Sunday, May 25, 2008


Before moving to Chicago I lived in Africa for nine years in the Luangwa Valley in the Eastern Province of Zambia. Zambia is a country that often slips under the radar when people think of Africa. In fact, if I had a dollar for every person who has asked me if Zambia is in South Africa....... The Luangwa River meanders through the Luangwa Valley before eventually emptying into the Zambezi River. The Luangwa River floods its sandy banks regularly with each rainy season, forming oxbow lagoons all along its course. These regular water sources, combined with the rich silt that allows a good diversity of plant life to grow, means that there is a spectacular diversity of bird and animal life all year round. I was first talked into visiting Zambia by an old family friend who worked out there for many years. My 'vacation' ended up being a life changing event and something I will treasure for as long as I live. Once I realised that this was no ordinary vacation and that I actually wanted to stay and spend an extended period of time in the valley I had to find some form of employment. There were numerous safari camps situated around the South Luangwa National Park but the only females they employed were either caterers or in some kind of administrative position - just not my scene! So I decided to break the mold and try to become a licensed safari guide. As with so many male dominated occupations I found myself having to be better than, to be as good as! But after working hard, studying hard, passing the necessary exams and being fortunate enough to come to the attention of a very career driven lady who owned the most successful safari company in the country, I realised my dream and became the first fully employed female safari guide in Zambia.
The company that I ended up working for was Robin Pope Safaris, here is the link.
The company has its main camp just outside the main national park as well as two amazing houses built overlooking a lagoon and the river. During the rainy season I worked at the main camp - Nkwali. The rainy season runs from November to May. During the dry season I moved up to one of my most favorite places on the planet, Tena Tena, a tented camp which is inside the national park, on the banks of the Luangwa and, corny though it sounds, truly paradise on earth. The reason it is only open during the dry season is that it is so remote that it is inaccessible during the rains. This photo shows the dining tables at Tena being set for lunch. It gives a whole new meaning to dining 'al fresco'! Because the camp was inside the national park we had animals around us at all times. It was not uncommon for elephants to stroll into camp if a particular tree they liked was fruiting. A male leopard lived just behind camp and it was not unusual to find him lying quietly in the shadows in the late evening. Because the animals were such a constant presence it was always important to keep reminding yourself that they were all perfectly capable of killing you if you didn't abide by their rules. But I must admit, their rules are pretty easy to follow, don't get too close, don't get between them and their offspring, or them and their food and don't threaten them or make them feel cornered. I had many amazingly close encounters with animals over the years and I always felt far safer there than I ever do alone in a city. I sometimes feel as if I now live on a different planet, the way of life was so different there. You had to be incredibly self sufficient because obviously there was no outside forms of entertainment and you couldn't just go out for a walk (unless you had a vehicle that you could jump into at a moments notice!) One interesting, and slightly sad reflection on our destructive reputation - animals are quite comfortable to be approached by a vehicle because it stands on four wheels and smells of diesel whereas the same animals will do everything to avoid being approached by a human because they know that if something stands up on two legs it is very likely going to be lethal to get too close to it. We drove stripped down Land Cruiser pick-ups on safari, like the one in this picture. As you can see the doors are removed and so as the guide, driving the vehicle, animals often walked right next to us as they passed by the vehicle. We also had a pontoon that we drove onto to get across the river. I suspect that pontoon may be rather a generous description, more like a few planks of wood with oil drums tied underneath them! But hey it worked OK as long as you were careful driving onto it! People often ask me now if I miss my life in the bush and sometimes when it is minus far too many degrees outside and I feel like I haven't seen the sun for six months I feel like shouting ' HELL YES!!' but it is always easy to remember life with rather rather a favorable bias. Sure it was mind blowing to wake up every morning in the middle of the African wilderness and the sense of peace and oneness with the natural world is almost impossible to replicate but on the flip side, I have had malaria more times than I care to mention and there is still something amazingly luxurious about being able to switch on an electric kettle to make a cup of tea, rather than have to build a fire and then wait for the water to boil and hope it doesn't have too many bits of soot or grass floating in it! I treasure the time that I had there and some times I wish I was there again but it is a tough way of life and I did it for longer than most people do. I have an amazing catalogue of memories to enjoy and I also feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to live somewhere so amazing.

All the photos on this posting remain the property of Robin Pope Safaris.


Chinxyn said...

Thank you for this.
I used, long ago, to live in Petauke on the southern lip of the valley.
Memories come crowding in with your vivid descriptions.
I wanted to become a game warden/ranger but was told there was no future in game conservation and I was sent to business college.
I feel Africa like dust in my blood.
Thanks again.

Rambling Woods said...

Now I know why you went to Zambia and why you stayed..all I had to do was keep reading...

Celeste said...

Chinxyn - Wow small world isn't it? Africa is something that stays with you for ever, I am quite convinced of that. Thanks for dropping by.

Rambling Woods - Ah yes - glad you found this :)

Titania said...

what a wonderful and fulfilling time you have spend in Africa. It t was very interesting to read about your experiences. Thank you for that.