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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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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

Nov 05, 2019

A Flotilla Cruise Through The Inside Passage: From Alaska to BC.

With radios coordinated and quiet water ahead, adventure, whales, porpoises, sea otters, eagles, stunning channels and vista await.

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Shortly after 9 AM, the mist over Ketchikan Marina lifted. The crews of our six motor launches fired the twin diesel engines, loosened mooring lines and coordinated radios as anticipation escalated. One by one the Grand Banks cruisers eased out of the close quarters and bustle of the working fishing port and rallied in the main channel. Our flotilla passed two 10-story cruise ships as we motored southeast. Other maritime facilities, including the Coast Guard station, appeared to port. And then, as though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind. We were on our way!

We were offered the chance to join long-time sailing friends, Dave and Janet, for a 10-day, 450-mile voyage through the Inside Passage from Southeast Alaska into British Columbia. Although we had sailed in Desolation and Puget Sounds, motor cruising through the stunning fjords, inlets and channels of the coastal Northwest promised an exciting new adventure. Coupled with the rich marine life of pristine waters, and the opportunity to visit a Kitasloo community, a life-changing voyage unfolded.

As though walking through a bulkhead from inside to outdoors, we left urban development behind.

With Dave as captain, the four of us crewed Thea, one of six boats forming a flotilla led by NW Explorations. (NWE) She was moored among boats of all descriptions. Large commercial fishing operations were mixed with day charters, amid all the sights, sounds and smells of an active marina. We took possession of our new home with a launch due the next morning. Berths secured, personal gear stored and provisions on board for the first days, we bedded down for an anxious night. Compatriots hailed from Florida, Arkansas, Wyoming, California, Washington and Oregon.

Thea in Ketchikan Marina. Photo by Jack Billings.

Thea, a Grand Banks classic yacht, was well-equipped for cruising wilderness waters. Designed like a 46-foot trawler, she carried an impressive array of navigational equipment, including GPS guided autopilot, lap-top displayed depth and distance charts and radar. Featuring twin-engine diesel motors, she was most efficient at about 8 knots. There were three berths, two heads, a well-appointed galley with fridge and freezer, an ice maker and microwave, washer and dryer, with a drop-leaf teak table in the adjacent salon. All-in-all, quite commodious accommodations.

“turn where we turn, not when we turn…”

Affable veteran guide Brian Pemberton captained the lead boat Deception (Mother Goose). He was assisted by Jordan Roderick, an encyclopedia of First Nation and European history, marine mammals, other creatures and seabirds. Jordan was aided by Chris Fairbanks, also a marine biologist. Andy Novak, our mechanic and general factotum, rounded out Deception’s crew.

Deception in the van. Photo by Jack Billings

With Deception leading the way, and other flotilla members spreading out behind her, our course was set: Foggy Bay, 38 nautical miles away. Salt spray, the call of seabirds, rugged forest coastlines scalloped by tides and winds heralded entry into the Inside Passage. When a change in course was needed, we received the admonition: “turn where we turn and not when we turn”.

Flotilla rafted at Foggy Bay. Photo by NW Explorations.

By midafternoon we manoeuvred into Foggy Bay, located at the end of a small inlet, a charming pocket anchorage no more than 1000 feet across. Despite its name, sunny skies welcomed us. To arrange for an inter-boat gathering and accommodate the tight mooring, we rafted the six boats side by side. Three anchors and three stern lines kept us in formation. After assembling for hors d’oeuvres in Deception’s salon, sea stories began. Roland Barth’s Cruising Rules applied to food and tales.

Harbor Master, Prince Rupert. Photo by NW Explorations.

Good weather prevailed the next morning out of Foggy Bay, in route to Prince Rupert, the largest city in the northern part of British Columbia. Several bald eagles monitored our entry into Cow Bay Marina.

Our itinerary called for a layover day, to allow provisioning for as many as seven days. The refrigerator had unaccountably shrunk, so we pressed two on-board coolers into service. With the help of block ice and a steady stream of cubes from the icemaker, food stayed fresh for the remainder of the trip.

Returning to Thea the second afternoon, we encountered a boat hand with three large bags of shrimp. He pointed out their boat, docked on the next boardwalk. The captain sold us enough for three meals.

Because Prince Rupert has both rail and highway access to the interior of British Columbia, it is an important shipping hub. The marina is the largest between Ketchikan and Vancouver Island and provides shore power, potable water, Internet access, a restaurant/pub and a large grocery store within walking distance. Its laid-back pace fit our needs exactly.

The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast indelible memories.

Rested and fully provisioned, we set our course over the next four days for passage to Newcomb Harbour, then to Patterson Inlet, Bishop Bay and on to Aaltanhash Inlet, a total of about 185 nautical miles. Our itinerary brought us down the narrow Petrel Channel and then across various sounds and reaches. We saw virtually no one except when we crossed the shipping lane at Granville Channel and a few boats moored at Bishop Bay.

The narrow passages into these inlets are quite protected, with tide changes, but little surge. Reflections along the water line strike vivid angles on the glassy surface.

Reflections at Patterson Inlet. Photo by Jack Billings.

Early mornings in these anchorages were magical. Overcast skies meant light emerged slowly, coupled with the first cries of sea birds, and the salmons’ leaps and jumps as they pursued their spawning destiny. Hot coffee cups warmed our hands each morning as we sat on Thea’s bow; remote did not mean sacrifice. Fishing was irresistible and often rewarding.

One sunrise a tall, black timber wolf scampered out dense forest onto a low tidal beach, nose down looking for treats then up again skyward. We held our breath, hoping for more, as it disappeared a moment into large reeds. Then out again, it retraced its path into the trees. This rare sighting happened in a flash before we had time to nab the camera. Within two minutes, silence settled in again, we caught our breath, and the usual world was far away.

Soon after leaving Patterson Inlet we crossed through Otter Passage and into Squally Channel. Our flotilla came upon a pod of feeding humpback whales. We slowed to idle and spread out, maintaining a respectful distance. The whales were fishing by concussing, slamming either their pectoral fins or massive tails on the surface, stunning the small fry below. The sights and pounding reverberating across the waves cast an indelible memory.

Then, without warning, two whales seemingly the size of Thea surfaced next to us, almost within reach.

Humpback at Squally Channel. Photo by Jack Billings

Apparently unconcerned about our proximity, with the sweep of a fluke, they are gone.

Humpback fluke with resident barnacles. Photo by Jack Billings

Out from our snug mooring at Aaltanhash Inlet, we set our course down the Princess Royal Channel toward our rendezvous with the Kitasloo village of Klemtu. Deception reported a small school of Dall’s porpoises feeding along the port side. As Thea came forward, several swam over to investigate.  Incredibly, they fell in with our bow, matching our speed of about 9 knots, crossing from one side to the other. Then, in a flash, they lost interest and were gone.

Shortly beyond, Klemtu came in view on the western hillside. We passed the community and made anchor in a small bay called Clothes Cove. We took the dinghies back to the village where we were given a tour of their magnificent Long House by Shane, a hereditary chief. Ceremonial uses were heralded by the lightly acrid smoke in the air. Built with massive cedar beams, its spectacular carved lintels at each end represent the four families of this Kitasloo village: eagle, raven, killer whale and wolf.

Long House at Klemtu. Photo by Jack Billings.

Since at least the retreat of the last ice age, indigenous peoples have lived, fished and hunted in the stunning, rich waters and islands of what is now southeast Alaska and the Pacific coast of British Columbia. The arrival in mid-1700s of Spanish, English, and Russian explorers brought deadly disease, slavery, and overt debasement of their cultures. The Canadian government later established residential schools, for which students were forcibly removed from their families and beaten if they spoke their native languages. Today Klemtu’s 450 residents struggle to regain lost cultural sovereignty. With a determination steeled by centuries of survival in an often-harsh environment, the people of the village persevere.

By the next morning, several boats were running low on provisions and fuel, so our destination changed to Shearwater, about 38 miles distant. Here we found the only large boat haul-out facility in a wide area. Its pub restaurant brought a break from on-board meal preparation and clean up. Fussy kingfishers patrolled the marina. After dark, a full moon, bright enough to walk by, cast mirrored reflections on the water and forest silhouettes against the horizon.

Full moon at Shearwater. Photo by NW Explorations

Not long after we departed Shearwater, a large raft of sea otters appeared. Mothers sometimes wrapped their young in floating kelp beds, leaving them on the surface while they dove for food. Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction during decades of high demand for their pelts. While their numbers have rebounded across two-thirds of their historic range, they have not returned to their earlier abundance.

Raft of Sea Otters. Photo by NW Explorations

As we prepared to leave Shearwater, the Deception crew advised that weather was building ahead of us, over Queen Charlotte Sound, to our southwest. Our course would take us down the Fitz-Hugh Sound, still protected by an outer island, but then out into the open Sound, directly off the Pacific. The likely rough seas prompted a change in plan, to turn southeast into Queen Charlotte Strait, and Blunden Harbour, 83 miles and 10 hours away.

As we entered the Sound, winds held steady at 20 knots, Thea bounced and tossed in four-foot swells and scattered squalls. Though the boat was well-designed for rougher seas, the open passage required our constant attention. In gathering darkness, the flotilla eased out of the strait and into the anchorage. After a quick meal, we called it a day and thanked the star-filled sky.

The next morning brought our last day on the water. Our destination, Port McNeill, British Columbia, was now nearby after yesterday’s long run. We left Thea, and Dave and Janet, as three new passengers were set to embark on the next 10 days down to Bellingham, Washington.

Returning home, we were refreshed by memories of marine life seen up close in native surroundings, stunning fjords cut into the pristine forest and First Nation resilience and renewal. Great fellowship, discoveries every day, gourmet meals and more. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.

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