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Friday, 15 October 2010

Zambia Part 2 - Close encounters with elephants at Croc Valley Camp, South Luangwa.

After an interesting journey along some bumpy and dusty roads, we finally rocked up at ‘Croc Valley Camp’ which was only seperated from the National Park by a river. It was a beautiful place for chilling out in and as we set up our tents the owner came over and told us how interesting a place it could be too...

Kenji & Gabarone - negotiating for some bananas on the side of the road before South Luangwa.


Kay & Queen Kim - watching the world go by from the front of the truck

Still bumpy.

"Crash Slash 'n' burn, Mav. Slash 'n' burn."

“First of all” (to me and Lara) “I assume you guys like elephants?!”

Me and Lara: “Er...they’re cool. Why?”

“Well you’ve put your tent under the elephants’ favourite eating tree.”

It turns out that most nights, a small herd of elephants comes right through the campsite to graze. Hippos often do the same and they’ve actually had to rebuild their pool so that has a sloping entrance (rather than a stepped one) as several years ago a baby hippo got stuck in the pool and drowned. A leopard has been seen sipping from this same pool on numerous occasions and lions can sometimes be seen wondering about the back of the campsite – so if going to the loo at night, be careful, don’t stray too far and if you see red eyes in your torchlight, don’t approach and don’t run!

After putting the tents up (we felt adventurous and left our tent more or less where it was) most of us went straight to the pool whilst the rest found a spot on the riverbank and read a book as hippos and crocs waded in the shallows mere metres away. The other Af Trails truck we’d seen in Chipata caught us up again here and the relatively small pool soon got pretty busy so a few of us ventured along to where the monkeys were – past our tents next to some posh-looking chalets.

Our tents were on this side of the river, the national park was on the other.

The view across the river in the opposite direction.

Some people found a spot on the riverbank and read a book as hippos and crocs waded in the shallows mere metres away.

The pool with the now sloped sides (so no more hippo drownings).

Rubes - parked up with camp set up alongside.

Er...those are supposed to be hippos. (Remember to zoom next time AK.)

I promise you there's a croc at the end of that sandbar somewhere.

By the posh chalets there was an elevated infinity pool which we clambered up to get a better look at the monkeys frollicking around below and across the river to where the hippos were bathing. I thought the pool was too good to not swim in so took a plunge, did a few lengths and got out to taunt the monkeys again. Then the other guys jumped in the pool too at which point a young Dutch/Afrikaans woman with a face like a slapped arse stormed across the lawn and gave us an earful. Apparently we’d ventured onto the neighbouring deluxe campsite’s property: there were no fences between the camps as the ellies and hippos just tear through them anyway. We left with a few cheeky words to say back to her and headed back to our own pool amongst the mere mortals.

As the day went on, the beers began to flow and just before the sunset, we saw a herd of elephants cross the river in the near distance from the park side to the near side (i.e. the side we were on). Remember: there are no fences here...

Soon enough, a rogue elephant ambled its way clumsily around the back of the pool and bar and over towards where our truck was parked. All the guests were excitedly snapping away at it and following where it went, but in all reality, the thing could have turned and charged at any time. Carl (the driver of the other Af. Trails truck) brought everybody back down to earth by saying there could easily be another two or three ellies following through, and with our backs turnd to them and eyes concentrated on display screens, and viewfinders, we wouldn’t stand a chance.

No other elephant did turn up and the one rogue one was scared off by the catapault-weilding camp-guards.

Within a few hours, Berbs and Matt gave us the call for grub. They’d fixed up a superb stew which we eagerly got stuck into. As I got up for seconds, Berbs calmly, but sternly said “Guys. Get. In. The. F**king. Truck. The ellies are back.” I looked over his shoulder and sure enough, they were back: three adults and a wee’un. The stew was steaming on the table. The lockers on the side of the truck (where all the food supplies are kept) were wide open. We had all been tucking in to our grub on our stools in a circle by the tents but when we heard Berbs, half legged it inside the truck and the other half clambered on top of the cab for a ringside seat for the devastation that was sure to ensue.

The elephants came straight for the bin. Emptied that. Had a sniff of a few of the discarded, half-full plates then made a bee-line to what was left of the stew. This was sat on a table immediately below where were standing on the cab. Fantastic – but perhaps they didn’t like Berbs & Matt’s stew as much as we did; they shunned it for the crap that had spilt out of the bin when one of the bigger ones turned it upside down and pulled the sack out.

Kenji - with camera & tripod still intact.
Next up: the side lockers. Three large trunks and one small one rummaged through our side lockers like an octopus might. I got a lot of it on video and you can hear us whooping and yelling as the elephants tore into our food stocks. (I will try to upload it, but given the connections out here, I wouldn’t bank on it working.) The ringleader went straight for some leftover fruit salad (from breakfast that morning) – she pulled out the massive tupperware container, stomped on it and the rest of her gang tucked into the insides that spewed out. Next the flour came out – which made for entertaining viewing. Then a whole bunch of other grains and generic foodstuffs. The whole time, Pat and I are smiling and laughing whilst tucking into our seconds (which we had just enough time to get before scaling the ladder on the side of the truck cab). Upon realising how good these things were at sniffing our food out, we chucked our plates off the top of the cab! Gab was also on the top with us and he was giggling like a schoolchild in anticipation of the elephants accidentally discovering our stash of freshly purchased chillis – then there would have been a mess. Kenji and Ronaldo (the former on top of the truck with us and the latter watching events unfold from a safe distance on the ground) weren’t as excited as us when they realised that both of their cameras were somewhere on the floor in the middle of where the ellies were wreaking havoc. Fortunatley, both cameras came out unscathed – by sheer fluke, Kenji’s had even been set up on its tripod pointing in the direction of all the action but we were all gutted to know that it hadn’t been turned on.

(Excuse the photo quality. For obvious reasons, we couldn't use our flashes and the elephants would hardly stay still for a slower shutter-speed. Amateurs!)

Straight into the kitchen locker on the side of the truck.

There goes tomorrow's breakfast.

Blurry, but you get the drift.

On top of the truck's cab - Front row seats for the devastation.

Whilst we were having all the fun on the top of the cab, the guys inside the truck weren’t seeing the funny side (you can hear us being told to “Shut the f**k up!” on the video I took. Although the guys inside the truck were seeing eye to eye with these African gentle giants, they could only see part of the picture and as the ellies explored the lockers with their trunks, their tusks rubbed up against the truck windows and under the tarps, and the sheer weight of them against the truck was giving the vehicle a bit of a shaking. The truth is, it was scary, it was exhilirating, but from where we were sat at the top of the cab, we could see that the elephants' only intention was getting some food.

You can see Yoichi's tent in the background.

We were all sitting there about 30 secs prior to this photo being taken.

There goes the flour. 

The trunk was getting close. Possibly sniffing out my plate of food as i sat eating on top of the cab?

The catapault-weilding guards came to the rescue again but when these pebbles didn’t work, small boulders were thrown (in one of my videos you see one of these football-sized stones just bounce off one of the elephant’s foreheads with a dull thud and little persuasive influence). Bottles, pans, stools and all sorts were thrown before finally...

“You guys on top of the cab.” (The owner’s voice called out, the same guy who’d given us the brieifng earlier.)

“Yeah?” (We yelled back.)

“Can you just move to the left a little?”




Before we’d had time to work out whether the guy had meant our left or his left, two shotgun blasts reverberated around the camp and directly over our heads.

The elephants knew that this meant business and soon set their stumpy legs to reverse.

After the gunshots, the alpha-female (and ringleader) with the downwards-facing tusk was being stubborn...

Eventually they backed off.

That ain't just a smudge! That's an elephant tusk smudge on our truck window!
With the excitement over, the quickest clean-up job on the face of the earth took place with all the on-lookers (passengers and non-passengers alike) lending a helping hand. To Pat’s dismay, his beer that had survived the elephantismal onslaught got swept up in the cleaning process. (I’m pretty sure I saw one of the guys from the other Af Trails truck walk away with it!)

Reliving the story at the bar.
Everybody reconvened at the bar to re-tell their versions of the story over shots of 'Zappa' (an African shot similar to sambuca and comes in a variety of colours and flavours). It was here that one of the other Af Trails guys approached us saying he’d heard we were from Guernsey. “Well, I’m a crapaud!” he said. To all you non-Channel Islanders, this meant that he was from Jersey – sworn enemy of Guernsey in any other circumstances but here it was good to chat to another islander.

The bar got quieter and quieter as people filtered out to their tents and as Lara and I bedded down on our rollmats, I heard Yoichi just outside quietly saying in his broken English...


“Really? Again? Where Yoichi?”

“er...I think emergency..."


“ two meat-ars away!”


We’d been told that this would happen and not to panic: the elephants see the tents as obstacles and as long as we put enough space between the tents for them to walk through, we shouldn’t experience any problems. The same was true of the hippos that would inevitably come up to graze later in the night.

The open bar that the rogue elephant sauntered into.
Regardless, most of us jumped out the tents and watched the same elephants that had ransacked our kitchen earlier come through again. (We could tell them by the fact that the big female had one her tusks on the wrong way around – we’re not sure why though.) As all of our food was now safely locked away, the elephants charged straight for the large open bar as we watched from the safety of a nearby rondavel/hut. Eventually they were chased away again and we all got back to sleep – the elephants did come through again in the early hours and they were treading mere metres away from where our heads were behind the saftey (!) of a canvas tent. Some hippos came through too as their distinctive deep ‘laughter’ could be heard very close to where we lay.

The following morning, Lara was awoken by monkey piss. We’d slept without our fly-sheet over the tent so that only the mozzy net would seperate us from the cool evening air and moreover, so we could get a better view of any other nocturnal animal activity. The same tree that the elephants liked, was also the stomping ground of the local vervet monkey mafia. As Laraldo woke up in disgust, I chuckled to myself about her early morning golden shower...not the sort of morning shower she was hoping for.

Yep - that's our tent...and yes, that's a monkey on it. Probably the one that gave Lara the rude awakening.

Matt enjoying chasing the wee blighter up the tree.

Get in there!

The wee guy got away this time...

That's alright buddy. Sometimes I know exactly how you must feel.
That day, a few of the group actually entered the park on game drives (which I think cost about $50 a pop) but a lot of us were having such a good time without paying that we forewent the expense. Whilst those that stayed behind had a lazy day reading by the pool, the guys on the game drives came back with reports of lions, elephants, hippos and hyenas. Kenji, Pat and Ish were lucky enough to see a leopard on the late afternoon drive they went on.

As dinner time rolled around, we all tucked into some 'hippo steak' that Marjane had gone out of his way to get for us as a cook group extra. It was like one gigantic fillet steak and as he was cutting it up to put on the braai/bbq, Marjane commented that the knife cut through it like butter. Damn, it tasted good. During the night there was just one minor interruption from the usual tuskpects but they were quickly chased away with shotgun blasts.

Hippo steak.

Marjane: "Like a hot knife through butter."
By morning we justed waited on Jules and Jen’s return from their early morning game drive before shooting off to the Malawi border (via Chipata once more for more cooking supplies).

In all, I’d put the elephant experience right up there with the Dogon (Mali) and northern Cameroon as highlights of the trip so far. I’d recommend Croc Valley Camp and South Luangwa Park in general for the mere proxomity to the animals. Surely a once in a lifetime thing? My only regret was not going back to Kasama (where I’d taught 10 yrs ago) and meeting up with old friends and pupils and revisiting the places that hold so many fond memories for me. With the action-packed schedule we’ve got for the east coast leg of the trip, I just didn’t have the time. Nor did I want to leave the truck knowing (after our Cape Town experience) just how hard it could be to catch back up.

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