Behind the scenes at Amanzi and Anabezi Camps

We had a cup of coffee last week with Shaun Davy, who even brought some African sunshine to Edinburgh with him!  Shaun and his family created the amazing Amanzi and Anabezi Camps in the Lower Zambezi in Zambia so we seized the opportunity to ask him a few questions about setting up the camps and his personal highlights of safari in the Lower Zambezi. Read on for the local’s lowdown…

Shaun Davy

What’s it like building a camp from scratch and why did you choose the Lower Zambezi?

Difficult and rewarding. We have one of the most remote camps in the park so the planning and logistics were challenging to say the least. The nearest hardware store is a 14-hour round trip from camp, but that is how you create a special place – build something beautiful in a beautiful place. The Lower Zambezi has got to be one of the most under visited parks in the region, and we wanted to find a way to share it with people.

Aerial view of the camp

What do you love about the Lower Zambezi?

The pure beauty of the place, the Zambezi is an iconic river that runs through one of the last accessible wildernesses. To be able to experience this place through so many different activities like canoeing, boating and walking makes the Lower Zambezi a must-do safari experience.

With so many choices, what type of safari do you prefer and why?

I love being on a boat floating down the Zambezi, there is something special about letting nature pull you through one of its great spectacles.

Boat Safari at Anabezi

What’s been your best wildlife encounter ?

I was on a game drive and we came across a herd of elephants that were all around us. We stopped under a tree to get out of the afternoon sun and observe the herd. Suddenly there were small pieces of bark that started dropping into the vehicle, we looked up and in the tree directly above us was a female leopard who we had not seen but had obviously sought shade in the tree. There was a moment of panic, for all involved, as the leopard decided how it was going to vacate the tree. Fortunately, our guide quickly reversed and the leopard settled back down and allowed me to take one of my most cherished wildlife shots.

Leopard at Anabezi

What do you enjoy doing when you’re in camp?

I love fishing, mostly because it gives me an excuse to spend the day in a boat floating down the Zambezi.

Fishing at Anabezi

Are there any favourite wildlife visitors to camp?

There are six cubs who were born this year to the two daughters of a lone lioness called Guvu (her name means ‘lump’ because she has a growth on the side of her belly). She came to the Anabezi area by herself, fought three males who attacked her, fought them again to protect her two cubs, which she raised to adulthood, and she has now single-handedly established a pride in the area. A real testament to survival and motherhood.

Main area and firepit at Anabezi

And what about memorable experiences for guests in camp?

About two years ago a leopard killed an impala and dragged the kill under Tent 7. The guests in that tent were woken up to the sound of crunching bones. They were thrilled, but we were forced to move them because the leopard left the carcass under their tent and came back to feed the following night; it was not the sound that bothered the guests but the smell that was a bit much!

Impalas and waterbuck gathering by the camp

Huge thanks to Shaun for the interview and we’re all now hoping we can get back to the Lower Zambezi so very soon!

Private terrace and room

An insight into life as a walking safari guide…

We had a lovely interview with Tony Zephania, one of the walking guides at Namiri Plains.  Tony has had an inspiring career, starting off as a waiter for a safari camp before his enthusiasm for all things wildlife shone through and he was entered into the Asilia training programme to become a fully fledged safari guide.  He is now one of Asilia Africa’s head guides and, as Tony puts it himself, “a childhood dream has come to life”.  Read on to hear more about his love of the smaller wildlife, and some of his experiences on safari.

Tony Zephania

Can you tell us more about Asilia’s Trainee Guide Programme?  
So the duration of the initial walking training was 30 days – this was safe rifle handling, elephant rifle shooting and safe walking how to approach and avoid dangerous animals. Then I did a year as a backup guide with a very experienced walker – totalling to 100 hours of walking – then I was coached and assessed as a lead walking guide for 20 hrs. Fortunately I had learned well as a backup guide and I passed.

What’s the best part of your job?
Birdwatching and exploring the small life on a walking safari.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
When guests come in with high expectations of big game and on walking safaris that is not what we are looking for – we appreciate the smaller life in the bush – who are just as exciting.  I also struggle with guests who do not speak English so I take more time with them to ensure they understand.

Lilac Breasted Roller

What do you do in your spare time when you’re not with guests?
I like spending my time watching or listening to wildlife programmes. I also like to sit with my guides and discuss work challenges and how to overcome them.

Which National Park is your favourite to visit?
Even though I’m now based in Eastern Serengeti I have to be honest and say it is Ruaha National Park because the wildlife and landscape is so diverse.

What animals do you enjoy seeing on safari?
Birds mainly, but for large mammals, I enjoy watching elephants.

Namiri Plains, Serengeti

How many miles do you end up walking every day?
Depends what we come across and what we see and what the guests want out of their walk- but on average 3 miles a day.

What’s the best experience you’ve had on safari?

When I saw for the first time an elephant giving birth in Ruaha and it was almost dark but I could see everything. So very special and a moment I will never forget.

Have you had any amusing experiences with either animals or guests?
Yes! One of my guests jumped out of the car when we were viewing a leopard and the leopard climbed out of the tree. He did this to impress his fellow photographic friends who had been waiting for hours for the leopard to move. He thought it was very funny but it was so dangerous.

Leopard climbing down a tree

Huge thanks to Tony from Namiri Plains Safari Camp for answering all our questions.  Namiri Plains is currently undergoing a complete refurb, and we’re super excited to see how the renovated camp looks once it reopens in Autumn 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephants on the Runway…Jenny’s Trip Report

Lovely feedback from our guests who visited South Africa.

Dear Alexandra

As you know we got home on Friday and because we launched straight into a busy weekend I haven’t written sooner to say an enormous thank you to you for arranging what was a truly wonderful holiday.  We really did have the most amazing time – everything worked like clockwork ( apart from the elephant on the runway at Shukuza!!!!!!) and we said so many times while we were there how clever you had been to send us to all the different places which we loved in all their different ways.

Montusi Mountain Lodge

It was lovely when we first arrived to have three days at Montusi to switch off and revel in those views – we thought we couldn’t go better!

Leopard

Three Tree Hill lodge was perfect, Fugitives Drift even better and then the joy of seeing all the animals at the next two places (Notten’s and Makakatana [ed]).  We felt incredibly lucky seeing so many animals although I think the highlight had to be seeing a female leopard one day sleeping and then the following day up a tree with her kill!  We also saw a fabulous male leopard who strolled by the jeep so close we could have just reached out and stroked him!

Notten’s Bush Camp

There is a danger I could get far too carried away with superlatives but we did just want to say a really big thank you.  We saw so much…….. scenery, culture, animals, not to mention being thoroughly pampered everywhere we went with fabulous food and drink as well as meeting so many lovely people in the lodges.  The staff couldn’t have looked after us better giving us such welcomes either on arrival or when we got back from our various expeditions.

Makakatana Bay Lodge

We can understand how you love it!

If we can ever recommend anyone to come your way we will…..

With love Jenny

Dynasties- the demise of David, and where to see his fellow chimps in the wild

Sob! If you were (like us) gripped by Sunday’s episode of Dynasties, the latest David Attenborough documentary, you’ll be saddened to hear that David (alpha male chimp, not the presenter) has been killed, beaten to death by the younger males in the group. Watching the documentary, it was hard not to cheer this strong, brave, chimp. Desperately wounded in an attack under the cover of darkness, he battled his way back to leadership of the troop. Sadly, this was not to last. He was killed 7 months after filming finished as the males in the group battled it out for dominance and the chance to mate with the female chimps.

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Uganda

Watching Dynasties, it is all too easy to recognise the politics at play. Chimpanzees are our second closest relatives (the closest are bonobos, found only in the DRC) and perpetually push the boundaries of what it means to be human.

Once it was thought that only human beings used tools, and then chimps were found to use twigs for fishing termite mounds and rocks as weapons. For a while it was thought that only humans could smile, but now we know that chimps also smile. Equally, it was once thought true that only humans were self-aware, but chimps (and also magpies) have been shown to recognise themselves in a mirror. Chimps share 95-98% of our DNA, can catch our diseases, and have, in captivity, learned simple sign language.

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale, Tanzania

The best places to track chimpanzees

Chimps are found only in Africa, living in the patches of forest which once made up the equatorial rainforest belt. Seeing them in real life can be as moving, fascinating, and at times, as terrifying as Dynasties showed.

The Mahale Mountains in Tanzania is one of our all-time dream destinations for chimp trekking- not only does it have chimpanzees, but the setting is glorious- mist covered mountains tumbling down to the azure waters of Lake Tanganyika. The downside of Mahale is that it’s remote and can be costly to get to, so many more people go to see the chimpanzees in either Rwanda or Uganda.

Greystoke Mahale

The Mahale Mountains, with Greystoke Mahale

Rwanda’s chimps are found near to Nyungwe Forest, a mecca for birding and hiking and a nice add-on to a few days of gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda you are spoilt for choice- probably the best-known place for chimp trekking is Kibale Forest, where sightings of the chimps are usually very reliable. Here, you can also take part in chimpanzee habituation, heading out for the full day with the park rangers to try to acclimate chimps to human presence. Further north, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, you can track chimps in Budongo Forest- many of the excellent guides here were trained by Disney, so they’re excellent at really capturing the magic of the chimpanzees. For those visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, you can also track chimps at Kyambura Gorge, making chimps in the morning and elephants in the afternoon an entirely reasonable possibility.

If you’re not sure which option would suit you best, we’ve tried them all, so just ask us to point you in the right direction!

Kyambura Chimp

Kyambura Gorge Lodge Chimp, Uganda

Just back from… The Seychelles

While the UK was having a second winter, Alex somehow found an urgent reason to jet off to the Seychelles.  I think we call it “research”. Well, that’s what she’ll tell you, anyway.

Alex gives us the lowdown on her island-hopping trip to the Seychelles

What makes the Seychelles so special? The beaches are ridiculously lovely, especially on some of the outer islands, and they have a wonderfully safe, relaxed and peaceful feel.

(c) Denis Island

Dreamy beach view on Denis Island

Favourite bits? I was totally charmed by La Digue where there aren’t really any cars, so guests cruise sedately around on bicycles and golf carts. It was incredibly tranquil and the hotel I was staying at (Le Domaine De L’Orangeraie) had an amazing spa right up on the hill, so you could have a massage looking out at the island and the ocean- bliss.

Le Domaine De L'Orangeraie Spa

Massage Tables at Le Domaine De L’Orangeraie

Seeing the giant tortoises on Denis Island was pretty special too- the oldest, Toby is 120 years old. Though his age didn’t stop him chasing after Clara, a mere whippersnapper in her 60s.

Tortoise on Denis Island

One of the tortoises on Denis Island

“Less favourite” (ahem!) bits? There were a couple of fairly bland resorts I wasn’t too excited about – names hidden to protect the innocent (ish)… The laid-back island-style of the Seychelles generally works best with the smaller hotels, though there are some excellent exceptions to this. There are some seriously lovely resorts, especially at the top end, but some of the more mass-market places were pretty unexciting. Given the cost of getting to the Seychelles I think you’d want to feel like you were somewhere really special, so I’ve put those onto my “steer clear” list.

What’re the hotels like? Utterly charming and not as glitzy as you might expect. The Seychelles has quite a glamorous reputation, but the hotels, even the really high-end ones, in fact- especially the really high-end ones, have a very laid-back feel to them. If you turned up wearing heels and dripping in diamonds you might feel quite out of place.

How would you plan a trip to the Seychelles? Well, BA’s direct flights to the Seychelles started at the end of May, making this a really easy combo with a safari in Kenya or South Africa. Or, if you have more time to spare, island hopping in the Seychelles would make a really fun longer trip.

Top tips? Unless you’re staying on La Digue, I’d recommend booking pretty much everywhere on at least half board. Though there are quite a few great restaurants we can recommend for lunch, in the evenings you’re fairly unlikely to eat out. As the Seychelles are right in the middle of the Indian Ocean much of the scrumptious food and drink you’ll get is imported, and is consequently more expensive than on mainland Africa. Knowing that you’ve paid for the bulk of the trip up front takes the hassle out of things on the ground and mean you can concentrate on enjoying yourselves instead.

(c) Constance Lemuria Seychelles

Beach at Constance Lemuria on Praslin

 

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

Want to know what to expect on a gorilla trek? This is what: A full, detailed and honest report (with the writer’s own fuzzy photos)

You start with the sunrise, driving at dawn to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Here you’ll see guides, climbers, drivers and porters, getting ready for the adventures of the day- gorilla trekking and the various other treks that happen within the park. Tea and coffee is served in a small rondavel, and there are clean but simple loos. Your guide will head off with your passport and permit to negotiate your gorilla family allocation. Please just let him know how athletic you’re feeling- serious mountaineers and ultra-marathon lovers will be well rewarded by the challenging climb to the Susa group towards the top of the mountain, while those who prefer a gentler hike can request a gorilla family a little lower on the mountain. If you have an interest in a particular gorilla family- now’s your time to speak up!

As the guides negotiate, local Intore dancers normally perform for the visitors. It’s worth keeping a little cash handy if you feel you want to tip for this- we certainly did, not least for such an impressive feat of athleticism so early in the morning. Once negotiations are made and deals are done, you’ll be assigned your gorilla family and head into the gardens for a briefing. Our guide introduced us to our gorilla family- the Giraneza group- until recently a research family and only just opened up to visits from the public. We were told to expect one big silverback- in fact, one of the biggest- and two young babies as well as their mothers and some teenage black-backs.

Gorilla Trekking Rwanda breifing

Pre-gorilla trek briefing

 

We also introduced ourselves to fellow trekkers- this is usually a group of eight. Gorilla trekking, like much in Rwanda, is egalitarian- all permits are equal, so no matter if you’re staying in the $2,000 a night lodge or backpacking, you’re all united by an interest in the gorillas. Your group are also a great support- a gang whose intriguing conversation makes you forget the steepness of the mountains and who will (hopefully) cheerfully rest alongside you if you are in desperate need of a gulp of water or a breather.When you leave park HQ most trekkers drive for 20-40 mins to a designated starting point on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. We rumbled up a bumpy road into a village, where numerous blue uniformed porters were waiting for us in the car park.

If you trek during the rains, or aren’t an enthusiastic hiker we’d strongly recommend taking a porter- they’ll add hugely to your comfort and your enjoyment of the gorilla trek. In our group porters were helping to carry day bags, lending a steadying hand on slippery paths, and providing firm shoves when the path became too steep. And while it’d be easy to see having a porter as a luxury, anything you pay your porter is providing much needed income not just to the porter, but their dependents (who could easily number as many as 10) too. There’s a rotation to make sure that different porters benefit from the income from each group of visitors, so this does a huge amount of good in the community.

As we left our car park, we took our sticks and marched up through fields where the villagers were growing potatoes (locally referred to as “Irish Potatoes”, presumably to distinguish them from “sweet potatoes”) and pyrethrum flowers for insecticide.  This took around 20 minutes. Next, we clambered over the stone wall that separates Volcanoes National Park from the farmland, and from here on in it was steep and sometimes slippery terrain up to the gorillas. Our guide was in constant radio contact with trackers who’d followed the gorillas since they woke up that morning. The Giraneza group was considered to be a “medium” level of difficulty to reach and it took us around two hours to reach them. Our guides and porters found the trek pretty easy, but while we trekkers enjoyed friendly conversation, some of the less fit members struggled and we stopped several times for everyone to catch their breath. The path was a couple of feet wide between shoulder-high plants and nettles (and my goodness- the nettles!!!). These nettles are something else. They’re shoulder height and a brush past, or a sit down, even wearing jeans, resulted in some fairly ferocious prickles. I would definitely recommend wearing lightweight, water/thornproof long-sleeved shirts and trousers.

Gorilla Trekking Volcanoes National Park

Walking from the car park to the start of the trek

Just before you see the gorillas you will meet up with the trackers who have been following them since they left their nest at dawn. Here, you take out your essential valuables and leave your day bag behind with the porters- this is to stop the gorillas from being tempted to investigate the contents of your bag too closely!  You’ll also leave your sticks behind at this point- we were told this was because many gorillas had bad memories of poachers with sticks. Now we knew we were close, we were all tremendously excited. Following our ranger, we headed straight into the thick bushes, using a sharp panga to clear a path through the last 200m till we reached the gorillas.

First we saw Giraneza himself- the huge, placid silverback who was far too busy chewing leaves to let us disturb him. He was perched a little further up the hill than the rest of his family, keeping an eye on them all.  It was roughly at this point I wished I’d spent a bit more time setting up my camera in advance- my first gorilla photos were dark, or blurry, or out of focus (or more probably, all three).  We could quite easily have spent our allocated hour with the gorillas watching Giraneza alone, but our guides gently tore us away to where the two mothers and babies of the group were playing and feeding- seeming so human it almost felt intrusive to watch. The babies tried to climbed trees and fell off, scrambled over Mamma like she was just another rock, and treated big, strong, (and frankly rather impressive) Dad like a large and boring climbing frame.  Although we’d been briefed that that the Giraneza group also has some young black-backs, in typical teenage style they were far too busy having fun in the forest to pay attention whatsoever to their visitors, so we barely saw them.

Our hour passed in a flash, we reluctantly headed back to collect our day bags, saying goodbye to our trackers and tipping them. Afterwards it was around an hour’s downhill hike back to the car, and then our porters said their goodbyes and returned to the village, while we returned to our lodge for a hearty lunch.

 

A few recommendations from our gorilla trek:

  • If your budget stretches two gorilla treks are absolutely worthwhile, and that doing one is a bit like doing one game drive. Great, but definitely room for a lot more.
  • Stinging nettles sting hard. Even through jeans, so look out!
  • During the rainy season it can be very, very wet, with deep mud up to knee height- waterproof trousers would be essential at this time.
  • Learning how to use your camera and setting it up for shooting in the rainforest before you arrive will save you valuable time during your precious hour with the gorillas. It’s also worth turning the sound off so that you don’t disturb them.
  • Seriously consider taking a porter!

Christian, a remarkable lion

Africa is full of big animals, big characters and big landscapes. It’s where you’ll find the world’s largest land mammal, legendary explorers and the Great Rift Valley. Yet even amongst such well known, if not always illustrious company, some stories stand out. One is that of Christian the lion.

Christian’s was no mere common or garden lion. His story begins as a young cub in Harrods. In 1969, he was spotted by John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke who bought Christian and swept him home to Chelsea, where he lived in the basement beneath their furniture shop. He took walks in a local garden, and charmed visitors to John and Ace’s furniture shop.

Born FreeHowever, dear Christian, though a remarkable lion, was becoming rather large, and began to startle visitors to the furniture store. Fortunately, two such visitors included actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna who’d recently starred in Born Free- the true story of Elsa, the orphaned lioness raised by George and Joy Adamson.

And so Christian moved from the King’s Road to the wilds of Northern Kenya (via a stint in the Traver’s country garden). He was released from George Adamson’s camp at Kora, far from the dangers posed by hunters, tourists, or local villagers. However, Christian still had wild lions to contend with who resented the male interloper smoothing in on their territory. He formed an alliance with “Boy” (a semi-tame male who’d starred in Born Free), and eventually became the head of his own pride. He left George’s camp for longer and longer periods of time, until he was seen for the last time, headed in the direction of Meru National Park.

.And while it seems elephants may never forget, lions too must have a long memory. For when Ace and John returned to Kora, there was Christian, running up for what looks remarkably like a bear hug. Or should that be a lion hug?

Our dirty secret: we think twitching is really rather cool

It took a journey of nearly 2,000 miles before the secret came out. We’d travelled through the Pyrenees, the Atlas Mountains and crossed the Sahara. We’d been impossibly drunk in Marrakech, and crossed a minefield into Mauritania, but we still hadn’t talked about it.  Then, as we were ducking down a back road to the Senegalese border, one of the girls in our vehicle muttered “Actually, I quite like birds…”

Birdwatching safaris in Zambia

Bee Eaters in Zambia (with thanks to our ever-talented friend Katie for the pic)

Somehow being a birdwatcher (or, that rather dodgy-sounding alternative, “twitcher”) still carries a certain stigma. Say you like birds and people assume that while you might be able to wax lyrical about wattled cranes, you probably aren’t all that much fun at parties, and they strongly suspect that you might find it a bit tricky looking members of the opposite sex in the eye. But birds are utterly marvellous.  As we drove through no-man’s land that day, each of the four passengers in our vehicle slowly admitted that twitching was pretty damn cool.

Malachite Kingfisher on a boat safari from Selous Impala Camp

Malachite Kingfisher spotted near Impala Camp in the Selous

The first thing you learn when you go on safari in Africa is that everyday birds aren’t limited to the typical LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs) that frequent British back gardens.  Take a boat safari in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve for instance, and you’ll see the bright blue flash of malachite kingfishers diving in and out of the water, and hear the endless call of fish eagles overhead. I was instantly seduced.

Later, in Kenya’s Meru National Park I watched, traumatised, as a Bateleur Eagle swooped down and took a baby dik-dik (a tiny, impossibly sweet antelope). Later, in Kafue in Zambia and South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetlands, I met the African Jacana. Better known as the “Jesus Bird”, the blue-headed Jacana seems to actually walk on water. It skiddle-skaddles across the surface at a remarkable, if comedic, speed- who could fail to be impressed? However, my all-time favourite bird is the black egret, which cunningly tricks fish into thinking its night time and floating close to the surface. Perfect timing for a black egret evening snack, though this spoonbill doesn’t seem too impressed…

So- if you do just one thing on your African safari- take your binos, you might just be surprised…

The signs of modern South Africa: A Road Trip around Kwa Zulu Natal

We love visiting Africa, especially on a self drive trip- it’s the best way to experience a country as locals do, rather than flying into remote luxury resorts and never seeing a local village or experiencing an elephant firmly blocking the road. Sometimes it can be exhausting, at others frustrating (a huge thank you to our wonderful client Calynne for putting up with crackly phone calls from deep in the bush), but generally, it’s just wonderful. Most recently we took a road trip around Kwa Zulu Natal and felt as if we’d finally discovered the soul of South Africa (as someone else said- “KZN is where Africa starts…”) Rather than droning on ourselves, just click to let the signs of modern South African speak for themselves…