I have just returned from an absolutely stunning two weeks in Zambia, visiting two different safari areas; the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa National Parks. Not only are these areas scenically beautiful they offer some true, remote wilderness experiences and I was blown away by the warmth of the safari staff and the excellent guiding I experienced throughout my trip. I had some wonderful game-viewing and was particularly spoilt with multiple leopard and wild dog sightings (sometimes together!) as well as spotting my first Pel’s fishing owl and African wild cat!
I flew out with South African Airways to Lusaka via Johannesburg. At Lusaka Airport, I parted with US$15.00 for a toasted sandwich and soft drink (arguably over-priced but the service was friendly and helped occupy some of my 4+ hour layover)… before connecting with my light aircraft hop to the Lower Zambezi.
As our plane descended into the Lower Zambezi the sun was setting and casting a dusty pink glow over the escarpment and river – it was just beautiful and I quickly forgot about the long journey to get here. We were just a few minutes into our drive from the airstrip and immediately saw elephants, hippo and waterbuck. As dusk turned to darkness, we then started to spot some nocturnal animals; a spotted eagle owl, genets, white-tailed mongoose and a fleeting glimpse of an African wild cat! It really was a wonderful welcome to the Lower Zambezi.
Over the next few days I discovered all the varied activities that are on offer in the Lower Zambezi; game drives (night and day), walking, canoeing, boating and fishing – whilst I didn’t have time to fish on this trip, I was reliably informed that tiger fish, catfish, vundu and three-spot bream can be caught (and released) here.
With the mighty Zambezi River running through the park, being on water is a strong attraction here and for me, an absolute joy. Quietly exploring the waterways by boat and enjoying a sunset drink is a lovely, relaxing way to observe animals along the shoreline as well as those bobbing around in the water. The guides do an amazing job of manoeuvring the boats around hippos who seem to pop up and keep an eye on ‘the tourists’ before submerging swiftly with just a trace of bubbles left in their wake! A real highlight for me was canoeing along the narrow channels. The variety of birdlife is superb and they are very relaxed around water; washing, preening and fishing. Being in canoes also allows you to be at eye level with the hippos – which is very exciting. From this angle you really do get a sense of their immense size and speed! It is so interesting to watch them in their pods and also lumbering out of the water. The hippos also kept a close eye on us, turning their heads in unison and letting out loud grunts as we drifted through their domain – magic! We also saw crocodiles, elephant, monkeys and waterbuck along the shoreline too.
I also really enjoy being out and about on foot. The walking safaris are very much geared towards exploring and learning about the bush in more detail; the flora and fauna, footprints and tracks, dung and digestive systems. I find it fascinating and I think it really showcases the knowledge of the guide. We walked through some beautiful acacia and mahogany woodlands and one morning came across a 50-strong troupe of baboons waking up in the morning sun, grooming one another and chattering. It was very peaceful and they too inquisitively looked over at us. We also had a rather nice honey badger sighting, who seemed totally oblivious to our presence. The walks are generally fairly slow paced and you do not cover a huge distance, but you do need to wear proper walking boots (preferably with ankle support) as the terrain can be quite uneven.
From the Lower Zambezi I then flew north-east towards the South Luangwa National Park, landing at Mfuwe Airport, before transferring to the park. This is a pleasant 45 minute drive through many local villages and it is nice to have a few glimpses of local village life; school children on their way home or traders selling their wares; the market stalls have fresh fruit and vegetables beautifully displayed in stacked pyramids.
South Luangwa National Park or ‘the valley’ as it is referred to locally, is a huge park with many of the safari camps dotted along the Luangwa River and other rivers flowing into it. Due to its rainy season, a number of camps within South Luangwa are seasonal and are ‘rebuilt’ at the start of the each safari season (around April time). This provides for some truly authentic and unique safari accommodation. In the more remote areas, the roads too are graded at the start of every season, a true indication of their remote, wilderness locations.
The main activities in South Luangwa are game-drives and walking, in fact ‘walking safaris’ first originated in Luangwa with Norman Carr in the 1950’s and still holds strong today. For keen walkers, there are extended walking safari options too (whilst the minimum age for walking is officially 12 years, this activity is better suited for teens aged 16 years plus).
I have to say, South Luangwa delivered some of my most exciting game-drives to date. My first big highlight was in the remote northern sector. A pride of lions had found a leopard kill and two lions had climbed up the tree to eat it. They were balanced on top of one another scrapping over the remains, neither one allowing the other to steal it away. There was a real struggle and at one point we thought they were going to fall out of the tree! After a while a few other lions finally worked out how to climb up the tree, but found nothing, so navigated their way back down with unsure footing and clumsy steps which was quite amusing! My second highlight was in the Nsefu sector (located in the north-east of the park). After watching two leopards with their kill for some time, an impala came silently bounding out of the bushes and virtually jumped over our vehicle. This was followed by another four impalas being chased by a pack of wild dogs. At which point the pack chased one of the impalas into the clutches of one of the leopards; there was now one leopard and one wild dog wrestling with the same impala. Realising this, the pack then chased both leopards up a tree and then ate the remains of both impalas! It was very noisy and exciting and was over in minutes! Amazing!
Finally, in dense woodland in the southern section of the park, I also had my first sighting of a Pel’s fishing owl. Notoriously elusive, this was a real treat and spotted on my final morning before flying back home! There were of course many other fantastic sightings (I was lucky to see four different packs of wild dog and leopards every day) and the night drives here were also some of the most productive too; chameleons, genets, civets, honey badgers, owls, lions hunting, leopards on the prowl, hyaenas following leopards waiting for an easy meal, mongoose (white-tailed, bush, banded) and a bush baby!
I also walked for a day in the remote northern section with Tafika, staying at their wonderfully isolated Crocodile Camp. This really was a true bush experience and again we learnt so much from our guide about the little things in the bush which are missed during game-drives. The terrain here was quite uneven; rocky in parts, sandy in others, as well as dried out black-cotton soil (which forms little hard jagged spots and gaps in the soil, so you do have to watch where you place your feet at times – proper hiking boots are definitely recommended).
I also slept out under the stars on the Elephant Hide platform at Shenton Safaris Kaingo Camp. This is a very comfortable tree-house with a view! After dinner at main camp, I was driven to the sleep-out (about 10 minutes away) and after sipping on a delicious Amarula night-cap under an almost full moon sky, I drifted off to sleep to the night sounds of the bush. Very peaceful and another special experience in the Zambian bush.
The main time to visit Zambia is in the dry season from May to early November, however it is also possible to visit South Luangwa in the ‘emerald season’ from January to March, a great time for birdlife.
Later in the season (usually from late August) the carmine bee-eaters arrive on the banks of the rivers to nest, evicting the white-fronted bee-eaters from their nesting holes. Many camps build mobile hides to witness this wildlife spectacle up-close, but the season is short (running to October).
Zambia really has made a huge impression on me and I can’t wait to go back.
Julia stayed at: Anabezi Luxury Tented Camp, Chiawa Camp, Old Mondoro Camp, Tena Tena, Lion Camp, Tafika Camp, Crocodile River Camp (Chikoko Trails), Mwamba Bushcamp, Kaingo Camp, Kapamba Bush Camp, Chamilandu and Kafunta River Lodge.
Julia site inspected: Amanzi Camp, Potato Bush Camp, Sausage Tree Camp, Time + Tide Chongwe Camp, Time + Tide Chongwe House, Nkwali Camp, Luangwa Safari House, Luangwa River Camp, Nsefu Camp, Chikoko Camp, Mchenja Lodge, Nsolo Bush Camp, Kakuli Bush Camp, Luwi Bushcamp, Time + Tide Chinzombo, Mfuwe Lodge, Kuyenda Bushcamp, Zungulila, Bilimingwe, Chindeni Camp and Flatdogs Camp.