This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my canoeing expedition down the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. View more diary entries from this trip here.
Dead leaves crunched beneath my feet. Sunlight filtered down through the dense canopy above, painting the sandy earth below with dapples of illumination.
“Look!” our guide exclaimed with excitement.
I followed his gaze, expecting to find some magnificent creature but instead laying eyes on a very large pile of poop. Yes, really. Poop.
He rushed over to it at once, grasping a large clump with his bare hands. I winced.
He rolled the dung in his fingers, allowing it to crumble. “It’s elephant dung,” he announced proudly. “You can see the grasses in it and can also tell by the size.”
“Can you tell how fresh it is?” someone asked.
“Oh, yes.” His eyes gleamed as though he had been waiting for someone to ask that very question and show off his skills. “There are many ways to tell. You can give it a little -”
I inhaled sharply as he drew a small piece up to his lips. He’s not actually going to? He threw it into his mouth. He did. I watched his jaw movements as he chewed it slightly, his face tightening as he pondered the age of the dung he was munching on.
It appeared I wasn’t the only horrified onlooker. Gasps of alarm split the air and I heard people muttering under their breath.
The guide’s eyes flashed momentarily with hurt before he declared, “It is reasonably fresh. This morning. Maybe a few hours.”
“Can you identify all kinds of animal poo?” someone asked.
“Oh, yes,” he responded. “You can tell hyena poop as it’s white. It is white because of the calcium content from eating bones. Then you will find fur and hair in the poop of predators like lion and leopard.”
I couldn’t believe I was listening to a conversation about poo.
It was the morning after we’d arrived at the new campsite.
I was ecstatic because I had made it through the night without needing to pee and no lions crashed into my tent searching for biltong!
Our morning activity was a bush-walk. Our group was split into several smaller groups – I suppose to give us the best chance of viewing wildlife - and my group was the first one out.
Our walk had begun at our campsite. We’d journeyed into the dense forests behind, following the curve of the narrow river channel which came off the Zambezi. I’d been delighted to find a group of impala taking a drink from the river, baboons amongst them.
As our safari was on-foot, our guide was armed, carrying a huge rifle over his shoulder. I hoped it wouldn’t be needed.
My iPhone 4 was proving to be an utterly useless camera. I’d been fortunate enough to finally be able to charge it at the campsite, using the only bit of power available in the cooking area, but it still didn’t change the fact that the wide-angle, fixed lens was useless for safaris.
I tried to take a photo of a group of impala on a dried-up riverbed but ended up with an over-exposed grainy photo of what looks like a few orange blobs.
At least the poop didn’t move so I could photograph that… if I wanted to.
“Have you ever had to use your rifle?” someone asked.
I turned my attention to our guide once more, watching as his face darkened.
“Yes.” He nodded solemnly. “Once.”
The group silenced, waiting for him to tell his captivating tale.
“I was walking through the bush when I came across a leopard. It was very close. I stood still, trying not to alarm it or make it think I was a threat but it was no use. The leopard pounced on me and it grabbed my arm right in its mouth. This one here.” He slapped his hand on his right arm. “It had my whole arm in its mouth and I thought… I thought, if I don’t do something, it’s going to kill me.”
I stifled a gasp of alarm, my eyes wide with concern, almost as if I expected a leopard to leap out of the bushes at any moment.
“So, what I did,” he continued. “I reached right down into its throat with my arm. I felt his teeth let go of the arm but I didn’t let go of the leopard. I grabbed whatever I could down there.”
I started to feel queasy.
“And with my other arm, I got my rifle and shot.”
The crowd was silent. It was hard to contemplate such a dramatic and gruesome tale. But then, why would he lie to us?
“Look!” His attention was drawn out of his dark memories and he pointed to the floor.
This time it was a sprawling circled of small, round pellets.
“This is impala dung,” he began. “At night they sit in a circle with their behinds together so that there are eyes watching every angle for predators.”
I gazed at the circle of poop and pictured a circle of impalas lying side by side in a circle. There was something quite cute about it.
Our journey continued. And somehow wildlife managed to avoid us. Perhaps we were too loud. Of perhaps we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My excitement peaked when we all bent down to inspect a pugmark carved into thick, orange sand. It was crystal clear with strong lines separating the imprint from the rest of the sand. A main paw pad and four toes.
“Leopard,” our guide announced. “You see how the main pad is broad and round. That shows it is a feline. A canine paid is more long and narrow and will have claw marks visible. See there’s no claw marks here. And it’s too small to be a lion.”
A leopard track! I gazed at the imprint of sand with awe, thinking about how just a few hours ago a majestic leopard made its way down here, in the very same spot that I was stood in now. Crazy.
But the journey through Zambia’s wild forests wasn’t just full of positive experiences.
We stopped beside a bush and watched as our guide carefully pulled a glistening wire contraption out of it. It was a silver hoop that had been tied to one of the bush’s lower branches.
“Snare,” our guide spat. His eyes were dark with disgust. “They are put here by poachers. You see this hoop.” He held the snare out to our group for us all to see. “The idea is that an animal is walking through here and gets his head stuck in the hoop. Once the animal has its neck in there, the wire tightens around it, trapping it.” His eyes glared darkly at the menacing silver trap. “Once trapped, there is no way out. The poacher will come back and the animal will still be in there. Sometimes it dies in the meantime. Other times they’re still alive and are shot by the poacher. No escape.”
My eyes narrowed in revulsion. How could humans be so awful?
He tore it from the bush.
“One less snare to catch an animal today,” he declared.
As our trek continued, we found two more snares. It was a scary number considering we barely walked through the forest. I hated to think how many snares were still out there. Some would undoubtedly end the lives of innocent animals. It was a thought that left me feeling hollow.
At least we saved the lives of three animals.
Back at camp we sat down on green, canvas chairs, allowing our brains to absorb the knowledge we were taught today. I admired our guide’s comprehension of the natural world and suddenly felt the urge to learn everything there was to know about the wilds. I wanted to know how to identify pawprints. I wanted to be able to track down wildlife from the subtlest of signs.
The late-morning sunlight glistened on the surface of the gentle river in front of me. Ripples slowly dispersed, doing very little to break the almost-perfect reflection of the forest which danced on the water’s surface.
Suddenly, a group of numerous elephants emerged from the dense forest on the other side of the estuary, making their way towards the river’s edge, just opposite our camp. My eyes widened in amazement. They were so close!
“Shhhh…” Someone hissed and all talking in the camp silenced.
Everyone’s attention was now firmly on the group of elephants which silently stood beside the narrow channel, their reflections dancing in the water beneath them.
We were mesmerised, watching as the great elephants scooped icy water from the river and drew it up to their mouths in graceful, rhythmic motions.
We gazed at Africa’s magnificent giants for what felt like hours until finally they turned their great heads and melted away into the shadows.
At that same moment, two guides, who had been out in the neighbouring forest, returned to the camp. And they had some news to share.
“We came across your tracks from your walking safari which you did earlier,” one announced. “And there were lion tracks overlaying them.”
I stiffened. What did this mean?
“We checked the freshness of the tracks,” he continued. “They were very close in age to yours. They must have been not far behind you. And they followed you for a long time, several lions.”
Was I hearing this right? A group of lions had followed, no, stalked us through the bush? I thought back to my walk earlier that morning. Had I ever thought to look behind me? Had they been watching me the whole time?
This really was turning into a trip filled with near-misses.