Running with the Painted Wolves in Zambia’s South Luangwa – ORYX Photo Tour Leader Daniel Bailey
Join us on a journey through Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park during the emerald season – a time when the lush greenery of the park is at its prime, and the wildlife is thriving. This tailor-made ORYX photography tour takes you on an unforgettable adventure through this magical part of Africa.
As we settled into our comfortable tents at Time and Tide Kakuli camp, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement for the adventures that lay ahead. Over the course of the next two weeks, we would be exploring the magnificent South Luangwa National Park, capturing its natural beauty through our cameras and experiencing its wonders up close on foot, open-top vehicle and by boat.
The camp itself was a peaceful oasis, nestled among the trees on the banks of the Luangwa River. The gentle rumble of the water and the distant sounds of the wildlife created a soothing soundtrack to our stay. We were welcomed by the friendly staff who showed us to our villas and briefed us on the camp’s facilities and safety protocols.
Over the next four days, we would be embarking on morning and evening boat safaris, drifting silently down the river as we observed the abundant wildlife from a different perspective. We would also be taking guided walks through the bush, getting up close and personal with the flora and fauna of the park, including elephants, hippos, leopards, African wild dogs and a variety of birdlife.
ORYX return guest and passionate photographer had chosen to visit in March, during the summer “emerald season”. The Luangwa River is full, and the water was flowing with a gentle roar, creating the perfect conditions for boating excursions, and wildlife safaris from the water. As we cruise along the river, we are met with an array of wildlife – from the colossal hippos to the stealthy crocodiles and the beautiful birdlife.
The scenery is breath-taking, surreal sunsets, with cloudscapes forming as late afternoon rainstorms roll in. And as the sun sets, we witness electrical storms in the distance with thunder and lightning, lighting up the sky in a beautiful display.
We explored the flooded Ebony groves, the water channels through the Nsefu sector, and visit the Yellow-billed stork colony. Our Zambian guide and scout lead us on walking safaris through the floodplains, grasslands, and ancient Ebony, Mopani, and Leadwood forests.
The sights, smells, and sounds of the bush immerse us fully in the wilderness. We walk with Africa’s gentle giants, the elephants, with the wind in our favour, observing the herd feeding without them knowing we are present.
The Flooded Ebony Groves truly are a magical place, and it’s no wonder why they’re such a special experience during the Green Season. It’s a time of year where the Luangwa National Park transforms into a lush wonderland of greenery and wildlife, unlike any other time of the year. Way different to the harsh, dry, dusty, hot, winter and spring safari season. As we drifted along the watercourse, we couldn’t help but feel at peace as we were surrounded by the gentle rustling of leaves and the sounds of nature. It’s a surreal experience, being in the presence of these ancient Ebony trees, which have such unique aura.
Exploring the Flooded Ebony Groves during the Emerald Season is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The lush greenery and the abundance of wildlife create an atmosphere that is simply enchanting. Drifting along the water channels, surrounded by the ancient Ebony trees, is like being transported to another world.
We were fortunate enough to see a variety of bird species during our journey, but the real highlight was seeing the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. These rare owls are truly a sight to behold, with their distinctive orange plumage and dark eyes. Seeing them, and listening to their call in their natural habitat was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As we drift along the water channels, we encounter pods of hippos in the quieter corners, relaxed but ever-curious. It’s like playing a game of bumper boats as we try to dodge them. They pop up, grunt, snort, and vocalize, as if laughing at our attempts to navigate around them.
Although we didn’t have the pleasure of seeing a leopard during our journey through the Ebony groves, it’s definitely a possibility, and we could only imagine the thrill of coming across one lounging on a limb of an Ebony tree. It’s definitely possible and quite common to see these magnificent creatures moving through the greenery or resting on one of the limbs of the Ebony trees.
The peacefulness and tranquillity of the groves make it the perfect spot for a morning coffee break and breakfast. We stop and tie up the boat to a large Ebony tree trunk in the middle of the water channel. We set up the breakfast and coffee, on the boat, very nearby to a herd of elephants. Watching the herd of elephants as they sleep under the shade of the enormous trees is a sight to behold. The little elephant calves, safely nestled beneath their mothers’ legs was truly heart-warming, and a testament to the strong familial bonds of these gentle giants. The chorus of birdsong and cicadas provided a soothing soundtrack to the stunning scenery. It’s moments like these that make you feel fully immersed in the wilderness and at one with nature. It was a moment of complete immersion in this unique wilderness, and one that will stay with us forever.
Drifting through the ancient Ebony forest is a truly spell-binding experience, and it’s only available during a short window in the summer season. The canopy of the trees arches over the water channel, creating a paradise where the harsh Luangwa summer heat is dispelled by a gentle breeze. The ancient Ebony trees have a unique energy about them, and one cannot help but feel a sense of awe and peace as you drift through the forest. The groves are transformed into a magical green wonderland, and it’s a place we visited multiple times during our visit, as we simply couldn’t get enough! The Flooded Ebony Groves are a place of wonder and tranquillity, and we feel so grateful to have experienced them during the Green Season. It’s a reminder that there’s always something new to discover in the Luangwa National Park, no matter how many times you return.
I’ve had my fair share of interesting sightings in the wild, but nothing quite compares to the Yellow billed stork colony on the Crocodile channel in the Nsefu sector of the South Luangwa during breeding season. The males are truly a sight to behold, with their plumages turning a delicate shade of pink and their facial skin a bright, fiery red. These guys are on a mission, busy building their nests with whatever materials they can find. It’s a true spectacle to watch the males fly in and out with leaves, branches, and sticks, vying for the perfect spot to build their nest.
Hundreds of storks can be seen squabbling, fighting, and jousting for the best nesting sites. But as exciting as it all is, we couldn’t help but notice the crocodiles lurking below in the flooded waterways. These cunning predators wait patiently for the right moment to strike, often waiting until the storks have chicks before making their move. It’s a harsh reminder of the reality of the wild – that even in the midst of new life and beauty, danger is never far away
All in all, it was a truly unforgettable experience. If you ever find yourself in the South Luangwa during breeding season, do yourself a favour and check out the Yellow-billed stork colony.
Walking safaris are an incredible way to experience the natural world up close and personal, and our recent adventure in South Luangwa National Park was no exception. As the sun began to rise each morning, my guest and I eagerly set out on foot into the bush, ready to see what wonders awaited us.
One of the most breath-taking sights we encountered was the cathedral-like Mopani forests that towered above us, creating a mystical atmosphere that was hard to resist. It was here that we stumbled upon flocks of Lilian’s lovebirds, which was an experience that will stay with me forever.
These colourful birds are nesting in the summer, with many pairs having young chicks in the nest holes of dead trees. It was incredible to watch them fly in and out, collecting seeds from the grasslands and returning to feed their young. Our Zambian guide and scout accompanied us, as we stalked quietly, trying to get as close as possible to photograph the flock as they took off in flight.
As they soared through the air, the immediate area was transformed into a kaleidoscope of green and golden feathers, and the air was filled with the nosey chirps and high pitched shrieks of these beautiful birds. It was a truly mesmerizing display, and one that we were fortunate enough to witness first-hand.
As quickly as they had appeared, the Lilian’s Lovebirds disappeared into the surrounding canopy, leaving us in awe of the natural beauty that surrounded us. Walking safaris may be a bit more challenging than the traditional vehicle safari experience, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
Sunsets on the river banks or on the boats provide a perfect setting to watch and photograph the hippos. As the golden light baths the Luangwa River, the hippos yawn, vocalise, grunt, and fight before the sun sets, blending the colours of the sky and river into one. The colours blend seamlessly into one another, creating a truly magical experience.
As our evening boat excursion came to a close, we were treated to one final spectacle of nature’s beauty. Flocks of cattle egrets and little egrets flew overhead, heading west to their evening roosts. Their pure white plumage contrasted beautifully against the soft pink tones of the setting sun, while the tranquil Luangwa River reflected the scene in its shimmering waters. Overall, it was an unforgettable experience that allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the wilderness and witness the beauty of nature in all its forms.
Our time exploring the waterways and surrounding areas of Kakuli had come to an end. Four days passed by with many memorable moments. As we continue downstream towards Chinzombo camp, we can’t help but feel excited for what lies ahead. Our journey takes us through the heart of the South Luangwa National Park, covering a distance of 50 kilometres, passing by a myriad of wildlife, birdlife, and breath-taking landscapes along the way.
One of the highlights on route was spending time photographing a flock of African Skimmers on the Luangwa River. These birds are truly something special, with their striking black and white plumage and their specialized bills that allow them to skim the surface of the water for fish, tadpoles, and insects.
The Skimmers were circling around our boat and putting on a real display. It was like they were showing off just for us! And with the morning light casting a beautiful glow on the scene, we knew we were in for some fantastic photographic opportunities. But it wasn’t just the skimmers themselves that made the moment so magical. As they flew low over a large embankment of the river, their red/orange bills were highlighted against the dark background, making for an absolutely stunning sight. Allowing us to capture some really different, beautiful images!
As we approached Chinzombo camp, we were immediately struck by its elegant and modern design, seamlessly blending in with the natural environment. It is the perfect mix of the old world bush safari camps and modern luxury. We were welcomed by the friendly staff and shown to our spacious and luxurious villas, complete with private pools and stunning views of the Luangwa River and the surrounding floodplains. The villas were spacious and well-appointed, with all the modern conveniences one could ask for, including air conditioning and private plunge pools. This camp is the perfect place to unwind after a long day of exploring.During our downtime, we made use of the camp’s facilities, including the refreshing plunge pools at the villas and utilised the library and comfortable main area to review and edit images. We also indulged in the delicious cuisine prepared by the camp’s talented chefs, featuring fresh and locally sourced ingredients.
Over the next six nights, we would be exploring the southern end of the South Luangwa National Park, this time including morning and evening game drives and guided walks. The wildlife in this area was abundant, there were not a lot of other safari operators vehicles, and we were fortunate enough to follow a pack of African wild dogs for the entire week, on our game drives and even on a bush walk!
Each morning as our eyes slowly opened, we were greeted by the sounds of nature, the familiar symphony of the African bush. The gentle calls of African wood owls could be heard from the canopy of the towering Natal Mahogany trees. The perfect start to a day of adventure in the Luangwa Valley.
The routine was to have a quick light breakfast and a cup of coffee at the main area overlooking the Luangwa River, then we would hop onto a boat to cross the river to the other bank where our open top safari vehicle awaited us. As we made ventured into the park, we were surrounded by lush greenery, stunning vistas and an abundance of wildlife.
The thrill of being in the presence of the endangered African wild dogs was simply unforgettable. We were lucky to find a pack of seventeen in the vicinity of our camp, and to witness their incredible hunting skills. It was truly awe-inspiring to see them work together as a cohesive unit, taking down an Impala ewe with ease. We watched in amazement as they devoured the carcass, and vocalised in triumph at their successful hunt.
But the action didn’t stop there. As if on cue, a pesky Spotted hyena appeared on the scene, looking to steal their hard-earned meal. The wild dogs were not about to let that happen, and a fierce battle ensued. We photographed as the pack fought off the hyena, defending their precious feast with ferocity. It was quite a comical scene and with the accompanying sounds of the hyena whimpering away!
But amidst all the excitement, there was also time for play. The usual sight of the wild dog pups running around with the skull of the Impala ewe as if it were a prize to be won. We watched as they tried to drink from the nearby lagoon, barking at the crocodiles that lurked nearby.
Later in the afternoon we positioned our vehicle at a lower angle to get some incredible photographic opportunities. As we watched in awe, the Wild Dogs came into view, running along the road system in the late afternoon light, with a big storm and rain in the background. It was a truly unforgettable sight to see Africa’s painted wolves in this setting.
We had some incredible leopard sightings on this safari! We were lucky enough to four special leopard sightings. The first was a large male spotted at night during one of our evening drives. Seeing him in the darkness, as we rounded a corner at the end of our night drive. Although, the sighting didn’t last long as he moved into the surrounding vegetation, it was non-the-less special to be in his presence. The second sighting was of a female leopard, seen at the entrance to the boat harbour as we were closing down for the evening.
The highlight of our leopard sightings was spending an entire afternoon with a female leopard and her Puku kill in a Sausage tree. We spent three hours, watching her, and took the opportunity positioning our vehicle in multiple spots, making the most of the lighting conditions and capturing her in the most iconic way possible. We watched in awe as she lounged in the tree, framed by the strange Sausage-shaped fruits that surrounded her. The sound of African Wild Dogs calling in the distance only added to the drama of the moment, making it all the more special.
We were fortunate enough to witness the daily routine of a pack of African wild dogs, and let me tell you, it was nothing short of amazing! Some of the finest, sightings I’ve had of these special carnivores. Every day, we were treated to the sight of these endangered creatures as they hunted, socialised, and rested right in front of our camp. We watched in awe as they woke up one afternoon, greeting each other with playful gestures and excited yelps, squeals, whines, and moans. We watched them socialize and play, and then watched as they made their way to a nearby waterhole to drink and cool off from the hot African sun.
We were also lucky enough to see them attempt to hunt puku on a nearby floodplain. Eventually, the pack ran off into an area where a ravine met with the Luangwa River, and we lost sight of them. But just when we thought the excitement was over, we stumbled upon another pack of eight wild dogs resting underneath the most beautiful rainbow.
The one morning activity was a true highlight of our trip. As we stopped for a “comfort” bathroom break, we suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of African Wild dogs on a kill – fighting with a Spotted hyena. We couldn’t drive off road, so we took the opportunity to go for a bush walk with our Zambian guide and scout. The beauty of going on safari in South Luangwa is the ability to walk safely with the scout and his rifle. We walked and made our approach in a safe manner and not to disturb the pack.
We watched in awe as the pack fed on the last remains of a kill as a hyena tried to steal scraps. One of the wild dogs even ran past us with a leg of the young impala. While we were on foot, the pack made a second kill nearby and we were able to see the entire pack finish off the remains before moving on.
The pack was incredibly vocal, making a whooping contact call throughout the morning. We later found out that the Alpha female had been attacked by a crocodile the day before and unfortunately didn’t make it. It was a tough reminder of the harsh realities of life in the wild, and we could see how it was affecting the pack.
For the rest of our stay, the pack didn’t move far, and every sighting we had, we could hear their distressed but hauntingly beautiful contact calls as they searched for their lost leader. The calls even continued long into the night. Overall, it was an emotional and unforgettable experience. We felt incredibly lucky to have witnessed such a rare and raw moment in the African wilderness.
We were lucky enough to spot a male leopard resting in a beautiful Leadwood forest. Although he was quite far away, we took the opportunity to capture some stunning photographs of him with the ancient forest as his backdrop.
It was a beautiful morning drive, and as we explored the lush green surroundings, we stumbled upon a surprise – a fully set up lunch in the middle of the bush! The Chinzombo team had gone above and beyond, preparing a bar, a barbecue, and a table with a white tablecloth next to one of the most idyllic lagoons in the area. We sat down to a delicious lunch, surrounded by the sounds of nature and serenaded by an African Emerald Cuckoo.
The food was simply amazing. We enjoyed succulent roast beef, perfectly cooked potatoes, and mouth-watering salads that were bursting with flavor. And all the while, we watched in awe as hippos wallowed in the lime green water lettuce and crocodiles bathed on the banks of the lagoon. It was a great experience.. The combination of the delicious food, stunning scenery, and incredible wildlife made for a truly magical moment in the bush. I feel so fortunate to have been able to share this experience with my guest.
Later that afternoon, we were treated to another incredible sighting – this time of the African wild dogs on the hunt! We watched as they ran past the leopard’s resting spot, completely oblivious to his presence. The pack had to contend with two large elephant bulls in must who were chasing them.
We followed the pack to the flooded Luangwa wafwa (old or “dead” Luangwa river channel) where they made an impala kill in the most incredible golden afternoon light as the sun set. It was a magical moment as we watched the pack feed upon their prey.
As the sighting drew to a close, some of the younger pack members couldn’t find a way to cross the water channel and continued to make their haunting contact calls. In the fading light, a Nile crocodile emerged from the water to feast on the last remains of their impala kill – scattering the pack and another reminder of the harsh realities of the African wilderness.
One of the smaller memorable sightings of our trip was watching two Meyer’s parrots feeding on the hanging fruit of the Sausage tree. It was a delight to watch as the pair squabbled over the juicy fruit and to observe and photograph them as they hung upside down and removed all the seeds!
Our last full day in South Luangwa had finally snuck up on us! There had been a low pressure system, over Malawi with lots of heavy rains. This caused the Luangwa river to rise considerably. It was quite a sight to see, alongside the surrounding cloudscapes. Despite the stormy, cloudy weather, we were able to take advantage of the low light conditions and cooler temperatures on our game drive. An opportunity to do some fantastic bird photography. From the Lesser Moorhen’s and their adorable black chicks, Draft Bittern and chick, Western banded Snake Eagle, Saddle-billed storks, Spurwing geese, Lilian’s lovebirds, to the impressive Steppe Eagle, we captured some incredible high-key images against a white cloudy sky.
One of the highlights of the day was taking a mid-morning coffee break under an ancient Baobab tree. Its enormous size, lush green leaves and bearing fruits made for a beautiful backdrop as we enjoyed our hot drinks. This particular Baobab had an interesting face, that to me looked like an old man, with an long beard! This tree had a very special energy surrounding it. We even politely asked our Zambian scout, Justin, to pose by the tree to give us a sense of its grandeur. A great man, and a great tree!
In the afternoon, we spent time photographing hippos munching on water lettuce in the lagoon while African Jacanas rode on their backs. We were amazed to witness a Black headed heron feeding on a catfish, stabbing it multiple times before swallowing the huge fish whole and flying off!
Our day ended with a spectacular sundowner on the banks of the Luangwa River. On one side, we enjoyed the setting sun and the symphony of hippo grunts and snorts as they prepared for the night. On the other side, a huge electrical storm was brewing, and I took the opportunity to show my guest the technique to capture images of lightning strike. All while sipping on a cold Gin and Tonic! Revelling in the surreal beauty of the Luangwa! It was a perfect end to our stay in South Luangwa.
As our time at Chinzombo came to an end, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness at leaving this incredible place. But we were also grateful for all the experiences, unforgettable memories, images captured, and the knowledge we had gained about this unique part of Africa.
South Luangwa National Park is truly a gem in the heart of Zambia, offering visitors the chance to connect with nature on a profound level. Whether it’s the vibrant birdlife or the abundance of exciting wildlife, there’s no shortage of awe-inspiring experiences to be had here. This ORYX photography tour is a unique and unforgettable way to experience Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park during the emerald season. Join us and experience the adventure and capture the beauty of this magical place with your camera.