Luwi Bush Camp
Last week we tracked lions. I took a couple of days off from my clinic duties so that Bill and I could join our friends, Pete and Elizabeth Beglin from Bellingham, for a couple of nights at Luwi Bush camp deep inside the park. Our guide, Sam, saw lion tracks in the sand and followed them until we saw vultures roosting in the trees across the wide dry bed of the Luwi River. We parked the car and set off in pursuit. Now some of you might wonder what in the world we were doing following lions on foot (the same thought occurred to us on several occasions). It was all for the thrill of seeing them up close in their world. We walked through low brushy trees for two hours. Just as Sam was ready to turn back, we saw them, a big dark-maned male and two females, walking away one hundred yards from us. The male saw us and gave us a low “You are below me on the food chain” warning growl. It turned out that we had walked right by them earlier without seeing them – although, undoubtedly they had seen us. Very exciting, even for the guide!
We thought that was an adventure, but then on our evening walk, we strolled within fifty yards of two big male lions with six females – on purpose! That’s eight lions if you’re counting. One female walked a bit away then lay down on the bank to our right. The rest of the pride was to our left. The biggest male, very striking with his dark mane, made a move to get up towards us then began a low Harley-in-his-throat growl as we walked slowly by. Now THAT was thrilling!! Sam said we were completely safe. Funny, we actually believed him.
For those of you who’ve never been lucky enough to go “on safari”, safari camp life has it’s own pace. We were awakened each morning at 5:30 am from our sleep under a mosquito net in our grass and thatch hut by a gentle “Good Morning!” from Sam. After quick ablutions, we joined everyone for a cup of coffee and some toast before heading off on our walk through the bush. Usually we walked for two hours then stopped for tea carried in by the staff. Sometimes we then loaded up in the open Land Cruiser with three tiers of seats for a driving safari. After our morning safari from 6 to 10 am, we settled down for a quick shower then an-all-you-can-eat brunch. Basically safaris are about eating separated by a few hours of looking at animals. After brunch we followed the animals’ example of a siesta in the heat of the day.
On a driving safari, the guide drives and spots animals we might miss and regales us with amazing facts and stories about the animals, birds, bugs and flora. If we saw an animal he didn’t, the highest compliment from him was “Well spotted!” My best find was what I thought was a tortoise, rarely seen here. We slowed down enough to see it was a turtle-shaped pile of elephant poo. Sam said “Well spotted!” anyway so I wouldn’t feel too discouraged.
Most safaris in Africa are driving safaris. You spend lots of time driving around in a vehicle looking for animals. Having been habituated to the vehicles over time, the animals are unafraid of them and don’t seem to “see” the people riding inside. South Luangwa National Park is particularly known for being one of the first, and probably the best, places in Africa for “walking safaris”. Being on foot in the bush means close up views of the animals are more difficult since they are rightly afraid of us, their main predator. A walking safari is a lot about the little things that we can’t examine closely from a vehicle…like poo and paw prints and insects and bones. Our most fascinating times were spent examining aardvark poo to find the little shiny ant heads inside or watching a column of Matabele (soldier) ants marching off to raid a termite mound. We looked at holes dug by elephants in the dry riverbed just big enough for a trunk to reach fresh water a few feet down. Who knew that you can tell whether an elephant was walking fast or slow by the pattern of its footprints in the sand? Some safari goers have a morbid fascination with seeing a “kill” – maybe from watching too many National Geographic specials in childhood. The only “kill” we saw on our two days in the bush was an ant lion capturing an ant that had strayed into its conical lair. I’m telling you though looking at animal poo is much more than it’s cracked up to be!
The male dung beetle is a particular connoisseur of poo. He hoards dung, piles of it, in preparation for his “honeymoon” night. Apparently the more dung a beetle has, the more attractive he is to the ladies. On their first night together they have a roll in the dung which is the perfect food for all their dung beetle babies. How’s that for a wooing strategy?!
Sam told us that honeymooners often come on safari to the bush camps. He told two stories of new husbands who performed much worse than any self-respecting dung beetle. In one instance the husband used his new wife as a human shield against a charging lion. In the other story the soon-to-not-be husband pulled his wife down from a tree she had climbed to escape a charging elephant then climbed up himself. After hearing these stories, Bill said he would have climbed the tree first, and then reached down to pull me up because he’s better at climbing trees? Chivalry lives!
After an afternoon siesta we slathered on our DEET and gathered for tea at around 4 pm. We then set off for another walk until dusk where we had our sundowners – a lovely safari tradition of stopping to celebrate sundown with your favorite libation – sitting on a bank 20 yards from a lagoon full of hippos and huge lurking crocodiles -- truly the primeval creatures of nightmares. After sundowners, we hopped into our trusty Land Cruiser (not even our thrill-seeking guide was crazy enough to go walking at night…besides it’s not allowed) for a night drive. A spotter sat in the front seat with the world’s brightest spotlight and shined it around as we drove looking for creatures of the night. It was kind of like watching a tennis match in the dark. The spotter and the guide are expert at recognizing the reflection from animal eyes and knowing whether they are attached to a poor impala or something else -- like a hyena or a lion or a cat-like spotted genet or the famous ridiculously named four-toed elephant shrew. We weren’t lucky enough to see a leopard, but we were just as excited by an adorable big-eyed leaping lesser bush baby and a rustling, bristling porcupine.
Driving around for a couple of hours worked up quite an appetite, so we returned from the night drive to a wonderful three course meal eaten by candlelight under a spectacular blanket of African stars. Wide eyed and awed, we retired to bed to hear the lions roaring within feet of our grass hut for much of the night (at least I did – Bill slept with earplugs). What a terribly wondrous lullaby!
This page was last updated 12/30/05