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South Luangwa Trip Report - March 2005 / Part 1

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Firstly, for those interested to see our photos, the following link will take you to 100 or so of the best.

OK, I’ll start our trip report on a very positive note. On arrival at LHR we were upgraded for our Lusaka flight to Club Class; champagne, excellent food and fine wines, flat beds. However, I still couldn’t sleep properly, probably because of the fine wines.
The next flight involved a slightly smaller plane (1 pilot, 1 co-pilot and 4 passengers), which took us to Mfuwe. The 90-minute journey was dominated by stunning views of the Luangwa River, with its’ numerous meanderings and ox-bow formations.
Our first lodge (3 nights) was Kapani, part of the Norman Carr Safaris operation. The lodge was excellent in every way, with good food and accommodation. Our temporary home was a large stone-built banda, en-suite, with a wide verandah overlooking part of the lagoon. I spent some time chasing, catching and safely moving outside a vicious looking insect, only to be told later that it was a spider-eating wasp, an occupation of which Ruth approves greatly!
The first night drive of our trip was very successful; we encountered puku, gemsbok, white-tailed mongoose, porcupine, elephant shrew, genet, two bushbabies ….and leopard!! No matter how often I see this animal the thrill remains the same. Towards the end of the drive the heavens opened for a torrential 5-minute downpour. Apart from a later storm, which we avoided, this was to be the only rain we saw. (All the lodges told us that the rains were less than usual).
In the bar that same evening Ruth and I saw our first “live kill”. It was only a frog chasing and then devouring a firefly, but hey, we have to start somewhere. We call this our “Attenborough Moment”.
Game drives over the next couple of days brought us excellent birding. For those interested, we spotted Red Bishop, Wire-tailed Swallow, White-fronted bee-eater, Pin-tailed Whydah, Malachite Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher and an African Goshawk. (Not sure about this last one – it could have been a juvenile snake eagle).
One of the Luangwa tributaries was in full flow for about 12 hours, following the first night downpour, and we watched a 50-strong herd of buffaloes pacing up and down at the bank, unable to cross at their usual spot. Amazingly, when we drove by the same place the following day, we could have walked across the river, using the sandbanks.
On our last drive at Kapani we were driving through deep bush at about 10:00am when we found our way blocked by a Land Cruiser. The occupants had, minutes before our arrival, rescued two German women whose private vehicle had become stuck in the mud 22 hours earlier! They certainly looked relieved to be saved!!

We were transferred by river to our next lodge, Nkwali (Robin Pope Safaris), where we met our guide, Rocky. He proved to be one of the best guides we’ve ever been with; very knowledgeable, with a great sense of humour and happy to drive slowly to let us enjoy the smells and sounds of the bush. We saw a Crowned hornbill swoop onto a dove’s nest and chase off the dove. The hornbill then proceeded to eat all the eggs from the nest. I understand that this behaviour is very uncommon, although I bet there are some Fodorites who have seen such a thing.
Whilst at Nkwali we had our first ever sighting of wild dogs, and how!! The pack (named the Luwi Pack by the local experts) was 14-strong and our encounter was so sudden that I ruined the first dozen or so photos as my hands were shaking with excitement. I guess we were with the dogs for about 10 minutes; several times in that short period I found myself forgetting to breathe, so enthralled was I at seeing them so close to us. We saw another 9 dogs the following day; apparently these were from a different pack, so the population seems to be growing after recent fears of total extinction.
Every day brought wonderful sightings of elephants. Either in big (30+) herd or in ones and twos, with babies, scattered throughout the park. We both love to stop and watch them in silence, enjoying their feeding, drinking and playing. One tiny elephant had us chuckling as he attempted to twirl a tree branch round and round with his trunk. At one stage, he almost fell over trying to manipulate the branch.
A word on Nkwali – the food here is exceptional; very imaginative dishes using always fresh produce. I don’t know how they manage to produce such fare when they are so far from “civilization”.
Champagne sundowners by the river, during which Rocky, Ruth and myself competed to shoot the best sunset, prefaced our final night drive at Nkwali. I do believe that my efforts improved the more champagne I drank. On the drive we saw civet (briefly), leopard (not that close by) and a puff adder (much too close).
On our last morning at Nkwali we visited a local school and spent some time talking with the Head. His school has 417 pupils, of which 145 are orphans (through AIDS and malaria). We were both near to tears as the Head described how he receives messages every other day, confirming another student has lost a mother, father or grandparent. This catastrophic situation means that many children have their education interrupted, as they have to find someone else to look after them (often someone from the extended family). However, the importance of education seems clear to the children, as they mostly return to their studies once their life is back on an even keel. The Head cited one girl who became pregnant three times, had her three children and is now back in school. Resources and facilities are scarce; the infrastructure is not yet developed to support the roads, transport and housing which would enable children (and teachers) to live close to their school. I find it all very depressing, and cannot see how the Zambians are going to extricate themselves from the grinding poverty and ill health that so many of them currently suffer.

Our original plan was to take a boat along the Luangwa to Tafika Camp, our next port of call for 3 days. However, the river was too low in many sections for the journey to be possible. Stephen, our new guide, told us on introductions that it was his 45th birthday, and that he would be driving us from Mfuwe airport to the camp. This two and a half hour journey was arduous; roads were unmade, the heat was oppressive and the tsetse flies were out in force to greet us.
We finally arrived at Tafika to be greeted by John and Carole Coppinger, who set up Remote Africa Safaris in 1995. The company name is appropriate; we were literally miles from anywhere and the rustic thatched chalets added to the feeling of being out in the bush. Following an excellent meal and a restful night we were out at 05:30 on a downstream canoe trip of the Luangwa. The water levels were very low on several stretches; we could tell because the hippos were apparently walking on water! There was lots of birdlife, with bee-eaters, storks and heron in abundance, not to mention hundreds of hippos and several crocodiles. We did however feel relatively safe, as the inflatable dinghy, which carried an armed Park ranger and two other guides, one of whom was responsible for refreshments, was following us. After almost 2 hours of rowing (Stephen, not us), we disembarked and set out on our first bush walk. Apart from lots more birds we saw buffaloes and antelopes, before we returned to camp on the dinghy.
Wednesday, and a day of great excitement for me. Starting out at 06:00 I took my first-ever microlight flight with the greatly experienced Mr Coppinger. The views of the river were stunning and the sound of the wind and the quiet drone of the engine made the flight trance-like. We flew over a herd of buffalo, some of who followed our progress with their eyes; it was amusing to see their great horned heads turning in unison with our flight path. John flew us directly over the stork colony, where we could clearly see two or three newly born chicks in their nests, apparently the very first of the season. When John spotted a crocodile out of the river, he banked our machine down low and fast, passing directly over him; at one point I could have sworn that the croc looked us straight in the eyes! Ruth flew the following day, taking lots of pictures during her half-hour session; I think she’s after my job as trip photographer.


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