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Zambia's pot of gold: South Luangwa Valley

The South Luangwa Valley (known locally as ‘The Valley’) in Zambia is one of Cox & Kings’ fastest growing destinations. Previously overlooked, Africa Product Manager Louise Stanion explains what makes the area so exceptional.

The skies darkened ominously. The leaves on the trees were illuminated brightly against the black backdrop. A stillness in the air preceded a strong gust of wind and the first rumble of thunder sounded. The rainbow, which was weak and broken before, turned into a complete semi-circle of bright colour, similar to the sort you would see in a children’s drawing book. It was then that the elephants decided to step across the orange, dirt track. The matriarch first, followed by the younger ones. In slow, pre-historic motion they moved under the rainbow’s end and quietly disappeared into the bush beyond.

Bertrame, my trusted driver and guide, ran to the back of the van, hooting with laughter. The thunder was banging, the lightening was crashing and the heavens were emptying very wet rain onto us. I was too busy catching the rainbow spectacle on film as he held a poncho over my head.Next we were hurtling through the bush trying to make it to our nearest hope of cover, Chichele Presidential Lodge, the former holiday retreat of President Kenneth Kaunda (or KK as he is locally known). The skies continued with their dramatic display, the trees being periodically lit up by the lightening, as we drove. I stuck my camera under my fleece and blinked the water away from my eyes. The scene was too spectacular, too exhilarating to miss.

Chichele Presidential Lodge was built in 1960 and has an elevated hilltop location giving it the best sweeping view of any lodge in the South Luangwa National Park. It is beautifully colonial with an impressive arched entrance. As our 4x4 drew up, I looked through to the terrace and saw polished floors, brass fans, hanging lanterns and a grand piano. I wondered how our sodden state would be received but in the true tradition of ‘The Valley’ we were welcomed with open arms and giggles. It turned out that Suku, the lodge manager, had previously worked with Bertram at Robin Pope Safaris. We were clearly in good hands as I was handed a complete change of warm, dry safari gear. Bertram immediately set about arranging our sun downer drinks and snacks on the Chichele terrace. The rain had passed and we were soon enjoying the view and recounting the day's adventure to the other guests.

This was my second visit in 5 years to the South Luangwa National Park. October 2004 found me ‘bush camping’ between two of Robin Popes Safaris most established camps, Nsefu and Tena Tena. At this time of year the heat was high and the trees had lost many of their leaves making the game viewing outstanding. ‘Bush camping’ is a fantastic way to go deeper into the bush. For anyone serious about walking, June to October is the best time to visit as the land is dry enough to open up to walkers.

My most recent visit, March 2008, was during the so-called ‘emerald’ season. Game viewing at this time of year is a whole different ball game but equally thrilling. ‘Emerald’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘green’. The view from the 20-seater plane as we landed at Mfuwe Airport confirmed to me the appropriateness of this label. The scene was a far cry from the dusty, brown images usually conjured up when the words African Safari are mentioned.

March and the ‘emerald season’ brings with it wonderfully colourful migrant birds as well as providing a brilliant chance of seeing wild dog (from mid-February to mid-March). I experienced 7 different wild dog sightings of 3 different packs. Game viewing is excellent as many of the lagoons are full so animals gravitate towards the higher ground. Lions as well as wild dog are often seen walking on the roads.

I started my trip as a guest of Norman Carr Safaris who have Kapani as their main safari lodge, plus four individually designed bush camps. Norman (1912 – 1997) first pioneered Zambian walking safaris in the 1950’s and his legacy is Norman Carr Safaris where conservation and care of the local community remain a priority.

I was met by my guide Abraham. Quietly spoken and with over 15 years bush experience, Abraham is charming and infectiously enthusiastic about nature. Abraham also has the nose of a professional who knows the area like the back of his hand.

Within 24 hours of setting our 4x4 wheels into the South Luangwa National Park we had seen some incredible examples of the wildlife all of which you can see in the gallery. 
Mchenja Camp is situated right on the banks of the Luangwa River. It is a small, intimate camp with just 5 very stylish tents, each one under its own thatched roof. There is an outdoor shower and a large stand-alone bathtub. There is a small pool alongside the bar within the thatched main chitenje, allowing guests to seek cool refuge during the heat of the day. During the ‘emerald season’ it makes an excellent combination with Robin Pope Safari’s Nkwali Camp (ask one of our Africa specialists about the 7-night ‘Rivers & Rainbows' package), the last stop on my visit.The big bonus of this camp is its brilliant access to the South Luangwa National Park. During the dry season it is possible to walk across the dry riverbed and into the park itself. Elephants regularly make the same journey and often come to the waterhole near the thatched dining room. This can be seen, in comfort, from the bar! During the ‘emerald season’ a boat can be taken from just below the bar straight to a land rover waiting on the other side of the river in the park.

During my stay I was fortunate enough to be adopted onto a David Rogers Photographic Safari for a couple of days. A keen amateur, often lucky in terms of ‘right place, right time’ but with little technical know-how, I was well aware of my lack of expertise. However, David’s easy going approach to photography and passion for African wildlife and landscapes immediately relaxed everybody. It very soon became clear why David travels to this area during the ‘emerald season’. The occasional sharp, short and dramatic downpour settles the dust. The spectacular skies and clouds produce an excellent light for photographing the animals. Another extra plus is that the green vegetation makes for some colourful and unusual images.

With just 6 people in the group, everyone is able to benefit from David’s expertise, whether they have a point and shoot or a snazzy SLR. I learnt about the ‘rule of thirds’ when it comes to composition and ‘panning’, a technique that involves moving the camera with the subject so
that it appears sharp against a streaking, blurred background. I soon found myself clicking away with interest and ease.

The evenings, on a specialist safari such as this, were also fun. After supper each person showed his or her best 5 pictures of the day. Sitting on the Nkwali deck, sipping herbal tea (gin & tonic for some) and watching the big screen playing back the adventures of the day was, in my book, unbeatable!

The South Luangwa Park is not just about animals. What impressed me most about our safari partners in this area (Norman Carr Safaris and Robin Pope Safaris) is that the local community is integral to the smooth running of the operation. It is Zambian guides who are likely to take you on your game drives, trained up over 20 years or more to an excellent standard. Both operators actively support a local school (Yosefe and Kawaza Schools) and both use Tribal Textiles (beautiful individually painted cotton fabrics, this company employs 150 local people and fund-raises for the local community school, Malimba, educating over 160 children) to kit out the interiors of their camps. This area has the feel of everyone working together rather than in competition. A visit to one of the schools and to Tribal Textiles is ‘must-do’ of any trip to ‘The Valley’.

Access to the South Luangwa is quick and seamless. A 10-hour direct Overnight flight into Lusaka, followed by a short 2-hour hop in a 20-seater Aircraft and a 40-minute drive to either Kapani or Nkwali.

Zambian smiles will greet you and remain by your side throughout your stay. The hospitality I found here was second to none. Each individual’s needs, how ever quirky, were catered for with good humour. You can’t help but come away a happier person for the experience.

The only challenge that remains is how to maintain this level of contentment in the South-East of England commuter belt!

Cox & Kings offers luxury tours to Zambia. Call 03330 602 784 to speak to one of our expert Africa consultants.