This Easter break saw us take off on our first real safari since arriving in Malawi. It was 2011 when we last ventured in the world of elephants, giraffe and zebra, so we deemed it time to break out the bush hats, binoculars and cameras, so as to annoy a lot of wild life!
It's not a long trip over the border, to South Luangwa, in Zambia, a straight forward road, and with only an hour for formalities at immigration and customs, the trip totalled less than six hours and was completed on some excellent roads. Only the Forex touts at the border were an annoyance, and with ATMs thirty minutes away, in Chipata, they were also unnecessary.
Entering Zambia, it was apparent immediately that it was a lot cleaner than Malawi and that the population density was far lower. Admittedly the scenes at the South Luangwa River, which can be seen in the photo above, are exceptional, and not the norm, but the whole atmosphere was more serene than our adopted home.
Of course, the first thing you want to see on a safari is a lion or two, and we were not disappointed. On this occasion the males were more active and interesting than the females; it is normally the other way around! This particular lion was in the process of marking his territory, presumably before lying down and waiting for the girls to catch his food!
We had watched this group of lionesses in an abortive hunt the night before. One of them had circled round a group of Impala, so as the scare them towards the rest of the pride. It seemed they were foiled largely by the searchlights form the scouting safari vehicles, rather then their lack of skill. However, the afternoon sun was certainly a time for them to put their feet up, oblivious to any activity that was going on around them.
Everyone loves a lion but, to be honest, they are generally some of the most boring creatures on the planet! There is so much more to see, and in three of our four game drives we were accompanied by a very pleasant American family, and whilst they were on their first ever safari, they had an interest in everything, but particularly the bird life; we learned a lot from them, as well as the guide/driver, who was enormously informative.
It is hard to think of a better place to enjoy your first safari than Flatdogs Camp. It is just outside the entrance to the park and has recently won a prestigious award as the best value safari property in Africa. The accommodation was excellent, we stayed in their fixed site canvas tents, their staff were first class, the food was very good and the game drives provided were both of a very high standard and environmentally sound.
It was really hard to fault them in anyway. Whilst the total cost of our four nights there seemed a little high, when you considered all that was included, this wasn't the case.
One animal that people love to see is the leopard; a lot more interesting than the lions. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the beast just wanted to have a lie down and get away from the people! It was a bit dark, hence the dodgy photo, and we've come across much happier and active leopards in our past, so we can allow this one some time off. All the animals in Luangwa, including the leopard, seem a bit scaled down from our experiences in Tanzania. This was confirmed by our guide, Yotam, who, whilst focussing on the elephants, suggested that the environment and the size of the South Luangwa park were the causal factors.
And here they are, or not really, for this is a photo from Vwaza that I slipped in. When we watched the elephants bathing in South Luangwa it was absolutely fascinating, but occurred across the river from our tent. We watched them for two hours, that's how much fun it was, but the photos suffered from the subjects being too distant. In the Luangwa River scenario, three male elephants appeared to hog the water and kept all other elephants at bay until they had finished. Once they were out other groups moved in; these seemed to be subsets of the same herd.
Hippos were everywhere in South Luangwa, their roars split the night and they give no respect to anything that stands in their way. After dark, guests at Flatdogs had to be accompanied by guards, just to move across the site to the restaurant area. We saw a female with a young calf in the camp and another incident where one member of staff warned another that he was just about to round a corner and bump into a particularly large specimin. I'm frightened of hippos; they do little for me, they're ugly, vicious, spend most of the time sat in their own excrement and smell.
Crocs, on the other hand, are much more exciting, subtle, intelligent and photogenic, even if they are just as vicious! Every pond in South Luangwa is supposed to be home to a crocodile, which clearly puts people off bathing in them. As the wet season draws to a close they all, like the hippos, make their way to the main river. This one was about three metres long, quite happily dozing, but also ready to make the most of any opportunity for a meal.
Apparently the reason Crocs and Hippos live in such close proximity is that the hippo shit attracts the fish and the fish attract the crocs. For much of the time they live in harmony, but one of the staff at Flatdogs said he had seen a hippo bite a crocodile completely in half when enraged; I told you hippos were obnoxious!
Whilst we're on the subject of vicious animals, the Cape Buffalo is another one of the big five that has some unpleasant traits. This member of the species appeared quite docile however and was more interested in scratching his nose than upsetting anyone. Like the rhino, the only one of the big five missing from South Luangwa, if annoyed enough the Cape Buffalo will happily charge a vehicle and cause considerable damage. This big bull will probably hang around by itself until the mating season when it will go and challenge for dominance in a herd
But what do we have here! A scrub hare was just one of the creatures we came across on the night safaris, but there were many more. Animals that we spotted but I have had not had space to include the photos were: thick tailed bush baby, vervet monkey, elephant shrew, civet, genet, banded and white tailed mongoose, spotted hyena, water monitor, greater kudu, bushbuck and waterbuck. I'm sure there's a few more and that's before we get onto the birds!
I guess that one surprise was how few monkeys we came across. There were baboons aplenty but we made few sightings of monkeys, although they did inhabit the trees around Flatdogs. The night safaris were very interesting but you could go half an hour without seeing anything and then several species would turn up all at once. Again the guide, Yotam, and his spotter, Albert, who accompanied him on the night safaris, were just brilliant at picking up the smallest thing.