Zambia: eye-opening, challenging, incredible.
There was something both ceremonial and strangely underwhelming about seeing our first poached elephant carcass. Approaching the scene of a crime one expects a certain furore, tickertape, cameras and a number of people telling you to move on. This particular type of criminal act has been significantly glorified in my head through the last few months, owing to our constant exposure to thoughts and conversation on the matter, however as Godfrey the Zambian Ranger led us around the Edge of an Oxbow to the scene, clearly marked by circling vultures, what we saw was something quite unexpected, yet peculiarly appropriate. The elephant’s last steps were preserved in the soft earth surrounding the lake, and as we tracked them, with our eyes focussed on the dirt, we looked up at the last minute to see a local man hacking away at the animal’s decaying flesh.
From a western perspective this would seem to many as barbaric, shocking or even criminal, but what it encapsulates is the perspective that some local people have towards wildlife. If they are not benefitting from these animals through tourism, job creation, or through the aesthetic pleasure that we take to be so normal, then there is no reason for people to see them as anything more than meat. In South Luangwa we were lucky enough to meet a few people who are doing a great deal to change perspectives through education, and directly protect the wildlife through innovative anti-poaching… but before I get to that I’ll rewind a week or so to the journey from Lusaka down to the park.
The ride from Lusaka was brutal. We had been warned by a couple of people that it was significantly more mountainous than the rest of the country, but we were not expecting the headwind or two days of sandy footpaths through a GMA (game management area)! Our last day of tarmac summed up the journey entirely. Tensions were high in the group due to our exploitation of Theo’s strange new attachment to his recently acquired pink flannel. This particular bond was even odd in our eyes, but I have to say that these little things do go a long way on this kind of trip. He would spend all afternoon looking forward to washing himself down before bed, thus avoiding the sticky, salty, sweaty sensation of getting into your sleeping bag unwashed… something we have got used to but will never enjoy. Anyway, as I was saying, tensions were high because, for the benefit of the documentary, we decided to film Theo’s reaction in the serene and much anticipated tranquillity of a hot spring, as I used this much-vaunted flowery number to wash some of my less accessible areas. To add to this ‘tension’, we were completely out of money due to a serious miscalculation of quite how rural this road would be, and were growing more and more weary of the perpetual mountains that seemed to hide themselves around every corner, only to pounce on you every time you allowed yourself to enjoy a descent. This misery was reaching it’s total climax when, as if sent by god, Liz, our employer/guide/host and now friend, appeared over the horizon in her glowing white chariot, otherwise known as a LandCruiser, and led us to the most stunning campsite we have stayed in for the whole trip! It was almost too good to put into words. We had been discussing, miserably, which patch on the side of the road we would be camping, while arguing about everything we could think of, (mainly flannels), so this oasis of steaks and swimming pools presenting itself out of nowhere was almost too much to handle. To add to the serenity of this sanctuary, Liz woke us up by handing us a kitten that she had found on the road while out jogging! We named her Joy, after one of the Black Mambas, only to discover she is in fact a he, and despite Theo’s efforts to keep him cosily tucked in his front basket, in a pink flannel bed, he has found a loving home in South Luangwa.
In rescuing us from our nadir, Liz earned an innumerable amount of ‘rep’ and brownie points among the group… which she soon lost in spectacular fashion by sending us to our almost certain deaths. She nonchalantly recommended that we take a detour/shortcut/gauntlet through hell, to save a bit of time and see a ‘more scenic route’, which ended up being the most gruelling two days of our lives, over dirt tracks, streams, rocks and sand. We were literally chased by what appeared to be a zombie, who was determined that he was coming with us to Nairobi. In true zombie fashion he was always just too slow to catch us, but whenever we looked over our shoulders, for literally 10Km, we would remember with a shock that this bloke was right on our tail, arms outstretched and the devil in his eye! Reminding us that he was ‘coming to Nairobi!’ The detour also involved seeing Theo, already on the brink of a flannel induced breakdown, tipped well and truly over the edge. He fell off his bike over 10 times, once into water and once into a bog, which left his feet wet and even pongier than usual. He realised, a little too late, that his tyres were pumped up twice as hard as anyone else’s, thus the relentless bouncy-ball effect left him perpetually sprawled on the dirt. It was definitely the most testing two days of the trip for us as characters, and we all took our turns to lose our composure and get close to throwing in the towel (or flannel). My particular ‘moment’ was only 40km before the finish, when my rear rack gave up on me and the entire weight of my bags was compressing into my rear wheel. I was at a point where I was praying Theo couldn’t fix it, and was doing absolutely nothing to help him, in the vain hope that if it was truly buggered I could call Liz and we would all be miraculously rescued. Nonetheless, we finally made it to Mfuwe, and were greeted by the dreamiest setting you could imagine. Liz, who we would be staying with while we filmed for Time + Tide foundation (of which she’s the Director of), had set us up with two amazing rooms looking over an (aforementioned) oxbow, at which elephants came to drink in the mornings and where hippos frolicked all night, which made it all worth it in the end.
It is impossible to do justice to the experience we had in South Luangwa, our 5th filming location. We were so well looked after that getting back on the road felt almost like we were starting the whole trip again, and in a way we are beginning the second chapter. It provided footage almost unrivalled on the trip so far, and a rest and recuperation period that allowed us to make friends for life in Kapani. One of the stories we told was of a Ranger that I shall not name. He, we discovered, had been a poacher for 15 years, poaching dozens of Buffalo, Elephant and Antelope, thus he had a knowledge of the park that is beyond any of the other Rangers. CSL (Conservation South Luangwa) spotted his talent, his potential value to Anti-Poaching, and hired him rather than condemning him to the jail sentence that would do little to rehabilitate someone so set in his ways. He has been an invaluable asset, his knowledge of poacher trails and their preferred locations allowing the teams to pin-point their efforts. Within CSL we also got to know, and told the story of a tracking dog called Chai. She is the first dog in the area to successfully track and find a stash of weapons, ivory or a poacher, and the bond she had with her handler, Godfrey, was heart-warming and inspiring. These are just two of the stories we came across in South Luangwa, but there were honestly numerous inspiring and fascinating stories, a number of which will be of huge importance to the conservation story we want to tell through the documentary.
One of the last, and lasting experiences we had in South Luangwa was seeing the elephant carcass. The scene I described earlier, and the way it made us feel, is particularly appropriate in the context of everything we saw and filmed in and around the Luangwa. The efforts being put towards anti-poaching, community outreach and education, through Time + Tide, CSL, DNPW and the Chipenbele Wildlife Education Trust are what is needed to protect these animals and to change the mind-set of those people who still see them as a short term resource, not through force but through genuinely helping the population benefit from these fantastic beasts, thus changing perspectives from the short term to long term benefits of wildlife. We met local children who know infinitely more about wildlife than we ever will, poachers who have now saved more animals than they could have killed in their lives, and we (not technical me) even took part in a local fun run dedicated to raising awareness for anti-poaching, all of which left us with a very Zambian feeling of positivity.
As we cross into Malawi, and begin the second chapter of our trip, there is an added personal significance for me as it is the country in which my Dad was born and is therefore somewhere I have imagined since I was very young. In contrast, Zambia was a place I knew little about and to which I had given little thought, but now, on reflection, Malawi has a mighty task living up to one of the most spectacular countries I have visited in my life.