Over the next three weeks dozens of TV cameras will be trained on the wildlife of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. The footage they capture for the BBC2 series Africa 2013: After the Rains will not only shine a spotlight on the plight of animals trying to survive the toughest dry season in living memory but also, indirectly, help illuminate a country, and an area, that’s remained somewhat in the shadow of its better known neighbours. And that simple fact is central to its appeal as a safari destination. South Luangwa has virtually all the wildlife of the Masai Mara or the Serengeti – on each of the four days I was there I saw lion, leopard, elephant, giraffe, buffalo and hippo – but nothing like the concentration of tourists. As the programme’s co-presenter Kate Humble told me: “It’s a magical place with magical animals.”
The filming team continues to be based at Robin Pope’s Nsefu camp, with the crew’s makeshift studio established in the bush close by. I stayed a few kilometers away at the company’s Tena Tena camp. Each overlooks the dramatic Luangwa River, which is either home or fuelling station to the park’s abundant wildlife. The five generously-sized double tents at Tena Tena and the six thatched-roof rondavels at Nsefu, are sensitively designed to blend in with the surroundings – wood from the forest is used in much of the furnishing and decoration -and are brilliantly located to explore the bush. That said, a lot of what’s in the bush comes to you.
At night hippos roam through both camps in search of grass and other vegetation, while antelope and buffalo are also frequent visitors. The food for guests is impressively imaginative, though happily not inappropriately extravagant. The walk-in tents at Tena Tena, each with their own natural veranda overlooking the river, are raised under the tree canopy and have their own outdoor, though enclosed, washing and showering areas. These are welcome home comforts, though you never lose sight of the fact you’re in the wild. It feels as close to nature as any bush camp could ever possibly hope to be. And ensuring that the experience is a physical as well as a sensory one are the guides. Mine was the wonderful Bertram, but they all have a formidable knowledge of the wildlife in the park. And it isn’t just an academic appreciation of what’s around – they watch as you watch, eyes and mouth wide open sharing in the joy of seeing these animals in their natural setting.
The Nsefu sector of South Luangwa may not possess the breathtaking open plains drama of the east African parks but the river has an aesthetic beauty that will lift your heart, and the bush – verdant in May after the rainy season and increasingly spartan through September and October– has an untouched ruggedness to it. As one guest told me; “I’ve been on safari all over Africa, and this is as authentic as it gets. So please don’t tell anyone.”
But that would be a bit selfish wouldn’t it…?
Food and Drink: All meals and drinks, including wine, spirits and beers, are included in the price as are all game viewing activities. A simple breakfast of toast, cereals and fruit is taken on the riverbank ahead of the first game drive of the day, usually before 7am. An extensive and varied salad lunch is then taken around midday under the huge artfully constructed canvas canopy, and dinner – a skilfully prepared three-course meal with wine – is at 8pm following the afternoon game drive.