Norman Carr

South Luangwa National Park

The visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, was a good excuse to travel to the South Luangwa National Park. Although flying with the defunct Zambia Airways was reasonably priced, we opted to travel by road so that we could see the country better.

Unfortunately, the journey from Lusaka to Chipata was rather monotonous and long (568 km) on an almost straight road. From there we still had to travel another 100 km on a dirt road to get to Mfuwe Lodge, our destination for the three days we stayed there. The lodge was run by the Government and offered basic services, but we found it comfortable as well as very reasonably priced.

Our daughter came with us, looked after by her grandad, too young to remember anything despite my efforts to introduce her to the abundant hippos that lived in the river.

The Luangwa River is a major tributary of the Zambezi River and one of the four large rivers of Zambia, together with the Zambezi, Kafue and Chambesi). The upper and middle parts supply water to the North and South Luangwa National Parks and it is also home to a very large population of crocodiles and hippos. It is here where the largest population of hippos in Africa can be found. Although during the dry season the hippos are confined to pools that become muddy, they managed to survive although sometimes they succumb to diseases such as anthrax [1]. This was not the case during our visit as the river was flowing and they were scattered all over it.

The Luangwa River with hippos.

We spent a long time watching the numerous large schools of hippo but in fact we were looking for a place from where we could fish safely as I was aware that the river´s muddy waters also harboured good sized catfish. We selected a treeless patch of a grassy bank about 1.5m above the water from where we had a good view of any animals approaching and could focus on catching fish.

The following morning while Mauro and I fished, Mabel kept an eye for danger, just in case as very little escapes her eyesight! We were not able to bring earthworms, so we resorted to some beef we had brought for the purpose (I was not yet aware at the time of the use of soap!). Although beef is not the ideal bait, we started having some good bites and our enthusiasm grew.

We fished from a similar river bank than the one behind the hippos.

For Mauro, a frequent fisherman of the muddy waters of the River Plate, the kind of fishing we did was a normal event and soon he caught a nice catfish that we returned as we were only fishing for sport. While I was busy catching nothing, he hooked another fish. This time it seemed to be quite sizeable as he had difficulties bringing it in. Eventually it surfaced and we saw that a large catfish that Mauro, with his experience, played well and soon was close to the bank.

Catfish are tough and they take a while to get tired so there was quite a bit of fighting before he started to lift it up from the water. When he had raised the fish about one metre, a large green form came up from the water, seized the fish and disappeared in a fraction of a second. We were completely taken by surprise by this and we looked at each other in disbelief for a while, speechless and it took a while before we could talk again! When we did, it was to agree that we had had enough fishing for the day as we did not wish to have another close encounter with a croc!

We were wise choosing the high bank as the crocodile, attracted by the commotion in the water, took its chance once it saw the fish being lifted and it could have come towards us if we would have been at the river´s edge! The event got imprinted in Mauro´s memory in such a way that, whenever we fished again, he will tell me of the day I tried to get rid of him!

After this incident we devoted the rest of our time to safer activities. So we, fruitlessly, looked for lion and leopard but were rewarded by seeing other game, including many elephants. I had the impression that elephants in Luangwa were smaller than others we had seen in other parts of Zambia but it was just that, an impression.

Elephants at South Luangwa National Park.

Apart from fishing and game viewing, our trip to the South Luangwa National Park had another purpose. I was very keen to meet one of my “bush heroes”, Norman Carr, then living at Kapani Safari Lodge. I had bought and read some of his books [2] and I admired his inspiring work in conservation [3] .

Luckily, he was at the camp, and we had the great pleasure to spend a few hours with him. He came across as an extremely knowledgeable and unassuming man and our meeting only increased the admiration I felt for him. Interestingly, I owned a copy of “The White Impala” dedicated to another person and signed by Norman that Mabel had bought at an auction in Kenya. He was quite amused when I asked him to re-dedicate it to me. He accepted and the book became one of my special wildlife books.

Before we left, Norman invited us to return to Kapani to spend more time there. Unfortunately, soon afterwards we left Zambia and did not return to South Luangwa and, sadly, Norman passed away in 1997.

[1] If interested in the subject, see https://bushsnob.com/2015/12/10/a-new-hippo/ and https://bushsnob.com/hippo-carnivory-press-coverage/

[2] Return to the Wild (Collins 1962), The White Impala (Collins 1969), Some Common Trees and Shrubs of Luangwa Valley (1978), Valley of the Elephants (Collins 1980), A guide to the wildlife of the Luangwa Valley (Collins 1987) and Kakuli (CBC 1996). (Kakuli means Old buffalo and it is the friendly name by which the locals called him).

[3] Norman Carr, born in Chinde (Portuguese East Africa) started his career as an Elephant Control Officer in Northern Rhodesia controlling elephants damaging crops from villagers. During this time Norman gathered a great deal of bush experience that it would later prove invaluable when setting up National Parks for the Government and train rangers and wardens. Apart from South Luangwa, he also established the Kafue National Park.

It was after serving with the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War that he returned to Rhodesia with a very advanced idea: villagers could make money out looking after of protecting elephants and other animals. This was the start of eco-tourism in Africa!

He established Kapani, his own tourist camp just outside the park gates, and started charging guests to watch wild animals, a novel concept at the time. Later, the loss of wildlife to increased poaching prompted him to set up the Rhino Trust in 1970 which later passed into the care of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He was a major driving force in the development of the Luangwa valley area, particularly with his ground-breaking walking safaris. He then spent lots of energy developing projects in support of the local communities.

The above is just a short account on Norman´s life and work and the interested reader will have no difficulty “googling” information on him.

Kafue National Park (KNP)

With an area of 22,400 square kilometres the KNP is the largest in Zambia, 35% of all the area devoted to parks in the country and the fifth in size in the whole of Africa. It started in 1920 as a Game Reserve as an effort to protect the then dwindling wild animal population.

Map of the KNP. Credit: Nanzhila Safari Camp.

In 1950 it was declared a National Park named after the river basin where most of its land is found. It was only gazetted as such in 1972, the year that the construction of the Itezhi-tezhi dam started. In 1957 Norman Carr [1] was appointed its first Wildlife Warden, post that he will keep until 1960. His appointment coincided with the finalization of most of the eleven accommodation facilities of the park namely Ngoma, Nanzhila, Kalala, Itumbi, Chunga, Mapunga, Lufupa, Moshi, Treetops, Lushimba and Ndulumina.

The KNP hosted most of the animals found in Southern Africa [2] but it was not a place where you expected, in general, to find high densities of game because of the size of the park. To make matters worse, at the time we were in Zambia, the Angolan rebels had almost exterminated the game in the mid-eighties and carried the meat, ivory and other animal parts west from Zambia. The Park was not very popular with tourists in contrast with other options such as the South Luangwa National park and others.

We visited the KNP a few times, spending sometime in the southern part of the park, closer to Lusaka, visiting the Itezhi-tezhi area where we did some boating and stayed a couple of times, mainly when we wished to get out of Lusaka to a place relatively close to it. However, the area was popular and did not offer lots of game so we did not visited it very often.

I must clarify that we still had our Kenya memories of very large numbers of game in our minds and the KNP appeared as an empty park to us despite it being recovering from the earlier heavy pouching.

We did travel to the northern part of the park as it was not too far from our project area at Lutale in Central Province. We stayed at Ngoma lodge that, at the time offered basic facilities and catering. Luckily, its staff made up for the lack of luxury as they were very friendly and particularly kind to our children. We drove many kilometres through the bush in search of game but our reward were a few elephants that were not very approachable. On a positive note, we found the rare Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) and I even managed to get a (bad) picture of a bull!.

Our first sighting of a Roan antelope.

We were non-plussed by the KNP for about a year and we had decided to leave it and devote ourselves to explore other areas. At that time a friend recommended as to visit the Lufupa Camp, situated in the northern sector of the park.

We decided to spend a long weekend there and we were rewarded. The camp, beautifully sighted near the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue rivers, was an area rich in floodplains, broad-leaved woodland, abundant riverine vegetation and “dambos” [3]. Around Lufupa we saw more wildlife than we had spotted in the rest of the park. Plain game such as zebra, buffalo, greater kudu and impala were present as well as the Roan antelope as mentioned above.

We also saw a few elephants that did not reside there but moved through at times. In addition, bird life was also abundant around the camp with some rare species found there, namely Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher. Despite these plusses, we were happy to learn that Lufupa’s fame was built on its frequent leopard sightings particularly during the night drives organized by the camp.

A lone elephant at the KNP.

Once there and after spending our first day driving around in search of game, we booked a night game drive. We left our young daughter with Annie at camp and we joined “MAP” Patel [4] in search of the elusive leopards, a cat that we had rarely seen during our years and Kenya and never in Ethiopia. We noted that MAP talked little and he seemed to be on a mission: to find leopards. He stood next to the driver with his hunting gun while intensively watching the dark bush. We also noted that he had the ring finger of his right hand missing and I seem to recall that he told us that he had lost it to a leopard on a game drive a while before. No wonder he was so alert!

I remember that first night drive as a long and rather uneventful. We were not yet used to night drives so, we focussed intensively on the illuminated circle of the searchlight and we soon got our eyes tired. In addition, it became cold as time passed and leopards were not easy to spot that night. Luckily, towards the end of the drive and when -being unprepared- we were getting very cold, the other car that had gone out with us radioed to tell MAP of the location of a leopard. We joined them and saw our first “Zambian” leopard that we soon lost when it walked into thick bush.

We enjoyed that first experience at Lufupa and we kept planning to return. This took place during the visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, from Uruguay with who we shared a few trips around Zambia. With him, Flori (daughter) and Annie (nanny) we went to Lufupa for a second time, looking forward to sighting leopards again. We were not disappointed.

During the first day of game viewing we were returning to camp for lunch when one of the drivers stopped us and told us the location of a couple of cheetah. Without hesitation, lunch was postponed and we drove in the direction that we were told, hoping that the cheetah would still be there and that we would find them.

Luckily, Mabel saw them immediately and we had a great time watching them until they decided to disappear in the bush. That evening we booked a night drive. This time we were with a different guide but in radio contact with MAP’s car. As soon as we left the camp, we found two large male lions walking on the road and we stayed with them for a long while as they seemed to be hunting.

We followed the two large males for about five kilometres while they took advantge of the road and marked lots of bushes as it often happens. This was our first experience with lions at very close quarters in an open vehicle at night and I must confess that it was very exciting not only for my father in law but also for us!

When they decided to move out of the road and into the thicket I expected that we would continue our errand but MAP did not have it and he went straight into thick bush after them and we followed. After about half hour the pair entered into an area of thick bush that was too much, even for MAP! Somehow we -miraculously for me- soon were back on the road and again focussed on leopards. We drove for a while until we bumped on a lonely female that we watched until it was time to return to camp as it was getting late and, again, rather cold. That day remains in our memory as the one when we saw the three large cats!

On that trip, for the second night drive we joined MAP himself and he lived up to his reputation. We found six leopards in various spots during the drive. The last one was hunting and MAP decided to wait and see what happened. He stopped the car and switched the search lamp off. Gradually our eyes adjusted to darkness helped by the available moonlight. The leopard was about twenty metres from an impala when we first spotted it and it was completely still.

After waiting for half an hour, the predator had slowly crept forward and it was now at about four metres from the impala. The latter remained totally unaware of the danger and, unbelievably for us, continued grazing and looking the other way. We were getting excited and whispered to each other that the attack would happen any time.

We waited for the attack with bated breath but, amazingly, the leopard kept approaching until its nozzle was almost touching its prey! At that point, the impala either saw it or caught the leopard’s scent and it took off! While relaxing from the tension we were under, we made comments about the incredible sight we have just seen, and MAP explained that this is the way leopards often hunt and the event we witnessed was a rare one as the leopard missed!

The following video illustrates an accelerated but similar situation to what we witnessed that night except that “our” leopard failed to get its prey. Although it shows a kill, I believe that you will take it as a natural ocurrence in the normal predator-prey relationship in real life.

After that night Lufupa was included in our list of best places we ever visited. Regrettably, we did not return to it but plan to do it as soon as we can. The idea is to combine our return with a visit to the Busanga plains, a swampy area fed by the Lufupa river and also located in northern KNP. Busanga was and still is a great area for game viewing. In particular there are large numbers of puku (Kobus vardonii) and red lechwe (Kobus leche) together with many other ungulates. To make the place even more attractive, it is also one of the best areas to witness the epic confrontation between lions and buffalo. We cannot wait for the Covid 19 pandemic to go away!

[1] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Carr – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[2] See: https://www.zambiatourism.com/destinations/national-parks/kafue-national-park/ – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[3] “A dambo is a class of complex shallow wetlands in central, southern and eastern Africa, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are generally found in higher rainfall flat plateau areas and have river-like branching forms which in themselves are not very large, but combined add up to a large area. Dambos have been estimated to comprise 12.5% of the area of Zambia. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dambo (Consulted on 18 June 2021).

[4] Muhammed Ahmed Patel alias ‘MAP’ was an outstanding police officer and commander of the anti-theft squad of Lusaka with a reputation of being a tough and fair cop and a great human being. At the time of our visits to Lufupa Camp, he guided, and he had a reputation of being able to smell leopards. A hero for many, he died in 2012. See: https://www.facebook.com/InMemoryOfMapPatel/?ref=page_internal (Consulted on 17 June 2021).