How many national parks and game reserves are there across the continent? I am not sure. Each one with its own character and “way of doing things”, its own history. Some are wildlife rich areas that were simply gazetted into parks at the last minute, conservation and tourism staff and infrastructure hustled into place, a wonderful plan. Some, though, have a legacy, a connection to the ecosystems it protects and are more than just a pretty place to visit. They represent something much bigger. Like anything else in life, they have their bad moments where a greedy few will desecrate and try to destroy what was built before them, yet the granite rectitude of the founders of these places lasts on. Not simply made into a cash business, hauling in as many tourists as possible to keep the corrupt fat and wealthy with hopefully enough to pay the members of conservation actually doing the heavily lifting and making sure the businesses main asset, its wildlife, continues to thrive.
A well-avoided thought to many who visit the parks of Africa every day, but it is true, and too often true. The South Luangwa has its quintessential thieves in high places but for a better part is an exception to the idea that a wildlife area is nothing more than a money-factory and place one gets to recklessly drive your jeep through in search of ecstasy at the expense of the wildlife providing it. There is morality, in the roots of this place. Stemming from its birth and the principles laid down by Norman Joseph Carr himself. A believe that communities, tourism, wildlife and conservation all walk hand in hand. Neglect one, the sustainability of the other is compromised. A history of respect between wildlife and humans and it is this exact history that continues to manifest itself in the very people who help make the Luangwa what it is today. Not only a heaven for wildlife, extraordinary numbers of so many, but also home to some of the most passionate guides, camp and conservation staff with an impassioned connection and understanding of the importance of the park and its sustainability, the final and as-important ingredient to any preservation initiative.
There is a fine line between guides who condone people standing on their roofs trying to get a better view of a cheetah and subsequently scaring it into the horizon, even running on foot with sell phone in hand towards wildebeest trying to conduct their annual crossing of the Mara river, disgraceful and factually speaking bovids have more common sense than these imbeciles of guest and guide; and the finesse, respect and passion of a true naturalist. Well, actually the line is broad, Zambezi-fucking-river broad in a moral sense, but one can cross the line sometimes with little more than the toss of a pebble over a road that separates one concession or reserve from another, and a glorified monkey from a professional nature guide.
After working throughout Africa now I will barely notice one of these “jeep-jockey” guides with their arm bands, gold-rim aviators, insufficient knowledge and less respect for the wildlife they hopelessly try to interpret, they’re just too common. But what does stand out, are these rare and salt-of-the-earth professionals. Neither trying to out-dress the next guide nor pretending to be the reason why guests flew halfway around the world. Guides who know that above all else they are a bridge between those who wish to interrelate again, or for the first time, with nature. Guides who take leave at some point to find rest with their families outside the parks yet leave their real home behind. Guides who still take great joy in seeing the first few impala lambs of the season or appreciate a simple sunset over the Luangwa river. Guides who love the sight of a leopard but can’t help but identify the little brown bird darting around in the bush behind it. Men and woman as much a part of the environment they interpret as the lion and elephant themselves.
Patrick is one of these rare specimens and I breathe a sigh of relief when I first realise this, taking my seat in the middle row behind him on our first day of safari in the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. He is immediately in control and we can’t help but assimilate every word, with its gesture. He does not need to desperately look for a subject to talk about neither has a scripted set of top-ten-facts to work through as he bides the time, he has to spend with us. It seems, after watching his vigour when pointing out fauna and flora left and right, his hardest part of his job was the choosing of something from the plethora of life around us, to so humbly explain yet with such fire. Bragging not about his knowledge of it but showing off, proudly, its essence and vital existence.
My thoughts of compositions, available light and photographic expectations are swept away and I sit like, what I assume would be, a first time safari-goer, gripping the bar in front of me with anticipation and grinning as if the thing you loved most had left and now is back. I yearn for the next corner and what’s around it, the next thicket and what lurks inside it; and the next sight of one of the most iconic rivers in Africa, what wallows in its shallows or drinks along its edge. I feel again a fire burning inside me that is too often doused by lacklustre and dogmatic guides whom are nothing more than a costume and a noise.
It truly is hard to condense this place into a short story for there, in the greater picture, lies countless tales all worthy of their own riveting novel-length write up. He does, though, and so clearly explain the ebony forest amongst other elements of this day of adventure and learning. Pointing out the social complexities of baboons that have only just woken from the safety of the canopy of this giant and dark forest. They are on the floor now, seeking warmth in the few rays of light cutting through the dense shade. Most of the adults claim territory of various patches of orange light, only the lit-up and golden rim of their fur visible. Youngsters, warm on the energy of youth, are crazed already and only appear as a glimpse in the spotlight whilst in pursuit or being pursued by another deranged baboon. It is all too comical which is true of most sightings of baboon if you allow yourself to see the humour in nature, yet there are apparitions in blue haze too. Giraffe move through the woods and give life to the verticals of this scene, moving to the slow gait and with the enigmatic purpose of quintessential girraffe.
Rocks, boulders, just shapes that previously belonged to the subconscious start move and details of the menace-like faces of hippo, that return to the river after a night of sojourning from one pasture to the next, are more noticeable now. The forest floor becomes dense with species all on their own journey into the day, a masterpiece, yet I forgive my mind as it strays to the thought of predators.
I ponder on the thought, a leopard catching beams of light as it moves through this mythical woodland. She wasn’t there yet my imagination is aroused at the visuals in my head. She has, however, left clue upon the road of where she might be headed. Patrick gestures at pugmarks that pepper the track ahead. “Impressive” I think to myself, how he detected the faint lobe depressions in the sand between clusters of tracks, scrapes and scratches of every other animal that uses the road here to access the river. Braking again, enough to cause a clench of glute and core as the G’s pull you forward, he will scrutinise the tracks further. Leaning back to us with a proper Zambian smile he whispers, “her cub is with her”. Sniff, scratch your neck, pull your collar, shuffle in your seat, bite your lip, look left and right, grip the bar again then let it go and repeat. Your excitement, unless your heart pumps on playdough, at this stage is hard to contain and perpetuates into a invigorated restlessness, a sight I know people like Patrick live for.
While we hopelessly try containing our thoughts of monumental sightings of leopard and cub and restrain our expectations, Patrick continues along the road. He does not wish to say it as for the danger of sounding conceited, yet he must explain why he travels faster than before. Too fast to see the tracks anymore. “I know this leopard, when she is with her cub in this area she will always drink at the same place in the morning”, I believe him and turn from searching the road for spoor to the riverine woodland ahead.
Leopards, no doubt, are creatures of habit to an extent. Remembering my days as a guide in search of this elusive species and how, in time, one could sometimes predict the path of individuals as they traverse particular parts of their territory. Patrick had been a guide in these parts for twenty years so I was one slipped whisper away from guaranteeing my client that the two of them would be lying on the sand right where the road drops down the riverbank. They were not, and although experience told me that it was seldom that it all workout out the way your mind played it to be, my palms would sweat at the thought of us missing them while they drank and they were already lying in the dense undergrowth.
The silence is heavy as our ears strain for sounds alarm calls that may give away her position and we scour the immediate area for any movement. I lift to point to small creature exiting a bush onto the riverbed, heart thumping, some sound of sorts just escaping my lips before I halt and continue into a scratch of the nose to conceal my over eagerness and miss identification between a bird and leopard cub. “Fucking francolin!” I exclaim at myself, in my head. Turning away to look into the horizon sulking at my poor guiding skills in the company of strangers. It is Patricks turn, now, to point towards the francolin, his expression, “there is no way a francolin is that exciting to the man”, I assume. Out of the same bush, though, comes bounding out a little leopard in hot pursuit of the bird that so recently fooled me. Crashing to a halt in the sand, where the noisy bird took off from in order to escape its attacker, the cub pirouettes to face in the direction he came from.
Towering over him, his mother’s arrival on the scene gives scale of the tiny cub that now dances through her legs sometimes tripping over her feet in its attempt to get his mother to join in the fun, something even an adult leopard will succumb to with enough persistence. They take turns, in the early morning light and in the open of the sandy riverbed, to play the stalker or the runner. Spraying up sand in their jostling. Only to be distracted by water birds, which the cub attempts unsuccessful kills on without fail, on their way to the water’s edge. Even large saddle-billed storks hop away from the ball of spotted fur that charges through the sand towards them. They both vanish briefly as they lie flat whilst drinking, giving us the first chance to embrace the reality of what we have just seen, relish in it, before noticing their return towards the riverbank, woodland and rest over the hotter parts of the day.
There is a moment before and after these scenes where you must look as if you are truly not within your own body. Before, fearing great disappointment, you must briefly confirm what you are seeing is true before you are overwhelmed with joy and excitement, and after, a collapsed-on contempt being after the joy-induced adrenaline wears off. Whether your first leopard sighting or your hundred and first it is a feeling that can only be known to those who have experienced it and for the life of me I cannot fathom a worthy speech to describe it. I, neither, can imagine the dullness of the world without the Luangwa, a Luangwa without people like Patrick and scenes of leopard, lion and elephant without him to interpret it. A world without these feelings…