Monday, December 29, 2008

A drive on the wild side (Dec. 10/08 - Flatdogs Camp, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia)

Despite the torrential rains that soaked the camp all night, we were still awoken several times by the sound of hippos and buffalo nearby, and the grunts of a buffalo walking close behind our tent in the middle of the night. This morning, a few people reported hearing a lion roaring as well. The rain conveniently let up as we set out in open 4x4 safari trucks for a four hour morning game drive. As we entered the park and started down one of the main red dirt roads into the bush, almost right away we spotted a pride of eight lions lying in the grass about 200 feet from the road. The lone male was busy gnawing on the carcass of some unlucky animal, and we could clearly hear his teeth crunching on the bones. Three females lay around him, watching him stuff his face while they waited their turn even though they were the ones that made the kill! Talk about taking women's rights back 60 years. Four adolescent cubs rolled around in the grass too, getting up to drink once in a while. Talk about setting our drive off to a good start!

This park is very different from Etosha, as the trees are large and some areas have thick underbrush or patches of swamp. There are big open fields too and riverbanks skirting the wide and muddy Luangwa River, which teemed with hippos. Next, we came across a herd of about 20 elephants munching on grasses in a marsh, then a hippo almost invisible under a cloak of lily pads in a pond. We saw tons of birds, a bunch of warthogs, hundreds of baboons and girvet monkeys, impala, puku, and waterbuck (which have the characteristic white "toilet seat" ring on their bums). Cape buffalo, Crayshall's zebras (endemic to Zambia), mating geese, crocodiles lounging on the river bank, and even a rare pack of wild dogs. Even our guide was thrilled to see the dogs, as they aren't seen very often. But they didn't seem to care, just lying in the grass as we watched.

At one point, we came around the corner to see another safari truck parked RIGHT beside a huge bull elephant. They probably could've touched it, they were so close. But it was odd that everyone in the truck was looking the other direction! Turns out that on the other side of the road was a big clearing, where a virtual circus was running around - 30 elephants, 6 buffalo, zebras, impala, and baboons. All in the same place! It was unbelievable. There were a couple baby elephants that were so tiny that they barely looked like elephants, and so wobbly on their feet that the guide guessed that they were only a few days old. We pulled closer and soon found ourselves within 10 feet of the big bull elephant - almost uncomfortably close, as I'm sure he could flip our truck in no time flat. Some of us were having flashbacks to our elephant experience at Twyfelfontein! Luckily, most of the animals here are used to having vehicles close by, so we were able to enjoy such a close encounter for a few minutes before giving him some space. We drove for a full four hours, driving into seldom-visited spots where we came close to getting the truck stuck in hippo ditches several times! It was quite the ride, and on the way out we even found a tree full of scared monkeys who were screeching the way they apparently do when a leopard is close by.

Back at camp, we swapped stories about who saw what and then fended off the baboons while trying to make lunch. One even went into the building where Francis was cooking (while she was inside), stole a loaf of bread, and ran away! So cheeky.

This park is one of the few in all of Africa that does night game drives, and we were lucky enough to have one arranged for 4-8pm. The daylight lasted until 6:30pm, so we had tons of time to drive around and find elephants, zebras, warthogs with babies, and tons of the creatures we saw earlier in the day. But the highlight came when we received a short radio transmission from another truck, which is usually news of a special sighting. Suddenly, we swerved off the road and found the other truck full of the rest of our group, staring intently at something ahead of them. A couple gave us a big thumbs up sign and then we saw it - a leopard! She was beautiful - bold spotted coat and upturned tail. We actually caught her in the middle of the call of nature, but then she got up and walked out in the open before getting down to roll and then head for the bush. Both our trucks followed her, and quickly we spotted her passing through the underbrush and then disappearing into brush that our trucks couldn't penetrate. We saw a leopard! So rare, but our luck held out. High fives were exchanged when we realized that we had now seen the Big Five. Believe it or not, our luck continued - after a snack stop to watch the sun set behind the river bank, out came the spotlight and the night drive began. The guide panned the light in arcs across the bushes as they whizzed by, searching for the reflective glow of animal eyes. Impala and puku stoof out like a crowd of glowing balls, and elephants and hippos came as a sudden surprise since they are both without eye-shine. We saw a genet, two baby crocodiles, and a couple very close-range hippos before the light picked up four figures moving across a clearing in the distance. Lions! Lionesses to be precise, out hunting. They were quite far away, so we turned around and raced to the far side of the field. On the way, we passed a large male lion lying in the grass, presumable the same one we saw earlier since we were in the same area. Then, off to the right, one of the lionesses was spotted about 50 feet ahead of us on our right, heading straight for our path. With perfect timing, the truck came to a stop just as she reached the road, not ten feet away from her. And then he shut off the engine! Talk about feeling vulnerable! Sitting in an open air vehicle with no sides, ten feet away from a lion whose hunt we just interrupted - in the dark! She stopped, looked at us briefly, and then carried on in front of us, scanning the darkness for prey. You could tell by the perk of her ears and the low stance of her head that she was on the prowl. It was another incredible close encounter with one of Africa's best. And with perfect timing too, as we had exactly three minutes to make it back to the park gates before they closed. It was a day that won't soon be forgotten - lions, leopards, elephants - what else could a person want on a safari?!

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