My first evening in Zambia was spent at a locally owned and operated hotel in the capital city of Lusaka. My son and I had deliberately avoided the western-style chains … we’d both seen enough of these in our travels to satisfy any irrational requirement we may have felt for comfort and convenience. We much preferred to pass the night at a place that reflected the character of the city and its people.

After 34 hours of numbing travel in cramped plane compartments and stale airports, I was far too tired and wired to even think about sleep. The hotel did feature a dim sanctuary that passed as a bar, so I ordered a local beer and sat. Within seconds I became vaguely aware that I was an object of curiosity … and within minutes I was engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the barkeeper and two (the only two) other patrons. They were all kind, outgoing and friendly, validating my unscientific theory that African people are generally more gracious and welcoming than those from more “modern” countries and continents. I asked them if many tourists stopped here before launching for Zambia’s game reserves … South Luangwa, Kafue and the Lower Zambezi. With great pleasure, they advised me that I was the first white person they’d ever seen at this hotel. We spent the better part of an hour drinking, analyzing American and Zambian politics, and comparing the diversity of Zambian wildlife to East Africa’s. But the beer turned out to be the catalyst I needed to feel the debilitating effects of the long overdue travel exhaustion. As I staggered off to bed I made a mental note that if I had opted to stay at one of Lusaka’s chain hotels I’d never have been as warmly greeted or made to feel so welcome.

Awake early the following morning, my son and I patronized the hotel’s tiny restaurant. The place had four small round tables with whitish tablecloths, only slightly stained. The juice was cool and freshly squeezed, the food was simple but very good, and the staff was attentive and courteous. As we departed I left three American dollars beside my plate. After packing my gear for the field, I walked to the lobby to confirm the time. The young lady who had waited our table at breakfast saw me in passing and hurried over to talk. She asked if I realized that I’d left money on the table in the restaurant. I told her that I was indeed aware of it. She seemed relieved. One of her co-workers had insisted that the cash was left inadvertently … and another thought it was possible that the bills constituted a gratuity. So they’d had a meeting to discuss it. After working through the possibilities, they’d reached the consensus that they’d been left a tip, but wanted to be sure of it prior to my departure. She was pleased that I was able to confirm their decision and thanked me effusively. Then she left me, saying “I’ll share it with my colleagues.”

Although this memory has stayed with me over the past few months, there is no real point to the anecdote. But it does validate the thing I love most about the African people. Human interaction and connectivity seem to be much more meaningful to them … I think it’s because they’ve yet to be inundated and overwhelmed with the media distractions that so depressingly curse the westernized existence. They take the time to sit, talk and get to know a person … and visitors from faraway lands are still mysterious and interesting to them. My fourteen hours in Lusaka also illustrated the potential of the smallest act of kindness and the value of individual integrity. The hotel wait staff, which I suspect is minimally compensated, was more than willing to return my gratuity without hesitation … all the way up to the minute when I confirmed with finality that the money was theirs to keep. Three dollars may not be much in Williamsburg, Virginia … but it can reveal much about human character in Lusaka, Zambia.

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I visited Zambia during the first two weeks of November in 2008.  I captured just over 5,000 photographs during the course of the trip … about a third of the number I’d expect to take during a visit of the same duration to Kenya or Tanzania.  There were several reasons for the relatively low photo count.  First of all, the itinerary covered a lot of ground, geographically speaking. We (my son and I) were on the road or in the air for at least four full days of the expedition … and it’s generally not possible to accumulate animal photos while you’re in transit from point A to point B.  Another reason for the reduced number of photos is the Zambian landscape … unlike the open plains of east Africa, the game reserves in this part of the continent afford the animals much more cover.  It is a gorgeous combination of bush and trees, both dead and living … including a heavy population of the thoroughly outsized and egregiously implausible baobab.   The point is … you can’t photograph what you can’t see.  But all this is okay … because any visit to a completely new destination must generally be considered a scouting mission anyway.  The idea is to see as many locations as possible, and take careful note of those areas that merit a second, more focused visit.  We traveled to Kafue, South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi areas.  Each of these locations is unique and beautiful in its way … and all rate a return visit.

As it turns out, it didn’t much matter if I’d taken 5,000 or 50,000 photographs.  That’s because my portable hard drive — and all my images — disappeared somewhere between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Atlanta.  I don’t think it was deliberately and maliciously taken … after reflecting back on the hours in the airports I came to the conclusion that I was likely too careless and failed to properly secure it in my carry on.  That just means I’ll have to return to Zambia very soon and give it another try.  My notes and memories did survive the trip, however … and I’ll be turning those into narrative and posting them here in the coming weeks.  And there will be a few photos … but they will be my son Joe’s and not mine.  Based on what I saw during the trip, his shots turned out better than mine anyway.

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There is a particularly lovely spot just below a wide bend in the Kafue River in central Zambia where the hippos number in the dozens and the elephants roam with complete freedom.  Its western bank is an intermittently wooded grassland with an occasional low hillock … dotted with impala, waterbuck and puku.   It is classic bush country … and it sees far less human traffic than my usual haunts in Kenya and Tanzania.  It’s also home to McBride’s Camp … one of my favorite places to stay in all of Africa.

McBride’s is unique in many ways.  Its lodgings are secure but open to the fresh air, taking full advantage of the temperate year round weather and offering guests the best possible view of their surroundings.  The food is wonderful and the dinners are candlelit, with all the sounds of the African night well within earshot.  During the day, a fruit basket placed by the central dining hut attracts a wide variety of birds, including the lovely and colorful Heuglin’s Robin.  The camp structures, made almost entirely from thatch and indigenous materials, are as perfectly integrated into the surroundings and environment as anything manufactured by human hands can possibly be.   One of the area’s most reticent species, the bushbuck, is sufficiently comfortable with the camp to stop by and sit quietly on the grounds on a near daily basis. 

Africa seems to abound with adventurous characters and interesting people.  The camp proprietors, Chris and Charlotte McBride, certainly fall within both of these categories.  They are two of the most fascinating people I’ve met in my many visits to the continent.  Chris has spent much of his life in the bush and has authored a couple of books on lion behavior.  Soft spoken, kind-hearted, personable and intelligent, his dinner conversation alone is reason enough to visit the camp.  He is blessed with a keen mind and a dry sense of humor … he is a supremely gifted storyteller who willingly and generously shares his thoughts and memories with his guests.  Charlotte is a remarkable woman in many ways.  Within minutes of meeting her I was overwhelmed by her enthusiasm and passion for the bush.  Despite having lived on the Kafue for many years, her excitement at any wildlife sighting – be it a lion pride, reed cormorant or a barred owl –is heartfelt and infectious.  She generally serves as the armed escort on the walking forays into the bush.  Her rifle is half again as big as she is … but she wields it with maximum effect.  Those who know her best describe her marksmanship as “deadly.” 

I expect to visit the McBrides again in the not too distant future.  The peace and quiet that comes with the remoteness of the camp, the near proximity of the wildlife, and the quality of the companionship make this one of wild Africa’s most unique and wonderful locations.

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