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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)

24 Travel Zambia May 2009 Kafue the overhanging bank. Scarcely believing our luck, we double back to a gully we' ve just passed, hoping she will emerge into view. And indeed she does, charging our vehicle with a deep growl then turning tail and vanishing in the cloud of dust. It's a pulse- quickening moment: clearly the cats around here are not used to people. Are the lions any more relaxed, I wonder? For several kilometres our road has been embroidered with the spoor of the local pride, which must have been on the move last night. We investigate a few likely hangouts, searching for tawny bodies. But no luck: the day is hotting up and any self- respecting cats will have hit the shade. Besides, no time to dawdle: there's a helicopter coming over the horizon and it has my name on it. " Would you prefer the boring ride or the exciting one?" asks Bruce, my pilot, as he ushers me beneath the whirling blades of the chopper and buckles me in. But before I can respond we are lurching up and away - leaving Bas, our vehicle and indeed the whole wooded expanse of eastern Kafue rapidly behind. Please don't let him tell me this is the boring ride, I think, as the horizon tilts crazily and treetops zoom into crisp detail at our feet. But when my perspective steadies I thrill to the new landscape beneath us. These sweeping grasslands, dotted with islands of greenery and glinting with the floods, are the legendary Busanga Plains - a wildlife oasis in Kafue's remote northwest corner. Imagine a cross between the Serengeti and the Okavango, then take away the tourists: that's Busanga. No sooner have I retrieved my stomach than we are touching down beside one of those tree islands. Kapinga Camp, another Wilderness project, is tucked discreetly into the foliage, with wooden walkways connecting the chalets and dining area beneath the filtered shade of the sycamore figs. Birdsong trickles from the canopy and every chink in the greenery offers an alluring vista of sweeping plain. It's a gorgeous and exclusive retreat. But I'm here for the wildlife. And so for the next two days our guide Idos Mulenga drives us out across the bumpy sea of grass. This is a quiet time of year, he explains. The grazing herds have not yet moved out of the woodlands in force and so the local predators are widely dispersed. Even the resident lion pride, famously fond of treeclimbing, has gone AWOL across the river in search of buffalo. Cheetah, a local speciality, have not been seen for a fortnight. No problem. With the pressure to find predators lifted, we can better appreciate Kafue's wider spectrum of wildlife. Take the antelope: we find delicate oribi nibbling the burnt grass plains, red lechwe grazing beside the waterways Above: Lions find welcome shade on Busanga Plains by climbing trees. Birdsong trickles from the canopy and every chink in the greenery offers an alluring vista of sweeping plain. ANDREA STALTMEIER / WILDERNESS SAFARIS