Knock, knock, knock – I wake up. Is somebody knocking on my door? I thought we were supposed to sleep in today, have a leisurely breakfast and then slowly drive back to Lusaka. It is the last day of our safari in Mushingashi nature reserve, just east of Kafue National Park in Zambia. Our guide Jairos had promised us a laid-back morning and a slow drive through the reserve before heading home to Lusaka. And yet, for some reasons he is knocking on my door at 6am. This better be good!

A few minutes later I frantically bang my dad’s door to wake him up. Jairos got a call on his radio from nearby workers and had good news for us: there are lions close to our camp. In any other context the words lions and close in one sentence would have freaked me out, but not this time. We had spent three days in the bush looking for the big cats without success already and receiving such a message on our last morning promised to finally put the cherry on top of our bush ice cream.

Quickly we got dressed for the occasion – warm, moderate colours and enough cover to protect us from tse tse fly bites – and climbed onto the back seat of our open top safari vehicle. Jairos carefully placed his gun on the car dashboard and soared off. 6.30am. The search begins.

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National Park or Nature Reserve?

One of the perks of a safari in a private nature reserve as opposed to a national park is that you are allowed to drive off-road. It was still the beginning of the season and the grass stood high, so Jairos drove slowly and carefully. Every now and then he stopped to inspect some animal tracks on the ground, or listen closely for the sound of a roaring pride of lions. Nothing. He followed the instructions of where the workers had heard the lions further into the bush. There are impala, pukus and wart hogs everywhere. Three days ago we were jumping with excitement at their sudden appearance in the grass, filling our memory cards with snapshots and impala-selfies, but this morning we spared our shutters and waited for the encounter of a life time.

Not that the elephant cow charging at us to protect her baby the other morning, or the elephant bull trying to impress us with his powerful prancing the day before where any less of such encounters. I had never expected elephants to rise to the realm of ‘favourite animals’ of mine, but then again seeing them in the zoo does not even come close to the real life experience. Such graceful giants. There were of course many more encounters with Zambian wildlife, many lessons to be learned about their conversation and heated discussions about controlled trophy hunting.

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Why Bongwe Safaris?

We had chosen to go on safari with Bongwe Safaris, frankly because other offers were far beyond our price range or seemed too time-intense for such a multi-purpose trip (we also visited Victoria Falls, Mt Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar). Bongwe promised to be ‘affordable, fun and friendly’ – for $1,330 you would get 3 nights/4 days in the bush, accommodation, transfers, all meals and safari drives included. It doesn’t sound cheap, but actually that is at least half-prize of other safari companies. Although I haven’t tried any other tours in Zambia I can only say that we had everything we needed and more. The accommodation in our chalet was comfy and clean, the food was home-cooked and plenty, there was a daily bonfire by the riverside and from the terrace we could watch the hippos, crocodiles and water birds that populate the beautiful Kafue River. Everyday we had a morning and an evening game drive lasting for 3-4 hours. And because we were here just before high season started, it was just the two of us. For more money you might get a more luxurious bed, but in terms of value for money our safari with Bongwe was unbeatable!

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Bongwe sends safaris to various camps in Mushingashi and the main camp has little chalets with thatched roofs, so you can basically overlook the river from your bed. This camp was under renovation at the time of our safari – one of the side effects of visiting Zambia in June just before the season kicks off.

Hello, King of Animals

But let’s get back to our search for lions. The Mushingashi nature reserve lies just next to Kafue National Park; there is no fence between the two, so that animals can roam wherever they want. Kafue is Zambia’s largest national park and sadly resources to employ guards to protect animals from poaching are scarce. However, that means that many animals prefer to live on nature reserve land. Mushingashi is privately owned and employs many guards to hunt for illegal poachers. There are at least two groups of lions resident in the reserve – a group of females and two lion brothers hunting together. Our chances to see either cubs or a male lion in full pride were excellent. Finally we hear a roar in the distance. The brothers are close. The sun is still standing low and has not reached its full potential yet. After a cold night the lions are very likely to relax in morning sun. We drive on, turn some corners and listen as the roaring grows louder. And then, like out of nowhere, we see the lions lazily lounging underneath a tree, the sun ticking their noses. We go as close as appropriate, turn off the engine and gaze in awe. Real. Wild. Lions. Mind blown.

Of course we don’t go unnoticed, but Jairos shows no sign of reaching for his gun just yet. The lions stare at us for a few moments, turn their heads and continue to roar in turns to mark their territory. They know the humans in the reserve are there to protect and look at them – the guards must be doing a great job.

Nothing can describe the feeling of watching these majestic wild animals in their natural habitat. I forget everything around me, especially the desire to see lion cubs playing with each other or witnessing a fast-paced hunting scene. It doesn’t matter anymore – this is better than a nature documentary on TV.

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On a side note: Having watched nature documentaries on the telly for most of my life, I was extremely unrealistic about what going on a safari entails. The most amazing video material you see in these films took weeks or months of preparation and patience in the bush; tailing animals for a long time to get one incredible shot. Not necessarily something you can achieve in 3-4 days… If you go on safari bring three things to avoid disappointment: patience, a telephoto or good zoom lens and an open mind as to which animals you will see and in which situations you will find them.

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Our safari in the Mushingashi reserve was a definite highlight in our three-week journey through Zambia and Tanzania, and Jairos proved to be an excellent guide for us – with 20 years of experience, eyes like an eagle and always up for a laugh. He explained all aspects of wildlife conservation and controlled hunting, and upon request recommended the following organisations in case you would like to support and donate to the wildlife protection in Zambia:

Conservation Lower Zambezi

South Luangwa Conservation Society

Kafue Conservation Project by Game Rangers International

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Have you been on a safari before? If so, what was your favourite animal encounter? I can’t wait to read your stories!

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

Disclaimer: My dad and I were welcomed by Bongwe Safaris at half price. All opinions and experiences described are of course my own either way.