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Kafue II   Leave a comment

A warthog boar with impressive tusks stands in the forest near the Kafue River, western Zambia.

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.

At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet calls for some more to eat.

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.

An armed ranger is essential for walks in the African bush

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.

A puku buck is always on alert in Kafue National Park, with good reason.

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.

An African vulture dares to creep close to a hippo carcass while a male lion waits for the brave bird to get too close.

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!

The sun comes up (finally) after a night in which my tent seemed to be the epicenter of animal activity in this part of Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Kafue I   Leave a comment

A large bull cape buffalo, among a herd on the move and kicking up dust, pauses to stare down the stranger in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

When I traveled through Zambia recently, the new president had been in office less than 2 months.  There was a definite sense of optimism among the people regarding their country’s prospects.  I really think the fact that the election was free of violence (a rarity in most African countries) had almost as much to do with this optimism as did the new president himself.  The country is riding a boom in commodity prices, sitting on huge copper reserves, with China’s investment in and demand for raw commodities being the primary driver.  And so while walking the streets of Lusaka, or even in Livingstone, near the tourist magnet of Victoria Falls, it was not only easy to engage in small talk with the average Zambian, it was also fairly easy to come across those willing to speak about their country’s future.

All seems to depend on how the country invests in infrastructure, education and agriculture in order to avoid the typical boom-bust cycle of a commodity-dependent country.  But in this way Zambia is in the company of countries like Australia, which is not a bad place to be considering the alternative (Mali, etc.).  An academic at Columbia recently wrote an article in the New York Times claiming that Africa was the new Asia, and he put forth Zambia as a prime example.  Well there are a few very serious obstacles to growth that Africa has and Asia does not, so to me the analogy seems way overstated, but the general point is valid.  Africa is doing better as a whole these days, and societies are modernizing, spawning more and more consumers as the village culture is steadily being pushed to the edge.

But this blog post is not all about African economics and politics.  It’s about a place in western Zambia called Kafue.  Kafue National Park is not as famous as South Luangwa in the country’s east – that park has just recently become as popular as big and famous safari parks like Kruger in South Africa.  Kafue is, of course, well known to experienced African travelers, because of its size and sense of wildness, and because it has a very remote feel to it, without actually being all that inaccessible.  It only takes a few hours to drive to the park from the capital city of Lusaka, and that same decent, paved road traverses the middle of the park.   In order to visit the northern or southern reaches of Kafue however, a 4×4 is necessary.

Obviously the lead hippo is the one in charge of this pod, and he doesn’t much like the guy in the boat holding the camera.

This was to be the first time I would rent a 4×4 in Africa, and I experienced some sticker shock when I was told what it would cost.  I couldn’t really afford $200-250/day for the week I planned to spend in Kafue, so I asked around the backpacker lodge I was staying at and soon met a guy who knew a guy.  I checked out the pickup that two young Zambians brought to me, and it looked okay.  It was a Ford of all things, similar to a Ranger.  Although I was able to haggle and get it for $100/day, I was to soon regret my decision to rent from these young “entrepeneurs”.  Later, while driving the lonely road across the park, not far from the camp I was heading for along the Kafue River, it happened.  It coughed a few times, then quit on me.  I couldn’t start it.  I got out and looked it over, but while I was leaning over the engine with the hood up, I suddenly stood up straight.  This was no good at all.  Dusk was rapidly descending, and I was in the middle of an African park, a preserved area with all manner of wildlife roaming free.  I could see this situation going from bad to worse in a hurry if a pride of lions began to stalk me, or an angry buffalo or elephant took exception to my presence.  I couldn’t look at the engine again.  In fact, I literally tripped over myself getting back in the truck.

Soon however, the first vehicle showed up, and it happened to be a group of gregarious Zambian friends who happily picked me up and took me to the nearest town to the park border, where there was cell phone service.  I won’t recount what I said to my friends in Lusaka, but suffice to say I insisted on another truck being delivered to me.  My saviours took me to a small hotel where I checked in.  There was something about the woman who helped me, but I forgot about it as the guys insisted that we go get something to eat.  Later, after they finally dropped me off, I saw the woman again, and spoke to her.  Then I realized, she had a different accent than I had been hearing, and seemed very simple and pure.  She was straight out of a village in remote NW Zambia, and was just different.  She spoke some English, but it was more broken than I had been used to in my travels thus far.  In Africa, most people speak English quite well.  They learn from their first year in school, so it’s only in small rural villages, which lack good education, where you’ll find people who don’t speak English.

Africa is beautiful: a young western Zambian woman.

I was charmed by the woman’s innocence.  I talked to her for quite some time, in that awkward but funny and charming way that two people speak who only comprehend a part of what the other is saying.  As a nice breeze finally appeared, I sighed and thought how different things had turned out.  Not long before I was preparing for a long, sleepless night barricaded in my truck, hoping that no elephant decided to roll this little toy over.  Now I was chatting with a beautiful African girl while the stars twinkled in the black sky.  Such are the twists and turns of travel.  This was to be a night, given my limited experience with women of other races, that I would remember.

The guys came through for me, delivering a blue Mitsubishi 4×4 next morning.  Little did I know as they drove off in the stuttering Ford that I’d be seeing them again at Kafue.   While camping along the Kafue River at     Camp, I watched from my small one-man tent as hippos grazed in the night mere yards away, their small bright eyes giving lie to the enormous bulk and giant mouths behind those eyes.  I also did my first game drive where I was driver and tourist packaged in one.  It takes real skill, I found, to be able to drive rutted and narrow dirt tracks while keeping an eagle eye out for wildlife.

It was getting hot in Africa, toward the end of the dry season, and late afternoon one day in Kafue I just had to break down and take a quick dip in the river.  I walked up to where some rocky rapids lay upstream from camp, and jumped in then out, wasting no time splashing around.  I was pretty sure the crocs and hippos would not be interested in rapids, so felt pretty safe.  Later, at dinner, I let slip what I had done and the guide and few other tourists there just shook their heads.  Next day, while walking again up along the rapids, I spotted the biggest crocodile I had ever seen, staking out a spot right next to the biggest rapid.  He must have gotten word on the predator hotline that there was a dumb tourist swimming there the day before.

 

 

Of the many things I learned in Kafue, one important lesson was how dangerous elephants can be, and how seriously Africans themselves take elephants.  They garner the most respect from Africans of any animal, and this goes triple at night, when they can really get their ire up.  The wilder the herd, the more dangerous they can be.  We entered a small valley on a night drive while at McBride’s, and on the opposite side of the valley there started up a loud trumpeting.  The driver made as quick a U-turn as you can imagine, and as he drove away I looked back and could just make out some huge heads bobbing as they ran after us.  I also saved a couple African girls from an elephant who was growing angry with them as they walked with their tomatoes along the main road, caught by darkness.  I picked them up as they waved wildly in the darkness, and drove them back to the Kafue River Bridge, where there was an encampment of Zambian military, campfires blazing.  From then on, every time I passed the checkpoint (where bribes are normally paid), I was waved through by the men, who smiled and said, “Oh, it is the good samaritan!”

The sun passes below the horizon after a 100 degree-plus day along the Kafue River, western Zambia.

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