Sunday, November 15, 2015

South Luangwa Safari - Day One

The drive from Mfuwe to Sanctuary Retreat's Chichele Presidential Lodge took about ninety minutes, first on tar roads and then into the park on dirt roads. The crossing of the Luangwa River was easy since the riverbed was completely dry, though the ride back to the airport would take much longer a week later. We passed quite a few puku (the antelope endemic to Zambia) and impala along with a lone zebra. I spotted herons and storks in the waterholes, and hippos were lounging and snorting in the river. It was extremely hot, and even the breeze from the open air car did little to cool things down. But it was also two pm and the hottest time of the day and the hottest time of the year.

I arrived at the lodge to waves and smiles and handshakes from all of the staff and was given an orientation from the manager while enjoying a welcome drink on the veranda. Then I headed to my room (chalet is a better word), attached to the main lodge by a series of covered walkways but still private and secluded and had a chance to unpack (I'll be here for a week so don't need to live out of the suitcase!) and reorganized my safari backpack for game drives.

At three thirty afternoon tea was served, and I enjoyed a lovely slice of sponge cake and an iced tea while reassuring my parents that I'd safely arrived. I then met the only other guests at the lodge - a lovely German couple - and we set out on our first game drive.

I tried not to set my expectations too high, even though I'd heard rave reviews about the lodge's guides and the park's offerings. Animal sightings are often about luck as much as skill. But, thankfully, those trip advisor reviewers who said they saw big cats on the first drive weren't making it up.

Our first 'big' sighting was a pride of four relatively young male lions lounging in the afternoon shade. They'd only been out of their mother prides for a year or so but seemed to be doing well; the guide said yesterday he'd seen them with a hyena carcass. So their bellies were full, and they were content. And their manes were some of the most luxuriant bouffants I've ever seen! The youngest one, whose duty it was to keep watch on us, had a mohawk! His cuddle partner had long, flowing locks reminiscent of a blonde McDreamy. Amazing. We watched them for quite a while and then headed off, finding a small elephant herd and several large herds of puku and impala. We followed two male kudu for a while, but they were quite camera shy. A tower of giraffes came up from the river to head to the grazing areas, and they put on a lovely show for us. The final one of the seven was pregnant and quite a bit slower than her compatriots.

After that we made our way up a hill to a lookout point just as the sun was setting. There awaited our sundowner stop, complete with a table covered in white linen and heaping with drinks and snacks. Bacon-wrapped dates and lollipop chicken accompanied custom cocktails for those who chose to imbibe. We sat in canvas chairs and chatted about the rigorous training to become a guide while watching a magnificent sunset.

And then the real fun began! 

South Luangwa allows night drives, which is a nice change of pace, since just as the sun sets is usually when you have to exit the park when all the animals are getting active. But this allows you to segue into a leisurely night drive on your way back to the lodge. Perfect!

We first spotted some hares on the side of the road and then began seeing the telltale lights that are the eyes of deer-like-things (DLTs), a term coined during one of my Uganda safaris with friends. We saw some hyenas from a distance and a few assorted mongooses and warthogs but nothing earth shattering. And then we got to a wide open area with several dozen different groups of DLTs. The spotter shined the light over the crowds and kept stopping on one set of eyes lower to the ground and slightly apart from the herds. We drove closer, and there it was - the first leopard sighting. This particular leopard likes vehicles. Maybe too much. At first she just lounged on the dirt mound and watched us. No fear, no timidness, just staring back at us. And then just as we were going to move on, she did what our guide said she's known for: she got up and ran alongside our vehicle and ran under the front tires. She likes to use the vehicles as shade and a staging point for an attack.

With a leopard under our vehicle we couldn't start the engine or go anywhere, so we just waited. In the dark. With a predator under our car. Very cool. And slightly disconcerting, though the guide said he knew where she was the whole time. A few other vehicles found us and laughed at the sight of the leopard under our car. Until she ran under the next car. She finally gave up on that and came back around to stalk the antelope. We all waited in the dark, listening as the impalas snorted warnings (but didn't move away) and baboons barked warnings from the trees on the edge of the field. But she decided it wasn't the right time and moved away. So we watched her for a while and then moved on. Never have I seen a leopard so up close and for so long and with such clarity! AMAZING!

A few hippos let us watch them graze, and a few more hares and mongooses and warthogs crossed our paths. We followed several very determined hyenas to the spot they'd congregated at before - the carcass of a dead elephant. It was a natural death a few days ago, and though we were upwind I imagine it was pretty gross. Three hyenas loped to our car and then ran right in front of it and on the sides, seemingly excited to see us. One of them had a piece of bone in its mouth and seemed to use the headlight to get a better look. They were not fazed by us at all and seemed to enjoy being in the literal spotlight. They were wet and dirty, which the guide said was the result of scavenging inside the elephant carcass. Thank goodness that didn't smell as bad as it sounds!

It was time to move on home, but we had two more exciting sightings en route. First was a very timid porcupine who wanted no part of our lights but didn't run away and just kept circling the same tree until we left. The second was just before the gates of the lodge when we saw a large spotted genet - my first sighting of this elusive nocturnal animal! Hurrah!

The German couple invited me to join them for dinner, and we had a delicious meal and a lovely time chatting. I'm sorry they're departing tomorrow. Apparently I'll be the only guest for the next few days. And now I'm freshly showered and ready for bed. And I plan to sleep well, as leopards await me in the morning.

Crossing the dry Luangwa River en route to the lodge

My lovely home for the week

Very happy lion

Dead baobab - fascinating to see the fibers

Punk Lion
Seriously, he has a mohawk!

What amazing lush tresses on these guy!

They were absolutely so happy and adorable.


Hippo marking territory

Baby ellie!

Hiding behind mom.

A journey of giraffes

This mama was lagging far behind the others. No surprises there - so pregnant!

Crested cranes and impala

Shy kudu


The wonderful vehicle

Remote location sundowners


Her name is Limping Mother Leopard.

Hyenas bringing us elephant parts.

Using the lights to eat better.

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