Linda Evangelista infamously said that she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. And after 11 hours travelling along Zambian roads, I’d have quoted a similar price to get back in a 4×4. But the prospect of a cheetah sighting was dangled in front of me, and that was enough to sweeten the deal.
The light was already fading, but our eagle-eyed guide sped us along the sand tracks that criss-cross the Liuwa Plains to the point of the reported sighting. A cheetah at any time of day is hard to find, but even more so when its dappled coat fades into the gloom.
The one advantage of this terrain is that it’s completely flat. The grass is short, and the thickets of bushes and trees are few and far between. A cheetah slinking along close to the ground, stalking its prey, would still be invisible, but if it stopped and stood up to look around, then I was at least in with a chance.
Lady Luck was on my side. In the last few minutes before the sun sunk below the horizon, a distinctive silhouette rose. Front paws upon a rock, she stood stock still, the dusky pink of the sky colouring her chest. I must have been downwind because there was not even the faintest flutter of awareness on her face that I was there.
Those in search of big cat sightings typically head to East Africa. But though the cats there are numerous, so too are the safari vehicles in hot pursuit. I like my cheetahs (and my lions and leopards, for that matter) to myself, or d with a favoured few. The prospect of a national park where I’m almost the only visitor therefore fits the bill.
Zambia’s Liuwa Plains National Park is remote by anyone’s definition. It’s in the northwestern corner of the country, up by the Angolan border, and they’ve only just finished the road. Access to the park from the nearest town (which is actually where the main road ends) requires driving your 4×4 onto a hand-pulled pontoon to cross the river, then picking up the sand tracks past a couple of villages, and hoping that you’re heading in the right direction. When the rains come, the tracks disappear entirely beneath the water, and no vehicle can get in or out. Those who still have to get around move about in shallow-bottomed boats, or drop in by helicopter.
It is this inaccessibility which largely explains Liuwa Plains’ under-development. It is, remarkably, one of the oldest protected areas in Africa, having been declared a royal hunting ground by the Lozi king in the 1880s. Lozi families were each given a designated area of the plains to care for, and to make their living from. They therefore had a vested interest in ensuring that their own hunting and fishing was at sustainable levels, and until the Angolan Civil War forced a surge of people to cross the border, they kept the poachers out.
Even here, however, life doesn’t stand still. The old ways survive, but the Lozi understandably want the benefits that come with economic development. And in the Liuwa Plains, that means allowing greater levels of tourism. The Barotse Royal Establishment (the Lozi monarchy), NGO African Parks, and lodge-operator Time+Tide have joined forces to introduce a sustainable, low-volume, high-value tourism model.
Liuwa’s first and only lodge opened earlier this year. Named in honour of King Lewanika, the ruler who first protected the plains, the central building is a remarkable structure of wood, steel, thatch, and huge open voids where normally glass would be. Seen from the outside it’s well-camouflaged against the trees, and indeed when you’re in the rooms — individual tents (if that’s not to do them a disservice) with king sized b, indoor and outdoor showers, and numerous seating configurations — it can be hard to tell where the deck ends and the plains begin. Lying in the dark, listening to the lions roar, there was only the canvas between me and one of the plain’s most formidable predators. It was an exhilarating, if nerve wracking, thought.
I rode out with my guide the following morning, intending to follow the wildebeest herds. Liuwa claims to have the largest wildebeest migration after the Great Migration in the Serengeti, and the sheer number of animals on the move is certainly a dramatic sight. As important for me, however, were the newborn wildebeest (of which there are many in November and December), which are an irresistible snack for a lion.
Seven lions live in close proximity to the lodge, including the two fully grown males who’d been vocal the night before. My guide and his colleagues are consummate trackers, but as with the cheetah it’s often better to cast your eye to the horizon and see what’s out of place. On this occasion it was the zebra that provided the clue. One moment they were grazing peacefully, and the next they were darting all over the place. Something had (excuse the pun) put a cat amongst the pigeons.
We made a beeline for the zebra in the 4×4, the modified Land Cruiser positively flying across the sand. We slowed as we drew near, and one-two-three-four-five lions came in to view. There was the Liuwa male and his sister, who happens also to be the mother of his cubs. And with them were three young males of various sizes, the smallest of which was being taught by his brothers to hunt.
The cubs quickly grew bored of the zebra: they had full bellies already, and rough and tumble was far more fun. Their parents kept a watchful eye, but were completely unfazed by our presence. Their poise and power was unmistakable: the lions are the true kings of the Liuwa Plains.