Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:

A silverback

The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.

Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.

Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.

ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:

“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.

Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”

Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.

The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.

Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.

The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.

At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.

Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.

Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.

Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.

The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.

The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.

Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.

The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.

But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.

Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.

Kids

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Europe’s Wildest Country?

Interesting to note an unexpected consequence of the war in eastern Ukraine, according to Politico.eu,

“local residents, soldiers, rangers and environmentalists agree: The area is undergoing an unintended — and unexpected — rewilding.”

The article goes on,

“As recently as 2014, wolves attacking domestic animals in eastern Ukraine were tales told by grandparents. Today, in part because of a hunting ban in the war zone, large, wild predators are flourishing — along with other rare flora and fauna — along the 450-kilometer frontline.

“For hundreds of years populations of big animals were controlled, and now for the first time they are uncontrolled,” said Oleksiy Vasilyuk, an ecologist from the Ukrainian NGO Environment People Law. ‘For us, it’s great news.'”

•••••

Reactor four and the sarcophagus at the Chernobyl power plant, Ukraine.

Meanwhile in the country’s north, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is Turning Into a Wildlife Preserve for Wolves, says an article posted this month at PopularMechanics.com. As Australia’s SBS points out in How nature reclaimed Chernobyl,

“It seems to indicate – much like the DMZ between North and South Korea that’s become a sanctuary for endangered species – that if we retreat from a region, nature fills the gap.”

The unique and unfortunate recent history of Ukraine may have made it Europe’s wildest place.

See more photos from Chernobyl and Ukraine here at EarthPhotos.com and if you’re interested in learning more about Chernobyl, have a look at my book Visiting Chernobyl here or via Amazon in your country.

Africa Vignette 9: The Man-Eater of Mfuwe

It’s more of a story than a vignette this week, the tale of a man-eating lion.

THE MAN-EATER OF MFUWE

Besides being visited by just about everyone who comes to the South Luangwa Park, the little town of Mfuwe, Zambia, will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

Of the big cats, there are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature, maybe because tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. In fact, there’s an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in British colonial India in 1911, the year British King George traveled to Delhi to be crowned Emperor.

In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen railroad construction workers, halting the project to connect the interior with Mombasa in British East Africa in 1898.

The Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing the little community, then home to scarcely a thousand, a spare hundred miles west of the border with Malawi.

The first attack occurred as two boys walked along a road at night. One boy got away, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull.

The second victim was a woman. The lion crashed through the door of her rondavel on the edge of her village.

The third attack was nearly foiled by a nearby ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds.

Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

•••••

Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill it. Two other professional hunters tried, but Hosek finally brought the man-eater down.

Today the lion is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

The lack of mane led some to assume at first they were after a lioness. A lioness was killed early in the Mfuwe terror and people believed they’d got the man-eater, but then a male lion entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it.

Remarkably, as a child, the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo at the Field Museum in Chicago. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

As a boy, Hosek spent days standing in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine the feeling of being in front of the real thing, as he put it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath. He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across nine days, from September 1 to 9, 1991. The first day he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of the man-eater, but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is unclear and incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to already know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal is killed.

Hosek began by visiting villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning about the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo, home to Kunda Bantu people.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It was seen playing with the bag like a cat with catnip. The bag was later found in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women would wash their family’s clothes here, by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. As Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, and two of them wouldn’t look at him, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The village elders decided the bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag to keep the lion near and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time, he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks some fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters entered the blind at 3:30. Hosek writes of what he calls ‘blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

They adopted a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait, then leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. Others built the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. He counseled that ultimately, therefore, they should expect to have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and had eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from The Lord.” As he pointed out, the villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking his visibility. Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.”

Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion and beating it with sticks. Celebratory fires lit up the horizon.

•••••

I asked Adrian Carr, a member of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr found it to be “pretty accurate and factual.”

Carr played a role in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role as minor. He sat up for him one night, saw him but never managed to get a shot.

Here is what he says:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

He had got up in the night  and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

I decided to sit up for him the next night.

My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter.
It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

•••••

Quotes from Adrian Carr come from email correspondence kindly arranged some time ago by Norman Carr Safaris. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr.

See lots of African wildlife in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 4: It Takes a Long Time to Get to Zambia

Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia

Sure, the getting here was miserable. The long haul was more than thirteen thousand kilometers – leave shore over Charleston, South Carolina and don’t see land again until Cape Town. As if the continents were mountain peaks, you slid down the valley called the Atlantic on the flight map. That got us to Cape Town where it never dawned. The gray of winter just brightened up.

Nine more hours of airports, and these were the difficult ones, desynchronosis raging, hours 18 to 26 or so straight in a public place, no time to yourself. Now, finally, Lusaka. Here we are.

We hunt around the Lusaka airport and somehow find a woman who’s going the same place we are. She’s named Beatrice, from the copper belt up near Lubumbashi, Congo.  Up there, there are tons of ex-pats in the mining trade, so it’s a place that needs a travel agent, which Beatrice is. Next we find Ryan, the pilot from Durban, and finally Kitty and Maeva who are also lost and that’s all of us, so we load up the Cessna and head for a town on the Zambian border with Malawi called Mfuwe.

As we walk across the tarmac, Maeva, Kitty and my wife Mirja discover that they’re all three Finns, which is incredible. Three out of six random people in a Cessna from Finland, a country of just five million.

There is a lot of anticipation in this little Cessna.

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

A little more than a vignette this week. A story.

•••••

We ride out to the Maasai Mara in a Cessna Caravan I, Model 280B, drawn theoretically in the safety material to transport twelve passengers in staggered rows of four each but in fact refitted with a bench seat for three behind the pilot then five seats staggered behind, one on each side of the aircraft.

•••••

We have come to watch what we can see of the annual wildebeest migration, perhaps the greatest periodic movement of biomass on earth. Specifically to watch a crossing of the Mara River, in which, if the herd is big enough, invariably a few of its members will fall victim to a crocodile. We are here in fact to watch the brutal murder-by-crocodile of a few wildebeests.

Our guide is Richard, and his approach to finding a crossing is simple enough in the fundamentals: You go to a herd and watch its behavior. If it begins to head to the river, race it to reach the general spot before the herd, but stay back. Wait and watch to see what develops. Approaching the water’s edge too soon is an error. Not only might you choose the wrong spot, but the presence of a big, mechanical thing looming on the cliff might dissuade the herd from approaching.

Richard goes to work without much theory, much book knowledge, but he has worked every day for twenty-five years on his home ground, these same plains.

•••••

Sweeping horizon to horizon vistas here. Showers play across the south end of the escarpment that serves as a western marker of the Maasai Mara. Its southern terminus, easily visible, is in Tanzania.

Each morning as our wake-up coffee comes at 6:00, factory sounds waft across the river, puzzling at first. A pole with a windsock rises from behind trees on the opposite bank. Shortly on the first morning comes the explanation as the shell of a balloon rises over the trees, inhaling hot air from its flame-thrower. It seems that they send up expensive balloon rides from the other side of the Mara River, from the adjacent camp.

In effect that wind sock shows the balloon pilot how long his passengers’ dream ride over the plains will be, for, if it reveals winds blowing straight along the escarpment the ride will be short, the pilots being required to put down before the Tanzanian border, to provide his passengers their wilderness champagne breakfast brought by Land Rovers madly chasing the balloon across the plains.

Richard started out as a balloon driver before he was a guide, all those years ago. Given his not so apparent school training for his driver job I don’t wish to speculate on the training required to lift early-morning clients across the way and carry them about in a fire-powered mylar envelope.

•••••

On these safari trips you spend the first three or four days getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, with which you establish the nature of your new relationship.

Richard, we find, is a man of few words. My wife asks a question ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews, sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

•••••

This morning from a distance we spot two lines of animals moving in the direction of water, and the chase is on. The smaller, closer line moves toward the main river crossing. We take the low road, nearer the river than the hills up on the plain.

Seeing the same movement we have seen, other jeeps early on the plain converge on the same area. We circle the herd on the low road and when they reemerge they are above us, and behind where we expect them to be. They have stopped to graze.

The full, unfiltered sun beats down now, three hours past sunrise. We go to height. This close to the herd we find we need some distance to discern movement.

The herd masses, the rear still a line but the front collecting into a grazing mass. The Serena Lodge perches ungainly on the opposite overlook, a row of prefab chalets not exactly aligned along the ridge.

They come for forty-five minutes, continuously massing, and for all their substance, they seem to whisper. They pronounce the sound of the letter ö but the wind in the trees and bird chatter drown out all but the most fervent.

We shed our morning wraps. The herd grazes. We take a forward position along the river’s edge to eat breakfast in a protected place. Although we cannot see the wildebeests they are close enough above us that if a mass movement starts we will hear (feel) the movement of all those hooves.

The herd moves beyond us.

How does it know where it will cross? There are no individual decision makers, but collectively, it seems to know where it is going. Today’s herd is bigger than yesterdays and a line from the opposite direction moves to join up with them. They seek clarity of mission and they have a destination in mind.

Richard stops the Land Cruiser to raise his field glasses. He sees a “huge group” on a cliff beyond. We have been following our own smaller group all morning but now we abandon them for the chase. We stop, as drivers do, to confer with one another. “Thousands and thousands” ahead, he says.

We speed on.

This is the biggest crossing of the season.

We are surrounded. We are in its midst. A group crowds the water here and another behind us dives, energy and a frenzy of dust and mud and movement, each body splayed out, hooves wide-spread, over and off a cliff many times their height, diving blind into the river. The herd marches ahead. Crocodile jaws, open and evil, claim their due. The herd marches ahead and reconstitutes of the far side, and the whole thing takes half of an hour.

The aftermath continues for an hour or more. Mothers have been rent from offspring. They return to the far bank and look this way, searching for their young. Will they cross back?

A few do recross the river, individuals, at considerable peril. Most do not.

Zebras venture close to the water to drink in the aftermath, even a very small baby. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Must be still sated from yesterday’s crossing. A pair of giraffes approach the water but we do not see them drink.

A line of more zebras comes back.

How many do you think have crossed, five thousand, six? Richard thinks so.

•••••

More photos from Kenya in the Kenya Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Another Africa vignette next Monday.

Even Hyenas Are Cute When They’re Babies

Hard to believe, but true. Consider:

The littlest guy pokes his head up from the nest. Staying close to mom.

 

This guy’s brave enough to stand up all by himself.

 

And the whole clan.

From the Mara North Conservancy, Kenya, just at dusk one afternoon. Click ’em to make ’em bigger. And there are lots more wildlife photos at Earthphotos.com.

Luangwa River, Zambia Bush Notes

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.

But still.

•••••

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.

There are 687 photos of wildlife from Africa and elsewhere in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.