In the late 1980s I began working in Zimbabwe and Zambia in some of the most sublime wild places on earth. Photographic safaris were just beginning to gain momentum, and under the guidance of some of the legends of the safari industry, I thought I was the luckiest guy alive!
In Mana Pools, on the banks of one of Africa’s great rivers, the mighty Zambezi, Jeff Stutchbury and Rob Fynn inspired me with their pioneering and adventurous spirit, despite once abandoning me to walk alone for 25km through the Mana bush at night with no torch.
In the Luangwa Valley in the east of Zambia, Norman Carr (the pioneer of walking safaris), instilled in me a passion for enjoying the African bush on foot. Away from the safety and sounds of a vehicle, your senses reach a different level of alertness. Renowned guide Robin Pope then took me under his wing and encouraged me to follow my own ‘safari’ to the country of my birth, Malawi. Looking back on the journey through the industry, I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such greats.
Thirty years later I am fortunate to still be able to lead safaris to these magical areas as a private guide.
There may be more camps, more vehicles and more visitors, but the essence of the wilderness is unchanged. It all seems so timeless. The wildlife still roams free in extraordinary numbers, the migratory birds still arrive every year and the smells and sounds bring alive my most precious memories of those far off years.
It seems like just the other day I first watched a buffalo bull being pulled down by a pride of lions, only to then have the vehicle refuse to start and having to ask the guests to push. Or the morning spent watching a leopard that had been trapped up a tree by a troop of baboons. For hours they would not allow it to descend from the top of the kigelia. Or the excitement of my first aardvark sighting. We only saw five or six of them each season in spite of being out after dark every night for six months.
Sometimes it’s not just moments, but days and weeks of consecutive events that has you questioning mother nature’s motives. After witnessing seven kills in seven days, it seemed as though there was not enough meat in the world to satisfy the lions that were operating in our area.
The simple grass camps with no electricity, and water pumped from holes dug in the sand on the river’s edge are long gone. But in their place are beautifully designed and extremely comfortable camps. It no longer takes hours to bump and jolt our way into remote bush camps, over black cotton soil pock-marked by the feet of hundreds of elephants and hippos. The tracks are now graded every year.
Recently I enjoyed being there with a family from America. In the Zambezi Valley we wandered under the canopy of the albida woodlands, watching elephants feed on the apple ring- shaped seed pods. In a canoe, we glided peacefully past pods of hippo and resting buffalo bulls. One night, whilst we were having a surprise bush dinner, we found ourselves between three lions roaring to find each other. They had no choice but to skulk past our dinner table, like children who had been caught up past their bedtime. They blended into the darkness as silently as they arrived.
The Luangwa Valley has always been famed for extraordinary sightings of the big cats. And there they were: generations later the lions still lie on the top of the river bank, enjoying the late afternoon as the temperature drops, watching and listening to the astounding numbers of hippo that call the river home. I wonder whether there is a direct genetic link to the lions I watched thirty years ago. Likewise for the leopards we saw five times in two days.
And after enjoying these special places and extraordinary sightings, it was time to continue on to new land and new wild adventures in Victoria Falls and Botswana!