The rainy season: a time of downpour and deluge, impassable roads, impenetrable bush, wildlife heading for the hills or vanishing behind a wall of greenery. Certainly no time for a safari. Or is it? Anna Devereux Baker donned her waterproofs and headed to South Luangwa National Park to find out for herself.
he deepening grey of the approaching storm threw the bright, sun-drenched trees into sharp relief as we drifted downstream. I closed my eyes, listening to the low hum of insects and inhaling the sweet, steamy scents from the bush. Only the ringing cry of a fish eagle punctured the heady ambience.
Zambia’s Luangwa Valley wears two very different sets of clothes: when the rains arrive in November the burnt-up browns and yellows of the dry season surrender almost overnight to the lush greens of what is known, appropriately, as the ‘Emerald Season’. A fresh new valley bursts forth from the ashes of the old: impala fawns and warthog piglets scamper around their mothers; the dense green foliage is adorned with richly scented flowers, and the newly arrived migrant birds are decked out in all their mint breeding plumage.
At the height of the season, around late January/February, the river is swollen, an ochre ribbon cutting a broad swathe through the bottle-green bush. Meanwhile the skies are clear and blue, bringing spectacular sunsets, and electrical storms roll along the horizon, piercing the sky with shards of lightning. It all adds up to a paradise for photographers: the colours are vibrant and intense, and there’s no dust or haze to blur your shots.
Unfortunately much of this beauty goes unseen by visitors. The rains lock the land away from sight, roads become rivers, and rutted dongas turn into lily-covered lagoons. Recent seasons saw exceptional scenes as the river flooded to the highest level since 1979. Airborne sightseers told of vast mud-brown lakes, dotted with trees and the occasional pea-green patch of higher ground. Unsurprisingly such challenging conditions oblige many camps to close. Others, those located along the park’s margins, remain open but offer reduced access to the park. Thus tourism slows to a trickle.
But some operators remain undaunted by the logistical difficulties, believing that the Luangwa at this time of year is too good to miss. Norman Carr Safaris, one such pioneer, teamed up with Robin Pope Safaris to offer the ‘Rivers and Rainbows’ package, a tour that takes visitors into the heart of the valley at the height of the rains. And thus it was that I found myself out on the river heading for Mchenja Bushcamp, one of only a few bush camps in the park to remain open throughout the year.
Our guide at Mchenja was supremely knowledgeable. With game drives largely off limits, due to the waterlogged roads, he led us out on foot. Walking through the bush is a privilege at any time of year, but in the wet season, surrounded by nature in full flush and not another tourist in sight, it is a magical experience. The verdant landscape, with its profusion of velvety greens, jades, olives and limes, appeared in places almost like the ‘wild garden’ of a stately home, its lawns cropped by nature’s best lawnmowers — the hippos.
With visibility often limited, we soon learned to keep our ears open. At every turn the bush revealed yet another secret: the rattling of oxpeckers hinting that buffalo or giraffe might be ahead; the harsh ‘go-waaaay’ of the grey lourie suggesting a nearby predator; even the staccato chattering of tree squirrels indicating a snake might be slowly wending its way through the long grass. But it was the sudden ‘wa-hoo!’ alarm call of a baboon sentinel from above our heads that brought Levy (our guide) to a stop. The troop was staring intently into a spindly rain tree. We peered through binoculars: a raptor, maybe — or perhaps a python?
‘Kaingo,’ whispered Levy, as a leopard emerged from her hiding place in the branches and slipped sinuously down the trunk, an impala dangling from her jaws. She landed with a soft thump at the base, snarling as the barking baboons reached a crescendo. A few brave youngsters, egged on by the mob, darted forward with teeth bared. Discretion being the better part of valour, the cat withdrew into the bush to finish her meal.
Ten minutes later, over cups of kawambwa tea (with the customary three sugars each) and thick slabs of banana cake, Levy told us that the baboons had probably not been scared, but angry, and were trying to force the interloper from their midst. ‘They could see she had already caught her prey,’ he explained. ‘I think that’s why they were so brave. No baboon in its right mind would approach a leopard that looked hungry!’
When our feet could take us no further, the river itself provided our transport. For even the most experienced safari buff, a boat trip along the swollen Luangwa is a revelation — a real emerald season treat. We putt-putted slowly downstream, stopping here and there to let a hippo slide out of our path or watch a dazzling malachite kingfisher among the reeds.
On one journey, a cacophony of squawking led us to a breeding colony of yellow-billed storks – the tree’s thick coating of white guano giving it a ghostly appearance. Juveniles engaged in bill-clapping squabbles as they jockeyed for position on the thinnest of branches. Meanwhile crocodiles circled below, ready to snap up any hapless individual that lost its footing and plummeted to the water.
Returning from the stork colony, I noticed something moving in the river that was clearly neither crocodile nor hippo; in fact, it looked more like the serpentine head and neck of the Loch Ness Monster. Levy nudged the boat gradually closer, and to my amazement this mystery object turned out to be the very tip of an elephant’s trunk. Bobbing up and down, several metres behind, came the hairy tip of his tail.
Levy smiled at my open-mouthed surprise. “Not many people know that elephants are actually very good swimmers and can easily cross a deep channel of water,” he explained. He cut the engine and we drifted nearer. Inch by inch the glistening form of the elephant emerged.
And what an elephant he was! An enormous fully-grown bull, tusks gleaming in the sun, he moved slowly through the shallows towards the steep muddy bank. We held our breath as he levered his massive bulk up the slippery slope. Finally, with an ungainly heave, he hauled himself onto dry land, then stood a while to catch his breath before ambling slowly into the bush.
My last night at Mchenja brought one final breath-catching moment. Having splashed my way back to my tent, I shone my torch into the sausage tree above to find myself looking straight into the mournful, chocolate-brown eyes of a Pel’s fishing owl. Perched on a branch no more than three metres away, his chest feathers ruffling in the breeze, he regarded me solemnly, then raised his head and called — a sound sometimes described as ‘a lost soul falling into a bottomless pit’. As I stood transfixed, his mate answered from deep in the ebony grove and with a gentle swoosh of wings he was gone, leaving an empty branch and a lasting memory.
Seven seasonal secrets
Zambia’s rains bring some unexpected wildlife highlights. Here are seven to look out for.
This beautiful but elusive bird arrives in low-lying areas, including the Zambezi and Luangwa valleys, in late November/December. Skulking in thickets, where it is best located by call, this is a top target for serious and dedicated birders.
The rainy season is mushroom season at Mutinondo, where fungi fiends can find the largest edible species in the world, known locally as Chingulungulu (Termitomyces titanicus). This monster measures up to 85cm across.
The bush bursts into bloom with the green season, with a profusion of purples, pinks and yellows. No flower is more spectacular than the scarlet fireball lily, which emerges at the first hint of rains.
Forget the Big Five: the largest and most impressive gathering of mammals in Zambia is the roost of several million straw-coloured fruit bats in the swamp forests of Kasanka National Park throughout November and December.
Many mammals drop their young at the start of the rains, when lush new growth means plenty of food for mother and baby alike. And all those vulnerable newborns tottering about is good news for predators, who have their own ravenous young to feed.
Elephants are a familiar sight in the Luangwa Valley all year round – but not generally in your hallway! Each December the local jumbos enter Mfuwe Lodge, without a reservation, drawn by the wild mangos that grow in the grounds.
Shoebills on show
The bizarre stork-like shoebill, surely Africa’s strangest bird, uses its enormous bill to capture lungfish in the Bangweulu wetlands. High water levels from January to May make for good sightings close to camp.
The rains explained
Rain in Zambia falls between November and April, when the sun is at its zenith. Eastern and higher areas generally receive more than western and lowland areas. The precise timing and duration is determined by the water-bearing ‘Congo’ air-mass, which normally brings rain when it moves south into Zambia from central Africa, reaching northern areas first then working south by end November/early December. As the sun’s intensity diminishes, the Congo air-mass returns north, leaving southern Zambia dry by mid-March and the north by late April or May. Most areas receive their heaviest rainfall in January, though northern areas – in common with central and eastern Africa – have two peaks, one in December and one in March. Zambia’s rains drain into two major river systems: the Zambezi Basin system to the south and east, and the Congo Basin system to the north. This makes Zambia one of the most important sources of fresh water on the continent.
Why visit in the emerald season?
• Excellent photography – gorgeous light, no dust
• Baby boom – young animals on view
• Birds, birds, birds – migrants, courtship, breeding colours
• Cheaper rates – some camps offer off-season bargains
• Fewer tourists – have the bush to yourself
This story was first published in Travel Zambia, edition 2