Lilongwe to South Luangwa National Park; Crossing into Zambia; Dangerous hippos; Waiting for elephants

I’m writing this while sitting up a tree in the middle of the night, waiting for elephants to come and visit. It’s a platform made of wood, reeking of monkey pee, five or six meters off the bround, with a ladder leading up to it. So far all we’ve seen are hippos and one housecat. It could be the same hippo over and over, I wouldn’t really know.

We left Lilongwe en route to Zambia this morning. It took about an hour at the border. Most of it was the usual glacially slow pen-and-paper Apfrican bureaucracy, but some of it was taken up by pissing and moaning on the part of our whole tour. The cost of tourist visas to Zmabia was scheduled to go down, but not until this afternoon - only a few short hours later than when we arrived. It cost Sheryl and I each $50 to get into the country, but it was going down to $20. Bad luck for us. Worse luck for the British - theirs was going down from $150 to $50.

Kids in Zambia are cute, but close to the border they’ve clearly been taught to beg from the tourists. “Hello! Give me money! Give me bottle!” (There’s a deposit on glass bottles in all the countries we’ve visited so far). We saw a lot of kids today. Zambia’s a pretty densely-populated country, and there was a village every couple of kilometers. Most villages seem to have electricity - at least the ones on the road do. It beats me what they do with it, though. Every building we saw was made of mud and grass. I love the houses here, actually. They’re round and squat, with conical thatch roofs sticking out a meter or so past the walls. Some of them have a ring of posts holding up the edges of the roof and making a sort of circular verandah. None of them look as if they could be bigger than a single room. The country here is marshy and covered with scrub and tall yellow grass, and the huts poke their roofs above the swamp like so many giant mushrooms.

The very first thing we saw on arriving at the campground was a herd of half a dozen elephants. There was one tiny one who couldn’t have been very old at all, only waist-high, who spent all his time underneath his mother, sheltered by her massive legs. He kept poking her with his stubby little trunk like any kid anywhere trying to get his mother’s attention. The elephants here are a bit smaller, with shorter tusks - more like Indian elephants. Next there were three or four giraffes - they’re smaller here too. This was all on the 1km acccess road for the campground. As we pulled in next to our campsites Sheryl and I saw the treehouse and knew it was for us. We wanted to actually set up our tent on the platform, but it’s reserved for people to climb up if they have to get away from animals, apparently.

Speaking of animals, two giraffes have just come to visit. They’re grazing on the bushes at the edge of camp about 30m away. Beautifully awkward creatures.

Thunderstorms had been threatening all day, and as we made camp we heard loud rolling thunderclaps from every direction - we were in a sort of magic circle free from storms. Sheryl and I went to the river at the edge of camp to see the hippos. The view was incredible - the sunset downstream to our left, huge clouds trailing streamers of rain far in the distance, and the river itself, shrunken to hardly anything here at the end of the dry season. We could see easily fifty hippos and the riverbank was churned with a thousand footprints. Across the river is South Luangwa National Park, where we’ll be tomorrow. We could hear a hundred different bird calls and the hippos calling to each other in a rhythmic basso grunting that sounds for all the world like an asthmatic giant laughing. There were a few stork-like birds picking at the shoreline, and hidden in the shallow water, the reason we couldn’t approach any farther - crocodiles. In the distance, silhouetted against the sunset clouds, we could just see the shapes of elephants in the water. If felt, at last, like we were finally in Africa again. It was a good feeling. We’ve both felt like we were in the Caribbean the last two weeks, with the beaches and the hustlers and the crazy drivers. We could see a few hippos lying on their sides in shallow water looking dead. A man came by and introduced himself as Joseph, one of the campground’s watchmen. He aws a nice man with a round smiling face and five or six missing teeth. He told us that it was true, there were a lot of dead hippos. He said that there’s a disease that affects them at the end of every dry season when the water gets too shallow to keep them cool enough. He said that it would be hearly over now that the rains had come, but that the crocodiles had been eating well lately. I told him that I was very happy about that and much preferred happy full crocodiles to hungry ones.

As we ate dinner we had our first hippo visitor of the evening. God damn but they are immense bloody animals. The hump of his back came up to my shoulders, and he was easily three meters from his tail to the tip of his ugly face. He came to within maybe ten meters of the fire, showing no concern at all for it or for our voices or our flashlights. He veered off just as we were starting to get nervous - hippos, as everyone knows, kill the most people of any African animal. We saw him or other hippos out there in the darkness of the campground, munching away on the undergrowth, all evening long. Only twice more did one of them come close. The first time he grazed his way to within two or three meters of our tent - and Sheryl was inside it at the time. I kept trying to call out to her to stay in the tent - I was terrified she’d come out at exactly the wrong moment - but I couldn’t call too loudly for fear of startling the hippos, and anyway she had her earplugs in and couldn’t hear me. I breathed a sigh of relief when the hippo moved away from the tent. The second time, I was up in a tree - a different tree than the one I’m in now, I had to actually climb the branches - and one passed nearly below me. I got a very good look at the vicious ivory spikes of his teeth and tusks. I don’t envy Joseph and the other watchmen here, who have the task of driving them away from the campsites. They do this by getting behind them, stamping their feet loudly and throwing stones at the animal’s hindquarters. I’ve watched them do it a few times now, and each time the hippo has moved off grumblingly.

So it’s now long past midnight. I haven’t heard more than rustlings in the bush for the last hour. Sheryl’s gone to bed and I think I’m going to give up on the elephants for tonight and go and join her. I’ll have to be careful getting to the tent, though - there’s another hippo down there somewhere. I can’t see him, but I can smell him - the reek is unmistakable. Its funny how you feel safe inside a tent. Unjustifiedly so, really. Up here in my treetop perch I’m safe from everything except lions and leopards (or an angry giraffe, I suppose), while down in the tent any beastie with enough motivation could get me. Anyway, to bed for me, we have to be up at 5 for our walking safari.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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