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Zambia: Africa On Foot And Unplugged

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"I will make this beautiful land better known to men that it may become one of their haunts. It is impossible to describe its luxuriance."
-David Livingstone, in Zambia, 1866

It begins a bit like an Agatha Christie novel. Six of us, each representing a different country --India, Syria, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Spain and the Republic of California -- receive an invitation to join a week-long retreat at a private estate with no access to the outside world. We're given no itinerary and no details. We're just told to meet at the Royal Livingstone Hotel in Livingstone, Zambia at 3 p.m. on the appointed date with a flashlight and our spirit of choice.

We gather at the hotel, a five-star colonial throw-back wrapped in manicured lawns and luxuriant gardens where zebra and giraffe roam, a spa beckons, a golf-course sprawls and the gin and tonics flow along the dark-wood paneled traveler's bar like a Happy Valley creek. This is poignant for me, as I spent some quality time here in the early 80s, when I made the first descent of the Zambezi from below Victoria Falls to Lake Kariba, picking up where David Livingstone left off in 1855. (He'd peered over the great sheeting precipice of water, twice as high as Niagara and a mile wide, and decided, for country and health, to portage several hundred miles downstream.) Back then we stored our gear at The Rainbow Lodge, a series of run-down mud and grass rondevaals, a short walk from the great Falls at a rate of $6 a night. No air-conditioning, no phones or electronics, and you had to lock the windows and doors at night to keep out the vervet monkeys. It seemed the sort of place David Livingstone himself might have slept, relishing the remote and authentic.

The Rainbow is now The Royal Livingstone. What would Dr. Livingstone say if he could knock into his namesake today?

Our orientation is a walk to the Victoria Fall, one of the natural wonders of the world. My memories jog to our first descent, in 1981, just after black-majority ruled Zimbabwe emerged. The river was littered with land mines from the war and we had to take professional sappers with us, who would sweep each beach before we could unload the rafts in the evenings. The most sinking moment for me was when I pushed off from The Boiling Pot at the base of the Falls, leading the historic expedition. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, diplomats and reporters from National Geographic and the Guardian watched from the bridge above as I promptly capsized.

"Is that the way they do it?" Dr. Kaunda asked in surprise.

Zambia has never been widely known as a tourist destination. Zambia, in fact, is not widely known for much of anything. What little global recognition it enjoys comes more from the antique cuts of the colonial penknife, the borders it shares with volatile neighbors: Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Angola and Mozambique to the west and east, and Zimbabwe to the south. It was once the third largest producer of copper in the world and for a time Zambia's currency was among the most valuable in the world. There was a time when per-capita income equaled 800 US dollars, second to South Africa in the sub-Saharan region.

Zambia is now very small beer in the mining world and it has yet to find a viable replacement for its copper industry. After founding the country, Kenneth Kaunda oversaw its descent into economic ruin over the course of his 27-year socialist rule. He tried all sorts of schemes to bring back its glory, including providing support to an American con-artist named Farley Winston, who sold the head of state on a contraption that ostensibly converted grass to diesel. KK, as the president liked to be called, had visions of an African OPEC and banned the burning of grass until the scam was exposed. The current government has pinned its hopes on eco-tourism. Yet, even though Zambia has 19 national parks and 32 game management areas (30% of the country), and some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in the world, the gawkers here have always been scarcer than the game.

That first night, we gather at the fancy restaurant -- complete with a hovering violinist connected to Bluetooth speakers -- and begin the competitive game that so palpably plays itself out on the veldt. We jockey for dominance, comparing the length of our camera lenses, power ordering ("I'll have the crocodile...and make it snappy") prating on about our air carrier (I win, having indulged in Emirates, current king of the air) and sparing with arcane trivia (what is the definition of "subtropical?"). The hotel, of course, has high-speed wireless, so we whip out weapons of choice: Blackberries, iPads, iPhones, Androids, even a Windows 7 phone. We conquer the question: "subtropical" describes the climatic region found adjacent to the tropics, usually between 23.5 and 40 degrees of latitude in both hemispheres. It's good to be smart, or at least have a smart phone.

But the following morning we begin the transition to a different world. We board two small planes, and take the 90 minute flight to the edge of the Kafue National Park, the largest reserve in Africa, which may boast the continent's greatest diversity of wildlife. But it is a place little-visited, little known, with no Hemingway, Angelina or Madonna's in its visitor logs.
From the dirt strip we load a couple of Toyota Land Cruisers, and trundle to a pontoon ferry, cross the limpid Kafue River and head upstream for another hour, until there is a fork in the road with a carved wooden sign: "KRC."

"Kentucky Roasted Chicken?" I ask.

"No," our host corrects: "Kafue River Camp, our destination."

We spill from the vehicles into scene that could have been painted by Rousseau, dotted with a few modest structures and dominated by the sweeping curl of the gin-clear Kafue River. There is a thatched dining area, a wooden deck overlooking the river, a kitchen with an earthen pizza oven and four 2-person chalets, replete with showers heated by wood-burning stoves. That's it. Now what? This seems like an adventure without a purpose.

The river looks cool and tempting, ideal for a swim, but our host says no, and introduces us to a staff member who was attacked by a crocodile and almost pulled under. He shows us the scars, a messy matrix of wounds along his thigh that look like third-degree burns. The ancient Greeks called the beast Kroko-drilo, "pebble worm"--a scaly thing that shuffled and lurked in low places. Here it's called "flatdog" or "mobile handbag." The man-eating Nile crocodile has always been on "Man's worst enemies" list. It evolved 170 million years ago from the primordial soup as an efficient killing machine. More people are killed in Africa by crocodiles each year in Africa than by all other animals combined. Their instinct is predation, to kill any meat that floats their way, be it fish, hippo, antelope, or human.

Our host, who was born in Rhodesia, tells us his father once capsized off the coast of Mozambique and hung on to the vessel for his life until he was rescued by Portuguese sailors. When he confessed he was shivering in fear for the legendary great white sharks in the region, a sailor reassured him: "You needn't worry...the crocs have eaten them all."

Rather than swim, we take a game drive. We tool through a wonderland of raintrees, sausage trees, ironwood, and the candelabra-shaped euphorbias. We wind by parades of wildlife: impala pelting around neurotically, vast almond eyes on slim necks; fluffy pukus, the colors of sunrise on their backs; Lichtenstein's hartebeest, bouncing along the savannah as though on a trampoline; waterbuck with the white toilet-seat logos on their rumps; pajama-wearing zebra. Bringing up the rear are Reedbuck, Sable, duiker, Warthog, Bushbuck and Baboons. This is a carnivore's dream and all the browsing bovids live lives of perpetual skittishness, knowing they can never let guards down.

At this point several of us are feeling similar, as we're going cold turkey on connectivity. There is no office here with a cranky computer hidden behind a desk. There is not even a shortwave radio at KRC. By sunset we're back at camp, and begin to unwind with G and Ts, single malt and Kentucky bourbon. After a protracted dinner of kudu stew and meaty conversation, salted with the eerie whoops of hyenas, our host tells us that we will reunite at daybreak. Jetlag is still a sidekick, so the question is how do we arise with no alarm clocks or wake up calls in the rooms.
"Not to worry. It will happen," he pronounces.

The following morning we're all awakened by hippos blowing their tubas just yards from our chalets. About five feet tall, weighing in at about five tons -- about that same as our two 4WD vehicles -- hippos are proportionally the fattest animals on earth, but for short sprints can run as fast as a horse. Though vegetarians they, too, are quite dangerous, and will attack if feel threatened, easily snapping a human body in two with their carrot-sized molars and steam-shovel jaws. The baritone harrumphing hippos make is our host's favorite sound, and he casts he would love to have the river chorus as his ring tone.

Soon after, we're off on a two-hour mountain bike ride before breakfast, through a woodland of brachystegia, down ancient tracks (this was where Joshua Nkomo, founder and leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union was based for a spell while trying to overthrow Ian Smith's Rhodesia, and we're benefiting from his network or roads), and down game trails. Fat-tired bikes are now the vehicles of choice for poachers, with their speed, light frames and quiet spins. Trailing us is Moses, a game guard, also on two wheels, wearing Bata-slip-ons and an AK-47 slung across his shoulder, with ten rounds. Because of the small caliber the Russian-made automatic will have a hard time dropping a charging elephant or hippo, though it is ideal to nab a band of poachers or take over the Comoros.

Towards the end of the ride Joseph, a former tech exec, competitive runner and boxer, is almost smashed by a scooting Puku, who leaps across the path just inches in front of his front tire. But the real danger here, it seems, is not the ergonomically-designed antelope or even a wild cat. As the sun cranks itself above the horizon, another type of predator makes its appearance -- the blood-hungry tsetse fly. The tsetse looks like a horsefly, stings like a bee and its rapier-like proboscis can penetrate khakis, jeans and even tennis shoes. And, like Michael Myers in a John Carpenter film, every time you think one of these buggers is dead, it just comes back to life. Our host likes to tear off the wings and tell them to walk home.

These tsetses, harmless to humans, carry nagana, bovine trypanosomiasis -- a parasite that kills 3 million cattle, goats and pigs a year in sub-Saharan Africa. For us they are merely a nuisance, and one to be tolerated knowing they serve a larger purpose. The wildlife we see wouldn't exist without them. Without such an effective guardian, wilderness areas such as Kafue would long ago have been tamed; the wild animals cleared for domesticated ones.

The afternoon is a game walk. The primary feeling when traveling on foot here is of some sort of exhilaration, a perverse frisson that comes with walking by the edge. In the Toyota we are gods; walking, we are part of the food chain. This is exercise, but it is also an exercise in humility.

There are few places in Africa where one can walk on safari. It's considered too dangerous for the great national parks of East Africa and elsewhere because animals will be animals. The more touristed parks want the protection of a layer of motorized metal. But one of Zambia's distinctions is not only allowing walking safaris, but encouraging them.

A bit down the road Justin Seymour-Smith, our very own David Attenborough, picks up a clob of dirt and scratches it to reveal an ant lion, one of the Little Big Five, others being the rhino beetle, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew and leopard tortoise. The ant lion waves its mandibles like a miniature Edward Scissorhands and Justin informs that it can only walk backwards, a shame in these parts. But the detail, the slice of nature's exquisiteness, reminds that these are nuances of Africa we would have never seen riding in the back of a well-logoed safari vehicle.

The next several days unfold more of the same, with variations. In the sweet liquid light of the African morning we bike before breakfast; we relax midday; we explore in the late afternoon, sometimes hiking, sometimes bathing in a shallow section of river where we can see, assuming with adequate time, if crocodiles approach. We circumnavigate an island; we fish; we photograph two sated female lions from a mere 30 feet away. We climb a kopje (isolated hill) that overlooks the river and an endless expanse of miombo forest, and in every direction, no matter how far we look, there is no sign of Man or his works. And our host adds "there has never been." So many of the once secret paradises of the world are overrun with resorts and tourist dollars that it is easy to appreciate this uninterrupted view of the wild.

At meals we have the same wide-ranging discussions, story smack-downs and factual disagreements (definition of a desert? Difference between a toad and a frog?), but instead of turning to Wikipedia or Google to solve, we find ourselves pushing deeper into memory, or propelling blood into our heads for cognitive analysis, to find a consensus, or some semblance of truth. We find ourselves thinking.

After several bottles of South African wine one night, someone poses the question: "What would you do to improve this place?" One guest, Pradeep, says he wishes there were a solar-powered ice-maker. I suggest hammocks strung along the chalet porches for the midday siestas. Our host imagines an oversized shark cage positioned off the deck so he could take a dip without fear of crocodiles.

Joseph, who earlier in the day recorded our hippo neighbors in all their Paul Robeson glory, and turned it into a ring tone as a gift to our host, chimes in, enthusiastically:"What this place needs is a two-way broadband internet high-speed satellite system."

There is a beat of silence and then an eruption of disagreement around the table. "No, no, no," is the collective response. And the matter is settled when Justin Seymour-Smith pipes in.
"What this places needs is to be as primeval as possible, a sanctuary from the connectivity of the world, a refuge from civilization."

"Here, here."

We had, in the course of five days, gone from having the high-strung metabolisms of antelopes to lolling about with the untroubled contentedness of sated Kafue cats.