After a year in Malawi, I’ve settled into three favourite places to go for my occasional bachelor weekends: west to the backpacker beach town of Cape Maclear on the shores of Lake Malawi, south to the cool mountain town of Dedza, where you can hike up to the peak for stunning 360 degree views, or east to the wildlife-rich national park of South Luangwa in Zambia.
In this part of Africa, there are really only two seasons: wet and dry. I’d already been to South Luangwa in the dry season and was curious to see it in the rainy season. I expected to see less wildlife – in the dry season, there’s less cover and animals are forced out into the open in search of water – but I was looking forward to seeing full rivers and a landscape transformed from brown to green.
Despite being across the border in Zambia, South Luangwa is a relatively short 4-hour drive from Lilongwe. I briefly considered going by motorbike, but didn’t fancy breaking down on my own in the middle of nowhere, so I settled for the safer option of a taxi. At UNICEF, we long hours Monday to Thursday, but finish work at lunchtime on Friday, so I was able to get to Mfuwe Lodge, inside the national park, before sunset.
The next morning, I set out on my first game drive. The park was as stunning as I had expected. It was lush and green from recent rains, with well-fed animals moving through the grasslands. There were young animals – we saw a line of elephants strolling across the plain with their calves – and there was an abundance of colourful and noisy birdlife that had migrated down for the mating season.
I’d arrived during a break in the rains and the first day and a half were clear and sunny, with the blue of the sky meeting the green of the vegetation. It was less quintessentially African than during the dry season, but in many ways more beautiful.
I was travelling with Gilbert, the same guide as my first time. Gilbert had 20 years’ worth of knowledge about the park and animals and I learnt something new on each drive. With us were Trish and Ian, a white Zimbabwean couple who had been forced out of the country by Mugabe decades before. Bizarrely, we had just spent New Year in the same district of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, where both my wife Joyce’s parents and Trish and Ian’s son live.
Ian is a former airline pilot who had come to Zambia to run the national airline. “We have had an amazing life travelling the world,” Trish told me, “But if I could swap it all for staying home in Zimbabwe, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
While other Zimbabweans I know were ecstatic about Mugabe’s recent removal from power, Ian and Trish were pessimistic about the prospect of change. They pointed out that the new President was Mugabe’s right hand man for decades. “I grew up in Matabeleland, where Mnangagwa led a brutal crackdown in the 1980s,” Trish said. “More people died then than during the war for independence.”
Maybe it was luck, but far from seeing a reduced array of wildlife, our morning drive was teeming with animals. It began with a herd of impala. As the sun clipped the top of the trees, rays of light streamed through the tall green grass. There were lots of young impala and the adults were teaching them ‘plonking’ – kicking out their back legs while running to hit any pursuing predators.
“All the animals have their young in the green season, when there’s more to eat,” Gilbert explained. “Their mating seasons are timed back from the start of the green season, so different animals mate at different times of the year, depending on the length of their gestation period.”
While we were watching the impala, a herd of elephants arrived, pulling leaves off trees and eating the bark. There was a juvenile elephant that ran everywhere, waving his trunk around in excitement, his behaviour in stark contrast to the sedate adults. He was very much like a small child, and I was reminded of my equally excitable two-year-old son Zefi.
The elephants were followed by three giraffes: one male and two females. “You can tell the male because the top of his horns are bald from fighting other males,” Gilbert said. Of course, there were also other ways to tell – as the giraffe walked off, a pair of giant testicles swung obviously between his long hind legs.
I noticed a small red beaked bird, which landed repeatedly on the head and neck of the male giraffe. He occasionally shook his head to dislodge the bird from his face, but generally tolerated its presence. “That’s an oxpecker,” Gilbert explained. “They eat ticks from the hide of giraffes, zebras and other animals. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
In fact, birds were an unexpected highlight of the rainy season. They were present in much greater numbers and variety than during the dry season. I got a close-up shot of a beautiful blue and orange kingfisher perched on a tree beside the road, and later of two saddle billed storks with yellow faces and long brilliant-red beaks. Most fascinating of all, however, were the masked weaver birds, small yellow birds with a black ‘mask’ on their face.
It was nesting season, and unlike other species that mate for life, weaver birds nest communally. First, the flock chooses a tree surrounded by water – to protect the nests from predators – and then the males get to work, competing to build the most nests. We found one such tree and sat for some time, watching the frenetic activity as the small birds darted back and forth with twigs in their beaks, like a team of hyperactive construction workers. The tree was already covered with numerous round nests, hanging down from long branches.
“The females don’t have the black mask,” Gilbert said, pointing out a plain yellow bird. “You can see the males building the nests, and the females watching and waiting. Once a male has finished a nest, he’ll strip small nearby branches off, to make it harder for snakes to approach. They use soft materials for the inside and hard for the outside, to make it waterproof.”
Later, we saw a lioness and her cub, resting in the shade of a tree in a dried-out river bed. “Some of these channels only have water if it rained the night before,” Gilbert explained. “The water floods through to the river Luangwa, and then it dries out again.”
As we were watching the lions, Gilbert spotted movement further down the valley. Through Ian’s binoculars we saw a small group of mongoose crossing the river bed.
Although they couldn’t see the lions from where they were, the mongoose seemed to have smelled them. Every so often, they would stop, huddle together and stand up on their hind legs, looking around. At one point they clustered around the trunk of a lone dead tree in the middle of the riverbed not far from the lions. Then they made a dash for the other bank and vanished into the vegetation.
As with my last visit, we did two drives a day: early morning and late afternoon. Last time I came with my friend Charlie. Because I was travelling solo this time, I got to ‘ride shotgun’ or sit in the front passenger seat, giving me a much wider view. Amy, one of the staff from the lodge, explained the meaning of the term. “It’s from the Wild West,” she said. “The front passenger in a caravan would carry a shotgun and look out for Indians.”
The sunset drives were particularly spectacular. On the first day, the air was filled with the sound of cuckoos’ territorial calls and the buzzing of bees from a nearby nest. The sky was partly overcast and there was a gentle breeze, making the weather pleasantly cool. A yellow billed stork and two hacienda ibises perched at the top of another bare tree, drying their feathers in the sun after fishing in the river.
We saw a herd of elephant with a very young (2-month-old) calf that was still breastfeeding. It lifted its trunk up out of the way, so it could get its mouth to the mother’s milk. “They can breastfeed until five years old, when the tusks start to get in the way,” Gilbert explained. “This calf is just starting to venture out. For the first two months, the mother will keep them in the same place while they learn to walk and use their trunk.”
We also saw a group of zebras taking a ‘dust bath’ – rolling around on their backs to kill any ticks that the oxpecker birds had missed. They would take it in turns to roll on the ground, sending up clouds of dust. They made quite a sight with their legs kicking up out of the long grass, while other zebra waited to take their turn, or kept an eye out for predators.
Eventually we came to a stop on a bend in the Luangwa River to watch sunset and have a ‘sundowner’, (in my case a Zambian Mosi beer). When we arrived, a troupe of monkeys was picking its way along the river bank, with hundreds of the animals making a long line that stretched out into the distance. In the river, a line of reflected monkeys marched alongside them.
Closer to us, a pod of hippos started to surface. Two young males were play-fighting, while others opened their huge mouths wide. I asked if this served some purpose, like helping them to cool off, but for once there was a simpler explanation. “No, they’re just yawning,” Gilbert replied.
The sunset was spectacular and, as is usually the case, the colours came out even stronger after the sun had set. I kept putting my camera away, only to realise that the colours had become even more intense and getting it back out again. “I think you’ll use that one,” Ian correctly predicted of my very last shot.
After sunset, we drove back to our lodge in the dark. Our spotter Charles moved up to the front of the vehicle and used a flashlight to look out for animals in the dark. We saw a young owl high up in a tree beside the road, calling to its mother.
Walk on the wild side
On both my visits to South Luangwa, I arranged to do a walking safari. This is an entirely different way to experience the national park. The focus is on smaller things, like footprints and dung, but the experience is much more immersive. On foot, you feel part of the environment, in a way that you don’t when viewing it from the seat of a Land Rover. It’s a bit like the difference between diving and snorkelling.
Walking in a safari park is of course inherently more dangerous than driving, partly because you can’t escape as fast, and also because animals view you as being in their territory, in a way that they don’t when you’re in a vehicle. Because of this, we had an armed ranger with us, also called Gilbert – it’s a popular name in Zambia, harking back to colonial days and the musical duo Gilbert and Sullivan. I asked Gilbert the ranger if he’d ever had to use his rifle. “I’ve fired warning shots at elephants,” he relied. “Usually that’s enough. I’ve never had to kill one.”
This time, we started our walk at a large termite mound topped by an even larger tamarind tree. It grew out of the centre of the nest like some kind of parasitic life form, dwarfing the Land Rover that we parked in the shade underneath. I had been wondering why so many termite mounds had trees on top of or next to them. “Which comes first – the tree or the termites?” I asked Gilbert.
“The termite mound comes first,” he replied. “Baboons love to eat fruit like tamarind and they use abandoned termite mounds as places to look out for predators. While they’re sitting up there, their droppings fall through holes in the mound and the seeds become trees. That’s why when you see a tree on a termite mound, it’s always a fruit tree.”
“So the termite mounds must be very old?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “This tree is around 200 years old but the mound could be more than 400 years old.”
Interestingly, tamarind is not native to Zambia. Ian explained that it was brought to Africa by Arab slave traders in the Eighth Century AD. Another non-native plant is the palm tree, which came from North Africa via the droppings of migrating elephants. Gilbert showed us some small saplings and a palm tree seed in a patch of elephant dung. “The trees never grow very tall because the elephants love eating them so much,” he said.
We continued on our way, walking single file like many safari animals do, so that from in front you appear to be a tight group, not a loose herd that can be easily split up by a predator. A lone baboon who had lost his troupe shadowed us from a safe distance. As we walked, Gilbert showed us different animal tracks and dung along the path. The trail was very clear, although it was made by animals not humans. “Usual hippos create the paths, and then other animals follow them, including us,” he said.
The gentle sounds of nature were briefly broken by the engine noise of a small anti-poaching aeroplane that flew overhead. “They fly early in the morning looking for the smoke plume from poachers’ fires,” Gilbert explained. “If they see one, they radio the team on the ground.”
We stopped for a very British mid-morning tea and biscuits under another fruit tree on a termite mound. This time, the mound was almost gone, destroyed by elephants searching for minerals, leaving the tree perching precariously on roots that were often above thin air. A group of zebra were there before us, but they moved off slowly as we approached.
The walk ended dramatically. We packed up after our tea break and started walking back in the direction of the Land Rover. Ahead and left of us, Gilbert spotted a group of elephants moving swiftly across the plain. We shifted direction to avoid getting in their way. Then we realised that there was another group of elephants to our right, and that the two were meeting up.
I’ve seen Gilbert alarmed on three occasions, and each time involved elephants. “You have to respect the elephant,” he said previously. “He is the most dangerous animal in the jungle.” Gilbert quickly turned us around and we headed back and to the right. Unfortunately this led us off the path and into a mire. We had to move quickly but carefully, trying to find relatively firm bits of ground to tread on. Behind us we heard the two groups of elephants meet and greet each other.
We emerged muddy-footed from the mire, behind a group of trees. Gilbert the ranger, who was in front, started to walk through the trees. He swiftly returned and we heard the sound of a third group of elephants on the other side. We were all now starting to get scared. Unintentionally, we had got trapped in a swamp between three sets of elephants – two of them between us and our vehicle.
I knew that, if necessary, our ranger could fell one elephant with his rifle. But what about the others? And how long would it take him to reload? We had no choice now but to wait until the third set of elephants moved off. By now, I had quite forgotten my camera and notepad. My focus was purely on survival.
Eventually, the elephants did move on, and we were able to walk slowly towards our vehicle, staying in the open and keeping a close eye on the trees to either side. I felt an immense relief when we got back to the relative safety of the Land Rover. Our dung-and-footprints walk had turned out to be the most intense experience of the whole safari.
Riders on the storm
I had been lucky to avoid the rains for a day and a half, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever. After lunch, Trish and Ian headed off to catch their flight to Lusaka, and I did one final solo drive with Gilbert and Charles. As we left the lodge, dark storm clouds piled up ominously on the horizon, and I could soon hear the distant sound of thunder.
When the rain arrived, it did so very suddenly. The wind picked up and a wall of water swept towards us, first engulfing the elephants we were watching, and then our vehicle. I was wearing a waterproof jacket but it wasn’t enough protection. The Land Rover was open at the sides and front, and the rain came in at an angle. I clambered from my shotgun seat to the row behind, and grabbed another waterproof jacket to cover my legs, but I was too slow to escape a partial drenching.
We waiting for a while under a tree, and when the rain eased a bit, moved off. Despite the discomfort, it was fascinating to see how the animals responded. I had assumed that they would shelter under the trees, as we did, but in fact they did the opposite. We came across a large herd of impala stood in the middle of the road, visibly shivering in the rain.
“This is the most dangerous time for them,” Gilbert explained. “If they go under the trees it would be very easy for a leopard to attack them. So they stand out here where they can see what’s coming.”
We carried on for a while but it was clear the rain was not going to end. Charles offered to make me a sun-downer in the Land Rover, but the idea of drinking a cold beer in the vehicle while wet and shivering didn’t really appeal. I started thinking about a hot shower, dry clothes, and a large whisky by the fireplace at the lodge bar. Once that picture was in my head, it was only a matter of time before I asked Gilbert to head back to lodge, where I swiftly made it a reality.