“Around 20 years ago, bushmeat poachers were a menace around here”, says Derek Shenton, a third-generation Zambian conservationist and guide. “They’d sneak in on foot, setting bushfires, snaring antelopes and shooting hippos before braising the meat and smuggling it out. It took ages for us to get permission for a camp. But the positive impact has been immense.”
In Africa’s safari heartlands, poachers in all their guises — from villagers hunting for the table, to crime syndicates feeding overseas demand — are a menace. But to visitors, the problems are largely invisible. Tourism is a powerful deterrent.
Derek and I are conversing in whispers, hunkered down in Mwamba Bush Camp’s Last Waterhole Hide. Appropriately enough, given this was once an anti-poaching frontline, it feels much like a bunker. A spacious bunker, that is, with raffia walls, decent seating, a webcam and an absolutely extraordinary view. One of several excellent photographic hides that Derek has created, it overlooks a pool that’s called the Last Waterhole for a reason. For miles, there’s nowhere else for the wildlife to drink. Every morning, it’s as popular as a pub on St Patrick’s Day.
On the bank above the water, a pride of lions is causing consternation. Impalas are forming a fidgety queue, desperate to quench their thirst. Baboons are bellowing out warnings and guinea fowl are sounding their ratchet-like alarm call. The cats, meanwhile, simply slump in the shade, oblivious.
Whoever it was who first connected the word safari with wildlife-watching holidays has a great deal to answer for. In Swahili, it means a journey or voyage — originally, the type of arduous trek you’d make between trading posts. Come the 19th century, naturalists, explorers and adventurers began calling their East African hunting and specimen-collecting expeditions safaris, and as time went on, the word gathered such rich connotations of wild adventure that nobody wanted to let it go.
Little by little, the message has filtered through that the Big Five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) definitely aren’t the only creatures worth seeking out on an African wildlife-watching trip. But does the experience really need to be a journey, arduous or otherwise? What compels us to devote so much time, money and fossil fuel to hopping from country to country and camp to camp? Wouldn’t it be better to pick just one superb spot and stay there for as long as possible, getting to know its landscapes, wildlife and locals in depth?
When some elephants with a youngster enter stage left, almost close enough to touch, and a hippo erupts out of the water in fury, scattering the quelea birds that were sipping at the water’s edge, I gasp. Our vantage point allows us to absorb every detail. Next, the elephant matriarch charges the lions, dispersing them. The impalas seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief — and so do I.
“Is it always like this?” I ask.
“Pretty much”, says Derek.
With scenes as gripping as this unfolding right before my eyes, I’m inclined to stay all day. Or indeed, for that matter, all week.
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)