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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)

False May 2008 Travel Zambia 27 Lower Zambezi now fill with rainwater and form freshwater lagoons, known locally as ‘ dambos’. Apart from the river, the larger dambos are the only perennial water sources in the area and act as a magnet for animals during the dry season. The park has a complex history. The area that it encompasses was traditionally home to thousands of indigenous people. During colonial times, however, the British administration evicted all people and livestock from the area in an attempt to control the spread of sleeping sickness and the livestock disease Nagana, both transmitted by tsetse flies. The last communities were removed from the present- day park in 1952 and amalgamated into the surrounding villages of the Goba people. After unsuccessful attempts to administer the region as a controlled hunting and NGO- administered conservation area, the government eventually proclaimed it a National Park in 1983. At that time there was little infrastructure, tourism was non- existent and the valley was the exclusive domain of poachers. Illegal hunting continued unchecked for another decade: elephants were ruthlessly slaughtered for their ivory and the black rhino was driven to extinction by the Yemeni- driven demand for its horn – a devastating loss to the Zambezi Valley, which, a mere 15 years earlier, had held Africa’s highest density of this species. Pioneering tourism development of the LZNP began in 1990. At this stage the park was estimated to be losing as many as 300 elephants to poachers per year. Predator populations had exploded due to the abundance of carcasses, with one local lion pride peaking at an astonishing 48 cats. But as tourism activities slowly expanded, with roads maintained and game drive loops opened, the improved accessibility allowed the Zambian Wildlife Authority ( ZAWA) to become more involved in patrolling the area. At the same time concerned tourism operators and conservationists founded an NGO, Conservation Lower Zambezi ( CLZ), to assist ZAWA with its anti- poaching operations. Animal populations recovered rapidly as the tourism sector expanded deeper into the park. Thankfully the years of poaching caused no serious damage to the natural habitats. The park is characterised by miombo woodland to the north and dense mopane thickets along the eastern floodplain. Sausage trees, wild mangoes and huge baobabs, some older than a thousand years, dominate the riverbanks and valley floor, while along the river’s edge the most abundant tree is the iconic winterthorn – also known as the ana tree, apple ring or Albida – whose nutritious pods during the dry winter months The tigerfish ( Hydrocynus forskalii) is common in the waters of the Lower Zambezi. This fierce predator, with its distinctive protruding teeth, is considered by many to be the best freshwater sport angling fish in the world, with the current record standing at 16.10kg. The greatest challenge is to catch a ‘ tiger’, as they are known, using a fly rod. One technique is to float slowly with the current and cast into the swirling eddies formed downstream of natural obstructions, such as branches and sandbanks. The fish may take the fly so savagely that fingers are burnt as the line is torn from the reel, and puts up an acrobatic display in an attempt to shake free – often succeeding in doing so. Most lodges along the river offer tiger fishing and cater for both serious anglers and first- timers. Standard tackle, including fly rods, is provided, though serious fly fishermen ( and women) may wish to bring their own gear. Other fish on this stretch of the Zambezi include bream, chessa and vundu ( Heterobranchus longifilis), a huge catfish that can exceed 40kg. Note that all reputable operators pursue a strict ‘ catch- and release’ policy. TIGER TALES Sundowners on the Zambezi is a time- honoured ritual. The serious teeth of a tiger fish are best kept at arm’s length. MAREK PETZERSTEPHEN CUNLIFFE