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Reminiscing - South Luangwa first trip


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South Luangwa Trip Report - March 2005



This trip report starts on a very positive note. On arrival at LHR we were upgraded for our Lusaka flight to Club Class; champagne, excellent food and fine wines, flat beds. However, I still couldn’t sleep properly, probably because of the fine wines.


The next flight involved a slightly smaller plane (1 pilot, 1 co-pilot and 4 passengers), which took us to Mfuwe. The 90-minute journey was dominated by stunning views of the Luangwa River, with its’ numerous meanderings and ox-bow formations.


Our first lodge (3 nights) was Kapani, part of the Norman Carr Safaris operation. The lodge was excellent in every way, with good food and accommodation. Our temporary home was a large stone-built banda, en-suite, with a wide verandah overlooking part of the lagoon. I spent some time chasing, catching and safely moving outside a vicious looking insect, only to be told later that it was a spider-eating wasp, an occupation of which Ruth approves greatly!


The first night drive of our trip was very successful; we encountered puku, gemsbok, white-tailed mongoose, porcupine, elephant shrew, genet, two bush babies and leopard!! No matter how often I see this animal the thrill remains the same. Towards the end of the drive the heavens opened for a torrential 5-minute downpour. Apart from a later storm, which we avoided, this was to be the only rain we saw. (All the lodges told us that the rains were less than usual).


In the bar that same evening Ruth and I saw our first “live kill”. It was only a frog chasing and then devouring a firefly, but hey, we have to start somewhere. We call this our “Attenborough Moment”.


Game drives over the next couple of days brought us excellent birding. For those interested, we spotted Red Bishop, Wire-tailed Swallow, White-fronted bee-eater, Pin-tailed Whydah, Malachite Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher and an African Goshawk. (Not sure about this last one – it could have been a juvenile snake eagle).


One of the Luangwa tributaries was in full flow for about 12 hours, following the first night downpour, and we watched a 50-strong herd of buffaloes pacing up and down at the bank, unable to cross at their usual spot. Amazingly, when we drove by the same place the following day, we could have walked across the river, using the sandbanks.


On our last drive at Kapani we were driving through deep bush at about 10:00am when we found our way blocked by a Land Cruiser. The occupants had, minutes before our arrival, rescued two German women whose private vehicle had become stuck in the mud 22 hours earlier! They certainly looked relieved to be saved!!


We were transferred by river to our next lodge, Nkwali (Robin Pope Safaris), where we met our guide, Rocky. He proved to be one of the best guides we’ve ever been with; very knowledgeable, with a great sense of humour and happy to drive slowly to let us enjoy the smells and sounds of the bush. We saw a Crowned hornbill swoop onto a dove’s nest and chase off the dove. The hornbill then proceeded to eat all the eggs from the nest. I understand that this behaviour is very uncommon, although I bet there are some who have seen such a thing.


Whilst at Nkwali we had our first ever sighting of wild dogs, and how!! The pack (named the Luwi Pack by the local experts) was 14-strong and our encounter was so sudden that I ruined the first dozen or so photos as my hands were shaking with excitement. I guess we were with the dogs for about 10 minutes; several times in that short period I found myself forgetting to breathe, so enthralled was I at seeing them so close to us. We saw another 9 dogs the following day; apparently these were from a different pack, so the population seems to be growing after recent fears of total extinction.


Every day brought wonderful sightings of elephants. Either in big (30+) herd or in ones and twos, with babies, scattered throughout the park. We both love to stop and watch them in silence, enjoying their feeding, drinking and playing. One tiny elephant had us chuckling as he attempted to twirl a tree branch round and round with his trunk. At one stage, he almost fell over trying to manipulate the branch.


A word on Nkwali – the food here is exceptional; very imaginative dishes using always fresh produce. I don’t know how they manage to produce such fare when they are so far from civilization.


Champagne sundowners by the river, during which Rocky, Ruth and myself competed to shoot the best sunset, prefaced our final night drive at Nkwali. I do believe that my efforts improved the more champagne I drank. On the drive we saw civet (briefly), leopard (not that close by) and a puff adder (much too close).


On our last morning at Nkwali we visited a local school and spent some time talking with the Head. His school has 417 pupils, of which 145 are orphans (through AIDS and malaria). We were both near to tears as the Head described how he receives messages every other day, confirming another student has lost a mother, father or grandparent. This catastrophic situation means that many children have their education interrupted, as they have to find someone else to look after them (often someone from the extended family). However, the importance of education seems clear to the children, as they mostly return to their studies once their life is back on an even keel. The Head cited one girl who became pregnant three times, had her three children and is now back in school. Resources and facilities are scarce; the infrastructure is not yet developed to support the roads, transport and housing which would enable children (and teachers) to live close to their school. I find it all very depressing, and cannot see how the Zambians are going to extricate themselves from the grinding poverty and ill health that so many of them currently suffer.


Our original plan was to take a boat along the Luangwa to Tafika Camp, our next port of call for 3 days. However, the river was too low in many sections for the journey to be possible. Stephen, our new guide, told us on introductions that it was his 45th birthday, and that he would be driving us from Mfuwe airport to the camp. This two and a half hour journey was arduous; roads were unmade, the heat was oppressive and the tsetse flies were out in force to greet us.


We finally arrived at Tafika to be greeted by John and Carole Coppinger, who set up Remote Africa Safaris in 1995. The company name is appropriate; we were literally miles from anywhere and the rustic thatched chalets added to the feeling of being out in the bush. Following an excellent meal and a restful night we were out at 05:30 on a downstream canoe trip of the Luangwa. The water levels were very low on several stretches; we could tell because the hippos were apparently walking on water! There was lots of birdlife, with bee-eaters, storks and heron in abundance, not to mention hundreds of hippos and several crocodiles. We did however feel relatively safe, as the inflatable dinghy, which carried an armed Park ranger and two other guides, one of whom was responsible for refreshments, was following us. After almost 2 hours of rowing (Stephen, not us), we disembarked and set out on our first bush walk. Apart from lots more birds we saw buffaloes and antelopes, before we returned to camp on the dinghy.


Wednesday was a day of great excitement for me. Starting out at 06:00 I took my first-ever microlight flight with the greatly experienced Mr. Coppinger. The views of the river were stunning and the sound of the wind and the quiet drone of the engine made the flight trance-like. We flew over a herd of buffalo, some of who followed our progress with their eyes; it was amusing to see their great horned heads turning in unison with our flight path. John flew us directly over the stork colony, where we could clearly see two or three newly born chicks in their nests, apparently the very first of the season. When John spotted a crocodile out of the river, he banked our machine down low and fast, passing directly over him; at one point I could have sworn that the croc looked us straight in the eyes! Ruth flew the following day, taking lots of pictures during her half-hour session; I think she’s after my job as trip photographer.



Ruth now takes up the writing -


As well as being on the river and micro lighting we also undertook a couple of short (2 – 3 hour) safari walks while we were at Tafika. The most enjoyable was the walk to the huge Stork Colony early one morning (after Phil’s exciting micro light experience). We set off on the river for about 40 minutes in the motorized dinghy and then walked for about an a hour and a half, stopping to look at lots of interesting things on the way – insects, plants, animal tracks (we failed to identify the aardvark!) as well as impala, giraffes and elephants (somehow so much bigger when you are on foot!). Finally we arrived at an open grass area where there were 5 or 6 large trees in a line all covered in nests and Storks. The chicks were beginning to hatch and the noise, pretty loud when we were there, must be deafening by now, as they should all have hatched within a week. We spent ages trying to get the perfect shot of a Stork flying over-head (not sure we succeeded but it was fun trying). It amazed us how hot it was even at 9 o’clock in the morning and we were very glad that our companions included the all important refreshments carrier – a welcome pause under the shade of a huge sausage tree – luckily enough the fruits were not yet ripe enough to pose any threat! We were even more amazed to learn that earlier in the season the Stork colony can be reached by boat and that the trees are usually surrounded by water at this time of year – even more evidence of the unusually dry “wet- season” in the S Luangwa this year.


We also went for an afternoon / evening game drive one day. We saw very little game during the whole time – mainly because the grass and undergrowth was still quite thick and provided many hiding places. However the scenery was beautiful and we felt much more remote than at Mfuwe as we didn’t see a single other vehicle and we knew that we were the only tourists in this whole area. We were lucky enough to see the endemic Cookson’s Wildebeest – much bigger than the ones we had seen in East Africa.


The great thing about Tafika was the range of different options available to us – driving, walking, boating and micro lighting (although I don’t want to mislead anyone, this is charged as an extra which we always understood). For anyone not sure of including one of the walking only bush camps in their itinerary this is a great half-way house – remote and rustic but with a degree of comfort and a range of options each day (although the river safaris will not be available later in the season as the river dries up).


After 3 nights at Tafika, we left mid-morning on the Thursday for a hot, bumpy and tsetse-filled car journey to Mfuwe airport. Shortly after checking in, we met up with several people we had previously been introduced to and were chatting amiably when the announcement was made that there would be a half hour delay in departure. No problem, said Nick Aslin (M.D. of Norman Carr Safaris), and we all decamped to the famous Moondog Café for a cool drink. In the brief time we sat in the café we met Willie, our guide at Kapani, Rocky from Nkwali and Kim from Robin Pope Safaris, all either collecting new guests or traveling to Lusaka with us. Above the bar is a notice declaring the spot as Coppinger’s Corner, a reference to bygone days when the Moondog was the only place that had a reliable telephone line. John (Coppinger) would fly in to the airport in his microlight, head for the Moondog and set up his laptop to work on the camp reservations system! It seemed clear to us that the café was integral to the history of the South Luangwa lodges, and still retains a special atmosphere for the regular visitors there.

We had an uneventful one hour flight to Lusaka, during which we were served lunch (a carton of nectarine juice and a small packet of milk peanuts, yum, yum). The onward flight to Livingstone was much more exciting, as the pilot asked us if we would like a small detour and then flew 360 degrees over Victoria Falls, giving us a clear view of their sheer size and power.


On arrival we were met at Livingstone by the driver from Islands of Siankaba and were quickly on our way. The drive was 45 minutes, followed by a short boat trip. The lodge is very pretty with the bar and dining areas on one small island and rope and wooden walkways across to the other small island where the luxury tents are. The rooms are not really like tents – they feel much more substantial with just the top half of the walls and the zipped area onto the decking the only obvious canvas areas. Our tent is split-level with the sitting / sleeping area on the lower level and the main bathroom area on the higher level (the toilet was in a separate little room). All the furniture was mahogany with very pretty soft furnishings and the bed was the centrepiece with wonderful views out over the Zambezi. In the bathroom area there was a huge claw bath, shower cubicle and “his and her” basins, all complimented by lovely sandalwood toiletries.


However, while the setting and accommodation were beautiful, we were immediately aware that we were at a much more commercialised lodge. As soon as we got into the transfer car we were directed to read the “price list” for extras – and there were a lot! This continued throughout our stay as we were reminded at various intervals about what was excluded. All drinks were excluded which wasn’t an issue, as the prices seemed quite reasonable and we had been made aware of this before we booked. But when we were offered each evening a free sundowner cruise it was disappointing to learn that even these drinks weren’t included! Most concerning was the very high cost of all activities. Siankaba is about 45 minutes to 1-hour transfer from Livingstone and the return trips cost $40 each regardless of how many are in the vehicle. This meant that it would cost us a minimum of $80 for any outing – a bit of a shock to the system after the all-inclusive nature of the other places we had stayed.


Luckily, after a very hectic ten days we were quite happy to lounge about either on the sunbeds near the pool or on our own deck rather than trying to fit in any activities. We also had one very lazy day when it was very cloudy and rained quite a bit and we hardly ventured from our room and deck apart from mealtimes. We did undertake one trip to Livingstone to see the main local market in the Maramba township near Livingstone. This was very interesting and gave us a very small glimpse of day-to-day life – the whole of a typical UK town-centre seemed to be in this market – from butchers and fruit and vegetable sellers through to carpenters and bicycle repairs.


One thing I forgot to mention is that on our first night there we were hoping to be able to dine alone. When we saw the table laid up for about 16 people, Phil discreetly had a word with Tessa (the trainee manager) and asked if we could eat at a separate table together – we didn’t want to be anti-social but were very tired and also had been looking forward to some time on our own. What a beautiful surprise; they set up a very romantic candlelit table for us outside under a little canopy lit up by 4 hurricane lamps. We had our own waiter who stood at a discrete distance looking the other way but always very attentive. It was a very special meal – I just wish we hadn’t been so tired and could have enjoyed it even more. Overall the food at Siankaba was excellent (although we both agree that Nkwali was even better). I even tried crocodile tails one day – nothing exceptional but at least I can say I tried.


Overall we had a very enjoyable and relaxing time there and had rested up sufficiently to face the journey back home (Livingstone – Johannesburg – London). This time however we got what we paid for and were in economy for the 10-hour BA flight. Nevertheless it was OK, we both managed to sleep and the time seemed to pass quite quickly and we soon found ourselves back at Heathrow, landing on time at 6.30am.


Final observations – South Luangwa is beautiful. The Mfuwe area was not quite as remote as we had expected as there are a lot of lodges in the area and also, at this time of the year many of the smaller roads away from the main park roads are impassable so all the vehicles are sticking to the same sort of area. However we saw everything we had hoped to see and more (the wild dogs being the highlight) and the quality of the guiding was as high as we had been led to expect. The “wet season” was a complete misnomer for the time we had there – one very short evening shower on our first night was the only rain in S Luangwa although Livingstone was cloudier with more rain. In terms of the camps, for variety and excitement it would be hard to beat Tafika with the thrill of micro lighting along with the option for boating, driving and walking. The accommodation at Kapani was beautiful and the manager, Claire, a delight to spend time with and the deck overlooking the lagoon was a wonderful spot to relax, meet everyone and have our meals. But overall we both agree that Nkwali was our favourite camp – mainly because of Rocky our guide who very quickly got on our wavelength and tuned each drive to our particular interests and for the exuberance and friendliness of all the other staff we came across.


Phil said to me yesterday that it was the best Africa trip ever; it’s a very close second for me, but my heart is still in the Ruaha!

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I remember the wasp story. A little searching revealed I congratulated you on your respect for insects long ago, and I will again! Tafika--great place! Reading your last comment, I'm sure there will be a report on Ruaha.

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  • 2 months later...

I missed this trip report- it was posted while I was in Botswana.

I've never been to SLNP in the green season although I'm very intrigued to try it. Tafika is no longer open in the green season- if it was it would definitely be an incentive for me to go as it's one of my favourite camps.


South Luangwa and Ruaha are also my 2 favourite destinations, with South Luangwa just having the edge for me.

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