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south luangwa photo tour

Zambia: South Luangwa Photo Tour with Daniel Bailey

On the 27th August 2022 I met my client at OR Tambo International Airport. We had a flight to Lusaka Zambia and would overnight at Latitude 15 before our connecting flight the following morning to Mfuwe International Airport.

At Mfuwe International Airport we met our guide, Charles. Charles would look after us for the next 10 nights. Guide and host us through three of Time & Tide Camps in South Luangwa National Park during our ORYX South Luangwa Photo Tour. We grab our luggage at the trolley. We exit the airport and walk into a warm, dry, sun parched Zambia. Instantly kissed by Africa’s hot breath. Outside the parking lot is filled with a fleet of green Land Cruisers. We walk past them to a welcomed sight, a Land Rover which is our ride for our entire stay. Land Rover and Toyota enthusiasts will always have a go as to the better vehicle, but I will always remain loyal to Land Rover.

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It is an hour drive to get through the growing town of Mfuwe to South Luangwa National Park. We are welcomed as we drive through, there are dozens of little markets stalls along the roadside. Chickens scratch in the dirt along the roadside, as music plays from artisan workshops, little market stalls and children run out from little mud huts and wave, and shout, “Yebo”, hello. On our way we decided to visit two iconic shops. We first stopped at Mulberry & Mongoose. A workshop in South Luangwa, in Mfuwe where local craftswomen utilize snare wire recovered from poaching traps to handcraft jewelry designs inspired by the African bush.  We were taken on a tour of the workshop and even tried our hand at working the wires. Incredibly though and tiresome work. We purchased some amazing pieces of jewellery and bracelets to support this courageous team and their families, and to further contribute funds to the local conservation efforts to protect Zambia’s wildlife.  After which we stopped at Tribal Textiles and had a look around their shop and see local artisans work on their hand printed textiles. After our retail therapy we set off to the South Luangwa National Park. We arrive at the Luangwa Bridge and cross into one of Africa’s most famous, raw, and wild sanctuaries.
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It is like stepping into another world.  Africa as it used to be. The river is sluggish and heat struck. Baboons play along the rails, and we lay eyes on pods of hippos, large Nile crocodile and Elephants crossing the river in the distance all the while local fishermen set their nets. It is one of the last truly wild places. It is vast, remote, and timeless. South Luangwa National Park forms a vast, unfenced, and protected area roughly nine thousand square kilometers in size. It holds Zambia’s largest population of lions, leopards, and elephants and the second largest population of endangered African Wild Dogs.

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The Luangwa is a magical place. It is the dry season and unforgivably harsh. It is wild Africa as it should be. We drive through the South Luangwa National Park and pass the well know Mfuwe Lodge. The oldest lodge in the park and the location where elephants walk through the reception to access a fruit off a Wild Mango tree. As we pass the lodge, we see a large pod of hippos in the waterhole. We continue and round the bend, Charles stops the Land Rover and points out a pair of lions sleeping in the shade of a bush. We continue through beautiful woodland and amazing floodplains lined with Jackal Berry (Ebony) trees and forests of ancient Leadwoods. We arrive at Kakuli Camp our base for the first three nights.

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Kakuli Camp hugs the bank of the Luangwa River just to the south of the dry Lubi River. It is one of the bush camps and quite a way into the National Park. We meet the staff and sit down to enjoy a delicious lunch. We plan to head out for the first afternoon game drive at 16h00 post afternoon high tea. Our first introduction to the Luangwa provides us with great sightings of unique subspecies. We enjoy sightings of zebra and giraffe. These are the Crawshay’s zebra (Equus quagga crawshayi) found in the south Luangwa valley. This is a subspecies of the plains zebra and has very narrow stripes compared to other Plains zebra. We also enjoy a sighting and photograph a tower of Thornicroft’s giraffe, which are a subspecies geographically isolated, only occurring in South Luangwa Valley.

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As we watch the giraffe it nears sunset and we hear an unusual noise. A sharp whistling call repeated in the distance. This is the alarm call of an antelope called a Puku. We go to investigate. On arrival we find and spotted hyena sleeping in a gully. We wait a while but no sign of a leopard. As the sun sets we drive along the Luangwa River and watch a pod of hippo. As we continue on I notice a bird fly overhead, a Bat Hawk. A small raptor that is quite a rare and uncommon bird to see, and my first sighting of one to date. They fly at dusk in search of their prey of choice, bats. It is dark now and we head towards a male lion that had been found by one of the other guides. We view him shortly as he walks down the dirt track ahead of us. It isn’t a great photographic opportunity and he eventually disappears into the tree line. We continue with our drive back towards camp for the evening.

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Charles, is driving whilst Sepo scans with the spotlight. A shape reveals itself in the beam of the light. We find our first leopard! A female – she walks through one of the floodplains straight towards our Land Rover. We take some initial shots and then she gets too close for our lenses so we watch and enjoy the moment as she walks past the front of the bulbar. We decide too loop around, in an attempt to get her to us approach head on, once more.

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As we position the vehicle, we notice her behaviour change. She has spotted something ahead in the dark. She starts running. Sepo quickly scans with the spotlight. We watch as she catches a young, unsuspecting Puku. Our first evening in South Luangwa and we witness a successful hunt and kill. As we approach closer she is asphyxiating the Puku. She then eyes out a leadwood tree ahead of her. She manages to hoist her kill, just in the nick of time before two spotted hyena rush in. The Puku is still alive and she finishes asphyxiating it in the tree. We capture some amazing images of her with her kill, she then climbs further into the top branches of the tree. She is exhausted and goes to rest before eating. Content with the sighting we decide to leave her to enjoy her hard won meal. What a special start to our time in the valley. I guess there a reason why South Luangwa is often referred to as the “Valley of the Leopard”

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The next day we head out at dawn. We watch baboons play and bask in the first rays of the morning sun. We round the corner and smell the sweet scent of the Wooly Caper Bush in flower. It smells somewhat like Jasmin. Charles and Sepo seem to be on the same wavelength and say it smells like bubblegum. As we move on Sepo scans up and spots a male leopard resting in a large Sausage tree. This is the resident male and they referred to him as ‘David’. The Sausage trees are in bloom with bright red, nectar filled flowers. It is the dry season and everything from the birds, bats, giraffe, baboons, puku, impala, and bushbuck eat the flowers that carpet the base of the tree. The leopards know this, and they often hunt from within or wait strategically around these trees. The male leopard was just at rest. We captured some nice images of him before moving on. We returned to him in the afternoon and captured him as he ascended another tree, stretched, and scanned the area before going back to sleep. He was well fed and didn’t seem to interested in hunting.

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Hippos are plentiful and often groups of over 60 can be seen in one spot. Along the Luangwa River the thought is that there are 48 per kilometre of river. The highest density of Hippo with an estimated population of more than 13,000 hippos. The next day was all about hippo. We started the day at the confluence of the Lubi River and the Luangwa River watching a huge pod of what must have been close to 200 hippos. The afternoon followed in similar fashion as we received a challenge from one of the other guests in Kakuli camp to get a photograph of a hippo yawning ‘mouth open’ front-on. We sat off the vehicle, on the edge of the Luangwa photographing hippo all afternoon into the best light. We were successful to say the least.

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It was a special experience to sit on the bank of the river and just be at peace with where you are in the world. It’s like stepping back in time. The birdlife was incredible and we observed African Skimmers flying past the hippo at a stage. Whilst trying to count the number of crocodile sunbathing on the sandbanks, and estimating as to the number that we couldn’t see beneath the brown murky waters. We stopped for sunset drinks at a beautiful spot called “Big Bend” and had a sweeping 180’ panoramic view as the river snakes its way through this unspoilt wilderness. On the night drive back to the camp we enjoy once again unique sightings of uncommon creatures such as, Cape Porcupine, the Bushy-tailed mongoose and the Four-toed Sengi (Elephant shrew). The latter is a interesting species, of which I will have to return to South Luangwa National Park and attempt to photograph with strategically placed camera traps.

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Our last morning at Kakuli before heading further into the South Luangwa to Mchenja Camp. We had our bags on the Land Rover and set out on our morning game drive to eventually end up at Mchenja. This morning we heard baboons alarm calling in the distance. It sounded close to the “Big Bend” were we had our sunset drinks. We arrived to, silent baboons. We scratched around the area and found a very irate Smith’s Bush Squirrel calling from a tree, Looking directly down into a woolly caper bush. Suspecting that a leopard had curled up out of sight we continued. We approached a beautiful lagoon. Which can only be described as an oasis an otherwise dry, harsh landscape. Hear we watched and photographed giraffe necking, and eventually tiring of fighting to bend down to enjoy a drink of water. As this took place a Saddle-bill stork caught a fish and a hippo rolled in the mud.

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The peaceful melody of Cape Turtle doves was suddenly broken by frantic alarm calls of puku and impala . We drove closer to investigate what all the commotion was about. They were irate and were following or at least keeping an eye on something. We slowly drove in towards the tree line as the impala scattered. We approached a Sausage tree and in the sand alongside a gully – noticed drag marks. A leopard had just made a kill. We drove in the direction of the drag marks towards a large Natal Mahogany and there she was with an impala ram kill. A female leopard had just finished killing her prey. We watched as she moved the carcass to cover, in the shade and in amongst the leaf litter.
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She removed the hair, and tail and ate a small amount of meat. She got up and walked away. We presumed that she would maybe go drink water. She however walked past the watercourse and into the thicket line. We decided to go for breakfast. We parked at the lagoon and enjoyed a meal. We sampled the Sausage fruit (tastes like Gem squash). As well as our prepared breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, mini-muffins and scones and jam. We sipped on our coffee as we watched the giraffe and a herd of elephants approach and drink at the lagoon.

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We packed up and returned to the site of the leopard’s kill. We had the idea that she would return. We arrived back to see a leopard feeding on the carcass. As we parked the vehicle, the leopard ran off! Then a second popped its head over the back of a termite mound. The female had gone to collect her son, and brough him back to feed at the kill. He was a little nervous and unsure of the vehicle. We sat and quietly photographed until he grew comfortable (or just hungry) and returned to feed alongside his mother. We captured some incredible images of these two leopards. We even enjoy a moment where the herd of elephant walked through and investigated the impala carcass on the ground. After which we decided to leave the leopards to enjoy their meal and we set off to Mchenja Camp.

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Mchenja Camp is a beautiful location on the banks of the Luangwa River deeper into the South Luangwa National Park. It sits on the bank of the river nestled underneath ancient Ebony (Jackal berry) trees. Mchenja is the local term for the “Ebony” tree. This would be our base for the next four nights. We had a wonderful time exploring the Ebony groves that surround Mchenja. It must be one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in Africa. The sightings were superb, and we viewed three lionesses from the Mwamba pride on the first evening. They had finished a Puku kill of which they had stolen from a female leopard, and her two cubs. After dark, they came down to drink from a small, patch of water in one of the dried-up lagoons.

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The following day we set out to try and find the female leopard and her two older cubs. She proved difficult to find but after some tracking we spotted her in a large Winter thorn tree. From the tree she was scanning and keeping an eye on a herd of impala feeding underneath a Sausage tree. We watched her stalk but with no success. Whilst watching the mother we spotted the two cubs resting in the shade on the opposite end of a clear, dried-up lagoon.

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This area was referred to as Hippo Hospital, as there once was an old hippo skull. It had by now been washed away, by the Luangwa River. We enjoyed great sightings of these relaxed, habituated cats. We spent two consecutive days with these special leopards. They provided great photographic opportunities in the under growth and tree lines that line the bank of the Luangwa River. The one morning we had wonderful golden light as the two cubs explored the area whilst waiting for their mother to return. One evening we had the two cubs venture down into the Luangwa River. They played on a large sandbank and this allowed us to position the Land Rover in the Luangwa Riverbed to get low angle “eye-level” photographs of the male and female cub playing and exploring.  Together they attempted to drink from the Luangwa River but the movement of a large crocodile on the bank changed their course. Smart cubs! As they explored the river bank a pod of hippos exited the river for the night in search of fallen sausages from the Sausage tree.

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On the afternoon safari, Charles had notified us that one of the fellow guides had seen a pack of African wild dogs moving during the midday. We set out with the plan to find the leopards again but on route bumped into the pack of African Wild Dogs sleeping. It was late in the afternoon, and the temperature was finally starting to cool down. We patiently waiting for the pack to get active. Our wait wasn’t long and in the next 15 minutes the pack of seven African Wild Dogs started moving. We managed to get some great images of these endangered carnivores. These must be some of the most attractive African Wild Dogs on the continent. They had remarkable coats with beautiful white fur dominating the patchwork of black, brown, and white. They are undeniably Africa’s most photogenic Painted wolves.

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We followed them as they started running. The notion was that they were denning somewhere deep within a Mopane thicket. We tried to stay with them as they were on the hunt. We lost them and Charles took us ahead to see if they would reappear in a clearing. As we had a few moments to share, we took the opportunity to find a tree and have a bathroom break. As my guest went behind a bush, the pack of African Wild Dogs reappeared chasing a herd of impala at full speed straight past her. They couldn’t have cared less, and as quickly as the appeared, they disappeared once again. Must go down as one of the most exhilarating loo breaks!

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We also saw the Cookson’s wildebeest, which are endemic to South Luangwa National Park. These strange, yet beautiful beasts are more common in the northern territories of the park. If you were to compare the Cookson’s wildebeest to the Blue wildebeest, a common species found across Africa. Lighter in colour and slightly larger, the Cookson’s also have more distinguishable markings on their neck and face.

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On the one occasion after brunch, we had a female leopard walk past the camp on the opposite bank of the Luangwa River, in the Nsefu sector. She offered a great view and disappeared out of sight. Our Afternoon high-tea and our photo editing session was interrupted by mating hippo. They were mating and very vocal, in the river directly below the main area of the camp. The plan for our last evening at Mchenja was to go and have a sleep out in the African bush. A wonderful opportunity to reconnect with nature. We were set to sleep out in the dry Lubi riverbed. We set off on our afternoon safari, with our Zambian Wildlife scout, Esko and our chef. Esko would be on guard and protect us whilst, Emilia would prepare us a delicious dinner. On route we enjoyed a short game drive, in which we had a great sighting of a large flock of Lillian’s Lovebirds. They were feeding on seeds on the ground and some were posing beautifully in dead branches of the Mopani trees. This was a sighting that my guest and I had dreamed about capturing. Next time we will find them drinking at a waterhole!

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On route to the Lubi riverbed as the sun was starting to set, to our surprise we found the pack of African Wild Dogs again! This was a special second sighting of the pack. As this time of the year, they can be difficult to view as they were denning. We enjoyed a great sighting of them playing in the foreground as the sun set. They ran past our vehicle on several occasions as they attempted to hunt Puku. They were unsuccessful and we had to continue to get to our camp site before it got too dark.

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This was a huge highlight of the trip. It simply is a must do adventurous addition to the South Luangwa experience with Time & Tide. It was a beautiful set up, with a full stocked bar, dinner table, three mosquitoes netted bedrolls, one for Charles, my guest and me. There was an enclosed, secluded bush loo, wash basin, and a circle of fire pits around the perimeter.  We had a magical sleep out under the stars. It was wonderful to reconnect with nature in an authentic way and really enjoy the simple things in life. Our chef prepared the most delicious barbeque. Charles, Esko, Emilia, and the team ensured that this experience was as comfortable as it is memorable.

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Just like the early explorers, we fell asleep under a canopy of a million twinkling stars, listening to the susurrations of the night time bush. We heard hippos through out the night, lions roar in the distance, hyenas laughing and whooping, and the sharp trill calls of the African scops owls. We woke the next day at sunrise, to enjoy a nice cooked breakfast before setting off on a bush walk.  We conducted a adventurous bush-walk back to where our game drive vehicle had been strategically parked. We walked for around 2 hours, as we walked along hippo footpaths we took the opportunity to learn all about the Luangwa valley. Charles explained its grasses, the value of termites and its ancient trees. On our walk, we encountered elephants on foot, and watched the uncountable number of pods of hippo from the safe embankments of the Luangwa River. We even walked passed and surprised, (woke up) a truly massive Nile crocodile sunbathing on one of the sandbanks. We returned to Mchenja camp after a short game drive and had time to finalise our packing and freshen up before traveling to Chinzombo Camp.

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Chinzombo can be said to be the ultimate in wild luxury. It is considered to be Zambia’s premier safari camp. It is situated within the Game Management area on the opposite bank from the South Luangwa National Park. We spent three nights here to unwind and enjoy a somewhat more relaxed pace, in a truly beautiful setting. It was a chance to really forget the world. We could unwind on the veranda of our private villas during the heat of the day, edit images, and even read a book, or if you really wanted to connect to the wifi. We enjoyed the morning and afternoon safari activities. Each villa (“tent”) stretches out onto a shaded veranda where you can while away the afternoon heat. It was great just sit back, absorb and appreciate the place whilst looking out at the sweeping curve of the Luangwa River. Watching Puku, Warthogs, baboons and hippo  and even elephant feed on the lawns in front of the luxury safari tents. My guest also took the opportunity to simply unwind and enjoyed the in-room spa treatments available.

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It is a unique destination as you have to take a boat across the river to get to the vehicles for the morning and afternoon game drives, or safari excursions of your choice. The game viewing was good and there are beautiful lagoons and the stretch of the river has an old world Africa feeling to it. As it is situated close to Mfuwe and the surrounding villages; you watch hippos and Nile crocodiles as they peacefully coexist with local fishermen setting their nets.

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The first afternoon safari we explored the different lagoons. There were great sightings of hippo feeding on the water lettuce that carpeted the surface of the waterways. African Jacanas caught a ride on their backs chasing their own meals in the process. There were great sightings of giraffes, elephants, and old buffalo bulls.

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As we returned from our first evening safari we stopped, and parked the Land Rover at the jetty. As Charles turned off the ignition, we heard a call coming from the treeline behind us. This was a call I had been waiting to hear the entire stay. I looked at Charles and he said, “Yes, it’s the bird you’ve been looking for”. The Pel’s fishing owl had just called behind us 15 meters away from the camps jetty. This is like the holy grail of owls. It has a small distribution, and is generally rare and or at least very uncommon to see in South Africa.  We jumped back on the Land Rover and went to have a look. As we entered the treeline, from the Luangwa River flood plain sitting perfectly in a dead tree was the Pels fishing owl. This was a very special sighting! A first for me and my guest.

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The birdlife at Chinzombo was unbeatable. The roads are a little busier, being closer to the main gate of the Luangwa bridge. Compared to the previous more remote bush camps. We focused a lot of our time at a Southern Carmine bee-eater colony. These beautiful birds had only just started to arrive. They nest in the alluvial banks of the Luangwa river before returning back north. We captured some great images of these colourful birds darting in and out of their nest holes, and perched on dead trees. We enjoyed a full morning and afternoon session at the colony. As we photographed the birds, we had an elephant bull visit, and feed next to us on our coffee stop, and later that day enjoyed sunset drinks on the banks whilst watching and listening to hippos fighting.

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That night drive we found a Pel’s Fishing owl for the second time. It was perched on a log, on the edge of a lagoon within a few meters of us. We sat in the land rover almost at eye level with this individual. It was scanning for fish. My client and I got some incredible images before it flew off and disappeared into the night sky. If you look at the below image, you will notice a feather sticking out of the its right wing. As it flew off this feather flew lose. Our Zambian Wildlife scout, an absolute legend, Benson managed to walk along the log and retrieve the fallen feather from the lagoon. A little souvenir to forever cherish this incredible moment spent with such an rare owl. It must be one of the best places on the continent to see and photograph them.

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south luangwa pels fishing owl photography

The last morning drive culminated in us finding the Mfuwe pride of lions. We didn’t stay with them long as they were well fed and resting. We returned to the Southern Carmine bee-eater colony for our last session with them. That afternoon we in turn flew out and began our trip back to South Africa.

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South Luangwa is one of Africa’s last truly wild places. It is vast, remote, and timeless. Yet, incredibly accessible by airplane with a short 1-hour flight from Zambia’s Lusaka to Mfuwe. It seems to still hold the magic, present during the pioneering days of Norman Carr and the old timers. The Luangwa Valley is a undoubtably a magical place. I can’t quite wrap my head around it! It is unforgivably harsh in the dry season, but the wildlife is plentiful along the banks of the Luangwa River and drying lagoons. It is wild Africa as it should be. It holds Zambia’s largest population of lions, leopards, hippos, elephants and the second largest population of endangered African Wild Dogs. We experienced and now understand why it is referred to as the “Valley of the Leopard”. We were treated to great sightings of a total of eight individuals and even experienced two successful kills. The lion sightings were good, but often the heat of the day rendered them useless. The hippo sightings are fantastic, you can spend hours trying to get their perfect shot, jaws wide open. This destination offers unique and unbeatable photographic opportunities of wild Africa.

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Over the course of ten days on safari we explored the full extent of the South Luangwa National Park. The opportunity to stay in three different camps allowed the room to explore new areas and at the optimal times of the day to ensure the very best photographic opportunities. My guest and I have got a lovely portfolio of images.  I hope you enjoyed the read and looking at the portfolio of images. I still believe that the images cannot do the beauty of the location justice. The landscape is immense, the scenery is beautiful and in my mind is the very definition of “real wild” Africa.

The magic of the Luangwa, has cast its spell on me and I cannot wait to return to this incredible destination in the future with my ORYX guests.

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