Turns out there is no internet, no phone connection deep inside the savannah of Zambia… We did not even have TV and, several times, no electricity for a day. It was kind of nice but also meant no contact with the rest of the world. So here is, finally, a new update.
We flew from Lusaka to Mfuwe. We knew we would get picked up and taken to the safari lodge called Lion Camp, located inside the boundaries of South Luanga National Park. But, really, we had no idea what to expect.
Outside the tiny terminal, a safari vehicle was waiting for us. A large jeep, extended with 3 benches that are higher than the driver’s seat. It was the standard 38º C or more. Our bags were loaded and we climbed onboard for the wind blown trip down the dusty red road. It turned out to be a 2 1/2 hour drive from the airport to the lodge. After 15 minutes or so we drove through the village of Mfuwe (Muh-FOO-way): clusters of straw huts and crooked wooden stalls. The poorest of poor people sitting in the shade of a few straggly trees – some selling tomatoes. Barefooted children waving at us. We noticed campfires for cooking, some brick ovens for baking. A rusty dangling sign announced a ‘beauty parlor’ or the Good Tidings Fish Store’.
When we reach the entrance gate to South Luangwa National Park, we cross the long cement bridge over the Luangwa River. Almost immediately the drive from the airport turns into a game drive.
Elephants lumbered on the sandy banks of the almost dried up river; a huge group of hippos is almost submerged in the river to escape the midday sun so they don’t get sunburned.
To our amazement we spot a pride of eight lions sleeping under a tree. Giraffes stride through the bushes. Buffaloes with their large black judge’s wigs on their heads track to the river.
When we finally reach the lodge, it turns out to be a gorgeous large building that blends into the environment with a straw roof and mud coloured walls. One hostess greets us with wet towels, the other serves us a cold drink. What a welcome in this 4 star resort.
Radiating out from the main lodge, are raised wooden walkways that lead to a small number of cottages. They are raised to separate us from the lions… Our chalet is the far one, the honeymoon suite. Never will I forget the moment that we opened the door. We looked across the kingsize bed, covered in a white mosquito net, and out of the two large screened walls. A wooden porch surrounded our room but the view was of the river bank: absolutely teeming with animals: a large herd of zebras, snorting hippos, a few giraffes and, to top it off, a small herd of elephants lumbered by – right outside our windows. It truly was a jaw dropping view.
We had ten minutes to wash hands, put on more sunscreen, have a cup of tea and we were off again. This time on our first official safari drive. Our guide was Hendrix, a very nice and knowledgable wildlife guide. To our amazement our safari drives have been almost always for just the two of us. I had imagined, before we came here, that we would be with a car load of other tourists. But it is just the two of us and sometimes one other person.
On the game drive, we see a large male lion devouring a piece of meat under a tree.
Coming around a bend, there suddenly is a hyena showing its teeth at us. A large herd of elephants has little ones and is lazily browsing on leaves.
The next morning we drive down the river bank, onto the white sand and find ourselves in the middle of a pride of 18 lions. Two little cubs are playing in the sun. Father Lion looks identical to the lion king, surveying his pride and his kingdom.
Zebras abound. Hippos crowd the river so that it looks like you can walk across their backs to the other side. I have never seen such huge crocodiles, one staring up at me from below the river bank.
We stop for a coffee/tea break on the morning drive, and for sundowners during the afternoon/evening drives. The first night we stop at the river bank, during a brilliant red sunset where tables with beer and champagne and chicken wings await us. For once, it is kind of nice to be spoiled in a 4 star hotel. In fact, the amount of wildlife we see in the first two days makes me realize that, if you are on a budget, it might be more economical to spend 2 days in a top notch resort with the best possible guide, then to spend 5 days in a cheaper place. We saw everything we could have wished for in those first two days.
Dining is at 8 PM by candlelight.
We spend the next few days in a cheaper lodge but still with elephants roaming outside our door and hippos snorting into the fading evening light.
During the next few days we see a leopard: the first one has just killed an impala and hauled it into a tree. Then we spot one with two cubs. The fields are dotted with bush bucks, impala, waterbucks, kudu’s and more. I love the wart hogs who run with their tails straight up like a little flag pole. In the spot light at night we see mongoose, porcupine and curvets.
The array of animals is rounded out by endangered wild dogs, a hyena in the day time, lots of zebra and giraffes, birds of all shapes and sizes. It is survival of the fittest: on the first day we saw how wildlife officers tried to save 8 buffaloes who were stuck in the mud – it didn’t work because two days later we see their carcasses covered in vultures. Even a pride of satisfied lions had their fill of buffalo meat.
Of course I (Kees) was very interested to find out what it takes to become a wildlife guide/park ranger in Zambia. On the second day I find an operations manual for wild life guides, the same type I used to write for the park rangers in Kananaskis Provincial Park many years ago. It surprised me the amount of detail they had to learn about wildlife, laws, resource management, history, constellations, and much much more. There is no school for park ganger/guide, but they start as a scout, assisting the certified guides and over the years through self study they have to memorize the entire manual of 165 pages. Then they have to sit for an oral and written exam and a practical exam in the field. That will provide them with the Guide I certificate and after a few years, of more study they can obtain the Guide II certificate which will allow them to conduct walking safaris.
The guide also has to be a car mechanic.. When we were surrounded by lions I wondered if the truck would start again. It did. But once it did not… Just before, we had stopped next to a leopard and would not have been able to get out. When the truck died, there were no animals and the two of us pushed it downhill to start!
An option to a game drive, is to take a walking safari. Walking appeals to us. But does a walking safari mean that you can run into lions? In a way, it does. But the guide takes us to an area where he feels it is unlikely to run into anything too big or dangerous. It is not a long, arduous hike but an interesting stroll through the African bush. The guide reads the ground like the pages of an open book. “Look,” he points, “ a hyena walked here. He was not in a rush because only the two middle claws show.” [It takes me a while to understand that ‘craw mecks’ means ‘claw marks’… ]
He points out where baboons dined on the fiber of elephant droppings. We see gorgeous round clay pots, broken open. They are the large balls that a dung beetle rolls through the mud. He shows us intricately woven weaver bird weaves nests that always hang on the west side of a tree. There’s even a bird called taylor bird which stitches leaves together with real stitches. We follow trails made by elephants and hippos, see a large flock of bright green love birds that look like the leaves of a tree flying off…
One afternoon, we have lunch at Track & Trail River Camp. They’ve set a little table for us and when I look up I spot an elephant. Then three more. They come within meters. From the safety of the kitchen door we watch as they stroll passed, right next to the bar.
We visit Chipembele Wildlife Centre, an impressive visitors’ centre set up and run by a British couple. They were both police officers in England, obsessed by Africa. Seventeen years ago they moved here, built a house in the bush and now educate African children on the importance of wildlife. On the side, he catches poachers.
He tells us about one poacher who has just been released from prison. Through some local contacts, we manage to make a date with the guy and spend an afternoon chatting with him. What motivates a poacher? Money.
The (ex)poacher has nine children and no job. 70% unemployment in Zambia means no work, no income. So how does a father provide for his family? How does he put food on the table?
The easiest way is by poaching. Edwin told us he built his own guns and would spend the night in the bush, hunting impala, buffalo, kudo and more. He ate the meat but mostly sold it.
He got caught. At some point he got offered a job but screwed up and went back to poaching. He ended up in jail. Jail in Zambia is not for the faint of heart. “1,500 mean in one cell,” he says. People right next to him died of suffocation. One meal a day of a kind of uncooked porridge. It was a wonder that he survived the year. But now he swears he will never poach again. Only time will tell. We hope he will find a job. His skills as tracker are probably unparalleled. And he now seems to agree: wildlife needs to be protected. Wildlife brings tourists and tourists bring money.
We also understand the problems caused by free roaming wildlife. Herds of elephants trample and eat the crops of corn. They brake into grain storage units. Governments try to help villagers by building stronger storage units. They supply villagers with ‘chili bombs’ and help them to plant chili hedges to discourage elephants.
In Mfuwe, the village nearest the National Park, people have lots of trouble with elephants. “They come through our village at night and eat all of the mangos,” our driver tells us, “but in the next village can sleep outside without fear of being trampled.”
I think about this as I fall asleep to the music of cicadas and the loud ‘snoring’ of hippos just outside our chalet along the river. That night we have the very first rain fall of the new rainy season – the first rain in 7 or 8 months. It will soon transform the region into a lush green forest with wide rivers and newborn animals.