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
Flying Kenya Zambia

The Pleasures of Airline Travel

I have a love/hate relationship with air travel. Despite being a seasoned traveller, I still feel uneasy and anxious. Despite using a checklist, I wonder what essential item I have failed to pack. I try to give myself enough time to get to the airport, but there’s always the possibility of a crash on the motorway or the vehicle breaking down. Then there’s the wait at check-in. Does my luggage weigh less than the permitted maximum? What heavy items can I take out at the last minute to stuff into my pockets (this makes going through security even more tiresome)?

I managed to leave my home in a reasonable state, refrigerator emptied, central heating set to deal with a cold spell, bed linen washed and dried, personal video recorder primed to record Les Mis for when I get home, all electrical appliances unplugged. The bus was on time, but most seats were occupied. We arrived at Heathrow on time and I breezed through check in. Security checked my hand baggage as I had left my Kindle in the rucksack, but the officers smiled benignly and waved me through. I had a sample of whisky in the duty free – White Walker (Johnnie, of course) – to reward myself, before going to the gate. Why does everyone rise up and queue as soon as the stewardess announces that boarding will start with passengers needing assistance or travelling with children?

The flight was full and there were no aisle or window seats available. A Kenyan lady was sitting in my place, oblivious to her allocated seat. She moved to another seat, and had to move again. I sent my final SMS messages and shut down my cell phone. Why do the touch panels on the back-of-the-seat entertainment system always fail to respond to your first deliberate touch? I selected a film which I hadn’t seen and must have nodded off for a few minutes because I cannot remember anything about it.

I don’t mind airline food. It is not cordon bleu but it fills the gap and gives you something to do (eat) during the flight. We touched down at Nairobi a few minutes early and I settled down in the transit lounge waiting for my connection to Lusaka while the sun rose. I took advantage of the free internet to send more messages before we were called.

On board, I couldn’t resist a secret smile when two traditionally-built African ladies tried to squash past each other in the aisle. Even they found it funny. En route, I could see the summit of Kilimanjaro poking above the clouds. We landed in Lusaka and I took my time as I had seven hours to kill before my flight to Mfuwe. I was last in the queue for immigration and noticed that the officer had a problem with his arm. I remarked on this and we had a mini-consultation while he wrote out the receipt for my 30 day business visa. My luggage was ready for me and I breezed through customs.

There is a new Chinese-built airport a few hundred metres away from Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, ready to open in late 2019. The old airport is rather cramped with few places to sit and wait. I managed to offload my bags at the Proflight office (the boss had pity on me). I wandered around, chatted with some South African businessmen, sympathised with an elderly lady whose visitor did not turn up, watched some planes taking off and landing, had some lunch, read some material I had downloaded onto my phone and sat staring into space, nodding off with fatigue.

Finally, our flight was called and I was relieved to find that my luggage weighed almost exactly 30kg, meaning I didn’t have to pay excess baggage. I accepted the offer of a window seat and someone impatiently pushed in front of me. After I went through security to the gate, I thought it was strange that I wasn’t given a boarding card. I went back to check in and the receptionist told me that she had given my boarding pass to another passenger, but it would be ok as she would fix it for me. And I believed her.

Meanwhile, there was a minor incident at security when a man tried to take a cow shin bone onto the plane in his hand luggage. The lady checking the x-rays of the luggage must have been rather shocked to see it on the screen. The bone was huge, plastic-wrapped and had a prominent label from a pet shop. He had brought it in his hold luggage from Namibia, but had transferred it to his carry-on luggage to avoid excess baggage charges on the local flight. Bad choice.

“What is this? Is it from a wild animal?” she asked.

“No, it’s just a bone for the dog, a gift for him as we have left him at home for two weeks while we were on holiday,” he replied.

This raised several cultural issues for the security officer. “You bought a gift for your dog?” she asked. “What will the dog do with this gift?”

“He’ll probably chew it for a few hours then bury it in the garden,” he said.

Her eyebrows arched even higher in disbelief. “It is not permitted to bring animal parts onto a flight,” she said. The passenger objected to the bone being confiscated and appealed to me to provide a rational explanation.

“It is securely wrapped and unlikely to be a health hazard,” I ventured.

“I will check precisely the wording of the law,” said the security officer. “This might involve a prison sentence.”

Immediately, the man apologised and abandoned the bone. “It only cost 70 rand, I don’t want to go to a cell for that!”

Meanwhile, the manager of a safari lodge managed to bring a box of machine tools on board, saying that there were no sharp bits inside. This made me wonder if the official might have thought the cow bone could have been used as an offensive weapon by a terrorist. But it wasn’t exactly the jaw bone of an ass.

New Chinese-built Lusaka Airport

The flight for Mfuwe was called and I approached the receptionist who had given my boarding pass to an African man. She saw my face and it dawned on her that he had already passed through. She called him back and switched the passes. He clearly hadn’t read the pass, and neither had she.

Luangwa River
Meandering course, very full
The escarpment. This is the southern end of the Rift Valley
Touchdown at Mfuwe International Airport

We touched down in Mfuwe an hour later. The warm, fetid air oozed onto the plane. The sun was setting behind the clouds and it looked like it might rain again soon. The grass beside the runway was dazzling, emerald green. I felt the joy of arriving at a place I loved. This was the pleasure of travel – arriving safely.