I can hear my breath, wheezing in my ears as we walk quietly through the bushes, hoping to muffle the sound of footsteps and our pounding heart. The leaves rustle to my left and I jump forward, grabbing the arm of my fellow tourist, alarming her. We wait in anticipation, ready to scamper off if our mysterious visitor turns out to be unfriendly. A family of warthogs surfaces from the bushes and scurries off almost instantly, sensing human presence. This close encounter takes place on a walking safari in a wild corner of South Luangwa National Park, one of the best places in Africa to see animals on foot.
The Zambian dawn is unsubtle. It’s barely 5:30am and a gang of tropical boubou is creating a ruckus on a branch above my tented room. Outside, a primordial dawn unfolds as crimson hues dab the sky in psychedelic patterns. As the sun ascends, a troupe of baboons flock to the watering hole near the lodge, jostling for space with the anxious impalas who’d raise their heads frequently to scan for hiding predators. Before daybreak, our guide collects us from our tents for a walking safari and a morning game drive through the jungle’s rugged terrain.
As our Land Rover speeds into the jungle, the rocky patches give way to overgrown shrubs and trees. We pass a few ancient baobabs and fruit-laden sausage trees, pausing to let an elephant family cross the path before reaching a flat plain, also the starting point of our walking safari. Having attended the game drives earlier, I was sceptical of the wild sightings during this walk. This concern was dispelled when I spot a leopard crouched on a tree. But our multiple camera flashes are enough to startle the spotted beast that bolts out of sight in a blink, leaving us jolted by its terrific speed.
Forces of nature
As we venture deep into the woods, our guide, a native Zambian, Malemi, motions us to walk in a file. Malemi points to a tree, 30 meters away, where camouflaged by the mid-morning shadow, is a sub-adult bull elephant, delicately stripping leaves off the tree. As we inch closer, hoping to get a closer view of this wild beast, our guide informs that elephants communicate with each other through subsonic rumble (sounds too deep for the human ear to perceive). Noticing the trunked mammoth to be a young adult, he added, “This means that his herd is nearby.”
Suddenly, we’re startled by rustling in the bushes behind us. Malemi signals to keep still as a middle-aged female pachyderm comes tearing out of the bushes and stops only a few metres away from us. We hold our breath for a few seconds before the mighty elephant walks past us. “Elephants can hear better than they see and if they are not charging towards you, keep still and the animal won’t hurt you.” As we watch the retreating pachyderm in awe, Malemi tells us how elephants only digest an average of 30 per cent of their food and how the tusked mammal’s faeces plays a significant role in maintaining the ecosystem – from serving as a habitat for various insects to being a meal for others. Ants, beetles, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and termites call elephant dung home, while baboons sift through this it in search of undigested nuts and fruits.
River of life
We walk towards the Luangwa River and Malemi points at the fresh tracks left by elephants, hippos, lions and hyenas. As we scope our surroundings, a pair of Thornicroft giraffes (a sub-species endemic to South Luangwa) nearby extends their necks to reach for the leaves. Also around is a herd of impalas, while baboons swing playfully. As we took in this scene, Malemi broke the silence, “Baboons have good eyesight and are able to spot predators from a distance. So they make alarming sounds to alert others of their kind and even the impalas pick up on the warning signs.”
The life source of this rich fauna at the national park is the Luangwa River. A tributary of the Zambezi River, it rises and falls sharply with every season. As the water level drops at the advent of winter (May to October), the river shrinks, drawing a large number of game to the waterholes. As we reach the bank, keeping a safe distance from the crocodiles, we’re also privy to a pod of hippos. The park, we’re told, has the largest concentration of hippos (100 hippos per kilometre).
Just then, the radio in the vehicle crackles to life and we rush back to it. Malemi informs us that a leopard preying on his kill has been sighted. We get on our Land Rover and hurry to ‘the spot’. Our guide turns off the engine and motions us to be completely silent. I scan the golden shimmer of the grassy plains through my binoculars, as my gaze is held by a shape that rises and falls in quick succession. I catch my breath as I watch the leopard napping after a heavy meal, barely bothered by his onlookers. A half-eaten puku lay beside him. This prized encounter extends a feeling of privilege as we reach the end of this truly immersive experience of being in Africa’s wilderness.
From HT Brunch, February 12, 2017
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