ZAMBIAN SAFARI Author: Lois Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour
Travel Arrangements: AfricaEasy.com
Four Brilliant Birders, One Proficient Photographer & Me Safaris in Zambia and Rwanda: August 22 to September 5, 2017
CONTENTS Introduction ............................................................................................................ 3 Zambia Background ............................................................................................... 5 Zambian Adventures.............................................................................................. 6 Z ambia Landscape................................................................................................ 20 Chongwe River Lodge .......................................................................................... 21 Land Safaris........................................................................................................... 27 River Safaris........................................................................................................... 34 Night Safari Drives................................................................................................ 41 Farewell to Zambia ............................................................................................... 44
INTRODUCTION Four of us were already acquainted from previous trips and knew we would enjoy being with one another again, especially since Mark was the Africa Easy Representative and our leader. But what a wonderful surprise when we met Laurence and Jim, South Africans who had been friends for years and were also well acquainted with Mark and Mayumi. We all just "clicked" almost at once. As soon as we realized that all of us had undertaken this trip with the same goals in mind, we knew this combo would be a complete success. We all wanted to see as much wildlife & birdlife as possible and we all had the patience it takes to get good sightings, experience behaviors, take good photos and name every bird we saw and heard with precision. Zambia and Rwanda were new countries for 4 of us and places visited long ago for the others, so no one could have been more eager than we were to begin our explorations!
Our adventure began when we met at the Lusaka Airport in Zambia. Four of us had some long hours in the air (including several different legs of flight to reach that city). However, Jim and Laurence had just a short hop to Lusaka from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thus, we four long-distance fliers were eager to get to our Latitude 15 hotel for some catching up on sleep while the
South Africans used the time to begin birding around the very comfortable hotel. They had birds galore to report when we all met for our first time "breaking bread" together.
Modern history of this nation begins in 1891 when the country, called Northern Rhodesia then, was administered by the British South African Company to exploit mining of copper and emeralds. In 1923, the United Kingdom began governing the country directly.
In l964, Northern Rhodesia became Zambia when the UK granted independence. Since then, there have been several changes of party and leaders, but the country was moving ahead rapidly until the price of copper (its chief export) dropped due to less demand in 2015 & 2016. Zambia is one of the most urbanized countries on the African continent, looking modern and prosperous until you visit the much poorer countryside. But it appears that under the leadership of President Lungu, progress is again being made in this presidential republic. Tourism is a vital part of the growing economy. Greater emphasis is being placed on cobalt exportation, selling hydropower, emerald mining and seeking more foreign investments. In size, Zambia is slightly larger than Texas with 290,587 square miles of territory compared to Texas' 268,597. The country is landlocked, bordered by 8 different countries. The land consists mostly of high plateau, averaging 3,734 ft. In elevation, creating a milder climate than some African countries.
The highest point is in the Mofinga Hills at 7,349 ft. While the lowest elevation is at the Zambezi River at 1079 ft. The population is very skewed towards a younger group of people: out of the 15,972,000 citizens, 46% are 14 years old or less. HIV/AIDS has taken a huge toll on the citizenry, with over a million and a half people living with
the disease and many more who have died, leaving orphans and accounting for the predominance of young people.
The Zambezi River is the 4th longest in Africa (1,599 miles) and the longest flowing into the Indian Ocean. This river is the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe (old Rhodesia). It also creates boundaries for 4 other countries in total: Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique. Busy and important resource for all six. ZAMBIAN ADVENTURES We stayed in two national parks of Zambia; the first was South Luangwa where our home was the Kakuli Bush Camp. The other was Lower Zambezi where we stayed at Chongwe River Camp. Both were comfortable with friendly and helpful guides, drivers and camp staff. Meals were delicious and plentiful; too generous really, making us all feel wasteful when we could not eat all the foods presented. 4:30 wake-up call for the drive to Lusaka Airport to catch the flight to Mfuwe International Airport, a grand name for a very basic bush airport. The flight was only an hour and we were pleased to see a lady pilot. We learned that the much- repeated luggage restrictions on internal flights were not enforced at all. We all just climbed up the ladder and threw whatever we were carrying into the tail of the plane with no questions or weighing process in the bargain.
Adam, who met us at Mfuwe, gave us a wonderful drive into Kakuli, a very remote site. The drive took much longer than the flight but that was because we saw so many interesting things along the way.
Highlights were a male leopards running along a sandy hill and was in full view. The other big treat was Norman, a sleeping lion lying in the shade but in full view. We were to encounter this wonderful creature several more times. But we never tired of him, even though he seemed to have "sleeping sickness" since he was also caught snoozing.
Kakuli Bush Camp Experiences In many ways, the personnel at this remote and less luxurious camp made our stay here our favorite in Zambia. Philemon our guide was top- notch— knew his stuff perfectly. Sivu the lady camp manager was friendly with a good memory for our likes and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. Moses and Martin were excellent rangers and spotters and Alfred and Albert were wonderful servers at meals and the bar.
We had some unexpected guests in our tent each night. Very quiet frog. They were cute, dark skinned and about 2 to 3 inches long. We first thought to catch them and put them outside but then we remembered how dry the land is now. South Luangwa Park had not seen rain since May. Perhaps they were showing either great intelligence or innate survival skills to choose a wet area in the cabin.
And I must say, they did not encroach on our personal space as much we invaded theirs. No frogs in our beds or underfoot. The most never-to-be forgotten walk we have ever taken occurred while at this wonderful camp. We had driven out onto a rolling plain with short grasses and a wide view of sky and horizon. There were thickets providing shade surrounding the rather bowl-like terrain we had entered. Philemon asked if we would like a walk and everyone agreed that a leg-stretcher would feel very good indeed. So we climbed out of our safari wagon with Philemon leading our single-file group. Martin brought up the rear with a large rifle and Moses carried one too.
Lion Walking Along The Tree-Line
We took instructions to be quiet as we walked. A short while later, we stopped and were told to not make any sudden movements. We stared in beneath the underbrush and gradually I began to see a pride of lions lazing under the shade, not 50 meters in front of us! We had stalked the Mwamba pride! There was nothing between us and the pride but flat ground. We lined up and took 10 minutes to observe the pride. There were 2 females to our right, 3 more females in the middle of the line, a large male to the left and a couple of young males in the background. The pride was reported as 13 strong, but we actually saw only 8. Where were the others you might ask – we kept looking behind ourselves – of that you can be sure.
The lions were hyper-aware of our "pride of 9" but they really seemed totally unconcerned with our presence. The big male kept his eyes right on us but he didn't even flick an ear. Some of the females groomed one another, one stretched her length up against a nearby tree, no doubt sharpening her claws case they were needed. What an amazing experience! I never thought to be out of a safari wagon and standing in front of lions with nothing but air between us. We walked off slowly and quietly, back to the protection of the wagon and no one followed us. Though I can't say I was frightened and no one else seemed to be either, all of us were just as tensely aware as that alpha male lion. Who could ask for anything more from an African safari ride/walk? Among the many animals seen in Kakuli were: lions, leopards, impala, kudu, warthogs, elephants, hippos, cape buffalo, crocodiles, waterbuck, baboons, and monkeys, spotted hyenas. We were also fortunate enough to see some animals new to us: an antelope called a Puku (small and delicate), 4 species of mongoose, scrub hares, a female leopard and her teenaged cub, elephant shrews, spotted genets, African civets bushbuck, Cookson's gnu, and two new owls: Pearl Spotted Owl and Verreaux's White Owl. A little side note about the wonderful civet. Someone, whether a wag or misguided capitalist or something more bizarre, decided once upon a time to farm civets! Now for their beautiful coats or to make sure they didn't become extinct! No, he wanted to collect their "poop" to make a coffee drink! Ugh, you say, and we all agreed. Why did he pick civet poop over some other critter's scat—no one knows. But he really did try to sell the stuff. Alas, his product was a market failure. We can only hope he released the poor captive civets back in the wild where their poop could become part of Mother Nature's cycles of life.
The four birders were very well rewarded on this trip because there were many species to be seen. Even on the drive into Kakuli, these expert spotters found 80 different kinds of bird. You can easily understand that they saw many more during the days we stayed at this bush camp. Kay captured as many as possible through her camera lens, but I was just too lazy to write them all down. Another memorable kind of experience on any safari trip are the wonderful "sundowners" as well as meals eaten al fresco along the ways. Some lunches were pretty simple with sandwiches but mostly here we ate back at camp. Sundowners here were particularly beautiful because of the many different terrains we observed.
Sunsets were colorful and lingering. Little special finger foods were delicious and drinks of our choice are delectable, for Kay and I, the wonderful Amarula liqueur, especially mixed with milk or cream.
One of our most picturesque was a lovely sand beach with the ever- sleeping Norman spread out comfortably, not too far away from us. He was sleeping as usual but his belly was full so we knew he had been active sometime while out of our sight
The glowing sky with its oranges, salmons, purples, blues, and pinks did not stir him at all, nor did the smells of our finger foods or even us humans. Norman seems best at sleeping! We learned that the rangers and guides are concerned for this somnolent male lion because he has no pride nor was he ever accepted into one. At present, he is able to care for himself and doesn't seem to miss the company of his kind, but he would be in danger if other males came into the territory and wanted to rout him out of it.
Zambia's terrain is quite varied. Some of what we saw was forested and the right habitat for the antelope species we observed. Some was savannah land with plentiful watery swamps lands, but occasionally we came upon ruined landscapes with nothing living except a rare weed along the roadway.
Philemon told us that this devastation was done by elephants. They break off branches of trees and tear up the foliage. They push trees down completely to get at the bark and the materials beneath the bark. It is a rare tree that can survive a real elephant attack! But for all that, plus the long dry seasons, Zambia is quite beautiful and seems to be a healthy habitat for all the animals and the people who live there too. The tourist trade has brought new money into the country and local people are seeing that it is the animals who bring in the tourists and thus the jobs and the money!
CHONGWE RIVER LODGE
On August 27, we rose early again to drive back to Mfuwe Airport for our flight to Lower Zambezi National Park and the Chongwe River Lodge. We flew to Royal Airport which was a bit more deserving of its international airport designation. It did have a terminal building made of concrete blocks after all. This flight took about 45 minutes but it flew at 10,000 feet and most of us fell asleep rather than sightseeing. Again, the luggage restrictions announced held no water at all. We just tossed everything into the tail of the plane.
This beautiful facility was more upscale than Kakuli; Lawrence and Jim pronounced it "over the top." But it was comfortable with enormous suites for everyone with private dining areas in between, indoor and outdoor showers, incredibly beautiful views of the Chongwe River where it flowed into the Zambezi.
Our biggest surprise here was that elephants wandered in and out of the property at will. Often we were not allowed to come and go to our cabins because elephants were dining too close to the trails to the cabins. They would either delay our departure from the cabins or send an armed guard to accompany us. Once Kay and I started out to the meeting place and had to make tracks to an empty range rover because three elephants unexpectedly came through the forest heading right in our direction. But we were to have more exciting elephant encounters here as well. There was a French group at Chongwe while we were in residence and that's when we discovered how nice the private dining area between Jim & Lawrence's suites would be. The French did not really want to be with us for meals nor we with them. So this was perfect. We had our own servers and
there was a separate kitchen right across the trail from our dining area. We really enjoyed this aspect of Chongwe.
Of course, that did not mean that we would not have visitors anyway—ones that spoke neither English nor French. Our guests were the magnificently huge elephants who did not mind crashing the party at all.
One evening we gathered for our dinner and found that Jim was "trapped" in his suite because one of the "crashers" was dining on fruits and seeds that had fallen on the roof of his abode from an overhanging tree!
The elephant was standing just outside the dining area up against the outer wall. But that did not stop his reaching across with his trunk and grasping the favored food for the evening. Jim could not come out because all that was going right over his head. We waited for dinner until the pachyderm had her fill and wandered off on her own. On another occasion, while we were at dinner, Kay and I asked Lawrence if we could use his "facility" since we did not want to get a guide to take us back to our own suite. Then we realized that another elephant (perhaps it was our same former dinner companion) was wandering through the open dining area heading for Lawrence's front door.
When Lawrence would walk straight out his door, he entered the dining area, but if he turned right he would go into a winding walled-in corridor
that led to the path outside the suites. Well, it appeared the elephant knew that corridor too because she headed right for it.
This corridor was not very wide and we feared that she might not get through easily or at all. Needless to say, we waited ‘til the "guest" had made her way to the path outside before we took advantage of Lawrence's hospitality. One of the funniest things that happened to us at this beautiful lodge occurred our first morning. We woke up to the sounds of locomotives running back and forth in front of our suite. The engines would rev up and then slow down, the roar off before coming right back. It was very odd because we knew that in front of our patio was the Chongwe River very near the entrance to the Zambezi. We could not imagine that there was a railway in the part of the park.
As the sun came up, we jumped up and flung open the door to see the colorful sunrise we had been promised by the staff people. And stunning it truly was.
We marveled over Mother Nature's artistry and then realized that the "train was still running" back and forth. We looked in the waters of the two rivers and both saw and heard our train engines—it was the innumerable hippos in the rivers.
They made such outlandish and loud sounds that it truly did sound like locomotives on the move and revving up the engine! Of course, there were no railroads anywhere near the Lower Zambezi National Park!
After our amazing experiences with Philemon at Kakuli who greatly spoiled us with his knowledge, his excellently planned routes and his clear understanding of our hopes for each game drive, we were probably doomed to be disappointed in George here at Chongwe. And we were! During our first few drive safaris, we had some difficulty communicating with George, our driver guide. He did not seem to understand when the birders wanted to stop for a better view or when Kay wanted time to get the perfect picture and he would just go on ahead. He also seemed intimidated by the expertise of our 4 skilled birders. He misidentified at least three bird species they had easily recognized. That certainly dimmed their appreciation of his guiding skills. Soon he stopped trying to spot or identify birds at all. Another failing was his seeming misunderstanding of our wish to see the wild dogs said to be in the area. He told us that they were usually at airfield between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. So when did he get us to the airfield? At 8:30 a.m. and the dogs had gone to bed by then. Since he knew the hours when they would most likely be seen, we were disgruntled that he never got us there during that window of opportunity. We repeatedly told him that we were more than willing to start the morning safaris earlier but that seemed to make no difference to the "plans" in his head. He also seemed determined that we should explore every different habitat in the park, including the mountainous area, even though he admitted that at this time of year there would be very little bird or animal life up there. He also reported that the drive would be long and arduous and probably take
up most of our safari time on whatever day he decided to take us up. We were in consternation about what to do because none of the six of us wanted to be taken up the mountains. Mark decided that George was not being obstinate but that perhaps he is usually given a protocol for the various safari drives and was unsure about deviating from it. So our diplomatic guide, Mark, went to the head ranger/guide to discuss our predicament. The next day proved that he had made the correct move. What a difference in George! From then on, we had a wonderful time with him as he made every effort to find the animals and birds we wanted to observe. When we happened upon them, he stopped with patience for our activities of locating the bird, photographing it, watching the mammal behaviors, checking the bird books to make correct identifications. And the very next day, we were at the airfield in plenty of time to see and photograph the wild dog pack.
The pack is a small one, with only four known members, but we saw three of them and Kay also got a couple of really good pictures of them.
On another occasion, we came upon a very fruitful Ilala Palm where some baboons were merrily scooting up the tree, grabbing the fruit, leaping from one frond to another and even onto the branches of trees of different species nearby. They squabbled among themselves, screeching and play-fighting or maybe it was serious. We were so much enjoying the antics of the baboons and George gave us some
interesting information about the eating habits of the baboons—they eat only the skin of the palm fruit and drop or throw the inner fruit on the ground and sometimes at each other. He did not act as if he thought we were taking too much time enjoying the activity in front us. And lucky he didn't move us off because the next act was about to start. A mother elephant and her young calf soon hove on the scene, scattering any baboons who happened to be on the ground. She and her youngster began foraging among the fruits on the ground and George explained that the elephants eat the fruits whole with skins or without and that their dining was a necessity to the survival of the Ilala palm. Their fruits with the seed inside have evolved to require passage through the intestines of the elephant in order to sprout and create the next generation. The young elephant was learning from his mother about eating the fruits and he was also learning not to be intimidated by the screeching baboons! It was a wonderful experience to see these activities with leisurely time!
And then, there was a third act began. Suddenly we heard an unearthly shrieking! A very young baby baboon was sitting alone and forlorn on a branch screaming for his mother. Somehow she had wandered off, forgetting about him it appeared. Well, the screams produced the result he wanted and mother came racing back to fetch him. The wails stopped immediately but the story wasn't over. Quite unexpectedly, the big Alpha Male baboon came roaring in, accompanied by a couple of other adults, and he began what George said was disciplining the errant mother. They chased her around and cuffed at her occasionally and made some pretty terrifying vocalizations.
She gathered her wits and took her baby off into the distance. George told us that this mother will not ever wander off from her helpless youngster. This was a lesson indeed!
Our most exciting sighting of a big cat was a leopard and her cub. We found the mother taking the sun on a fallen tree right next to the road. She let us look at her for less than a minute, then calmly made her way into the brush. George knew where she usually left her cub and drove us into the tree line. And there he was. Fussy and spitting up in a tree. We left in less than a minute so as to not give undue stress. He came down from his perch and walked away in the direction of Mama.
Later, poor George, just as he was regaining our respect and trust, another problem befell him. As we were returning from an early morning safari heading for our anticipated breakfast, he decided to take a short-cut back to the camp. The sun was shining brightly into the curvy path through a small ravine-like feature. Because of the glare, neither George nor any of us could have foreseen that we were barreling up to a sand-trap, worse than any on a golf course. Sure enough, we were soon stuck in the slippery dry sand almost up to the hubcaps. Despite valiant efforts by George, Mark, Lawrence, and Jim to free it, the rover was only getting deeper into the sand. Then he discovered that the 4- wheel drive was not engaged nor could it be. There was shade on one side of the little ravine, but it was very hot and getting hotter, especially for the fellows trying to dig the wheels out, put limbs in for traction, and other maneuvers. George had his phone, some good luck there, and it worked even in the ravine so another rover quickly appeared to rescue us in time not to miss breakfast. A tractor was soon dispatched as well and George and the benighted rover were hauled back to camp, rather unceremoniously.
Chongwe River Camp boasted an additional way to enjoy the marvelous surroundings—by boat on the short tributary of the Zambezi, the Chongwe River, and exploring the big Zambezi too. Another advantage to river riding was the cool breezes generated by the boat's movement because it was really hot in the daytime. We certainly came to enjoy those safaris too. And it is always interesting to see the animals and birds from the water as well.
Hippos are really numerous in the Chongwe and the Zambezi and we were happy to be in a motor-powered larger boat since hippos are known to turn smaller vessels over and more people in Africa are killed by hippos than another other of the resident animals. And certainly, hippos, large and small, were all around us in both rivers. They made their rude noises constantly, flapped their ears, yawned so we could see their huge teeth, and even jostled among themselves for positions in the rivers. They were amusing to watch from the relative safety of our boat.
Crocodiles lined the banks and could sporadically be seen as eyes and heads above the water as they cruised along in the rivers. Waterbirds were abundant, especially on the Chongwe: open-billed storks, Egyptian geese, fishing eagles, herons and egrets, thick-knees, jacanas, sandpipers, hawks, and so many others. But on our first river safari, we were in search of a colony of bee-eaters who nest in holes they dig into the high sand banks along the river. There were carmine bee-eaters galore, flitting, fishing and flying deftly into the small openings of the nests to feed the young. They are beautiful birds whether perching or flying and their activities were fascinating to observe. Some white- fronted and little bee- eaters were visible as well.
Around the bee-eater colony were several types of kingfishers as well— one of our favorite birds wherever we see them: pied, malachite, brown-hooded, white-bellied, African pygmy, and woodland. The sky was bright blue with some soft clouds breaking the blue tableau and we were sitting comfortably in our boat with a welcome top to prevent the powerful sunlight from baking us. Just imagine the skies and river banks filled with fluttering wings and brilliant colors of these beautiful birds.
Every once in a while, we would see hippos clambering up the bank from the river or half-sliding down the slippery banks to re-enter the water. We even saw elephants coming to drink and heaving their ponderous bodies up and down those same slopes. The rivers are very busy places for so many birds and animals.
Our evening boat safari on the Zambezi River was equally compelling. Not as many birds about, but the elephants were very present and engaging in all kinds of interesting behaviors, bathing, trumpeting, dust spraying, eating water hyacinths, and moving up and down the banks of the river.
Some of these elephants were actually in Zimbabwe because the Zambezi is the boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia, hence the nickname among travel guides and travel countries, "ZimZam."
Hippos were equally present though, as the darkness began to draw its curtain on the evening, many disappeared as they went ashore in both countries to forage during the night. The sunsets on the Zambezi were brilliant in both colors and lengths. The beauty made us loath to return to the land.
NIGHT SAFARI DRIVES
Though we had taken night drives in Kakuli, it seemed the ones we had here were more productive of successful animal sightings. The nights in both places were much cooler, even chilly sometimes, but often more comfortable than the hot daytime ones. One particularly wonderful day started with an evening drive with the sun slowly setting on us. We drove through a beautiful valley bathed in golden light with more and more stars peeking out as the sky darkened. Zebras, Kudus, bushbuck, waterbuck, and elephants were all aglow in the gorgeous
light. Again we were disappointed to have to return to the lodge for supper though we were all hungry.
On that same day, we went out again in the total darkness and were rewarded with so many wonderful sightings. We had all wanted to see African porcupines and we saw three of the prickly but much more beautiful creatures than ours in North America. Their spines are pronouncedly black and white and glow and shine in the spotlight. We could hear the spines clicking when the creatures moved about. Dimly but surely, we saw two leopards, a male and a female together. Yellow baboons were yelling at the leopards who didn't seem to be hunting mode. We came upon elephants blocking our way with a tree they had just toppled into the trail. We had to find another way around the elephant roadblock. That way led us over the roughest terrain ever.
We were riding down the middle of a shallow creek bed with enormous stones carpeting the bottom. How that range rover negotiated those boulders without busting the axles or tearing up the tires or completely gutting the bottom of the vehicle, none of us will ever know. What tough vehicles they are!
GENET On other night drives, we saw many spotted genets and a couple more civets as well as more elephants and even another leopard.
CIVET We never saw any lions on night drives in either park, but we certainly saw many lazing in the sun and partial shade during the days. However, we decided that nights in Lower Zambezi National Park belonged to the genets and the elephants—we saw more of them than any other creatures during the nights. FAREWELL TO ZAMBIA Our morning drive from our beautiful Chongwe River Lodge seemed beyond magical. We were headed circuitously back to Royal Airport for the flight back to Lusaka where we would catch a night flight to Kigali, Rwanda.
The morning light was golden and we saw yet another leopard loping along at a distance but still in good view. We drove through an area that
surrounded an oxbow of the Chongwe River where the scene was idyllic. There was an elephant family standing on the shore with some in the water. Three females, one youngster, and a tiny baby. They were at leisure with some drinking and some bathing. the younger cavorted around splashing and squirting at everyone. The tiny baby was trying to figure out how to use this long thing falling from his face. He clearly had not mastered the muscular "hose" and made fitful starts at drinking and spraying. One female was standing with him and she seemed to be showing the proper action, but he was having trouble picking it up.
There were impalas, waterbucks, bushbucks, and cape buffalo in the vicinity, all ignoring one another as each species went about its own activities. Birds and crocs were on the banks in close proximity but seemingly without fear.
We enjoyed picnic lunch in the rover with a lone elephant and lots of baboons playing nearby. Driving out of the park we again saw Ginger and Garlic (the first two male lions we had seen here) along with their two lionesses. A perfect but reluctant goodbye to beautiful and bountiful Zambia!
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