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Sometimes you have those dinner guests that seem to have the manners of an animal, need a great deal of elbow room and possess the appetite of an elephant. And sometimes that dinner guest actually is an elephant. The latter is true of today’s lunch at Chiawa Camp in the Lower Zambezi National Park. “Shorty”, as he is affectionately known, is among a number of local eles that makes it clear that elephants have right of way and that humans occupy this shady ebony grove as tolerated guests. It’s clear who the landlord is. Shorty’s particular brand of topiary doesn’t make for elaborate landscaping and there is a line item in the camp’s accounts for “Elephant Damage”. Whilst finishing off our lunch, we watched as his gentle progress around the camp’s foliage took him within half a foot of the main lounge. We took in the details of his lengthy eye-lashes, rough creased knees, and endlessly mobile trunk without the aid of binoculars. I was astonished to see him place a foot on the ground, feel a spiky twig with the very sensitive sole and gently reach under the foot to move it away with his trunk before putting his full weight on the foot. To be not five metres away from an animal that is so relaxed but still so wild is a real and unusual treat. Chiawa enjoys the regular patronage of a number of elephant, hippo, birds and other animals. There is frequently an elephant on the footpath to the guest tents, where a favourite rubbing post gets a great deal of attention. Fortunately there is always someone around to deliver you safely home.
You’ll be doing well if you can find somewhere that’s as little visited and so rich an experience as the Mahale Mountains in Western Tanzania. Its great distance from virtually anywhere has kept Mahale mercifully free of tourists at any time, but for our money, June is truly hard to beat. Arriving by boat after the flight, you chug your way slowly down the shore of Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s deepest lake. The water is gin clear and turquoise and the woodland along the shore is still rich and green at this time. As if that wasn’t enough, as you trek up into the mountains in search of the Chimpanzees, the forest is filled with the scent of wild jasmine and wild butterflies are in abundance. Greystoke Camp, just 6 rooms sitting on a white sandy beach on the lake shore at the foot of the Mountains is one of the most unusual and exceptional experiences in Africa. Chimp tracking is quite unlike any of the more traditional elements of safari. Here you are on your feet throughout and in awe inspiring forest that bares no resemblance to anything you will have encountered elsewhere in the country. When you find the chimps you are often in close proximity to them (sometimes they pass within a few feet of you) and they more or less ignore you...read more View an itinerary for Mahale and Katavi
I’ve lengthily extolled the virtues of taking to the bush on foot but today I discovered a new pleasure; cruising the banks of a river by canoe. Part way through a long safari and at the end of a tiring day of travelling, I was feeling a little fraught and probably slightly ambivalent about venturing out within an hour of arriving at a new place...my beautiful tented room at the Chongwe River Camp and its quite extraordinary view was calling. The Chongwe River is a tributary of the mighty Zambezi at the point where the Zambezi National Park borders the Chongwe GMA (Game Management Area). Winding gently down from the ripples of the escarpment, the Chongwe is a pretty cool little spot. At this time of day it is particularly attractive as the light softens and the river takes on the colours of the trees and sky. It’s hard not to concede to such an all-encompassing peace and quiet. Fortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to nod off (which may have led to a disappointing capsize and a humiliating return to camp). There was no shortage of things to see on our gentle late afternoon paddle. We floated past steep sandy banks in which white-fronted and carmine bee-eaters throng by the thousands to make their nests at different times of the year. A small breeding herd of elephant ventured down within fifty metres or so, with a tiny calf no more than a couple of months old. The assorted nostrils, eyes and ears of a pod of hippo watched our progress with interest but didn’t seem inclined to dispossess us of our transport, likewise the couple of crocs and a terrapin. As the sun dipped below the escarpment, a giant eagle owl called from a large tree and we witnessed the aerial displays of a number of different species of kingfisher and a multitude of other water birds. A fish eagle even gave us a private fly-by. Troops of vervet monkeys and baboons watched us watching them. I think that canoeing makes a great change from being bounced around in a vehicle with the noise of the engine and the dust which can get to even the most seasoned safari veteran after a while. The quiet, the quality of light on the water at that time of day and just the gentle sounds of nature make you naturally want to switch to a lower gear, cease the chatter and just absorb the world around with heightened senses. Click here for a little video...and pay attention to the sounds! Incidentally, as I write this now, I am sitting in my room in Chongwe listening to a veritable cacophony of sound; lions roaring not far away, a hippo grazing about five metres from my room (I can see him by torchlight), an entire pack of hyena whooping over the river in Zimbabwe and all the other unidentified sounds of the African night....not sure there’s much sleep on the cards tonight!
I think I may have to redefine my own personal idea of luxury. “Luxury” may have to shed the connotations of king-size beds in favour of a bedroll under a mosquito net. I may need to do away with haute cuisine and replace it with hot tea, vaguely smoky from the camp-fire, drunk from a tin mug with bare feet in the sand as the sun paints the sky with a palette of colour. I’ll definitely swap satellite TV for the night-time entertainment provided by leopard calling just a few hundred metres from camp, elephant moving by in the starlight and lion roaring in the distance.
Sound good? This morning I woke up after a night spent in the Luwi Riverbed in South Luangwa National Park. After setting out for a two hour walk from Nsolo Camp yesterday afternoon, we found our supplies had been neatly left for us in a broad bend of the sandy river. As the sun went down, my guide Innocent, scout Batwell, camp chef Jason and myself, unrolled our bedrolls and hung mosquito nets over sticks we found in the riverbed. The little wooden box crowned with a toilet seat was discreetly positioned behind a large hunk of driftwood...I regarded this a little dubiously...it looked like the kind of arrangement to induce stage fright.
The camp-fire was built swiftly and soon we were sitting around it and watching as Jason started to prepare chicken, foil-covered potatoes and maize meal with a tomato and onion relish. The lingering dusk gave way to wall-to-wall sky lit by a Cheshire-cat moon and masses of stars. The creatures of the night began to call all around us; a leopard sawed only a few hundred metres from camp. Somehow, simple meals become the best you’ve ever tasted when prepared and enjoyed in such a magical place. It was with deep contentment that I let my feet burrow into the soft sand and traded wildlife stories with the lads.
Feeling weary after long hours walking in the bush, I crawled between the crisp sheets and toasty blankets of my bedroll and enjoyed the view of the stars. The men sat around the fire quietly chatting and laughing. Every now and then one of them would get up and stoke one of the fires that surrounded us, letting any passing beasties know that this was a no-go area. Batwell spends much of his time on patrol and is used to waking up automatically every half hour or so. I slept in spells too, tuned in to the orchestra of night noises.
I woke as the sun rose and joined Jason by the fire as he brewed tea and toasted bread. Over breakfast, we shared stories of what we’d heard during the night. Lions had been calling in the distance and a herd of elephant crossed the river just below the camp-site. A hyena had ventured close to investigate our leftovers and Batwell and Jason had chased it away with a flaming log.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is a raw African safari experience which will put everything you thought about camping in a new light. Click here for a short video interview with my guide, Innocent, all about the sleepout.
Ordinarily, it would be hard to argue that seeing two lionesses and four cubs devour a recently ex-zebra or a young male leopard stalking alongside the vehicle as I did last night, or twelve lion on a buffalo kill at eleven o’clock this morning would be the highlight of the last 24 hours. But, I am pleased to say that last night, just as we were driving into Mchenja Camp in the South Luangwa, our guide Levy topped the bill by finding not one, but two, Pel’s fishing owls. Now, like the other guests in the land-cruiser, who had been delirious with excitement over the admittedly impressive lion and leopard sightings earlier in the evening, you may have found the above punch-line a complete anti-climax. They failed to see why I was hopping up and down uttering incomprehensible squeaks and pointing at the tree when I had been pretty cool around the cats. For the birders out there, I am sure you can understand. The Pel’s is a magnificent owl, large and tawny with beautiful markings and a distinctive call. It’s also very uncommon and the kind of thing that people can go through decades of life in the bush without seeing. I’ve been hoping to see one for over ten years and even a few days ago at a different camp, was plagued by its call, never to catch a glimpse. And here were two sitting immediately above the vehicle within a few hundred metres of the camp. I went to bed happy last night...what a day!
Just by way of an aside, you may notice that I started this Zambian blog with a reference to the day...but this has since fallen by the way side. This is simply because I no longer know what day, date or time it is anymore...a lovely side-effect of being on safari! My guide at Nsolo Bushcamp in South Luangwa, Lawrence, is a passionate ecologist. He doesn’t give you a single titbit about the bush without explaining how it relates to the bigger picture. It’s like watching a giant jigsaw puzzle being put together and it gives you a real sense of how critical each piece is to the effective functioning of the whole. This morning’s walk though the tall elephant grass and back along the banks of the Luwi River, gave me a real insight into the area. Did you know, for example, that baboons often use termitaria (anthills) as lookout posts? Well, while they are doing this, they sometimes leave droppings which contain tamarind fruit from earlier foraging elsewhere. The seeds germinate here because the termite mound is moist and built of soil made fertile by bringing nutrients up to the surface. Rather than killing the invasive tree, the termites foster it because it provides shade which helps maintain a lower temperature in the mound. Lawrence pointed out a couple of hollows where elephants habitually come for a dust bath. Dust is scooped up with their trunks and thrown over their bodies, helping to protect against parasites. The hollows fill up with water in the rains and provide a drinking place for many different species and sometimes a refuge for hippo. The elusive aardvark is a very effective digger of holes but they move around and often leave holes abandoned. These cosy homes in turn provide refuge for warthog, snakes and other creatures. Humans have their place in nature too, at Nsolo Bushcamp, the honey badgers have taken to raiding the camp kitchen at night. They’ve clearly worked out that the camp cook produces a fine menu. Small but vicious and incredibly destructive, they dig under the fence and raid the supplies night after night, much to the consternation of the staff. Further up river, at Luwi Bushcamp, two honey badgers were found on their backs one morning, four paws in the air, apparently dead. Roused with a bit of prod, they blearily made their way out of camp. Further investigation showed that they had broken into the bar and consumed a disproportionate amount of cellar cask wine. Now a honey badger with a hangover is something to take a wide berth around.
Yesterday evening as we ventured out for a walk, we came across the remains of an unfortunate eastern green snake. There you are, minding your own business as you wind your way along the white sand of the riverbed, glinting turquoise in the sun, when an elephant treads on you. There in the footprint of the elephant was the unluckiest snake in Zambia. To add insult to injury, last night it was eaten by a honey badger. C’est la vie.
Last night I stayed at Nkwali in the central Mfuwe area of the South Luangwa. This morning’s walk took us across the river by boat at sunrise into the National Park itself. My guide, Kiki, scout, Kefos, and tea-bearer, Samuel were raring to go as I hastily downed some porridge and coffee and grabbed my binos. On the other side of the river we again followed paths made by the animals looping into the bush and back to the banks of the river. Wheeling vultures warned us of some predator action up ahead and we came through an open vlei to find thirty or forty white-backed vultures squabbling over a large carcass. There was also a handsome white-headed vulture and the grim-reaper lookalike – the hooded vulture. Four spotted hyena with bloodied muzzles fought their way through the crowd to join in the morning feast. After checking nearby shade patches for lion, we went to take a closer look. A large giraffe, freshly dead (perhaps 24 hours previously) had been hastily disembowelled by the scavengers. We did our best CSI interpretation but couldn’t agree what had been the cause of its demise. Although there was no real evidence, the most likely culprits were lion, being the only ones large enough to bring down a full-size giraffe.
We continued with our walk and encountered another gang busy dismembering a young puku antelope. This was turning into a rather grizzly walk. We later found out that this was the remains of a wild dog kill and that the wild dog research team had seen one dog feeding here less than an hour before we appeared. Well, I’ll just have to be happy with wild dog leftovers today...but it’s good to know they’re around.
After my micro-light flight of yesterday, I packed a small backpack and crossed the Luangwa River in a large canoe to begin my trek on foot to my next destination. Batwell, the game scout accompanied me to make sure that I didn’t get flattened by any animals and they remained safe from any stupidity on my part. Impressively equipped with some very sturdy boots and a rifle, his calm demeanour and eagle eyes gave me confidence that he would live up to the task. My guide, Isaac, is a 35 year veteran of the Luangwa Valley and his vintage makes him one of the most experienced here. Our little crocodile-formation was brought up by Justin the tea-bearer (they really are called that!) who was really the most important member of the group. We set off a little later than usual and so walked through a fairly warm part of the day. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased by the amount we saw. Teak and mahogany lined riverbeds gave onto open vleis and thicker bush, the constantly changing habitats always providing something interesting to ponder on. The bush is quiet but never silent and bird calls, the sharp alarm of puku and honk of hippopotamus was audible all around. We picked our way along routes established by elephant and other animals...literally walking in their footsteps. Walking is just such a pleasure and sights that may be banal from a vehicle take on a new substance when you’re on your own two pegs. Just off the boat, we came across an enormous monitor lizard with fresh injuries caused by a leopard. Later on we startled a small herd of zebra which abruptly fled in panic and suddenly our eyes, ears and noses were filled with pounding hooves, dust and a confusion of stripes as they galloped within a few metres of us. An aroused male puku almost ran us over, so intent was he on the shapely backside of the female he was pursuing, shying wide at the last minute. We had the pleasure of walking quietly onto a young bull elephant drinking in the shade, thrillingly unaware of our presence. Kingfishers, saddle-billed storks, wood-hoopoes, a martial eagle and spoonbills were amongst a true cocktail of birds. With a stop-off for a welcome cup of tea, our walk to the Chikoko Bushcamp took around four hours. The walking is easy and the pace gentle so you don’t have to be a marathon-runner to enjoy it, just reasonably fit with comfortable shoes and a passion for the outdoors. It is a completely different experience from driving, as I am reminded every time I go bipedal, and the best calories ever spent! Click here for a little video tour of my room at the Chikoko Bushcamp.
This morning I was roused by an unofficial wake-up call of the deep drum-like sounds of the ground hornbill. The official one came at 5.30am as the sun streaked the clear sky with the early greys and greens of the dawn. By the time I made it to the tea table under a large tree, the Luangwa River in front of Tafika was turning orange the all the birds were giving it full-throttle. I’ve always found the Cape turtle dove particularly evocative and it’s the kind of sound that you remember and makes you homesick for Africa. After maize-meal porridge kept bubbling over a little camp fire by the river, I donned a particularly fetching helmet and set of headphones and climbed into what is essentially a flying lawn-mower. John’s favourite toy is possibly the best way to get an overview of the park and the winding river below. Feeling that last nights’ three course meal might have been a course too many, I relaxed once the revs of our take-off died down and we were launched skywards, sailing low over the trees in the balmy morning air. This is the only micro-light in the park and for flight enthusiasts it is really a very special experience. John is an informative guide and helps put the area into perspective. Particularly thrilling for me was the view down onto a fish eagle’s nest where two large chicks crouched...and further on, the wide eyes of a giant eagle owl regarded us from her nest as we whizzed overhead. Both of these views only otherwise possible courtesy of a National Geographic photographer...a real treat. Further on, a great herd of buffalo ambled towards the river and warthogs dashed along, tails held aloft. A herd of elephant cows and calves drank unconcernedly as we circled overhead. Pods of hippo form interesting patterns and chains as they rest their heads on each other’s rumps...something I didn’t know before. Our aerial game-drive over, we returned to the camp for another cup of coffee. Just fifteen minutes in the air had given me a whole new bush experience.