BEST FOOT FORWARD
Text and Pictures by Dale Morris
To stand close to a fully-grown wild elephant is a very humbling experience. To find oneself in among an entire herd is nothing short of petrifying.
“Do you think they will charge at us?” I asked Debbie Tittle, my guide. “After all, they did suffer a fair bit of poaching here in the past, didn’t they?”
“And elephants never forget,” she whispered with a wry smile on her face.
I was on a four-day walking safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park with one of the country’s top guides, and so far we had seen all manner of iconic African beasties including hyena, giraffe and crocodiles. But none of those encounters had been sufficient preparation for the sight of 20 or so pachyderms lurking in the bushes, mere metres away. We were almost on top of them and I hadn’t seen or heard a thing.
“It’s amazing how quietly they move, isn’t it,” Debbie whispered.
A veteran of bush ambling, Debbie was by far the most confident, calm and charismatic safari guide I had yet met. She was quiet and composed and exuded an aura of peaceful competence; unlike some male guides I’ve met who tended to dominate the environment and their clients with their brash macho confidence. I immediately felt comfortable and safe with Debs, despite her not carrying a gun and being slight of build and very unassuming.
“Shhh, now,” she said gently in response to my jumpiness. “I understand you might be anxious, but you mustn’t worry too much. They haven’t seen or heard us. Should this breeze change direction, however, they could become a little windy.”
“What does windy mean?” I whispered in my quietest voice, just as the nearest elephant let one rip and my nostrils took in a medley of less than subtle aromas. I couldn’t help but let out a nervous giggle.
The vegetation along the banks of the Luangwa River was thick and tangled, a dense forest of brush and leaves, which effectively reduced visibility to zero. As a result, all I could see of the elephants were some wrinkly knees, a few dangling trunks, and one very large swinging penis.
“Shhh,” Debbie said again, with a little more force this time. “Windy means agitated and possibly dangerous.”
I stopped giggling and pursed my lips as tightly as an oyster shell.
Baron Nvoju, the armed escort component of our four-man hiking outfit, had already plotted a safe route past the herd and was silently creeping ahead using tree trunks as cover. Eventually he stopped, put down his gun and beckoned silently for me to follow. He held his finger over his lips to indicate I mustn’t make a sound.
It was the longest and most enlivening 50 metres I have ever had to walk and I could only hope that the sound and smell of the elephants’ flatulence would mask my own similar outputs.
“Fantastic, eh,” asked Debs rhetorically after catching up. “Just the sort of encounter one hopes for. But now I think it’s time for a cup of tea and a scone.”
As if by magic, Eric, the ‘tea bearer’, appeared at our side and started preparing a refreshing repast (complete with chinaware, cakes, doilies and silver cutlery). To be frank, I felt a little underdressed for such opulence in the bush and wished I’d grown a handlebar moustache and brought my pith helmet along for the occasion.
“It’s all a bit, how should I put it, colonial, what-what?” I said as we sat atop a vantage point on the river to watch the elephants gathering below for their own version of high tea. But Debbie pointed out that Eric wasn’t there just to pander to my very English whims, it was also to watch and learn and observe the ways of guiding in the bush.
“I’ve been in charge of training guides in South Luangwa for many years,” she told me while a group of floating hippos made rude noises at the elephants. “Being a tea bearer is a necessary precursor to becoming a fully-fledged walking safari guide. It’s a two-year stint, during which he will learn from experience and observation about wild animals. He will learn how to react to them and how they will react to us, how to manage himself and our clients in potentially hazardous situations, and how to walk with confidence among what most untrained people would consider to be highly dangerous beasts. If Eric passes this phase, we will then begin his proper training as a guide.”
The babies of the herd began flinging mud at the hippos, using their trunks, while a rambunctious adolescent chased a crocodile into the water.
“More tea?” asked Eric.
I felt humbled as I accepted a fresh cup of steaming Darjeeling from the bone china teapot which he’d brought to me via an obstacle course of crumbling river banks, impenetrable vegetation and potentially homicidal herds of elephants.
It was the best cup of tea of my life.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” said Debs as the hippos retreated into deeper water under an onslaught of splishing splashing eles. “This is what Luangwa is all about.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. Beautiful it most certainly was.
South Luangwa National Park is one of Africa’s most wild and untouched regions; a 9 050 km2 valley bordered on one side by the Luangwa River (a tributary of the mighty Zambezi) and on the other by a series of gently rolling hills. As such, it is home to a great diversity of plants and animals and supports the largest concentration of hippos in the world.
It is also home to Robin Pope Safaris, a 5-star operator with a plethora of beautiful and opulent safari houses, lodges and camps situated in exclusive concessionary areas within the park itself.
The mobile camping safaris for which South and North Luangwa Parks have become deservedly famous, thanks in part to the skills of Debbie Tittle, are a fantastic way of experiencing African wildlife since you do it all on foot.
Every night a special camp is erected for you in the bush, chefs are on hand to cook up a feast of delectable dishes (the smell of which must send the local wildlife into dribbling fits), and the tent in which you stay is hardly a tent at all, it’s more like a chalet with a canvas top.
Again, it’s all very reminiscent of the Livingstonian days of colonial exploration in darkest Africa; an image that is kept alive in part because it appeals so much to tourists.
“And it’s tourists and the money they spend that helps fund the conservation efforts here while creating and sustaining jobs such as mine and Baron’s and Eric’s,” said Debs as we continued our walk.
The camps that I stayed in while on Deb’s walking safari might well have been luxurious, but sleep still didn’t come easily out there in the ‘savage’ bush. Lions roared, frogs croaked, hyenas giggled and elephants rumbled like distant and ominous thunder. It was all very exciting, lying out there under canvas, eyes open wide, listening intently to the wilderness symphony. But it came with a price tag; bags under the eyes and a desperate need for Eric to continually top up my coffee mug the following morning.
Mind you, that said, there were plenty of metaphorical espressos out there in the bush that bolstered my adrenalin and awareness levels better than any caffeine injection could have done. Often, while out walking or at the various camps, the Debs, Baron and Eric team would casually inform me that a leopard was just around the next corner, or that a herd of buffalo were behind some nearby bushes. They even walked me in on a pride of lions. On purpose, if you’ll believe that.
Every animal encounter we had, be it with a diminutive elephant shrew or a shrewd and massive elephant, was magical, and made more so by the fact that I was on foot and not encased within the confines of a car. It made me feel vulnerable, which in turn, made me feel alive and focused. But should anything have gone awry (such as an enraged pachyderm bearing down upon us), I was confident that Debs and her team would steer me safely out of harm’s way.
“Despite what you might have been told, it’s not really that perilous out here in the bush,” Debs told me as we sat by a bend in the river watching two big hippos attempting to gouge each other’s eyes out with their dagger-like tusks. “It’s just that wild animals don’t like to be surprised. As long as you understand that, and move quietly and cautiously with your senses wide open, everything will be fine.”
I learned a little from Debs on how to use my ears and nose to ‘see’ the landscape through which we walked, and I quickly grew to understand that if I wanted to have safe and special encounters with wildlife, I would have to become very humble. Like her, I suppose.
Silently we walked. Quietly we concealed ourselves. We were aware of wind direction, of the sounds of our footfalls and the smells all around us. And we treated all the animals and plants (insects included) with respect.
“If you can be aware of an animal before it is aware of you, you will be in the best position to observe it safely,” said Debs.
She proved herself right for the umpteenth time on my last evening in Luangwa by silently guiding me to the top of a rise below which another herd of elephants had congregated to take an early evening dust bath. It was a wonderful scene and, despite their close proximity, I felt more relaxed and much safer than I did during my first on-foot encounter with their ilk.
I also felt aware. Debs had taught me to open my senses and open my mind to the wilds, and it was as if everything around me had become apparent. The slight breeze on my face from the west, the smell of dust in the air, the personalities of the elephants, and the birds and insects all around – I could sense and feel them all. Or so I thought.
That’s when Eric, unheard, sneaked up behind me. “Darjeeling or Earl Grey?” he asked, causing me to jump out of my skin.
Obviously I still had a long way to go.
Maybe next time I’ll sign on as a tea bearer?
South Luangwa National Park www.zambiatourism.com
Robin Pope Safaris www.robinpopesafaris.net
Source: Country Life