I love April in the Luangwa. It’s the month when the temperatures begin to subside, the air dries out, the breeze develops a chill and Winter finally arrives. After 6 months of high temperatures, paired with high humidity for long periods, it’s a pleasure to be able to sit outside without becoming a bit sweaty within a few minutes!

But more than this, the cool weather begins drying out the park, a process which continues right through the safari season and ends with the first rainstorm in November; a lifetime away, or so it seems at this point. Between now and then, there lies a whole season of safari, exploration, photography and wonderful Luangwa sightings. April is the start of this, and in it lies the promise of a new season.

Giraffes line up on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
The cooling of the air seems to bring a softening of the light and a reduction in the glaring reflections that form on every surface during the rains. Of course, the daylight hours are getting shorter by a couple of minutes each day, so the softer light persists later into the morning.

Almost immediately after the rains cease, the grass starts to die back. Grazers begin to make an impact on the vegetation loads and termites emerge in vast numbers to cut lengths of grass stem for their fungus gardens underground. Steadily the low-level vegetation thins out giving clearer views of game species.

A zebra peeks through vegetation on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
Before the vegetation dies back, there are beautiful photos to be had of wildlife immersed in a sea of lush green.

Elephants greet each other surrounded by thick vegetation on safari in South Luangwa National Park.

A leopard surrounded by thick vegetation on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
With softer light, it becomes possible to start shooting into the sun again, with the lush vegetation offering a beautiful backdrop.

Birds are busy making use of the retreating waters and the mud-flats that are exposed. Migrants start to leave, and the endless chorus of Woodland Kingfishers and Thrush Nightingales, and the more subtle calls of Willow Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers retreat into the memory for another year.

An open-billed stork searches for snails in a drying lagoon on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
Open-bills sieve through the muddy waters of drying lagoons in search of snails…..

A great white egret catches a fish on the banks of the Luangwa on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
…..and Great White Egrets stand silent on the banks of the river, watching for fish that rise, momentarily, to the surface….sometimes for just too long.

It’s a superb time for giraffes. For a long time these stately creatures have been avoiding the wettest areas along the river, where they tend to sink into the heavy, cloying soil. As areas dry up, the giraffes return and forage from bushes and trees that they have left untouched for months.

A duo of giraffes on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
Thornicroft’s giraffes are only found in Luangwa and are distinguished by slightly different markings. Here they stand against a stormy sky in early April.

A young giraffe rests while others feed nearby in South Luangwa National Park.
Youngsters don’t need to feed as much as adults, since they obtain so much nutrition from milk, so they take rests and time out in the middle of the day.

An optimistic leopard chases a giraffe in South Luangwa National Park.
Occasionally, fortunes for giraffes change and they are taken by lions. However, it is not so common to see leopards challenging these giants!

Predator sightings are good in April as the park dries up and we are able to access more areas. Added to this, the reduced ground-level vegetation makes it easier to spot them as they stalk through the grass and weave between the bushes. With so many insects persisting in the damp areas, leopards tend to seek refuge in the trees to enjoy a breeze and avoid the biting flies. We look for them in the thinning canopies of sausage trees and hidden in the forks of rain trees.

A young leopard rests in a rain tree in South Luangwa National Park.
This young leopard was watching her mother stalk through long grass nearby.

A young leopard greets her mother in South Luangwa National Park.
Leopard cubs, which were born in the dry season of the previous year, are now nearly a year old and are still seen with their mothers but become increasingly independent as time goes on.

Lion movements tend to be driven by the arrival of buffalo herds, drawn towards the riverine areas by the need to access water. As the herds spend more time in the central areas of the park, our sightings of lions become more reliable and predictable.

A group of lions wait on the approach of a baby elephant in South Luangwa National Park.
This group of lions were lounging in the grass as evening fell. When elephants approached, they showed little interest until they noticed a young calf among the herd. As the herd drew closer, they rose and began stalking, occasionally chasing to try and separate the calf from the protection of the adults.

A lion waits on the approach of a baby elephant in South Luangwa National Park.
After some time, the lions settled down and observed, perhaps planning to attack the herd later when night had fallen.

Lions feed on the remains of an impala in South Luangwa National Park.
This small pride of lions caught an impala at dusk and fed hungrily on the carcass, decimating it in 15 minutes!

The amount of rain in April is highly variable and unpredictable ensuring that it’s not easy to tell when areas will be accessible and where inland water will remain. I remember watching wild dogs in early April one year, and being amazed at the dry conditions which appear more like photos from June or July!

Wild dogs play together in South Luangwa National Park.
Adults from the Manzi pack play together in the dry conditions of April 2016.

While April is generally dry and the rains are certainly coming to an end, there is always the chance of a final rain shower! I clearly remember an April 2015 sighting of lions feeding on a zebra carcass and as we drove away in the dark, the heavens opened and we were totally soaked! It was perhaps a fitting end to a very exciting sighting, but we did have to pack our cameras away pretty quickly!

A young elephant crosses a narrow channel in South Luangwa National Park.
Elephant sightings are excellent throughout the year in Luangwa, but the early dry season offers beautiful encounters with these gentle giants as they cross flooded channels and feed on the aquatic vegetation.