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Green season Zambia – flooded, with bees

As my husband and I got ready to navigate yet another puddle the size of a small swimming pool by testing the depth with an umbrella, we were beginning to understand why the green season is the low season for safaris in Zambia. We had already had our fillings loosened on a 2 hour drive from the provincial capital Chipata over a road without tarmac and now this. Perhaps it was against our better judgement that we decided to spend Christmas at South Luangwa National park, but in actual fact it was a truly memorable trip. I met my husband in Zambia while he was with the Peace Corps and I was with VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) so aside from this being a much needed break from the capital, it was also something of a sentimental journey.

My first visit to South Luangwa was over 5 years ago, I was still a green volunteer, barely in Zambia a month. I was a volunteer teacher at a school in Mambwe district, less than an hour’s drive away. Over the next year whenever living in the bush got a bit boring I would take myself up to Mfuwe and South Luangwa for a bit of R and R. I will never forget my first sight of a family of elephants as I rode into camp on the back of a truck, or sitting in the dark, barely breathing as I watched a pride of lions laze in the late evening.

The rainy in season is supposed to be from late October until around March, though the arrival of the rains often varies, as does the regularity. However by the time we arrived around Christmas time, enough rain had fallen in the area transform the orange-brown earth to a fertile green carpet and trees bloomed with rich foliage and flowers. If your perception of sub-Saharan Africa is of dry savannah, then the green season is wonderful surprise. But the rains can also be capricious, flooding is common and roads become impassable and this is why few people want to attempt the journey to South Luangwa by road. Moreover, due to the increase in foliage and plant cover, animals are more difficult to see.

We arrived on Christmas Eve and were pleasantly surprised to find a number of other guests at the camp, many of them like us, living in Zambia or not too far away and looking for a quiet holiday. Unfortunately our quiet holiday was disturbed the very first night. It has become a tradition in Mfuwe for the lodges to get bring their guests on Christmas to a clearing in GMA (game management area) not far from the entrance to the actual park for a carol party. All lodges provide snacks and nibbles and despite the warm weather and the somewhat surreal setting of an African safari park, we felt very festive with our candles lit and singing Christmas songs. We had taken our own car and so drove ourselves back to our camp when the party ended, we were the first to return to the camp.

After changing we made our way back to the bar with our guard, but happened to surprise an elephant that had wandered into the camp, on the way. Animals are more skittish at this time because they can’t see you and you can’t see them and this elephant was not at all pleased about being intruded upon. In the dark I heard my husband and guard tell me to run as the elephant was coming towards, I did as I was told but then tripped and fell on the way. My husband and the guard had to come and pick me up and we managed to get to the safety of a tent, by this time we were in need of a stiff drink and it’s fair to say this experience made us quite tense for the rest of the trip!

Green season safaris are perhaps not for the faint hearted; only the day before we arrived a swarm of bees had entered the camp and stung some people quite badly, their hive had disintegrated after heavy rains and clearly they decided to take it out on some poor travellers. This time of year seems to change everything, animals stray further because water and food is plentiful and as a result they may be difficult to see as they cover a larger area, or conversely you may find them right on your doorstep as they move out of the park as well as inside, gorging on the lush vegetation that is everywhere. Our camp was built on the side of the Luangwa river and from our tent we could look over pods and pods of hippos languishing in the water to the opposite bank that marked the park boundary where a pride of lions had been seen and the local herd of elephants crossed to play in the water. Nevertheless, for those who have done the more typical safaris and game drives, the green season throws up some unique surprises and for true nature lovers, this is a stunning time to see the changed landscape.

On our first morning we woke early to a somewhat British-like drizzle, it was surprisingly cold for this area of Zambia and we stood on the patio of our luxury safari tent as a family of elephants crossed the river about 20 feet away from us. We held our breath, still remembering our fright from the night before, as they tramped through the trees to take a bath. We watched them cross with their young and stop in the middle of the river and play in the water, spraying each other and jumping on each other’s backs. You could almost imagine them sighing with delight as they slowly fell sideways into the water. After some time they moved to the opposite side to dry off in the sand of the riverbank. My close encounter had made me very skittish and frankly afraid of elephants, but watching them that morning, I remembered why I am so fascinated by them. Their lumbering grace and affection for each other is so special. Eventually the leader seemed to decide it was time to move on and stood on the bank waiting for the rest to finish up, however his group had decided they hadn’t had enough and eventually he gave up waiting and went back into the water himself.

Later on we took our vehicle into the park and were amazed at the transformation. We drove through what now looked like meadows, streams and thickly vegetated lagoons. At one point we stopped to look at an elephant only to be given a very stern look, we moved on and another vehicle arrived and stopped in our place, the same elephant lost its patience, flapped its ears, trumpeted and approached the vehicle. Hearing an elephant trumpet has to be one of the most awesome sounds, it is loud and insistent and definitely does the job in scaring you away! We didn’t see anything as impressive as lions and leopards, but we have been on many a safari before and were not desperate to see them. Instead we took the time to watch the huge variety of birds, insects and lizards that we normally overlook for bigger game. We saw crowned cranes, a fish eagle, a kingfisher and many other species.

I would highly recommend a green season safari for people who have already done dry season safaris and want to see something different. It is also the cheapest time of year and many lodges to great offers. South Luangwa is a beautiful park at any time of year, and in the green season it becomes a veritable Eden. Tours are not common at this time of year so parks are often very quiet and one meets travellers who are more interested in the park as a living mass rather than a tourist attraction. They are often season game viewers and it was great to share stories and compare notes on parks.

So if you like adventure, unexpected encounters and lush landscapes as well want to save some cash, try South Luangwa in the green season.

We stayed at Flatdogs camp, a uniquely designed camp run by a lovely British couple. Camping on your own isn’t allowed at this time of year, but you can stay in one of their safari tents or in a chalet and their prices are very reasonable. They also have a very good restaurant.

You could also try Kafunta Lodge or Kapani Lodge for something more high end or Wildlife camp for a budget place to stay.

Flights to Mfuwe from Chipata and Lusaka go everyday or you could be brave and try the road from Chipata. I recommend flying at this time of year as the roads can be bad, even flooded.

It is worth noting that many lodges close as the rains progress through January to March.

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