Archive for the ‘Trip II: Zambia and Zimbabwe’ Category

Saturday, September 23

Lions encroached on the camp. A large male killed a dog. A man was gored by a buffalo, literally coming within an inch of losing his life. His wife, son, and mother-in-law got stuck in the mud, had to abandon the Land Rover, and trekked back to camp—as it turned out, stalked by lions the entire way. Later, the man stopped to help another man with a broken-down truck, but it was a trap; held at gunpoint, the first man was stripped of his watch, sunglasses, money, and clothes. Then he was beaten. He survived, but ended up dying in a truck accident later. The man’s wife was left only with her son. Who died when bitten by a poisonous snake.

Well, that was a nice movie to show a planeload of people about to go on safari. Thank you, British Airways. Thank you, I Dreamed of Africa.

A quick summary of what you must go through to get from there (Portland, OR) to here (Zambia):

7 1/2-hour flight to Boston, overnight in Boston.
6 1/2-hour flight to London, Heathrow Airport.
1-hour bus ride to Gatwick Airport, day room at the Hilton.
9 1/2-hour flight to Harare, Zimbabwe.
1-hour wait on plane.
40-minute flight to Lusaka, Zambia.
50-minute drive to Ticha Lodge.

And just like that, you’re in Africa.

We stay in Ticha for just one night, a place to catch up on sleep, then tomorrow morning we’re off to our first camp in South Luangwa National Park.

Tonight: “restless anticipation to be in the bush” will battle against “Jesus Christ, I need to get some frickin’ sleep.” Odds are 3 to 1 in favor of “Jesus Christ, I need to get some frickin’ sleep.”

Unlike on my first trip to Africa two years ago to the month, I am not traveling alone. My girlfriend Leslee is here with me. Half of her greatest fear is over—the flying. A bad back coupled with an entire day in the air equal really bad back. But I’m so glad she’s here.


Read Full Post »

Sunday, September 24

As I fell asleep last night, I noted that there were two indications that we were not quite in the bush yet. First, the guests in the chalet next to us had the satellite dish TV on till 2 A.M. I came all the way to Africa and I still was subjected to Tom Hanks’s “That Thing You Do.” We were staying in Ticha Camp only for the night to adjust to the time zone, and it wasn’t really a bush camp. Second hint that we weren’t quite in the wild: Leslee’s and my dinner conversation featured a “Bewitched” discussion. In it, we decided the second Darren (“Derrrwood”) was not a good Darren, and Samantha was a witch who—in spite of being incredibly powerful—still bowed to her husband (“Sam! I said no witchcraft!”) and her role of housewife. We also decided that we needed to evolve our topic beyond 1970’s sitcoms.

That night, when the television next door finally shut off, I had only a half hour or so before another noise replaced it, keeping me awake still.

All around our chalet, several hoofed animals roamed, probably feeding. Something spooked one and it dashed away, but it soon returned. I lay in the dark, unable to sleep, listening to every soft step. It was a maddening tease for the two weeks to come.

Leslee and I are now in Lalenta Camp. (Lalenta means “you’ve arrived.”) We actually arrived around noon by you’re-in-luck-the-Yugo-factory-just-sent-us-some-parts-and-they-kind-of-fit bush plane. A 15-minute drive took us to camp. Steering us through the Savannah woodland road was Brad, a resident guide for the camp. We passed through a village that had been around since Livingstone. In fact, the good doctor even hired porters from the very same village.

I had read on one of our flights here that Zambians were mostly Christian—80 percent of them—so I asked Brad about it. He said that most were Christian in Zambia, and pointed out a Presbyterian church, which was made of bricks, a Catholic church, made of sticks, and an Islamic house of worship, built of straw-like reeds. God and the three little pigs work in mysterious ways.

Upon arrival at the camp, we were shown to our “chalet.” It looked like more of a hut to me, but I guess the camp wanted to be euphemistic about things. I came to Africa to stay in huts, though.

We were safe. Unless an elephant wanted to eat our porch.

Anyway, our hut featured a thatched, triangular roof, walls of thin reeds about six-feet high, a brick floor, running hot and cold water, and a flush toilet. Mosquito netting hung above each bed and would be lowered only at sunset when the mosquitoes come out. Simple, spacious, and very, very cool accommodations. (Groovy cool, not temperature cool.) Also, in one corner of the camp, near our chalet and in front of a water hole, there was a hide where you could—stay with me here—hide and watch game. A short reed wall encircled the camp; I suspected it was strong enough to keep out only the papier maché elephants.

We got a quick drink as Leslee and I were introduced to Kate and Will who own/run the camp and live in a house with their two daughters about 100 meters from the covered dining area. Incidentally, I asked Kate what the minimum age was for a child to be able to come to their camp. The answer was six if the child only goes on drives, twelve if he wants to go on walks. Any younger than six, and the parents have to rent the entire camp out. Leslee and I also met the other six guests, four of whom would travel with us to our next camp as well.

We all ate lunch then retired to our huts for almost two hours till the afternoon activity. Leslee and I had selected the walk option.

Bathroom attached in the back. Half-inch reed walls for protection.

As we were about to meet the others for pre-activity tea, I noted that unlike all the camps I visited two years ago, this one didn’t give an overall orientation of the camp’s workings, nor did it make you sign a “If I die, I won’t sue you” form. So if I die, I’m going to sue them.

On our walk we were led by Terence, an armed, black park ranger with two wives, sixteen kids, and a very quiet but friendly demeanor. His wives and kids did not accompany us. Unlike Zimbabwe, Zambia parks service mandates that a park ranger accompanies us on walks. I instantly disliked this policy. Another person meant more chance for animals to see us—and run away.

Will served as our guide, Rob and Beth were the other guests walking with us, and Kate served as the caboose. Will told us that Terence was the armed protection, and if there were any trouble, he himself would tell us what to do.

Scenario: Two lions leap out. One eats Terence. The other rips Will’s head off. Will, how do you think the rest of us should proceed? Will? Will?

We took two canoes across a very low-level river that lay just beneath the camp. It was great to be in the bush again, but it was a slightly tame walk if compared to many I had on my last visit. I have a feeling, however, that I was spoiled with amazing encounters on my last trip. And this is one of the great things about a wild safari. You never know what you will or won’t see. For those who disagree, may I present: the zoo.

We saw waterbuck and impala and zebra and puku and a myriad of other game on land. In the river, we saw a good-sized hippo pod and a moss-green crocodile larger than any I saw in Zimbabwe on my last trip. It was maybe six feet long. Still very small compared to what waits out there for tasty tourists like me.

The most exciting part of the walk was witnessing 50-100 buffalo—huge, black beasts with nasty horns curving out then inward. They passed by us in the thicket. Two stopped about 25 yards away and kept an eye on us. Will had said we needed to—

Okay. Sorry. I interrupted myself. A woman’s voice spoke outside our hut as we waited for dinner and I was writing in my journal.

“Hello,” the voice called.


“Come. I think we have a leopard!”

Leslee and I leapt up and threw shoes on. I frantically rummaged through my backpack for a flashlight.

We sped out of the swinging, reed door into the pure blackness, and we followed voices. About 30 yards behind our chalet stood seven silhouettes and a three-foot-high perimeter fence made of reeds.

Leslee and I walked quickly towards them, and we focused our eyes on a spotlight one of the figures was holding. The light’s target was just leaping into a large tree about 75 yards away. My first ever leopard. It seemed spooked by the spotlight, or perhaps by us. We watched and waited. A medium-sized, chestnut colored antelope, a puku, approached the tree, seemingly unaware of the cat above.

But the leopard didn’t strike.

Suddenly, a light in the distance approached. The guests who went on a drive were returning. We signaled with the light, wiggling it in the area we were looking, and the truck investigated. It closed within 10 yards of the leopard in the tree. The engine turned off, and the truck people waited. We, the pedestrian fence people, waited. We all waited. Nothing happened. Someone said, “I think it’s time for dinner.” The pedestrian fence people gave up. I was a little disappointed, because there were a few other antelope grazing within 100 yards of the leopard.

Leslee and I ordered drinks at the bar, and in the middle of the pouring of Leslee’s vodka tonic, someone came up and asked if we wanted to go see the leopard, up close.

“Yes, yes! God, yes!” was, um, not what I said out loud, but we did eagerly follow. Someone handed Leslee some binoculars, and we jumped up into the roofless, doorless, stadium-seating Land Rover.

The leopard was still just outside the camp perimeter, so the drive lasted 15 seconds. A spotlight found some more puku, which all scattered. We stayed with two that stood near the leopard tree. Suddenly, a rustling, and the pukus fled. The leopard pounced. The pukus got away. The spotlight glued itself to the leopard, as it stoically looked around, blinked, and lay down. I imagined it saying, “Yeah. Uh, so what? I missed. It happens. By the way, I really do appreciate the 3000W spotlight on me while I hunt. Really helps. No, it does. Thanks, buddy.”

The night drive—a primary reason I came to Zambia, one of the only countries that allowed it—lasted only 10 or 15 minutes. But it was the highlight of the day. The leopard was gorgeous. Small, too. Only about two-and-a-half feet high, and less than four feet long, head to butt. And we came pretty close to witnessing a kill. And that’s clearly one of the adrenaline rushes here. That’s clearly one of the things that gets injected into your veins and compels you to come back to Africa for more.

Read Full Post »

Monday, September 25

Nothing trusts you in Africa.

You find this out quickly on any game walk. Every zebra, impala, elephant, kudu, lion, and baboon stares at you as soon as you’re a speck on the horizon, or when the faintest scent of you in the air hits their noses. I stood at least 200 yards from eight giraffe this morning and they watched me like hawks. (Well, like hawks with spots and really long legs and necks. Which, I guess, would make them giraffes. So actually, they watched me like, um, giraffes.) And when my group walked closer, they ran. How something so skyscraper-ish in stature can look so beautiful at a gallop is difficult to fathom without seeing. It’s something like giants racing fluidly on stilts.

Leslee and I were woken at 5:30 A.M. for a 6:30 departure; a light breakfast was waiting for us at 6. Cereals and homemade muffins and some bananas and toast. It was chilly when we woke in our mosquito netting, but don’t let that deceive you. I learned last trip that by 8 or so in the morning, your body’s sweating out of every pore. We put on shorts. We took our hats.

Brad was our guide today. Terence led the walk and carried his bolt-action rifle again. Along with Leslee and me were Lisa and Rachel, a very friendly, lesbian English couple. Bringing up the rear was Bishop, a tea bearer.

Terence and Brad took us in the opposite direction of yesterday afternoon’s walk, and we took up our usual straight-line formation so as not to establish too much of a presence.

I asked Brad what animal was directly behind our hut last night as we tried to sleep. I said it made a loud, squishy sound.

“Like someone walking in soggy gumboots?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I replied. I instantly knew he was dead-on with his description, even though I had never heard of gumboots before.

Brad gave his answer. “Hippo. Chewing.”

Brad showed us a lot of things on the walk; he seemed a little more into pointing things out than Will. He showed us multiple clumps of tiny gray sticks bound together in a ball and hanging at the end of branches. Weaver nests. The male bird weaves a nest, and then the female inspects it. If it fails to meet housing standards, the male has to build another. And another. And perhaps another. Until the lady bird is satisfied. (Note to human men: Do not share this fact with human women.) This particular lady bird had demanded three homes.

We also came across some abandoned dung-beetle balls. The dung beetle rolls up found dung (an elephant’s, for example) into a hollow ball, lays an egg in there, and keeps these artificial egg cases underground. I got Leslee to hold two dung balls while I took a close-up with my camera.

“Come to Africa, Leslee! You’ll love it! I’ll let you hold balls of crap! I promise!”

Here, sweetie. Hold this poopie.

After a couple hours of trekking, we stopped for tea. (Tea? Come on. Let’s go see some elephants drink instead.) Bishop sat down with a stick, a piece of soft wood, and some dry elephant dung. With these items and some fast rubbing of the stick sticking straight up between both hands, Bishop made smoke. And smoke was blown on. And smoke exploded into fire. It took about 1 1/2 minutes. It takes me longer to find matches in my home.

I asked Brad what I would need to do I was stuck or lost out in the bush alone, overnight. He said to find a tree or termite mound and stay put till morning. It’s so dark that if you tried to walk, you could easily bump right into an elephant (which, I presume, would proceed to say hello by promptly squeezing you between its foot and the ground). Staying put, however seemed to employ a strategy of “Hey, Mr. Excellent Night Vision Lion, here I am. Do eat me. I’ll wait right here by this tree, the Yum Yum Tree.” So I asked Brad if it would be a good idea to climb a tree for safety. He said no need. I’d be just fine waiting by a tree until light. And then he commented that a lot of people just think of Africa as this gigantic, man-eating buffet.

“It’s not all that dangerous,” he added.

I know Africa’s not exactly Chuck E. Cheese’s, but I’m starting to think I’ve exaggerated the danger in my head. I seen many instances of people, villagers, walking unarmed in the bush. And every time someone who lives and works out here learns I bungee jumped at Victoria Falls, he thinks I’m the bravest person he’s ever met.

Let me amend my analogy at this time. Chuck E. Cheese’s is, indeed, a very dangerous place. Any establishment that invites thousands of kids a week to frolic in their play pen with their shoes off, and invites you to eat pizza five feet away while a giant bowler-topped mouse tries to hug small children, is not to be taken lightly.

We finished our walk and arrived back at camp at 11:15 A.M. Rehydration, some rest, then lunch at 12:30.

A short additional note about last night. Bugs. Do not come to Africa if you’re queasy about the occasional fly on your food, beetles in your mosquito netting, mosquitoes in your mosquito netting, lizards in your sink, ants in your drinking cup, or any of the other various hundreds of creepy crawlies that welcome you to Africa each and every day.

I will tell you that no one here, myself included, is really bothered by the tiny residents. They’re never overwhelming. And you just deal. And it’s such a beautiful, exciting place that you forget about the bugs soon enough. Except the ones that fly up your nose.

This afternoon we headed out in a vehicle for our activity, which turned into a night drive. I was very anxious to go on my first real night drive. To make me even more anxious, last night the guests on their drive had spotted lion, leopard, and a full plate of game.

Tonight, we saw nothing.

Well, a few zebra, a few puku, some birds—Okay, I have to comment here. We’re calling Lisa and Rachel the Bird Ladies. They do love birds. And I mean they are obsessed with them. And I know the guides know this. They’re catering particularly to the bird watching, which prompts the same comments from Lisa and Rachel as they stare fixated through their binoculars (English accent, please):

“Lovely bird.”

“Pretty bird.”


We have nothing against birds. We also believe Lisa and Rachel are fun, nice ladies. But we want to see big game. Not just lion and hyena and leopard, but even the common big game. Buffalo, zebra, antelope. Even the baboon, which are as common as flies here, but fascinating to watch because they’re so human. Birds are, well, tiny. Even through binoculars. The way Leslee puts it is, birding’s like golf. It’s no fun to watch unless you play it.

“Pretty golf.”

“Lovely golf.”


But back to the drive. We stopped for a drink, a sundowner, by a mineral stream. After finishing my Mosi beer (Zambian, pronounced “mossy”), I went behind a big bush. But it was getting dark, feeding time, so instead of facing the bush, I put my back to it. I peed out into the open, scanning for predators.

We drove into the night, the starry white of the Milky Way stretched above us, and one incredibly bright light stood out against the blackness. Venus.

So did we see anything at all in the dark? The spotlight found two servals, sleek, long-legged cats with black spots. A serval’s not much bigger than two housecats put together. It feeds on frogs and birds and other small animals, making high leaps into the air and pouncing down on its prey. We also saw a large spotted genet, something that looked like a mix between a raccoon and a mongoose. Beautiful, with spots and stripes and a ringed tail.

And finally, we spied about four white-tailed mongoose, which looked very much like mongoose. With, um, white tails. Basically, that was it. I was a little disappointed. I can’t help but have the desire to see something big, something exciting. A couple hundred leopards taking down a rhino maybe. I embrace the fact that you can’t always expect to see a lot every time you go out, but I had my hopes up.

I don’t think I’ve completely adjusted to the time change or early-to-bed-early-to-rise schedule either. As the open Land Rover rumbled and bumped down the park’s dirt roads, I kept nodding off. Fortunately, I had enough cognition during one of my waking moments to secure my camera strap around my neck. That left me susceptible to only falling asleep and out of a fast-moving, doorless truck.

At dinner in the open-air main lodge, a hippo emerged from the water, like hippos do every night to feed, and meandered behind the lodge opposite my seat, only 35 yards away. Brad left to investigate, and came back saying it was going to the bathroom. I heard some ground cover being kicked up, and imagined the hippo doing his business, then using his hind legs to cover it up with leaves and dirt like a two-ton cat.

Later, in our tent, I again looked forward to the unpredictable sounds of the night. I was not disappointed.

“I think it’s buffalo. Hear the hooves clomping?” I whispered to Leslee as we lay under our netting. “But maybe it’s the hippo again,” I added. After a few minutes of trying to decide whether shining a flashlight on a hippo would incite him to crash into our hut and redefine our existence as chewing tobacco, I decided to quietly take the chance. I stood up on a chair to peer over the hut’s front wall, and I sent the beam two huts down, about 30 yards, where I thought the noise was coming from. Nothing. Darkness and grass. I slowly drew the light towards me along the ground until it rested on a gigantic hippo, only 25 feet away. Oh. My.

I gingerly stepped down and informed Leslee that a monstrous hippo stood near our front door, chomping on our lawn. No charge ensued, so Leslee stepped up on the chair with me to see Hungry, Hungry Hippo.

After a few minutes of the soggy gumboot show, we stepped down and went back to bed, only to be awoken again by the breaking of small branches behind our chalet: an elephant dining on a tree hanging over the rear of our roof.

After a full day and still jet-lagged, Leslee was restless, unable to get much sleep with Africa’s sound effects surrounding us. I pressed my face against the tent screen, trying to make out the elephant that was munching 20 feet away in the blackness.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday, September 26

I woke at 5:15. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was our hippo friend ensuring we knew he was there. He gifted us with a series of large plops on dry leaves, which means I can now check off “hippo pooing” from my life experiences list.

Before we left Lalenta camp, I got a quick microlight flight in, the same type of motorized glider I flew over Victoria Falls on my first trip. Will took me up for 15 minutes over the park, and since it was still very early and not hot, I could see a great deal of game. Will said that in Vic Falls you’re required to stay above a certain height. He then proceeded to dive to about 20 yards above the river and buzz a large crocodile, sending it scurrying under the water and out of sight.

I wonder if Will does this a lot. I wonder if the crocodiles pray for Will’s engine to fail right about the time he’s over the middle of the river.

Crocodile: Hey, Will. Don’t panic. We’ve gotcha. Here, grab onto my mouth.

I felt like a giant vulture. Except I didn't want them to die so I could pick at their flesh.

We flew over everything from a hyena to buffalo to a herd of 20 elephants. Will pointed out that the hippos are so heavy that they lie in clumps with their heads resting on the others’ backs.

From so high above, they looked like dark, brown bacteria under a microscope.

The entire flight was a beautiful, fresh, bird’s eye perspective of Africa. We buzzed the camp, and since the showers of each hut have no roofs, Will said we’d look for bathers. Alas, there were none.

Then we flew almost level with the camp by the breakfast set-up, which is on top of a steep bank by the river. Everyone was up, dressed, and waving. Except Leslee. I don’t think she’d adjusted to the time yet. And since the flight was so early, she declined to go up after my flight.

Almost immediately after landing, I paid for the flight, which was supplemental to the pre-paid stay, and gave Kate tips for the guides and staff. Then Lisa, Rachel, Leslee, and I flew 12 minutes to Talooshi Camp in North Luangwa National Park, still in Zambia. Rob and Beth (the Scottish couple who left Lalenta Camp a day earlier) were at the strip to greet us with Rick, the manager and guide of the camp. He was white, like most guides, and he took us on a morning walk to the camp. We were accompanied by Rick, an armed park ranger, as well as a tea bearer.

One has to remember that there is no singular Africa. We often equate the landscape with the wide-open, grassy plains of the Mara Mara which advertisers and movies use to stereotype the entire continent.

North Luangwa was unique terrain to me. Very desert-like, with many dark gray, dead-looking trees. It was open, so open that Rick said the group didn’t need to walk in a straight line because the land was so uncluttered that anything could see us coming. This ain’t no Tarzan-jungle Africa. It was also extremely hot, around 90°F, and it wasn’t even 8 A.M. It was dry, yes, but still damn hot.

Everyone in our group, except Leslee, has been on safari before, so everyone’s been wearing the appropriately colored clothes in order to blend in: khaki, tan, brown, green. No white. But when you’re going for a drive, any color is fine. It’s kind of hard to camouflage a big, rumbling Land Rover.

“Lovely bird.”

“Beautiful plumage!”


And yes, we kept stopping for birds. Most of them tiny specks that flew away before we could appreciate their beauty. Leslee and I decided that we must enact a plan against the bird people. Show us a lion. Screw Tweety. It’s not that I begrudge anyone’s passion. I’m just not into birding, and I’m anxious to see animals larger than my foot. But this is our group for four nights here, so I stepped up to Rob and told him Leslee and I would love to see big game.

I noticed that Rick, like every single guide I’ve seen in Africa, was wearing a baseball cap. Why doesn’t anyone have a wide brim like I was told to wear by my safari company? I asked Rick, and he muttered that he didn’t know why he wasn’t wearing a wide brim. But he assured me he really should be. It was kind of like someone holding a cigarette between his lips while saying smoking can kill you.

We walked for about an hour and saw little but a couple warthogs. Oh, yes. And birds. Birds! Glorious birds! The terrain then changed immediately and dramatically. We found ourselves trekking through six-feet-high, dark yellow grass. We couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead or to the sides of us.

“Oh hello, Mr. Lion. Didn’t see you lying there just inches away.”

“Quite all right, tasty human. Mind if I eat you now?”

“Oh, go right ahead.”

“Thanks much.”

“No bother.”

The entire walk so far, desert and grass, had been an all-out attack on our legs by various stickers, sharp twigs and thin, low branches. It was a regular bush thrashing, and I could already see light-red scratches all over my thighs and shins. They didn’t hurt, but Leslee said she wasn’t going to be shaving her legs for a while.

We reached a cliff edge and looked down to see a narrow, shallow stream about 10 feet below. After stopping to look at (Let’s see, what were they again? Oh, yes…) birds, we spied some baboons drinking, a troop of about twenty-five. One of them barked a warning call.

I thought nothing of it, since all animals are afraid of humans. But then Rick excitedly asked, “See the leopard?”

I turned to see a spotted butt dash into the grass with a tail high in the air about 35 yards up the path. It was only the second leopard Rick had seen all season (four months so far). And it was in the daytime, too, unusual for a nocturnal cat.

We also spotted four or five hyena on our walk. So with those and the ones from the microlight flight, and the two leopards so far, I’ve already seen much different game than on my Zimbabwe trip. But I want more. And I don’t mean the kind with feathers.

We arrived at camp, crossing a river that it faced. The camp was very basic: reed huts and a main lodge with the typical tree beams and high, triangular thatched roof. Open sides, of course, which means: Lions, hyenas, come on down! And actually, they do, except when people are present.

We were introduced to Lynn, a nice, young, white Zambian who helps run the camp. (By the way, I point out most everyone’s race because I had no idea what to expect when I came here. I, like most Americans, I suspect, think of a black person when you say Zambian or Zimbabwean. I also assumed all guides and rangers would be white like in all the romanticized portrayals of Africa, which is not the case either.) Not sure if Lynn has a relationship with Rick, but usually it’s an involved couple who run a camp. Which would be my ideal situation if I were living in the bush for six-plus months straight.

The camp, by the way, is built and torn down every year because it’s under regulation to be a temporary structure, and it wouldn’t withstand the rainy season anyway. The reeds would rot and become weak.

Leslee and I were shown our hut, number two, and this year’s architectural improvements for the camp: 1) large, reed blinds on the back that could be rolled up during the day for a wide view of the river and wildlife, and 2) an en suite flush toilet. (Outside our hut stood a large, horizontal oil barrel which fed the toilet with water.)

A single shower within a small reed enclosure had been erected about 20 yards from our door, and we would share it with one or two other huts.

Back inside our new home, we had ample room, two beds complete with mosquito netting, a traditional floor made with clay and buffalo manure, smoothed over hard with mud.

The sink was, well, there was no sink. Just a wash basin and pitcher of water, always home to a number of black ants that were attracted to the moisture—something we were immediately told that we could nothing about. A reed-covered hole in the ground served as our spit sink. We did, however, have a closed thermos of filtered water for drinking and brushing.

This is easily the most rustic camp I’ve been to. And I embrace it as it makes me feel more like I’m in the wild. And in our electronic, automatic, modern world, it’s good to be reminded of a simple life. It’s good to be reminded that “How did people ever live without X?” isn’t that difficult a concept to grasp after all.

A note here about going to the bathroom in a camp. The toilets are usually 5 to 10 feet from your beds. With no door and at most a reed wall as a sight barrier. Whomever you travel with will hear you going to the bathroom. You will hear her going to the bathroom. The other guests, the guide, the rangers, the cooks, the elephants, the hippos, the kudus, the pythons, and the tea bearer being constricted by the python will know what you sound like when you go to the bathroom. It’s just part of the bush. And you don’t care. You’re here much too long to hold it in if you care.

Rick said that hyena and lion come into camp at night. Cool, I said. I asked if we were allowed to part the shutters and shine a flashlight in the direction of sounds we heard. Yes, I was told. Cool.

It’s all walking here. No drives. No canoe trips. “Talooshi” is named for the river that flows in front of this camp.

I blew my nose this afternoon; like two years ago, it’s so dry I can see blood on the tissue.

We went for an afternoon walk, straight from camp, heading upstream at four after meeting at half past three for tea. (It’s so British here.) The ex-mud from the rainy season is so dry that it leaves baked, cracked black surfaces with fissures so large your feet sometimes dip into them. There’s also the added danger of old, dry potholes left by elephants. Not fun for the ankles. The holes look like someone went around Africa ripping telephone poles out of the ground.

We saw virtually nothing on the walk, save for a few hyenas from a distance that fled as soon as they noticed us. A quick tasting of a monkey fruit was had by all, however. They are the size and color of a dull tennis ball, perfectly round and sparsely hanging from branches that were barren otherwise. You pick one off and shake it. If you hear a loose rattle, there’s a good chance it’s ripe. Crack it open, which baboons—not monkeys—often do. If it’s an unappetizing-looking, gross, brown mush, then you can eat it. You suck the flesh off the seed for a surprisingly sweet-then-sour, sort-of-like-apricot, delicious taste. Be sure to spit the seeds out. Unless you’re into strychnine.

At camp, Rob suggested reading Death in the Long Grass, a collection of tales by and about a hunter in Zambia. Rob said it’s pretty much a work of plagiarism, but highly entertaining. I think I’ll try it.

Camp is blessed with many strong breezes, making you wonder if a storm’s approaching. But it’s still a month till the rains come. When the air is calm, black, winged mopane (mow-pawn-ee) bees fly in and pester the hell out of you. I don’t think they bite, but these ant-sized creatures have perfected being annoying, mostly making kamikaze runs at your ears and face in search of moisture.

At dinner, three interesting true stories (always a great and plentiful form of entertainment in Africa):

1. Once upon a time, a Japanese tourist was charged and eaten by a lion. His wife filmed the whole thing, and the resulting footage is now a home video demonstrating what not to do when attacked by a lion.

2. Two years ago, Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter,” came to film in North Luangwa. Rick was his guide at this camp. Rick said that Mr. Irwin was just as energetic and knowledgeable as he appears on the show. Rick was quite impressed with one incident in which the Crocodile Hunter leapt out of the truck and over an embankment known for breaking people’s legs and backs. He was chasing a monitor lizard, which he caught. Then he scrambled up the cliff face to deliver his spiel. When the Crocodile Hunter finished, he asked his producer how it went, and was told he was great. But the camera wasn’t rolling when Steve leapt over the cliff. No one knew he was going to do that. So, the Crocodile Hunter said, “Okay,” ran, and jumped over the edge again, as if after the lizard. Also, Rick told us that when Mr. Irwin first came to camp, no one in camp knew who he was. This made the Crocodile Hunter sad. Maybe someone should have told him that they don’t have cable out in the bush.

3. The BBC also came to Talooshi, to “film the wild naturally.” Only, beforehand they had sent ahead a detailed script. One scene asked for a mother hippo and its very young baby to be out of the water and basking in the sun. Problem is, they don’t really do that. Also, David Attenborough, the narrator, had every single word and reaction and facial expression scripted for him.

As we go to bed, exhausted from another day of amazing nature overload, there’s a low, gentle hum surrounding us: thousands of termites eating inside the reeds of our walls. Sounds like the low snap, crackle, and pop of Rice Krispies in milk.

Read Full Post »

Wednesday, September 27

Last night, I heard lions calling in the distance, a series of low bellows reminding me that they were out there, and that I could come out and find them if I really, really wanted to. Also, baboons barked warning calls just outside camp near the river. Which meant leopard was almost guaranteed to be near.

Leslee seems to be doing better now. She still doesn’t enjoy getting up at 5:30 A.M. every morning, especially on vacation, but I think she’s caught up on sleep. And we do go to bed around 10 every night.

Today was “falls day.” We drove for two hours in the open Land Rover over bumpy terrain. They don’t exactly pave in the bush. We stopped occasionally for birds, of course. Each time was “magic.” Then we walked for two hours. More leg destruction. No game really.

We stopped at a large tree where we were required to make an offering to a great chief who died in battle under it. A woman was required to make the offering, so our tea bearer placed some type of ground meal and tobacco in Leslee’s cupped hands. Leslee then kneeled and placed the items inside the trunk of the tree while saying, “Thank you, Chief Unkengali.”

No big game sighted, though. Somewhat disappointing, especially since we’re not compensating for it by paying attention to the little things like insects or tracks. But I held out hope.

Soon after the offering to the chief, Rick told us that we were about to see a group of hippo and most likely some crocs; the crocs would be scared and dive underwater at our approach, so we were to have cameras ready.

We arrived at a large cliff overhanging a big pool about 40 feet down. I spied one crocodile dash under the water, and a pod of about 40 hippos all headed for the deepest part of the pool where they’d feel safe. Finally, some good pictures. Finally, game that was bigger than my camera.

We stopped there for tea. As usual, Leslee and I drank water instead to hydrate. That the English consume hot tea in 95°F heat is a testament to custom over practicality. I asked Rick if I went down to the water’s edge—not that I wanted to—about 50 yards from the hippos, would they attack me?


We walked around the pool on the cliff, half-circling it for about 10 minutes. We set up camp by the stream/river that fed down into the pool. Our camp was far above and a good distance from the hippos, though. They weren’t even visible.

Everyone slipped behind some rocks or bushes and changed into “swimming costumes.” Then we played around in a mini-pool about chest-high at its deepest part.

There was a second pool just below ours behind some rocks which Rick said he hadn’t swam in for about a year because the last time he dipped in it, a hippo surfaced from beneath him. They can stay submerged for half an hour (crocs for three hours), Rick told us. (Though further research places a hippo’s maximum time under water from six to eight minutes.)

We all swam and slept and ate lunch and read and wrote for three and a half hours. I had sunblock on, but some of it must have washed off because I got a little burned. (Why does waterproof sunblock say “reapply after swimming”?) I will, however, return from Africa as the whitest bwana you ever did see. I always wear a shirt, and a hat, and sunblock. Hmmm. I sound like an ad for the National Board of Dermatology.

“Hello there. Are you a honky going to Africa? Be sure to cover up. Embrace your lack of melatonin, my friends. And remember, SPF 1500 or higher. This message has been brought to you by Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread. It’s almost as white as you are!”

We walked back to the truck—another two hours in the unforgiving heat—which meant animals would be resting in the shade, hidden from us. We saw no game again, save for a few waterbuck.

Every time I walk behind Rob and Beth, I worry about the medical credibility of Scotland. Rob doesn’t wear a shirt or sunscreen, and Beth wears an open-backed tank top with no sunscreen (or bra). Their skin looks like very old, untreated leather. And they both work in a hospital. Rob’s a surgeon; Beth, a nurse. Rob also wears open-toed sandals on almost every walk. I don’t know how that doesn’t hurt in this terrain and brush. Beth also said she (and I suspect Rob) doesn’t wear any bug spray. They lived here for over a year in the 70’s, and this is their sixth straight year on safari. I think they’ve adopted the philosophy of “always worrying about bugs and lotions is too much trouble, and detracts from the enjoyment.” Leslee is the exact opposite. I’m somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards using sprays, but worrying less. Because no matter what you do, you’re going to get bit. Rob has dozens of bites on his back and legs, evidenced by red welts the size of pinheads to peas. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

I like Rob and Beth. And Rachel and Lisa. They’re all incredibly friendly and fun. My last safari left me with the impression that Brits were stuffy, in attitude and culture (and since that was my first time abroad, it was my only first-hand impression). But no one in this camp puts on make-up or an evening dress for dinner. As it should be, because this is where wearing dirt to meals is expected. Not that anyone ever gets filthy. We all shower at least once a day.

At the end of our walk, there was a new truck waiting for us with three or four park rangers. Larry, our group’s ranger, had to go home. So he was replaced by Gilbert. Larry was about 5’4” tall. Gilbert was about 6’. It was probably better that now our ranger could actually see over the grass.

It was late, about five o’clock or so, which meant our trip home became a partial night drive. The highlight was a hyena which, when the spotlight found him, turned out to be only five feet from the vehicle. We also saw an elephant shrew, which resembled a large mouse with a stubby trunk.

At drinks before dinner, Rick said tomorrow would be big game day. Praise the Lord! Thank you, Jesus! Can I have an amen?!

Back at our hut/chalet, it literally took Leslee and me five minutes to figure out it was Wednesday, not Monday. A good confusion.

As I lay in bed, Snap, Crackle, and Pop played in the reeds beside me.

A baobob ornamented with weaver nests.

Read Full Post »

Thursday, September 28

Last night’s noises in the darkness were brought to you by spotted hyenas on either side of the camp, and very, very close lions that enjoyed moaning. An Aaron Spelling production.

It’s big game day, everybody!

And, well, we began big game day by stopping to look at, well, birds. But not just birds.

“Pretty birds.”

“Lovely birds.”


Rob likes to stop every once in a while and inspect things on the ground. I’m at the “identify most big game at a distance” level in my wildlife knowledge. Rob’s at the “pick up dung, break it open and identify the owner and what he had for breakfast four days ago” stage.

Most of the tourists on safari are U.K. residents. Their home is such a cultured land where they’ve killed off virtually all the wildlife (not that the U.S. can brag), but when they go on holiday, it’s to one of the wildest, most contrary places. There’s obviously a strong colonial tie to many African countries, and much of the safari is very English oriented.

Though I wonder what would happen to tourism on the African continent if tea were banned.

This morning Leslee tried to combat the low branches of our walk with long pants. She was successful and doesn’t overheat like I do. I opted to endure more scratches and remain cooler with shorts.

The terrain here is mostly savanna woodland, and it includes wide-open stretches of very short, brownish-yellow grass and sand, randomly dotted with dark brown clumps of dung. It’s like walking across a giant, dry, chocolate chip cookie.

We saw impala and buffalo and wildebeest, but all at a distance. Few animals in this area are used to humans, and they’re so skittish that as soon as you appear on the horizon they perk up, then run. I think that’s because fewer tourists come to this park. It’s good for the game because it’ll keep them more wary of people. It’s bad for bwana Dylan because he won’t get as good photographs. But it’s good for bwana Dylan because he won’t have any trucks or tourists in the backgrounds of his photographs. Bwana Dylan is undecided on whether, overall, this is good or bad.

It’s Gilbert, Rick, we six guests, and the tea bearer on these walks. Couple our large numbers with the distrusting nature of all the game, and our khaki clothing and soft stepping don’t seem to make much difference. We could be white-robed KKK clansmen singing “My Bologna Has a First Name” and we’d be just as stealthy.

Overall, I was still unsatisfied with my sightings so far this trip. Though Rick did show us leopard marks on a tree it had climbed many times. Basically, the marks were short, thin cuts where the bark had been stripped away. I spread my fingers, placed my hand next to the gashes, and winced.

We stopped for tea, sitting under a big, shady tree next to an abandoned termite mound. And things happened.

As we rested there quietly and with little movement , a small herd of impala approached to graze. One female in particular came very close to us, maybe 30 yards away.

“Lion,” Rick whispered excitedly. I whirled around with my camera, and out on the grassy plain a pretty large male with a mane walked to our right. It was about 500 yards way. Too far for pictures, even with my 300mm zoom, but close enough to enjoy thoroughly through binoculars.

Zebras, wildebeests, and five old male buffalos wandered and grazed at a medium distance to our tree as well. I spotted a bush snake slithering between the two trunks of our tree. It was a dark greenish-brown, the diameter of a drinking straw, and about a foot in length. Harmless.

A warthog. Imagine a pig that can run 34 mph with slicing tusks.

A few warthog lay under a tree in the shade about 50 yards away. They left and another warthog replaced them. I maximum-zoomed and took a few pictures. Suddenly, the warthog—which is a short, gray, boar-like creature with tusks—sprung up and began moving. Towards us. Ten feet closer. Twenty feet closer. Ten more feet closer. It seemed to be investigating us, and stopped about 15 yards away and faced me. Picture perfect. Everyone held motionless and silent. Then the warthog bolted away, kicking up a small dust cloud. I suppose it finally noticed us. Rick said that the warthog’s sight is bad. So I guess it had to get very close to figure out we were in the “Oh, shit! Run away!” category of animals.

More impala approached, sensed us, and took flight. The closest female from the earlier herd had joined them, but didn’t flee. We all packed up and started heading in its direction. It barely moved. We walked closer, and closer. And when our ranger, Mark, stood about 15 feet away from this 100% wild animal in its natural environment, I turned around to Leslee and shrugged slightly with a smile.

As if its leash were suddenly cut, the lone impala started leaping high in the air away from us, kicking its rear legs in mid-leap. King of like saying, “Look at me. I’m a healthy, strong antelope. You don’t want to eat me. Oh, no. Too much trouble. Yes, definitely too much trouble. Now put those nasty claws and fangs away. We both know this chase is silly.”

On the walk back, we saw a fish in the very shallow Talooshi. It was swimming towards us as we walked along the raised river bank. As it swam closer, I could tell it was actually a greenish brown snake, about two feet long. It stopped right below us and two legs popped out on either side. Not a snake, but a Nile monitor lizard. It can grow over six feet long.

We arrived back at camp, lunched, and rested till 3:30. The typical routine. Nothing moves in Africa during midday.

Wildebeest are bearded antelope. Necessitating lions and hyenas to use toothpicks.

That afternoon, we continued the big-game theme. But not much cooperated. We did see a good-sized wildebeest herd—they look sort of like small, thin, dark cows with horns curving inward. We walked parallel with them for a bit. I asked Rick if anything hibernated in Africa, maybe in the cooler regions? (Does Africa have cooler regions?) He said it’s too warm for anything to hibernate, but a few things “disappear” for long periods of time. One of them is the lungfish. They dig a hole in the sand and just sit hidden in there for six months to a year when there’s no water. When it’s wet again, they spring to life.

Since this isn’t my first time in Africa, and because we’re coming across a lot less game, I’ve shot a lot less film. Less than seven rolls so far. And this is my fifth or sixth day here. I’d shot at least twice that much by this point last trip. Not that I’m only here for the pictures. If you spend too much time looking through a viewfinder, you won’t see Africa. It is good to be reminded that wildlife isn’t served up on a platter, too. That’s the real world, real nature.

I also contemplated bringing a video camera on this safari. But most things here are stationary, and it would have just been more hassle.

At dinner, we talked about the Olympics in Sydney, which were almost over. It was a better topic than two years ago, when every non-American asked me about Clinton and Lewinski, as if the U.S. government handed out a brief to every citizen with all the details.

Rick told us what he does in the off-season, too. November through December, he guides paleontologists in Zambia, searching for dinosaur fossils. And January through May, he and Lynn work at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. He must cry himself to sleep every night.

Read Full Post »

Friday, September 29

For the first time, I slept soundly and straight through the night last night. Not that this was necessarily a good thing. One of my favorite aspects of Africa is listening to the unscripted sounds in the dark. A long, drawn-out hyena whooping isn’t exactly boring.

I did have a nightmare about my older brother being the target of a terrorist bomb, then, escaping that, handling a black mamba snake and getting bitten. (The son in “I Dreamed of Africa” died after purposely handling a snake.)

The bad dream, one of several this week, may be a side effect of Larium, the U.S. prescription for preventing malaria (not 100% effective). But I have horrible, violent, replete-with-death dreams regularly, so I’m used to it. Today, incidentally, is the one day of the week I take my Larium pill.

I’m not worried about malaria. First, I doubt I’ll get it. Besides taking the pills, I am using bug spray. And even if I did get malaria, I could just get treated for it. The malaria prophylaxis have long-term usage effects (bad ones), so the people who live in malaria-risk countries don’t use anything.

Leslee knew a guy who traveled to Africa and returned with malaria, and she said he was infected for life. So this, um, kind of concerned her.

This is the last full day at Talooshi Camp. Rick is a good guide and knows his stuff but, like the Lalenta guides, hasn’t seemed nearly as enthusiastic and in love with Africa as my Zimbabwe guides were last trip. It may just be the guides’ individual personalities, but it still takes a little of the fun out of the experience. I wonder if having four other guests who have all been to Africa multiple times (and to this same camp) puts Rick into a routine or “not try as hard” state of mind. He hasn’t explained a lot of the basic details and behaviors of animals on our walks. I wished for my sake—and especially Leslee’s—he would.

At breakfast, I asked Lynn—who cooked and supervised all the delicious meals, by the way—if they’d had any recent unwanted visitors in camp. She said a hyena stole one of the books in the main lodge and left it in the grass with a couple of bite marks. Then she showed me the long, three-foot-high aluminum refrigerator behind the bar. In the top right, front corner were many small dents and punctures, hyena bites as well.

“Honey, I’m just going to the fridge to get a drink…Honey, there’s a hyena already at the fridge…Honey, the hyena’s leaving with my leg. Can you get me a Band-Aid?…Honey?…”

No more than 15 minutes into our trek, we spotted seven lion cubs (about seven months old) with four full-grown females. Beautiful. Completely wild. Not easy to find. I only saw them for a moment before they dissolved into the tall grass. But a glimpse was enough to enjoy it.

Rick also pointed out some 6” diameter clearings in the leaves that littered the ground. The cleared spaces lay two or three feet apart, and were created by an elephant shrew during the day. It moved the leaves away so it could jump silently down its makeshift path at night. It had to. Some birds of prey hunt entirely by sound.

As we crossed the river, I spotted our ranger, Gilbert, reaching down and scooping water into his mouth. (And Leslee and I were worried about our clothes being washed in the river water.) It showed again that Africa may not be as deadly as we’re led to believe in the West. Although I’m still going to drink the filtered water.

We approached a large tree with a series of roots that seemed to hang down from the branches and trunk.

“Good python tree,” Rick said and cocked his head back, peering up into the dense branches. “Oh, look. Python.”

We all looked up towards where he was pointing. Near the top, 25 feet up, lay coiled a python. Big. About seven inches thick. Motionless. Well camouflaged. I couldn’t even find its head.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen a snake in Africa, and I’d heard you very rarely do. But Leslee later told me she was in our bathroom and saw one (which we learned was harmless), and I saw the bush snake yesterday (harmless), and Rick filled us in on cobras and black mambas (not exactly harmless). And now this magnificent python, the largest snake in Africa (but harmless). I asked why this was a good python tree, and Rick said because it was not a fruit-bearing tree, so no birds or monkeys would be bothering the snake; also, it had good shade, and a network of branches with two adjacent trees for easy access to new locations. And finally, it was near water, which the python would slither into for a swim or to drink.

According to Rick, from the tree the python drops down on its prey, which can be as large as a warthog or small antelope. And since the tree provided such a comfy home, the snake might spend seven years there.

The narrow paths we use in the bush are a series of cleared walkways of dirt and sand. But they’re not man-made, despite looking like any path you’d find in your favorite city park. Animals trudge through the bush, making these very convenient trails. And these paths are everywhere. Africa looks like it has the best bike paths in the world. Except ringing your bell won’t keep an elephant from charging you. Ding ding. Splat.

We stopped for tea (water), and I noticed that even though it was easily over 90° F again, when you sit in the shade you’re not hot at all.

Soon after we resumed walking—ugh, hot again—we approached a big pool that the Talooshi flowed into. And it was jam-packed with hippo. They all quickly moved into the center and deepest part of the water (again, no one trusts humans here). A lot of them submerged. And two things surfaced: hippos to check if we were still there, and a whole lot of hippo dung. Big, wet, brown, smelly hippo dung. But I only found the scene amusing. Hand me another roll of film, please. I’ve found hippo joy.

Just 200 yards away, under a shady tree on the edge of the thick bush, sat Lynn. She had a table all decked out with lunch. Obviously, the hippo location was pre-arranged. After I ate, I asked Rick if I could wander over to another pool closer to us. He said yes, but not to go as close as the water’s edge. I had spotted small crocs, but, as usual, when I approached they slid off the bank and under water. I asked Rick if they were afraid of me, or hiding to make a meal of me. They were afraid. Damn. It would be cooler to be thought of as meat.

The afternoon walk was pretty much uneventful. Rick told us the plan: Find the lions we saw this morning. So, as we set out to track lion in the wild African bush, Leslee naturally felt it was necessary to talk to me about some table linen she’d bought for our new house.

Stickers and sticks and low, thin branches scratched against old scratches. All the irritation on our walks was superficial, however. Although a few of us have been wearing long pants of late, and occasionally I would spy a thin trickle of blood running down a leg.

The one significant game sighting was a large herd of buffalo, around 150 of these black, big-horned cows with attitude. One was horribly crippled, limping, and covered with oxpeckers, birds that sit on big game and peck at insects and wounds. This here was a big ‘n’ tasty all-you-can-eat buffet just waiting for lions to belly up to.

We approached. Then we approached some more. Then we approached some more. A whole lot of 1000+ pound, snorting buffalo were looking straight at us. And we stood in the open. But Rick informed us that, alone, a buffalo is extremely dangerous. In a big herd, there’s safety in numbers. They feel safe. So we humans can feel safe. This herd was aware of our presence. No danger, Rick said. But I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous.

No lions came. We left.


I realized that the bugs and heat were bothering me more on this trip. Partly because they were bothering Leslee, and so I constantly was made aware of their existence; but I was mostly bothered by the “discomforts” of Africa because I was not seeing the game I so loved. When I track lion, stand watching a herd of elephants drinking, or watch a baboon run around with its baby clinging upside down to its belly, I am oblivious to the heat and the fly that’s trying to see just how far much blood he can suck from my calf.

But these last two days have been better, and we’ve got six more nights after this evening.

Tonight at dinner, it was brought up that the Western world hears virtually only negative things about Africa. War. Poverty. AIDS. And that list is so incomplete to the whole story. Not that I’d ever expect to see a newscaster say, “Today in Africa: Two couples went on safari. They saw an elephant. They had a wonderful time. Homemade bread rolls awaited them back at camp. Back to you, Jim.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »