Zambia, October-November 2012

Dec 2012

By: Laura Crawford Williams

October 29th, 2012
We arrived in Johannesburg at 8am on October 27th after an 8 1/2 hour flight from Buenos Aires. It really wasn’t so painful. Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn exiting the plane and ended up in immigration instead of continuing to our next international flight – so much for being seasoned travelers. We were confused and it must have been obvious, because that’s when a customs officer found us and asked for our passports. Not knowing what to do we handed them over, but the officer just walked away. We began following him around asking why he had our passports. The officer just ignored us. Later in the trip, a South African man told us that this is a technique for inciting you to offer a bribe. Well, we were clueless to the game and simply kept following the man around like little lost puppies. The officer ignored everything we said and kept on walking. This went on for about 30 minutes and I was getting nervous about missing our connecting flight to Zambia and, more importantly, getting our passports back. He must have gotten bored because he finally took us to a room where he proceeded to half-heartedly search our luggage. In the end, I think he started to feel sorry for us and eventually gave up hope for any bribe money. He was laughing as he returned our passports and then gave us directions.

We landed in Mfuwe, Zambia on a chartered flight by 10am on Oct 28th. A French Belgian woman named Izzy met us at the airport and quickly moved us into three open safari vehicles for a 2 hour and 45 minute drive on dirt roads to South Luang wa National Park. More specifically, the Kaingo Camp. The drive was hot, windy, and dusty – three things we would get very used to in the following days. By 3pm we were out driving around the park and getting our first look at zebra, hippo, elephant and impala. We even found a small lion pride with two adult females, two adult males, and five nine-month old cubs. Hooded Vultures waited on the ground near lounging lions, waiting to feed on lion dung. The day ended with sunset on the Luangwa River. Hippos waded in the water while elephants dusted themselves on the riverbank. Crocodiles slowly slid back into the water once the sun touched the horizon. A typical African sunset.

October 31st, 2012
It‘s my birthday today and it couldn’t have been any better. We started the morning by photographing a large heard of Cape Buffalo, a Cookson’s Wildebeest, and a Western-banded Snake Eagle. The eagle was far from the road, so we asked if we could get out of the vehicle and move a little closer. After looking around briefly, the guide and armed guard both agreed it was safe and allowed us to exit.  German stayed in the vehicle while Chris and I moved forward slowly. We made it about 15 meters when I heard German say, “Laura, you’re being stalked by a lion.” I decided he was kidding. That was when our guide said, “Please walk back to the vehicle slowly”. I looked around and found a female lioness sitting up and watching us very carefully, only sixty meters away. We made our way to the Land Rover moving backward, our eyes never leaving the lioness. That’s when we saw movement about half the distance between the lioness and us. A nine-month old cub raised his head up and over the tall grass, blood all over his mouth and nose. To more heads popped up beside him. On the other side of the cubs sat a second lioness, also staring at us intently. It was a kill.

The good news is that we made it back into the vehicle (or I don’t think I’d be writing this now). Once safe, we got a little closer to the action. The three cubs were hot and panting as they fought each other over the head of a warthog. The females stayed alert but allowed us to get fairly close in the vehicle as we photographed the cubs eating. One of the cubs was more dominant than the other two. He kept control of the food, occasionally hissing and scratching at the others. We stayed until he dragged the warthog head under a thick bush. We were so wrapped up in photographing the action that the reality of the potential danger we had put ourselves in didn’t really register until later. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it!

But, the day wasn’t over yet. Just as we were heading back to camp, we found another lioness lying in the shade directly on the side of the road. We stopped. That’s when a little head popped up from under the mother’s belly. A three-month old cub was nursing. He was so small. Then two more cubs came around the back of the mother and began playing in front of us. One ran away as the mother stood up and walked farther into the bush, but two of the cubs continued to play right beside the vehicle. Bright eyes watched us carefully, interested in every move and noise we made.

November 1st, 2012
Today, it was my turn to stalk a lion…on foot and without a vehicle! I was with Derrick (the owner of the camp), Patrick (a 20 year seasoned guide), German, and Max (our armed guard). We took two canoes across the Luangwa River paddling through crocodiles and a hippo pod. (This started my blood moving rather quickly!) We then hiked along the base of a cliff and up to a hippo trail on the opposite side of the river. We followed the hippo trail up the bank and began crawling forward slowly. The lion was an adult male, unfamiliar to Derrick and Patrick. The plan was to get closer and try to ID him. We crawled behind logs and bushes, following the armed guard as we got closer and closer. Eventually, the lion saw us but remained lying on the edge of the riverbank. We waited a little while, hoping he would get comfortable with us. Then, we slowly began moving forward once again. We made it about 100 meters away when he stood up and moved inland. He stopped and sat down regarding our presence for a little while. That’s when Derrick says, “Be ready with your camera he may do a mock charge!” What? All I could think was how do I know if it’s a mock charge or a real charge? Fortunately, the lion decided we weren’t worth his trouble and retreated into the brush. I can’t tell you how much adrenaline was coursing through my body the entire time.

On the night drive, we found several hyena feeding on a dead buffalo and tracked a one-eyed leopard through the brush. You’d think this would be enough excitement for one night, but it wasn’t over yet. A little later, we spotted a spitting cobra crossing the road. The snake was as long as the dirt road was wide. The guide lost track of it and asked if we could see how close it was, he didn’t want it climbing underneath the vehicle. As he found it again with the spotting light, the snake flattened out its hood in an aggressive gesture and began climbing the bush immediately beside us. It was climbing fast! I watched in ignorance as the cobra positioned itself beside the vehicle and turned with its hood still extended. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guide and the armed guard jump to the other side of the vehicle. I decided that if they jumped I should be jumping as well, which in turn made German jump. Apparently, spitting cobras spit quite a distance and will aim at your eyes in order to blind you. The guide started the vehicle and we quickly sped away. We were all laughing – once we were out of harm’s way.

November 2nd, 2012
At dinner tonight, we were treated to an unusual natural event instead of to desert! As we began our outdoor meal, a few flying insects started gathering  around the candles in the center of the table. They were about 1cm long with 4cm wings. They fluttered about the light occasionally getting stuck in the candle wax. It reminded me of an experience I had in Argentina, where just before a big seasonal rain, thousands of water beetles descended on our dinner table during an outdoor asado. I told this story and everyone chuckled. Little did we know what was actually to come. As we ate, more and more of these bugs came to dinner. Eventually, they were at every outdoor light source and now swarming the table. Termites! Big ones! The locals informed us that it would only get worse, so we should just sit back and enjoy. Everyone was fascinated and rather tolerant of the fact that thousands of large insects were crawling on and all around us. It was impossible to go into your tent without being followed by more bugs and if you turned on a light indoors, termites would begin crawling through every nook and cranny to get inside. So, we all just walked around and enjoyed one of nature’s grand events. For the locals, this was harvest time. The cooks and waiters went for large buckets that they then filled with water. They put the buckets under the lights and let the bugs fall to their watery graves. They were even scooping up huge handfulls from the ground.  Once the termites are collected, they take them to be dried and then fried up for dinner. The bartender wasn’t waiting. He was picking up termites that landed on his bar and eating them one by one, right then and there. Once you gave in to the strangeness of the situation, it was really rather funny. Everyone was laughing and taking videos of the whole event. Poor termites, they were only trying to find mates and then move off to start new colonies. In Zambia this time of year, they’re transitioning from dry to wet season and we had just had one of the first rains last night. That’s perfect timing in the termite world. It’s their cue to emerge, disperse, land, lose their wings, and then walk around looking for a special friend! Once paired, the boy follows the girl as they crawl off into the moonlight, the promise of a new family of millions just on the horizon…

November 6th, 2012
Today, we left for northeast Zambia. More specifically, Kansanka National Park, a place that’s miles away from nothing. We landed by 10am on a dirt landing strip. Again, it was dusty and over 100F.  We’ve come to see and photograph an unusual sight. In late October, an astounding eight million Straw-colored Fruit Bats arrive here from the Congo to feed on wild fruit. At twilight, bats fill the sky in all directions as they leave their roost to feed through the night. This has to be one of Africa’s most amazing and unusual wildlife spectacles. I was very excited. But, the day was hot and uncomfortable. The wait from 10am until 4:30pm, when we left to see the bats, was very long. Finally, we loaded up the truck and left. It was a 15-minute drive and then a mile or so walk through thick grasses to 3 blinds positioned at the edge of the bat roost.  The view from the blinds was limited and we had a cloudy sunset, so the lack of light made shooting difficult. We left by 7:45pm and were really disappointed with the experience. There’s got to be a better way to do this.

November 8th, 2012
We’ve spent the past 2 days photographing the bats at Kasanka. We had a slow start but were able to move shooting positions and had the luck of good weather the following days. It’s an amazing thing to watch, especially if you like bats as much as I do. The bats stay in the forest roost during the day, but are not totally inactive. Many roost side by side in tall, spindly tree branches that occasionally break under their weight. Crocodiles, vultures, and the occasional leopard wait below for dinner to fall. But, most bats spin restlessly in a furious circle at the center of the forest reminding me of the Tasmanian devil as they spin. On one afternoon, we went to a blind built by the BBC for filming David Attenborough’s Life series. The blind is a two story rickety structure high up in a tree, but has a good view down into the roost. Getting the gear up and down the unstable ladder was interesting to say the least. At dusk, bats slowly leave moving out in all directions, going to feed on fruit for the duration of the night. By twilight the next morning they come back to the roost. Literally covering the sky as they move back and forth.

On our last morning the bats performed magnificently. They stayed spinning around the roost in a high, wide tornado then slowly spread out to cover the sun along the horizon. In no time at all, they covered the sky in all directions sometimes flying only meters above our heads. It was a concert of motion, light, and silhouettes that I could have not conducted any better myself. The perfect ending to a fantastic trip!