The Luangwa is well-known for its amazing wildlife, including large buffalo herds, healthy lion prides and reliable leopard sightings. However there are some parts of the Luangwa Valley that are lesser-explored, and it was to a couple of these areas that I took repeat-guest Sharon Verkuilen. She traveled with me last year, and returned bringing her mother for her first safari!

I combined time in the legendary Nsefu Sector, with time in Luambe National Park. Luambe Conservation has recently re-opened the camp in Luambe NP, having given it a considerable overhaul. The result is a beautiful camp, tastefully finished and perched on the banks of the Luangwa River, overlooking one of the area’s most impressive hippo-scapes. The ever-present honks and antics of the hippos kept us entertained day (and night!).

What follows is a report from the trip in photo-form, with captions to fill in the story. I hope you enjoy being immersed in Wild Luangwa.

A troop of baboons cross a small gulley, backlit by the afternoon sunshine in South Luangwa National Park.
The Nsefu Sector is well-known as one of the finest wildlife areas anywhere, and baboons are certainly part of that! Not only are they amusing and interesting to watch, their keen eyes and lofty scouts often alert us to the presence of predators such as leopard. Here a troop heads to their roosting trees against the backdrop of some of Luangwa’s stunning forest.

A large herd of Thornicrofts Giraffe flock to the riverbank to drink. Golden sunshine and soft background help the final image.
We spotted a lone giraffe heading to the river one morning and hoped to see it drink, or perhaps cross. Thinking that the others might follow, we drove a loop around and planned to be there when they arrived. We hadn’t realised that the rest of the herd was in front and already milling around on the sand! The clear, golden light illuminated them perfectly, and we chose a spot where the light was behind us but slightly to the side to give the subjects form and shape.

Giraffes return from drinking at the Luangwa River, forming a long line across the sandy beach.
In choreographed style, the herd returned to the bush across the sand in a long, loose line.

A Zambian lioness licks her paws in South Luangwa National Park.
After a bit of sleuthing, and some careful tracking, we located this lioness and the rest of her pride one morning. They are a breakaway of the Nsefu pride who mostly feed on antelope so, even though they had fed the night before, their bellies were not stuffed-full. They lazed around and allowed us to approach very close. We enjoyed doing close-ups including some personal grooming!

A lioness climbs a tree in South Luangwa National Park to escape the flies and the heat of the day.
When we returned in the afternoon, one of the lionesses had climbed a fallen tree and was resting on its trunk. She seemed to be enjoying the cool breeze and the escape from biting flies. Interestingly, she is the same female who I saw climbing a tree in Nsefu last year! She eventually came down, not very elegantly!

Guinea Fowl clamber up a bank from a water hole where theyve been drinking just before sunset.
Guinea-fowl are ever-present in Luangwa. After the rains, they form flocks of several pairs and all their chicks. They choose to drink in the very early morning and also at dusk, probably to avoid the threat of aerial predators such as eagles and hawks.

Buffalo herd at dusk in SLNP, Zambia
We found a huge buffalo herd only at dusk when the light was almost gone. But the soft light actually offered some unusual photo opportunities. Choosing a high ISO and including some scenery from a higher perspective conveys the fact that there is a herd of large mammals. We accepted that the colours would not be good, so we “composed in black-and-white” in our minds with the plan to convert later.

A pair of Saddle-billed storks feeding in a drying channel at the Nsefu Salt Pans in South Luangwa National Park.
There has been a pair of Saddle-billed storks living at the inland salt pans of Nsefu for many years. They have become accustomed to people and vehicles but are rarely seen close together! We were very lucky that they shared a small drying pool for a few moments while the light was still soft and flattering. Soon after, they separated and searched individually for frogs and small fish. The very visible red eye and small yellow wattles identifies the right-hand bird as the male.

A Grey Crowned Crane takes flight at the Nsefu Salt Pans in South Luangwa.
At the same salt pans, hundreds of Crowned Cranes flock to perform courtship dances in the late dry season. They are notoriously shy – as Cranes are across the world – and rarely allow an approach to photograph individuals!

Lone bull elephant approaches a waterhole in Nsefu Sector, SLNP.
The elephant activity in Nsefu was – as always – outstanding, with bulls and breeding herds to be found everywhere, including approaching the area’s many stunning lagoons.

A young male lion spraws on his back in the soft afternoon sunshine.
A young male lion does what they do best – sprawling in the afternoon sunshine! He, his brother and two females roused only after sunset, moving silently through the low bushes scouting for prey.

Some of the vast herds of hippos at sunset in front of Luambe Camp in the remote and wild Luambe National Park, Zambia./><figcaption align= justifyAfter a day of traveling (through wildlife areas!) to get to Luambe, we opted to stay in camp the first evening and enjoy the hundreds of hippos in front of camp. As the sun set, we experimented with different options including under-exposing heavily to give the sunset a stunning pink quality.

Racket-tailed Roller just outside Luambe Camp.
In the pristine mopane forest around Luambe Camp, it’s possible to find Racket-tailed Rollers. So named for the round “rackets” on the tips of their two tail streamers, they are the more subtle, retiring (and discreet) cousin of the Lilac-breasted Roller found in savanna habitats.

Two lionesses rest in the bottom of a sandy gully in Luambe National Park.
As a relatively unknown area, we were not sure if we would find and spend time with lions in Luambe. Of course they occur there, but without many safaris in recent years, we wondered if they would be comfortable around vehicles. We needn’t have worried! We tracked down this small pride of 3 one afternoon and spent a quality 2 hours with them as they groomed, greeted and watched birds fly over!

A Scops Owl on an evening drive in Luambe.
Among the Flood-plain Acacia thickets, we enjoyed time watching and photographing Lesser Bushbabies and Scops Owls. While the former were very tricky on account of their speed and shyness, we had an epic sighting of this little chap hunting grasshoppers from a low branch!

Giraffes in Luambe National Park.
It’s exciting to see giraffes in Luambe as this is traditionally the northern-most extent of their range in Luangwa. We saw at least 10 different individuals, and they appear to move freely through the area. With a recent sighting of a giraffe in the North Luangwa National Park as well, it could be that the population is spreading up the valley like never before!

A leopard lounges on a branch near Luambe Camp.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was this young male leopard who we found on the last afternoon! It was so unexpected to see a relaxed leopard lounging on a fallen tree, that we enjoyed the sighting all the more. Of course, leopards occur everywhere, but being able to see them, approach them and spend time with them is another matter. The fact that we were able to see and photograph 3 different individuals in 4 days in a remote park is testament to the potential of the region as a safari area. Where there is good habitat, and good protection, game will thrive. And the presence of top-predators such as lion and leopard suggests that the food-web below is intact.

Golden light on golden giraffes; a stunning end to our safari!
Beaming from the leopard encounter, we moved out towards Chipuka plains and found this trio of giraffes in the Acacia woodland. Stunning creatures in golden light was a fitting end to our safari.

Visiting Luambe was always going to be an adventure into the “old-days” of safari. As Adrian Carr commented “To visit Luambe is to see the Luangwa Valley as it used to be”. With this in mind, we looked forward to exploring unknown areas, and hoped for a few good sightings and interesting encounters. But we had not expected amazing photographic opportunities! That Luambe more than held its own against the Nsefu Sector, a region where safaris have been conducted for over 50 years, is remarkable. I would highly recommend Luambe National Park, and the team who have taken over the existing operation there, and I hope to return.

As for the Nsefu Sector, there is still nowhere that offers the range of habitats, the reliability of sightings and the exclusivity of experience; I am very much looking forward to the remaining 36 nights that I will spend in Nsefu this year. More reports to follow this one!