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I sat bolt upright in bed. The alarm clock read 3am as my drowsy brain abandoned dreamland and tried to fi gure out what was going on. Seconds earlier I had been asleep in the comfort of my tent. I was sure that the sound of the spare bed sliding across the fl oor had woken me - but can heavy beds really slide across fl oors? A deep, guttural purring resonated through the tent as the bed shifted again. In an instant I knew: I was being honoured with a late- night visit from the legendary Lady Liuwa. Lady Liuwa is as enormous a lioness as you are likely to fi nd anywhere in Zambia. ( And she looks especially impressive in the dim glow of a paraffi n lamp as she rubs against the side of your tent during the small hours.) She is also, sadly, the last surviving lion of Liuwa Plain National Park, and has a particular affi liation with Matamanene Camp, where - in one of the camp's four en suite tents - I had just been so rudely awakened. There are various theories about why a wild lioness would choose to spend so much time, especially at night, around people. Some suggest that she is lonely and, as a social cat, seeks companionship from one of the few species that does not automatically fl ee from her. Others believe that competitive pressure from the high density of spotted hyenas on the plains has driven her to seek refuge within the confi nes of the camp. Whatever the reason, she certainly adds a frisson to the Liuwa safari experience. Liuwa Plain National Park, located in the remote upper Zambezi fl oodplains of western Zambia's Barotseland, protects 3,600 km2 of remote, wildlife- rich wilderness. The park is sandwiched between the Luambimba River to the north and the Luanginga River to Liuwa Plain is the stuff of myth: a remote, little- visited corner of Zambia that is reputedly home to one of Africa's greatest animal gatherings. For years it was off the safari map. But now, with the help of some enterprising conservationists and operators, adventurous travellers can fi nd out what all the fuss is about. Stephen Cunliffe took up the challenge. 30 Travel Zambia May 2009 Above: Blue wildebeest in Liuwa are once again beginning to migrate as their numbers continue to recover. Meanwhile oribi ( top) continue to thrive on the open grasslands. The Plain Truth

the south, while Angola lies on its western boundary and the Zambezi itself fl ows not far to the east. The vast, panoramic grasslands are fringed by Burkea woodland and punctuated with the odd iconic palm or sausage tree. It is a place of enormous skies, spectacular storms, stunning stars and a deafening silence - broken only by the monotonous slosh of wildebeest hooves crossing shallow wetlands or, occasionally, the crack of thunder. From November onwards the big blue skies fi ll with cotton- wool clouds, which steadily build into monstrous cumulonimbus thunderheads before unleashing lightning and violent downpours upon the exposed plains. As the terrain becomes progressively marshier, countless blooms turn the savannahs into a landscape of vibrant colour: yellow Conyza fl owers carpet the fringes of seasonal pans, while fi reball and spider lilies add their splashes of red, mauve and white. Meanwhile the inundated plains fi ll with huge fl ocks of wattled and crowned cranes, along with abundant storks, ducks, pelicans and other water birds - including such rarities as the slaty egret. Despite this rich avian and fl oral spectacle, however, Liuwa Plain is probably best known as the setting of Africa's second biggest blue wildebeest migration. These lugubrious antelope once traversed the terrain in their hundreds of thousands, moving from eastern Angola onto Liuwa's grasslands and through its woodlands before returning to Angola. Heavy poaching had reduced the population to a low of 14,000 by the time African Parks Network ( APN) took over management of the park in 2003. But the last fi ve years have seen a remarkable recovery, with the population reaching an estimated Zambia undiscovered Below: A palmnut vulture poses on top of a palm. May 2009 Travel Zambia 31 It is a place of enormous skies, spectacular storms, stunning stars and a deafening silence ALL PICTURES BY STEPHEN CUNLIFFE