Field Trip: Zambia, Part III
If I had begun and ended my trip in Victoria Falls, I'm sure I would have walked away satisfied I was fortunate to have experienced such a wondrous site so personally, but the adventure had only just gotten underway. At 07:15 the next morning, I hoisted on my backpack and met my taxi driver from the previous day (the car mats dried overnight) and we departed for Livingstone airport. Two puddle jumpers later, I arrived in Mfuwe. Battered, bruised, and slightly worse for wear with cuts and scratches from falling into the river, I was nervous beyond all reason that I would step off that plane in the middle of nowhere and find no one to greet me. Months had gone into planning the retreat but I hadn't heard from my (very handsome) safari guide in two weeks. What if he'd forgotten? Who was going to meet me? Would they know I was there on that day? All thoughts ran through my head as the propeller plane taxied into the tiny airport. I worked jumbo jet within huge operations, so I felt a bit of trepidation.
I need not have worried.
My (very handsome) guide had arranged things exactly as he should, as if there had been any doubt. Pff… The friendly, kind face belonging to a man called James stepped forward to greet me with a, 'You must be Elaine,' and it was the start of a fast friendship.
The ride to Shenton Safari's Kaingo Camp took about three hours through South Luangwa National Park. As we passed through the town of Mfuwe, neighbors shouted out and all manor of children jumped and waved to James as we drove past. His house was nearby and I was sure he knew everyone in sight, since he waved a friendly acknowledgement in return to each soul. I wish I had taken photos but my point-and-shoot camera sat in a bad of rice and I was too timid to whip out the iPhone. At any rate, I was too busy absorbing every moment.
General stores, fruit stands, and bicycle shops soon gave way to a more rural setting. As we reached the outskirts of Mfuwe, I noted many bush fires smoldering. The air smelled strongly of smoke. The children, James explained, started wildfires as a rite of passage without understanding the damage they caused. Several grass fires burned close to mud brick, thatch-roofed houses where women sat outside, some selling fruits at makeshift stands. The potential for catastrophe seemed real and inevitable without awareness and education against playing with fire. I worried for their safety. I wondered for their futures.
As we approached the park's entrance, James explained that he was the Daddy who made sure all his children were safe and I was his child. He asked me a few questions and disappeared inside an office to register my stay with the authorities. You know, in case that lion my mother feared would eat me. (It didn't.) A baboon stood at a sign posted just inside the gate into the park which read, 'ANIMALS HAVE RIGHT OF WAY'. James and I had a good laugh. Yes, sir! Before I left France, I promised myself to go on safari with no expectations of which animals I'd see, except for the giraffe, my favorite animal in the whole world since childhood. Not five minutes inside South Luangwa, I saw my first giraffes. One of the graceful giants gazed at us with mild curiosity before crossing the road. And you know what? We gave him the right of way. Beyond my wildest dreams and so soon into my trip, my first wish came true for a spectacular trip. It was a good omen.
All along the drive, James pointed out various species and told me their indigenous names: the puku, the kudu, the bushbuck… I clung to every word while trying to take the advice of my (very handsome) guide to 'slow down to the land.' Midway, we stopped to lunch on ham and cheese sandwiches, lingering by the Luangwa river, listening to hippo snorts and laughter. Accompanying all this in my head was the song that remains there to this day, 'Give Thanks' by +Elijah-. It sounds almost mystical to think my life had already changed in a matter of a few hours, but it had in more ways than I could even express then. I didn't understand that with each mile I pushed forward, I left an old way behind. I opened my heart to new experiences and ideas and am continually rewarded. I hadn't even reached camp! Wow.
Shenton Safaris focused on small details. Upon pulling into Kaingo Camp, I was greeting by the friendly faces of the staff, including Noelle, a fellow American and safari manager who gave me the run-down and told me that if I was up to it, we could quickly catch up to Brent (yes, he has a name), who had spotted a pair of mating lions while out on the morning drive with my group. Within ten minutes we were tearing down the road in pursuit of real live 'Animal Planet' action. Our two vehicles met in a clearing where I exchanged hugs with this long-lost, amazing soul and he introduced me to what would become our little 'famiglia' for the next eight days. Barbara and Lorenza were a mother-daughter team from Bologna, Italy. Every year since Lorenza was eight years-old, they'd gone on safaris and this was Lorenza's eighteenth birthday present. My mother and I just went to the Ice Capades every year. These two went on safari! Another wow. It was their second tour with Brent. Jealous. Noelle parted company and next thing I knew, we were right up in it. Lions. Mating. I was inside the pages of every 'National Geographic' magazine I'd seen as a girl.
Caution: Lion porn ahead!
I learned interesting facts, like lions mate every twenty minutes until the female begins to ovulate, and then they mate every twenty minutes until she conceives. Incroyable! They stopped and hunted for food occasionally, of course, often with the help of family members within their pride but, just like clockwork, twenty minutes passed and they were back in motion. Fascinating. As days passed, we'd witness many more incredible events from other mating pairs to lionesses protecting her cubs; from 'Go Away' birds and puku calling out signals of warning against predators; to a female leopard killing an impala twice her size and dragging it to shelter; to an innocent family of squirrels in a tree; to the elusive honey badger… supposedly one of the rarest of all savanna creatures to witness, but of which Brent and I counted a total of six sitings during my stay. So much of animal behavior mimicked our own, or did we mimic theirs? Security, shelter, survival, respect, even love, are all traits common throughout the species. What we want for ourselves, we must want for others. Respect the one who gave its life to serve you. Support the earth as it supports you. We are all connected. I slowed down to the land in Africa, disconnected from the world of ringing cell phones and high-speed internet access, and I didn't miss it one bit. I found comfort in a small bush camp. I found home inside myself. I gave thanks.
Days started at 05:30 with a drum beat. We met for tea or coffee by six, and were out on the drive by 06:15. Breakfast at 09:15 gave us strength for afternoon activities, another drive or quiet reflection at one of the 'hides', observation hideaways perfect for photo opportunities or wilderness walks to commune with nature. Lunch was served at your personal chalet, where you could snooze or (in my case) do a bit of hand laundering of the lady garments. A long evening drive was invitation to view the nocturnal creatures or the twinkling carpet of stars in the expansive night sky. For a solid two days I had NO IDEA what the heck what I was looking at as it was pointed out to me. By the time I adjusted my new binoculars, the group had moved on to something new. I can't remember exactly when the light bulb came on, but I came to recognize a genet versus a civet; a striped mongoose from the tree squirrels; and all manner of bee eaters from lilac-breasted rollers (those are birds). Brent and our ranger Maxwell pointed out animal tracks and taught us the difference between hyena and leopard prints, as we took 6 km long treks through the wilderness. Sometimes we'd follow tracks with no results only to turn a bend in the road and come up on the very cat who'd eluded us for days on end. Evenings finished with a lavish three-course meal and recollecting the days sitings, the little family laughing and joking about our lives, before collapsing contentedly in canopied beds.
I absolutely loved every moment. I couldn't possibly share enough and still convey how I felt, and the pictures… Well, you all know the story of my camera woes but I did manage some photos, thanks to my trusty iPhone. Tears streamed when I left sometime after a male, bull elephant blocked the drive for a while. And James… Well, it was a long handshake, but not a good-bye.
To the Universe and all who made this possible, I give thanks.
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À la prochaine….