Posts Tagged ‘Zambia’

Southern Africa’s Leading Conservation Programs, Zambia – Jan & Feb 2017

Sunset over the wild Luangwa River

A fiery sunset in Zambia’s flagship national park turns the Luangwa River gold beneath a blood red sky

In mid-January 2017, I headed to Zambia with Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org, on an educational visit to share ideas and learn from some of the premier non-profit conservation organisations currently operating in Southern Africa. We spent two weeks getting to know the ins and outs of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), as well as attending some informative and collaborative meetings on how to enhance intelligence capabilities to promote greater law enforcement effectiveness.

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

Our first stop was Mfuwe, where we stayed at the cheap and cheerful Marula Lodge – http://www.marulalodgezambia.com – while spending our days in the company of the dedicated team from Conservation South Luangwa. It was a productive couple of days spent observing the hounds from the detection dog unit undergoing their training drills, engaging with the CSL senior management staff to learn from their collective experiences, while also finding time to catch up with Dr. Matt Becker from the Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP).

Under the long-standing leadership of CEO Rachel McRobb, Conservation South Luangwa – http://cslzambia.org – recently underwent a facelift and rebranding exercise to revamp what was formerly the South Luangwa Conservation Society when last I visited Zambia and shadowed the SLCS and ZCP teams on their de-snaring operations and carnivore research projects.

In collaboration with the grossly underfunded Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), formerly known as the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), CSL was established to stop poaching, eradicate wildlife trafficking and protect South Luangwa’s beleaguered wildlife populations. The organisation actively engages with the surrounding communities, recruits and trains local staff, and focuses on developing and implementing sustainable Zambian-driven conservation solutions.

North Luangwa sees no more than a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

True wilderness: North Luangwa receives at most a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

From South Luangwa, we took a spectacular two-hour flight in a four-seater Cessna, tracing the Luangwa River all the way up to the Mwaleshi confluence where we swung west and followed this tributary into the very heart of North Luangwa National Park. The Mwaleshi is an absolute Eden with large herds of buffalo and elephant lining its banks as well as big prides of lions and excellent general game frequenting the verdant floodplain.

FZS Base Camp

FZS base camp in the heart of North Luangwa

Our flight into North Park in the Cessna, and again daily at sunrise in the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s two-seater Husky, were highlights of our time in Zambia, allowing us to use the telemetry device fitted to plane’s wing struts to locate and observe a number of the black rhino reintroduced to Zambia after they were poached to local extinction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Founded in 1986, the ground-breaking North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) – https://fzs.org/en/projects/north-luangwa/ – is a protected area management and law enforcement partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and DNPW that aims to sustainably conserve 22,000 square kilometres of the greater North Luangwa ecosystem. It is in my humble opinion the leading conservation initiative in Zambia and I would go a step further and say that NLCP ranks amongst the very best protected area restoration programs in all of Southern Africa.

The Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block heading from the park into Lusaka

Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block en route from the park into Lusaka

After three days of productive Lusaka meetings with Vulcan Inc. and members of the top conservation organizations operating in Zambia, the final stop on our Zambian sojourn took us down into the idyllic Zambezi Valley. Having spent three years living and working on the mighty Zambezi, the park remains very close to my heart. I hadn’t set foot in the valley since late 2008, so it was with much anticipation and no small measure of excitement that I returned to my old stomping ground.

Over one hundred elephants were lost in 2016

Over one hundred elephants were poached in Lower Zambezi in 2016

During our time in the Lower Zambezi, we were hosted by Ian Stevenson: an old friend and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ): a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term protection of wildlife in the Lower Zambezi valley.

CLZ – http://www.conservationlowerzambezi.org – was set up in 1994 when local safari operators and other concerned stakeholders recognised the need to provide organised support to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to help combat the poaching pandemic that was decimating the wildlife populations of the Lower Zambezi. From its humble beginnings, CLZ has grown and diversified its support activities and protection efforts throughout the wider ecosystem.

Today CLZ assists DNPW with its mandate to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the 4,092 square kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park, while also providing logistical and law enforcement support to the adjacent community-owned Chiawa, Luano and Rufunsa Game Management Areas (GMAs) within the much larger 20,000 square kilometre Lower Zambezi Area Management Unit.

Flying over the Zambezi escarpment and along the swollen Zambezi with its lush green floodplain was a very special experience, although spotting a couple of elephant carcasses from the air also hammered home an important message about the scale of the ongoing poaching challenges facing difficult-to-protect conservation areas like the Lower Zambezi. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to spend time with the new LZNP Canine Unit at an active road block, watching the determined dogs search vehicles for ivory, bushmeat and other contraband.

Throughout our time in Zambia, we took advantage of the knowledge and expertise of our hosts, brainstorming and debating the best ways to identify new opportunities and embrace technological innovations that might help overcome the ever-increasing challenges confronting Zambia and Tanzania’s iconic protected areas. There is no question that our time in Zambia was rewarding and worthwhile with new relationships forged, exciting collaboration opportunities explored and valuable new information gleaned that will help to enhance our Tanzanian operations.

A small breeding herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi

A small herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi River

Ollie’s Arrival and Brilliant Botswana, RSA & Botswana – May & June 2015

A female leopard crests a termite mound as the sun sets on Selinda Reserve in Botswana

A female leopard crests a termite mound as the sun sets on Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana

 

IMG_4543

Ollie and a very proud dad!

The arrival of Charlie’s little brother

The undisputed highlight of the month of May was the safe arrival of Oliver William Cunliffe on the final day of the month. Thankfully his birth was complication free, and both Katherine and Ollie are doing fantastically well. I am one very proud husband and the fortunate father of two perfect little boys who reassuringly have both inherited their mom’s good looks! A month in, Ollie has also already proved himself to be one of the easiest and most relaxed babies imaginable. We feel so blessed and fortunate to have him in our lives.

 

On safari in Botswana and Zambia

Ollie was no more than a couple of weeks old when my Passage to Africa private guiding work – www.passagetoafrica.com/team/stephen-cunliffe – stole me away for another safari. My mother-in-law very kindly agreed to move in and help Katherine take care of our two energetic little boys, thereby enabling me to accompany the Penry family from North Carolina on an incredible three-week Southern Africa safari. Their bespoke Botswana itinerary focused on a handful of exclusive lodges and associated mind-blowing safari experiences within three of the country’s premier wildlife and wilderness areas.

One-eyed lioness on the prowl

One-eyed lioness on the prowl at Chitabe Lediba

First stop on the Botswana programme was Wilderness Safari’s Chitabe Lediba Camp – www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/chitabe-lediba-camp – in the Okavango Delta. Small and secluded, Chitabe Lediba overlooks a buffalo-frequented shallow lagoon within a private concession adjoining the Moremi Game Reserve in the southeast region of the delta. Excellent habitat diversity throughout the concession area ensures high wildlife densities and a high incidence of amazing wildlife sightings. Our visit was no exception. Under the expert guidance of local guide Ebs, we were treated to some high quality wildlife viewing: lions roaring and eating a buffalo; a female cheetah stalking red lechwe; a pack of wild dogs on the prowl; and even a couple of daylight sightings of relaxed leopards during our four-day stay.  It was an incredible start to any safari!

San Camp 023

High jump hi-jinx in the Makgadikgadi

Next stop was Uncharted Africa’s San Camp – www.unchartedafrica.com – which perches right on the fringe of the vast and mysterious Makgadikgadi saltpan complex: the remains of an ancient super-lake that once covered almost all of Botswana. Each of San Camp’s stunning white safari tents stands under a gaggle of palm trees on the shoreline of this enormous sea of salt. After five days of hardcore game viewing in the delta, having the freedom to be able to safely walk and run around was most welcome, as was the opportunity to interact with habituated mobs of meerkats and learn from a tribe of local bushmen. But riding a fleet of ATVs out onto the great white expanses of the pan for a night under the stars was the unanimous highlight of our stay at San Camp: a soulful experience that certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon!

Full moon bush dinner at Zarafa

Full moon bush dinner at Zarafa

A five night stay at the decadently luxurious Zarafa Camp – www.greatplainsconservation.com/zarafa-camp/ – awaited us after our saltpan odyssey. Overlooking Zibadianja Lagoon, source of the Savute Channel, Zarafa is a small, intimate and very impressive safari lodge. The food was world class with service to match. And while the standard of the Zarafa guiding was a touch disappointing, the quality of the wildlife sightings we enjoyed on Selinda Reserve were certainly nothing short of exceptional. A huge lion pride squabbling over a red lechwe kill; wild dogs every day; a leopard with a young cub; plenty of spotted hyenas skulking about; and so much more…

After two action-packed weeks exploring the wilds of Botswana, the tranquillity of the Zambezi River and fury of the thundering Victoria Falls provided a welcome change of scenery and pace. Our Zambian home-away-from-home was child-friendly Tangala House – www.tongabezi.com/tangala_house.php: a beautiful family home located 15km upstream of the Victoria Falls on the Zambian bank of the mighty Zambezi River.

The house boasts four en-suite bedrooms, a large private swimming pool, and a big trampoline – perfect for energetic children needing to burn off some energy after all the game drives. Stylishly designed and functionally furnished, the Tongabezi owned and operated abode comes with its own private vehicle, boat, chef, waiter and house staff. While the Tangala staff are all fabulous, special mention must be made of the culinary king, Kenny, and the mouth-watering meals he consistently produces from his little kitchen.

The Victoria Falls in all its glory

The Victoria Falls in all its glory

The falls were an impressive sight to behold in late June with plenty of water thundering over the mile-wide chasm, but nothing can top the experience of an afternoon exploring Livingstone Island and swimming in the frothy Angels Pool. To be bobbing around in your own private ‘Zambezi jaccuzzi’ mere metres from the lip of a thunderous waterfall is a pulse-racing experience second to none!

The final week of our sensational southern Africa safari was spent in Cape Town at the Cape Grace followed by some well-deserved R&R and whale-watching in Hermanus. We based ourselves at the opulent Birkenhead Villas – www.birkenheadhouse.com – with its picturesque cliff-top position overlooking the angry winter waves of Walker Bay: an extraordinary seaside location and stunning place to end a memorable safari with the wonderful and welcoming Penry family.

San Camp overlooks the sprawling Makgadikgadi salt pans with its endless processions of wildebeest and zebra trekking past in search of water

San Camp overlooks the sprawling Makgadikgadi salt pans and its endless processions of wildebeest

 

Sensational Safari, RSA, Zimbabwe, Zambia & Botswana – July & Aug 2014

Phinda Game Reserve 022

Phinda Private Game Reserve boasts some of the finest cheetah viewing in all of Africa

During August I was fortunate enough to accompany the fabulous Traggio family from Connecticut on one of the best safaris of my life. After a disappointing stay at the sub-par Saxon boutique hotel (www.saxon.co.za), we said goodbye to the big smoke of Johannesburg and escaped to &Beyond’s Phinda Vlei Lodge: a highly rewarding safari destination in northern Kwazulu-Natal.

A suite at Phinda Vlei Lodge

One of the luxurious suites at Phinda’s Vlei Lodge

Overlooking a large, sweeping, dry (during August) vlei system on the 23 000 hectare Phinda private game reserve, this intimate ten-bed lodge (www.andbeyond.com/phinda-vlei-lodge/) boasts great game viewing from the comfort and safety of your own private veranda or plunge pool. I was thrilled by the night time visits from a friendly bull elephant that came to drink from my swimming pool by the light of a full moon. While during the day, we enjoyed some superb cheetah viewing, including watching a mother with three cubs bring down a nyala right before our very eyes!

But the ultimate highlight was undoubtedly taking a day trip to Sodwana Bay where we got to dive with whale sharks at close quarters, while watching humpback whales frolic nearby.  An incredible experience.

The elephants of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

The elephant bulls of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

Bidding farewell to friendly staff at Phinda, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit a perennial old favourite: Singita Pamushana Lodge (www.singita.com/pamushana-lodge/) on the scenically diverse Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve (see previous blog for a write up on this incredible place).

Pamushana bush dinner

Pamushana bush dinner below an ancient baobab

In the company of talented local guide Tengwe Siabanda, we enjoyed great sighting of lions feeding on an eland, a male roaring in the midst of our sundowner spot, mud bathing elephants, and an abundance of white rhinos and general game. The top experience, however, was wiling away the midday hours secreted away inside a hide overlooking the last remaining waterhole in the south of the reserve. From this unique vantage point we were treated to close up visuals of elephant toenails and a non-stop procession of wildlife – warthogs, impala, kudu, hartebeest, sable, zebra, buffalo and elephants – that would have made Noah blush.

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously located Angel's Pool

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously positioned Angel’s Pool

Next stop was Tongabezi’s Tangala House (www.tangala.com) on the outskirts of Livingstone in southern Zambia. This spacious family-style home located on the banks of the Upper Zambezi River – 15 km upstream from the magnificent Victoria Falls – looks across southern Africa’s premier waterway and into the Zambezi National Park in neighbouring Zimbabwe.  But, even more rewarding than a tasty lunch on an uninhabited island or surveying ‘the smoke that thunders’ from vantage points within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, was the indescribable feeling of swimming in the Angel’s Pool right on the lip of the falls with the river thundering past and spray raining down on us!

A pack of African wild dogs - Africa's second most endangered large carnivore - bond ahead of hunting

A pack of African wild dogs – Africa’s second most endangered large carnivore – bond before hunting

Our final two destinations were across the border in Botswana. After flying over the sprawling elephant and buffalo herds of Chobe, we touched down at Wilderness Safari’s 14-suite Vumbura Plains Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/vumbura-plains) in the Okavango. Tucked beneath a canopy of leafy trees with magnificent vistas over the watery wilderness, Vumbra was an ideal base from which to access the delta’s prolific predators with some top quality wild dog sightings and prime leopard viewing topping the charts.

Uncharted Africa's San Camp sits alongside the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

Uncharted Africa’s San Camp sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

The final stop on this incredible two-and-a-half week Passage to Africa itinerary was idyllic San Camp (www.unchartedafrica.com) perched on the edge of the ethereal Ntwetwe Pan in the midst of the sprawling Makgadikgadi saltpan complex. Although hampered by mediocre management and poor guiding, this stunning colonial-style camp of yesteryear does enjoy one of the finest locations of any safari lodge in Africa, sitting aside an arid, white wilderness like no other place on earth.

Brown hyena displaying

Brown hyena displaying

Despite being predominantly a scenic nature destination, Makgadikgadi is renowned as the place to visit for high quality sightings of less frequently encountered animals like brown hyena and aardvark. Our visit didn’t disappoint on this front when late one afternoon we bumped into a brown hyaena and spent the next half hour up close with the inquisitive creature, as it put on quite a show bristling a long shaggy coat to increase its size.

Habituated mobs of meerkats are another big attraction in this area. But, it was the chance to drive quad bikes out onto the great white openness of the pans on the final evening for an alfresco fireside dinner and sleep out under the stars that proved the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ at the end an amazing Southern African safari with six really great people.

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

 

The birthday boy

The birthday boy

Aside from competing in Franschhoek’s Bastille Day Trail Run and tackling the brutally tough Hout Bay Trail Challenge, the only other big news to report for the past couple of months was that we have finally taken the plunge and bought our first home in Constantia. It’s a quaint four-bedroom house with a leafy garden, surrounded by greenbelts, and with easy access onto Table Mountain. We now patiently await transfer and look forward to moving in during November to begin the next exciting chapter of our life together as a young family.

And, finally, on a sunny Saturday in late August, we celebrated Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Café.  All his little mates, along with our close friends and family, attended the festivities and generously showering him with gifts and attention. Dressed in a little suit he charmed the socks off everyone during a wonderful celebration to mark the end of an incredible – and absolutely life-changing – year for both Katherine and me!

Celebrating Charlie's first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

Celebrating Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia – October 2013

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches an breeding herd of elephants on the move

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches a breeding herd of elephants on the move

October was dominated by a three-week assignment to Zambia’s flagship national park. The late dry season is an incredible time to be in the bush, especially a wildlife-rich place like the South Luangwa. The game viewing was outstanding; the people were friendly; and the conservation work was nothing short of inspirational.

Kindly assisted by Robin Pope Safaris (RPS), the trip focused on the outstanding work being done by the South Luangwa Conservation Society (SLCS) – www.slcszambia.org – to support the dysfunctional wildlife authority in managing this important African asset. Working hand-in-hand with SLCS is another laudable NGO: the dynamic Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) – www.zambiacarnivores.org.

A ZCP research team fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

ZCP researchers fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

Headquartered in the South Luangwa, the ZCP is a non-profit research organisation dedicated to conserving Zambia’s large carnivore species as well as protecting the pristine ecosystems in which they reside. Under the leadership of the tireless Dr Matt Becker the organisation also focuses some of its seemingly inexhaustible energy on finding, training, mentoring and supporting promising Zambian wildlife professionals to attain internationally recognised graduate degrees based on their research data. The admirable long-term thinking being that competent, well-trained Zambians must take responsibility for their own wildlife heritage.

Zambia is an impressive country with relatively low population density and a rich wildlife heritage conserved within thousands of square kilometres of protected natural habitat. The country’s three most impressive national parks centre on its three greatest rivers – the Zambezi, Kafue and Luangwa – but it is the iconic South Luangwa that tops this list.

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

Sadly, however, things in paradise aren’t quite as perfect as they might seem at first glance. It didn’t take long to discover that the South Luangwa and its surrounding Game Management Areas (GMAs) are under ever-increasing pressure from hungry local communities and, more worryingly, the commercial bush-meat trade. Wire snaring is endemic and if current trends continue, this gruesome and indiscriminate form of poaching will ultimately finish Zambia’s wildlife.

I was fortunate enough to join a joint SLCS-ZCP team when they went out to locate and dart a snared lioness. It was a hectic experience to see a lioness so severely incapacitated by her deep neck wound; but also uplifting to see her resilience after the team had removed the wire snare and cleaned up her wounds. Rachel McRobb of SLCS estimated that this Chowo lioness was probably around the 300th animal they had successfully de-snared to date.

To address these challenges, real benefits and a dramatic mindset shift have to be achieved within the communities that surround the park. But considering the number of local people involved, it’s a monumentally difficult task. One shining light in this area is the donor-funded Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre – www.chipembele.org – which is actively educating secondary school kids in the Mfuwe area as to the value of wildlife and the importance of the wildlife-based economy to the region.

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

Fortunately, my South Luangwa assignment wasn’t all ‘work’ and no play… I was lucky enough to also sample a number of the Robin Pope Safaris – www.robinpopesafaris.net – lodges and bush camps.  After easing my way into the Luangwa lifestyle at Luangwa River Camp in the perennially popular Mfuwe area, I headed northeast and into the wilder Nsefu sector.  It was here that I sampled what I believe to be one of the finest African safari products currently available: Luangwa Bush Camping.

It's not just the 'big n hairies' that impress

South Luangwa is not just about the ‘big and hairies’

Restricted to a maximum of six guests and under the watchful eye of Kanga (our expert nature guide) and his team, I enjoyed a three-day walking safari from this mobile bush camp. We ate like kings and slept alongside the river in an unbelievably luxurious tented camp that moved site every day after we set out on foot. The animals were thick on the ground and aside from the ubiquitous hippos, crocodiles, puku, impala and baboons; we were treated to exciting encounters with elephant, lion and leopard almost every day. Luangwa Bush Camping was the highlight of my Luangwa safari and I would wholeheartedly recommend this (or one of RPS’s other mobile safari options) to any safari enthusiast who enjoys experiencing nature up close and personal on foot.

The RPS segment of my trip concluded with three nights at the newly renovated Tena Tena bush camp.  It was a great spot and the wildlife viewing was outstanding. Nothing more so than witnessing seven lions killing an adult male buffalo in an epic hour-long battle that saw the old dugga boy throwing lions off his muzzle and putting up a spirited fight. It was a never-to-be-fogotten sighting and a fitting way to end my assignment into one of Africa’s greatest game parks.

Survival of the fittest: he wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place

The wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strongest survive

Khaudum, Sisheke and Zambezi Whitewater, Namibia & Zambia – Aug 2012

Spotted hyaena feed on a kudu carcass while thousands of flamingoes look on at Nyae Nyae Pan

After a thoroughly enjoyable summer holiday in the USA, August was devoted to a long-awaited and much anticipated JavZam work trip to explore the Sisheke District in the northern sector of the KAZA TFCA (http://www.kavangozambezi.org/).

I departed Cape Town with three work colleagues on a drizzly winter’s morning for Namibia; first stop was seldom-visited Khaudum (http://www.met.gov.na/Documents/Khaudum%20National%20Park.pdf) in northeast Namibia. This arid park falls within the KAZA TFCA and is quite possibly Namibia’s wildest national park. Elephants are dime a dozen here and anyone with a soft spot for these giant pachyderms should make sure a trip to Khaudum features prominently on their safari bucket list.

Khaudum is wild tract of arid Namibian wilderness where elephant herds outnumber tourists 10:1

After 5 days exploring the wilds of Khaudum and its neighbouring flamingo-rich Nyae-Nyae Pans, we reluctantly bid farewell to the elephant herds and made our way through the Caprivi to try out the new Sioma Border Post north of Kongola.  A fancy new road terminated in the middle of nowhere and we were forced to backtrack 17km to find the Namibian ‘immigration table’ perched under a shady tree!  In contrast the Zambian side had some very fancy new immigration offices, but no road yet!  All this made for a great adventure as we eventually figured everything out.  Later, we learned that we were the first visitors to use this new KAZA tourist facility, which had only officially opened 5 weeks earlier.

The primary reason for our trip was to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the Sisheke District and Sioma Ngwezi National Park as these areas make up the core area for the exciting and ambitious Sisheke Conservation Project (http://www.sisheke.com/).

An inquisitive wild dog at Katuli Pools on the edge of Sioma Ngwezi NP

For the next two weeks we drove, boated and flew through out the 3,000,000ha Sisheke Conservation Area that was recently awarded to JavZam to manage and develop on behalf of the Barotse Royal Establishment for the benefit of the local people and wildlife alike.

In amongst clocking up many miles investigating this massive tract of wilderness, we also managed to catch a few tiger fish and find a pack of 16 wild dogs!  Sadly, we also saw the unsustainable practices of escalating elephant poaching, widespread logging and uncontrolled burning at every turn. The area has incredible potential but huge challenges as well.

After a couple of weeks deep in the bush, we headed for a well-earned break in Livingstone where the folks at Safari Par Excellence (http://www.safpar.com/) treated us to a great day of world-class whitewater on the mighty Zambezi.  After an adrenalin-charged morning of river boarding where it was hard not to feel like crocodile bait, we abandoned our little body boards in favour of a more sociable self-bailing raft for the afternoon session.  The rapid-infested Zambezi is a very special river and it’s hard to imagine there’s any better way to spend an action-packed day in the wilds of Africa.

Tackling the wet and wild Class V whitewater with SAFPAR on the mighty Zambezi River in Zambia

Royal Malewane and the Lowveld, South Africa – May 2012

It was a social start to the month of May when Mike Arbuthnot and Cath Salmon tied the knot and we celebrated in royal style at the indomitable Suikerbossie Restaurant (www.suikerbossie.co.za) above Hout Bay. This tried-and-tested venue was a sure-fire recipe for festive success and, with the photo booth working overtime, there were plenty of intriguing photo strips to help the more inebriated guests reconstruct the events of their wild evening on Sunday morning.

The biggest surprise of the month was a last minute request and invitation to fly up to Royal Malewane (www.royalmalewane.com) in the Greater Kruger National Park for four days. The reasons for my visit were twofold… Firstly, the lodge was desperately short of rangers so, with the post-Indaba influx of travel agents, I was asked to please come up and help them out as a freelance guide.  Secondly, the high density of well-travelled tour operators and agents afforded an excellent opportunity to promote the Sisheke Conservation Project (www.sisheke.com) and our dynamic Zambian conservation initiative.

It was a real treat to be back on Thornybush Game Reserve and I revelled in the opportunity to catch up with old friends and soak up the Lowveld atmosphere on this unexpected ‘bonus’ bush break. It was great fun to be back guiding again, although I did feel decidedly rusty and it took me a little while to get back into the swing of things. Trying to remember my way around the reserve, along with all the old road names, proved more than a little stressful and compounded my feelings of being thrown in the deep end. But, with the assistance of my experienced tracker, Shadrack, we managed to find some outstanding sightings, treating our guests to a royal bush experience.

The three top wildlife sightings of this stint were undoubtedly tracking and locating a big male black rhino as he emerged to drink from Ingwe Dam; watching a young male leopard intently stalk towards a small sounder of warthogs in broad daylight; and a late night leopard adventure of note.

Young male leopard on the prowl at Royal Malewane

Male leopard on the prowl at Malewane

While watching a female leopard and her two sub-adult cubs devour an impala, a loose wire caused a short on the battery and left us without power, lights or an operational radio. Sitting below a star-strewn sky with a leopard lying either side of the vehicle noisily devouring their respective impala legs, was an experience that none of us will forget anytime soon. A cell phone, one bar of signal and a much-appreciated push from another game-viewer eventually got us mobile again and brought to an end a sensational game drive that will stay with me and the rest of the crew for many years to come.

I’ll sign off this entry with the fantastic news that years of work and a nerve-wracking presentation to the Board and EXCO members of the Peace Parks Foundation last week, finally culminated in pen-on-paper with the signing of a ten-year Management Agreement between Javelin Capital and the Barotse Royal Establishment on Friday the 25th of May.  The contract gives Javelin Zambia the exclusive rights to manage and sustainably develop the ecotourism and other natural resources of the Sisheke Chiefdom in South West Zambia. This 1.5 million hectare tract of wilderness is an integral part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) and the deal was supported and sanctioned by the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF).

So, the Sisheke Conservation Project has now taken its first steps down the long road to realising the huge potential of this valuable wilderness area on the Upper Zambezi River. You can read more about the Project and see pictures from the signing ceremony, which took place at  Birkenhead House in Hermanus, by following this link www.sisheke.com/blog/.

Exciting magazine assignments for June include a Wild assignment to put together an outdoorsy piece on the Wilderness section (www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/camps/wilderness/) of the Garden Route National Park. This SANParks story will be followed by a return trip to the Lowveld to watch tracker-extraordinaire Louis Liebenberg in action when I report on CyberTracker and his new tracking institute for the October issue of Africa Geographic.

The negotiations and signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement was attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin and Peace Parks

The negotiations which culminated in the signing of the Sisheke Management Agreement were attended by representatives of the BRE, Javelin Capital and the Peace Parks Foundation

The Sisheke Conservation Project, South Africa – Feb 2012

Six weeks into my new job at Javelin Capital Limited, I feel like I’m finally starting to strike the right balance between my work on the dynamic Sisheke Conservation Project (SCP) and my ongoing photojournalism assignments.

My magazine contributions for this month were dominated by multiple commissions from Explore South Africa (www.capemedia.co.za/explore-south-africa); I supplied the Cape Town-based trade and travel magazine with three stories for their March-May 2012 issue, covering Mokala National Park, Table Mountain hiking trails and canoeing the Orange River.  Thankfully, with only a couple of 4×4 articles and an Indian adventure sport feature lined up for March, the coming month is looking considerably more manageable and balanced.

Things are looking good with the SCP initiative in southwest Zambia and I’m now feeling much more settled in my new role than this time last month!  While Javelin steams ahead with progressing this exciting conservation initiative, the Peace Parks Foundation (www.peaceparks.org) and Mwandi Office of the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE) are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s ahead of the signing of the final Memorandum of Agreement between the parties.  With the ball squarely on their side of the court and not wanting to simply sit back and mark time, we decided to forge ahead with the new Project website this month.  I can report that – as of the end of Feb – we have reached the stage where the vast majority of content has been generated, images chosen, designs agreed upon and the site construction begun.  We are eagerly awaiting www.sisheke.com going live sometime during March.

I’m happy to say that while it was a hectically busy month on the work front, February certainly wasn’t all work and no play.  Katherine and I have found Cape Town and its idyllic lifestyle a perfect fit for us and we’re enjoying an active, outdoorsy and action-packed time rediscovering the many attractions of my hometown.  In keeping with the spirit of a leap year (the year when a woman can take the initiative and propose to a man!), Katherine organised a Valentine’s Day surprise this year.  I arrived home from work and was immediately whisked off by my lovely wife and up Table Mountain – via the very impressive Aerial Cableway (www.tablemountain.net).  On top we enjoyed a delicious picnic, sundowner beers and watched a magnificent sunset, before taking the revolving cable car back down to the ‘fairyland’ lights of Cape Town below.  What an awesome way to spend a Tuesday in our beautiful city!

Our Cape Town crowd of friends is dominated by some hardcore athletes, fitness fanatics and a large group of casual runners, so we too have embraced an active lifestyle.  The Sea Point Promenade (right in front of our apartment) is an incredible resource for keeping us sane, not to mention getting us fit.  As a result I ran my first-ever road marathon on Sunday 19th February.  The Cape Peninsula Marathon (www.topevents.co.za/index.php?sectionID=157) was a great experience and my race time of 3h26 definitely exceeded my expectations.  I did find, however, that the road took its toll on my weak knees and leg muscles, so my plan is to stick to half-marathons and trail running in the future.  So the Milkwood Half-Marathon (www.energyevents.co.za/events_detail.php?id=576&type=current) on Sunday 4th March will be the next exciting challenge.

March is shaping up to be another cracking month with running, overnight hiking, a trip with friends to Churchhaven, and lots of live rugby and cricket to keep me suitably entertained in amongst all the writing and interesting Sisheke Conservation Project work.

African Success Stories, Rwanda & Zambia – June 2010

During June I was privileged to travel to two of Africa’s most exciting conservation projects: Akagera National Park in Rwanda and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia.  These previously neglected reserves form part of African Parks Network’s (APN) portfolio of privately managed conservation areas across the Africa continent.  APN have pioneered an innovative approach to conservation with a park management model that combines sound conservation practices with solid business principles.  They only enter into management agreements for neglected conservation areas at the request of sovereign governments and in partnership with local communities and wildlife authorities.  Their management style is hands on and long-term with the goal of slowly building capacity and sustainability over time.  The end result is that neglected and abused chunks of wilderness are effectively rehabilitated into fully functioning ecosystems capable of sustaining themselves long after African Parks have pulled out.

After 36 hours of flight delays courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, I finally arrived in Kigali and made my way east to Akagera National park on the Tanzanian border.  Akagera is the newest addition to APN’s portfolio of parks and the project is still in its infancy, yet there is an undeniable feeling that the tide has turned and the park is looking forward to a bright and exciting future.  New vehicles, uniforms and infrastructure development have raised morale, while training and capacity building are underway to mould an effective team capable of propelling Akagera onto the tourism map as a must-visit East African safari destination.  Under the direction of Bryan Havemann, the project looks to have made impressive headway in its first few months of operation.  A great accolade to the new team’s tireless efforts was being asked by the incumbents to please not work so hard!  A sure sign that things have changed for the better.

The park is made up of an incredible diversity of habitats from rolling hills and open grasslands to lakes, wetlands and woodlands.  The Kilala Plains in the north of the park still boast sizable herds of game with good numbers of topi, bohor reedbuck, zebra, buffalo and defassa waterbuck, as well as giraffe and eland.  Sightings of elephants near the lake shore and rare roan antelope in the surrounding hills, not to mention an incredible array of 525 bird species within its 110,100 ha, means that Akagera has the potential to rapidly bounce back from decades of heavy poaching and neglect.  With the committed support of the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and the resources and expertise of APN, there is little doubt that Akagera will soon realise its massive potential and emerge as a successfully rehabilitated and fully-functional conservation area.

My next stop was Liuwa Plain National Park in western Zambia; a park that already stands out as a rare African success story.  In 2004 APN partnered with the local Lozi people and the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to take over managerial responsibility for Liuwa.  During the last six years poaching has all but been eradicated from the park and animal numbers have swelled.  This is best illustrated by considering that the number of migrating wildebeest has more than doubled to over 40,000 during the last five years.  Liuwa is home to Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration, but boasts considerably better birdlife than the Mara or Serengeti can offer.  Predators abound.  Huge clans of hyaenas dominate the open plains, while wild dog packs and cheetah have returned to roam the grasslands in search of their favoured oribi and steenbok prey.  However, Lady Liuwa, the much publicised ‘last lioness in Liuwa’, inevitably steals the show.  After many years of solitude, this fine ambassador for Liuwa was recently joined by two majestic male lions from Kafue and it is hoped that cubs will once again stalk the plain before the year is out.

In the space 48 hours, accompanied by Craig Reid the Liuwa park manager, I witnessed some of the most amazing wildlife viewing of my entire career.  We watched lions stalk wildebeest, three wild dog kills (including one scrub hare chase viewed ‘Planet Earth style’ from the air in a microlight), hyaena-wild dog wars over the carcasses and all of this under a full moon on the wide desolately beautiful plains of Liuwa.  It has been my privilege to visit hundreds of parks through out Africa and indeed the world, so when I say Liuwa is in my top three parks worldwide,  I genuinely mean that this is a very special place and one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.

Adventures in Darkest Africa, Congo & Zambia – May 2010

It took me a little while to get back into the swing of things after all the fun and festivities that dominated April.  However, there was no easing my way back into things and I hit the ground running with a three-week trip to Zambia and the DRC.  My assignment was to collect information and photographic material to document and publicise the good work that African Parks Network (APN) are doing to restore and manage some of Africa’s most valuable and neglected wilderness areas.

My first stop was the Bangweulu Wetlands where an old friend, Ian Stevenson, is managing a community conservation project to sustainably protect these valuable swamps in conjunction with the local fishing communities.  Bangweulu is Zambia’s Okavango Delta: a totally undeveloped and neglected chunk of watery wilderness.  The birdlife is spectacular and includes reliable sightings of the enigmatic shoebill.  Wildlife numbers have been depleted, although we still saw countless herds of endemic black lechwe (estimated to number in the tens of thousands), along with zebra, buffalo, elephant and hyaena!  While working with the communities can be challenging and the decision-making process can be excruciatingly slow at times, the wetlands undoubtedly have incredible potential and should take off as a unique Zambian safari destination in the near future.

After my week in northern Zambia, I travelled via Nairobi to Uganda driving from Entebbe diagonally across the country to Arua and across the border to Aru in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  An APN light aircraft with a crazy French pilot, Stephan, met me for the 50-minute flight into Garamba in the northeastern DRC.  Garamba is a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest national parks in Africa.  It is unique in that it is a rare savanna ecosystem hemmed in by the rain forests of Central Africa.  The result is a reserve characterised by vastly differing habitats and an incredible diversity of species.

Garamba was also the last stronghold of the critically endangered northern white rhino.  However, with no sighting since 2007, the rhino has almost certainly been relegated to the pages of history by Congolese and Sudanese poachers armed with automatic weapons.  The tyrannical Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) retreated into the Congo and set up their headquarters in Garamba in 2005 ensuring that there was no respite for the beleaguered wildlife sanctuary.  Not surprisingly, the worst poachers of all are the undisciplined soldiers that constitute the rag-tag FRDC (Congolese army), which is supposedly in Garamba to fight the LRA.

While rhino have been slaughtered into extinction, the elephant population that numbered over 40,000 in the 1960s has been blasted to 3,500 in less than fifty years!  There is no denying that Garamba has been ravaged by poachers; however, the park’s wildlife is stubbornly hanging on.  When I drove through and flew over Garamba, I saw huge herds of buffalo, elephant, hartebeest, kob, defassa waterbuck and hippo, along with even more spectacular sightings of rare Congolese giraffe, regal lions and an excited clan of hyaena noisily devouring a hippo carcass!

Although Garamba is undoubtedly one of the most difficult, logistically challenging and volatile parks in Africa, APN (somewhat surprisingly) agreed to come in and manage the desperate park.   They opened a new tourist lodge in the park this month providing an incentive to dedicated visitors who take the plunge and embark on the adventurous trek into wildest Africa.  Garamba is one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas, so, with the demise of the LRA and the dedication of APN, lets hope that it can finally embark on the long-awaited road to recovery.

After spending ten days delving into the history, challenges and quagmire that constitute Garamba, I bid farewell to the park and its dedicated APN team and headed for South Africa.  Knee surgery fixed a 16-month old running-induced ITB injury before I boarded a plane and returned to the brutally hot temperatures of pre-monsoon India where I was reunited with my very understanding wife!

Next month I will be back in Africa when I travel on an assignment to cover Akagera National Park in Rwanda and a carnivore research project in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park.  However, before I return to the wilds of Africa, it’s time to do some long-overdue work and get cracking on a growing list of magazine articles with looming deadlines.

Return top