I see it before our guide Duncan can notify the group. I fall silent during our approach. “There see” he says quietly, nodding towards a nearby tree, Duncan pauses and we follow his gaze, “leopard in the tree”. My hand is slightly shaking with anticipation of the photo I am about to get. The trigger finger waits patiently for the best angle on this magnificent creature. It is 9:00am and the sun is beckoning above, slowly heating the bush around us. The leopard has made a kill. He sits on a perch high above and munches gainfully on the skull of his antelope victim. I can hear the soft crunches of teeth to bone and a chill reverberates down my spine. This is it, my first introduction to the true wild lands. Zambia.
Leaving Malawi with the short bout of stomach illness behind me, I rocked into Zambia in good spirits, the sun was shining and I had a plan in mind. Just across the border lies the eastern town of Chipata, gateway to South Luangwa National Park. This was to be my first real African Safari and I was very much looking forward to spending two nights and three days at an isolated camp just outside the main park entrance. The camp is called Croc Valley Lodge. It was once a crocodile farm before switching gears into the tourism industry, most likely to make more money. The setup is all-inclusive accommodation, food, game drives and walks (in the park), or… do it yourself camping and cooking with optional game drives and walks, which everyone I met seemed to be doing. I ended up also participating in the latter.
Croc Valley is 130km north from Chipata sitting on the edge of the Luangwa River. I got there late in the afternoon of my first day in Zambia. That night I met the owners and their amazing staff. The camp has been operating for several years and has a great reputation throughout Zambia of offering quality service and great tours throughout South Luangwa National Park. Within an hour I was signed up for two game drives. The first was set to leave camp at 6:00am. Each drive lasts for approximately 4 hours, accompanied with a local guide/naturalist. I really wasn’t sure what to expect and decided to crash early that night in order to make the most of day one. I awoke to perfect weather and jumped in the truck with four others keen to hit the road.
The first game drive brought with it countless Puku, Antelope, Bushbuck, a number of Giraffe and Elephants, a Hyena, Waterbuffalo, some Crocodiles and Hippos; however we missed the elusive Leopard and Lion. My spirits were a little low as I was told by the others in the truck they had seen a Leopard and two cubs the day before. All good though, I thought, this is park is renowned for its wildlife and nearing the end of the dry season it was the perfect time to be there, as most of the natural waterholes have dried up and the animals need to travel to the river in order to drink. Croc Valley also happened to be right on the river’s edge (just outside of the park boundary). Meaning they often played host to a wandering elephant passing through the grounds, stopping for a drink in the pool. I saw one come through but unfortunately did not have my camera with me at the time. Shitty. Here are a couple of photos taken that first morning.
At 10:00am we returned to the camp and settled in for some coffee looking out over the river. I was accompanied by an Israeli named Itai who had just been released from the army, a nice French couple on a two week vacation in Zambia, and a Dutch amateur photographer named Rinaldo who had been travelling for 8 months and had started in Istanbul (dude went through Iraq and Somalia, which is crazy). We all got on well and shared travel stories for a couple of hours with hippos lazing in the river bed below us. We were all set for the game drive that evening and chilled at the camp as day slowly sauntered by. At 4pm we headed out again, and this time my hopes of spotting big cats were fulfilled.
The night drives are a little less appealing as you lose the sun for the last hour and you are driving in compete darkness with really not much to spot. However, the evening hours are when the park sees more activity and watching the sunset over the river is an added bonus. Our guide Duncan decided to take a different direction within the park from that of which we drove in the morning. It was nice to switch it up and see new spots along the river. Within the first half hour we were coming up along a flood plain and stopped as a train of elephants were spotted walking towards the edge for a swim. It was awesome.
We stayed with the elephants until they passed us crossing the road. From there we drove another half hour along the river quietly taking in the serene beauty that is nature at its purist. The bush had a surreal almost sweet smell to it, like that of honey or roses, or something just beyond that of which your mind can attribute a source. It is incredible how detached we are from nature, almost sad in a way. I had the feeling that this is what the world used to be like, before the advent of human occupation, before the destruction of natural habitat, and the introduction of the concrete jungle. Anyway I can save these ideas for a “what the fuck have we done” kinda post. This is about my time in South Luangwa.
So after the elephants we were driving for another half hour before Duncan slowed the vehicle turning off the dirt track and into the grass. He crept the truck towards a nearby tree and there it was, just sitting there idling was a solitary and very healthy looking leopard. Duncan turned off the engine and everything fell silent. It was incredible. This leopard was just sitting above in his perch looking at us as if we were something to be examined, smelt, and inquired upon as food or threat.
Turns out I would see this same leopard again the next morning, and judging by the photo at the beginning of this post, he had a good night.
Duncan, to my dismay, did not stay very long at the base of the leopards perch and within two minutes we were on the move again. The truck headed back to the river’s edge and we drove for about an hour twisting and turning through the bush. Just as the sun was leaving the horizon I spotted some other trucks off in the distance, we were moving towards them. I have been told that in safari parks, if there are a few trucks together you can usually expect they are all looking at the same thing, and that thing is probably something pretty cool. We approached slowly and joined the other trucks quietly photographing four lionesses and they lazed by the river in the dying light of the day. Again, it was pretty awesome, but nothing in comparison to what I would see the next morning.
We stayed with the lions until darkness fell, then we turned on the super powerful spot light and began the journey back to Croc Valley. As soon as we returned I put my name down for the 06:00am game drive departing the next morning.
Day Two: I awoke at 5:30am rested and ready to go back out into the park. This time around I was joined by an Australian family that had arrived the day before. They were Rich and Lynne (mom and dad), Warrick (grandpa) and three young daughters, Tessa 7, Jess 10, and Madeline 8. The girls were full of energy and the whole family turned out to be a super fun bunch. Richard, Lynne and Warrick had a typical dry and witty Aussie sense of humor with the girls telling endless stories about kangaroos and whatever else Australian in there extremely funny little accents. Here is a shot of Rich and Jess.
The family was to accompany me that morning with Duncan again as our guide. First things first, Duncan wanted to go back to the leopards perch to see if it was still there. This is exactly what I wanted to do and telling the Aussies about what I had seen the night before, they were all on board. So off we went. Just as we were nearing the tree the leopard sprung to the ground and was chased into the bush by a quarrel of baboons. It was pretty cool to see, but afterwards I realized that I would not be able to get another shot of the same leopard. Somewhat disappointed, we decided to move on towards where Duncan and I saw the lions the night before, hoping they were still there also. Within a half hour we spotted them. They had moved closer to the park’s entrance and were lazily taking in the morning sun. This time though the four lionesses, seemingly the same four from the night before, were joined by three males (apparently brothers). We stayed with them for at least an hour and were very, very close. This was the best wildlife encounter I have ever experienced and my camera was going off. Check these out.
After about an hour of hanging out with the lions we all decided to head back towards the leopard’s tree to see if it had returned. That was a good decision. It had, and had with it a very recent kill. Duncan wasn’t exactly sure why the baboons had chased off the leopard that morning and also, more interesting to me, was why the leopard had left its kill in the tree being seemingly intimidated by the howling baboons. Either way leave it to nature, the baboons were gone and the leopard was happily munching away at its antelope corpse.
This scene quickly took the number one spot as the coolest and most raw wildlife experience I have ever had. Making for one good day as the leopard had only just taken over from the pride of lions I had seen a half hour earlier. We stayed at the base of the tree for about 15 minutes watching as the leopard slowly crunched his way through the neck and skull of his victim. The sun was starting to pick up strength and we decided to call it a day and head back to camp.
That was it for me, after we returned from the morning drive I decided to leave Croc Valley and the Zambian bush on a high note. Two amazing days spent in the wild lands. A place I was very much looking forward to experiencing and one that did not disappoint. South Luangwa National Park is a gem among protected lands within Africa and one I hope continues to flourish as is for centuries to come. If you ever find yourself in Zambia, I highly suggest you check this place out.
From Chipata I took a 12 hour bus to Lusaka (which was fucking shit) and then another 7 hour bus (the next day) to Livingstone in the south west corner of the country. The bus to Livingstone was actually really nice and the first coach I have been on thus far, making me feel like the next month of travel will be much easier in comparison to the local transport in Malawi. Livingstone is where I sit now. It is considered the adventure capital of Africa and one that has kept me thoroughly busy for the last three days. From Bungee Jumping to Bridge Swinging, to White Water Rafting one of the most powerful and rivers on earth. This is Livingstone and the centre piece of my next post.
I will end Leopards and Lions with a question for you. What was your most memorable wildlife experience? Where was it and what was it like? I would love to hear from others on this topic. I hope all is well and cheers from southern Zambia.