Zambia’s Secret Season

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Safari rules say the dry season is best for spotting game. But if you visit the Luangwa Valley when it rains, you can explore by boat when the river is high, the flowers are blooming, the wildlife teeming and there’s no one else around.

By David Rogers published in Getaway Magazine, 2017

When it rains in eastern Zambia, it rains properly. Voluminous cumulonimbus clouds build tall above the landscape and unleash deafening cracks of thunder and flashes of lighting that explode across the wide African skies. With up to a billion litres of water in a single cloud, the deluge is tremendous, filling tributaries and grassy plains that all drain into the Luangwa River. These rains transform it overnight from a dry stream into a torrent that sweeps for 800 kilometres along the southern arm of the Great Rift Valley and into the Zambezi.

 

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For most camp operators in South Luangwa National Park, the rains mean the end of the season. It’s not that it rains all the time (the storms are short-lived and there are plenty of sunny days) but the rains turn the hard, sun-baked black cotton soil into sticky mud, which makes it impossible to drive and sludgy underfoot. Most lodges and all the bush camps close at the end of the dry season (October). However, there are two operators that celebrate the coming of the rains in style, launching their boats so that guests can explore the flooded lagoons and waterways and reach some of the most remote areas of the park. Along the river, with its textbook meanders and oxbow lakes, there are only two bridges and landscapes that have changed little since the first travellers set eyes on them in the 1800s.

For the past 12 years, I have led photographic trips each wet season. It’s possible to shoot right through the day, as the clouds act as a diffuser of light, highlighting the green landscape at its lushest best. The air is clear of dust, and the vivid outline of the Muchinga Escarpment forms a dramatic backdrop. It’s fascinating how much more relaxed animals are at this time of the year. The impala and puku are fit and strong and have the upper hand against the predators. And then there are the birds. Many of the little brown jobs become resplendent in colourful feathers for the breeding season, and migrants flock in from all over northern Africa and Europe.

From the gateway town of Mfuwe, its an hour’s drive to get to Nkwali Camp. It’s just what you would expect from an old-school safari outpost: the bar is built around an ebony tree and the open-sided thatched rooms all have spectacular views. Anyone who has been here in the dry season, when the Luangwa is a mere trickle, will be astounded by the flooding river, which is 150 metres wide and four metres deep. It moves past the camp silently carrying its load of orange mud, fallen trees and foliage washed out from the channels. At night, we lie awake listening to the grunt of hippos and barking baboons, a sound that suggests big cats are on the prowl. Days at Nkwali begin with the rhythm of a drum

at 5.15. As the skies start to reflect orange in the river, we head out on a drive. Guests are ferried by boat directly across the river to the vehicles, stored at a small natural harbour inside the park. We explore the network of all-weather roads that stretches for about 30 kilometres from Chichele Hills to the Luangwa Wafwa. Usually we will see our first lions, leopards and wild dogs as well as the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe, the pale Cookson’s wildebeest, which occurs nowhere else, and the vividly striped Crawshay’s zebra.

After two or three days at Nkwali, we set off on our river journey, heading north-east. I tend to keep the group small, five people max, which leaves space for the boatman, my guide Jacob Shawa, and the fundi, an armed scout from the Zambian Wildlife Authority who keeps us safe from dangerous game. After bumping around on a vehicle, it’s blissfully relaxing being on the water and watching spectacular scenes flashing by. The river flows at nearly 10km/h, and its power is evident from the scores of century-old trees that lie fallen in the water. Some of their relatives teeter on the banks, holding on by just a few exposed roots. As we proceed upriver, we are heading into an area that has been entirely cut off by the rains. The only other people we see are weather-beaten local fishermen in dugout canoes.

I advise photographers to use fast shutter speeds when in the boat. That way they can capture the rush of hippos heading into the water and the massive crocodiles that slip off the banks. We also follow the path of black-headed egrets and fish eagles with our

cameras, trying to capture them in flight. This is the very best time for birding in South Luangwa, with summer migrants that include white-bellied Abdim’s storks, red-winged pratincoles and woodland kingfishers. Thanks to keen-eyed Jacob, we alwaysspot lions on these river trips too; seeing their wideeyed expressions, we realise they’ve probably not seen any humans for several months.

At Nsefu Camp, we are greeted by the same friendly team of cooks, waiters and staff that have met me here year on year. Nsefu dates back to 1952 and was started by the late Norman Carr, ‘godfather’ of Zambian conservation. The rondawels are on one

of the broadest sweeps of the Luangwa overlooking an elephant migration route. Sitting here beneath the thatch, you can almost sense the pipe-smoking explorers of yesteryear. On this most recent visit, I am surprised to note that the simple dining room where we’d had such fantastic meals and conversations over the years was gone. Nsefu is not immune to the erosion of the river; who knows how many years it will be before the camp is lost forever?

Fortunately, the bar is intact, the fridge is filled with cold Mosi beers, and a table has been set beneath the sprawling African ebony tree. We sit in the dappled shade and tuck into fresh salads, just-baked bread, cold meats and chilled white wine. Guests don’t need to go far to enjoy the wilderness here. While in camp we’ve seen elephant, buffalo,

lion, baboon and leopard. As the temperature cools in the afternoons, we gather for tea and delicious sticky cake before heading out. We potter up the Mwamba River, a narrow tributary of the Luangwa on the edge of the famous Lion Plain – always a magnet for animals. Cameras at the ready, we capture images of sunlit puku, zebras, giraffes and

elephants posing perfectly against the dark grey clouds, which often start to build at this time of day. It’s also possible to explore the Kaingo Forest, and driving our boat between the dark trunks of drowned African ebony trees is a haunting and awesome experience. At sunset, we park near a pod of hippos to enjoy our sundowners as they yawn away before emerging to graze at night. The highlight of a visit to Nsefu is the stork colony, one of the largest in southern Africa. It’s an awesome spectacle to watch hundreds of these large birds fly in with nesting material. It’s sometimes possible to

boat right into the colony, but mostly we make our way in on foot. If it has rained it can be a pretty muddy experience. I remember one woman who sank so deeply into the sludge that her shoe was lost forever. We always take it slowly, and on our last trip we were joined by an octogenarian – Jacob held his hand the whole way and carried a chair so he could take a breather.

After a few days at Nsefu, it’s hard not to leave a bit of our hearts behind, but as we boat downstream with the current, there is more excitement in store. We spend our last two nights at Luangwa River Camp, which has a pool, a wide deck and a taste of luxury after the remote experience upstream. It’s back into game-drive vehicles here to explore the extremely productive Mfuwe sector, including the Luangwa Wafwa (wafwa means ‘old’ and is also the local name for oxbow lakes). On our last visit, we saw 31 wild dogs in this area. The sighting took place after some heavy rain. That’s the thing about Emerald Season – when it’s very wet, the predators tend to stick to the high ground,

so their movements can be predicted. My movements are just as predictable – I have returned to this entrancing place, taken this journey into a forgotten part of Africa, in spring, summer, autumn and winter, more than 30 times. It’s my second home.

 

WHEN TO GO

For a boating safari, late January to early April is when the river is high enough to explore upstream and into flooded lagoons. June to October is the dry season, and high season. You can get good deals in November and early December at the lodges that are still open – incidentally, this is a great time, just before the rains, for predator action.