Monday, July 29, 2013

South Luangwa National Park, Part II

The following morning, after a short drive, Robbie parked and we began our walk, a kind of mini ulendo of the sort that would have been undertaken over a period of weeks by game rangers and district commissioners during the colonial era, when these colonial officers, who ruled with dictatorial powers over massive stretches of the country, undertook extensive perambulations to check in on their ‘subjects’. 

One Game Ranger might have been accompanied by several game guards, and easily as many as thirty carriers, to ensure that he didn’t have to haul his own supplies, and would want for nothing.  These officers often conscripted labour from villages along the way, to the dismay of inhabitants who needed all hands on deck for planting or harvest, or to protect their fields from depredations by animals.  They also took food from the villages to feed themselves and their carriers, and on more than one occasion village headmen demonstrated discontent with these high-handed tactics by withholding maize (which the villagers themselves depended on) from a furious officer. 

Our ulendo, of course, would only last a couple of hours, but it was with some trepidation that we trekked into the rising sun, led by an armed ZAWA officer.  I was half hoping we’d see some interesting animals, and half hoping that we would see nothing larger than an impala!  The country through which we passed was open, and during the rains would be flooded.  As it was, the ground consisted of packed, dried mud, very uneven because while drying it had been trodden over by hippos and other animals.  We made our way along one such hippo highway, past five- to fifteen-foot termite mounds, some of which had large trees perched precariously atop them. 

We passed some herds of zebra and impala, which though they kept their distance and eyed us askance, did not seem unduly bothered by our noisy trek through the bush.  Robbie pointed out plenty of scat, tracks, and plant-life, and happily took us away from an elephant herd that we spotted far in the distance, as the wind was not in our favour.  So I was just thinking that I was home and clear when we pulled up short a few hundred yards from a herd of a half-dozen elephants, feeding on a small clump of bushes.  There was no cover, but the wind was now blowing our way, and the elephants apparently fully preoccupied with their feeding, so we steadily closed the distance separating us from their massive grey bulks, and were able to stand and watch them for a little while before slowly making our way back to the vehicle.

Our luck held, and later in the morning we came across a leopard up a tree with a young puku it had killed the night before.  The leopard itself was relatively young, and watched us with wide eyes and twitching tail before coming down the trunk of the tree and watching us from the ground.  At this point, some puku grazing nearby noticed it, and began barking and whistling furiously, to let the leopard know it wasn’t going to be able to sneak up on them.  Eventually, it faded into the bush.  Our luck with leopards was unwavering, and during a day and a half in the park, we had seven sightings of a total of five different individuals (not that any of us could tell the difference!). 

In the afternoons, indescribably pleased to be away from the traffic and pollution which even in quiet Lusaka gets old after a while, I sat at the edge of the camp overlooking the river.  Hippos wallowed at the bank, impalas grazed on the far elevated bank, where elephants also twined their trunks up into the branches in search of food.  After a while, the group of elephants found a spot where the bank had caved in, and made their way down this makeshift ramp, ever so carefully, mothers assisting the youngsters, who trotted the last few yards sending up plumes of dust.  They then forded the river, equally carefully.  As shallow as it was, the water was still nearly deep enough to submerge the baby elephant, and could certainly hide crocodiles, which I’m told accounts for the manner in which the elephants hold their tails out of the water whilst crossing. 

Needless to say, when the elephants arrived at our bank, I retreated to somewhere safer!

Before the evening’s drive, one of the camp managers came and asked me if I knew what time my flight back to Lusaka was on Sunday.  I confessed my total ignorance.  Thoughts of tomorrow, after all, seemed superfluous on a day so spectacular.

That evening, we spotted more leopards.  These cats often seem small, shy, and retiring.  They are around the size of a mountain lion, though larger specimens get considerably heavier.  And they are capable of killing a fair-sized antelope and hauling it up a tree where they wedge it in a fork to keep it out of reach of hyaenas, painted dogs, and particularly lions. 

If leopards, solitary animals which are easily driven off their kills by other predators, tend to slink and sulk elegantly through the bush, lions demonstrate altogether more confidence, and stride through their territory.  That night, after being fortunate enough to see an Eagle Owl, a Pel’s Fishing Owl, and a ratel (honey badger), we followed the headlights of another vehicle (parks in Zambia are far, far less crowded than their East African counterparts) and found ourselves below an embankment on which perched a large male lion, illuminated by the spotlight on the other vehicle.  On reaching the top of the bank, we found that we were suddenly in the midst of a pride of five lions—four females, one male—which were beginning their night’s hunt.

They moved along the road, unhurried, sometimes single file, at other times five abreast.  They gradually stalked off into the grass on one side, which was sparse enough that we could easily chart their sepulchral progress through the bush, like so many ghostly outlines as the spotlight played around their forms.  I felt a shiver down my spine watching these tan-coloured predators travel through their country, shoulders thrown out heavily with each unhurried step, heads nodding slightly as they criss-crossed the road.  Eventually we peeled away, to leave them to their night’s hunt, which we discovered the following morning had been successful when we saw the site of a kill which we were told had been a small puku, not enough to fill the lions for more than a day, meaning that they would once again be on the prowl when night fell. 

The sense of vulnerability that comes from seeing such predators move about in their element was in no way diminished as we turned into the total darkness of the park on our way home, and could look up at a sky unbelievably vast and impossibly filled with stars, some of them individually indistinguishable in their clustered milky gatherings, others startlingly distinctive as they set off points of constellations, so unfamiliar to those of us from the northern hemisphere. 

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