Covering 9,050 square kilometers along the Luangwa River, South Luangwa is a gem. It boasts large herds of giraffe, buffalo, impala, abundant populations of crocodiles and hippos, and of course, elephants. Thousands of them. And unlike traveling with the overpopulated tourists hoards in the Serengeti, the open jeep tours here bring you in direct contact with the environment like few other safari's can. Roadways are narrow and unobtrusive, and in the rainy month of January the sparse forests and grasslands are in full, vividly green bloom.
South Luangwe is also a bit of a success for conservation efforts.
In the 1970s, poaching decimated the park's elephant population to a mere 6,000 animals, but aggressive patrolling and the international ban on ivory trade has helped that number rebound to 16,000 today. Elephants of every age (including stumbling newborns) are constantly within sight, so much so that it's difficult to imagine how dense the herds would have been when the park's original population of 100,000 was intact.
Mother Nature is also lending the elephants her helping hand, proving her wisdom even in the face of mankind's most wanton attempts at destruction. Tuskless elephants have always existed in small numbers, but with selective hunting by ivory hungry poachers, nature is selecting this formerly rare variation in far greater numbers, ensuring that the world's largest herbivor stands a chance of survival even if poaching once again becomes common.
As striking as they were, the elephants were only one half of the surprise and as the hour rolled on towards 6pm, the sun fell below the horizon and the nightime safari began. Hippos emerged from the water to graze in the long grass, and you could feel a tangible shift in power as darkness began to favour the park's predators.
Within ten minutes of nightfall we rounded a bend in the path and our spotlight caught the gleam of feline eyes. It was a leopard, the most elusive and shy of all of Africa's 'big five'. During daylight you're lucky to spot a glimpse of one dozing a hundred yards off in the canopy of a tree, but spinning the jeep around as close as we could the big cat strolled within ten feet of us. It was completely undisturbed by our presence and paused briefly to grant us a photo shoot before moving confidently away towards the unseen (to our eyes) herd of impala collecting in the brush beyond.
Far more terrifying was the awakening pride of lions. The cats strode directly along the sides of our open vehicle, and unlike the leopard, rather boldly surveyed the occupants of the jeep itself, as if casually browsing the menu of a familiar restaurant. The jeeps act as a type of territorial boundary and the presence of the lions is meant to be safe so long as you remain inside. Under no circumstances would I have it any other way.
As immersed as we were during our four hour safari, nature always has something more to offer - sometimes in the most unexpected places.
The next morning while back at the Flatdog campsite on the opposite side of the river, I was sluffing along between the bar and the toilets in half done up sandals when I heard branches breaking off to my left. Twenty yards from the toilets was Uncle Gilbert, a massive bull elephant casually consuming what had formerly been a large healthy bush. he was taking his time grabbing individual branches with his trunk and expertly sawing off moutfuls against his tusks until the bush was satisfactorily plucked clean and he moved away - directly towards the place I was standing.
He hadn't seen me leaning againt the bathroom entrance when he began walking but at ten yards he finally caught sight of me. His ears went up like two sails grabbing the wind, and my entire visual field was instantly filled by a wall of grey flesh. Taking the hint, I kept eye contact while slowly making two long steps back into the toilets. His comfort zone restored, Uncle Gilbert walked off to his next meal.
Exiting the bathroom, I turned towards the bar to do the same.