Blimey those hippos can be noisy beasts. They came up to graze outside our tent in the night stomping about in the dead leaves, then “squelch rip, squelch rip”, punctuated by the occasional almighty bellow. We were tired enough that we all slept but there were times that I woke in the night wondering blearily why there was a foghorn in the tent.
As with all good holidays, our start time was a little before 5.30 this morning. Tom got up and got dressed and came for breakfast and then woke up about an hour later.
Walia, our guide was a good looking young guy with gleaming smile and a slightly detached manner. This detachment was soon explained by the presence on our drive of two young Mexicans who’d been out with him a few times. They did not stop talking. I think they thought they were in a theme park and they asked Walia endless questions along the following lines: “Who would win in a fight between a pit-bull and a hyena?”. “What is the most expensive animal to shoot?”. “If that elephant was shot, how long would it take to die?”. They wanted selfies with the animal skulls we passed and asked if they could take some bones. “No” said Walia, wearily.
Other than the manic Mexicans it was a grand morning and it was immediately obvious that the animals here are far more used to people. Waterbuck, the big antelope that bolted at the first sign of a car in Lower Zambezi, would let us pass right by them here.
Even the usually skittish impala surveyed us with a cool calm and carried on grazing. The elephants too were more inclined to let us watch them, even with little ones around.
Walia took us to a place where an elephant had died a couple of weeks earlier. It was shrouded by hunched vultures and patrolled by Hyena. The elephant, which had died of old age was just skin and bones now. A couple of giraffe stood back, staring at it.
We stopped for coffee and biscuits overlooking the river, with hippo grunting and crocs lying still and sinister in the sunshine.
What I really wanted to see in South Luangwa was a leopard. They have a higher concentration here than just about anywhere else in Africa but they are still really difficult to spot and mostly you see them at night when their eyes reflect the torchlight.
Well today our luck was in. We were heading back to Flatdogs in the last fifteen minutes of our four hour game drive when we went to see what a couple of other vehicles had stopped to look at. In the fork of a tree a beautiful female leopard gazed down on us.
She was not the least bit bothered by the attention and gave us different poses so we could see just how gorgeous she was.
We were back at Flatdogs shortly after ten for coffee and blogging and a general wind-down. It was nice to have some space in the middle of the day. There were elephants wondering about at the edges of the camp which meant sometimes people couldn’t go back to their tents and had to evacuate the pool. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint obviously.
At 3.30 tea was served in fine colonial style; scones with jam and cream, and cake. Oh and elephants.
Suitably caffeinated and sugared-up we set off on the evening game drive at 4. The Mexicans had gone on to another camp so we had the vehicle to ourselves. Walia was notably more relaxed. With him was his spotter, Charlie and we bumped off into the fading afternoon light.
Flatdogs is across the river from South Luangwa National Park and very close to the main entrance, but today Walia turned away from it to another track parallel with the river until we came to a narrow section with a pontoon ferry attached to a fixed cable.
After checking in at the reed thatch camp that served as the entrance gate, Walia drove down the mudbank and onto the pontoon where we joined him. Two lithe and muscular guys pulled us across using wooden handles which slipped onto the cable and worked as levers like oars in a rowing boat. Ten meters short of the bank we drove off the ferry into the water and out the other side. Well that was fun!
Just before sunset we (and several other vehicles) found a pride of lions sleeping in the sandy bed of a dry river.
They were sprawled out like domestic cats, utterly at ease. Life is so much easier when you can go to sleep without the fear of being eaten by something. It felt somehow intrusive to be so close to these animals while they slept, as though we weren’t respecting their privacy. But they didn’t seem to care.
We watched the sunset with drinks and popcorn, from a grand spot with views down to a couple of hippo pods in the river one way and elephants feeding on a low hillside the other way. Ah Zambia.
As it got dark we set out again with Charlie manning the spotlight, constantly sweeping across the vegetation around us. We found the two male lions from the sleeping pride up in the river bank. One was born almost albino with a ginger mane. We were right next to them and they barely stirred.
For the next ninety minutes we spotted virtually nothing, and sadly no tell-tale gleam from a leopard’s eyes but that’s the way it goes sometimes. You never know if you are just unlucky with the location or the talent of the spotters, but Charlie put us right on that question as we jolted along. “Stop” he said. There in a bush was a tiny green chameleon exactly matched to the leaves around it and perhaps three inches long. It was hard enough for us to see even when it was pointed out. Charlie had spotted it from ten feet away as we drove by in pitch darkness with only the sweep of a torch.
It turned out to be Walia’s thirtieth birthday. The peace of the bush was broken by the three of us singing “Happy Birthday” amid Walia’s laughter as we rolled through the darkness back towards the camp.