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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

A Sensational Safari in South Luangwa

ZAMBIA | Monday, 15 July 2013 | Views [1011]

Our 7.30am taxi turned up at 7.50am so bang on time by African standards(!) and were excited to be on our way to another ‘new’ country.  The first stop was at the garage where we didn’t fill up but needed air in the front tyre.  Even this wasn’t a zippy process as our driver got roped into helping with another vehicle before his car was dealt with!  However, we were soon on our way and enjoying the luxury of private travel.  The road to the border was pretty much straight and tarmacked all the way.  Land immigration posts, in our experience over the last year, are so much quieter and less hassle than dealing with airport authorities.  This was no different and we soon had the necessary exit stamp, had paid our $50 each visas fee for Zambia and had been stamped in.  The staff were all very friendly and the bloke in Zambia happily listened to Steve’s request to find a gap on a page that had already been started, leaving a precious blank page for later in the trip.

Mofy, the person who Steve had contacted to organise this tour soon arrived at the border and we transferred into another vehicle.  Again it was private transport and we were soon in the nearest and quite large town of Chipatpa.  Here we dealt with the business of paying for the trip and visiting a cash point while Mofy popped into the supermarket.  Chores done and we were on our way to South Luangwa National Park.  Along the way we stopped at some sort of eco-farm where it was interesting to learn about the medicinal properties of some of the local plants but simultaneously embarrassing at being put on the spot for a donation.  Fortunately our next stop was where we’d be calling home for the next 4 nights.

We didn’t know where we’d been booked into other than it was near the main gate to the national park so we had no preconceived hopes or expectations.  It turned out we were staying an excellent little place called August Moon run by the very friendly Caroline.  It appears they know each other and have conducted business over the years but this is the first time her new venture, August Moon, has been used.  The place is in the throes of being established so has a somewhat ramshackle feel to it but we loved it.  There’s no perimeter fence so the wild animals are free to wander around at will and Caroline told us loads of tales of her experiences.  The buildings are constructed using a great deal of local raw materials but they’ve been very nicely furnished.  Our cute chalet was very airy and spacious with a great externally attached bathroom.

We instantly felt very at home and enjoyed a couple of hours sitting outside waiting to see what would show itself.  Baboons were bounding around at will and at present are still wary of getting too close to people although they’re very curious.  We also enjoyed watching birds, bushbuck, skinks, lizards, geckos, frogs and a family of banded mongoose pottering around.  Caroline serves up delicious, freshly made, home cooked food in hearty portions.  To be honest the standard is akin to that you’d expect to find in a posh lodge and is beautifully presented.  We felt like we’d landed on our feet booking this tour through Budget Safaris with a 5D/4N package costing a total of $980 per couple which includes; transfers from Lilongwe and back to Chipata, all accommodation and meals and 4 x 4hr jeep game drives.  National Park entrance fees are extra at $25 a head for a 24hr period and the usual extra drinks, snacks etc. http://budgetsafaritours.com/home.html

South Luangwa National Park

With the tour we’d booked our 4-hour safaris started at around 6am and in the afternoon we commenced at 4pm-ish with the latter turning into a night drive.  The fact that you can stay in the park after dark makes it special and very unusual.  To be honest it was predominantly for this reason that we chose to make this park one of our must see spots for this trip.  This national park is spread across 950km2 and includes a range of vegetation and habitats including; rivers, lakes, ponds, dry savannah, thickly wooden areas and grasslands speckled with acacia, baobab, sausage, tamarind and other trees.  The park boundaries are formed by rivers on two sides and a mountain range on the other with the interior being one of the most beautiful we’ve visited.  Obviously the game drives can’t cover much more than a fraction of this vast expanse but as you drive around you are constantly admiring wonderful scenery.

As lovely and as vital as the plants are and as much as we enjoyed the vistas; let’s be honest, we were here to find wildlife and we’d read there was every likelihood that we weren’t going to leave disappointed.  I’m not going to tell you where, when, how many and how often we saw each creature but I just have to tell you about some particular highlights.  First of all – what did we see?

Birds  Ibis (sacred & hadeda), stork (marabou, open-billed & yellow-billed), helmeted guineafowl, eagle (African fish & bataleur), heron (grey, purple & black-capped), spoonbill, white fronted bee-eater, oxpecker, hooded vulture, hornbill (ground, grey, broad-billed & red-billed), starlings (glossy & Merves), lilac-breasted roller, lovebirds, kingfisher (brown-capped & pied), pied wagtail, Egyptian goose, Mozambique nightjar, white-breasted coucal, francolins, great egret, African harrier hawk, avocet, hamerkop, & grey go-away bird.  (35) Plus many more that were simply fluttering around that remain ‘un-pointed-out’ and therefore unnamed.

Animals        Mongoose (bushy-talied, white-tailed, banded & slender), yellow baboon, bushbuck, Nile crocodile, Nile water monitor, Thornicroft giraffe, vervet monkey, elephant, sub-species of the plains zebra, hippopotamus, waterbuck, impala, puku, greater kudu, buffalo, spotted hyena, warthog, scrub hare, genet, civet, tree squirrel, elephant shrew, honey badger, LION & LEOPARD (28)

Now from those lists above you can already glean what the highlights might have been!  Before I start talking about specific animals I’m sure you’ll agree that one major highlight was simply the fact that we saw so many different creatures.  Added to which was the fact that we were constantly able to see something in the bush even if it was just yet another antelope or bonny sparrow!  There aren’t ludicrously large herds of buffalo and zebra like in Kenya and Tanzania but at the same time we could drive around for an hour without seeing another jeep.  Hippos and crocs are here in big numbers and who can ever tire of watching them?  Some of the other animals may sound a bit ordinary like the impala and zebra but our guide/driver, David, always had something interesting to tell us about them.  He was extremely knowledgeable on all the vegetation, birds and animals and we were constantly learning something new.

We love giraffes and don’t think we could ever tire of watching them – they’re so beautiful and graceful despite their somewhat gangly, awkward build.  It was such a pleasure to see them at regular intervals and to sighting a different species, that’s unique to this park, made it extra special.  On the first game drive we encountered quite a large family group that included a baby that was only a couple of months old.  Being born at 2m tall doesn’t stop you from being cute we discovered!  Elephants are always a treat to find and view and like the giraffes we spotted these firm favourites on numerous occasions.  The largest group we saw (18) was a combination of a couple of herds that had converged to drink.  The most exciting behaviour we witnessed was babies suckling – among all the pachyderms we’ve seen over the years, this was a first.

Other snapshots include; a hyena with blood stains on its flanks moving through the bush, an African fish eagle with a small reptile in its talons, the scrub hares acting like startled rabbits, a young harrier hawk learning to ride the thermals, watching a huge troop of baboons basking in the early morning rays, impala springing and bouncing around, seeing new species such as the puku and a whole host of small mammals, finding new species to add to the list on each and every game drive  spotting lots of different animals outside the park boundaries and finally; looking across tree studded grasslands towards autumnal coloured forest and beyond to a purplish, blue mountain range whilst realising we could also see elephants, giraffes, impala, puku, baboons and warthogs and a plethora of bird life.

Unusually for Africa lions are more difficult to spot than other large cats in South Luangwa National Park and many leave the area without ever encountering this continents largest feline.  Not only were we not disappointed but when we did find the lions we were the only jeep to do so.  Added to which we found a pride of 5 consisting of a dominant male, 2 younger males and a couple of lionesses.  They allowed the jeep to approach closely but our presence perturbed them and it wasn’t long before they moved away from the jeep.  That’s not to say they dashed off but as they moved into thicker grass it became increasingly difficult to locate them.  We observed them for some time and no other vehicles joined us; our own private pride of lions.  Later in the day we heard people bemoaning the fact that they’d not really seen anything but had heard that one group had seen 5 lions - tee hee!

The ultimate highlight was finding the leopard, in actual fact we found a family group of 3 – mum and her 2 cubs – although we never actually saw them all together.  The cubs were too old to be with mum constantly but she hung around to check up on their development and well-being every few days.  The limited number of lion and lack of cheetah in this section of the park makes this one off the world’s hotspots for sighting this most elegant and beautiful of the big cats.  We’d hoped above all hopes that we’d finally get to see one up close instead of the usual distant tree sighting or fleeting glance.  In fact we only got a fleeting glance of the young male cub’s tail end but his sister and mum we got to view at length.  Even more amazing was the fact that we got to see leopards on 3 out of our 4 game drives with the afternoon/evening drives proving to be the more successful. 

We saw the mother leopard prowling and running through the park and it made for a spectacular sight.  However, the female cub proved to be the one least afraid of vehicles and she allowed us to watch her at length and at extremely close quarters.  Our guide was, not surprisingly, the first to spot her but initially we thought he was having us on as he announced her presence in such a nonchalant way.  We’d been watching hippos and crocs when he said, “And of course straight ahead, taking a drink from that small puddle over there you will also see the leopard”.  Sure enough as we edged closer we could all see her and like I said she allowed us to approach as we weren’t blocking her intended path.  After 5mins or so she leapt up the bank so we doubled back and went to see if we could find her again.  By the time we’d driven round a few more jeeps had spotted her but she calmly allowed 4 jeeps to approach her.  We’ve never witnessed such calm and tolerant behaviour in leopards and to highlight the point she lay down in the grass and watched us, watching her.

After a while she started to look a little restless but it turned out to have nothing to do with humans; she’d heard a noise in the grass, pounced upon whatever small creature was unfortunate enough to be in her vicinity and disappeared into the thickets.  All 7 occupants of our jeep had had a good leopard sighting number one on their wish list and we were all grinning unashamedly.  By this point the other 3 jeeps had driven off but our guide asked if we wanted to wait a while to see if we could find her again.  Our response?  A resounding YES PLEASE!  We soon tracked her down prowling along a dry ditch that afforded her an excellent route to get closer to her prey.  By this point the light was beginning to fade so we left her in peace and went to see what the night-time game drive would reveal.

By the time we commenced our fourth and final game drive lions, leopards and a long list of other birds and animals had been sighted.  David declared his job was done and asked us what our thoughts and requests were for our final trip.  We were all so very happy and utterly satisfied with our experiences we decided to leave it in his more than capable hands.  Initially we took it very slowly with David providing us with more information about the plants in the park and testing us on birds and animals we’d sighted previously.  Then the mother leopard was spotted – David sensed how thrilled we all were to see her and instantly made up his mind to go in search of her cubs.  We returned to the river bank but the leopards weren’t thirsty today so we set off to find some smaller mammals.  However, as we were crossing the ditch we’d seen the female cub prowling down the previous evening we spotted a fresh puku kill.  The excitement levels shot up!

David quickly and accurately assessed the situation and concluded that it had to be a very recent leopard kill so the cat had to be in the vicinity.  We climbed up onto the bank to wait as not much of the carcass had been eaten so it was likely the leopard would return soon.  It got better than that.  As we drove along the bank to find a space to turn around I spotted the female cub resting in a narrow ginnel leading off the main ditch.  We watched her for ages trying to regain her breath after the exhaustion of the hunt and kill.  Even though this was only a 2 year old cub she’d managed to take down a fully grown male puku that weighs considerable more than she does. 

David said that showed her immaturity as she should have gone for something she could drag up into a tree to keep it safe from hyenas.  She’d quickly gorged herself so the kill hadn’t been in vain but we waited a while to see if hyenas had detected the smell of fresh blood.  These most powerful of all the scavengers didn’t put in an appearance so she returned to the kill for another bite to eat.  I never thought we’d witness a leopard, on a kill, in full view.  The only sad element of this of this wildlife spectacle was watching the puku’s family staring at their dead member and listening to the young ones sadly bleating.  The warthogs also wandered over for a good stare and we liked to think the parents were saying, “see; now you know why we told you to keep away from that spotty cat”!

As the sun was setting we moved a short distance away from the leopard and her kill to chat about our amazing experience and to partake in sunset beer.  As we were standing around a jeep from one of the very expensive posh lodges turned up and David elected not to tell their guide about ‘our’ leopard.  On previous game drives he’d shared information with friends and drives linked to the budget accommodation situated outside the park.  His justification for this change in tactic?  He’s paid the same as me to do the same job – let him find the leopard for the rich tourists!!  Not wishing to attract other jeeps we, albeit somewhat reluctantly, elected to continue with the drive and return in about an hour to see what the situation was. 

On returning we found our leopard resting, in full view on top of the bank, having obviously stuffed herself.  The hyenas had failed to detect the kill so she’d elected to protect it even though it meant staying out in the open.  I began to wonder if she wasn’t cleverer and showing more maturity than she’d initially been given credit for.  She’s clearly developed excellent hunting skills but also knows not to leave the fresh kill in full view so had dragged it down into the ditch.  This meant it was away from prying eyes but more importantly, the lack of breeze would mean the hyenas would need to be in the immediate vicinity to detect the carcass.

By this time it was dark so we had to use the spotlight to be able to see her.  Again she wasn’t concerned with our watching her and even rolled onto her back a couple of times, looking all the world like an over-sized pet cat.  We all felt extremely lucky and privileged to have been able to witness a day in the life of a leopard and feel like we’ve learnt so much more about them.  Having observed the family group over a couple of days gave us a greater understanding of this fabulous and oh so stunning creature.  If you want to see leopards it seems South Luangwa National Park is THE place to go.

There was still an hour of the game drive to go but we didn’t want to linger with the spotlight on our feline friend for fear of alerting the hyenas so carried on.  Obviously we’d have all happily watched her until our time was up but we also knew she deserved our respect for her privacy.  We didn’t care if we saw nothing else for the remainder of the game drive as nothing was going to beat that experience.  Or as David said, “this is what we call special sightings”.  Agreed, but an enormous understatement, surely.  Unbelievably, by the time we exited the park gates one final time, I had 4 more small mammal sightings to add to my list.  We’d heard and read great things about South Luangwa National Park but it far, far surpassed any hopes or expectations.  Will we return?  Oh, I sincerely hope so.

We reluctantly bid Caroline farewell and the only positive thing about leaving her lovely little place was we wouldn’t be eating elephantine sized meals any longer!  We don’t know what her rates are but suspect they will be very reasonable and we strongly recommend you stay there.  Should you find yourself in the area contact her on: [email protected] and we hope you enjoy your stay as much as we did.

On returning to Chipata (a functional town only 10kms from the border with Malawi) we were dropped at Dean’s Hill View which was again a spacious site set within nice gardens.  We booked a double room with shared facilities at a cost of $20 which was good value.  Unfortunately Dean’s kitchen had recently been burned down and he was still in the process of repairing it so food choice was limited.  We were still stuffed from Caroline’s super-sized breakfast so simply dined out on instant noodles.  Travel kettle to the rescue once again & I’ve set Steve the challenge of writing a travel kettle cook book!

The only down side to Dean’s place is that it is a few kilometres out of town and we needed to buy bus tickets to Lusaka for the following day.  Walking into town in broad daylight is fine but we didn’t fancy it in the dark the following morning with our bags.  Knowing we’d need to get a taxi regardless we bought tickets for the 5.30am bus.  The guesthouse phoned a taxi but not surprisingly it didn’t turn up and that put us in a spot of bother.  We’d learned from another couple that they were also catching the bus to Lusaka but were using a different company and they’d agreed to stop on the main road to pick them up.  If only we’d known…………………  Their 5am bus eventually turned up and the person allocated into making sure the bus stopped and they boarded, disembarked.  We explained our situation but he said our bus wouldn’t stop as we’d not asked it to do so in advance.  Double bother.  This kindly chap told us that our bus was still in the station boarding and phoned his friend to be our taxi service thus ensuring we caught our bus.  His friend charged Kw20 and the bus fare on Johabie’s buses was Kw150 each.  8hrs later; having travelled along a smooth tarmacked road through lovely scenery we arrived in the capital city.


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