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Epic Zambia safari - Lower Zambezi National Park and Kafue National Park


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@offshorebirderPlease excuse me for a bit of reminiscing - I'm not meaning to hijack this report which I'm going to enjoy with a touch of envy from homebound Oz:-


John D was guiding at KaingU in 2016 and I remember him telling me that his mother named him after the tractor on the farm.

I also remember him advising that the Impala is faster than the hartebeest but it can only maintain top speed for 1km whereas the hartebeest can maintain top speed for 6kms. He was an excellent guide.


I met Jo Pope at Nkwali in 1998 and was fortunate to go on two walks with Robin Pope at Tena Tena then. A wonderful experience including getting close on foot to an unsuspecting eland before it cantered off.


When at Busanga in 2007 I remember local guide Richard telling me that in Kaonde  Busanga means "many small rivers".


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14 hours ago, offshorebirder said:

Unfortunately I did not get to enjoy John D's guiding in the field,


If this is the same John D who previously worked at Kaingu Lodge then he is superb. A really excellent safari companion

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Thanks for sharing those nuggets of information @Caracal and @Soukous  - everyone please feel free to chime in with similar input.   They help improve the trip report in my opinion - one of Safaritalk's great strengths.


My safari got off to a rocky start thanks to United Airlines canceling my Charleston-to-Newark flight the day before departure.  I was able to get on flights to Dulles, then Newark to compensate.  But then after I got to Dulles, the Newark airport was struck by lightning amid strong thunderstorms and United canceled the Dulles-to-Newark flight while we were on the runway waiting for clearance to take off!    This ended up costing me a day and so I only spent 3 nights instead of 4 at Tusk and Mane.  I also had to get another Covid PCR test at the Newark airport, in order for the results to be less than 72 hours old on my arrival in Lusaka (the worst interpretation of the current regulations).  I made an appointment online but when I showed up 30 minutes early, they said no problem we can test you now - just go back in room #3.  I went into a tentlike testing room near one of the baggage carousels (6?), got swabbed, waited on a socially-distanced bench for 55 minutes, and they brought me a printed certificate with my negative results - for $200 US.  


One good thing was that the Newark to Joburg flight was less than half full, so I had two empty seats next to me in Economy Plus.   So I was able to raise the armrests and lie down to sleep - a rare bit of luck.


I had an overnight layover in Joburg before my SA Airlink flight the next morning - the Intercontinental Hotel was a real treat like @marg and @madaboutcheetah indicated.   IT is only a short walk with an airport luggage cart from the entry hall at JNB.  Since I was an Intercontinental points member and I gather bookings were thin, they upgraded me to an executive suite free of charge - without my even asking.   The Quills restaurant was superb for dinner and breakfast.   Gauteng was on Level 4 lockdown, so no alcohol to drink but the lack of a Savanna cider was no biggie as tired as I was.   The riots were still going on at that point, but thankfully I saw no sign of them.


The next morning I got another surprise when I got to SA Airlink's checkin counter at OR Tambo.  They said that United had indeed canceled my reservation on the previous day's flight to Lusaka, but that unfortunately they had not booked me on the flight on the 17th.  So I had to buy another ticket - to the tune of $500 US.   


When I had checked with Proflight about rescheduling to their flight from Lusaka to Jeki on July 18, they replied that it was full.   So I now have two flight vouchers with Proflight - that I must use in the next year or lose entirely.  Might as well kiss those fares goodbye.   Fortunately Roy Glasspool informed me that Royal Zambezi airline had a flight from Lusaka to the Chongwe airstrip - right next to Lower Zambezi NP in Chiawa GMA.  So I flew there in the prop plane with about six other passengers and Josh and another Tusk and Mane staffer met me at the airstrip.   We used a vehicle from Royal Zambezi Lodge to carry my luggage and me "next door" to the riverside dock of Zambezi Conservation, whose Director is a good friend of Kyle and Luke's.  Then Josh returned the vehicle and jogged back to meet us.    -- I presume other camps in Lower Zambezi would be able to duplicate this arrangement, perhaps using Royal Zambezi Lodge's dock for river transfers.


The Zambezi was so high that day that Zambezi Conservation's dock was about six inches underwater.   Not to worry, we stepped into their boat's bow, then over to Tusk and Mane's boat tied to it.  Then we were aboard and I was ON SAFARI!  It was delightfully surreal after all the time, effort and waiting.


Tusk and Mane has several boats - a pontoon boat, a couple of low-profile aluminum boats with outboard motors, and half a dozen canoes.  The one we used was one of their fast boats with a medium-large Yamaha outboard motor powering it.  


Josh had been briefed on my fondness for birds in addition to mammals, and we explored some side channels and quiet backwaters during the boat transfer - seeing Rufous-bellied Herons, Giant Kingfisher, White-crowned Lapwings, African Jacanas, Goliath Heron, White-faced Whistling-Ducks and the ubiquitous African Fish-Eagles among other birds.   We also saw several pods of Hippos (some ashore), Elephants, large crocodiles, Waterbuck, and Water Monitors.   I left my camera disassembled and packed away, enjoying the sightings without worrying about photographing them.


Before long we drew up at the Tusk and Mane boat landing where Kyle Branch greeted me and led me to the main area.  Over refreshments we chatted about goals, current conditions and sightings, and LUNCH as well as the safety briefing.  There were two other parties in camp - a family from San Francisco and a British couple currently living in Ohio.  The family had been paired with Shane as a guide for the past week, and had seen Wild Dogs every day, two Wild Dog hunts and kills from start to finish, great Lion action, Porcupine posing, Leopards, and much more.  Hearing this, I had to fight not to drool openly.


After a late lunch, and a quick unpacking and face wash, I joined Kyle for our afternoon activity, which consisted of a quick game drive on the way to search for Bronze-winged Coursers.  I knew them as 'Violet-tipped Courser' from East African field guides - but Rhinoptilus chalcopterus was my most-wanted African bird by any name.  

The California family was on a game drive with Shane, the Ohio couple were out on a boat chasing Tigerfish on the Zambezi, so I had Kyle to myself for a custom game drive.

GTFOH! as the youngsters would say.


Right out of camp we started seeing elephants - this young female took turns being gruff towards us, then pretending to feed, then seeming to get hungry and actually feeding.  



Then we saw another mother with calf and more members of the herd.









At a little marshy area surrounded by grassland, we saw and heard a Hammerkop swooping and scolding something in the dense reeds.  The Impala were snorting and Waterbucks moving away or staring - it was pretty obvious a predator was in the dense cover of the marsh.  We moved he vehicle around to a couple of diffrent vantage points trying to spot the predator but were unsuccessful.  But it was nice to see the signs.


After enjoying Zebra, Impala (lots), Waterbuck (lots), Greater Kudu and many birds, we started along a road leading north into drier country.  Despite driving slowly and visually scouring under every bush near the road, we failed to spot any coursers.  After a sundowner in a sandy gully where elephants were moving and feeding and lion tracks abounded, we worked the route in reverse using a spotlight for coursers in the road and mammals in the trees.  


Before long we saw a Bronze-winged Courser a little under 100 meters down the road!    We were afraid that starting the vehicle up and approaching it would scare the courser away, so we tried some judicous playback of its vocalizations from the Birds of Zambia app.   It immediately responded, tipping forward and pattering down the road towards us in the manner of coursers and lapwings everywhere.  The nighttime spotlight photos were not the best but here are a couple - one showing the violet tips to its primary wingfeathers.  The field guides say one rarely sees the violet feather tips in the field.   I was thrilled at finding a Bronze-winged Courser so quickly and easily - Kyle really did well.







After the courser, we saw multiple Lesser Galagos, one of which lingered for some documentary photos.  We then rode through an area Kyle said produces occasional sightings of Aardvark but alas we did not see any.  Plenty of Zebra, Impala, Elephant, Waterbuck and a couple of Genets.   Then back to camp for a delightful dinner.


Lesser Galago




Common Genet


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the Tusk and Mane camps look really good @offshorebirder-it must have been a great relief to finally start the safari!

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@offshorebirder, sounds like you had an amazing trip! Can't wait to read the rest.


Did you meet a youngish white Zimbabwan guide at Tusk and Mane? We had a long chat with him at the Jeki airstrip and he seemed like a fun guy/guide. But I don't recall his name. In any case, it seemed like a great camp/experience.

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Yes, @linjudy - that guide's name is Shane Hodgson and he is indeed a great guy.   Very knowledgeable, well-traveled and fun company.


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Great start Nate and reading all this a bit sad we didn’t make it to Tusk and Mane like planned until the beginning of June especially when I read about the dogs and the possibility that we could have had close encounters on both sides of the Zambezi ; but anyway the complete reshuffle of our safari in the last few weeks before leaving bringing in the Murray family camps and the wild Chitake springs area as a bonus has been a winner and who knows we might return to the LZ in the near future? :)


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@offshorebirder- looks like you had an epic safari and a fabulous time!!!  

Quick question - what were the arrival formalities into Zambia?  Did they need passengers to re-take a rapid test?  how long did it take for you to leave the airport on arrival?

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Thanks @madaboutcheetah.


We had to fill out a traveler's health questionnaire upon arrival in Zambia and present it to someone checking + collecting them before we got to baggage claim or immigration.   They also looked at our negative Covid test documentation - as long as the test was performed 72 hours or less before arrival everything was fine.   They might have only checked the dates so perhaps more than 72 hours could be achieved?   I had printed my Traveler's Health Questionnaire form out and filled it in before I left home - everyone else got them in the long room one enters after the tarmac at Lusaka airport.   So I was able to skip past all the people who had to stop, get the form, and then fill them out on the long tables.


Then after collecting my baggage , I went to the immigration window where the immigration officer checked my negative test again, took $50 US for the Visa on Arrival, stamped my passport, gave me my Visa on arrival printout and I was through.  After stepping off the plane, it might have been 30 minutes until I was meeting my transfer driver to the hotel.


Flying back out of Lusaka, I had to present my negative Covid Test from the day before (all hotels in Lusaka can arrange the doctor from CIDRZ lab to come test you in your room or the lobby) a couple of times, plus the usual showing of passport + boarding pass.   Then onto the plane to Joburg.  Even though transiting Joburg, we had to fill out another traveler's health questionnaire (South African version) that they handed out on the plane.   They checked negative Covid test results at the boarding gate of all the flights except internal flights inside countries.


* In terms of presenting negative Covid tests:  If one got a test immediately before leaving one's home country, without time to receive results before departure, presumably you could get the results emailed to you and print them out at a layover hotel partway through your journey.   I would have had to do that if the 1 hour PCR test results were not available at the Newark airport.


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My first night in the bush was punctuated by regular Hippo vocalizations and munching sounds as well as Hyenas occasionally whooping and cackling.  While some people find late night Hippo calls bothersome, for me they are a welcome lullaby.  


As always, I was up before the gentle "good morning" wake up call at 5:30; we met for a quick breakfast around the campfire at 6:00.  Kyle and Shane came up to the campfire excitedly - a female Leopard had just killed a male Impala a little off the path between tent #2 and the main area.   They saw it on the way from their tents to breakfast.  She had dragged it further from the path beside a Winterthorn tree, eaten from one of the haunches, and raked a bit of grass and brush over it.  They had moved slowly and quietly, averting their gaze and the leopard stayed put while they passed.   


When the guides checked on the carcass after lunch, the female had moved off and left it, so they led us carefully to a vantage point (somewhat removed so we left no scent or signs near the carcass) to see it.  



Getting underway, we went to the boat launch for a 4-5 minute ride to the mainland where our game drive vehicle was located.  I had Kyle to myself again, as the California family was going with Shane and the British couple from Ohio was having a rematch of the previous day's fishing contest.   Apparently the husband had been humbled by his wife and wanted a rematch.


We had a beautiful sunrise to admire as we got underway.  




Since I had never seen Wild Dogs, we made that our primary goal for the day.   First we spent some time searching an area not far from camp that was good for Honey Badger and the occasional Aardvark.  We did not find either and pressed on to search for dogs along the northern edge of Jeki Plains, in the ecotome where the plains transitioned into woodland leading up to the escarpment.   Kyle said that the day before, the pack had been starting a hunt, and he and Shane saw the female suddenly veer off and head towards the presumed den site on the escarpment slope north of the airstrip.  The assumption was that she went off to give birth, having been heavily pregnant for some time.  That was the 14th day in a row the pack had been seen by Tusk and Mane guests. 


Jeki Plains is a really neat place.  Loads of game - hard to find a field of view without Impala, Waterbuck, Zebra, or Kudu and Elephants at the edge with the woodlands.   The herds were not huge - but there were small and medium herds scattered everywhere.




We searched high and low for dogs - seeing plenty of game and some nice birds in the process.  Then when we were in an area called 'Bottom Jeki', Kyle spotted a big male Leopard walking along the top of a gully in the open.





As we were admiring the male leopard, we heard a commotion and snarling behind us and one female leopard trotted right past our vehicle along the route the male had taken.   


Another female leopard that was obviously lactating moved southwest towards a ridge of dry land surrounded by shallows and muddy margins.  Apparently the two female leopards had been fighting.  Just after that we ran into a vehicle from Old Mondoro and the story we pieced together is that one female came into the mother leopard's territory in pursuit of the male to mate with him.   And the female with cubs did not like the intrusion into her territory.


The lactating female disappeared and the 'intruder' moved to follow the male, then stopped in indecision.  Eventually she moved off in pursuit of the male.









It was a very exciting encounter to say the least - three adult leopards out in the open at once!   


At this point, since it was getting past midmorning, Kyle said the dogs were probably lying up somewhere, so we turned our focus to birds and the many elephants feeding in the forested area south of Jeki Plains.  



Several of the elephants were reaching as high as they could to feed on untouched branches.  Kyle said one could sometimes see them standing up on hind legs, like famous elephants such as Boswell in Mana Pools.   We waited patiently, shadowing some of the feeding giants in hopes of seeing them stand up, but to no avail.   It was neat to see them standing on tiptoes, however.







Kudu were plentiful - but males seemed to stay in cover for some reason.   My D850 somehow got set on crop mode for a while before I noticed, so I unwittingly cut off this female Kudu's feet and nearly her rump (sorry for the aesthetic boo-boo).   




On the boat ride from the vehicle back to camp for lunch, we saw an obliging White-fronted Bee-eater to put a cap on an outstanding morning.


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Awesome @offshorebirderremembers me a lot of the Mana scenery ; the elephant is trying a Boswell  ( you will see him soon )

and the female kudu as in Mana were mostly on their own with offspring but those leopards by day in the open are very Zambian ; I think we could have done a TR together in relay like you did with @inyathi if only I had been visiting Luke and Kyle ;)

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After gathering for tea and cake at 3pm, Kyle and I set out by boat for one of the game drive vehicles.  Our plan was to look for the Wild Dog pack again, on the way to Lower Jeki to see what sort of leopard action might be brewing - or perhaps lions.


We saw lots of elephants and game again, stopping to admire a Common Zebra mare and foal.






When we were searching around wooded area downhill + south of Jeki airstrip, we came upon a South African Porupine.   This was the first I have seen, and it gave us brief looks in the open as it dashed under a fallen tree and into a jumble of branches.  





As the afternoon progressed, we worked the northern edge of Jeki Plains for the wild dog pack, but failed to spot them again.   We ran into Mark, the manager of Old Mondoro and he said none of their vehicles had seen the dogs yesterday or today either.  The dogs  had definitely changed their habits since I arrived.    


After some excellent birding and game viewing on the way back to Bottom Jeki, as the light was beginning to dwindle, we rounded a corner and came upon a male leopard resting in a tree.  Presumably this was the fellow from this morning.    I was handicapped with a f/5.6 lens so unfortunately these low-light photos are soft in focus - even cranking the ISO on my camera did not produce sufficient shutter speed when he was moving.




We watched him laze in the tree, then wake up and proceed down to the ground in languid fashion.  






Then he rested on the ground a bit before getting up to begin his evening patrol.  






We lost him when he entered thick cover across a wet channel.  What magnificent views he gave us - they were cracking with good binoculars, even in the low light.

After the marvelous leopard encounter, we moved over near the airfield for a sundowner.  Then we had a night drive looking for wild dogs on the way back to camp.    Not far from the airstrip, we saw an African Wild Cat sitting in the grass watching us.   It allowed us to move a little closer - we could see it well in binoculars but distance, light and tall grass conspired against decent photography.



Things grew chilly on the ride back to camp, where I hurried to shower before it got too cold to do so.  Then the groups of guests regaled each other over dinner with tales of their day's activities.  

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What a sighting with 3 leopards in daylight... That is very special ! And a porcupine, never seen one in the wild :(

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On July 20 the California family was leaving early and the British couple was spending their last morning fishing.  Kyle and I decided give the search for the Wild Dogs a rest, hoping they would return to their more detectable habits on the 21st before I departed.   Our plan was to spend the morning on an aquatic game drive on the Zambezi, and the afternoon on a canoe trip down the channel separating Kulefu Island from the mainland.  


The leopard near camp had killed another Impala in the early morning hours - they were both still stashed in and near camp.   I remarked that it was surprising that Spotted Hyenas had not found either carcass, but Shane said she had cleverly avoided puncturing the stomach / intestinal cavity and only eaten from the legs, rump, etc.   So there was not nearly as much smell to attract the scavengers.  


As our boat trip up the Zambezi got underway, we saw shorebirds like Wattled Lapwings, White-crowned Lapwings and Long-toed Lapwings on small islands and sandbars.   


White-crowned Lapwing



Long-toed Lapwing


Then we passed some larger grassy islands, some holding small herds of Cape Buffalo, some holding pods of Hippos.









One of our targets was White-backed Night-Heron - they like to roost in thick tree cover along rivers, preferably on branches hanging over the water.   In the process of checking suitable areas for a night heron, we encountered some wading bird rookeries.   This one had some nesting Grey Herons:



-- Obligatory Lilac-breasted Roller shot - this one in flight:




We also enjoyed several very large Nile Crocodiles, Nile Monitor Lizards looking for prey along the shore and in steep banks of the Zambezi, herds of elephants doing their thing and other wildlife.   


Late in the morning we found an imature Martial Eagle perched in a riverside tree.   It was being harassed by a pair of Blacksmith Lapwings that kept diving at its head.  

Eventually the lapwings departed and the eagle settled down.   That allowed some good photo opportunities.













Then we turned and worked our way back to camp for lunch, enjoying more good birding and mammal watching in the process.

After a fine lunch (at which I met the new batch of arriving guests), and a couple of hours charging various batteries + backing up photo files and some time studying birds and their vocalizations on the Birds of Zambia app, I met Kyle and Josh in the main area for tea.  Then Josh gave us a boat ride to where the canoes were waiting at the start of their aquatic route - the narrow and at times shallow channel between the mainland and Kulefu Island.  Our plan was to paddle along with the current, and get picked up where the channel met the Zambezi on the northeast side of Kulefu Island.


I purposely left both cameras back in my tent for the canoe excursion - though brought my iPhone for shooting a little video.   I had heard great things about Kyle and Luke's immersive experience of "paddling among African wildlife".   I have a habit of forcing myself to occasionally set camera aside and "live in the moment" when amid wildlife and I knew instinctively that this was such a time.   "Leave the camera, almost guaranteed to see something spectacular".    And so it was.


The Zambezi River had been fluctuating wildly of late - due to Kariba Dam and its operations.  This wreaks havoc on species like Black Skimmers that need A) nesting sandbars isolated from land predators and B) nesting sandbars that are not submerged when eggs and flightless chicks are present.  Windows of opportunity for A+B are increasingly rare on the Lower Zambezi which is a tragedy.  


At the moment, the river was extraordinarily low (dropping noticeably since the morning), and at times Kyle needed to hop out and pull the canoe over shallow spots.  I got out and walked in a few places to make his job easier.   It was a blast!    I felt lucky because we were the last canoe trip for a couple of days till the water level in the Zambezi came back up.  

The thing that sticks out about the experience is how auditory it was.  No diesel engine of the land cruiser, no outboard motor on the boat, not even crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot.  Between easy paddle strokes, we drifted perfectly silently.  


Crank the volume (and the HD resolution) up on this early section where the Hippo trots to get to the deep hole at the bend ahead of us:




We drifted past herds of Puku and Impala, skittish Greater Kudu trotted away, and dazzles of Common Zebra looked at us then went back to grazing or drinking.    Elephants walked back and forth but along the banks.  Waterbirds were everywhere - Sacred + Hadada + Glossy Ibis, various egrets and herons, cormorants, African Darter, Fish Eagles, and more.


And we had three incredibly tame Painted Snipe keep us company.  The low water levels had drawn them down to the waterside mud and away from the reeds or stubble that would normally help obscure them.   They did their bobbing, dancelike feeding behavior right beside us.  We could have spit on them in a very real sense.  Although I could have crushed them with a DSLR, leaving the camera behind did not bother me.  Watching them full-frame at 3+ meters in good Swarovski binoculars was a treat that defies description.   


Here is some iphone video of one of the Painted Snipe - proof of how much closer one can get to wildlife by sitting in a canoe:




The masses of Water Hyacinth (a South American invasive wetland plant) were the only disappointment.  


When we got near the end of the route, where the channel rejoins the main river, a Bull Elephant loomed up on the left, obviously intending to cross.   So we backed up to give him room to access the shallow / dry crossing area comfortably.   







We saw another, then another elephant looming ahead, so Kyle made the snap decision to paddle back 150 meters and cross overland - he was already radioing the boat on the river to come upstream several hundred meters to pick us up west of the elephants.   Then Kyle and I had a nice little walk through the African wilderness to the ad-hoc pickup spot.  Bushbuck, Impala, Elephants in the distance, Go-Away birds scolding us and Vervets scampering and pausing to look us over.


We had a nice quick boat ride upstream to camp, and I enjoyed the fresh popcorn and a Savanna Cider waiting on board.  Dinner was great once again.  


Kyle and I made the plan of giving Honey Badgers and Wild Dogs one more try the next morning, and ending with a search for Leopard and Pel's Fishing-Owl in riverside trees down below Bottom Jeki.   

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July 21 was my last morning in camp before a midday flight to Kafue National Park and Musekese Camp.   I tried not to dwell on what might have been if I had arrived a day earlier without the canceled flight.  We loaded my luggage and camera bag into the boat, then into the game drive vehicle and Josh came with us so we could get dropped off at the airstrip after a morning game drive.  


Kyle said he knew an area that was productive for both Honey Badgers and Wild Dogs and we headed there.   He advised that the search profile one should use for Honey Badgers is that of a "dark caterpillar" since Honey Badgers tend to appear as dark undulating shapes when one first sees them.   We passed a lone Spotted Hyena that seemed to be hustling somewhere on a mission.  



Before long, Josh spotted a Honey Badger!   It seemed to be hustling home after a night's foraging so I only got a few photos in the dim morning light before it went to ground.   But I was still thrilled at seeing my first Honey Badger.  






Then we had some nice birds - including a Dickinson's Kestrel, Double-banded Sandgrouse, and Saddle-billed Stork.









After birding the plains and some of Bottom Jeki, we drove around a well-forested riverside area.  We were looking for predators and scanning the trees for a Pel's Fishing-Owl, which Kyle said he had seen in the area multiple times.   We heard some vervets and Impala making alarm calls and headed their way.   Josh called out "Lion" and there was a female padding downhill towards us on a vehicle track.   She stopped and rested in the shade about halfway down the small hill.  I took the opportunity to admire her through binoculars and shoot a few photos with my zoom lens (since she was so close).   




Suddenly the lioness whirled around and went completely flat.   It was amazing how close to the ground she stayed.   An unsuspecting mother Warthog and her half-grown offspring were trundling along - in the direction of the lioness.   Kyle and I held our breath and started filming with our iPhones.  


This video runs a little over three minutes; stick with it - the suspense factor goes up and down before shooting through the roof.   Be sure to turn up the resolution.




We were thrilled at our good fortune this morning - my first Honey Badger as well as my first start-to-finish Lion hunt and kill.


-- Edit:   I kept forgetting to mention our multiple sightings of large Buffalo herds.   In the largest, we estimated 320 individuals.  If you wanted to photograph buffalo - individually or in herds, in various light and dust clouds and so forth - Lower Zambezi NP would be a good place for it.   




Since the time for our bush flight was approaching, we began heading towards Jeki airstrip, birding as we went.  At the airstrip, it was fun chatting with some of the guides and guests from other camps who were meeting their flights around the same time.   Before long, our SkyTrails charter flight came in and landed.  It was a sharp little Cessna C172.   




We said goodbye and thanks to Josh, and a nice young pilot named Jonathan greeted us and helped us get our luggage aboard and stowed + distributed properly.


Then we were off to Musekese Camp!   

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Not long after takeoff from Jeki airstrip we saw a herd of elephants crossing the Lower Zambezi landscape - I wonder how many generations have used these same trails?






Zambezi River




About an hour into the trip we saw large groups of thousands of Lechwe in a couple of different areas of the Kafue Flats - I think some were in Blue Lagoon NP and some were definitely in Lochinvar NP.     We also saw a group of hundreds of pelicans on a body of water in Lochinvar.


On the boat ride from the airstrip to the vehicle on Musekese Camp's side of the river, we saw three African Finfoot - which I thought was a lot (how wrong I was).   We also had a more obliging female African Darter.   Then on the vehicle ride to camp we enjoyed an Arnott's Chat dismembering a grasshopper of some kind.


African Darter



Arnott's Chat



Upon arrival at Musekese, we were greeted by Tyrone McKeith (Ty as everyone calls him), Victor the barman + maître d', and a couple of other staff whose names I did not catch.   Kyle and I followed @KafueTyrone to the main area while the staff toted our bags to our tents.  Over cool drinks we chatted, talked about goals and plans, and Ty also gave the safety briefing.   We made a rough plan of a game drive later in the afternoon, a bush walk the next morning, and a boat ride the next afternoon.  


Then late lunch was served - delicious flatbread with choices of falafel, gyro-type lamb meatballs and various toppings and sauces.   I became instantly addicted to a green tomato sauce that is apparently widespread in Zambia.  There was an American family of 7 in camp - the father and mother, with three grown offspring and two of their spouses.  We hit it off instantly, and got into a deep conversation about Washington DC (where I used to live and two of the family couples reside).  


The afternoon game drive was a lot of fun.  Ty drove, Kyle sat up front and a new guide at Musekese and Ntemwa-Busanga came along: Kyle's cousin Wilton.   Wilton is a very good spotter, a fun companion, and will be a top safari guide before long.   Besides herds of Puku and Impala, we saw elephants in multiple locations.   And we ran across Greater Kudu in a couple of places - this one was in a small dust storm caused by some elephants.




Birding was excellent - we had good looks at Rufous-bellied Tit, Southern Black Tit, Scimitarbill, a mating pair of Senegal Coucal, Purple Roller, and a confiding Crested Barbet among other goodies.  


Rufous-bellied Tit



Crested Barbet




Then a Greater Honeyguide gave us decent looks before a noisy couple of Meyer's Parrots also paused in a tree for us to admire and photograph them.  





After more birding and game viewing, we stopped for sundowners.   I jokingly told Ty that a 3-to-1 guide to guest ratio was about the best I had ever seen.    Then we headed back to camp for a delicious supper where I compared notes with the family and we resumed our interlocking conversations (there were usually 2-3 smaller satellite conversations underway as well as an overarching one involving everybody).  

The next morning I had opted for a Bush Walk.  It was even cooler than the mornings in Lower Zambezi had been.  Kyle, Wilton and an armed DPNW ranger accompanied me.   Another great ratio!   We drove a little way from camp and parked the vehicle by the road.   As we set out on foot, the ranger went first, then Kyle second, then I followed and Wilton brought up the rear, keeping a good eye behind us.   Kyle chose where we went, which game trails or paths we followed, how to operate during elephant encounters, etc. - it was his show.  Knowing my interest in animal tracks, Kyle spent time and paid special attention to noteworthy tracks and ones that were good examples or instructional aids.   


We walked through some wooded areas and also through the tall grass lining Eden Lagoon.   A Coucal was scolding and swooping over a dense patch of grass across the water and several Puku were staring intently in that direction.  But we were not able to spot whatever predator must be lurking there.  Ty had told us that the antelope spend the night in the wooded areas on ridges of higher ground and as the morning progresses (and warms up) they head down to feed in and along the lagoon.   Predators know this and wait in the areas in between, hoping to catch the antelope unawares as they go about their movements back and forth early and late in the day.


Father down the lagoon we saw a small group of Bush Pigs - they were the first I had ever seen.   This safari was producing some nice "lifer" mammals.   There were also 7 Southern Ground-Hornbills foraging along an edge of the lagoon - their booming calls carried quite a long way in the still morning air.   We came upon a little backwater in the lagoon and it had two adult Wattled Cranes and a very young chick - but the parents shyly withdrew into the tall grasses and the chick followed so it was not a long or good sighting.   Kyle and Wilton said Wattled Cranes with chicks are very shy and reclusive - a good tendency for an endangered species to have.


Bush Pigs


Back in a forested area on higher ground, we had some nice birds in a mature fig tree that was in fruit - Black-backed Barbets, Schalow's Turacos, Green Pigeons, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds, and more were attracted to the fruit bounty.   


Schalow's Turaco






Black-backed Barbets


Our goal was to walk from one good patch of miombo forest to another, to seek some target birds such as Miombo Pied Barbet.   As it turned out, nearly every such forest patch contained elephants.   At one of them, a young elephant grew disturbed / annoyed at our presence and let it be known.   Its mother reacted swiftly and rushed toward us, ears spread wide and head shaking, so we quickly backtracked out of there.   She pulled up before we had to do anything like move up a termitarium for safety.


On the rest of the walk, we enjoyed more good birding and plentiful Puku and Impala, with smaller numbers of Greater Kudu.   Elephants were regularly encountered but without any further friction.


Back in camp, the family had departed and a new guest from Switzerland named Hans had just arrived.   Our interests were pretty similar so I was happy to be paired with Hans and be able to maintain our focus on birds and neat mammals as before, without having to pay for a private vehicle.  Also arriving in camp were Robin Pope, his wife Jo, and another couple in their party.  


Lunch was excellent again and after a short break Hans and I met in the main area for a quick vehicle ride to the boat for our afternoon boat trip on the Kafue River.   Ty piloted the boat and Kyle and Wilton helped act as spotters.  Hans and I rode up front, in adjacent seats across the middle row.   We enjoyed good looks at Little Bee-eater, Giant Kingfisher and Brown-hooded Kingfisher - each allowed us some photo opportunities.   








A bit farther downriver we saw an immature African Goshawk perched in a riverside tree.



Then we came upon the first of ten African Finfoot!    The first one was very shy and we did not get good looks at it.   After a while, we came to a partially-fallen tree leaning out over the water.   Kyle said "It has a Finfoot sitting out of the water on the tree"   but all I saw was an African Darter.   Surely Kyle did not misidentify it?  I wondered.   Then the darter flew and Ty continued slowly maneuvering the boat to optimize the sun angle.   I was still wondering when the boat came around and I saw a Finfoot sitting well above the water on the almost-horizontal tree trunk.   Note to self:   never doubt Kyle when he calls something.    Judging from the abundant whitewash on the tree trunk, the Finfoot perched there regularly.




Fortunately the Finfoot was very relaxed (due in part to Ty's masterful boat handling) and it sat and watched us a while before taking a slow leisurely stroll down to the water.   * Notice how it uses its tail like a woodpecker for bracing against the tree trunk.








It sat a moment, drank a little water, then eased reluctantly into the current.   Perhaps it had been enjoying warming up and drying out in the sun?   Whatever the case, it gave us some unbelievable photo opportunities for such a shy and normally reclusive species.   




We were ecstatic at our good fortune, but the show was not nearly over.   Kyle spotted a Half-collared Kingfisher perched on a branch low over the water where a sheltered stream fed into the Kafue River.   The area was shady but with a shaft of light that illuminated the little kingfisher.   After missing out on good views and photo ops on my 2019 Zambia safari, I was rewarded with an exceptional encounter on this one!    






After enjoying several other African Finfoot and some more Half-collared Kingfishers, we stopped by "the confluence" which is where Eden Lagoon meets the Kafue River and the former oxbow's marshy wetlands drain into the river proper.   There was an elderly Bull Elephant browsing on the grasses.  Ty and Kyle said that when an elephant's sixth and final set of molars begins wearing down, that they seek out wetland plants that are easier to chew and digest.   He was a very relaxed gentleman and did not seem to mind us pulling up to the edge of the grasses and taking photos.   








We noticed the Puku looking very nervous and concerned in a certain direction, so Ty suggested heading to the boat landing and taking a vehicle to investigate.  We did so and were rewarded with a female Leopard in the fading light.   




What an excellent aquatic and terrestrial game drive!     Back in camp, we heard Robin Pope's group and Phil Jeffery had an excellent game drive with good Lion activity.   At dinner, a Barred Owlet sat in the open on a dead branch right over the table.   





Edited by offshorebirder
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Really enjoying your report @offshorebirder. Reading the Musekese section with interest, we should have been back there this October but unfortunately it has been postponed to next year due to covid.

Lots of excellent sightings so far.  The pictures of the Finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher are superb.


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Thanks for the kind words @Zim Girl and the likes @everyone.   


This TR has been a bit heavy on birds so far but it's about to shift more into mammal and predator mode.  


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what wonderful Finfoot sightings you had. I've seen them a few times but never so close or so relaxed. 

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Musekese is indeed fabulous for birding , Nate , as I remember from 2019 and your pictures are superb as always ; there is one species I had never seen before but waiting for the buffalo run at Chitake Springs  suddenly there it was but that's for later in my TR ;)

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In the wee hours of the morning of July 23, I heard Lions roaring, a Leopard sawing, Hippos munching and vocalizing, and wetland bird calls.   It was a wonderful soundtrack.  


Over breakfast, Hans and I learned that Ty and Kyle would be guiding us on our game drive - Wilton and Gilbert plus some camp staff would be heading to Ntemwa-Busanga to prep things for some other guests and me.   Wilton and Gilbert would also be scouting to see where noteworthy animals were and to make notes about their daily habits.   


After a quick breakfast around the campfire, we boarded the vehicle and proceeded south-southeast of camp to start our game drive.  We saw another Wattled Crane family, as well as Barred Owlet,  Black-crowned Tchagra, and Red-breasted Swallows before spending time with an Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike that played peekaboo with us.  One day I will get a decent photo of this reclusive species.  Mammals were plentiful - we enjoyed multiple herds of Puku and Impala, some Greater Kudu and we saw Elephants in several locations.  







Then we had more good birding, with Green-capped Eremomelas, several White-crested Helmet-Shrikes, Chinspot Batis, Fork-tailed Drongo and others.  



Along the way, we came across some fresh leopard tracks and Kyle followed them to a bush with a limb sticking out over the road.   Kyle examined the limb and pointed out many leopard hairs stuck to it - the leopard had used it as a marking post and rubbed its facial gland on the branch to leave scent, leaving some hairs stuck to the twigs in the process.



Then we had a nice encounter with some Southern Ground-Hornbills - I am very fond of these birds.   



After some more good birding we took a short break for coffee and "marking our territory" by the Kafue River.   It was a nice view from the riverside bluff.




After a short time back on the game drive, we got a call on the radio from Gilbert, who was doing some patrolling and infrastructure work.  Apparently there was a leopard near Serval Pan.   Ty drove there quickly and after 10-12 minutes we arrived.   The leopard was moving through tall grass and heavy bush and it ascended a termite mound to look around.  






Then it moved back down into the thick stuff.   Ty said he was moving towards the waterhole at Serval Pan and said "lets go for it" in case the leopard came out in the open, paused for a drink, or other good outcome.   We positioned ourselves across the pan from where the leopard was, with a decent light setup.   

Before long, our gamble paid off and the leopard emerged from the tall grass and brush surrounding the pan.  It was a young male and he was stunning to observe in the open in good light.







After drinking a lot of water, he strode a short way and had a little lie-down.  What a cooperative guy!  





Before long, he got up and resumed his walk, re-entering heavy cover and causing us to lose track of him.   We were very happy at our leopard encounter and grateful to Gilly for radioing us.



Ty had gotten word over the radio that Hans' checked luggage had arrived in camp, so we headed back a little early to reunite them and to do some birding around camp before lunch.  Robin Pope's party had also returned and we spent some time working a nice mixed-species flock moving around a Sausage Tree in flower and some adjacent trees and bushes.   There was a Böhm's Bee-eater, multiple Terrestrial Brownbuls, Scarlet-chested + Collared Sunbirds (male and female of each), White-bellied Sunbird, Red-throated Twinspots, and several more species.   Robin whistled a perfect imitation of an Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike and that teased some of the smaller birds out where we got better looks at them.   



Then we saw a Schalow's Turaco skulking in the interior of a thick bush.   Robin cupped his hands to form a hollow chamber, and then made another great imitation of its gutteral croaking call.   The turaco popped out on an open branch and looked around for the interloper - giving us very good looks.   Hans and I thanked Robin for his neat trick - apparently he has many such tricks up his sleeve.  



After lunch, heading to our rooms, we saw a female Bushbuck and her youngster.   Very cute but they did not come in the open for a photo.   


Later that afternoon, our plan was to do another game drive to some nice Miombo forests for birding and check the area around Serval Pan afterwards in case the leopard showed again.   After some good birding and mammal watching, we returned to Serval Pan but did not find the young leopard.  We widened our search and after a while, heard the gargling, snarling call of a leopard.   It was off road in a tallgrass brushy area.   Ty and Kyle said it might be a leopard mating and so we went to investigate.   We drove a short distance and waited.   Then we heard the call again.   The call was changing distance + direction slightly so apparently the leopard was on the move.  


Eventually we ended up near Serval Pan so we returned to the road and then turned into the little pullout near the pan.   As the light faded out, we saw one, then two leopards in the road ahead of us.  One was a big male and one appeared to be a female.  The male was sniffing something in the road and making the flehmen response.










Then the male and female moved back in the grass behind the pan to resume mating.  And a third leopard came ambling in from the road - it seemed to be the immature male from this morning!    It was curious about what the other leopards were doing - we readied ourselves for an explosion when the adult male noticed it.   But apart from a couple of snarls, the young leopard was tolerated.   We were very surprised and Ty said it must be the female's and perhaps the male's offspring.  I later gave him copies of the photos I took and he said yes, the young male was the female's offspring and presumably of the dominant male of the area.  


Here are a couple of videos - the first is more useful for audio.   When Ty told Phil on the radio we had three leopards at Serval, Phil replied dryly "only three?" before consulting his clients and quickly deciding to join us.   Phil and Robin's party got there in time to see and hear the leopards mating before the couple moved off and lost us.  



The second video shows the young male acting a bit confused after the adults moved off and left him.   




Needless to say, we were a happy bunch of people after such an astounding experience.  It was fun reliving things at dinner with the other guests.


Edited by offshorebirder
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Really enjoying this trip report @offshorebirder- your bird photos are amazing. I loved the video of the lion and the warthog and your canoe trip (that hippo that walked in before you was HUGE)!


Question for Zambezi veterans; are the elephants known for being skittish? I've read a few TRs in this area now and quite a few of them mention fake and real charges. I understand there is a history of poaching (and hunting camps?) so completely understand why they would be nervous but their nerves make me nervous :lol:

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On 8/10/2021 at 7:34 PM, offshorebirder said:

There were also 7 Southern Ground-Hornbills foraging along an edge of the lagoon - their booming calls carried quite a long way in the still morning air.


my favourite sound in Africa. I am still trying to get a good recording of them calling to each other.

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I have come to this TR a bit late. Thoroughly enjoying it and loving the images. 

I have known you a few years @offshorebirder and know you for the seasoned safarigoer you are. So it always delightful to hear when someone like you gets a few firsts on their trip.


Tusk and mane sounds delightful and Musekese I know and love. The upgrade is looking great.

Thanks for the TR so far and fingers crossed for the dogs...... 


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July 24 dawned cloudy, chilly, and windy - a cold weather system had moved up from South Africa.   It was my last full day at Musekese - the plan had originally been for a boat ride in the morning - up the Lufupa River looking for Pel's Fishing-Owl and White-backed Night-Heron specifically, while keeping an eye out for more Finfoot, other birds and wildlife.   But I had gotten a little nervous about our paucity of lion sightings at Musekese.  So I decided to spend the morning on another game drive to try to try and plug that gap before doing the boat trip that afternoon or the following morning - depending how things went.   We had enjoyed stellar leopard sightings by day and night but not as many lion sightings.   That is the beauty of camps like Musekese - you can be fluid with your plans as conditions and sightings warrant.


Kyle drove Hans and me, since Ty had office work to do; we passed through some mixed grasslands and miombo patches where Greater Kudu, Puku, Impala and a couple of Oribi grazed.  







After working the grasslands for predators and coming up empty, we came to a nice patch of miombo forest and quite a large and varied bird party.   There were several White-crested Helmet-Shrikes, multiple each of Fork-tailed Drongos, Green-capped Eremomelas and Common Scimitarbills - they formed the nucleus of the flock.   We also saw multiple White-breasted Cuckooshrikes - one of my favorite Zambian birds.   As usual, they were challenging to photograph.   



We also had some Miombo Tits and Rufous-bellied Tits, as well as a Brown-backed Honeybird.   And a pair of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters put on quite a show.   They were very challenging to photograph in flight - I only had one mediocre flight photo come out.











Eventually we tore ourselves away from the excellent bird party and resumed looking for lions and game.  We heard from Phil over the radio that they had seen a male lion very close to camp earlier - so we decided to try and find him.  As we rounded a corner not far from the guide tents and camp's solar farm, we saw a male lion resting in the shade of some bushes.   He was a magnificent specimen!





The lion sniffed the air and contemplated getting up, which he soon did.   Then he strolled out of the brush and out into the tall grasses towards camp.   








The Lion then strolled right past tent #1 - which is where Hans was staying.   

At that point, we drove around behind the guide tents and solar farm, and hurried to the main area.  We hoped to see the lion stroll by.   When we got there, Ty was watching him in front of the main deck and over to the left.   When the male lion saw us, he paused and growled - what a fantastic sound!    Deciding he did not like the look of us, the lion turned and worked his way around behind camp.   Kyle said "hurry - let's get back to the vehicle and follow him"  so we did.   It was quite the adrenaline rush hustling on foot to reach the vehicle before the lion did.   


We were in plenty of time and we shadowed the lion at a respectful distance as he worked his way east of camp through the grassy area that runs north-south between camp and higher, more wooded terrain.  Here he is behind tent #6 (where I was staying):



Here is a video of him sauntering along.




We were beyond pleased with the lion sighting and rejoined Ty in the main area for a cool drink before lunch.  Over lunch, Jo Pope spotted four lions across Eden Lagoon - it was two adult females and two subadults.  We watched them with our binoculars - they were walking on the high ground towards the confluence and eventually exited our view to the left.   After lunch we did a little birding and the best bird was a Scaly-throated Honeyguide.  

Since we had such excellent lion sightings, we agreed that the boat trip would be a good afternoon activity.  Kyle piloted us north up the Kafue River and around the bend, where we made a left into the Lufupa River.   I like this river a lot - it was shallower and slower-moving than the Kafue and reminded me of a couple of rivers back home - the Edisto River in particular.  


Kingfishers were much in evidence - we had multiple Giant, Brown-hooded, and Pied Kingfishers and then a confiding Half-collared Kingfisher.   The cloudy sky was not as favorable for photography as the previous Half-collared Kingfisher encounter, but we still enjoyed the cute little bird with the big-headed appearance.  



We looked hard for White-backed Night-Heron but only found Black-crowned Night-Herons and Striated Herons.  


Then Kyle spotted a Grail Bird - a Pel's Fishing-Owl perched on a limb of a large tree on the east side of the river!    Unfortunately a leafy branch obscured part of the owl's head but I managed a couple of mostly-unobscured photos.   





We tried to hug the western riverbank to sneak upstream past the Pel's without flushing it, but the owl was not having it.   It took off and flew upstream to the western side of the river, where it perched in another tree and watched us for a few moments before flying back into thicker cover.   We were ecstatic!   






After some Hippo families and croc sightings, we had some good birding including a Gymnogene and a pair of African Finfoots that were sleeping on a log with a huge terrapin.   We saw more Finfoot on the Lufupa and on the Kafue River on the way back home.  













We continued the search upstream for White-backed Night-Heron but were unsuccessful on that front.     After birding our way back to the boat landing, we got back to the vehicle a little before dark.  When we got going, we heard from Gilly on the radio about the location of the Musekese pride.  We drove to have a shoft visit with them before dinner - it was a female and three subadults.    




Dinner was great, as was the conversation.   And the bold little Barred Owlet perched on the limb in front of the dinner table again. 


* I keep trying to edit this post to remove the extra crocodile photo it keeps tacking on at the end.   I delete the image, save the post and it tacks the image back on at the end again.  @Game Warden - any idea how to correct this?


Edited by offshorebirder
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