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zambia photo safari

Zambia – Private Lower Zambezi Photo Tour with Daniel Bailey

On the 30th May 2022 I travelled to OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg to meet my client and start our onward adventure to Zambia. We met at a restaurant for lunch and a coffee to discuss all the plans for our Zambia photo safari. Later that afternoon we boarded our flight to Lusaka, Zambia. At sunset, we flew over the impressive man-made Lake Kariba. Shortly after, over the Kafue River and into the night and city lights of Lusaka. On arrival we collected our luggage, met our driver, and a 40-minute transfer to Latitude 15’ our hotel for the night. We settled into our accommodation and ended the evening with a delicious dinner and glass of wine.

The next morning, we had a leisurely start to the day, with a relaxed breakfast in the leafy tree-lined accommodation of Latitude 15’. The time had finally arrived, we jumped in our transfer to the airport to board our Proflight charter flight into Lower Zambezi National Park, Chiawa Camp our base for the next 5 nights. The weather was perfect, with warm sunny conditions and clear skies. Our short transfer flight saw us hop over the escarpment and down into the Zambezi valley. The first glimpse of the mighty Zambezi River is a sight to behold and a moment my client and I will never forget.

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The Zambezi is recognized as the fourth-longest river in Africa and holds the title of being the longest east-flowing river in Africa and the largest flowing into the Indian Ocean. The area of its basin is 1,390,000 square kilometers (540,000 sq mi). The 2,574-kilometre-long (1,599 mi) river rises in Zambia and flows through eastern Angola, along the north-eastern border of Namibia and the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique, where it crosses the country to empty into the Indian Ocean.

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The sight of the Zambezi River from the air evokes a sense of awe, mystery, and the excitement levels were at an all-time high. Envisioning all the endless possibilities that lay ahead of us for our Lower Zambezi safari. Zambia is a unique African photo safari destination. The mighty Zambezi River is an untouched, pristine wilderness area and still today remains a little explored, somewhat secret destination for many travelers. After a safe landing on the dirt runway, we finally took our first step off the plane into a what can only be described as a magical dreamworld.

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We met our guide, Dereck a character with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Dereck would be our guide for the next 5 nights at Chiawa Camp in the Lower Zambezi National Park. Dereck briefed us and offered refreshments as we had a short game drive to the jetty where we would board an aluminum speedboat boat (Ali-cat) to enjoy a 45-minute boat trip up the Zambezi River to the camp. The warm sun on our backs, and beautiful scenery of Ilala palms breaking the horizon and the fortress of the escarpment of the Zambezi valley in the backdrop. First up, we enjoyed a herd of elephants as they crossed the dirt runway on route the Zambezi River. We continued driving through a breathtaking tree line of Winter thorns and Natal Mahogany trees. I mentioned to Dereck that I recalled a memory as a young boy of seeing a leopard in the one tree in this area. A few seconds later we rounded the bend to find a young male leopard resting in the middle of the road. We couldn’t believe our eyes, not even 10 minutes into our trip we had encountered our first leopard! He sat there for a moment and then as quickly as he appeared he disappeared once again into the surrounding vegetation. What a special welcome to the Zambezi valley!

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We arrived at the jetty and boarded the boat transfer to the camp. To be on the water is a special experience and such a unique element to a Zambia photo safari. From seeing the Zambezi River snaking through the valley from the air to being fully immersed into her rhythm. The transfer was lovely as we soaked up all the sights, sounds and smells. The volume of water flowing past, instantly causes one to relax. All there is to do is take a deep breath and be at completely at peace. On the river we enjoyed sightings of multiple pods of curious hippopotamus, large Nile crocodiles, elephants, and even the old Cape buffalo bulls. The abundance of birdlife along the riverbanks was incredible and the entire experience was so soothing, after a long period of travel.

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We arrived at Chiawa camp, a very warm welcome, from the friendly, smiling staff. They greeted us and immediately made us feel at home. There was a brief check-in and run through of the program and options for the stay. From here we settled into our accommodation, a beautiful space, of which there are eight luxurious canvas tents on raised wooden platforms, tucked away into an enchanting Natal Mahogany forest, and all with breathtaking views of the expansive Zambezi River. The first afternoon we opted to have a relaxed sunset boat cruise, with a gin and tonic in hand we enjoyed a breathtaking sunset. As the sun dipped behind the escarpment, accompanied by the sights, and humorous sounds of the local hippopotamus pods. The entire river lights up in the most beautiful light and burning orange reflections from the skyline on the mighty Zambezi River.

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The first morning we woke to at dawn to meet at the camp boma fire. The staff prepared coffee and light breakfast as the day slowly starts. The sun rises over the Zambezi River with the most enchanting dawn chorus of birdlife and non-stop grunting of the hippopotamus. Whilst sipping on our coffee we heard lions roaring close to the camp.  We set out on our first morning game drive to find the resident lion pride and coalition of males. Their roars sounded very close to the camp. It took a short while to track the lions. We first laid eyes on the pride, two lionesses and their four cubs. They moved down the road and into a thicket. Whilst we were stopped, we heard the loud calls of the male lions further down the road. We set off in the hope of finding the two males trailing the pride. We found the tracks of the two males, on the dusty road heading away from the area of the lionesses. Triangulating their roars, we found the two brothers on the move. They were patrolling their territory. These two brothers rule this stretch of the Zambezi River around Chiawa camp. We spent much of the morning with these two males as they led us through their territory. Together we covered a lot of ground and they introduced us to the variety of habitats and life along the Zambezi River. They ventured through magical Winter thorn forests, dreamlike Ilala palms and ancient Baobabs. We left them to go and enjoy a morning coffee break on the Chifungulu channel an area called hippo city. We enjoyed our coffee and biscuits whilst watching and taking the opportunity to photograph hippo, crocodile, and birdlife from the African fish-eagle, White-fronted Bee-eaters, and African Jacanas.

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On arrival back to camp we had lunch prepared on the pontoon boat. A meal of roast beef, scalloped potatoes, and roasted vegetables with a glass of champagne (mimosas) was thoroughly enjoyed whilst floating down the Zambezi River taking in the sights of the ever-present pods of hippopotamus. After a siesta, we embarked on our afternoon safari.  The light was incredible, and we focused our time photographing a herd of elephants, a herd of Cape Buffalo, and the Chacma baboons in a magical Winter thorn forest.

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As the sunset we went in search of a leopard. The experience of driving though the darkness with a spotlight, with a red filter to not disturb the nocturnal wildlife was a unique experience. We had great sightings of the rarer nocturnal creatures, Large Spotted Genets, African Civet, and even two Porcupines! This was a productive night drive and one in which the wildlife was relaxed and accommodating of our vehicle’s presence. Towards the end of the night drive, we received the call on the radio from one of the other Chiawa guides had found a leopard. We were close so we went to have a look. The leopard was actively hunting a herd of impala. We made the decision to switch off all the lights and wait. As not to disturb her hunt. We sat with her in the dark with only the shimmering stars of the Milky way lighting up the sky. She made her attempt! She ran in and missed! We listened to the hoof falls of the Impala running, snorting, sounding the alarm. Although she missed, we were ecstatic to be a part of her world. She was trying hard to secure a meal. We opted to leave her and carried on.

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Another special surprise came to be as we dropped down into the dry Chiawa riverbed. The night sky was now broken by the sight of a campfire, paraffin lanterns, with a bush dinner and drinks celebration. All the guests staying at Chiawa were present, everyone had a drink and sat down to a wonderful feast. It was an impressive spread, a full barbeque (braai) and many mouth-watering local Zambian dishes prepared by the gracious Chiawa chefs. The dinner was delicious, with great company of like-minded people, all in the most magical location. The dinner tables and bar were around a camp wood fire, protected by a steep riverbank lined by paraffin lanterns and the expansive star scattered night sky above us.

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The following morning, we awoke at dawn. We enjoyed a cup of coffee as the sun slowly lit up the Zambezi River. We soaked up the views and the dawn chorus around the campfire. Dereck advised us that we should go in search of the lion pride. We had heard them roaring throughout the night. We set out and after a short while we tracked down the two lionesses and their four cubs. They were resting in the golden morning light and provided great photographic opportunities. The pride was in the exact position we had seen the herd of buffalo the previous afternoon. The lionesses walked through an enchanting area surrounded by Winter thorn trees in the morning light. The one lioness tried to stalk closer to a large waterbuck bull but a troop of Chacma baboons sounded the alarm. We left the lions and explored the area. We were astounded by the variety of life and the fairyland scenery. Impressive ancient Baobab trees, and the tropical feel of the giant Ilala palm trees standing like sentinels over the valley floor. We encountered another herd of Cape Buffalo resting by Bad-Angle Dam, during our morning coffee break took the opportunity to photograph some wonderful birdlife. On the route back to the camp we had nice sighting of a herd of elephant’s dust bathing after cooling down in a mud wallow.

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The big draw card to an African photo safari to Lower Zambezi National Park is the variety of experiences from land-based game drives in the open Toyota Land Cruisers, to walking-safaris with Zambian Wildlife Scouts, to boating, the alure of fishing for the famous Tiger fish or quietly paddling down the Zambezi channels on canoes. We opted to go on a canoe safari. We boated up the Zambezi River from Chiawa camp to the Nkalangi channel. We were briefed by our guides and set off on the most magical adventure. The experience of drifting down the Zambezi on a canoe is one I would highly recommend. It is quiet, peaceful, and exciting all at the same time. On the water one immediately feels connected to the environment. You are transported into another world; you reconnect and become a part of this wilderness. Expert guides ensure that you are safe and well cared for. As you drift down the Nkalagi channel you are exposed to incredible moments that you will hold on to forever. A variety of animal and birdlife frequent the water course in search of food and water. As you drift quietly down the channel each bend reveals something exciting. It offers a unique low-angle photographic opportunity.

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The Lower Zambezi safari is truly a holistic experience. You become entangled in the tapestry of life in this wild paradise. As we quietly drifted down the channel we enjoyed sights of waterbirds, ranging from noisy Egyptian geese to a variety of herons, and the dazzling White-fronted Bee-eaters. We encountered menacing large Nile crocodiles sunbathing along the banks, a few curious hippopotamus, chacma baboons, and the highlight being herds of elephants coming down to drink. The animals hardly react to your presence on the canoes. They are calm and do not see you as a threat on the water. They accept you into their space and become a part of their world. It is a life-changing and unforgettable experience.

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The highlight was one large herd of elephants drinking at the waters edge with a very young calf. They drank within a few feet of us drifting past on the canoes. The herd the allowed us the opportunity to pause and fully immerse ourselves in the experience. They then proceeded to cross the river channel and onto the Nkalangi island. This was the most breath-taking experience and a moment my guest and I will have etched into our memories forever. The herd crossed the channel, with a young calf fully submerged, holding onto its mother’s tail. At a respectful and safe distance, the herd accepted our presence.  A moment in time when you truly connect to the natural world. The Nkagali Channel is a beautiful space and the term “nkalangi” means “peace”. It truly is a pace of peace and I believe our souls were so much richer after the experience.

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I awoke the next day to coffee brought to my tent. As the day broke, we walked through to the main area of the camp along the sand pathways lined with Large Natal Mahoganies. This morning Derek came to escort me to the fire for breakfast and ‘second’ cup of coffee! As we walked along the pathway, Derek pointed out tracks of a large male leopard that had made his way through camp at some stage during the night. What an amazing thought to know that under the cover of darkness, whilst everyone is asleep, in their comfortable beds this elusive creature moves undetected through the campgrounds. Coexisting with man as they have done since the inception of the National Park in 1983. I took this as a good omen for the day ahead. The morning drive started with the two male lions. The brothers were lazy and basking in the morning sunshine. They had eaten something during the night. This morning drive was all about the elephants that call this magical place home. The focus was to spend time with three elephant bulls as they moved feeding on the Winter thorn trees. The hope to capture them perfectly framed and reaching up for the foliage high up on the browse line. The one bull provided a very memorable up-close sighting as he moved within a few feet of our Land Cruiser. The scenes were magical, and we spent hours with these bulls. The photographic scenes of them feeding and standing alongside the towering Ilala palms created incredible imagery of a surreal dreamlike environment.

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We decided to stop once for coffee. This time due to a flat tyre! Fortune would have it that we had the puncture next to a water system. There were large crocodiles basking on the edge of the water. They eventually slipped into the water and disappeared. We took the chance to photograph great birdlife. Initially shrieks of the colorful Meyer’s parrots feeding in the tree above us to focusing on low angle images, with us lying at the water’s edge. Taking the place of the crocodile not moments before. We capture unique imagery of African Jacanas and a Great White Egret that had caught a small Tigerfish.

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After a short rest in camp, we made the decision to go and look for a leopard. There are a few places that can compare to the beauty and variety of life found in the Zambezi valley. The leopards are present and can be elusive during the daylight hours. They are very crepuscular. The leopards here contend with the constant presence of the plentiful troops of Chacma baboons. They opt to move secretly, usually hunting and patrolling their territories after dark. A strategy to simply avoid being mobbed and harassed by the resident baboon troops.

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We set off driving through an area along the banks of the Zambezi River to a large pod of hippos just downstream from the camp. We watched the family antics for a while. Watching a young calf resting on its mothers back. Photographing the pod with their mouths open, yawning and displaying their impressive teeth. Simply sitting watching and listening to their amusing vocalizations. As the sun started to set into the golden hour, we continued driving through the most enchanting Winter thorn forest to AC point as we began our search of the elusive leopard. We had seen two leopards thus far but very briefly. Our goal was to try find an individual to photograph. As the sun hit the escarpment, we had been driving for a while to no avail. We had a nice sighting of an African Hoopoe, a favorite bird of my client. She stated that the Hoopoe was her good luck charm. She said that whenever she sees a Hoopoe the next sighting is a leopard! We paused momentarily and Dereck asked if we wished to continue with the search or stop for sunset drinks. As we discussed the options, I noticed movement in the vegetation ahead of us. There was a figure moving through the undergrowth. Next second a flick of a white tail! Suddenly, as if scripted a large male leopard stepped out into the dirt track ahead of us. I couldn’t believe my eyes! What a moment. Thank-you African Hoopoe! He crossed the road ahead; we drove closer but amazingly as quickly as he appeared he had once again disappeared! He seemly vanished into thin air. It was a very short-lived sighting but a moment in time I’ll never forget and a memory that I’ll forever cherish.

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As we sat pondering how this large feline had vanished into thin air. We heard baboons alarm calling and impala snorting in the distance. The male leopard had allowed us a brief glimpse of him. You’ll only see a leopard if they wish to be seen! We carried on with our search. The darkness lit up by the red headlights and spotlight scanning the surrounding vegetation, we found a lovely female leopard resting in the open. The baboons were up in the tree tops alarming at her. We captured some great images of her. We had to adjust our shooting style to work with the red spotlight. The red lights are thought to be less obtrusive to the nocturnal wildlife and they are more relaxed and continue with their normal behavior around the vehicles. When she got up and started walking, we noted that she had suckle marks and was a mother to cubs. Her milk pouch was very full and from what we could decipher she had very young cubs hidden somewhere. She walked past the Land Cruiser several times allowing us to photograph her. We created some beautiful black and white imagery of this leopardess as it was the best way around the red-light. We really enjoyed this sighting and the challenge of photographing her under different lighting conditions. It was a worry initially but with creative post-processing it is surprising what unique black and white imagery you can create.

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We started making tracks for camp we heard baboons screaming once more. We jokingly said that we would now find another leopard. Oh boy! As we scanned the area, we noted eye shine under a large Sausage tree. As we approached off-road, we were amazed to see a young male leopard that was feasting on a baboon kill on the ground. This was an incredible sighting.  It was rather gruesome as the baboon carcass had been opened at the chest exposing the entire rib cage and internal organs. He was relaxed with us photographing him eating. We took time to interpret the scene, creating imagery that wasn’t too gory. We focused on the story-telling aspect, from the wider picture to the intricate details such as portraits with his blood-stained lips, tighter images of the exposed rib cage and the leopards face. Suddenly, two spotted hyenas ran in and tried to steal his hard-won meal. In split seconds he grabbed the carcass and climbed the Sausage tree to safety. This was top-class when it comes to leopard viewing.

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From what we experienced there is an abundance of resident leopards. Leopards as a species can be an enigma, a spotted cat, a shapeshifter – that can be elusive and vanish into the surrounding environment. The African photo safari to Zambia as a destination is a true, wild, and authentic experience. If the lucky few see a leopard, everything else is a bonus.

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Amazingly our last full day had arrived. We set out on a longer excursion to drive along the Zambezi River towards the Jeki airstrip. First point of call was to go and see the male leopard from the night prior. As we arrived, he was in the Sausage tree. He had eaten all but a leg of the baboon. The deceased baboons’ troop was highly irate. They were alarm calling and causing the leopard to descend the tree and go to rest in a thicket out of sight. We arrived at the opportune time to see him gracefully climb down the tree.

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The last morning drive would see us cover just over 25 kilometers. We explored various areas, beautiful habitats, and tree lines. We learnt a lot about the different species of trees and accomplished some birding. In total we recorded a bird list of 124 bird species. We photographed ancient Baobab trees and lost ourselves in the magical Winter thorn forests. The drive was productive as we found a coalition of three male lions resting on the banks of the Chifungulu channel. These lions are known as Blackie, Blondie, and Ginger. The dominant coalition on this stretch of the Lower Zambezi National Park. The three males were resting in the sun in the most picturesque location.

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On our last afternoon we opted to go canoeing down the Nkalangi channel. As the name suggests we peacefully drifted down the waterway. It was a warm sunny day. There was lots of animal activity along the channel. We encountered multiple herds of elephants and had the most magical light as the sun set through the treelined riverbanks. The hippopotamus, Nile crocodile, and baboons were as always, a hit. Offering great photographic opportunities. There was a large old Cape Buffalo bull resting and chewing the cud on the riverbank. It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting in a canoe floating past herds of elephants, pods of hippo, basking Nile crocodiles, within a few feet of these animals totally unperturbed by us.

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Whilst quietly drifting down the channel we heard Vervet Monkeys alarm calling. This was incredibly special to hear as it meant that somewhere in close vicinity to us on the canoes was a leopard moving through the undergrowth alongside us on the Nkalangi island. It was merely enough to know that we were floating down the Zambezi River with a leopard close by. It really hit home that this place is raw, wild, and unscripted. There is the potential for anything to take place. There is something special around every bend of the watercourse. These are moments that my guest and I will hold onto forever. It really is a wild paradise! An authentic African photo safari and even more so holistic experience. We wrapped up our last evening with sunset drinks on the bank of the Zambezi being serenaded by a pod of hippos. After drinks we set off to a large Baobab tree a few minutes from the Chiawa camp. We did some star photography with the Baobab as our subject. The night sky and the Milky Way is outstanding. We practiced this photographic technique as it was new to my client. The blanket of stars was enchanting! We got great creative images, painted with light, and set off back to the camp for our final dinner and drinks to celebrate what was a life-changing African photo safari.

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On the final morning we decided to wake-up, slow. My client and I enjoyed our last sunrise at the Chiawa camp boma fire as we sipped on our morning coffee and indulged in the fresh fruits, porridge, and pancakes. We sat and watched as the colors danced on the Zambezi River, constantly changing, shifting from rich oranges, to purples, to pinks, to finally shades of blues. We said thank-you and goodbye to all the friendly, warm, hospitable Chiawa staff. With our bags packed we set off on our last Zambezi River cruise to the Jeki jetty. Unfortunately, our time had come to an end. We boarded our Proflight Zambia flight to Lusaka, we relived, reminisced, and took in the final views of the mighty Zambezi River from the air. We flew back over the escarpment which drew an end to our time in Lower Zambezi National Park. From Lusaka my client and I made our way back to Johannesburg, to end back to Cape Town.
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