This is Part 2 of my October 2008 safari in Zambia, and covers the Luangwa Valley on an itinerary offered by Kafunta Safaris as follows (http://tinyurl.com/6ce3sd):
21 – 22 Oct, Kafunta River Lodge, South Luangwa National Park
23 – 24 Oct, Island Bush Camp, SLNP
25 Oct, Luangwa Wilderness Lodge, Luambe NP
26 – 28 Oct, Mwaleshi Camp, North Luangwa National Park
29 – 30 Oct, Kafunta River Lodge, SLNP
Pictures associated with this report (Part 2) can be found here (177 photos): http://tinyurl.com/635bp5
Part 1, covering Kafue National Park on an itinerary offered by Wilderness Safaris, was previously posted here: http://tinyurl.com/6g85au
Kafunta River Lodge
From Lunga River Lodge in Kafue NP, transfer to Lusaka was via Sefofane, then ProFlight on to Mfuwe, followed by a one-hour road transfer to Kafunta River Lodge (KRL). Driving from Mfuwe to KRL offered a tiny slice of life in rural Zambia with lots of people on foot and bicycles; myriad reed stalls selling vegetables and all manner of clothing and other goods; lots of one-room shops, bars, general stores, etc., with amusing names like Captain Biggie’s, Aunt E’s, and Uncle Larry’s; and signposts for all manner of Christian churches/ congregations. Due to a delayed flight departing Lusaka, we arrived at KRL having missed the afternoon game drive.
KRL itself is beautifully situated on the Luangwa River floodplain and consists of ~12 chalets, all of which have private decks looking out over the floodplain. The bar and dining area have a great view. There was always lots of game and lots to see out on the floodplain including Puku, Baboon, Warthog, and numerous birds. When we arrived, there were two Giraffe right in front of the dining area. Often, we saw Elephants in the distance and, at night in particular, there was lots of Hippo activity. The floodplain is lit by floodlights during dinner and until ~10:00pm.
KRL was comfortable, though the food was fairly mediocre, and don’t bother ordering wine by the glass (it’s boxed and it’s awful). This is not the bush camp experience that most of the trip was. All drinks were extras and were paid separately, including bottled water on the game drives. The guides were a mixed bag. The (senior) guide we were assigned didn’t show up for work one day, having run out of gas on his way in. He also took some liberty with accommodation assignments (explained below in the Island Bush Camp discussion), and seemed to lack energy and enthusiasm for the job. By contrast, a trainee guide (Moses) that drove us the long haul north to Luambe was great. He had passed his written exam for a guide’s license and was due to go for the practical in a few weeks. We had such a good time with him that we requested he lead us on an all-day game drive but, lacking the license, he wasn’t allowed to. Martin, who did the all-day with us, was also quite good.
The lodge is a few miles off the main road from Mfuwe to SLNP, in the same general area as Nkwali Camp. Morning drives departed at 6:00am and returned at 10:00. However, since the lodge is ~30 minutes drive to the Main Gate, an hour’s time is lost on each drive to “commuting.” The usual morning routine on the few days we were at KRL was to enter the park through the Main Gate. It was a bit of a parade of vehicles from all the various nearby lodges and, as such, the morning drives seemed a bit perfunctory and a bit like a “safari park” experience. There were plenty of animals to be sure and, for a first-time safari or as a family experience, I think there’s plenty of “wow” factor available, but it was not what I have become accustomed to previously (i.e., remote locations and no other visitors) and is not my preference. Afternoon drives were better, as they tended to head out across the floodplain to the east-southeast of the lodge and enter the park by fording the Luangwa River (only a foot or two deep at the time; when the water is higher, a pontoon is used). This area is a bit “remote” from the Main Gate and less trafficked, making for a more enjoyable experience. Some highlights:
-- A Harrier Hawk raiding nests, several flocks of Love Birds, lots of Lilac-breasted Rollers, and a Snake Eagle.
-- The five cubs of the Wafwa Pride, though they were resting under bushes in an area adjacent to the river that we could not approach very closely, so the viewing was limited. The adults were not seen on this day.
-- We watched several Elephant families come down to a water hole late one afternoon; eventually, there were about 25 individuals together, drinking, spraying themselves with water and mud, and wallowing. They were going at it lustily for a good 30 minutes or so and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.
-- Several Giraffes were spotted in the distance, approaching the far bank of the river for a drink, so we hurried to meet them. By the time we arrived opposite them, most of the 10 – 12 individuals had had their drink and had turned to head back to the tree line. Only a few remained, trying to decide whether it was safe to maneuver in for a drink. Eventually, after much internal debate and false starts, one did indeed splay itself down for a drink. We enjoyed sundowners while watching this unfold.
-- After dark, with the spotlight, we saw a Hyaena and a White-tailed Mongoose. Later, we circled back to where the Hyaena was seen, with a radio report that a Leopard was in the area. Two other KRL vehicles were there, and the Hyaena was seen moving about in a large open area with Puku off to the left and the right. The Leopard was soon spotted in a vegetated gully that ran through the site, evidently trying to position itself to stalk the Puku, but the presence of the Hyaena was preventing this. Other vehicles began arriving, attracted by the radio traffic and / or the spotlights. It began to feel a bit like a circus and may have, by that time, been disrupting the Leopard’s opportunity, so we drove off. The reminder of the night drive yielded a Porcupine and a Genet.
-- At dinner on the KRL dining deck adjacent to the floodplain, a Pennant-winged Nightjar seemed a reliable visitor each evening.
Island Bush Camp
The drive south to Island Bush Camp (IBC) was about 2.5 hours, and our ZAWA scout came along for the ride. We stopped at his home, one of several at an isolated Ranger’s station, to deliver a DVD player to his family! Technology reaches out even in the middle of nowhere. On this trip, we also passed through several villages, all with passels of young kids who came running and screaming to the roadside when they saw us coming. Crossing a dry riverbed, a woman was bathing a small child with water that older kids were drawing up from a water hole that must have been 4 or 5 feet deep, dug into the riverbed. Life is indeed very hard for so many…
IBC is owned and operated by KRL and is very different – being a proper bush camp. There are only 4 chalets, made of reeds and thatch and set on stilts, and there are many Hippos in the river to provide a background chorus. To my surprise, I found that I would be sharing the “family” chalet with the guide and one other camp staff occupying the adjoining room. (Back at KRL at the end of the trip, management apologized with a refund of the single supplement and a nice bottle of wine. Turns out that IBC hadn’t been expecting me, the chalet normally used by the guide “hadn’t been prepared,” and he was too lazy to “prepare” it himself.)
After arrival at IBC around 3:30, we went out for a short drive, followed by a short walk to the river where a dead Hippo was being eaten by Crocs. The scout said that this was the seventh dead Hippo he was aware of in recent days (or weeks, not sure). We had heard rumors of anthrax affecting Hippos in SLNP earlier when we were in Kafue. It turned out that this was not the only dead hippo we would encounter. There were easily more than 100 Crocs milling about in the river hoping to get a piece of this Hippo, but just a few big boys seemed to be dominating the action and actually eating. Hippo hide (according to our guide) is ~2 cm thick and therefore very hard to penetrate, even for a Croc. A hole had been opened up in the Hippo’s belly, however, and the Crocs were going in shark-like, thrusting their snouts into the belly and pulling out chunks of Hippo. Not a very appetizing scene.
The next morning, we drove a bit and then had a 3-hour interpretive bush walk. Our guide seemed a better naturalist, educator, and interpreter than game guide, so I give him credit for that much. The most interesting event of the morning was viewing several Hippos from the riverbank as they challenged one another.
For the afternoon walk, we crossed the river in a canoe and then walked to a Carmine Bee Eater colony. Along the way, we noticed an Elephant browsing just behind the tree line on the opposite side of the river. In a moment, we also saw a Hyaena climbing up the riverbank, having just had a drink, and having a very difficult time of it. He appeared to have a broken hind leg and was struggling to drag himself up to the top, where he simply flopped down in front of a log, looking toward us. The Elephant was browsing its way toward the Hyaena, and there was much speculation as to what would happen when the two met. Our guide suggested that, if the Hyaena made any threatening move the Elephant would likely kill it; if it simply remained still, the Elephant might leave it alone. The build-up to their encounter was pretty dramatic, as we didn’t know what might happen. When the Elephant finally came face to face with the Hyaena, it reacted by fanning its ears, shaking its head from side to side, swaying its trunk, and alternately taking one step forward and one back. The Hyaena simply remained still and seemingly impassive. Eventually, the Elephant backed up into the tree line and disappeared, only to reappear some distance upstream and beyond the Hyaena and continue its grazing.
The Carmine Bee Eater colony was quite a spectacle in the final hour of daylight. Many hundreds of individuals flying back and forth, into and out of their bankside nesting burrows, evidently bringing insects to feed the young within.
On the final morning at IBC, Moses (the trainee guide mentioned above in the intro) reacted to a call, saying “Wild Dog,” but the senior guide said, no it’s just a Heron. A minute later, my friend Paul, scanning with binoculars, did indeed see Wild Dogs and alerted the rest of us. They were pretty far away, on the opposite side of the river, and moving across the exposed sand of the riverbed, returning from a drink in the river to the tree line. Though they were too distant for photos, it still made for good viewing through binoculars. Kudos to Moses for identifying the call.
We had no morning activity planned. Instead, Moses was to drive us the 2.5 hours back to KRL. We stopped several times to view Elephants, along with a nice journey of ~10 Giraffes. We went off-road to investigate some Vultures coming to ground, and found half of a Puku – the hindquarters having been eaten away. We spent some time looking for the Leopard suspected of this kill, but without luck.
Luangwa Wilderness Lodge
We had a cooked breakfast at KRL and then were off at 10:00 with Moses for the long drive north to Luangwa Wilderness Lodge (LWL) in Luambe National Park (arriving around 5:30). Entering SLNP through the Miliyoti Gate, much of this trip was an extended game drive through the Nsefu Sector. Along the way, we had great game viewing including many Elephants (including one group with the young ones sleeping under the standing adults, thus protected from the sun and other threats), a good size herd of Buffalo (probably 100 or more, crossing the road in front of us and kicking up a lot of dust), small herds of Kudu, and many others. But the prize was a Leopard that Moses spotted resting in the shade of a tree. She did not allow us to view her for long though, and we only got a few poor photos.
The entire journey from IBC in the south to LWL in the north basically followed the Luangwa River. When inside the boundaries of the parks, we travelled at “game drive speed,” while outside the parks we travelled at whatever (high) speed the road would support (and Moses was a very sporting driver).
LWL is managed by a young couple, Bjorn and Jessie, and sleeps maybe 8 or 10 in “tents under tents” up on platforms. There are many Hippos in the river; I counted at least 200 and Bjorn said that there have been as many as 600 at times. They keep up a pretty much non-stop (and loud!) chorus both day and night. Who knew that hippos could make so many different sounds?
This camp is run as part of, and for the benefit of, the Luambe Conservation Project, which was established by Bjorn’s family (and a few others) to conserve the wildlife and other natural resources of Luambe National Park, and to develop and promote employment and income opportunities for the local people (helping to curb poaching as a result). The project seems to have been established along community development themes similar to those that had been first introduced in Northern Luangwa by Mark and Delia Owens. Camp staff are drawn from the local village population, a gardening club provides fresh produce for the camp, a carpentry club built most of the camp furnishings, a sewing club produces craft items for sale at the camp, etc. The camp also supports a local school, maintains roads using their own grader, provides drop-off transportation for ZAWA Rangers going out on (foot or bicycle) patrols, and other services. All of the profits from the camp, we were told, go back into the Conservation Project. Luambe has been heavily poached and the game seemed skittish. Still, the numbers are apparently coming up. I would have been happy to stay there another day to have had the chance to see a bit more of the area and what it has to offer.
As it was, we had just a night drive and an abbreviated morning drive before heading to Mwaleshi. There is a local Lion pride which we did not see, but the camp’s one other guest did find them on the one night that we were there. For our part, the night drive started out slowly with just Scrub Hares, Puku, and Impala. Next, a 4-toed Elephant Shrew, followed by a Genet, then – whoa – a pair of Honey Badgers scurrying into the tall grass! We only had them in the spotlight for maybe 5 or 10 seconds, though. Moses told us that you only see them in pairs like that when they are breeding; otherwise, they are solitary animals. We were also treated to excellent viewing of a Porcupine crossing an open area and we were able to follow it for a while before it disappeared into the tall grass. Looping back along the same road to return to camp, we crested a small rise and had that pair of Honey Badgers in the headlights! We followed them on down the road for a quite a distance. The final sighting of the evening was a Bush-tailed Mongoose. Although we didn’t encounter any Lions or Leopard, we were happy with the several interesting nocturnal creatures we had seen.
We had a 2-hour game drive in the morning before the flight out but, unfortunately, little was seen: Puku, Impala, Guinea Fowl, an Elephant family with a very small youngster, and some Crowned Cranes. LWL is the only lodge in Luambe, but it may be years before the wildlife population becomes a big draw for visitors. Bjorn’s family, he said, remain committed to the Conservation project and I can only guess that they have the financial resources to maintain that commitment. We were told that they had chosen Luambe for the project because it seemed small enough to be “doable.” I wish them the best of luck. If you’re interested in learning more about the Lumabe Conservation Project and the camp, here are the websites:
The aircraft was waiting for us when we arrived at Waka Waka Airstrip, along with a throng of children from the nearby village, who were very well behaved. The pilot, Kendall, told us that she always has an audience when she lands here. Kendall later told us a story from a previous trip here about a boy who was slyly touching the plane, then casually leaned up against the fuselage and, when he thought she wasn’t looking, he licked the plane – wondering what it tastes like, I guess!
The flight to Mwaleshi is very short, only ~15 minutes (though it would take several hours to drive). We were met by Ernst, the camp manager and guide. Mwaleshi is a fabulous bush camp with just four reed and thatch chalets. The camp is deconstructed at the end of each season (we were the last guests of the season), and reconstructed the following year. We were the only guests for the first night, after which we were joined by two South African travel agents (the charter pilot also stayed at camp for the final two nights). The food was excellent, perhaps the best of any camp on the whole itinerary. We had a chance to meet the chef and get a tour of his bush kitchen before leaving. It is amazing what he produced from such primitive accommodation.
Morning walks departed camp at 6:00 and returned around 10:00, while afternoon walks departed at 3:30 and returned as the sun set. We were accompanied by a ZAWA Scout, and a spotter/tracker named Special who had very sharp eyes indeed.
-- Our first walk on the afternoon of arrival found a Lioness splayed out atop the bank on the far side of the river, with three cubs halfway down the embankment and mostly concealed behind a log. After watching for a while, we tried to move closer for photos, but the Lioness wasn’t interested in that and she and the cubs moved off. We saw Lions each day at Mwaleshi, but always at a distance of 100 meters or more. Ernst said that it is sometimes possible to approach even within 30 meters, but we did not have the luck. We did get quite close to a variety of other animals, though, including Elephant, Warthog, a lone Buffalo, and a small herd of 6 or 8 Zebras.
-- Lions passed right by camp late the first night (~2:30am); they were roaring right outside my chalet, or so it seemed – they were very close but I could not see them.
-- On the morning walk, looking into the sun, Special spotted another Lioness at an impossible distance, again laying atop the riverbank on the far side. We walked to the riverside, descended the bank to the river bottom, and sat to watch her about 100 meters away and upstream of us. Further upstream was a large herd of Buffalo (200 or more). The Lioness was very relaxed but alert, alternately gazing at us and then at the Buffalo. Of course, she was not about to take on a Buffalo herd. Two Warthogs emerged from the treeline, about 25 meters closer to the Lioness than the nearest Buffalo, and this caught her attention. The Warthogs must have felt comfortable with so many Buffalo around, and they had not noticed the Lioness. Soon, she was on her feet and the hunt was underway. She stalked her way toward them, using a gully for cover, so she briefly disappeared from our view. When she ran out of gully and emerged, she trotted a moment and then charged. The Warthogs scattered, but she was locked onto her target and gaining ground when he turned a very quick 180 causing her to lose footing in a cloud of dust. She was soon closing on him again when the two disappeared into the bush. We did not see either one emerge, but we heard no Warthog squeal, so we concluded that he had escaped. Very exciting and dramatic sequence.
-- Another morning, Special again spotted a Lioness. Again looking into the sun, at a great distance, and laying on the far side of the river. As we made our way to our side of the river, she got up and began walking upstream, so we were both walking along our respective sides of the river, she well ahead of us. Ahead, at a bend in the river, Ernst spotted a Waterbuck carcass, partially obscured behind a log at the water’s edge, along with a second Lioness disappearing up the riverbank and into tall grass. We sat in the shade beneath an Acacia tree; though still quite distant from the carcass, it was the only cover available to us. The first Lioness emerged from the brush on the opposite side of the river and sat down, looking directly across at us. A few Vultures appeared near the kill and circling overhead. Ernst predicted that the Lions would react to the Vultures, as they are very protective of their kills. Sure enough, Lioness #2 emerged to chase off the Vultures and then returned to the tall grass. Soon, Lioness #1 was up and crossing the river to take her turn chasing off Vultures. She fed on the carcass for a bit, then dragged it up the steep riverbank and into the tall grass. We speculated that one of these Lionesses was the mother we had previously seen with cubs, and that the cubs might be hidden in the tall grass, but we did not see them.
-- While Mwaleshi is a walking camp, we did do a game drive on the final afternoon to a very scenic bend in the river for sundowners with the Hippos and Crocs, and Ernst produced a bottle of champagne to toast the end of the season. On the night drive return, we saw a “band” of Banded Mongoose, three separate Elephant Shrews, two separate White-tailed Mongoose, a Genet, and several grazing Hippos. Back in my chalet, I observed a Scorpion descend into an Ant Lion hole and attempt to entice the occupant to come out. I was awakened late that night by a large Elephant grazing on a small tree just 10 or 15 feet from the chalet. As I watched, both Lions and Hyaena could be heard calling in the distance.
-- On the final morning, we crossed the river immediately in front of camp and walked to a point opposite where we had seen the Waterbuck carcass the previous day, hoping that the Lions might still be in that area. As we emerged from the brush onto the sandy flat of the river, we apparently spooked the Lions, who were also on the sandy riverbed some 100 meters ahead of us. We just had a short look at the procession of one male, two females, and three cubs as they moved across the sand and disappeared from view. We re-crossed the river and reached the spot where yesterday’s Lioness had dragged the Waterbuck carcass into the high grass. We followed the drag trail, which ended in a thicket. Here there was not a scrap nor a bone to betray the Waterbuck’s fate. Whatever the Lions may have left behind had been thoroughly cleaned up by Hyaenas and other creatures.
Kafunta River Lodge – Redux
The itinerary ended with 2 nights back at Kafunta River Lodge (KRL), which involved a 45-minute charter with Kendall from Mwaleshi to Mfuwe, followed by the now familiar 1-hour drive to KRL. Here, we had an afternoon / evening drive and, the next day, an all-day drive.
On the afternoon / evening drive, another KRL vehicle radioed that they had found a Leopard and we joined them. It was a smallish female and she gave us a good viewing opportunity as she moved through roadside brush, crossed, and then re-crossed the road. I was unable to get decent photos, however, due to the fading light and the limitations of my camera. After dark, returning to the river to ford it and return to camp, the spotlight picked up three Lions walking along the sandy riverbed just below the riverbank.
We had requested the all-day game drive to explore some areas of the park not on KRL’s “standard” game drive routes, and we had requested Moses to guide us. While he had passed his written exam for a guide’s license, Moses had not yet passed the practical exam and, so, is not available for guiding (just for road transfers). Instead, Martin was our guide for the day. We entered the park through the Main Gate, but we were soon in more remote areas away from other vehicles. Heading north, we traversed the areas where Mwamba and Kaingo are located, and didn’t turn back south again until we had reached Lion Camp. Basically, the drive north followed the course of the Luangwa River, and we were essentially paralleling our drive through the Nsefu Sector (on the opposite side of the river) on the way to Luambe several days previous. Some sightings:
-- A “band” of Banded Mongoose, Giraffes, a dead Hippo floating upside down in a pond, a “mob” of Monitor Lizards (at least 8), a herd of 8 or 9 Dagga Boys, a tiny Pearl-spotted Owl in a tree (don’t know how Martin spotted this bird, as it was very small and well camouflaged), several Zebras rolling around on the ground and enjoying a dust bath, and a group of Black-backed Herons that grew as others kept joining them and eventually totaled 9 birds.
-- Three Lionesses with two cubs (presumably from the Wafwa Pride) walking through and behind the tall grass. They were on the other side of a deep gorge, however, and we couldn’t get very close and could not follow them.
-- In an area near Kaingo, we found a pride of 11 Lions laying about and resting in the shade. There were no adult males in this group, but at least one young male with just the beginnings of a mane. We took lots of pictures of this jumble of Lions before heading off to find a spot for lunch.
-- We chose a spot on a bend in the river that afforded a view downstream to where these Lions were camped, though we could not see them directly as they were behind a screen of shrubs and bushes. After lunch, one of the Lions emerged and lay down on the riverbank, giving us a view through binoculars. After a while, this Lion began following a Waterbuck walking along the bank further downstream. He didn’t seem particularly intent on hunting, however, and the Waterbuck quickly disappeared once it realized there was a Lion behind him. The Lion turned and began walking back upstream, left to right, toward his starting point. In the meantime, however, an Impala had come down for a drink and was just starting back up the riverbank. The Lion began moving at a trot. The Impala saw the Lion just as the trot became a charge and tried to move quickly to the top of the bank but, before it could get there – pow! – the Lion had it by the neck in a quick kill. Just as the Lion made contact, the other 10 (!) Lions of the pride appeared from the right and began chasing. Now we had a Lion with an Impala in it’s mouth, being chased by 10 other Lions to the top of the riverbank and into the shrubs and grass. All of this unfolded through binoculars, too quickly and too far away for photos. We jumped into the Land Rover and hurried back to the area where we had first encountered these Lions. They were nearby, faces bloodied, and nothing remained of the Impala but a single scrap that one Lion was assiduously working on under the protection of a bush. There was a Baboon high in the tree under which the Lions had gathered, none too happy with being trapped there – at least temporarily – and annoying the Lions below with its angry barking.
-- We came across a group of six Buff who had become stuck in the mud of a near-dry streambed and had died there. Rather gruesome. Not far upstream, we found another unfortunate Buff in water but apparently also stuck in the mud. Martin tried to motivate him to extricate himself by driving close to the water’s edge, revving the engine, and stepping out of the vehicle to wave his arms and yell, all to no avail. This was a sad scene to leave behind, knowing the awful fate that was closing in on this animal…
-- Not far from Lion Camp, we saw two male Lions resting in the shade of a tree. Moving past a number of Zebras, Puku, and other game grazing in a large patch of greenery beside a stream, we went to see them and they allowed us to approach within spitting distance, offering a good opportunity for close-up Lion photos.
* * * * * * * *
The entire itinerary through Kafue and the Luangwa, Part 1 and Part 2, encompassed 18 nights on safari. It was a fabulous trip that turned out to be heavily weighted with Lions (47 separate individuals) and Leopards (7 individuals). If anything could be said to have been disappointing, it was our inability to find Cheetah on the Busanga Plains. Nonetheless, a very memorable trip. Cheers,
Zambia Trip Report, Part 2: The Luangwa Valley
This is Part 2 of my October 2008 safari in Zambia, and covers the Luangwa Valley on an itinerary offered by Kafunta Safaris as follows (http://tinyurl.com/6ce3sd):
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