Late in the morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a camp with just four huts of thatch and grass, far out into the South Luangwa park on a still lagoon.
First staked out by company founder Norman Carr in the 1980’s, today Luwi is empty, no guests. AIt is not officially open for the season yet, so we have the pick of the camp and we pick the largest chalet, the “honeymoon suite.” Besides us, the only people here are our new guide named Aubrey and Greta, who will be running the Luwi camp this season.
Six months of the year Greta’s a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in bush.
Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”
There’s a permanent staff of six in camp – permanent, that is, for the five months each year it’s open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and each year they rebuild it top to bottom in late April, with a work crew of twenty, in order to have it open by June 1st.
We’re first in, just at the end of May.
There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark. Last night’s clothes. We enjoy coffee close in around the mopane campfire, kept burning since sunset, while our party musters.
This morning will be a new experience – a walking safari. We shall walk between a rifle-toting guide in the lead, and a tracker, the four of us trailed by a young apprentice carrying coffee and biscuits, the “tea boy.”
Isaac, a stoic, leathery bush veteran with a beret and a .357 caliber Brno rifle, will be our scout. Aubrey is tracker/guide. As we all assemble around the fire, the first bird calls begin under an orange sky, and the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you stay away.
(In a camp in the Okavango, the proprietress once translated the nightjar’s call as “Good Lord deliver us.” The Aussie management here is entirely less reverent. They assert the turtle dove’s call, “da DAHHH da, Da DAHHH da,” is “Work harder, drink lager.”)
The grass between camp and the Luwi River is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocs on the bank opposite. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a cliff above the water’s edge, I can find no reason to assume that crocs only inhabit the far side.
Aubrey is a young man who takes his job seriously and means to do well. Coffee hasn’t quite got me roused by the time he has explained the three territorial zones of animals: the zone of awareness, the warning zone and the zone in which instinct takes over and the animal attacks.
We don’t think we’re in anybody’s anything zone, but we still step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch as the sun asserts sovereignty.
Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches out and makes a long, slow bend to the right. The near shore is sandy cliffs. There’s another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond.
The sounds of nature. Nothing manmade, seen or heard.
Below the bend on the opposite bank stretches an expanse of low grassland and a bit of shoreline. Guinea fowl get busy grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets still indistinguishable in the early light. A massive hippo breaches the brush and scatters them.
Hippos don’t eat fish. They graze outside the water after dark, eating around 40 kilos of grass a night, and that takes a lot of grazing. At the water’s edge the hippo jerks up his head, snarls and snaps ineffectually, and plunges into the river.
“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. In other places oxpeckers ride on giraffes’ backs, getting a nice aerial view. These oxpeckers have water taxis.
The pod rests lazy as a dog and still as autumn leaves the day before they fall. Only their heads and backs are visible, the rest of them covered with water lettuce.
If this were a painting you’d scoff. Too elaborate to be real. But it is real, and we stay put for a long time watching, until the shadows have crossed all the way over the river and sunlight reigns.
Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November it’s perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede and force the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in more conflict and more danger from predators.
For now, in May, there is peace. Crocodiles eat catfish in the lagoon. The grass is green and tall and thick. Hippos gorge in the fields and live in the river.
Aubrey shows us the way hippos change the landscape as they come and go from the river, creating indentations on the water’s edge that grow when it rains, collapsing the soil into gullies and washing it into the river. Other animals use and widen the trampled paths, which extend far up onto land. Eventually hippo trails may even evolve into rivers.
We set out away from the river on a sandy-bottomed hippo trail a meter wide with grass on either side. The grass is too tall to see ahead or to either side, and Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.
“Spoor” means evidence. It comes to English from Dutch through Afrikaans, and means ‘track’ in two senses – first, the scent or track an animal leaves, and second, railroad tracks (A map of the Dutch rail network is a spoorkaart).
Aubrey describes three types of spoor for tracking wildlife. There’s aerial spoor, like branches or grass pushed back by passing game, ground spoor, like footprints and sign, and other evidence like droppings or dislodged stones, or the water lettuce we see far from the river, which has been carried up on hippos’ backs.
The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard footprints. Aubrey and Isaac study them and judge they’re from last night or earlier this morning because they’re still largely undisturbed. If one had overlapped the other, we could judge whether the leopard followed the hyena or, more likely, the opposite.
Aubrey brings us to the trunk of a tree to examine puku (a medium-sized antelope) fur (very soft) and explains that this puku fell victim to a leopard. We know that leopards take the fur off, he says, and this fur is clearly not digested. And, under a mopane with its strong, nearly horizontal branches is a good place for a leopard to take a meal, since at any danger it can hoist its kill up and away into the tree.
Tracking is subtlety itself, made practical.
“The shadows cast by ridges in spoor show up best if the spoor is kept between the tracker and the sun. When the sun is ahead of the spoor, the shadows cast by the spoor will be more easily visible. If the sun is behind the tracker, the shadows will be hidden by the ridges that cast them. So tracking is easier early in the morning and late in the afternoon than at midday, when the shadows cast are greater… “
– from The Art of Tracking, the Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg (free link)
The grass gives way to larger trees farther from the river. A particular bird flaps and cries and flies out in front of us. Aubrey says it’s trying to lead us to a bees’ nest, because if we disturb the nest, that will help him eat them.
Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite fully dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and then crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. We shed our sweaters long ago. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against one very large arachnid. Aubrey laughs and gently picks him up by a leg and puts him on the ground in front of us.
It’s a baboon spider, he says, a type of tarantula. It’s hairy, three inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. The damned things, from the family Theraphosidae, are big and robust enough to loosen soil and excavate burrows with their jaws and fangs.
This fellow’s North and South American cousins have barbed hairs on their abdomens which they can fire defensively like porcupines do with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would-be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant, however, does not have that capability, so it is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.
Though I continue to shudder, there is some consolation: A South American tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.
Grizzled old Isaac stares ahead all the time, like there’s always something about to happen, scanning back and forth above the grass with field glasses. He’s retired from the park service, and here Isaac can pass on the oral tradition to the trackers and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.
Aubrey distinguishes between hippo dung (darker) and elephant dung, and explains the useful role dung beetles play in breaking it down before it attracts flies, which would spread disease.
Here is evidence of a lion kill. Unlike the leopard, lions eat the whole unfortunate animal, and in this dung are fur and bone fragments.
A different kind of spider has built a funnel-shaped web in a tree trunk with what Aubrey calls “telephone lines” extending upward from it to the side of the trunk. Aubrey explains how the spider lives safely below and can tell by the vibration of his phone lines when something flies into his funnel. He is thus called up to dinner.
When we first arrived from the luxury of the main camp at Kapani I thought Luwi bush camp was, well, rustic. But after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the other bank, and having coffee with my stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks, with its thatch cottages and en-suite facilities, its pot of coffee and wildlife magazines.
They’ve put on omelettes and sausages. Mirja retires to a hammock to read Surviving in the African Wild while I sit in the chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in the shade with the movement of the sun, and we listen to the hippos in the river and the wild array of birds.
The grass in front of camp extends several hundred meters to the Luangwa riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander around in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds dot the horizon. It’s brilliant blue overhead. Alone in camp we sprawl out with our things, camera here, camera bag there, piri piri sauce over there, a pile of Africa Environment and Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.
Coming early in the season has benefits beyond beating the crowd. Later in the day, high broken clouds provide escape from the full sun. Now, in May, Aubrey thinks these look like October skies, in the month before the rains. The dry season doesn’t yet hold full sway.
The night sky is simply magnificent. Abraham shows us how to find south with the Southern Cross. Down here, south of the equator, the Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky.
Aubrey grows melancholy by the campfire. The lantern casts an unsure light and a rich Milky Way splays out overhead. Aubrey once had three sisters and three brothers. Now he’s the head of the family.
He has one sister, and more matter-of-factly than I think I would, he says the others died of “natural causes.” He sits motionless, staring into the fire and his past, and then he turns to us.
His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home. A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.
“This is African life.”
HIV? He just shakes his head.
He has grown concave with gloom.
The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard, about maize and making ends meet:
A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag of maize, with head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag unsuspecting, thinking it’s part of the harvest.
A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up son in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.
Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe.
He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens as he does. It’s hard to understand it all, but the outline is that, according to a Zambian folk practice, a log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.
The prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed.
The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.
In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day, with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back.
“I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.
There is a bat inside the mosquito net over our bed. Aubrey removes it, like he removed the baboon spider from the camera bag.
Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers to wait for the pot of coffee. Tropical boubou shrikes sing in duet, so much at the same instant that you think it’s one, with a curious detail at the end of the call that sounds like a cross between a snare drum and plucking a guitar string.
Aubrey’s spirits are bright again. He wants to know about where we live and when he learns Mirja is from Finland he’s apologetic, but he can’t understand how anyone can live where it’s cold.
“The coldest I’ve ever been is at Bangola. It’s over the escarpment,” he says.
The mist was so thick you couldn’t see ten meters, he marvels. He does allow, though, that he’d really like to see snow before he dies and I offer that he consider Cape Town, but for Aubrey it might as well be as far away as the moon.
Aubrey puts things in categories. We have learned animals’ three territorial zones and the three types of spoor. Now we learn the four types of termites – king, queen, worker and soldier. The soldiers and the queen are fed by the workers. If attacked, say, by an anteater, the workers set out to repair the mound so fast that soldiers may find themselves sealed outside. At the first sign the mound is under siege, soldiers signal the queen, who lays massive amounts of eggs to recover from the loss of the troops.
Back in Botswana, termite mounds could be tall as three people; I guessed up to sixteen feet high. Now we learn that the mound can reach underground all the way down to the water table.
We are walking through grass mostly over your head, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. Isaac and his 357 Brno lead us down into the riverbed itself, where there is more than a month of footprint history since the last time it rained: elephant prints with lion prints inside, hippos, every bird and no humans tracks except ours since the end of the rains, and thus since the rains began last November. It’s May.
We ride to Kakuli, a seasonal bush camp back on the Luangwa River, at its confluence with the Luwi. Buffaloes peer at the Land Cruiser from deep in the bush. Our zip-in zip-out tent sits twenty feet above the river on a sandy point with a hippo pod immediately below. There is a bed with fresh linens, two bedside tables, two tables for our bags and a solar-powered lantern. We scare up two director’s chairs for the “veranda” in front of the tent.
Thatch surrounds the toilet, sink and shower behind the tent for propriety, but a strategic dip in the top allows a view from the shower. In Kakuli camp you can shower with a hippo view.
Hippos are never quiet. Maybe it’s something about the moving water at the meeting of the rivers. They rend the air with huge rolling rows.
They open their mouths wide, lock themselves jaw to jaw and push and splash and I don’t know what the strategy is with the open mouth thing. It’s all big and wet and mean and for real, with groans and howls and obvious pain.
In a fierce battle one hippo is ultimately forced upstream.
This is how it happens. After a protracted battle the dominant male is replaced. We may have witnessed a revolution.
We booked these camps direct through Norman Carr Safaris.