A wildlife odyssey ...through Zambia (Part 2)

| December 3, 2019

Mike and Chris Simm continue their grand tour of Zambia’s wildlife reserves, taking in the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi national parks.

We left Kafue National Park by car for the return journey to Lusaka to catch a flight to our next camp in South Luangwa National Park. After checking in, dinner, a couple of modest libations and a good night’s sleep, we rose for our first safari in the new park, which certainly delivered.  

Early in the drive we came across zebra and giraffes, both unavailable in Kafue. The latter is the Thornicroft’s giraffe, named after Harry Scott Thornicroft (1868-1944), a British colonial administrator in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) who married an African woman. This subspecies of giraffe only exists in the Luangwa valley and may therefore be genetically unique.

Zebra, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Zebra, South Luangwa National Park

This was a good start, but better was to follow as we came upon a pack of wild dogs, some 15 strong, who were clearly getting over a good meal, as evidenced by blood on their muzzles and the fact that they were lying down in a sort of postprandial torpor. The species has been classified as endangered and numbers are reducing (disease and human action being responsible) and only about 20% (c 1,400 animals) are deemed reproductive. Their manners have, however, not improved in the three years since we last saw them: they still insist on tearing their prey limb from limb before it has breathed its last.

Painted dogs, Zambia

Wild dogs, South Luangwa National Park

We lurched on and in due course sighted another vehicle, whose occupants were staring intently across a ravine into bushes and trees. We craftily nipped across to the other side and were rewarded with a close encounter with a leopard which, whilst in hunting mode, nevertheless stayed within about five yards of us for some considerable time, posing photogenically.

After about 20 minutes it moved off and we moved on, coming across a pair of hyenas, who eventually eluded us by the simple expedient of going through parts of the landscape our vehicle, even in off-road mode, could not cope with.

During the rest of the day we saw many old favourites again, and shortly after nightfall came across a hunting leopard with impala in its sights (though I have to say that being spotlit for the benefit of tourists did little to improve its chances of getting a decent meal). This leopard eventually came right up to our vehicle and disappeared underneath it. It subsequently occurred to me that leaning out to take pictures did run the risk not only of losing the camera, but also a significant chunk of one’s arm, if the leopard had decided to take a swipe. Eventually it moved off, at which point we decided to leave it to get on with the hunt.

The highlights of the following day were twofold. Firstly, on our morning drive, we finally saw lions for the first time in this park, in the shape of a pride of four females and three males. They appeared to have had the full Zambian for breakfast, since practically all of them were stretched out asleep, with one male left on guard duty.

Male lion, Zambia

Lion, South Luangwa National Park

We watched this exercise in inaction for a while, and then noticed on the track behind us a hyena disappearing into the bush and vultures circling overhead. We decided that these circumstances merited further investigation and set off after the hyena. After a couple of hundred yards we discovered what the lions had had for breakfast, and indeed what the hyenas were having for elevenses, namely what had been a young, female buffalo. The lions had removed all the meat and a pair of hyenas were crunching down on the bones, with the vultures hanging around in the hope of mounting a quick smash and grab; you only realise how truly vicious a hyena is when you see it, teeth bared, driving vultures away.

Hyena and vultures with prey, Zambia

After the kill..South Luangwa National Park

That was the end of our morning. In the afternoon we came across mother and baby giraffe families, giving rise to an “Aah” moment for the spindly legged babies, but the big event (and second highlight) was the “Lions Up a Tree” show. Nobody knew why they (a mother and daughter) had climbed 20ft up a tree, the best guess being that they had been chased up there by another predator. They wandered about along the fairly substantial branch like a circus act, before it became apparent that whilst they might have mastered the art of climbing trees, no attention had been paid to the concomitant need to get down again. The mother tried to make her daughter, who was positioned nearer to the trunk, get down first, but without success, and eventually decided to climb over her. There ensued a loud crashing noise and shaking branches as she relied on gravity and the braking effect of the foliage to descend.

Our last two days covered more sightings of a wide range of creatures including water buck, bush buck and kudu (the more prevalent female and the spectacularly horned male), but the big moment came on our final day. Zambian tourist advertising makes much use of a picture of two lions, called Ginger and Garlic (don’t ask me why), who live in South Luangwa – and we found them! In lion terms they are practically senior citizens, and when we discovered them they were asleep in the shade of a bush and dreaming happily, if their breathing and twitches were anything to go by. We spent some time in their company before moving on in search of other animals and birds. Returning late in the day we found them still drowsy but having shifted position to keep in the shade. One of them opened an eye, looked at us and then dismissed us as being of no significance.

Sleeping lions, Zambia

"Ginger" and "Garlic" asleep in the shade, South Luangwa National Park

The following morning we flew back to Lusaka for our transfer to Lower Zambezi National Park. This involved a commercial flight back to Lusaka and then, my very favourite form of flying, a private charter in a small plane (required in order to avoid having to hang around for six hours in the domestic bit of the airport). And when I say small, I mean small! Single prop, four seats, but flown by a very reassuring South African chap, who informed us that he had been doing this for 35 years without mishap (this is either encouraging, or gives rise to the thought that it’s about time his luck ran out!) Anyway, we stuffed our luggage into what passed for the hold, Chris climbed into the back seats and I was parked in the co-pilot’s seat with instructions not to touch anything! We then ascended to 7,500ft, flew for about 15 minutes and descended to the airstrip near our camp.

Lower Zambezi National Park, our final destination, has as wide a variety of landscapes as I’ve ever seen, from almost post-apocalyptic areas in a grey tone to grassy plains, wide areas of compressed sand, forested parts, ponds and rivers. It also welcomes visitors at the gate with an attractive display of buffalo skulls. It has a rather larger population of elephants than at our other camps, but having seen so many we opted not to stop near them very often to avoid stressing them. I now also wonder, when an elephant backs away, whether it is avoiding us or merely giving itself a better run up!

Our first afternoon drive featured the usual collection of wildlife, plus a leopard and, as we returned to camp after nightfall, a pride of lions – it becomes a whole new show when they are lit by the night-drive lamps in yellow and red.

Leopard in tree, Zambia

Leopard, South Luangwa National Park

Our morning drive the following day produced an example of the sort of challenge many a tourist has to face: is that a termite mound or a lion in the distance? Usually it’s a termite mound but on this occasion even our driver was unsure what we had seen. It turned out to be lions and we had a good quarter of an hour’s unimpeded close-up viewing.

Towards the end of this drive, we were informed by the bush telegraph that a pair of lions had been discovered engaged in acts of open-air procreation, so we set off towards the site! On arrival we were advised that they had just finished a bout. “Don’t worry,” said our guide, “they’ll be at it again in about 10 minutes” – though he may well have phrased it more delicately! After about 45 of the 10 minutes had elapsed, the lioness rose, nudged her partner in the ribs and gave him the “come on” sign. He got up and, after a brief bout of pawplay, did the necessary.

In the afternoon we went canoeing. These are dugout canoes, not kayaks, and are powered by camp staff, not their clients. The objective is to have a gentle meander along a waterway through a small channel. It was, however, a little problematic at this time of year as it is coming to the end of the dry season and water levels are low, even in the Zambezi itself. Being the heavier of the two canoes on the trip by several stone, and therefore more prone to problems, we were reduced at some points to tacking from sandbar to sandbar.

Hippos, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

Hippopotami, Lower Zambezi National Park

It did, however, prove enjoyable, with sightings of animals and birds on the banks. In due course we reached a point where a group of elephants were preparing to cross. Given that the options for escape in the event of problems were non-existent, we stopped by some branches which extended into the channel. As we did so, we noticed strange movements beneath the water, but it came as a complete shock when a hippo emerged on the far side of the woodwork and, like an overweight cruise missile, shot through the water and up the opposite bank without breaking stride (insofar as anything weighing in excess of a couple of tons and having short stumpy legs can be considered to have a stride). It caused us some degree of consternation, and the elephants to retreat. The latter eventually returned to their crossing, but one of them hung about in the water long after the rest had crossed, delaying us further. The rest of our ride then passed without further incident.

Elephants, Zambia

Elephants in Lower Zambezi National Park

In between wildlife drives we spent one afternoon on a boat ride along the navigable part of the Chongwe river, allowing a further opportunity for birding as well as fairly close range sightings of crocodiles. We then ventured out into the Zambezi itself, which can be fun at this time of year since there appears to be a resident pod of hippos at the junction of the two rivers. The space they leave for egress is, to say the least, shallow, and even when in the main channel of the river it’s a bit of a slalom around hippos and sandbanks.

Hippopotami, Lower Zambezi, Zambia

Hippopotami, Lower Zambezi National Park

On another occasion we spent our drive outside the park, heading for a range of hills known as the escarpment. This gave us the opportunity to find smaller creatures such as the tree hyrax, squirrels (smaller than the UK variety) and mongooses, and eventually gave us a spectacular view back over the park.

Our time in the bush finally came to an end and we had to contemplate returning to reality after the pleasures of being fundamentally disconnected from the world and engaged with nature. We experienced a wide range of environments and probably a wider range of wildlife than on any previous safari. We also found a degree of contentment in these surroundings, helped immeasurably by the people we met, who were lovely, friendly and welcoming, and added much to our enjoyment. Would we go on safari again? Bring it on…

Read Part 1 of Mike and Chris Simm's grand tour of Zambia’s wildlife here, taking in Kafue National Park. If you are interested in arranging your own tailor-made trip, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.


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