We were up early and eating breakfast at 6:00 am. By 6:30, we were bundled into the last seat of the safari vehicle and driving into the sunrise. It was pretty chilly and the open air vehicle provided no shield from the wind, but we were so excited we hardly noticed.
This is one of my favorite moments – everything is quiet and peaceful, but you’re filled with anticipation about what you might see. South Luangwa has four of the big five (leopards, lions, buffalo, elephants, but no rhinos). Most people see lions and a lucky few see the nocturnal leopard, but we were happy to see anything!
One of the best aspects of the whole trip was our guide, Billy – or Billy the kid as he occasionally calls himself. He’s a Malawian who really impressed the owners of Wildlife Camp when he was cooking at a Lake Malawi resort. They offered him a job cooking in Zambia but he soon won over guests with his exuberant personality and started training to be a wildlife guide. The training is intense – you have to know the animals up and down, have amazing eyesight, good driving skills, basic car mechanics, and first aid. He is one of those rare individuals who obviously loves life, loves his job, even loves us tourists! He made everything more fun as he laughed often – usually at his own jokes…
We pulled into the park, crossed the river and pretty soon we were looking at our first big game, a mama elephant and her babies. They are smaller in South Luangwa than elsewhere since the herds are isolated and inbreed. They also have smaller tusks but you don’t really notice – they are still so impressive. They didn’t seem bothered by us and posed for pictures. We also saw herds of impala (the preppy version of the antelope) and puku (their shaggier hippy cousins) grazing alongside.
We also saw huge herds of water buffalo. There are buffalo at Liwonde in Malawi, but these herds are enormous – they stretch almost as far as you can see… they didn’t seem to bothered by us either, but made it clear that they could be dangerous if they wanted to be.
We came upon three hippos in the road – two adults and one baby. As we got closer, we didn’t see the two hippo bulls grazing in the trees to our left. They semi-charged at the vehicle, but mostly made lots of noise and spun around a few times before splashing into the water. We stayed put a little longer, until a third bull hippo emerged near the baby and gave us a look that said “you really don’t want to come any closer. I’m saying this for your own good.” We agreed and reversed out of there – pretty quickly.
The highlight of the drive was when Billy, and his amazing eyes, spotted lions drinking at the river bank. We tore across the road, converging with several other vehicles just in time to see seven lions drink water and then walk a hundred yards or so to their napping ground. We were SO INCREDIBLY CLOSE to them! They were so casual – checked us out, but mostly just wanted to go take a nap. I have a hard time describing it – we’ve all seen lions in zoos, on nature programs, but to see one ten feet away – to have one lock eyes with you – it kind of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Billy was excited but not worried at all – we were a little worried but tried to play it cool. Ultimately, when they felt they had posed for enough pictures, they flopped down like big house cats in the sun and drifted off to sleep.
Their eyes are such a particular color – they are a light light brown – almost yellow. They are so sleek and elegant but built to be the ultimate savannah carnivore. Seeing them in the wild makes you appreciate their power and beauty.
After four and a half hours of driving, we headed back to camp. We had a great lunch and went back to our chalets to relax and nap. Shortly after falling asleep, we hear “SNAKE!” Jeff had come out of his chalet to sit on the porch but instead came face to face with a snake. And Jeff is deathly afraid of snakes. He hid in his chalet while Sandy got a guide who identified it as a spotted bush snake and not poisonous. The snake was bothered by all of the commotion so he slid up the wall and into Jeff’s chalet. “This is my worst nightmare!” he called out from inside as the snake slid along the inside. The guide had run to get Su – a staff member who loves snakes – Su reached inside the chalet while hanging from the roof and pulled the snake out – and then pet him like the crocodile hunter would have. The whole thing was over in a few minutes but left a lasting impression. I don’t think Jeff slept the whole rest of the time we were in Zambia.
Our evening drive was lovely – we saw giraffes (including baby giraffes!) and had a beer along the riverbank as the sun went down.
Back in the vehicle, Billy got suddenly very animated and tore across and short plain and towards a tree. We all strained our eyes, looking for a lion or leopard. He pulled up the vehicle and jumped up “look, look there!” in a more excited tone than we had ever heard him use. We all looked, trying to see past two small animals that looked like skunks, hoping to see whatever was exciting Billy. We slowly realized that Billy was pointing at the skunk-looking things. “Honey badgers! Hon-ey Bad-gers!! You don’t understand how lucky you are! You never get to see these!” We watched the badgers in rapt attention, hoping that they would do tricks or something because they did not seem worthy of all the fuss. He explained that these little guys are totally fearless – they attack snakes and are one of four animals (the others being elephants, rhinos, and hippos) that lions stay away from. They have loose tough skin that protects them and really sharp teeth. While most animals would scatter as our vehicle approached, the badgers almost charged us. When we got home, we did some research and I’m now obsessed with them – they are amazing creatures. If you’re interested in learning more, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c81bcjyfn6U
When night fell, Billy, and his spotter, Isaac, drive slowly through the darkness with Isaac sweeping a large spotlight back and forth. We saw hyena but the leopard remained elusive.