It’s 3am and you can see the stars twinkle in the infinite blackness of the night sky. A spotted hyena howls a bewitching call. The Kafue National Park is dead silent, the tranquility here all-consuming. It’s something you might miss if you don’t pay attention to the little things.
I’m generally grateful for a number of things, but I’ve recently been trying to make deliberate efforts to express gratitude for the things I might ordinarily overlook. When I first get to my tent at Ila Safari Lodge, I notice the towel origami on my bed and a tiny box of chocolates nestled amongst the plush pillows. The state of the art luxury tent I’m occupying is filled with so many small details one might not immediately notice: organic liquid soap and body wash (instead of that seedy lodge Eva Soap), copper and gold coloured piping, the African-inspired décor, an extra throw blanket. I remind myself to be grateful for all these little details.
My colleague Lizu and I arrived in the late afternoon and the first activity we take on is the sunset cruise on Ila’s solar-powered electric boat. I’m told the boat is the only one of its kind on the Kafue River.
“We expect to see a number of hippos, crocs and some game on the banks,” our guide, Moses informs us. Lazarus, a junior guide earning his stripes at Ila accompanied him. Lazarus helms the boat, moving it along slowly as we spot yellow baboons, bushbucks and a snakebird. We however don’t notice a hippo come close to the boat until Moses tells Lazarus to move forward. The large beast spouts water from its nostrils as if warning us to get away, and then submerges its head.
Our cruise continues as the sun makes its descent. Kafue National Park is famous for its sunrises and sunsets. A plume of smoke rises to the sky on the horizon, mixing amongst the clouds and turning the sky violet against the fading orange sphere that is the sun. Sunsets are something we usually take for granted in the city, a silent spectacle you might not be able to catch amongst the buildings and billboards. Out here, they’re splendid and awe inspiring.
When I return to my room, I find that the mosquito net has been draped around the large bed whose cover has been pulled back at a corner, a hot water bottle placed there to help ward off the cold. A sheet of fine (recycled) paper with a poem on it lays on my pillow. It reads in part:
“When you’ve acquired a taste for dust,
The scent of our first rain,
You’re hooked for life on Africa,
And you’ll not be right again.”
It’s 5am and you can see Venus flirting with the moon when you get your wakeup call. The air is steely cold and it’s hard to get out of bed but I must venture out. It’s not every day that I get to experience such natural beauty first-hand. The little things…
Two Land Rovers await us by a riverbank. I’m hoping to spot leopards on our game drive. The first animals we spot are some puku and two of them are doing a little courtship dance. The male bounces around and pursues the female as the rest of the herd graze, their eyes and ears trained on us. “Pukus are non-seasonal breeders,” Moses tells us. “That’s why you can see that they are of varying ages.”
Park officials carry out prescribed burns meant to prevent wild fires and help restore nutrients and enrich the soil, giving back to the earth, in a sense showing gratitude. I catch a whiff of the rich smell of ash, grass and earth. I’m grateful for the lack of pollution and the clean air out here.
Moses stops the car and leans out over his door. He’s looking at paw prints and trying to determine the direction of their makers. “These footprints were made yesterday,” he says as the vehicle snarls to life. He can tell this from the slight erosion of the soil around the prints. He can even tell that a leopard and its cub made the tracks. The little things…
It’s 5pm…no…5:20pm…Wait, who cares what time it is!? There’s a herd of elephants and one is charging towards us! Our guide accelerates as the beast advances. It’s only a mock charge, your guide reassures you as the elephant trails behind. I try to laugh it off, my heart still racing. That wasn’t such a little thing…
The drive continued well after the sun set and so our new guide, Lexon, had to use a spotlight to search for animals. Aside from the odd genet and mongoose, we didn’t see much on our evening safari. This can happen sometimes. Just because you set out to see some lions and leopards, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see them. They can be quite elusive. Thankfully we had a delicious supper to look forward to.
Each plate at Ila Safari Lodge is a well thought out mix of colours, a culinary experience for refined palates. Mediterranean stuffed chicken to chocolate fondue, I savoured every dish I had. When we’re done, we’re escorted back to our lodging. It would be another early morning for us and I need my beauty sleep.
We take a different route for the morning game drive on our last day at the park. Lexon had heard roaring in the wee hours and had a rough idea which part of the park it was coming from. He’s in full-on tracker mode this morning, listening for monkey calls and observing impala behavior as we drive through the dusty trail. Lizu and I can barely see the felines when we finally find them, but Lexon has a keen eye for small details.
We’re watching two lionesses in the long grass just three or four meters away from us, hoping they’ll do something worthy of a photograph or a story we can tell people back home. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We get caught up in pulling our phones out to capture the moment and forget to actually be in it, to relish what’s going on. So I sit in silence, soaking myself in the lioness’s nonchalance, excited even when they flick their heads to shake the flies. I’m thankful.
It’s a lazy afternoon before we leave for Lusaka that evening and I’m lounging next to the infinity pool by the lodge. Jaques, one of the owners of Ila Safari Lodge, sits down in the chair opposite me for a brief conversation. I ask him about travel and the importance of visiting places like the Kafue National Park.
“It broadens your horizons and gives you a different perspective on things,” he says. One gets to see how people live in other parts of the country, and the world.
Jaques also tells me they have plans of expanding their operations to the north of the park in the Busanga Plains. “The scope of growth for tourism in Zambia is phenomenal,” he says. “What we’re working on is something that Zambia and the Kafue [National Park] can be proud of,” he adds with a smile. I get the sense that the park’s future is bright.
It’s past 7pm. I’m on my way home and thinking about how I’ve taken the time to savour moments as opposed to double tapping a screen to express what I like. Sunrise to sunset, each experience has been greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the little things that count.