At the tail-end of the Great Rift Valley lies one of Africa’s most untouched, purest wilderness eco-systems. South Luangwa National Park is considered one of Africa’s last great safari parks & has the credentials to prove it.
Snaking through the Eastern regions of this great park is the Luangwa River, without doubt the park’s life-blood. The park is synonymous with incredible wildlife encounters, beautiful meandering rivers and breathtaking scenery.
I always enjoy visiting this fabulous piece of Africa, and recently got the opportunity to host a private guest on safari here for 8 days. As you’ll soon see, my guest had an unbelievable time and not only captured fantastic images, but also left with memories that will stay with him for a lifetime!
The safari started in the North-Eastern section of the park, an area known as the Nsefu Section. We were hosted by Robin Pope Safaris, an established safari company that’s been operating within the park since 1986. They know exactly how to treat their guests and it’s always wonderful to return to a camp where you feel like family.
After settling in & enjoying some lunch, we set off for our first afternoon outing & were well rewarded!
Very early on we found a large pride of lions. It was a cool afternoon & the lions made the most of the last warm rays of sunlight by sprawling out in the open on the banks of the scenic Crocodile River.
Some elephants, impala & puku in the distance made for a picturesque scene & Raymond – my guest – could not stop smiling. After traveling for 2 days from the other side of the world, this is exactly the way you should be welcomed!
The great thing about a private safari in particular, is that the safari runs at it’s own pace. There’s no rush, no need to be anywhere, no other guests to please. We decided to spend the entire afternoon with the lions and the experience was awesome! As the sunlight turned golden my guests’s shutter kept firing – a very pleasing sound to my ears!
We soon discovered where the 2 large pride males had been lying up, and they also provided some amazing photographic opportunities after dark.
Raymond was no stranger to safaris. Originally from South Africa, his love for nature & safaris has led him to private reserves well over a hundred times! He has spent countless hours behind his camera, yet lacked the understanding of fundamental basics – elements of photography that allows you to capture images filled with mood & soul!
I recommended we both shoot on the same camera equipment, and this opened up a whole new world to him. For the most part we shot on a Canon 1Dx, and a Canon 400 f2.8 – at times with a 1.4 extender added to the mix. He had never before shot on such professional equipment but took to it extremely well! The fact that we could shoot on similar settings meant I could guide him far easier. I can honestly say that his results were spectacular. – some of the best I have ever seen from any of my guests.
I have guided many of these safaris and for some reason many guests end up doing their own thing anyway. The whole point of joining such a safari is to learn, to gain new information and to capture better images. Raymond listened intently to what settings & compositional elements I called out & shared, and the results were astonishing! I will share his images in a separate blog!
That evening around the campfire was filled with excitement. We had an amazing day of safari & were ready to do so again the following morning. We decided that we would return to where we had the lions, and it paid off properly!
The male lions were right out on the edge of the river’s bank, and made for spectacular photographic opportunities.
The rest of the pride were a little distance away, but were now joined by 4 more little cubs that the camp had not yet known of! See, Nsefu Camp closes for most of the rainy season, and we were the first guests to return. What an exciting experience!
As it started warming up the lions became lazier, something very expected. As they retired to the shade our guide Chilumba suggested we visit a huge Yellow-billed Stork colony. Hundreds of storks were out & about, and had their nests & chicks high up in the branches of a few large Ebony Trees.
As per the Robert’s bird guide, an exceptionally large colony would typically contain between 30-50 nests. I could not count the exact number, but there must have been 300 or more nesting birds spreading across 4 or 5 large trees. It was a stunning sight!
The Nsefu Section is well known for some of the most striking scenery in South Luangwa. It’s very open country but has some spectacular trees and lovely river loops with wide views across the Luangwa River. It’s the kind of place where you never feel like you are not seeing anything. It’s just such a joy to be surrounded by nature so striking, and even just driving through the countryside leaves you with a sense of fulfillment – you need not see anything to feel completely satisfied out here!
I absolutely love spending time in Africa’s woodlands, and this area of South Luangwa has to rate right up there as one of the most scenic parks.
The game viewing over the next couple of days kept getting better. After a few great lion sightings we were very keen to find some leopards. We would leave early in the mornings after a hearty breakfast, making the most of the early hour mornings as this is a time of day leopards are particularly fond of. Along the way we were treated to some spectacular light!
We were never rushed and always took time to capture as many of the resident animals as possible. Scenery was also just too captivating & we found ourselves always “gawking” at the sheer beauty of this park! Even though I had been before, it just never seems to get “old”. How could it?
The fact that we were the first guests at Nsefu Camp after several months, meant that many of the resident leopards were a little shy. We saw 4 different cats but most were after dark. We still had great sightings of them, and almost witnessed 2 different kills. Any time you get the opportunity to spend time with habituated leopards you should consider yourself as fortunate. They are the most elusive of the big cats – always a privilege to spend time in their company.
Probably the highlight of our entire safari experience came our way one early morning, right in camp!
I enjoy sitting around the camp fire for some time before my guests arrive. It allows me time to think about the day, listen to the sounds around me and to get a better idea about where the lions & leopards are moving. These cats often vocalize around 4am, and getting a better idea of where they are calling from makes it easier to find them for the morning safari.
As I sat next to the fire, right on the banks of the Luangwa River, I heard atleast 2 lions calling on the opposite side of the river. The were on the move & were covering alot of ground, by the sounds of it. Raymond soon arrived & whilst enjoying some coffee & fresh toast, we spotted 2 lionesses opposite us on the sandy river sand. The light was very poor, still long before sunrise but we had our cameras handy and were able to capture the entire story unfolding infront of us.
What a way to start your day!
Then one of the lionesses stepped into the river’s blue waters and started moving towards us. She looked incredibly nervous, and for good reason. She was being pursued by aggressive lions from the back and there’s always a big risk of being attacked by crocodiles in the river itself. She seemed to have made up her mind and was intent on crossing though!
Then, all of a sudden the 2 resident male lions arrived just off to our right, not 100 meters from camp. They were drawn in by the excessive calling of the other lions & came to investigate. They caught sight of the lioness in the middle of the river, and did not show any signs of aggressive behaviour towards her. This led me to believe that the lioness likely belonged to the pride on our side & found herself in a spot of bother on the opposite side of the river, mixing with the wrong lions.
Then she made up her mind, and started swimming!
It was a first for me, to see a lion risk its life to cross a large river by herself. There are thousands of crocodiles in this river & fortunately for her, none were around. Lions are not mad about water but if need be, are excellent swimmers.
She must have been exhausted! As she finally made her way up the embankment she came to rest in camp not far from us at the base of a Leadwood Tree. She must have been utterly stressed out but at the same time relieved to be away from imminent danger.
It was an incredible experience! The sun had yet to rise and Raymond & I had just experienced something very few people ever will! To play witness to such an event was just so special. It could have played out at any point along that massive river, yet we were at the right place at the right time, and we able to capture the experience & memories, something that will stay with us for a lifetime!
That evening we were treated to yet another special sighting. Just before arriving in camp the spotlight revealed an incredibly rare bird, something right on top of many a birder’s wish-list.
A Pel’s Fishing Owl sat on top of a fallen log & was intent on getting a meal. These owls are very large & specialist fisherman. They are also shy and although it did not stick around that long, it was a very special sight and something that Raymond had not yet seen before.
After 3 incredible nights in the Nsefu Sector, we made our way to the South of the park for another 4 nights at 2 different bushcamps.
Along the way we happened across another very special little bird species, one I had never seen before.
Our guide Chilumba spotted a Three-banded Courser sitting on its nest, right next to the road. It was very relaxed & stayed on the nest for some time. What was really interesting was that these birds tend to bury their eggs atleast halfway into the sand. It’s basically a scrape in the ground surrounded by at most some pebbles & twigs.
When it eventually stood up we got a good look at the nest, and you really had to pay attention to spot the eggs, they were brilliantly hidden.
We had a 6-hour drive ahead of us as we moved between Nsefu Camp towards the bushcamps in the South-East of the park. Our first camp was called Chindeni, and belongs to The Bushcamp Company. The company is well established within South Luangwa and also own & operate the infamous Mfuwe Lodge – best known for the elephants that arrive here during November to December to feed on the large Wild Mango on the camp’s lawn. They literally walk through the camp’s reception to reach the tree, an amazing sight indeed!
En route to camp we came across a giraffe, a bit of a roadblock to be honest. He just would not move out of the way, and we made the most of this opportunity to capture some unique close-ups of the giant mammal, and also got to photograph the busy little Red-billed Oxpeckers that were combing the giraffe’s fur for any signs of parasites.
Whenever you get the opportunity to photograph an animal of this stature from up close – take advantage of features you can’t normally photograph! Use your telephoto lens and get right in on the animals features.
Chindeni Camp is located on a very productive ox-bow lagoon. The camp is very well designed and feels natural on the banks of the large lagoon. There were plenty signs of wildlife making use of the camp’s walkways, including a leopardess that passed through during the early morning hours on 2 separate occasions.
Our first evening safari at Chindeni was spent in the company of a young male lion. He was up and about just after sunset & called fairly regularly. We found him in the open area right infront of camp and followed him down to the Luangwa River where he enjoyed a long drink.
Illuminated from the side by another vehicle, Raymond & I were able to capture some striking images of the young male.
The scenery down south was very different to that of Nsefu.
We enjoyed lovely vistas over the Luangwa River and spent quality time just being in a wild wilderness. We were far removed from any signs of human life and loved it!
We were very keen to spend some quality time with a leopard during daylight hours. We had seen 4 different leopards on our first 4 days at Nsefu Camp and were hugely appreciative, but photographically I was very keen for Raymond to get some quality images in good light.
We worked hard & eventually found a beautiful young male leopard on the hunt. He was intent on some impala & we decided to give him enough space to continue his hunt unperturbed. Even though I really wanted Raymond to get some shots, we understood that it’s important to allow him space to hunt. I don’t enjoy gaining photographs at the expense of the animal.
Our patience paid off beautifully…
He failed the attempt at catching an impala, and started moving around in search of another hunting opportunity. He was still young & his striking face unscarred! What a specimen!
We spent over an hour in his company – Raymond’s shutter working over time!
Eventually the young leopard came to a halt & sat up in a thicket for a little while. I wanted to make the most of the back-light presented to us, and re-positioned our vehicle accordingly. The results were breathtaking & speak for themselves!
The pressure of finding a leopard in good light was now well behind us and we could simply enjoy being out & about in nature.
We spent time with baboons, always a joyous event! They are always active & typically provide for some comical imagery.
Chindeni provided for us in a beautiful way and it was time to head on over to our final camp – Kapamba Camp, also a part of The Bushcamp Company family.
This lovely camp lies further to the west of Chindeni and is right on the banks of the Kapamba River itself. The shallow waters of this beautiful river flows into the larger Luangwa River at a confluence not far south of the camp itself. It’s a productive river & draws a huge amount of wildlife to it’s waters, especially large herds of buffalo & elephant.
Don’t get me wrong here – I absolutely love photographing & spending time with animals – but I always make sure not to miss out on the experience of it all. So many photographers today end up leaving saddened when they did not see lions in golden light, or a leopard draped across the thick lower branches of an Ebony. See, when this is your attitude you’ll never fully appreciate what you got to see.
I also take great care in selecting camps for my guests & for my safaris. The camps are your home away from home & should make you feel welcomed. Kapamba Camp was wild & beautiful, and exactly what I wanted Raymond to experience.
I made sure to introduce Raymond to a wide variety of photographic skills. Something often overshadowed by the large mammals are the birds, yet they can make for striking images if you give them some time.
A young African Harrier-Hawk found himself in a spot of bother whilst trying to find something to feed on. These large predatory birds fly from tree to tree and use their long slender legs to search for potential prey hiding in holes within these trees. They will feed on just about anything they find in there – from lizards, chicks, squirrels, rodents & even snakes. They are very opportunistic!
This young bird had his work cut out for him though as he was bombed by Meve’s Starlings and Lilac-breasted Rollers. Note the image above – the eye of the hawk shielded by it’s protective eye-lid.
We also spent some time with Crowned Cranes – a common yet beautiful sight in the South of the park.
Night-time in South Luangwa is an experience in itself. Photographing under the cover of darkness presents many new exciting opportunities and we had a great time spending time with lions.
The two large males were active & alert, and making the most of the light from another safari vehicle, we were able to capture some striking images of one of the large males.
Africa’s skies are also breathtaking! The stars in the southern hemisphere are more visible than further North, and it’s not until you switch all lights off & really take it in, that you get to see just how many stars there are in the skies above you.
Photographing the stars are always alot of fun, and we made the most of it.
The little but of cloud-cover really added to the mood of the scene.
On our last afternoon in South Luangwa, the team from Kapamba Camp surprised us with an incredible sundowner set-up. I had always dreamed of sitting with my feet in this river with the golden sun setting to the West.
With an ice-cold beer in hand, Raymond and I sat speaking about the incredible safari that lay behind us. We took it all in. We were joined by our great host – Andy Hogg, MD of The Bushcamp Company. He told of many great stories within the park, encounters that he too would never forget.
That’s the beauty of a safari to this region of Africa. You don’t just feel like another guest, like one of the masses. It really touches your inner most being, it leaves you feeling like you are family. It’s such a fantastic intimate encounter with nature – something you’ll speak of for many years to come.
Yes, our safari was slowly coming to an end, but this special piece of Africa had gripped not only my heart once again, but had firmly grasped hold of Raymond’s heart.
It’s just that kind of place, special in every way!
As usual I was up early the next morning and enjoyed my time around the camp’s fireplace. It’s never nice to leave a place as special as this, but it has to come to an end at some point.
Raymond grew so much during this period – he stepped up big time and left his photographic insecurities well behind him. He mastered the gear he was using & understood the principles behind what it takes to transform a scene into a beautiful, timeless image. I was so proud of his progress, an incredible talent he never knew he had, had been unearthed.
Fortunately Africa never lets go of that grip on your heart. It constantly tugs at it, always reminding you of the special encounters you’ve had.
South Luangwa yet again delivered for my guest in a huge way and I am forever grateful! The beauty about going on safari is that you never know what may come your way. It could be anything & could happen at any time, that’s the thing that keeps us coming back for more.
Thanks so much for reading along, look forward to having you on safari too one day in the nearby future.
Till next time,