In South Luangwa National Park It’s dusk, the hour between the butterfly and the moth.* With my personal guide and spotter, I am out in a private game vehicle, from KuKaya - the newest of The Bushcamp Company properties. No boot camp this, I have the freedom to choose my activities, plus at the times that suit me. In addition, a dedicated hostess is available to me anytime that I may need her for items in my villa, or at mealtimes. I am thriving on this flexible safari, tailored to my preferences. Each individual or group has the same exclusivity.
Image by Gillian McLaren
A pack of ten African wild dogs is trotting along the dust road, clearly on the hunt. Tailing them are nine Spotted hyenas, hoping to steal any prey that the painted wolves may find. It’s an unusual sighting. My guide drives carefully so the hunters are not disrupted. The dogs are usually diurnal, but they are taking advantage of the fast fading daylight, with a full moon to come. The pack is looking left and right, stopping occasionally to listen and to smell. Finding lion scat, they sniff it warily, as do the hyena, then continue their pursuit. Fascinating as this is, we leave them to their busy and determined running, so their hunt is not disturbed.
Next to a tributary of the South Luangwa River, we come across a lion pride, where a male is dominating a carcass. Stopping to take in the details, we hear a herd of buffalo approach the river channel. The lionesses swing into hunting mode to chase the bovids, but fail to kill. Eventually the lion permits the lionesses and youngsters to eat. A cub that approaches the water is almost taken by a crocodile! The lionesses rush to assist the cub and there is a stand off between them and the crocodile. On the journey back to KuKaya, our tracker scans the bush, picking up the reflection in the eyes of a Large-spotted genet, a Bushy-tailed mongoose, African civet, and - to my joy - a hunting Vereaux’s eagle owl. A tiny elephant screw scuttles across the sand road. The following morning we return to the site of the kill, where Lappet-faced vulture squabble and skirmish over remains of the carcass.
Remote and isolated by the Muchinga Escarpment on the west and northwest, and the Luangwa River to the east, South Luangwa National Park covers 3495 square miles of spectacular topography. This unique biome harbours an abundance of wildlife. Except for rhino, big game abounds and multiple sightings are likely. As KuKaya is sited 2,5 km from the main gate of South Luangwa National Park, many vehicles use the main road at opening and closing times. Guides at KuKaya are sensitive to this, so tend to take lesser known routes during these peak times, only traversing the main road if a special sighting is called in.
For my walking safari from KuKaya, an armed guard from the National Park joins my guide. Walking at a leisurely pace, in single file, we pass curious Thornicroft giraffe and Crawshay’s zebra An elephant bull is peacefully grasping grass tufts in his trunk, then shaking them to get rid of sand before he eats them. As we reach a dry river bed, five aged buffalos run away from us, kicking up the dust behind them. Walking is the perfect opportunity for me to learn how to recognise animals by their tracks and their dung, to identify spiders by their webs and to learn about the trees. Each time we find something interesting, like the skull of a hippo, we stop to investigate. I sit on the exposed roots of a Zambezi fig tree, where I am served tea and freshly baked cookies.
At KuKaya, each of the six thatched villas - five with two rooms and one with a single room - has a fine view of permanent waterholes in an oxbow lagoon. Both rooms have an en-suite indoors bathroom, plus an outdoor shower. Between the rooms is a cosy indoor dining area and lounge with armchairs. From the raised deck of my villa - with its outdoor dining area, private plunge pool, comfortable armchairs and a fire pit below - I observe troops of Yellow baboons going about their daily activities. Crawshay’s zebra trot to the water, elephant bulls and small breeding herds of elephants rest after a long drink or a bath. An array of birdlife visits the area. Sausage trees, Natal mahogany and Africa ebony line the bank in front of the villas, casting cooling shadows where Vervet monkeys forage and play. Yellow baboons cavort in the canopies.
Image by The Bushcamp Company
Image by Gillian McLaren Crawshay’s zebra
Image by Gillian McLaren Yellow baboon
During the lazy afternoons I sit in the hide, constructed at water level, to watch birds. I’m delighted to add Eastern nicator and White-crowned lapwing to my ‘lifer’ bird list. Back in my villa, I try to read, but am lulled by the warm breeze thorough the mesh sides of my tent and the comfort of my bed, into a soporific state. As arranged, my hostess wakes me to present high tea on my deck, with freshly baked savoury and sweet choices.
Image by Gillian McLaren White-fronted bee-eater
Image by Gillian McLaren Saddle-billed stork
Meals are served alfresco in the communal boma area, where I choose to sit alone, to enjoy the tranquility and the activity at the waterhole. Should guests wish to join one another for some conviviality, tables are arranged for dining together. Tables can be set in a variety of picturesque settings, including on my Villa deck, or secluded in the bush. Zambian and international dishes are conjured up using locally sourced fresh produce. A well stocked bar, set up under a tree in the boma, sports a selection of hard liquor and fine South African wines.
The Luangwa River reflects lambent light during sunset, illuminating a pod of hippo. An orange moonrise is transformed to yellow then pale silver.
For more features by Gillian McLaren: www.gillianmclaren.blogspot.com
From Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Proflight Zambia offers a two hour flight to Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. The Bombardier CRJ 100/200 is comfortable, with ample leg room, overhead stowage and space below the seat to store my backpack with cameras. A light, cold in-flight meal is served, with a choice of fruit juice, coffee, tea, water or beer. All food is halal.
From Lusaka to the small Mfuwe International Airport is a pleasant 1hour 30 minute flight with Proflight Zambia. Snacks and soft drinks are available. The Bushcamp Company provides pickup and transport from Mfuwe International Airport, (which is also is easily accessible from the Lower Zambezi) in a 45 minute drive to KuKaya. The journey in an open game vehicle, through Mfuwe village and the rural area, provides an opportunity to view a slice of local life, before entering the South Luangwa National Park. Have your binoculars ready, as the game viewing and bird watching begins on the transfer.
Proflight Zambia sends email or sms messages to passengers the day before each flight, so check-in and seat selection can be done online.
The Urban Lusaka
For an overnight stay in Lusaka, during your trip to Zambia, consider the chic The Urban Lusaka. This sophisticated hotel is sited in the pretty diplomatic area, 30 minutes from Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, within walking distance from two shopping centres. Minimalist rooms with a shower - in pencil-carbon black, charcoal and white hues - have views of the cityscape. A buffet breakfast is included. A la carte dinner includes vegetarian options. I savour the renowned Zambia Beef. The in-house bar is a festive space, to meet fellow guests if you would like a congenial evening.
Text by Gillian McLaren
Images by Gillian McLaren and The Bushcamp Company