Ok, so maybe a bit much on the adjectives? However I can assure you what you are about to read will describe our time spent in South Luangwa National Park as nothing short of a lollapalooza!
*Quick disclaimer before you continue: if you haven’t read Part 1 of my trip report, Mana Magic, you can (and should) do so here. Now back to your regularly scheduled trip report…
When I last left off, we were leaving the world renowned Mana Pools national park. After what seemed like an eternity of travel time, including a boat ride up the Zambezi river, a drive through the Escarpment, and a flight to Mfuwe airport, we arrived at our next destination: South Luangwa National Park.
Isolated in the eastern part of Zambia, South Luangwa has become a prominent destination in Africa. Despite its growing popularity, however, it remains a remote and authentic park that should be on every safari-goer’s bucket list.
There is something to be said about visiting two unique destinations on a single safari. In all honesty, after nearly a week in Mana I felt as if my photography was getting a bit repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, Mana’s elephants are a special sight to see, but travelling to a new destinations allows you to put a reset button on a safari. A full day of travel and you arrive at your destination as a new person primed and ready for whatever the park throws at you. This could not have been more of the case during our trip.
Located in the central-eastern portion of the park, Norman Carr owns and operates a slew of bush camps located along the Luwi river. During our time in the park, we stayed at two of these camps: Nsolo and Kakuli. Both camps are small and intimate, however incredibly different from one another. Whereas Nsolo is located on the banks of the Luwi river, a dry riverbed running through the heart of South Luangwa, Kakuli is located at the confluence of the Luwi and Luangwa rivers: prime real-estate in Africa!
Our local guide in Zambia, Friday, took care of us throughout our stay with Norman Carr. This is one of the great advantages of the Norman Carr operation; by sticking with the same guide throughout, Friday knew what we wanted to see and worked with Gerry to go above and beyond anything we could have imagined!
After the incredible elephant and general game sightings provided to us in Mana, we had one goal for this next week: predators. And believe me, South Luangwa DID NOT disappoint. It is for that reason why I have decided to break up the rest of the trip report into 5 categories: General Game, Hyenas, Wild Dogs, Lions, and Leopards (South Luangwa does not have any cheetah, but they make up for it with pretty much everything else). Hope you enjoy!
“General Game” is a term typically used to describe your impala, kudu, and things of the sort; however, for the sake of this trip report, I am calling everything that isn’t one of the four predators “General Game.”
Although South Luangwa is quite well known for its predators, it can not be emphasized enough just how diverse this park is. According to the locals, seven different habitats exist in the park. Most of the action, however, occurs along the rivers: the lifeblood of the reserve. On a given day, one can look out into a dry riverbed and see anything from impala and puku to lions and leopards. But South Luangwa’s most infamous animal wouldn’t be either of these, but rather the hippopotamus.
It is said that South Luangwa has the highest population of hippos anywhere in Africa and upon entering the park this becomes quite evident. In nearly every available water source, you find pod after pod of hippos. Here, pods can number in the hundreds and their deep bellows can be heard well into the night.
The elephants of South Luangwa can not be ignored. Made famous by the park’s Mfuwe lodge, here, in the later months of October and November, elephants walk through the reception of the lodge in search of mango fruits. When they are not showing off this unique feature to the world, they can be found at any given day shuffling through the dry riverbeds in search of water that may lie beneath.
Finally, South Luangwa’s bird-life is some of the most incredible on Earth. During August and September birders flock in the thousands to see the annual Carmine Bee-Eater migration. However, in the early winter months flocks of Lillian’s Love-Birds and Red-Billed Quelea can be seen throughout the park.
Throughout the safari, it became well known to every individual on the vehicle that my personal favorite bird was a Martial Eagle. The charisma and raw power of these birds is simply incredible and has always captivated my imagination. My desire to find and photograph one of these birds borderlined on an obsession. I started imagining a martial eagle swooping by, often embellishing on dream sightings to do whatever it takes to see a martial eagle. Well, yet again, South Luangwa made it happen. We were able to stay with this one particular individual, likely a juvenile, for over 20 minutes during perfect light! Simply incredible.
During our first night in the park, the abundance of hyenas became clear. On any given night, one can simply sit and listen for a few minutes before dosing off to the sound of hyenas whooping on either side of you. The tracks you made walking to your tent the night before would be replaced in the morning with hyenas going back and forth, scouring the camp for whatever they could find. Kakuli camp even had their own “residential” hyena who would often steal objects from the main area.
The following day we set out on our first game drive only to find exactly what we had kept us up the night before. There was a known hyena den not five minutes down the river so we decided to check it out.
Upon arrival, we saw what was perhaps the most menacing looking animal I had ever seen. This lone female hyena laid at the base of the den, a converted aardvark hole, and simply stared at us for what felt like eternity. Her silver eye, probably the result of an encounter with lions or another predator, gave her such a unique character. We intended to spend some time with her, but we were quickly informed of lions on the move a couple hundred meters away, but more on that later…[
As things would have it, hyenas were a highlight on both our first day and our last. On the final day of the trip, after a rather quiet morning, we watched as a hooded vulture and tawny eagle descended from their morning thermals. We decided to check out the scene and came upon what must have been 15 different hyenas on a zebra kill. We decided to stick with them for a little bit and watched the different dynamics of the kill, which we believed to have been stolen from a pride of lions earlier that morning.
One particular individual, a young male, provided us with great humor over his funny antics. Hyenas live in a strictly hierarchical society with females at the top. This particular individual must have been at the bottom of the totem pole, for every time he tried to reach the carcass he would be chased away. A great way to say goodbye to South Luangwa!
Still think Lallapalooza was a bit much? Just wait, I’ve only just begun 🙂
African Wild Dogs, also known as Painted Wolves, happen to be my personal favorite animal to find on safari. The social interaction between each individual provides a remarkable experience for both the onlooker and the photographer. At this time of year, the dogs begin their denning season. What this means is they will pick one location to create a den and venture out in the day, only to return to the den site with a meal. Wild Dogs are extremely effective killers; with about a 90% success rate, let’s just say that when they’re hungry they eat.
Coming into the trip, having done quite a bit of research on the areas we would be travelling to, I could have never imagined seeing dogs in Luangwa. I’m not sure if it’s just not publicized, but for some reason I had a preconceived notion that dogs are a rarity in Luangwa. They are not.
After tracking dogs for hours at a time in Mana Pools to no avail, our spirits were a bit low. Often travelling 25+ kilometers in a single day, when dogs are on the move it’s almost impossible to track and follow them. This became evident once when we just saw a fleeting glimpse of white run into the thicket in Mana. Gerry and our local guide Kevin made the quick decision to get out of the vehicle and track them on foot. As we followed them, however, the prospect got dimmer and dimmer. The dogs were simply too fast and vegetation too thick. I guess we would have to wait until next trip.
Or not! Immediately upon arriving in Luangwa, we asked Friday if there were any packs denning in the area (as this is the best way to track their movements). To all of our surprises, Friday informed us that three packs were denning nearby! Absolutely incredible. But yet again, luck would not be on our side. For hours of endless tracking provided no Wild Dogs at Nsolo camp.
The final camp we stayed at was named Kakuli. In the local language, Kakuli means old buffalo bull (known down south as a dugga boy). Little would we know at the time the irony of this name. After arriving at the main area of the camp for high tea on the first morning, Friday, in his timid manner, whispered to me “I have a surprise for you guys.”
As we head out down the road, just like a typical game drive, we had no idea what was in store for us. Out of nowhere, we were driving along and STOP! There was a wild dog sitting right in the middle of the road. The excitement spread through the vehicle; we knew what we were doing for the rest of the night.
With the dogs sleeping, other vehicles would come and go, taking a quick “proof” picture and then moving on. Not us. We decided to wait it out, knowing that the dogs would get active as the sun began to set. Just as they got up, Gerry posed a question to me: would you like to get out of the vehicle and photograph the dogs on foot? Hell yeah I would! With care and ease, my brother and I stepped out behind the vehicle and slowly approached the bonnet. We were no more than 5 meters away from Africa’s most successful predator. Blood rushing through our veins there was no way this could get more exciting.
Yet again, I was wrong. Just as one individual began to approach us, Gerry whispers “guys, it’s time to get back into the vehicle, there’s a buffalo.” Ummm…what!? Lo and behold, just behind a thicket was a big, old Kakuli! My brother and I raced back into the vehicle and then watched the scene unfold. Just as golden hour was setting in, the pack of six dogs chose to have some fun. They decided to pester the big Kakuli, knowing they had no shot of taking it down, purely for enjoyment. Africa, you never cease to amaze me.
You want to see lions you say? Well look no further. Sorry Serengeti, Okavango, and Sabi Sands, looks like there’s a new park where the top predator steals the show. Sure, I can go into all of this descriptive hyperbole about how there’s lions around every corner in South Luangwa (and believe me there is), but instead I’ll simply share with you our sightings and you can see for yourself.
Day 1, Drive 1: I’d say we were driving for a total of seven minutes before we found the one-eyed hyena at her den. We intended on spending some time with her, but were quickly interrupted by a radio call. “Lions mobile about 200 meters away,” it exclaimed. Well, alright! As we drove just up the road, sure enough a pride of lions were lined up in the middle, walking right towards us. In this early morning light, the scene was simply stunning.
This breakaway pride, consisting of four females and four cubs, decided to put on a show for us during our time at Nsolo. We stayed with them throughout that first day, watching as they would walk towards us, play fight with each other, climb on termite mounds, and do pretty much anything else you could imagine.
The next four days at Nsolo were spent looking for leopards, then going back to the pride. Looking for dogs, then going back to the pride. With any sort of effort, we knew we would be able to find this Nsolo breakaway pride.
One aspect of photography that I wanted to explore on this trip was photographing animals at nighttime. Too often do photographers put away their cameras due to a lack of light, and they miss some incredible opportunities. We followed the Nsolo breakaway pride almost every night making for surreal experiences. At one point, they decided to stalk a puku right in front of our vehicle. We sat and listened, shutting the lights off to not mess up the hunt, as the lions chased the puku not 10 meters from our cruiser. In the end, a narrow miss.
Kakuli saw a similar wealth of lion sightings focused around the night. That’s not to say the lions weren’t there in the day, we just simply wanted to look for other things :). One particular evening we found these two males that had just passed through camp. ISO clicked up to 8000, we were still able to capture some incredible stuff. Finally, as night fell we followed the two males. A lion walking right at you in the dark of night is something you will never forget.
Perhaps the best way for me to describe to you the plethora of lions in Luangwa is by sharing with you my shortest lion sighting to date. We had just come off an incredible predator sighting, one of the most amazing I had ever witnessed. We were driving back, looking for night game, when we stumbled upon a pride of lions in the dry Luwi river. It was at that point that we all looked at each other and said: there’s no way we were beating the lion sightings we already had, so we decided to head back to camp. This decision was not made out of a lack of appreciation for lions, but rather an overwhelment of predators that Luangwa had thrown upon us.
Ahhh, finally. After what may have seemed like an eternity we finally got there. No, I’m not referring to the length of this trip report! What I am referring to is the reason we went to Luangwa in the first place: the infamous South Luangwa Leopards.
After the conclusion that had been made in the previous trip report, that there were indeed no leopards in Zimbabwe, we had to test our hypothesis and try to replicate the results in Zambia. Fortunately for us, our belief was found to be false!
Three days had passed in South Luangwa. We had explored pretty much the entirety of the center of the park and had nothing to show for it. Gerry and Friday then made an executive decision: we would head south. South in South Luangwa, where the leopards hunt impala and dance like ballerinas. Ok, maybe I’ve spent a bit too much time on this trip report.
Anyways, as we arrived in the southern part of the park, we watched as the landscapes changed. Huge ebony forests and open grass plains dotted the Luangwa valley. On our way down we even happened to see a few sable antelope, something unheard of in the park! Our hopes were high.
In this part of the park, we were all alone. With nobody to talk to via radio, we would stop any vehicle we saw and asked if there were any reports of a leopard. After hours of trying, we had a hit! About twenty minutes prior, those folks were watching a female leopard rest on a termite mound looking at some puku. So what did we do? We hit the gas like we were in the Monaco Grand Prix. Within fifteen minutes we were at the location where the leopard had been last seen. And as we drove around the corner, there she was!
A small female weighing no more than 80 pounds, she was a thing of beauty. All this time and all this effort tracking this elusive big cat had finally paid off. A safari is all about patience and hard work. As long as you spend the time and dedicate yourself to something, the bush gods will always reward you and boy did they. We spent upwards of two hours with this leopard in the heat of the day. As vehicles came and left and came and left we couldn’t help but be amazed by the lack of appreciation people had for this creature. We simply sat in disbelief.
This was, however, not the last leopard we would see on this trip. The following day provided me with one of the greatest sightings I have had in my six trips to Africa. We received news that a female leopard had been found back up north near camp (of course). The decision was made to leave the birds we were photographing (a difficult one indeed) and head straight up to the leopard as the light was fading. As we raced up, something incredible happened.
The entire trip, I would talk of a martial eagle. My obsession with this bird can not be underscored enough. Their sheer power and beauty has always captivated me and all I wanted to do was see one and photograph it. Well, as we were driving to this leopard what happens? That’s right, a martial eagle swoops in right over our vehicle. It could not have happened at a worse time. What do we do!? The martial eagle or the leopard!? Yeah there was no way I was winning that one. So we continued up to the leopard and when I tell you thank god that we did I mean it.
As we arrived at the scene, we bid farewell to the vehicle that had found the leopard (they were intent on looking for some giraffe instead…yes I just said that). The leopardess had a kill lodged into a small bush next to a rather large acacia tree. Although we could not see her at the time, we listened as she would crack the bones of her dinner. Every once in awhile, she would come out and survey the surroundings, looking for a male that had been in the area prior to us arriving. This allowed us to get a visual of this beautiful creature before night fell.
As the sun set, she really had two options: keep the kill lodged into the bush and risk animals like hyenas finding it, or bring it up the tree. Obviously we were hoping for the later of those two. Just as the last rays of sun set below the horizon, we heard moving in the bush. We watched intently, cameras in hand, as something amazing happened. All of a sudden, almost on cue, there she was at the base of the tree with a dead impala alongside her. A leopard of this size has the ability to hoist animals up to four times her weight up a tree, a true testament to their power. Well, it was on this day that the leopard decided to put on a show.
Sitting there all alone, with not another vehicle within kilometers of us, we watched as the leopard grabbed the impala by the neck and hoisted it up the tree. Once she got to the base, she waited a few minutes before bringing it all the way up to the top, away from harms reach. Then, after a few minutes a feeding, she left to get a drink. We all looked at each other and knew what we had just witnessed was special. To be alone in the presence of such an animal is special enough but to see her do that!? How could it get any better.
Ok fine, I’ll tell you. Try almost replicating the sighting but in the day time! The following morning we got out before the sun rose to get to her with the best light possible. We were hoping that with the kill in the tree, she would be back the following morning and oh boy were we right! As we got to the tree, we saw the kill but no leopard! No, she was actually on the ground waiting because a male had come and stolen it from her. But being skittish from humans, the male quickly fled allowing her to feed again in peace. We watched, the sun rising in the sky, as she jumped up the tree and started feeding on her prized kill. The sighting is one of the most special I had ever witnessed. For the entire time we were with her, it was only us.
We saw another three leopards during our time in Luangwa, but nothing compared to that sighting. If you made it this far, I appreciate you reading through this trip report! I hope by now that you can agree that Luangwa Lollapalooza was certainly an appropriate title as there can be no better word to describe our time there. Thank you for reading and see you again on the Wild Eye Blog!
All the best,