March 2009

Received from Tony Weaver, News Editor, Cape Times about their trip in July 2008

It had been a long, hard and dusty drive from Mumbwa to Chris and Charlotte McBride’s camp on the banks of the Kafue River. It was only 110km, but the first 35km out of Mumbwa was a chassis-twisting, rutted, washed-out swine of a track.

Bas van Soest, general manager of Wilderness Safaris’ Lufupa Lodge in the north of the Kafue National Park, is still on crutches after shattering his leg when the Land Rover he was driving flipped on this road, killing one of his workers and injuring several others. Why the vehicle flipped is a complete mystery, as they were driving slowly and didn’t have a blowout.

But it’s easy to see how it can happen: one second the track is cambered radically to the left, the next it switchbacks to the right, with deep holes, tumbled rocks and collapsed river bed crossings thrown in for good measure.

So it was starting to get dark when we arrived at McBride’s Camp after crossing the plains and seasonal wetlands that fringe their concession at the confluence of the Kafue and Mushingashi Rivers. As we pulled up, a tall, gaunt and bearded man with a rifle slung over his shoulder came loping up to us in that curious, shuffling kind of gait that so many people who live in the bush seem to have (something to do with walking very quietly for very long distances) and whispered: “You must be the Weavers. Come and have a drink, but follow Nicholas and me, there’s a lioness in camp.”

Just then the lioness, on cue, roared, and she continued to roar through the night as she padded her way in and through and around McBride’s. At first, as we walked through the camp, it was hard to work out where the huts were, as they are all hidden away in clumps of trees, or nestled below giant, ancient termite mounds.

“That,” says Charlotte, “is how we wanted it. Chris and I came here to do lion research in 1998, and moved to this site in 2002. We camped here for three months to see who and what lives here, how they live, where their game paths are and what their habits are. Then we built the camp around their routine so as not to block any paths.”

As if to prove her point, the resident elephant shrew scuttled past. Every day between 16 and 20 hippo came out of the water and basked in the sun in front of the dining boma, bushbuck and puku wandered freely in and out, and fresh elephant dung lay scattered about.

The mirrors all have cloths hanging over them so the resident birds don’t peck themselves to death, and guests are under strict instructions to always drop the lavatory lid so skinks, lizards and other small wildlife don’t fall in and drown.

Charlotte took us on a sunrise boat drive on the Kafue. The vistas were extraordinary as the mist rose from the water, buffalo scrambled up the bank, and giant crocodiles slithered down the mud slides.

Then a bark of alarm from two bushbuck alerted us to another kind of presence, and the biggest leopard I have ever seen, a heavy-shouldered male, came stalking down the bank into the shade of a towering pod mahogany tree. For 15 minutes we tracked him, drifting quietly down the river with the engine just idling enough to hold us in the current, the leopard eyeing us curiously, not quite sure what we were.

But most of our game tracking was done walking: there is something indescribably thrilling about tracking lion, elephant and other wild game on foot. The old clich’, that “all your senses come alive”, is hackneyed but true and we were delighted that our nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, and son Zac, 13, could share this privilege.

Zambia in July is cold. We regularly had morning temperatures of just a few degrees above freezing. We would get up before sunrise, drink our coffee or hot chocolate with rusks, and then head out into the bush in single file behind Chris. He hates the cold, and would invariable walk off into the bush with a steaming mug of soup or tea in his hands, and then hang it up on a convenient branch somewhere along the trail, to be collected later that day, or that week, or that month …

We were walking with legends of the lion world. Chris McBride’s first book, based on research carried out in Mpumalanga’s Timbavati region, was called The White Lions of Timbavati, was translated into eight languages, and made into a Hollywood blockbuster. Chris and Charlotte ploughed all the royalties back into conservation.

But from a scientific point of view, it is Liontide, the result of three years’ research in Botswana’s Savuti marshes, that has become one of the most widely hailed studies of lion behaviour, examining, as it did, the nocturnal as opposed to diurnal behaviour of lions.

It was an enormous privilege to walk with Chris and Charlotte, and one of my proudest moments came when Chris pulled me aside and very quietly said “your children are very well trained, they are more bush-wise than 99% of the adults with whom I have walked”.

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