Safari Stories by Pierre Pitlo

Ever since I was a child and saw a path in the bush I always wanted to find out where it led to, this is my path, adventure at all costs to sate my curiosity!

I have been a guide for more than 20 years now, I have travelled to every single country South of the Equator and nearly every single Game Reserve or National Park. I have guided guests, walked all the Big 5, renovated lodges, managed world class luxury lodges and trained staff. Challenged elephants, confronted hippo, run from rhino and stared lion down on dark paths in the middle of the night.

These articles are stories of my adventures, I hope they inspire you to travel to Africa, she is a magical place that will never leave your heart.

why you should never, ever, shoot a lady on the ass with a catapult!

Morning broke on the banks of the Luangwa quite languidly. I was standing at the main area waiting for my guests to join me for breakfast watching a small breeding herd of elephants cross the river. Perfect scenery, warm for early October, not a breath of wind.

After the game drive had departed I went to the kitchen for our morning meeting. George and I discussed the days menu, Mr Peterson needs a new iron and the hyena have been raiding the kitchen again! The Ebony trees’ as in fruit so I’m carrying my catapult permanently now for when the monkeys appear to raid at will. After the meeting Ezekiel comes to me and informs me that they cant return to the staff compound as there is a herd of elephants blocking their way, could the Bwana please come and move them? Sure, easily done.

I exit the kitchen to see a herd of 5 elephants feeding on the Winterthorn tree not 20 meters from me, they’re just on the other side of the small ditch that runs from the waterhole to the river. I shout at them to please piss off and at the sound of my voice the youngsters immediately head for the bush, not so the matriarch. She just ignores me. Well that’s just bloody rude! I shout again – no reaction. Fine Mrs Elephant, I’ve got a fine idea. I take my catapult off my belt and fish a stone out of my pocket – cant miss at this distance I think. And I don’t, slap bang on her rump.

Well bugger me with a hedgehog if she doesn’t take unkindly to that! Without so much as a sound she whirls around and charges me at full speed eating up the 20 meters in a blur of motion, from impact to action has been a split second and I’m way too far from the kitchen for any sort of dignified retreat. Besides, the ditch will stop her. And stop she does, her feet coming to a skidding halt, my vision has tunneled and all I can see is the small mound of dirt her feet are pushing up as her 3 tons of bulk come to a standstill.

I look up carefully, quite amazed, she is less than 2 meters from my face and her trunk is out and she is waving it slowly in front of my face…the message is clear, “try that again sonny and I’m going to grind you into so many meatballs mixed with dust Mommy wont recognize you”. We stare at each other, completely silent until she lowers her trunk and with elegant dignity disappears into the bush.

I keep my catapult for the monkeys now.

a ghost in the dark?

Botswana, January 2016, Kanana (my camp) is closed for maintenance. The day has been long and lots of hard work has been done, we are all tired so we knock off at 4pm. Emelda has made me dinner so I lock everything up and head home with a beer and my plate of food. Its been a good day, its about to get longer – and hairier.

Im sitting watching a movie on my laptop when Keletso calls me on the radio to let me know there is a lion in camp, he’s just waltzed through the staff village and heading my way, could I please come “sort him out”. Sure, on my way.

I’m not too keen on this sort of thing but the staff rely on me to keep them safe and who else is there to do this? And anyway, whats this “sort him out” supposed to mean? I get dressed again, put my belt kit on (stuff you never, ever, walk out the house without) and head off to the office. I unlock the rifle safe, grab the .375 and the newest looking bullets I can find and a set of keys for one of the Landcruisers – ready. Driving over to the staff village Im wondering whats going to be presented to me and how I’m going to “sort this out”. I certainly can not shoot the bugger, we’re in the Okavango so everything is protected and the DWNP would only condone me shooting the lion after its mauled someone half to death – that’s a good reason to shoot him and not before!

The staff village is deserted, most odd but not, considering the uninvited guest. Keletso meets me at his house and informs me the lion is on the periphery of the village in the grass, we drive over to that spot they saw him last and I grab the rifle (now loaded with the hammer down) and climb onto the bonnet to have a look see. Yup, there his is, we give each other a meaningful look – whats up buddy? Not much as I can see and he isn’t moving, he knows I’m human so by rights he should have moved pretty quickly after he saw me on the bonnet. I climb down, cock the rifle and start moving towards him using the most unsavoury vocabulary I can imagine in the hope he will take offense and find somewhere else to lay his head for the night. He moves off so I quickly jump into the Landcruiser to follow, I need to keep him in sight and make sure he has left the camp area for good.

He heads for the pool area and plonks himself on the deck, well, perhaps he needs a towel, a dry martini? I drive to within 10 meters of the edge of the deck and once again verbally abuse him, his mother and lineage…nope, stone deaf. OK, I’ll get out – breaking the shape of the vehicle usually makes them nervous as they then recognize us as the super predators we are and will move – he stares back completely unimpressed??? Whats with this lion? Why isn’t he afraid of my proximity or my presence? I cant get closer on foot so I decide to really piss him off, I drive right up to the deck, rev the engine and shout and finally he moves…and then Im worried. He’s hinka-punk, trap-in-die-gaaitjie, lame in one foot. This is a problem.

He moves out the pool area and off to the main lodge area, can’t have him finding a place in there for the night, fella, you have got to move on. I finally manage to maneuver so Im behind him and I can drive him away, into the bush, intimidating him with the vehicle. Its slow going, the leg, or the foot, is seriously hampering his ability to walk but he moves off into the bush with me pushing him all the while. After about 2 kilometers he slinks under a bush so thick I cant see him – what now? Well, 2 kilometers should do it for the day. I consider shooting a flare into the bush but worry the flare may cause a fire and that could threaten the lodge itself, not a wise move.

I’ll just leave him be. What more can he do? On the way back to the lodge I radio Keletso and let him know whats going on, he is very grateful but I warn him to let the staff know that with darkness only minutes away that no one is to be out after dark tonight.

By the time I get back to the lodge it is dark and no way am I walking from the office to my house – 200 meters – in the dark after I’ve locked the rifle away. At least I’ll have company in bed tonight. Back home I finish my movie and switch the laptop off. Dead silence reigns.

Wait, whats that crackling leaves outside? An elephant at the Marula tree? I open my door and peer through the screen door with my torch…uh oh. Guess who’s back? Yup, Mr Lion is back. What he’s doing here and how he found me isn’t hard to guess – follow the buggers scent that harassed me, I’ll have my own back! And injured lions will take the easiest prey they can find and what could be easier than a human? Not much.

I watch as he limps around the front of my house and disappears around the side. Shit. Where’s he going? To the side window, still moving, around the back, the other side window and around to the front, and he just keeps on going. After watching him circle for 30 minutes he stops and lies down in plain sight of my front door. This is NOT good. My house is a canvas tent, not much defence against sharp claws and a hungry belly. SHIT. I pull a chair over to the screen and we set about our vigil, I tape the torch to the side of my chair, the rifle across my lap and wait.

After 2 hours its midnight and I’m not keen on just the screen door between him and me. I close the door, close the tent windows and sit on my bed. Its worse now, all I can hear is leaves breaking and when I cant hear leaves crackling I imagine him getting ready to launch himself at the tent side. My imagination runs riot, I look up at the “rafters” that make up the structure and wonder if its high enough for me to be safe, I doubt it.

The darkness, minutes and hours crawl by. My back to the headboard, rifle across my lap, ready and waiting for the moment he plucks up the courage to try my meat out for a meal. I never nap, I never fall asleep and Im always listening. Finally, I can see the sky to the East start to lighten imperceptibly and I know this night will end.

When dawn finally does break and I can see enough I open the screen door…emptiness. I radio the office and tell the guides to come over with a vehicle to scout the area. When they arrive there is nothing, just footprints, hundreds of them all around my house.

That’s not a night I’m going to forget in a rush. Considering the camp is closed and the animals know it, the rifle stays with me for the rest of the week.

south luangwa – zambia

Arriving at the gates of South Luangwa is like stepping back in time. There is no first world rush, sign in, pay and you’re on your way to more fun than you could imagine.
The road from the entrance twists and turns, a small water hole here and there, Yellow Billed Stork, Fish Eagle…plenty of birds to be seen here. During the heat of the day there is not much movement by the larger mammals. Resting, conserving energy is instinctive for later in the day when survival at night is paramount. Lions see better at night than during the day – a reflective mirror in their eyes directs light to fall onto their rods twice enabling excellent night vision. Other mammals are not so fortunate and the night is a time of knife edge survival.

If you venture a little further, past the old airstrip, the roads are less busy with day visitors and one really starts to see the denser stretches of bush, look into the shadows for the larger animals as they rest up. The road crosses an old bridge and a series of plains open up as you drive south, occasionally the river is visible to your left and the game varies as the biome changes from dense riverine bush to open plains with warthog snivelling in the grasses and impala grazing on short tufts of bitter grass. 
some of the small forested areas that line the river banks are ethereal and mysterious, they seem to hold the spirit of the Luangwa in their grasp…tall trees stand sentinel on river San as the sun streams through their branches creating long shadows and beams of light that pierce the darkness.

And just as soon as you feel this mysticism the vehicle breaks out into the sunshine and there is mopane woodland all around you. Ahead, a massive bull elephant crosses the road, completely ignoring the vehicle. He ambles slowly across, will you look at the size of him!! Ive seen thousands of elephant over 15 years in Africa, never the size of him though. I speed up to get a better view….when I arrive at the point where he crossed the road….gone! Vanished??!!?? A 5 ton animal has disappeared into the bushes and I can’t even see bushes moving to mark his movement, not a bird stirs….?
This is the magical mysticism of South Luangwa.

 Chindeni Bushcamp on the Luangwa River.

Chindeni Bushcamp on the Luangwa River.

kafue national park – you beauty!

Leaving Livingstone in the early morning the road to Kalomo isn’t fantastic but it is short. Once you leave Kalomo the road winds through the hills past Bilili Hot Springs and many, many little villages and past local schools – a great experience of local Zambian life and culture.

At the Ndumdumwezi Gate there is the usual sing in and pay and for the first few kilometers the road was pretty good but it soon becomes more of a two track than anything else. There is the main Cordon Road, the Western Boundary Track and the little known shortcut that cuts directly North – don’t use the latter! I did, all alone in my Landrover, and to say that it got “hairy” is an understatement!!! 
I nearly shat my pants a few times but eventually got through and to the camp I had booked with.
the Cordon Road is cool, well used and easy to navigate – don’t bother with a GPS, it’ll just get you lost. Tracks 4 Africa is the only one to have with you. 

The Western Boundary Track is just that, a track and for the most park over grown, wild, majestic and absolutely incredible! You need to be a VERY experienced Africa traveler to use this road and have all the kit you could need on your vehicle. Game viewing was fantastic to say the least. Most people say the Southern Section of the park has no game, well, they have no brains or no eyes because the South is where its all happening…Lion, leopard, elephant, serval, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, egyptian vulture, black faced love birds ……
Brilliant to say the least!
Mopane woodlands, raparian river edges, open savanna, sodic sites and much more so all sorts of habitats supporting a really diverse amount of game. I stopped the car to pee, opened the door with meter high grass on the side and stood in the open door….as I’m enjoying the relief I see a head pop up, then another, and another….you get the picture! A pride of lion not 20 meters from the open door. The sound of “water” woke them up.

Nanzhila Plains is a beautiful lodge! Set on the side of a dambo there is a constant stream of animals to enjoy from your deck.
North from Nanzhila the scenery is spectacular for around 100kms until you get to the Elephant Orphanage – you must go there as this takes you through the Ngoma Teak Forests and more fantastic sightings of antelope you will find nowhere else in Africa.

The Lions and the landcruiser

2007, I’ve just arrived in South Luangwa and driven down to Kapamba Bushcamp deep in the bush, nearly 3 hours from Mfuwe Lodge with John, staff and supplies. We are here to open Kapamba for the season and one fine morning John asks me to drive to Bilimungwe to use the radio and ask Mfuwe Lodge for some extra supplies, “Do you remember the way to drive?” John asks me. “Sure”, I reply, we drove that road yesterday.

I jump into the Landcruiser (sans radio, spade, or cab – its completely open) and head off into the bush recognizing rivers and trees’ as I drive thinking this will be a doddle! As I near the river crossing I become confused, “Do I take that left fork?” I wonder. I’m unsure so I carry on straight, round a small bush and sink like a stone into the sand…!?! Bugger.

I’m at the confluence of the Kapamba and Luangwa rivers and the sand is soft and deep. I jump out and look at the dilemma, the Landcruiser is down to her axles in the sand. This cant be an issue I think, I’ve spent my life in 4X4’s and been stuck so many times I’ve lost count, I can get myself out of this no problem. I start digging the sand away from the wheels making a ramp at each one to allow her to get out easily. Once done I jump in with the clear thought that she will ease out of the sand no problem and let the clutch out slowly…no dice, she wont budge. Diff lock, 4X4 and she still wont move.

I look at the Landcruiser and realize that this was perhaps slightly silly, I’ve no radio, no spade, no protection and little hope. Its up to me to get us out of here. I certainly cant walk back to Kapamba or to Bilimungwe, it may be warming up considerably but this is no time to go ambling through the bush in the vain hope I will find one of the camps and not bump into something large that may decide I’ve ruined their day and make a happy meal of me. I look at the river and wonder if I can’t just walk in the river back to Kapamba, nope, not a wise choice. First rule of getting stuck in the bash – stay with the vehicle.

Back to digging, I wander around looking for anything I can put under the wheels to give her traction, stones, branches…anything, but there isn’t anything around here. After nearly 10 attempts to move her, much digging, cursing and sweat I decide she isn’t going to move, not for love, money or more sweat. Time to think up another strategy.

I decide to walk down the road towards the fork that I missed and see if I cant find something more substantial to put under the wheels. I walk 30 meters from the vehicle, walk around the bush that hid the soft sand from my sight and see two huge male lions walking towards me not 50 meters distant.

We freeze. I shit myself. What now? I’m paralyzed with fear, I know I can’t run but neither can I stay here and pretty soon someone is going to have to do something, bloody anything. I step back, they step forward. Bugger this, the bush is right beside me, it’ll hide me from their sight, I turn and run like the devil himself is at my heels and dive under the Landcruiser like a mole heading down its last burrow. Only there is so little space under there that I have to dig my way forward with my legs sticking out the back and I cant see where the bloody lions are. I’m so scared I’m doing “snow angels” with the sand trying to make a space for myself. By now my face is under the sump so I’m pretty sure my legs are protected, my cheek is wet with oil and I can see out one side of the vehicle, my breathing is heavy and the pounding in my ears is like a drum.

Where are those lions? Sure as shit I’m not going out there to find out. After an agonizing minute one hairy leg after another comes strolling into sight, it stops. The lion knows I’m here, no fooling that sense of smell that’s for sure. Where is the other one? The other side of the vehicle? Probably. Will they try to dig me out? Staring at those legs the muzzle comes down, whiskers appear, a tongue darts out and a sniff can be heard, this cant be happening to me, but it is. The muzzle disappears but the legs don’t move, I’m a statue under here and I’m trapped. As he moves I see the size of his pad and realize that he is a massive lion, dinner plate size pads and that muzzle was hiding canines as long as my fingers. Fine, you’re going to have to work for me as a meal, dig if you must you buggers.

The legs disappear but that certainly doesn’t give me any sense of reassurance. For all I know they’ve gone to lie down in the shade of a nearby tree and wait for the idiot human to simply come out, that’s what they do with warthogs. Why go to the effort of digging?

I’m definitely not moving. Finally I look at my watch, its 3pm, 4 hours since I got stuck and I’ve been under the Landcruiser for more than 3 hours. I know lions, lazy buggers at the best of times, they sleep for 20 hours a day. This has got to end. To my right the view I have is of the river bank, nothing there. To my left is the bush and a narrow field of view, they could easily be in there, so, best place to crawl out is to my right. Ever so slowly I dig a trench that will allow me to crawl out. I stick my head out and survey the scene, nothing. Doesn’t mean they aren’t on the other side of the vehicle. I make sure I know what I’m going to do if they are, how I will retreat quickly back under the vehicle.

I stand up cautiously and look around me very, very carefully. Not a lion in sight. Not much help though, I don’t feel safe enough to move more than a meter from my burrow and keep a careful eye on the bush. If they will be anywhere it’ll be in the shade, resting.

After 20 minutes of watching and waiting I hear talking. Talking? Who would be around here? Suddenly Gilbert and Madulla appear around the bush. Madulla has his trusty AK-47 and they’re relaxed and chatting amiably. When they see me the looks are quizzical, my face is covered in oil and the rest of me in sand. I explain what happened and we all look around to see if the lions will reappear but it seems they have moved on for good. Gilbert explains that I had been gone so long they knew they had to come and find me, I was lucky this happened during daylight.

We finally manage to get the Lancruiser out and head off to Bilimungwe. Its been far too eventful for my liking today. I need a drink, or three.