a male kudu looking toward the camera

Trip Diary: Where Are All the Elephants?

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The view from the Lookout Cafe, looking over the two gorges downstream from Victoria Falls.

The Lookout Cafe is the centerpiece of Wild Horizons’ empire of Victoria Falls tourist attractions. It’s a restaurant, but that’s a little bit like saying that Broadway-caliber dinner theater is a restaurant. At the Lookout Cafe, lunch is respectable, but it’s really all about the view.

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that below the Falls, the canyons force the river into two tight, narrow gorges. Well, the Cafe is directly above those gorges, overlooking the  rocky, V-shaped cliffs where they fork. It’s a stellar view, and just to make matters even more exciting, it’s also the place where the mildly named “tour of the canopy” activity takes place. Since the latter is actually an adrenaline-pumping set of ziplines right across the V of those gorges, it is quite a bit of fun to watch from overhead. (Although the screams can be a bit daunting, as an accompaniment to your lunch.)

Mongooses picking parasites off of a warthog.

When Musa and I arrived at the Cafe, the first thing I saw was a merry sounder of warthogs — yes, that is really what a group of warthogs is called — resting in the sun just beyond the Cafe’s side terrace. They were clearly having a lazy moment, and yet an odd buzz of activity surrounded one or two of them. As we got closer, I saw that the buzz was actually a pack of mongooses (mongeese?), who were swarming over some of the warthogs in order to clean them of the parasites that the mongooses ate. A great symbiotic relationship, and a lot of fun to witness. Also, I got to see mongooses, which are very cute indeed.

As a cafe, the Lookout is not as great as I’d hoped. It’s not bad, certainly; but it doesn’t have really good ingredients and that prevents it from being a really good restaurant no matter what it does to them. And because it was run by the same company that runs Old Drift Lodge, there was enough overlap between its menu and the food we’d been getting already back at camp for me to be somewhat bored with my sirloin… a sad thing that should never have to be said about a steak. The fries were consistently fantastic, however — at both the Lookout and Old Drift.

When we got back from lunch, we had a couple of hours to rest before it was time for my first real game drive. In fact, pretty nearly all of the next day and a half were dedicated completely to game drives. Musa served as my private guide — I hadn’t paid for a private guide, but there was nobody else staying at Old Drift except one other guest, and he only wanted to see birds. So Old Drift separated us except when we rejoined the camp for meals. In between, we each went our own way, looking for our own things.

The red-billed hornbill knocking on my door.

While I was in my room between activities, something knocked on my door. Actually, to be precise (as I discovered when I looked over curiously), something pecked on my door. A strange bird that I later identified — via Musa — as a red-billed hornbill was outside the glass door to my room, trying with great persistence to get in. In fact, after a little while, he persuaded a friend to join him and they both went to town on my door. I wasn’t worried; they were certainly not going to break that door, and so I could afford to find it very funny, and did. They were still trying, and I was still laughing at them, an hour or so later when it was time to go out for the game drive. I got around them by the simple expedient of stepping out by a different door, and we were on our way.

The first thing I asked Musa to look for — bearing in mind that this is nature, and you take what you get — was a carnivore, any carnivore. I had seen most of the obvious local herbivores in the last few days… giraffes, zebras, kudu, and the endless herds of impala. Even buffalo, although for some reason I couldn’t catch sight of a buffalo on a game drive; only on the side of the road while I was trying to get somewhere. That had happened twice, but still no buffalo on game drives. And of course I’d seen rhino, that magical first day in Zimbabwe. But I hadn’t seen any of the large carnivores in the wild. No lion, leopard, or even hyena. So I asked Musa to try and find me carnivores if he could.

It was a tall order. Not only were carnivores usually hidden away from the rain at this time of year (most big cats don’t like water any more than housecats do), but we also couldn’t go on many of the more out-of-the-way trails, or we might never get the safari vehicle out of the mud. So I asked for carnivores, but prepared myself to accept whatever nature gave us.

A male kudu, looking toward the camera.

Sure enough, what nature gave us was three hours of the same herbivores I had already seen frequently. Not even an elephant or a waterbuck, both of which were common in that park, but staying well hidden from me. (The Incident of the Missing Elephants will unfold over the next couple of posts: please stay tuned!) We stopped for sundowners in a beautiful spot by the river… and were promptly joined by three other game vans, which made me feel intruded-on and grumpy. Part of the problem with looking for wildlife in a public park is that it’s a public park; everyone else in town is there, doing the same stuff you are. All the time. I didn’t grudge them — they were as entitled to be there as I was — but I did ask Musa if we could pack up and get back onto the wildlife trails.

“Yah, of course,” he told me. “I’ll pack. Just one minute… do you mind if I take two seconds to talk to this guide?”

Of course I didn’t; a couple minutes wasn’t going to signify either way. I just wanted to be getting away from all the people soon. They were making me nervous about Covid risks, and more generally making me feel like our beautiful spot by the river was a lot less beautiful with four cars lined up there.

So Musa came back from talking to the other guide and we left. Driving very slowly for some reason.

A few minutes after we had moved on — a few minutes in which we found yet another herd of the ubiquitous impala but nothing else — one of the other game vehicles rolled by. Musa turned after it, saying “I think if I follow this guy he’s going to lead us to something special.”

A lioness and her four lion cubs eating a zebra.

He is? Okay… I didn’t really like the idea of staying so close to another van; that was what we just left to get away from. But I trusted Musa, so we stayed a little way behind the other vehicle until it stopped dead in its tracks.

Musa pointed for me. “Lion.”

I looked. There, in the shade of a big tree, lay a big lioness! She was wrapped possessively around, and eating from, a zebra kill. My eyes widened and I asked Musa if we could get closer. Not easily, we couldn’t — we had to stay on the road because it was a national park, and the other van was right in front of us. But after a few very impatient minutes, their van pulled forward a bit and let us have a prime viewing spot, with direct sight access to the lion.

And her cubs.

What I couldn’t see, until we moved forward, was that she wasn’t actually wrapped around her prey; it had just looked like it because there was lion fur wrapped around her prey. Instead, she had four young cubs beside her, just old enough to be eating meat. They lay side by side, collectively taking up the far side of the zebra, with the mother occupying the near side, so that no scavenger could snatch a bite until the lions were truly finished. It was a magnificent scene, as the mother nudged one cub here or another there, making sure that they all got enough to eat. After a while, once she was sure everyone was getting properly fed, she put her head down sleepily in the grass to digest while her cubs finished off the zebra carcass, and I snapped a whole lot of pictures of all of them.

The next day was my birthday.

It had begun with a card arriving on my dinner tray the previous night, from the Old Drift staff. It included a gift certificate for a 30-minute massage from their staff therapist. So I scheduled that for between game drives the following day.

We went out very early that morning, as game drives usually do. It was my first experience with that, because until that day I had been doing other activities in the mornings. But I gamely — pun intentional — woke up at five, and we got underway at six. It was one of those days when nothing much shows up, but we tried. We saw the usual impala, zebra and one or two giraffes. We did have an interesting moment, finding a small herd of zebra whom Musa thought were probably the herd of the baby who’d been eaten by lions the day before. There were only four of them — a stallion, two mares and one baby, and Musa thought the other mare didn’t have a baby because the lions took it. That herd kept hanging around the area where we’d seen the lion and her cubs, as if trying to see where their lost foal had gone. 

A pair of baboons.

We also saw some lovely baboons. But no elephants. 

Musa, who changed careers to become a guide after several years teaching history, filled the gaps when there were no animals in sight by telling me about local trees and plants, traditions of the people, and — at my request — the history of the Zimbabwe revolution. Zimbabwe only became fully independent in 1980. Before that, it was called Rhodesia (or in the later years, Zimbabwe- Rhodesia) after Cecil Rhodes, and it had a firmly white puppet government, answering to the British. Since Musa was in high school when the revolution happened, he remembers it very well.

I asked, while we were talking, about yesterday’s mysterious comment about how if we followed that other guide, he’d lead us to something special. I didn’t for a moment consider it likely to be coincidence. Musa admitted that when they talked at the sundowners stop, the guide told him that there was a lioness with a kill out there someplace, and that the guide was planning to look for her. That was why we drove slowly away from the stop; we were waiting until the other driver was comfortable moving his guests along. Then when we saw their car, we pulled in behind them… and they led us to the lioness.

birthday cake made of towels

Three hours later we returned from the game drive, having had an interesting conversation but still seen no elephants. I went for my birthday-gift massage. A brief stop in my room to change revealed another gift, this time from housekeeping: a lovely ‘birthday cake’ made up of towels, on my bed, with “Happy B’Day!” spelled out in flowers underneath it. Whoever does the towel creations at Old Drift is really good at it… first the crocodile and now this cake!

The massage was respectable, and it included a technique that I’ve never used before, so it was interesting to learn it. But the second game drive, late that afternoon was no better than the first. I’m sure I was a handful for Musa to deal with, because I really wanted to be taken places where we hadn’t already been. Musa didn’t want to go places where we hadn’t already been, although he did want to please me. The reason he hadn’t already been those places already was that he wasn’t sure they were safe for the safari vehicle, and he didn’t want to get stuck in the mud. So he compromised, by taking me on a couple of short trails that we hadn’t yet tried, but which held tire tracks proving that other people had. Unfortunately, then we would meander back to roads that I recognized, and I would ask Musa yet again to please to take me someplace I hadn’t seen on the last two drives. Anyone else would probably not have been so patient with me.

We were chiefly looking for elephants, which I had seen in the sanctuary but never yet in the wild. I had been told repeatedly that there were LOADS of elephants in this park, and that I was sure to see some without even trying. Well, we sure tried, but the elephants were all in hiding or something. We saw many signs that elephants had been there recently — fresh tracks, dung, and the endless indications of mayhem they left in the surrounding plant life. Elephants are hell on trees and bushes, and not only because they eat them. They’re still hell on species that they don’t treat as food. They trample over, and knock down, and poke holes in random things all the time, just by being enormous and not really paying a whole lot of attention to what they’re doing.

After a while, Musa and I began to make jokes about the lack of elephants, to ease the frustration. We speculated that the elephants had dug burrows with their trunks and gone into hiding underground, or that they were all clustered together at the one part of the park we weren’t checking — back at the Lodge — and were standing around the parking lot in a state of boredom, waiting for us to return. It was funny, but I was still pretty cranky underneath it. I wanted elephants. And sadly, they were not, in fact, waiting for us in the parking lot when we returned.

Next: the Okavango Delta. Do I ever find elephants? Stay tuned!

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