Elephants and Flowers

Here’s a story I wrote, some of it sitting in camp as I was experiencing my first ever safari trip. I was doing volunteer stuff at an NGO in Eastern province Zambia, money was tight. When you see people around you with nothing, it’s kind of hard to play the white man and go off to an expensive safari lodge. But there’s one lodge that acknowledges what we’re trying to do and gives us cheap rates, and I split the fare to get there with some friends I’d made, so just after Christmas, four days of adventure.

Ketty
Ketty

Next time I really want to take Ketty. She’s seven (read about her here) and totally deaf, and a joy to be with. She’s so ‘visual’ because that’s her main sense, that I know it would blow her mind to see the animals that are actually the indigenous species of her own country. But like so many others, her family has no money for them to go 150 km and stay in places only the rich can afford. There’ll be a time my dear, you’ll see!



img_0776Drive east to Chipata then North, up into the hills. Vervet monkeys, intent on thieving from our bags when we arrive at reception; hippos doing their hippo thing in the shallows of the Luangwa river. I’m at Flatdogs Camp (take a dog, flatten it, et voila, you have a ‘flat dog’. Which is what they call a crocodile here.)

img_0579I spend an hour or so entranced by the hippos grunting loudly at each other, luxuriating in the cool water and mud, a stone’s throw from where I stand on the riverbank. A metre and a half of monitor lizard ambles past paying me scant attention. This place is different!

(Later in my stay, the guide tells me that most hippo communication is done under water, inaudible to us. So a whole sub-aqua gossip group all day long… ‘how was the grass last night?… sweet… I hear Hippolyta  is in calf again….’ etc etc.)

Lydia looks after me at dinner. Like all the Zambians I’ve met she’s friendly and open; happy to tell me about her life here. Apparently a bunch of elephants were in camp just before we arrived; that leads her into an elephant story.

img_0738Now, back in England if we have a garden or allotment we might get a bit annoyed when our vegetables get eaten by slugs and snails. Lydia’s garden gatecrashers were….. elephants. she tells me how she had a flower-growing field and a roadside flower stall at Mfuwe where she lives. The elephants visited that field on a nightly basis when her crop was blooming; seems they loved the fragrant munching on offer. Lydia would wake herself around 1 in the morning and, to the dismay of  her family and neighbours, beat a large drum for several hours in an attempt to scare them off. Alas to no avail. When an elephant is set in it’s course of action, dissuading it from that course is, needless to say, a major undertaking. Add in all it’s relatives and only a cataclysm, like the earth opening up, is likely to make them rethink their plan. So that flower business failed, but Lydia now has a good living at Flatdogs, ironically cashing in on those elephants!

The rains here, as in most of this part of Africa, have been late. The camp closes for two months soonimg_0706 because parts of it can be under water when the river floods. But this year, as last, the rains are insufficient to make that happen. Weather patterns are abnormal, again. Apparently it used to be that the rains could be predicted, almost to the day. Fields ready to plant, wildlife tuned in and ready. But these last years it’s been getting more and more random, delayed, insufficient rain to swell the rivers so they carry life giving flood waters down to the mighty Zambezi and it’s plains. Perhaps another example of a part of the world, which, with their simple-profound culture living much closer to the natural ways of Mother Earth, paying the price for the reckless refusal to tackle climate change by the so-called more ‘civilised’ countries. No apologies for any perceived political naivety.

I’m woken myself by noisy neighbours at 4.30 am. Ponderous pounding of large feet around the tent, heading for the river. Hippos, off to digest the night’s grazing. Apparently when a bunch of them are in the water they’re collectively called a ‘raft’ of hippos, because the little ones like to crowd surf across the backs of the big ones.

img_0596While I’m on that subject, what’s a group of zebras called? I asked Malama, the safari guide, what on earth kind of camouflage is psychedelic black and white zig zag stripes that make you feel like you ate the wrong kind of mushrooms for breakfast! He laughs and says, ‘I think you just got the point, Tony, look at the herd as they move around together. It’s totally confusing visually, for any predator also. Hard to perceive whether a group or one big scary animal best left alone’. Hence the group name ‘A dazzle of zebras’.

Dawn safari. I have few words, because what I see is hyper-real. Like stepping into a children’s pictureimg_0613 book. And you start to realise…. this is what our planet looks like, smells like, sounds like. Pristine. The dawn sounds of tropical birds, hippos snorting snuffling grunting loud! as we cross the Luangwa river into the img_0687reserve, crocs snaking through the water looking like they’re on devious and highly secretive missions, monkeys casually wandering out of our way; they know the road belongs to them, not the humans. A group of elephants appear out of the early morning haze. I have never before seen an elephant, except at a zoo. This is their world. I’m in paradise, quietly ecstatic at the privilege of just being here, being alive, breathing in the same air as these magnificent fellow travellers on this world of ours.

img_0602This is what will be destroyed by the uber-rich who run the planet to our detriment. But for now, look in wonder; the towering majesty of the giraffe, her liquid eyes languidly gazing back at me from her lofty altitude. The antelopes, I forget how many Malama tells me, Pukus and Impala the only ones I remember. (The Ulingana logo is an Impala that I saw, and took it’s picture, that first morning). The huge flapping ears, big as wings, as the elephants use the veins in the back of them to cool the blood. Whilst of course the Hippos have their mud, glorious mud, to cool theirs.

img_0658img_0719And the lions. Magnificent savage angels with green gold eyes. The first time I saw them, afternoon safari, we swung round into a dry river bed near the main river… and there they were. Crashed out in the sun, some of them lying on their backs like pussy cats, legs akimbo, sunning and snoozing. Why don’t they attack? Malama tells me that they appear to so completely not understand a vehicle with some humans in it, that it’s as if they don’t see us… well they do, img_0671because they look at us, but they don’t get it so they ignore us. But stand up in the vehicle, hang an arm or a leg out the side, and you become prey. Important information later as the lions get moving and are walking within a few feet of us, an occasional glance at us. Not disdain, they don’t do human emotion, more just the bald statement of a class A predator, ‘We’re the lions, don’t fuck with us’.

We go back as it’s getting dark. The lions are getting up. ‘Let’s eat’. We get included into a hunting circle. For an hour maybe, now in darkness interspersed with quick looks using the red light torch, we edge forward towards a herd of Impala. The light briefly picks out hundreds of gleaming eyes, all looking in our direction. A lioness just two or three feet from me, glances briefly, hunkered down on haunches. I think how she could launch herself from that position in an instant and be on us; an easy meal, it’s apparently happened very occasionally!

img_0680Hard to describe the building excitement, the tension. A flurry of activity off to the right. A lion on point has cut out a lone Impala and chased it into the waiting circle, no escape, it swerves away from one lion, straight into the jaws of another. Within seconds there’s a seething mass of lions, more coming to join the melée all the time. The Impala is soon torn to pieces, we’re just a few feet away from chomping, slavering crunching sound of powerful jaws making short work of the feast.

Ha. I’m congratulated by the others on my return. Why? They tell me some of them have been on safari a hundred times or more, and never seen lions kill. I breeze in and my first evening safari I get the action. For sure this is a poor attempt to describe the astonishing feeling of getting drawn straight into the heart of a wildlife documentary!!

We humans are tolerated by the other species here in Paradise. We should be duly humbled. Where is it at, hunters coming in with their high powered rifles and being so far away from what is reasonable, what is right, what is giving due reverence to the goddess, to nature, that they hunt and poach their way through the habitat of these precious creatures? Not only here but everywhere, we surely have to learn to tread lightly if we’re going to prove that we deserve a place on the same planet.