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After 32 years: return to South Luangwa

This is Jane and Mike Agg. First of all, a bit of background: Newly married, we left the UK in 1973 to work in Luanshya, on Zambia’s Copperbelt, Mike as an Engineer and Jane as a teacher.  Daughter Emma was born in 1976, a year later, Emma with grandparents, we went a walking safari in South Luangwa National Park with Norman Carr Safaris/Wilderness Trails.  Our guide was a young man, about our age, by the name of Robin Pope.  Even though he’d only been guiding for a year, we knew he was special – fascinated by all aspects of the bush and making sure that you became just as fascinated as he was.

We left Zambia in 1978 and our second daughter, Sarah, was born in 1979 in Deep River, Ontario, Canada.  Over the next three decades we periodically saw Robin’s name in magazines and newspapers as he became a highly acclaimed guide and then finally a safari company owner in his own right in 1986.

We read that he had married Jo and wondered what she was like. We had always nurtured the hope that one day we would take our daughters to Africa to enjoy what had become one of our treasured memories: a walking safari in South Luangwa with Robin Pope as our guide.  That hope became reality this September, 32 years to the week. Our daughters have married, Emma to Paul, and Sarah to Calum, so the six of us are on safari together.

We must admit to a bit of fear and trepidation when, on the evening before our walking safari, Robin and Jo came to Luangwa Safari House to say hello.  Would he have become a corporate type only interested in business and the success of his company?  Would he have become jaded about explaining the life cycle of the dung beetle for the thousandth time? We need not have worried of course.  Robin in still fascinated about everything to do with the African bush, still a great educator, and still has an infectious giggle when he has relaxed with you.  He and Jo both enjoyed the photos from 32 years ago that we had brought to show them: “he still has the same great legs”, Jo remarked, “and he had that hat when I married him”.

So what are the differences between a 1977 and a 2009 walking safari?  We recall small, functional tents with a mosquito net over the simple camp bed.  The bar consisted of a bottle of J & B whiskey and bottles of Zambian beer cooled in the river.  The local staff were shy, quiet and spoke little English.

Now the tents boast rush rats, a low table and have mosquito netting on all four sides to allow for maximum air flow.  Nowadays the bar has every imaginable drink, and the staff are confident, relaxed and most speak very good English. In 1977 we were able to see the occasional rhino in the park; now they have been poached out, but Robin tells us that there are moves to reintroduce them.  We are certain there are many more lion and leopard, and the game in general seems just as prolific as it was thirty years ago.  In 2009, the mid-morning walk drink is made from hot water from thermos flasks.  Back then the tea bearer put down the wooden box he carried on one shoulder, shaved some pieces of wood from a certain kind of tree with his pen knife, lit a fire and boiled up the water.

We had an amazing five day walk and our dream of sharing this magical experience with our daughters was realized.

Our favourite moments from this visit:

  • Having our tea bearer and rear guard man, Jonathan, imitate exactly the call of wild dogs we could hear in the distance and bring them close enough for us to see them well
  • Robin waking us at 5a.m. one morning to see a male lion on the opposite bank of the Mupamadzi River watching our camp
  • The spine-tingling experience of baboons making a “helluva to-do” (Robin’s words) one night in the tree above our heads as a leopard lay nearby
  • Discovering the grisly remains of the leopard kill next morning – a baboon arms and hand stretched along one branch
  • Revisiting the site that night and seeing the male leopard finishing off his meal
  • Doing 5a.m. yoga, jogging in the river, and weight exercises using “sausages” with Michelle at Camp 4
  • Visiting a spectacularly beautiful carmine bee eater colony and seeing a python withdraw its head from a nearby hole
  • All six of us climbing precariously into an acacia tree from the top of the landcruiser and Robin taking a family photo.

The list is never-ending.

And a very special moment occurred on our first night with Robin when he recalled with typical understatement the “close call” we had in 1977 when a very angry hippo charged us and the bullet jammed in the scout’s gun.  We have been dining out on that story for years, and it appears Robin has been doing the same.

Jo, Robin’s wife, sneaked a look at her husband’s diary for this safari – “Sightings from the Mupamadzi River Valley.- Last week I had one of the most memorable game and people experiences for many years. Guests back after 32 years. Last taken on safari in 1977. We were most fortunate in sighting 25 species of mammal excluding the leucistic female impala (white impala), and being able to stand in the bush and be onlookers to lions attacking buffalo and in turn being hotly pursued all over the bush by an irate herd of 40 odd buffalo. First of the European bee eaters flying south east.”

Thirty-two years later and the Zambian bush I remember, with its natural cycle of migration and pursuit, has barely changed.

More about Robin Pope Safaris here. Jane Agg’s safari, second time around, was arranged by Mike Haines.

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