From Lower Zambezi we made it through to Chipata by nightfall and set up camp at Mamarula Camp on the outskirts of town.
We spent the morning stocking up on supplies and giving the car a bit of a touch up after the considerable battering it had taken coming over the escarpment out of Lower Zambezi the previous morning. It had already become very apparent that self-driving through Zambia is not for the faint of heart.
By 10am, we were on our way to South Luangwa, about 60kms away.
South Luangwa is not as widely-known as the likes of Kruger or Etosha, nor is it as accessible (by road at least). But before the trip, anyone I spoke to who had been to Zambia’s most-feted national park told me that it was second to none.
Above all else, most people felt that it was the amount of spectacular leopard sightings in the park that most set it apart. Hence the nickname The Valley of the Leopard.
I had been looking forward to this part of our trip through Zambia for a long time, and from the moment we arrived in the small town of Mfuwe on the outskirts of the park I was charged with excitement and anticipation. A large part of this stemmed from the fact that although I had seen a few leopard in other places over the years, I had never managed to get a good shot of one on camera.
We set up camp at Track and Trail River Camp in one of the thatched two storey open hides that serve as a novel and comfortable camping option and then went for a swim at the beautiful shaded rim-flow pool that looks right over the Luangwa River and into the national park beyond. There were a number of hippos bobbing in the water and crocs sunning themselves all along the banks.
We then hid from the ferocious midday sun for a couple of hours at the camp’s gym and then at the bar before setting off on our first game drive with Peter Geraerdts, the owner of Track and Trail.
Peter is an entertaining and eccentric character, as well as an experienced photographer, and his customised Track and Trail vehicle comes equipped with beanbags and moveable arms for resting and manoeuvring your camera on.
All of this would help make for a memorable first game drive.
One of the park’s lion prides had recently made a buffalo kill, so this kill site was set to be our first port of call.
However, just a kilometre into the park Peter Gerardts suddenly slammed on his brakes and pointed at a high branch in a large sausage tree to our left. There, as easy as that, was our first leopard, a large juvenile. And not another car in sight. Sadly though, a combination of bad light and thick foliage meant I didn’t get my shot for now, but my time would come.
We carried on to the buffalo kill, where we saw 3 lioness and one cub lazing about in the shade nearby while a handful of spotted hyena and an army of vultures fought over the carcass. Eventually one of the lionesses decided that enough was enough and snapped out of her post-hunt lethargy to chase them all away. But by the looks of the carcass and the bellies of a few of the hyena, everyone had had their fair share.
We eventually left the park at around 8pm. Like all Zambia’s parks, South Luangwa is completely unfenced and we returned to our camp to find a herd of elephants wandering around and trying a to find a way to undo the screw-top bins. Peter told us they were nightly visitors, along with a few hippos and very occasionally even a leopard or two.
The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and made our way back into the park, this time the more remote Nsefu section accessed from the Milyoti Gate to the east. About an hour into our game drive we saw a solitary car facing a big sausage tree. We all knew what that meant.
We pulled alongside and the driver of the other car pointed upwards and then pulled off to leave us alone with the leopard, a large and handsome male watching us intently from his branch. The light was perfect, and so was his pose. Then, for an added bonus, he got up, climbed down the tree and sauntered off into the bush right in front of us.
I had finally got the shots I had been looking for for so long. The Valley of the Leopard had certainly been worth the wait.