Friday, January 19, 2007

Christmas Day

We woke up early on Christmas morning this year, but not to open presents. Instead we had a 6AM game drive to get ready for.

For our safari, we joined up with another couple who had driven over from Lilongwe, and we piled into an open-top landrover. There aren't as many restrictions in South Luangwa as there are in many of the busier game parks. This means that the drivers can pretty much go where they want to, and get as close to the animals as they'd like. In some cases, this made me rather uncomfortable. While I love safaris, I like being enclosed in the safety of very strong metal cars. Animals frighten me. Especially lions and elephants.

Now, you may think I'm a bit silly for being afraid of elephants, but there's a history to it. In Tanzania, we were once charged by a herd of huge, angry matriarchs. I remember being in the back of the truck, looking back at the elephants gaining on us, and yelling "Go faster! They're catching up!". It was just like that moment in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus Rex chased the car and they found out just how fast big land mammals can actually move.

And then about 2 months go, there was an article in the New York Times magazine about the increase of Elephant-on-human aggression. Apparently elephants have fragile psyche just like us humans, and the trauma of seeing their families shot down by poachers or culled by wildlife officials has turned some of them into killing machines. Almost every day, there is a recorded instance of elephant-human aggression. There's even an official acronym: HEC - Human-Elephant Conflict. Here's a very disturbing passage from the article:

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity -- for want of a less anthropocentric term -- of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990's, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in "a number of reserves" in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.

So, when our driver decided it was a good idea to drive right in between elephants and their intended destinations, I was understandably a bit nervous, especially with no car wall protecting me from the sharper-than-you-realize tusks.

It was mostly a quiet game drive. Although I scanned thousands of trees for a listlessly drooping leopard tail, we saw no big predators all morning. As a nice break, we stopped in a large meadow, under a tree, for cookies and tea, while Jorge wandered bit too far off for my comfort.

Just when we thought we heading back for lunch, our guide passed another vehicle who seemed to have inside information. We drove for about 20 more minutes, through gullies and across fields, then finally pulled up aside a bush, under which two male lions were sleeping.

Back at the lodge, we were surprised to receive gifts at our lunch! The lodge gave us all a kilo of coffee and a local jam. It was an unexpected treat. We then opened our family Christmas presents. I got a lot of great stuff (Thanks, family). Then we spent the afternoon at the pool. Ah, what a rough life.

On our evening game drive we saw another lion, this one a female. She walked so close to the car that Jorge could have easily extended his arm and stroked its fur as she passed. All our hearts stood still for a moment. In the photo, you can see Jorge's arm, but he was too fightened to take a picture, for fear the sound of the shutter would aggravate the lion.

Dinner was another elaborate affair. We had turkey, steak, and roast chicken, and chocolate truffles for dessert. We all sat at one long table and popped our Christmas crackers, drank lots of wine, and told stories of our adventures during the day. All of the other guests were also residents of Africa, from Zambia or Malawi, so we had much in common.

All in all, it was a terrific trip, and I highly recommend Luangwa Park if you're in the mood for a safari. The next morning we went on another game drive and practically hd the park to ourselves. After brunch, we hit the road to get home. Apart from a freak accident involving a suicidal chicken, the drive back went fine. (My sister was the one who killed the chicken. I was an accessory to henicide.)


pam said...

oh gwyn, i love your posts. what an incredible christmas you guys had. :)

Miriam said...

Henicide. hee, hee. I still feel guilty about that chicken... You didn't mention the male elephant who was trying to get him some!