Why a safari in the rainy season is not to be missed. By Mike Unwin.
Image copyright Robin Pope Safaris
ill we make it back in time? The storm clouds have been building all morning and now, as our Land Cruiser lurches homewards, lightning flashes along the horizon and a sky of rumbling purple hangs above us, poised to burst.
The first heavy drops cannon off the bonnet as we roll into camp, quickly gathering rhythm, and within seconds, the skies have opened: a thunderous downpour that hammers on thatch and canvas and explodes from the dusty ground. But we’ve made it. After two days of building tension—each morning, the bubbling call of the coucals promising rain—it’s exhilarating at last to watch nature unleashed. Especially when safe and dry, with beer in hand.
For visitors to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park—as in many safari destinations—the rainy season is traditionally the one to avoid. The May–September dry season is seen as a much better bet. This is when the game herds concentrate at the shrinking water sources and the vegetation dies back, making wildlife easier to spot.
Come the rains, according to conventional wisdom, it all becomes too difficult: the wildlife disappears behind an impenetrable curtain of greenery, the temperature soars and the flooded roads become un-navigable.
Occasionally, though, conventional wisdom misses a trick. Right now, it’s January, the very height of the rains, and yes, the grass is chest high and the bush blanketed in green. The sweeping river terraces, on which just a few months ago buffalo raised clouds of dust as they trudged down to drink, now lie submerged beneath the great cocoa-coloured Luangwa. Many of the park’s roads are under water or beyond reach. Many of its lodges have closed.
These storms seldom last long, however. As we sit back after lunch, a blue sky unfurls over the dripping bush and the magical soundscape of the rains resumes.
Birds of all kinds are soon making up for time lost to the downpour: orange-breasted bush shrike, white-browed robin chat, black-headed oriole, each proclaiming its territory with the gusto of the breeding season. Interspersed among the local residents, I also hear the seasonal visitors: the laughing trill of a woodland kingfisher; the three-note chime of a red-chested cuckoo. Painted reed frogs are at it too, piping away like a string orchestra, while a soporific background hum means the bees are back on the nectar.
By mid-afternoon we are back in the vehicle, our guide negotiating fresh puddles as we meander through the river bank combretum thickets. Impala nibble on fallen blood-red sausage tree flowers, while elephants thrash clods of mud from trunkfuls of grass before stuffing it into their great pachyderm maws.
We meet francolins bathing in a tyre track, a chameleon advancing painstakingly along a vine and, best of all, a young leopard, who shakes the rain from her glossy pelt and pads down the road, leaving her signature four-toed tracks.
The profusion of life is breathtaking. Everything is eating, breeding or displaying. Even the dung beetles appear in tip-top condition.
The roads can only take us so far. But the following morning the excitement continues when we take to the bush by boat. Hippos snort and submerge as we nudge between the trunks of a submerged ebony grove. And when our craft can go no further, we get out and walk, shouldering through the foliage to find browsing kudu and a wary party of giraffe. Fresh lion prints lead us to a clearing beside the river, where two of the big cats are still tucking into last night’s zebra. A low growl from the thickets suggests the rest of the pride is lying up nearby. We leave them to it.
So, it’s worth thinking again about the rains. A safari at the heart of South Luangwa’s ‘emerald season’ offers a wildlife experience of unique riches. The game viewing might take a little more work, but the sightings, when they come, feel that much more intense.
Meanwhile the new growth brings a pageant of insects, flowers, reptiles, singing birds and gambolling youngsters, while the tired, bleached-out tones of the dry season give way to a glorious palette of vivid greens, earthy reds and majestic cloudscapes.
Worried about getting wet? Bring a brolly.
Mike Unwin visited South Luangwa during the Emerald Season with Robin Pope Safaris (robinpopesafaris.net).