It is a humbling experience to walk with elephants, watching them as they quietly move among the towering trees, feeding and not even noticing you.
In the first chapter of Wilbur Smith’s book The Leopard Hunts in the Darkness, the Zambezi Valley is described through the eyes of a large elephant bull. Ever since reading the book, many years ago, my heart has longed for the wild Zambezi Valley. It is a place of sheer beauty. At some places the mighty Zambezi River is lined with beautiful Faidherbia albidaforests (winterthorn/ana tree), set against the Rift Valley escarpment as a backdrop.Towering mopane forests are located further inland, with dangerous game lurking in the thick jesse bush.
Wilderness Safaris returned to this remote concession bordering the famous Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe in October 2018. This diverse concession must surely rank as one of the most beautiful places in all of Africa. I was privileged to spend three nights at Chikwenya in October. Wilderness pride themselves in providing journeys that change lives, and this experience certainly changed mine.
After my transfer flight with Wilderness Air from Victoria Falls, I was collected by Foster, my guide for the trip. He is an absolute legend, with a palpable passion for the African bush. Our “short” transfer to camp took us close to three hours – simply because of the numerous sightings, including two male lions which had preyed on an elephant the night before.
After crossing the dry bed of the Sapi River, we entered the Chikwenya Concession, and soon thereafter arrived at Chikwenya which is situated at the confluence of the Sapi and Zambezi rivers. The view from camp is incredible. The camp overlooks the Zambezi River floodplain, an albida forest to the north-west, and the Rift Valley escarpment as a backdrop. I couldn’t wait to explore the concession and get back to game viewing after lunch!
A beautiful albida forest is located a mere five minutes from camp, our destination for the first afternoon. I’ve heard of the term “Magical Mana” before, and now I know where it originates. With the sun setting, the albida forest turns shades of blue and gold, with beams of sunlight radiating through the leaves. Elephants and loads of other animals, including eland, are drawn to this forest in the dry season, with the apple-ring pods of the albida providing much needed nutrition. Elephants are dwarfed by the massive trees, which set the scene for this surreal experience. While enjoying a gin and tonic at sunset, we were joined by a relaxed elephant bull, the perfect end to a perfect afternoon.
The following morning, we set off to explore the rest of the concession. We took a slow drive through the riparian forest along the Sapi River, hoping to get a sighting of the leopard mother and cub which frequent this stretch. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them, but luckily there was never a dull moment as we had numerous memorable elephant sightings, with some incredible birding, which included the likes of Livingstone’s flycatcher, eastern nicator, Böhms spinetail, trumpeter hornbill, etc.
We then proceeded to the tall mopane woodlands where the shades of green, yellow and orange mesmerised us. We hoped to find racket-tailed roller in the tall mopane, and eventually we found six of these difficult to locate and shy birds, some of them even showing off their “rolling” display flights! While birding, there was evidence of lion activity, buffalo, and elephant everywhere. Luckily we had the excellent Foster with us to keep an eye out.
Back at camp, lunch was waiting for us. I still don’t know how Wilderness Safaris is able to provide such a spread of fresh fruit and vegetables, and serve dishes like beef fillet and haloumi skewers, so far from civilization. All this while watching the antics of a troop of baboons, eland, impala and elephants on the river floodplain in front of camp. I spent the quiet hours of the day birding in camp (keeping an eye out for buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion, which are frequent camp visitors…). I was able to locate Livingstone’s flycatcher, variable sunbird, red-throated twinspot, Lilian’s lovebird, Retz’s helmet-shrike, shikra and little sparrowhawk in camp, to name a few of the specials.
After high tea our plan was to head out to the alibida forest again, and try to locate a pride of lion which frequents the area. After some more quality elephant, eland and general game sightings, we found the pride of lions on the south-eastern edge of the forest. The rest of the afternoon was spent with the pride. Their small cub provided us with lots of entertainment as she climbed the logs practicing her balancing skills. After sunset, while still enjoying the company of the pride, a bat-hawk gave us a fly-by!
Although you will probably get to see elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and even African wild dog during your stay at Chikwenya, ticking off sightings are definitely not the way to appreciate the magic of Chikwenya. Spending time in the magnificent landscape, appreciating the magical colours and light in the albida forests, and taking in the wilderness and remoteness of the Zambezi Valley are the focus. This is how we spent our final afternoon at Chikwenya, walking in the albida forest. It is a humbling experience to walk with elephants, watching them as they quietly move among the towering trees, feeding and not even noticing you. It is a time for reflection and introspection as you walk alongside giants.
In The Leopard hunts in the Darkness, Wilbur Smith says, “The man who drinks Zambezi waters must always return to drink again”. This saying is true for Wilderness Safaris who returned to this part of the Zambezi after years of absence, but it is even truer for myself.
My heart is already longing to return to the Zambezi Valley, and I can’t wait to experience the magical Chikwenya again. A truly life-changing and unforgettable experience…
Written and Photographed by Anton Kruger