Should you expect the unexpcted when you come on safari?
Thinner and shallower.
This newsletter comes to you from a very dry Luangwa Valley. Lagoons like Mushroom lagoon, which usually carries water right up to November, is already completely dry. The river itself is getting thinner and shallower by the day and the thermometer is climbing up beyond 40 degrees Celcius on a regular basis. Here at Wildlife Camp the busy-season is still going strong. We have constructed two drinking holes to help out the struggling animals. Game-viewing in and around camp as well as out on game-drives have been phenomenal and our guests seem to not get enough of the camp and the Luangwa Valley. Our guest-book is full of “it exceeded all our expectations” comments. And that made me wonder – what do people expect when they come to Zambia for safari?
Not really the ones that are sleeping.
Not too long ago I was welcoming guests from the UK, giving them all the information that they needed and wanted for their 5 day stay here at Wildlife Camp. Their flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe did not work out as it was originally planned, and they only arrived at Wildlife Camp in the early evening. As we sat around a camp-fire chatting about the Luangwa Valley, I could not help but notice Puku-alarm calls over my shoulder… As the conversation turned to game-drives and wake-up calls the alarm-whistles started coming closer to the restaurant and my curiosity grew to a point where I could not help myself anymore? “Would you like to go and see what those antelopes are complaining about?” I offered and a minute later we were on the car. Evance, our head-chef, grabbed a spotlight and as we left I made sure to tell the guests that we are merely taking a gamble… “We don’t have a big chance of actually seeing anything.”
Five minutes later we were back in the restaurant joking that Wildlife Camp’s newest guests have seen a leopard before they even saw the insides of their chalets. But later that night, as I walked home, I panicked. I knew that I made the guide’s jobs a lot more difficult with my jeep-jockey antics… Would the guests now expect to see the big and dangerous animals around every bush? Would they be disappointed in their guide if all a game-drive delivered was giraffe, elephants, waterbuck, impala, puku, kudu, warthogs, hippos, zebras and the big python at python-point? Would they become like the guests that told me one morning before a game-drive that “we only want to focus on leopards this morning, but especially the ones that are hunting – not really the ones that are sleeping.”
100 Terabytes of footage.
The whole scenario made me wonder what guests expect before they come to the Luangwa Valley? Is it really like on National Geographic?
BBC recently aired a documentary called “Africa” which showcased some of the continent’s most breathtaking scenes. Travellers often see documentaries like these and then flock to the National Parks dotted all over Africa to witness exactly what they saw on TV. Lion-hunts is always a favourite. But did you know that the BBC crew spent 4 years on location, consumed 6,526 malaria pills and carried 50 tons of camera gear over 27 countries to make a seven-part series. After their African odyssey they were left with 100 Terabytes of footage from 50 cameras, 8 of which never made it back to the UK. Needless to say, do not come to the Luangwa Valley for a week and expect to see everything you saw on TV.
So what should you expect? To answer this question, I’ll put in writing the briefing we give guests when they first arrive here at Wildlife Camp.
Pure alcohol or Coke.
There are no fences around the National Park, nor around Wildlife Camp, and wild animals do come into camp. It is not uncommon to see elephants in camp and you can expect to hear hippos grazing outside your chalet at night. While we ask guests to be very careful and not go off into the bush by themselves, we also assure them not to be scared. Common sense will bring you a far way here in Africa, so as long as you do not try and ride a giraffe or hug a hippo you’ll be ok – just let them do what they came into camp to do. Enjoy those moments.
We also inform guests that the tap-water is safe to drink. While doing research for this newsletter I came across this statement on the internet: “While travelling through Africa, consider cleaning your teeth in pure alcohol or Coke if you cannot be sure that water is clean.” Wildlife Camp have boreholes so the water coming out of the taps is basically bottled-water. But just in case guests still do not feel comfortable drinking it, we do sell bottled water in the bar. We do not, unfortunately, sell pure alcohol but we do sell cold Coke.
Electricity is a luxury that we are very lucky to have here at Wildlife Camp. Every now and then a tree falls on the power lines or ‘load-shedding’ is implemented. For these situations we have a generator large enough to provide the whole camp with lights, and then some.
You can expect to be amazed.
Guests usually have a lot of questions about game-drives, how these activities work, and what they’ll see. One of Wildlife Camp’s qualified guides, Billy, James, Joseph or Ryver will take you on an open safari vehicle into South Luangwa National Park. Wildlife Camp drives usually take 4 hours and we start at 6:00 in the morning and again at 16:00 in the afternoon. Our guides are all very experienced and understand the Luangwa Valley and its animals very well. But even with all that experience, they cannot guarantee any sightings of any animals. Antelopes such as impala, puku and bushbuck are common, while elephants, giraffe and zebras are usually seen. Birding is brilliant here, and with the arrival of the Carmine Bee-eaters in September it is even better. Guests have asked me before whether they’ll see tigers, and while this question is relatively easy to answer with a “No, you are on the wrong continent” (As Dora would put it) questions about the other cats are usually more difficult. I like to tell people not to expect them on every drive, or even every second drive. But I also like telling them I will consider them unlucky if, after 4 drives, they still have not had a glimpse of one of those elusive creatures.
That brings me to another point of what to expect, and not expect. Not all sightings of animals are moment of the month sightings. Sometimes the animals are far off, and sometimes they hide in the tall grass. Sometimes you see them for a second before they disappear, and other times only a horn or a tail sticks out from behind a bush. That is how the bush works!
You can expect to be amazed by the knowledge of the guides and the beauty of the landscapes. You can expect to learn a lot about the African bush and you can expect to have the time of your life. But you cannot expect to see lions feeding on a warthog right in front of the restaurant… Or can you?
Moment of the month.
Well, apparently you can. One Sunday evening we found two lions right in front of Wildlife Camp’s restaurant. At first it looked as if they were just passing by, but when the male disappeared into a thicket we heard bones crunch and we knew that they would be here for a while.
Without anybody noticing, they had killed a warthog and pulled it into the bushes by the restaurant (and by “by” I mean 20 meters away). What was very interesting was that the male was Limpie, who also featured in our July newsletter. It was the first time he had ever been seen this side of the Luangwa River.
Can you imagine sitting around here at Wildlife Camp, enjoying a drink, when suddenly somebody comes up to you and asks: “Would you like to see a lion sir?” Well, that is what happened that night here at Wildlife Camp.
As the sun rose the next morning the two, who had started mating at about 2:00 in the morning, were still in sight. From where I was sitting in a Land Rover (together with a researcher from the Zambian Carnivore Programme we studied them all night) I could see our guests with a steaming cup of coffee in their hands watching the two doing their business. And then I wondered: When these guests booked their trips to the Luangwa Valley, did they expect to have breakfast with a beast like that?
That is all for this edition of Wildlife Camp’s newsletter. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback we get after these newsletters – it is much appreciated.