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Shoebills in Bangweulu

The Bangweulu Wetlands, situated in northern Zambia, is like another world with its own particular array of flora and fauna, including enormous herds of endemic black lechwe and a thriving population of the endangered shoebill.

Bangweulu is the local word meaning 'where water meets sky' and describes perfectly the flat, open landscape of this vast wetlands system. John and his guests visited Bangweulu, staying in Shoebill Camp, late in the year when the 'wetlands' were in fact very dry, so they were lucky to find the shoebill at all!

From John's diary:
“Just after 6.30am, we met up with the two camp guides, Edwin and James, and drove for just over an hour to the edge of a small river. We left the car plus one member of our group who decided not to accompany us on our walk into the swamps. Edwin, who remained with Charles, “poled” us the short distance across the channel in a small canoe and from here we joined a narrow footpath, which followed a dry ridge towards the swamp. This path became more and more damp as we neared the wetlands. We passed a small family of locals; the father pushed a bicycle with one hand, his small son in the other, whilst another child sat astride the crossbar and clung to the handlebars. The family was moving on to higher ground to establish a new homestead, as the rains and subsequent rising water level was imminent. Before going into the swamps, we came upon a village and saw lots of small bream and barbel drying out on reed mats, quite obviously the villagers' staple diet.

As we approached the edge of the swamps, we began to wade through ankle-deep water matted with floating vegetation, at times sinking quite deep. We came across a freshly dug canal which was, apparently, to be used for trapping fish as the water levels rose in the coming months. The sides of the canal had been raised to a height of 3ft, so at intervals we climbed onto the higher ridges to observe the swamp around us and, specifically, to look out for signs of a shoebill. By this time, energy levels were flagging as it was very hot, our water was running out and we had not found a shoebill. I sent the tracker James ahead and he'd only covered a short 250m when his arms shot up, clearly indicating to us that he had found a shoebill. With renewed energy, we gathered together and, in single file, stalked quickly and quietly up to James, to see an enormous stork standing silhouetted against the distant reeds, the light reflecting off its blue-grey back, a second one nearby. What a magnificent sighting and the birds appeared to be very relaxed.

It was a sweaty journey back to the vehicle in the scorching heat and we slipped and slid to the edge of the swamp. I dropped a few dehydration tablets into our remaining water and we made it to the closest patch of shade under a small palm tree. Luckily, we were able to replenish our water bottles from a well, which had been dug by the locals, then onto the vehicle where we met up with Charles and Edwin. The walk had taken us eight hours, so it was a great relief to drive the remaining distance back to camp in the old Landrover.”

Churches in Lalibela

In late September this year, Nicci and John flew to Ethiopia with two objectives in mind. The first, to visit old friends who were leaving their diplomatic posting in Addis for Nigeria; the second, to look into the possibility of expanding their safari business portfolio to include Ethiopia. With only six days to go before John began a safari in Kenya, time was short, so this would be an initial foray only. They returned with the decision that Ethiopia is indeed a country worth learning more about and certainly including as a safari destination. Over two short days, Nicci and John had time to travel north to Lalibela on the historical route, where they visited just a number of the many beautiful rock-hewn Christian churches still active today. While in Addis Ababa with friends, Jenny and Bob Dewar, they set up some great contacts with people running a variety of interesting operations all over the country; boating up the Omo River in the south, trekking in the mountains north of Lalibela, staying overnight in huts (with a few modern comforts!), which the local people, in a joint venture operation, have built to host visitors. There will definitely be more to come. Watch the John Stevens Safaris web site for further developments.

Bats in Kasanka

Kasanka National Park in northern Zambia is famous for the congregation of straw-coloured fruit bats, which gather in the Fibwe swamp forest for approximately two months towards the end of each year. Numbering several million, experts consider it to be their largest gathering in the world.

From John's diary:
“Watching the bats fly out to feed at sunset has to be one of the great wonders of African wildlife and we were lucky enough to witness this incredible spectacle over two evenings in early November with the Crosby group. We watched from an open, grassy arena surrounded by forest, in which the bats roost by day. Like an approaching windstorm, the sound of their wings flapping as they began to mobilize, grew stronger and stronger. At first the leaders took off, their numbers gradually building up to something beyond comprehension. The sky was soon prematurely darkened by millions of these broad-winged bats. This lasted for about 30 minutes until they had all departed for their feeding grounds.

During the day we observed them in their roosting site, where they hang huddled together in huge numbers, although unfortunately stripping the trees of their foliage.”

Black Rhino in Lewa

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a 45,000-acre game sanctuary that has been credited with helping to save the black rhino and Grevy's zebra from the brink of extinction. Situated against the dramatic backdrop of the snow-covered massif of Mount Kenya and with the magnificent Northern Frontier District stretching to the north, Lewa encompasses one of the greatest natural diversities in Africa - grassy plains, acacia forests and seasonal swamps fed by the snows of Mount Kenya. It is here that John often takes his guests on a walking camel safari and, on this occasion, was with Joe and Ellen Torrence and Karen and Kent Cochran.

From John's diary:
“As we reached the top of the escarpment range, we enjoyed incredible 360 degree views, including Mount Kenya silhouetted on the eastern horizon. The savannah grass was long and dry, so we made slow progress, stopping every now and then to catch our breath and quench our thirst.

After walking for an hour we sighted our first black rhino, partially hidden in the low scrub. We had a good viewing of him, as every now and then he stopped to mark his territory. At one stage, he passed within 70 metres of us, totally unaware of our presence. Some good photographs were taken. Simon, a learner guide who was accompanying us, spotted another rhino not far from this lone male and, although the rest of us were unable to see her, we decided we'd try to find her. To get the rhino's attention, Kitongo whistled at intervals, so we had another good rhino sighting as she finally revealed herself to see what had disturbed her. Once on the lip of the escarpment, we joined the main trail and saw the camel train snaking along the track below us, heading towards our night's campsite. What a good feeling knowing a comfortable camp would be waiting for us!”

Lions in Mana Pools

Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site and is certainly one of the most beautiful game reserves in Africa. Situated on Zimbabwe's northern border with Zambia, the mighty Zambezi River forms a natural boundary between the two countries. Mana, on the southern banks of the Zambezi River, is home to a plethora of game. While in Mana, John usually combines a mobile walking safari following the river downstream, with a few nights in a permanent safari camp or lodge. On this occasion, he accompanied Itay and Jana Tuchman on their honeymoon safari.

From John's diary:
“We had been walking in the Mana wilderness area when we came across a number of lion tracks. We followed them from a spring in a dry riverbed to where the lions had entered an area of very tall elephant grass. As it was unwise to pursue them into this long grass, we moved around an open section at the edge where the walking was a little more relaxed. I then decided to walk towards a large termite mound, hoping to get a view of the lions from the top. We had almost reached the anthill when we surprised the sleeping male lion, which leapt to his feet, releasing a long guttural growl at being disturbed. I'm not sure who got the biggest fright! Fortunately, he took off in the opposite direction; after such a close encounter with this magnificent king of the bush, our adrenalin was pumping!

Sadly, we did not get a photograph but the picture above tells another story. Taken in the Masai Mara (Torrences and Cochrans safely inside vehicle), this encounter was closer and almost as exciting! This chap remained in the shade of our car for about 20 minutes.”

Rugby across the Zambezi River

The Zambezi Valley is one of Africa's major geographical features and prime attractions. It is an area of extraordinary beauty and fabulously rich wildlife. The Zambezi River forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The two countries share parts of: the Upper Zambezi, a fast flowing section of river broken by rapids and many islands; the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; Lake Kariba, a 320 km long by 60 km wide lake, created when the Kariba Dam wall was built in 1956; and the quiet waters of the Lower Zambezi.

Those of you who have been on safari with John Stevens will know that his preference after cricket is rugby, so you will not be surprised to hear that during the Rugby World Cup, John found a novel way to watch the game between South Africa and Argentina. He and his guests were on safari and camping on the shoreline of the lower Zambezi River in Mana Pools - no generators, no televisions, no Internet, etc. Across the river in Zambia, some 400 metres away, he suddenly heard the sound of a rugby commentary drifting clearly across the water from an adjacent camp. On picking up his bino's, (Zeiss, of course!), he found he had a perfect view of a wide-screen television. The game between South Africa and Argentina was on the go! No trouble to John, who then watched the game through his binoculars and of course was elated when South Africa won and advanced to the finals!

Leopard Hunt in Linyanti

To the northeast of the Okavango Delta in Botswana are the Chobe, Selinda and Linyanti game reserves. The many varied habitats within these parks, such as marshes, waterways, riverine forests, dry woodlands and grasslands, the prolific and diverse wildlife and wonderful scenery together form a wonderful contrast to the Okavango. The 125,000-hectare Linyanti Reserve bordering Chobe's western boundary, is an enormous, wildlife-rich area, creating an unrivalled atmosphere of remoteness and space.

From John's diary:
“One of my most exciting recent experiences happened early one morning, late in October. We set out from camp before sunrise, the aim being to locate a leopard. As many of you know, a leopard is one of the most difficult cats to observe due to their very secretive habits. Having driven a little distance from camp we stopped, turned off the motor to listen for the one tell-tale sound that would signal a leopard was moving stealthily through the bush - the distinctive alarm call from an alert bird or animal, which may have caught sight of the leopard. At this hour of the day, there is no wind enhancing our ability to hear.

We heard not a single alarm call but as we continued to listen, out of the stillness, came a sudden series of rasping grunts - a leopard, about a kilometre away! Heading off again in the still semi-darkness, we were amazed by the skill of our driver as he negotiated his way cross-country in the direction of the sound, through thick and bushy terrain and at considerable speed. After a while we stopped again to listen - at first total silence - and then we heard the alarm bark of a kudu close by. Through our bino's, we picked out the silhouette of a male kudu looking very intently, not at us, but at something obviously more threatening. We moved in that direction and there, to our amazement, we observed the outline of a female leopard crouching on the shoulder of a termite mound. Seemingly unperturbed by our presence, we managed to approach to within 30 metres. We were further rewarded with great photos as the sun tipped the horizon and the first golden rays of light flooded the land.”

Contact us soon about your next safari!

It is not too late to book a safari for 2008 but if you have very specific dates in mind (especially school holidays to tie in with children) availability could well be a problem especially for Botswana and Kenya.

Please don't think it is too soon to get in touch with us for 2009 as this helps us to plan easily the perfect safari for your every need and desire.

John can privately guide your safari or, alternatively, you may wish to travel independently, still drawing on our knowledge and experience to design the best possible itinerary.

May 2008 be a very special year for you all!

John, Nicci and Sarah

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