Zambia – Lower Zambezi Photo Tour with Daniel Bailey
ORYX guests joined Photo Tour Leader Daniel Bailey on a tailor-made photo tour to Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia from the 8th to the 16th of October, for a 9-day safari. The Lower Zambezi, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is renowned for offering some of the world’s best wildlife sightings. It is particularly famous for its African wild dogs, leopard population and herds of elephants, making it an exceptional destination to explore by vehicle, on foot, and by canoe.
Zambia is an embodiment of wild, unspoiled Africa. This tour offers not just a photography experience but a journey that allows you to immerse yourself in this untouched landscape. Activities include game drives, bush walks, canoeing, and boating on the mighty Zambezi River, Africa’s fourth-largest river. Our journey begins with a connecting flight from Lusaka with Sky Trails, taking us into the heart of the Zambezi Valley to the small Jeki Airstrip.
The flight is an adventure in itself as we board a tiny 3-seater, twin-engine Cessna C172 XP, where we managed to fit ourselves and our luggage inside. As we soared over the landscape, we lost sight of farmlands and human civilization, flying into a land seemingly forgotten by time. We skirted the escarpment and laid eyes on the tranquil waters of the Zambezi, snaking its way through the dusty haze. As we descended lower, we flew over the river’s waters, channels, islands, and spotted miniature impressions of pods of hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and buffalo bulls. The watercourse was lined with lush green vegetation, dominated by winter thorn forests and mahoganies. As the treeline grew ever closer, the dirt runway bumped below our feet, marking our arrival and the start of our safari.
Upon disembarking, my guests and I were warmly greeted by my close friend, Adam Parker, who would be our host and guide for the first leg of our journey. Adam is an ex-colleague from my time spent at MalaMala Game Reserve and is widely regarded as one of the finest guides on the African continent. He provided us with a brief overview and then whisked us away to Classic Zambia’s Kutali Camp. During our drive to the lodge, we encountered elephants and even witnessed a Verreaux’s eagle owl being mobbed by white-crowned helmet shrikes. As we ventured through the enchanting winter thorn forest, the canopy overhead created a captivating scene. Baboons, waterbuck, impala, and a herd of buffalo welcomed us to the valley. The treeline finally gave way to a bright, clear light filtering through the Zambezi River. As the camp’s tents came into view, we were warmly welcomed by the friendly staff. Cold facecloths refreshed us before we were shown to our tents, and we met for lunch.
Kutali Camp is nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River, along the Katuli channel, amidst the winter thorn forest. The trees provided respite and shade from the scorching October heat, with temperatures often soaring into the 40-degree Celsius range. A cool breeze from the Zambezi River added to our comfort. Kutali Camp offers an authentic and rustic experience, embodying the original model of camps in the valley. The camp features canvas tents with open-air bathrooms, complete with bucket showers, basins, vanity desks, and flush toilets. It is simple yet comfortable, providing all the essentials for a memorable stay.
Kutali is a comfortable tented camp that combines essential luxuries with the charm and ethos of a true seasonal bush-camp. The main area comprises a stretch-canvas tent set beneath towering winterthorn trees, creating an exceptional space for meals, reading, charging cameras, editing images, and observing wildlife.
Our first afternoon was spent exploring the area on a game drive. We navigated through a maze of trees, playing a thrilling game of hide-and-seek with the resident wildlife. An abundance of wild animals appeared and disappeared quickly. We spent time observing a group of large elephant bulls that had visited our camp earlier during lunch. One of them approached us at close quarters, reaching up to shake the trees and dislodge seed pods.
We continued our exploration, taking in the sights, sounds, and scents of the forest. The forest’s shifting light created a unique atmosphere for photography. During the golden hours, soft golden rays danced in the dust-filled air. We encountered two young leopardesses on the Kutali River channel. One of the sisters was fast asleep in a winter thorn tree, while the other was feeding on an impala kill at the base of a termite mound. We watched as a herd of elephants approached, drank from the channel, and walked past the leopards. Their movements led to a comical chase as the leopards dodged the elephants and engaged in playful circling around the termite mound.
The sister climbed out the tree and finally had a chance to eat. As night fell and darkness enveloped the forest, she dragged the kill high into the treetops. On our route back to camp, we spotted a large spotted genet in a tree and watched it climb into a hole in the tree’s trunk. Back in camp, we enjoyed drinks around the campfire and savoured a delicious three-course dinner. As we retired to our tents for the night, we had the option to enjoy a warm or cold bucket shower in the open air, surrounded by stars shining through the forest canopy. The night was filled with the sounds of hippos snorting and grunting, cicadas, water thick-knee calls, and in the distance, the rasping call of a leopard. It was a privilege to host my ORYX guests in Lower Zambezi National Park, a place dear to my heart, where I spent much of my childhood learning, playing, and exploring along the banks of this mighty river.
As dawn broke over the Zambezi River, everything was bathed in shades of pink and eventually transformed into a golden, burnt orange as the sun’s first rays pierced through the mesh fly netting of my tent. We rose early, just before 5:00 AM, to enjoy a quick breakfast around the campfire, consisting of coffee, fruits, yogurt, warm oats porridge, and toast prepared on the embers of the fire. The surroundings were tranquil, with just the dawn chorus of birds accompanying us.
Our day began with a game drive at sunrise, as the pink orb of the sun rose above the treeline, casting soft pastel hues of green, blue, pink, and orange. We found a herd of elephants under a majestic winter thorn tree and captured captivating photographs of them. As they foraged for food, they kicked up dust, creating a mesmerizing scene. The dappled golden light and dust gave the impression that everything was alight, as if the landscape were on fire.
We encountered a massive herd of buffalo, potentially numbering around 350. These buffalo grazed near Chikwenya plains, and we positioned ourselves in front of the lead runners. As the herd approached with the sun at their backs, backlighting their progress, they emitted grunts, snorts, and bellows, while their thunderous hooves kicked up a cloud of dust. This created a magical and photographically distinctive scene, unique to this special place.
We left the buffalo herd behind and stopped for morning coffee, spotting four lions sleeping in the shade of a cluster of Croton trees on the other side of a watercourse. We set up our coffee on the Land Cruiser’s bonnet and observed the lions from a distance. They were relaxed and asleep due to the heat. It was a special sight to witness the pride at rest and an opportunity to be on foot in their space.
Leaving the sleeping cats, we embarked on a search for a nearby Southern Carmine bee-eater colony. These beautiful birds nest on the Zambezi River banks, flying in and out of their nest holes while hawking insects in flight before returning to sit on the riverbank. We positioned ourselves near the colony on the ground and attempted to capture photographs of these colourful red and blue birds in flight. It was a fun challenge, particularly with the aid of new mirrorless camera technology. Recommendations, adjust to a shutter speed to 1/5000th of a second and an aperture of f/8 to freeze these birds in flight.
In the midday, we had the opportunity to relax, edit images, and take a siesta. We also enjoyed some fishing on the riverbanks in front of the camp. There, we managed to catch some Tigerfish. The cold bucket shower helped refresh us in the hot afternoon temperatures. During afternoon tea, three old buffalo bulls strolled through the camp, adding to the excitement.
In the afternoon, we embarked on a canoe safari, a unique activity available in the Lower Zambezi and a personal favourite. It allowed for low-angle photographic opportunities. We initially planned to canoe the Kulefu channel, where we spotted three large elephant bulls on the opposite bank during the safety briefing. They crossed the water channel directly toward us, showing a remarkable level of relaxation with our presence on foot. One of the bulls even reached up to try and pull seed pods from a nearby tree just a few feet away, creating a dreamlike start to our journey.
We quickly jumped into the canoes and began paddling. As guests, we could sit back, relax, and take photographs while our canoe guides expertly maneuverer the canoe. However, our journey was cut short when we got stuck on a sandbank less than five minutes into the channel due to the dry season and fluctuating water levels from the Kariba Dam. We decided to change our plan and paddle on the mighty Zambezi River itself.
The experience was truly awe-inspiring as we paddled on the powerful Zambezi, feeling its energy and vastness as it flowed past us. It was a captivating way to connect with the environment and become part of this magical ecosystem. Hippos greeted us with their laughter, nudging us to change our course, but we safely navigated past them and landed on a sandbank in the middle of the river. We pulled the canoes to the deeper channel, past a herd of hippos. The water was crystal clear and refreshing, and we waded in, splashing our faces and feet to cool down.
We then left the main river and paddled down a channel at the end of the Kutali island, where we discovered a herd of 100 buffalo on the riverbank. These buffalo kicked up a golden dust cloud as they ran, stopping to watch us before disappearing into the forest.
As the sun began to set, we reached the end of our canoe trip and walked to a nearby hippo pool. There, we enjoyed sundowners, sipping gin and tonic and photographing the hippos as they basked in the sunset’s glow. The calls of African fish eagles resonated through the air.
We embarked on another bushwalk, delving into the winter thorn forests, and exploring the waterways. Along the way, we encountered buffalo and multiple elephant bulls feeding in the forest. We sat on termite mounds as a herd fed nearby, offering unique photographic opportunities from low angles. We photographed African fish eagles, crowned hornbills, and examined animal tracks in the sand. Adam shared a wealth of knowledge about both the large and small creatures and how they all fit into the ecosystem.
We stopped for morning coffee on the bank of the Kulefu channel, watching herds of elephants come down to drink just feet away from us. As they drank, bathed, and wallowed, we marveled at the sight, sipping our coffee and enjoying our last sips of coffee before a large herd approached the water from the treeline on the opposite bank. The elephants emitted a low rumble, and I spotted the shape of a lioness walking through the long grass. She slipped into a gully surrounded by tall adrenaline grass. The figure and movements of her shoulder blades cut through the grass, while the calls of the elephants reverberated through our bodies.
It was a wild experience, never knowing what might happen in the wild. The elephants regrouped, approached the water, and crossed to the other side. As this happened, the lioness emerged from her hiding place and approached the shade of a large tree. She stood, gazing at our group with a relaxed demeanor. She settled down and lay in the shade, watching us. It was an unbelievable experience to be on foot with this lioness. We left the animals to rest and made our way back to the Land Cruiser, ensuring a safe and non-disruptive departure. Our walk was conducted with the utmost respect and minimal disturbance to the wildlife, in line with the best practices for such encounters.
We enjoyed another canoe safari, this time with higher water levels allowing us to explore the Kutali channel. The experience on the water was enchanting, with animals appearing relaxed and at ease with canoes gliding across the surface. It was a peaceful journey, free from the noise of the Land Cruiser, immersing us entirely in the environment. Drifting past herds of elephants, baboons, waterbuck, and a variety of birdlife, including Goliath Herons, Fish Eagles, and bee-eaters, was a remarkable experience.
We passed crocodiles and a disgruntled hippo bull, who watched us closely before submerging as a sign that it was comfortable with our presence. Towards the end of the channel, we landed along the riverbank next to a larger pod of hippos, with a young elephant bull feeding nearby.
Our attention was quickly captured by the sight of a Black Heron, a comical bird known for its unique fishing technique. This bird spread its wings over its head and used its bright yellow feet as fishing lures to catch fish and tadpoles.
The day ended with a night drive, where we encountered the same two lionesses we had seen during our bushwalk. Watching lions at night is always a special experience as their behaviour changes, and they move with intention and purpose through the darkness. Using a spotlight, we took some images, employing techniques that presented challenges but proved highly rewarding. The shadows cast by the light onto the river embankments creates a sight that I will never tire of.
In the evening, we enjoyed another delicious dinner alongside other guests in the camp. Everyone shared stories from their day’s adventures, creating a convivial atmosphere. As I enjoyed a bucket shower at night, a nearby hippo grazed just a few feet away, separated only by the reeded wall, providing a unique and thrilling experience. I appreciated the hippo’s company and had a restful night’s sleep, eagerly anticipating another day of exploration with my guests.
Awakening to the gentle sounds of the Zambezi River’s water lapping against the bank, the cicadas’ calls in the forest behind my tent, and the birds welcoming the new day was a delightful start to the morning. After breakfast at the fire pit, we set out for another bushwalk, meeting up with other guests to commence the walk. We also embarked on a shorter morning game drive, attempting to track a female leopard, though without success. Our drive took us past a large herd of buffalo, and we found three lions resting in the nearby forest. These lions were in a state of repose and not very active, so we moved on to continue our planned walk.
We walked to the entrance of the Kulefu channel and spent more time with the Carmine Bee-eater colony, capturing photographs of these vibrant birds once again. We paused for morning coffee at the end of our walk, watching as the herd of buffalo arrived to drink in front of us. While we were here, we heard baboons sounding alarms, and we set out in search of the source of their agitation.
We stopped at the water’s edge and observed a large herd of impala drinking while a troop of baboons also gathered to drink. It provided a wonderful opportunity to observe these two species, which are often overshadowed by larger game. We sat, enjoyed, and photographed the bustling activities of the birds, baboons, and impala. We watched a herd of elephants, including two new born calves, making their way to the water.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed a boat cruise with sundowners to savour the river and try our hand at fishing. One of my guests managed to catch a large Vundu catfish. As we witnessed the sunset on the water, drifting past elephants on various islands, the bright pink sun dipped behind the clouds and the escarpment. We watched three elephants cross the Zambezi River from an island back to the mainland. The water and sky were painted in the most vibrant pink hues, creating an iconic sight unique to this incredible part of the world.
Our final night at Kutali camp was marked by the sounds of spotted hyenas echoing through the forest. As we dined, we wondered what they had found; possibly, a leopard had made a fresh kill nearby. It was a truly wild experience, evoking the feeling of being in the Africa of old, reminiscent of the early explorers.
We planned for a longer morning game drive to transfer to our next camp, the new African Bush Camps’ Lolebezi, where we would spend the next three nights. During our drive to Lolebezi, we enjoyed sightings of herds of elephants that came to drink, bathe, and cool off in the water channels. We also observed white-fronted bee-eaters catching butterflies. As we navigated the maze of winter thorn forests and ancient mahogany trees, we remained vigilant for any leopards resting in the branches above.
We arrived at Lolebezi around midday to check in, bidding farewell to Adam and expressing our heartfelt gratitude for the wonderful time we had at Kutali. Spending time with him, having him as our guide, and sharing his knowledge, passion, and experiences with my guests and me was a remarkable experience.
Lolebezi was nothing short of spectacular. Situated at the entrance to the Discovery channel, which separates the mainland from Chula Island, the camp was a world apart from the rustic tents of Kutali. Lolebezi effortlessly combined the luxury one would expect from a world-class safari camp with a modest elegance and simplicity found only in the African bush. Designed to accommodate both families and couples seeking a romantic escape, Lolebezi boasted four superior suites and two double family units. The entire lodge was air-conditioned and featured a private plunge pool and a thatched Sala overlooking the river. This was the ideal place to conclude our journey, especially as temperatures were soaring to 45 degrees Celsius.
Elephant bulls grazed on the vegetation along the Zambezi River’s channel just in front of our rooms. A dip in the private plunge pool with a refreshing gin and tonic in hand provided a welcome respite from the heat. On our afternoon drive, we spent time with three lionesses and a male lion. They rested and offered excellent low-angle photographic opportunities as they began to stir just before sunset. As they woke and walked past our safari vehicle, their gaze was fixed on a nearby warthog. As night fell, we followed them into the bush as they attempted to hunt a herd of impala. While the lions did not secure a meal that evening, we were treated to fine dining with a delicious steak fillet as the main course. During the meal, the lions serenaded us with their roars, echoing long into the night.
The next morning, we located the two male lions who had patrolled their territory, even wandering through the campgrounds during the night. We watched the two brothers basking in the sun, while baboons and elephants passed behind them. The heat eventually prompted them to seek shade, providing us with exceptional photographic opportunities before they dozed off for the rest of the day.
We embarked on another canoe safari at Lolebezi, this time exploring the Discovery Channel. There was an air of excitement on the canoes, as you never knew what you might encounter while silently drifting down the channel. Wildlife appeared to accept your presence, allowing you to enter their world. We leisurely paddled down the channel for two hours, covering a total distance of 9 kilometers.
There were well over 100 hippos, numerous crocodiles, beautiful birds like Carmine bee-eaters, and various water birds. The golden light filtering through the forest cast a magical glow on the water’s surface. The canoe offered a unique perspective and unrivalled photographic opportunities not found anywhere else in Africa. To cap off the evening, we enjoyed a boat safari at sunset on the Zambezi, sipping on Gin & Tonics and indulging in a platter of snacks. The surroundings were painted in soft pastel pinks, providing a perfect conclusion to the day.
In the spirit of the Rugby World Cup, we watched an intense match between South Africa and France. It was a closely contested game, and there was a collective sigh of relief as South Africa emerged victorious by a single point. As we made our way back to our rooms in the evening, we learned that the two male lions had ventured through the lodge, and our night escort showed us their tracks in the sand between the main lodge building and our rooms.
On our final full day at Lolebezi, we rose early to drive back to the eastern sector of the national park. On route, we encountered two honey badgers, and on the Jeki plains, we had a rare sighting of a relaxed Serval. We managed to capture images of this elusive cat as it stealthily moved through the grass in pursuit of a flock of Helmeted guinea-fowl.
We learned that there were four leopards in the vicinity – a male, a leopardess, and her two older daughters – feeding on the remains of a waterbuck. We located the large male resting in a massive winter thorn tree, spending some time with him as he rested and eventually descended to sleep in a lower fork of a large winter thorn tree surrounded by the lush foliage of a Mahogany tree growing below.
Leaving him, we found one of the young leopardesses, who walked gracefully past our vehicle, posing beautifully for some images before climbing into the canopy of a tree enveloped in the dense foliage of a Woolly Caper bush. Her disappearance within the thick foliage was a captivating sight, prompting us to wonder how many times we may have driven right past these elusive cats during our stay. A leopard will only reveal itself when it wishes to be seen, making every moment spent with these enigmatic creatures a true privilege.
We returned to camp for a waterside lunch, with the Lolebezi team arranging for us to dine on the shallow sandbanks in the middle of the Zambezi River. We boated over to our lunch spot, passing by large elephant bulls feeding on the scattered islands in front of the lodge. We silently drifted past these giants, only a few feet away, and they appeared entirely at ease with our presence.
As we rounded the corner of one island, we were greeted by the sight of tables, chairs, and umbrellas positioned in the watercourse. They were placed in the shallows of the sandbank, safely away from the deeper waters where hippos and crocodiles rested. The team had prepared lunch, featuring tapas, salads, kebabs, and a selection of drinks. We enjoyed our meal with our bare feet in the waters of the mighty river, sipping our beverages. For dessert, we indulged in decadent chocolate brownies before taking a quick swim with the guests and staff to cool off. As the day ebbed away, we decided to spend it on the river once more, trying our hand at fishing once more, although this time, we only seemed to feed the fish. We didn’t manage to catch any Tigerfish, but we enjoyed the serene views from the river, observed elephants, buffalo, and massive crocodiles. It was a fitting end to our time in this paradise.
This journey has been a wild and wondrous adventure, filled with unique experiences for my guests and me. Sharing this adventure with my guests, teaching and guiding them through these experiences, has been truly special. Our memory cards and hard drives are now brimming with incredible photographs and cherished memories that will last a lifetime. The Zambezi River holds a special place in my heart, and I eagerly anticipate hosting many more ORYX guests in this remarkable destination in the near future.