Categories
Zambia

Leopards and other dangerous creatures

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.

Leopard 1
Leopard 2
Leopard 3

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.

Leopard 2 crossing open ground in WaMilombe, going for second helpings

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.

Leopard 1 likes tripe
Leopard 2

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.

Hyena in the headlights

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.”

Puff adder

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.  

Categories
Kenya

Ol Pejeta

Sometimes there is no alternative; you just have to buy a pig in a poke. We had arrived in Nanyuki for the Memorial Day weekend and booked into the African-style Town and Country Hotel. I asked the receptionist if there was a reliable guide for the Conservancy. She gave me Mohamed’s card, so being a trusting chap, I telephoned him. We fixed a (pretty steep) price, for which he would guide us, using a 4 wheel drive vehicle, staying in the park all day starting at 6am.

At 6:15am the next day we were outside the hotel, freezing cold, stamping our feet to keep warm, waiting for Mohamed. A flash black SUV pulled up and Mohamed greeted us. I should have realised something was wrong when I saw an image of Muammar Gaddafi applied to the rear window. Sadly, he couldn’t guide us because he had been engaged to take an expedition up Mount Kenya. Then a rent-a-wreck maize burner stopped by the storm drain. This was to be our vehicle. Even in the dark early morning, we could see it was rubbish. I asked Mohamed about the driver. “He’s very experienced,” he said. “Yes, but can he guide us?” “He’s a trained guide,” he replied. “Does he even speak English?” I asked. “Of course!”

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We piled into the car and I had grave misgivings. The springs in the seat were shot (as was the suspension) and having shut the door, I couldn’t get out. The side windows had been covered in black, plastic film, presumably to add an air of mystery or to keep out the heat during summer. The film was peeling away and strips would tear off as I wound the window up and down. If you are going to see wild animals, you don’t need dark windows.

The driver had difficulty getting the car into reverse, presumably because the synchromesh was knackered. We drove off down the main road in the wrong direction. When I pointed this out, the driver said we needed fuel. The fuel gauge wasn’t working so we had better fill up now.

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Mount Kenya at dawn through a very long lens

We retraced our bald tyre tracks and turned off down a side road towards the Conservancy. Ol Pejeta is 90,000 acres of bush and savannah, sitting astride the equator between Mount Kenya to the east and the Aberdare Mountains to the west. It is a privately-owned, not for profit, wildlife conservation project. The sun was just rising behind Mount Kenya when we drove in through the main gate.

The guard at the entrance told us that we couldn’t pay using plastic. The machine wasn’t working. We needed to go online to book tickets. Yerrright. Suspecting a scam, we told him we’d pay on the way out when the machine was working. Our driver did a deal with the guards and he got regular updates on his phone about the locations of the best sightings.

Within a few kilometres, we realised that our driver was not a guide. Like John Snow, he knew nothing. Having worked for six months in South Luangwa Valley in Zambia, I could point out the animals and give a bit of a commentary. We had an enjoyable morning spotting black rhinoceros (120 in the park), elephants, zebra, giraffes and lots of different antelopes. We saw some birds, too. A kori bustard, ostriches, francolin, quail, various ducks and geese, grey crowned cranes, storks, ibis and spoonbills.

As the day warmed up, the driver took us to see the Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Sweetwaters. This seemed like a concentration camp with a viewing tower which looked like it could house a searchlight and machine guns. One sad chimp was eating leaves under a bush and another was close to the electrified fence. He looked miserable. Jane Goodall set this up in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1993 to house orphaned and illegally trafficked chimps. There are 39 chimps in two troops, on either side of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Before the torrential rains swept away some of the fencing keeping the hippos out, a ranger would take tourists on a bush walk through the forest. This wasn’t possible now, so we drove to Hippo Hide car park and walked along the river looking for hippopotami. After about half a kilometre, we met some tourists returning from the hide – no hippos.

The driver’s phone started ringing. Lions had been sighted. We joined the queue of vehicles jockeying for position to see a lioness who was crashed out in some long grass. She showed a spike of interest when a family of warthogs filtered through the trees in the distance, but then flopped down again as she didn’t rate the chances of pork on today’s menu.

The vehicle’s reverse gear was getting increasingly difficult to engage. The driver had to stop the engine, force the gear stick into reverse, depress the clutch and start the engine again. Manoeuvring in tight spots was extremely difficult.

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Ugandan long horned cattle

We had lunch in the park – steak and chips, not impala or eland – and watched a storm approaching across the savannah. The driver was getting impatient, so we drove off to several dams (lakes, really) where there was a solitary hippo, that we could only see when it came up for air. It made a move to the lake shore, but was spooked by a family of waterbuck.

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Lioness in hunting mode

We drove past a farm within the conservancy which had long-horned Ugandan cattle. In the distance we spotted a group of rhino. The last male Northern White Rhino had died of old age and frailty less than three months ago. There are still two female NWRs, so a Southern White Rhino male was brought in to cross-breed, but no pregnancy resulted. Maybe some genetic engineering will help. They are asking for donors – for cash, not genetic material – to do a bit of Jurassic Park-style cloning.

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Mum and offspring.

The rhinoceri were a family group – mum, dad and baby. We stopped to watch on our own for fifteen minutes before the phone squawked again. More lions. We roared off, but missed them as they had wandered down to the main gate for closing time.

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Bull elephants in musth discharge a thick tar-like secretion called temporin from the ducts on the sides of the head

Finally we left the park before it began to rain. The credit card machine was still not working. We showed the senior guard our diplomatic cards proving we were residents and paid him the fee for the vehicle, driver and three tourists. It was not quite as much as I had paid Mohamed. We drove out of the gate and stopped. The driver went back to “explain to the guards that they had their pricing system wrong, because Friday counts as weekend rate if it is a national holiday.” Very suspicious. I thought he went back to get his cut of the cash. We didn’t get any receipt, of course.

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Rain on the way

By now it was dark. The lights on the vehicle were not good, but this didn’t stop the driver from putting his foot down and racing along the rutted dirt road, back to town. Despite the clapped-out vehicle and the lack of expert guidance, we had really enjoyed ourselves. It was time for a pseudo-French meal at Le Rustique, much better fare than the beans, rice, cabbage and chapatis we eat at Embu.