South Luangwa: cool camps and comical cats

Cool camps and comical cats

Ahh, back in the Luangwa Valley – our heaven on Earth. I make a point of spending as much time here as I can, just a short 4-hour drive from Lilongwe, it’s an easy hop over the border for some well needed bush time. I’ve done my fair share of safaris around Africa and not many places come close to the beauty and wilderness of South Luangwa – high wildlife density, fantastic birdlife, exceptional guides and wonderful lodge retreats.

This time I got the opportunity to visit three amazing properties and experience exactly what they’re all about. First up, Chikunto Lodge, this time I was travelling with my husband, my fellow colleague Chloe (the ugly one), and her other half.

elephant, giraffe

Chikunto Lodge

Chikunto is a relatively new addition to the South Luangwa family, newly built and opened in 2018, the property is in the northern area of the park and has become renowned for its prolific wildlife and spectacular game viewing. With just 5 luxury safari tents, the friendly and attentive team of local staff can and do cater to each individual in a personal and professional style, ensuring that everything you may need is taken care of. The rooms and large main lodge area overlook a small plain on the edge of the Luangwa River, enabling you to watch some wildlife from the comfort of your private deck or from the swimming pool which is the perfect cool-off destination after a game drive. We made good use of this accompanied by some ice-cold G&Ts. October is peak season for game-viewing in SL, but man is it hot!

The safari tents are well spaced apart so you won’t be listening to your snoring neighbour (Chloe). Each are en-suite and equipped with all the modern fixtures and clean, elegant décor. The beauty of safari tents is that the side covers can be rolled up to reveal a see-through mesh around the whole bedroom area, allowing you to be surrounded by the awesome view and the breeze flowing through.

chikunto communal area

Northern wildlife

The day before our arrival the other guests saw a wild dog hunt right in front of the main lodge and lucky for us they were still hanging around nearby so within the first 2 minutes of our first game drive, we found the wild dogs lurking in the trees just next to camp, and to our delight, with 4 little pups! One biggie ticked off the list already! After 2 days we’d had dozens of giraffe, a 300-strong herd of buffalo, elephants, lions, leopards, over 100 bird species, many G&Ts and a whole lotta (amazing) food. Thank you Chikunto for an awesome stay!

wild dog, leopard

Star-light and candlelight

As my travel buddies all headed back to Lilongwe, I carried on solo and headed south to Island Bush Camp. What an awesome experience this place is. Rustic and simple accommodation yet very comfortable, you have exactly what you need, no more, no less. This camp runs on candlelight – no power, no signal, no worries.

I was shown to my room, a raised reed structure that feels like a little treehouse – up the steps: Open air. To the right: Open air, bucket shower filled twice daily with hot water, toilet, sink. Left: Open air, bedroom with a mozzie net and overhanging reed roof covering the beds. Front: The Luangwa River and open wilderness.

island bush camp

Comical cats

My phone was stowed away in my suitcase and forgotten about for my whole time there, and as someone who isn’t afraid of social media and a full daily supply of Whatsapps, I expected to feel a little anxious, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The moment that phone was away, I sat on my deck and felt the warm breeze on my face and listened to the noisy silence of the bush, and from that moment on, I didn’t give my phone a second thought. The peace in this place is unparalleled.

Not only is it away from our normal day-to-day lives and the towns in which we live, but it is away from all other camps and lodges in the park. Situated in the far south of the park, Island Bush Camp, boasts rich wildlife, who are unused to humans and display more organic and natural reactions than the wildlife by the main gate of the park who are so self-important that they practically strike a pose and strut a cat-walk for their audience – or don’t even flicker an eyelid when 20 pairs of eyes are ogling him so blatantly. Rude!

Secretly expecting to not see much, I was thrilled to be proved wrong. On my drive into camp I saw my very favourite lions in the whole wide world, Garlic and Ginger, the famous and handsome brothers of the Luangwa Valley, looking good and healthy and having had pulled some hot females to boot – good effort boys.

That evening we hit the jackpot and came across 5 female lions and a gorgeous cub feeding on a hippo kill. We sat there watching them for hours and the amusing interaction between them and the hyenas and vultures so eagerly awaiting their cut. As one was tucking into some hippo rump steak (rare), and the hyenas were edging closer and closer, we heard a rustle up in the tree. I was snapping away with my camera, with my eye through the shutter when suddenly after a loud roar-cry, my subject was replaced by the loud thud of a sausage fruit falling out the tree! About 6 metres away, eyes wide, looking startled and quite frankly a little betrayed, the female studied us and the hyenas as if trying to decide who could have done such a thing!

Later on, as we were obsessing over the cuteness of the playful lion cub, the tree-climbing lions of the Luangwa showed us their trick, one of which chickened out at the top and couldn’t get down. Some amusing attempts ensued as this helpless looking cat wrapped its legs around the tree and slid down the trunk face first in a less than graceful manner.

cub and hippos, luangwa

Kafunta

The next day I was off to Kafunta River Lodge, the heat in October was getting to me so as soon as I arrived, I dropped my bags and jumped in the infinity pool, the view from cool water was absolute bliss to say the least! My room was a beautiful chalet, nice and spacious with an en-suite bathroom, private deck and killer view.

I must note that the food here really is something to write home about, fresh ingredients, homemade bread and pastries, light and elegant, it was just heaven. My four-course dinner (accompanied by the lovely Izzy – Kafunta’s res manager), was the best I’ve had in the valley to date, a starter of soup, then crumbed baked brie with a cranberry jam; for main course perfectly cooked pork belly with fondant potatoes and seasonal greens, and a dessert of Amarula panna cotta – I mean seriously, what are you doing to me?

kafunta room and chill area

Norman no-mates

Soon after my arrival and swim I was back on a game-drive. Kafunta is located just on the edge of the park on the other side of the Luangwa River which borders the park – to get into the park we had to cross the river using their homemade crossing bridge. Now when I say bridge, I mean hundreds of sandbags laid across the river bed, and we set off, trundling through the flowing water inches from our feet – a unique and very cool experience!

The area is truly beautiful and a new part of the park for me. With only other Kafunta vehicles in sight, we set off into the thick bush and came across two proud Verreaux’s eagle owls. The highlight of the drive was to see the new male lion in town, named Norman (after the famous Norman Carr – the pioneer of the walking safari). Norman isn’t the MOST beautiful lion I’ve ever seen, let’s put it that way, but man, this guy is a badass! Roaming the plains alone, with a split nose and a hanging jaw, Norman is known for single handedly (pawedly?) taking down baby buffalo, baby hippo and baby elephant for his personal banquet.

owl and lion

One highlight for Kafunta in this dry season when the river is low, is the influx of the migrant carmine bee-eaters who come to nest and breed in the side walls of the river banks. Thousands of the gorgeous magenta and turquoise birds fluttering in and out of the nesting holes make for a spectacular show (even if they are a pain to photograph…).

We eventually settled in for our sundowners of G&Ts and homemade snacks on the riverbank to witness another impressive sunset, as our guide Chappie told us of his journey to realising his dream of being a guide in the Luangwa Valley. His determination, joy, passion and respect for this exceptional place on earth was truly infectious and I made a quiet vow to myself that I’d one day come to live here and watch these sunsets every day of my life.

If you would like to visit any of these lodges, please let us know.

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