Zambia gets left out. It’s definitely not east Africa, and it’s not exactly southern Africa, or for that matter central Africa. It has a reputation of not being a suitable “fist-timer” destination, despite having the sweetest people on the continent, a stable, democratic government (a succession of peaceful transfers of power… beat that, the rest of you in Africa!), and prime wilderness. And for a good 6-7 month stretch every year, Zambia is left off the itinerary of most tourists because the country is literally under water. But during the short “tourist months”, when the dry season’s haze on the open plain shrouds the moving wild shapes in the distant treeline just as Africa’s bloodiest sun is about to set, you know Zambia’s spell has been cast. A Zambian safari can match any “in your face” lion, leopard or elephant sighting on the continent, but it also always delivers subtle and fleeting ones (and you know what they say… the very best moments in life are often fleeting). So, naturally, I am back in Zambia for the fourth time, smitten, under its spell, and in search of the fleeting as well as the “in your face”.
Itinerary (September 2013):
Kaingo Camp, South Luangwa National Park – 2 nights
Mwamba Bush Camp, South Luangwa National Park – 3 nights
Shoebill Island Camp, Bangweulu Wetlands – 2 nights
Wasa Lodge, Kasanka National Park – 1 night
Luwombwa Lodge, Kasanka National Park – 1 night
Shumba Camp, Busanga Plains, Kafue National Park – 3 nights
Nanzhila Plains Camp, Nanzhila Plains, Kafue National Park – 4 nights
South Luangwa National Park – Life is good
Take some of the greatest game parks and reserves of Africa. Take Serengeti for example: Michael Grzimek’s and Myles Turner’s association with Serengeti fades with each wildebeest calving season. What is written today of Paul Kruger and his connection to Kruger National Park? Frederick Selous hunted everywhere in Africa, not just the Selous. It is far from certain that he spent significantly more time in his eponymous reserve than anywhere else.
Not so, “the Valley”. The late Norman Carr and his band of self-described social outcasts, who founded park conservation as well as a certain safari subculture, are still firmly tethered to the Luangwa Valley. This inseparable bond has been continually romanticized and immortalized in writings such as Vic Guhrs’ poignant The Trouble with Africa, Simon Barnes’ deliciously mischievous Rogue Lion Safaris, Mike Coppinger and Jumbo Williams’ comprehensive Luangwa, Zambia’s Treasure, Craig Doria’s freeform Following the Dust, not to mention Norman Carr’s own Kakuli, as well as numerous guidebooks and news articles written by others.
So, as I cross the bridge into South Luangwa National Park for the first time, it is as if I already know it. There are ghosts here. That lagoon over there could be where Arthur, unarmed, tried to rescue a drugged (darted), drowning lion by trying to lift the beast out of the water with a bear hug. That’s Luwi River over there… that must be where Rice Time (born Maqaba Tembo), the famous problem animal control officer and “the scariest guy in the Valley” lead walking safaris, screaming and telling off the charging lions, “f--- off!” The ridge over there could be where Jake and Craig while on anti-poaching duty accidentally set their mate’s hair on fire by mishandling cheap tequila. Kapani is that direction… where Norman Carr once put his hard-earned cash in a hideaway safe, only to later find the safe submerged in mud and the bills inside turned into worthless crumbs.
What has changed since the “back in the day” days is the amount of traffic in the Mfuwe Lodge area. The lodge now sports 40+ beds and is closely flanked by other properties. Supposedly, a night drive in this part of Luangwa is like attending a Hollywood premier (Kakuli must be turning in his grave). To escape the madding crowd now, a long two-hour drive to Shenton Safaris’ Kaingo Camp and its sister bush camp Mwamba is desired.
Kaingo overlooks a particularly perfect bend of the Luangwa River. A separate “sleepy” deck built out over the river, where lunch is taken in private if you wish, accompanies each chalet. There, you are invariably serenaded by both bass and soprano singers (hippos and fish eagles). I am guided by Sylvester Mbaama, just one of the many incredible, enthusiastic guides employed by Shenton Safaris. “Sly” would guide me at Kaingo as well as Mwamba.
My chalet's private deck at Kaingo
Sylvester ("Sly") Mbaama
While Luangwa is endowed with a wide variety of flora, there is an underlying general pattern/progression: cathedral mopane woodlands are found furthest away from the river, bordered on one side by a belt of leadwood growing on fossilized tributaries; then a unique suburban parkland-like ebony (jackalberry) grove, with elephants currently unable to resist the falling fruit, signals that you are now close to the river; and finally, a sausage tree-dominant riverine belt is where impalas, pukus and bushbucks are presently concentrated. The sausage tree deserves special attention, as it may be one of the most fascinating and ecologically important trees in Africa. Before it is able to bear the sausage-like fruit containing the seeds necessary for propagation, the tree must drop its flowers – by the hundreds. During the dry season, just when the browse is becoming meager, the sausage tree flowers, pollinated by bats and insects overnight, drop by the bucketful each morning, providing tasty and nutritious nectar for a variety of animals. Every morning, it is a frantic race under the trees: impalas, pukus, bushbucks, kudus and baboons jealously gobble up the flowers. One deviously crafty impala ram lets out a false alarm call, scattering the other animals away from the tree, and then leisurely mops up all the flowers himself. Perhaps I am witnessing impalas evolving in intelligence before my eyes?
Gobblig up sausage flowers
I come to Luangwa at an interesting time. 2013 has been one of the driest in memory. Virtually all of the oxbow lagoons have dried up, leaving the main Luangwa River as basically the only source of drinking water for the Valley’s animals. This of course equates to stressful times for the prey animals but a boon for the predators. And what predator action! Within 10 minutes of starting the first afternoon drive, the Mwamba-Kaingo lion pride is found on a fresh buffalo kill, and this pride would be found on every subsequent game drive. The Mwamba-Kaingo pride is part of some unusual lion social dynamics unfolding in the Valley. This pride of 16 and the adjacent Mwamba-Kapanda pride of nine are both ruled by the same two males. Conventional lion behavior described in various ecology books does not apply here. Earlier this year, the females of the former pride went on a rampage and killed six cubs of the latter pride. The two males apparently took no issue with this gruesome affair.
Mwamba-Kaingo Pride on a buffalo kill
The two males
Still going strong at night
A post-sundowner drive back to camp finds an unknown female leopard in an open combretum patch. The leopard stalks a herd of completely unaware impalas and takes down a fully-grown male. Strangely, none of the other impalas sound their alarm, and the kill occurs in silence – except for the expiring impala’s heavy panting magnified by the thin night air. As the leopard tightens her asphyxiating grip on his neck, the impala’s gasping becomes faster and louder at first. Then, with the legs visibly weakening and trembling, everything begins to slow; the impala crumbles to the ground, and a few seconds later it’s over. This previous unknown leopard seems untrusting of the vehicle, and Sly decides it best to let her be.
Shenton Safaris is known for its various photographic hides, and we visit the hippo hide and the carmine bee-eater hide while at Kaingo (the Mwamba hide would be visited later). While the hippo hide provides an excellent close-up, water level view of the often-comic giants, it is overshadowed by the brilliant carmine bee-eater hide. Each late August, thousands of carmine bee-eaters migrate into the Valley to nest on the sides of riverbank walls, forming giant colonies. A floating metal boat has been turned into a hide near one of the colonies and is reached via a light wooden boat. Having arrived at the hide at sun-up, Sly and I wait patiently for over an hour for the bee-eaters to come. Just when we thought they would never turn up, they do – in full force and at once, like a World War II bombing squad. A deafening noise accompanies the utterly chaotic jostling and nesting. I am not sure I have ever seen so many calories being burned. As is the case with a wildebeest river crossing, the essence of a carmine bee-eater colony is impossible to adequately capture on camera. And I will go out on a limb here: I find the carmine bee-eater action nearly as compelling as a wildebeest crossing. The bee-eater hide is not to be missed.
Action from the Hippo Hide
The carmine bee-eater hide
Carmine bee-eater sequence
ZAWA scout Peter
Onto Mwamba now… If Kaingo is of generous but not superfluous luxury in the bush, Mwamba Bush Camp is of bare essential luxury in the bush. Mwamba is a place where you can wash away civilization’s silt by stargazing through the see-through ceiling of your thatched hut at night. If there is indeed some “greater truth” out there, it would most certainly be found while stargazing at Mwamba. Translation: perfection.
See-through ceiling at Mwamba
Predator action at Mwamba is also immediate. We begin our first afternoon game drive with a few guinea fowls running ahead of the vehicle, and Sly begins to explain that there is a female leopard around who has learned to hunt guinea fowls by ambushing them on the road. Since I am fussing with my camera settings, Sly’s words barely register (“Yeah, ok. Something about leopard and guinea fowl…”). Merely seconds later, just in front of our vehicle, a large, spotted cat explodes eight feet in the air, her front paws extended and claws bared, barely missing a guinea fowl in flight. She lands softly and silently, and she glances at us (sheepishly?) as if she is embarrassed to have missed her prey in public. We soon lose her in the thickets but find her again (betrayed by her tail) in an ambush position next to the road, exactly at her previous ambush location. We back the vehicle up to give the theatre some room and wait. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, five guinea fowls (these pea-brains will never learn!) stroll down the road toward her. Tension begins to mount in the vehicle: Sly draws his camcorder ready; I reach for my smaller zoom lens for what could be a “career shot”; my right eye is firmly affixed to the camera’s viewfinder; and with my left eye, I can see a rivulet of perspiration coming down the side of Sly’s face. The lead fowl gets to within 20 feet of the her, then 15 feet and then 10 feet, but inexplicably, the leopard does not make her move. The lead fowl detects the leopard’s presence at the last minute and flies off, effectively calling off the ambush. Sly and I exhale in disappointment. No harm, no fowl.
Ambush position (note her tail - bottom right)
That evening, the spotlight picks up the Mwamba-Kapanda pride hunting zebra. While negotiating the black cotton soil in our vehicle, the kill is heard, not seen. The noise of the kill is quickly replaced by the noise of several lions growling and jockeying for position at the kill. At least now we have a straight line of black cotton soil to our destination. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a spotted cat runs toward the kill! It is a leopard, not a lion. Why the heck is a leopard running toward several lions just about to feast on a zebra? Sly recognizes this leopard as Elliott, the one-eyed leopard. Perhaps due to his handicap, Elliott tends to steal kills from other predators, including those of his own mother (the guinea fowl-hunting leopard is believed to be Elliott’s mother). Sly speculates that Elliott may have thought the zebra kill may have been that of a lesser predator. At any rate, Elliott soon comes to his senses, makes a U-turn, and disappears into the night.
Zebra eating sequence
Elliott the one-eyed leopard
Benson Siyawareva joins me on my second day at Mwamba and for the rest of the trip. I realize having Benson in addition to Sly (or any of Shenton’s excellent guides) is complete overkill (reminiscent of the Monty Python episode in which heavy artilleries are brought in to hunt a mosquito). But by now Benson and I have become great friends, and I cannot fathom being without his company on safari. What more can one say about Benson? To suggest that he is one of the best safari guides in Africa is to actually miss the point. He is exactly that but so much more. I could go on and on, but let me just say I am privileged that he considers me a friend.
Sly and Benson goofing at the Mwamba bar
That Mwamba Camp has a waterhole hide within its complex means Benson and I would be antisocial to those others at camp during the day. You can literally spend all day at the hide watching the procession of animals and birds. Other than the usual ungulate suspects and elephants, Lilian’s lovebirds offer up a rare close-up photo opportunity. One small crocodile remains in this shrinking waterhole and makes several flailing attempts at impalas it seems at regular intervals, but at some point we need to eat lunch, go on our afternoon game activity, and otherwise get on with life. The Mwamba hide is a dangerous place – literally for the animals, and figuratively for the photographer.
Impalas from the Mwamba Hide
West of Mwamba Camp is a large black cotton soil area called the Lion Plain. A few Crawshay’s zebras and even fewer Cookson’s wildebeests, two endemics of the Valley, graze what little is left. A big herd of 300 buffalos are on the edge of the plain and heading toward the river to drink. East of camp is an area called Fish Eagle, one of the most attractive lookout points on the Luangwa River. Herds of impalas and pukus gather under the sausage trees lining the river, elephants and hippos abound, and a third pride of lions (the Hollywood Pride) laze in the thickets. A picnic lunch for all the guests of Mwamba is organized at Fish Eagle one day. A cool breeze kicks up as we, while gorging on delicious food, watch hundreds of animals and birds coming and going. Patrick Njobvu, one of the senior guides at Shenton Safaris, declares, “life is good”.
Elephants on the riverbed
Patrick (left) and Sly at Fish Eagle
So, life is good indeed at the moment in the Luangwa Valley (despite some looming “clouds on the horizon” for Zambia’s wildlife I will discuss later). My first visit to the Valley is everything I’ve read about and dreamed of – and more. And I will go out on another limb: Shenton Safaris’ Kaingo and Mwamba camps just nose out Kwando Safaris’ camps in Botswana and the old Rekero Camp (before it was sold) in Kenya as the best on the continent in my book. For those who want to be completely immersed in the wilds of Africa, Shenton’s camps in the Valley are “it”.
Edited by Safaridude, 17 November 2013 - 11:48 PM.