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22 Travel Zambia May 2009 " S ounds to me like we're stuck," I venture, trying to disguise the alarm in my voice. Our helmsman guns the motor again, churning up the water around the stern, but the boat refuses to budge. " No worries," grins Bas van Soest, my guide, lowering a pole into the water to join the rescue effort. " It's just a little rock - we'll be off in no time." He heaves against the submerged obstacle as we swing round into the current. He'd better be right, I think, eyeing the four- metre crocodile hauled out a mere stone's throw from our marooned craft. Because there's no way I'm going to swim for it. Still, there must be worse places to run aground. Apart from our little commotion, it's a scene of utter tranquillity. An African skimmer trawls past, oblivious to our predicament, its V- shaped wake glinting in the late afternoon light. The resonant grunt of hippos drifts, almost soothingly, from around the bend. I'm on the Kafue, a kilometre downstream from Lufupa River Camp in the central northern sector of Kafue National Park. I'd charted the river's course from the air just this morning as our little aircraft had beetled westwards high above the Kafue Flats. And now, at water level, I can see that this is a proper river. Not a dwindling trickle smothered by sand, like the Luangwa, but a broad, fast- flowing highway, lapping against steep banks and overhung by a tangle of greenery. The kind of river that promises African Queen- style adventure. The Lufupa is the Kafue's largest tributary within the park. And, once we've finally eased off that rock, we head for the confluence of the two rivers and chug a little way up the smaller one. A fish eagle eyes us from atop a stand of palms. This bird, it transpires, is no stranger to passing boats, and Bas - having whistled for its attention - plucks a fish from a barrel and slings it into the water. The raptor swoops down, snatching its prize and flapping back up all in the five frustrating seconds it takes me to find manual focus on my new camera. That night, around the fire, Bas extols the virtues of northern Kafue. " There's plenty of game!" he tells me, waving his hands expansively in answer to my question. " OK, so it may not be as tame as in Luangwa," he adds, " but it's all here, believe me." He reels off Still, there must be worse places to run aground. Apart from our little commotion, it's a scene of utter tranquillity. Left: A boat ride on the Kafue River from Lufupa River Camp offers close encounters with crocodiles ( top) and some excellent catch- and- release fishing for local specials such as Kafue pike ( bottom). MIKE UNWIN ( 3)

May 2009 Travel Zambia 23 the exceptional predator sightings of the last fortnight: lions in camp twice; regular cheetah up at Sulphur Springs; a pack of 38 - yes, thirty-eight - wild dogs hanging out near the airstrip. This is reassuring. Kafue may be Zambia's largest national park, but its wildlife has not always proved so easy to see. Rampant poaching during the ' 70s and ' 80s drastically depleted game populations, and visitor numbers fell. Today's upturn is due in no small part to the initiative of operators such as Wilderness Safaris, who built Lufupa and fi ve other new camps in the northern sector. The infl ux of tourists has brought more money for management and conservation, and, crucially, a boost to local communities. Kafue may not yet be the safari hub of South Luangwa - operators are relatively few and the infrastructure remains creaky - but it is fi rmly back on the map. Next morning I get a chance to see for myself just how rich this area is. We set out early, wrapped in ponchos against the predawn winter chill, and drive west along the course of the Lufupa. Impala watch us nervously in the semi- darkness. Their vigilance is all the more understandable when, just minutes out of camp, we pick up fresh pugmarks on the road. I soon spot the culprit: a large male leopard. He's on a mission, it seems. No time for snaps, just a lithe spotted body slinking between the anthills, white tail tip fl aring in the half- light, as he moves steadily away from us. The rising sun reveals a succession of different landscapes as we push deeper into the park. First we stop for breakfast at Sulphur Springs, our mugs of tea steaming like the pungent waters as the resident hippos churn in discomfort at our intrusion. Then, reinvigorated, we wind through a moonscape of granite boulders, where vervet monkeys chatter in alarm and bushbuck simply stare. Next comes a tract of dense brachystegia woodland, where the scolding of squirrels reveals a wild cat, which pricks up its ears from the leaf litter and slinks away. The river - now a more discreet size - remains our constant companion. Each glint of water between the fringing waterberries reveals something new: a monitor lizard sprawled over a tree root or a fi nfoot nodding through the shallows. Amazingly, the alarm whistle of puku alerts us to another leopard - this time a female, disappearing into the shadows below Right: Watching hippos at Sulphur Springs along the Lufupa River drive. Below: A shy leopard retreats along the banks of the Lufupa. Night drives in the area ( inset) often bring closer sightings of this elusive cat. Kafue MIKE UNWIN ( 2); CAROLINE CULBERT / WILDERNESS SAFARIS ( INSET)