It was an elephant kind of day. Our morning walking route kept bumping into elephants, and we had to keep skirting them at a respectable and respectful distance. A small, but obvious, part of the elephant population does not have tusks in South Luangwa. In earlier decades, elephants were heavily poached in the area. A genetic anomaly became a selected trait, as elephants without tusks did not attract the poachers’ attentions. After dodging elephants all morning, it seems that the population is making a good comeback.
By the time we return for brunch, the plumbing is restored – hurray! After brunch, I quickly get my bag organized and packed. I want to spend as much of this afternoon goofing off and not fretting about my bag.
Our evening drive takes us to the nesting colonies of bee eaters, tucked into the tall sandy banks along the river. The noise and profusion of flying color is enchanting – I sat watching until it was nearly dark. Below the colony, the hippos are crowding together in the few remaining deeper pools in the river. I’m sure that they will be happy to spread out once the rains begin. There’s lots of grunting and yawning – a great showing of teeth and tonsils to prove who’s the bigger boss of the pool.
Chef George outdoes himself tonight with a fabulous outdoor Mongolian barbecue, complete with a short stand over a fire that can accommodate four woks at once. It’s like being in the middle of a cooking show. The food is delicious, the camp lovely, and we are very sad that we must go. We feed the frogs one last feast before we crawl into bed, the alarm set for 4:30 a.m.
We only have two more days, two more nights in the bush – the reality is starting to settle in. We’ve resisted thinking and talking about home and work for most of the trip. But now bits are starting to creep in. Still, we take full advantage of all the leisure time we have between walks, drives and eating: I read my book about Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie, compile my trip bird list, and watch the robber fly capture carpenter bees living in our deck railing. Steve types notes in the netbook and naps. (Yes, he does get his share of naps on this trip!)
The morning walk was interesting, but short – we arrived back at our chalet by 9:30 a.m. Another drawback to safari lodge life is that you do need to know what time it is. You do get a wake-up “knock-knock” in the morning, but generally meals are served at a certain time; drives and walks start and end to coincide with the mealtimes. But, there is no denying the routine that comes with lodge life, where we had no boundaries other than the hours of daylight on the self-drive part of our trip.
More great food for brunch and tea, then our evening drive highlighted by hippos and honey badger. Little did we know that a honey badger was undermining the plumbing at camp until we tried to take a shower before bed: there was no water on tap. We entertained ourselves by feeding the frogs in the sinks before retreating under our mosquito netting for the night.
It’s early, and they seem to have worked out most of the kinks in our requested walk. All of our companions at Chindeni were departing, and getting guests on to their next destination is a logistical pretzel. We could walk to Chamilandu, but our chalet would not be ready, as we would be overlapping brunch with the guests currently there. No problem – we’re still on vacation.
We drove a few kilometers before we start walking – I’m not sure what hazards prevented us from walking the entire distance, but it was nice to approach on foot, and to walk with a destination. Arriving a little early, we sat out on the sand on top of the riverbank, enjoying cold drinks and the view. Brunch was served at the camp’s hide – a spectacular braai and accompanying salads prepared by Chef George.
After a short wait in the lounge area, we moved into our open chalet. With walls on three sides and the front open to the river in the sleeping area, the bathroom was open to the sky, with an outdoor shower and just enough walls to give us privacy. I missed the hammocks at Chindeni, but the open air was better than the somewhat stuffy tent. Perched on the Luangwa River bank, and up in the canopy of the surrounding trees, this place was perfect!
Our escorts for our evening game drive were our guide Gilbert, ZAWA scout David, and teabearer Mulengwe. While a ZAWA scout is not required for the evening drives, David opted to join us rather than hang around the camp. Gilbert seemed to have a specific sundowner spot in mind, but as we approached, we saw that another group had snagged the spot. Gilbert turned the vehicle to head down river when he suddenly spotted a Pels Fishing Owl. Generally a rare bird to spot, some people make many trips and never see one. And we saw this one just because we were bumped out of a sundowner spot – very cool! We also caught up with a hyena that settled down to crunch on some leftover bone. Back at camp, George whipped up another great dinner, and we capped off the day catching moths to feed the tree frogs that had taken up residence in our bathroom sinks.
At least part of the reason we chose Zambia was the allure of the “walking safari.” Most say that walking safaris started in South Luangwa and now the concept is spreading across Africa.
We found that walking was a great way to learn about the smaller things. We generally saw a bit less, but we learned more. It is definitely a thrill to negotiate a terrain full of elephants and other game all jostling for space.
And, the reality of self drive is that there is very little exercise. You get in the car in the morning and drive for hours on end. Some safari camps have associated campgrounds and often campers can choose meals and activities a la carte.
The guide is important: At one camp we had a great guide who was eager to give and let us sop in information. We left the camp early and stayed out for about three and a half hours. At another camp the guide was shall we say – less engaged and spent most of his time speaking local language with the ZAWA scout. And we always returned early.
Tea time comes and some of the guests are anxious to see lions. We are anxious to see lions too, but we know we will see them when we see them…or not. But, some guests are departing the next day, so Peter radios around to hear that there are lions across the river from another Bushcamp Company camp. We head down to the camp, where the manager graciously greets us, as her guests are out on their own evening game drive. Sure enough, there are four lions lolling on the riverbank, the same color as the sand. While not exactly an in-the-moment sighting, it is still fun to watch lions do what lions do: yawn, scratch and nap. We have another good evening drive, and return to another great dinner, minus the two honeymooners, who get their own private dinner down on the beach of the lagoon. Our plumbing is still intact, and the night is much cooler – better for sleeping. Tomorrow we walk to our last camp of the trip. There appears to be a bit of maneuvering – it’s not clear that everyone got the memo that we wanted to walk from one camp to another. No worries – we’re confident that it will be worked out in the morning. We pack up our clean laundry, ready for another morning on the ground with Peter.
We were up early the next morning for walking safari. We were surprised that two pairs of guests chose to skip the walk: one couple decided to sleep in, and the other couple basically said, “We’ve done that already.” Well, fine – that’s less people and more time with the guide.
We had walked several days in Botswana – while you don’t necessarily see as much wildlife, you actually learn more about the environment: the plants, the details, the tracks, the droppings – all of this adds dimension to our ability to read the landscape and the animals. Who knew that there is a whole bunch of amphibians tucked down in the cracks in the dried mud, just waiting for the rainy season to begin? What is different is that we have three escorts: our guide Peter, our teabearer Gift, and a ZAWA scout, Godrick. Godrick carries the gun, while Peter is in charge of herding the guests. Gift carries the radio, refreshments and snacks.
We returned to camp for brunch, with the plumbing restored and the table full of guests. A lively conversation ensued about conservation, giving everyone something to think about as we headed back to our tents for siesta.
At Mfuwe Lodge, we enjoyed a civilized buffet brunch before we met Kelvin, our driver and guide for the next two and a half hour drive to our first bush camp. An ambitious young man, Kelvin is aspiring to move from driver to guide. He was able to spot game as well as tell us the native tales about hippos and other wildlife. The time flew by, and soon we arrived at Chindeni bush camp, greeted by the staff with cool wash cloths and fresh juice. Oh yeah, this is the kind of stuff you miss when you self-drive.
We were escorted to our “tent:” a lovely canvas abode overlooking a lagoon on a big wooden platform on stilts. With the sitting area and bathroom area, the tent was spacious enough to permanently live there. We draped ourselves in the two hammocks swaying in the breeze on the deck outside, making the afternoon heat more bearable.
At tea, we met our lodging companions, including two birders from Seattle – the first Americans we’ve seen in weeks! Another couple lived in Ohio, but were not native to the US. Newlyweds from Britain rounded out the company. Our guide, Peter, gathered us all up for the evening’s game drive, highlighted by a relaxed leopard cruising her territory.
We returned to news that monkey business had disrupted the water pump. Assured that the water tank would be recharged by morning, each tent was supplied with a bucket full of water to “flush” the toilet.
In the meantime, we enjoyed a classic braai dinner. “Braai” comes from the Afrikaans word “braaivleis,” meaning “roasted meat.” Indeed, a braai dinner is a carnivore’s delight, with beef, pork, chicken and several kinds of sausage. The evening wind made it hard to keep salads on our plates, but none of the meat went flying off into the night.
It’s our last day of self-drive so we head out early. We decide to move in a more southerly direction, not certain what we will see. We are spotting zebra and elephants. Yes, elephants are difficult to spot. Despite their size, their grey color causes them to melt into the background behind even the smallest bush. You also have to be attuned to their slower stroll. Like giraffes, they can move fast if needed, but otherwise they seem to move with the landscape rather than through the landscape. It’s a rhythm unlike the many antelopes and zebras, especially the twitchy impalas.
Rattling slowly through the landscape, we don’t expect to surprise too many animals – they are more accustomed to vehicles in this park. But, we get delightfully surprised because we are hoping, but not expecting, for some great experiences. We round one corner to come upon a giraffe family, alert but not scared off by our appearance. We stopped and turned off the engine. To our delight, they went about their giraffe business, unperturbed by our cameras. They moved on, we moved on. More animals, fabulous birds, spectacular baobab trees. We haven’t spotted a carnivore since McBrides’ camp, even though the park is known for leopards. We look for the “lump” of a snoozing leopard on every likely sausage tree branch we pass, but we suspect they nap further away from the road.
We head back to camp for our last one-pot campground meal. While enjoying the cool breeze after sunset, we watch one very big hippo get out of the water on our side of the river, and start heading across the sand to a pool further upstream. He wags his short little tail while defecating, fanning hippo droppings far and wide. Interesting way to mark territory. A little while later, as the darkness settled in, we heard a hippo sing. No really, he was doing scales. We suspect it might have been the same fella that spread his dung – he was quite deliberate about his trip to the other pool so we suspect he may have been courting the lady hippos up the way. He easily ranged a good 3 octaves in his grunting wah wah wah’s, entertaining the entire campground.
This is our last few days on our own. Heading into South Luangwa National Park, we are optimistic about seeing animals – the park is known for it’s wildlife and it’s walking safari tradition. We pay our fees and pick up our map at the gate, where our permit is filled out by hand, in triplicate, with carbon paper. We opt to circle around a lagoon not far from the park entrance and Mfuwe Lodge. We see elephants and hippos and crocs and plenty of birds. We follow tracks further out into the park, but it seems that the further we get, the fewer animals we see. Of course, we are now out in the heat of the day, so we opt to stop under an overhanging tree, drinking beer and snacking on cheese and crackers. We watch birds, puku, zebras, impala and kudu. Steve takes a nap, of course.
After about an hour or so, we fold up gear and start driving again. We realize that we really don’t know exactly where we are, but I’m pretty sure that we are not on the hand-drawn map they gave us at the gate. We relied on the GPS to keep us headed toward the gate, as the sun was moving lower on the horizon. We reached the better-traveled parts of the park, and did one more turn around the lagoon. Steve offered that we stop for a drink at the lodge, but I wasn’t really ready for that much civilization yet. Coming around a curve, suddenly there was an elephant in front of us, and then another. They were not mindful of us as they were having a shoving match with each other. One elephant was clearly bigger than the other, and had the upper hand, but that didn’t keep the smaller one from pushing back. They crossed the track and we buzzed past them and then stopped to watch through the back window. It was obvious that they were headed our direction and we drove away, not wanting the bout to become a three-way with the land rover.
The sun really low on the horizon, we headed for the gate, only to find a herd of water buffalo blocking the way as they ambled to the lagoon for a drink. Vehicles quickly stacked up on either side of the herd. Ugh – we had a taste of what we hoped to avoid by not going to Kenya or Tanzania. We pulled to the side of the road to watch the animals. They eventually ambled back out of the roadway and we headed back to camp.
We cooked, dined and showered after nightfall. While we were in a campground, we were still mindful that elephants and hippos could easily get up the banks of the river. Last night, we had an elephant amble in for a drink out of the swimming pool! After we tucked ourselves into our rooftop tent, we could make out the outline of an elephant moving into the campground, browsing noisily along the way. Unfortunately, one of our campground neighbors (in a tent on the ground), yelled and made noises to scare the elephant away. While it’s probably a good thing to keep elephants out of the campground, we were really hoping to peek out of our tent, eyeball to eyeball with a friendly pachyderm.