In Search
of
Giants

By: Clinton Els

By: Clinton Els

Director: Incentives & Travel at Dragonfly Africa

I am sure I am not alone when I say I was looking forward to 2021. “2020, don’t let the door kick you on the way out…” However, here we sit mid-2021 and it somehow feels that we have done a complete 360 and are right back to where we started with heightened infection ratio’s and the world again looking at various levels of isolation.

There must be a silver lining to all of this though, otherwise what’s the point? For me, Covid brought my family closer together and allowed for a better work / life balance. It also ensured we all took the necessary tech jump and adjusted to a remote work environment.

However, as I scroll through my images of past travel endeavours, there is no denying my passport is screaming to become useful again, my body, mind and sanity ache for a real and meaningful African travel experience. And just to rub salt in the wounds, Facebook continually sends me “reminders” of a world of past. Despite the isolation, I actively choose to focus on the positive, and look ahead to future experiences. Africa is ready, she remains wild and can’t wait to show off her undeniable diversity and beauty, and I for one look forward to re-exploring every inch of her.

For now, however, I have to continue dreaming, and this morning, my mind ambles back to an unforgettable time on the Lower Zambezi, Zambia.

You may recall an earlier blog of mine, “Sleeping with the Enemy” which covered an experience few on this planet get to enjoy, a sleep out, under the stars, in one of the most remote Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) game reserves left on earth. What you may not be aware of, is this experience was preceded by some time on the Lower Zambezi, where we were in avid search of giants.

TIME+TIDE had invited a select few hospitality partners to join them on what could only be described as a “Super Ed”. Combining the Lower Zambezi with South Luangwa. Following a short flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Lusaka, Zambia, I met up with the rest of the crew. “Excited”, you ask, “hell yeah…”

From Lusaka we boarded a light aircraft private charter to Royal Airstrip, a dirt runway in the middle of no-where …  just how I love it, remote Africa as she was eons ago.

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Upon landing at Royal Airstrip, it was a short 25-minute game drive, accompanied by ice cold beers, through to Chongwe House, our home for the next couple of days.

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Chongwe House was built to resemble a termite mound; the entire house is open with magnificent views out onto the river front. Consisting of only 4 bedrooms (2 downstairs and 2 upstairs), there are no official walls or doors to close, everything has been designed and built to fit in with nature. One can only book this lodge if taking exclusivity based on the layout, but fear not, a mere 700 meters down the road (or river), sits TIME+TIDE Chongwe Camp and Suites. With 9 tents and 3 suites, smaller families and groups can also enjoy the beauty and remoteness of the region without impacting their budget with an exclusive use house.

 

I was told that this region is famous for their abundant elephant population, massive crocodiles, territorial hippopotamus and of course Tigerfish. Africa’s very own giants are all easily accessible in a single location, and I for one could not wait to explore.

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Following a delicious lunch on the deck, I opted for a cold beer (when in Africa, why not) in the swimming pool (it was hot after all) and it wasn’t long before our 1st group of giants came to us. A stunning herd of elephant came down to the water’s edge to drink. The little one in the herd was rather inquisitive and tentatively walked right up to the pool while we relaxed inside, what an amazing start to an unforgettable trip of a lifetime.

 

Later that day we headed out on an evening safari drive with spectacular sightings of elephant, lion, leopard, civet (very rate) and porcupine (equally as rare). Upon returning to the lodge, one would expect most to head off to bed after a long and exciting day, but with the river beckoning and the sounds of Africa all around, there was no better place to be than relaxing on the deck, enjoying some quality wine, under the Africa stars, soaking it all in.

 

When at Chongwe House, traditions are kicked out the window, here it’s all about personalisation. The night prior we chatted to lodge management and all settled on what our preference for the following day would be. Some opted for game drive, others to sleep in, me, I was after another giant, “Tiger fishing please, I have score to settle”. A couple of years back I was Tiger fishing in the Caprivi Strip, Namibia, and landed a beautiful specimen, but nearly lost a finger in doing so (don’t ask). It was time to settle the score, I wanted a massive Tigerfish and all my digits to remain intact this time.

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Following an early sunrise breakfast, a small group of us hopped onto a speedboat and raced up river, looking for the ideal fishing spot. First port of call, bait, its all about sustainability here, catch what you need for the day, nothing more, nothing less. The target, River Bream. We anchored the boat close to a sandbank and quickly got to work bringing in some Bream for the morning’s festivities. For those traveling with younger children who may not be up to Tiger fishing, this is an amazing family experience on its own. You get to look out for the wildlife and your youngsters experience the thrill of catching fish after fish, an all-round win. And the amazing part, whilst racing up river you pass herds of elephant, buffalo, pods of hippo, giant crocodile and see the most amazing birdlife. The wildlife out here is simply prolific.

Once we had landed sufficient Bream, we moved on to a section of the river with faster moving (and deeper) waters, a spot ideal for Tigerfish. What most people don’t realise is that catching Tigerfish is no easy task, timing is everything. Once a Tiger hits your line, the natural tendency is to strike, however, doing so too early and the Tiger will simply spit out the bait and move on. When you get it right, you are now dealing with a powerful predator; muscular and fast, with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. If the Tiger doesn’t bite through your line, he will jump and attempt to cut the line with his tail/fins.

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It didn’t take long for our 1st strike to happen… miss. Then another… miss. And so the morning progressed, the Tigers were there, we just couldn’t sink the hook. Miss after miss left us excited with each experience, and disappointed at every loss.

 

Then it happened, my line took off like a Cheetah chasing an Impala on the plains of the Serengeti. My strike was good and it became immediately evident I was in for a fight. We knew it was a big boy and on his first breach it became clear he was one of the Zambezi giants. After an exhilarating fight, the Tiger finally tired and I was able to land him, a beautiful beast weighing in at 21,5 pounds. Rumour has it I held the river record with this bad boy. It only lasted 24 hours before another lucky angler landed a larger giant, but the record was mine (for a while at least) and I was relishing every moment of this experience. Whilst you wouldn’t want to eat a Tiger in any case (all bone and muscle, little actual flesh), TIME+TIDE focus on sustainability, so it was catch and release for us (a “take only photo’s and leave only footsteps methodology”).

That afternoon we hit the river again, but this time we relied on our arms, and not an outboard motor, as we canoed the Lower Zambezi. The magnificent reality of being on a canoe is you can approach the animals from the water, so you are not perceived as a threat, and best of all, you are silent, so you get really close. We witnessed some of the most amazing birdlife, some giant crocodiles and got somewhat too close in my humble opinion to a pod of hippo. “Don’t worry” said our guide, “we are perfectly safe here, they are not interested in us”. I would have disagreed with him had I not spent the last couple of days in his presence, his knowledge of the river and animals was second to none and I remarkably found myself completely relaxed.

Just when you think “it can’t get any better than this… surely”, as if scripted in Hollywood, it does. “Elephant”, our guide calls out. He makes the hand gestures to slow down and to keep quiet, “we are going in for a closer look”. As we slowly drifted closer and closer, before we knew it, we were within a meter of these amazing giants. They were so close we could hear their stomachs rumble as they quietly communicated amongst each other. It felt like we were a part of the herd. Another experience to be added to my collection of never to be forgotten moments. I had to pinch myself to ensure this was real, how could I possibly be so lucky?

After 48 hours at Chongwe House, I could happily say that this leg of the trip was a success. I came searching for giants, and not only did I find them, I got up close and personal with them, I fought one (and won), I entered their realm and got sucked into their world. But as all good things must come to an end, our time on the Lower Zambezi was running out. The following morning, we would start the movement across to South Luangwa, arguably the most remote region on earth.

 

If you are interested in how the rest of my trip unfolded, check out my blog on “Sleeping with the Enemy” which covers the next 5 days in great detail.

 

For those looking to escape reality, to emerge themselves in nature and explore some of the most remote regions of earth, this is the place to do it.

 

Whilst the options are endless, my professional advice would be a minimum of 7 nights in the region:

 

1-night Kakuli (TIME+TIDE, South Luangwa)

1-night sleep out (walk to sleep out if possible) (TIME+TIDE, South Luangwa)

1-night Mchenja (TIME+TIDE, South Luangwa)

2 nights Chinzombo (TIME+TIDE, South Luangwa)

Fly to Lower Zambezi and river transfer to Chongwe Camp (or House) for 2 nights (TIME+TIDE, Lower Zambezi)

Depart out of Royal Airstrip to Lusaka and home.

Zambia

Africa’s borders are officially opening and the vaccine is being administered. So, dust off your passport, log off your computer and travel. Come back to Africa and leave your footsteps in eternity.