“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
I had the afternoon free to visit South Luangwa National
Park today. The Zambian Wildlife Authority guards on the gate were glad to see
me again and we had a long chat about what has flown under the bridge since we
last met. But the Luangwa River is extremely full flowing under the bridge into
the park. It is almost overflowing. This has been the first “proper”
rainy season for ten years, with precipitation every couple of days.
The rain makes the grass and leaves grow, so it is more difficult
to see game and birds. But it is so incredibly beautiful that it is known as
the “emerald” season. The main laterite roads are passable, but dirt
tracks are treacherous. I don’t want to get stuck in the mud in the first week
I am here. There were ominous rain clouds in the distance and it seemed likely
that there would be a shower before the end of the day.
The roads do provide a dry way for some animals. Zebras
prefer not to risk walking through swampy grassland for fear of crocodiles, so
they trot along the road. Mating lions like to avoid soggy bottoms, and don’t
care if the tourists are gawping at them. Actually, there are very few
tourists. I only saw three other vehicles seeing animals in the park.
First stop was fifty metres from the bridge, where a pair of hippos were grazing just down the bank of the road at the edge of the bush. They are often shy, but these two were just stuffing themselves with lush grass. The flow is so rapid in the Luangwa river that the hippos and crocs prefer to stay in lagoons. A kilometre further along the main road, the lagoon at Mfuwe Lodge was a carpet of green water hyacinths. I could just see the nostrils and eyes of another hippo as I was watching a Jacana (lily trotter).
I spotted an African Grey Hornbill in a tree at the side of
the road. There were the usual zebras, elephants, baboons, warthogs, waterbucks,
impala and puku, but no giraffes. I heard a male woodland kingfisher perched on
a dead branch, singing gloriously with his mate perching just below him. He was
probably boasting about his new match to another male across the forest who was
returning his call.
Although long-tailed starlings are very common, they are exceptionally beautiful with their iridescent plumage. I saw my first lilac-breasted roller, no doubt the first of many and an open-billed stork. The yellow-billed storks are ubiquitous at present. The white feathers on their backs develop a rosy tinge at this time of year.
Because of poor roads, I could not reach the oxbow lake,
Luangwa Wafwa, which is one of my favourite places. I turned around and headed
for Wa Milombe via Zebra Drive. I saw a group of pied kingfishers diving
repeatedly at a roadside pool, as well as lots of antelope. Wa Milombe savannah
plane is now a lake surrounded by swamp. To drive back to the main road, I had
to negotiate a river crossing. I could see a young crocodile waiting in
anticipation but it was raining heavily by now and I didn’t want to get my
camera wet taking a decent photograph. This one will have to do.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.