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False Lower Zambezi May 2008 Travel Zambia 25 Paddling back to Chongwe River Camp after a day on the river

False I t was a tight squeeze, with six of us crouching together between two large spiny sickle bushes. Our escort officer sat at one end of the group, clutching his AK47 and watching the tail- end of a sixty- strong breeding herd of elephants disappearing into dense Combretum thickets to our west. I was keeping an eye on a splinter group, crossing the floodplain to our east, scarcely 20 metres away. The four intrepid tourists were following my instructions implicitly. Everybody sat dead still, in awe of the spectacle unfolding around us. We were enjoying that surge of adrenalin that accompanies any close encounter with elephants on foot. Hard to imagine, but things were about to get even more exciting: one relaxed elephant bull wandered up from the river and, oblivious to our presence, started to feed on one of our sickle bushes. Now we were truly in the thick of it. We held our breath as he crunched away. This may not have been your typical bush walk, but in September, at the height of the dry season, it is difficult to explore the park on foot without encountering a hundred elephants or more. The park in question is the 4,092- square- kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park ( LZNP), located along Zambia’s southeastern border with Zimbabwe. This wildlife paradise stretches between the perennial Chongwe River to the west and the Luangwa River confluence to the east, and lies in the shadow of the rugged 800- metre peaks of the Zambezi escarpment. North of these hills the park extends still further – though few visitors realise it – towards the inaccessible and undeveloped north. But the park’s crowning glory is, of course, its southern boundary: the 120 kilometres of Zambezi River frontage. And across the river lies Zimbabwe’s world- renowned Mana Pools National Park. Together, these two breathtaking parks form one of the most spectacular and diverse transfrontier wilderness areas on the continent. The Zambian side enjoys the bonus of a relatively narrow floodplain, which concentrates the wildlife and adds a spectacular mountainous backdrop to almost every sighting. The river itself is controlled by the Kariba Dam, and thus no longer experiences dramatic fluctuations or flooding. The old flood channels 26 Travel Zambia May 2008 At the height of the dry season it is difficult to explore the park on foot without encountering a hundred elephants or more. Sunset brings a last flurry of activity before carmine bee- eaters settle down for the night. Left: The elegant serval prowls the valley floor after dark. Below: Lions are perfectly competent, if reluctant, swimmers. MAREK PETZERSTEPHEN CUNLIFFE ( 2)