WALKING SAFARIS

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For me, walking in the bush was easier than walking or standing around in my everyday life. Earth, especially damp earth, is kinder than asphalt or concrete. The pace is almost meditative. We watch every step we take and walk carefully; looking at the ground for footprints and other evidence of what animals went before us. Soon we can tell if a footprint is fairly fresh or old and identify their owners. Hyenas’ back feet are smaller than their front feet, and we could see their claws since they aren’t retractable, like lions. We saw footprints from herbivores with lion tracks following behind them and could imagine the stealthy stalking that took place in the early morning. There were thorny thickets with long whips of growth we held back and passed carefully to each other as we went through to avoid getting slapped. Terrain also consisted of rocky slopes with loose rock and required caution (taking care once to give a small group of elephants a wide berth).

The night watchman woke us early each morning and led us to the dining area for a cup of tea and toast. After that, we piled into the Land Rover with our jackets zipped and blankets up to our necks. We went from shivering to watching the sunrise. Getting up in time to see the sunrise is not something I voluntarily do, but the sightings made it worthwhile.

Every day we drove along the well-traveled dirt roads that surrounded the open areas and popped out into the open with a view of acres and acres of lush, green open meadows with the Luangwa River flowing just a few feet below us where the ground drops off along steep banks. When the view across the valley was clear, and there was less smoke from fires, we could see the Muchinga Mountains off to the west, at the far end of the escarpment, or the long, steep slope that makes up the Luangwa Valley.

Our nine-passenger stadium-seating Land Rover with open sides and a canopy chugged up and down wet gullies, flinging mud as we bounced through deep muddy ruts. We dodged occasional branches whipping past our heads when we sat on the outer seats.

Beyond the meadows, it’s easy to see where elephants have been. Many trees look like skeletons, dead and weathered and standing upright while others have fallen and are decomposing making it look like a great fire has come through before rebounding after a burn with grasses and bushes. The lush new growth springs up where former trees shaded the grasses out. I learned the trees died because elephants peeled their bark with their tusks and pushed some trees over. It’s as if a giant stomped through the valley leveling trees in some places. Eventually, the trees decompose, and as elephants pass through, they deposit their dung containing undigested seeds that repopulate the bush with new trees. It's a system that works. Elephants walk up to 30 miles in a day dropping seeds as they go. Without elephants to create vast grasslands by stripping the bark off so many trees, there would be no meadows for herbivores to graze, give birth, and hide their newborns until they are big enough to keep up with the herd. Each time we saw herds of herbivores, we saw more puku, antelope, and their babies than we could count.

Written by Patricia Cole

An Africa Hope Fund board member for 7 years, Pat is a writer and a conservation activist. After traveling to Zambia, she became dedicated to helping Africa Hope Fund provide education to the next generation of Africans and ensure their future by protecting wildlife. Find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter, or on her websites www.writepatwrite.com and www.patmcole.com.

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Carol Van Brugen