Luangwa, Zambia and the Leopard That Coulda Been…

With little fanfare, we cross the border into Zambia (and another USD 50 visa). Days of inactivity have rendered us largely lethargic, and we wearily listen to George’s valiant attempt at a workshop on fill-in flash and color temperatures.

We drive by red brick huts with thatched roofs leading to the Wildlife Camp, just outside the park’s gates. The site has us mesmerized, situated right on the banks of the Luangwa River with a pod of hippos, their backs just visible in the fast flowing muddy waters, their bellows punctuating the otherwise blissful silence after the massive rumblings of the truck. The camp is wild, with no fences, and we’re warned not to wander around after dark. If nature calls, business must be taken care of next to the tent, instead of risking the 20m walk to the ablution block and a chance encounter with a hippo who has come out of the water during the night to graze.

Some of us upgrade to bedded ensuite tents. We all hang out clothes that never had the chance to dry in Malawi and the campsite looks like a Chinese laundry. While setting up tents, we spot deep lion prints mere meters away. Our camp is also ringed with unmistakeably large hippo prints and we start at every hippo, hyena or elephant calling in the night.

With palpable anticipation, we rise for an early 6 am game drive. Luangwa is noted for its leopard population, and as we haven’t seen any leopards yet this trip, nothing short of a leopard sighting (preferably in a tree, right next to the road, with a fresh kill dragged up for good measure) will placate us. Unfortunately, our guide is more driver than tracker and we spend the morning plunging the Land Rover off-road into the bushes chasing rumors of lions and following other trucks. He has lots of ‘yesterday’ stories, though.

‘Yesterday, we saw four leopard! including a mating pair! One even crawled under the truck!’

My cynical side is beginning to think there is an inverse correlation – the better the ‘yesterday’ stories, the less inspired the guide…

The highlight of the otherwise uneventful morning is seeing an elephant break off some branches, but the real joy is coming back to a sumptuous brunch that Ebron traditionally prepares after every morning game drive — a traditional English fry up of eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, pasta and juice.

We thus pin all our now unreasonably high hopes on an evening game drive with the same driver and an assistant to shine the spotlight. The animals are more active now and we see puku, bushbucks, zebra and giraffe in abundance, all of which we’d gladly trade for one good leopard sighting. We watch the sun set over a lagoon with dozens of elephants placidly feeding, dusting themselves or swimming. Night sets and the drive takes on an ominous quality, the spotlight scanning the darkness for reflective sets of eyes.

This is not a leopard.

Finally, with only one hour to go, we see the faint silhouette of a leopard slinking into the darkness. About nine other vehicles also spot him at about the same time and the chase is on. In his hurry to surge to the front of the queue, our driver sets us squarely into a shallow ditch. We can only watch helplessly as we see camera flashes go off in the distance by the leopard. OUR leopard. By the time another truck tows us out, the leopard is long gone, the spotlight swinging uselessly to and fro. We give the back of the driver’s head dagger looks.

But with minutes before we’re supposed to leave the park, the night is salvaged. We happen on a fresh lion kill – four lionesses biting and tearing into the carcass of a sizable warthog killed just minutes before. They don’t even look up as we pull within 2 meters of them, sinewy muscles taut, the sound of flesh being torn away from bones,  green, partially digested grass spilling out onto the ground. It’s a hollow replacement for the leopard, but we look on transfixed, nevertheless. We are in a surly collective mood and difficult to entertain.

Are you not entertained?

By the campsite, a solitary hippo lounges in a pool about 15 meters from our cooking shack. We stand in vigil, waiting for him to show us a jaw-splitting yawn, and we’re not disappointed. Julie, the dentist’s wife, gets up early enough to catch the hippo returning to the pool, but because we have all reluctantly eschewed the ‘auto’ setting on our cameras, manually setting apertures, white balance, ISO, etc. in fumbling, amateurish response to the workshops, she misses the shot because of a too slow shutter speed and the hippo is a brown blur.

‘I should’ve had it on Auto!’ she exclaims, and we all nod in silent agreement, it becoming our guilty unspoken mantra. Despite George’s constant encouragement that we’ll get faster with the settings, I’m afraid the photography workshops have suffered a setback. We all secretly vow to revert back to ‘auto’ setting when in doubt. Just don’t tell George…

I should’ve had it on Auto!

In the morning, we take the same hard packed dirt road out of the park that we entered on, on our way to Victoria Falls. Two long driving days lay ahead. The road is a bone jarring, teeth crunching 1.5 hours of misery that has us all muttering under our breath; Benji is rocked and shaken to his core. He finally gives out with a tremendous bang, a blown tire. Within minutes, we’re surrounded by village children, the oldest  of about 12 or 13 with younger brothers and sisters strapped to their backs.

They stare.

We stare back.

Finally, the silence is broken as we find a way to engage them, and they eagerly respond, saying their names so softly (‘My name is Alice. My name is Precious’), I have to get them to repeat them two or three times. In response to my question, they point in the direction of their school but I have a hard time understanding why they’re not there this morning. However, it’s all smiles and photos until an adult villager in the back prods them to demand, ‘Give me sweets!’, spoiling the moment. It’s become a constant occurrence, random people passing the stopped truck, pointing to their mouths and their bellies in the universal sign for food. We begrudgingly ignore them, following instructions, not wanting to create a culture of begging.

To give or not to give?

After 20 minutes, the tire is changed and we’re back on our way, the road mercifully smoothing out. We spend the night in a nondescript campsite along the way, the smell of burning wood heating up the water for showers, soothing after a long day’s drive. Ebron whips up chicken curry and we do the washing up with brown water from the tap, siphoned from a nearby river.

Luangwa Lion kill

The long driving days and the early starts are starting to wear thin. People kill time by sleeping, listening to iPods and reviewing pictures. We roll into Lusaka at about 9:30 am the next morning. We receive 20,000 kwacha (USD 4.50) to find our own breakfast at a modern mall that would fit in well in any first world country. We all suffer a bit of culture shock, as we haven’t seen this many white people in one place in a month, nor have we seen such a well stocked supermarket. Most of the supermarkets we’ve encountered where we stock up on snacks and beverages have been meager, poorly presented affairs with few options. Armed with our allowance, we make it stretch by getting locally made food, often the best value being the hot food counters within large supermarkets. For this morning’s brunch, I stay within budget even after getting paella, fish and chips and a drink. No matter where we go, though, the service in Africa is at glacial speed. Long lines form as workers move in slow motion, looking around at nothing, chatting, looking insulted when asked to do something, three people doing the work of one. TIA.

Lusaka seems to be a relatively clean city. Touts line the streets, weaving their way between cars stopped at traffic signals, hawking everything from electrical adapters and DVDs to packages of fruit and sunglasses. People wear a mixture of African and Western clothes and the days while by as we make our way to Livingstone, Zambia, the end of the first half of the tour…

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