The Lozi people in the remote northwest of Zambia are at ease with reincarnation, in spite of being Christian on paper. They know that when Mambeti, the daughter of an important tribal elder, died and was buried in a thicket on the Liuwa Plain, she was reborn as a proud lioness. Not only was the lioness first seen emerging from the same grove of trees—at a time when it was thought that all the lions in the Liuwa Plain had been killed—but she also sought out the company of her former neighbours, returning often to revisit the Lozi villages but never once touching their livestock. The Lozi treated their lioness with respect, and named her Lady Liuwa.
I arrived in Liuwa Plain shortly after Lady Liuwa’s death, one day before World Lion Day. Her name was still on everyone’s lips. It wasn’t just the Lozi who spoke fondly—almost reverentially—about her. It was the rangers from African Parks and the staff at Liuwa Plains’ only lodge, Time+Tide King Lewanika, as well.
When I rode out in the park in a 4x4 with Time+Tide’s MD, Dave Wilson, he talked about Lady Liuwa as though she were an old friend. And in many ways, she was. When he was building the lodge, which opened last year, she’d often stop by, as if to see how the construction work was getting on. Dave pointed out Mambeti’s thicket—distinctive as there’s scarcely another tree for miles—and also the lion boma behind the lodge where Lady Liuwa bonded with the other lions who were later introduced to her domain.
18 years ago, when Lady Liuwa first made her presence known, prospects for the Liuwa Plain National Park looked bleak. The land had theoretically been protected since the 1880s, making it one of the oldest protected areas in Africa, but the civil war in nearby Angola had forced poachers across the border. The lions seemed to have been wiped out, and other mammal populations—including the antelope and wildebeest—were seriously depleted. There was no real road infrastructure for rangers, conservationists, or visitors to reach Liuwa Plain from other parts of Zambia, and the few sand tracks through the park became submerged during the wet season, cutting off large swathes of territory entirely.
Slowly but surely, access is improving. A new highway, including multiple bridges, now brings travellers right to Kalabo, the gateway to the park. You can hop by helicopter from Kalabo to Time+Tide King Lewanika, but for me at least, the journey is part of the experience. Having arrived in Kalabo, I clambered into a 4x4, specially adapted for safaris, and crossed the river on a floating pontoon, ladies with bright umbrellas crouched alongside the vehicle on their way back home from the town. With Innocent as my driver and guide, we passed by the last of the Lozi villages on the rim of the park, and drove two hours out into the wilderness, stopping along the way for tea and snacks.
You don’t see Time+Tide King Lewanika until you’re almost on top of it; that was a deliberate decision on the part of architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, two of the most highly-regarded luxury safari property designers in the world. The lodge’s roof height is lower than the trees behind, and the main building materials—wood, canvas, and thatch—blend perfectly with the dry grass and the woodland. The ecosystem in the Liuwa Plain is fragile, so it was imperative that the lodge have a minimal carbon footprint and impact on its surroundings.
The afternoon light was fading as we approached the lodge, where an enthusiastic welcome party awaited us. Under normal circumstances, the much anticipated cold virgin cocktail would have been followed by a tour of the property and the chance to freshen up and relax in my villa prior to dinner, but this was not to be. As is often the case in Liuwa Plain, the wildlife dictates your schedule. One of the guides had sighted a cheetah not far from the camp, and that was an opportunity not to be missed.
Already the sun was going down, the sky turning a dusky pink. My eyes struggled to spot anything in the long shadows, but Innocent had no such difficulty: he had the eyes of a hawk and could competently drive and scour the horizon for telltale silhouettes at the same time. When he did find what he was looking for, we left the track behind and continued to drive over the scrubby grasslands, the 4x4 agilely accommodating every bump.
As we drew close, we realised that there was not one cheetah but two, preparing for a night-time hunt. They were sleepy still, having woken up not that long before, and were stretching themselves as they padded to a pan to drink. We followed behind at an unthreatening distance, stopping periodically and switching off the engine. I just stood and stared, gob-smacked at the elegance of the big cats and the fact that they cared not a jot for our proximity.
That you can see the cheetah this close is a sure sign that Liuwa Plain is on the road to recovery. African Parks took charge of the park’s management in 2003, and has worked tirelessly to stamp out poaching and trophy hunting, enabling the wildlife populations to bounce back. In the case of the plains game—the various species of antelope, the wildebeest, and the zebra—they’ve done this of their own accord, breeding like proverbial rabbits. Some other species, including the lions, have been given a helping hand, with reintroductions from elsewhere.
Once Liuwa Plain was secured, it was hoped that lions would return of their own accord and Lady Liuwa would find a husband. She waited patiently, but no other lions came. African Parks introduced two males in 2009, and both mated with Lady Liuwa, but sadly it seemed she was infertile. She did, however, bond with a female lion, Sepo, who was also brought to the park. When Sepo had her own three cubs, Lady Liuwa stepped immediately into the role of grandmother of the pride, helping to raise the new arrivals. Their survival is in no small part due to Lady Liuwa’s care.
More than anything else, I wanted to see a lion in the wild. I had seen one fleetingly in Malawi two years before, and heard it roar, but it was dark then and I didn’t get a proper look. Perhaps it was a childhood viewing of Disney’s Lion King which inspired me, but I felt there would be something very special about spotting the ‘king of the jungle’ in his or her natural habitat.
I set out with Innocent after breakfast, intending to follow the blue wildebeest herds, which are now the second largest in Africa after the Great Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya combined.
We hadn’t driven for more than half an hour or so, when the eagle-eyed Innocent caught sight of an alert group of zebras on the skyline. What were they looking at? What was it that was making them nervous? The obvious answer was a predator.
Just as we had when in pursuit of the cheetahs, we left the track behind and drove a cross country path over the grass. We cleared a hillock and not one, not two, but five lions came into view! They weren’t intent on hunting: the day was already warm, and it looked as though they’d filled their stomachs the night before. The adult male and lioness were relaxing out in the sunshine, as their three cubs of differing sizes frolicked nearby. When, after a quarter of an hour or so, they did decide to move on, it was only to wander as a family group across to the nearest pan to drink. I’m rarely speechless, but still don’t have the words to express the exhilaration I felt from that encounter.
A safari in Liuwa Plain is the most exclusive in Africa; Time+Tide King Lewanika is the only permanent camp in the park, and it has just six villas. Nothing competes with the sense of peace in this wilderness, nor the realisation that we, as humans, are just one species in the much greater circle of life.
International carriers like Emirates and Kenya Airways offer connecting flights from major Indian cities to Lusaka. From there, hop onto Proflight’s scheduled and chartered flights to Kalabo. To reach Time+Tide King Lewanika Lodge, you can then transfer by road (2.5 hours) or helicopter (15 minutes); the latter offers a bird’s eye view of the park, and is faster.
Alternatively, you could do the 630-kilometre drive from Lusaka, via Mongu, to Liuwa. For route specifics, visit africanparks.org. Indian passport holders require an e-visa for Zambia, and should apply online before travelling, at eservices.zambiaimmigration.gov.zm
WHERE TO STAY
I travelled to Zambia with Africa Exclusive (safari.co.uk). It included a four-night stay at Time+Tide King Lewanika, along with return flights from Lusaka to Kalabo.
For the upcoming safari season from late-October to mid-July, rooms at Time+Tide (+27-606424004; timeandtideafrica.com) start from $1,300 per night.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>Try game drives, walking or canoe safaris, sleeping under the stars, or scenic helicopter rides.
>Depending on the season of your visit, Liuwa also offers stunning photography options. Capture wildflower blooms (spring), the blue wildebeest migration (rainy season) and the ceremonial Kuomboka boat festival post the rains.
It’s easy to get lost in the vastness of Liuwa’s grasslands, so do have a guide for company.