South Luangwa. One word to describe it…
Rediculous, Incredible. Wild. Awesome. Wilderness. Untouchable. Life-changing. Unforgettable. Breathtaking.
Okay, so that was a little more than one word, but to describe this place in a single word is near impossible.
South Luangwa marks the end of the Great Rift Valley, and is one of Africa’s last remaining unspoiled wilderness destinations. The park is nearly a million hectares in size and supports many unique species only found within the valley. There are no roads or highways crossing through the park and this has saved the park from over population.
We found ourselves staying in an exclusive area of the park, called the Nsefu Sector. Robin Pope Safaris hosted us at one of my now favourite camps in the whole of Africa, Nsefu Camp. The camp was established in 1951 and was the first photographic safari camp in Zambia. It has retained it’s classic safari charm over the last 65 years and sets the scene for an unforgettable safari time.
As soon as we left camp on that first safari I knew that this place would get stuck deep inside my heart for a very long time.
I must confess that I am a lover of beautiful scenic woodlands. To see these ancient giants of our world standing tall, firmly rooted in the earth below is stunning. Luangwa has plenty of this.
The area has plenty of open space filled with large trees such as Leadwoods and Winter Thorns. These tree’s provide shade, food and protection for many animals living within the land. For photographers they create a scenic vista on which to “paint”. One must remember, it’s not always about getting as close as possible to your photographic subjects. Sometime’s capturing animals within their environments is far more pleasing.
A few unique species occur only within this park. We were fortunate to see all three of them. Thornicroft’s Giraffe, Cookson’s Wildebeest and Crayshaw’s Zebra are all only found witin Luangwa Valley.
It’s always exciting and rewarding seeing a new species for the first time.
Before I get on to the incredible wildlife we got to see on this amazing South Luangwa Photo Safari, I wanted to highlight some of the stunning birdlife contained within the park.
An all-time favourite of mine is the impressive Martial Eagle. Few birds compare with the stature and presence this birds possesses. It is Africa’s largest eagle and are extremely difficult to approach due to their shy nature.
This particular Martial Eagle allowed my guests and I, a fantastic experience as we got to within ten meters of the tree he was perched within.
Another incredibly rare bird-of-prey we got see see was a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls.
Whilst spending our morning with a leopardess feeding on a bushbuck she had killed, we heard the characteristic call of the two owls. I immediately told my guests that we had to simply investigate as this bird is right up there on any birders list and a simple must-see for any avid safari enthusiast.
We were rewarded with a 30-minute sighting of the two birds calling, interacting and flying from one tree to another. It was incredible!
Another owl species we encountered almost daily was the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl. They typically appear during the early evening hours as they ready themselves for the evening hunt.
I also had two African Scops Owls above my room, and they would call throughout the day, a very distinctive, soft “prrp”. It is a very small owl and can be tough to spot.
Now, to say we had incredible game-viewing in this fantastic place is, well, a complete understatement. The diversity and consistency absolutely blew me away.
South Luangwa will hold it’s own against any other game park in Africa. No doubt.
We started our first day on safari by following a leopardess on the hunt. We had spent about two hours with her in total, and she led us on an exciting experience as she made use of all sorts of cover to try as best get close to her prey.
She started out stalking Puku, but had no luck. She made use of a drainage, cleverly staying out of sight and only peaking out from the edge of the drainage to keep tabs on the position of the Puku. She was having little luck and then decided to move on to the edge of the Luangwa River itself.
You could sense the tension as she spotted a herd of impala drinking from the river. She knew they would move back to the bank and she positioned herself in the perfect spot! The hunt was now officially on!
She gave my guests the perfect understanding of the term “leopard crawl”. There’s little else out there with the ability to move as lowly and quietly as a leopard on the hunt. She spotted one lone impala ewe and immediately knew that this was her opportunity. Within a split second she went from crawling into a full-speed dash and before the impala knew what had happened, the leopard had her jaws clasped firmly around the impala’s throat.
It all happened so quickly and silently, so much so that the rest of the impala herd had no idea of what had taken place. Leopards are the ultimate silent killers.
We returned again in the evening, hopefully to see her hoist the carcass up a suitable tree. Her current position was not great at all and if hyena found her there they would have undoubtedly stolen her carcass from her. We arrived in the early afternoon in anticipation of her dragging the carcass to the closest tree, some 150 meters from our position. She only did so after dark but thanks to the fact that we are allowed to be on safari at night, we were able to illuminate the scene with a spotlight.
The results were so dramatic and my guests were not only thrilled with the images they captured, but also with the experience of it all. To see a leopard dragging a carcass across an open area is an incredible sight!
Predators were the stars of our South Luangwa Photo Safari. We were so well entertained and our Robin Pope Safaris guide knew exactly where to find them.
What I loved was the fact that we could spend hours at sightings. There was no rush to leave and that is just priceless. Very few national parks in Africa allow you the opportunity to spend time with predators after dark. This is exactly the time that they come alive, the time that they hunt, interact and move throughout their territory. So often I hear of people complaining about sleeping lions, but that is simply what they do during most daylight hours. To see them at night is by far the best experience.
In total we got to see 7 different leopards in only 8 days of safari. That is incredible. All but one leopard was relaxed and most allowed us intimate experiences.
On one morning we found an older female leopard on the move. She was clearly hungry and desperate to kill. After about two hours we decided to leave her at it and return to the area in the afternoon in order to track her down again. We felt our presence interfered with her hunting, and that is something one should never do. Never place the value of your images over the comfort of the animal.
We were very well rewarded when we returned to the area in the afternoon. She had managed to kill an adult male Bushbuck, a huge feat for such an old leopard. It must have been an epic battle!
We decided to settle down and spend the whole afternoon and some part of the evening with her.
Once again, the fact that we did not have to rush back to the lodge really made this a wonderful experience. We were free to sit with her for as long as we wished, and shared the sighting with only one other vehicle from the same camp as ours. Just awesome!
As the sun moved closer to the horizon, the colour of the light around us turned into a photographers dream!
I positioned us so as to see her eyes better. She kept looking up at the tree infront of her, as if she was looking for options of hoisting her kill off of the ground. She did this several times and my guests just kept firing off shots, getting spectacular results!
She then moved on to the carcass and started feeding, a wonderful sight to see. The carcass was still on the ground and in some dense vegetation, but great vehicle positioning from our guide got us in a good position for photographs.
The lions of South Luangwa would not be over-shadowed by their smaller relatives, and they sure gave my guests an incredible time!
The lions in the Nsefu area are very well known for killing hippo. During the dry season hippo’s are under severe stress. They need to walk large distances in order to find grass, and in doing so wear themselves down month after month. This is only relieved once the first rains arrive in November & December. During the months of June to November the general condition of Luangwa’s hippos will worsen, and this is exactly what the lions wait for!
Young calves are usually the target of the local lions, and in the week we spent in Luangwa we twice saw the pride feeding on young hippo. It is a great meal for the large pride.
We spent hours in the company of the pride as they fed themselves to a near stand-still. The beauty of the surrounding area made the photography just that much better. The grasses were short and there’s little shrubbery in the way of your subjects.
Whilst spending time with the lions, we noticed a Red-necked Falcon hunting some Red-billed Quelea’s. This aerial hunter is most active during the early mornings and late afternoons, and favours birds in the size range of the quelea’s.
As the lions killed a hippo pretty close to camp, we were able to get there very early the next morning. The sun had yet to rise and we set ourselves up for a great sunrise with lions in the foreground.
A large male lion then joined the pride, but not after attempting to chase hyenas. His intent focus was incredible. Male lions absolutely hate hyenas and will go far out of their way in order to chase, catch and kill them. In this case the hyena fortunately spotted the approaching lion and made sure to get out of the way at a brisk pace.
One of my absolutely favourite sighting of the safari came from a small nocturnal creature. This elusive little cat-like animal is largely nocturnal, and to see one out and about during the morning hours is very, very special.
The Large-spotted Genet moved around very close to our vehicle and was still busy hunting. It paid little attention to the shutters of our cameras firing like crazy, and continued about its business. I have never before seen a Genet in broad daylight as relaxed as this, allowing us this close to it.
By this stage of the safari I was head-over-heels in love with South Luangwa. I completely thrive on these wild places and to see hardly any other cars or structures on safari was such a blessing! It really felt as if anything could surprise you around the next corner, and very often it did.
Very few places in Africa still retain this wild, remote sense of being. That’s what it should be about at the end of the day. To see Africa the way it is supposed to be, the way it used to be is a very special thing indeed, something everyone should experience.
What makes such a difference and totally adds to the experience as a whole, is being well taken care of by the lodge hosting you. I can honestly say the service, friendliness and efficiency of the staff from Robin Pope Safaris’s Nsefu Camp was top notch, as good as it gets.
Can you imagine rounding a corner in wild and remote Africa, to be greeted by the smell of a wood fire, frying eggs and fresh bread? Well, that’s exactly what we got!
The camp went out of their way to ensure that my guest had only the best of times.
The time was drawing nearer for us to leave. By now my guests had seen it all and more, they were completely satisfied with their experiences and anything else on safari would be a complete bonus.
Well, in true Luangwa fashion, we were in for an unforgettable farewell.
On our last afternoon, we found tracks of two large male lions. We had spent some time with these males at the hippo carcass and knew they were just too beautiful. The tracks were following the flow of the Luangwa River. Now look, one should never come on these safaris with set expectations. You never know what you will come across and you will likely leave disappointed.
That said, I really, really really wanted my guests to see a lion in golden light lying on the banks of the Luangwa River. Boy did we get what we asked for…
The second male was down on the river sand and was keeping an eye on a nearby elephant herd. He never flinched a muscle and the elephants never even knew he was there.
We watched the sun set behind the lions and for some reason my guests could not wipe the grin from their faces! Well, can you blame them?
We set out early on the last morning. We had absolutely no expectations and simply wanted to enjoy our last morning out on safari. Once again Luangwa had a little surprise in store for us. Hardly ten minutes into our safari we happened upon an incredible scene.
The local pride had killed another hippo during the night, right on the banks of the river. We could hardly believe our eyes or contain our excitement. Could this be real?
Both of the males were present, and in total the pride number 16.
As we arrived one of the large males were feeding on his own. When these males feed the rest of the lions tend to give them some space, they can be rather aggressive at times. This was a slightly larger hippo than the first, and the whole pride would be able to feed to satisfactory levels.
Once again we had only one car with us at the sighting. This was so special, it really felt as if the whole area was ours to explore and enjoy. South Luangwa looked after my guests so well and in these 8 days gave them the experience of a lifetime!
This was my first taste of what South Luangwa had to offer, and let me assure you, it will not be my last. The quality and consistency of game viewing my guests and I enjoyed was on par or better than anything else I have ever experienced. I say that confidently and boldly.
The leopard viewing was as good as any I have ever had in places such as the Okavango Delta and the Sabi Sand.
It is an experience where you get to see a side of Africa missing in so many other places, a side of Africa that will have you totally in love with it and wanting more and more.
Thanks for your time, and I look forward to hosting you on safari in the nearby future.
Join me in South Luangwa 2016
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