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Zambia wet season safari: Trip Report and Links to pictures

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Jan 23rd, 2006, 10:11 AM
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Zambia wet season safari: Trip Report and Links to pictures

Earlier this month I enjoyed an intensive 13 day photographic safari in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. I stayed at both Luangwa River Lodge and Puku Ridge Tented Camp. Zambia’s wet season provided superb photographic opportunities. Game sightings were plentiful, including eight lion matings, an afternoon visit to a leopard, and numerous encounters with elephants, hippos, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, impala and puku.

Luangwa River Lodge, in its second year of operation, has four elegantly designed chalets on the Luangwa River. The bathrooms are enormous, with huge marble sunken tubs and shower. Baboons enjoyed my deck leading to the river, and an elephant and her calf appeared outside my chalet one evening with much commotion. I had the lodge entirely to myself for three days of my week-long stay, and shared the facility with from two to four other travelers for the other four days. The food was beautifully served and the service was personal and comprehensive. The owners, Barry and Tara made sure I had everything I needed to make successful images. Barry also acted as my travel coordinator within Africa, reserving my internal flights and making arrangements for me at Puku Ridge and The Taj Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka, and handling all payments. Both Barry and Tara are tremendously enthusiastic about everything they do – it’s their place, after all, and it shows.

The Luangwa River was very low at the time of my visit, but the lodge was still able to offer several “game drives” by boat, which enabled me to photograph elephant crossings and observe large pods of hippo at very close range. The Lodge’s regular game drives were very productive. All of the main roads in the park were open, and many of the smaller roads and tracks, while muddy, were open as well. Our Luangwa River Lodge guide, Victor, had been a scout in the Zambian wildlife service, and was extremely helpful in getting me to animals in the right light and helping me find effective shooting positions. On one night, he was able to locate a pride of lions on the hunt, which was an unforgettable experience.

Puku Ridge Tented Camp is part of Star of Africa’s Chichele Presidential Lodge complex. It sits on high ground about an hour south of Luangwa River Lodge. It offered an entirely different kind of environment. Its four luxurious tents, featuring comfortable beds and sunken baths, are enclosed in thatched roof pavilions overlooking a floodlighted plain. Elephant and hippo were in view from Puku Ridge during our stay. The tents are very large and handsomely furnished. The meals were beautifully prepared. We ate some of our dinners at Chichele Lodge, the nearby Star of Africa hotel housing up to 20. The hotel is designed in colonial style, with elegant décor and furnishings and offers a sweeping view of the valley. I was the only guest during three of my six nights at Puku Ridge. On the other three nights, I shared the camp with six others, but had my own guide/driver for the entire stay. There had been some concern on this board about the effect recent Star of Africa management changes on Puku Ridge’s operations, but I found no problems at all. Everything ran very smoothly. Star of Africa seems to have well trained staff -- managers Paul and Sonja were running both Puku Ridge and Chichele Lodge while I was there and doing an excellent job of it.

The game drives at Puku Ridge produced numerous lion sightings both by day and night. The Chichele pride was roaming the area during my stay. The roars often took us right to them, lions were walking the roads in both morning and evening, and we saw at least several of the pride’s 11 members every day and night, including the mating pairs I mentioned earlier. My Puku Ridge guide (Abel) was very knowledgeable about the behavior patterns of the lions and other animals in the area, and so were the game spotters.

I flew from Phoenix non stop to London on British Air, stayed over in cold and dreary London for two nights to catch up on the jet lag, have lunch with fellow Fodorite Kavey, and meet with one of my on-line students there. I flew from London to Lusaka on British Air, and took Zambia Airlines (formerly Air Waves) to Mfuwe. The return flights involved an overnight in Lusaka at the Taj Pamodzi (an excellent hotel), a flight to London, an overnight at dreary Heathrow, and then the flight back to Phoenix. Each British Air leg produced 10 hours of acute physical discomfort, expensive fares, and dreadful food, but at least all of the flights were on time.

My purpose in making this trip was to create a new instructional gallery on expressive wildlife photography for my pbase site. I shot over 5,000 images, kept 200 and used 54 of of those as examples in this gallery. You can view it at: http://www.pbase.com/pnd1/safari

Those 54 images, plus 46 others, also appear in a travel article I’ve prepared on this safari at: http://www.worldisround.com/articles/271122/index.html Enjoy.

As I note in both my pbase and worldisround.com postings, I owe a debt of gratitude to this forum, and particularly to Rocco Morelli, for encouraging me to go to Zambia in the wet season and suggesting these particular facilities. I am also very glad that I chose to spend a substantial block of time at each of these camps. I got to know each of these areas quite well, and felt as if I was truly at a home away from home at both camps, instead of a transient tourist. Both Luangwa River Lodge and Puku Ridge customized their menus to accommodate my medical dietary requirements, and did so deliciously.

I strongly recommend a wet season safari from a photographic standpoint. There is so much rich green in my images instead of dusty brown, the animals seemed well fed and watered, the air clear and free of dust, and the cloud formations were spectacular. It was warm and humid and the rains came almost every day for an hour or two, usually in the late afternoon or evening. Only some of the Zambia camps and lodges and roads – usually the main roads with gravel surfaces -- are open during the wet season. There are fewer visitors, although Mfuwe Lodge – the largest facility in the area -- had multiple vehicles on the roads with full loads. The camps and lodges that are open charge lower rates at this time of year. The animals are dispersed because water is available everywhere – but they were visible in large numbers and very active. Migrating birds of all kinds were plentiful, particularly storks.

I would be happy to answer any specific question regarding both my safari and my photographs.

Phil Douglis
The Douglis Visual Workshops
Phoenix, AZ



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Jan 23rd, 2006, 11:04 AM
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Thanks a bunch, Phil! I'll be checking photos and reports later.

Sharon
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 11:29 AM
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Welcome back Phil,
Your pics. as always are amazing, each tells it's own story - so different from the plains.

The landscape shots are so lush and vivid and seem to have incredible depth, particularly with the elles in the fore-front.

I love the way you captured the sky shots - it's something that I've been trying to play with, with my oils - perhaps I will take my Fz30 and give up the oils.

The leopard shots are magnificant and the cabbage hippo shot is outragous - I could go on.

I've been waiting for you and Dennis to return and tell us more about Zambia in the Emerald season, as it's the time of year that I like to make my escape.

A couple questions if you will:
What were the temps? How humid is humid - were you soaked and uncomfortable all day? Did you feel hemmed in by the foliage?

Thanks for sharing your report and photos;
Sherry
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 11:38 AM
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One more thing - sorry. How were the mossies?
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 11:41 AM
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Great to read about and see photos from your trip!

My favourite photos are:
Sheltering the calf (what wonderful colour and composition, let alone the strong emotional resonance)
Leopard at last (it's the eyes that grab me)
Baboon curtain (so impressionistic)
On the termite hill (I'm a sucker for diagonals, backlighting and baby baboons!)
Giraffe Geometry (it's just such fun)
Agree to disagree (more fun)
Getting a grip (a tender moment)

I like many others too but these are the ones that stood out for me!
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 12:14 PM
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Phil:
Welcome back - it sounds like a wonderful trip. As I expected, your photos are terrific! I like the way you on occasion would frame your subject using bean pods or trees (#'s 18 &28. I loved the green in cabbage dwellers, and #50 Babies make faces. That little guy is so cute! #59, Nocturnal Predator does lok very much like an impressionistic painting - a Gaugin perhaps? #74, Getting a grip is sweet, #98 Fire in the Sky is beautiful. And how did your guide CATCH a Kingfisher (#40)???

Thanks for sharing - I truly enjoyed.

Cyn
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 12:18 PM
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Thanks, Sherry, for your questions. I did not have a thermometer handy, but I would estimate the temperatures in the 80s during the day and in the 70s at night. The humidity was not that bad -- I never felt uncomfortable. I wore a broad brimmed hat and was under a canopy in the vehicle. Some of the Safari vehicles I saw did not have this canopy, and I would think they must have been very hot under the tropical sun. The foliage was not overwhelming. We had some game drives where we had to drive down long roads lined by forests on both sides on the way from one open area to another, but even those were not oppressive.

I had no problem with mossies. Stopped using deet on the second day, and was not bitten. Others, however, were complaining about bites. But I never heard em or saw em.

And thanks for the kind words on my images. Glad you enjoyed them.

And Kavey and Sharon -- thank you both as well.

Phil
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 12:23 PM
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Thanks, Cyn, for your kind comments on my pictures. The Kingfisher just appeared in our guides hand. I have no idea how he caught it -- I did not see him get it, but I took advantage of the opportunity.

Phil
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 01:03 PM
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Hi Phil,
Thanks for your replys. Zambia is looking mighty interesting for my next trip. Where's Rocco?

Sorry to bug but.... back to those standout elephant pics. - they're truly forms of art (so old style romantic) - how did you play the warm browns against the cool and warm greens to achieve get such contrast and depth - it seems like every little detail is in focus as well.

On another note, did you see any wild dogs?

Thanks ahead;
Sherry
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 01:29 PM
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Great photos. So nice to see the animals in such a lush, green environment. You really excelled with the elephants! I like the elephants and impala and their contrasting colors. Some great lions too.
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 02:11 PM
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(Hi Sherry, here I am! A South Luangwa / Lower Zambezi safari would be fabulous. As beautiful as South Luangwa is, the Lower Zambezi offers a nicely constrasting beauty with the mighty Zambezi River and has elephants in huge herds, along with most of the other wildlife of the South Luangwa)


Phil,

Wow, what an amazing photogallery you have put together. I am so impressed with how beautiful South Luangwa is in early January. The landscapes are amazingly scenic, and I imagine that you must have spent plenty of time just enjoying the panoramic views from the balcony of your tent at Puku Ridge.

You have done Zambia proud with your photos. More tourism to South Luangwa at this time of year will offer year-round protection for the wildlife. Hopefully after others see your photos they will not think twice about going to Zambia in the Emerald Season.

I absolutely love your photo of the hippos deep in the Nile Cabbage. You have described it perfectly when you said that it appeared as if the hippo was wearing cosmetics on its face.

Glad you liked Victor and Abel. These are the same two guides I had last September and I found them both to be very knowledgable and personable guides.

Thanks for taking the time to do such an intensive photogallery with commentary for each photograph. The commentary is every bit as enjoyable as the actual photographs.
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 02:57 PM
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Sherry, you are not bugging -- it is a pleasure to answer your questions. I work with the color balance in Photoshop until I get a true to life image. The elephants are never the same color in Zambia's wet season. It depends on what they have rolling around in. And yes, the depth of focus is very good with my camera. The FZ-30 has a small sensor and small sensors excel at deep focus. It is harder to get it focus selectively, of course.

As for wild dogs, none were in evidence. They were seen in South Luangwa early in the wet season, but then vanished. Keep in mind that South Luangwa National Park is enormous, and only a tiny portion of it is accessible. The dogs are there, but just not where we can see them.

Phil

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Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:12 PM
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Thanks, Rocco, for your kind comments on my photographs. South Luangwa is indeed spectacular in early January – the river around Luangwa River Lodge was lush, and the high ground up around Puku Ridge was full of animals that don’t like to muck around in water. As you say, the views were breathtaking.

I am glad my pictures will provide evidence of the kind of experience that awaits visitors to Luangwa in January. As you know, during my early research for this trip, a well-known travel agent told me not to go there during the rains. I was warned that it would be impassible, and the grass would be too high to view game properly. I am glad that I trusted you and Barry (the owner of Luangwa River Lodge) on that issue. I hope my images will prove that an emerald season safari in Zambia can be extremely productive.

I asked everyone at Puku and Luangwa River Lodge if they remembered Rocco, and they told me to send my best to you. Victor and Abel were excellent – I don’t think they had ever worked with a photographer with my needs and requests before, but they caught on very quickly, and they did everything they could to get me in the right position and right light for my shot. I would share my images with them as I made them, so they came to understand what I was trying to do.

As for my commentary, thank you for appreciating the work that goes into it. I am a teacher, and writer, in addition to a photographer, and know well the role that verbal context can play in the appreciation of pictures.

Thank you again for coming to my rescue and helping me plan this trip. It worked exactly as you and you I had hoped it would.

Phil
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:23 PM
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Gorgeous photos! Seeing a human hand holding a kingfisher made me do a double-take -- amazing.

In reading several things you've written and in looking at a lot of your photos, I admire your ability to edit down your photos to the finest few. That is so hard.
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:35 PM
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Welcome Back Phil! Wow, great pictures and what a contrast from when I was there in October! Can't wait to see it green in March and from an email from Barry, the river is even higher than when you were there. Thanks again for sharing your pics and report, glad you liked South Luangwa as much as I did-it is a special place! 42 more days...
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 04:06 PM
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Amazing stuff. I don't know if you ahve done Zambia proud, but I do know I have another MUST safari destination.
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 04:19 PM
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kimburu,

I will be attending a big travel show in Long Beach, California, this coming weekend. Representatives from the Zambian Tourist Board will be there, and more than likely they will have internet access. I will have to show them these photos and allow them to declare that Phil has done Zambia proud by his photography!

(Thit Cho, got the Zambia book in the mail...thanks!)
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 04:33 PM
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Hi Rocco,
Pick me up a truckload of Zambian literature at the show, please. And find out where those dogs are (-?.

Sorry for the hijack Phil - it is your fault though, with those poetic sightings .

Thanks;
Sherry
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 04:44 PM
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Sherry,

Sure thing...just get in touch with me and I will send them off.
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Jan 23rd, 2006, 05:14 PM
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Phil:
Wonderful photos and equally wonderful descriptions. So many times I hit "next" and said "wow" out loud. The green landscape was so rich, truly edenic as you say in your introduction.
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