Game Drives in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park
“If there were one more thing I could do,
it would be to go on safari once again.”
– Karen Blixen
Border Crossings and Riverbanks
The police stop us after we cross the Malawian border. Apparently, the trailer’s tires are bald. Our driver protests and asks the officer if he’s seen the condition of the tires on the overloaded minibuses that pass by regularly. With a “crocodile smile” across his face, the officer suggests we cut our losses before he takes exception to the trailer’s tail-lights. After getting a receipt for the fine, we continue on our way to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
We stop for a snack under a shady tree, and within minutes I count over a dozen school-aged children around us. Some are there out of curiosity, some in the hopes of getting something to eat, but all do their best to smile and get in a picture when the cameras came out. We discourage begging for money, but are always happy to share our meal with others. The is always present, so we have organized our trip in the closest possible place to keep our money as close to our destination as possible. In this case, it is in Lilongwe – in a different country.
We arrive at Marula Lodge, on the bank of the Luangwa River, in the late afternoon. The river is a tributary of the much larger Zambezi and the park’s life-blood. After getting settled, we watch hippopotamuses wallowing in the river and crocodiles basking on the shore. Seemingly harmless and docile creatures, hippopotamuses are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They are responsible for more human deaths than all the other animals combined, and are especially dangerous at night when they leave the water to graze. Get between a hippo and the river and you have BIG problems.
Our guide, Godfrey (an ex-head ranger for the park), wakes us up at 5:30am, and after a quick bite we are in the park just after 6:00. We see a few impala with their sleek coats and mascara faces, and get quite excited about seeing our first zebras and their stencil-like markings. A small herd of elephants appears off the side of the track, and a large bull walks into the middle of the road a couple dozen meters in front of us. He doesn’t seem too happy to see us and eventually moves on.
We follow the riverbank and suddenly a giraffe rears its long neck and head, right beside us. Giraffes are such elegant creatures with beautiful patterns and an odd, bowlegged stance. They look awkward drinking from a pond, but seem to float when they run. We come across a troupe of baboons that evacuate the trees in which they are perched at the first sign of danger. Conversely, we find some Vervet monkeys who take to the trees when they feel threatened.
Overlooking a large plain, we spot some buffalo – the first sightings in South Luangwa this season. We spend the rest of the morning trying to get close to them, but to no avail. In the meantime, all the other animals entertain us, including monitor lizards, puku and kudu (types of antelope), warthogs, waterbuck, bushbuck, a mostly nocturnal honey badger, and an elusive mongoose. Cranes, herons, eagles, vultures, guinea fowl, geese, and the beautifully colored aerial acrobat lilac-breasted roller – among a kaleidoscope of other birds – are everywhere.
African Lion Safari
We set out on an afternoon drive after lunch. Juvenile male impalas hone their fighting skills, and young male giraffes are seen “necking” – strengthening their necks by pushing against each other. A bull elephant storms off in a huff after being given the brush-off by a group of cows. This latter display is quite amusing, and somewhat comforting to know that human males aren’t they only species of the gender to suffer this type of humiliation.
Just as the sun is getting low, we spot one. A lion walks across the field. It looks like a female but, as we approach, we see that it has a mane, then it doesn’t. There are two of them! A male and a female, and they are beautiful. The male’s huge nose is criss-crossed with cuts from a combination of fighting and loving. We admire these gorgeous creatures from a few meters for fifteen minutes before driving back to the lodge under a beautiful South Luangwa sunset.
The next day starts much like the one before. While driving through one field, Godfrey remarks that the herd of impalas seem to be split down the middle. Some are on one side of the field, while the rest are on the other. He says that this is usually an indication of a predator’s presence. Scanning the edge of the tall grass around the field, I spot something. Through a pair of binoculars, I see a leopard is resting in the shade. We drive within a few meters of it, and the cat stays long enough to have its photo taken before quickly disappearing into the tall grass.
Who Let the Dogs Out?
We come across a hippo soaking in a pond, and it isn’t long before the shy creature decides he’s seen enough of us and exits the water revealing his huge and rotund body. A hippo out of the water – another highlight! In the river nearby, we see a large – actually huge – crocodile by the riverbank, just downstream from a small herd of hippos.
As we drive back to the park gate, Godfrey suddenly stops the truck, backs up, and points out … wild dogs! A pack of eleven of these extremely rare and increasingly threatened animals with their handsome coats are lounging in the shade, and enjoying a mud bath in the midday sun. We stay with them for a while, when Godfrey observes that they are hunting.
Sure enough, a few of them dart into the bush, and out bounds a female impala with the dogs in hot pursuit. The rest of the pack joins the chase and we try to follow them, rather unsuccessfully. Wild dogs consume their prey live, and our group share a somewhat guarded anticipation and apprehension of witnessing such a kill. Our disappointment is mixed with relief when we lose sight of the hunt. We ask Godfrey if he thinks the dogs have caught the impala. His response: “They don’t miss.”
Truckin’ up to Buffalos
A few minutes later, we almost drive into a huge herd of buffalo crossing the track. Along with hippos, these deceivingly shy animals can be extremely dangerous, and are known for their short temper. The curious-looking creatures resemble wigged barristers with their unique horns; and their faces are so ugly, they are almost cute!
After lunch, we return for our last game drive of the safari. It doesn’t offer any new species, but we stop at a watering hole, where dozens of species have gathered. This mammalian and avian menagerie paints a very African picture.
Conserving South Luangwa
Tragically, many of the park’s animal populations are at risk. The demand for bush meat has increased with the human population growth in the area, and snares set to catch the desired animals indiscriminately target anything it catches – including wild dogs and lions. Elephants destroy crops and are consequently killed. Trophy hunting for the “Big Five” – lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and elephants – that cross the park’s boundaries is a well-documented threat.
Luckily, there is that helps protect the animals of South Luangwa and mitigates the conflicts between them and people, by providing solutions and enforcement to preserve one of its greatest resources. We feel very fortunate to witness such natural beauty, and our decision to is reinforced.
These game drives in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park are our first experiences with African wildlife, and what a fantastic introduction! Our guide is extremely knowledgeable and observant, and for the most part, the animals pay little attention to us and the vehicle, leaving ample opportunity to observe them. We are looking forward to our next safari. Where can we see rhino?