It’s an hour past sunset and we’re motoring slowly from the Mfuwe Lodge with sleep in our eyes.
We’ve been in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for exactly six minutes after travelling from London Heathrow for 30 hours when we hear fast movement to the left of our jeep.
It’s a leopard running through the bush and clambering up a tree. Manda Chisanga, our driver and guide from The Bushcamp Company, brakes swiftly and explains that leopards thrive here.
We hadn’t expected to see one on our first evening, let alone within six minutes of arrival. In fact I was so tired I hadn’t thought about anything other than a shower and bed.
A few minutes later a lioness comes up close to the jeep and walks within five feet of me.
For a moment I feel fear (the jeep is open), but I could see her eyes weren’t fixed on me, she barely even acknowledges our presence.
As excitement begins to rise from within another two lionesses come out of the bush and do the same as the first, get up close to the jeep and walk past.
As the reality of what we’ve just seen kicks in a bushbuck lets out a terrified sound as the biggest of the three lionesses leaps into the air and grabs it by the neck and the other two start ripping flesh from its back, getting the best cuts of meat.
The noises are wild and ferocious and the lioness faces are covered in blood. At this point a fourth lioness appears to come out of nowhere, she is not made too feel welcome, but manages to rip out the intestines and run off before she is swiped by what looks like a giant paw.
A few minutes later a lioness comes up close to the jeep and walks within five feet of me
While the drama and action unfolded the baboons in the trees go crazy, making a sound like dogs that most of the other animals in the bush recognise as a lion warning. Baboons have different sounds for every predator and situation, but not for humans, they don’t feel threatened by us.
Manda explained that in his 20 years as a guide he had never seen so much action in such a short space of time. “Some people come here and never see anything like this, you are so lucky. Even David Attenborough and his crew wait months for this sort of footage.”
Feeling like safari kings we decided to return to the Mfuwe Lodge for a shower, dinner and well needed sleep. We were the stars of the show as the staff couldn’t believe how lucky we had been.
I was wide awake and up at four am and excited about the day ahead. I walked out of my front door to be met by an elephant destroying a tree and hippos all around. I was quickly removed from the area and taken by guards to the dining area for breakfast.
An hour later we were back on the jeep heading to Zunguilla the newest camp to The Bushcamp Company for a two-night stay.
On route to Zunguilla (about 3.5 hours in total) we watched buffalos out in the morning searching for water, zebra and impalas roaming around, a snake eagle sitting in a tree (a snake can not penetrate its skull with its bite) and two leopards in a tree.
Manda excitedly said: “It is very unusual to see two leopards together because they are very solitary animals, but what makes this even stranger is they are two males, which I have never seen before.
“One is the son so it must be a territory issue, the young one can’t find his own area because all the good ones are already taken.”
Sightings get ‘better and better’
Another first, we’d only been in the national park for a couple of hours and the animal sightings kept getting better and better.
Later that morning Manda spotted wild dog tracks which we followed slowly through some very rough terrain until we’d pulled up close to 21 wild dogs including 12 pups, enjoying some much needed shade under some trees to avoid the fast building heat. African wild dogs get terrible press as they strip entire areas of wildlife before moving on to a new location and are covered in and stink of sick.
They share food by throwing up in each others mouths. Consequently nothing is being done to conserve them and there are less than 4,000 left across Africa. We watched them for about 20 minutes, they are quite striking animals and it is sad that they are on the verge of extinction.
As we arrive at Zunguilla we are greeted warmly and shown around the camp. It captures the essence of old Africa, with outstanding views of the Kapamba River and an expansive plain that attracts a huge amount of wildlife and game.
The lodges are built in such a way that I sat back and watch the action from a sun lounger outside my back door.
To set the scene further each lodge comes with an outside shower and bath where I watch buffalos, impalas and many other animals each morning, but it’s what happened after breakfast that I was most looking forward to, bushwalking in the forest.
The land was dry, the air hot and water almost non-existent as we drove across empty rivers to reach our bushwalking destination. First we went to see the carmine bee-eaters that migrate from Mozambique in August and stay until the rainy season that starts in November.
The birds make tunnels in the dried river bank for birthing that extends for hundreds of metres. When the rains begin the bank collapses and the birds have to move on.
Watching and listening to these beautiful birds as they fly in swarms gathering insects for their young is an amazing sight. Once we’d spent time watching the birds we decided it was time to walk single file through the bush.
As Manda was explaining to us that they get no news out in the bush he laughed and said: “To get the morning news in Zambia we have to follow the animal tracks, that way we know what has been happening over night.”
Every way we turned there were huge sausage trees, the sausages hanging from the trees being the main food supply for hippos which is also used to cure Newcastle Disease in chickens and illness in other animals.
As we were speaking about this we heard the roar of an elephant in the distance. As we turned to the left a group of four elephants approached us with caution. We were advised to walk in the opposite direction as many elephants have seen others being poached and stuck in snares. Elephants never forget, so let’s just say we aren’t their favourite species.
As we continue walking Manda explained to us about many of the plants and there uses. It was a bit sad that the subject has become taboo in Zambia and a lot of young people don’t want to learn about plants as they identify it with witchcraft. As the knowledge is passed down from one family member to another it is only a matter of time before it disappears for good.
We decided to take a rest on the bark of a tree pulled down previously by an elephant in the scorching heat and get excited as we hear baboons give out a leopard call.
Manda almost immediately spots leopard prints for us to follow in the hope that the two lions we had seen earlier would follow and attempt to steal the catch before the leopard made it up the tree to eat.
We managed to see the leopard jump out of the tree with its catch, but didn’t manage to relocate it. I was not disappointed in any way, as an avid walker I loved every minute and what happened on day two bushwalking made up for it.
After some overnight rain, the animal sightings changed; lions disappeared deeper into the bush and are replaced by thousands of birds and tsetse flies, large biting flies that inhabit much of tropical Africa.
They are annoying and painful, but we had no intention of letting that spoil our day. The trick is not to panic as they follow and attack movement and were keen to show us that they could move much faster than the jeep. We set fire to elephant dung in a bucket swinging from the back of the jeep, which did seem to reduce the tsetse some what, although it didn’t eradicate them completely.
It continued to be a great day for viewing, we drank coffee next to group of giraffes and watched warthog’ eating happily as the ground was slightly softer. The reprieve didn’t last for long, by 9am the ground was solid again, baked in the sun.
After coffee the warning signals of the baboons came again, we knew that a leopard was close by. We followed Manda deeper into the bush as he recognised female leopard prints and were surprised to find two dead and part eaten impalas under a tree.
The tracks suggested that one had been killed and dragged two hundred metres and the other must have got to close to the tree and the leopard being an opportunist killed that one also.
We waited for ten minutes to see if the leopard would return, but the baboons were making so much noise that we decided to continue walking and not disturb nature. We were after all very privileged to be that close to such wonderful animals.
James Clark travelled as a guest of Extraordinary Africa. Extraordinary Africa can arrange a seven-night safari to the South Luangwa combining Zungulila and Mfuwe Lodge from £3,870 per person – includes all game drives and walks, meals, drinks, accommodation, domestic and international flights. More info: www.extraordinary-africa.com Tel:+44 207 097 1801