The game viewing at Lilayi Lodge and Game Farm begins as soon as you enter the main gate. Driving the 3.7 kilometres from the gate to the reception it wasn’t long before we noticed an impala and three giraffes feeding. I would later learn that these were three of the four giraffes on the 650-hectare property.
As we arrived at the reception, our driver, Richard, points to the car’s clock and says, “10:15 exactly.” He was worried we’d be late because of the heavy traffic we had to contend with on the way but we were 15 minutes early, much to Richard’s relief. Tosca, my contact from the lodge, meets us at the reception. She has already shared the day’s programme with me but she runs me through it again while giving the team a quick tour of the restaurant and pool area.
At the restaurant, I see a table set up for one of the activities planned for later in the day, Lilayi Lodge’s new wine tasting experience. I’m curious as to what five wines I’ll be sampling and what foods they’ll be paired with but for now, that will have to wait.
Stepping Into the Wild
The first activity of the day is a nature walk, guided by Sonnet, who has worked at the lodge for 31 years. Just under ten minutes into the walk, we spot three bushbucks. And only five minutes later we spot another two pairs of bushbucks on either side of our path. Sonnet explains that “Bushbucks tend to move in pairs, unlike impala that tend to move in larger herds.” He tells me bushbuck and imapla are two of the 16 antelope species found at Lilayi, with bushbuck being the most numerous on site. We didn’t get to see these other antelope species on our walk but we spotted their tracks several times along the path. With a wealth of knowledge, telling what animal had passed before us was easy based on the prints, as well as the droppings, they left on the ground.
We stopped to survey the tracks at one muddy spot. He named the animals as he pointed at their tracks, “Wildebeest, bushbuck, roan antelope, puku, duiker.”
As we were approaching the end of the trail Sonnet says he wishes we had spotted more animals but then he rightly adds that the nature trail isn’t just about the animals. He talks about how it’s revitalising to be out in nature and states that we have many beautiful trees in Zambia, which also have medicinal properties. He points to a massive fig tree and says, “That one is older than me. So many of these trees were here before us and they’ll still be here after us.”
A Heartwarming Encounter
Next up after the nature trail is a visit to the Elephant Nursery, run by local NGO Game Rangers International (GRI) in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. The nursery is open from 11:45 to 1 pm and we don’t want to miss out on the chance to see the orphaned and displaced elephants being rehabilitated by GRI. We’re met by Mary, the research assistant and support manager, and Rachael, the wildlife rescue director.
At the time of our visit, the Lilayi Elephant Nursery was home to five elephants: Olimba, Chipembele, Mbila, Shezongo and Wamwayi. They ranged in age from just over three years to four months.
The irony of the name Chipembele, which means rhino, is not lost on our team. Mary explained to us that the elephants’ names often reflect an aspect of their story. Chipembele was rescued in South Luangwa after his mother was shot by poachers. At just under two years old, he was too large to fit into the available planes. He was instead stabilised at Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust, where he got his name, before being transported by road to the Elephant Nursery by road.
As we watched the elephants, I noticed one GRI officer outside the enclosure that had been filming the animals; the hours and hours of footage collected are all part of the research carried out in the Nursery. Research is carried out at the Elephant Nursery in order to understand the orphans’ behavioural development, improve their welfare, inform management’s decisions and mitigate human-elephant conflict.
Different elephants have distinct personalities and it was clear even from our short time at the Elephant Nursery. The four older elephants were rather social and playful, especially Olimba and Chipembele. Being the oldest, Olimba had become somewhat of a matriarch of the group and the younger elephants gravitated towards her, with the exception of the youngest and shyest, Wamwayi. This is understandable because healing from the physical and psychological trauma of being separated from one’s mother and herd takes time to heal. However, with time, bonds form among the surrogate siblings that find themselves in the Elephant Nursery.
After nearly a decade in Lilayi, the Elephant Nursery will be relocating to Lusaka National Park later in 2022. The move will allow GRI to expand its work and educate even more schools and visitors on conservation through a Wildlife Discovery Centre.
The Lilayi Wine Tasting Experience
I left the Elephant Nursery having learnt way more than I expected and I wished I could’ve stayed a little while longer but it was time for our next activity – wine tasting and lunch on the lodge restaurant’s outdoor deck. The Lilayi Wine Tasting Experience is the lodge’s newest activity, launched in January 2022. As Tosca shared, it was the pride of the Lilayi kitchen. The chefs were proud of the experience they had crafted with the lodge’s new signature wines, created by the Lilayi Wine Company in partnership with the Longbridge Wine Estate (Stellenbosch) and Dalla Cia Wine (Stellenbosch). This partnership resulted in Lilayi’s five flagship wines. During the Wine Tasting Experience, they are expertly paired with five foods, the flavour matches being a marriage made in culinary heaven.
As our waiter, Bruce, poured the wines I noticed each bottle had an image of the Lilayi farmhouse which is located on the property and home to the Miller family since 1924. The food samples were brought out after the wine was poured. On this day I sampled the Sauvignon blanc paired with salmon tartare, followed by the Chenin Blanc paired with grilled crayfish, next was a delicate rosé paired with some melt-in-your-mouth pork belly and then the Wine Makers Selection (a fruity blend of Pinotage, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc) paired with a juicy tsessebe fillet. Finally, I sampled the Pinot Grigio which was a perfect match with the exquisitely crème brûlée it was served with.
She also adds that there are different types of experiences offered, vegetarian experiences for instance. And it is also possible to have a winetasting without food if that’s what a customer prefers.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the wines, the Chenin Blanc being my favourite, and the food samples I was ready for an even heartier lunch. I opted for the warthog stew with a side of creamy mashed potatoes and roast vegetables and a freshly squeezed apple juice to wash it all down. The slow-cooked warthog was lean yet fall-apart tender with a strong aroma and intense flavour.
I also had some of our photographer Lizu’s Mombasa lamb curry, for the article I claimed. Perfectly balanced, the lamb had a somewhat smoky quality to it and a subtle sweetness.
Our final activity for the day was a game drive that was almost thwarted by the threat of impending rains. Luckily for us the grey clouds had cleared and the sun came back out by the time the drive was scheduled for. Our guide this time around was Andrew, another veteran, with 20 years under his belt at Lilayi Lodge. He said to me, “I started as a young guy but I’m getting old now.”
“We’ll be covering around 11 kilometres on this drive,” Andrew tells me. The wildlife evaded us for the first ten or so minutes of the drive but somehow Tosca, with an incredibly good eye, spotted a herd of animals about 50 metres away. We turned around and once we got closer we realised it was six tsessebes and a lone warthog. The warthog and one of the tsessebes stopped grazing and stared at us until we left, seemingly as fascinated with us as we were with them.
As we drove away, a duiker leapt out of a thicket of grass and sprinted away and I started to get the feeling we’d be seeing plenty of animals on this drive. Only a few minutes later we spot a giraffe, well hidden among the trees, we could’ve easily missed it. This is the oldest and largest giraffe on the property. Andrew said to get a better view, “We have to go for a short walk.” He said this as though it may be an inconvenience but I was happy to get out of the safari vehicle to better see this fabulous, towering creature. We got closer and closer still while the giraffe kept his unfaltering gaze on us. We dared to go even closer and noticed some zebras in the distance. The giraffe had had enough of us though and stepped away, before turning back around to stare us down.
We head back to the vehicle so that we can drive around to a spot where we can better see the zebras we’ve caught sight of. Andrew says, “Sorry for making you walk in the grass,” again speaking as though it were an inconvenience. As we approach, not only do we see three zebras, there are also 12 wildebeest and nine sable.
Once again we get out of the car for a better view. This time he’s not apologising for getting us out of the car. Andrew, who is closer to the animals than the rest of the crew, beckons us closer. He tells me that both male and female sable have ringed horns but you can tell which ones are male because their horns are significantly more curved and larger. Andrew also adds that a mature male has a black mane, while a female’s will be dark brown. Eventually, both the sable and wildebeest herds gallop away and it’s time for us to head back as well. As we drive off I notice the giraffe we saw earlier is still in the same spot, gaze still focused on us.
I’m not quite ready to leave but as we return to the reception Lilayi Lodge has one more gift for us, several vervet monkeys. They’re drawn to the reception area by the guava trees which are currently fruiting. As the crew packed up their camera equipment, I watched multiple vervet monkeys sneak by, guavas in hand and in some cases, guavas in mouth. I reflect on my day and true to Sonnet’s word, being out in nature has been nothing but revitalising.