…that’s why we didn’t see many in the Game Park. Sister-in-law Su is volunteering at local school. She loves the Park and its animals as much as I do, especially the wild dogs. There are two packs active at present, a smaller group of six and a larger group of about 18. Su doesn’t work on Sundays, so we decided to do our own game drive. I was waiting for her at the Park gate at 6am.
It was chilly, I had to keep the car window closed, but I didn’t need a fleece. Su arrived, paid the entry fee (the Valley doctor gets in free) and we set off. We overtook the three vehicles which had entered the Park before us within a hundred metres of the Luangwa River bridge, so we were the first on the scene.
Su is not that keen on birds unless they are interesting. I saw an African Goshawk, a pretty grey bird of prey with yellow legs, but it flew off before I could get my camera sorted out. We cruised “Riverside Drive”, otherwise known as “Leopard’s Lane”, but we were out of luck. There were elephants a-plenty, baboons, zebra, impala and puku, but no big cats.
“I can see something on the road down to the left,” said Su. Helmeted guinea fowl, a flock of about twenty birds, juveniles and adults, were blocking the track. I set up my video camera, balancing it on the door mirror, and drove slowly forwards. En masse, the birds set off down the track in front of us, tipping over one another as they tried to escape. They could have moved a metre to the left or right, off the track into the bush, but no, they followed their leader. After about 40 metres, we began to gain on them and they got flustered. The leaders took flight and the rest followed. Most flew sideways into the bush, but one landed directly in front of us ten metres further on. He eventually got the message and slipped to the side, allowing us free passage.
Guinea fowl were not the only creatures blocking our path. I saw a moving black shape across the road and we stopped to watch the progress of a group of army ants. A regiment? Or a battalion? A creeping company of army ants? The column was about five ants wide and they were all aligned. You never drive over them because they go crazy trying to find who they were supposed to be following.
At the end of the rains, most antelope have mated and had their young to benefit from the new grass. But that doesn’t stop young males jousting for supremacy. We watched a couple of young waterbucks locking horns and wrestling to see who was the stronger. Puku and impala bucks have to keep their harem of females together and see off any interlopers, trying their luck. Impalas raise their tails so the white fur is showing a make an awful grunting and screeching sound. They are inviting a showdown. “Come on, if you think you’re hard enough.”
I saw a beautiful lilac-breasted roller, who must have been feeling cold as he had fluffed up his feathers. We saw more wading birds on a couple of lagoons, but nothing new or startling until we came across a male saddle-billed stork, with his outrageous long red bill, banded with black and yellow. The male’s eye is red/brown in colour, rather than yellow in the female. He also has a tiny yellow wattle, but this is not easily seen in this photo.
We were quite some distance from the usual tourist routes in the Park and twice we got bogged down in thick mud. Black cotton soil is notorious for trapping two wheel drive vehicles, but by not panicking and checking the terrain carefully, we managed to get through. I pushed and Su drove. There was no need for an ignominious radio call for help to the other vehicles in the Park. But my clean white safari cargo pants were splattered with mud.
We saw a couple of vehicles ahead, parked under a baobab, having morning tea. Well, coffee laced with spiced rum and a few beers. These were people who work in the lodges and were having a day off in the Park. “G’d-day Ian, remember me?” said one familiar face. “You might have buggered your car but you sorted me out when I had malaria.”
Su and I decided to go hunting further afield for the elusive wild dogs. We drove down to Chichele and turned west, up a rocky track for a dozen kilometres until we came to a T junction. We turned right but within minutes we were in a swamp. It was completely impassable and it was so remote, there was not going to be much passing trade to extricate us if we did get bogged down. We turned back and decided to check out the Big Baobab and the Wafwa.
Giraffes, African grey crowned cranes, more elephants, ground hornbills and lots of antelope. But no dogs. On our way home, we stopped to photograph a baboon, sitting on a dead branch, unpeturbed by our presence. We left the Park at noon, had some lunch and rested for a while, before going out again for another drive. This was even more uneventful than the morning drive.
We didn’t see any dogs, but just like not seeing any whale sharks at Tofo Beach last year, the trick is to enjoy and appreciate what you did see, not to whinge about what you didn’t.
I drove back to Kapani Ruins and saw my next door neighbour. He had been showing some people around the managed game area (outside the Park, where normal agricultural activity co-exists with wild animals). On the road to the Salt Pans, he was stopped by a large pack of wild dogs. They wouldn’t move to let the vehicle pass, and he had to drive around them. Typical. Well, as there are only 8,000 left in the world, they are elusive. And infuriating.