In Search of Zambia’s Stunning Wildlife: A Virtual Safari

A young chacma baboon with its mother, near Victoria Falls.Credit…

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Photographs and Text by Marcus Westberg

With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’re turning to photojournalists who can help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. We’re calling this new series “The World Through a Lens.” This week, the photographer Marcus Westberg shares a collection of wildlife photographs from Zambia, which he’s visited six times in the last decade.

Although highly appreciated by safari aficionados, Zambia has long flown under the radar for first-time visitors to Africa, overshadowed by its better known regional neighbors: Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa.

But this landlocked country boasts some of the continent’s best national parks, primarily those lining the crocodile- and hippo-infested Luangwa River — and that’s not to mention the magnificent Victoria Falls.

The first time I set eyes on the muddy-brown Luangwa, I was 23 years old and on my first big African adventure. I arrived by public bus; the 75 miles from the border town of Chipata took over seven hours.

(I had to enter and exit the bus through a window, and I shared my chair-frame — the cushion was missing — with a very large lady and her rather terrified-looking hen.)

I spent the next three weeks camping high up on a tree platform — so as to avoid playful baboons and marauding elephants — and exploring South Luangwa National Park when I could.

Often, though, I’d stay within the camp for days on end. The elephants would come through twice a day, the hippos every night, and the monkeys were never far away.

I’ve been back here and to the neighboring Luambe and North Luangwa national parks half a dozen times since. I have spent nights in dried riverbeds with friends and atop vehicles with wild-dog researchers, blanketed by nothing but the Milky Way.

I have tracked elephants and lions on foot, watched leopards hunt, hippos fight, zebras run and flocks of carmine bee-eaters dart in and out of their nests.

In Zambia, there’s something for everyone. The wildlife viewing in parts of South Luangwa can rival that of most of Africa’s top safari destinations. In Luambe you may literally have an entire park to yourself.

There are other Zambian gems, of course — the wide-open spaces of Liuwa Plain and Kafue national parks; the unspoiled wilderness of the Lower Zambezi; the thundering Victoria Falls.

But the Luangwa Valley was my first, and still strongest, love.

Marcus Westberg is a photographer and writer who focuses primarily on conservation and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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A World Turned Upside-Down

In 1966, the writer Paul Theroux was in Uganda at a time of curfew and violence. It shaped his thinking about travel writing’s imperative to bear witness.

By Paul Theroux

In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.

That curfew evoked — like today — the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his father’s ghost, “Time is out of joint.”

In Uganda, the palace of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka, Mutesa II — also known as King Freddie — had been attacked by government troops on the orders of the prime minister, Milton Obote. From my office window at Makerere University, where I was a lecturer in English in the Extra Mural department, I heard the volleys of heavy artillery, and smoke rising from the royal enclosure on Mengo Hill. The assault, led by Gen. Idi Amin, resulted in many deaths. But the king eluded capture; he escaped the country in disguise and fled to Britain. The period that followed was one of oppression and confusion, marked by the enforced isolation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But, given the disorder and uncertainty, most people seldom dared to leave home at all.

The curfew was a period of fear, bad advice, arbitrary searches, intimidation and the nastiness common in most civil unrest, people taking advantage of chaos to settle scores. Uganda had a sizable Indian population, and Indian people were casually mugged, their shops ransacked and other minorities victimized or sidelined. It was also an interlude of hoarding, and of drunkenness, lawlessness and licentiousness, born of boredom and anarchy.

“Kifugo!” I heard again and again of the curfew — a Swahili word, because it was the lingua franca there. “Imprisonment!” Yes, it was enforced confinement, but I also felt privileged to be a witness: I had never seen anything like it. I experienced the stages of the coup, the suspension of the constitution, the panic buying and the effects of the emergency. My clearest memory is of the retailing of rumors — outrageous, frightening, seemingly improbable — but who could dispute them? Our saying then was, “Don’t believe anything you hear until the government officially denies it.”

Speaking for myself, as a traveler, any great crisis — war, famine, natural disaster or outrage — ought to be an occasion to bear witness, even if it means leaving the safety of home. The fact that it was the manipulative monster Chairman Mao who said, “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience,” does not make the apothegm less true. It is or should be the subtext for all travelers’ chronicles.

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Young, Confident and Flying, Virus Be Damned

To tap into this new market, Mr. Mahal made a “coronavirus flight alert,” a program that aggregates cheap flights and emails users suggested itineraries.

“If you’re comfortable with the risk, the prices are like the cheapest they’ve been in 10 years,” Mr. Mahal said. “Flights are cheap, lodging is cheap, there are no tourists.”

Traveling during the pandemic flies in the face of expert advice and government advisories. Travelers who are infected, even if they are not showing symptoms, may transport and spread the virus to a new location, or contaminate an airplane, cab or Airbnb. While they may be healthy enough to survive the virus, they could be putting others at risk.

They could also get infected during their travels, and have to be hospitalized during a trip, or get quarantined somewhere far from home.

But for people like Mr. DeSimone, the risks can feel very abstract, while the deals are quite concrete. “As far as I can tell, the mortality rate is like sub one percent for people who aren’t elderly,” said Mr. DeSimone, who added that he’s willing to risk infection for his cheap international trips. “Odds are, if I get sick, it will be like a bad flu.”

On Wednesday, he saw a round-trip flight from Austin to Los Angeles for $50.

“I spend more than 50 bucks on cigarettes and coffee in a weekend,” he said, “so like, why not?”

Some argue that these travelers may be a shot in the arm for the travel industry, buying tickets at a time where carriers are flying near empty planes and filling Airbnbs and hotels as people stop taking trips.

For his part, Mr. Mahal is going skiing at Mount Hood near Portland, Ore., next week and has “speculated” on trips to Croatia and Amsterdam. “The cancellation policies are more flexible now,” he added, “so you can book now and potentially cancel later.”

For the cash-strapped, an opportunity

For some cash-strapped young people, who grew up during the recession and may have difficulty paying hundreds of dollars for a flight, the moment feels like an opportunity.

Kelly McPhee, 31, a bartender who works two jobs in Chicago, said the recent drop in prices will allow her to take a vacation for the first time in two years.

Recently, her friends began planning a trip to Phoenix, Ariz., for spring training, but at $500 round trip, it was way out of her budget.

“And then this coronavirus thing happened and I saw people on Twitter saying that if you need to book a ticket do it now because no one wants to travel anymore,” she said. “I looked online and I was like — oh my gosh! — it’s only $150 now.”

She’s not worried about the virus, she said, “partly because I’m young, and partly because we’ve gone through this before. Ebola. Swine flu. Y2K. It just seems like the next thing.”

(While it’s true that people over 60 and those with underlying medical conditions are more at risk, the United States doesn’t have great numbers on the mortality rate among young people. But statistics from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which analyzed 45,000 coronavirus patients in China, put the mortality rate for people ages 10 to 39 at 0.2 percent. But because of a lack of testing, and because milder cases may not have been reported, we can’t be sure these numbers are correct.)

Would Ms. McPhee still be flying even now that spring training is now canceled because of the virus?

Yes, she said. With all the recent commotion, she’s “looking forward to having a few days off work,” staying off social media, and the opportunity to finally “decompress.”

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