NWS Olly Returns to Zambia

Oliver Greenfield

03 Nov 2017

Touch down in the Lower Zambezi

Touch down in the Lower Zambezi

It has been ten years since I was in Zambia and I was full of excitement and expectations for my upcoming trip. Zambia, more specifically the South Luangwa, is where I saw a leopard for the first time and so holds a special memory for me. So far it certainly hasn’t disappointed; within an hour of touching down in the Lower Zambezi National Park I had my first lion sighting! Admittedly we had gone out in search of wild dogs and their pups, but that’s the way the bush goes and who can complain.

The Lower Zambezi is situated on the Zambezi River, downstream of the Kariba Dam and directly opposite Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. The park is 40,000 sq km in size and, as mentioned, is bordered by the river on one side and mountains on the other, known as the Zambezi Escarpment. The park is now host to a large population of elephants, who I was to learn aren’t shy about being in camp. 

When visiting this park, canoeing on the river is just something that has to be done, so that’s what I did this afternoon. Even in 40 degree plus temperatures it most definitely didn’t disappoint. We canoed down a 12km channel from the main river, which I was told is the best calm water canoeing in Africa, and simply put it is stunning. Having done a Mokoro ride in Botswana a few times I had a good idea of what to expect. The wildlife was non-stop - birds, crocodiles, buffalo, numerous pods of hippo and even a lioness, who wasn’t too happy with our appearance and attempted to climb a tree, failed completely and promptly stalked off into the bush. 

I wrote the last part of my blog while still high from the adrenaline of the canoe trip and completely forgot to mention the surprise water lunch on arrival at Sausage Tree Camp. Myself and a few of the other guests went by pontoon down the river, where we were surprised by our lunch table being in the river and a delicious buffet waiting. 

My last camp in the park, Anabezi, was about an hour downstream. The camp is larger than the previous two I had stayed at but the rooms were spacious and well spread out over 600 metres along the river bank, so it doesn’t feel crowded at all. An afternoon game drive produced two very lucky leopard sightings. The first we found cooling off in a muddy hollow in a dried river bed, and she certainly wasn’t shy as she strolled past each of the three watching vehicles in turn giving everyone an opportunity for some great photos. The second sighting was in the dark just before returning to camp, and proved to be a very tense sighting as the leopard was stalking impala adjacent to our vehicle. The lights were kept off to give predator and prey an even footing, but it wasn’t the leopards night as the impala caught wind of her and scattered into the night.

South Luangwa National park

South Luangwa National park

Before I left the Lower Zambezi the park had one final surprise for me. As I was being driven to the airstrip for the flight to the South Luangwa we came across a pack of 14 wild dogs (five adults and nine pups). The pups were busy scrapping over the remains of what we determined to be a baboon, while the adults were back on the hunt and chasing impala around in the distance. 

The flight to Mfuwe, the gateway to the South Luangwa, is about one and a half hours. On arrival I jumped into another vehicle and started the two hour drive to Kaingo in the northern region of the park. The park is mainly dominated by the Luangwa river, which at this time of year attracts most of the wildlife to its banks as it is the only water source left in the park. The afternoon drive from Kaingo has to be one of the most exhilarating of any before. About halfway through the drive we came across a pride of nine lions lying flat out on the dry sand of the river bed. As none of them even raised their head to look at us, our guide suggested we carry on the drive and return later to see what might happen, as watching lions sleep is not the most thrilling. After an hour or so we returned and stopped for our sundowners on the bank above where the lions were still lying. At least this time they did raise their heads to see who we were. Lots of yawning and stretching followed and soon enough one of the lionesses was on her feet and heading towards us. As she did this, a hippo came into view as it came down off the bank heading straight for the lion. The hippo realised its predicament and instinctively charged the lioness to get to the water. 

With lots of bellowing from the hippo and growling and snarling from the lions, we thought it was all over for the hippo. As did the male lion who chased off the female to take the prize for himself when the hippo stopped bellowing and the body went limp. At this point, two huge hippos emerged from the river and charged straight into the pride, chasing them off the seemingly dead hippo. With a nudge from one of the newly arrived hippos the one on the ground suddenly jumped to its feet, snarled at the lions and ran for the river. I think both the lions and us were in shock from what had just happened as there was a stunned silence before the lions lined up along the riverside to watch their apparently easy meal disappear from their grasp. As discussed back in camp, it really was a sighting you couldn’t have made up!

The next couple of nights I spent in the remote southern section of the park. With only a few camps in the area, other vehicles are at a minimum. One morning my guide suggested we leave early to head to a hide they had set up in front of a colony of breeding southern carmine bee-eaters. Watching these beautiful birds going in and out of their nesting holes is something quite extraordinary to watch and a little difficult to catch on camera as it is so frenetic, especially with a yellow billed kite hovering over the colony waiting for its chance of a meal. After the hide it was time to set off on my first walk in the park; the South Luangwa is well known as the home of the walking safari. The walk was finished off by a surprise brunch of pizza making in the bush - not your traditional safari experience but great fun and tasty results!

Drives in this part of the park also produced some fantastic sightings including a mating pair of lions, leopard, hyena, civet, genets and, just as I was making my way back to the north, another pack of wild dogs. At Bilimungwe Camp I didn’t even need to leave the lodge for a drive, as throughout the midday siesta time the waterhole in front of my chalet was visited by a continuous stream of different animals, from elephants to tiny warthog piglets and their mum. 

My last couple of nights in the South Luangwa were spent at a couple of the Norman Carr bushcamps. Similar to the Bushcamp Company camps that I had been in for the last two nights, each of the camps has its own individual character. The wildlife was active throughout the night at Luwi Camp, with both hyena and lions making their presence known. Just before the 5am wake up call, the roaring of the lions was so close by I thought they must be closing in on camp. Sure enough, as I looked out of my room two lions were strolling past the front of camp, calling as they went. The lions were also heading in the direction of the next camp which I would shortly be setting out to walk too. 

Excitement levels were high amongst myself and the other guests as we started the walk. Not 10 minutes in and we heard the lions again, this time it was the sounds of fighting  coming from the riverbed ahead of us. Our pace quickened as we set off in the direction of the commotion, five minutes later we were looking down on the pride of lions from the relative safety of the riverbank above them. It appeared that one of the young males had been firmly put in his place by the dominant male of the pride. 

Carrying on our walk we thought it couldn’t get any better than lions on foot, but we were wrong. Perhaps half an hour later, one of the other guests saw something under a bush that appeared to have ears. A quick glance through binoculars showed a male leopard flat on the ground looking directly at us, not more than 75 metres away. With no natural barrier between us and the leopard this did not appear to be the most ideal situation to be in, but luckily numbers were on our side and the leopard was unsure what to do. We stayed still and showed the leopard we meant no harm, and after five minutes or so the leopard relaxed considerably and seemed happy with our presence, allowing us to take some quick pictures. When the leopard got fed up of us gawping at him, he rose, stretched and wandered off into the bush, leaving us all in awe of him and on cloud nine after another incredible sighting on foot. 

Kafue National Park

The next day I was on the move again to Kafue National Park Kafue is one of the largest national parks in Zambia - about the same size as Wales. My destination for the night was Ila Safari Lodge, which has been open for about a year now and is an eco-camp. It runs completely on solar power and even has electric vehicles, including an electric boat. My journey involved a flight from Mfuwe to Lusaka and then about an hours drive to the lodge, so an afternoon boat cruise on the river sounded like the perfect way to relax. Being on an electric boat is a bird watchers dream, as the boat is so quiet the birds were undisturbed by our approach, and we had some lovely sightings of kingfishers, egrets and rollers. 

My next stop was Shumba Camp in the Busanga Plains, in the north of the park about a 4-5 hour drive away - and that isn’t even covering half of the park! The Busanga Plains are well known for their populations of lions and red lechwe, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I also saw huge herds of buffalo and a herd of elephants numbering well over a hundred. Shumba offers the very special morning activity of taking a hot air balloon flight over the plains, which I was extremely excited about as I have been wanting to do this for as long as I can remember. During the night a huge storm blew through camp, with strong winds and thunder and lighting all around. Lying in bed and watching the storm pass was quite a spectacle and at one stage I did feel like my tent was going to be blown away. Unfortunately, this storm ruined my chances of going up in the hot air balloon in the morning as it was still too windy. Disappointed but undeterred, I went out on a drive and had some fantastic sightings of a leopard on a kill, followed by lions on a kill and another lion sighting of two huge males. 

My final night in Kafue was spent at Masukese Camp, which has a beautiful setting overlooking a very active lagoon and a very authentic safari feel. My guide here was one of the camp owners and, simply put, was fantastic, extremely knowledgable and clearly passionate about the area. The weather was against us, being overcast and rather cold, meaning that our wildlife sightings were rather limited due to them changing their habits. However, this by no means meant that the drives were anything but fascinating, and I learnt a huge amount about the smaller animals and the plants and ecosystem in general - without doubt one of the best guided experiences of my trip.

Liuwa Plains National Park

The last location on this journey was Liuwa Plains National Park and the recently opened King Lewanika Camp Liuwa Plains is in the western province of Zambia, close to the border with Angola. The park was one of the first protected areas in Zambia, however it was badly affected by poaching from people coming across the border during the Angolan Civil War. In recent years the park has been under the management of African Parks, who have been working to restore the populations of the resident species, which has been a great success so far.

Liuwa Plains was made famous by a documentary called The Last Lioness which told the story of Lady Liuwa, who was the only lion to roam the plains until the reintroduction of others in recent years. Unfortunately Lady Liuwa died earlier this year due to old age but, despite not having any cubs herself, her legacy definitely lives on in the remaining Liuwa pride members. The park is also well known for having the second largest wildebeest migration after the Serengeti/Masai Mara. From the end of October through the wet season until May, the southern plains of the park are flooded with thousands upon thousands of wildebeest. They move South to calve and enjoy the lush grass as the young grow. When the plains dry out again the herds head back north and spread out. During their time in the south of the park the predators make the most of the bounty. Unlike most other parks in Zambia, if not Africa, hyena are actually the apex predator here due to the small lion population. There are clans of hyena that number over 90 individuals and the clans will hunt for their food rather than scavenging.

Birdlife is plentiful in the park, with large populations of the critically endangered wattled crane, the beautiful crowned crane, pelican, saddle billed stork and plenty more. Days were spent mostly on drives, with sightings of hyena, lions, cheetah and of course wildebeest. There were also opportunities to visit the base for the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), where they are researching the habits of the carnivores of the park and monitoring the movement and numbers of the wildebeest. A second visit was to the local community school which the Time & Tide foundation, who operate the camp, sponsors. This school is a real success story, showcasing a community spirit and a drive to provide a good start to the younger generation in this remote area.

With only one permanent camp and thousands of kilometres to explore, Liuwa Plains is for me one of the great last wilderness areas that is thankfully being brought back from the brink, and it was an absolute honour to end my trip here. All in all, Zambia has provided everything: plentiful wildlife, thrilling activities and a beautiful and varied landscape to explore. 


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