Hippos of the Luangwa

The Luangwa River in Zambia is one of the four biggest rivers in Africa and is a major tributary of the mighty Zambezi. It is also home to the largest hippo population in the world. During the dry season (March until November) the river shrinks, and the hippopotami (better known as hippos) are forced into ever-diminishing living spaces forming bigger and bigger herd (or pods). Hippos as a norm aren’t peaceful beasts (in fact they are considered by many the most aggressive and dangerous of the African wildlife), and as the pods grow larger spectacular fights rage along the river.

Africa! I was going to Africa! I could hardly believe my luck when my father told me that we were going to shoot two stories in the Dark Continent, first stop Zambia.

On November 16 my father and I flew to London, the first leg of an intricate and precisely organized series of commercial and charter flights (Rome – London, London- Johannesburg, Johannesburg – Lusaka, Lusaka – Luangwa Valley) that would eventually bring us to our safari camp in the middle of Hippo Kingdom.

Forget precision; our flight from Rome to London was delayed 6 hours because of fog, and when we finally arrived in the UK we found that not only had our connecting flight to Johannesburg already left but about 2 or 3 thousand people crowded Heathrow terminal trying to rebook. We had a problem.

To add to our despair we discovered that our luggage hadn’t been unloaded from the aircraft. After about three hours of my father shouting at a wide variety of baggage handlers, ticket salesmen, and flight officials – not to mention cleaners, waiters and really whoever was in a 5 meter radius from him – we finally managed to get our bags and also discovered that there was a direct flight to Lusaka the following evening. Not only did we manage to save many hours of flying time by not transiting in South Africa, but as a bonus we stayed in a nice hotel in London, had a scrumptious English breakfast and went shopping in what has to be the best outdoor store in Europe. After that I started liking fog a lot more.

Arriving to the heat of African summer was incredible after the sub-zero temperatures of Europe, but while the novelty soon wore off, as we realized how hot African summers actually are, it was nice to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin again. At Lusaka airport we met the rest of the crew, cameraman Frank Maurici (our comedian for the trip), soundman Matt Brown and reporter Sonia Kruger, host of Dancing with the Stars, but perhaps even better known as Tina Sparkle for her starring role in the Australian comedy/dance flick Strictly Ballroom.

After our short but cramped and turbulent charter flight, which caused us all to assume a slightly greenish hue, we finally arrived at our destination: Tafika Safari Camp, where we were warmly welcomed by our hosts for the week – John and Carol Coppinger. It’s hard to describe how unique Tafika is; our sleeping quarters were thatched huts with adjoining outdoor bathrooms and incredibly comfortable beds sheltered by reassuring mosquito nets. Outside hammocks and deckchairs allowed us to enjoy the spectacular African sunrises, sunsets and the sun in general – and to top it all there was a free bar!

We were in complete contact with nature! No city noises, surrounded by wildlife, in other words – paradise. We were all initially worried about the lack of mobile phone reception, which practically cut us off from the outside world – apart from the odd email we sent using the satellite modem. But we soon found it refreshing; you don’t realize how dependent you are on technology until you are forced not to use it.

My job was camera assistant, but I soon earned the title of crew photographer/shutterbug. I am seriously interested in photography and this trip was a unique opportunity to hone my skills.

The wildlife we saw was extraordinary: giraffes, zebras, lions, monkeys, elephants, multiple species of antelopes, one elusive leopard and – of course – innumerable hippos. We saw so many animals, that by the end of our week it became almost commonplace. Was that the hundredth elephant walking in front of our car? The thousandth giraffe trotting along beside us? The millionth hippo or crocodile swimming in the river? I think you get the idea of just how many animals were around.

When we weren’t ‘working’ – we were enjoying John & Carol’s hospitality. The food at Tafika was fantastic, many thanks to our local cooks. Our guides were great too: Alex, MCooper and our scout/protector Batwell. Their faces were always lit by amazing smiles that cheered us up in the early hours of the morning. We were shooting at wildlife hours – dawn and dusk – which meant some incredibly early starts but also that we had most of the day to do other ‘productive’ things – like laze around in the shade, sleep, eat or drink.

One of the many highlights of the trip was our various flights in John’s twin seated micro-light – a first for all of us on the shoot. I think it is one of purest ways for humans to experience flying. We skimmed about a foot above the river looking straight into the jaws of hungry crocs to then soar high over the African savanna – it was amazing! We managed to capture some awe-inspiring aerial footage of hippos by strapping some small cameras called GoPros to the wings, and even filmed a inflight interview between Sonia Kruger and John.


As well as the wildlife we experienced some of the local culture. We filmed a church service at a nearby village, and I have to say, if church services where I live were anything like this one, I might seriously consider becoming religious. Singing, dancing, playing music – that’s what I call a party, not a church service! It was great opportunity to take photos because the villagers were all incredibly photogenic, especially the kids, who literally fought to be in front of the camera, repeating over and over “Pichta, pichta, pichta!”

The story was planned so that we were filming at the tail-end of the dry season when the hippos pods are most packed, but we really needed a nice rainstorm for our final shot – something along the lines of “The rains have finally arrived, relief has arrived for the hippos, exhausted after months of drought”. We got more than we bargained for: late one afternoon it started to rain – a light rain, perfect for our shot. We headed to the nearest riverbank to shoot a standup with Sonia and hippos frolicking in the background. Everything was going perfectly, except for a slight wet T-shirt look happening with our reporter. But then it really started to rain.

Picture the scene. A river full of hippos and (hungry) crocs. Us – on a narrow riverbank that seemed to be rapidly becoming part of the river. Behind us a twelve foot high muddy wall leading to the normal high-water mark of the river. At the top of that wall, safety. Frank decided that if we were going to die we might as well film our sad demise.

When we finally got back to the camp, scared senseless, thoroughly soaked and covered in mud, we couldn’t help laughing uproariously at the footage Frank had shot. All you could see was a group of pathetic looking people, vainly trying to clamber up a muddy bank, with rain coming from all directions, while hippos cavorted in the background. The clip ended with a raincoat being thrown over the camera and Frank’s fantastically nasally voice stating the bleeding obvious: “Lets f***ing bolt!”- which of course became our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

After only one week Tafika had really started to feel like home and we were very sad to go, but thankful for a once in a lifetime experience that I’m sure we will all cherish. We also fare welled our reporter Sonia, who headed back to Australia, while the rest of us flew to Johannesburg for a few days rest before the next shoot in Kenya.


P.S. The program went to air Sunday the 27th of February, you can watch “The Land of the Hippos” here: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video/

If you are interested in knowing more about Tafika Safari Lodge you can visit their website here: http://www.remoteafrica.com/safaricamps.asp?link=2&sublink=1



~ by brendo91 on 12/12/2010.

5 Responses to “Hippos of the Luangwa”

  1. Beautiful pictures Brendan – what a fantastic trip.

    Hope your mother hasn’t got this link though?

    Looking forward to your future posts!


  2. Here we have some really lucky boy! Did you see a bonobo? If you ever do a movie about bonobos you better choose me as a reporter!
    Have a nice life!

  3. Great photos Brendan and a terrific story – wow, I’m hugely jealous! can’t wait to read the next chapter. see you in April. Leonie

  4. Hi Brendan, This is a fantastic blog and appreciate the hard work that would of gone into it…Thanks for the memories
    Regards lets f….. bolt.

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