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Tracking Lions in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park

The deep growl resonated inside the cavity of my chest.  It was unmistakable.  A lion, and not far off.
We were camped on the edge of the Luangwa River, just outside Zambia’s most famous park, and we hadn’t been here long.  The roar on the other side of the river confirmed that here, just maybe, we might spot that adult male lion I’ve been seeking since last year.
You’re in the right place, the roar seemed to say.  Come and find us.
We intended to.
Our first morning inside the park revealed a much-beloved and much-missed setting, for we hadn’t been on proper safari in ten months.  The open savannas displayed every variety of safari animal – warthogs standing on bent knees to graze, zebras staring suspiciously at our passing car, male impalas sword-fighting over coquettish females watching nearby.
Between the savannahs, low marshes attracted waterbuck, reedbuck, and sitatunga antelope.  On pencil-thin legs stood herons, egrets, wild ducks, and crested cranes, and overhead soared fish eagles.  Munching on marsh grass were hippos, in the exact style of Hungry Hippos, the American children’s game.
And in all this, the sounds of Africa – the low bullfrog croak of the buffalo, the coughed warnings of the antelope, the trumpeting of the elephants, the car horn laugh of the hippo, and the even cuckoo clock call of the dove, measuring the passing of time in this far-removed world.
Baby baboons and reedbuck.
Hungry hippos much on marsh grass while an egret perches on their sturdy backs.
Flock of African ducks flying over the marsh.
It was good to be back on safari.  But we had a mission – to find me some lions.  We pointed ourselves in the direction of the lion’s welcome-call, estimated its distance, and drew out a range on our map of the park.  Here is when we would concentrate, we decided.
We strained our eyes.  We gazed at endless landscape passing by.  We braved heat and tsetse flies.  And we drove up and down each dirt track in this lion territory.  Still, we failed to spy any lions that day, male or female.
We did, however, spot our first of several lucky leopards in the park.  I’d been so focused on lions I hadn’t even considered the possibility of seeing another feline, and this svelte female caught me utterly by surprise.
Alice the leopard enjoying this much-desired mud pit.  (This was in between her charges to the warthog.)
Taking lunch while on safari.  The Luangwa River is FULL of hippos.
It appeared that even when South Luangwa didn’t want to give me my longed-for lions, the park did have other surprises to offer.
This was a lesson I was to learn and re-learn over the course of the next few safari days.  Once, as we were making our morning round in lion territory, I caught sight of what looked like a very large fox.  As my brain caught up with my eyes, I understood what the large ears and big canine build actually was.
“Bruno!  Wild dog!”
These black and red painted dogs were once so endangered on the African continent as to be near-impossible to spot.  Because of fabulous conservation efforts in the last two decades, parks across Southern Africa are slowly being repopulated with these fascinating dogs.
I’d never expected to see one, though.
It was a brief spotting, however, and before Bruno could snap a proper photo, he was off, scampering into the bush.  This most-successful of hunters (70% success rate!) appeared to be very camera-shy.
The only photo we could get of this camera-shy wild dog.
The park also gifted us several sightings of their endemic Thornicroft giraffes.  This unique giraffe subspecies is found only in Zambia’s Luangwa valley, and is estimated at only eight-hundred.  It seemed that a great proportion of them were in this park, and we were able to park ourselves for hours in the middle of large families of them.
We watched young giraffes nuzzle their mothers with their long necks, and tall, dark-spotted males court females with butt-sniffing, stalker tactics.  We watched them gallop gracefully in the open savannah and tentatively bend their knees to drink from the river.  And we observed the spots which make them unique, more jagged and leaf-like than their southern brothers.
Butt-sniffing as a way of wooing.
This position makes giraffes very vulnerable to predators and they take A LOT of care before bending down.
Our riverside campsite, too, had its fair share of animal surprises.  Pods of hippos and solitary crocs stationed themselves on sand bars in the water.  Monitor lizards – like the one our second leopard of the park had caught in his jaws – ambled around the grass.  Troops of baboons launched themselves off our hammock.  Vervet monkeys made daily visits to our gazebo, waiting for an opportunity to steal any unwatched scrap.
And best of all, elephants visited.  They crossed the river in front of us, rummaged for tasty leaves behind the toilets, and silently crossed the campsite while we sat watching under our awning.  These close-up encounters quickly put our elephant experience in Malawi’s Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve to shame.
Watching elephants pass through the campsite.
Baboon acrobatics on the campsite hammock!
Just one shot of the creatures in the river in front of our campsite.
Despite the gifts of wild dogs and leopards, endemic giraffes and campsite creatures, I couldn’t get my adult male lion off my mind.  We hadn’t heard his call since that first evening, and hadn’t even so much as seen a footprint along any track.  Searching for the lions was beginning to feel as improbable as searching for a needle in a haystack.
The morning of our penultimate safari, we awoke to lions roaring in the distance.
“This is it,” I thought to myself.  We finally had a clue as to where to look.  “Today, we’re going to find them.”
All morning, I was ultra-alert.  When I scanned the landscape, I really looked at every detail.  Every road we turned down, I’d get a feeling that the lions were right here.
But yet again, it was not to be.  Our fourth safari day passed without spotting my thick-maned feline.  Was this to remain my unattainable animal sighting?  Was I asking for too much?
These questions plagued me as we passed the gate on our fifth and final safari day.
The sun rises as we drive over the bridge into the park for the last time.
“Any lion spottings?” I routinely asked the rangers while paying my fees.
“There,” one of the rangers pointed at a spot on the map, near the Big Baobab.  “A pride of them was sat here all day yesterday.”
While it was difficult to hear that others had spotted an entire pride of lions – with three full-grown, big-maned males – when we’d been searching fruitlessly in another sector of the park, at least we had a clue with which to continue our search.  With haste, we set off for the baobab, hoping the lions would still be in the vicinity.
I was filled with a sense of nostalgia all day.  Each animal we passed could have been our last, both in Zambia and in Africa.  This was to be our last national park on the continent.
And so, when we spotted our third leopard that week, perched on the perfect leopard-sleeping branch, I wanted to hold on to this moment forever.
The infamous Big Baobab bears only buffalo on this day.
Lazy leopard on the best napping branch.  I’m proud of having been the one to spot him!
“There’s a pride of lions by the air strip,” divulged a safari driver parked next to us, as we watched the leopard sleep and wake and sleep again.  “They’ve been there all day.  They should still be…”
I glanced at Bruno.  Here we were, sat watching his favorite African animal, yet offered the possibility of seeing the animal I’d come here to see.  We could either sit here and continue watching the leopard sleep, and probably have time to watch him slip down the branch before the park closed, or we could race to a faraway section of the park in the hopes that the lions hadn’t yet moved.
When Bruno started the car, I knew what he was sacrificing for me.
“I just hope we can make it there before the park closes,” he said.
Morning chit-chat on a tall, safe branch.
“Move.  Forward!”
We had thirty minutes, and the spot was several weaving, bouncy kilometers away.  Bruno drove faster than I’ve ever seen him drive in a park, past a huge herd of elephants, another of giraffes, and another of zebras.  All looked unusually beautiful tonight in the setting pink rays of the sun.  But we raced onwards.
“This is hopeless,” I uttered.  We were still so far, the minutes were ticking by, and the light was fast disappearing.  Tears began to stream down my face at how close, yet how far, we were to fulfilling my wish.
The tracks in South Luangwa are not much more than bumpy dried mud, and are not fun to drive on!
Bruno sped up, turning left, then right, then right again.  Up ahead, several cars were parked on the bank of a dried-up river.  It was evident what they were all looking at – lions.
I tried using my binoculars, but it was in vain.  It was too dark, and the pride had evidently begun to edge themselves into the bush on the other side of the river.  I could see a few dark spots seated in the sand, but nothing that I could even faintly categorize as a lion.
“Let’s go,” I finally said to Bruno in defeat.  I was never going to get a proper male lion sighting out of this situation.
Our motor roared to life and we drove off, leaving our last lion possibility in our dust.
“We can safari again tomorrow, if you want,” Bruno consoled.
“No,” I replied after a time.  “I know when it’s time to surrender.”
And so I let myself surrender to the memories South Luangwa had offered us – the Thornicroft giraffes, the triple leopard sightings, the fleeting glimpse of the wild dog.  I let myself surrender to the warm evening breeze and the sun setting over the river as we crossed the bridge out of the park for the last time.  And I surrendered to the fact that I would see no big-maned male lions.
Not yet, anyway.

To read about my past safaris, click herehere, here, here, here, here, here, or here.