Wow!! On Sunday I got back home to Lusaka after having spent three nights in South Luangwa National Park and what an experience it was! I stayed at a great lodge called Chikunto Safari Lodge which is situated inside the park and it was wonderful.
Thursday 24th October
I flew from Lusaka to Mfuwe arriving at about 11:50 am and, Harry, the driver from the lodge was waiting for me. There were two other guests from the same flight, two South African ladies Kelly and Linda. The drive took two hours and to start with goes through some quite lush, jungle-type areas with hundreds of mango trees and through several small villages/settlements. We then crossed the Luangwa river and entered the park, first seeing some baboons running for cover as we drove past. Soon we came across some lions resting under the bushes near the carcass of a water buffalo with several vultures queuing up for their turn for lunch. That was the first time for me seeing lions in the wild and although we couldn’t see them that well, it was a good sign for the rest of the trip. Other animals seen on the rest of the journey to the hotel included: a fish eagle, zebras, elephants, hippos, a family of warthogs and more.
We arrived at the lodge at around 2pm and were welcomed by the friendly staff and a cold towel which was very refreshing in the 40 degree heat. I was shown to my room, which was a lovely cabin called Zebra and was the furthest away from the main lodge. The staff advised me that walking to and from the cabin during the day was fine but that I had to be escorted back whilst it was dark.
The lodge is beautiful. It is pretty new, being in its first full season and sits next to the river, which at the moment is quite low but apparently during wet season the water comes right up to under the deck of the lodge. You can hear the grunts and “laughs” of the hippos throughout the day and there is a nice little bar and a very refreshing swimming pool for relaxing between game drives.
After lunch I went back to my room to pick up my camera and we all jumped into the safari vehicle. It was open but with a much needed canopy to protect us from the blazing sun, in fact, the first thing it did was protect us from the rain! A small concentrated shower was threatening but we managed to escape from it as we drove away from the lodge.
Game Drive # 1
Quite soon in to this drive we encountered a beautiful elephant eating from a tree. He was grabbing the twigs and twisting his trunk around them before giving them a firm yank to pull them off and then popping the spoils into his mouth. We then found a hyena waiting patiently under a tree where a leopard had stored a meal. The leopard was not in sight but this meant we were potentially getting close…
We then drove on seeing zebra, warthogs, pukus, impalas, waterbucks, some crocodiles lazing on the edge of the river and so on, all while driving through the outstandingly beautiful scenery of the park. Then , just as the sun was setting and we were looking for a spot to stop for an evening drink and snack we saw a stunning female leopard sitting near a bush. I guess she was waiting for darkness to arrive so she could go hunting. We stopped for the photo opportunity and followed her for a while when she started skulking off, until we decided to leave her to it and have our drinks.
We set off again and darkness had fallen. After a while we arrived at a site where there were already a few other vehicles observing some activity up in the trees…more leopards! I think we saw about four of them here, including one tucking into an evening meal of puku. The way the leopard was going at its meal was quite gruesome but at the same time awesome to behold. We stayed there for a while taking some more snaps of the spectacle before continuing on our way. We passed by the lions with the water buffalo again, seeing a couple of females enjoying their dinner, we also saw a hyena or two wandering around and a hippo foraging for food. We then headed back to the lodge, arriving back at about 7:45pm.
Dinner was served quite soon after we returned and the lovely ladies from SA invited me to join them for the meal. The three of us actually then ate together for lunch and dinner each day which was really nice. It was great to hear their stories and advice from previous safaris and to digest the day’s safari excitement over a few glasses of wine. They said I had been very lucky to have two leopard sightings on my first game drive on my first safari trip and that I shouldn’t have my hope up that every drive would be the same. I had a drink at the bar after dinner and then heading back to my cabin accompanied by two of the staff to make sure I made it there. When we got to my cabin, as I said, the last one of four in that direction there were two more staff members waiting. As I opened the cabin door I did wonder what might be out there that meant I needed four people around to make sure I was safe…!
Overnight I heard quite a lot of “commotion” outside which sounded like hippos stomping around in the bushes looking for fruit from the sausage tree or something else to eat. I woke up at around 2:30am and as my eyes opened I saw what looked like a caterpillar on the mosquito net a few feet over my head. As my eyes came into focus I realised that in fact it wasn’t a caterpillar, it was in fact something bigger, on the canopy hanging from the ceiling. It turned out to be a Giant African Millipede about 25cm long.
Friday 25th October
Game Drive # 2 – More leopards!!!
After a very nice breakfast and coffee we set off at about 6am for the morning’s drive. After sightings of some lovely birds, a giraffe or two and some of the more common inhabitants of the park, like warthogs, impalas, zebras, pukus etc, we suddenly spotted another leopard! It was a female sitting in a tree just beside the track. She looked down at us and decided to climb down from the tree. It seemed a shame that we disturbed her from her rest as she slowly wandered off into the undergrowth.
Moving on, we stopped to view some carmine bee eaters which nest in little holes the banks of the river. A whole load of them were perched on a dead tree sticking out with the river behind them which made for some lovely photos. I got some good shots but Kelly, with her better camera, longer lens and better camera skills got a couple of fantastic shots of one of the bee eaters juggling a cicada in its beak. Progressing from there we spotted some birds of prey, some more baboons and other regulars, before stumbling upon another leopard, this time snoozing on a very comfortable looking branch with lovely, bright green leaves as a backdrop. I got some great shots here too.
By this time everyone was starting to say I was the lucky charm and that my beginner’s luck was bringing out the great selection of animals. I just laughed but by the end of the weekend it certainly seemed to be true as every drive (including the drive back to the airport) was incredible.
Game Drive # 3
First up was another giraffe chilling out in the shade not far from the lodge, we then bumped into another leopard sprawled over a branch in the shade in what looked like a pretty deep sleep. Then we saw a couple of elephants taking a drink from a small lake, with some baboons scampering around nearby. Continuing on we saw a big group of pelicans on the river that was glistening in the setting sun. After seeing some marabou storks getting comfortable in the trees for the night we came back past the water buffalo kill we had seen previously and waited as the lionesses slowly crossed the road for a drink. Soon after, we also felt thirsty so stopped for a G&T near a little plain with a stream, watching as a hyena cooled himself down in the water, then skulked off. After darkness fell we wended our way back to camp happening upon, among others, a mongoose and an elephant shrew as well as a couple of elusive honey badgers.
Saturday 26th October
Game Drive # 4
Giraffes, pukus, a kudu and a lilac breasted roller were the first few creatures to appear today. Then we crossed a dry river bed and spotted a huge herd of water buffalo. We heard that there was possibly a lion around too. At one point we got extremely close to the massive herd of buffalo and one of them approached us to check us out, sniffing the air. They can get quite defensive from what I have heard and it felt a little intimidating to be surrounded by such a huge herd. We meandered around along the river bank and then came across the lion, a beautiful young male resting in the shade under a small bush. This was the first sighting so close to a lion and was awesome. He seemed very relaxed and we were only about 4 or 5 metres away and the light was very good so I managed to get some great shots.
We moved on and passed a pair of grey crested cranes pecking around in the dust, then encountered a five more lions chilling out by the river, this time we didn’t get so close but I still got some nice photos.
As we headed back to the lodge, Josephat (our brilliant guide and driver), started dancing in his driving seat and pumping his arms with glee. Coming into view was a pack of wild dogs!!! We slowed down as we approached and counted them. There were six adults and nine puppies watching us from a shady spot next to the road, panting in the building heat. As we got closer the dogs started to nervously get up and wander away from us, at first they went to cool down in some puddles, but then most of them headed for a more protected spot under some bushes. Some of the adults were not so scared and posed for some wonderful snaps closer to the vehicle. This was an absolute highlight of the trip for me, I know that the wild dogs are quite rare to see and this sighting was beautiful.
Game Drive # 5
We set off again for our last evening drive in the hope of another sighting of the wild dogs. Some new guests, Bart and Sophie from Belgium, had arrived and were hoping to see the dogs for the first time. We passed by some of the usual suspects and spotted the pair of grey crested cranes again. No wild dogs in sight unfortunately but as darkness fell after our G&T stop we were passing under a tree and spotted another leopard! It seemed like she was a bit disturbed by us waking her up but then she started to look pretty alert and started descending from the tree. She walked right up to the front of the vehicle and out of sight under the front (I was sitting right at the back). It seemed she had spotted a potential feast and was using us as a distraction. We waited with the lights turned off for quite some time hoping to witness a kill but, after two or three attempts at some pukus, unfortunately we had to give up.
Sunday 27th October
Game Drive # 6
Sadly the last morning had arrived but we were still in for some treats! About half an hour into the drive, after seeing a giraffe, some warthogs, waterbucks and pukus we drove round a corner and straight in front of us were a couple of youngish male lions lying in the shade. We stopped and then slowly moved round them into a better angle for the light. We snapped away at them as they sat there quite calm despite us having suddenly appeared and sitting so close. THEN, one of them decided to get up and headed straight towards the vehicle, coming so close that any of the three of us on the left side could have reached out and touched him. I froze and didn’t get any of what would have been amazing photos but this was a seriously scary moment and I was definitely glad I was wearing brown trousers. In the end he just walked round the back of the vehicle and went to find another spot in the shade. We got some more great shots of his brother/friend and then, once the adrenaline had worn off, we moved on.
Next significant sighting was a pair of giraffes, one of them sitting down under a tree while the other ate from another tree. It is apparently quite rare to see them sitting down, as this makes them quite vulnerable but after a minute or two of us being there the second one also sat down, which was a nice thing to see. Moving on we saw some hippos and crocodiles in the river (probably the best shots I got of hippos) and then we stopped a bit further on for out last mid morning coffee and snack by the river, watching a large flock of pelicans, stork and four fish eagles all squabbling for a brunchtime serving of fish. After this we started on the journey back to the lodge and passed by a small herd of water buffalo, a distance away hiding amongst some trees. Then in another of the late highlights, we saw a couple of hyenas briskly trotting across in front of us, one of which was carrying the head of a waterbuck he must have stolen from nearby. Two or three more hyenas followed, all heading in the same direction and I got my best shots of these creatures so far.
Back at the lodge we had lunch and then I went to my cabin to pack my stuff up and get ready to spend the last few hours by the pool.
At about 3:30pm, we left for the airport. Kelly and Linda were on the same flight heading back too. Driving through the park we soon fortuitously came upon another male lion (!) and then a bit later a large herd of elephants crossing the river with several little calves. Some of the stragglers of the herd came very close by us and I got my best shots of elephants here which I was very happy with. It was amazing to see how four adults went into protective formation to protect the calf as they passed by us.
As we left through the park gates another vehicle of new visitors was sitting waiting at the security checkpoint and they asked if we had seen anything good. We blurted out as much as we could think of from what we had seen, hopefully we didn’t raise their hopes too much and they got to see what they wanted.
So that was that, the drive through the villages to the airport was pleasant and again I was marveling at the number of lush mango trees. The flight back was fine and I got home at about 8:45pm or so. It was an amazing experience and the lodge was fantastic. There was a good personal touch to the service from the staff and they accommodated my non-dairy eating requirements very well. Having the pool there was great as the temperature reached above 40 degrees every day so it was great to have a dip in between drives.
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