October 12, 2013
Valley of elephants: South Luangwa up close and personal
There is no disputing the the wildlife of Zambia is among the most spectacular and visually diverse in the world, and I was thrilled at the prospect of photographing some of it as summer in the UK drew to a close. Talk of Zambia conjures up scenes of safari on the Zambezi or bungee-jumping over the crocodile-infested Victoria Falls, but my journey took me east into the South Luangwa valley to a destination much lower-beat but nonetheless heralded by many as one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world - the South Luangwa National Park. Bordered in the south east by the Luangwa river itself, this national park offers a more intimate destination for wildlife lovers and sees fewer visitors than other safari reserves many of which suffer somewhat by a combination of over-commercialisation [que the endless line of 4x4s surrounding a pride of lions] and animal poaching which seems to be one of Africa's many never ending struggles. Drive a few hours east from Luangwa to the likes of Kasungu or Lukusuzi which straddle the border with Malawi to see the effects of incessant poaching - landscapes are notable by the absence of those which should graze, hunt and breed in them. South Luangwa, on the other hand, feels very much 'off the beaten track' and, unlike some of the more well-known reserves in sub-saharan Africa, its borders are entirely natural, meaning no electric fences, but instead hemmed in by natural features such as the Luangwa river which runs from NE to SW, and a steep, rocky escarpment to the NW acting as a great wall impenetrable to human encroachment.In the past South Luangwa had indeed suffered at the hands of poachers who rampantly decimated its elephant population in the 1970s which, prior to this episode was so vast gave rise to its nickname Elephant Valley. However government intervention since has allowed the reserve to replenish its wildlife stocks. In fact, where many well-populated reserves might actually fall short when it comes to viewing, with decidedly skittish animals which have become shy as a direct result of poaching activity, South Luangwa's wildlife seems quite indifferent to tourists, even the elusive leopards which are tricky to spot at the best of times, but which can occasionally be seen snoozing up a tree (like the moggie above) with their tail swaying gently in the breeze. This acquiescence with tourists should act as a stark reminder to governments and reserve managers alike what happens when poachers aren't around - these wild residents feel more at ease and we can watch the action at closer quarters. The 'Cha-Ching!' factor in Africa doesn't have to be to the detriment of its wildlife. Coming from Malawi, I reached the valley after a 6-hour drive and was very pleasantly surprised by the state of accommodation, given that the safari operator (Kiboko Safaris) was a fair bit cheaper than its competitors, perhaps because it operates out of neighboring Malawi. Tourist accommodation in this sector are called camps rather than hotels, adding to the slightly rustic feel. We were warned upon arrival a) not to leave our tent doors open unless we wanted to share a bed with a monkey or worse, and b) not to venture out of the tent area without our nightwatchman as there was a very real possibility (more like certainty, as it turned out) of bumping into an elephant or hippo, which cross the river out of the reserve on their nightly incursions into the camp and surrounds. With 5am starts each day, sleep should have been easy to come by in the evenings, but as the later hours approached so too did the wildlife and it seemed as if the entire campsite had been lifted up and plonked straight into the reserve itself. Wilderness does not necessarily go hand in hand with tranquility as we might know it and, whilst you cannot deny its wild and isolated feel, the noises of the night predominate with all manner of snorting, shuffling and crackling of undergrowth as animals amble about the camp looking for morsels. As the vents in my tent were all open, I had a front row seat to see what was causing this commotion - at one point I raised my head to see the beady eye of a hippo staring back at me with only a thin PVC window interrupting the 6 inches of space between our heads. One wonders what would happen if they knew how flimsy a tent can be. It was truly exhilarating stuff and I hadn't even set foot inside the park! The visual feast starts immediately as you cross over the river into the reserve, with sizable pods of hippos bathing in the river below which in September was about a quarter as full as in the rainy season. Hippos congregate in parts of the river where there is still enough water to slosh about up to their necks to prevent their skin from drying out, cracking and becoming infected from flesh-eating fish. Around the reserve, which is colored brown and orange at this time of season, most diurnal wildlife isn't hard to spot as the foliage is much thinner than in the wetter season. Of the herbivores impala, bushbuck and other deer-like herbivores are in abundance, as are warthog, zebra and of course elephants, which number in the many hundreds. There are many buffalo and countless other animals which you ideally need a checklist to tick off.