When it’s June here in Zambia, that means winter. Not the bone-chilling, snow-on-the-ground, frozen waterpipes sort of winter that you get elsewhere in the world, but certainly cold enough to make you want to spend a few days in a warmer place.
Like somewhere in the valley of the Zambezi river, on the southern border of the country.
And so we packed our stuff into and onto the Landcruiser Prado and headed off towards the South, to spend a couple of days with friends visiting from Europe.
Our friends were doing a longer trip, looping through Zimbabwe and passing by the Victoria Falls. We’d agreed to meet up with them on the banks of the lower Zambezi, near Chiawa. This is just outside the Lower Zambezi National Park, but within the Game Management Area. There are no fences in between, so that the animals can move about freely.
It turns out that there are three elephants who call that area home. One is called Sniffles, because some incident with a poacher’s snare damaged his trunk. And the one called Gonzo, is apparently quite “cheeky”. Ruth also told us that one of the hippos (she called him “Pottie” for some reason) who had been injured in a fight with another, quite often came ashore at night to stay (and feed) in her garden.
Three tame cats came to show an interest in us, but Ruth said that she had to find another home for her dog after she found a leopard stalking him at her house some time ago…
Duly warned about the other inhabitants of the area, we selected our camping spot. We were the only visitors at that time, so we could choose the best location, positioning the vehicle so that the rooftop tent would be level, the views over the river would be ideal, and the distance to the toilets not too long.
One needs to take care with night-time toilet trips, bearing in mind the obvious presence of hippos and elephants. Leopards and lions are also a possibility, but they don’t really go around hunting people on midnight toilet trips. Anyway, it’s best not to bump into any of these species at night. So when you do go out, you don’t go alone, and you take a torch!
Woods Camp is located on the banks of the Zambezi River and from time to time one can hear the grunting of hippos and that majestic sound of the African Fish Eagle.
Our friends were staying in the adjoining Muchichili House, a pretty luxurious accommodation. We’d arranged to take our meals there, which was an excellent decision!
After dinner, the walk back to Woods Camp, in the dark, on the banks of the river, hearing the grunting and snorting of hippos, seeing their tracks, was also an adventure. We were accompanied by one of the staff members, who was using his torch to make sure there were no surprises lurking in the bushes.
Here it is time to share some wisdom. People often wonder whether you could outrun a lion (or any other animal) but the answer is that this is not relevant. You only need to be able to outrun your slowest companion. The chap with the torch who was guiding us back to our campsite, was wearing flip-flops (beach thongs, for you Americans out there), so my wife and I, wearing trainers, would be OK.
The next evening, we participated in the almost obligatory sunset cruise, very ably guided by Brown, who showed us lots of animals and told us more about them.
If you continue drifting down the Zambezi, then you pass between the Lower Zambezi National Park (on the Zambian side) and Mana Pools National Park (on the Zimbabwe side), after which the river flows into Mozambique on its way to the Indian Ocean.
Since the parks are not fenced, animals wander (and swim) in and out as they please. We actually saw two elephants swim from the Zimbabwean side towards Zambia. Not sure if they were on a tourist visa, but they seemed to be having fun. In the middle of the main channel, the river is too deep for them to walk, so they were actually swimming, bobbing up and down, throwing their trunks into the air for a deep breath every now and then.
Here are some images from the trip with the boat:
These animals may appear large and sluggish, just slacking off and chilling out in the water, but that would be the wrong impression. Well, they are large, and perhaps they are just chilling there, but they are certainly not sluggish! This species is responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal. Since they hang out in rivers, in the shallower parts, the interaction with humans who go fishing or washing or fetching water, is … tricky.
A couple of years ago, we went canoeing on another spot of this same river and were charged by a hippo. Very … exciting. Talking about that event is much more fun than the actual experience was.
Hippos are grazers, they get out of the water, mostly at night, to chew grass on the river banks and beyond. (And apparently also in Ruth’s garden.) So those massive teeth that they carry are not for eating, not for show, but for fighting. They are pretty territorial, and the bulls defend their specific part of the river.
Fun fact: the green grass on campsites is very popular for midnight feasting by hippos. Also if said grass is between your sleeping spot and the toilet…
The welcome sign at Woods Camp had also cautioned against crocodiles, and so I should show some evidence of these prehistoric creatures. We saw quite a few crocs sunning themselves on the sandbank, and saw one monster of maybe 3 metres long, leap into the water when our boat got close. Too fast to photograph, but I did get a picture of another one, slightly smaller.
I have no idea whether that stork was planning anything, or even thinking at all. At one point, it edged a little closer to the croc, perhaps to get a better look at what death looks like?
Now you might wonder what I’m trying to show with my next photograph, but the clues are already clear from the previous one.
While we are on the topic of birds, when you are near any body of water, there is always a variety of birds to be seen and heard. But I struggle to photograph them. I could blame my camera gear, so yeah, let’s do that. I use my phone, a Samsung Galaxy S9 and my little Sony DSC-HX99 compact, fixed-lens camera. The latter makes slightly better pictures, but has an irritating menu system, so that I am usually working on the “auto” setting, which is a pity.
Anyway, I digress. Something about the birds seen:
The African Fish Eagle, with its almost haunting, far-reaching cry, is for me the iconic African bird. And features on the Zambian flag, too.
Egyptian geese can be found all over sub-Saharan Africa, but also as far North as, well, Egypt. I’ve seen that they are not very popular in many housing estates near water (they tend to shit everywhere, on patios and pavements…) but here they were at least in their own element.
However, the most remarkable birds on this trip, were the White-fronted Bee-eaters that build their nesting sites into the eroded riverbanks of the Zambezi.
Back at the campsite, we’d seen a few examples of the Water Monitor Lizard, also known as the Nile Monitor. They seemed to be equally at home on the bank, and in the water.
I can’t close this story without one comment about the most dangerous of all animals: Man. (And women too, I guess, let’s be gender-sensitive.)
But jokes aside, human-animal interaction is a problem. Campsites and lodges in Zambia generally do an excellent job at maintaining the necessary distance between animals and human visitors. And hunting is (at least nominally) prohibited in the Game Management Areas surrounding the National Parks. But in those GMAs there are villages and farms, people moving about. In the same areas, animals need to be able to eat, access the river, etc.
And so incidents do occur from time to time. A day before we arrived in this area for our weekend, a villager had been killed by an elephant. The person (who was apparently hard of hearing) had managed to get in the way of an elephant on the way to the river. Tempers were running high in the villages, and there were plans to hunt that particular elephant and to kill it. No success so far, which I believe is fortunate. Elephants do not easily become “rogue killers” of humans and in any case, it is their space too.
At the same time, however, villagers who have lived somewhere for generations, also need to have their homes and farms protected. It’s a problem that is likely to get worse as our human population numbers increase.
Anyway, I don’t want to end the story on such a negative tone, so here’s a nice sunset image: