Even though I have lead many safaris this year, and in many years past, I look forward to each one intensely. The chance to meet new people and to explore outstanding wild areas with the Luangwa guarantee of stunning sightings. And of course, there is always the beguiling attraction that each safari might be the one where you find something truly unusual.

Nick & Caroline Gill joined me for a week at Flatdogs Camp and Nsefu Camp in two different areas of the park. Sadly another couple were not able to join us at the last minute, so we were a group of only 3 heading into the bush each day. This did mean that I was able to concentrate my efforts on a smaller group helping them build their skills, offering a range of sightings and opportunities to practice techniques and try new ideas. Of course, Luangwa didn’t disappoint, and I hope you enjoy reading this write-up.

Our safari started with a bang….!

Late in the afternoon, a leopard descends from his resting position to start prowling for a meal...
Late in the afternoon, a leopard descends from his resting position to start prowling for a meal…

A leopard carries a freshly-killed crocodile up from the river before starting to feed.
…and not long after, we found him carrying a freshly-killed crocodile up from the river! This is one of the most unusual sightings I have enjoyed in the 9 years that I’ve been in Luangwa, and having talked to many other guides, it seems that few have seen it anywhere else! You can read more about this sighting on a separate blog-post.

The following morning, we set out to reach a beautiful forested area hoping to find some elephants that we could place among the ancient leadwood trees. On the way, a herd of resting hippos suddenly decided to rush into the water, perhaps spooked by a change in the wind which then carried our scent towards them.

Hippos rush towards the water of the Luangwa River, splashing water all around themselves.
The youngsters are always the first to run, feeling the most vulnerable of the herd.

Reaching the forested area early in the morning gave us stunning light. But as luck would have it, the elephants that were there were all orientated the wrong way for the beautiful light! Not to worry, we took the chance to compose some monochrome images, concentrating more on the shapes than the colours.

A cow elephant feeds on rhino thistles among large leadwood trees.
Watching for the way the trees balance the elephant in the image, we slowly moved ourselves in the vehicle, waiting for the right composition to resolve itself.

After two short days at Flatdogs Camp – which shot by in a blur of leopard and croc encounters! – we set out for Nsefu Camp in the remote Nsefu Sector of the National Park. Nsefu Camp is one of Robin Pope Safaris’ flagship properties, and is placed in a prime location. With National Park all around it, and stunning river along the front (with more National Park on the far side) it is a truly immersive wildlife experience. In fact, many of the best sightings we enjoyed in the 4 days at Nsefu were either within sight of camp, or started off at the camp!

A young male lion dominates the skull of a buffalo that they had killed a few days before in South Luangwa.
On our first evening safari from Nsefu Camp, we found a fragment of the Nsefu pride – 1 adult female and 3 sub-adults – who were playing with a buffalo skull from a kill a few days before. Even as a youngster, the male was showing his dominance, claiming the “carcass” as his own during the bouts of play-fighting that he enjoyed with the other two sub-adults.

An African Porcupine stands broadside in the light of the spotlight in South Luangwa NP.
A large moon that night meant the lions were not very successful with their initial hunting efforts, so we returned to camp, enjoying an amazing porcupine sighting on the way back. This usually shy creature walked down the road towards us, eventually stopping about 15m in front!

Wondering what the first morning at Nsefu would deliver, we set out slowly from camp, listening, watching and reading the bush. When you stay inside the National park, there is no need to “go” anywhere as the game is all around, and that brings the predators too. After our 3rd or 4th listening stop, I heard outraged baboons suddenly erupt into angry calls nearby. I knew immediately what that particular sound meant – one of their number had been killed!

Of course, there’s no guarantee that there will be anything to see, so I merely mentioned to my guests that we needed to move quickly to find out what was upsetting the baboons. On arrival in the ebony grove (within sight of camp!) we found an extraordinary scene unfolding. Most of the baboon troop was in the trees, with only the large males on the ground. One male, with a deep fresh cut on his lip, was tending to the body of a mortally wounded baboon on the ground. The female was still moving, but had clearly been attacked, almost certainly by a leopard!

We positioned ourselves nearby and waited, of course! The males were standing around, occasionally giving out their “wa-hooo” alarm call for leopard, and we could tell that the cat was nearby. Knowing that it would want to return to claim its meal, we chose a good spot for taking photos and waited. We were kept busy by the sight of one of the males grooming the body of the dead female – it was quite poignant. Eventually, the leopard appeared….

After being repelled by large baboons, a leopard retreats to the safety of some nearby thickets.
The mutual fear shown by both leopard and baboons is fascinating! The leopard simply wanted to take the carcass to the deep thickets where she would be safe from the baboons surrounding her. The baboons – and two males in particular – were adamant that their friend would not be taken away, and called the rest of the males every time to the leopard appeared! They repelled her numerous times.

After nearly 2 hours of back-and-forth between the players, the leopard chased off the baboons, whose numbers were dwindling by this stage, and claimed the baboon for herself…..

But not before the most protective baboon had made one last challenge and charged into the scene with teeth bared! Baboons have canines longer than those of a lion and gripping hands that allow them to reach, grab and bite. Leopards who hunt alone and can’t afford injury have to take considerable care not to get “caught” by them, even for an instant!

Wondering if that was the highlight sighting of the week – it wasn’t! – we continued our morning drive but could talk of little else than the encounter we had just observed. As Nick said, it felt like actors were putting on a show for us, with leopards and baboons entering and leaving stage right and left…..but of course, the joy of safari that you are observing Nature doing what it does. In a world where we manufacture most things and most experiences, it’s a pleasure to watch something that we have had no part in creating. These events go on whether we are there to watch them or not.

A newborn elephant follows its mother in Nsefu Sector of South Luangwa National Park.
The afternoon of the leopard and baboon encounter gave us a very special sighting – a newborn elephant calf, perhaps just a couple of days old. It was still wobbly on its legs and appears “purple” in a way that only newborns do. The herd was very protective, bunching round it when we approached.

Each morning, as I get dressed I listen to the bush all around, searching for clues of what Nature will give us that day. That morning I heard occasional baboon warning barks from behind camp, and planned to search the area as the first priority of the day. I didn’t even need to search, because during our light breakfast, a small pack of 5 Wild Dogs ran through the camp, heading north on the hunt! We dropped everything to follow them, and spent the next 2 hours tracking them through the bush, trying to anticipate their movements and work out where – if at all – they would make a kill.

Wild dogs tear at an impala carcass to separate chunks of meat to eat for themselves, in South Luangwa NP.
Through a combination of good judgement, and a little luck, we kept the pack in sight most of the morning, and arrived moments after they had made their kill and were starting to feed. The initial images show a complete impala carcass, but the dogs were all crowded round in the early stages of feeding so there’s not much to see. As the dogs separated parts of the carcass for themselves, co-operating to dismember the antelope, we got a clearer view of the size, gender and condition of the prey. As usual with dogs, they took very little time to feed, rendering the carcass to bones and skin in 15 minutes! Nothing prepares visitors for the speed, adrenaline and drama of a wild dog hunt, and I was very pleased to have watched it from initial hunting outside camp to the kill and feeding some 4kms away.

A spotted hyaena carries an impalas muzzle
Naturally, once the dogs finished, vultures and hyaenas arrived to clear up the scraps, but the hyaenas were a little late and enjoyed only the left-overs after the vultures had taken most of the flesh!

A female leopard rests in a Sausage tree in Nsefu Sector of South Luangwa.
Luangwa is famous for its leopards and I really wanted my guests to see a great sighting of one of these beautiful cats in a tree. Returning from the dogs’ kill that morning, we checked a few likely places and found the female from the baboon encounter the day before resting in a Sausage tree. At this time of year, lots of antelope congregate underneath these trees to feed on the flowers and falling buds, so leopards are well-placed to launch aerial attacks!

The tail of a leopard curled in a tight spiral.
However, this one was content to rest in our presence occasionally curling and uncurling her tail against a backdrop of fresh green leaves.

Since the first evening, the lions had been mostly absent, probably on the other side of the river. We were very pleased to find a couple of young males resting on the beach when the light came up at breakfast time one morning. There’s something very rewarding about game viewing while having coffee in front of camp!

A young lion wanders across the beach in the glow of early morning light in South Luangwa.
Drawing back to including landscape around this lion turns a portrait shot into something that says more about the scale of his surroudings and the golden light that Luangwa offers in the mornings.

While the light was still soft, we played with some backlit images of baboons on fallen trees in the ebony groves. In the early morning, baboons are quite playful, but also wary of predators, so they don’t rush to leave the safety of their trees. By underexposing this image by 3 stops I was able to maintain detail only in a few areas. I then made a monochrome conversion in Lightroom.

With time still on our side, we decided to make a journey inland to the Nsefu Salt Pans and try our luck with whatever was there. The salt pans can yield some wonderful sightings, or there can be almost nothing at all to see, so it’s always a gamble. This time it paid off, as we found some zebras (Caroline’s favourites!) in the soft grassland of Mtanda plain, and some very confiding cranes at the water near the salt spring.

4 zebras rumps with swishing tails against yellow grassland in Zambia.

A beautiful pair of Crowned Cranes in the soft green suroundings of Nsefus Salt Pans.

On our last afternoon, we decided to visit a Carmine Bee-eater colony to practice shots of birds in flight and the beautiful red birds returning to their nest holes. But Nsefu had some more surprises for us; as we left camp, we spotted a leopard resting in a Sausage tree and stopped to watch her for a while. It was quite warm still and we suspected she wasn’t going to descent and hunt anytime soon, so we moved on…..and found antelope on the run! Antelope don’t run from predators….except Wild Dogs! A quick scout around revealed the same 5 dogs we had seen the day before and they were resting on a bluff, where we could park below them and practice low-level shots in the soft light.

A leopard observes antelopes in the distance from the vantage point of a Zambian Sausage tree.

A pristine wild dog adult watches the photographer while on photo-safari in South Luangwa NP.

The low-level angle makes all the difference when photographing small mammals.

We never made it to the Carmine bee-eaters! But we consoled ourselves by following baboon alarm calls and tracking down a leopard with her cub. Due to their location, we couldn’t really get close to them, so we enjoyed watching through binoculars as they played together in small scrubby trees.

On our last morning, we decided to head south to an elephant crossing, even though we knew we might miss out on the dogs further north. We also wanted to explore new areas which we hadn’t uncovered before.

A sidelit antelope, alerted by a nearby alarm call in Zambia.
In an ebony grove, we spent some time framing an alert impala against the tree trunks…..

Two elephant herds come together to cross the river in soft morning light - South Luangwa.
…and then enjoyed a magical elephant crossing at 07.15 when the light is still very flattering. This is my favourite image from the trip. To me it is the essence of Luangwa; large river views, congregations of large mammals and stunning trees.

If you would like to visit any of the areas that I’ve written about in this report, send me an email via the contact page and I’ll be happy to chat about the options. Space is already booking up for next year (August and September are almost fully-booked) so don’t hesitate if you are thinking about a safari in 2018. I also have space for one couple on several trips and space for singles too….give me a shout.

Thanks for reading my trip report and I hope you enjoyed being transported into this wild place!