Dreaming In South Luangwa, Zambia

30 June 2018

[Above photo:   A leopard listening for a meal 15 feet from us. We are being very quiet!]

It is 6:30AM and Linda and I are sitting on a deck cantilevered over the broad, muddy South Luangwa River. Actually, since the rainy season is past, we sit above a sandy expanse half the width of the river.  The S. Luangwa is the longest river in Zambia, running 1000km and emptying into the Zambezi.  It reputedly has the largest number of crocodiles and hippos of any river in Africa, which I believe.  The winter sun is rising and the day will be warm and lovely, although at the moment I wish I’d brought my fleece from our tent.

We’re at Croc Valley Camp, aptly named, a lodge stretched along perhaps 1 kilometer of  the river, just across from a similarly-named national park in Zambia (9050 square kilometers). When we arrived at 3PM yesterday and had a beer on another part of the very long deck, we counted 5 crocodiles basking on the riverbank, pods of hippos in the river and sunning on the sand, an African Fish Eagle, a Marabou Stork, a Sacred Ibis, and two Saddle-Beaked Storks.

Croc Valley is busily adding amenities. We stay in an Eco-Tent, a deal at $10/person per night. It is about 9 feet by 8 feet, has a covered porch with a picnic table, twin beds with clean sheets, and a small bookcase for our effects. The shared bathroom is in a separate building about 50 meters away. I get up twice at night, generally, especially after a beer or two. There is a sign saying, “Be careful, wild animals walk through the camp at night.” After my first trip out and back at 2AM I climbed into bed and heard, very nearby, a deep growling and another voice with a strange, guttural bark. Wild dogs (rare) or hyenas (common), I guessed, and shuddered before planning my second foray. When the time came, I stepped out onto the porch and, using my male prerogative, filled an empty water bottle.  Later, as the sky lightened, I walked to the bar/restaurant to get tea for us and had to avoid a darling little puku grazing on the path and Vervet Monkeys, large and small, at play.  Wild it is! The point of this paragraph was to note that one current building project is to put a bathroom at the back of each tent.

We drove here from Lilongwe yesterday, 4 crammed into our X-Trail which previously seemed large enough but is pretty small. Linda repacked the car so that it was like a Chinese puzzle, with our foam mattress rolled up on the floor of the back seat. Chris and Sarah’s two duffels and my two day-packs between the passengers in the back seat left little room to breathe. It was OK and tomorrow we’ll drive to Lusaka for the night and then to Vic Falls. Chris and Sarah fly home to UK from there and we’ll have plenty of room in the car.

We went on a 4 hour game drive yesterday in the late afternoon. Within 15 minutes we saw a giraffe, herds of impala and puku (a slightly larger antelope), a male elephant who charged us, and a leopard. Before we returned to camp in the dark we saw two more leopards, two lionesses asleep under a tree 10 feet from the road, bellies full of buffalo, pods of adult and baby hippos, groups of mother and baby elephants, trees full of vultures near the lion kill, a large herd of Cape Buffalo, another giraffe, a herd of zebra, two Spotted Genets (a large mongoose with a ringed tail), two White-Tailed Mongoose (? Mongeese), and on and on. This park is immense and supports an incredible array and number of animals. Only 10% of it is open for viewing. We both decided we need to pace ourselves, since we’ll be seeing lots of game parks in the next 2 months.

Packing our belongings, discarding and giving away many, was stressful. It always takes more time than one thinks and the decisions are wearing. The drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe was easy enough until the sun went down. We stopped at the Dedza Pottery Lodge to have them pack and ship our pottery home, Linda’s excellent idea, and it left us an hour driving in the dark. The M-1 is a deathtrap at night, literally, and we were exhausted when we finally arrived at Korea Garden, our familiar, clean-but-tawdry digs in LL. The Peace Corps vouchers pay for an “Executive Suite”, which has fabulous water pressure for the shower and a big flat-panel TV on which to catch glimpses of World Cup games, but no dresser.  [I felt for the poor Mexican defender who inadvertently made an own-goal. I recall a Columbian who did the same in a World Cup match years ago and was later killed by outraged fans!].  After dumping our luggage, we went to the restaurant for supper and found our friends from Mzuzu, Renee and Steve, having a drink by the pool. All was well and we settled.

We each had a lot to accomplish in 2 days in LL, especially the PC closure. It is a wonderful organization and all the staff with whom we have had contact have been as helpful as possible throughout our stay.   That stance derives from the Mission (which attracts certain types) and the Leadership, I think.  The Country Director, Carol Spahn, is a wonderful human being, as well as being smart, kind, tough, and beautiful. We’re all in love with her.

I do hope that His Eminence doesn’t eviscerate Peace Corps, as he is doing to so many important programs and government departments. It and Fulbright are probably our best Federal foreign policy initiatives, as both are directed toward friendship, cultural understanding, and exchange of knowledge, not simply raw displays of bullying, brinksmanship, and resource extraction, which seem to be his modus operandi.

I am watching two Vervet monkeys copulate on the wall by the river. The female twists her head to look at the male, as if to query, “Really? Can’t you think of anything else to do? How about a little romance? Get me some flowers? A piece of fruit?” Later, as we are eating lunch on the deck, a little one drops out of the tree right onto my shoulder, then bounds away. An accident, a gesture of friendship, an attempt to get some of the tuna melt I was eating? Likely the last.

This is an auspicious beginning to a long trip, one of Linda’s imagining for years but to which I happily subscribe. It is a dream of an opportunity for us. I am already relaxing but before I completely lose myself in the experience, I must make a reservation to fly home on 28 August! Burma is around the corner, as well!

P.S. On our second game drive we saw a leopard for half an hour. An entire pride of lions (10) passed 10 feet from us in single file, a determined female leading them on their hunt. And a mother elephant with three of her children—a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and an 8 month old. (We know because we saw the birth certificates of each!) What more is there for us at S. Luangwa? Off to Lusaka early in the morning.

P.P.S. Ironically, after rolling into Palm Garden Lodge in Lusaka, I flicked on the TV and there was a National Geographic Special on the Amazon Basin. They were following a jaguar on the hunt. It looked remarkably like what we’d been seeing in the wild, although it was just pixels. It felt silly to watch here in Africa in the midst of similar wildness, even though the photography was amazing.

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