It’s Monday 8th March 2010 and Liz & Heather are back in the Valley again

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The Luangwa Valley doesn’t stop to surprise me. In a few days we have gone from sunny days to complete flood alert and back again to the warm and bright days.  I was out for some days and when I arrived last Tuesday, I had a very different scenario in the Valley!

I met Robin and Jo at the airport and we travelled together to Nkwali. We were surprised with the height of the river. Oh dear – the river is already high and if this keeps up……

Luangwa River Lodge Luangwa River, South Luangwa, Zambia

On Wednesday all vehicles were moved out of the camp to a higher and wet place for the second time after the second flood alert.

After the storm the calm – this weekend was glorious – the rain stopped play the weather and the very bright days are here to stay. Today it’s sunny and blue sky with patchy clouds.

I had so much to tell you but I will leave for next week, because this week we have a very special contribution from our guests Heather and Liz from their River Journey last week.

Over to you Heather……..

“Liz and I first fell in love with the Luangwa Valley and its river 13 years ago, and it has been an enduring and lasting love affair which has never faded. The Luangwa River with its sand bars, meanders, ox-bow lakes, sandy cliffs and grazing lawns is always immediately recognisable whenever it is featured on wildlife documentaries, and never fails to transport us back in our memories and make us long to return.

However, we had only ever seen this unique river in the dry season, when it holds concentrations of hippos and crocodiles in any deeper pools, and is a huge attraction for all the animals of the park as they seek out dwindling supplies of water, and we began to wonder what it might be like when it became a real river rather than a gentle meandering stream. Having read numerous articles promoting the joys of “emerald season” trips early in the year, we finally took the plunge and booked to come out this February. We are keen birdwatchers, and the thought of seeing some of the usually boring little brown birds like Whydahs, Bishops and Weavers in their breeding plumage proved irresistible. The following is some of our experiences and impressions.

Leopard, South Luangwa, Zambia  Leopard, South Luangwa, Zambia

Our arrival at Nkwali was almost literally breathtaking. Where was that excuse for a river that we loved, with the channel under the deck used by the skimmers? In its place was a huge grey/brown monster, stretching from bank to bank and moving with power and speed with huge trees gliding swiftly past – and little did we know then that we had seen nothing yet of its potential! Some things don’t change though, and after a delicious lunch we set off in the boats with Daudi to cross to the other side of the river and pick up a vehicle. There were three of us as we were joined, ironically, by Chris who works in the International Department of the RSPB for whom we work as volunteers at Minsmere our local reserve, so we did not have the occasional problem of being birdwatchers with a group who did not wish to stop for birds. However, it was not birds that were the high spot of that particular drive, as after some close giraffe encounters we stopped at a tree containing a most obliging leopard.  The light was going, but we were still able to take reasonable pictures of it dozing, yawning, stretching then finally coming down to ground and ambling off into the bush. What a start!

Lions, South Luangwa, ZambiaLions, South Luangwa, Zambia

It rained heavily overnight, so it was a late start next morning but with the same arrangements. It rained on and off while we were out, but we were delighted to find a small pride of lions lying on the road and enjoyed watching and photographing them, particularly when they eventually decided to move into the cover of the bushes – lions that actually move, now that’s a revelation! We ended up in the hills above Chichele Lodge having our morning tea in the pouring rain with spirits dampened a little. Until we descended that is. Chris is very tall, and his position in the back seat gave him unrivalled spotting abilities, and as we drove down he found us not one but two leopards, probably a male following a female. These were not quite as obliging as the previous night’s, but we all managed some decent pictures, and in particular I took some video which is always better when the animals are moving.  Perhaps Chris should be employed as an honorary leopard spotter!

Long-tailed Paradise WhydahMasked-Weaver, South Luangwa, Zambia

The next morning, after saying farewell to Chris (or probably au revoir as we will no doubt be seeing each other regularly), we set off on the river with Daudi for our three nights’ stay at Nsefu.   This was a fascinating journey, going under the bridge at the entrance to the park that we had been over so many times, then passing many of the lodges we had stayed at in the past and being surprised at how close to each other they actually are when you are not winding your way across country.  A stop for tea at Tena Tena. Then arriving for lunch at Nsefu after a journey upstream, and so against the current, of about 3 hours.  We had previously stayed at Nsefu on our first trip to The Valley 13 years ago before it became a Robin Pope Camp and the difference was amazing.   Although in a fantastic position, it was shoddily run and the rondavels had no ventilation, and I well remember spending a couple of the hottest and sweatiest nights of my life there. It was so badly run in fact, that we had run out of beer during our stay – imagine!! So the new improved rondavels with lots of windows were a delight, and the catering was absolutely exceptional, so no problems there.

Ebony Groves, South Luangwa, ZambiaEbony Groves, South Luangwa, Zambia

The only problem in fact was the rain. Everywhere around the camp was very wet making it impossible to have more than a squelchy stroll to look for some birds, but the biggest disappointment was not being able to get to the yellow-billed stork breeding colony. Either this is done by leaving the boat and walking (too wet) or taking the boat all the way (river not high enough)!  It rained incessantly and very heavily all the nights we were there, often not stopping until mid-morning which meant late starts and cooked breakfasts were the order of the day (how awful!), but when we did eventually get out on the river it was wonderful. The river itself did not hold much of interest, but once we got into the slower-moving channels it was fantastic, with loads of birds being approached very closely and large gatherings of hippos and some huge crocs. The highlight though was definitely the ebony groves. We had walked through these on previous visits and marvelled at their atmospheric beauty, so being able to glide quietly through them by boat was a complete delight which we will never forget.

Luangwa River, South Luangwa, ZambiaNsefu Camp, South Luangwa, Zambia

So after another rainy night, we set off for a wet journey back to Nkwali which took only about half the time as we were going with current. When we arrived we were in for a shock as the river had risen about six feet in our absence and was now halfway up the landing steps instead of us walking up the bank.  There was no air of panic, but vehicles that were not needed were being moved out to higher ground just in case, and the question being asked by everybody at regular intervals was “how is the river?” with constant attention being paid to it like a prima donna. In fact, our first night back was so wet that the vigilant night watchman had felt obliged to wake the management at 4 am to warn them about rising water levels. We were told that there had been about 10 inches of rain fall in a week, which rather put in perspective the rainy week we had missed at home!

Red Bishop, South Luangwa, ZambiaDenham's Bustard, South Luangwa, Zambia

On our return we found we were sharing the camp with some delightful Americans with whom we had some great laughs, but sadly they all left the next day.  We were highly amused that Addison and Rose-Marie set off with Daudi for Nsefu with Addison saying plaintively that he didn’t like boats but getting little sympathy from his other half because it was he who had booked a trip called “River Journeys” and what did he expect!  So we were left with Kiki as our guide, and he indulged us shamelessly with our bird watching.  Instead of taking a couple of shorter drives on the other side of the river, we had a complete day out with him and went the long way round into the park over the bridge, and it was just wonderful!

A great day, but the highlight was saved for our last evening drive. It was a lovely sunny evening and we had asked Kiki if he would take us to our favourite place. We called it “the garden of Eden” as it is very green, flat and open and contains literally hundreds of animals and birds of different species. As we pulled up for our sundowners, we were astonished to see Kiki getting incredibly excited as he pointed out a large bird to us no more than 50 yards away. This was a Denham’s Bustard (used to be Stanley’s Bustard for any ornithologists out there) and this was only the fourth he had seen in 13 years in The Valley!  Probably one of the few occasions when the guide was possibly more excited by a sighting than the clients, though we were thrilled too of course. A most obliging (and beautiful) bird, we got some very close photos before it just ambled slowly away. And so just in time we finally got a proper sundowner – drinking beer watching the sun go down as it should be a fitting finale to our trip.  Many thanks are due to everybody who made our stay so enjoyable and did their best to work round the rain, but particularly to Kiki and Daudi for their patience. We look forward to seeing you all again as soon as funds allow.

So now we have seen our beloved river in both its states, which one do we prefer, the sleepy geography teacher’s dream of the dry season or the magnificent and imposing waterway of the wet season? There can only be one winner for us, but everybody who loves this river as we do should definitely come and decide for themselves.” – Heather

Heather, thanks so much for taking time to writing this lovely story!

Just a brief happy note about our Guides Team at Nkwali, they were nominated to the Best Camp Guiding Team 2010 Good Safari Guide Award. If you are wish to support our guides please click http://www.goodsafariguide.com/awards/nominate_property.aspx.

Have a wonderful week.

Sunset, South Luangwa, Zambia

 

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