January in the South Luangwa

24th January 2018

January is about half-way through Zambia's rainy season; large amounts of rain have usually fallen, carpeting the country in green grass, and stimulating extraordinary plant growth. The lagoons are filling, and the river has risen dramatically from the annual low in October and November.

A flooded lagoon in South Luangwa National Park
A seasonal lagoon - known as a dambo - which has filled from annual rainwater. Surrounding the waterways, a carpet of short green grass offers grazing for hungry herbivores.

Herbivorous mammals are thriving after months of nutritional stress; hippos, elephants, antelope and baboons feast on the new grass, and particularly the nourishing seed-heads. With water and forage to be found all over the park, game is scattered loosely across the floodplain areas, without the concentrations of the dry season.

A baboon stuffs its cheek pouches with fresh grass seeds in South Luangwa National Park
A baboon with cheek pouches stuffed with the seeds of rice grass which grows liberally in semi-flooded areas.

Predators have to work much harder for their prey, given that the antelope are healthier and stronger than in the dry season, and also less concentrated. However, lion and leopard are still regularly found on all safaris; in fact, with the flooded conditions, lions commonly use the roads and tracks as the driest method of moving around! Leopards are territorial creatures so are found in their normal ranges, often in trees to escape the profusion of flies that accompany the African summer.

A lioness reclines in the soft grass along a seasonal dambo in South Luangwa National Park
Keeping watch over a seasonal dambo for good hunting opportunities, a lioness presents a photo opportunity completely unrecognisable from the dry season a few months before.

Two leopards feed on opposite ends of an impala carcass in South Luangwa National Park
Avoiding flies, and the ever-present threat of scavengers, two leopards feed on their impala carcass in the high branches of a leadwood tree. Cloudy, overcast skies at this time of year sometimes make photography easier by reducing the massive contrast that sunny days create.

Soft, cloudy days with diffused light are also great for photographing birds which are at their busiest during the rains. Weavers sew nests out of grass, woodland kingfishers call incessantly from exposed perches, and red-backed shrikes scour the area for large insects that form their diet. Many birds - including these shrikes - have travelled all the way from Europe to enjoy the feast of insects that accompany the rains.

A spectacled weaver inspects a nest in South Luangwa National Park
A spectacled weaver inspects a nest built on a long woody branch over a small pond.

A woodland kingfisher in South Luangwa National Park
Woodland kingfishers appear in large numbers from central Africa (Congo, DRC, N Uganda) for breeding. They are initially very noisy while scouting for and defending nest sites, and then they settle down to feeding and rearing chicks from December onwards.

A female red-backed shrike in South Luangwa National Park
A female red-backed shrike observes her surroundings in search of food. These little birds come all the way from Europe to enjoy the summer insects in Africa, before returning to the north for breeding in the European summer.

Many other mammals have their youngsters at the start of the rains to take advantage of several months of rich food while they are lactating. Warthogs birth their piglets in August or September so they are weaning in the rains, and the youngsters can move from milk onto the lush green grass and ready supply of grubs and roots.

A warthog studies the photographer in South Luangwa National Park
This boar studied me closely while his family ran for cover as I approached!

As the river fills, reaching a couple of hundred meters wide in some places, it flows fast to clear the vast amounts of water falling on eastern Zambia. While this fast flow never gives a mirror-like surface for sunset shots, it's incredibly impressive to watch!

A full Luangwa River as it flows through the South Luangwa National Park
Sundowners along the river are spectacular at this time of year.

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