Going on safari during the rains is often disdained. But, for many reasons, there can be no better time to explore the bush. You’ll be overcome by the lush magnificence of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park during the emerald season. Words and photographs by Mike Unwin
It’s the calm after the storm. I sit alone on my dripping deck, watching the last of the lightning flicker out along the western horizon and the sky crowd with stars. A few final raindrops plop apologetically from the overhanging thatch. Except that it isn’t calm at all. The dark bush around me throbs with a cacophony of whistles, bleats, yaps and grunts. Frogs, awakened by the rains from their dry-season torpor, are launching themselves full-tilt at the breeding season. I recognise some of the players in this bizarre orchestra: the shrill strings are painted reed frogs; the oboe-like honking is snoring puddle frogs; the deep brass belches are giant African bullfrogs.
Other sounds punctuate the amphibian chorus. From a branch above me comes the sporadic ‘prrrp’ of an African Scops owl. A heaving moan from across the river announces a distant lion, prompting excited whoops from hyenas. Meanwhile, the mechanical music of a gazillion insects pulses like some high-pitched bush generator.
In short, I may be alone, with not a human sound for company, but there’s a serious racket going on out there. Seldom have I felt such a burgeoning sense of life: the sheer vitality of the African bush enveloping me from all sides.
This is ironic, I reflect, given that the rainy season is routinely dismissed as the worst time of year for a safari. Not only is the going tough, with roads washed away and camps inaccessible, but – according to popular wisdom – the rich growth and abundant water means that game disperses out of reach and those animals that remain are hidden behind a cloak of greenery. Yes, the rainy season has its challenges. Indeed, across Africa, many lodges close, unable to offer the kind of safari that their clients expect. And yet – as I am currently experiencing here in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park – there is arguably no better time to explore the bush.
Tonight, my shelter from the storm is Nsefu Camp, one of three Robin Pope Safaris (RPS) properties that remain open throughout the rains. It is the second stop on my innovative ‘River Journeys’ safari, which offers a unique insight into the joys of this much-neglected season. Flooded roads? No problem, we have a boat. Boat stuck? No problem, we step out on foot.
Arriving three days ago at Luangwa River Camp, my first port of call, I found the valley barely recognisable. The river, which I knew from dry-season visits as a dwindling trickle between sweeping sandbanks, was now a swollen, 500-metre-wide highway that tossed uprooted trees in its raging current. The dusty, rutted plains were a mosaic of lagoons, creeks and marshes. And the colours were transformed: the tired, dry-season palette replaced by improbably vivid greens; the bleached skies painted into towering cloudscapes of ice-cream whites and angry purples. It was a photographer’s dream.
The wildlife, meanwhile, was buzzing with energy. As the herds nibbled their way across the great salad bowl — impala, zebra, warthog — a bleating nursery of youngsters tagged along, suckling vigorously whenever their mothers paused. Birds, decked out in breeding finery, sang from every bush, proclaiming territory and luring mates with gusto. Many of these voices — from the shrill chatter of woodland kingfishers to the mournful whistle of black cuckoos — were those of inter-African migrants that had travelled south for the rains.
As for the big game vanishing, a boat journey upriver soon scotched this myth. Each bend produced something on the bank, whether a browsing bull elephant or group of curious giraffe. Cutting the outboard, my guide Bertram would position us expertly in the current, allowing us to drift silently back down beneath the animals’ noses.
The flooded terrain also allowed us to penetrate deep inland, navigating winding creeks and flooded ebony groves. On one occasion, we drifted heart-stoppingly close to a pride of lions beside a marsh, driven from their buffalo kill by a group of elephants that still trumpeted crossly in the background. Beached in the shallows, we crouched down, barely breathing, as the cats’ amber eyes bore into us from just ten metres away.
Hippos were our constant companions, snorting with goggle-eyed outrage when they popped up beside us, while crocs slid off the bank at every bend. And at water-level proximity the riverine birdlife was dazzling. We watched fish eagles atop the bank, malachite kingfishers passing a wriggling fish back and forth and yellow-billed storks probing the shallows.
Best of all, however, was when we tied up to a tree root and, led by our armed scout, continued on foot. We tramped through shaded woodland, ankle-deep swamp and tangled combretum thickets. All senses were on red alert. Our noses led us first to a decomposing hippo carcass and then, just as the fetid stench became too much, through the heady scent of a wild jasmine grove. Our ears twitched at distant half-sounds: was that ‘whump’ the flap of an elephant’s ear or a chunk of riverbank collapsing into the river?
And again, animals were everywhere. We crouched unseen beside one broad clearing to watch rare Cookson’s wildebeest file through ranks of grazing impala, zebra and puku. Meanwhile, a hundred-strong troop of baboons fanned out across the plain, eland emerged cautiously from the mopane and elephants swung past against the storm-lit backdrop. No game? It was a veritable mini-Serengeti!
My safari ended downstream at Nkwali, the RPS headquarters, where enough roads remained open to allow more traditional game drives. Splashing through swamps and fording creeks, we enjoyed a final embrace in the bounty of the rainy season, watching hyena pups cavort outside their den and a young female leopard roll like a tabby in the sodden grass. What’s more, we still had the place virtually to ourselves: no rumble of vehicle engines at a sighting, just the unbroken hum of insects and clamour of birdsong.
Seasons change. A thousand white storks spiralling skywards on my last day was a reminder that these European migrants were, like me, preparing for departure. Within a few weeks, the rain would stop falling, the river start to shrink and the vegetation to wither. By the mid-dry season, visitors would again be pouring into South Luangwa for, no doubt, fabulous game-viewing. They wouldn’t be needing wellies or ponchos. But then neither would they be serenaded by snoring puddle frogs.
For and against travelling during the rains
✔ The birdlife is at its best: an influx of summer migrants means more species; most are in breeding mode, many revealing songs, plumage and displays that are absent during the dry season.
✔ Smaller creatures, including reptiles, amphibians and insects, are much more abundant and visible.
✔ Many mammals have newborn young.
✔ Lush, green landscapes and turbulent skies mean excellent colours and light for photography.
✔ The river is full, allowing excellent, silent game viewing by boat.
✘ Wet conditions make some areas inaccessible, restricting travel by road.
✘ Abundant water means that larger mammals are no longer dependent on permanent water sources and so disperse more widely.
✘ Verdant growth and tall grass make spotting animals more difficult.
✘ There are more insects: fascinating to some, irritating to others.
✘ It rains – so you might get wet.
South Luangwa Voices
“Safari-goers and wildlife photographers all seem to gather in the Luangwa Valley in the dry season. But why turn your back on the emerald (or ‘secret’) season? The rains can often make the game drives so much more adventurous and lead to spectacular skies and sunsets. The bush turns a vivid green and the air is clear from dust. Animals abound, even if they’re sometimes harder to spot, and many migratory birds flock in. As for the rain? It’s just water, after all.”
Isabelle Defourny, Kafunta Safaris
“Zambia’s green season is our best-kept secret — wild dog heaven, fat and happy elephants, buffalo and plains game, magnificent birds in glorious breeding colours and leopards, leopards, leopards… The weather is balmy and the rain is warm, usually accompanied by spectacular natural fireworks in the form of lightning. The whole Luangwa Valley looks completely different from the brown, parched months of September and October. This is definitely my favourite time of the year.”
Mindy Roberts, Norman Carr Safaris
“There aren’t many visitors during the ‘rainy’ months. People imagine endless torrents, tall grass and non-existent game sightings. But it could hardly be more different: expect sunny days with dramatic, stormy skies, occasional thunderstorms, vibrant landscapes, rich colours and plenty of wildlife. While you might not see the headline species every day, there’s so much more on offer in this time of growth and regeneration: elephant herds accompanied by calves, impala with wobbly-legged lambs and wildflowers decorating the roadsides. Nature thrives.”
Ed Selfe, Guide, Nkonsi Camp, Jackalberry Safaris
• Where to stay Mike Unwin stayed at Robin Pope Safaris’ Luangwa River Camp, Nsefu Camp and Nkwali Camp. Many of Luangwa’s lodgings are inaccessible during the rains, but you are advised to check with your agent for current information.
• When to visit The emeral season is from January to April.
• Getting there Several tour operators offer trips to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. The writer travelled with Cox & Kings.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Zambia (5th Edition) by Chris McIntyre; Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife by Mike Unwin