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WE leave Malawi for Zambia. At the airport there are endless snafus and delays, and it grows later and later, but at last we are airborne. Flying into Zambia is like flying into a smoke-filled room. Below, through the blue haze that hangs over the land, I can see brush fires with mile-long fronts creeping toward Malawi. The wind draws the smoke up into the air, and for an hour we tunnel through the haze. In less time than that, once we land, we are in our respective rooms at Nkwali Camp, in South Luangwa National Park.
Despite our late arrival, everyone wants to take a game drive. We divide into two groups and climb into open Land Cruisers. Almost as soon as we set off, it is as if we have stumbled into Noah's ark and are waiting for the rain. In the space of an hour and a half we drive into a traffic jam of Cape buffalo -- a herd so large that it clogs the road we are using, and we have to back out and try another route. These animals look docile. At the moment they are, because there is safety in numbers and the herd must number more than 200. But in fact they are considered among the most dangerous animals in all of Africa, neck and neck with hippos. Cape buffalo have vicious tempers, anger easily, and are equipped with hooves and horns that qualify as deadly weapons.
We back out of one traffic jam into another. Two Land Cruisers are stopped in front of us with their motors off. A spotter in the first vehicle flicks a big, bright torch on and off at long intervals. We join the wait. After a few moments of silence we hear a noise. The torchlight goes on, and three impalas spring away from three lions, two young females and one young male. The sight of lions -- the first for some of our group -- catches us all by surprise.
The lions, habituated to vehicle shapes, pay us no attention. They watch the impalas leave and then walk -- no, saunter -- between our Cruisers, no more than twenty feet away, taking their own sweet time as they disappear into the brush in the direction of the herd of Cape buffalo, which will be somewhat smaller before dawn.
The drive continues to deliver up game and birds: spotted hyenas, elephants, genets, warthogs, giraffes, impalas, Egyptian geese, pukus -- you name it. South Luangwa National Park is said to have one of the largest concentrations of animals in Africa. This evening's drive couldn't offer more-convincing proof.
The profusion of animals, coupled with the two vodka martinis I had before we left, has had a remarkable effect. I am quite relaxed. I may even be enjoying myself. At dinner we are told to be sure to lock our front doors, to keep out the lions that have been entering the camp recently, and also our back doors, to keep out the snakes that like to spend time in the toilets. I am not enjoying myself after all.
TODAY we take a game walk. Only six per walk are allowed, for reasons of safety -- six, that is, plus a guide; a scout armed with a .458 high-powered rifle and hard-nosed and dumdum bullets; and a bearer carrying tea and coffee and a Tupperware container of chocolate cake. The scout, who works for the National Parks and Wildlife Services of Zambia, is named Godfrey. The guide is Simon, and the bearer is Robert; they work for the safari company.
We will be walking among hippos and, if we are lucky (or, to my way of thinking, unlucky), lions. We set out by crossing the Luangwa River. It is 6:00 a.m.
The first part of the walk is uneventful. Simon makes observations: Hippos act as dredges, gouging canals in the lagoons so that they dry up later rather than sooner, and make it that much easier for kudus, pukus, and impalas to graze. Aardvarks are the builders of the plain, digging holes they later abandon to hyenas and warthogs, who renovate them and move in. Simon shows us spear grass and demonstrates how it twists itself into the hide of a passing animal and then breaks off, leaving seeds in the skin to be disseminated.
We reach the edge of the river. The plan is to stop for tea. Just to the right of the tree we have picked out for shade is a great gouge in the riverbank, and stuck in the opening is a massive hippo. His back is to us, but he knows we are here, and he is nervous about it. He tries to turn around in the opening to face us, but his bulk stops him. Then, suddenly, he disappears. A few seconds later a cloud of dust rises over the top of the bank. We make our way to the opening and look down. The drop from the top of the bank to the bottom must be ten feet, a difficult jump for any of us, and yet this 6,000-pound creature, which we now see walking out toward the center of the river, negotiated it without mishap. Hippos seem to be as agile as they are dangerous. I thank my lucky stars that this one was too big to turn around in that gap.
After tea I look at my watch -- only two more hours to go. Robert packs up, and Simon suggests we continue our search for lions. I want to ask him why, but I resign myself to the trek and hope that it will be uneventful. The sun is hot, and having walked four miles in three hours, I am tired and achy but most of all apprehensive. I don't want to find lions. I want to get back to the camp in one piece.
The group that made the same tour two days earlier saw four lionesses and nine cubs crossing a clearing about seventy-five yards away. Today it seems that the lions have disappeared. Fine with me. We come to a meadow. One of the women sees a bateleur eagle and a vulture circling over a thicket about a hundred yards to our right. Let's see if anything is there, she says. We walk along a road that will take us to the thicket. Suddenly Simon stops and points to the ground. A large burgundy-colored stain has soaked the dusty ground. Next to it is an amorphous brown mound. To me it looks like dung. On a walking safari one discovers that dung is everywhere. The ground is either dust or dung. This isn't dung, Simon says. He kicks the mound open with his foot. It is the contents of an impala's stomach. The brown gives way to green, and a swarm of tiny insects spurts from the inside like a miniature geyser. The green is the grass the impala was eating just before it was killed. We walk a few yards farther. There is a second kill, just like the first -- a large red spot, the contents of a stomach. Simon is very alert now, and I am beginning to get nervous. I want out. I say nothing. For my five companions, including Nancy, this stalking is like some kind of drug. The more they do it, the more they want.
We move to the border of the thicket. It is on our left now, and we are skirting it slowly. Someone thinks he hears something inside, and signals to Simon and Godfrey. To our right is a field of brown grass about two feet high. We are walking in single file, as instructed, and peering intently into the thicket, when suddenly a roar that sounds as if it had traveled from somewhere deep inside the earth explodes over the meadow. I look up and see four lionesses standing in the grass under a tree twenty yards away to our right. Five cubs come bounding through the grass toward us. They look as if they want to play. I look back at the lionesses. One of them is now several steps closer to us. She roars again. Her tail is twitching. She paws the ground.
I know there are four lionesses, but now I can see only three. I have also lost track of the cubs. I am very scared, but I am not panicked. Simon raises his arms like a stork drying its wings. Move back, he commands. Move back. Keep moving back. Godfrey steps in front of us. His rifle is cocked, and he is watching the lioness who threatens to charge. I am aware that Robert is on my left and that someone is on my right. They both have hold of me. Robert keeps repeating, Don't run. Move back, Simon says, in counterpoint. I follow their orders to the letter, keeping my eyes on the lionesses but moving back steadily. I glance over my left shoulder. Jesus Christ! A hippopotamus is behind us, maybe thirty yards away. Will they both attack at once? How many shots can Godfrey get off?
Simon must see the hippo too. He tells us to stop. Then, God knows why, he tells us to move forward a few yards. We do. The lioness roars again. Then she leaps toward us, and this time I am sure it is all over -- but she stops and comes no closer. I look at Nancy. She is just in front of me. For God's sake -- through all of this turmoil she has been taking pictures. She turns and holds out her hand for me to see how it is shaking.
Now move to the left, Simon says, and slowly, slowly, we slide from between the lionesses and the hippo, up a rise and out of the meadow.
OUR last day! In no time at all we are at the airport and stuffed into three tiny planes that fly us to Lilongwe and the beginning of the end.
When we first met some members of our group, in Boston three weeks ago, one of them assured me that I would enjoy myself. Almost every day since then Nancy has asked me if I am having a good time. Our companions echo the question. Just last night one of the guides asked the same thing. This is what is meant by peer pressure. They are having the time of their lives. By God, I'd better join them.
The fact of the matter is that I can't answer their question, because I don't know. I won't know until I get home safely. When the last plane has landed, the last cab is taken, the last bag is unpacked, and I am safely ensconced in my own house, with a vodka martini in hand and the stereo playing my favorite Erik Satie, then I'll know whether or not I had a good time. Here's hoping the answer is yes.
This safari was organized by Gaby and George Whitehouse, of Custom African Travel Services, or CATS. The cost, not including airfare to Africa, was approximately $5,500 per person. I highly recommend CATS, which also organizes private safaris for families and groups of friends. The company can be reached by telephone at 617-491-1678 or by e-mail at email@example.com.