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As Leopards Watched Their Flocks By Night

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jeffb

The next morning we did a walk deep in the woods away from the river. As we drove away from camp this waterbuck kindly posed for us. This must be a good area for waterbuck, as we saw a lot of them in the fields and woods near the camp.

 

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On our walk we saw some elephant and had to take a long detour around them. We came across some impressively large elephant bones.

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We stopped by a lagoon full of Nile cabbage and had a discussion of invasive plants in Zambia. Interestingly, one of them is also a problem in the U.S. (water hyacinth) and one of them is an aquarium plant (Amazon frogbit). Later in the trip we would see Amazon frogbit floating down the Lower Zambezi. Near the lagoon I took some bird pictures.

 

Sparrow hawk, I think. Very heavily cropped.

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Some kind of kingfisher? Also heavily cropped.

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That afternoon we had an evening drive, just my wife and I with Andrew and the spotter. We went into the woods away from the river and saw very little except for large numbers of tsetse flies. After sunset we got a quick view of a band of banded mongoose and 1 slender mongoose, which we enjoyed, and then saw some zebra and an eagle owl.

 

The next morning our 3 friends headed off to Mfuwe to catch a flight to Lower Zambezi, and we would catch up with them in a few days at Chongwe. We were walking with 2 new guests who asked to cross the river and walk on the other side. We had no objection at all, so we drove back to the crossing point and were ferried across in the small boat. It took 2 trips to get everyone over.

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We walked in a different direction than the way we had come from Island Bush Camp, and enjoyed it without any particularly notable sightings. We did see a tree full of sparrow weaver nests, and this heron which I hope someone will identify for me.

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And this kingfisher and LBR sharing a branch.

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That afternoon, as we left camp for our game drive, we came across a bull elephant right by the side of the road. We stopped, and he proceeded to come right up to the car. He was eating seeds off the ground, and we must have stopped right in the middle of them, as he worked his way slowly around the car almost within touching distance of us. At one point he was so close to Andrew that he could have injured Andrew with his tusk if he had turned his head the wrong way. Andrew reached for the ignition key and the elephant immediately backed off. We sat with him for about 10 minutes. This was another time when a second camera body, preferably with a wide-angle lens, would have come in very handy.

 

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Our game drive focused on the fields near the camp, which have some lagoons that attract a wide range of game and birds. In particular, a flock of white pelicans had taken up residence, and made a very striking sight along with marabou and saddle-billed stork.

 

Waterbuck

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Even I can identify the African fish eagle

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A nice biodiverse scene

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Elephant enjoying a mud-bath

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Pelicans and storks

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Saddle-billed stork

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We watched a beautiful sunset by the river, and then had an uneventful night drive back to camp. This was our last night before we would head back to Kafunta.

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jeffb

Our last morning at 3 Rivers started out a bit strangely. I asked Andrew if we were doing a walk as usual, and he replied that we couldn't as TJ, the manager, hadn't arranged it, and no scout was available. A few minutes later TJ asked me what we were doing and I replied that there was no scout so we would have to do a walk. TJ replied that that wasn't right and went to talk to Andrew, and then came back to say that there was a lion kill nearby and Andrew was planning on taking us to see it. I pointed out that we had a long drive back to Kafunta and then would do a game drive in the afternoon so we would prefer to walk, and TJ quickly arranged it. I can only guess that Andrew was trying to surprise us with the lion kill, but I would have much preferred for him to offer us the choice of a walk or the lion kill, or better yet combine the two. In any case we had a very nice walk in a different area than we had seen before, at one point having to move quite briskly to avoid some elephants.

 

3 Rivers is notable for the amount of elephant activity in the camp. The lagoon in the center of the camp attracts them, as I noted earlier, and we always had to look very carefully before walking to and from our bungalow. TJ was often quite busy driving guests around the camp as the elephants made walking impossible. From our bungalow we could almost always see elephants, impala, or puku, and at night there were hippos grazing on the grass around our bungalows.

 

Here is the main lodge which has a lovely view of the river:

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Here is our bungalow. The lower part to the left contains the bedroom and bathroom, while the raised deck to the right provides the 'star bed'.

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During the day the star beds have shade over them. Each day TJ would ask if we wanted to use the star bed that night, and if we said yes the crew would come in during the afternoon game drive and taken down the shade, put up a mosquito net, make up the bed for sleeping, and put up some solar lanterns. We slept in the star bed every night and loved it. Other guests never used them, or took a night or 2 to work up the courage to try them, but we loved them. We had a full moon while we were there so we didn't see any stars, but the moon was very pretty and I would get up in the middle of the night and look for hippos and other wildlife by moonlight from the safety of the raised deck.

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jeffb

We had an uneventful drive back to Kafunta, and after lunch and tea went on a game drive with Andrew and another couple. As we crossed the flood plain we stopped to admire some giraffe.

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As we approached the river crossing Andrew told us that the water had gotten too low to use the pontoon crossing so we were going to drive across. The new crossing point was a bit downstream from the pontoon, and as we approached we were greeted by the sight of 2 vehicles stuck in the middle of the river. Andrew assured us this would be no problem and proceeded to drive right by them.

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As we proceeded on our way Andrew kept us updated on their progress from messages on the radio. One truck got stuck trying to pull them out, and then another, and eventually a grader was used to tow everyone out. The vehicles were there for 3 hours, and only got a brief drive after they were pulled out, but they then saw a leopard so everyone was happy in the end.

 

The stars of our drive were 2 leopards, but first some kudu and a white-fronted bee-eater.

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The star of the afternoon was this female leopard resting in a tree. We watched her for about 15 minutes before moving on, with only a few other cars to share the sighting.

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After dark we quickly found a male leopard by spotlight. Sadly, he was trying to hunt, and there were several other cars spotlighting him, until finally he gave up and sat down. This was the only time I was really uncomfortable with the amount of traffic and interference with an animal, and of course it wasn't nearly as bad as it sometimes is in the really busy parks.

 

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jeffb

The next morning was our last game drive in South Luangwa before heading off to Lower Zambezi. We started off by seeing a female leopard, which we believed to be the same one we had seen the previous afternoon as the 2 sightings were close together.

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Ten minutes later we found this hyena and then the den, with a nice snack waiting for the pups when they came up.

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We then found a tree full of carmine bee-eaters, newly arrived on their migration. I decided to try and capture some birds in flight as a way to challenge and hopefully improve my photography skills.

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Quickly followed by my wife's favorite bird, the LBR.

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Then we came across a slender mongoose who actually stayed still long enough for me to get a picture.

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According to my notes we also saw a banded mongoose, but he must have quickly moved out of sight as I have no photo.

 

Our final sighting was of a big herd of buffalo, finishing up their morning drink and enjoying a mud wallow before heading away from the river.

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We then headed back to camp, said goodbye to Andrew and the managers, and did a little shopping at Project Luangwa and Tribal Textiles before getting dropped off at the airport with a packed lunch provided by Kafunta.

 

 

 

 

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offshorebirder

I am enjoying following along with your trip report @jeffb.    I'm taking notes for a Zambia trip I am in the initial stages of researching.

 

 

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amybatt

Still following and enjoying.  You did a nice job with your birds in flight.  That's the first I'd noticed the blue on the underside of the LBR.

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jeffb

Thank you both @offshorebirder and @amybatt.

 

We had a direct flight to Lower Zambezi in a Cessna Grand Caravan. It was great not having to go through Lusaka, but the flight was exceedingly bumpy. Other people appeared to be sleeping, but I was much too focused on not getting airsick to nap or enjoy the flight. We first landed at Jeki airstrip, and I considered getting out and walking to Chongwe, but given that I had no idea what direction to go or how far it was it seemed like a bad idea. Happily the short hop to Royal airstrip was much less bumpy, and going along the river at low altitude made for great scenery. I was very grateful to land at Royal, where we greeted by our guide Stephen and taken on the short drive to Chongwe Camp. Along the way we saw warthog, impala, waterbuck, and elephants.

 

After the usual greeting and discussion of the camp by the managers and a description of the available activities by Stephen, we were asked what we would like to do that afternoon for a short activity. Given that our plane didn't land until about 4:15 p.m., and sunset was about 6 p.m., I was very surprised and pleased that they were offering us an activity at all. I asked for a short boat cruise, so we headed over to our tent for a quick stop and then jumped in a boat with Stephen.

 

Chongwe Camp is on the Chongwe River at its confluence with the Zambezi River, so we headed briefly up the Chongwe past a bee-eater colony and then stayed out long enough to view the sunset. We saw the usual sights, crocodile, hippo, assorted birds. Highlight was probably a monitor lizard raiding the bee-eater colony for eggs.

 

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When we got back we made plans with Stephen for a boat cruise the next morning and then went back to our tent before dinner. We were surprised to have a vehicle pick us up for dinner, but there was a lion near camp and an elephant in camp so they were picking up all the guests. At dinner we caught up with our friends from Kafunta, telling them how the rest of our stay had been and getting their thoughts on what activities were best at Chongwe. After dinner we had to wait quite a while before we could be walked back to our room as there was an elephant right by the main lodge area preventing anyone from leaving. All in all, a great start to our stay at Chongwe!

 

 

 

 

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jeffb

The next morning Stephen took us out again on the boat, first up the Chongwe and then out into the Zambezi. We saw a number of different bird species and a monitor lizard at the bee-eater colony again, but I have no idea if it was the same one as the previous evening's sighting or a different one.

 

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As we headed out towards the Zambezi we saw 2 elephants ripping down a huge vine from a large tree. The whole tree was shaking violently, and the destructive power of a hungry elephant was quite impressive.

 

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This eagle flew very close by the boat, circling around us a few times. With the poor color I don't know if anyone can identify it or not.

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We headed downstream near the riverbank and saw a lion, the first time we have seen a predator from a boat.

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We then landed on an island for morning tea, and watched a fish-eagle and some elephants. After tea we circled around the island to view more elephants.

 

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We continued downstream and eventually landed at a spot with a few other boats and some vehicles. The staff gathered all the guests for a bush lunch, with tables and chairs and an extensive buffet. We watched some elephants nearby before enjoying lunch,

 

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and then headed back to camp for a little rest before the afternoon activity.

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jeffb

We had requested a canoe trip for the afternoon, and Stephen was not yet fully qualified as a canoe guide, so we met another guide, Bright, who would be in charge of the expedition. Bright took me in the lead canoe since I was taking photographs while Stephen took my wife in the second canoe. The trip could have been easily done in one canoe, so I was surprised that both guides went with us, but i guess that they did this so Stephen would get some more training in. We certainly didn't mind, and Chongwe always seemed to have plenty of guides on hand, even with a nearly full camp. Certainly vehicles were never overloaded.

 

According to my notes we saw hippo, croc, elephant, several waterbuck, goliath heron, cattle egret, kingfishers, and fish eagles. Several camps used the same launch point, so we dallied a bit out in the river to let other groups get well in front of us before we launched.

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The canoe trip is along a narrow channel, not in the main river, so there is good wildlife viewing on both sides as you paddle along.

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I tried to catch this pied kingfisher as he tried to catch dinner.

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The scenery was beautiful, and of course there was a bee-eater colony in this bluff.

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Here is Stephen and Molly as we finished the trip just before sunset.

 

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I know that canoeing can be very dangerous, but we never felt at all threatened. At one point Bright was concerned about some hippos, so he took us into very shallow water on the other side of the channel and he and Stephen got out and pulled the canoes by hand (I assume they were keeping a sharp eye out for crocs!). Everyone has to assess the risk for themselves of course, but we would not hesitate to do a canoeing trip again, and in fact we did do another 2 days later without incident.

 

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mapumbo

Nice perspective from the boat on your photos.

We did a 4 day canoe trip on the Zambezi and I will never get my wife near a canoe again.  She was terrified and rightfully when a hippo came up right under our canoe.

Glad your guides took the extra precaution for you.

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jeffb

Glad to get another perspective, @mapumbo.

 

The next morning we went on a game drive. Chongwe is just outside the national park, so we crossed the Chongwe at a shallow ford, checked in at the park gates, and proceeded. The game viewing was not spectacular for quite a ways into the park, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. Eventually we came to a lagoon that was full of birds and wildlife, including 2 lions. We saw a few other cars near the lions, but otherwise the park was pretty much empty that morning, just the way we like it.

 

Guineafowl

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Bee-eater

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Baboons crossing a small creek

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Some of them had a more flamboyant style

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The lagoon

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Hadada ibis

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Egyptian geese and some other birds I haven't identified

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Lots of biodiversity in this scene!

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And the lions

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Hammerkop

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African jacana

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We went by the river and watched some very personable elephants

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Chongwe is certainly not in an ideal location for drives, and I don't doubt that the much more expensive camps inside the park can provide a better game drive, but we were very happy. And we had gone to Chongwe primarily for the water-based activities, so this was pure bonus.

 

Edited by jeffb
typographic error

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jeffb

Here are a few pictures of the camp. The tents are right at the river's edge, and early in the morning I could hear hippos munching on the vegetation in the river just in front of our tent.

 

View from the front porch of our tent

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Our tent

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The bar

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Dining table and firepit

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The waterfront

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jeffb

Following lunch we set off for Tsika Island Camp. Tsika is a 30 minute boat ride upstream from Chongwe. There is very little wildlife on Tsika Island, and no predators, so people go there primarily for fishing or canoeing. Our goal was to spend the night there and then take all-day canoeing trip back to Chongwe. We were accompanied by 2 guides, Bright and Charles, and a boatman and chef, both of whose names I have unfortunately forgotten. We enjoyed the river scenery on the way to Tsika, and looking at the various houses and camps, but the highlight was watching a group of bull elephants at the riverbank and playing in the water. Two of them were rather like teenage boys having a waterfight and dunking one another in a swimming pool.

 

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We arrived at Tsika where we were greeted by the 3 permanent staff who take care of the camp, so we had 7 people looking after the 2 of us. After we settled into our bungalow we were taken by boat to the nearby village. We walked through the village and visited the primary school, which was not in session, and walked by the local health clinic on our way back to camp. The village has a population of around 1500-2000 people.

 

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One of the classrooms

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The health clinic

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It was, I think, a very good experience to get some idea of how the local people live.

 

We went back to Tsika, had a delicious dinner, and went straight to bed in order to get up early the next morning and start our canoe trip.

 

Before we leave, here are a few pictures of Tsika itself. There are just 3 bungalows and a small lodge for meals.

 

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Alas, early in the morning a strong wind came up, and it was much too windy and choppy to canoe down the river. So instead we packed up the boat, cruised around the island, and headed back to Chongwe. Here is a typical scene from the outskirts of the village, with huts where people stay to guard their crops during the growing season.

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After a very bumpy and rather wet trip back to Chongwe, Bright asked what we wanted to do that afternoon. We requested a canoe trip followed by a night game drive.

 

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jeffb

The channel used for canoeing would be calm even if it was windy, but in fact the wind dropped during the afternoon and it was quite calm when we set out. Apparently that is typical there, and if we went back we would try to plan a longer canoe trip starting right after lunch to take advantage of it.

The canoe plus night game drive was apparently a popular option, and we ended up with a group of 10 guests, 5 guides, 2 boatmen to take us there and bring the boats back to camp afterwards, and 2 vehicles prestationed at the channel for the drive afterwards. Each canoe had a guide and 2 guests in it.

 

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After we all landed, the guides sorted us out into the 2 vehicles, and we took off on our night drive. This would be the final game drive of the trip, as we were leaving the next morning for home, and we had no particular expectations. However, it turned out to be a very good drive indeed, and a great end to the trip.

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pedro maia

The canoe trips provide a great and different perspective but I´m sure I will never be able to convince my wife to do such an activity, I watch to much of Nat Geo Wild channel in her presence...

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amybatt

Great croc and elephant photos from that second canoe ride.  I think I'd have to try a canoe ride if I was there.  It is a great perspective!

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jeffb

@pedro maia and @amybatt, thank you both. My wife and I were aware of the potential dangers, but chose to do it anyway, and greatly enjoyed it. I don't think it would be worth going to Chongwe just for the land-based activities, but add in the boating and canoeing and its a pretty special place.

 

So, on to our last night drive. Chongwe uses amber spotlights instead of white lights like at the Kafunta camps. I don't know if the amber is less disruptive to the animals or not, but I do think it makes for better night photography. We started out seeing an elephant shrew, and then a leopard. We were with this leopard for 15 minutes, with one other car present.

 

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Our guide finally said we really had to go, as it was getting late and we had a long drive back to camp. We set off, and 5 minutes later saw another leopard! We were with him for 10 minutes, part of that time with 1 other car and the rest of the time alone.

 

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This one started a hunt but then gave it up, at which point we agreed to head back to camp. Along the way we saw a slender mongoose.

 

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jeffb

When we got back to camp Bright asked what we wanted to do in the morning for a short activity before our 9:20 flight to Lusaka. My wife decided to stay in camp and be clean for the trip home, but I asked for a walk. So, the next morning, I took a short walk with Bright and a scout before we headed to the airstrip. We ended up having an extra 24 hours in the airport at Johannesburg courtesy of South African Airways, but other than that we had an uneventful trip home.

 

Since there has been some discussion lately regarding South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi and whether they are hard-core safari destinations or not, I will add my thoughts to the mix.

 

Kafunta is a nice lodge in the central section with excellent game-viewing. The guides were very good, although they didn't seem to be very aware of shooting angles for photography. The access via pontoon avoided the more crowded main gate area and we always had good elephant and giraffe sightings between Kafunta and the pontoon. They do not make any effort to get guests out before sunrise, but I did see one group get out early, so its possible if you can get your car-mates to agree.

 

Island Bush Camp is a wonderfully simple camp in a great area for walking, but the driving is not very good at all. Yet their default seemed to be walk in the morning and drive in the afternoon, with no scouts available for afternoon walks. I commented on this in my review on the Expert Africa website, and Expert Africa followed up with them. They responded that they were in talks with the national park authorities about improving scout availability. Three Rivers is a little more elaborate, but still a true bush camp and the star beds are wonderful. Walks are great, and there is better driving near the camp, but that is a very limited area. Neither camp got people out before sunrise, but perhaps that is a safety issue for walking.

 

Tsetse flies were terrible in the woods around both bush camps, and from talking to other guests much worse than in the northern part of South Luangwa. My ankles were covered in bites despite wearing light colored clothing and white socks. Also, when we were at the bush camps it was getting hotter each day, and if we were to go back we would go in July or early August for more pleasant afternoon walking.

 

We had far fewer tsetses in Lower Zambezi. The guides at Chongwe were a step up from Kafunta's guides, and much better about photography. The range of activities at Chongwe was great, and the flexibility of the camp was too. I was particularly impressed with their offering short activities on arrival and departure days. I am sure it would be possible to go out earlier in the morning than we did, although I don't know what time the national park gate opens.

 

For people like us, who don't want to sit in a vehicle for 12 hours a day and do want walking and water-based activities as well as drives, the combination of South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi is just about perfect. For hard-core wildlife photographers, perhaps not.

 

 

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AfricIan

Nice report @jeffb and some good attempts at the birds-in-flight.  You certainly saw a lot.
I’m not a birder either but I’ll chip in with a few suggestions (until they get contradicted by the more serious birders here) – I don’t think your eagle in post #25 is a Bateleur, it looks more like a Tawny.  In post #26 I think your kingfisher is a Woodland and the storks with the pelicans are Marabou (probably the ugliest birds I’ve seen!).
 

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ForWildlife

The eagle in #25 looks like a western-banded snake eagle to me.

Edited by ForWildlife

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jeffb

@AfricIan and @ForWildlife

 

Thank you both for your help with the birds. Hopefully other birders will chime in as well and we can achieve a consensus.

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CDL111

Have to agree with @Africlan, Tawny Eagle, it has the yellow gape flange extending back to below middle of eye.

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ForWildlife

@CDL111 that's a feature to compare between brown eagles (tawny, lesser spotted, greater spotted) but not with western-banded snake eagle. Have you considered the snake eagle?

The color, the eveness of the color and the size of the head make me think it's a snake eagle.

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CDL111

@ForWildlife, in my book of birds, the colour of the Western Snake Eagle is a lot darker, however having read your comments, l looked on the internet and yes l was incorrect in saying it was a Tawny Eagle.

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mopsy

Great report @jeffb thanks for sharing!

Your last evening drive with the 2 leopards was a great way to finish!

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