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As Leopards Watched Their Flocks By Night

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jeffb

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jeffb

Some of you may need some explanation regarding the title of this topic. Christmas carols and hymns frequently mention, or even feature, shepherds, and I think most of them are rather dull. In my opinion all of these songs can be greatly improved by substituting 'leopard' for 'shepherd'. Thus we get the title song, or 'He Shall Feed On His Flock Like a Leopard' from Handel's Messiah, or my personal favorite (a little-known Christmas carol):

 

Leopards and lasses go leaping and dancing,

Leaping and dancing the eve of Noel.

 

I'm sure there are many other examples. But I digress. This is supposed to be a trip report!

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jeffb

Our itinerary was as follows:

Aug. 18-20 Ilala Lodge, Victoria Falls

Aug. 20-22 Kafunta River Lodge, South Luangwa

Aug. 22-24 Island Bush Camp

Aug. 24-27 Three Rivers Camp

Aug. 27-28 Kafunta River Lodge

Aug. 28-30 Chongwe River Camp, Lower Zambezi

Aug. 30-31 Tsika Island Camp

Aug. 31-Sep. 1 Chongwe River Camp

 

The trip was designed to give us a mixture of game drives, walking, and river activities, with some nights in small bush camps and long stay discounts to keep the budget more or less under control. Expert Africa made all of the arrangements for us.

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jeffb

We arrived on schedule at Victoria Falls airport and were quickly transported to our lodge. The next day we walked the falls in the morning and took a sunset cruise in the afternoon. Just a few pictures:

 

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jeffb

We were picked up early in the morning from Ilala Lodge and transported across the border to Livingstone Airport, where we arrived in plenty of time for our flight to Lusaka. A brief layover at Lusaka and we were off to Mfuwe. A driver from Kafunta was waiting for us when we arrived and we got to Kafunta in time for a late lunch, quickly settled into our bungalow, and then afternoon tea. Our guide Jabes introduced himself to us at tea and then we met our vehicle mates. There were 3 of them, and one of them was happy to sit in the third row by himself, so the rest of us comfortably spread out 2 to a row.

 

This was the view from our bungalow upon arrival:

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After crossing the river we quickly came across a bachelor herd of 4 male kudu, and then a little later a group of female kudu:

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There were lots of elephants, of course, and one small herd of zebra.

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We drove to an area where a female leopard had been seen in a tree with her kill that morning, but there was no sign of her. Since the afternoon was getting late, we drove to a large field nearby for sundowners. As we drank our G and T's, we could hear baboons barking in the direction of the tree with the kill. I assumed we would head back there, but instead our guide was studying one end of the field with his binoculars. He told us that the impala were all looking in one direction, and that there was a lion or leopard there. He managed to spot the tip of a tail above the grass on the ridgeline and announced 'Leopard!'. We were ready to gulp our drinks and head off, but Jabes assured us the leopard was going to stay there, so we finished our drinks and enjoyed the sunset before heading around to the other side of the ridgeline.

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jeffb

As we drove up the ridge with spotlight shining we saw this:

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We sat alone with this leopard for several minutes. Eventually another car drove up, stopped and looked at the leopard for a few moments, and then drove off. I guess they weren't interested in resting leopards? After a few minutes more she got up and went over the ridge. Jabes drove us around the ridge and immediately found her getting a drink of water.

 

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She then went off walking and we followed, still without any other cars nearby.

 

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Finally she disappeared into the night. The encounter lasted over 23 minutes, and during that entire time we only shared the sighting with 1 other car for a few moments.

 

It was time for us to start making our way back to camp. On the way we saw a bushy-tailed mongoose (my notes say white-tailed mongoose but I think that's wrong) and a group of giraffe bedded down for the night.

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Treepol

@jeffb what a great start to your TR. I am looking forward to reading more about Kafunta and surrounding lodges when you have time. Wonderful leopard shots and how unusual to see the giraffes bedded down.

 

 The leopards for shepherds made me laugh.

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jeffb

@Treepol thank you very much. I will definitely add more info about the lodges as the report goes on.

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mapumbo

@jeffb

You wonder what people are thinking when they just take a quick glance at something as wonderful as a leopard and move on.

Zambia is at the top of our list for our next safari and your mix of driving, walking, and water would be what we would like.  Expert Africa planned our Kenya trip a few years ago and did a great job.

Your "leopards watched their flocks by night" is pretty clever.

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jeffb

Thank you @mapumbo

 

Our first morning game drive at Kafunta was fairly quiet. We did have some good elephant sightings as we crossed the floodplain on the way to the river crossing, including 2 bulls sparring. Jabes assured us this was not a serious fight.

 

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We watched the 2 bulls for several minutes before proceeding to the crossing point. As we waited to cross the river we could see elephants further downstream.

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After crossing the river we headed in the opposite direction from the night before, and began to see more traffic. Then we found the famous Ginger and Garlic, with several vehicles around them of course.

 

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According to my notes the sightings on the remainder of this drive included kudu, waterbuck, giraffe, puku, and an immature snake-eagle. The only memorable photograph I have is this one (at least I think its memorable):

 

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jeffb

Our afternoon game drive began with a group of giraffe on the floodplain.

 

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After crossing the river and driving around without seeing anything of particular note, we went back towards the river and watched giraffe getting a drink. They were very cautious and indecisive, obviously very nervous about putting themselves in a vulnerable position.

 

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We also saw this scene of life on the river:

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We then drove back inland, admiring some puku along the way,

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and came across a beautiful sight of roughly 10 kudu on a wooded hillside with impala and baboons. Unfortunately I couldn't really capture it with my telephoto lens. I don't see a second camera body in my future, but there were times on this trip when I really could have used one.

 

After sundowners on top of a ridge, watching the sun set over the park, we set off on our night drive. There was a lot more traffic this night than the previous one. It was quite dark when we saw lions on the side of the road ahead of us, apparently trying to take down a buffalo. The buffalo was very difficult to see even in the spotlight as the area was heavily wooded. The buffalo ran off with the lions in pursuit. After hunting around a while and not finding them, we came across this lioness. She was limping slightly, and we guessed that she had been unable to keep up with the chase. We followed her for quite a while as she called for her pride, but no one answered her.

 

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Eventually she disappeared into the woods and we headed back to the lodge for dinner and a good night's sleep. The next morning we would have a morning game drive and lunch before heading off to Island Bush Camp.

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amybatt

Excellent photos so far and what a nice leopard sighting all to yourselves.  Following with great interest!

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jeffb

Thank you @amybatt. And thanks to those of you who have 'liked' the photographs. Its  a little intimidating posting photos on a site with so many really good photographers and amazing photographs, so I appreciate the encouragement.

 

For those of who are unfamiliar with the pontoon crossing, here are a couple of pictures. The crossing saves considerable time compared to going to the bridge at the main entrance, and brings you into the park at a point somewhat removed from the worst of the traffic. However, you do sometimes have to wait a bit since only 1 car can cross at a time. Also the pontoon cannot be used at high water, when everyone has to drive to the bridge, or at low water, when you can just drive across the river (more on that later).

 

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The guys pulling us across the river really work hard. Most of them were quite cheerful and friendly as well.

 

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pomkiwi

@jeffb Thank-yu for this report which I am enjoying a lot. Lovely photos. Can you share what camera and lens(es) you were using?

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jeffb

@pomkiwi Thanks for your comments. My kit is entry-level dSLR. A Pentax K-50 camera, 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, and a 55-300 mm f/4.5-6.3 telephoto lens. There were a few times when a faster lens would have helped, but mostly I am limited by my ability rather than my equipment.

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pomkiwi

@jeffb - sounds familiar - I always want more ability and a faster lens!

Edited by pomkiwi

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CDL111

Enjoying your report, nice to be on your own at the leopard sighting. Probably people want instant action and if nothing is happening, move on.

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jeffb

Thank you @CDL111. You are probably right.

 

This morning we were scheduled for a game drive before we headed off to Island Bush Camp. As we drove towards the river crossing we saw ground hornbill, white-fronted bee-eaters, and at some point in the morning a cardinal woodpecker. After driving for a bit on the other side Jabes saw some vultures circling and, hoping that there was a lion kill, headed in that direction. Instead we found several vehicles gathered near a gully and part of the Mfuwe pride. We sat watching Ginger and Garlic for several minutes, with bush screening the rest of the pride from us, until Jabes drove around the bush.

 

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After enjoying the lions for a lengthy period of time, we went to the river for tea. During the tea break our guide Jabes told us that he had a severe headache and high fever due to a recurrence of malaria, and apologized for not being at his best this morning. We all expressed our sympathy of course, and then finished the game drive with elephants stripping the bark off trees.

 

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After arriving at the lodge, the manager came out and immediately arranged a ride for Jabes to see a doctor. We went back to our bungalow and packed up our belongings before heading to lunch. The staff had a nice surprise for us - lunch on the 'treehouse deck' at one end of camp overlooking the flood plain.

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jeffb

Before we move on here are some pictures of Kafunta Lodge. It is definitely not a bush camp, and the lodge is fairly large for South Luangwa, with 10 bungalows. It is, however, relatively well priced for this very expensive area, and provides good access to excellent game viewing areas.

 

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The bungalows have great views of the flood plain, and are very comfortable without being at all fancy or luxurious.

 

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The main lodge area is very open and contains multiple decks. Breakfast and lunch are taken on the deck shown here, with one table for each vehicle.

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There are shady areas for the bar, general seating, and for lunch.

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There was lots of wildlife in camp, especially elephants. Here are a few pictures taken from our bungalow our last morning there.

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jeffb

After lunch we set off for Island Bush Camp. There were 6 of us: a driver, my wife and I, and the 3 we had been sharing the vehicle with at Kafunta. They were on much the same itinerary as us, but with different numbers of nights in each camp, so we would say goodbye and meet up with them at the next camp a few times before the trip was over. Jabes would have driven us there but was ill, which meant that Island Bush Camp would be short 1 guide when we arrived, so we would do a game drive that afternoon instead of a walk. The drive was somewhere around 1.5 to 2 hours, and it passed quickly for me, with changing scenery and a few villages to look at on the way. When we arrived we were greeted by TJ, the manager at Three Rivers Camp, who was covering both of the bush camps for a few days while the regular Island Bush Camp manager was elsewhere.

 

Island Bush Camp is very small, with just five thatch bungalows, and a very minimal central lodge. Everything, including the bungalows, is completely open on the river. Here is the front of a bungalow, with the bedroom to the left and the bucket shower, toilet, and sink to the right. The bedroom is just a bed under a mosquito net, under a thatch roof but with no wall between the bed and the river.

 

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Here is a picture of the 'interior' of the bungalow:

 

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And here is the main lodge:

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Here is the kitchen and the kitchen crew, who served us 3 meals a day, including excellent 4-course dinners every night.

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We enjoyed Island Bush Camp, but were told that occasionally they get a guest who hates it, and in fact had to drive one guest back to Kafunta who was terrified and crying hysterically.

 

At tea we met our guide Andrew, who would guide us on the remainder of our South Luangwa safari, and we set off on a game drive. As others have remarked, the area is rather heavily wooded, and even the woods are interspersed with small fields and clearings, it is not particularly good for drives. Our highlights included a small bachelor herd of buffalo blocking the road, a few hyenas, and 2 genet. My shutter speed was set too low to get good pictures of the hyenas, but the best one is included here, and I apologize for the poor quality. The genets disappeared much too quickly for a photo.

 

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amybatt

Wow, that’s some bungalow!  How did you like sleeping in the open like that?  Did you have any critter encounters, or were those prevented by being elevated?  Nice genet spot.  You’ve had some good sightings so far!

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wilddog

I have very fond memories of Bush Camp and the rooms on stilts. Lovely to see they are still being used.

Edited by wilddog

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jeffb

@amybatt and @wilddog

I loved Island Bush Camp and the open bungalows. I would say my wife liked it rather than loved it. The open bungalows were not a problem at all for us, no critter problems and no concerns. The view across the river from the bed, the shower, and even the toilet was fabulous, and happily no traffic on or across the river so no privacy concerns. There is a shower curtain and a waist-height screen in front of the toilet to preserve a little modesty!

 

I should also comment on how much I liked the food. It was really amazing to be in this absurdly simple camp sitting down to dinner with linen table cloth and napkins, proper wine glasses, and having the chef come out to announce the 4-course menu. I made a few notes on the food we had:

Dessert our first night was chocolate tart.

Lunch the next day included both barbecued ribs and shrimp skewers.

Dinner that night was French onion soup, tomato aubergine towers, roast pork, and passionfruit pudding.

I don't go on safari for fine dining, but I'd rather eat food that I actually enjoy. The food was good at all the camps, but most striking here because the camp was so simple.

 

I wonder if Kafunta is going to upgrade the camp at some point. The camp is now rather lightly used as most people want to stay at the newer and fancier Three Rivers Camp instead. No one told me anything, so this is purely my personal speculation, but I suspect that they may at some point consider an upgrade to the bungalows in order to attract more visitors.

 

I was really pleased to see the genets. We saw 1 the following night as well, but it also disappeared quickly. Someday I hope to get a decent picture of one in the wild - so far the only place I've seen them long enough to actually get a photo was up in the rafters at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

 

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jeffb

Our first morning at Island Bush Camp, and our first walk. This was why we had come to South Luangwa, and we were not disappointed. The walk was quite slow-paced, with a long stop at a termite mound, much examination of scat and tracks, some bird viewing, and the identification of many different plants, flowers, and seeds, all with an ecological focus. We saw impala, baboons, puku, and elephants, finishing up with a walk along the river where we saw hippo and the 'hippo highways' they use to get up the bank for night-time grazing. The only picture I will show you is of a porcupine quill - I was very impressed as I had no idea just how big these quills are!

 

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After lunch our 3 friends from Kafunta drove with TJ to Three Rivers Camp, so it was just my wife and I in camp that night with Andrew as our host. I wanted to go on an afternoon walk, since the area didn't seem particularly good for game drives, but was told the scout had left the camp so we couldn't walk (an armed scout is required for all walking).  Our afternoon game drive was not particularly eventful, although we enjoyed sightings of a saddle-billed stork, impala and puku, a small herd of waterbuck, elephants in the river, and a few giraffe.

 

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After sundowners by the river we drove around with the spotlight and saw 1 genet and 1 hippo in the middle of the road. Then it was back to camp for dinner and bed. The next morning we would be walking to Three Rivers Camp.

 

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The next morning we said goodbye to the staff before leaving on our walk to Three Rivers.

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We had a very short vehicle ride to the boat launch, where we were ferried across the river on a small boat. After crossing the flood plain we climbed up the river bank and Andrew immediately started loudly whispering "Leopard! Leopard! Do you see it?" I got a quick glimpse of a leopard, quite a ways away, running away, followed shortly by 2 hyena. We went over to where we had seen the leopard and tracked back to a tree with a well-eaten kill hanging from a branch. What a great way to start our walk! We then walked for a few hours, stopping to look at vegetation, tracks, and scat as usual. At one point we heard an elephant rumbling a warning at us, and moved on briskly. We also admired an aardvark burrow. We came across a lion track and, guessing it was headed over to the river, walked to the river but did not find the lion. At tea-time we watched a giraffe by the river and then walked on to the river crossing. A boat came to pick us up, and we crossed the river to find TJ and our 3 friends from the previous camps waiting to drive us into Three Rivers Camp. Needless to say we were very happy with our walk!

 

 

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jeffb

As we drove into 3 Rivers we could see that the camp was between some large open fields and the river. We were greeted by an elephant, who we were told spends a lot of time next to the road into camp, and as we got out of the vehicle we saw some giraffe trying to decide if they wanted to cross the river or not.

 

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In the center of the camp is a small lagoon where elephant frequently come to drink, and there was one as we arrived.

 

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From our bungalow we could see elephants and giraffe during our afternoon siesta. I was interested in taking a walk that afternoon, but my wife assured me it was too hot, and there was some question about whether a scout was available (this was clearly becoming a recurring theme). So we chose to do a drive instead, which proved to be a very good choice.

 

Some of you may have noticed the absence of bird photographs so far. I am most definitely not a birder, but at this point I did start to take some bird pictures to help pass the time and to keep my wife happy. With a 55-300 mm lens most of the bird pictures are heavily cropped. Please correct any and all misidentifications.

 

White-fronted bee-eater

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Bateleur eagle

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We had our sundowners by the river.

 

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We then started our night drive. Before we could even leave the river, we saw leopard's eyes reflecting in the spotlight on top of the bluff above the river. He was a bit shy and kept walking out of the spotlight. We watched him for at least 10 minutes. Unfortunately he was far enough away that I couldn't get a picture - I could barely see him in the viewfinder but my slow lens at 300 mm was unable to capture an image. A long exposure time might have worked, but I really didn't have a good way to support the camera, so instead I just put down the camera, picked up my binoculars, and enjoyed the sighting.

 

As we got back to the open fields near camp we saw another leopard. Apparently this one is frequently seen there. He was trotting along, so we followed him and then got ahead of him, giving us several brief sightings as he went by.

 

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For both of these sightings we were entirely alone with the leopard. We also saw slender and bush-tailed mongoose that evening, but no pictures.

 

 

 

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