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!

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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 ours  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!

I should have known better…

…than to go on safari with a shopping list. I’ve been on too many safaris to think that I could have a wishlist of animals to see and for that list to transpire into reality. I’d told clients countless times to just enjoy every second, the smells, sounds, observing the smaller creatures and not just focussing on the bigger ones. I knew better. But somehow, I’d ended up on safari, desperate to find a leopard. Sure, we’d seen wild dogs within the first hour of our safari – pretty incredible. But we wanted to see a leopard. It was the South Luangwa, in Zambia, renowned for being one of the best places to see leopard in Africa – so everyone I knew kept telling me before I left the UK. And somehow I listened, and it transformed what was one of the best safaris of my life, into a slightly crazed, desperate search for that elusive spotty cat.

We had five days on safari in the Luangwa, staying in two superb bushcamps in the very heart of the park. The guides were top notch, it was the end of the dry season which meant conditions for game viewing were superb. As the dry season wears on, the grass is grazed and trampled down and the water sources dry up, meaning grazers are commonly found around waterholes or the rivers, and predators are never far away. Each morning we set out before the heat of the day on a walking safari, which the South Luangwa is famed for. Great for taking in the smaller details of the bush, learning about the flora, how plants adapt themselves against invasion from insects and grazing animals, watching warthogs and their baby wartlets scurry away, and creeping up close to the spectacular clouds of carmine bee-eaters nesting in the banks of the river. Elephants are prolific in the park, too, and rarely a walk went by where we didn’t have a heart-racing encounter with a herd or handful of ele’s – trust me, you will never appreciate how large, powerful and intimidating an elephant can be until you meet one on foot, rather than from the comfort of a 4×4.

The afternoons were hot and spent zooming around on game drives, to see what we could see, stopping at sunset each day to soak our feet in the cool river and enjoy a cool gin and tonic, contemplating the last rays of sunshine. Then the game drive turned into a night drive, and this was prime leopard time – even the guides said so. We searched in the fading light, and then following the spotlight, listening for alarm calls from monkeys or birds which might point us towards our leopard. We searched and searched, secretly praying for a spotty cat.

In the end, we found one, but not the kind of spotty cat I was after! Instead of a leopard, we found a serval cat, skipping across the branches of a tree. Five days went by in this way, and we left the South Luangwa without a leopard in sight. I wasn’t as disappointed as you’d think. It served me right for going on safari with a shopping list – and I knew it. Plus it gives me an excellent reason to go back one day…

Where am I going tomorrow?

Giraffe, Ruaha National Park

Every now and then at work, we play the “where are you going tomorrow” game. The rules are simple: you’re flying overnight and will wake up in your destination – regardless of how difficult it really is to reach in real life. You  have 3 nights there, and then have to come home. It’s escapism pure and simple, and a liberating way to daydream out loud.

So…I thought I’d throw it out there, and include you!

I am going to Ruaha – a magic park in southern Tanzania, great big cats, none of the minibuses or crowds you find elsewhere, and top safari guides. There’s a new mobile camping trip that I’m dying to try out, really exploring the wilder sides of Ruaha, so that’s where I’m going!

What about you?

Tribal Namibia

The Himba…the poster children of Namibia, as famous as the rusty red dunes of Sossusvlei. Despite the postcards and posters everywhere, this nomadic tribe isn’t easy to come across on your average trip to Namibia. So when the opportunity arose on my last trip, I was thrilled. The group I met had decided to settle, rather than continue their nomadic lifestyle, having found some land on the corner of a farm in Northern Damaraland. Their arrival wasn’t particarly welcome to begin with, but over the years the farm owners and the Himba have grown into a comfortable co-existence together.

The men still roam and pursue their hunter gatherer traditions, but the women and children stay, growing vegetables, keeping herds of goats to milk and use for meat. My guide introduced me to the mothers and elder sisters of the extended family and immediately I am asked “Where is your husband?”. I replied I did not have one, and they asked my age, astonished that someone as old as 30 could be unmarried and in a different country alone. It’s not the first time I’ve had this kind of reaction in Africa and I laughed it away with a shrug and a smile.

We chatted about our lives, and they were keen to show me their traditions, from braiding their hair and covering it with ochre, to grinding maize into a porridge to eat. I took a number of portraits which they were keen to see on the screen of my SLR, and wanted to have pictures of me taken beside them, too.

Encounters with indigenous people like the Himba can be highly commercialised –  I have seen examples of this in the Masai Mara in Kenya. But here it was as close as you get to simply observing and taking part in a few hours of an average afternoon with these women. The daughters returned halfway through my visit with a gaggle of goats, bells jangling and the kid goats running bleating to their mothers in delight. And whilst the location where I met these Himba matriarchs and daughters was the corner of a Damara farm, rather than in the vast, unending wilderness of the Skeleton Coast, it certainly didn’t lessen our interaction with one another.