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

Trip Report: South Luangwa, Zambia, October 2016

Hi Alex,

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner; as you suspected we’ve been busy at work!
(c) Chris Tuckley

(c) Chris Tuckley

The Zambia trip you arranged for us was better than we ever could have expected it to be. I’ve completely run out of superlatives when trying to describe it to everyone who has asked! We were both amazed and extremely grateful for how brilliantly you interpreted what we wanted despite the vagueness of our initial phone call to you! The choices of camps was perfect too, enabling us to get a varied experience of different areas of the park. Thank you so much.
Other than your exemplary planning and choices there were a few particular highlights that made the whole trip even more wonderful which we would like to bring to your attention. Foremost amongst these was Nkonzi Camp in general. In the itinerary this seemed to be the (relatively) “unknown” component, having opened so recently and a relatively small online presence. It was, however, one of the best places we’ve ever been. We were particularly lucky I suppose in that we were the only guests for our time there (goodness knows why!), but I’m sure it would have been just as marvellous if it were full. Gavin Opie, the owner/guide, was astonishingly good, both as a host and guide, imparting Attenborough-esque information about the wildlife and wider ecosystem whilst ensuring a brilliantly relaxing yet unintrusive level of hospitality. Nkonzi truly made us feel like guests rather than customers (if that makes sense). Another aspect of Gavin’s camp which was very important to us was his ethics of guiding and construction of his camp. In contrast to some of the other lodges he rigidly enforced the policy of not driving off-road, instead parking and, if safe, walking off-road to get a better view.
(c) Chris Tuckley

(c) Chris Tuckley

Flatdogs was a brilliant introduction to safari, providing a huge choice of food and all mod cons whilst maintaining a sense of authenticity. The views from the tents are particularly impressive. Just in the first few hours we spent at our tent we saw more wildlife than we had expected to see for the entire trip!
Finishing at Kakuli was the perfect way to round off the trip in luxury. Again, the views from the tent were incredible – over the maintained waterhole on to the confluence of the Luwi and Luangwa rivers. As we had almost become used to, elephants were regular (and close!) visitors, meaning even our time in camp between drives was spent with camera and binoculars in hand!
(c) Chris Tuckley

(c) Chris Tuckley

Other than this we obviously saw some amazing sights. I took over 2,500 photos and am still sorting through many of them! Once I’ve selected the best and uploaded them somewhere I’ll send you a link! I’ve copied a couple of them below for now (although compressed and unprocessed!). Some of our highlights though were: sitting in the middle of a lion hunt at night, tracking and finding a leopard on foot, watching a mating pair of lions, walking closely around a large herd of buffalo at sunset, seeing a leopard about 15 metres away in broad daylight and seeing two fresh leopard kills (both impala) in trees.
(c) Chris Tuckley

(c) Chris Tuckley

Again, thank you so much for arranging such a wonderful holiday. If there are any ways in which we could endorse you somehow online just let us know where is best and we’ll get onto it! We’ll of course be back in touch soon to arrange our next safari and future ones after that.
Best regards,
Chris & Charlotte

50% off at Chongwe River Lodge until 31st May

Safari doesn’t come cheap, so we’re the first to leap at a good value safari. Normally this might mean a free night once you’ve paid for three or four, or 10% for the bride. Chongwe River Camp has knocked these out of the water with a special offer that we can’t ever remember seeing before- for every night you pay for, you’ll get another one free.

It’s valid till the 31st of May, so if you can, we’d recommend trying to book towards the end of that period for frankly lovely weather, great game viewing, and one of the prettiest spots in the Lower Zambezi National Park.

Elephant at Chongwe River Camp

Breakfast at Chongwe River Camp!

Chongwe’s the perfect sort of spot for slow safari (just sit around camp- we wouldn’t be surprised if the elephants come to you). There are long, languorous boat safaris, lazy afternoon naps, and game drives or a spot of tiger fishing if you need a quick adrenaline buzz.

To add to that (do we need more?) if you want even better value, this offer’s also valid at sister lodge Kasaka. If you want to head further north and extend your safari to the South Luangwa National Park, you can combine either Chongwe River Camp or Kasaka with Kapani Lodge  and receive 30% off at Kapani too. And while you do this, we’ll be dying quietly of jealousy in our chilly office in the UK.

Hippos on a walking safari near Kasaka

Hippos on a walk near Kasaka

We’ve done a quick sketch on costs, and we think you could do six, wonderful, envy-inducing nights at Chongwe from £2,275 per person, including international flights from London, saving £1,300 per person.

Or combine Kapani for four nights with four nights at Kasaka for £2,860, saving £1,050 per person.

International and domestic flights are included, your food’s included and all of your game viewing’s included too, so all you really have to do is buy some sunscreen and a safari hat!

Post Christmas Getaways for Grinches: No phone Reception, no contact with family and friends…

When the last cork’s popped, the turkey sandwiches are all eaten, and the door’s finally closed on the last member of your family, it’s time to get away. Away from demanding teenagers with endless Christmas wishlists, away from awkward conversations with cousins you only see once a year, and away from other people’s children who are charming but so very, very noisy.  And if you travel far away enough, you get to the sort of places where they can’t call you, even if they try.

If you need to switch off and tune out, this is where to go in Africa:

Chimp trekking at Greystoke Mahale

Greystoke from Lake Tanganyika

Greystoke Mahale (Western Tanzania). There’s a reason that tycoons’ wives whisk them off here when they really, really, need a break from their Blackberries. Greystoke isn’t a place for the intrusions of the outside world even if there were phone reception. When you’re sitting around the campfire late at night, the only dim glow (or blazing fireball) you need is from the shooting stars up above. In fact, from the minute you step onto the dhow – and look down at the hippos swimming in the water below you- you’ll be ready to hurl your phone overboard and stay forever.

Sundowners at Serra Cafema

Sundowners at Serra Cafema

Serra Cafema– Namibia- This oasis on the shores of the Kunene River is a remote safari camp, even by Namibian standards. Most guests come here for the chance to meet the Himba community (though not all that long ago, two nomadic Himba ladies walked for a couple of days to come have a look at the tourists), and chances are, they’re far more fascinating than whoever you might be talking to from home…

Relaxing in the Mwaleshi River

Relaxing in the Mwaleshi River

Mwaleshi, North Luangwa, Zambia- At Mwaleshi it’s challenge enough to even charge your phone, let alone getting enough reception to take a call on it. Far better to immerse yourself in the timeless world of North Luangwa, rising with the morning sun, wandering by elephants in the woods and cooling your feet in the river at the end of the day.

Elephant at Old Mondoro

Visitors at Old Mondoro

Old Mondoro Lower Zambezi, Zambia- The sort of place where a ringing phone would sound frankly aggressive, if not downright rude to the poor old  hippos singing in the river outside. So if, let’s say, your phone sadly “fell overboard” on the way to the lodge, you’d have the perfect excuse for not chatting to your family

Now- we wouldn’t guarantee that if you climbed a tree and held your phone at precisely the right angle, you wouldn’t get a flash of reception at some of these lodges, but you’d have to work pretty hard indeed. And a holiday’s not really about work is it?

Where to spot… Leopards

There’s something about spotting a leopard on safari that sets people’s pulses racing.  It’s often men that fall passionately for this slinky cat (sorry boys!)- it’s the ultimate predator, perfectly designed for the silent stalk, the stealthy hunt and the efficient kill.

Luxury Safari in the Sabi Sands

Leopard at Singita Sabi Sand

It’s possible to spot leopards on safari all over Africa, but they’re notoriously elusive. Stories abound about leopards successfully disguising themselves, even amongst large human populations. Legend holds that when a lone leopard was spotted on Nairobi railway station, the storyteller was rubbished. 3 years later, the bones of a recently deceased leopardess was spotted under a rarely used platform… Well, so the story goes.

For those who want more reliable leopard sightings there are a number of places to visit in Africa where a safari of two or three days should give you a very reliable chance of seeing a leopard. We’ve put some effort into personally checking these out, so do ask us if you have any questions.

Okonjima Safari

Okonjima Leopard

3. Okonjima, Central Highlands, Namibia

The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is utterly absorbing for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the big cats. It’s important to stress- these cats aren’t wild. They’ve been collared and are closely monitored by the research team. This makes it possible to get up close to leopard (also cheetah and wild dog) in a way that’s just not possible elsewhere, and learn more about hands on research and conservation than you would in 10 safaris.

2. South Luangwa, Zambia

I’ve had phenomenal sightings in the South Luangwa and a colleague who (though good at rather tall tales) claims to have spotted 7 leopard in one night drive. The leopard here are often spotted on night game drives with spotlights- this is the time of day when leopard are most active, as they’re on the hunt for fresh food. By day, look for the flicker of a tail up in the sausage trees, where leopards like to lounge on long flat branches.

Luxury Safari in the South Luangwa

Leopard spotted with Bushcamps on safari in the South Luangwa

1. Sabi Sands, South Africa

Without a shadow of a doubt, of all the places I’ve done safari in Africa (and there have been a few) the Sabi Sands has been by far and away the best place to spot leopards.  I’ve tracked adults through the grasses at Lion Sands, watched leopards lounging in trees from Nottens, and most satisfyingly of all, clocked a spotted face stalking me through the reeds over breakfast at Singita Ebony. If you’re a leopard lover, go tomorrow, take my camera, and never look back.

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.

The Best Mountain Biking Safaris

A hundred years ago, the best way to do a safari was on horseback. That way you got to see a little more, and move a little faster than you might if you were on a walking safari, but without the noise and fumes of travelling in a safari vehicle. Fast forward to 2013, when many of us live in cities, and you’re unlikely to find a horse tied up in the back garden.  Bikes however, are everywhere.

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

With the cycling craze sweeping Britain, almost every household seems to have a bike or three in the garage or taking up space in the hall. On summer afternoons the country lanes are choked with cycles, and early morning commuter trains are full of Brompton bikes. It almost seems extraordinary that it’s taken till now for mountain bike safaris to take off to such an extent.  Now though, a bike or two is the must-have piece of kit in every safari camp. What better way to burn off the endless delicious meals that seem to come almost hourly on safari?

Mountain bike safaris take you from being an outside observer of the bush to being part of it. Race galloping giraffes, smell the dampness of the dust in the early morning, and hear the birds cry as you move silently past. Africa at its best? Absolutely.

Here’s our pick of the very best biking in Africa:

Bush Biking for Beginners: Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, ZambiaTafika, in Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park was where I fell in love with mountain biking safaris- my first one, and the beginning of a serious addiction.

Cycling through the bush with John Coppinger, 20 years my senior and embarrassingly fitter, was a revelation-we could keep up with the zebras without scaring them, hear every branch crackle underfoot, and really, really appreciate the size of an elephant. I’d recommend as an introduction to anyone- you can just pop out for an hour or so on the bikes before a late afternoon game drive- perfect for dipping your toe in the water.

Multi-day mountain biking: Karisia, Kenya

Mountain Bike Safari in KenyaIf you’re a serious mountain-biker and love nothing better than getting dusty, dirty, and down with the animals, then a multi-day mountain biking safari could be the answer.

Together with our friends at Karisia in Kenya, we’ve put together a mountain biking safari in the Laikipia plateau in Kenya. We’ve limited it to 3 days of cycling, followed by some time in a vehicle for the saddle-sore, but we can make it as long as you like.- even cycling between safari lodges instead of flying. While we don’t like to gamble, we’re fairly confident that your warrior guides, and the camels who carry your kit, will keep pace with you no matter how long you want to keep pedalling for!

Serious adventure, Serious luxury: Singita Sabi Sand, South Africa

On safari at Singita Boulders, Sabi Sands, South AfricaSerious adventure needn’t mean a compromise on serious luxury. If you want the adrenaline thrill of cycling down dusty tracks, watching elephants from the saddle, but don’t want to rough it in the evenings, then Singita Sabi Sands is the perfect solution.

Not only are you smack in some of the best leopard-viewing territory in Africa, at the end of the day you’ll be returning to a seriously lovely room, easily large enough for a London estate agent to describe it as a “spacious, one-bedroom apartment”. These come complete with a decanter of something warm, delicious nibbles and a plunge pool to wash off the dust. Singita has a wine cellar to die for (we made sure to sample it on your behalf when we visited), fantastic guides, and a gorgeous area to explore.

Biking and the beach:

Mountain Biking at Pumulani, Lake Malawi

Though we’re huge fans of mountain biking on safari, if you’re just not quite sure about heading into the wilderness on two wheels rather than four, there are some fantastic options for biking that aren’t quite so wild.

A mountain bike is a fantastic way to explore the villages that line the shores of Lake Malawi.  Every single visitor that we’ve ever sent on holiday to Malawi has commented on just how warm and friendly the local are. For once it seems that a country really does live up to the tourist board slogan (in this case- the “warm heart of Africa”). Stepping away from the confines of a vehicle is the ideal way to meet the local community, and make hoards of tiny new friends amongst the children of the villages.

Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls

Swimming in the Devil's Pool, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Sadly, we can’t be in Africa all of the time. Well, we could, but the Extraordinary Africa dog is probably a little too small to take on a lion, though he’d like to think he could.  When we’re in the UK, we’re keen swimmers- in fact, Alex, our founder, has an ongoing project to swim down the Thames. So needless to say, this article (hiding behind the paywall sadly) from the Sunday Times, caught our interest right away.

But we were sad to see a gaping omission in their list- one of the world’s greatest swimming pools, which re-opened this week: The Devil’s Pool, right on the edge of Zambia’s Victoria Falls. This is not for the faint-hearted, and only opens each year when the water’s low enough – when it’s high, the flow’s powerful enough to sweep an elephant right over the falls.  You need to be a strong swimmer- this is definitely on the adventurous end of the spectrum, but it’s as close to Victoria Falls as you’re likely to get!

When is the Devil’s Pool open?

Usually late August/September until Mid-January.

How do I get to the Devil’s Pool?

Take a boat out to Livingstone Island, and follow your guide carefully across the rocks, and he’ll show you exactly where to jump in.  We can book this for you, but as it depends so much on the water levels it’s usually best to book with your lodge when you’re there.