The immediate question I have when I arrive in a new town is: “What’s there to do?” Without fail, every person in Chipata responds to this question with two suggestions: 1) Lake Malawi (not in Chipata, not even in Zambia), and 2) South Luangwa National Park (2 hrs’ drive away from Chipata). While Chipata itself seems to be forgotten as a highlight, it was inevitable that I would soon make it one of these top “local” destinations, I just didn’t realise it would be so soon.
South Luangwa National Park is considered to be one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, partly for its intense concentration of animals, particularly leopards, and partly for the high standard of guides, all of whom must pass a series of extremely tough tests. Indeed, even before we reached the 9,059km2 park’s entrance, we saw elephants meandering by the road, hippos and crocodiles sunbaking on Luangwa River’s shores, and impala and kudu munching happily on grass.
Once inside, from my king-size double bed, my shower and my toilet, I had views over an almost-dry riverbed that attracted impala, elephants, warthogs and kudu to its diminishing winter water supplies. Of course, the chalet was designed to bring me as close to nature as possible, which it did astoundingly well with some visits from the native frogs (climbing up the inside of my mosquito net!), spiders and crickets. There was also the chance of some larger visitors, requiring me to be escorted everywhere around the lodge at night in case hippos, hyenas, elephants or leopards happened to be passing through.
Then, of course, there were the game drives. With trusty guide Ignatius, we encountered genetically tuskless elephants, hippos, genets, hyenas, vultures, snakes, scrub hares and a hunting leopard on the first night, with a similar assortment of wildlife being spotted on the second night. Our final day’s morning drive also brought us closer to a pair of leopard cubs playing in the tree, an endemic zebra species, herds of buffalo, and a pride of 12 lions having a post-banquet siesta. However, after so many game sightings in the last two years, the biggest thrill for me came with simply feeling the wind on my face and smelling the sweet country air and flatulating fauna.
A close second to this delight was three days of excessive food consumption. Not only were we fed several times a day (with food other than Zambian maize nshima), but as part of each game drive we were treated to midway indulgences – a fully stocked bar of aperitifs and appetisers, served as we watched the sun set over the lagoon; or a huge breakfast banquet and freshly brewed coffee that awaited us at a secluded bush spot.
I was fortunate to be sharing these three days with my provincial counterparts, and it didn’t take long to fall in love with my new work and my new Chipata family. The clincher came when my counterpart invited me to the front of the group and, using my new Zambian name, Tapiwa (meaning a gift from God), officially welcomed me to the team, before getting the whole group to shower me with hugs and sing in unison a Kenneth Kaunda favourite in anticipation of our time together: Tiyenda pamodzi ndim’tim umo. One heart, one mind, one purpose.