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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

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Travel

Nov 05, 2018

Walking with Lions and Leopards

Close encounters, on a walking safari through South Luangwa National Park at the end of the Great Rift Valley.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is at the end of the Great Rift Valley and it is through this 9050sq kilometre National Park that the meandering Luangwa River runs. The river, with its ox bow lagoons, tributaries, riverine woodlands and open plains, plays host to huge concentrations of wildlife including elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion, giraffe, hippo… over 450 species of bird and 60 species of mammal. Portuguese sea captain, Antonio Gamitto, when writing of the Luangwa in around 1832 said… “Game of all kinds is very abundant… great numbers of wild animals collect here… we can only say that this district appears to be the richest in animal life of any we have seen.” In 1866, Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, upon crossing the Luangwa River, said… “I will make this land better known to men that it may become one of their haunts. It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.”

We were in South Luangwa for a three day walking safari with one of the most expert safari guides to be found in Zambia, Deb Tittle. With over 2,500 safari walks under her belt, Deb has been guiding in South Luangwa since the 1990s and is experienced at both interpreting the sights and sounds of the bush and at understanding, anticipating and explaining animal behaviour. Born in England, it was watching the movie Tarzan at a young age that awoke Deb’s fascination with wildlife. African wildlife television programmes further wet her appetite to explore the game rich areas of Africa herself. After university, and a stint driving overland expeditions through east, central and southern Africa, Deb decided on South Luangwa as her home. Passing guiding tests and honing her skills by working in a number of different camps and lodges in South Luangwa, Deb has passed on her knowledge to numerous local Zambians, many of whom now work as safari guides and conservationists in the park.

Deb Tittle. Photo: Jane Addey – Surefoot Safaris

Nothing makes your heart beat faster than hearing the deep guttural growl of a leopard

Deb’s brand new camp, Mapazi, is one of the northern-most camps in the park, a place far beyond the busy game drive loops further south; an undisturbed part of the park where there are few roads and even fewer people. The perfect location for walking safaris. Mapazi, is a small camp, taking only six guests at a time… spacious safari tents, comfortable beds with crisp sheets, plenty of hot water to wash away the dust of the day and cold drinks to quench your thirst. Mapazi roughly translates from the local language, Chichewa, to mean feet or footstep, and is a fitting name for the experience we were here to have. Mapazi has been set up in this remote and beautiful part of South Luangwa, not only to offer bespoke walking safaris for people wanting to really immerse themselves in the bush but also as a base from which to run anti-poaching patrols in the off season.

Nothing makes your heart beat faster than hearing the deep guttural growl of a leopard hidden in a thicket less than 15m from where you are standing! A fleeting flash and blur of colour, as he’d dashed into the bushes, was what had drawn our attention to the leopard’s presence. I was initially rather sceptical about his existence, and clearly the nearby puku were too, judging by their apparent lack of alarm. As we advanced I grew even more dubious, until a growl from the thicket had my heart racing. Deb Tittle, our guide, shared a grin with me and, putting a warning hand on my arm, reminding me not to make a run for it, calmly shepherded the group around the side of the thicket. Suddenly the leopard broke cover and once again all we saw was a flash and a blur as he darted away.

A few minutes later we startled a young, female leopard as she descended from an enormous tree, having finished dining on the last desiccated morsels of meat from a kill she had made some days earlier. Continuing our walk we came to an open plain, dotted with sausage and acacia trees, almost on cue, ten or so majestic giraffe came into sight, sauntering in their graceful way across the plain, while eland, waterbuck and impala grazed in the background. Having been briefed earlier by Deb about giraffe behaviour, as instructed, we feigned disinterest and the giraffe, accepting our presence, continued their slow amble, occasionally stopping to nibble the flowers of the sausage trees and wild gardenias. Not to be outdone by the morning’s leopard encounters, close to camp, three male lions relaxed in the shade. Unfazed by our intrusion on their morning nap, one retreated about 5m and the others, after giving us a cursory glance, didn’t move a muscle.

In camp, waking from a post lunch siesta, we discovered the camp’s resident bushbuck practically in our tent. Somewhat drained by South Luangwa’s October midday heat (into the 40s), we lay listlessly on the bed, marvelling at how close he was and pondering the likelihood of him jumping right up onto the bed. A giraffe peering over a nearby ‘hedge’ however spooked the bushbuck and he retreated to a safe distance, leaving us to watch some impressive aerial aerobatics from a pair of swooping, soaring and summersaulting fish eagles… ultimately culminating in some rather ‘R’ rated fish eagle activity.

Located on a bend of the Luangwa River, Mapazi Camp is perfectly situated to catch the constant, and very welcome, breeze as it comes off the water, cooling things down in the intense October heat. Once the temperatures of the day had somewhat subsided we set out on foot again. Just out of sight of the camp, we rounded a corner, surprising a leopard drinking at the water’s edge. He didn’t sprint off, simply moved to a convenient gully and hid until we had gone. A little further along, we found the three lions of the morning’s encounter. Two slipped away and we watched the third, seemingly unobserved, or at least tolerated, until he too moved off with a mildly menacing growl. As dark started to descend, we turned and headed for ‘home’. Walking along the raised edge of the riverbank we found we were following a badly battle scarred hippo, limping through the shallows. Hundreds of huge welts, scratches and bight marks were clearly viable on his skin. Clearly having been unable to leave the water to graze for some time, his hip bones and ribs were showing. It made a sombre sight and as the sun set we wondered if he would survive to see the following day.

Photo: Jane Addey – Surefoot Safaris

After dinner under the stars, tired out from a day of excitement, heat and six hours walking, we were tucked up in bed by 9.30pm and sound asleep by 9.35. Hours later, somewhere around 2am, though I didn’t have the wherewithal to check my watch, we were woken from deep sleep by the bellows of a lion. The air trembled (and so did I) with every roar, even the ground seemed to vibrate. He was close by and in the dark it sounded as though he was only metres away. At intervals throughout the night we heard him call to his companions. Regular as clockwork, he would roar protractedly and one or two lions would roar in response. We followed their progress throughout the night… they were never too far away, but never as close as that first spine tingling roar. At dinner the night before we had heard the plaintive calls of a lost buffalo calf across the river, the calls continued from time to time throughout the night, but by the morning all was silent. We could only assume that the lions had made him part of their midnight feast.

Having been so abruptly awoken, and with my heart rate subsequently taking quite some time to slow, I lay awake in the tent for a long time listening to the sounds of the night. Hippos and elephants splashed and waded in the river, a hippo munched on fallen sausage tree fruit on the other side of the canvas of our tent, a lone hyena called across the water and various other rustles and plods of unknown night creatures continued until dawn. The lions were still roaring as the sun came up. I sat up in my tent watching a lone male puku who stood on the river bank, silhouetted by the rising sun. It was a privilege to feel so completely surrounded by nature.

Photo: Jane Addey – Surefoot Safaris

After three fabulous days on foot, we were now ready for some pampering and luxury. Our days spent at Mapazi were some of the best days we had ever spent in the bush in Zambia, but South Luangwa in October is HOT, and six hours a day walking albeit in the relative ‘cool’ of early mornings and late afternoon, combined with the adrenalin of some of our close encounters, was still quite draining. So it was with great anticipation that we headed an hour and a half’s drive back towards the park’s main gate, to another of South Luangwa’s brand new lodges, Chikunto Safari Lodge… and we were not disappointed.

Arriving, we passed a waterhole which surprisingly, given the time of year, still held some water. Four large male kudu browsed in the bushes, their impressive spiral horns entwined in the foliage. A warthog family with three tea cup sized piglets trotted off as we passed. Two adult saddle billed stalks dipped their beaks in the muddy water, whilst their two offspring did the same close by. Not yet possessing the distinctively striking plumage of their parents, the youngsters looked like gawky adolescents with their rather drab greyish black feathers. Various other water birds splashed and waded, watched by a bachelor herd of puku and a lone, regal giraffe, who stood tall with his deeply scared knobbly knees and missing the tuft on the end of his tail.

Chikunto is a stunning lodge. Cool crisp white sheets and a fan overhead made a welcome place to siesta after a swim in the lodge’s very inviting swimming pool. As the afternoon cooled slightly we headed out on a game drive. It felt strange to be back at this vantage point and travelling at such ‘speed’ after our days walking at Mapazi. On a walking safari you need to exercise caution when approaching wildlife on foot, here, in a vehicle, we could get a lot closer. This afternoon found ourselves very close indeed to a pair of lions, clearly tired out from earlier romantic rigors they now lay almost motionless in the sand, with only the occasional flick of a tail swishing away flies to indicate they were alive.

Fairly well camouflaged, but not too shy, a leopard sat in a tree with her kill. We first spotted her chewing on the carcass of a bushbuck. We continued to watch and saw what we had first taken to be dry leaves on the vines below her, we in fact much more macabre ‘fruit’. A fair sized portion of her kill had tumbled from the branch where she lay and pieces had become entangled on their way to the ground. It was only after half an hour of watching, when the leopard stood, stretched and descended rather gracefully to the ground, that we realised just how much had slipped from her grasp. She settled on the forest floor and began eating again. We watched, no binoculars required, as first she worked on the leg and then jawbone of her prey. Listening to the violent crunches as bones broke in her mouth I couldn’t help but think back to our encounters with leopard when we’d been on foot a few days earlier, and a shivers went up my spine.

Our final dinner at Chikunto was a dream ending to an exciting journey. Arriving back at the lodge after our drive, we were greeted with a tray of cool damp washcloths to wipe away the afternoon’s dust. After freshening up we met in the main lodge area for a pre-dinner drink by the fire. Even in the heat of October in the valley, an open fire is still mesmerising, though we didn’t draw our chairs as close to the flames as we might have in winter! A perfectly prepared and presented three course meal, served under the stars, felt like an extravagance in this bush setting, but we enjoyed every mouthful and moment of our last night in South Luangwa, as tomorrow we had a long dive back to civilisation.

Find out more about Mapazi Camp, here.

Find out more about Chikunto Safaris, here.

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Travel

Jul 03, 2019

Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya – Part Two

The conclusion to a journey down the Usumacinta River, where we're reminded of the ancient past, the recent past, and the present, all amongst beautiful landscapes.

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WRITTEN BY

Jack Billings

This is the second part of Jack Billings and Linda DeSpain’s adventure down the Usumacinta River. The first part can be read here

One of our most memorable camps was el Playon, on a beautiful, huge beach somewhere in Guatemala. It is the largest sand expanse of any freshwater setting we have seen. The light at sunrise illuminated a captivating mist that hung over the river upstream and filled the low valleys across the river. The canopy stood in dark contrast on the horizon. Birds began their calls close by, and monkeys joined in from a distance of at least half a mile.

Big beach at El Playon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

About a third of the way into our trip we were joined by an armed escort in fishermen’s clothing. We knew the outfitter had contemplated this assistance. Both Guatemala and Mexico experienced civil war or violent uprisings in years past. Desperate people were still on the move in the river basin. We couldn’t say whether the escort was necessary, but we were glad for their presence.

On the fourth morning, we came upon a group of children playing on the Mexico side of the river bank, along with women doing laundry. We pulled in to say hello and the number of kids promptly doubled. We had arrived at the pueblo of Arroyo Jerusalem. Caucasians in outfitted rafts are an obvious novelty. As we followed Herman up to the trail to the village, several of the young children guided our elbows, solicitous of our apparent advanced age.

Mother and daughter at Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Efforts to communicate with the children were hampered because their primary language is Chol, a Mayan dialect completely different than Spanish. However, we were able to play string games and pantomime with hand contortions that are universally understood. If children’s laughter is a barometer for the health of the pueblo, then this community was doing very well. While visiting with the locals, Hermann bought a live chicken, which he brought down the river for that night’s layover dinner at Piedras Negras.

String game, Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After a short run to Piedras Negras, we pitched our camp on a terraced 50-foot soft sand bank. The promontory view was worth the effort. We were set to hear rival choruses of monkeys on each side of the river. The recently purchased chicken clucked its way into nearby brush. Before long, it was lured back to the kitchen area by a trail of popcorn seed, then readied for a gargantuan pot of noodles and cabbage. One of the escorts brought us five fish they had caught, and a grille was fashioned to fry them. We joined forces with the makings of a fresh gourmet dinner. We were eager to explore after an easy rise in the morning.

For many, the camp at Piedras Negras was the most memorable. We were literally in the landing area of this great kingdom-city, where its citizens and explorers accessed the river 1500 years ago. A large glyph engraving faced skyward on a boulder next to camp. And, we had the sweet circumstance of a layover day full of hiking, swimming, and long conversations over the campfire.

Piedras Negras is too far downstream from Frontera for day trips. Except for resident park employees and conservators, almost no one visits. Four park rangers came down to chat and to appreciate a break from their own cooking.

Park Ranger at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The ruins here are not as thoroughly excavated as those at Palenque and Yaxchilán. Yet we could see how the design and architecture were every bit as impressive and uniquely influenced. At their height, these kingdom-cities if known would have been wonders of the western hemisphere and would have rivaled or surpassed eastern progress.

Repose at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After recovery from a drenching rain shower, we pushed on. Regrets over soggy gear faded into our next adventure. Even though our rain fly proved too small, at least we had it in place on time. We could count on the fact that we would always be warm!

A couple of hours below Piedras Negras we pulled into a cove with a most spectacular waterfall, Cascadia Busiljá. Coming down a steep canyon, its source stream plunges over travertine-coated rocks and projects into the river. Most of us hiked up a trail behind the falls to see its origin. Others cooled off below in the spray shower that envelops the outcropping.

Cascada Busilja. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Anticipation peaked when about 15 km below the cascade, we entered the Grand Canyon de San José. Vertical, steep limestone cliffs narrow the river and rise above as high as 1800 feet. Even here, the jungle fills in the river banks and the fissures among the cliffs.

Grand Canyon de San Jose. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The deep whirling water created many eddies. Maintaining headway in this fickle current was challenging. In many of the small swirls, we began to see bobbing plastic bottles, the tell-tale floats attached to purse-like seine nets. These mini-fisheries were managed by families and friends who collectively checked the nets daily.

Nearing our last camp, as the sun dropped lower in the late afternoon sky, we rounded a bend and found a nice sand bar across from the community of Francisco Madero. As we tied off on the bank, fellows from the village paddled across to see us. The common watercraft here is a low-draft, 12-foot, flat bottomed canoe with a transom. The boatman stands aft and paddles or poles as circumstances require. Because we hoped to camp directly across from the village, we asked permission, which was readily given. The camp area was obviously frequented by local livestock. Our trusty shovel was handy for flicking manure away from tent sites and walkways.

Flat bottomed canoe in the lower canyon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The next morning a man and his son came across to ply us with hand-made, wooden artesanias. He told us of his workshop and showed us his cutting boards and spatulas from local wood, melino. We now have a spatula for the kitchen which will always remind us of this trip.

People remain on the move in this corridor. On day one, as we drove to the launch point at Frontera, Herman pointed out migrants from Guatemala or Honduras, small groups of young men trekking in the opposite direction. He identified them through their darker skin, the fact that they were traveling lightly with only backpacks and carried no machetes or other farm-related hand tools.

During our week on the river, we saw several of the shuttle taxis roaring downstream at full throttle carrying a packed group of other migrants. Frequently passing in the night these drivers plied the river without a light, reflecting their knowledge of the river and the clandestine nature of their cargo.  By pooling their resources and hiring the boat, these travelers saved themselves at least a week of hot, humid and dusty plodding along the highway. Both water and overland migrants may not be headed for the United States. Instead, we understand they are willing to take low-paying Mexican jobs in the fields and for a railroad. It is a telling commentary about the desperation and violence of their own communities that these young men would launch themselves over many weeks, mostly on foot, to leave their homes and come by whatever means available.

We foresee how the future of the ancient and mighty Usumacinta is troubled. Its heart could be broken by a dam the Mexican government energy agency wants to build at Boca del Cerro, our take-out point. This dam would flood the river up to Piedras Negras, drown all the rapids in the main canyon, block the flow of sediment and fish, and forcibly remove all the residents along the river, including the entire pueblo of Francisco Madero. Perhaps the new government of President Lopez Obrador, will bring a holistic and existential approach to the preservation of this immense cultural and environmental resource for centuries more to come.

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