A weekend in South Luangwa
Saturday morning, 5.30am.
A whisper disturbs my lazy dream about ice creams. "Excuse me? Wake up call!" Wrenched out of sleep I find myself wondering who is waking me up at 5.30am on a Saturday morning and why, when I make out the unfamiliar outline of a net surrounding me, and I remember I'm Zambia, and I'm being woken up to go on safari.
Half an hour later, not knowing what I'm wearing and still partially asleep, I'm ushered out of our campsite, Flatdogs, and greeted by two smiling safari guides. Not until I am shown to our car do I definitely understand what's happening, and instantly I'm fully awake. Our safari car is the biggest jeep I've ever seen, a three-tiered, nine-seater, brown-green monster, and sitting on it with the chilly dawn wind rushing past me is incredibly exciting.
As soon as we enter South Luangwa National Park, we are greeted by a breath-taking sunrise over the Luangwa river. We've been in the park for less than ten minutes, and I've already spotted a gorgeous family of elephants with two babies sleepily crossing the river bed, a group of impalas looking at us with bewildered black eyes, and of course, the Park guards, two attentive baboons sitting right by the entrance, ushering us inside.
The next three hours are an unbelievable whirlwind of exotic animals, interesting facts told by our guides, and unforgettable scenery. Crocodiles and hippos seem to cohabit in the river, alongside fishermen on their slender wooden boats; elephants and giraffes slowly make their way around, in contrast with the hundreds of impalas, gazelles and antelopes darting around or fiercely fighting to reclaim their territory and the ladies' attention, their elegant horns locked together. Zebras move in dazzles, their hypnotic skin glistening in the sun, and countless species of birds, plants and flowers are everywhere we look. We even spot a leopard for a few minutes, shiny and regal in his stride. We drive around a stinking bush, where a pack of lions has clearly just had a kill. The lions, however, seem to know everyone is looking for them, and they don't come out until the evening.
On our sunset safari, we spot a pride of 14 lionesses and 3 young males, lazily lounging on the river bed. They look so inoffensive and chilled out, it is hard to imagine they are one of the deadliest predators in the animal world. A baby elephant and his mum tentatively cross the river a couple of hundred yards away. Immediately a few of the lionesses stir, stand up, and look at them, pondering on whether they are hungry enough to attack. They decide against it eventually, but for a few minutes the atmosphere grows tense as we are all torn between witnessing a kill or chasing what promises to be a spectacular sunset. We decide for the sunset eventually, and what a good choice that was: the sun was the biggest I've ever seen it, a huge incandescent, perfectly round circle, so enormous and close you could have reached out and touched it.
After sunset we are heading back to camp, thinking we've been as lucky as it gets, when out of nowhere on the road, two pairs of eyes pierce the darkness, and the silhouettes of two lions emerge just ahead of us. They are approaching a small pond to have a drink, when a crocodile jumps out of the water and they recede quickly. That's when they spot us. They turn around and slowly walk towards our car, looking suspiciously at this big dark mass smelling of humans. They are the most beautiful creatures I've ever seen, and they are promenading a couple of meters away from me. We reverse to let them go through undisturbed, and admire the powerful muscles and joints moving effortlessly under their taut skin, manes flowing around the faces, tails whipping the air.
And after all this, when we thought we had seen everything South Luangwa had to offer, our safari guide stopped the car, killed the engine and told us to look up, where the sky had almost disappeared under hundreds of constellations, the Milky Way and a million glistening stars.