Local Zambians are scared of elephants. Quite rightly, too. They regularly kill people. Get between a calf and its mother and you are asking for trouble. The locals think that elephants hate bicycles and will attack cyclists. I know a local man who came across an elephant while riding his bike on a bush track. He threw down the bike and lay beside it, pretending to be dead. The elephant examined his motionless body with her trunk, sniffing and nudging him. As it moved off, the elephant kicked out at him with its back foot as if to say, “I don’t believe you’re dead.” This glancing blow fractured his pelvis.

I feel very safe in my car if I meet an elephant on a track, but my predecessor as Valley Doc was terrified when he came across a bull elephant blocking the road. He reclined the car seat to horizontal, lying out of sight and stayed as still as he could while dialling for someone to rescue him.

I was on foot in the dried-out lagoon when I took this picture. He was obviously interested in something else as he made his way to the forest.

I think I can read the signs when an elephant is irritated and wants me to get lost. If it is safe, I reverse and keep out of its way. If it is calm, I stop the vehicle and wait for it to move off the track. They can come very close, within a metre, and often look at me, sizing me up, not a threat, as they plod past.

Very rarely elephants will attack vehicles. I have heard of one young bull breaking off a tusk in the radiator as he tried to flip a game-viewing Land Cruiser. I reckon I can detect testosterone-fuelled bluster, when young bulls make a mock charge. You just have to read their body language and stay calm. And keep the engine running.

I enjoy just watching them quietly, learning more about their behaviour. I saw a female bring her calf to a water hole, but the edge was so steep and deep, the calf’s trunk couldn’t reach the water. The mother drank her fill then turned to her calf, manoeuvred its head under her trunk and regurgitated water into the calf’s mouth. She did this several times until the calf was sated.

A few weeks ago, as soon as it turned dark, I heard the sound of elephants wrecking the bushes and small trees beside my house. I had been invited to dinner and was hoping to walk over to my neighbour’s house, across 50 metres of rough ground. She telephoned me to say that a family group (about six) of elephants were grazing around our houses and not to come. I waited for half an hour, checked that the coast was clear and walked to her house, flashing my torch into the bushes to make sure the elephants had gone.

We were just sipping a pre-dinner drink on the verandah when my neighbour said, “They’re back. The elephants are round the front.” As no one had answered the front door, one bull elephant decided to come around the back, where the verandah overlooks the lagoon. We watched as he lumbered past the side of the house, pausing to pull off some weeds from the thatched roof for a quick snack. He then padded over to a dead tree and scratched an itch.

Rather recklessly, I was sending images of the elephant back to the UK using WhatsApp. The notification noise of a reply on my smartphone is particularly jarring. The bull stopped demolishing a tree branch, turned to the noise and walked over to the verandah. He peered under the thatch where we were externally motionless, but internally trembling. After a few seconds, he decided that leaves were more interesting and he moved off. Eventually all the elephants walked down to the lagoon and we breathed sighs of relief and excitement.

Sorry about the poor quality. It was night and this beast was very close

Sunday lunch, a barbecue by the river, what could be more pleasant? We drove an hour south on a well-graded road and pulled over under the shade of a huge tree and started a fire. As the mopani flies (tiny midge-like creatures that get in your eyes and up your nose) were troublesome, we lit some dry elephant dung to create smoke which repels the flies. We arranged out portable chairs around the fire, trying to be near the smoke but not choked by it. It worked very well.

Three bums

George cooked the pork chops and boerewors sausage to perfection. The chicken thighs in spicy sauce were delicious. The baboons are afraid of people in this remote area so they didn’t pester us trying to steal food. Elephants are vegetarians, they didn’t want our food, but we had to keep our eyes open in case they lumbered into our party area. The breeze shifted after lunch (and a couple of gin and tonics), so I moved my chair, paying attention to where the smoke was drifting.

Fresh elephant dung, left a few metres from my house in Kapani

No sooner than I’d sat down when I asked, “Folks, I can smell elephants, can anyone see them?” Elephants do have a distinct, strong odour. Everyone scanned the horizon until Vicki pointed out that I had moved my chair over a flattened mound of fresh elephant dung. Normally, it looks very distinctive, like bowling balls, but this had been picked over by baboons, looking for choice bits of undigested food, and they had scattered it about. So much for my bush craft!


African Fish Eagle

One of my friends who lives on the eastern bank of the Luangwa River has a smartphone. The ring tone is the squawking call of a fish eagle. I still find myself looking up into the sky trying to spot an eagle when her phone rings.

Fish eagles are imperious birds. They like to perch high in dead trees, so they get a great view. This means that they are easy to spot and photograph. I took a dozen photographs of an immature fish eagle scanning a cabbage-covered lagoon in the park, trying to shoot every angle of his head. On returning home, I loaded up the images into my laptop, intending to delete most, keeping just one or two for posterity. But the eagle was so magnificent, that I found it impossible to cull most of the photographs. Here are a few for you to enjoy.

If they are not perched by the riverside, I sometimes see them on the ground, tearing at a lizard or a fish which they have captured in their talons. I have only ever photographed a fish eagle swooping down to pluck a fish from water once. And that was a cheat, when a guide took us out into Lake Naivasha in Kenya and threw a dead fish into the water. Our cameras sounded like the staccato of machine gun fire as the habituated eagle picked up the floating fish and flapped away.

In 2018, I bought a new Panasonic Lumix G9 camera, with a couple of Leica zoom lenses. They were on sale so I treated myself. There is a mode on the camera to record 60 pictures in a second. Even better, if you half press the shutter button, it will record the previous half second’s images. This makes up for my slow reaction time. So I pointed the camera at this majestic fish eagle, pressed the button as soon as I saw it take off and got sixty brilliant pictures as it left the branch. Job done, I thought.

Then I turned away from the viewfinder and watched the eagle swoop down onto the surface of the lagoon and catch a fish in its claws. It flew off into the distance to eat its fish supper in peace from intrusive paparazzi.

It was better watching the eagle in action with my naked eye than using my camera with its fancy electronic wizardry.

Medical Zambia

Stick in the Mud Saturday

In a small pond by Mopani Spur, in South Luangwa National Park, there are some lesser moorhens. They are reclusive and very difficult to spot, never mind to photograph. Just as I picked up my camera, my phone rang. I am on call 24/7 and have to be available, within an hour of the National Park gate at any time. I answered the call and made an emergency visit to a lodge within the Park.

I thought this was a lesser moorhen, but it is an immature Allen’s Gallinule

It took a while to sort out the problem, so it was after 10am when I left. Instead of driving out of the park, directly to the village, where I had other patients to review, I decided to take a short detour around Mbomboza lagoon and onto River Side Drive. It had been raining when I drove into the park at 7am, but the roads were passable.

The reason for the detour was that I knew the approximate location of a special bird’s nest. Pel’s Fishing Owl is very rare and I wanted to see it on its nest with fledglings. River Side Drive has deteriorated since we had floods last month. Parts of the road are compacted grit and laterite, easy to drive on even when they are underwater. Other stretches are muddy and potholed, and these require more attention and driving skill.

Up ahead I could see two huge potholes across the road. I thought I could put my passenger side wheels between the potholes, and my driver side wheels on the edge of the road. Bad move. My vehicle skidded off the road into thick, sticky mud.  The black cotton soil is notorious for trapping cars.

I engaged four wheel drive, low range and tried to drive forward, but this just pushed a heap of mud ahead of my front wheel. I tried reversing and the back wheel dug down deeper into the mud. I was well and truly stuck. I looked around carefully for wild animals. There are often elephants and hippos in this area, and occasionally lions and leopards. I tried to open the driver’s side door, but I was in too deep. I got out the passenger side and assessed the situation.

There were no lappet-faced vultures soaring above my stranded vehicle

I thought that if I drove back and forward repeatedly with the wheels straight, I could make a firmer base for the tyres. I dug out lots of thick sludge behind both wheels with my hands and got back into the vehicle. The passenger side wheels were not getting much traction. Eventually I managed to get enough momentum to reverse out of the ditch I had created, back onto the road. I was really lucky. It would have been very embarrassing to have to call for help from other lodges.

I was rather rattled when I got to the corner where the nest of Pel’s Fishing Owl was located. The road was flooded. I stayed for a few minutes waiting for the classic call, but heard nothing. I drove out of the park and went to an NGO office to wash off some of the mud.

After doing some shopping for medication, sorting out a clinical problem and buying a data bundle for internet access, I drove home. I spotted a new red warning light on the dashboard. What have I done now? The handbrake was not jammed on, but I could see some brake fluid leaking from the rear driver’s side wheel.

I parked up and a mechanic removed the wheel. The problem was a worn out brake pad and something wrong with the piston which applies the brake. “Did I do this?” I asked him. “No, doc, this wasn’t your fault,” the mechanic replied. I sighed with relief. The wheel had been squeaking for the past six weeks and it had been dismissed as unimportant. It turns out that the safari vehicles get so much mud and crud in the brakes that they need new brake pads every few months.

Spot the skink

So I was off the road for a day and a half until they fitted “modified” brake pads. If there had been an emergency, the lodges would have provided transport for me to get to the patients. And I spent most of that time in bed ill with man flu.


Mother and daughter

Mother is on the right, daughter on the left, facing each other

I was driving in South Luangwa National Park on the main Chichele Road, less than a kilometre from Mfuwe Lodge, when I saw Duncan, driving a safari vehicle slowly towards me. He pulled over on the left side of the road and I drew alongside. We greeted each other and I asked him if there had been any special sightings that morning. He said, “You are looking at two leopards.” “What? Where?” I responded. “In the sausage tree behind me.”

Sausage Tree fruit hanging down. Leopards are very surefooted in trees

He started his vehicle and drove onto the verge of the road so I could manoeuvre my vehicle to get a better sighting. It was enchanting. Two leopards, mother and daughter, were play fighting on a thick horizontal branch about halfway up a magnificent tree. The foliage prevented me from getting a perfect view, but it was clear that they were enjoying themselves. The daughter leapt above her mother onto another branch and out of sight.

She can see you, but she is very relaxed, not bothered at all by my presence.

It was after 10am and the morning safari vehicles were all leaving the park after four hours of driving. I was fresh and had no pressing engagements. I could sit in the shade, waiting for the cats to move into a more visible location in the tree. The other vehicles stopped for a few minutes, their occupants could chalk up another couple of leopard sightings, sadly not in plain sight, then moved on for breakfast back at their lodges.

Resting posture, back legs astride the bough

I did a three-point turn and parked in the optimum position to observe the leopards, all on my own. The daughter skipped through the tree and ventured out onto a branch in plain sight. She was playing with the sausage tree fruits, patting them with her paw like any domestic kitty. The fruits are shaped like a fat sausage, covered in velveteen fuzz, with a long stalk. They are firm and tough, weighing over two kilos. Mum decided to investigate and the bough sagged noticeably. The daughter managed to get a small sausage in her jaws and jumped over her mum and went back up into the tree. I managed to get this episode on videotape which I will try to embed in this blog after it has been uploaded to YouTube.

Still vigilant

I sat at the roadside for another 20 minutes until the leopards decided they were hungry and climbed gracefully down the main trunk into the long grass where they were invisible. It was a special experience.

South Luangwa is noted for its leopards. During my first visit as Valley Doctor in 2014, I lived in the territory of Alice, one of the most famous leopards in the park. I occasionally would see her in a tree when coming back to my lodgings. She was a prolific mother and gave her cubs the best start in life. She disappeared a few years ago at the ripe old age of about 15. Today’s mother was probably one of Alice’s progeny, whom I may have seen as a cub five years ago.

Female leopards stay in the area where they were born. Their mothers allocate a portion of their own territory to their daughters, but the sons have to leave and make their own way in the world. I know that the mother will be teaching the daughter to hunt in this location, between the Kakumbi Air Strip and the main Chichele Road.

Daughter on top, mother underneath

Alice’s mother was called Marmalade. She was so habituated to safari vehicles that she used them to sneak up on her prey, often crawling underneath so the tourists were treated to the sight of a leopard a few centimetres below their feet.

My present lodging is in the Game Management Zone, across the Luangwa River, outside the national park boundary. The theory is that people can live in harmony with wild animals. All very well in principle, but growing fruit and vegetables here attracts elephants, who can munch their way through your crop in a matter of hours.

My neighbour, V, reckons she doesn’t need to visit the park as she sees all the wildlife from her verandah. There have always been leopards in this area. I remember seeing a leopard cross the track when I was making a home visit to Kapani late at night back in 2014. When V moved into the area five months ago, she would hear a female leopard calling mournfully for her mate (who had unfortunately wandered into a hunting concession area and had been shot). The leopard would regularly pass by the bungalow, often leaving “presents” of killed baboons or small impala for V by her washing line.

The only gifts I get are turds from the evil vervet monkeys, one of whom knocked my WiFi router to the ground, pulling out the cable and crapping on it.