Lusaka, Zambia – November 2010
Time has flown by since the last newsletter in August. We had two extremely busy months in September and October, and before we knew it, it was time to pack up both camps again and close for the rainy season. Derek, Saphire and I are now back in our Lusaka home. We are catching up on paperwork (including future newsletters) , sorting pictures and videos out (my move to an Apple is slowing me down somewhat on that front, but never fear I have a Macbook for Dummies winging it’s way to me from Amazon) and planning some renovation for our camps next season.
As we are heading towards the holiday season, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed towards Project Luangwa, either through a private donation, or through your stay at one of our camps via the Luangwa Conservation and Community Fund (half the Luangwa Conservation and Community levy goes towards Project Luangwa and the other half goes to the South Luangwa Conservation Society). Such contributions allow us to fulfil Project Luangwa’s Mission Statement: “To ensure the people of the Luangwa Valley gain the full benefit from tourism by investing in education and business development.” You can learn more about Project Luangwa by visiting the website www.projectluangwa.org . With other lodge owners involved in the organization PL will be producing a separate newsletter which you will receive shortly. If you choose to do so, you can opt to unsubscribe to the Project Luangwa newsletter – simply follow the instructions which will be provided on the first one. This will not affect your subscription to our newsletter.
I’m making room in this newsletter for one of our guests’ narrative about his return visit to Mwamba and Kaingo this past September. Peter Lemon (Peter is an annual visitor to our camps) is an avid photographer, wildlife enthusiast and tourism industry professional who travels at length in Southern and Eastern Africa. Undeniably as skilled for story telling as he is for photography, I hope this story will bring good memories to you all, or inspire you to come experience your own safari with us.
I’m also adding some additional feedback from our 2010 guests – reading these comments brings a smile to our face and assures us that our hard work is all worthwhile.
Enough from me – let the story begin!
NOTE: All ensuing photos were taken by and are the copyright protected property of Peter Lemon
Excerpt from Peter Lemon’s report on his trip to Zambia and Kenya – Fall 2010
“Ah, but a photographer’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
With apologies to Robert Browning, 1855
I travelled firstly to Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley and the two camps operated by Shenton Safaris, namely Mwamba – the smaller, simpler, bush camp – and then the main camp, Kaingo. The reason for my returning yet again was at least in part the network of photographic hides which have been set up in various locations near their camps by Derek Shenton – in particular the Hippo Hide, built into the side of the Luangwa river bank for potentially some of the closest and lowest-level shots of hippos that you are ever likely to get – at least in safety!
I am aware that things can and do change quickly – there may be spectacular sightings, there may be nothing. In this report I simply record what I saw and experienced while I was there. Others may have been less lucky, some may have seen things even more spectacular. There are so many variables – the time of the year, the height of rivers, the amount of water still remaining in the backcountry. Just sheer good or bad luck depending on the timing of a visit. The season, the month, the day and the hour. What is there one minute can be gone the next. Indeed, as I have always commented, the biggest expression in the safari industry is “you should have been here yesterday…..”
That said, outside of going to a zoo, I am desperate to include some degree of certainty in my trips these days, and these Shenton hides provide a photographic potential and dimension simply not available – as far as I am aware – at any of the other camps in the Valley, and indeed in many other game-viewing areas, camps and lodges of Africa. (My favourite and much-loved wood hide at the front of Savuti Bush Camp in Botswana provided so many extraordinary photo opportunities over a number of years. Now, sadly, the hide has floated away in the fairly recently rehydrated Savuti channel – flowing in 2009 for the first time in over 30 years. And with it these priceless opportunities have gone. At least in Zambia the Shenton hides provide the potential for photos at least as good.)
My routing took me Melbourne/Sydney/Johannesburg, using QANTAS. The whole exercise is a pain in the backside – literally. Thus provoked, my back, as a matter of principal, hurt all the way over – 14 hours and 40 minutes from Sydney to JNB. However, I made it and finally got to my hotel in fading light, after a very long day. The next morning, I checked in very early for the SA Airlink flight from JNB to Lusaka.
One of the reasons I had elected to take the early flight to Lusaka was so that I could get the late morning flight with Proflight from there to Mfuwe rather than the afternoon flight which seldom gets into Mfuwe before 4pm, which means that you don’t get to camp until well after sunset; the earlier flight would have allowed for a daylight arrival, which I would always regard as a Good Thing. As it turned out the 1150am flight left Lusaka on time – that was the good news – but they were not able to put most passengers’ luggage on that aircraft and instead had to send all that in a separate plane which only arrived an hour later…
That said, we got away from Mfuwe in reasonable time, and most of the transfer through to Mwamba camp was in daylight. (One day, if I have my camera handy, I would like to take photos of some of the shop and related signage that one sees along the way in the villages in the early sections – some of them, especially Aunty Margie’s Bottle Shop I think it is – are classics.) The road on the sections through to the start of the park actually seemed a little less potholed than in previous years – I heard that some of the locals had undertaken a bit of maintenance in the form of filling in some of the holes, perhaps in return for some Kwachas from passing motorists. And it was good to hear that the previous rainy season had been pretty well just right – neither too much nor too little, after the privations of some of the recent years. Although the scourge of wet season malaria in the villages had still remained.
Mwamba camp is little changed from my previous visits – small, pleasant, personal and very much a part of its environment. Quite often during my stay there over the next few days there would be pukus and impalas a-grazing very close nearby in the flat open areas just in front of the dining area, and there were often slightly more distant visits from waterbuck and baboons during the day. Some nights there were elephants crunching and munching on the trees and bushes in camp, on some occasions right by the chalets. (It will be a story which the two ladies from Belgium will dine out on for years to come, I am sure. One at least was convinced that the light thatched walls of her hut were going to be completely devoured around her as the night went on.)
There was still some water in a hole in the Mwamba River in front of camp – enough for one often-grumpy old hippo to call home for part of the time, although the noise of people gathering for biscuits and tea first thing in the morning saw him waddling wearily out and away to quieter surroundings. At night at Mwamba one could often hear the roar of lions nearby, and the whoop and giggle of hyena, although I must have been sleeping soundly the night lions killed a waterbuck about 500 metres from camp (in thick bush, only accessible by walkers the next day) and I heard nothing.
The camp this year had a new manager, following on Annabel in 2008 and Josh in 2009. Ian is of Malawian descent, and as with his predecessors, a great host. He holds guiding qualifications in Zambia, and is planning to sit (or does one stand) for his walking licence as well for next season. Currently he shares some of the driving guiding work, especially when Mayam is guiding for guests who are keen to walk. (Given the amount of food one consumes on safari, I should have done some walks, but the bottom line is that walks seldom provide much in the way of photo opportunities, apart from the occasional scenery shot. The fact is that one is seldom close enough to animals for good shots, or if one is close enough, there may be other priorities – such as looking for a tree to climb.)
My time at Mwamba involved four full days, and there were two full days at Kaingo. The first noticeable thing was the more stable weather, and the much better afternoon light than on previous visits. This time – I don’t know if the fact I was a week earlier made any difference – there was little or no cloud build-up in the west in the afternoons. Excellent! Previous trips had seen clouds/dust/smoke blocking out the sun most days by about 5.00pm (sunset, if observable, is about 6pm), which had effectively reduced photographable light to about 45 minutes on afternoon drives. This time it was clear nearly all afternoons until about 5.50 pm, which was a great bonus. The second comment that needs to be made is that both the Hippo Hide and Carmine Bee-Eater Hide are much more a part of the (other, main) Kaingo Camp experience these days, and that Kaingo camp should probably be booked for those wishing to use those hides. Thankfully at the urging of Jules Shenton I stayed at both camps – see later section in these notes on the Hippo Hide.
My stays at both Mwamba and Kaingo were overwhelmingly positive, although as with any safari where photo results are a top priority, there was to be some variability. The game drives were generally, but not always, very productive, but it was some of the hide visits, however, which were to provide the most memorable sightings of the trip. If not ever.
In relation to Mwamba, the drives were patchy on occasions, and perhaps not as productive as last year, when I secured some close-to-very-close-up photo shoots with the Hollywood Pride. Whilst there, it was – perhaps not surprisingly – the Mwamba pride we looked for most; that entire pride had been sighted altogether – I believe about 30 lions, which must have been amazing – on occasions a few weeks previously, but had tended to split again by time of my visit. It took a number of hours of intensive tracking for Mayam and Gideon to locate one half of the pride (the grumpy half, the “we-don’t-entirely-like-vehicles” half) – the first morning, and on a couple of other drives into the drier back country they also managed to be very elusive, if not unfindable. (Which is more than can be said for the tsetse fly population of the same back country. If you come here from the Kafue National park, you will regard the tsetse fly population in the South Luangwa to be a fairly minor irritant; otherwise they are a bit of pain in the backside (and wherever else bitten) in the dry country well away from the river. At least they are not a problem in the riverine areas closer to the river where most of the driving takes place.)
During my time at Mwamba, the Hollywood pride were playing hard to get, having relocated in a next-to-inaccessible area across some water, perhaps holding out for a better contract deal. That said, they did make occasional guest appearances but at a greater distance than I would have liked (those with 400 or 500 mm lens might have been happier), providing, inter alia, my first-ever sighting of a lioness carrying a young cub in her mouth. (And one acceptable photo.) To hear Jules, who had been in another vehicle, I’m sure with a 400 or 500 mm lens, say later that in seven seasons in the Valley that was her first sighting of a lioness carrying a cub rather highlighted the value of the sighting.
The small hide near the back of the camp, and the lagoon visited as part of the middle-of-the-day activities, proved to be highly productive. At the lagoon there were two really terrific visits on separate days which brought some great sightings of elephants in good numbers, many coming into mud-bathe and drink, along with good quantities of waterbuck and zebra, and a number of buffalo, whilst the bird life is always impressive. Though midday is not great in relation to photographic light – it is harsh and flat – I still used the camera a lot. As Confucius once said, it is better to photograph something good in harsh light than to see nothing in great light.
But in addition to the lagoon trips, it was two visits to the small waterhole hide only about a hundred metres out the back of Mwamba camp which really provided pay-dirt. The first – as a midday activity – brought some very skittish impalas seeking to drink between panic attacks and along with them some action photos with which I am very pleased.
However it was my second such visit to the small hide two days later which will rate amongst the best sightings and wildlife experiences I have ever had in Africa. Ever. Anywhere. We had returned to camp after a productive 90 minutes at the lagoon, and following lunch I decided – for some reason which escapes me – to ask to be allowed to go to that small hide for an hour or so, despite it being the hottest time of the day. For the first 35 or so minutes I was convinced I had made a poor, Lemon-like decision and that I should have been snoozing in my hut instead. Hell, I wanted to doze; hell, it was hot even in the shade of the hide; nothing was happening, the only action consisted of a couple of leaves falling fitfully from a tree and fluttering to ground, a bee-eater and one Lillian’s Lovebird taking a drink at the water’s edge, and a couple of dust devils whipped up sullenly in the heat. As time progressed, I would have been perfectly happy to pull the pin and go back to my hut, but as I’d arranged with Ian for him to come back and get me at about 3.30pm I still had quite a time to wait in the hide. It was then, however, that I looked up from contemplating the meaning of life, or wondering if I had turned the iron off when I had left home some days previously, to see two pastel grey blobs which were a couple of elephants in bushes and under trees on the top of the bank, two or so hundred metres away.
“Bingo!” I thought. “This could be special.” Indeed the grey shapes soon transmogrified into a small breeding herd of six animals which then came down from the bank to the dry river bed and then made their way quite enthusiastically to the remaining water which was only stretching in a small ribbon west for about 40 metres from where I was sitting in the hide. I held my breath; a couple of trunks went up to test the breeze, and it seemed that nothing registered to upset the visitors. (Even if I was yet to have my shower for the day.) After a few swigs, well trunk-fulls, of water the group then moved up even closer to the hide, to an area where there was quite a lot of mud, just a few metres across from where I was sitting. They were now so close; and it was then so dramatic, as some then decided that this was the time and place for a great frolic in the mud; I sat, statuesque ( I could hardly say frozen, given the surrounding temperatures), hoping to hell they wouldn’t get an inkling of my presence and flee.
However, nothing of that nature happened and for about 25 minutes I was treated to one of the most wonderful sightings of wildlife I have ever enjoyed, the animals seemingly oblivious to – or content with – my presence. After a few minutes I could contain myself no longer, and moving my camera ever so slowly, started taking some photos – I felt certain that the first click of the Canon would sound just like its near namesake (a cannon) and that the animals would bolt (or charge), but there was no reaction; and I was able to continue. There was mud flying; there was dust everywhere; the light was harsh; and I was shooting against the sun – yet it was all still totally brilliant. But it was the youngster which, mixing its metaphors, took the cake and had an absolute ball – talk about dirty dancing – and I sat in awe of what was happening in front of me. I glanced at my watch – now hoping that my remaining 20 minutes would not go quickly, and that Ian would not come crashing through the bush to get me. But I did not need to worry, as he crept in sometime later and was able to enjoy some of the show, before the matriarch decided it was time to move on.
It had been a truly magnificent experience, although I, we, made a point of not saying anything to the other guests at afternoon tea. There is nothing worse or more unfair than hearing people bragging about an extraordinary sighting to others who have not seen it. Perhaps other guests could learn from that attitude.
On the subject of elephant sightings, and after moving on to Kaingo where I was to spend three nights later on, there were also some quite outstanding visits to the Hippo Hide (the name of which perhaps should be changed to the Elephant Hide 2). Actually, the visits there to photograph hippos in the middle of the day were actually not hugely productive, photographically, with the water levels in the river still quite high, and the hippos languid and lazy. However, on my second and third afternoons at Kaingo, a couple from the UK on their first trip to Africa asked if we could go to the hide as the start of the afternoon drive, taking afternoon tea with us, to spend an hour or so there then. By this time the light was mellower, and the occupants of the river were becoming a bit more active. (Even if none of them was prepared to launch into a really big fight, which was what I was most keen to capture.) But again it was to be elephants which would steal the show.
Just as we were about to start hoeing into some calorie-free cake, and as I was balancing a cup of tea on my lap, we – well Gondwe – saw a small group of them appear in the distance on the other side of the river. They walked out across the probably-still-burning sands to the edge of the water, drank and then instead of turning back, started to walk into the river. Sensational, as it soon appeared their intention was to cross. (My cup of tea cart-wheeled to the dirt floor of the hide.) This they did, with the youngsters deciding to use it as an opportunity to enjoy a swim along the away, coming closer still and closer in spectacular fashion, heading to the area of the hide, with the likely line of exit being the low sloping sections of bank some metres to our left. And so they came, the younger two wallowing, rolling, until they were just a few metres away, before they then proceeded to walk right past the hide, almost scraping along its outer frame. As they did so, I was taking a close look at the reassuringly solid metal tracks from Zambian Railways which form the framework of the hide. (It is a very solid construction.) As one walked right past, another started to flick up mud from just a few feet away, the first parabola landing right in the hide. Now expecting to get a drenching of mud, we kept totally still, but the matriarch at this stage decided to move on and we were saved from what had seemed an inevitable mud bath – something which holds less attraction to me than it does for elephants. It had been a stunningly close encounter – the first timers in Africa had held their nerve brilliantly – and another which I shall remember for a long, long time.
And still it kept happening. On the next morning’s drive we ran into the other half of the Mwamba pride who had killed three buffalo calves. This part of the Mwambas seemed more relaxed than the other half, and provided some pretty reasonable photos, whilst the Holywood pride continued to remain elusive.
And on my last full day At Kaingo I spent some time in the floating carmine bee-eater hide (which is moored close to the bank on the far side of the river – accessed on foot and by a short section in canoe). Again some great results – my photos seemed better than on my previous hide trip about four years ago, which was the last time this seasonal hide was active at the same time I visited the camp. A cacophony of birds in their thousands, from the best vantage point in the park. (This hide is a seasonal photo opportunity and late August is usually when these migrant birds start to arrive.)
And finally only on my last morning did we manage to locate the Hollywood pride – not very far from where we had been looking on previous days, but this time mainly out in the open, or in the case of one, up in a tree. I got some nice shots, some of them almost as close as last year, but by this stage most of the action seemed to be reducing and they were setting their sights on bushes and shade, as is their want at this time of the year.
And before I knew it I had to leave for my transfer back to Mfuwe Airport and my flight back to Lusaka.It had been a very, very good stay, made utterly memorable by some of the sightings from the hides.
Peter Lemon works for Peregrine & Gecko’s Adventures in Melbourne Australia.
A few comments received from our guests:
“Back to Switzerland, back to the office, after spending an amazing couple of weeks in Africa. Thanks again very very much for having me at Kaingo and Mwamba. Derek and you (and of course Michelle, Ian, Brian, Patrick, Meyam, Gondwe and everybody else) run a very special and unique place. Out in the bush, very “wild”, very “african”, very “natural”, and still – very comfortable, with everything needed ! Great food (I was especially impressed by Medi at Mwamba, a “one man show” preparing all that delicious food incl. the cakes, bread, muffins, nachos etc. from scratch). Really cool “special outings” – the sundowners in the river bed, the brunch in the beautiful ebony grove, the lunch “in the box” on the private decks overlooking the Luangwa river, the morning tea around the fire at Mwamba.
Fantastic guides & trackers, especially Patrick, who just knows so much about the bush, the animals, the birds and has a very good humour. I will not forget how that leopard charged the jeep or how Patrick “got rid” of a small branch in the way of our cameras (but in the process scaring all the birds away ). Or that faboulous morning game drive where the colors were just so soft (pink and orange and yellow) and the elePHants, zebra, giraffe etc. seemed to pose on “elephant plain” for us. And later on that hyena appearing far away in the distance and slowly making her way towards us. Or, or or…. lots of fantastic memories, both in my mind and also in on my camera memory card (I have about 1000 pics to sort through).
The hides are another great thing ! I was very impressed by the Hippo Hide, it’s really great to be watching those big, powerful (and also a bit scary) animals so close up, without them knowing (or bothering) that we are there. And the carmine bee-eater hide – wow, I was so lucky that Derek took Gus, his girlfriend and myself across to it for the “opening of the season”. Beautiful birds, it’s quite a privilege to have been so close to them and watch their colorful “display”.
All in all, I loved it at Mwamba and Kaingo ! Everything is perfect, I cannot honestly imagine how you could do better. Can you please also say thanks again and give my best regards to Derek, Ian, Michelle, Patrick, Brian etc. etc. And I hope that the season will continue smootHly and on a more personal side – that Saphire is staying fine and “wild” and that everything goes well with your pregnancy.”
Nathalie Stirnimann, Globetrotter Travel Switzerland, August 2010
“Brenda and I just wanted to touch base and say hello.
I hope the camp wind down has gone smoothly for you all. After a stunning October and start of November, Canada has done its usual – snow and twenty below. I’ve lost all that warmth I built up on the safari days.
We wanted to thank you and the team once again for an absolutely stunning vacation. We can’t keep talking about it and we’ve watched the videos and looked at our thousands of pictures over and over and over.
Brenda and I have been very lucky to have had many fantastic trips all over the world, and for 15 years now we’ve always said our #1 trip had been to Galapagos – just like walking straight into a National Geographic TV show. When we left your place and headed up to Ethiopia I asked Brenda where the safari ranked and she said it had trumped even Galapagos. Thanks for being the new #1!”
Brenda and Keith Rogers, September 2010
“I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed stay at Kaingo. It is really marvellous. Everyone is friendly & the place is well organised & luxurious. Patrick in particular deserves high praise for the way he guides. He is full of knowledge & has the talent of being able to explain it very well. He does not say too much nor too little. The food also was lovely & the position facing the river with its hippos & crocodiles and birds is just right.
All in all I had an absolutely marvellous time in Zambia & I would like to thank you & Michelle for all you did to may my stay so good. Life at home is going to seem rather prosaic!”
Nicolas Fixsen, June 2010
“Spot on! So glad we had booked for 5 days, a visiting agent queried if that was too long but not at all, if we’d had longer we would have transferred to the bush camp for a couple of nights. Derek and Jules are splendid hosts, Patrick is a guide par excellence, and all the staff did their best to make our stay memorable. The recent arrival of Izzy only added to the professionalism. Game was more than plentiful and the hides added another dimension to the day’s activities. Derek was in his element when acting as a guide, much to our benefit.
Only one quibble, lunch was really superfluous!!”
Gill and Alan LeServe, September 2010
“Just a brief note of thanks for a truly wonderful 3 nights at Kaingo a week or so ago. Thanks to Ian, Michele and Brian who went out of their way to make our trip as memorable as they could and the guiding with Mayam was a wonderful experience. Two leopards and then the Hollywood pride, what more could we ask for. Can’t wait to come back. Thanks again.”
Iris and Derek Bradfield, July 2010
“We have been home for three weeks now and I am certain there has not been a day go by when we haven’t talked about our experience with you.
Perhaps this explains a sudden reduction in social engagements???
Oh well, I am sure the stories will continue for years.
Thank you all for such a perfect total experience. We can understand fully why you have so many repeat guests”
Elizabeth and Bruce Harley, September 2010
“We just wanted to say thanks to you & all your staff for the efforts made in making our stays at Kaingo & Mwamba so memorable. A special thanks to Ian, Patrick, Gondwe, Gideon & Robin. And please give our best wishes to Michelle & Brian for their future together & all their plans.
Both camps were a delight, the hides at Kaingo; Pelican Lagoon at Mwamba, an impossible choice. I guess Patrick will have located Elliot or his mother by now & the leopard sightings have resumed. We really enjoyed the birds (Pel’s Fishing Owl, martial eagle, giant eagle owl, carmine’s); Hollywood pride (with cubs & males) playing on a tree at sunset; Parick’s rock python spot and much more. Ian’s special arrangements for lunch & evening drinks were much appreciated, as was his warmth & hospitality throughout. The food was simply amazing & the best we encountered during our holiday, which included 3 other camps. A credit to the chefs.
And all round, a credit to yourselves.”
Andrea and Mike Jones, August 2010
“Our stay at Kaingo was absolutely fantastic and a great way to finish a thoroughly enjoyable holiday in Zambia (we always try to leave the best till last!) – so many thanks for that.
Please also give Jules, Derek, Ian, Meyam and the staff our best wishes and we hope that Jules’s hospital visit was successful.”
Jean and Trevor Taylor, October 2010