This is the second of two installments on Kafue National Park in western Zambia. After visiting the center region of Kafue, along the main road that bisects the park, I drove up to the more-remote, northern part of the park. I bounced down increasingly sketchy dirt tracks, crowded in by the bush to the point of scraping along both sides of my truck. I was headed for McBride’s Camp, along the upper Kafue River. I got a flat along the way, and thought for the second time in a week that I would be spending the night in the bush, sleeping in the truck. It was well past dark when I finally found the camp. A night watchman showed me where to camp, and I turned out to be the only camper. That night, I heard the mournful calling of lions. It just got louder and louder, until they sounded as if they were in camp. Thankfully they proceeded right through, not bothering to check out the small tent pitched all alone among the trees.
McBride’s is run by an affable ex-lion researcher from South Africa named Chris McBride. We got along famously, the Scot and the Irishman. He and his wife were winding up a very busy season, and I was one of their last visitors. I was taken first thing in the morning by boat to see the two lions that had visited the camp during the night. After that, there was plenty of time in the afternoon to swap stories with Chris, drink tea and watch the colorful birds who flew in for handouts. I was treated very well. The staff insisted on calling me “bwana”, a word I had only heard on old movies featuring Brits wearing those funny safari hats. Bwana, by the way, is Swahili for boss.
Late in the day, we struck out on foot, accompanied by an armed guard, looking for more wildlife. A foul smell was on the air as we walked along, and soon we found a dead hippo, killed by another hippo. We almost didn’t notice at first, but a male lion was lying alongside the carcass, apparently taking a snooze. He then heard us and, startled, jumped up and ran away, or so we thought. As we circled the carcass to get upwind of the horrible stench, we heard a roar in the bush to the left and then saw a shape dart out. He was there, and moving so quickly for a big creature. The guard turned as if to run, and my mouth dropped. Wasn’t he supposed to protect us? But it turned out to be a false charge, and he retreated to the bush, softly growling at us. Needless to say we beat a hasty retreat. We didn’t run, because it’s true what they say: Never Run! I’ll never forget the sound of that lion, penetrating my bones it was so deep, and how fast he was. I learned there is a huge difference between a lion sighting while in a safari vehicle, and a lion sighting while on foot.
The second night at McBride’s was a sleepless one for me. This was not because of the insomnia that I am experiencing as I write this, but because I was afraid of being dragged from my tent and eaten. The African night is full of bird sound, and also primates (tough to tell between the two). Near where I camped there is a meadow, and this was full of impala grazing from evening on through the night. After hearing lion calling again, and tracking them off in another direction, I was getting close to sleep.
But then I opened my eyes, realizing there were no birds calling. It was dead silent. Then, suddenly, I heard the sound of a hundred or more hoofs galloping away. It was the impala running..but from what? I was literally holding my breath as silence descended again. Then I heard it: a deep, rasping-breathing animal, and walking right toward my tent! I had not even put the fly on, because of the heat. So I just flattened my body and tried to sink into the ground, while the cat (that is what it must be) caught its breath only a few meters away from me. It seemed an hour passed, but it must have only been five or six minutes, and the cat padded silently away. It was only when the night birds began to sing again, one by one, that I relaxed somewhat.
I guessed it must have been a leopard, and I was proved right next morning when I talked to Chris. Turns out I was camped inside the territory of a big male. Chris was amused at my concern, and assured me that as long as I stay in my tent, no animal will harm me. Why then, I asked him, do all the other campers I see have those rooftop tents on their 4x4s? He just smiled. We called my type of person a greenhorn in Alaska. Climbers call them flatlanders. I still don’t really know what Africans call the clueless. Maybe they are just too nice for that. That night I got no sleep, but it wasn’t just the leopard. In the wee hours of morning, a herd of elephant trundled through camp, and I again worried about dying, but this time squashed flat, not with a pierced jugular. Once again, the next morning Chris explained that elephant can walk right through a camp in pure blackness of night, expertly stepping over the staked guylines and around the tents.
There were other adventures in Kafue. I saw my first Cape buffalo (see previous post for the picture). It was a fantastic close encounter with a large herd I found towards dusk. I had been told that buffalo are fearsome, probably the most dangerous African animal (and that’s saying something). But they are only hazardous when you catch a male alone or in a pair. In a herd, they are almost like antelope, running if you approach. The shot (again, you’ll need to look at the previous post) I got from a tripod, since the light was fading fast. Thus the shutter speed was slow. Luckily they stood almost completely still. Combined with the dust kicked up by the herd, this gives the image a soft quality, one that lends itself to black and white. Feel free to comment on any of my images. But please if you click on one and it takes you to my website, realize the image is for sale only. Images that do not take you to my website you are welcome to download a jpeg and use for personal use only. Thanks.
Toward midnight on the third night at McBride’s, I was just falling to sleep after (again) listening and tracking the call of lion, when headlights appeared. It turned out to be my friends from Lusaka, come to reclaim the truck they had given me. Turns out they had borrowed the Mitsubishi from a friend, and now they wanted to give me the Ford back (which was repaired, or so they said). I watched them for a few minutes walking around their truck, trying to figure out where I was, then jumped out of the tent and ran over to them, saying hello and I would love to stand around and talk but there are lion and elephant in the immediate area and I would not recommend hanging around in the darkness. They didn’t need to be told twice, believe me, and fought each other in a frenzy to get back in the truck. They were hilarious; I started calling them Laurel and Hardy.
Next morning they switched trucks with me and drove off. Later, after coffee with Chris, I found out that (1) they had taken off with my wallet still inside the truck, and (2) they had left me with not enough fuel to make it back to Lusaka. I solved the second problem by buying fuel from a private party in a small town at the edge of the park (this is something you can always try in rural areas thoughout most of the third world if you are desparately low on fuel). The wallet had me VERY worried all the way back to Lusaka. I had called Laurel on my cell phone, and he told me he would look for it in the truck. When I met him in Lusaka, he walked up with the wallet in his hand – nothing missing. This honesty amongst Africans was one of the nicest discoveries of my trip to Africa. They are much more likely to return an expensive camera (or a wallet) than they are to take advantage of the situation, however poor they are. Of course there are a few bad apples, as there are everywhere, but there seem to really be few bad ones in Africa.
If you go to Zambia, I recommend both South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks. If you can only do one, make it Kafue. It has much more of a wilderness feel than Luangwa, though the animals are much more spread out. You’ll also want to go to Livingstone, gateway to Victoria Falls. Here is Zambia’s number one tourist attraction by far, but even here, if you simply walk into the town center, you will find the tribal heart of Africa, in the form of its people. Though they come from all over the country to work in the tourist trade, they are at heart simple folk with strong tribal and family identities. ‘You can take the African out of his village, but you can’t take the village out of the African’ would be an apt way to put it. While this is true enough right now, things are changing. Western values are infiltrating African culture as they are to one degree or another all over the world. So if you have not yet made it to Africa, go soon. And get off the beaten track, visit a village, go to a relatively unknown park like Kafue. And remember: don’t leave your tent, and never, never run!