Towards the end of April I was lucky enough to be invited by Dave Wilson of Norman Carr Safaris on their inaugural trip into Liuwa Plain National Park for a four night safari at the recently upgraded Matamanene Camp.
What an incredible experience this was, and something that I will always cherish and remember. To sit on the vehicle and look out over the plains at total nothingness for 360 degrees is in Dave’s own words “food for the soul”. This is a truly unique park and experience and in my opinion ideal for repeat visitors to Southern Africa, who have done their traditional safari experience and are looking to experience something different.
Our adventure started with a 2 hour early morning flight from Lusaka into Kalabo Airport. We were met by the Norman Carr Safaris Team with coffee and sandwiches and then started off on our trip to Liuwa Plains. We had a short drive through Kalabo before reaching the Luanginga River, which you cross on a pontoon, very similar to the one used in South Luangwa.
Kalabo is a fascinating little fishing village and gives a good insight into the local way of life. The people here are very friendly and only too happy to chat to you or have their photo taken whilst you wait to cross the river. Once we had crossed the river we headed through a wooded area outside the park, and then reached the sandy plains areas and continued through to the camp. The trip took us approximately two hours in total and along the way our game viewing started as we saw wildebeest, zebra and many different birds including large flocks of the endangered wattled cranes. (Globally, Liuwa is considered to be the fourth most important breeding site for wattled cranes.)
Typically at this time of the year, the wildebeest would have started to move north already, but because of some late rains in April, we still found fairly large herds out on the open plains. Wildebeest numbers are now estimated to be in excess of 50, 000, showing a considerable growth from 2003 when they only numbered 15, 000. Due to there having been a lot less rain in general, the whole area was a lot drier than previous years with the open plains areas, which are normally under water, being quite dry. Many of the pools found in the park still had a lot of water, attracting huge flocks of birds and large herds of red lechwe.
During our time in the Park we saw a herd of over 1000 lechwe, many large herds of zebra and an incredible amount of hyena. I don’t think that in all my years of going on safari that I have seen so many hyenas over a space of five days. The hyena are the apex predator in the Liuwa Plain National Park and their estimated numbers are in the region of 600. On one of our evenings, we spent some time watching one of the active hyena dens where a mother hyena had come back to feed her cubs before heading off to hunt again. The cubs were very cute and also very curious and kept running out towards our vehicle to have a closer look.
Another big highlight of my time in Liuwa was spending quality time every day with the five lions. This is a very close-knit pride consisting of the famous Lady Liuwa, Sepo, who is the female who had cubs in 2014, and her three cubs. Although the cubs are just over a year old they are almost full grown and quite intimidating, although still very playful with each other and affectionate with their mother! Most of their time is spent within the vicinity of the camp, and due to Sepo and Lady Liuwa being collared by the Carnivore Research Team we were able to find them with ease on our morning and afternoon drives and spend time watching them from the safety and comfort of our vehicle.
Liuwa is a haven for birds, and even if you are not an avid birder, you cannot help but be wildly excited by the sheer number of birds that you see in this park. Some of the birds that we saw and I remembered to tick off on my check list included the endangered wattled cranes, crowned cranes, African fish eagles, tawny eagles, grey herons, pink backed and white pelicans, yellow billed storks and the swallow-tailed and little bee-eater. On one of our afternoon drives, we sat and had sundowners in front of one of the pools and watched and listened to hundreds of crowned cranes coming in to roost in the area for the night.
Other smaller animals that we saw included the banded and white-tailed mongoose, oribi, side striped jackal, African wildcat and zorillas. If you have never heard of a zorilla before you are not alone! This animal is nocturnal and is also known as a striped polecat.
Matamanene camp itself is delightful and has been very tastefully refurbished by Norman Carr Safaris. With an open plan main area consisting of a comfortable lounge, dining area and outside fire pit and five tents this is the perfect intimate bush camp from which to explore the Park. The rooms have exceptionally comfortable beds, lovely linen and great hot showers. In traditional Norman Carr manner, the camp offers excellent food, service and guiding. Every day we were treated to a special “out of camp” dining experience.
We had special sundowners in front of one of the many pools on one of our evenings, where we were closely watched by some interested hyena. A bush dinner set up at Lone Palm was the perfect setting to enjoy the star-filled evening and listen to stories of the history of the area recounted by the King’s advisor who had joined us for the evening. The team cooked us a delicious bush breakfast, set up in an area by Kings Pools, with a magnificent view looking out over the open plains.
On our first evening in the Park we met the Zambia Carnivore Programme team, who gave us a very informative presentation on their research project within the park, which helped set the tone for our adventures to follow in the coming days. They then joined us on one of our drives later on in the safari, and we tracked the lion and assisted them with some of their field work collecting grass samples eaten by the zebra.
Other activities included a morning walking safari across the open plains. This brought us into quite close contact with a large herd of wildebeest, giving us a good insight into and understanding of their herd dynamics. On one of our afternoon game drives we came across a group of local fishermen moving rapidly through the park with their catch of the day. Large poles were hoisted over their shoulders speared with massive black barbell which they had caught from one of the pools within the park. There are approximately 20,000 local people and 432 villages still retaining utilisation rights in the park and it is therefore not unusual to see local people walking their cattle or fishing in the park.
I count myself amongst the very fortunate who have been lucky enough to experience this extraordinary park which is managed and protected by African Parks. Numbers of visitors every year are small which ensures a very special and exclusive experience, and if you have the chance to visit this park in the future, my advice would be to jump at the opportunity.
Photos provided are courtesy of Norman Carr Safaris