Set off on a self-drive road trip beneath the big skies of Zambia: roaming among big game by day, pitching under the stars at night and casting off in a canoe at the road’s end.

Kalovia Camp, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia © Philip Lee Harvey
Camping beside an oxbow lake at Kalovia campsite, close to one of the largest hippo populations in Africa © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Rules 47–54 of the Zambian Highway Code concern animals. They offer considered advice like: ‘Do not carry animals on vehicle roof-tops’; ‘If you have an animal in your car... make sure it cannot disturb you’; and, most concerning of all, ‘Be careful around larger game animals (which) may charge your vehicle, causing damage and endangering your life.’

For further study on this last point, an excellent resource is YouTube. On YouTube you can carefully identify hazards such as: monkeys prizing windscreen wipers off a Land Rover,
 a rhino enthusiastically sinking its horn into a Renault Mégane, an elephant tipping a minibus on its side. This is all required homework if, like me and photographer Phil Lee Harvey, 
you are about to set out on an 800-mile road
trip across Zambia in a Toyota Land Cruiser, driving unsupervised among the big beasts of the African bush.

‘The important thing is to respect all animals’ suggests Mark Geraghty, a representative of 4x4 service Safari Drive, handing me the keys to said Land Cruiser in the parking lot of Lusaka airport. ‘The animals were here before you. Remember: in the wild anything can happen!’

A leopardess looking for her cubs in Nsefu camp, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia © Philip Lee Harvey
A leopardess looking for her cubs in the Nsefu sector of South Luangwa National Park © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Where most safari-goers travel in the company of a knowledgeable guide – on hand to deal with difficult situations, supplying complimentary mints in times of acute crisis – on a self-drive safari you are your own guide, driver, navigator, cook, first-aider and engineer.

Some say self-driving heightens the best elements of safari: the dizzy sense of being truly alone in the wilderness; the tantalising proximity to things that can theoretically slice, stomp and poison you in terrifying and fascinating ways. There are few places better for such an adventure than Zambia: among the most sparsely inhabited swathes of land in Africa, with remote swathes of forest and grassland bisected by mighty rivers and arrow-straight highways that stretch to the horizon.

A canoe casts off at dawn from a wild camp on the banks of the Zambezi © Philip Lee Harvey
Casting off at dawn from a wild camp on the banks of the Zambezi © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

The Great East Road

We set out on one such highway, the Great East Road, bound for the wilderness country of South Luangwa National Park. Soon the chaotic traffic jams of the capital Lusaka retreat behind us. Potholes appear in the road: big craters that jolt the car, send loose items airborne and instantly scramble any eggs stored in the on-board fridge.

These potholes are all the more difficult to dodge when you’re distracted by a landscape of exquisite loveliness. At first, low forested hills rise on all sides, growing taller as the road skirts the border with Mozambique, before lapsing into infinite green plains on the cusp of the Luangwa Valley. Homecoming schoolchildren shuffle along the roadside, bound for villages where bonfire smoke swirls about thatched roofs.

In the market town of Chipata, people sell groundnuts through the car window. A policeman flags us down at a checkpoint for a symposium on Wayne Rooney. Mostly we are alone on the road. Now and then freight trucks from Malawi, Congo and Zimbabwe barge past (seemingly unsure if Zambians drive on the left or on the right: most going for a compromise option and driving down the middle with the horn blaring).

Night descends swiftly, and soon the headlights pick the shapes of sleeping villages out of the gloom. An owl swoops into the glare of the beams. It is many hours before we arrive at the gates of the national park, and the last hiccups of tarmac give way to rusty-brown earth.

A Land Cruiser drives along bush tracks to South Luangwa National Park, Zambia © Philip Lee Harvey
Driving the Land Cruiser along bush tracks to South Luangwa © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

South Luangwa

Like any highway, the bush tracks of South Luangwa National Park have their own particular set of rules. For instance: you should slip the clutch delicately when approaching a leopard snoozing on a log. When attempting a three-point turn on a riverbank, you should check the rear-view mirror for oncoming hippos.

And, above all, you should be respectful to other road users. Soon after arriving in the park I have to do an emergency stop as a young bull elephant barges onto the road. It becomes clear he is the white van man of the Luangwa traffic system, honking angrily at the Land Cruiser and anything else hoping to overtake him. Keeping a sensible following distance are a convoy of giraffes, their heads gently bobbing above the treeline.

An elephant takes a dust bath beside the Luangwa River © Philip Lee Harvey
An elephant takes a dust bath beside the Luangwa River © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

It’s said often that safari is one long drama
 – and in driving yourself you soon realise you are, if not exactly a starring cast member, at least a non-speaking extra in the production. In accidentally bashing the car horn to reach for 
a sandwich, I send about 20 tonnes of panicked hippo pods bundling into a lagoon.

Finding your way around requires skill in South Luangwa: a labyrinth of tangled foliage and oxbow lakes where water lilies grow. It means that even self-drivers are advised to sometimes park up at lodges and enlist the services of a guide such as Yona Banda: a local who has honed a Superman-like ability to spot animals at long range ever since he was president of his secondary school wildlife club. With Yona at the wheel, we soon happen upon a herd of 40 more elephants crossing the Luangwa river – their trunks raised like periscopes as they wade through the current.

‘When you look into the eyes of an elephant, you can see they are thinking like us,’ says Yona, studying the herd through his binoculars. ‘They mourn like us too. I’ve seen elephants returning to the place where their friends have fallen just to hold the bones in their trunks.’

Lionesses of the Mfuwe pride with their cubs, watching a lion being chased by crocodiles in the river below © Philip Lee Harvey
Lionesses of the Mfuwe pride with their cubs, watching a lion being chased by crocodiles in the river below © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

He soon scouts a group of 14 lions and cubs, all watching intently on a riverbank as one of their pride swims across the water, three crocodiles in pursuit. Transfixed by the plight of their comrade, the lions don’t seem to register our vehicle, coming close enough that their whiskers brush the car door.

We are the only visitors at our bush campsite, arriving just as the dying sun slips beneath the canopies of sycamores and tamarind trees. We pitch up the Land Cruiser’s built-on roof tents (complete with mattresses and soft pillows), shaking 500 miles of dust off the outer sheet. Cape turtle doves coo up among the ebony trees and tufts of wild cotton drift through the evening air. Logs are chopped, sausages are grilled, beers are clinked. Stories are shared.

Three adults chat around a campfire on the banks of the Zambezi, Zambia © Philip Lee Harvey
Telling stories around the campfire at sunset is a quintessential self-drive safari experience © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Each day on safari is essentially a harvest for tales around the campfire (it is also an unspoken rule that the element of danger is allowed to be exaggerated by approximately 30 per cent for maximum storytelling effect). The last embers crackle and die, and it is time to climb the ladder up to my rooftop bed. At this point, tales laughed over by the warm glow of the fire acquire a new, sinister resonance in darkness.

260gsm polytetrafluoroethylene-coated polycotton ripstop fabric can repel rain, sleet and snow. It can stand firm in raging winds. But its all-season outdoor performance specifications do not extend to withstanding a sharp feline claw. Lying inside the tent at night, you soon realise that only a few millimetres of fabric separate you from all the animals you have seen on the road: that for all you know, all the elephants, lions, and crocodiles you’ve spotted could be inches outside (perhaps forming an orderly queue at the bottom of the ladder).

Sleeping quarters on a self-drive safari © Philip Lee Harvey
Sleeping quarters on a self-drive safari © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

It takes about 45 minutes for the human eye 
to fully reach maximum sensitivity in darkness. Poking my head out the tent into the inky blackness, it takes 10 minutes before I spot bats flitting through the patch of sky around Orion’s Belt; another 15 before I spy baboons stirring 
in the high branches of nearby fig trees. But compared to most mammals, the nocturnal vision of Homo sapiens leaves much to be desired. It takes a full nine hours before I climb out of my tent in the slanting morning sunshine, yawn, reach for my toothbrush and see the footprints of a leopard crossing the tracks of the Land Cruiser on the far edge of camp.

Lower Zambezi

For all the off-road capabilities of our Land Cruiser, some Zambian bush highways cannot be reached in a 4x4. These are the tributaries and sandy lagoons of the Lower Zambezi National Park: thoroughfares for hippos, crocodiles and elephants, and, at certain times of the year, Anthony Elton and Tavengwa Kangwara.

Guide Tavengwa Kangwara resting on the riverbank © Philip Lee Harvey
Guide Tavengwa Kangwara resting on the riverbank © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Anthony and Tavengwa pioneered canoe expeditions on the Zambezi three decades
 ago, and now lead clients on multi-night canoe journeys through the backwaters, sneaking past hippo pods by day, camping on uninhabited river islands by night. And these trips are not without incident.

On one outing long ago, Anthony woke up one morning looking up at the underside of an elephant. On another, he pretended to be asleep as a pride of lions peed on him, one after the other, to mark their territory. ‘Some people in Zambia think a canoe safari is dangerous,’ says Tavengwa, stocking the boats with tents and supplies. ‘But I have been paddling here for 21 years. I still have all my arms and legs.’

We drift with the current on its slow procession to the Indian Ocean, listening to the slosh of the paddles and the calls of fish eagles from the treetops. The Zambezi changes character with each mile it travels. At first it seems as wide and serene as the Thames, woods of acacia and winter thorn the boundary between water and sky. Then it turns into a muddle of channels with crocodiles basking on the sandbanks, and hippo pods blocking the way, bearing their tusks.

An elephant stands on the riverbank as canoers look on © Philip Lee Harvey
There's nothing like an elephant on the riverbank to make a canoer feel small © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Tavengwa soon spies a herd of elephants watering upstream. We paddle against the current until the folds of metallic grey skin are just metres away. There is nothing more likely to restore a childlike sense of smallness than seeing a herd of elephants from a canoe, your body measuring only two or three feet tall from the water line, gazing up into a forest of legs. Among the elephants are juveniles spurting water over each other and a matriarch – maybe 50 years old – ponderously scratching her backside on an acacia tree.

In the 50 years since this matriarch first arrived in this world, the number of elephants has plummeted by two thirds across Africa. Most recently, a poaching epidemic has annihilated elephant populations across the continent. The Lower Zambezi population is healthy, but not far away poachers have targeted elephants lacing waterholes with cyanide – the poison shutting down a heart the size of a car engine.

The current takes us out of sight and the sound of faraway trumpeting carries downstream. At moments like this, safari feels an experience more precious and profound than seeing millennia-old pyramids, or wandering museums filled with centuries-old artifacts. For the big beasts of the Zambian wilderness are masterpieces of evolution hundreds of millions of years in the making. They are Mother Nature’s Mona Lisa, its Michelangelo’s David, Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat – but living, breathing, roaming the bush highways of Africa and scratching their backsides on acacia trees.

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine. Oliver Smith travelled to Zambia with support from Safari Drive (safaridrive.com) and River Horse (riverhorsesafaris.com), who both run safaris in the country. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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