On The Road: Giraffe Spotting

Here is my complete second column in the On the Road series at Three Quarks Dailyas it appeared there Monday.

•••••

It all started with zebras. 

Hard to believe, but sustained, hands-on field work in east Africa only has a sixty year history. Today Hans Klingel is an emeritus professor at the Braunschweig Zoological Institute, but when he arrived in Africa in 1962 Herr Klingel was one of only three scientists in the entire Serengeti.

Klingel and his wife made wildlife their career. Their first mission was to recognize individually and study ten percent of the 5500 zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater west of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Zebra stripes are whole body fingerprints. The Klingels took photographs, taped the photos to file cards and carried them into the field. They came to recognize some 600 individuals.

Their file card technique caught on. In 1965 zoologist Bristol Foster studied giraffes at Nairobi National Park, photographing their left sides to memorize their unique patterns. He glued pictures onto file cards too. From 1969 a researcher named Carlos Mejia photographed and carried cards of giraffes in the Serengeti. Scientists swarmed into east Africa and the game was on.

On the open savanna, giraffes and zebras form a natural alliance. Zebras (and wildebeests, their fellow travelers) benefit from giraffes’ strong eyesight, elevated vantage point and superior field of view. Giraffes have the largest eyes among land animals and can see in color. Their peripheral vision allows them to just about see behind themselves. The next time your safari Land Cruiser rattles around the corner into view of a giraffe, you can bet the giraffe has already seen you.

In turn, giraffes appreciate zebras’ superior hearing and their awareness of the smell of predators. Perhaps because of their distance from the thick soup of ground smells, giraffes’ olfactory senses have fallen away.

A safari guide in Botswana’s Okavango Delta once described to me the most dramatic single wildlife event he ever saw; a fierce squall of giraffe anger led a long-necked posse to kill around ten lions before one giraffe finally went down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he explained, imagine the giraffe, whose foot is wide as a dinner plate. Having perfectly good sense, lions usually give giraffes wide berth. Except at the water hole.

Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey their surroundings at length and in great detail before they commit, for they will require time and effort to splay into the ungainly, legs-spread stance they need to get their mouths to the ground, and then more time to clamber back upright. Fortunately they needn’t drink more than every second or third day, because to counter the peril at the water hole, giraffes have learned which leaves yield the most moisture.

Nobody else except the largest elephant can reach twenty feet into the trees. There isn’t a great deal of feeding competition up there, so serene, heads in the clouds, giraffes can be discerning eaters.

If you weigh a ton and a half, you’ll need to eat a lot of leaves. You may spend three quarters of the day feeding. In Portraits in the Wild, Cynthia Moss writes that no more than five to thirty minutes of a giraffe’s day are spent sleeping.

Using your prehensile lips and half-meter prehensile, muscular tongue, you take a branch in your mouth, pull your head away and the leaves come with it. Your preferred leaves are thorny acacia, which contain some 74 per cent water. You grind the thorns between your molars.

Scientists like that word “prehensile” because it is obscure. It just means “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, with our opposable thumbs.

•••••

At the border of the Luangwa Park in Zambia it is jarring to see people and giraffes sharing the road. The giraffes have eaten the leaves on the other side of the river inside the park, forming a browse line. The trees are bare of leaves below a line as distinct as the bottom of the clouds, while the other animals fight it out for food on the ground.

Giraffes aren’t out to hurt you, so workers, kids on their way to school, occasional automotive traffic and giraffes share the road, if gingerly. Most unusual.

You’ve seen squirrels, maybe rabbits, dart onto the road in front of you, become confused and run straight ahead instead of ducking off to the side. Once a giraffe did just that in front of our vehicle near a bush camp on the Luangwa River.

A laptop had disappeared from a rondavel in camp a few days before. We happened upon two boys in deep woods, a place they surely shouldn’t have been. Caught out, they dropped their backpack and crashed away into the bush. Inside the backpack, the laptop. In the ruckus a thoroughly alarmed giraffe stormed onto the road ahead of the LandCruiser.

If giraffes ran like most hoofstock their extra-long legs would get tangled up, so when they run they move both legs on one side and then the other. All four of a giraffe’s legs leave the ground at once.

This is called “pacing” and has the visual effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion. In fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” Arabic for “one who walks swiftly.”

Excited as we were to return the stolen laptop, we didn’t intend to alarm the giraffe, but it was long gone. In short bursts, giraffes can put up speeds of 35 miles per hour. This one surely did.

The giraffe’s front legs are longer and stronger than its hindquarters. At a gallop, the power stroke of each front leg sends the neck moving from side to side, leaning ahead, swinging opposite its stride. No other animal has such a neck and no other animal’s neck is so deeply involved in forward movement.

•••••

Why such a striking neck in the first place?

Sixty years before Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that evolution proceeded from the accumulation of small, gradual, acquired characteristics. He wrote that the giraffe “is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit … it has resulted that the animal’s forelegs have become longer than its hind-legs, and that its neck is lengthened….”

Had giraffes cried out for another explanation (and they didn’t, they just kept chewing acacia leaves), Darwin came along to give it a try. “The individuals which were the highest browsers and were able … to reach even an inch or two above the others, will often have been preserved. … These will have intercrossed and left offspring…. By this process long-continued … it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.”

Lamarck’s and Darwin’s adherents still battle it out. Lamarck is lately staging a bit of a comeback.

Allow psychology professor David Barash to enter the debate and posit that they’re all wrong. To Barash it’s all about sex.

Younger males’ neck musculature grows visible in maturity, signaling their readiness to challenge for mating privileges. With females in estrus, male giraffes stand shoulder to shoulder and wield their necks as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

They hammer each other neck-to-neck in turn until one cedes dominance. Barash speculates that longer necks lead to dominance, more mating opportunities, and so are passed along genetically. He calls it “necks for sex.”

Beyond the grand debate, there are simple enough ways to circumvent any generations-long path to giraffehood. Craig Holdrege, director of the Nature Institute, points out that to eat leaves, goats simply climb trees.

•••••

Baby giraffes are almost entirely vulnerable. At least half are killed before they reach their first birthday. Once in the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we came upon a newborn calf that only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. Mom kept it tight to her side and never took her eyes off us.

But protective maternal instincts can’t cover up the brutality of a baby giraffe’s birth. The calf drops head first some five and a half feet from the womb to the ground.  Vulnerable as they are, calves get right to their feet, in as little as five minutes.

And they grow so fast! Cynthia Moss writes that they can grow nine inches in a single week. Oxford zoologist Dr. Jonathan Kingdon suggests this was “an early evolutionary strategy whereby very large, but relatively defenseless, animals were able to mitigate predation by growing too large for predators to overpower.”

•••••

Giraffes present as above it all, and not just physically. The biologist Richard Estes reckoned that of all the animals, giraffes give the least back to the curious viewer. Implacable, delphic stoicism, maintaining a stance, chewing and looking back at you. 

I think Edith Wharton unknowingly spoke for giraffes: “Make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity – to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”

These are the sentiments of any giraffe.

•••••

Giraffes are a safari favorite because of their utter evolutionary strangeness, but they have a little-known cousin that is stranger still – the okapi, the last large animal discovered by western science.

Further confined than the giraffe, to a single refuge in the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the okapi is the national symbol of the DRC, but you will likely never see one except on the Congo’s 1000 Franc note.

An animal seemingly built by committee, this forest giraffe is donkeylike and tall-shouldered with a thick, elongated neck and chestnut black, glistening coat. Like the giraffe, it paces, and splays its legs while drinking. But the giraffe’s closest relative displays startling zebra-like stripes wrapping around its back end. Inexplicable.

The giraffe’s habitat has fragmented catastrophically (already extinct in seven countries, there are now less than 98,000 individuals left in the world). The okapi’s circumstance is more dire still. The Okapi Conservation Project’s John Lukas estimates there are only 3,000 to 3,500 okapi in the Ituri forest reserve. Lukas says okapi are so secretive and solitary that a ranger may walk 500 kilometers before sighting an okapi in the wild.

Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the okapi in 1887, prompting the British High Commissioner for Uganda to organize a search that failed to find a single animal. 100 years later, Lukas set up his facility at Epulu in Mbuti pygmy territory in the DRC in hopes of breeding okapi.

To get an idea how isolated opaki are, Lukas told me by email, “For the first 10 years we had to fly from Kinshasa to Goma and drive 5 days to get to our field station…. We built (an) airstrip in the middle 90’s but still drove from Goma getting supplies along the way. … In 2003 we started coming in from Uganda to Bunia and either driving or chartering a plane depending on the security along the road.”

For a time, fourteen okapi lived at the project reserve, but in 2012 all of the okapi – and six people – were killed in a two-day siege of the project, the bad guys apparently exacting retribution for a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade and illicit mining.

•••••

One afternoon near Naivasha, Kenya we bounded outside our LandCruiser, excited to behold the largest group of giraffes I have ever seen. We counted 23 on one side of the road and five on the other. 

This was a crowning, exhilarating moment, but as exuberant as the humans may have been the giraffes declined comment, silently cud-chewing, mild-mannered, staring you down, sizing you up, batting an eyelash, inscrutable. Their long curly eyelashes suggested a certain sensitivity.

Like elephants, giraffes and okapi communicate with infrasound, low frequency tones inaudible to humans (and in the case of okapi, inaudible to their main predator, the leopard). Perhaps infrasound accounts for some of the giraffe’s aloof silence. After sixty years of field work, there is still a lot we don’t know.

From afar, giraffes stand out as masts on a dusty sea, triangles on the plain. Watch at distance their stately traverse, waves of heat rising from the savanna. In Karen Blixen’s words, “When cruising, with its gaze on the horizon and high center of gravity, the giraffe hardly seems in contact with the earth.”

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 8: Dining with Elephants

Luangwa Park, Zambia

We’re dining at a long table set on the lawn under the stars. The proprietors, Georgina and Denis, lived in the remote northern town of Broome, Australia (population then 9,000), and Georgina is telling improbable stories about people thereabouts who compete in competitions using whips, extinguishing candles and the like. People, says she, like “Jack the Whipper.”

It’s all silly and we are laughing and gabbling on when, from the other end of the table, Denis cuts us off in an urgent voice. “Georgina, Bill, will you please be QUIET. There’s an elephant right THERE.”

And there are seven. One at the edge of the trees, and as she grazes her way onto the lawn, another and another, then another follow. Denis commands that everybody, including a table of Lusaka bankers drinking over at the pavilion, sit perfectly quiet and still.

They say elephants can’t see much but shapes in the dark, but they can see movement. So there the nine of us sit, immobile and transfixed. The bankers flee to a chalet and watch from a window. The elephants eat their way to not ten feet from the table and you have never thought elephants were so big until you’re looking up at them, stuck with your legs under a table, hoping nobody sneezes.

The night crackles alive. Hyenas call and we can’t flee to our room because the elephants have stopped to eat between here and there. Earlier, a hippo took over the road. Abraham observed laconically as we sat waiting, “You have to give a hippo room to maneuver.” Words to live by.

Once we’re home the elephants put on a hard-to-sleep-after show, tearing at the trees behind the patio, even putting the occasional elephant foot on our stairs just an arm’s length away as we cower and watch through the cracked-open door.

•••••

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 7: Night Drive in Zambia

Site of the new ferry crossing

We cross the Luangwa River at a hand ferry in its first night of operation. They’ve been working on it all day.

Two men sit on a wooden platform mounted on pontoons with us and the Land Cruiser aboard. They work wooden handles to slide the barge along a cable that stretches to the other side of the river, and pull us across.

The grass on the other side has grown to waist high. The Land Cruiser parts it like a ship, until we come around a corner and pull up short to admire a dramatic full moon rise. Then John, the guy in charge of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, swings into action.

An undefined scatter of ground animals scurry around the ground, rodents that would be alarmingly big back home. Turn the spotlight up and dozens of reflected eyes stare back from a stand of impala, who must feel vulnerable, exposed from cover of darkness.

Genets and civets, which are related to one another and to mongooses, the civet more elongated, the genet like a cat with fox ears. The bush baby, or ‘night monkey’, is a tiny primate whose eyes, when caught in the light, glow like the red end of a smoking cigar.

A beehive clings to the side of a baobab. Here is a porcupine.

We’ve stayed out so long it’s cold coming back. These are extensive drives. They might run from 6:00 to 11:30 in the morning and well after dark in the evening. Long past sunset we come upon a sign that reads, “Main Gate, 15K.”

Abraham offers around blankets.

•••••

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 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.

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.

 

Zambian Tales

Here is a bit of my eventual book on travel in Africa. Aubrey is the English name of a guide who helped show us Zambia.

Photo: On safari in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Luangwa

•••••

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.

•••••