The sign on the toilet door

South Luangwa National Park – Zambia

May 2008

Zambia, wow, what can I say about this country? It took me one full day to fall in love with it and with every day that passed, the more I loved it. The wildlife, the people, the landscapes were extraordinary. We experienced some of our closest encounters with wildlife in Zambia in the best national park of the tour. We took chilling out to a whole new level and then countered that with some of the most adrenaline packed days I’ve ever experienced. Zambia for me had it all and, it all began at Flat Dogs Camp in South Luangwa National Park. Flat Dogs is a reference to crocodiles apparently and it soon became evident why the campsite got its name. It sits right on the edge of a big river which was the boundary of South Luangwa National Park and it was full of crocodiles and some hippos for good measure. There was no fence around the camp and we could freely wander down to the river. The first time I sat on the toilet in the rather jazzy bathroom block at the campsite, I was confronted with a sign on the door that explained to me that the campsite could and was often visited by any animal that can be found in the park. Lions, hippos, crocs, hyenas, elephants, giraffes, baboons, you name it, they were all potential visitors. Of course, I never believed this would happen during our stay. Getting to see African wildlife stroll past your tent doesn’t just happen on a daily basis. We were also told of a story about a hippo that had decided to go skinny dipping in the campsite swimming pool one evening. She was found the following morning chilling out in the pool but unfortunately she was unable to get back out. Now, hippos get notoriously angry, so much so that they are the second biggest killer of humans in Africa after the malaria-carrying mosquito. Therefore, trying to remove a hippo from a swimming pool was always going to prove a difficult task, so difficult in fact, they shot the poor bugger! There was little else they could do at the time and the hippo finally left the swimming pool in pieces. These days, the pool has hippo friendly steps so, should a hippo decide on a chlorinated dip one evening, she will be able to walk straight back out again on her own accord. It really was a wonderful campsite. A well-equipped, clean toilet block; a real smart bar that served up good food; amazing views of the river and the park beyond. The tents sat on hippo edible grass, overshadowed by trees that would drop fruit the size of your head onto your head if you lay in the wrong spot. Above all else it was just so damn quiet and peaceful. Going back to the grass, on arrival we were told by our hosts to make sure that during the night, when making trips to or from the bar or, the toilet block from our tents, we should signal for one of the rangers to escort us. Apparently, this was for our safety as hippos regularly came up from the river to graze on the campsite grounds at night. ‘I’d believe it when I saw it’ sprang to mind!

The past ten days had been all beaches, volleyball and swimming so it was good to get back into the wild with binoculars and cameras and get ourselves some good animal kingdom piccies. While the majority of the group decided on a walking safari, Kristy, Olly, Ben, Ed and I had opted for a traditional 4×4 safari which kicked off at 6am and boy oh boy was it worth the forty dollars. The off-roading itself was worth the money as there were few decent tracks and our driver happily took us over ridges and down river banks, real hold-onto-something-tight kinda stuff. The 4×4 was also of the typical safari nature with no roof and so we were blanketed in the fresh smelling morning air and dust. The park was incredible, it was huge, untouched and no one was about – it was just us. It was nothing like the national parks of Tanzania and Kenya where the tourists flocked. Few tourists came here and if you think about it we were only there by accident because of the troubles in Zimbabwe. This was an extremely happy accident though, driving along seeing up close, elephants, baby hippos, crocodiles, giraffe, zebra and the likes. The only thing we didn’t see on this occasion were cats but even that didn’t take the shine off of our four-hour safari. I can only assume that the lions were out stalking a group of tourists on a walking safari.  The very peacefulness of it all as the sun rose was just incredible. Watching giraffes stroll around the trees as the sun rose, first casting an orange tinge over everywhere and then throwing beams of white light through the trees causing the giraffes to appear more like silhouettes was a scene I will never forget. South Luangwa National Park was nature at its best and I would like to think that when I return one day little will have changed.

Having arrived back around mid-morning from our first safari of the day we had the rest of the day free until we all headed back out for a four-hour game drive departing at 4pm. We hadn’t been on a night safari yet and so anticipation levels of seeing some big cats in action were high. During the first half of the safari we got to see the sun go down which funnily enough happens every day in Africa but, when you are out in the wild, a sunset always appears more dramatic. You know the scene from nature documentaries, a big orange disc setting behind a silhouette of acacia trees and a herd of elephants walking in a line. Well it wasn’t quite like that but it wasn’t too far away with the disc of orange being a wee bit smaller and, the herd of elephants being in a different location yet, the beauty and awe was just as incredible. After all, the best way to travel is without any preconceived conceptions with, your perfect moment unknowingly being created at any time. It can be whatever you want it to be, it doesn’t have to be something that the media has forced you to believe and, most of the time you will discover it in places you least expect. As the sun was setting we pulled up on a dusty creek, got off the 4×4 to stretch our legs and enjoyed a cold beer that our guide had thoughtfully brought along for us. Little things like this make a big difference. Just stopping for twenty minutes, enjoying an unexpected drink, watching the sun set over the African bush, no noise, no dust, no bouncing around, it was a beautiful end to the day.

With the sun gone, the usual brightly lit night sky appeared. There was rarely a night which wasn’t lit up with the moon or the stars. The nights never felt truly dark, whether that was because there was minimal artificial light and so our eyes got used to the dark quickly or what but I can clearly recall the nights being extremely peaceful and comforting as opposed to dark and scary. This even applied to the times we heard lions roaring in the distance… such as on this occasion. Jumping back on the 4×4 we bumped along the sandy tracks with just a set of dim head lamps and a guide with a spotlight until we eventually discovered the source of the roars we had heard earlier. The spotlight lit up a male lion, lying down and intermittently opening his huge mouth to reveal his teeth and let rip a roar. Listening to a lion roar is pretty epic, there is a definite sense of power behind it. When you look into a Great White shark’s eyes they look back at you with a deadly gaze that would put Voldemort to shame. A lion’s roar has a similar effect, you have nothing but respect for it.

Then, it finally happened! The guide’s spot light scanned an open area of tall dry grass and boom, only a bloody leopard. It’s times like this where you have to refrain from getting overcome by excitement and shouting something stupid to the guy sitting right next to you like “OLLY, THERE’S ONLY A BLOODY LEOPARD OVER THERE!!”, which then causes the leopard to run. The leopard was obviously up to something, she was walking with purpose and, unfortunately for us she headed away back into the dark. It was our first leopard sighting, it had been a great day, we were happy but, apparently another truck full of tourists hadn’t seen enough and their guide thought it best to turn off the road and drive into the long grass to get a closer look at the retreating leopard. Idiots! Why do people always need that bit more!? Believe it or not, selfies had not yet been invented. I have no doubt that safari parks these days are full of people trying to get selfies with wild animals. As the end of the safari approached I was starving. Dinner was included with the safari and so you can probably start to understand why I have such an affection for Flat Dogs but wait, there’s more. Dinner was lasagne and I absolutely love lasagne. I would have left my own mother out in the African bush if it meant getting back in time so not to miss out on lasagne, it was awesome. But wait there’s more. Two four-hour safaris, dinner, a cheeky sunset beer and, barely any other tourists cost seventy-five US dollars which, at the time equated to about £45. I do love a bargain.

After such a busy and successful day of safariing and eating, only a few more beers were required before we were all falling asleep at the bar and decided it was time for bed. But wait, there’s only bloody more! As always, before retiring to bed I had a pee and being in a tent I had to wander over to the toilet block to do so. As I did, half asleep, craving my sleeping bag, I casually walked passed a hippo. A real life one, grazing about twenty metres from me, as coolly as you like, as though it was a cow in a field back at home. It was one of those moments where you walk along, stop and think “did I just see that?”, step back, look again and then on this occasion, let out a little bit of wee because of over excitement. Apparently, the sign in the toilet that I mentioned earlier really wasn’t bullshit. As with all epic moments in life, it didn’t last too long, I mean what do you do!? Stand and stare with your jaw on the floor? Try and get closer to try and pet it? Run for the camera and blind it with the flash you accidentally left on? On the return trip back to the tent I decided against all the aforementioned options, took one last good look and quickly made my way with the biggest grin on my face. It was like an adrenaline rush, in fact I suppose that is exactly what it was! This animal was huge, I was fully aware of their violent streak yet she looked so unbothered by my presence that I was full of excitement more than fear. Even better, this moment was all mine. I wouldn’t have been the only one to have a similar experience but nonetheless my encounter will also remain unique to me. These guys regularly walked around our tents at night, something that could be confirmed by a new dollop of hippo poo that would be left on your doorstep the following morning. Just another night in Africa.

The day that followed was another day that really shouldn’t have had anything going for it but it churned out one of the biggest trip highlights for us all. One last thing that Flat Dogs and South Luangwa had to offer, one last amazing moment that would live in our memories for the rest of time, another stunning African moment of epicness. It was just after breakfast while everyone was starting to wake up and get their arses into gear; packing, dropping tents, tidying up the kitchen and loading the truck in preparation for our departure. Someone then noticed a commotion in the bushes on the edge of the campsite, a commotion that turned out to be a rather large elephant! In all, approximately eight elephants including a couple of babies leisurely walked into the campsite and slowly made their way right through the middle of where our tents stood, towards the toilet block and bar and back out into the park. This lasted for well over an hour to the point that people started getting on with their day. For example, there are pictures of some of the guys brushing their teeth in the toilet block with elephants only metres behind them as though it was perfectly normal. Of course, some people in the group got a bit too excited and wanted to try and get closer to the elephants. Funnily enough this wasn’t appreciated and the response was swift, with a giant head swinging around, trunk lifted high, an elephant style shout and a pose that suggested he was going to crush everything and everyone in sight should you come any closer. No matter anyone’s proximity to the elephants we all got the message, everyone remembered that these were massive wild animals and not Chihuahua puppies and with that, the elephants continued on as though we weren’t there.

After reading that sign on the toilet door when we first arrived at Flat Dogs, I was happy to have seen monkeys and baboons in the campsite, never mind the hippos. But, to see a herd of wild elephants walk past you after breakfast on a sunny Sunday morning, well, that’s truly something special.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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