In Search of the Elusive Leopard

Marula Lodge,

Mfuwe, Zambia

June 26, 2016

In the eastern part of Zambia on the banks of the muddy brown waters of the Luangwe river is a small village called Mfuwe. A few minutes off the red dirt road from the village lie a host of lodges and camps. One such lodge called the Marula Lodge is where I ended up in a hit and miss manner. Lack of planning plays havoc in places where the frequency of public transport is limited to once a day or less.

Travelling through this part of the world, I stumbled into places that can best be described as nice-once-upon-a-time-but-gone-to-seed-long-since. Places where words such as “clean” or “repair” are not part of the vocabulary of the staff and requesting information or services is akin to drawing blood from stone. With that in mind, I arrived at Marula Lodge with suitably reduced expectations.

The thatched roof of the reception and open-sided dining area, the small chalets scattered around and more than anything else, the general air of laid-back friendliness took me by surprise. This is utterly delightful! As are the people who run it and work here. It is the sort of place I can while away many a day. Set on the banks of the Luangwe river, the grounds look out on the South Luangwe National Park across the water. Armchairs set on the bank invite one to gaze out on the pods of hippos that litter the river. The low level of the water ensures most are visible half-submerged in the water surfacing now and then to blow, trumpet and slide back into the water. Here and there are the unmistakable silhouettes of crocodiles. Baboons and monkeys are up to their antics all day, swinging down from the trees to pilfer anything not watched. With dusk the grounds are visited by a host of four-legged visitors – a family or two of elephants and the odd hippo that climbs up from the river to munch on the foliage. The two-legged visitors come here as well to visit the South Luangwa National Park. I have been here long enough that I was nagged by a faint sort obligation to do so as well. There was that elusive leopard that I had still managed to see.

The game drive began at the usual hour of five in the morning – simultaneously dreaded and eagerly anticipated. The land here is quite different from that of Chobe. Dry season ensures that all mudholes show empty cracked surfaces and riverbeds are full of fine dry sand that spirals up in small dustdevils when the wind blows. There are vast areas with the faintest stubble of grass making me wonder how the animals survive. The recent drought means lean times for man as well as animal. There are huge dusty stretches with an army of dead trees – a few still stand but most are merely stumps, broken off by elephants says our guide and driver, Geoffrey. Baobab trees stand stretching their gnarled fingers to the sky, some of the branches studded with massive nests. And there are those strange trees that Africa seems to have a monopoly on – the sausage trees, aptly named for the peculiar fruits.

Along the dirt roads we went, in one of the tiered game viewing vehicles winding over meadows and under bushy tunnels of greenery. In the chilly early hours of the morning we gazed at kudus and impalas and pukus, giraffes and zebras. They stare back at us apprehensively, more skittish than at Chobe. They prance off making us wish for good telephoto lenses.

There isn’t the plethora of game here that I saw in neighbouring Botswana. This park is smaller and in addition has suffered a drought I was told. But then where are the carcasses, I wondered. The real culprit here are the poachers. When I asked Geoffrey, I was told that there are anti-poaching units at the park. But Zambia has fewer in number than its neighbor Botswana and they are not nearly as well equipped. More importantly, the penalty for poaching is a five-year term in prison. Indeed, one apparently well-known poacher has seen the inside of a jail cell on more than one occasion and on being let out has gone back to the obviously lucrative profession.

In the river we saw hippos with their attendant birds who pick out germs from wounds in one of those symbiotic relationships that occur in nature. Crocodiles lie like logs in the mud shallows. But where are the big cats? Where is that most elusive of all cats, the leopard? This park is supposed to have one of the largest numbers.

It was in the evening, after wandering for most of the afternoon we saw it in the waning rays of the sun. Under a baobab tree lay sprawled a magnificent leopard. The sight took my breath away! Reclining regally on an open patch of ground, he looks at us, blinks and looks away. This one seems to have an injured paw and is being besieged by flies. The further annoyance of two vehicles sprouting telephoto lenses like rapidly growing shoots seems the last straw. It gets to its feet and limps off into the bush. We let out a collective breath that we had not been aware we were holding.

Little did we know there was more to this night yet. I had never been on a “night drive” and was keen to know what it entailed. We had a “spotter”, Nelson riding shotgun next to the driver. He stood up in front, and swung the beam of a powerful searchlight back and forth in slow arcs. The light reflects off the animals’ eyes which appear to glow incandescently. Nelson has enough experience to be able to tell what animal it is – in the dark, at fair distances. He tells me that he can read tracks as well. It is his amazing eyes that spot another leopard in the bush. There it goes, he says, pointing to the bush. We crane our necks to see and sure enough, there is a huge one prowling through the bushes. He is on a hunt. He seems oblivious to us, this silent beetle of an animal with a single powerful yellow eye as we follow him. Down a ridge, he goes and across the river bed. We go ahead and a short detour later, his path and ours cross. He saunters across the road in front of our jeep vanishes into the denser bush to the left. Our last glimpse is the twitching end of a long tail in the tall grass.

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