The general manager of one of the nearby safari lodges decided to have a team-building, morale-boosting trip to the National Park for sundowners on Sunday. (It is traditional to find a pleasant spot to watch the sunset while enjoying a drink, hence the term sundowners.) Seven of us drove into the park at 4.30pm, planning to meet up with friends at 5pm on the open plain of WaMilombe.
I really enjoy being driven in an open, high vehicle. The view is so much better than the view from the driver’s seat in the doctor’s car and I can concentrate of seeing animals, instead of trying to avoid potholes. The Luangwa River spills over into WaMilombe during the rainy season, creating a vast, shallow lake. Mud from the river fertilises the soil, creating rich grassland, perfect for herbivores. The floods recede, draining away into streams which carve deeply into the muddy soil, creating excellent cover for carnivores hunting the herbivores. This makes WaMilombe popular with leopards, and people who want to view leopards in action.
The plain is bordered by ridges on two sides, the Luangwa River and its dried-up tributary, the Mushilashi River. Leopards like to rest in trees on the ridges, while they look out for their next meal. Normally, the plain is dotted with antelope, puku and impala, but this evening it was empty. A solitary game drive vehicle was stationary under a tree close to the Luangwa. Game vehicles only stop for refreshments, toilet breaks and when there is something interesting to see. We decided to take a look.
Stretched out in the shade was a beautiful young leopard. We stopped ten metres away and took photographs. The leopard wasn’t interested in our interest. Its belly looked full. The driver of the other game vehicle said that there were two other leopards over by the ridge. As we crossed a deep dried out stream bed, we disturbed another leopard, who trotted away from us, towards the trees. Our driver could see another leopard hiding below the ridge, so we went to get a closer look. As soon as we began to observe leopard 3, leopard 2 sauntered over to leopard 1. As it approached the shady tree, the leopard speeded up, and ran up the tree trunk.
We realised that there was something attracting leopard 2 to the tree, so we returned and parked under the branches. We could seen the fresh corpse of an impala, draped over a thick branch. Leopard 2 was partially hidden by leaves, but we could see and hear it eating. I wasn’t expecting a sac of antelope intestines to plummet from the tree, just missing by inches the only vegetarian in our vehicle. Partially digested grass and manure splattered against the side of the truck. Leopard 1 decided to capitalise on this good fortune by picking up the guts and returning to its favoured position by the trunk of the tree.
Both leopards gorged on the remains of the impala while we watched. The sun began to set so we left the feast and drove to the bank of the Luangwa River, where we could safely get out and have a drink. The sunset was magnificent, but not as impressive as the afterglow which lingered in the sky for twenty minutes, getting deeper and deeper red. I took a selection of photographs of the sky reflected in the river as the light faded. Hippos started leaving the river to eat grass during the night. We could hear baboons giving alarm calls on the other side of the river, but we couldn’t spot another leopard in the gloaming.
When it was pitch black, we drove back to the leopard tree. A hyena was lolloping about, hoping for some titbits to fall from above. I got a poor photograph using the headlights to illuminate the scene. We were a mile from the park gate when a large grey shape appeared in front of us. I could pick out four elephants, munching away on trees. We drove carefully past and joined the main dirt road leading to the gate. The driver slammed on his brakes, creating a cloud of dust. “There was a puff adder in the middle of the road back there. I’m going to reverse, let me know I am not going to run it over.”
The lighting conditions were very poor, but the puff adder was clearly recognisable, as a short, fat snake, with a triangular head and typical diamond markings on its back. It might look fat and sleepy, but that’s its modus operandi. It stays still, waiting to attack with one of the most rapid strikes of any snake. Its venom causes massive tissue damage. Not the sort of snake you want to step on during a walking safari in the bush.
About a kilometre from my house, we stopped again to allow a lion to cross the road. Bush highway code: animals have priority on these tracks. As we waited for a second lion to emerge from the bush to join its sister, I reflected on how fortunate it was to be able to see these savage beasts in their natural environment. And we had just popped out for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening for a social drink with friends.