South Luangwa National Park, Zambia (2016)

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The Luangwa valley in eastern landlocked Zambia lies at the tail end of the Great Rift Valley geographical trench, which runs down form the Red Sea through the length of East Africa. As the ‘rift' reaches Zambia it divides, with one arm forking east to encompass Lake Malawi, and the other west to form the 700km long Luangwa Valley - an area renowned as being one of Africa’s prime wildlife sanctuaries due to its varied habitat and high density of animals.

Bordered by the Muchinga mountain range in the west, the valley floor slopes gently down towards the Luangwa River, which winds its way southwest along the valley floor before joining the mighty Zambezi. The river is pristine, and mainly free of pollution, as it’s one of the few rivers in Africa that has not been affected by man as there are no dams or commercial agriculture along its bank. Consequently, there are natural seasonal variations in its ever-changing course. When the rains come in November the river quickly fills as it’s fed from smaller side rivers and streams that are no more than 'sand rivers' through the dry months. The river swells and then spills, breaking its banks to flood large areas of the parched valley floor, making access difficult as many routes become impassable. Then, as the rains end, the waters recede and the river shrinks back leaving the now lush green valley to dry out. It eventually establishes a new course leaving areas where banks have eroded and collapsed to silt up, thereby forming new sandbars and oxbow lagoons, as the twists and turns of the new route take shape.

Flanking the river’s western banks are the North and South Luangwa National Parks separated by the 30km long Munyamadzi corridor. Between the two main parks is the small, and as yet undeveloped, Luambe National Park and, on the eastern escarpment near the Malawi border, a large sector of land called Lukusuzi which, despite being completely untouched, still has National Park status. South Luangwa (formally a designated game reserve until 1972) is the southernmost and largest of the parks in the valley with a total area of just over 9000km2.

The following is a basic map of Zambia showing its neighbouring countries, the approximate position of its capital Lusaka, the location of the four previously mentioned parks within the Luangwa Valley, together with what are probably the three other most popular safari park areas, being the Lower Zambezi, Kafue and Liuwa Plains in the far west of the country.

ZambiaStepMap


The land is fairly flat and is mostly covered with mature savanna woodlands interspersed with larger patches of grassland. The Mopane, commonly nicknamed the ‘butterfly tree’ because of the shape of its leaves, which turn iridescent shades of red, orange and yellow in autumn, is the most common tree across the valley floor as it tolerates higher temperatures and lower rain fall than the Miombo found on the higher plateau. The riverine or gallery forested areas often contain mahogany trees, and a bit further inland there are a few ebony tree groves. None of the wooded regions are particularly dense so generally its possible to access most of the area when on a game drive.

There are also gullies or depressions - called dambos - which drain the plateau with some remaining almost permanently waterlogged. Inland waterholes are limited and quickly become dry thereby pushing animals down to the river as the year progresses.

Elephants in the rapidly drying out Luangwa River bed
Elephants in the rapidly drying out Luangwa River bed
 

There are two main seasons - the rainy summer season that generally runs through November to April, and the drier winter season from around May to the end of October. The dry season is then subdivided into the cooler months of May/June to August/September and the hotter months at the end of the season in October/November. In the southern hemisphere September is generally regarded as the start of true summer.

We deliberately chose to go in early October at the hottest and driest time of the year for a number of reasons. Firstly because it’s the best time for larger concentrations of animals near the river, secondly because the predators are more active in what is often called 'the time of plenty' prior to the start of the wet season, and thirdly because it would give us a good contrast to our ‘green season’ visit to Ruaha in Tanzania back in March. We also chose to stay in one of the more remote and less congested areas of the park, splitting our time there between the two small Shenton Safaris photography camps of Kaingo and Mwamba. These camps provide excellent guiding, the facility of having your own private vehicle (at a cost) and the added benefit that they have their own hides. At the main Kaingo camp on the Luangwa River they have an 'elephant crossing hide' (albeit, that wasn’t being used at the time of our visit as the elephants were crossing the river at a different place), a sunken, almost water-level, 'hippo pool hide’ and, a little upstream of the camp, a unique relocatable 'floating boat hide' that is put in place each September just in front of a tall bank where the carmine bee-eater colony is nesting. And, at the inland Mwamba bush camp, another known as ’the last waterhole hide’, which is great as it’s in the camp and, therefore, freely accessible throughout the day.

Without getting into the reasons behind our choice of airline for this trip, we flew with South African Airways overnight from Heathrow to Johannesburg in South Africa and then back up to the Zambian capital of Lusaka where, on the way out because of an early morning connection for the last leg, we stayed overnight. The following morning we transferred from the hotel back to the airport for a little over an hour long domestic flight to the settlement town of Mfuwe, which is situated just outside of the park’s eastern boundary. And, then from there, we had a near three hour, 60km drive to Kaingo Camp. The arrangement was similar on the return leg, but with a slightly longer drive back from Mwamba. Connection times were good with an early afternoon flight from Mfuwe, connecting nicely with the first of the two international flights from Lusaka to Johannesburg, and then another un-delayed connection for the overnight flight back to London. Still a long 24hr trip door to door, but once you’re home you quickly forget about the hassle and security procedures of getting through the airports.

Although we had no specific ‘must see’s’ for this trip, we did have some animals and birds that we really hoped we’d both see and photograph. From an animal point of view, leopards were clearly at the top of the list as the area is renowned for sightings to the extent that it is sometimes named ‘valley of the leopard’. We’ve been pretty fortunate in that we’ve photographed leopards on each of our previous three safaris. However, they are solitary and elusive creatures that are mainly active at night and, consequently, can be very difficult to spot in daylight.

Also wild dogs as I’ve never seen them before, but I knew the chances were slim. After that it was lions and elephants, and then general game as there are many species in the park including impala, puku, kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck and some large herds of buffalo.

Herd of Cape Buffalo
Herd of Cape Buffalo
 

There are also three local, almost endemic, subspecies.

The first being the Thornicroft (or Rhodesian) Giraffe [formerly Giraffa thornicrofti], which until recently was considered a true subspecies, but is now being classed as a different form, or conspecific ecotype, of the Masai Giraffe [Giraffa tippelskirchi] following a re-organisation of the Giraffa genus. The latest official view is that there are now four species of giraffe - Northern (with four subspecies), Southern (with two subspecies), Reticulated and Masai, whereas previously they were all classed as subspecies of Giraffa camelopardalis. There are no known captive Thornicroft Giraffes and only around 1500 individuals in the wild. As with the other giraffe species it’s their pattern that defines them with their markings extending down onto their legs.

Next is the Cookson’s Wildebeest [Connochaetes taurinus cooksoni], which is a defined subspecies and lighter coloured local variant of the common Blue Wildebeest [Connochaetes taurinus], also known as the Brindled Gnu. Although this subspecies may venture into the plateau region of neighbouring Malawi it is generally restricted to the Luangwa Valley. There are only two species of wildebeest, the other being the Black Wildebeest, which is found in certain areas of South Africa.

Cookson's Wildebeest
Cookson's Wildebeest
 

And, finally the Crawshay’s Zebra [Equus quagga crawshayii], which is a defined subspecies of the common Plains Zebra [Equus quagga, formally Equus burchellii]. The Plains Zebra now has five generally recognised subspecies - Burchell’s, Grant’s, Maneless, Chapman’s and Crawshay’s. The Crawshay’s has narrower body stripes than the other subspecies. It is native and localized to eastern Zambia, Malawi, northern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania. There are two other species of zebra, which are the Mountain Zebra [Equus zebra] and the, largest and most threatened, Grévy’s Zebra [Equus grevyi].

Crawshay's Zebra
Crawshay's Zebra
 

Apart from the above noted animal species, it’s also worth mentioning that the Luangwa River supports large populations of crocodile and hippopotamus.

There is also abundant birdlife with 400 recorded species including the local Lilian’s Lovebirds and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. There’s also a chance of seeing the magnificent and somewhat rare Pel’s Fishing Owl, which is one of the largest species of owl in the world. This bird is only found in sub-Saharan Africa, but has a very localised and sporadic range. It’s difficult to find and even more difficult to photograph as, during the day, it roosts high in large trees.

Lilian's Lovebirds
Lilian's Lovebirds
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters

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We were very fortunate, partly due to the timing of our trip and our arrangement for having a private vehicle, but primarily because we had an excellent, extremely knowledgable, guide called Yoram, who also had a good understanding of light and positioning in order to obtain the best photographic opportunities. He was with us throughout our stay at both camps and, in addition to his incredible spotting skills, was an extremely competent driver who managed to manoeuvre our vehicle round, through, and over, all manner of terrain.

Yoram, me and our trusty vehicle (canopy on only for this trip back to the airport)
Yoram, me and our trusty vehicle (canopy on only for this trip back to the airport)
 

So, what did we see? Well, it would be easier to say what we didn’t see as, quite frankly, we saw just about everything. Unfortunately we didn’t see any wild dogs, but in fairness that was always going to be very unlikely. We did, however, both see and photographed all the other species mentioned above, including having over twenty separate leopard sightings, which was incredible. Quite a few of these were of a particular couple of leopards, but they were in different locations on different days. I think that out of the twenty plus sightings we saw six or seven different cats, which is pretty remarkable for an eight day safari. The regularly seen leopards can be identified by the guides and, as such, are often given names. The ones we saw the most often were a female called Malaika and her daughter Chiphadzuwa who, at the time of our visit, were having a bit of a power struggle for dominance of a territory around Fish Eagle Lagoon. On one occasion we had Chiphadzuwa high up a tree with Malaika waiting at the bottom and making her feelings clear that she was not happy with her daughter’s presence. There was also a dominant male in the area called Luambe who I think we saw twice, another called Tyson who we only spotted once, and a female known as Shy Girl who had a young, presently nameless, male cub that we didn’t see. It was a real privilege having this many sighting, both in the day and during early evening 'night drives’, as you get an insight into their behaviour and daily routines.

The beautiful female leopard Maliaka
The beautiful female leopard Maliaka
 

Other specific sightings are too numerous to mention so I’ll let my photo ’selections’ set from this trip tell the story.

The only other observation I’ll make is that it was certainly hot and dry with midday temperatures being in the high 30 degrees celsius. For this reason we were up at 5am and out in the vehicle each day by 5.30am. Whilst it was light at this time, high ISO settings were necessary until the morning sun came through at around 6.15am. We would stay out for about 5hrs returning to camp around 10.30am for brunch. On a few occasions I sat in one of the hides at midday, but that was more for something to do rather than trying to take good photos in the bright contrasty conditions. We then went out again at 3.00pm for another 3hrs or so before it got dark, and then spent a further 1-2hrs driving around in the dark to see what we could see under spotlight. Then back to camp before the 8.00pm park deadline, shower, dinner and in bed by 10.00pm.

With the hot and dry weather conditions the tracks were extremely dusty and you had to be careful ensuring cameras were well covered when not being used. And, in a lot of areas, when you went off track you were on rock hard, scorched and cracked ground that send you bouncing around the vehicle! They were difficult conditions, but if, or should I say when, we go back to these camps, we will definitely go at the same time of year. It was a trip that I’ll remember for a very long time.