Monday, August 01, 2011

Walking Safari, Zambia - Irish Times , Aug 2008

Sat 08 Aug 2008Dangerously close to nature

After the initial nerves, Manchán Magan grew to love hiking in blissful isolation through a Zambian safari paradise teeming with animals - while all the time being fully aware that he was slower, fatter and probably tastier than any other animal out there

I'M GLAD I watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire?It taught me that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal and that they can run up to 30km an hour. This may have saved my life when I arrived at Tafika bush camp in northeast Zambia, and saw the two hippos standing on the lawn. I knew to stay inside the jeep. The camp's owner, John Coppinger, seemed to know otherwise.

He came out to greet me and even tried opening the door, but there was no away I was getting out. I pressed down the lock and pointed in the direction of the hippos. He seemed completely unfazed, and all he said was, ‘Hippos!’ with a shrug, in the tone that others use for wasps.

‘They’re dangerous!’ I called through the window. He nodded agreeably, saying, ‘Most things are around here.’

I was beginning to reconsider this whole trip to Zambia. I had heard that the country provided a more intimate safari experience than was available in other parts of Africa, but this all seemed a bit too . . .

My attention was suddenly drawn to a team of waiters carrying platters of freshly baked bread, elaborate salads and flame-grilled kebabs to a large thatched patio overlooking the river and in the end hunger got the better of me. I decided to face down the danger, and after carefully opening the door, I crept along the bamboo fence towards the food. John, who is Zambian, but of Irish descent, introduced me to his South African wife, Carol, and we sat down to my first incredible bush-camp meal – vegetables and salads from their own garden, meat from a German supplier in Lusaka and fresh cakes and breads baked in a traditional hole-in-the-ground oven. (It was like having the Avoca Handweavers food counter beamed down into the African bush.)

‘Crocs!’ John said, looking out towards the bank of the Luangwa River. I glanced up from my French beans and roast potatoes, and saw three long corrugated blue-green bodies pulling themselves out of the water up onto the bank – one with its jaws menacingly open.

It wasn’t as if I was unaccustomed to safaris, just not this type where you and the animals occupied the same space. I was used to the proscenium arch variety, where only upon stepping through the gates of the national park did one see wildlife. Here in the Luangwa region of Zambia there seemed to be no neat borders. The animals were everywhere. Already on the drive from Mfuwe airport I had seen high-nelly bikes, fully-laden with maize and palm oil, abandoned on the track where their owners had encountered a hippo or elephant and fled.

John explained to me about the walking safaris he ran - a less-intrusive, more intimate, way of being in the bush. I had read that you mightn’t get to see as much wildlife as you would from a jeep, but you learn about their tracks, their faeces and the plants and insects of the bush.

‘I wouldn’t bet on not seeing wildlife,’ John said when I mentioned this. ‘The park is teeming with it. Your main problem will be keeping out of their way. But, I recommend a game-drive first. Get a sense of what the place is like from a jeep, then you’ll know what you’re letting yourself in for if you decide to go out hiking.’

Memories of previous safaris came to me: seven jeeps all congregating around the same injured lioness in Kenya, and crowds of photographers jostling each other around a watering hole.

‘You won’t see any other jeeps here,’ John assured me. ‘We’re the only people who use this section of the park.’

After a siesta, a New Zealand guide and a local scout brought me out in the jeep and within a short distance of the camp they were already pointing out giraffe, elephants, buffalo, impala, bush bucks and warthogs. John was certainly right about their abundance. At dusk we stopped for sundowners – gin & tonics and freshly roasted popcorn - at a ford on the river where a family of elephants were crossing from the safety of the National Park to the riskier, but food-rich farmland on the far side. As the sky blackened, the game scout plugged in a floodlight and we drove on, fanning the light back and forth across the landscape, revealing night creatures - mongooses, civets, nightjars, owls and hyenas. I was trying to find words to describe the sweet, musky, minestrone-like smell of the bush at night when suddenly the screeching of baboons alerted us to danger to our left and as the jeep swung down a bank towards it we heard the shriek of a terrified impala. The floodlight revealed two lions bent over the stricken animal, its jugular still throbbing, spewing out blood. The lions threw a quick glance our way, but were too caught up in the kill to give us much attention and they allowed us drive right up beside them and watch as they tore the animal to pieces. It was eerie to be so near them and yet be ignored so completely. I kept having to reassurance myself that I really was there. Even a spider or an ant would have reacted more to our presence.

It was 7pm when we got back to camp. The patio was festooned with candles and waiters were carrying in casseroles and more fresh salads and bread to a group of Americans who had just come back from a cycling safari and were giddy with the fact of spotting a leopard stalking a waterbuck. After dinner an armed watchman walked me carefully through the camp to my bamboo and timber-pole chalet, pointing out various amorphous forms that could have been either hippos or elephants along the way. Directly outside my chalet a lone male hippo stood with its enormous head bent deferentially to the grass. I hoped I might be able to slide past it, but the watchman grabbed hold of me and pulled me back. He stamped and rattled his gun for a while before the animal eventually decided to waddle on a bit towards the river.

Inside my chalet I surveyed the beautifully-made, but undeniably flimsy, grass and bamboo walls, realising there was no way they could withstand even an angry hare, let alone a hippo or elephant. Still, I couldn’t but admire their artistry. The whole chalet, including the bed, the shelves and sink-stand was made of twisted grass and split bamboo tied to a frame of rough-hewn poles. It was like living inside a basket, and once I had crawled under my mosquito net and put out the storm lantern, I felt as snug and safe as a kitten in its basket.

Next morning at breakfast John said he had a surprise for me. He led me to the edge of the camp where a tiny micro-light was parked on a rough strip of cleared ground, and asked me did I want to see the park the way birds did. I looked warily at the contraption - two go-cart seats bolted to an aluminium witches broom with a lawnmower engine at the back and a flimsy yellow canopy - but I knew this was too unique an opportunity to pass up. He gave me a helmet and headset and strapped me into the seat and we went bumping off over the ground until suddenly we were airborne and below us was the chaotically coiling river with a herd of hippos wallowing in it, arranged head to tail in a weird chain-mail pattern that I would never had noticed from the ground. We flew right over a baobab tree on which a fish-eagle was nesting, and then swept gracefully down through a family of elephants who showed no sign of concern at our appearance. It was wonderful to see wildlife without causing them anxiety – so different from my previous experiences of taking photos of the retreating posteriors of frightened animals. We were just a large, loud bird passing overhead. John pointed to a lone crocodile sunning itself on the bank and with a glint in his eye he suddenly revved the engine and dived straight for it, sending it fleeing for its life. As we rose back up into the sky, he said into my headset, ‘I hate bothering any animal, but crocs are different.’

The Americans were still munching through their poppy-seed muffins and papaya when we got back. They were about to go on a game drive and asked me did I want to come, but John thought it was time for me to immerse myself more deeply in the bush. He told me to pack up my gear and then had someone lead me to a canoe and paddle me across the river to the far side where three men were waiting for me – a rotund, middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and shorts with binoculars around his neck, was clearly the leader. He introduced himself as Isaac. ‘My job is to keep you alive,’ he said. ‘I have been guiding 35 years and never lost a man. But you must listen and obey me, okay?’ I nodded. He pointed to the next man in line – a gangly scout dressed in military fatigues and carrying a .375 Brno rifle. ‘This is Batwell. He’s from the State National Park. His job is to protect the animals. If we are attacked, you must ignore him and follow me. He will be fine – it’s what he’s trained for.’ The third man, dressed in a beige jumpsuit was Justin. His job was to carry the tea and cake and make us a fire when we rested.

Isaac lined us up in the order we were to walk: Batwell first, then Isaac, then me followed by Justin. We set off through the bush – an area of perfect wilderness with no roads or villages, just beautiful lost lagoons, ebony forests, open grassland and dry, sandy riverbeds. It’s where I spent the next three day. Hiking in blissful isolation through a natural paradise teeming with animals. At first I was constantly on edge, fearful that every patch of long grass could conceal a prowling lion, or that a leopard might spring from every tree. I had seen on the night-drive how numerous the carnivorous predators were and how vicious they could be, and I had now placed myself directly onto the food chain. I was slower, fatter, and (although I say so myself) probably tastier than every other animal out there. I was an ideal meal, but Isaac told me I ought to be more wary of the large grazers - the hippos, buffalo and elephants - these were the ones most likely to charge if we startled them. It was up to us to make sure we never did. He taught me to listen out for the ox-pickers, the birds that sit on their backs and warn of approaching predators. If we heard their call we had to stand stock-still until we worked out where exactly the animal was, and then retreat, making as long a loop around it as was necessary.

Once I settled into the rhythm of things, it made for an idyllic few days. Each morning we’d set off at 7am and hike through the bush for four hours until we arrived at either one of two bush camps that seemed to appear as if by magic out of the wilderness. A team of cooks and porters permanently stationed there would have prepared lunch for us – the same great food as in the main camp - all the ingredients hiked in by a team of porters (who had no armed guard to protect them!). After lunch we’d have a siesta and then head out again mid-afternoon until dusk. I adored the walks. There were different animals to be seen at different times of the day and the light filtering through the trees and flickering on the grasses was constantly changing. There was always some visual treat up ahead to make it special – a glimpse of a giraffe’s neck between two trunks, a Scott’s owl in a tamarind tree, a bushbuck leaping from behind an acacia, an elephant flapping its ears in gentle, but determined defiance. By the time we had returned to camp the porters would have hot water heated for our showers and dinner prepared. Depending in which camp I was in, I slept in either a luxurious grass-made chalet, or a tree house. Bamboo shutters were put up around the grass room to stop hyenas coming in, but the tree house was open, and in theory a giraffe could stick his head right in – and occasionally it did, according to Isaac.

It’s what I miss most about being back home now, the fact that a giraffe is unlikely to stick its head through my window. That said, I am enjoying the fact that I can walk to the shops without encountering hippos. I just wish the nights smelt a bit more like minestrone.


Manchán travelled with Native Escapes Ltd, 8 Walpole Crescent, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 8PH

T/F: +44 208 977 7034, e:

An 8 night trip, departing Dublin costs from €3,200 pps. Cost includes international and domestic flights, transfers, 2 nights at Tafika Camp, 4 nights at the Chikoko Trails camps, and one night at the Holiday Inn in Lusaka. All activates, meals, drinks and National Park fees included.