Zambia: Nkonzi Camp, South Luangwa National Park

We had a long-awaited return to Africa in October. We booked a trip to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park almost three years ago, expecting to go in the Autumn of 2020, but of course world events got in the way. 

The journey was long and multi-staged, starting with an evening flight from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Dubai, arriving in the early morning after seven hours in the air. We had a three hour layover and an easy passage through the airport for the flight to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. That second seven hour flight was a bit chilly at times but arrived mid-afternoon and we had just under two hours to wait for the final one-hour flight to the small town of Mfuwe. Passport control was very easy in the new International terminal at Lusaka and the checks of our COVID passes were very cursory. We had to walk the short distance to the old terminal (now for internal flights only) and the expected heat was quite comfortable, much to our surprise. However, the one hour flight in a Jetstream was rather sticky and we were glad to get off at Mfuwe into cooling air just as the sun was setting. We were met at the airport by Gavin Opie, our guide and host for the week, and some of his camp team, who took our baggage to the safari trucks. After a brief intro talk, we were off into the growing darkness of the Zambian night and out towards the South Luangwa National Park.

Our journey to Nkonzi Camp took us through Mfuwe itself, a scattering of mud-brick homes and shops spread along miles of smooth tarmac road. The village and the road were busy with people walking and cycling in the quickly fading dusk, with huddles standing outside shops and homes, with light and music coming from many of them. We picked our way around human and vehicular obstacles in the road and eventually the tarmac gave-way to dirt track after what seemed like passing through an endless linear village. Eventually, we passed across the bridge over the Luangwa River, the western boundary of the National Park and we left the hustle and bustle of the village behind. We soon saw our first animals of the trip as we spotted hippos out of the river eating grass around one of the safari lodges. We headed deeper into the wilderness and left other habitation behind, eventually coming to the deep sand of a dried-up riverbed. After a few more twists in the track we spotted the light of the camp and we trundled in to be met by Bev and the camp staff.

We avoided the next encounter with the local wildlife by having dinner as soon as we arrived. There was an elephant in the camp, moving slowly past the row of six tents laid out along the edge of the same river bed. By the time we had finished our meal, the elephant had moved through far enough that some of us, but not all, could go to our tents and unpack. At night, we weren’t allowed to wander through the camp alone and always had to be escorted by the camp staff. So once we were in our tent, there we stayed until morning as we settled into an already familiar safari camp routine.

As the camp is permanent for the eight months of the tourist season, the facilities were much better at Nkonzi than the temporary campsites I’ve stayed at in both the Okavango Delta and Kalakari. The tents were similar but larger, with a separate storage area at the back, and had a full-size wooden-framed double bed with very comfortable mattress. The was an ensuite bathroom at the back of the tent, with reed screens on all sides and reed flooring under foot. Amazingly, there was a flushing toilet (far better than the long drop equivalents from the other camps) and solar generated electricity. We had lights both in the tent and bathroom and a double plug socket for an electric fan and for charging devices and camera batteries. At the front of the tent was an awning and two camp chairs to sit under shelter during the hottest part of the day. However, the coolest place to stay at those points was the large open-sided dining shelter which not only had a large dining table but also a bar and several sofas, as well as a water cooler providing much welcomed refreshment when it was most needed.

Each morning we would be supplied with fresh water into the ensuite by the camp staff; we had to stay inside the tent until they arrived at 5:00am. It was clear why; during the first night and most of the other six, there were hyenas wandering around the camp, their calls echoing through the tents. We also heard the local elephant in the camp that first night too but didn’t hear the lions pass through a few nights later. 

The call of a hyena echoing around the camp at night (you may need to turn the sound up!)

After getting ready for the day ahead, we walked in the growing daylight to the dining shelter and down onto the sand of the dry riverbed to have breakfast out in the open. Only on that first morning did I feel the need to wear a jumper at breakfast but it was soon discarded. Each morning we had a choice of cereal, bread toasted on a wood fire, and a hot drink, before heading out at 6:00am on the first of two game drives of the day.

We would stay out on that first drive until around 10:00am, having stopped for a drink and biscuits around 8:00am. We then spent the hours before and after lunch trying to keep cool. We would vary our methods, from sitting out at the front of the tents, lounging in the dining shelter or, the best solution of all, soaking the provided body-length scarves in water and lying under them on the bed with the electric fan on. The latter kept us remarkably cool despite the daytime temperatures in the shade reaching the low to mid-40s Celsius and much hotter inside the tents.

As the sun began to drop we headed out on the second game drive of each day at 4:00pm. As we set off the heat was always still quite intense but as the four hour drive went on it cooled somewhat until becoming comfortable again arriving back into camp at 8:00pm. One of the highlights of each day were the sunsets where we stopped for liquid sundowners, usually overlooking a flowing river or dried river bed. They were followed by night drives back to the camp, usually with Dixon doing an amazing job finding animals with the spotlight, including my first views of spotted hyena. On arrival back in the camp we would soon return to the dining shelter for dinner; three courses of European-style food washed down by a G&T, beer or wine from the free bar. After such a nice end to the day, it didn’t usually take everyone long to disappear back to their tents after dinner and not be seen again until the next breakfast.

Despite the camp being pretty special, it wasn’t what we primarily came for: the scenery and the wildlife were our real focus and they didn’t let us down. 

Compared to the Okavango and Kalahari, the scenery of South Luangwa is ever changing, from one mile to the next. Set in a wide river valley, it is very flat, although it is possible to see distant hills many miles away. The dominant features are river itself and the dry riverbeds that adjoin it. Whilst the Luangwa River was still very much flowing, the other rivers run in the rainy season, which starts around November, and water flows for around four months before becoming dry again. Some of the trees were already breaking out into leaf in advance of the rains but the wider landscape was very dry with the last few waterholes nearly empty. Around the camp was largely scrub with occasional open areas but as we travelled further from camp the landscape changed frequently; more dense scrub, dry dustbowls with lifeless trees, wide open grasslands and wonderfully green mahogany woodlands. Some areas had similarities to the Okavango, some similar to the Kalahari, some were more like the savannah further north in Africa and some were desolate moonscapes. However, wherever we went we were never far from a riverbed and it was clear to see in some places that once the rains arrive, the national park transforms from the hot and dusty valley we saw into into a wet and lush landscape, if only for a few months.

We recorded over 100 different species of bird during our trip including over 30 that were new to me (finally taking the number of bird species I’ve seen in my life to over 500). Of those birds, the raptors were particularly notable, seeing eight different species of eagle including my favourite African bird, the Bateleur. I also saw my first ever African Skimmer, flying down the river with its long bill dipped into the water searching for fish. We had a great sighting of a Verraux’s eagle owl one night as we packed up after a sundowner and other birds included a great range of rollers, kingfishers, hornbills and bee-eaters. It was one of the bee-eaters that provided the most spectacular avian sight of the trip as we visited a southern carmine bee-ester colony at two separate dusks.

Southern carmine bee-eater colony at sundown

The mammals were just as varied as the landscape and birds, and we saw a great mix of large and small, and herbivore and carnivore including 29 mammals in total. The antelopes were plentiful with impala, puku, reed buck, water buck being seen most days and we saw the much smaller common duicker and the tiny Sharpe’s Grysbok. There were larger antelope too including a few kudu and a short glimpse of red hartebeest before they did their usual thing of legging it before you can get a good photograph. We also had really good views of giraffe including two males fighting over a female, clashing necks and legs. The zebra were also frequently seen including some very small foals and we saw a bit of fighting over harems.

We saw very good numbers of elephants each day including loose groups and large families. One evening, close to sunset, we watched one family with five small calves as it made its way over a river bed and into the bush, which was particularly memorable. We always tried to give the elephants a wide berth as they can get angry quite quickly and we were challenged and chased by one female after we stumbled across a small group in the growing gloom one evening.

Of the smaller carnivores, we saw civets and large spotted gennet, three types of mongoose (banded, white-striped and slender) plus quite a few four-toed sengi and some southern lesser galligoes (bush babies), scrub hares and ground squirrels.

Of the big carnivores, I saw leopard twice (others saw another on a drive I missed). The first was a surprise as we spent a little while watching a family of elephants by the road side, waiting for one to join the group so that we didn’t drive between them. Suddenly the elephants reacted to something and we saw a leopard disappear into the undergrowth having leaped down from the tree it had been resting in directly above the elephants’ heads. The second leopard was a night sighting. Just after getting back into the truck after our sundowner, we came across another truck shining a light into some long grass. Suddenly a leopard sat up and wandered off into the undergrowth.

Whilst the leopard sightings were fairly fleeting, the lions were very obliging. We saw them on three days of the six full days we were there. We found them on our morning drives including a group of three females resting on the dry riverbed just around the corner from the camp. The first group we found including three females and a male, resting but keeping an eye on the nearby antelope. We sat and watched them for 30 minutes or so as the relaxed in the morning sun and gradually moved through the area, a few metres at a time, in between dozing and stretching.

A highlight of the trip was my first ever walking safari. A small group of us walked from the camp straight after breakfast, led by Jabo, the armed Park Ranger, followed by Gavin, and then the guests, Bev and Dixon. We walked in single file, to appear a less threatening presence to any wildlife we came across, and soon crossed the river bed and walked out into the scrub. We came across the burrows of aardvark; Gavin approaching them cautiously as they can be used by a range of other animals including hyena and warthog. We then saw an elephant in the distance and made a large detour to avoid spooking it and eventually crossed the riverbed again towards a dried up waterhole. We found the bones of a hippo and the dung of crocodile in the area as well as the similarly white hyena dung. We eventually stopped for a drink and rest in the shade before the final leg back through the scrub and another crossing of the riverbed. Whilst we didn’t see a lot of wildlife while walking, it was amazing to be out of the truck and on our own feet out in the African wilderness. It would have been quite easy to forget how exposed we were and as we entered the last section of long grass, I had to remind myself that there could easily be something hiding just behind the next corner.

Alongside the sundowners at the southern carmine bee-eater colony, there were two other moments that stood out more than any in the trip. The first was actually a few minutes rather than a moment. Having not seen African buffalo before, it was quite a sight to come across over 150 strung out in a slowly plodding line in a large open grassland area. One by itself is quite an imposing view but the weight of buffalo in one place was something to behold. 

The second moment was as we were about to sit down for dinner on the penultimate evening. There were sounds of quarrelling hyenas a short distance away across the dark dry river bed. The camp team shone lights out into the darkness and we tracked the two hyena chasing each other and fighting over what appeared to be the hind leg of an unidentified animal (probably an antelope). At one point, our hearts may have skipped a few beats as they both turned and started to run directly at us but fortunately they soon changed course and ran off into the darkness. They then spent the next few minutes running around the camp and we later found their footprints in the sand outside our tent. The video below gives a snippet of the excitement.

Hyenas at dinner

As they always do, the trip came to an end far too quickly. Some of our group were heading off to Malawi for a few more days and left in the morning while three of us had one more morning drive in the National Park before heading back to Mfuwe airport for an early evening flight. The heat was particularly intense on the way and it felt almost like constantly driving through the first waft of heat as you open an oven door. Fortunately, both the airport and first flight felt cooler and by the time we checked in at Lusaka’s international terminal we were back into an air-conditioned world, bringing some relief from the unseasonably hot weather we had been having for the previous week.

Overall, this was a fantastic trip that met and exceeded expectations, in terms of the camp, the scenery and the wildlife. I have yet to stay in a safari lodge so I can’t give an honest comparison, but surely camping on safari is the best way to get into the heart of the wilderness and surround yourself with African wildlife.

We have to thank Gavin, Bev, the other guide, Shadi, and the camp staff including Jacob and Dixon, amongst the others, as well as Jabo the National Park Ranger. They all worked so hard to make our stay as comfortable and safe as possible and to ensure we had as good a chance as possible of seeing the wildlife we were all so keen find. The knowledge and guiding skills were some of the best I’ve come across and they showed a great passion and care for the area and its wildlife. They all contributed to making it one of the best trips I’ve had.

We booked the trip with Naturetrek, our usual wildlife holiday agent of choice. Naturetrek we’re excellent as always and especially good in keeping us informed as we had to postpone the trip twice due to COVID. The link to their webpages for this trip is here.

As we got back home, we discussed when we would next return to Africa and initially it looked like it could be quite a few years until we do. However, we soon resolved to fit another trip in within the next three years, sandwiched by a couple of important birthdays. We simply can’t stay away from Africa for too long – it has so much more to show.

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