, consult your own physician first –It’s imperative to know whether you have other health issues you need to discuss before getting vaccinations. If your doctor does not do this kind of vaccination work, he or she may recommend where you should go.

Live oral Typhoid vaccine. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Live oral Typhoid vaccine. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I used Passport Health that has locations around the United States. Downside to using Passport Health: to use your health insurance, you will have to put in the claim yourself afterwards —  Passport Health will not do this. You will pay them upfront, and vaccinations are expensive. My sister, who lives in Austin Texas, found that Austin Regional Clinic has a travel medical RN on staff, and they do take insurance. It’s worth doing some internet homework to see what your local options are.

Catherine gets a shot
Catherine takes her medicine :). While shots aren’t fun, vaccinations for travel in Africa are crucial.

Update: My daughter Catherine and I visited Passport Health yesterday. With her vaccination records, the only shot she needed was Tetanus. Medication for Malaria is oral; I pick that up at the pharmacy tomorrow. We opted for the oral version of the Typhoid vaccine because it will remain effective for up to five years, while the shot only lasts two years.

I was the unlucky one 😦 — I needed three shots: Tetanus, an update for measles/mumps/rubella, and Hepatitis A. Today, I feel like a mule kicked my left arm!

Other questions to consider: Do you have medication that has to be kept cool?

My sister does — an injectable medicine. Although it can be unrefrigerated for several days, we couldn’t go two weeks. We contacted Robin Pope Safaris on this question, and they have refrigeration and ice everywhere we will stay. Talk to your safari company ahead if this is a concern for you.  *** Update: Robin Pope Safaris were great about providing space in the refrigerator in the permanent camps, and an ice chest when we were doing full-on bush camping. Very easy, and Carolyn had no problems. One note: if you use syringes, either bring a sharps container to dispose of the needles with the camp staff before you fly home, or bring the needles back out with you.

The next question: what if you become ill just before or during your safari?

Perhaps the single most important purchase you’ll make prior to any trip is your insurance purchase. I think reading through the page from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) may be one of the most important three minutes of time you can take before traveling abroad anywhere: Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance.

Travel insurance is ALWAYS an important consideration when you’re taking a trip, particularly an expensive one. You just don’t know whether something beyond your control will occur that will prevent you from taking the trip.

I’ve purchased trip insurance directly from both Allianz Global Assistance and Berkshire Hathaway in years past. Both have great reputations, and each company’s website makes it super-easy to get an immediate quote.  Like always, do your homework, read reviews, but these are two good companies as a starting point. When you’re doing research for your safari, be sure to get insurance quotes from a couple of companies because this is definitely part of your trip cost, and you want to be aware of it upfront.

We also bought air medical transport insurance through MedJet Assist. If something happens while you’re abroad and you are hospitalized, they will arrange medical transport for you to get you to your home hospital. There are different purchase options — you can buy it for a single trip, or enroll in an annual membership program, which is what I did since I travel often. There are many medical evacuation insurance options out there to review and consider. Others possibilities to review: Allianz Medevac, IMG Sky Rescue, Frontier MedEx, and American Express.

Because American insurance companies rarely cover treatment in hospitals outside the US, patients may have to pay thousands of dollars upfront before getting treatment. Medical travel insurance isn’t that expensive, and it’s such a risk to travel without it.

From the CDC:

“Although travel health insurance will cover some health care costs abroad, the quality of care may be inadequate, and medical evacuation from a resource-poor area to a hospital where definitive care can be obtained may be necessary. The cost of evacuation can exceed $100,000. In such cases, medical evacuation insurance would cover the cost of transportation to a facility where adequate care can be provided. Medical evacuation companies may have better resources and experience in some parts of the world than others; travelers may want to ask about a company’s resources in a given area, especially if planning a trip to remote destinations. The traveler should scrutinize all policies before purchase, looking for those that provide the following:

  • Arrangements with hospitals to guarantee payments directly
  • Assistance via a 24-hour physician-backed support center (critical for medical evacuation insurance)
  • Emergency medical transport to facilities that are equivalent to those in the home country or to the home country itself (repatriation)
  • Any specific medical services that may apply to their circumstances, such as coverage of high-risk activities

Even if an insurance provider is selected carefully, travelers should be aware that unexpected delays in care may still arise, especially in remote destinations. In special circumstances, travelers may be advised to postpone or cancel international trips if the health risks are too high.” — From the CDC website, article by Rhett Stoney

If you have pre-existing conditions will you be covered by trip insurance? This information from Allianz on this question is typical, but you want to read and understand this issue with each insurance company you consider.

Elephant sighting in the Luangwa River preserve.
Elephant sighting in the Luangwa River preserve. Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope Safaris.

Packing for an African Safari

Now the trip is imminent and we’re working on packing.

Packing for a safari in Africa brings a whole new meaning to concept of traveling light. How heavy I pack varies widely depending on the trip. When I camp, things are pretty simple. When I go to Europe, I never manage to pack quite as light as Rick Steves recommends — I mean, I’m a woman. I like clothes and shoes.

My family is launching off on the biggest trip, in terms of distance to travel, that we’ve ever made. And we will carry less clothing and stuff than we ever have in the past.

Pelican hard case 1560LFC for camera and laptop. I considered this — great case, but simply won’t work on the safari I’m going on. Pelican 1560LFC Laptop Case With Foam

To complicate things further, the US has banned laptops, tablets, and camera equipment in carry-on luggage coming from Turkey and some middle eastern countries. This happened months after we booked our air. We are flying Emirates business class through Dubai, something we are very excited about doing, but it means that  I’ll have to check my camera gear and laptop on the flight home.

Pelican cases for laptops, cameras and video equipment have a great reputation (Pelican 1560LFC Laptop Case With Foam), but won’t meet the requirements for the Proflight Zambia flight we’ll take from Lusaka to Mfuwe. I may invest in a Pelican case soon though, because I expect to see similar bans on laptops and camera gear coming for all overseas flights in the near future.

Luggage must be soft sided. Duffel type bags recommended.

  • Checked luggage limit: 15kgs (33 lbs.)
    • Total dimensions of luggage may not exceed 157 cms. (61 inches) Add the length, width and height of your luggage to obtain its total dimensions.
  • Carryon 5 kgs (11 lbs)
  • Proflight Zambia will allow passengers to share weight allowances (which means between my sister, myself, and my daughter, we’ll share 45kgs for checked bags and 15 kgs of hand luggage. This will help with our camera gear. Check to see whether your flight company allows this).

Camera crews that come into Africa often buy extra seats on the airline to accommodate additional heavy luggage.

Tenba Shootout 24L backpack. Capacity: 1-2 DSLRs with 4-6 lenses, plus flash and accessories.

I’ve opted for a Tenba 24L backpack for my DSLR. It will come with me on the airline on the way there, and travel back as checked baggage. I’ve owned a Tenba messenger bag for my camera for over two years now. It’s rock solid and looks as good as it did when I bought it. You’ve gotta love bags like that. ** — I’ll report back after the trip on whether is was successful. Update: This worked perfectly! I checked it on Emirates for the flight back to the United States, and all of my camera gear arrived home with no problems.

My daughter and I are each bringing a Patagonia 60L Black Hole Duffel. I’ve had the smaller 45L version for awhile, and love how tough and protective it is, while being very lightweight. Here are a variety of duffels to consider, some with wheels, from Patagonia, The North Face, High Sierra, and Eagle Creek, that might work on your African safari.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel bags in the 60L size.
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel bags in the 60L size. 15-oz 900-denier 100% polyester ripstop (50% solution-dyed) with a TPU-film laminate and a DWR (durable water repellent) finish. Bluesign approved.
Original packing list, per person: Updated July 11, 2017: Revised packing list, post-trip
  • 3 sets bush colored safari outfits: shirt + pants (or shorts)
  • 2 sets evening camp clothes: long sleeved shirt + pants (1 set worn on plane)
  • 7 pair undies
  • 2 bras (1 worn) — we did sports bras
  • 4 pair socks
  • 2 sleep shirts
  • 2 pairs shoes (one worn)
  • small flashlight
  • sunscreen
  • bug repellent
  • extra pair of vision glasses
  • broad brimmed hat
  • sunglasses
  • Jacket (carried on flight)
  • toiletries and makeup
  • medications
  • copy of passport
  • copies of travel insurance
  • binoculars
  • Small daypack (we used REI Flashpacks 18L and 22 L that squash down to nothing)
  • 4 sets bush colored safari outfits: shirt + pants (or shorts)
  • 1 sets evening camp clothes: long sleeved shirt + pants (1 set worn on plane) *** No one “dressed up” for dinner in our camps, they simply donned clean clothes post shower. Review your itinerary. If you are going to Livingstone, you might want something dressier. Check with your safari company.
  • 7 pair undies — you will need to wash your own underwear
  • 3 sports bras (1 worn) — you will need to wash your bras, which take longer than undies to dry.
  • 5 pair socks
  • 2 sleep shirts
  • 2 pairs shoes – hiking boots and tennis shoes (one worn)
  • small flashlight
  • sunscreen
  • bug repellent
  • extra pair of vision glasses
  • broad brimmed hat
  • 2 pair sunglasses
  • Jacket (carried on flight)
  • toiletries and makeup
  • medications
  • copy of passport
  • copies of travel insurance
  • binoculars
  • pair of sandals or flip-flops
  • Small daypack (we used REI Flashpacks 18L and 22 L that squash down to nothing — these were perfect, both on our walking safari days, and for game drives)

Colors to avoid: black and blue colors attract Tse Tse flies. Do not wear any camouflage — only the military wears this. White — not a great idea; it gets dirty easily, stands out in the bush, and may attract mosquitoes. No bright colors OR light colors for bush walking — it’s best not to stand out if you’re looking for animals. White and cream stick out like sore thumbs in the bush, and should be avoided. Stay with khakis, natural greens like olive, and sand colors. Bring flat, comfortable walking shoes. Hiking boots are not necessary on drive-only safaris, but if you are doing ANY walking, you should have hiking boots that protect your ankles from often severely uneven terrain. Additionally, if you are in parts of Africa with thorn trees, those thorns can easily puncture the sole of regular tennis shoes. Seek advice from your tour operator for specific guidelines.

Most safari companies will not wash underwear, so be prepared to wash it yourself.

Never used packing cubes? This video on eBags Ultralight cubes shows why this packing strategy works so well.
Never used packing cubes? This video on eBags Ultralight cubes shows why this packing strategy works so well.

I have used packing cubes to organize my luggage for years. It makes SO much difference whenever I’m looking for something — particularly in a duffel, where otherwise your clothes and toiletries quickly become a jumbled mess. Since weight is a major consideration, a bought a set of the ultra lightweight eBags cubes — that way I am still organized, but I know the cubes haven’t taken much of my weight allotment. Update: These Ultralight cubes were perfect! During our bush camping, they moved camp every night, which meant we had to be packed every morning VERY early. The cubes made it a snap to put things back together quickly.

Obviously, it is extremely important that you really know how much your luggage weighs. This is not something you want to guess at — the “gee, it seems light enough” gage is not good enough. If you do not own a luggage scale, get one. They aren’t expensive, and it just makes so much sense. Luggage scales by eBags, Travelon, Lewis N. Clark, Victorinox, and others.

We’ve practiced packing, and we are as prepared as we can be. I’ll update this article upon return from Zambia with lessons learned.

Silhouette of giraffe on the savannah at sunset
Photograph, Kanoke_46, iStock Photos.

*** I have affiliate marketing relationships with eBags, Amazon, and Allianz but this will never affect my reviews of products. If it’s a mediocre or shabby product, I’m going to tell it like it is. If you buy a product or service by clicking on an affiliate link, I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to you, my reader. This helps support the writing and photography work I do. Many thanks!