A thrilling hunt for big cats in the tranquil jungles of Zambia.
An inattentive passerby might ignore the innocent patch of Nile cabbage on the swampy lagoon, as it mysteriously moves towards the shore. But in the jungle, survival depends on sharp sight. So I focus my city eyes carefully on the limp leaves, watching in fascination as an enormous, slimy, blubbery back rises out of the water in the semi-dark, pushing the cabbage aloft, and a hippopotamus heads off to sleep, ending a busy day spent soaking in the mud.
This watering hole which we are scouting for wildlife lies in the South Luangwa National Park in north-eastern Zambia. Lush green and thriving along the sluggish and impossibly winding Luangwa River, the park has a tremendous variety of birds and animals living in 9,050 square kilometres of protected forest, full of baobabs, mopane, leadwood and other trees. It offers near-certain sightings of four of Africa’s “big five” — lions, leopards, elephants and buffalos. The notable exception is the two-horned rhino, found elsewhere in Africa.
We start to ask a question when a shrieking yellow baboon destroys the silence of the rapidly darkening forest, followed by a sudden, low growl. Paul, our forest guide, announces, “Leopard,” and starts the engine.
Moses, his assistant, beams a powerful spotlight in an arc before us, splitting the blackness as his namesake once split the sea, and our necks swing in tandem, following the light. The anticipation mingles with slight fear… it could be anywhere in the dark, on top of the baobab tree, for instance, that we’re driving below. As the engine slows over a bump, the leopard growls again, closer, and the baboon repeats its warning. “Mating call, that means we might see two leopards,” Paul comments. Sheer foolhardiness, says my cautious self, city mortals actively hunting out a big cat in the shroud of darkness. There’s no question of a stealthy approach; the engine roars as Paul drives through the tall grass, dodging bushes and revving over small shrubs in pursuit of the elusive feline.
Then we turn a bend, and come upon the leopards lying in a clearing, unsurprised.
I realise they are waiting for us. And I feel small and insignificant before them. They really don’t care. They could have disappeared by this time, alerted by our noisy approach and human smell, but they don’t dignify our presence with an escape. Our intrusion is the same irritant as the fly they swat with sheathed claws. One blinks drowsily in the light, and when the paparazzi camera annoys, it rises majestically and merges into the bushes just beyond, inviting his mate elsewhere. There are babies to make and a magnificent lineage to continue. And we are left, with silly grins, a few beads of sweat, and some dark photos.
The next morning we are greedy again. Zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocs, check, check, check, check. Elephants, check. Buffalos, check. Leopards, check. What about lions? Poor Paul has never been far from the forest for longer than three weeks and loves each animal equally, showing us a microscopic bee-eater bird with as much excitement as he devotes to the gangly giraffe blocking our way. But bloodthirsty city-dwellers that we are, we want our money’s worth. “Where are the lions?” we whine after politely photographing an endless variety of impalas, pukus, and other herbivorous, harmless forest residents. “Look, yellow-billed oxpecker,” Paul says, to distract us. My brother grumbles at the back: “South Luangwa Bird Sanctuary.”
Then, as we sulkily watch a bunch of grazing Bambis, the wireless radio crackles and Paul throws the gear (and us) into reverse. The previous day he has told us that the 11-seater, modified-for-the-jungle Landcruiser can race at up to “100 ks” (no one in Zambia says kilometers). Today, we take his word for it, especially since the speedometer is broken, showing zero even as we whiz through speed-blurred, thick forest.
When Paul races past a lilac-breasted roller bird without pointing it out to us, we know he’s on a mission. And after 10 minutes of silence as we speculate on where he’s leading us, we turn into a clearing and see the Big Cats for the first time.
It is a pride of 12 lions from far-off Bushcamp Lodge, which has surprisingly found its way to Mopane Spur, Paul informs us. They are feasting on the remnants of a zebra. Well-fed, they stagger over to the shade, while white-headed vultures start circling overhead for the feast.
Four safari cars are parked haphazardly and cameras click crazily. While the younger lions stretch out lazily in the sun, belly up, the older lions watch us, wary yellow eyes making sure we don’t try any primate business. After several minutes, they all disappear for a nap into the innocuous shrubs behind them. Show’s over. Half-heartedly, and with many backward glances, we turn away. We have left the lions in their home, and now it is time for us to return to ours.