Game parks in Zambia are reported to give the best chance of spotting leopard in Africa. So, flying in from the gorillas of the Congo and I’m going to South Luangwa Park to check this out.
It’s now clear skies for the first time this trip and scorching hot. An extremely bumpy landing at Mfuwe, in the midday thermals, on yet another minute plane, brings me to South Luangwa. The National Park marks the end of the Great Rift Valley,. The Luangwa River meanders through the middle from escarpment to flatter country and woodlands, creating a variety of scenic vistas. The plains and ox bow lagoons, are the important parts - where the wildlife concentrates.
It’s a scenic drive to the lodge across palm strewn plains and through several villages, though the poverty is very obvious. There are numerous thatched rondavels, and traditional circular store houses on stilts, as well as mud brick buildings, mainly shops and businesses, with great names, ‘God First Super Mall ‘, ‘The Divine Hair Salon, ‘Shopping Centre’ (the latter all of a metre square) I have a riverside chalet and a ringside seat for the bucks, elephant and hippos on the opposite bank. The river is shallow and sometimes the show creeps much closer. The hippos calling resonates across the water, a brass band tuning up.
There are four-hour evening and morning game drives in an open sided safari vehicle. My guide is Vic (short for Vickson), who has good write ups on Trip Advisor, and the truck is crammed with Italians. My fellow Europeans have no concept of how to behave in the wild and chatter constantly and loudly, shrieking with laughter, smoking and waving their flashlights at all the animals as well (illegally) as at all the passing trucks.
Even they manage to stick to an awestruck whisper, when we come across a young male lion devouring an impala it has stolen from a leopard. It can’t be the same leopard we next encounter. He has gorged on (more or less) a whole warthog (the remains are in his tree) and is so full he can’t move. He’s lying askew on the ground, breathing heavily. I can’t really criticise the Italians for the flashlights - all the safari cars are using them too, choreographing the animals movements like stage performances. The big cats don’t seem to mind. They just carry on placidly minding their own business.
The restaurant at my lodge has decided it might be nice if I eat dinner with Vic. My heart sinks, but I manage to inveigle a table on my own and am just settling into my starter when a large South African ‘Call me JP’, plonks himself down at the bar adjacent and continues to talk all through my meal. He’s smoking too. Doh! He’s unfortunate enough to be driving the Italian group back down to Malawi tomorrow, so I don’t blame him for putting away beer in large quantities. And I pretend to be deaf when he offers to escort me back to my room. We’re not allowed to walk on our own at night because of possible hippo encounters.
The next day Vic has told me we will be on our own. We’re not - a family with one very noisy daughter accompany us on both of today’s outings. So, the noise levels aren’t that different to yesterday’s. The park is parched brown and it’s relatively easy to spot the game when it emerges into the morning sun. We career along various trails, through thickets, across bush and along riverbeds, both sandy bedded and dry and reasonably full of water. The latter is studded with crocodiles lounging. The leopard has dragged itself 20 metres and is still spread-eagled on the ground, rolling occasionally.
Later, we halt to allow a group of elephants (it’s too small to be called a herd) cross in front of us, two babies and two females. One elephant, very curious, confronts me face to face, trunk waving. ‘You should have stayed still,’ remonstrates Vic as I duck. ‘It wasn’t angry’. It’s okay for him – he wasn’t the one in the firing line.
The local pride of lions is ruled over by two brothers who have been named Ginger (because he’s pale - almost albino) and Garlic. I’m not sure they’re very dignified names, but the lions seem to be having a relatively easy existence, sunbathing along the banks of the dried upriver bed. The whole pride has been feeding for several days on an elephant that died last week (of natural causes). The stench now fills the whole area and the carcass has been more or less abandoned to the vultures, but the lions are replete and happy. The females, together with three cubs, are lazing further along the edges of the river. We sit in our car, (and half a dozen other vehicles who have all come pelting in) only a couple of metres away.
This is much too close for my liking; there are no doors between me and the big cats. Vic seems unperturbed, though he does point out that we should not stand up and present an obvious target. And the lions do, indeed, all doze peacefully, the mothers licking the cubs, until they spot a lone kudu advancing. Even though they are not hungry this is too good a chance to pass up.
The largest lioness is immediately alert and on her feet, passing close by our vehicle (we earn a keen assessment) before she lopes away, followed swiftly by the others. Even the male lions bestir themselves. The kudu is having the fright of his life. He shoots off, like an arrow, into the distance and over the river. He’s decided crocodiles are a better option than lions and luck is with him, or the crocodiles aren’t quick enough. He makes it safely to the other side and the lions return sulkily to their sun lounging.
The night’s drive brings a female leopard drinking at a pool and a return to the lions. They are still sleeping in virtually the same spot, with both males sprawled right across the track, trucks making detours around them and parked up all along the riverbank. Garlic is sitting up, yawning and twitching as he summons the energy to set off for the night. The spotlights play around him. It’s just like the opening credits of an MGM movie.
It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. A hippo spent most of it chomping noisily along the other side of the wall by my bed and snorting to his friends in-between mouthfuls. Today’s safari companions are a cute family of Zimbabweans. The three children are quieter than yesterday’s one English girl, though they are very young and rapidly lose their enthusiasm for big game. They don’t understand the rarity value of today’s (painted) wild dogs although the ensuing scramble to follow them is a bit like taking part in a high-speed car chase in a movie. Lucy, the local leopard is quietly perched above a gully and not adding any entertainment value and the lions are elusive today. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think I would have gone and hidden in the scrubbiest, most inaccessible piece of land I could find, if I had been subjected to the indignities that were inflicted on them last night.
My last drive, in Zambia, at night mainly involves joining a line of cars pursuing Lucy, who is out hunting. So, we’re stalking the stalker. She is hiding in a gully, waiting for night to fall, as she’s not super-fast, but to her disgust is given away by a guinea fowl. His frantic clicking call is echoed by the puku antelopes, who are Lucy’s target. Several spotted hyenas are prowling, heading in the direction of the elephant remains. They’re taking over the night-time shift, from the vultures.
By the time I’ve completed five game drives my tally of notable animals is: lion, leopard, elephant, warthog, mongoose, lilac breasted roller, bee-eaters, hippos, crocodiles, storks of varying kinds, monkeys, baboons, impala (of course – disporting the McDonalds’ M on their rear as that’s what they mean to lions), weaver, bushbuck, puku, kudu, waterbuck, vultures, hyena, giraffe (Thornicroft – endemic to this park), zebra (a variety of Burchell’s with stripes all down its legs), wild dog (very rare) and genet. So that’s four out of the Big Five - no rhino here.
Vic's also talked about The Ugly Five. I think this is a bit unkind. It features marabou stork, warthog, vulture, hyena and wildebeest. I’ve seen all of them here except the wildebeest. If pushed I might argue the case for the inclusion of the hippo, which I think is squeamishly ghoulish out of water.
Overall, this is some of the best game viewing I’ve ever encountered, in terms of proximity to the animals. Most of them seem to have become fairly well habituated to humans. Is this ethical I wonder? I suppose this is the only way they get to co-exist in this modern world
As I write, a herd of elephants is grazing across the river, looping the tenderest shooting branches with their trunks. A hippo is infiltrating their ranks. He looks tiny in comparison. And a troop of minuscule monkeys is wandering single file past my chalet door, peering in. It’s firmly closed to stop them staging a raid. And to deter the insects. The tsetse finally got me this morning. Twice.
Next stop, eSwatini
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.