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A river runs through it

As I brush the sweat from my face and take another gulp of cold beer, I remind myself that it is June, and mid-winter, and that back home in Pretoria I’d be shivering in front of the heater.

But here on Kanyemba Island, in the middle of the mighty Zambezi, it’s in the low 30s and a herd of elephant has just pulled in for a cooling wallow in the reed bed below me.

Idyllic and wonderfully rustic Kanyemba Island.

“Check that out!” The call comes from the irascible Riccardo Garbaccio, owner manager of Kanyemba. He points to an enormous Pel’s fishing owl which has just come to rest on the lower branches of a winterthorn tree overlooking a still pool at the river’s edge. It doesn’t get much better than this in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi Valley, which, as the crow flies is the same distance from my hometown in Cape Town, but a hell of a lot wilder!

Kanyemba Island nestles a couple of hundred metres off the main banks of the river, where Garbaccio’s home base –  Kanyemba Lodge – has been making a name for itself as a prime attraction for the South African fishing and safari market. Here on the Zambezi the fish in question is tiger – and it has to be said that there are a lot of them, just waiting to be caught. Every few minutes they jump from the river, as if to taunt the would-be angler into grabbing rod and tackle and making a day of it.

On the island, making a day of it means kicking back and relaxing in a marvelously informal bush camp, watching nature in all her glory as she unfolds an unending cavalcade of the weird and the wonderful in front of you. The prime directive? Unwind. The major decisions to be made? Whether to fish, or take a slow cruise up the river to view game. Or just sit and have another beer.

“So, what do you want to do madam?” Garbaccio asks as the resident pod of hippos begin their mid-afternoon chorus of grunts and groans. “I don’t know. You choose,” I answer. He does, and we soon find ourselves on a boat, drifting along the banks of the river, watching elephants crossing from Zambia to neighbouring Zimbabwe.

The Lower Zambezi stretches from below Kariba Dam all the way to the border with Mozambique and the Cahora Bassa Dam. The river is fat and lazy here, reaching a couple of kilometres wide in places, and dotted with islands like Kanyemba against a backcloth of mountains. A handful of lodges dot the river’s banks offering a range of accommodation options from camping right the way through to five-star, all singing, all dancing tented luxury.

A couple of hours downstream lies the Chiawa Partnership Park – a new conservation initiative between lodge owners and the local community – and the Lower Zambezi National Park. These areas are where the land-based game viewing activities take place and the home of most of the major African predators and a healthy population of elephants. It’s here I am headed for a full day safari before moving camp to Kasaka River Lodge.

Zambia’s Lower Zambezi valley is heaven on earth.

Garbaccio pulls me from my warm bed at first light to pump me full of coffee and dump me on the boat that will transfer me to Kasaka and a trip to “Hippo City” – a.k.a the Chifungulu Channel – a three-hour drive inside the national park. It’s an adventure of gargantuan proportions which comes complete with lions, a leopard on a kill and, yes, lots of hippo, before depositing me at Kasaka where I am met by new owner and Lower Zambezi legend Chris Liebenberg, who also owns the award-winning Chongwe River Camp a short distance away.

Kasaka is a tented camp and is being firmly aimed at the family market, with a particular eye on South Africans. “It’s great here,” says Liebenberg. “There’s so much to do and see, and it’s only a couple of hours from Joburg, and a hell of a lot more authentic than a lot of South Africa’s reserves,” he grins.

Authentic indeed, and without any barrier between guest and the great outdoors. None of the lodges here are fenced, meaning that wildlife often ends up right on your doorstep without you even having to leave camp.

A couple of days in this paradise and I am soon convinced that Liebenberg is right. There’s a wild beauty here in the Lower Zambezi which is definitely lacking in the majority of over-managed South African reserves. It makes it special. And worth leaving sunny SA for. Indeed, Zambia’s selling point is that it’s the “real” Africa, and I am inclined to agree. And crown the Lower Zambezi the “real” Zambia.

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