Almost everyone I meet in the first two days in Zambia tells me this is the wrong season to visit south Luangwa. Late April is the end of the rainy season and the forest is particularly lush and wet. Rain or no rain, this is my first trip to Zambia and there is no way I am not going to see their best national park.
As it turns out, South Luangwa is warm and welcoming even in this chilly season. On the drive from the airport to the lodge, a lone male tusker ambles merrily on the main road and offers me the first sighting of the trip. At the lodge, I rush through lunch, impatient to head out into the forest.
Mayam doubles up as driver and guide, while a younger man, who does not open his mouth for the next four hours, clambers in next to him with a massive torch. He is going to be our eyes and ears when the sun goes down, bringing the nocturnal animals out into the open, especially the big cats. In five minutes, we are at the forest gate, this time welcomed by a family of yellow baboons. Like their cousins everywhere in the world, they are engaged in serious monkey business, jumping and screeching in unison.
Sprawling over 9,059 sq km and nurtured by the Luangwa river, South Luangwa is one of Zambia’s largest forests. The landscape is green and fertile, with mud tracks running between towering baobab trees and mossy lagoons. This is not the classic African flat and dry landscape that I have in mind, but it is beautiful in its own way.
The tall grass does make it difficult to spot the animals, even those grazing just off the trail, but Mayam is a wonder, seeing and hearing the subtlest of movements. Right in the midst of the thickets, a large herd of impalas come into view, these African antelopes as skittish as they are graceful. The kids in the Indian-Zambian family sharing the jeep are keen on seeing lions, but my heart is set on the elusive leopard. Of course, a few lions would not go unappreciated either. Mayam drives on, pointing out the abundant birdlife in the park: lanky yellow-billed storks perched on treetops, gorgeous grey-headed kingfishers and lilac-breasted rollers, the comic helmeted guinea fowl running on the ground, large southern ground hornbills busy building their nests…
There are no white rhinoceroses in this forest, having been poached to extinction, but it has a large number of hippopotamus. Most of them are well concealed under the leafy layer on top of all the ponds, emerging once in a few minutes to take a quick breath or a big yawn. It is impossible to discern just how many hippos are under the water at any spot, but Mayam says that there could be anywhere from three to 10 in a cluster.
As expected, most of the animals had gone away in search of higher and drier ground in the last few months, and are only now slowly making their way back. The usual suspects like giraffes and zebras are there, but in lesser numbers. Mayam also points out waterbucks and bushbucks, and soon my head is reeling with the effort of trying to tell them apart. One of the highlights is a rare sighting of the kudu — at close to four feet, they are one of the largest antelopes in the world.
Mayam stops the jeep by the riverbank for a quick sundowner — drinks and snacks packed by the lodge. I get to see a postcard African sunset over the Luangwa river, the sky painted multiple shades of orange, pink and purple, even as the forest winds down for the day. Dusk falls suddenly, plunging the area into complete darkness, and the moon is just a tiny sliver high up in the sky. That is when the silent one on the front seat comes to life, shining his torch on the mud paths and tree tops in search of lions and leopards. Ahead on the roads, three jeeps have gathered around a spot — a lioness is lying in the middle of the road, a picture of insouciance, as if to make sure everyone gets a good look.
Mayam starts the jeep too soon, ignoring our cries of protest. But he knows what he’s doing. A lion is sitting just a few feet away, in a clearing in the bush, away from the main road. This one is named Ginger for its semi-albino looks, and is a clear crowd-pleaser. On seeing us, he stops licking his limbs and lifts his head up to let out a series of mighty roars. That done, he slumps to the ground as if in exhaustion from all that hard work.
Despite it not being the best time of the year for wildlife, Zambia manages to churn out an exciting array during my two game drives; all along I can only think of how rich the sightings would be in peak season, especially on their unique walking safaris into the forest. Unlike the more obvious and popular choices like Kenya and South Africa, Zambia does not yet have hordes descending upon it every winter. Which means that, even in the busy months, it is possible to have large swathes of the forest to yourself. For nature enthusiasts, what can be a better deal?