Photo Safari Report: Luangwa Classic | Flatdogs Camp & Lion Camp | 5 - 11 September 2016

17th September 2016

I run many trips in Luangwa during the year, but my Flatdogs Camp & Lion Camp trips are the first that I led, more than 4 years ago. The formula of 3 nights at each camp still works, and many of my best photo opportunities have come from these tours.

My latest trip was particularly enjoyable because the sightings were outstanding - we often checked with each other to be sure that we were really seeing what was in front of us! - and also because I was welcoming back a couple of guests who had been on safari with me before. It's always great to see them again.

I met the group at Flatdogs on the first lunchtime and we discussed our plans for that afternoon. As always, I spent a bit of time with each, learning about how they use their cameras so that I'd be best placed to offer advice and tips. Unless I feel that it is hugely beneficial, I would rather help guests build on their current methods and knowledge, rather than try to implement new techniques while on safari. If they are familiar with their cameras, I can offer adjustments and tweaks that will help them get the best from the trip.

THE LIONS - above all others, the lions were the stars of this trip! We saw different prides almost every day, including large males, small cubs, and lionesses chasing buffaloes!

Late on in our first morning drive, we found 7 members of Big Pride - a large pride of 30 lions that has fragmented and are found throughout the central area of the park. These carbon-copy young males were inseparable, following one of the females when she made a half-hearted attempt to hunt a waterbuck.

We returned in the evening, and the lions barely moved until after sunset! Using the headlights of the vehicle, we discussed how to get this interesting effect using the Tungsten white balance - golden lion with navy blue sunset light behind.

Arriving at Lion Camp, we decided to head out and look for the Mwamba Pride who have 4 small cubs. They were resting near a waterhole and we enjoyed nearly an hour of cub antics!

The two youngsters were comic, playing non-stop for about 30 minutes.

Once they grew tired - and one had fallen off the tree onto his back! - they settled down and contemplated the Hooded Vultures circling above.

One morning at Lion Camp, we set out early and found the Hollywood pride lounging around the dambos near camp. One female got up and began to hunt some warthogs, but was quickly spotted and soon settled down again.

But her movements had taken us nearer the river, and when we got there, we could see the two Hollywood males approaching the water from the other side. Knowing that they were the males who are commonly seen on the Lion Camp side, I suggested that they would cross the river, and positioned the vehicle for their approach. I am not sure any of my guests believed that they would cross open water - lions are not famous for getting their feet wet! - but, without a backward glance, the two males paddled in and walked straight towards us!

The light couldn't have been better for our photos of the males crossing the main river.

But that was just the beginning! Once they reached our side, they strutted around for a while, hoping to track down the females.

The females were busy (half-heartedly) chasing a couple of buffalo bulls in the distance, and the Hollywood boys wasted no time in setting off in pursuit.

But it wasn't the buffalo they were interested in. It was actually one of the females who was clearly coming into oestrus. They ignored several other females, and all the youngsters, and pursued her relentlessly up and down the grassland. At one stage, both males were right behind her - bellowing out their enormous calls - while she fled in a mixture of fear and respect. Of course, she wants to be sure that the male she mates with is in peak condition, so the pursuit "game" allows her to test this principle.

Interestingly, the males and females ended up resting in the shade of different trees. But the oestrus female continually wandered over to the males, lay down nearby and waited. Then she would return to the females once more. Male lions want to hold large territories, and mate with as many females as possible. Female lions want to bear cubs from strong males, but they also want to be sure that the cubs they bear will be protected by the father, and not killed by other large males who encroach into the territory. Male lions have to ensure that they offer enough protection for females and cubs, or they progeny will not survive.

I will be back at Lion Camp later this month, so I will hopefully be able to finish the story then!

WONDERFUL SIGHTINGS - as well as the lions, we also enjoyed some interesting and beautiful sights. In no particular order, here are the highlights!

The sunset on our first night was the best of the week.

With drying waterholes and increasing temperatures, hippos occasionally vent their frustration at approaching vehicles!

One morning, we found more than 12 greater kudu heading down to the water to drink. Something spooked them - it doesn't take much! - and they turned and bolted back up the beach towards us. The impalas were caught up in the melee.

We talked a little about long-lens-landscapes - a technique that I love - which involves taking shots of animals in the distance and composing the image with long telephoto lens. These buffalos approaching the remaining water in Mbangula lagoon were perfect subjects.

This giraffe also presented a great opportunity for an animal-scape, framed perfectly among the mixed woodland on Mbomboza wa Milombe.

We weren't too sure if we were watching a mugging or a kid-napping here..... These baboons gave us around an hour of entertainment on our second afternoon.

Watching a retreating lioness, this Waterbuck male gave us a chance to talk about backlighting, and that not all subjects need to be close to us to make great photos.

Famously shy and hard to photograph, we were very pleased when these four sub-adult bulls posed for a few photos. The wind blowing from the side, and the light from the other side add to the feeling that they will flee any second.

We spent our last evening at hippo beach, a stretch of river where swirling currents dig the channel slightly deeper and provide a home for hundreds of these giants herbivores. Tempers flare regularly (between males and females) which offers some great chances for photographs! Here a female warns off a male who approached her and her calf.

If there can be any disappointment this season - and I am already overstating it as a disappointment! - we are missing a great location to watch the carmine bee-eater colonies at work. We can often find one where we drive onto the beach below, but this year, the river has changed course and we don't have such a chance. Nevertheless, the birds are still busily breeding and we can enjoy them from several great spots on top of the bank.

WILD DOGS - as you'll have seen in my previous trip reports, we've enjoyed some outstanding dog activity this year. They have denned near the central area and can be found most mornings chasing antelope around their favourite plains. We headed that way one morning and, while we missed the kill (by a few moments), we were able to watch the pack feed on their freshly killed puku.

A Fish Eagle - re-named a Puku Eagle by one of my guests! - came down to finish off the remains once the dogs had moved off to their den.

THE ELEPHANTS - elephants are everywhere in Luangwa. We see them throughout all our safari drives, and we have only to choose which sightings to stop and photograph. We enjoyed the whole range of elephant behaviour during the week - from tussling bulls to tiny calves.

Before even leaving Flatdogs Camp one afternoon we found ourselves among a herd of 10-12 bull elephants, scattered through the riverine bush. A couple of them soon became tangled in a friendly tussle. We watched from fewer than 5 meters away as two huge bulls (well over 8,000kgs of elephants!) grappled and wrestled back and forth. The 'clack' of their tusks is an unmistakable sound and gives some insight into the forces being exerted by the two vast creatures.

Later that same day, a group of elephant bulls headed to the river to cross. They took so long about it (!) that the light had dropped below the trees and they crossed in the shade, but the view of them once they reached the far bank was wonderful - watching them negotiate the steep sandy river bank was part comedy and part impressive!

My favourite habitat in the Luangwa is the munga woodlands that we find inland from the many lagoons along the main river. I love taking photos of animals in this habitat, but have never got the shot I wanted....a large mammal carefully positioned among the trees, with light from behind throwing a blue hue on the background. Finally I saw my chance....

When I saw this bull elephant heading towards the woodland, I tried briefly to explain my vision to my guests. It was hard to explain, so I just asked them to wait and see what I meant. Sure enough, the bull elephant walked slowly through, feeding as he went, and we all got the shots we wanted. This is certainly my favourite photo from this trip!

And then there was the story of the LEOPARDS - in fact, there were several stories of leopards in this week, but there are 3 which I would like to share.

The first began late one evening. We were heading to a spot for sundowners when we spotted a large leopard moving through the broken trees. We tried to follow but he wasn't pleased to see us and gave a snarl! Some leopards are not comfortable around people until after the sun has set.

We left him alone, and continued to our sundowner spot. Before we got there, we saw impalas with their heads up, snorting their displeasure at a retreating leopard - a second leopard in the same area!! Heading over to the spot where the impalas were, we quickly found an impala carcass on the ground below a tree. It seemed that the two leopards - one male and one female - had been feeding together on the carcass, and had left the area to go for water at the river!!

We had a quick break a little distance away - as much as anything to let the situation settle down - before returning after 20 minutes. We could see the male leopard returning to the scene so we used the red filter on our spotlight to track his movements and follow him without irritating him. (If leopards are irritated by a vehicle, they tend to sit down and wait for you to move away - not what we wanted when we knew he had a carcass nearby.)

After careful tracking, we got to the point where his carcass was waiting under the tree. We hoped that he would take it up into the tree to keep it from hyaenas, but he seemed relaxed and we practiced taking lots of night shots of him feeding.

It was interesting to watch him feed - the photo shows the areas on the impala's flank where the leopard has plucked the fur - and see his reaction to a male lion calling close by. He continually looked into the Leadwood tree nearby, but made no attempt to lift the carcass to safety.

The following morning, we decided to check Acacia loop where leopards are often found in the daytime. I heard baboons calling repeatedly and we qickly tracked down the source. What followed was one of the more unusual things I have seen on safari.
Impalas, puku, baboons and monkeys were all feeding in thick bush, with scattered trees throughout. By the time we got there, the baboon barks were only occasional, but there had to be a predator somewhere. We scoured the area, checking the trees and under the bushes. Eventually, I drove under a tree, and turned off the engine so we could photograph the baboons playing in a Winterthorn tree nearby.
There were baboons in the tree above us but we paid no attention, as they were hidden among the leaves. Suddenly, a small movement caught the eye of one of my guests, and he spotted a small leopard in the tree above us!!! With the tree full of baboons, I had not thought to check that it wasn't also full of leopard, since the two are not friends!

There she was, hidden by her astonishing markings! She was keeping a low profile to avoid irritating the baboons which would attack a leopard of her size if the situation arose.

One the way back to camp that morning, I found a large male leopard in the same area. He was quite relaxed, which is unusual for large males who tend to be more shy than the females.
In the afternoon, we went to find out what he had been doing, and discovered that he'd killed an impala during the day, and was busy feeding on it in a tree! But it was a high pressure situation for him because there were TWO other leopards - and a hyaena! - on the ground below, waiting for their shares of the prize!!

Occasionally he would growl at the approaching females below (one of which was the little leopard we had seen in the morning) and eventually, he dropped to the ground and wandered off, his stomach full. The adult female grabbed a fallen leg and raced off to a nearby tree, while the little female from the morning (probably his daughter) nimbly jumped into his tree and finished off the feast!

While not the finest of images, this shot shows the adult male, the small female and the hyaena at the base of the tree. By this point, the adult female had taken a leg and disappeared up another tree!

I have seen some exciting and rare sightings during my time in Luangwa, but this ranks among the most dramatic! I am leading another safari with this itinerary later this month, so I have high hopes for more wonderful experiences. Let's see what Nature brings.

THE GROUP - I welcomed back 2 repeat guests on this trip - Steve and Brenda - and 4 were joining me for the first time. Among some great sightings, we had a lot of fun too. Here are a few shots from behind the scenes!


Photo comment By Alison Lomax: Wonderful images Ed, if you can replicate that for the next trip we will be more than happy!!
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Alison - I am looking forward to meeting you and Kevin in 10 days! I am sure we'll have a great trip, and I hope we'll look back at the end and decide that we even topped this trip! Ed

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