The sun had already set as we wearily finished putting up our tents on the banks of the Luangwa River. We had just completed a 9-hour drive from Lusaka and were looking forward to a cold beer at the bar. Suddenly a tree full of baboons next to us went crazy with barking sounds, quickly joined by anxious calls from birds and nearby vervet monkeys. I’d spent enough time in the bush to know they were alarm calling and this could mean that some of them had spotted a predator nearby.
We looked across the river which was running low but the width and height of the riverbed clearly showed it could be huge after heavy rains. On the opposite bank we spotted something large and golden coming out of the thick forest. It was a male lion picking his way down the bank for a drink in the water. As he reached the river’s edge we heard panicked sounds of splashing from nervous hippos rushing away from him. The light was quickly fading so we couldn’t get a photo but it bode well for our game drive the next day and I hoped he’d get a kill in the night so we would get some good sightings in the morning. He didn’t let us down.
We were at Croc Valley Camp in northwestern Zambia and sadly for just one night as it proved to be my favorite camp of the whole trip. A collection of chalets and a campsite surround a fabulous bar and restaurant, all situated among beautiful forest and with views over the river. Elephants are among the many frequent animal visitors to the camp so it isn’t a great idea to keep food in your tent but it makes for a memorable stay. I could easily spend a week or two here enjoying the tranquility, watching the animals and venturing out on one or two game drives every day. Sadly we had to keep moving in order to stay on schedule but we did manage one incredibly memorable game drive.
We set off shortly after sunrise with a ranger who doubled as our driver and tracker. Within a few minutes we were inside South Luangwa National Park watching a hippo grazing out of the water. This isn’t a common sight because they normally graze at night so most visitors to Africa only get to see them in the water. Again the light wasn’t good enough to get a photo and in any case it seemed our ranger was on a mission so he drove us on after a minute, barely stopping to look at some elephants we found a little further on. Clearly he had an inkling that there was something even more interesting to see and I hoped it would involve the lion from the night before.
We were soon following a barely visible bumpy track down into a large clearing and as we pulled to a stop we all gasped in excitement. He’d bought us to a huge male leopard on a kill. There wasn’t much left of the unfortunate waterbuck and the leopard was dragging it to a hiding place, stopping every now and then to nibble on its nose or its eyes whilst keeping a sharp eye out for other animals that might want to take his meal from him. And judging by the number of vultures ominously surrounding him he was right to be concerned. The fact that he had killed a large male waterbuck, probably weighing in excess of 200 kg, is an incredible feat alone and whilst he had eaten a lot of the meat already it is still a testament to a leopards strength that he was able to drag the carcass in his mouth for several metres at a time before he’d stop for a short break, a snack and a careful look around for potential thieves.
Leopards are incredible animals and as I’d reminded my tripmates ad nauseam since we left Cape Town they are my favorite. No amount of photos or wildlife documentaries can prepare you for just how beautiful they look with your own eyes. Their coats are stunning and intricate, their bodies powerful yet graceful and despite being one of the most feared animals in the world they seem to have a warmth about their demeanour along with an intelligence in their eyes that I don’t see in other animals to the same extent. Elephants look wise and all-knowing for sure but leopards just look really smart.
My love of leopards began when I was working in Sabi Sand Reserve at Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson’s private game reserve in South Africa. The area is known for an abundance of leopards and this is in no small part thanks to one particular female who became loved by staff and guests at the various lodges in her habitat. Her name was Makwela which basically means to climb on or on top of something in the Shangaan/Tsonga language. She lived a long life in the area and was known for being an incredible mother as well as a great hunter. Not only did Makwela give birth to an unusually high number of cubs but she managed to raise a handful of them to adulthood, something that is incredibly difficult to do particularly in an area so crowded with other leopards, lions and hyena. Three of those cubs frequented the area around Ulusaba and weren’t shy around game vehicles (nor was Makwela) so that repeat guests and staff enjoyed the unique experience of watching a litter of cubs grow up and eventually lead their own solitary lives in the bush.
Leopards are not social animals and will only stay with their cubs long enough to raise them, in fact when the cubs become full adults they may fight with their mother over territory as Makwela did with her offspring. One night whilst returning from an evening game drive in the dark myself and a handful of others got to see something incredibly unique. Our tracker found several sets of leopard prints that we followed and soon came across Makwela and her three cubs wandering down a road. This wasn’t at all an unusual sight except that a huge male leopard we called Wallies was with them, the leopard we thought had fathered the cubs. We followed at a distance as we watched the family wander through the bush with the cubs playing with each other and their parents. Nobody could really explain the behavior because the adults weren’t displaying any indication that they were mating and they didn’t seem to be hunting. In any case it reduced every one of us to tears, happy tears of course because it was just such an incredibly rare and unique sight. Five leopards together is rare enough but to see an entire family seemingly hanging out just for the sake of it is a memory I think all of us felt extremely privileged to have and something you are very unlikely to see in even the most patiently filmed wildlife documentaries.
Makwela lived for a very long time but was eventually driven out of her territory by her daughters. Nobody is exactly sure how she died but she had a lasting impact on all of us who met her. One of my friends was a ranger in Sabi Sand and has since gone on to start-up his own wildlife company that he has named in her honor. If you’d like to read more about this amazing leopard you can click here to visit the Makwela Transfrontier Safaris website where he has written a wonderful tribute to her. I was lucky to return to Ulusaba for a visit in 2012 when I had the magical experience of getting to see one of her grandchildren and I very much hope that her descendents will be found in the area for many generations.
Back in South Luangwa we left the leopard to fend off the vultures and continued through the truly beautiful national park. Soon we came across a worried-looking female waterbuck and hoped she wasn’t too close to the one the leopard was still eating. We paused every now and then to learn about the trees and the birds, something I appreciated after our rushed game drives through Chobe National Park. This was safari as it is supposed to be; gentle, intimate and always a learning experience.
We had only seen two other vehicles so it felt like we had the park to ourselves but it is important to have other vehicles on game drive at the same time as the rangers share information with each other. We stopped as our ranger exchanged information with another before he once again set off with purpose so I wondered if we might find that lion from the night before.
We did find him and it was clear he had been successful overnight but the carcass of the unfortunate animal was nowhere to be seen, probably taken by hyenas well before we arrived. When lions do kill they gorge themselves like it is Christmas Day because they can never be sure when they will get another one or how long they will have the carcass before a group of hyenas take it off them. So just like Christmas Day or Thanksgiving, once the gorging is done lions will pretty much go into a food coma and spend several hours lying around somewhere peaceful. If you sit close enough and quietly enough you can even hear their bellies loudly digesting things and I’m afraid to say that if you sit too close you will get to experience the unfortunate stench of lion fart that will make your dog’s ones smell like roses in comparison. So this was what we found our man from the night before doing and luckily we were up wind.
This is actually the safest time to come across a lion if you happen to do so on foot. Just like how you can’t face leftover turkey at Christmas they can’t face another bite let alone think about catching something so whilst I wouldn’t recommend testing this theory out, it is highly likely that you could walk right past this guy without drawing much more than a half-assed grunt and a dirty look.
By now it was time for us to have some food too so we drove on then pulled over next to the river on the opposite side of the bank from our campsite but further downstream. Our ranger magically produced a small table, tablecloth, hot coffee and cookies that we enjoyed whilst overlooking a pool of very happy hippos.
As we drove away from the hippos we were all so happy with the sightings so far that we could have left at that point but the ranger had a one more surprise up his sleeve. We were driving around the edge of what appeared to be a small dry lake bed when we spotted a lone antelope grazing. I have no idea why antelope do this without the safety of numbers but I try to remind myself that they haven’t seen as many David Attenborough documentaries as I have. In any case I felt this was asking for trouble and sure enough not far away we came across a small pride of three female lions that we managed to pull up very close to. They had been settling in for a morning nap but soon noticed the lone antelope too.
They assumed a telltale posture that indicates they are scouting out some prey. This involves tilting their heads back in order to best pick up the scent whilst scouring the area for movement. It seemed that they were fairly well fed so couldn’t decide whether or not to pursue the oblivious antelope but unlike the lion from the riverbank they weren’t in a food coma so the temptation became too much. Two lazier ones looked on whilst a third got up to get ready to make a run for it, with the other two ready to sacrifice their nap in support of her if necessary. After several minutes of unbearable tension when you can’t decide if you are rooting for the lion or the antelope the lion made a run for it. The antelope was ultimately too far away so managed to escape whilst the lion returned with her tail between her legs, literally not figuratively.
I had never been so close to a lion who had decided to execute a chase before so it was a thrilling experience that demonstrated the speed and strength of these huge felines who had been lying around like house cats a few minutes before yet within seconds morphed into powerful predators that looked nothing like kitty back home. Sadly there have been several tourists in Africa who forget the difference. Whilst is it a rare occurrence there are still too many stories of tourists getting out of game viewing vehicles to go and pat lions. Normally they end up dead and the lions end up shot. It sounds hard to believe and whilst I agree it is an incredibly stupid thing to do I also know that when lions are relaxing they do look like a huge version of domesticated cats and share many of the same mannerisms when sleeping and playing. That doesn’t mean I’d ever get out to scratch one under the chin.
This sighting was a wonderful end to the best safari experience I’d had on the trip so far. It was a beautiful park packed with wonderful animals but the real magic lay in the way the park was operated and the people who worked there. It wasn’t overcrowded, only fully trained rangers were operating there, the sightings weren’t rushed and the animals were treated with the utmost respect. I can’t recommend Croc Valley Camp and South Luangwa National Park highly enough. It would make an interesting and lesser-known alternative to the more well-known parks in Africa and you’d get to experience the wonderful country of Zambia too. Whilst I haven’t done my homework on this I suspect you might be able to do it less expensively than many of the more popular parks and reserves.
Once again I’d like to thank my friend Duard Terblanche for letting me use some of his photos of Makwela. I’ve been fortunate enough to have Duard take me on many game drives throughout the years. His love of animals shows through not just in his photography but in the respect he shows them and the way he introduces them to his guests. If you are planning an African trip I’d recommend you check out his new business Makwela Transfrontier Safaris, I know you would be in really good hands.
Please note that the collar on the lion in the cover image is for research purposes. It is extremely lightweight and doesn’t hinder her ability to go about her day-to-day life nor does it hurt her. Tracking collars are put on in a humane way that is well-supervised and documented. Data from these collars is used to help with our understanding of animals and therefore provides valuable information for wildlife conservation initiatives.