Close Encounters in the Bush
by CHUCK GRAHAM
"It's showtime," whispered my Zambian guide, Chris, as dusk settled over the banks of the Luangwa River in Zambia. A leopard had just pulled down a puku antelope not 50 yards in front of us, but it wasn't like we were waiting for something to happen. Moments before, we'd belly-crawled to the edge of the river and surprised a 15-foot crocodile plowing into the shallows. Now our eyes were glued to one of Africa's most elusive predators.
"We'll approach slowly so we don't disturb its feeding," he explained, as I tried to contain my excitement. This was my fourth trip to Africa, but only my first sighting of a powerful leopard. However, the South Luangwa River Valley is one of the best habitats for viewing these solitary cats.
While the wildlife in East and South Africa garners the most attention from travelers, Zambia, in south-central Africa, also teems with animals. Since this remote country draws fewer foreign visitors, camps such as Tena Tena and Chinzombo are not crowded, offering walking safaris as well as day and night game drives.
Escape to Mfuwe
After landing in Lusaka, the capital, I was quickly whisked away to my charter flight to Mfuwe. Theft is rampant in Lusaka, but once I escaped the congestion of the city to the sanctuary of the Zambian bush, the abundant wildlife quickly occupied my full attention.
Spotting a leopard was a priority for me in the steamy wilderness, but the other critters didn't let me down either. After a short, bumpy 18-mile drive to the Chizombo camp where I would stay, I found myself engulfed in a grove of ebony and mahogany trees on the banks of the Luangwa River.
Instantly I was greeted by the raucous chorus of snorts, honks and oinks of a herd of hippopotamus wallowing in the muddy shallows. Eager for a closer look, I jumped out of the Land Rover, ran past my thatched chalet - and nearly tripped over a tongue-flicking monitor lizard. The river was crowded with the rotund herbivores as well as hungry crocs sprawled in the mud and nervous impalas sneaking down for a drink.
Chinzombo is situated so encounters with animals are intimate while keeping its guests safe. That night I watched a hippo sucking down grass like a vacuum cleaner just outside my chalet; at dawn, I was awakened by an elephant stripping leaves from a mahogany tree with its mighty trunk.
You're able to walk around the camp freely except down by the river, where I was
cautioned about the lurking crocs and getting caught between the water and a hippo. "They're the most dangerous animal in Africa," said Chris, while we drank our morning tea and admired the gaping jaws of one particularly dominant male hippo.
Walking with the Wildlife
In the early afternoon we left Chinzombo for a walk along the river banks, 10 feet above its wary occupants. Zambia was one of the first countries to initiate walking safaris, offering visitors an alternative way to view wildlife. Francis, a Zambian ranger armed with a rifle, led the way with Chris and me in tow.
The hippos and crocs were never far from view, but we also saw warthogs with their punk-rock hairdos and skinny tails pointing straight up like antennas, and a breeding herd of impala with only one buck to look after the fidgety horde of females.
A mile down river, Francis noticed tiny pink, red and magenta streaks darting in and out of Luangwa's muddy river banks. Carmine bee-eaters (birds) had transformed the sheer wall of mud into a condominium complex. On hands and knees, the three of us crawled underneath the acacia thorn and peered over the edge. It was like a revolving door of bee-eaters: flying in with insects in their beaks, feeding their young above the muddy river, and perching above the nests.
After a quick pit-stop of tea and cookies at Chinzombo, Chris and I were back in the Land Rover, eating some dust and searching the darkness for nocturnal activity. Aardvarks, honey badgers, and civets (cat family) are just a few of the nighttime habitués. Meanwhile, lions, leopards and spotted hyenas also are on the prowl, concealed under the stars.
Chris took me to an active hyena den. We approached slowly to within 20 feet, turned the lights off and patiently waited for any signs of life. Nearly 30 minutes passed before we heard a prominent series of whoops and cackles close by.
Suddenly the alpha female appeared, and once she did, the entire clan emerged from the hyena den. They greeted each other with licks and shrieks - they don't call them laughing hyenas for nothing.
Our Land Rover had no windows, doors or roof. This enabled an extremely curious hyena cub to cautiously creep to my side of the dusty vehicle. I didn't flinch when the precocious cub sniffed my boot, looked up at me, then sauntered off to join its gathering family.
The Kunda people live near Chinzombo, and virtually all visitors to this area are greeted by the smiling faces and curious eyes of the villagers, especially the children. They asked for things like pens and my sunglasses.
Two little villagers led me by the hand to their home, a round hut with a small cooking area in the center. At night, the entire family of four slept on the floor, side by side. A sturdy stick kept a rustic door closed, no doubt to keep the creepy-crawlies at bay.
Afterwards, I set my camera on a log for a self-portrait with a few of the local kids. Once the other children learned what was happening, they quickly milled around me for the village portrait. A couple of them even sat on my lap. After several images, we said our good-byes, and then it was back to the bush.
After lunch on the river, Chris dropped me off at a rustic and remote bush camp, where I spent the night with only the camp staff. There were three huts for guests, and mine was off by itself. The bathroom and shower were connected to the hut but were outside.
I was sitting on the loo to unlace my boots when I felt something brush the top of my head. I swiped whatever it was away without looking up. Then it tapped me on the head.
This time I jumped up to see an elephant's trunk swaying like a tree in the wind. The world's largest land mammal can move with incredible stealth in the bush - so much so that I never heard it directly behind the thatched fence surrounding the bathroom.
Often, game-viewing is better after dark than during the day. That evening, while Chris drove, I manned the spotlight searching for glowing eyes in the abyss of the African night.
First we spooked a pair of prickly porcupines crossing the dirt road, who immediately turned their backs on us in defense mode, and vanished into the dry grass. A scrub hare froze in its tracks. With no vegetation in which to hide, it decided its best strategy was not to move - until it heard the throaty roar of a leopard.
Actually there were two leopards in close proximity, and each cat was closing in on something. A squealing wart-hog piglet couldn't escape the stealth of the first leopard and was instantly carried off.
We found the second predator lurking in the short grass, stalking two female impalas. Only when the leopard was within two feet of its quarry did the unsuspecting antelope figure out what was happening. The leopard lunged and tripped its prey; within minutes the impala was motionless. However, the spotted cat earned no time to relax as whoops and cackles filled the steamy night, sending the panting leopard to locate a tree to conceal its feast.
I couldn't relax either. The sounds and smells of Africa heightened my senses, just like those of the creatures surrounding me in the Zambian night.
For further information about travel to Zambia, contact David Anderson Safaris: Phone: 800-927-4647; Fax: 805-563-7953; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.davidanderson.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Zambia."