Chikoko Trails: A Review

After a couple of nights at the wonderful Flatdogs Camp, we were off on a week-long Zambian walking safari adventure. We left as usual, at daybreak, as it was a long – albeit interesting – drive through the park to our destination. Below are just some of the many friendly faces that we came across on our way.

Our next destination was Tafika Camp, where we would pick up our guide and (armed) park ranger, before commencing the final leg of our safari: walking the Chikoko Trails.

Meeting Steve, who claimed to have “only one week of guiding experience”

Tafika Camp is owned by the Coppinger family who have lived for decades in the South Luangwa, and it is where all logistics for the two Chikoko Trails bush camps where we were staying are organised. Around mid-morning, we pulled into the property, where we were offered refreshments. Overlooking a sweeping bend in the Luangwa River, this camp offers a beautiful, shady spot to rest and watch hippos wallow or elephants drink.

Then, with our guide, ranger and all-important tea-bearer sorted for the week, we hopped back in the vehicle and headed to another sandy, wide bank, ready to make our way to Crocodile Camp by canoe and on foot. It wasn’t just us that had to travel this way – so did all our luggage – so if you care about your porter’s welfare, pack light!

Crocodile Camp sits beneath gnarled ebony and mahogany trees, and comprises of four thoughtfully laid out circular guest chalets with thatched roofs and walls. Comfortable beds are draped with mosquito netting, and they face out onto a dry creek bed, where we regularly saw grazing puku, impala, warthog and in the distance, giraffe. A large tank supplies hot water to the open-air shower, and in the morning, a pitcher of warm water is placed – by way of a hatch in the bathroom wall – beside your handbasin so you can awaken gently.

The day we arrived happened to be my dad’s birthday and we were treated not just to the most delicious chocolate cake, but a beautiful rendition of “Happy birthday” sung by the entire camp staff.

All male, the team live on site throughout the 5 months the Chikoko Trails camps are open, and they evidently lived and breathed their jobs, because the hospitality and food we received were superb. Below are some of the sublime meals we were served and both our talented chefs proudly posing by their ground ovens.

During our stay at Crocodile Camp (and also at our next camp, Chikoko Tree), a typical day went like this:

5:30am – Wake up

6:00am – Light breakfast by the fire

6:30am (sunrise) – Morning walk

9:00am – Morning tea/coffee + cake or a biscuit somewhere on the trail (earn it by making your own fire!)

11:00am – Return to camp for siesta

12:00pm – Lunch

3:00pm – Afternoon tea

3:30pm – Evening walk

5:30-5:45pm – Return to camp for sundowner drinks/snacks

6:30pm – Dinner

Morning outings were much longer, as there was plenty of light, and although it was June and the bush at Mana Pools down south had already thinned, the indigo bushes and grasses were still (my) head height in places.

In June, the grass was still taller than me.

That didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of animals to see however – Thornicroft’s giraffe still towered over the scrub. Elephant on the other hand, were much harder to spot and on one occasion, we accidentally split a small herd, which was just a little nerve-wracking for both the walkers and the stragglers.

Now, let’s talk about lion. We’d already seen and heard plenty at Mana Pools so we weren’t desperate to see them. On our first full day at Crocodile Camp, as we walked in single file past a large herd of buffalo, our young tea-bearer remarked that he had seen three lionesses in the bushes barely 100 metres away. For some reason, Steven thought it would be a good idea to descend into the gulley below the bushes the lions had been seen behind. As we neared a particularly dense thicket, it started rustling quite urgently. At this point, I was sure the lions were in there and it took every bit of willpower not to run.

Steve then made the (wise) decision to clamber back up the opposite slope to observe the felines from a safer distance. Binoculars and cameras out, we sat there for a good part of an hour trying to see just how many lions were in the bushes. As it turns out, there were three.

Fortified by lunch and afternoon tea, we headed out again to the same area on the assumption that big cats were lazy and wouldn’t have moved (especially if the buffalo hadn’t). We were correct and also perhaps a little too confident, because we wandered right up to the same big bush we’d been near that morning and it started growling. For some reason, we just stood there, rooted to the spot, staring at the foliage as the growls picked up in volume and intensity. Finally, Steve whispered “turn around but DON’T RUN” so we backed away as slowly as we could manage, hearts pounding out of our chests.

By this time, I had had enough of lion. As luck would have it, the next afternoon, the first thing Steve comments on is how quiet the area around camp is. No herbivores at all. So out we went and less than 300 metres from camp are once again, rustling, growling shrubbery – clearly, a South Luangwa endemic species. This time, we didn’t need any instructions from Steve, who just quietly laughed at us as we retreated on our own accord.

On Day 3, we packed our luggage for the porters and with just a small day pack, headed to Chikoko Camp on foot. It’s a fairly decent trek (around half a day) – and can get quite warm as well – but this place is truly stunning. Nestled beneath a thick canopy of trees, Chikoko Camp has four double-storey chalets, with the ensuite downstairs. Upstairs, the bedroom faces out onto a winding stream and grassy plain popular with elephant, impala and puku.

Again, resident camp staff make this place feel wonderfully like home. There’s a central bar and library area, as well as fire pit. What I loved most though, was the swing, which is ideal for afternoon daydreaming and naps.

All in all, the Chikoko Trails were a fabulous experience and it’s just as well we had to walk every day because the food was just so scrumptious. Perhaps the only thing we would change next time: the time we visit. The grass is still very high in June, making animals harder to see. However, the trade off is that it gets very warm towards October and there are tsetse flies.

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