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Call of the Wild on Zambia’s Liuwa Plains

Saturday 19 May 2012

Touchdown Kalabo. Out of the aircraft window, RPS guides Robin Pope and Jason Alfonsi, known to us from mobiles and Nkwali, welcomed our party of 6 with customary RPS hospitality; coffee and tea and delicious muffins. (Although some members of our party had first to use the open air and open viewed “facilities” behind the Kalabo airport hanger having seriously miscalculated liquid relative intake and outflow withut due rgard to the bathroom-less shatter flight form Livingstone.)

Liuwa Plains is not a holiday; it is a pioneering wilderness adventure. From Kalabo, across the Luanginga river and into the woodland we went until the woodlands gave way to immense plains. After about an hour of driving a large sausage tree guarding a lagoon provided shade for an RPS picnic lunch – cold beef, tuna, hard boiled eggs, salad, beer, wine etc. Lunch was terminated hurriedly; Jason going ahead with our luggage had spotted wild dogs. We drove past wildebeest and zebra until we came to the dogs resting at a lagoon. What a scene – 6 dogs hunkering down at lagoon edge, an opportunistic hyena lurking with intent very close to them and a presumably oblivious oribi grazing unconcernedly only about 80m away. Welcome to Liuwa.

The Matamanene Bush Camp in the woodland is unobtrusive, extremely comfortable and the support staff includes loyal RPS mobile staff James and Alfred. Lady Liuwa claw marks adorn the tree adjacent to the main mess entrance. The RPS team does not miss a beat. The only challenge and much source of amusement are the paraffin fueled rocket showers – apparently to be phased out but for most of us a combination of intrigue, unfathomable mystery and randomly heated water..

A quick unpack and rest and out to the plains for a sundowner. Words cannot describe a Liuwa sunset overlooking a lily decorated lagoon in a wildebeest and zebra dotted plain with myriad water birds – crested and wattled cranes, too many ducks to mention, ditto storks, plovers, stilts, terns, jacanas, – populating the lagoon and the orange and purple sunset sky. And we enjoyed a similar performance for each of our 5 nights.

Sunday 20 May 28, 2012

After a lion and hyena serenaded night we went out early next day looking for Lady. The world’s most famous lioness since Elsa did not disappoint. Arising from her prone position she stretched languidly in front of us in the brisk early morning air as our Africa Parks scout Jacob called softy “Hello Lady, hello Lady”. We followed her around the woodland fringe until she departed into woodland thicket. Our educational experience with Robin continued and in addition to the plains game by the time we updated our bird list at afternoon tea that day we had well over 50 birds. And Rachel had some suggested amendments for the bird list.

Jason took us on the afternoon drive. We scored more great bird sightings before near sundown Jason and Jacob spotted a gathering of grounded vultures. “Jason, we have a case”. Close inspection revealed a yearling wildebeest carcass, cause of death unknown; but a predator other than lion or hyena. Twilight turned quickly into night as we snapped sundowner photos of vultures silhouetted against the dying red sun. On our short journey back to camp the 2 magnificent male lions were found in our camp woodland. We had good close sighting of these majestic beasts before leaving them for the warmth of the campfire and a delicious RPS 3 course dinner.

Monday 21 May

Next day was “an early start” as we headed off in the dark to the hyena den. Past Figtree lagoon we arrived at Palm tree lagoon as the sun and the mist were rising together to silhouette a large lechwe herd at lagoon edge. We passed large herds of wildebeest and some very curious hyenas before arriving at the den to find one hyena who presumably would have been the guard if she had not been comatose. Patience was its own reward and in due time she was joined by 3 pups who frolicked around and then by a number of returning hyenas whose extraordinary method of greeting I will not begin to describe.

The afternoon drive was with Jason. We saw some new birds and had another sunset sundowner. Helen of Troy’s face may have launched 1000 ships; a Liuwa Plains sunset launches 1000 photos, as Alex will attest.

It had been a relatively quiet drive game wise and Jason explained his guiding philosophy: “No blame no credit”. Our group member Peter acted as night spotter – Harry did volunteer as he thought “Harry Spotter” had a classy ring to it – on the very short journey back to camp. Nothing doing until some inquisitive faces were lit up. Initial excited opinions ventured from “A lion” to “a duiker” until 5 cheetah were clearly in spotlight view. We watched them vanish into the night and steeled ourselves for Peter claiming the glory. He was relatively well restrained but was heard to comment that “Tomorrow they might wish to give me the rifle as well”.

Tuesday 22 May

Early next morning a circumnavigation of the woodland proved fruitless in our attempts to locate the cheetahs, so we headed to the plains. But at about 7.30am Robin heard vervet monkey alarm calls from a thicket close to the camp woodland and Peter spotted the cheetahs through his binoculars from across the plain. So we retraced to the woodlands to find… Lady Liuwa with a young wildebeest kill in her mouth and being harassed by 5 cheetahs. The cheetah gave up after a few menacing Lady counter attacks. As Lady retreated into the woodland dragging her spoils we followed the cheetah family of one mother and 4 adolescent cubs, about 8 months old or more acurealy 12 months allowing for gestation, onto the plains. The cubs gamboled around and only got serious when a passing herd of wildebeest spotted them and proceeded to implement a wildebeest bull advance maneuver. Discretion was the better part of cheetah valour and the mother led her family away and, followed at a discreet distance by us in one Land Cruiser and the RPS camp staff in another, approached another wildebeest herd.

Our Land cruiser occupants had binoculars trained on the various cheetahs.. Mine were on the mother. In what seemed like no time she had crawled towards a wildebeest calf grazing unsuspectingly on short grass with an adult nearby. Surely she would be seen by one of the many grazing wildebeest and an alarm call would go up? Ever closer she got, moving impossibly invisible across open ground until she leapt forward. Pandemonium ensued as she jumped on the young wildebeest, only to be thwarted by the adult mother who turned to project her offspring. In an instant the unsuccessful attack was over but the cubs used the opportunity to chase a few wildebeest and to be chased back in turn.

The cheetah family gathered together and headed northeast across the now warming plain. My GPS reading showed that after about 1.5km they approached a heard of about 25-30 grazing wildebeest and concealed themselves in long grass about 20m away. The tension was palpable after the speed of the previous attempt as we watched and waited … and waited …. and waited. The cheetahs were fully concealed and after an hour we saw the mother move to the right to an attacking position. Our Land Cruiser occupants had difficulty identifying a suitable size target for the mother. And so apparently did the mother, as after about an hour she stood up to reveal herself to the still very close wildebeest. We surmised as she walked away with her family that an attempt on a large wildebeest which could have left her injured and the cubs very vulnerable was not a risk worth taking.

Across more plains the cheetah ventured, pursued by us. Temperature now was about 30 deg and the cheetahs must have been hot and hungry. We stopped for an RPS tea break on the top of a gently sloping long grass decline in which the cheetahs were resting, enjoying a panoramic Liuwa short grass vista of wildebeest and zebra and jackals and over in the mirage distance a startling white sight being the first pelican flock of the season. After a quick tea break we followed the cheetah down to the short grass plain. Suddenly 2 startled oribi burst out of the grass at breakneck speed and headed west until almost out of sight. . Robin commented “Cheetahs can go about 60mph. The oribi top speed is 61”. A short while later Jason surmised “they are probably in Angola by now”.

Mother cheetah then crawled to the edge of the short grass plain and eyed a 4-5 wildebeest grouping about 70m away. Surely too far to stalk as there was no cover between her and the wildebeest. But on she did stalk as we watched, enthralled. . Moving forward when the wildebeest put their heads down to graze and freezing, paw in air if needed, whenever one of the wildebeest group looked up. Incredibly the hitherto irresponsible cubs following her mimicked her every move, in an extraordinary display of synchronized stalking. A suspicious wildebeest eyed this group for a seeming eternity. When finally satisfied it put its head down. Mother took her chance. Up from a frozen crouch, she accelerated seemingly instantaneously into overdrive and was after the wildebeest with 3 of the 4 cubs in pursuit. A yearling was singled out, and leaping on its neck, she brought it to the ground. It all happened so quickly but the ensuing photos and video suggest that, in the space of a few seconds she had the wildebeest down twice, maybe three times, but on each occasion its mother came to the rescue, kicking out at the cheetah. The cubs joined in without serious intent and suddenly it was over, and the wounded wildebeest fled to the safety of the startled watching herd.

Mother cheetah lay down on the short plains edge breathing very heavily and the cubs joined her. We watched and as the cheetahs headed south east back through the long grass we were observing the wounded wildebeest when Peter, who was looking in the opposite direction (there is great value in being contrarian), shouted “She’s after another!” We wheeled around towards the long grass and it was mayhem with cubs leaping to see their mother off after something, probably an oribi. Peter had followed the mother and she must have covered about 400m before she returned and reunited with the cubs. It was now over 4 hours after we had first seen them and they took shelter from the noon sun in the shade of a small tree.

The cheetahs chose their tree well. About 50m south east of their tree was the only other clump of shrubs in the vicinity and which provided us with some shade as we rested up for a drinks break. As we chatted over our beers and soft drinks Liz made an atypical selfish comment “We have been so patient, we really do deserve a kill”. Peter and I as avid Nat Geo watchers proffered our expert advice that the cheetahs would rest up in the shade for the next several hours probably resuming the hunt at about 4pm.

Luckily Jason continued to keep an eye on them as before I had completed my beer he said “They’re off again!” and so were we.

They retracted their route fanning out in a jagged line through the long grass. Suddenly the mother leapt into action chasing something unseen in the grass. We saw her twist and change direction and lost sight of her in the long grass. We concluded another failure. We were wrong.

We located her about the same time as her cubs did, and she had an oribi in a suffocating throat grip. The cubs started eating almost immediately and once she knew the oribi was dead, she too tucked in. After all of 20 minutes all that was left of the oribi was the stomach contents, the major bones and the head and horns. The vultures came in and landed circumspectly nearby, probably cowered by the combined presence of us and the cheetah family both very close to the kill. Robin radioed the carnivore research team who then relieved us on cheetah watch. We headed back to camp for lunch, detouring only to pay our respects to Lady who was resting up in the shade about 300m from our camp.

All of us – none more so than Robin and Jason which made it all the more memorable for us – were keen to head out again after lunch to rejoin the cheetahs. Replacing the carnivore research team, we sat chatting all about cheetahs, reading up in Estes etc, while the cheetah amily relaxed in the grass about 30m away. Peter encouraged them to move with some injudicious and apparently unintended coughing and spluttering, and we followed them to a new location. We had sundowners in their presence and shortly thereafter they started to move west. We had a final bit of excitement when a lone male wildebeest decided to have an altercation with them, culminating in one of the cubs chasing after the wildebeest in what we surmised was hunting practice.

We left them once the sun had set and they had become shadows almost indistinguishable from their darkened surroundings. Appropriately, back at camp after another superb dinner we finished the ChateuY’Quiem 1990 which had been intended for my dad’s 90th birthday party but he will be pleased to know it was put to good us in completing an African bush day not one of us, including our seasoned guides, could ever forget.

Wednesday 23 May

With RPS, expect the unexpected. We had a very early start and headed out to Palm Tree lagoon before first light. There already set up were Robin and Wendy with a hot wood fire going. We had the secret of a true African fire explained; kindling, hot coals from the previous night fire, some fresh wood and a healthy dosing of paraffin..

A surprise champagne breakfast to celebrate our 26th wedding anniversary followed.. Plus we were given a present of some beautiful black bean tree wood carvings made by Robin and which now adorn our dining room table in Sydney. Jason was soon into his usual toast master expertise, and after breakfast we felt in need of a good walk. So most of us went with Robin for a lagoon walk while the others headed off with Jason to search for cheetahs an new birds..

After the usual educational walk covering whatever intricacies of the Liuwa Plains ecological system came to mind, Jason picked us up and in the direction of where we thought the cheetahs may be. After a fruitless research for the mysterious camera battery, we had tea at the most north westerly part of our local plains and were not surprised to see it continuing into seeming eternity. But it is about 70km by 30km overall with only clumps of woodland in between. My GPS suggested that the total decsnet travelling the 40km from Matamanene camp to Kalabo was les that 100 ft.

At lunch we were joined by Jassiel M’soka, Project Manager, Liuwa for Zambia Conservation Program, know to us having sighted him speeding across the plains on his blue motorbike armed with a back pack and radio antennae. After lunch gave us a very informative and positive update on the Liuwa Plains overall conservation project. While still very much a work in early progress, the advances in recent times have been most encouraging and who knows what might be there in say 5 years time in terms of overall game numbers? For how long will the current 43,000 wildebeest continue their extraordinary growth of about 17% per year, how quickly can the lion population increase from the current 5, what impact will increased lions and plains game game numbers have on cheetahs, wild dogs and the already very large hyena population? When will the buffalo be released and how quickly will their numbers grow? It will be very exciting to follow this over ensuing years and hopefully to return to this extraordinary landscape in few years time to witness further progress.

Our final evening was most memorable. We had another wedding anniversary celebration, highlighted by the poem presented to us and attached as appendix, polishing of amongst others two bottles of Moreson wine secretly brought by the others from Victoria Falls. .

Thursday 24 May

All too soon the Luiwa adventure was over.

A 4.15am wake up call, notified by banana leaf message, ensured a relatively punctual departure just after 5am with us arriving back at Kalabo airport with perfect timing at 8am just as our charter plane touched down. The Kalabo return journey was enlivened by some good natured banter as Liz commandeered the front passenger seat and well located heater while the rest of us wrapped ourselves as tightly as we could in the thick blankets provided. We had some final bird spotting on the way back, which brought our bird tally to 107.

We did not dally long, other than to watch with some amusement the sophisticated plan re fuelling system engineered by Jason slicing the top off a plastic water bottle to make a funnel. Other took advantage of the very airy loo facilities (refer 19 May above) behind the hanger to prepare for the 2 hour flight to Lusaka. The final Liuwa memory is the view from our airborne plane of Robin standing on the airport traversing road to hold up any traffic and waving goodbye – or rather “until next time”.

Jonathan Trollip travelled with Robin Pope Safaris.

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