A leap of leopards

Those of you who read my previous post “I should have known better” will enjoy this one! I returned last month to Zambia to spend another six days in the Luangwa Valley. Days went by, enjoying unusual species including civet, honey badger, four toed elephant shrew and some spectacular birdlife. Lions roared in the evening but eluded our eyes. And finally, on my third night drive, we rounded a corner and saw the curl of a fluffy tail – it could mean only one thing – leopard! At last my luck had changed. We watched him slope casually through the bush, in search of his evening meal. The following night, another glimpse of spots by spotlight on a night drive.

But it was my penultimate night in the South Luangwa that really pulled out all the stops. Driving past a beautiful sand river watching three buffalos, we hear an alarm call nearby. The driver puts pedal to the metal and we zoom over in the direction of the noise. And there she was – Alice – one of the valley’s most renowned matriarch leopards who at the time of writing has two yearling cubs under her charge. To see a third leopard was beyond any expectation. To see one in broad daylight, totally relaxed around our vehicle, strolling around and then eventually laying down until nightfall when she could hunt was beyond words. We enjoyed sundowner drinks as she relaxed, lazily eyeing four puku nearby. Starlight overtook sunlight and we followed her as she made her way into the denser bush, finding a male impala which she stalked for hours. Eventually we lost sight of her, so I don’t know the outcome of her hunt, but it certainly was a game drive I won’t soon forget. And the Luangwa Valley certainly came up trumps this trip, when I had left my “shopping list” back home!


Mahale: Journey to the ends of the earth

After what felt like hours in a light aircraft, the dry barren interior of Tanzania transforms into lush green mountains beneath us. The plane banks steeply, and drops suddenly onto the airstrip, careering at high speed towards the lake shore. It stops just in time, my heart in my throat; certainly an interesting introduction to Mahale. We escape the Cessna caravan to sail on a wooden dhow along Lake Tanganyika, passing villages where children play in the shallows as we enjoy a picnic lunch, soaking up the sunshine – now that’s more like it! After two hours, we round a corner and see the majestic tall thatch building I have seen in the photographs, the iconic Greystoke, our base for exploring the Mahale Mountains. Shoes off, we hop off the dhow and walk through the powder-soft sand to our rooms, furnished with reclaimed wood from old dhows with the peeling coloured paint a reminder of their former life. A dugout canoe has been transformed into a ladder leading to an upper daybed area. To me, I have finally found heaven, at the ends of the earth. No mobile phones or televisions here, no modern day stress, and some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever encountered. Towering mountains cloaked in dense green forest, home to chimpanzees, forest hog and countless other creatures, beautiful beaches and Africa’s deepest lake, crystal clear for swimming in.

We wake early the next day to track down our primate cousins, the chimpanzees. The trails twist and turn through the forest, steeply rising until we catch our first glimpse of a chimp in the wild. He acknowledges us with a sideways glance before rolling over onto his back to bask in the sunshine. Walking further, we find two boisterous males play-fighting, testing one another’s strength in preparation for later years when they will likely battle for dominance in the troop. A young one bounds through the trees with remarkable speed, branches crashing and leaves rustling as he leaps around his natural jungle gym.

The afternoon is as relaxed as the morning energetic, a dhow sailing trip around the small coves further along the lake shore, enjoying a spot of fishing. We keep the best fish of the day to take to the kitchen to make sashimi as our pre-dinner treat at the bar. Dinner is a feast, served on the sand under the stars, our bare feet plunging into the cool sand. After dinner, we retreat with a gin and tonic to the campfire, treated to some local dancing by the staff. Clumsily we all try to join in, much to their amusement, before eventually retreating.

All too soon it’s over, and we are back on the plane, doing the reverse version of our dramatic landing with a steep incline up and over the mountains, leaving the glistening lake behind us.

Sundowner time!

One of my absolute favourite things about being on safari is sundowner time. Celebrating the day you’ve just had and taking the time out to stop, listen to the sounds as the night time creatures spring to life, and watching the giant red sun drop like a ball to the horizon. A cold gin and tonic with ice, and maybe a few nibbles (wonderfully named “bitings” in East Africa) are the icing on the cake. Somehow this small tradition makes every day special and it’s something I sorely miss when I return home and realise I’m stuck behind my desk, or in a traffic jam and have missed another sunset.

Beguiling bee-eaters

I used to think my favourite African bird was a fish eagle – their majestic stature, haunting cry that echoes across the water and their distinctive plumage. But recently I’ve had to make space for the smaller but perfectly beguiling bee eater. The pair of white fronted bee-eaters above were seen in the Lower Zambezi. I had to sit patiently for what felt hours but was probably more like 20 minutes, trying to catch a shot of the two together, in focus, properly composed. Many many misses later, my patience was rewarded…one had caught an insect, and perched right in front of my camera. It’s not a perfect shot by any means, but was by far the best of the day. So this pretty pair put them in top spot for the time being, not just for this experience but for their delicate colouring, elegant flight and Zorro-style masks. Who knows how long they’ll stay in number one position, I guess my next safari will be the judge of that!

The rains are coming to East Africa

It’s officially April, in East Africa it’s the start of the long rains, bringing with them brooding stormclouds, sheets of rain passing over the plains and everywhere life being restored. Whilst other countries have a spring, summer, autumn and winter, East Africa has dry and rainy seasons. April and May are the long rains, November the short rains. Both provide much needed nourishment to the land, both for the people and wildlife that lives there. In the southern reaches of the Serengeti, the rain sparks an age-old instinct in some two million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles to start their annual migration. Dormant seeds lying in the dry earth suddenly sprout and turn the land green overnight. Flowers pop up providing bursts of colour and flocks of butterflies fill the skies. In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to our spring time here, with new life popping up everywhere – just a lot more dramatic. For anyone braving the storms, enjoy it and pray for a good rainy season for the sake of the people, land and wildlife of this beautiful corner of Africa.

A few of my favourite (safari) things

I decided to do something a bit different today – encapsulate a few of my favourite moments, experiences, places and animals in Africa in an A to Z. Enjoy!

A – Aardwolf – how a creature so large can eat only ants I don’t know! I was lucky enough to see one near Sossusvlei, Namibia, several years ago.

B – Ballooning over the Masai Mara, watching the sun’s first rays hit the savannah

Mara ballooning

C – Chimpanzee tracking – a heart racing experience and a fascinating opportunity to learn more about these primate relatives of ours.

D – Damaraland, one of my favourite regions of Namibia, comprising desert elephants, arid mountain terrain, ancient rock art and unusual birdlife.

E – Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi – the work of Dame Daphne Sheldrick is humbling and inspiring.

F – Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, one of the best destinations in the world for incredible food and wine. Go here for the ultimate indulgence.

G – The Great Migration; two million thundering hooves trampling the Serengeti and Masai Mara in search of fresh grazing – a true wildlife spectacle.

H – Hermanus – home to the best land-based whale watching in the world – something I’d love to see one day.

I – Indri – one of the largest lemur species in Madagascar.

J – Jinja, a charming small Ugandan town and home to some superb white water rafting on the first stretches of the River Nile.

K – Kenya, a magical country and probably the most misunderstood destination in Africa. I could go to Kenya every year for the rest of my life and never tire of it.

L – Laikipia Plateau in Kenya, a vast unending wilderness of dramatic landscapes, unusual animals and adventurous safaris on camel, horseback, on foot, mountain bike, river and vehicle.

M – Mahale Mountains in Western Tanzania, one of the most unique destinations; towering mountains, chimpanzees, sandy beaches and the continent’s deepest lake.

Mahale Mountains National Park

N – November, one of my favourite months in East Africa, Dramatic thunderstorms make for great photographic opportunities, the rain scares off other travellers so you can enjoy the wildlife to yourself – bliss!

O – Oudtshoorn, South Africa – a charming stop off on the Garden Route, filled with ostrich farms and the Cango Caves famed for their stalagmites and stalagtites.

P – Pangolin, one of the animals I most want to see (NB the more safaris you go on, the more obscure your wishlist of wildlife becomes)

Q – Quelea, a small bird that flies in flocks a thousand strong, making a beautiful whistling noise as their cloud-like formations spin and whirl across the sky – simply beautiful.

R – Rift Valley, filled with towering volcanoes, glittering salt lakes and thousands of flamingos – pure postcard perfection.

Flamingos, Lake Nakuru

S – San bushmen, an inspiring and beautiful people who I have been honoured to spend time with.

T – Tonic – as in gin and tonic – one of my favourite safari traditions is the sundowner – what a beautiful way to pay homage to the day’s adventures than to stop, soak up the sunset and enjoy a cold G&T?

U – Under the stars. Fly-camping is the ultimate experience to get right out into nature and sleep under the African sky surrounded by all the nighttime sounds of the bush – I’ve longed to do this for years and am finally getting the chance in May – can’t wait.

V – Vervet monkeys – common as sparrows but I love these cheeky, charming creatures and could happily watch them scampering around an acacia tree for hours.

W – Walking safaris in the South Luangwa and Selous are amonst my best safari memories – from taking the time to notice the small things, to strolling into a herd of buffalo or an angry hippo.

X – Xigera concession in the Okavango Delta – an iconic concession offering superb birding, mokoro rides through the waterways and fantastic wildlife.

Y – Yum! Food on safari is one of the most surprising features for most first timers. I am a not-very-secret foodie, so the extravagant breakfasts, sumptuous lunches, afternoon tea and cake, sundowner bitings and a three course dinner make for an amazing day, almost regardless of any wildlife encounters I’ve had that day.

Z – Zebras, of which Grevy’s are by far the most superior and special – skinny stripes and big ears mean a big thumbs up from me!

Grevy's zebra, Lewa Conservancy

Gorilla dreaming

A friend of mine’s just returned from tracking the mountain gorillas in Uganda and it made me reminisce on my own adventures in the rainforests of Rwanda and Uganda. I know it’s meant to be a once in a lifetime experience, but somehow I’ve been three times already and I know I will go again before too long. To be up close to these incredible cousins of oursĀ  is truly humbling. I’ll write more gorilla tales another time but for now wanted to share this photo and tell anyone who’s even halfway considering going to see them – just GO! Don’t hesitate. Yes, it’s a lot of money. But would I do it again – in a heartbeat. If you do, let me know how you got on, I’d love to hear about it!