May is the start of the traditional winter safari season; the park’s roads dry up, the grass starts to die back and the light begins to develop its magical golden tones.

Beautiful golden light on impalas in South Luangwa National Park.
The clean, crisp quality of the light in the early dry season is a pleasure to work with.

I have seen rain in the Luangwa in every month of the year, but any rainfall in May is likely to be short and light, perhaps freshening the air and clearing the dust, but making no impact on the levels in the river and lagoons. In most years, May will be totally dry with the occasional build-up of clouds to remind us that the inter-tropical convergence zone only recently moved north from Zambia.

A brown snake-eagle lifts off in South Luangwa National Park.
With light cloud cover on some days, we enjoy a permanent diffuser that softens the harsh light, reducing dark shadows.

Sightings of wildlife are likely to be excellent throughout this month. Long grass and thick vegetation are part of the safari experience and we learn to work with them, creating images that use the soft golden grass to frame a subject, or manoeuvring to ensure a clear view past badly placed twigs and branches.

A group of zebra partially hidden behind some shrubbery in South Luangwa National Park.
Guests are often keen on the clear view that the later months provide, but incorporating low shrubbery in images gives depth to the scene and avoids the subjects looking as if they are “painted on” to the canvas.

A pair of impalas face off, partially hidden behind some shrubbery in South Luangwa National Park.
The shrubs in this image just avoid disturbing the view of the interaction between these two impalas during their rut.

A large male lion framed by shrubbery in South Luangwa National Park.
Choosing a careful spot to use the bushes as a frame, we added interest to this otherwise dull shot of a male lion.

The puddles and seasonal pans are mostly dry, forcing game to drink at the large water bodies that remain; these large lagoons are plentiful and form the majority of the best game viewing areas at this time of year. Many animals will prefer to drink from a lagoon, with multiple access points, rather than cross vast sand beaches to access the river channel.

A young elephant follows his mother in South Luangwa National Park.
The greenery that remains in May offers some splashes of colour in the background of photos.

A group of impalas stand alert in South Luangwa National Park.

A young zebra leans against his mother in South Luangwa National Park.
Clean, rich light illuminates subjects and gives crisp images full of detail.

The impala are mid-rut so there is constant chasing, fighting, posturing and a cacophony of inelegant snorts, bellows and coughs. Battles are common so keeping cameras at the ready is important to capitalise on the action!

A pair of impalas sparring  in South Luangwa National Park.
A pitched battle between two large rams.

Predators, which have been struggling with the dispersed game and long grass of the rainy season are beginning to thrive once more. With prey species more concentrated along the river and reduced parasite loads in the grass, lions’ coats improve and their flea-bitten appearance starts to fade. Many predators – such as lion, leopard and wild dogs – birth their youngsters in the early part of the dry season, ensuring that they are born into a time of plenty.

A young leopard nuzzles his half-brother in South Luangwa National Park.
An unusual interaction between a leopard cub and his older sibling from a previous litter.

A lioness picks up her cub on safari in South Luangwa National Park.
A lioness picks up her cub, gently carrying it in her mouth. The nape of her neck shows the fading signs of the flea-bitten coat that they develop during the rainy season.

A hyaena rests in the grass in South Luangwa National Park.
A hyaena rests in long grass on a night safari in May.

Night safaris take place against an unrivalled shroud of black sky and incredible stars; once the cloud cover has cleared and before the atmosphere fills with dust, the African night sky is extraordinary.

A sky-scape above a remote camp in South Luangwa National Park.
The views of the Milky Way are irresistable in the more remote areas of the park.

In the early part of the dry season, our night safaris are dust- and insect-free which makes nocturnal mammal watching a pleasure.

A genet spotted on a night drive in South Luangwa National Park.
A genet eyes us from a mahogany tree.

May is a superb time to visit the Luangwa. It offers a fresh and vibrant view of this safari destination and you’ll likely be one of very few visitors entering the park. The sightings might not necessarily come thick-and-fast as they do later in the season, but there is still plenty to keep photographers busy over a week’s safari….as Peter and Steve discovered recently!