August here at Wildlife Camp is the month of the Spotters.
Less Salt More Herbs Month???
I recently became aware that months are used these days to promote any cause under the sun. If it’s not “National Water Quality Month” in one country, it is “Month of Language” in another. The Americans use August for “Goats-Cheese Month”, “Audio Book Appreciation Month”, “Happiness Happens Month”, “American Adventure Month” and the list continues… “Less Salt More Herbs Month…” “National Catfish Month…” “National Golf Month…” “Foot Health Month…” So, I hereby declare August here at Wildlife Camp the “Month Of The Spotter.”
What does a spotter spot?
First, let me explain what exactly a ‘spotter’ is: A spotter is a person that sits next to the guide on a night safaris. After dark, it is his job to find nocturnal animals with the help of a spotlight. They pick out eyes that reflect differently in the light to distinguish the diurnal game from the nocturnal game. These rare talents are the unsung heroes of any safari. So much depend on them and their eagle-like eyes, yet it is often not them that get the credit for the ‘leopard in the sausage tree’, the ‘pearl-spotted owl in the thickets’ or the ‘lioness with her cubs in the tall grass.’ These guys often form great partnerships with the guides who they spot for and their knowledge of the South Luangwa Valley is outstanding.
So, without any further adieu, let me introduce the 5 Wildlife Camp spotters and ask them about their unique after-hours activities.
First on the list is Margomelo Phiri, a.k.a. Margo. Margo spots for Phillimon and there are whispers in the village that he is the sharpest spotter in the Luangwa Valley.
Margo started spotting in the year 2000 and has never looked back – excuse the pun. During the day Margo is a gardener (here at Wildlife Camp) and at night you’ll find him on a Wildlife Camp Land Rover with a spot-light in his hand. When I asked Margo about the scariest situation he has ever been in while spotting I was expecting an answer about elephants charging or lions growling at him but I was wrong: “Bugs” he says without thinking. “All the bugs come to the light at night and some even have thorns on their bodies and I am scared of these bugs. They are big! They go into your eyes, ears, mouth and clothes. They come to me, never to the guide or the guests. But the big animals…? No, I am not scared of them!” Margo says proudly.
A former guest here at Wildlife Camp sung his praises on Trip Advisor recently:“… Margo, was incredibly talented and so much fun to be with. He came on an impromptu night drive on his night off. I know it was the busy season and he probably needed the break. I appreciate his time and energy…and eye balls. How he saw those lions at a distance…I don’t know.”
Next on the list is Andrew Tembo. He is a businessman at day, selling anything from flasks to clothes and at night he spots for Sylvester. Andrew is also a good runner and finished 8th out of almost 200 runners in this year’s SLCS 10km Fun Run.
Andrew says that the most interesting thing he has ever seen while on duty was when a leopard went into a tree full of sleeping baboons. But in this story the leopard is not the main character; the male baboon that was roosting on the top branches got so scared of the cat climbing towards him that he pushed the smaller ones down the branches, even throwing one or two of them out of the tree while moving up-and-up to get to the branches too thin for the leopard to breach. The tactics worked in the end and the male-baboon saved his own life, but probably not his ego.
Isaac Mbewe, a.k.a. Eye-sac spots for Billy. This quiet brick-layer-by-day has been in the spotting business for 5 years now.
Billy and Isaac have formed a formidable relationship during these five years. They are famous for spotting the rare rather than the obvious. Porcupines, Honey-Badgers and elusive owls are what they do best. Their relationship was tested once when Isaac suddenly spotted a lion strolling through the bush on the right-hand side of the car. As soon as Billy saw the cat he made a sudden turn, caught Isaac (who likes to stand-up while spotting) off-guard and tossed him out of the Land Rover. Fortunately Isaac was neither hurt nor eaten and could get back in the vehicle quickly. To this day the two still laugh out loudly whenever they tell the story about the time that “Billy lost his spotter.”
Dingi Mulamba spends his days volunteering under Herman in the Wildlife Camp workshop. At night he spots for Su who is the youngest qualified guide in the Luangwa Valley and real star in the making.
Dingi says that spotting, even though there is a lot of skill involved, also requires a great deal of luck! I pushed him to reveal his luckiest moment ever and after a while he confessed that spotting an Aardvark was the luckiest he has ever been. Aardvarks here in the Luangwa-Valley are extremely rare and difficult to find – some guides guide for years-and-years without ever spotting one! Dingi plans to one day become a guide himself.
George Chicken: Actually, when you ask his friends what his real surname is, they do not know for sure, but we all know him as George Chicken. And when you ask George how long he has been in the business of spotting he can’t give you a definitive answer either: “Maybe about 15 or 16years now. They should call me Mr. Veteran.”
George is a very colourful character and he claims to know the secret to spotting chameleons! Between him and Margo there is serious, yet friendly, competition as to who spots the best.
I asked George Chicken about the best sighting he has ever had and he kept me busy for half-an-hour with one great bush story after the other. He was once lucky enough to find a leopard stalking a small group of impalas near Luafwa-lagoon. It was a text-book stalk and sure enough the leopard brought down dinner. However, what she did not anticipate was the two hyenas that tracked her every move and quickly moved in to grab her food as soon as it stopped kicking. A brief fight followed but a leopard is no match for a hyena, never mind two. But the leopard was not going to go hungry on that dark night so she immediately started stalking the same group of impalas again. A couple of minutes later she managed to bring down another impala and this time took it up a tree before any other scavenger could spoil her party. What a story!
Not so easy!
Even after all these great stories, we must remember that being a spotter is a bit like working back-stage at the circus – it sounds fantastic but it is not always the best job in the world. These guys endure the bugs, the dust, the cold, the pressure on their shoulders to spot something big and also the long hours when all signs of nocturnal life are hidden behind elephant-grass and termite mounds. But their love of the Luangwa-valley and the thrill of operating the lights in one of Africa’s greatest theatres is what keep them spotting night after night. Thank you very much guys for all your great work over the years!
Moment of the Month
Once again it was very difficult to choose the best moment of the month. The spotters did a fantastic job in finding leopards, lions, hyenas and all the other animals that usually make the highlights. There was also a fantastic battle between a lone lioness and a buffalo and not to mention the sighting of four bush-pigs at the Mushilashi-confluence.
But the moment that was most special this month involved vultures – 36 of them to be exact. On a normal Tuesday morning we suddenly noticed a couple of big birds circling above camp and moments later the sky resembled a scene out of the Pearl Harbour movie with ‘aeroplanes’ arriving from nowhere and out of all directions. What they were after was a dead baboon – most probably killed by a male from his own troop – on the road behind reception. In a terrific display the vultures dove down from the heavens and attacked their breakfast, and each other. Hooded Vultures, White-backed Vultures, Lappet-faced Vultures, Bateleur Eagles and Yellow-billed Kites all fought over a small piece of meat. And in minutes it was all over and the vacuums of nature flew off in search of lunch.
How these birds found such a small meal in such a vast place I do not know, but I refer you back to a previous newsletter:
“People in the Luangwa Valley believe that vultures are vivid dreamers – how else would they know where to find a carcass to feed on the next day?” – Wildlife Camp Newsletter May 2011.
Markus and Karen Key were lucky enough to be arriving from the airport at that very moment and snapped these photos – thanks you two!
Like any other moment of the month pen, paper and photos can never do it justice! You have to be here to experience all these wonders of Mother-Nature yourself.
So, why not come to the Zambia for your next holiday? Wildlife Camp is always ready to provide you with a front-row seat to the Luangwa Valley – We’ll have the spotters ready!
Kind Regards from a valley that is getting drier and drier by the day.