South Luangwa Valley, Zambia – July 2013

Posted by on Aug 21, 2013 in Latest News, Trip Diary

Basking on the banks of the Luangwa River

Nothing gets me as excited as flying the course of the meandering Luangwa River. As the amber horizon cuts bright, the drone of the turbo-prop’s engines subside. Soon I’ll be touching down in a one-horse village called Mfuwe, the access point to one of Africa’s finest national parks. I’ve been invited by my good friends and owners of Kaingo & Mwamba Camps, the Shentons, to spend some quality time with their family. Who wouldn’t escape the cold Cape winter for a place where wildlife abounds and a river runs through it?

Marking the end of the Great Rift Valley is the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. The “Valley”, as it’s nick-named, is nine thousand and fifty square kilometres of pure wilderness interlaced by an intricate network of streams and tributaries that feed the Luangwa River. These waterways have created a fertile soil that supports a variety of plants and trees which, in turn, have created a range of wildlife habitats. It’s also one of the last remaining unspoilt wilderness areas in Africa and is undoubtedly one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. It’s through this park that the mighty Luangwa River runs its course. The river, which floods in the rainy season from December through to March and then falls to a mere trickle come the end of the dry season in early November, is home to the largest concentration of hippo and crocodiles in the world. Towards the end of the dry season, the only source of water for a plethora of wildlife in the park is the Luangwa. Thanks to a multitude of oxbow lagoons, riverine-supported woodlands and great plains, a huge concentration of fantastic wildlife can be found here, including: lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog, elephant, buffalo, the Thornicroft giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest, hippo, and over 450 species of birds. 

Soon we’re on the move as we make our way through the vibrant village of Mfuwe. After formalities at the Park gate, we cross the bridge that spans the Luangwa, and enter the park proper. Visitors to the Valley can stay either in the lodges near the park entrance where there is a variety of accommodation to choose from but where game viewing is more congested, or they can stay in one of the more remote locations, which is exactly where I am headed.

Wrapped up warmly in my thick jacket and scarf (July/August is mid-winter and although there is no rain, temperatures plummet after sunset) my throne is one level up on the 4WD game-viewing vehicle. Open-side, the fresh evening air fills my senses as the sights and smells of the African bush come alive. It’s dusk, and it’s time to bring out the spotlight because by the time we arrive at camp, it will be dark. Dusk is also the ideal time for predators to stretch their legs and begin their evening activities. I adjust my eyes to game-viewing mode. 

From the main bridge, the drive to our camp – located on the western bank of the Luangwa River and opposite the Nsefu sector of the park – is a good 1 hour 45 minutes, without stopping. There are no other camps nearby or in the immediate game-viewing area. Rustic by nature, Kaingo is the main camp offering six beautifully refurbished chalets (12-beds in total) discretely positioned, with uninterrupted views of the lazy Luangwa. From your private deck in front of your chalet, to the ancient lead-wood bar in the main area, the camp is intimate and offers a relaxed atmosphere where friendly staff are the order of the day. I close my eyes and drift off to the sounds of lions roaring somewhere not too far away …

It’s Day Two and it also happens to be my birthday, and where better to be celebrating than at Kaingo! I’m awoken before dawn by the grunting melodies of the hippos returning to their watery sanctuary. After a warming cup of tea around the camp fire, I am accompanied by Derek aka “Bwana” (“Boss” in the local Nyanja language) and wife Jules as we head out into the wilderness … camera in hand. 

One of the beauties about being in this part of the world is that whilst we are asleep, everything else either talks or leaves its mark. Adjacent to the camp is a magnificent Ebony grove. Here, Derek cuts the engine. We listen; the silence is deafening. Everything in the grove looks relaxed and with no signs of danger, we move on. As the sun begins to rise, it casts its warmth over an age-old Mopane forest. As we drive past I wonder to myself what stories it holds. And what, in the night, could have walked under its outstretched arm?

We decide to follow a road less travelled. Soon, its softness gives way to the information we have been hoping for – lion tracks! And the signs are big, bold and fresh. The tracks head down the left-hand side of the road and from the havoc in the river bed, its owners can’t be too far away.

The area around Kaingo Camp is famed for its fantastic wildlife sightings and, in particular, its leopards and lions. In Africa, lions are in dire trouble and with their numbers plummeting, it’s becoming more rare to see big prides. In the vicinity of the Kaingo and Mwamba Camps, the predators are thriving and the resident Mwamba pride is so big it has recently split into two. Derek suspects that the tracks we have found could be those of the Mwamba prides – two big males looking for their gals (a total of 18 individuals). Then there are another eight Mwamba females who, together, have seven young cubs. That’s 28 members in total.

 But the sentries are up in their trees barking to their compatriots, the impalas, who stand to attention, their focus fixed. If that isn’t enough, some francolins atop a fallen branch are creating a cacophony! It’s hard to hide in such a connected environment and, as the drama unfolds, we spot up on the dry river bank the two magnificent Mwamba pride males, heads resting on their giant paws, a resigned look on their faces as if to say, “We’ve been spotted, mate.”

Lions off the list, we continue towards Leopard Loop, a beautiful area with sweeping views of the river. Its sandy shores are dotted with fallen tree trunks, pods of pink-legged hippos, and smiling crocodiles. But it’s not the sunbathers we are after, it’s the predators!  

It’s distant, but the barking is eminent. Derek shuts the engine. We listen. It goes silent. We wait … and as any game ranger will tell you, finding predators is part luck, part patience, and a good sense for the unexpected. The barking begins again. We move towards its source. “Leopards,” reports Derek, “I can hear by the tone.” We arrive in the area where, to our left and high up in a Tamarind tree, are a troop of unique Yellow baboons. Their barking goes unabated. But where, in the thick grass, do they see the spots? Derek has a nose for leopards and he watches to see which way the alpha baboon is looking. With the grass so tall and thick, I see now why the baboon has the best seat in the house.

It’s not long before Derek delivers the goods: “Sssh! Voices down. There’s a leopard hidden in the sausage tree to our left!” I can hear my heart beating in my ears, my excitement at seeing a leopard, evident. But it’s my day and, as luck would have it, it turns out to be not just one, but two leopards sharing a Puku kill which they’ve stashed in the tree. We navigate our way closer to the action, but because it’s mid-morning and leopards are shy during the day, they become nervous. After getting a good view, we decide to leave them in peace and to their meal, and head back to camp. What a morning it has been … lions, leopards and the lazy Luangwa!

And so, as my week at Kaingo comes to an end, it is filled with happy memories and some incredible wildlife sightings – from buffalo kills to sundowners beneath the huge amber sun. It is time to bid Derek, Jules, Saphire, Jayabella, and Dora the camp elephant farewell as I head back to the bridge that signals the gateway to one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries – the South Luangwa Valley.

In short, there are a few factors that set Kaingo & Mwamba Camps apart from the rest:

  • They are owner-run by Derek and Jules Shenton and are the creation of the Shenton family who have a long history of three generations of wildlife conservation in southern Africa. 
  • The camps are unfenced, wild and remote.
  • The camps are small, intimate and focused around spectacular game viewing.
  • Derek has personally developed an extensive and well-kept network of roads allowing one to explore wilderness areas with greater ease.
  • They have some of the best guides in the Valley and their staff are in a league of their own.
  • They offer day and night drives, walking safaris, and a selection of fantastic hides to keep visitors engaged and entertained.
  • They are a photographer’s dream location offering endless, and outstanding, photo and video opportunities.
  • When it comes to predator sightings, there are few other places, bar Mpumalanga in South Africa, that offer such exceptional leopard sightings.

 

Lion cubs - 007 Hip-Hop-Thomas Hippos galore

 

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