A LONG WEEKEND AT SOUTH LUANGWA
by, Cindy and Steve Coster
We lived in the central African country of Malawi for six years from 1996 to 2002, three years of which Steve worked for Dwangwa Sugar Ltd, on the banks of Lake Malawi. One long weekend in September 1998 we drove to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. We left home at 6.30am on the Saturday loaded with all our camping gear. Fortunately, our Toyota Prado had a large reserve fuel tank because there was a fuel crisis in Malawi, and none of the garages had any fuel of any kind. With the devaluation of the Kwacha (Malawi currency) the oil companies refused to sell any fuel to Malawi until the President put the price up. In Lilongwe, the capital city, there were queues of abandoned vehicles at filling stations.
The Zambian border is only an hour from Lilongwe on a good, tarred/asphalt road which continued another thirty kilometres to Chipata. At Chipata we had to leave the asphalt surface and turn onto an unbelievably bad dirt road, full of horrific corrugations. It is 130 km from Chipata to the Wildlife Camp where we were due to camp. We broke one of the back shock absorbers that had pulled out of its housing, and there was nothing we could do about it except continue slowly towards the game reserve.
There was nowhere anywhere there to have it repaired, and we had no spares with us. When we hit one of the bumps my head must have banged against the window, as the gold earring in my left ear broke. I only discovered this when we stopped, and I found it on the floor. I was hanging onto the handle in front above the glovebox and was concentrating so hard on the road that I didn’t feel the bump. As we descended the escarpment into the Luangwa Valley, which is 650m above sea level, we drove through two hilly, tarred passes that were absolute heaven. Sadly, the respite from the corrugations was all too brief. It reminded us of the drive down to Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, on the banks of the Zambesi river. The whole trip took us eight-and-a-half hours.
It was really hot, 43°C (109°F) in the campsite and there wasn’t much shade as most of the trees had shed their leaves, but we found a good site next to a large Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) tree growing on an ant heap, that gave us afternoon shade. All the camps including the Wildlife Camp are dotted along the bank of the Luangwa River, and most of them are outside the game reserve. The campsite was empty except for one overland truck full of kids who were making the overland trip from England to Cape Town, a popular journey at that time.
We had just started to unload and were putting up the tent. Steve had put a basket full of goodies next to the Prado to get to the tent underneath. A baboon came from nowhere and stole two packets of chips out of the basket, disappearing like lightning with them – our junk food to eat with our drinks! Close to the tent was a small, thatched shelter that we used as our kitchen – but we couldn’t unpack any food at all from our picnic basket, because of the thieving baboons. Steve was able to park close to the shelter every evening to connect our strip light to the car battery. The ablution block was about two hundred meters away but was clean and the showers had hot and cold water – both very unusual in Africa.
Having set up camp we went into the local pub for a Zambian Mosi beer – malty and very good. We chatted to a young girl who was introduced to us as Beet, with a strong Afrikaans accent. It turned out that they used to live down the road from us in Trelawney in Zimbabwe and Steve used to sell fertilizer to her father! The next day we were up at 5.30am to drive through the park in the early morning coolth. We paid US$20 each and US$15 for our vehicle, the entrance fee into the game reserve, and the permit was only valid for 24 hours. By 10am it was very hot again, and all the animals were standing lethargically in the shade. South Luangwa has quite a few ox-bow lakes some of which had dried up completely, but the game was concentrated near to them and along the Luangwa Riverbank.
It was very dry and the Baobab (Adansonia digitata), Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), Pod mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis), Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis)and African star-chestnut (Sterculia africana) trees were bare, but the Mopane (Colophospermum mopane)and huge ebony trees were covered in green and golden leaves. In stark contrast the Sausage (Kigelia africana) trees were bright green in their new spring growth and the lovely evergreen Natal-mahoganies (Trichilia emetica) gave welcome shade. Every now and then you came across a burst of colour which was either the Flame combretum or Burning-bush combretum (Combretum paniculatum) – a brilliant orange/red, or a bright yellow small tree in full bloom – the Cassia abbreviata. The wild Pink jacarandas (Stereospermum kunthianum)were also in full bloom, beautiful but not nearly as brilliant as their exotic sisters.
We drove back to our camp every day for lunch and a siesta, setting off again around 3pm. Late on Sunday afternoon on a cliff face on the bank of the Luangwa River we came across a Southern Carmine Bee-eater colony. There were hundreds of the most exquisite shocking pink, red and bright blue birds all clinging noisily to the cliff face outside their nests – holes in the riverbank. At one point something must have frightened them, and they all took off as one, the most incredible sight of brilliant shocking pink just above the river, before they all turned together and returned to the riverbank.
Just before driving out of the park Steve spotted three Lionesses lying down in the grass – they’d been drinking. Giraffe are endemic to South Luangwa and their markings are quite different (more angular) from the ones in South Africa, the males being a darker brown than the females.
We saw a lot of Impala, Waterbuck, and Puku that we’d never seen before. They are antelope about the same size as Impala and are plain brown with quite long hair. We were told that their meat isn’t very good as they always stand in the sun, not like the other animals that head for the shade at mid-day. We saw a few Cookson’s Wildebeest that are also endemic to South Luangwa. They are paler and a more mushroom colour than the ones we’d seen before. We saw a herd of Buffalo that reminded me of the migration in the Maasai Mara – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them going down to the river to drink. I didn’t think we’d ever see the end of the line! We also saw a lot of Zebra and a few Kudu, some Warthog and Bushbuck but no Rhino – they had long since all been poached.
Driving round, we came upon the grave of Norman Carr quite by chance in a quiet area in the middle of a riverine forest close to the Luangwa River. He had lived and worked in South Luangwa for over forty-six years, was awarded an MBE for his work, and had died the previous year. He was a British conservationist working in Central and Southern Africa. He was influential in setting up National Parks in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the 1950s and 1960s. He is widely regarded as the pioneer of walking safaris as part of non-consumptive tourism (photography safaris) in Africa. Carr provided wildlife education to local children in the South Luangwa Valley through the Kapani School Project, which had been running since 1986.
The birding was good, and we saw over a hundred different species including five lifers. There were hundreds of Lilian’s lovebirds, a small African parrot species. Other lifers were Swamp Boubou, Wattled Starling, and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers that were nesting in untidy communal nests made of sticks in the Baobabs. We also saw both the Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers (a lifer) that cling to and glean ticks and other parasites from large mammals. Along the river, amongst others, we saw a lot of Egyptian Geese, lots of gorgeous Saddle-billed Storks, about fifty Yellow-billed Stork together and around seventy Crowned Cranes standing together – a beautiful sight.
On Monday night we went for a night drive with our guide and driver, who was a local called Fred, who’d been trained by Norman Carr. You were not allowed to drive in the park on your own after 6pm. It was one of the most incredible experiences we had ever had. Just before dark we saw four Lionesses with nine cubs in a dry riverbed. They were all lying down and kept on getting up and then plopping back onto the sand.
Just after dark we saw a Leopard on a kill. At first it was quite hidden in the grass but suddenly picked up the front leg of the Puku it was eating and came straight towards us, lying down to devour it about four meters from the Land Rover. It was a really big Leopard and must be one of the most beautiful animals on earth. Having watched it for about fifteen minutes we drove a little further on and found three Spotted Hyena eating the rest of the carcass. One of them had some bad and deep gashes on its neck and back, presumably from the Leopard whilst trying to steal the Puku away from it.
The sight of the biggest Hyena with the remains of the carcass in its mouth and standing and staring at us before loping off into the night is a sight I’ll never forget. Steve spotted a Giant Eagle Owl sitting in a tree. We also saw four Civet cats, that are quite stocky with short tails and about the size of a small Leopard, and three Genet. At last, I could tell the difference between Civets, Gennets and Servals (having recently seen two tame Servals at Sucoma Sugar Plantation). Hippo don’t waste any time leaving the water to graze in the evening and we saw quite a few of them at close range grazing close to the road. We also saw a few Black-tailed Scrub Hares – quite an impressive list for a few hours’ drive one night.
The next day we headed for the Nsefu Block, on the east side of the park. We drove to a wide plain and came to a salt pan with a stream running through the middle of it. There were patches of green grass and places where there was shallow water covering quite big areas and standing around and close to the stream were between five and six hundred Crowned Cranes. WOW!
They are magnificent birds when you see them on their own but to see hundreds of them together was amazing. We drove quite close to them and they took off into the air – another amazing sight – black and white wings flapping, each one spanning at least a meter-and-a-half. At the head of the stream was a fountain of boiling hot water spurting out of the ground.
That night a noise woke me up so I sat up in bed and saw three Elephant chomping the stunted Mopane trees close to our tent. They walked right past the tent – about three meters away – on their way to the river to drink. I also saw three Impala grazing at the side of the tent.
The next morning, we packed up the tent and then started to cook breakfast before finally breaking camp. Steve made a fire to cook the breakfast on and had taken out the eggs, bacon, tomatoes and bread ready to cook. He had really been looking forward to the two fried eggs that he was going to have. When he turned round to get the eggs, there was a large male baboon sitting in the thatched kitchen shelter, as if he owned the place, eating the eggs! Steve was furious and gave chase swearing loudly, but the eggs were gone. Unfortunately, some of the tourists feed the baboons because they are cute and comical, and as a result they become a real menace.
Aside from the wonderful wildlife and the birds, we enjoyed the Zambian people, who were very friendly and most of them spoke very good English. An interesting bit of history we gleaned, was that the chief in the area was Chief Jumbe, a descendant of the original Jumbe who was an Arab slave trader.
We had had a marvellous weekend, and the Prado took us home safely, even with one shock absorber missing!