Thursday, September 26, 2013

South Luangwa, Zambia (part 1)

Our third and final safari stop was in an area we'd never visited before: South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. We kept hearing great things about it everywhere we went in southern Africa, including the fact that this area has the largest concentration of leopards of any place in the world. Since it had been nearly a decade since we'd seen leopards in the wild, we were really excited about that.

We flew from Livingstone to Lusaka and then on to Mfuwe on small prop planes.

We were picked up by a driver for Robin Pope Safaris and whisked off to the house we'd be staying in. This company has safari camps but doesn't allow small children in them. Instead, they have a house near the camp that was once the residence of Robin Pope himself, and they rent this to families with children. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but I can definitely say that this experience was one of the single coolest things we've ever done. It exceeded our expectations in every possible way.

First of all, we were actually staying in a private two-bedroom house on the banks of the Luangwa River for one week. We not only had all of that space, but we also had a lovely host named Amy, who made sure we had everything we we needed, a staff of three (including a chef), and our own private guide. It was a private safari experience, and it was amazing!

Instead of a luxury tent, it was a whole house!

The house sits on the edge of the river, and we could almost always see wildlife like elephants, warthogs, and various antelope coming down to drink. 

We had breakfast and lunch outside every day, with a lovely view of the river and the wildlife.

Of course, sometimes the wildlife came even closer. 

This baboon was very curious about what she might be able to find in the house. After she tried to come in a few times, I closed the bottom half of the doors, and then a few minutes later saw a pair of furry little hands and a face peeking over the half-doors at us!

During the middle of the day between game drives, we had time to relax and enjoy the view. 

Carter even took a nap one day.

Carter loved the house so much that he made a flag and planted it in the front yard, claiming it to be our house!

Since the house is set up for families, the children's room had lots of books and games. Carter really enjoyed having new books to read, and we even had a chance to teach him how to play Monopoly one afternoon.

The house had a pool, and Carter got in it once, but the water was a little chilly, despite the temperatures being in the 90s every day.

Mostly, we looked out of the windows and watched the elephants coming down to drink and listened to the hippos calling each other, and thought about how incredibly lucky we are to be able to come to this place. It really felt like a movie star type of experience!

And of course, the main reason we were there was to go on game drives and see the wildlife. Carter did great on the game drives once again. We always had the ipad or drawing materials with us, and if he got bored he would crawl under the seats and lie on the floor and entertain himself. In retrospect, it's actually astonishing that we were able to take him on twice-daily three-hour game drives with almost no difficulty. It's not the kind of thing you would expect to be able to do with a five-year-old, but one of the things we've seen over and over this year is how flexible and adaptable Carter is. He has the ability to be happy just about anywhere. 

After the morning drive, our guide Obi would usually park the rover on the opposite side of the river (inside the boundaries of the National Park; the house was just outside) and then we'd take a boat across to the house. In the afternoon, we'd boat back across and pick up where we left off. 

So, on to the animals we saw over the course of the week! There were lots of elephants, of course. The elephants here were smaller than the ones we've seen in South Africa and Botswana, and as before, we saw many with no tusks. Until a couple of decades ago, poaching was still very common in this area, and you can still see the impact of it with these animals.

Obi told us that these elephants were likely heading to the villages around the edges of the park to raid the crops. He said it's a big problem for the villages close to the park, since there is no fence here. And of course, it's very difficult to stop an elephant when it wants to get into your field of corn. It's obviously a source of tension between the people and the animals.

These antelope are called puku, and this is the first time we've ever seen them. They're not commonly found in Botswana.

The zebras in this area are a different subspecies than the ones we've seen in Botswana and South Africa. They only have black and white stripes, and don't have the brown "shadow" stripes that the ones we've ssen in other places have.

We saw many, many hippos!

Here we are stopping for our sundown drinks on our first evening game drive.

And of course, we saw lots of other animals. I took over 500 photos, and this post and the next will contain the best of them.

This was a very special sight: the beautiful Carmine bee-eaters return to the banks of this river every year to breed. They dig their nests into the sandy banks of the river, where their eggs and chicks will be safe from predators. The chicks are large enough to fly and leave the nest around the time the rains come and the river rises again.

We saw at least a dozen different leopards during the week, which was amazing! We saw one on nearly every game drive we went on. They're such beautiful cats.

Saddle-billed stork:

Spotted hyenas on a kill.

We also saw lions, of course.

As you can see, the animals basically ignore the vehicles. If they see humans on foot, they'll run away and keep their distance, but when we're on the vehicle, they see us as part of it and know we won't hurt them, even though they can smell us and hear us. It's really interesting.

Carter enjoyed riding around on the rover, especially when it got bumpy!

This is a typical position to find a full lion in: asleep and belly up! Apparently it aids diegestion. 

Many of the lionesses in this park are collared. There is a group of researchers who track their movements and collect data on them.

Look at her teeth!

This is the same lioness as pictured above. We followed her when she walked down the road and got to watch her marking this tree with her claws (a territorial display).

 In the next post, there will be many more photos from Luangwa, along with videos of the animals we saw.

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