Lions and leopards on the Luangwa River
We turn off the Livingstone-Lusaka-Lilongwe highway at Chipata to go west to South Luangwa National Park, entering near the village of Mfuwe. Though it is probably the leading park in Zambia, I have not heard of it before our trip. Serengeti, Etosha and Chobe are familiar names, but South Luangwa is not. It proves to a real highlight, the best national park thus far. It has the advantage of a high concentration of wild animals and birds around the Luangwa River, among the most intense in Africa, as well as more limited visitor numbers. When we arrive in mid-April the dry season has just begun, with winter approaching, and the wet season that finished in March has left the jungle lush and green.
We stay two nights at Croc Valley Camp, right on the Luangwa River, full of hippos, their throaty hrumps making us aware of their presence. I am glad there is a high river bank between our tent and the water, though further along they can come up out of the river at night and graze in the camp. I avoid going to the toilet in the darkness, hanging on until the light of dawn.
Our programme includes two game drives with Moses, our driver, in an unroofed open cart. We are joined by an American couple and their two young children and three South Africans. Moses tells us the rules allow him to travel 20 metres off the formed tracks, but he seems to drive anywhere and everywhere, keen to delight his passengers and hunt out the nearby wildlife. The first game drive begins at 6.00am and I am squeezy again, but fortunately it passes quickly.
We see lots of antelope – kudu, waterbuck, puku, impala, as well as warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, baboons and zebra. The latter are interesting in that they are a distinctive sub-species of the locality, known as Crawshay's zebra, and have narrower strips, very definitely black and white. We don’t see any of the Thornicroft's giraffe, which are supposed to be numerous in the area. The highlight of the morning drive is a pride of lions, about 20 females and 3 males and a number of cubs hidden in the bushes. Eddie says there are about 600 lions in South Luangwa, though Moses believes the number to be as many as 1000.
Moses gets wind of the pride and he is off, over the bumpy long grass and through the overhanging bushes. Other game drivers have similar ideas and there is a traffic jam of three or four safari vehicles all converging on the one spot. Moses is forced to reverse and backtrack. Suddenly we are upon the pride with several females sprawled at ease in front of us, surrounded by a circle of vehicles. The previous evening they have made several killings, the bare bones of one carcass evidence of an appreciated feast. Vultures hang around the skeleton, pecking on the remains. Moses shifts the vehicle to the other side of the clump of trees and we see the body of a water buffalo beside the stream and several lions still feeding. It’s wonderful to witness wildlife in action.
The South Luangwa area is rich in bird life and Moses points out a number of interesting fowl, just a few of the 400 species there. There’s a lilac breasted roller, saddle billed storks, a brown breasted snake eagle and some red billed hornbill – just some of the names I wrote down as we went. Martin, wielding a camera with a magnificent zoom lens, is in his element and snaps away with gusto.
We return to the camp for brunch and relaxation. Martin chats to our neighbours, Margreth and Werner who are true independent and intrepid adventurers, driving through Africa on their own in their vehicle which they had sent from their home country of Switzerland. We are to meet them again later at the Malawi border.
South Luangwa is one of the few national parks that allow night safaris and we are privileged to participate in one with some special highlights. We see several groups of elephants – though I understand poaching has placed the elephant population under serious pressure. A group of three elephants cross the boggy land below the road, mother in the lead and two younger ones of different ages following behind. When they level with our vehicle the mother and the older young one turn around to the smallest elephant as if to encourage it and they allow it to go in the middle. The second group we meet includes several young elephants and as they move close to the vehicles, the adults draw the babies in under their wide legs, sheltering them from possible danger. It is delightful to see - I wish that all human adults would protect their babies with the same care and attention as the elephants.
The climax of the evening is provided by a group of leopards. We drive into an open clearing, and before our amazed eyes, a wildlife drama unfolds. A leopard is chasing an impala across the rough short grass. My heart thumps and wills the impala to escape. Though the leopard is very fast during short bursts of energy, the impala has greater speed over a longer period and he out runs her. The leopard gives up the chase and slinks off to the centre of the clearing where she sits down, apparently unfazed by the audience in the watching vehicles. I hardly dare to breathe; she is so close to us, sitting there with her handsome spotted coat.
I expect the impala to disappear, grateful for his reprieve. But no, he is about to teach the leopard a lesson. As the leopard rises and wanders over in the direction of the impala, it dashes towards the cat, emitting a spitting sound loud enough for us all to hear. Several times the impala retreats, before again chasing the leopard and repeating the spitting noise. I am astonished at the courage and tenacity of the impala. Perhaps he is protecting a nearby herd. At last, the leopard moves away, conceding victory to the impala. She eyes some guinea fowls as she goes, but they move quickly beyond her range.
We move to the river bank for a snack break and watch the pink sky of the sunset reflected in the Luangwa River. The spot lights go on as darkness falls and Moses finds a group of leopards in a tree – one adult up the tree, two cubs a little lower down and another two adults on the ground. We peer through the night and pick out the animals caught in the spot light. One of the leopards on the ground has killed a baboon, and is eating it; we assume it is the same one which had the confrontation with the impala an hour earlier. Moses circles the tree allowing us to get a better look at the leopard family. I drink in the experience and the wonder of it all.
The night game drive is not over. With the aid of the spot light, Moses finds other animals like bushbuck, genet, hyena, mongoose and hippo. He stops the game vehicle and we sit in the darkness of the forest, darkness so complete that there is not the tiniest hint of light. We listen to the sounds of the bush and stare at the stars, all the brighter for the absence of light. Moses indicates the points of the Southern Cross – alpha, beta, gamma, and delta - and shares some of his knowledge about the heavens. A wonderful ending to a great day.
The following day is Easter Sunday. Our Swiss neighbours come over to wish us Happy Easter with chocolates they have brought from home, and as we drive north to the border with Malawi, we see the Zambians walking along the road to church in large numbers, dressed in their Sunday best. Back to Chipata, we call in at the supermarket to stock up on supplies, and are greeted at the entrance with a large poster announcing the resurrection of Jesus. These people aren’t afraid to wear their Christianity on their sleeve.