The Carmines are Coming!

As the heat builds in the South Luangwa, September offers one of the valley’s more colourful sights- the arrival of the Carmine Beeaters.  During this dry hot season the water levels in the rivers are low, exposing the banks for the bee eaters to excavate a tunnel to build their nests. The annual movements of the Luangwa River channel means that each year the nest chambers are dug anew, and there’s a stiff competition for the bee eaters to stake their claim to the steepest part of the riverbank.

The sheerer the drop, the greater the protection from predators like the water monitor lizard, a fearsome climber and notorious egg thief. While eggs are lost each year to the monitors, their large bodies often can’t access the further reaches of the nest chambers- some of which can be up to three metres deep, and the carmines nest in such numbers that just a small proportion of eggs are stolen. Colonies can often contain hundreds, if not thousands of birds, providing safety in numbers from other predators, including fish eagles, who’ll cheerfully pick off a bee eater or two if the opportunity presents itself.

Carmine Bee Eaters South Luangwa

The Carmine Bee Eater Hide at Tafika

Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley is certainly one of the best places to see this phenomenon, and most of these photos were taken in and around the hide at Tafika, however, if you are keen to see the carmines en masse another fabulous spot to visit is King’s Pool in Botswana’s Linyanti Reserve. Here the carmines nest in the ground, rising in huge clouds every time a predator approaches or a squabble erupts- it’s an extraordinary sight, and one that our own photos just don’t do justice to, so many thanks to the pros for showing us how it should be done!

Carmine Bee Eaters at King's Pool

Ground nesting carmine bee eater colony near King’s Pool

“Seeing animals isn’t the point of mokoro, it’s bringing your heart closer to the water.”

Listening to our briefing in the baking sun of a late November afternoon safari in the Okavango Delta, it was hard to get excited about anything at all. We’d spent an exciting, but long and very hot morning on a game drive. After lazy lunch, adding another hour to my afternoon siesta seemed far more appealing than abandoning my bed at Little Vumbura for a wobbly dugout canoe. We were warned not to move around too much- “I have seen these capsize often,” said our poler, and not to trail our hands in the water for too long. Not because of hungry crocs apparently- it just made steering the mokoro more difficult.

Mokoro trip

Once we climbed aboard our mokoros and lowered ourselves gently into the seats, peace descended. I picked the back seat so I could snooze discreetly behind my sunglasses and bush hat if the heat overwhelmed me (and while sleeping would’ve been an utterly disgraceful waste of precious hours in the bush, it really was very hot). However, though the mokoro ride was the embodiment of tranquillity- this is Botswana’s equivalent to punting- and despite my tiredness, sleeping suddenly seemed a lot like missing out.

Travelling up front on hippo duty, our guide made sure the waterways were clear of unexpected four-legged surprises. Behind, our mokoro poler engaged us with tales of growing up in Botswana, and issued us with a challenge to spot the tiny Angolan reed frogs clinging to the top of swaying stems. We learnt the difference between night-time and day-time water lillies, how the jelly of the water shield plant could be used as sunscreen, and glided up on a pair of ducks so quietly that they shot away from us with startled squawks.

Reed Frog

Our mokoro ride ended as all good days in Africa should: watching the sun set with a cold G&T on a sand island as a family of elephants padded silently past. Afterwards we floated serenely home, listening to the calling frogs and watching the poler in front silhouetted against the light of the setting sun.

(Please excuse any fuzziness- all pictures the author’s own)

Green season safari- is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Think of African landscapes and the chances are you’ll be imagining an endless golden savannah, broken only with twisted and parched acacia trees. The wildebeest are cantering frantically in search of water and fresh grass (this is the main driver of the Great Migration) and vultures float on the thermals hoping to spot a lion kill.

There’s another Africa however, the Africa that blossoms with life in and around the rains. The green season (sometimes rather optimistically known as the “emerald season”) transforms the landscape.  Rivers burst with life and grasses and trees seem to glow in almost implausibly bright hues. Under thunderous storm clouds young animals learn to stand on shaking legs within minutes of their births, and predators look sleek and happy with a bellyful of food. This is the time when you’ll take the most spectacular photographs and see the bush at its very best (and sometimes at half the price of the peak periods).

Beyond that, the parks are largely deserted, and if you’ve done several safaris it’s utterly fascinating seeing the game reserves in a new light. Birding in particular is utterly glorious- if you’ve never seen a fish eagle swoop for its kill or a finfoot skiddle-skaddle across the water’s surface- this is your moment.

Green season safaris are at their best in Kenya and Tanzania in March and June (catch the savannah with its spring colours) or in Zambia between January and April. The ultimate experience is a boat safari in the South Luangwa– thanks to our friends at Norman Carr for the amazing selection of photos above. Elsewhere, watch the desert spring to life in Namibia, the mighty flood at the Victoria Falls or catch the mini Migration in the Kalahari.