Saturday, 22 April 2017

Zambia – Up close and personal with Africa’s heavyweights

April 8-10

Hello everyone!

Humans have accomplished a lot and generally see themselves as superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. We are, however, quite puny and insignificant physically compared to some of the other creatures that roam our Earth. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a hippo eating one metre away from you, with only a flimsy tent as a barrier, to make you aware of your own size and mortality.

An angry elephant

A raft of hippos

Or a mother elephant charging at you for separating her from her young. Our driver didn’t seem too perturbed until he looked back after the second time Hannah and I shouted that she was charging. The accelerator was then slammed on full gas, and even then it took a while to fully escape the vision of one very angry elephant.

When angry, an elephant flaps its ears...

...and trumpets with its trunk.

Both these heart-rate-raising events took place in the vicinity of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, a six-hour drive from Lilongwe in neighbouring Malawi. Covering over 9000 square kilometres and hosting a rich diversity and density of wildlife, it is a popular trip for a long weekend or longer holiday break.

This of course involves crossing the border, which itself was strange. From the condoms on the immigration desk to the number of impounded cars with British and Irish number plates, not to mention the plethora of trucks sat waiting, it’s different from any border I’ve crossed before.

One of the less protected borders in the world...

Immigration to get into Zambia - condoms were freely
available on the desk

Lots of cars - with British and Irish plates - were impounded
at the border

Even in the current green season, when the rains have come and the grass has grown, you are almost guaranteed to see most of the animals which compromise a visitor to Africa’s wish list.








My last safari was about 3 months ago in Namibia, an incredible experience which meant that I have seen these creatures in the wild quite recently. That does not diminish what I saw in South Luangwa in any way. It is always a pleasure to see a zebra shaking its tail, an elephant struggling to strip the leaves from a helpless branch or a herd of impala bouncing soundlessly across the savannah.

Two zebras eating grass in South Luangwa

A bird nibbling at an impala

There were some new animals for me here, too. I’d never seen a wild dog before so it was fascinating to find a pack of eight sunning themselves in the stunning late afternoon light before going on a hunt. With their patchy skin and large ears, they aren’t the most attractive of creatures to see but their rarity made it a great experience to see them up close.

There are only 5,000 wild dogs left in the wild

Wild dogs have an 80% hunting success rate - lions
have a 30% success rate

Some sub-species are also endemic to South Luangwa, such as the Thornicroft Giraffe. They seemed smaller than their Namibian counterparts, though still towered over every other animal we saw in the park. After not seeing a single giraffe on our first two drives, it was the first creature we spotted just after 6am on our third drive.

The Thornicorft giraffe won't be found outside of South Luangwa

Green season is also when many birds migrate to South Luangwa from afar. I’ve never had the same thrill of seeing bird as with land and sea-based animals; it’s just a preference. You’d struggle to find someone who wouldn’t appreciate the vivid colours of kingfishers, starlings or my favourite from this trip: the lilac-breasted roller.

A beautiful kingfisher

We thought this was called a Lilac-breasted Roarer
until we checked in our guide book

I’m sure there are other, more scientific reasons for their southern migration, but I’m going to assume that the birds come to South Luangwa in green season for the scenery. Just look at it. So many postcard views.

The Luangwa river, which flows into the Zambezi

There's actually a pond under this mass of lilies

The variety of the landscape was jaw-dropping. One moment you would be sliding through jungle, the next you would appear at the Luangwa river, welcomed by the guffawing of hippos and the complete apathy of the crocodiles.

Sunset in the western corner of South Luangwa

A stop on the Luangwa, with crocodiles sunning in the distance 

Then there are the sunsets and moonlit views…

Sunset over the Luangwa

An almost-full moon rising over South Luangwa

‘Green season’ is another way of saying ‘rainy season’, which means that many of the tracks are still quite muddy and contain deceptively deep puddles. We – well, 'Boss Man Nick' – helped to rescue two/three cars that were very much stuck in the mud.

The remnants of mud from the rainy season was
too much for this car

Many animals come out to play at night, when the air is cooler and their eyes are sharper. These include the genet, whose body pattern seems to resemble a leopard’s but whose body itself could fit in a leopard’s mouth, and the bush-tailed mongoose. The latter’s eyes glowed a devilish red in the glare of the headlights. No wild leopard though, in spite of spending most of our last drive searching longingly for one.

The rear end of a rather large hippo

A genet spends much of its life living in trees

Not all nocturnal activity is limited to the park. Our campsite sat on the other side of the river from the national park – a river populated by rafts of hippos during the day. In the night, they graze. Apparently, they like the grass at our campsite…

We needed escorts to and from the ablution blocks after sunset in case we bumped into a hippo on route. You’d think that would be difficult, what with them weighing 3 tonnes and being rather large figures. They blend in well, though.

A hippo munching grass in our campsite

The incident I mentioned at the start happened at about 4am on our second night. I woke to hear the slopping sound of a hippo’s lips smacking the ground and mowing the lawn. It was quite loud and prolific, with the animal living up to the Hungry Hungry Hippos game I played when I was younger. It was when the tent suddenly darkened that my heart skipped a beat. The hippo had moved in front of the light near our tent. I very slowly rolled over to see out of the tent’s window to see a massive, hippo-shaped profile shadow dominating my vision. Difficult to sleep after that!

Hippos, weighing up to 3 tonnes, would
be a dangerous proposition for a tent

The other frequent visitors to our campsite during our stay were vervet monkeys, one of whom cheekily nabbed Hannah’s piece of banana cake when she was turned for ten seconds. Another monkey came later to take some crisps, becoming a visual example of the expression, “Eyes bigger than one’s stomach.” Not that he would share his loot up in the tree…

A vervet monkey with crisps in its mouth and hands

During the dry season, when the Luangwa (a tributary of the Zambezi) is much lower, elephants apparently come to visit the camp and nearby villages, with destructive consequences. We saw plenty of examples of their potential to harm when in the park itself, including the example at the beginning of the blog. We also saw their stateliness and beauty, particularly when we beheld a whole herd moving around in the green plains.

A mother and baby elephant walking in South Luangwa

Unlike Namibia, elephants here keep
their tusks as they are well-protected

We were also witness to a mock charge from a bull elephant, who was initially blocking our route along a narrow road. Another car arrived from the other direction, at which point the elephant seemed to start enjoying himself, at one point flicking his trunk up and down like a car park barrier.

Our elephant blocking the road

At this point our driver, who was brilliant but prone to taking serious risk, drove up to scare the elephant into the bush so we could pass. The young adult, a male, backed into the trees but then flared its nostrils and angrily flapped its ears before stomping towards us for about a metre. Thankfully, it was a mock charge; we wouldn’t have been able to get past the other car if the elephant had wanted to attack.

I’ve done three very different safaris now (Queen Elizabeth in Uganda, Etosha in Namibia and now South Luangwa in Zambia), all with incredible experiences. This undoubtedly is the one that had the most adrenaline rushes. And I haven’t even told you about the lions yet…

Love you all


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