Walking safari in South Luangwa National Park; Animals both alive and dead; The rainy season arrives with a vengeance; Night drive in the park; Flying termite swarm; Visit from an elephant

We had a four-hour combination walking and driving safari this morning. At 6, the driver and the park ranger came to pick us up in an open Land Rover with three stepped rows of seats behind, and took us across the river to the park itself. The ranger, Akim, was along to guard us on the walking tour. He was the very picture of a park ranger - knife-thin and weatherbeaten, dried to grey-black leather with a shaven head and sharp eyes that never looked at you, but were always hunting along the horizon. He wore sharply-creased green khaki tucked into black boots, and carried a long rifle. The gun was old but clean, and the honey-coloured wood of its stock was worn smooth in patches of faded beige. Ryver, the guide, was much jollier, but he never relaxed for a second while we were on foot, either. These things impressed me much more than any dire warnings about walking in single-file and not going off on our own (although these were supplied, and forcefully too).

There were a lot of dead hippos in the water, victims of their particular yearly plague (I can see eight from where I’m sitting by the riverbank, writing this the morning after). The crocodiles had been to work on them and some were getting a bit ragged, and they were al turning interesting colours and swelling up like balloons in the heat. We walked for two hours through the park, not covering much distance, but stopping all the time to look at interesting things. You don’t see many animals on walking safaris - they see you coming long before you see them - but we did see elephants, watebucks and impala, as well as another impala-like creature called a puku. There were lots of prints and dung everywhere, from the hippos and the grazing animals. Ryver took us to see an old hippo skeleton, mostly intact, and by a little stagnant stream we found a dead water buffalo. It had been mostly eaten, there wasn’t much left except its head, skin and forelegs, and sections of its skeleton with rancid meat clinging to he bones. If you’re one of those fortunate enough not to know what a week-dead water buffalo smells like, I envy you.

There were lots of other neat things, lie a tree where a zebra had scratched itself and left some hairs stuck in the sap, and a baby elephant who was only two or three weeks old, and a shrinking mud pool boiling with a hundred catfish thrashing around trying to escape the sun and the fish eagles.

The birds were all amazing. They came in beautiful tropical colours - green lovebirds, the bright red Carmine Bee-Eater, which can hover like a hummingbird, and the indigo-coloured Lilac-Breasted Rola(?). That’s just the songbirds - there were others in the water like egret, Marabou and Open-Beaked storks, and on the land like Ground Hornbills, White-Browed Coucal and Crowned Cranes.

Back in the Land Rover we drove around for another two hours. The area of the park that’s open to tourists is tiny compared to the full 9000 square kilometer extent, so we were driving in circles a lot, but we still saw giraffes,zebras and one little tree squirrel. As we were leaving we came across a big dead hippo - we found it by following the huge cloud of vultures spiralling down to land on it. Vultures are hideous-looking birds to begin with, and they don’t look any better through bioculars. There must have been thirty birds on the carcass, flapping their wings for balance as they tore and yanked at the meat. The hippo hadn’t been there for long, and the vultures couldn’t get through its thick skin, so they were going in through its eyes, nose and mouth. The stench was nasty but we watched for a couple of minutes before we left to go back to camp.

Sheryl disappeared around midday. I was lying down reading and didn’t want to go with her down to the river, so she went alone. After half an hour I began to have a bad feeling. The riverbank is dangerous - there are hippos and crocodiles hiding in the mud and around the water, and we were told it was too risky to go down there and to stay away. I had a feeling that Sheryl was going to do something reckless though - she’d been working up to it since we arrived the day before. I went looking for her along the bank, searching for the prints of her sandals in the soft ground. I walked up and down the bank for a kilometer, from one boundary of the campground to the other, without spotting her. When I looked up from dodging a baboon troupe I saw that the wind had picked up and there was a huge storm gathering to the east. The sky was black and lightning was striking somewhere just out of sight. By the time I made it back to camp the storm was on us. Sheryl was there. She’d done just what I’d been afraid of and tried to go down to the riverbank. Luck for her one of the camp watchmen had caught her and brought her back, or instead of writing a journal entry right now, Id probably by trying to word a letter of condolence.

No sooner had I gotten back to camp and yelled at Sheryl, than the sky opened with a gigantic crash of thunder and flash of lightning, and the rains came. When thy say rainy season here, they aren’t joking. Never in my life have I seen such a storm. It began with hailstones the size of pebbles, while we all scrambled to get food and equipment put away, and then it really started to rain. You couln’t see more than two or three meters ahead. The ground began to flood instantly, forming rivers and ponds through the campsite. We ran for the safety of the truck, but before long I saw that unknowingly, nearly everyone had set up their tents in little shallow depressions, invisible until it rained, and that all the tents were being flooded. Sheryl and I and Ida and Nicolai ran frantically out into the storm. No one else was around, so it was up to us to save everyone from a miserable night of wet sleeping bags, soaked clothing and ruined things. We were instantly soaked through, running from tent to tent moving them to higher ground. The water was halfway to my knees in spots by this point, and the dirt underneath had turned to slippery mud. I hadn’t wanted to get my shoes soaked so I was barefoot, and kept stepping on thorns and, for all I know, enraged scorpions. The four of us were like a machine, un-pegging a tent, lifting it whole, one to each corner, moving it and re-pegging it. There were, I think nine tents, each sitting in water, each with the water beginning to spill over its raised plastic bottom strip. Halfway through we got a shock when we gathered round a tent, pulled the pegs, lifted the tent and heard a surprised squawk from inside - Gabby was in her tent as we were trying to move it! We press-ganged her into helping and it went quicker then.

When the rain finally stopped, the camp was a disaster. New lakes were everywhere, mud coated everything, and nobody knew which tent was theirs, thanks to us (but at least their stuff was mostly dry). By way of illustration, someone had left a big mixing bowl out on a table, and its was full to overflowing with rainwater. That’s at least twelve centimeters of rain over maybe 45 minutes, and who knows how much more? We were all feeling a bit stunned. The storm wasn’t particularly violent - after the hail there hadn’t been any strong winds or much thunder - just by the sheer amount of rain. A day later, it’s had an incredible effect on the landscape, though. Everything is green, a million frogs have come out of hiding to populate the new ponds, and even the hippos are happier now that the river is cooler and deeper. It’s quite noticeable, the change in the water level - the river is no longer a pitiful shrunken bron worm curving and sullen in the middle of its channel. There’s a long way to go - there are still wide mudfats on either side all the way to the banks - but it’s a start. An unfortunate side effect, however, is that the deeper water allows the dead hippos to float downstream and collect in spots. The smell when the wind is off the river is getting very unpleasant.

At four o’clock we left for our evening game drive. Four o’clock is evening in Africa, it gets dark so early. Our driver was Ryver, the same as in the morning, but we had no ranger, since we weren’t walking - only a guy to operate the searchlight. The first couple of hours it wasn’t dark. We saw most of the same things as in the morning, but also bushbuck, water buffalo, and a few new birds: the Saddle-Billed Stork, Blacksmith’s Plover, Egyptian Geese, and a bright blue Woodland Kingfisher. The highlight was the lion pride sleeping in a dusty stretch of dead grass. Two younger ones and the mother curled up in a ball like an oversized housecat, and the male and three older cubs on the riverbank. He steadily refused to look at us, keeping his head turned firmly away after he favoured us with a haughty profile glance.

After dark, we drove around in circles looking for a leopard, but never found any. We did see a civet cat, obliquely related to skunks and the like, and a couple of genets, which look like a cat-mongoose cross with a spotted body and ringed tail. A couple of hares, an elephant shrew, and a lot of frogs rounded out the new sightings. We saw a lot of eyes reflecting in the searchlight, but they all turned out to be impala, puku, or in one case, zebras. Crocodiles and hippos down by the water, the latter up and walking now that it was dark. We swung by the dead hippo to see if there were any hyenas. There weren’t but we did notice that the vultures had been busy - they’d nearly separated its head from its body. They were all hunched in the surrounding trees, glaring bleakly down at us.

At a certain point during the drive, the air began to fill with what we thought were moths - thousands of them, or millions even. A good size - maybe three or four centimeters. They were swarming everywhere, swirling in the searchlight beam, the headlights of the Land Rover, and even our flashlight beams. They kept hitting us in the face as we drove, smacking softly against our skin and fluttering everywhere inside the truck. The weren’t moths at all, though - they were flying termites, swarming. There were so many of them everywhere we went, they must have covered a few square kilometers of the park. I wonder if the big rainstorm was some sort of environmental-physiological cue for them to swarm? Ryver told us that they shed their wings wherever they land and begin life as regular burrowing termites, and indeed, back in camp I saw great crowds of them walkng around with one, two, three or none. Their delicate sepia wings are everywhere in drifts today, looking like translucent maple keys.

We were all just finishing a late dinner in the dark back at camp when we had a visitor. A lone bull elephant came meandering in from the bush and wandered aimlessly through the grounds. He wasn’t eating, I think he was just curious or making a patrol of his territory. Paul and Cathy scrambled up to the treehouse and the rest of us watched breathlessly as he approached the fire. Sheryl and I were closest to him as he passed no more than five or six meters away. He nosed around the tents a bit, then got bored and wandered further away. He hung around all night, though - in the morning he was standing by the tents agains, and I got some pictures of him eating the trees a bit later.

Flourish

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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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