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Zambia 2024 - South Luangwa: "Wait until the evening"


JimS

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Just back from South Luangwa (Flatdogs - where I met @mopsyand sons, Chikoko, Big Lagoon, Tafika, Nkwali). Overall a superb trip albeit with some periods of frustration. It will take me some time to gather my thoughts and my photos, so for now I'll kick off with a cliff-hanger of a prologue.

 

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Prologue:
 
The spotlight is broken. Sebastian works on it in near darkness by the light of Isiah's torch. He replaces the bulb, then the fuse, but still no joy. Sitting alone in the back of the vehicle my frustration mounts with each failed attempt. Twelve days into a thirteen day trip the sightings have dropped off in quantity and quality. Dogs eluded me entirely; they were top of my wish list but I'm resigned to missing out. I haven't seen a single lion for eleven days. Thank goodness the leopard have been reliable, though recently restricted to fleeting glimpses as they move in and out of cover. The only kill witnessed was a frog, victim of a Ground Hornbill.
 
On the previous night's drive from Nkwali I had the vehicle to myself, with Sebastian as guide/driver and Isiah as spotter. We heard lion but couldn't locate them. The other Nkwali vehicle saw dogs and radioed news to Sebastian, but again we couldn't locate them. Back at camp I shared the excitement of the other guests as they recounted their sighting. On the surface at least; inside I felt a little crushed. I conferred with Sebastian and Kiki, the manager at Nkwali. "Tell me the earliest we could leave in the morning, I  guarantee I'll be ready". Isiah was enlisted to spot for a morning drive and we agreed to set off an hour and a half before daylight. With no other guests sharing the vehicle, there's no need to confer or compromise on this.
 
Leaving camp next morning there's a sense of purpose to our swift movements. A short brisk march to the riverside, a skip down the steps, the boat captain is already pulling back from the bank as we take our seats, then carving a path between crocs and hippos as we cross the Luangwa in the darkness. As soon as the boat nudges the sandbag jetty on the other side we're on our feet, up the bank, and into the vehicle we'd left here the night before.
 
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I tried to contain my hopes, learning from prior disappointments: reports of dog sightings near Hot Springs triggering a dashing pursuit through the Nsefu sector to no avail;  a cacophony of lions and hyenas as the former chased the latter from a hippo carcass on the beach, but the terrain prevented a line of sight to the action. This morning though, optimism is justified. We know the lion are in the vicinity from their calls in the night, and we're early enough to locate them before they settle out of sight in a shady thicket to sleep through the day.
 
Then the light goes out.

 

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Wow great start @JimS looking forward to more!
Love and am jealous of your writing style - really enjoyed it.

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Caracal

It's a long time since I was in South Luangwa .

I'm enjoying your descriptive writing @JimSand know I"m going to enjoy following this TR so roll on when you have the time. 

 

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Towlersonsafari

Now that is a dramatic start to your trip report!-looking forwards to the rest @JimS

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KaliCA

@JimSOh the tension is mounting and the dramatic opening is waiting for a conclusion. But I will wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been….:lol:

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Atravelynn

You've taken Quote of the Trip to a whole new level!

 

 "Tell me the earliest we could leave in the morning, I  guarantee I'll be ready".  Now there's the spirit!

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Posted (edited)

Thank you for the encouragement @mopsy@Towlersonsafari@KaliCA@Caracaland @Atravelynn, I hope you'll bear with me when the tales are less dramatic, I want to include a fair bit of practical information, as I found this really useful in others' reports when I was planning this trip.

 

A year ago my wife asked if I had a special holiday in mind for my 50th. We'd been on a safari trip in Tanzania (Nyerere NP) for her 50th in 2022, I imagine she expected/hoped I'd suggest Japan, South America… basically anywhere we'd not already been, but I told her there was nowhere on earth I would rather go than Africa on safari. The Luangwa Valley in Zambia was top of my list, but she wasn't keen on the Luangwa-style accommodation (reed chalets, outdoor bathrooms) and suggested I travel on my own. Once we'd negotiated terms (I get a trip to South Luangwa, she gets a trip to Morrocco with a friend) I'll confess I had mixed feelings: I'd have loved to have her with me, the shared memories would have been so much more special, but I know she would have found most/all of thisquite stressful and now I could plan on my own terms without compromise:

  • 3 nights Flatdogs: tented accommodation with outdoor bathroom. Game drives.
  • 2 nights Chikoko: reed-built tree-house, very open to the elements (and fauna!). Exclusively walking.
  • 2 nights Big Lagoon: reed-built chalet, equally open to the elements. Exclusively walking.
  • 3 nights Tafika: reed-build chalet, yes... open to the elements again (most evenings I got ready for bed with bats circling my head). Game drives.
  • 3 nights Nkwali: stone-built chalet, but - you guessed it - very open to the elements (I disturbed a baboon trying to steal my bag one day!)

 

Day 0 - To arrive where we started:

 

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Arriving in the Luangwa Valley feels like a return, even though the place is new to me. I'd researched thoroughly when planning this trip, perhaps it's just like watching a movie adaptation of a favourite book. But there's something deeper that I'm sure you all recognise - as though a genetic homing instinct tugs us toward the birthplace of our species, where we started.

 

The tension stored up during the international legs of my journey had dissipated during the Lusaka-Mfuwe flight. With no more jeopardy of missing flight connections or losing luggage, I sit back, enjoy a "Californian Frooty Red" and follow our progress through the window.

 

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I'm met in the terminal by Dave and Kennedy from Flatdogs. A family of three from San Francisco are collected from the same flight, luggage arrives quickly and we're on our way to Flatdogs, only delayed en route to watch a sizeable group of elephants browsing the trees a short distance outside the camp.

 

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Leaving the elephants, we're met at camp by Anne and Memory (Memo for short), Anne shows the Americans to their chalet, Memo shows me to my tent.  Tent #1 is closest to the communal areas, but not so much that I'm disturbed, and it has a lovely view directly onto the river where I see my first puku, this fabulous male sunning himself on the bank.

 

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Memo explains the Flatdogs timetable and leaves me to unpack and settle in:

  • 05:30: light breakfast (cereal/toast, coffee/tea/juices) - look for a table with your guide's name on; assemble there for a quick bite and a drink
  • 06:00: depart on game drive (typically entering the park around 6:15 each morning, depending how many elephants you encounter on the way)
  • 10:30: down-time in camp; mealtimes are flexible, you can take a brunch immediately on return, or wait an hour or two for lunch, whichever you prefer; the menu is extensive, including daily specials.
  • 15:00: re-assemble with your guide and vehicle-mates for tea; place orders for evening dinner; head out on afternoon game drive, which becomes a night drive after sundowners.
  • 19:30: dinner in camp, timing flexible.

 

Flatdogs' game drives are up to 6 per vehicle, all vehicles have 3 rows so everyone has a window seat. I'm to be guided by Jabes, sharing with the American family, and for this evening we'll be joined by Blair and Jacqui for the last drive of their safari. Blair's magnificent moustache brings to mind an old-school British Army Colonel. He and Jacqui are safari veterans, I'm a second-timer, the Americans first-timers. Regardless, we all tell Jabes we're happy to see whatever appears. While I do have a wish-list (particularly the leopard and wild dogs I missed out on in Tanzania) I'm happy for the first drive to be an orientation, getting a feel for the landscape and its inhabitants. It doesn't disappoint.

 

The camp is outside the park, but barely a 10 minute drive from the gate. It takes longer sometimes because the game viewing starts the moment you leave camp: the elephants we'd seen on arrival have moved away, but I have my first view of the endemic Thornicroft's giraffe.

 

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The South Luangwa is home to the Thornicroft Giraffe sub-species which typically has the usual one head and four legs.

 

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I don't recall ever having to queue at the entrance to the park...

 

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... usually if we found more than one vehicle waiting there, it was due to crossing elephants

 

This central area of the park has a reputation for game density (as well as vehicle density - more on that later), and you really couldn't turn your head without spotting a herd of impala, puku, or a confusion of guinea-fowl. The landscape is beautiful despite being so flat. Every turn of the road seemed to reveal another lagoon, its surface carpeted with lush green nile cabbage.

 

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Every lagoon had at least one resident hippo, usually adorned with cabbage.

 

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Aside from the impala and puku, waterbuck were plentiful.

 

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It had never occured to me before that a baby elephant would use it's mouth, not it's trunk, for suckling.

 

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But when mum made clear she wanted privacy, we moved on.

 

Then we came into a large open area with a prominent tree standing alone at one end. Approaching the tree we spot a hyena sitting underneath.

 

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Every so often he glances up into the tree...

 

What is he looking for up there? Jabes repositions the vehicle, the hyena skulks away, and we see his goal wedged in a fork.

 

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A dead impala in a tree can only mean one thing, and I'm grinning ear to ear as Jabes once more repositions the vehicle and we finally spot "Lucy" still dozing high above us.

 

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Jabes explains that Lucy chose this tree to stash her kill two or three days ago. Leopard sightings are near enough guaranteed until she finishes feasting and the guides in the central area are making the most of it. The poor hungry hyena has been sitting in vigil underneath the tree ever since. We spot him again, settled in a small depression still in sight of the tree and close enough to dash in to steal away anything that drops.

 

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Incredibly, no other vehicles are around at this point, Lucy briefly raises her head...

 

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Jabes tells us to wait for her to yawn: "If she yawns four times she will be getting up", but for now this leopard wants more sleep.

 

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By now more vehicles are arriving, so we leave her and head off for sundowners on a wide bend of the river where we watched skimmers gliding back and forth , the first sunset of the trip set the tone for all those to follow.

 

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Like @mopsymentioned in his report, I was sceptical whether the night drive would show much, and initially it seemed to be that way. A scub hare and a white-tailed mongoose provided some interest...

 

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... but otherwise it was just spot-lit hippo after spot-lit hippo, until...

 

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Known to the guides as the "Big Pride", this group originated from a super-pride of over 30 that split around 12 years ago. Male coalitions have come and gone, including the famous Ginger and Garlic, but numbers dwindled - Ginger and Garlic only produced three surviving offspring between them.

 

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Last year twelve cubs were reported, swelling the pride numbers to sixteen, joining a ruling coalition of two brothers and four adult females. Hopefully these two males will fend off challengers long enough for the young ones to reach adulthood.

 

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The spotlights prove a double-edged sword on night drives. Normally the spotter is swinging the light left-right-left-right and the landscape is dotted with similar lights swishing back and forth. When the swishing stops it's a good sign that something has been spotted, becoming a beacon for other vehicles. I counted five other vehicles watching the Big Pride, when the sixth arrived Jabes started the engine and moved off.

 

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The rest of the drive was uneventful in comparison, except our arrival back at camp was delayed when this elephant began to cross in front of us...

 

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... then, perhaps finding the spotlight a useful aid, chose to take the road most of the way to camp, reducing us to elephant's pace all the way.

 

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I couldn't have asked for a better start. Seven hours after landing in Mfuwe, barely three hours into the first game drive, I've seen four of the "big five" (and however good a guide Jabes is, he's not going to find a rhino here).

 

Edited by JimS
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An excellent start. High quality writing and photos.

 

I look forward to the rest!

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michael-ibk
Posted (edited)

Seconded. An excellent first game drive, and an excellent start to your report. Great photos.

 

I like your comparison of a new safari area as a movie adaptation. Often had that weird feeling of familiarity when I first visited a place after having read so much on it on Safaritalk.

 

In this rare case, though, the movie is inevitably always better than the book. :)

Edited by michael-ibk
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Indeed that was a great first drive @JimS

 

Flatdogs certainly delivered first up for both of us. Great way to kick off the 50th celebrations!

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Kitsafari

a very enjoyable atmospheric writing! I'm curious, when your guide decided to move on when a 6th vehicle joined - was that because of a rule that not more than 5 vehicles are at a sighting? we never had that when we were at SLNP but that was many years ago. or was it because the guide made the call not to overcrowd the sighting or to get you away from crowds? 

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12 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

a very enjoyable atmospheric writing! I'm curious, when your guide decided to move on when a 6th vehicle joined - was that because of a rule that not more than 5 vehicles are at a sighting? we never had that when we were at SLNP but that was many years ago. or was it because the guide made the call not to overcrowd the sighting or to get you away from crowds? 

 

Thank you @Kitsafari, I don't recall hearing of a specific rule, I got the impression Jabes was making his own call that it was time to reduce the crowd. I can't comment more generally as I really didn't experience many crowded sightings, the only other one came right at the end of the trip (this time with Sebastian from Nkwali) and once again we gave way when more vehicles turned up.

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With 30-40 people in camp, communal meals aren't practical. Guests are free to form their own groups, and I joined Blair and Jacqui for dinner. It proved to be good food and good company. I enjoyed Blair and Jacqui's accounts of their sightings from Flatdogs and their previous camp (Chindeni if I remember correctly). Leopards featured a lot, but this didn't surprise seeing as we're in the valley of the leopard where National Geographic claim "the infamously reclusive big cats can be readily seen lounging in the trees, lurking in the bush, and dominating the clearings in pursuit of prey". More interesting was mention of wild dogs near Chindeni; I really wanted to see dogs but hadn't heard much about recent sightings. I left for my tent in high spirits - so much had happened already it took some effort to remember I'd only been here half a day - I couldn't wait to see what the first full day would bring. The wildlife wasn't done with me yet however - I was kept from bed just short while longer until a hippo finished grazing on the path to my tent.

 

Day 1 (20 July): Opportunity makes a thief

At Flatdogs there are no wake-up drums or calls from the night watchman, half-awake anyway from the wheeze-honk of hippos, I was fully awoken by my alarm at 5am. Breakfast is a light and relatively quick meal. There's a small range of cereals, toast, boiled eggs accompanied by coffee, tea and juices. A newcomer "A.J." is already at Jabes' table. He's a Livingstone resident, here to collect a hire vehicle and drive it back to Livingstone, but will first join us on today's game drives. The Americans arrive in good time, Jonathan and Sorel, plus daughter Tessa, and we leave camp on the dot of 6am.

 

We don't make it very far as some straggler elephants are still making their way back into the park after a night on the town.

 

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Once inside the park we headed directly for the tree where we'd found Lucy, her stashed impala, and the would-be impala thief. The rays of a low sun make every clearing idyllic.

 

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The only distractions along the way were birds: a giant kingfisher right at the park entrance, a pair of saddlebill storks, Meve's starling, wood hoopoe, then close to the tree a confusion of guineafowl. The latter as relaxed as the puku grazing nearby. We conclude the leopard is likely not around but go to check anyway.

 

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Puku, including a nursing mother, were grazing unconcerned close to the leopard's tree.

 

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The hyena came to check things out, maybe hoping our arrival meant something happening in the tree and a window of opportunity...

 

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...like us, he gazes wistfully into the canopy hoping for something to come down...

 

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...but soon gives up hope and heads away to find mid-day shade.

 

With nothing to see here, we moved on, and before long were watching a pair of male lions lying up in the open.

 

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One briefly raised his head, long enough to get a good look at his face. He has a lovely mane, a mohawk on top, fuller below and fading to black at the bottom. Both his ears bear the notches of past battles while his brother's ears seemed more intact, maybe Notch fought all the battles while Notchless looked on.

 

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Notch laid his head back down and slept. With little merit watching sleeping lions we moved away for a coffee break.

 

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Much of the rest of the morning was spent around the lagoons closest to the main gate. The lagoons and immediate surrounds proved a good spot for watching birds: jacana and hamerkop rode the backs of hippos, sacred and hadada ibises strutted through the shallows; striated and black-headed heron, great egrets and yellow-billed storks peered into the waters through the gaps in the nile cabbage.

 

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Hamerkop takes a bow

 

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Striated heron

 

In the surrounding trees were  blue waxbill, lesser-striped swallow, tropical boubous, arrow-marked babbler, fork-tailed drongo as well as a multitude of Meve's starlings and ring-necked doves.

 

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Tropical boubous - almost always heard in a male/female duet

 

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Arrow-marked babbler

 

Further afield crowned crane and Southern ground hornbill seemed to prefer drier ground. Riding the thermals high above us fish eagles and bateleur.

 

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Grey crowned crane

 

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Southern ground hornbill

 

The surrounding vegetation is lush. Zambia has suffered lower than usual rains this year, but animals are still well dispersed. Nonetheless a croc tries it's luck with some makeshift camouflage but fools no one: impala and zebra come to drink but pick their spot with care, it has no opportunity to steal a meal.

 

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Hopeful camouflaged crocodile

 

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A pair of squirrels watched on with interest.

 

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Then it's back to Flatdogs for brunch. I join Jonathan and Sorel, the American couple, and their daughter Tessa, at a table under the trees. Poached eggs and avocado on toast is served up, but before anyone can start eating a furry blur crashes onto the table from above and a vervet monkey scampers away with Tessa's toast. A replacement plate is brought quickly, and for the remainder of the meal Memo stands guard to deter further opportunist thievery.

 

Edited by JimS
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Some beautiful photos here @JimS.

I particularly like the idyllic clearing, and the hyena looking up the tree.

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23 hours ago, TonyQ said:

Some beautiful photos here @JimS.

I particularly like the idyllic clearing, and the hyena looking up the tree.

 

Thanks @TonyQ, the park and its inhabitants are all extremely photogenic

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