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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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Mountain

Nov 12, 2018

Crag Caucus: Veterans and Politicians Rock Climb Together with American Alpine Club

The “Hill to Crag” event series connects veterans and legislators on rock climbing excursions to advocate for public lands. AAC Chairman and active-duty US Army Major Byron Harvison serves the beta.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Since its creation in 1902, climbing advocacy non-profit the American Alpine Club (AAC) has championed protection for the public lands that serve as unrivaled outdoor venues for climbers and other recreators. Their latest outreach program, the “Hill to Crag” initiative, offers lawmakers and their staff a chance to experience these public lands at iconic climbing spots across the nation. The excursions provision local elected officials with a fun day in a harness, a few sore muscles, and a heightened appreciation for public lands to parlay into protective legislature.

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

After the inaugural event in spring 2018, AAC’s Salt Lake Chapter Chair Byron Harvison saw the potential for veterans to contribute. Harvison, an Army Major and experienced climber, felt that veteran involvement could engender open dialogue. Conversations regarding public lands management can be polarizing; Harvison thinks politicians will respond positively to the testimonial of veterans. “Elected officials may be more inclined to hear what veterans have to say,” he says. Likewise, “discharged veterans oftentimes have a desire to continue to serve and this is a great opportunity.”

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

Harvison explains the Hill to Crag stratagem. “First, we talk about outdoor recreation as a way to deal with veteran-specific issues like PTSD, addiction, and depression following deployment,” he extolls. These dialogues are personal and poignant. Harvison focused on rock climbing after an intense deployment in Afghanistan, and he isn’t the only veteran to credit outdoor recreation with healing. “A lot of guys can say ‘Hey, getting outside saved my life’, and they are able to share those raw stories with these legislators,” he adds.

Harvison knows politicians are beholden to monetary interests and thus explicates the value of outdoor recreation on the local and national economy: “Nationally, outdoor recreation has surpassed the oil and gas industry in economic terms.” A recent government report estimates that outdoor recreation contributes $412 billion annually to the US GDP, and Harvison recognizes the potential for the industry to throw its weight around. “We are finding our voice and coming to realize how loud that voice can be,” he explains.

The crux of Harvison’s discourse is the indispensability of public lands protection. “All of these things—the mental health benefits and thriving outdoor economy—hinge on the availability of public lands to recreate on,” he summarizes.

Photo by Byron Harvison from the Golden, CO Hill to Crag event on October 12, 2018.

Chalk it up to smart strategy, productive dialogue, or a bit of crag magic, but the Hill to Crag events have already made an impact. The inaugural excursion in May of 2018 was testimony to the power of storytelling as pedagogy. Members of the AAC and climbing advocacy group the Access Fund brought Utah Congressman John Curtis to rock climbing mecca Joe’s Valley Boulders in Emery County, UT. Harvison explained to the lawmaker that “each climber contributes around $58 per night to the local economy of nearby Castle Dale.” Castle Dale, a tiny town of 3,500, hosts 19,000-25,000 climbers annually from around the world who are drawn to the area’s intricate sandstone boulders. Emery County faces the economic stagnation typical of a declining coal-mining community, but recreational tourism has considerable potential. “Climbing is a sustainable resource,” Harvison enthuses. “We were able to show Curtis the national and international appeal of our public lands.” In July of this year, Curtis proposed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which would create a National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell, designating over a half-million acres of the redrock desert parcel federally protected wilderness. The proposal juxtaposes nearly every piece of land-grab legislation to emerge from Utah in the past year and wagers on the economic potential of recreational tourism. Curtis’s proposition, on the heels of a Hill to Crag event, is radical in its embrace of public access instead of for-profit enterprise.

Photo by Dillon Parker from the Vedauwoo Recreation Area, WY Hill to Crag event on October 19, 2018.

Perhaps the AAC recognized the aptitude of rock climbing as a metaphor for public lands access when they launched the Hill to Crag program. Central to both climbing and public lands advocacy is an ethos of respect for natural resources and the responsible placing of protections, be them nuts and crams or legislature. The AAC will hold their final adventure of 2018 on November 16 in Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina (pictured in cover photo). Harvison says that the program will launch spring events in Oregon and Montana and has plans for a route bolting clinic in Wyoming after a successful Hill to Crag climb in the state’s Vedauwoo Recreation Area last month. In concert with the Hill to Crag series, the American Alpine Club is also expanding veteran and active-duty military outreach with new discounted club membership options and targeted events.

Special thanks to US Army Major Byron Harvison, who was interviewed for this piece.

Cover photo by dconvertini via Flickr,

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