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Trip Report Zambia Trip Report, Part 1: Kafue National Park

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I recently combined two “packaged” itineraries in Zambia: Wilderness Safari’s “Kafue’s Rivers & Plains” (an “explorations” package, 7 nights), and Kafunta Safari’s “North & South Luangwa” (10 nights). Itinerary as follows:
13 Oct, Arrive Lusaka and overnight at Wayside Guesthouse B&B http://tinyurl.com/33fmhf
WS “Kafue’s Rivers & Plains” http://tinyurl.com/38eqox
14 – 16 Oct, Lufupa Tented Camp
17 – 19 Oct, Musanza Tented Camp
20 Oct, Lunga River Lodge
Kafunta’s “North & South Luangwa” http://tinyurl.com/6ce3sd
21 – 22 Oct, Kafunta River Lodge, SLNP
23 – 24 Oct, Island Bush Camp, SLNP
25 Oct, Luangwa Wilderness Lodge, Luambe NP
26 – 28 Oct, Mwaleshi Camp, NLNP
29 – 30 Oct, Kafunta River Lodge, SLNP

31 Oct, Departure, Mfue-Lusaka-Joburg-Washington
1 Nov, Arrive home

Notes & disclaimers:
1. I have travelled on safari only once before, to Botswana and South Africa last year, so I am not an expert.
2. This trip report represents only my own experiences and my own opinions.
3. The report may be overly long, partly because I tend to be detail oriented, but also because (with the exception of Mwaleshi) I have seen little to nothing previously on this forum about most of the camps I stayed at, so thought that some detail (and photos) on the camps and accommodation was worthwhile. Finally, since this was only my second safari, every warthog still seems worthy of mention and every cat demands full accounting.
4. Photos were taken with a point-and-shoot and are posted as representative of what I experienced. They are not meant to be professional images, so a critique of quality and technical competence is not necessary.

This report represents Part 1: Kafue National Park. A separate Part 2 for the Luangwa Valley will be posted in due course.

Part 1, Kafue National Park

On this trip, I was travelling with an Australian couple I had met on safari last year in Botswana. We all had interest in Zambia and so agreed a schedule and itinerary between us. As the trip consisted of packaged itineraries, we were joined at various points by other travelers. Meeting up at the Joburg airport, we flew to Lusaka, arriving late in the evening. Instead of staying at one of the few well-known and overpriced hotels in Lusaka, we had opted for the Wayside Guesthouse B&B, which had been suggested by the operator of Kafunta Safaris. The Wayside is about 15 minutes further out from the airport than, for example, the Taj, and was priced at $100/single and $125/double, breakfast included. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the staff friendly, and the grounds beautiful with lush gardens and a swimming pool. Airport transfers were arranged by the Guesthouse at $30 each way for the three of us together. I would not hesitate to recommend the Wayside.

Lufupa Tented Camp

Transfer to Kafue was via Sefofane from Lusaka. We were joined on the flight and the 7-night itinerary by a German couple. Later, at Lufupa Tented Camp (LTC), we were also joined by two American sisters, so we formed a group of seven for the Kafue portion of the itinerary. The German couple had just come from a stay in SLNP (at two camps operated by one of the big names in SLNP) and complained of having been eaten alive by tse-tse flies; they had scores of nasty looking bites to show for it. Later, at LTC, our guide diagnosed the problem as bedbugs, not tse-tse flies! They were suffering badly from itching and scratching; luckily the camp manager had some antihistamine pills that helped relieve the discomfort.

Throughout our travels in Kafue, the tse-tse flies were absolutely miserable whenever we were in wooded areas. On the plains, however, and in the camps by the river where there was a breeze, they were not particularly troublesome (in SLNP, Lumabe, and NLNP, the tse-tses were quite tame by comparison with Kafue).

LTC is marketed by WS under the Safari & Adventure Company nameplate. It is located on the Kafue River, just below its confluence with the Lufupa River, on the site of what used to be a self-drive campground. Adjacent to the camp, and just upriver at the confluence itself, is a new self-drive campground and a number of tented sites available on a B&B basis (called Lufupa River Camp). The Tented Camp and the River Camp are well screened and separated from each other, and you would not know the other was there except that both can be seen when on the river. LTC can be booked directly (i.e., it is not exclusive to the WS “explorations” itineraries) but, with the exception of our third night, when we were joined by two Dutch women, our group were the only guests.

LTC is new this year and consists of 8 “tents” set on concrete pads, each with a wood deck and river views. Each tent has a separate solar panel providing lighting to the tent, and a solar hot water heater for 24-hour on-demand hot water. The tents are en suite, with shower and toilet facilities set off by curtains at the back of the tent.

Daily activities at LTC consisted of a morning game drive and an afternoon boat drive on the rivers. We also did a couple of night drives. The morning drives set off at 5:45am and were flexible on return time (scheduled for ~10:00am, but went as late at 12:30pm). This early start and flexible return held throughout the Kafue itinerary. Our guide throughout was Solomon (trained in Zimbabwe and with 12 years experience), and we all thought he was terrific.

-- On the afternoon of arrival, the first activity was a boat drive up the Kafue River. There were lots of Hippos, Crocs, and birds (Fish Eagle, several Skimmers, and a M/F pair of Pied Kingfishers, among others). Solomon spotted four Lions at a great distance on the far bank of the river. Eventually, we were directly opposite them, ~50 meters away (2 adults and 2 subadults). We enjoyed a long session and sundowners with them. These would be the first of daily Lions throughout the 7-day Kafue itinerary and, indeed, almost every day of the entire trip.

-- A bachelor herd of Impalas play-fighting, chasing one another, snorting, flicking their tails, and jumping.

-- Impala and Puku in several small groups all staring in the same direction provided the tip-off to a solitary male Lion, which is a resident of the area and well known to Solomon. He’s very handsome, in good shape, and well fed. The fact that he’s seldom seen with the Lionesses, yet still well fed, suggests that he is a good hunter in his own right. We spent a lot of time with him before radioing the sighting to another WS vehicle. This would turn out to be the only sighting that we shared with others during the 7 days in Kafue (with the exception of the Busanga Plains, we did not even see another vehicle elsewhere in Kafue).

-- There were lots of newborns among the Impala, Puku, and Warthogs in this area and throughout Kafue – some very tiny indeed.

-- Also of interest were Yellow Baboons, which differ from the Baboons further south, two male Bushbucks aggressively chasing one another, Defassa Waterbuck (with all-white rear ends, rather than the white circle seen on the Common Waterbuck), and a White-tailed Mongoose (with an extravagantly bushy and strikingly white tail) high-tailing it through the brush.

-- Other birds included Hammerkopf, Crowned Crane, Spur-winged Goose, Saddle-beaked Stork, both adult and juvenile Fish Eagles, Yellow-billed Kite, and Lilac-breasted Roller (these later proved to be about as common as Doves everywhere we went).

-- On a night drive, we saw a Spotted Genet, lots of Hippos out of water and grazing about, Scrub Hares, both Thick-tailed and Lesser-tailed Bush Babies (though high in trees and short glimpses only), and a Spotted Hyaena. A second night drive yielded two separate Porcupines – one enormous and the other quite small by comparison, our second White-tailed Mongoose, and four Crowned Cranes roosting in a tree for the night.

-- There was lots of wildlife activity at LTC, both day and night. I encountered grazing Hippos on the path back to my tent at bedtime, and Lions roaring along the river. Throughout the nights, Hippos, Impala, and Puku were all grazing outside the tent at one time or another and keeping me from getting any decent sleep. During the daytime, the grassy areas between the tents are spray-irrigated with water from the river, thus providing an enticement to grazing animals both night and day. During a mid-day siesta, a bull Elephant visited camp. Apparently, he is a frequent visitor and quite forward. He caused a bit of a ruckus around the main dining area, trumpeting and mock charging, which required a member of staff to intervene, bravely standing him down and moving him off. He then proceeded to move among the tents, down to the river to feed, and then back among the tents before moving along.

-- We spent a lot of time looking for signs of a Leopard in an area known to be frequented by one, but without success. We saw no Leopards while at LTC.

-- Some Vultures were seen in trees near the road (first a White-backed, followed by both a White-backed and a Lappet-faced sitting side-by-side in a tree), along with a Batteleur and a Yellow-billed Kite sharing another branch. Further out in the high grass, many more Vultures were in the trees, while others were seen rising up out of the high grass and settling back down. Solomon interpreted these as signs of a kill, and we turned off-road. After a torturously slow and jolting drive, one bump at a time, over dry and heavily heaved and fractured black cotton soil, Solomon zeroed in on the remains of a Puku kill – hind legs, stomach, and intestines were all that were left. Surrounded by high grass, Solomon stood of the roof of the vehicle for a look around. Well concealed in the high grass, and nearly impossible to see even when he was directing our attention to the spot, was a Lioness – she first became visible only as a pair of ears, and even then only when those ears twitched. Solomon regained the driver’s seat and bumped our way closer, which eventually also revealed a well-concealed male Lion and then a second female. We watched these Lions for at least an hour, following when – one by one – they moved from the shade of one tree to another.

-- Heading out in the early morning (5:45am) for a road transfer to Musanza Tented Camp, we soon encountered a bull Elephant feeding (the same one as seen in camp the day before). At first, he was a bit agitated by our presence and demonstrated with flapping ears, swaying trunk, and raised forefoot, but soon quieted and resumed feeding. We watched him at close range for a long time and it felt like a very intimate experience watching the details of his movements as he fed. He was an eating machine as he stripped leaves, broke branches, and stuffed everything into his mouth with his very dexterous and versatile trunk.

-- Soon after, we experienced a flat tire – the first of the season according to Solomon – and endured the attacking tse-tse flies as Solomon replaced it. Not 30 minutes later, the replaced tire also had a puncture and we had no second spare to replace it. Solomon radioed LTC for two replacement tires and we took advantage of the down time for a tea break as we awaited the cavalry to come to the rescue, which they did within an hour’s time.

Musanza Tented Camp

Arriving at Musanza Tented Camp (MTC) at ~10:00am, we were greeted by Evidence, the camp manager. MTC is a rustic, classic safari bush camp with just four tents set along the banks of the Lufupa River under a mature hardwood canopy. The tents (old Meru-style, with en suite toilet and bucket shower) are canvas set on concrete pads and well separated by trees and termite mounds such that each is completely private. The camp was relocated to this spot only this year and occupies the site of a former safari camp that had gone out of business some years ago. It proved to be a favorite location for our group and we would have liked to stay there an extra night but the logistics for that were not possible. MTC is only available as part of the “explorations” itinerary and cannot be booked separately (a pity, as it would be a great addition to an independent Kafue itinerary). MTC is on the Lufupa River and there were plenty of Hippos in the river by the camp, more than at LTC. Also, many large Crocs; we were advised to stay a meter or two from the water’s edge. The camp is south of the southern end of the Busanga Plains, and each day’s drives took us north to the Plains.

Solomon told us that MTC will be expanding next year to accommodate four researchers who will be supported by WS and some kind of funding from the World Bank. They will undertake the first comprehensive survey / research program in the Park, studying fish and the effects of fishing, the effects of burning, carnivores, and birds. Solomon remarked that, in recent years, poaching has been tremendously reduced and the animal numbers have come up substantially. While the diversity of wildlife in northern Kafue appears to be great, the density remains spotty.

-- On the afternoon of arrival, we found a young male Lion who had lost the “tuft” on the end of his tail. He was chillaxing under a shady bush with two young Lionesses. We would see him and his companions each day (sometimes twice a day) and found that he actually had the company of four Lionesses, one of whom – curiously – was also without a “tuft” on the end of her tail. We thought of these as the Tuft-less Pride.

-- A “fish weir” built and used by traditional native fishermen looked like a very efficient construction for emptying a river of its fish. As I understood it, the few thousand people who were relocated out of the area when the Nat’l Park was established still retain traditional fishing rights under permit from the government and are allowed to return each year to fish in the traditional way.

-- Day 2 at MTC was quite a day. Arriving on the Plains, Marie (one of my Oz friends) spotted two animals in the very far distance, moving at a good pace from right to left. Solomon put his binoculars on them. “Looks like Jackal. That would be Side-striped Jackal, which is the only type we have up here… NO! Wild Dog!” and, with that, we were off at high speed to intercept them. These were two of a pack of 5 or 6 that are in the area. Interestingly, Solomon told us that the alpha male (not one of these two) is missing a hind leg. After that excitement, we saw an actual Side-striped Jackal, Zebra, Wildebeest, and a decent sized herd (a couple of dozen) of Roan.

-- Near the area where Shumba and Kapinga (both WS camps) and Mukambe (an independent) are located (toward the northern end of the Plains), there was still water to be found in some channels and watering holes. Consequently, there were considerable green grassy areas and good numbers and variety of plains game.

-- Two male and one female Lion – members of the Busanga Pride – were seen walking across the plain and we drove to intercept them near a “palm island.” On the way, we stumbled across three Lionesses and a cub – the other members of the pride. These Lions climb trees, and one of them was doing a very good imitation of a Leopard splayed across a tree limb. We drove the 100 meters over to the “palm island” where the two males and fourth female had disappeared, but they were well hidden within. Soon, one of the other females got up and walked over to join us. One by one, the others followed in turn. As each arrived, there was a lot of socializing – nuzzling and licking one another, cooing, and other vocalizations. The Lioness inside the palm island then came out to join the others and more social interaction ensued. After a long time, one of them decided to return to the original spot where we had found them, back 100 meters away and, slowly, one by one, the others followed. Then, one at a time, the two males emerged, had a good look around, and followed. These guys were very stocky in appearance and looked fit. They had a bit of socializing between themselves when they arrived at their destination, then entered the thick underbrush where they could not be seen. All in all, we spent a fabulous 1.5 hours with these Lions. We were fortunate enough to see most of these Lions again, on our last day in the area.

-- Driving back to camp, a Leopard was seen crossing the road ahead. We found her in a thicket. Nearby, across an area of tall grass, was another thicket and, adjacent to that, a lovely green area around a small drainage swale and waterhole. A herd of Puku were grazing there and the Leopardess was stalking. She moved from the thicket, through the tall grass, and disappeared into the second thicket adjacent to the grazing Puku. It was a scene from Bambi. The grass is green, the birds are flitting about the waterhole, the gentle Puku are happily grazing away, and Appalachian Spring is playing on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, death – in the form of a Leopard – waits in the thicket for an unfortunate Puku to come just a bit closer... The tension was thick as we were all glued to the scene and awaiting the charge and the kill… Which never came as she evidently didn’t feel that the Puku were close enough for the odds to be with her.

-- Later that evening, toward the end of the afternoon / evening drive, we returned to where we had seen the Leopardess. Sweeping the swale with the spotlight, we picked up a small creature. Spotted Genet? No! Leopard cub! Where’s mom? Not 15 meters away from the vehicle, drinking from the swale. The cub scampered around, then joined her for a drink and some grooming. They moved around for a while, drinking. When it was time to go, mom picked up the cub and carried it back to the den ~200 meters away, and we were able to follow and watch the two of them disappear into the den. Heading back to camp, just a few minutes after leaving the den area, another Leopard crossed the road up ahead of us. We found him concealed in some tall grass and roadside bushes. Solomon suspected that this guy would be the father of the cub we had just seen. The cub was estimated to be only a few weeks old, and we felt quite privileged to have seen it. Of course, we were ecstatic over the events of the day – Wild Dog, the Busanga Pride, stalking Leopardess, and nighttime Leopard activity complete with cub.

-- The next day, Vultures coming to ground not far from the Leopard den suggested that she had made a kill overnight, but we were unable to penetrate the thick vegetation to get that far back in there.

-- The Leopards were the highlights of the night drives, but another highlight was two separate sightings of large Porcupines. Nighttime around camp was also lively, with Hippos making all sorts or noise and, on two nights, Lions roaring nearby. Hyaena were also heard, and one of our group watched one walking past along the river late one night. An extremely large Hippo woke me one night as it grazed it’s way past my tent and on down to the river. The thing was so enormous that, in my sleep addled state, at first I thought it was a Rhino!

-- We were having such fabulous luck here, the entire group agreed that we would rather stay an extra day at MTC and forego the scheduled transfer and single night at Lunga River Lodge and, at first, it seemed that WS might be able to accommodate this. In the end, however, it was not possible. So, instead of an early morning transfer to Lunga, we did our normal game drive to the Plains and back, and did not depart for Lunga until 3:00pm.

-- On our final day at MTC, Lion and Leopard prints were seen on the track just outside camp. A moment later, Solomon and some of the group (not me) saw yet another Leopard move fast across the road. We were unable to locate him for a better view, however. On reaching the Plains, Cheetah prints were found on the road and followed for a couple of kilometers to the point where they turned off and into the plains. Despite considerable searching, we were unable to locate the Cheetah. This proved to be the singular disappointment of the trip, as the Busanga Plains were our best shot for Cheetah anywhere on the itinerary.

-- A half-hour after heading out for the drive to Lunga, Solomon spotted yet another Leopard – this one seemingly impossibly, as it blended in so well with the tree it was laying on. This seemed a fitting final sighting for our stay at Musanza.

Lunga River Lodge

The drive from MTC to Lunga River Lodge (LRL) was about 3.5 hours, mainly though GMAs where little was seen in the way of game. The lodge itself consists of 8 (I think) permanent chalets, each with a private deck overlooking the Lunga River. Each chalet has a wood-fired boiler, so hot water for showers is available 24/7. We arrived with time only for a shower, a drink, and dinner. Adjacent to the deck in the bar area is a family of Tree Hyrax.

Because we had opted to spend the day back at the Musanza area, we did not get a game drive around LRL. Our only activity was a brief (1.5 hours) boat drive the following morning. It had rained lightly for a couple of hours just before and after dawn (the first rain of the season there). Lots of Hippos and birds on the boat drive. An extra night and day here would have been nice to have, in order to get a look around the area and a feel for what is has to offer. LRL can be booked independently of the WS explorations itineraries but, for the one night, we were the only guests there.

On the opposite side of the river here is a GMA, so there was considerable discussion of the evils of hunting (baiting being alleged). The lodge manager, however, told us that the local communities favor hunting because they get a portion of the license fees returned directly to them. They see the immediate ($) benefits of hunting, but not the more subtle, longer-term benefits of non-consumptive tourism.

* * * * * * * * *
We were all very happy indeed with our experience in Kafue. We saw Lions on each of the seven days; 20 separate individuals in all. Not to mention Leopards; 4 for most of us (the Leopardess, cub, large male (likely father of the cub), and second Leopardess on the way to Lunga), and 5 for those who saw the brief glimpse of a second male crossing the road. The experience with the Leopardess carrying the cub in her mouth was very special, as was our two sessions with the Busanga Pride, not to mention the Tuft-less Pride and the two Wild Dogs. Solomon said that this was the best safari of the season for him on the “Kafue’s Rivers and Plains” exploration, as it had not been so relentlessly rewarding previously. So, YMMV. He tried very hard to produce a Cheetah for us, without success. As Solomon had said, the diversity of wildlife in Kafue is great but the density is spotty…

Pictures from Kafue (169): http://tinyurl.com/6klo8s

Apologies for the length of this report & the number of pictures… More (length and pics) to come in a separate post with Part 2: The Luangwa Valley.

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