Falling Into Zambia: Singing Hippos & the Long Walk to Chindeni

Another morning dawned in Zambia with mumbled hellos over coffee by the fire. All too soon, packed duffels were dutifully waiting by the Land Rover. This day, our guide, Manda Chisanga, surprised us. “Throw your bags in, but don’t climb onboard. We’re walking to our next camp, Chindeni.”

Remembering the airplane that had brought us from Mfuwe Lodge to Bilimungwe Camp, saving us from a grueling three-hour drive, I inwardly gulped. Should I have doubled up my socks? Eaten a little extra breakfast for fuel? There was another change-up, too. “We’ll be saying goodbye to our guides.” Priest and Angel weren’t coming with us? Of course, they were staff at Bilimungwe Camp, but in the short time we’d been there, they’d become like family members. We clung to the time we’d have with them on what turned out would be a two-hour walk to Chindeni.

Photos were taken with our Bili Camp family before setting off into the bush. How had this intimacy been formed in such a short time? Was it due to lack of distractions? After all, The Bushcamp Company camps run on solar power alone, so there are no televisions, computers or cell phones to distract from the surroundings, or human company for that matter. Then there was the ever-growing lack of shyness when it came to situations like dropping trou during safari when “nature calls.” Funny how the gentlemen in our group never seemed to have the urgency we ladies did in this department.

The other thing our group was finally embracing – silence. The bush, as it turns out, isn’t really all that quiet. Once human chatter dies down, there’s a lot to listen to. There was one sound, though, that did plague me — the call of the turtle dove proclaiming, “Work harder!” Really? How about zip it! I’m trying to commune with nature here, and work is the last thing I want to think about. Though I was fascinated to discover shards of sharpening tools from bygone days when a portion of the park had been a village going through the motions of day-to-day activities.

This particular morning, the wild, like our group, also seemed to be in laid-back mode. Grazing in a field was a herd of buffalo. Preening from a branch were stunningly colored birds. Gracefully loping in the distance were a handful of giraffes, which I swear were yawning.

After an hour of trekking, a fallen tree presented itself as the perfect perch for morning tea. Out of a backpack came tins with the mixings of chicory coffee, tea and freshly baked shortbread. This was generally a time we’d break from our silence and ply Manda with questions we’d accumulated along our walk. What is the life expectancy of certain animals? Do any animals mate for fun? What’s the difference between dung and scat?

In short order, we were back on course. Our path took us alongside the Luangwa River. A loud whooshing noise broke the lazy reverie. A pod of hippos appeared to be racing in the water. It was truly something to behold as loud waves crested with their impressive efforts. These mammals, which can weigh up to nine tons and run as fast as 19 miles per hour, looked as though they could give Michael Phelps a run for his money. Indeed, we picked up our own pace after the display.

A new bevy of smiles greeted us upon arrival at Chindeni. We drifted to the common area for lunch, an area overlooking the river. As if following a theme, lunchtime entertainment came by way of a pair of hippos, resident males famous for their love/hate relationship. A typical day would find them arguing, then eventually joining in beautiful duets. These musical trysts culminated in Yin/Yang napping positions curled against one another whilst being cooled by the river. The siesta mood was contagious, and we all drifted back to our luxury yurts on stilts, where hammocks with views of the river lured for naps of our own.

Later, our day of coziness would continue with snuggling under blankets for a chilly night drive. This particular evening, we stumbled upon a leopard stalking an impala. As if watching a movie, one impala from the herd was limping. This weak creature, of course, was the leopard’s target. “No, no…” I whispered selfishly under my breath. Other Land Rovers had arrived on site, thwarting the young leopard’s efforts. Relief washed over me. There would be no kill tonight.

We made our way back to Chindeni, where a Mongolian barbecue was waiting on the beach. Settling down at the table, my heart was conflicted as food was delivered directly in front of me. Over the past few days I’d felt so close to nature. Had I truly embraced it, though? Or understood what was required for its survival? I thought of an impala that was sleeping safe with its herd, and somewhere else in the bush, a young leopard going to bed hungry.