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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

False Lower Zambezi are a staple food for elephants and other wildlife. This rich fl ora supports a corresponding diversity of fauna, with more than 50 mammal and 400 bird species. Enthusiastic birders are attracted by frequent sightings of the pennant-winged nightjar, collared palm- thrush and Lillian’s lovebird, with the biggest tick for twitchers being the Pel’s fi shing owl. And everyone, whether twitcher or not, is awed by colonies of hundreds of carmine bee- eaters tunnelling into the steep banks of the Zambezi. Of course most visitors hope to spot the large predators, and with frequent sightings of lion, leopard and hyena, plus occasional wild dog, few go home disappointed. Smaller predators often seen include serval, civet, white- tailed mongoose and honey badger, while among a host of other nocturnal creatures there are occasional sightings of aardvark and even pangolin. Antelope include abundant herds of dainty impala, families of shaggy- coated waterbuck, regal kudu, shy bushbuck and nocturnal Sharpe’s grysbok, while zebra, warthog and abundant hippo swell the ranks of the herbivores. But the park is perhaps most famous for its prolifi c elephant and buffalo herds along the river during the dry season: elephant gatherings may occasionally number up to 200. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no evidence that wildebeest, cheetah or giraffe were ever found within the LZNP, with some suggestion 28 Travel Zambia May 2008 that the physical barrier of the escarpment may explain the absence of giraffes. The park remains perfect black rhino country, however, and the recent successful reintroduction of this species into North Luangwa National Park has led to plans for their imminent return to the LZNP. The dry season is the best time to visit, with most camps operating between early April and mid- November. The coolest months are June and July, with October considered ‘ suicide month’ as daily temperatures regularly climb above 40 degrees Celsius. A strict management plan has limited the number of safari operators within the park to six bush camps and luxury lodges, but more operators are located in the Chiawa game management area adjoining the park’s western boundary, where they share the same basic habitat and wildlife – many offering excursions into the park. Whether inside or outside the park, the visitor has a wealth of activities to enjoy, including game drives ( both day and night), catch- and- release fi shing for the world- renowned tiger fi sh, sunset boat cruises to view elephants cavorting in the river, informative and exciting morning bush walks, and canoe safaris. It is the last of these that offers perhaps the defi ning thrill of the Lower Zambezi. Whether you choose just to fl oat downstream for an hour at sunset, or spend a full day exploring the river’s smaller hippo- crowded channels, this is undoubtedly one of the greatest wildlife experiences on earth. During the dry season an endless procession of animals line the riverbanks and slake their thirst from the life-giving river. The canoes slip slowly and silently by and a feeling of total tranquility descends. You become a part of nature rather than an unwanted intruder. Sundowners are equally synonymous with Zambezi safari. You can alight from your open game- viewing vehicle, beach your canoe or simply cut the boat engine and fl oat quietly downstream. As the sun sinks behind the escarpment, turning the views from golden to blood red, the hippos start grunting, a distant lion roars and your gin and tonic will never have tasted quite so delicious. Visit at your peril, because most who set foot in the lower Zambezi quickly become addicted and return year after year. Stephen Cunliffe, born in South Africa, spent two years as a licensed safari guide in Lower Zambezi National Park, based at Sausage Tree and Old Mondoro camps. In 2007 he was invited to join CLZ’s board of examiners for safari guides. And everyone, whether twitcher or not, is awed by colonies of hundreds of carmine bee-eaters tunnelling into the steep banks of the Zambezi. Elephants are ubiquitous on the Lower Zambezi, whether browsing on the bank or swimming across the river, trunks aloft like snorkels. MAREK PETZERSTEPHEN CUNLIFFE