Trip Report: South Luangwa Safari, 23 – 30 July 2017

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 4 Comments

Few places in Africa today deserves to be known as “truly wild”. Then again, how would you determine what truly wild is all about? There’s no text book answer for it, only a feeling you leave with once a place has been visited.

I travel extensively throughout Africa and few places conjure up feelings of old-world Africa in the manner that South Luangwa does. There’s just something about this place that sets it apart.

It could be the fact that when on safari in Luangwa you hardly ever meet up with another game viewing. You really do feel far removed from any forms of civilization. The fact that you need to drive 3 hours from the airport to the camp certainly cements this statement.

Then, the place is beautiful & really feels untouched! The fact is, it really IS untouched. It still looks the same way it did before human encroachment, no rehabilitated lands here. The Luangwa River is also known as the cleanest river in Africa. The scene’s you see daily on safari are also so breathtaking!

Then the camps are special too, and make you feel both at home & comfortable, yet allows a sense of vulnerability. You feel like you’re a part of nature and this too quickly becomes a reality after spending a day in camp – animals are very much a part of the camp experience in South Luangwa and often walk through camp regardless of the human presence.

There’s more reasons for me feeling this way about this particular park, but have a look at my account of this safari & make up your mind for yourself!

In South Luangwa there’s no real “down time”. It’s really difficult to take a midday siesta here because you never know what you’ll miss during the daytime hours! There’s a well-used elephant river crossing right out in front of camp, and during the hottest time of day you’ll get to see them making use of this fairly often!

Because it’s so close to camp there’s no real danger and guests are free to wander down to the river’s edge for a better look, a great camp experience!

The Luangwa River is a wide-flowing & meandering river system. It allows you a sense of freedom, truly big-sky country. It’s photographic & a magnet for wildlife.

The Luangwa River is also known for hosting the densest hippo population in Africa. This very quickly becomes factual after a few days driving along the river. Hippo’s are to be found everywhere!

During the daytime hours most of the river’s hippo’s will venture out & sun bathe on the beach-like sandbanks.

If you spend a little bit of time with them, you’ll also soon realize that they are very playful & often engage with one another.
My guests had the great opportunity to photograph a mother & youngster playing in the river, and this continued for atleast 20 minutes before we were all “interrupted” by a large giraffe crossing the river further away.

Such is the nature of this park, never a dull moment!

Some of the hippo’s also make do with the inland water bodies. The pools of water are very scenic & often covered by “hippo salad”, better known as Nile Cabbage, belonging to the genus Pistia.

Along with the ever-green Ebony tree’s and all the animal life often found at these pools, it can make for fantastic photographic opportunity!

In the late afternoon South Luangwa really comes to life. The sunsets are never short of majestic as a cloud of smog from the day’s dust always create special late afternoon colours! During this time of day anything is worth photographing and that’s exactly why I love this park so much – it’s not always about the “big stuff”. Yes, we see lots of them but with that said, it’s also great to spend time with animals usually overlooked!

We spotted this male bushbuck on the first afternoon out & after repositioning a couple of times eventually managed to get a dark rich background behind him. With the sun lovely and soft it made for fantastic photography!

The antelope elevated himself in order to gain access to a better view of his surroundings! This was where he would be able to spot intruding males or more importantly, danger on the horizon!

You’ll never be short of photographic moments with baboons in South Luangwa. I think apart from impala & puku they are the most common animals spotted on safari. They are everywhere and make for entertaining game viewing opportunities!

During the last hour of the day they start to settle in to their chosen roosting sites for the night. Many people think that baboons move around after dark, when in fact they really can’t see all that well and much prefer to stay high up in large tree’s, avoiding potential predators such as leopard, lion & hyena!

Another creature of Luangwa that really enjoys this time of day is the elusive leopard. They can be fairly active throughout the daytime hours but they really do come to life in and around sunset. They are best suited for hunting during the dark hours of the day, and it’s not uncommon to see 2 or 3 different leopard on an evening safari experience in South Luangwa.

We did however enjoy two stand-out sightings during the daytime of leopards!

On one afternoon we happened upon a rather shy male leopard. He was enormous & by the size of his extended belly it was obvious that he had been feeding on something. Our stellar guide, Sebastian, soon spotted the carcass of an impala hoisted up a nearby tree.

The leopard was not in a mood to hang around and soon vanished out of sight.

I mentioned to my guests that we should return again at first light as his behaviour towards us that afternoon suggested that he might be more relaxed if we approached him slowly, and in low light. Leopards tend to feel more confident when it’s dark, and my hopes were for him to relax enough so that my guests could photograph him up the tree with his carcass.

We left camp long before sunrise the next morning & as we approached the area we knew he would be in, we slowed the vehicle right down & kept our approach steady & quiet! The last thing I wanted to do was to stress the animal out.

To our amazement we arrived with the leopard on a broken limb of the tree, impala in its jaws & no less than 3 hyenas below him. We quickly stopped the vehicle right where we were & all kept as silent as we could. I instructed my guests that they could photograph the incredible scene, but movements had to be slow as to minimize the stress on the cat!

There was little doubt in my mind that the leopard was on its way down the tree to avoid us. I certainly did feel uncomfortable being there at the time and was about to ask the guests if we could leave this leopard to himself. The last thing I wanted was for him to lose his hard-earned meal to the marauding hyenas below, all because of us!

Then, the leopard seemed to relax & actually slowly turned around and walked up the fallen limb back to the fork of the tree. It seemed as if he wanted to stay in the tree & as if he’d relaxed a little in our presence. That did not last long and he then decided that he certainly was not going to hang around any longer.

He once again moved down the branch and looked like he was ready to leap from there and make a run for it, still with the carcass in his possession.

The hyenas below became frantic as they jumped as high they could in an attempt to snatch the carcass from the large male leopard!

In an instant the leopard leaped out of the tree & covered more than 50 meters in the wink of an eye! He was so quick that none of my guests even managed to snap a clear pic of the descent! The hyenas gave chase but they had no chance and in no time he was up the trunk of another large tree. Here he felt far more comfortable & we let him be & moved on.

What an incredible encounter with a wild male leopard we had!

I made a very good point of keeping my guests as quiet as possible. There was even a time when I asked them to stop photographing, hoping that the leopard would calm down and hang around! I have always been a guide first and foremost, a photographer second. The wellbeing of the animal is far more important than the photo you could potentially get! You’ll always be reminded of unethical behaviour when you look at that photograph!

No photograph is worth it if it means the animal will be disrupted. This sighting was over in a flash and we never meant to disturb this leopard. All is well that ends well though, and he settled into another tree with all of his meal intact!

This again shows how unpredictable nature can be!

The second stand-out leopard sighting was far less dramatic but intensely beautiful to witness!

We were alerted to the presence of a mother leopard & cub by a fellow camp ranger, and immediately went in that direction. We arrived just as the mother started to drink water, but the cub was a little skittish & veered off in the opposite direction. As soon as it was quite enough he rejoined his mother & the two of them drank side by side.

It was a magical sight, certainly one that had my guests smiling from one ear to the other!

This is what makes the wild beauty of South Luangwa so special. It’s the kind of place that reminds you of an old Africa, an Africa untouched!

The animals are still very aware of your movements on the back of the safari vehicle. They still react if you disobey the rules laid down by your guide. We have become so accustomed to the habituated wildlife of many of the reserves today, that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to spend time with a real wild animal.

Many wildlife photographers also spend very little time with the feathered friends. Birds are a great part of any safari experience & should not be overlooked!

Luangwa is especially rich in birdlife & there are some great photographic opportunities here.

Lilac-breasted Rollers must be the exception though, because most wildlife photographers I know will spend a good amount of time trying to get in in flight! They are spectacular in colour & it’s well worth spending time with them!

Luangwa also boasts a strong bee-eater population, in particular the White-fronted Bee-eater.

We spent a good deal of time photographing them as they hunted from their well-used posts. Getting them in focus mid-flight is no easy task though & requires large memory cards & a huge amount of patience!

It’s worth the effort though as these birds make for wonderful photography!

They tend to dust-bathe fairly often & on one such occasion we stopped in time to capture them taking off from the road up ahead!

Owls are also a common sight in South Luangwa, and can be seen hunting from prominent vantage points as soon as the sun sets.

Pictured above is a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, the largest owl in Africa and certainly one of the largest in the world! A striking feature always noticed by viewers are the pink eyelids!

Another very, very special owl found within the park is the Pel’s Fishing Owl! For keen birders sighting one of these special birds is equivalent to finding a gold nugget! They are not easily found & very localized, and even if you find yourself in the right geographic location, spotting them ain’t easy either!

Fortunately our great guide Sebastian knew where one was seen regularly, and true to his word, we did find it in the exact place he promised! It was a first for all of my guests, and what a sighting it was. The owl had just caught a catfish & was busy feasting on his meal in a dead tree in the Luangwa River. 

Another fascinating bird sighting we enjoyed was of 2 Meves’s Starlings fighting! They were really going at it, so much so that they allowed us really close for some great action photography without paying much attention to our activities!

I am still not 100% certain as to what would cause them to fight this aggressively, but it could well have been a territorial battle!

It was a unique sighting and one I really enjoyed! Like I mentioned earlier, it’s not always about the “big stuff” when on safari. Take time to seek out the smaller things, you’ll more often than not be pleasantly surprised!

Speaking of “small stuff”, the general game viewing in South Luangwa is incredible!

There are three unique species found here and nowhere else. Thornycroft Giraffe, Cookson’s Wildebeest & Crayshaw’s Zebra!

There are many many impala around, and also Puku antelope.

One night I was awoken at midnight to the sounds of a buffalo calling out in distress. It was close enough to wake me and I could hear that this animal was in serious trouble and I had no doubt that lions were busy attacking it!

I listened for some time before getting out of bed, putting some flip-flops on & heading out with my powerful torch in hand. The commotion taking place on the other side of the Luangwa River, right opposite the camp. I walked down to the edge of the river & watched in absolute awe as the lions & buffalo battled it out. The rest of the buffalo herd were in attendance assisting the individual being attacked! As soon as it seemed like the lions had the upper hand, the herd would charge in & send the lions off in all directions!

I watched for an hour until all went silent. The lions had slain the buffalo cow & the herd then accepted defeat & moved on.

My guests and I walked down to the edge of the river the following morning to investigate. We counted 8 lions on the other side, full-bellied & covered in blood. Most of them were resting now having eaten their fill from the large mass of meat!

Even though it was on the other side of the river, it was still a joy to watch & experience. We were sitting on the banks of an incredible river, hippo’s not more than 20 meters away and a pride of lions on the other side keeping an eye on us.

How awesome!

The lions eventually came down to the river’s edge for water, and this allowed my guests some great animal-in-environment photographic opportunities.

As the months wear on & water starts to dry, this river becomes the lifeblood of the park. You need not venture far from it in order to see incredible events unfold!

As prey are drawn to the river for a drink, so are the predators that prey on them! It’s a special place indeed!

When you step away from the river you enter a whole new world, equally as beautiful and filled with a landscape very different to what you’d expect.

Marshes dominate some of the areas & animals are drawn to the near year-round source of sustenance.

Not far from there you’ll often find elephants crossing large swaths of open landscape as they return from feeding sessions in the denser woodlands away from the river.

It’s a safari experience that my incredible guests will never forget, I hope 😉

These small-group safaris are made extra special by the people that join us in the field, and they would not be the same without them! We are fortunate at Wild Eye to draw a group of people in love with life & discovery. They love nature & there’s no more special place to nurture this love than South Luangwa!

Thanks t0 each and everyone of these fantastic people for joining me South Luangwa!

We ended our last evening on an absolute high!

Just before we got back to camp, we happened upon a leopard high up in a tree, feeding on the remains of a baboon killed the night before. To be more specific, it was eating the skull!

At the base of the tree was a hyena, eagerly awaiting any morsels that might drop from the leopard’s feeding activity. It needed not wait too long and soon enough the leopard made a mistake & dropped the whole head on to the ground below. The hyena quickly seized it & made off with his spoils.

The leopard eventually climbed down the tree & walked right up to us.

She hung around for a few minutes before disappearing into the darkness.

If you’ve ever wanted to experience an untouched wilderness still teeming with wildlife, you’d need not look any further.

South Luangwa stands out as one of my favorite wildlife safari experience and as you’ve just seen, for very good reason!

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my account of this safari experience.

Till next time,

About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

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      Marlon duToit

      Ah it’s going to be AMAZING!! You are going to love that place! I’m not sure of exactly where you are staying, but the central area of the park can get a little busy with vehicle traffic. If you are staying further North it becomes really wild & you’ll not see many other cars. Enjoy it, can’t wait to see the pics!!

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