Hot Air Ballooning Above Elephants

An exhilarating aerial safari in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.
Above the Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Dawn arrives slowly at Shumba Camp. First, just rich black silence. Then the first tentative bird calls, swelling louder. On the deck, where we sip tea, there’s the scent of dust and smoke and soil. The sky is becoming opalescent — flecks of shiny pinks and blues.

We head out onto the Busanga Plains in a game-drive vehicle. Ahead of us are flashes of copper — puku scampering daintily over the stubby grass, kicking up dust as fine as puffs of smoke. Shadowy silhouettes of elephants haunt the distant, smudgy tree line.

We are right in the heart of the vast Kafue National Park in Zambia. At 22,400km², it is bigger than Wales, and one of the last true wildernesses left on the African continent.

The only sign of humans — aside from tyre tracks — are the very occasional wooden poles used by Nyanja fishermen. They return to trap fish here each rainy season, when the plains have been transformed into a shallow, endless lake.

Right now, though, the earth is parched. We bump and bounce across grass and dried mud. We reach a small pond where egrets, herons and yellow-billed storks keep one another company. Onwards, to admire lions — three young males and three females. A youngster chases after two doves that flutter teasingly just ahead him. Another — nicknamed “The Killing Machine” — sits alert and tense as she eyes an unsuspecting lechwe antelope.

We break for tea right beside a pod of at least two dozen snorting hippos, tails flicking up splashes. A jacana walks on the animals’ round backs like he’s hopping along a sequence of boulders. I try to urinate in a nearby donga — a task that proves almost impossible. It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the proximity of the hippos or the two well-heeled retirees that have joined us on the game drive.

The next morning offers a radical shift in perspective — literally. As the sun rises, so do we — floating gently in a hot-air balloon. Neither camera nor notebook can capture the poetry of balloon flight. The astonishing, gliding grace of it. The wordless magic of seeing the bush completely differently — from above.

A balloon is different to a helicopter or a plane because travelling at the speed of the wind allows you time to absorb your surroundings, to soak up the splendour. And what splendour! Below us is a rare and precious sight: as far as the eye can see is protected land, barely touched by the human hand.

Thin channels of water — like capillaries of mercury — stretch out beneath us. Scattered across the plains are small “island” mounds — home to wild date-palm trees, tall sausage trees or figs, woolly caper berries and acacia.

A balloon is different to a helicopter or a plane because travelling at the speed of the wind allows you time to absorb your surroundings, to soak up the splendour.

We spot a male lion, oblivious, padding across one of them. We drift over a herd of elephants. Bird calls rise up to us: the duet of the black-collared barbet, the mournful wail of the fish eagle. An enormous tangle of twigs — a hamerkop’s nest — slips below us.

In a pond, we see a 5m-long crocodile — the longest the balloon pilot has seen. We land dazed and speechless. The flight feels like both an infinity and instant.

Hippo crossing.

I bunk one or two drives to enjoy Shumba Camp. On the deck adjoining our humble tent (one of only six), I write and read and do yoga as two puku chase each other on the grass.

There are certainly slicker safari operations. Shumba’s somewhat murky communal pool was being cleaned so we couldn’t cool off on arrival. Gin had to be procured from a supply cupboard for our sundowners. The maintenance team had to fix our outdoor shower. The food, when trying to be fancy, was sometimes a disappointment — though there were delicious dishes too, such as a creamy vegetable pie; and Boma Night was tasty from beginning to end.

This lodge is incredibly special. Its staff are friendly, outgoing and attentive. And a stay here offers something incredibly rare — the opportunity to be immersed in a pristine endlessness, one that’s remote, raw and wild. It’s a decadent kind of nothingness — one richly absorbing, teeming with life.

Shumba is sublimely far away from just about everywhere. From Johannesburg, it took a day to get there: two flights and a bumpy 40-minute drive (lengthened by our pause alongside a dozy pride of lions). Of course, the paradox of this remoteness is that, freed from the tyranny of round-the-clock connectivity (there’s no Wi-Fi), you become more connected to the present, becoming immersed in the magic of the bush’s ever-changing colours, textures, flashes of life. Here time slows and stretches. A sense of utter, sublime contentment emerges: a spacious joy.

A trap used seasonally by the Nyanja fishermen.

On our last day, after a siesta in the bleached noon hours, we go on our final game drive. A bachelor herd of puku saunter about; vultures congregate atop a tree. We stop for gin and tonics at a massive sycamore fig that has been lit yellow by the lowering sun.

We leave reluctantly — but happy — the next day. This has been a proper, radically reinvigorating break, one that has left us quietly awed by the power of nature, and newly conscious of the overwhelming, incessant and often inane and insignificant trappings of modern life. A visit to Shumba Camp is nothing less than an act of liberation and an invitation to, once back home, live life a little differently.

And to that, as the Nyanja say when it’s time to raise a glass, “!”

An edited version of this article appeared in Business Day‘s 5 December 2018 edition under the heading “Remote Zambian getaway resets life to a serene, rich rhythm.”

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