Welcome to the Cairngorm Wildlife Diary for our visit to

Zambia in November 2014

Sanctuary Chichele Presidential Lodge

Fri 7th Nov 
Neighbour Colin took us to Aviemore for the sleeper to London - the first leg of our journey.

Sat 8th Nov
We were picked up and driven from Euston to Heathrow by Saga’s free service which was all very well except it meant we had seven hours to kill. Our flight left on time for the 8 hour leg to Nairobi, Kenya. 

Our next flight to Lillongwe was delayed for an hour but took off eventually, landed briefly at Lusaka to board and disembark passengers and then got us to Lillongwe at least an hour late. The Saga rep told us time was short so we should hurry and get our luggage from the carrousel but he then earned the idiot of the month award by grabbing bags with Saga labels from the carrousel without telling anybody, with the result some of us were standing worriedly at the carousel thinking our bags were lost.

12 seater biplane
Our 12 seater biplane to Mfuwe

Eventually we got away in our 12 seater aircraft for the one hour flight to Mfuwe. To summarise, our journey from Heathrow to the Chichele Lodge went as follows:    to Nairobi 8 hours, to Lillongwe 4 hours, to Mfuwe 1hour and to Chichele by road 2 hours. By country we went UK-Kenya-Zambia-Malawi-Zambia.  Altogether, including waiting time, the outward journey took approx 40 hours.

The temperature on arrival at Mfuwe was 41 degs C which was typical of what we were to expect in the week ahead.   The drive from the tiny airport to Chichele earned us some elephants even before we crossed into the national park - apparently the mango season is about to get under way in the villages so the elephants take risks to try to take advantage.  

Elephants crossing the river
Elephants crossing the river and leaving the National Park to head for the ripening mangos near villages

We arrived at last at Sanctuary Chichele Presidential Lodge at 5pm to be greeted by the staff lined up on the steps like something out of Jane Eyre - it was a bit uncomfortable to receive such subservience. We got a briefing, then dinner, then we could escape to bed exhausted.

The sumptuous Lodge

Mon 10th Nov
Up at 5, breakfast at 6 and away at 6.30 am. Cool at first then it soon heated up. Lots of antelope of different types; impala, bushbuck and puka for example. Soon there were wart hogs, elephants, lions, giraffes, hippos, yellow baboons, monkeys, a tree squirrel and a lizard.

There were almost as many giraffes as elephants

There were plenty of birds too including Sylvia's (one of the group) favourite carmine bee eater, a crowd of vultures and storks at the remains of a kill plus a tawny eagle in a tree with a leg of an impala which we guessed came from the same kill. We took a coffee break in the shade of some trees then drove some more before heading back to base around 10am.   Lunch, then a nap, then tea and away at 4pm for a night drive till 7.30pm. We got hippos, an owl, a lion stalking impala, and lions still sleeping.

Elephant charging
The elephant chased us - quite scary

The lamp guy saw a gennet but nobody else did and then we got too close to a young bull elephant who chased us along the road. I got a photo. Back at the lodge we chilled out before dinner at 8pm.

A lioness uncomfortably close to our open vehicle

Thoughts: some of this doesn't feel quite right because we are getting unnaturally close to some quite dangerous animals. The fact that all alpha female lions have radio collars spoils the look of the thing too, as do the collars on both the alpha male and alpha female wild dogs that we saw on a different day. When we came across some buffalo our driver was quite aggressive with the vehicle (a Toyota Land Cruiser) in an attempt to get close for us to get good pictures but the plan backfired because he only succeeded in scaring the beasts away. 

Water buffalo
Water buffalo and oxpeckers

I had put out the Acorn cam last night but it's not working properly.  Nevertheless it got some antelope and baboon shots.  At dinner we heard the other group had seen leopard, porcupine and mongoose. Went to bed at 10pm. 

Tues 11th Nov
Got the alarm wrong so were up 2 hours too early. Acorn cam still not working properly but anyway one of our guides helped me put it in a better place on a path. Bea and I then went for a walk in the grounds but got told off for straying outside the limits. We had misunderstood the briefing. It helped us feel safer knowing that the staff were watching out for us but at the same time we felt a bit like prisoners. 

Baobab tree
A spectacular baobab tree - one of hundreds in the area

I took lots of landscape photos to maybe sketch back at home. There were lots of squirrels running around the grounds despite the heat - 39 degs C.  Today's main activity was an evening drive. The other group saw a leopard last night but we didn't so we set off with fingers crossed. It went well. We knew straight away there was a predator about from the behaviour of the antelopes and wart hogs so we went looking for a leopard, but it wasn't that - it was a family of wild dogs.

Wild Dog
A wild dog - we were really lucky to find a whole family of them

As dusk developed we began to see more and more of the animals we saw the previous day plus a new one - a slender mongoose. We took a break and the bush bar opened just as the sun was setting.

Close encounter with a hippo

 In darkness we soon came across our first leopard which was being stalked by a hyena. I think there was a leopard cub somewhere in the equation but that was never quite clear. I got some crappy pictures but better than nothing. On the way back to base we found an elephant shrew and a kudu.  Excellent dinner, then bed, Bea with a rotten cold poor thing.
Weds 12th Nov
Up at 5 with a forecast of thunder showers.  This morning’s drive was 6.30 to 9.45.  Brilliant – great views of leopard, lions, elephant, giraffe, wart hog, yellow baboon, mopoto squirrel, hippo, crocodile, a kill, an antelope and various birds. 

Female leopard

Back at base I collected the trail cam – more than 300 photos, mostly of nothing so it still wasn't working properly.  The promise showers did not happen but it was a bit less hot than yesterday.  Lunch, then half an hour in the pool.  Later Ernest, the senior guide, gave us a good talk about the South Luangwe national park – in short it’s a proper one!   Good dinner at which some adjustments to tomorrow’s programme were negotiated and agreed.  Emails, Tweets, then bed after 10pm. 
Thurs 13th Nov
Long lie because our group’s drive today (me, Bea, Synthia and Eric) would be in the late afternoon whereas the others had opted to stick with the plan for another morning drive. 

Elephant by the pool

During breakfast we had an elephant for company, then John, our guide, and I collected the Acorn camera to find it’s still not working properly; the IR light failed to come on at all.  Bea thought the African heat might not be helping which could be true although frankly the device has never been that great.  At lunch we heard the other group had seen 2.5 zebras, then while we were discussing the prospects of our group seeing them later a baboon dashed over and grabbed a handful of bread.  The staff fired a catapult at it but it soon came back for more when nobody was watching.  At 4pm our group went for our evening drive.  Terrific. 

Baby crocodile
A baby crocodile

Highlights were zebra, civet, gennet, and a baby crocodile which turned viciously on John the guide when he put his foot near it to give some scale to a photo that Bea was taking.  More new species included leopard tortoise, water buck and a mongoose.  We put out the Acorn cam at an aardvark den but without much hope because it did not look very active but was worth a try anyway. 

Camera at an aardvark den
The Acorn camera overlooking an aardvark den

 I put a new HDSC card in the camera in case the old normal SD card was not up to the new device – which come to think it was the reason my Canon camera did not work properly at first – I should throw all the old cards away.  As for the weather, yesterday we had a few thundery showers and distant lightning but otherwise it has been hot and dry with a daytime max of nearly 40 deg C.
Fri 14th Nov
Up at 5, breakfast at 6 and away at 6.30 for a walking safari which 6 of us elected to do to look at the small things like insect, footprints and poo instead of the scheduled drive to see more of the big stuff.   We walked for just over an hour with Ernest leading the way, another guide bringing up the rear and the rest of us in single file in between.  A wildlife police officer with a rifle accompanied us to keep us safe.  

Armed wildlife office
Our armed escort

The whole thing was just brilliant and we actually felt properly engaged with habitat compared with sitting in the Toyota Landcruiser ATV.  We learned about the droppings and ants and termites and footprints and all sorts of other intimate details.   A swim in the pool was followed by a buffet lunch at which we had the company of an elephant.
Sat 15th Nov
Usual early start for a morning game drive which would include collecting the Acorn cam from the aardvark den.  On leaving base it was evident how much greener everything had become compared to when we arrived despite there only having been a modest amount of rain.  The Acorn had twice been triggered, once in daylight and once at night, and had behaved correctly both times so maybe the old SD card has been the problem all along.  Sadly no animals were recorded.   We drove till 10am and saw heaps of animals but sadly no rattel.  New to us was a banded mongoose plus lots of the regulars.  

Antelopes galore
Antelopes galore

It’s remarkable how many animals live here which means the predators can hardly miss.  Even the pair of leopards in which the female has an injured paw and the male only has one eye manage to raise young.   At 5pm we were driven to the perfect spot to watch the sunset.  The staff had set up an amazing area for us with food and drink and seating facing the setting sun – they have gone to extraordinary lengths to make our stay just perfect.  In the evening there was a gala dinner with entertainment by the local choir just to round it all off – we leave in the morning.

Sunset at Chichele

Sun 16th Nov
Slept through the alarm but it didn’t matter.  Checked the Acorn and it seems to be behaving correctly but I won’t really know till we get back to UK and I can test it properly.  We got away at 0700 for the long drive to Mfuwe with a quite unnecessary stop at a local weaving/textile factory run by a local community – I don’t think any of us bought anything.   Mfuwe airport is at 540m above msl and our one hour flight to Lilongwe took us Lilongwe which is at 1100m – it was odd watching the GPS telling me we were rising but looking down and seeing the ground the same distance below us all the way.  Immigration took ages because the technology was having a bad day but we eventually got reunited with the luggage we had left there a week ago and at 1100 we set off in minibus and trailer for the uncomfortably hot and cramped four hour journey to Makokola resort on Lake Malawi.  Looking back on the week at Mfuwe the only disappointment was that we did not see a rattel.  We did however hear a couple of rattel stories:
1. At one of the safari camps a rattel rummaged noisily in their rubbish dump all night so the staff expected it would become a regular visitor.  Oddly, it was not seen or heard of again.
2. At another camp a rattel broke into their food store and managed to open a 5 litre cask of red wine and appeared to have drunk all of it.  It was found unconscious next morning and it remained out for the count until late in the afternoon when it got up and staggered away. Again, it did not return.
So that ended our Zambia trip.  We continued on to Malawi for a non-wildlife week - to see how that went please go back to the main Wildlife Diary