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Joe Returns to Zambia

As Zambia neared the end of its season, I took the opportunity to head out for a 10 night trip exploring both the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks at the end of October.

After flying out with Emirates I landed into Lusaka and connected straight into the Zambezi valley. The flight is short and within 25 minutes I was landing into the west of the park at Royal airstrip. Disembarking the plane, I could feel the heat of late October in southern Africa – it hits you, along with the dust and the immediate sightings of baboons and impala under the nearby sausage tree. I spent four nights in the park starting in the far west in the GMA (Game Management Area) and finishing in the far east which gave me the opportunity not only to visit almost all of the camps in the National Park but also to experience the differing landscapes and flora throughout. The park follows the Zambezi River with Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park opposite. Naturally, it follows a similar theme to Mana too, with vast swathes of winter thorn and mahogany woodlands, as well as a plethora of game!

Being the very end of the dry season water is scarce inland and wildlife has to congregate around the river, which can lead to some incredible interactions and makes the guides’ jobs a lot easier! Many of the camps and lodges have been purposely built on sites with nice amounts of shade and overlooking the river too. Consequently these spots are a haven for wildlife which loves to eat the fallen fruits, pods and flowers as well as being close to water. Bushbuck, impala and baboons are plentiful and must feel some sense of safety around humans, hoping that predators will keep away. The most notable and sizeable species that comes into camp are elephant, with predominantly large bulls enjoying the abundant food and seemingly oblivious to the guests and staff. You therefore build into your timings a momentary pause while you wait for the elephants to finish what they are eating outside of your tent before making your way to the central areas – only in Africa!

As well as the standard game drives, night drives and walks, a real highlight of Lower Zambezi are the water activities. Sunset boat cruises drifting up and down the river are very special and at that time of day good numbers of game come down to drink. Being on the river itself gives you another perspective. As well as boat cruises, fishing is a big draw to this area of Zambia with fishermen coming from far and wide hoping to catch a tasty tilapia or have a good fight with the aggressive Tigerfish. September through to November are considered the peak fishing times on this stretch of the Zambezi and, depending on your preference and skillset, most camps and lodges offer spinner, bait or fly fishing options.

The game viewing in Lower Zambezi was spectacular and, as mentioned, revolves around the river. To the north of river is the Zambezi escarpment which towers over the National Park and interestingly is the reason why no giraffe are found in the park – they have never been able to get over the escarpment. Between the river and the foothills of the escarpment lay vast floodplains, mixed woodland and thick bush which leads to a great variety of game and birdlife. The theme of my time in Lower Zambezi, however, was leopards, of which I saw plenty. My first sighting was on a game drive from Chongwe working my way east towards Chiawa. We were driving through a picturesque gully, roughly 80 metres from an open vlei, when the guide, Leon, came to a sudden halt. He whispered excitedly “leopard” and pointed left. I looked and looked until I had to confess I couldn’t see it. He pointed out to follow the gully which I did until I saw an incredibly well camouflaged head poke up. The young male then began to move firstly towards us, and then stopped. Leon then said, “he wants to come this way”, and quickly repositioned the vehicle backwards maybe five metres. Once we had assumed our new position, as was perfectly predicted, the leopard then continued to slink towards us before it paused, looked, and then continued on its way. Although it sounds like a normal leopard sighting, the most special part of it all was that we were very much alone – something that you can often take for granted. Plenty more leopard sightings followed, with the culmination being a male and female feeding on the same impala under spotlight one evening – these two were my fifth and sixth leopards of the day!

One thing I particularly love about Lower Zambezi are the winter thorn forests, which Mana Pools also offers across the river in Zimbabwe. The trees themselves are beautiful, but the light that they create has a blue haze to it. Watching an elephant herd make their way through the forest, or vast numbers of buffalo kick up dust as they work their way through, has to be one of the most beautiful things to see on the continent for me.

After my four nights in Lower Zambezi, I flew back Lusaka and on to the incredible South Luangwa National Park. I had visited South Luangwa fourteen years previously on a family holiday and it is a destination that ignited my love of remote wilderness and exploring the bush on foot.

My six nights in South Luangwa included the southern, central and northern areas of the National Park. As the crow flies, I covered 50 miles from the south to the northern areas and the landscape changed drastically. The central Mfuwe area of South Luangwa offers excellent wildlife viewing and this, combined with the ease of access, means it is home to quite a number of camps and lodges. Heading south, away from Mfuwe, you see fewer and fewer vehicles until you reach the confluence of the Kapamba and Luangwa Rivers. This area is much more remote and exclusive with just The Bushcamp Company operating, and with the Chindeni Hills as a backdrop it is beautiful too. The southern areas offer more unpredictable game viewing, with wildlife spread out and arguably more skittish which is why walking here is so worthwhile. Getting off the beaten track and heading into the bush with your guide, armed scout and tea bearer allows you to explore the smaller things – the tracks, spoor, plants, birds and insects as well as having encounters with big game. I was fortunate to see lions, leopard and wild dogs in an overnight stay in the south.

As I headed further north, I passed through a mixture of different landscapes and vegetation from miombo woodlands, mopane forests and open plains dotted with leadwood trees. The riverine vegetation is stunning with the iconic sausage trees, huge mahogany and knobthorns; but the most beautiful are the ebony groves with their reddish glow which is heightened during golden hour. A complimentary contrast to the blueish winter thorn light in Lower Zambezi. A highlight of my stay at Kaingo Camp was watching a young female leopard saunter through the grove, not even acknowledging we were in her presence. She simply stopped for a quick drink at an ever-drying pool, before continuing onto a termite mound to laze in the last of the day’s sunlight.

South Luangwa is an area also known for its photographic experiences and a number of camps have set up wildlife hides in productive areas. In September, October and early November the Carmine Bee-eaters are in residence, nesting in holes dug into the banks of the river. Spending time in camouflaged hides on the water allows you to get close to the riverbank without disturbing the birds as they catch every type of insect imaginable and feed their young deep in their nests. Taking photographs was a challenge for me though (I’m sure not for more experienced photographers!) as it is difficult to know where to focus with so much happening! Other hides include hippo hides and water hole hides which, as the dry season nears its end, become increasingly productive.

Typically, on safari the craziest things happen when you least expect them. While visiting Shenton Safaris’ Mwamba for a site inspection, we nipped into their waterhole hide. As we sat down, just watching the flocks of quelea, blue waxbills and helmeted guinea fowl come to drink we heard a deep sound. My guide Patrick’s ears pricked up and he said “listen”…we sat there silently, holding our breath to ensure we could hear every little sound. Suddenly three buffalo came running towards the hide from a side gully and looked very agitated. We made our way back to the vehicle and drove the 100 metres around to where the buffalo had come from. As we reached a clearing in a thicket, there was an incredible amount of dust and, in the midst of it, a lioness on the back of a big male buffalo. As the dust cleared, there must have been a pride of eight or 10 lions, tackling this huge beast. The lionesses were in control with one on the nose and mouth of the buffalo and the others trying to force it down, biting legs, getting on its back and using all their might. What transpired was one of the most incredible 20-30 minutes I have seen on safari as the lions continued to try and subdue this remarkably strong buffalo and the teamwork and determination they showed was astounding. At one stage, the three male buffalo that had scarpered came back and tried to force the lions off their fallen comrade, but to no avail – I wasn’t sure whether to watch, photograph or film the events! Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the buffalo took his last breath and the lions could relax. They were so exhausted they left the carcass and went for a rest in the shade without even a nibble. Incredible.

The wonderful game viewing was the theme of my time in South Luangwa and, to be honest, Zambia as a whole. The wild dog population in both Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa is particularly strong at the moment and during my six nights in the Luangwa Valley I saw four different packs. The researchers of the Zambian Carnivore Programme are currently following nine different packs in South Luangwa which is phenomenal. The BBC were also out there filming a pack with which we spent time at sunset as they went down to the river to drink before heading into the bush on a mission, as always! Dog populations are always unpredictable and many people are desperate to see them. We were talking in the office before I went to Zambia, discussing how 10-15 years ago we would never have sent clients to Zambia for dogs. Now, it is arguably THE place to go to see them. However, as with the unpredictability of the bush, this could change drastically between now and June!

I could keep writing about the different sightings I had and how much I enjoyed my time in Zambia. For me personally, I love the raw nature of it and the warmth of the people really adds to the experience. Being on safari in Zambia to me feels like a warm hug as there are still elements from a bygone era which make it so wonderful. Pristine wilderness and authentic experiences are becoming harder and harder to find across the continent, but Zambia is one of the last strongholds and I already cannot wait to return!

During Joe’s time in Zambia, he stayed at: Time + Tide Chongwe, Chiawa Camp, Tusk and Mane’s Chula Camp, Anabezi, Kafunta River Lodge, Puku Ridge, Kapamba, Kaingo Camp, Tafika, Time + Tide Mchenja

Joe also site inspected: Chongwe House, Sausage Tree, Potato Bush, Lolebezi, Old Mondoro, Tusk and Mane’s Kutali Camp, Amanzi, Lilayi Lodge, Nkwali and Robin’s House, Luangwa Safari House, Time + Tide Chinzombo, Kuyenda, Chamilandu, Chindeni, Mfuwe Lodge, Chikunto, Mwamba, Nsefu, Time + Tide Kakuli, Time + Tide Luwi, Time + Tide Nsolo, Radisson Blu Lusaka, Latitude 15 and Ciela Resort