South Luangwa, Zambia

September, 2023

In early September we headed off on our next major expedition as we drove the 4,500 km to the Nsefu area of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.  

This was a long drive, made that much more challenging by ever worsening roads and difficult border crossings the further you go.

Kazangula border between Botswana and Zambia was the first challenge. Although this would be our 12th trip driving 10 000km or more in Southern Africa, I never get used to these Zambia border crossings. They are chaotic, unnerving and make you never want to visit this country again.

You are instantly met at the border gate by a wave of touts trying to sell you a multitude of the various currencies you need to pay bridge tax, carbon tax, temporary import duties, insurance and a whole lot of other bureaucratic requirements.

It is a completely over complicated administrative nightmare that makes even the most hardened tourist want to turn around. Add to this the various scamsters that try to catch you at every turn along the way, with various officials complicit in their schemes.

I am truly sympathetic for anyone trying to make a tourism dollar in Zambia or Zimbabwe. For, the damage done to the reputation of what are two magnificent countries, filled with wonderful people, at these first points of entry cannot be overestimated. The experience contrasts heavily with countries that are successful at attracting self-drive tourists.  

Fatigued and fuming we pushed on, through Lusaka and then towards Luangwa on the Great East road that included a 200km section that should have been called the great-potholed-road! Added to this, a dizzying mix of hundreds of heavily laden trucks, mountainous passes, blind corners and steep run offs were enough to drive you to drink if you weren’t there already!

Finally we arrived at our destination in Nsefu, 4,448Km from home, and we could now focus on exploring and experiencing South Luangwa …

Luangwa Nights

The tiniest crescent of a smoke tainted moon makes a feeble attempt to lighten the darkest of nights. Alone in the campsite we fall asleep to the gentle prrrp of a Scops owl, complimenting the pleasing gurgle of the Luangwa River, all is calm.     

Startled, I wake up. A desperate call, a male puku fights for its life a hundred yards away with powerfully resonant, but ever decreasing frantic bleats being ignored by the darkness that swallows them.

It’s over, twenty minutes later two male lions roar, so close that the sound echoes under the mahogany tree that embraces us with its leafy umbrella.

I sit up and tentatively look through our tent window expecting to see two manned heads, I see nothing.

I lay down again, eyes wide, lost in the sounds that engulf us.

A short while later a saw ripping through wood cuts into the night. The roosting baboons now wide awake as if hearing your enemy’s language spoken in a dark trench.

Their sentry is on guard as the dapple coated one melts through the shadows and the warning call goes out.

A torrent of hatred reigns down from aloft in response. Unfazed, the hunter responds in tooth and claw, and with the trophy secured, the predator vanishes.

The troop is one less, but by now lost in the type of hatred that overcomes a mob in a bloody coup. The noise is disturbing and violent.

Forty five minutes later I finally doze off only to be awoken again by the male lions roaring in unison as they respond to a softer series of contact calls from a lioness in the distance.

Hyenas occupy the fringes, whooping and laughing like witches around a cauldron.

Hippos, of which there are hundreds, join in the cacophony guffawing like aspirant Santa Clauses, all around there is sound.

Two hundred meters downstream of the lions, lights flicker, two subsistence fishermen ply their trade, deciding that the fear of not eating, trumps that of possibly being eaten by lions or pulverized by river cow. It’s now three thirty in the morning.

An hour later I am still wired as the first shapes emerge from the tide of darkness that ebbs away whilst dawn signals its intent.

I clumsily dress, torch in hand and fumble for the tents zip.

Twenty yards away, the ten foot high grass rustles as if there were a strong wind, I freeze for I know there is none.

A huge unmistakable shape stands tall, ears flared, trunk up sniffing the wind. We sit motionless, a few moments pass before the elephant relaxes and turns.  Retracing their steps, ten others follow and flow down onto the sandy floodplain. Finally we step out of our canvas cave and into the morning, a new day has begun. 

Campsite Comrades

Once again the campsite is empty, just of humans however.

We are not alone here though, each evening a hippo comes to visit us and chomps happily away on leaves around the toilet whilst we wait our turn.

Two nights back he was joined by a magnificent bull elephant who causally walked up to us whilst we watched the hippo. Not knowing the Luangwa elephants all that well, we decided discretion was the better part of valor, and climbed into our car, for within twenty meters on either side of us, we had hippo and ele.

As we sat in the car, the elephant came right up to the passenger door and then proceeded to reach up into an acacia directly above our heads. I could literally have put an apple in his mouth as his huge tusks were held just above our car roof, and his outstretched trunk rose up to what must have been a tasty flush of leaves.

Without so much as touching the car, he lowered his head and then proceeded to pick up fallen leaves on one side, whilst hippo did the same on the other.

The elephant then walked directly over to where our still warm braai food consisting of boerewors and butternut waited for us.

I waited for the inevitable but he simply trundled past.

When both had moved maybe fifteen meters away, we alighted and watched them whilst we started our dinner.

The Night Shift

At around 11hoo we returned from our morning game drive. As we drove to our campsite, we came across a massive bull elephant lying on his side just ten meters or so from the road.

We have often seen elephants sleeping whilst laying down, but they are usually the young ones, and certainly when a vehicle came as close as we were to the bull, they would inevitably wake and rose to their feet.

This bull however didn’t so much as stir, so out of concern for his wellbeing, I climbed out of the car and walked closer to where he lay. I couldn’t see any noticeable sign of injury, and saw his chest gently heaving, followed by one ear flapping.

I slowly retraced my steps back to the car, and we drove off to tell the local guide at the lodge next door about this elephant seemingly sleeping on his side that showed no sign of stirring, with either our car, or me close to him. They then drove around and assessed that he was indeed asleep and not injured.

About an hour later I decided to go and see if he was indeed ok, and much to my relief I now found him with two other very large bulls, the leaves stuck to his right flank a giveaway of his recent slumber.

We followed them for a while, and not a hundred yards on they were joined by another three big bulls.

Also of interest was that they were all moving together in a focused direction. After about two hundred yards of walking, they crossed a small river and then proceeded to feed on some Acacia albida pods on the other side. In the interim, another three bulls crossed the river behind them, taking the total up to nine big adult bulls all coming together, which is a pretty unusual grouping.

Another, albeit slightly smaller bull, crossed the river behind them and rapidly walked to where the group appeared to be waiting for him whilst browsing.

Once he arrived the strangest thing happened.

The entire group formed up into a tight unit and started walking as one back towards our side of the river, using some trees and bushes as cover, and avoiding the open areas. Just before they reached the narrow crossing point, they all dusted together, and then formed one tight ball of elephants.

We had never before seen so many adult bulls in such a very tight-knitted group. They now also seemed extremely nervous and wary as they tentatively approached the river that they then proceeded to cross in single file up a steep embankment.

Once across, they again formed a tight scrum of elephants, nervously looking this way and that, before heading in a determined fashion across a wide open dry seasonal floodplain.

As I was hoping to get a photograph of them around this very artistic background of desiccated Mopani trees and red leaf litter, we headed about five hundred meters to their left in an attempt to get ahead of them and not frighten them.

Once we got to the other side of where we initially thought they would head, it was apparent that rather than take the softer path of a gravel road, they were choosing to hug the flanks of the open areas using the Mopani scrub and bushes for cover, even though it meant heading over the hard cratered dry landscape.

We then recalculated where we thought another road, now outside the parks boundaries, would bisect their course.

We waited for around fifteen minutes before we finally figured out where they were. In the meantime, a loud truck clattered along the corrugated road, and was then followed by two safari vehicles. As they did so, the elephants froze and then altered their course until the vehicles had passed, so as not to give away their position.

Thinking all was quiet, they then moved tightly forward again as a small battalion. We predicted where they would cross, stopped and waited. The herd, upon seeing us, seemed not to be overly perturbed by us, and crossed out of the woodland and across the narrow gravel road just fifteen meters from where we had stopped and waited for them. Once passed, they again tightly closed ranks and headed into the bush.

It was a fascinating piece of behavior and when relating this to the local Zambian Parks head ranger, he confirmed that this was an elephant raiding party we had just seen.

Just the previous day, he had seen similar behavior. It is only at this time of the year that it happened where they headed to the local villagers fields to raid the ripening mango and maize crops, that are an irresistible temptation.

Suddenly it all made sense.

This was no random gathering together of elephants, it was an incredible exhibition of a well-coordinated and structured group that had a clearly defined objective.

The elephants had been sleeping and recoverying from the previous night’s raid, then woke up and formed a group whilst waiting for various members to join their ranks. They had a designated meeting point on the other side of the river, as this is where they all went to, they fed a little whilst they waited for the last straggler, and then when all was good and ready to proceed, they used the cover of the trees from which to advance.

Upon crossing the river they had a well-planned out route that gave them the best possible cover to get to their next staging point. This event played out during the late afternoon and early evening, and from where we left them, it would take at least an hour or mores walk, which would have them arriving as it got dark, the perfect time to raid.

The tightly bound group obviously not only gave them courage in numbers, but also would be a far more intimidating target for a villager to ward off, and whilst a villager chased one elephant, no doubt the others would loot as much of the crop as they could.

We believe it was an amazing show of intelligence and planning on the elephants’ part that goes far beyond what most people would think them capable of.

Whilst there will always be skeptics out there to question this take on events, and how it is easy to anthropomorphize what they were doing, the sequence, structure and extremely seldom seen grouping of bulls in close confines clearly on a premeditated path and direction, makes it very tempting to see this as nothing other than a well-planned and well communicated event that would give them the best chance of a successful raid.

The sequence of events really is part of a far greater issue, that of human wildlife conflict.

From the elephants’ part, so much of their habitat and former range is now ploughed up or destroyed. They only have limited foraging opportunities and the temptation of a large easily accessible crop of delicious fruit and corn is irresistible to them. The fact that they go to such lengths to plan a raid clearly shows they are clearly nervous, if not terrified, and that it is no easy undertaking. Sadly this fear is probably as a result of them being shot at or severely harassed. From the farmers’ side, it is a tragic loss of a year’s crop and effort, and one can certainly sympathize with their dislike of elephants under these circumstances.

The simple reality is that in the last hundred years elephant populations have shrunk by more than 90%, whilst the human population has increased eight fold to well over eight billion. This means nothing to the farmer that has lost their crop, but ultimately the consequences of elephant impact on humans has been exponentially outweighed by human impact on elephants in the greater scheme of things. If we are to have elephants in Africa in open environments, which is the very essence of the continent, perhaps governments need to find a way to compensate these farmers’ relatively small losses rather than further reducing the range or populations of elephants.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020