Revisiting Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park

by | October 1, 2008

© Marijn HeutsIn 2006, I wrote an article for NatureScapes about a photographic safari to Zambia, more specifically on some of the wonderful national parks this south central African country boasts. As I enjoyed Zambia so much, I decided to go back this year and combine a revisit to the exquisite South Luangwa National Park with two weeks of non-safari traveling through the unknown (at least to me) neighboring country, Malawi. In this article, I will delve a bit deeper into the safari to South Luangwa.


My idea of an African safari has not changed over time, which means I still prefer to travel independently and not book an all-inclusive luxury holiday with the well-known lodges. The main reason is that I do not want to spend (and cannot justify) the fortune that a fully inclusive safari holiday costs. But no less important, traveling with a private vehicle, a small tent and some cooking equipment offers a more authentic Africa experience, at least in my opinion. I have always learnt that African countries are poor and that travels through the continent are long, tedious and dusty. To fly into the park and stay in spotless luxury lodges contrasts too much with the “romantic” image I have in my mind about an African safari. [Editor’s Note: For a group’s perspective, be sure also to read Joe McDonald’s article, “Picking a Safari.”]

Wildlife © Marijn Heuts

Also, on a self-drive you have all the time in the world to sit with a subject and wait for it to do something interesting, or just for better light — something that is difficult to achieve during an organized game-drive with a vehicle full of happy snappers and a guide who has no idea about the direction and quality of light. Of course, you could exclusively book a guide and vehicle, but for me the cost of that cannot be justified by even the most beautiful of photographs. On the other hand, you might forego a sighting or two without a guide. As I am not really a “Big-5” type of guy, I’m happy with any subject in beautiful light and do not miss the extra (be it trained) pair of eyes.

So, as usual, my girlfriend and I rented a 4×4 vehicle in Lusaka, stocked up with groceries and some additional camping equipment (beware: Lusaka is more expensive than Amsterdam!) and drove the long way to South Luangwa National Park in one day. It was still a 10-hour drive without much of a break. However, the road condition was a lot better than two years ago which made the drive much more pleasant than it used to be. Upon arrival in the little village of Mfuwe near the park entrance, we immediately noticed that it had expanded quite a bit since our previous visit. This was much to our advantage, as the increased number of houses and small shops meant a broader array of groceries, fresh meat and milk was on offer. Prices for these goods are much lower than in the Lusaka malls and very cheap by our standards. Very humorous are the grandiose names of the tiny shops that are painted in brightly colored capitals on their concrete front walls. “Mfuwe Investment Corporation Ltd.” does not sound like a square meter stocked with maize meal and tomatoes, or does it?

We pitched our tent at the campsite of one of the lodges near Mfuwe bridge, just a few minutes outside the national park, but within the Game Management Area (GMA) which has lots of game; even a pride of lions visits regularly. With a fruit-bearing Marula tree near our tent, the days and nights to follow promised to become “trunkated,” and the hippo dung that was carefully scattered over the few lights along the campsite path made us prepare for a sudden confrontation with a bad tempered amphibian mammal with possibly sensitive eyes. Nice to be back!

Marula tree © Marijn Heuts

The next five days, we did self-drives into the famous Mfuwe and Nsefu sectors of the national park and the conclusion is very simple. Everything I wrote about South Luangwa in 2006 is still true; it is really a photographer’s paradise. The wildlife is more than abundant, the birdlife prolific (even in winter), the landscape with its oxbow lagoons stunning and the weather always nice. The only small drawback is the lack of beautiful sunsets; the sky is simply too hazy, possibly because of the many wood fires in the area.

In five days, one can be almost certain to see and photograph lion, elephant, buffalo, hyena, giraffe, baboon, vervet monkey, warthog, waterbuck, impala, zebra, kudu, bushbuck, crocodile and hippo, as well as beautiful birds such as African Fish Eagle, Lilac-breasted Roller, bee-eaters and various species of raptors and kingfishers. If you are lucky, you might spot and photograph one of the many local leopards or even cheetah (rare in this area) or the highly dynamic wild dog. I cannot help but stress that I have yet to take my first decent photo of a leopard, despite having visited southern Africa many times now. The frustration continues to grow on me, but I keep telling myself that it is a reason to keep going back to Africa. South Luangwa does rate as the best place in Africa to get a glimpse of these elusive cats.

…but yet so different

This may all sound like a repetition of what I wrote two years ago, but to me this safari marks a big change in my photographic career. A week before our departure I bought and read Andy Rouse’s latest coffee table book (Concepts of Nature) in which he describes the change he had recently gone through as a professional photographer. And I don’t mean his switch from Canon to Nikon! His explanation about how he got to learn to use the quality and quantity of light to convey emotion and atmosphere, as well as the simply stunning photos, hit me like a bombshell. It immediately dawned on me that I needed to go through a change, too, and evolve as a photographer.

Bird on stump © Marijn Heuts

I promised myself that I would not return from Africa with another mother-lode of mere registration images, no matter how beautiful they might be. And so I no longer wanted the sun to come from over my shoulder and I begged the animals to not always look towards me at a 5 degree angle. Instead I intentionally looked for backlit conditions or the occasional spotlight effect. I underexposed for a moody effect, included more environment than I had ever thought I’d do, did a radial zoom blur on an elephant and took photos of the underside of a lion’s paw. Neither the elephant, lion nor myself were hurt in the process, by the way. Of course, I have shot my fair share of beautifully frontlit images too. Sometimes there is just no time or room to maneuver the car into another position, or frontlight simply works best.

The result is a great number of images that completely differ from anything I’ve shot before. Not that they are all prize winning stunners, but my eyes have opened and now I can start the process of learning to understand which situations lend themselves best for backlight, frontlight or sidelight. This safari has helped me to become a more complete and creative photographer and I can’t wait to go back to Africa to test my skills again after the coming year of practice. Thanks for the eye-opener, Andy!

Wildlife paw © Marijn Heuts

To complete this report, I should mention that I had a terrifying encounter indeed with the local hippo one night, when I wanted to walk to the bar area. I was about halfway along the 60-meter walk when I suddenly noticed a huge black shadow in the shape of a grazing hippo right in the middle of the path, only 3 meters away from yours truly. Petrified, I froze on the spot; even that action was enough movement for a hippo to get scared and run for its life. After a split second I decided to follow that example, luckily in the opposite direction.

Later that night, a small herd of elephants visited the Marula tree again. One individual decided on a change of diet and started to munch on the leaves of the acacia tree under which we had pitched our tent. The single camp light outside projected a huge shadow of the feet and trunk on our flimsy tent canvas, as the elephant moved in the ghostly slow manner only they can do. Half awake from the nocturnal dining activities, we sat upright in our sleeping bags, just far enough to avoid the sudden blow of the trunk that dented the canvas of our tent roof. No bad intentions from the elephant, it probably was just curious what that lime green, non-palatable bush underneath the acacia was all about. You’ve got to love it. Which I do, and I will probably end up going back sometime soon.

Backlit wildlife in field © Marijn Heuts

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