First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia