Sankha Guha: Man About World

Africa v India. Now that’s a wild match

Indpendent on Sunday, 20 June 2004

The first thing you notice is the scale. I am in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, having come almost directly from Kanha National Park in central India.

The temptation to compare the two may be futile, but it is irresistible. Everything is bigger in Africa. South Luangwa covers an area of more than 9,000sq km – about 10 times the size of Kanha.

There are more animals here, and they are giants.

Elephants are enormous, buffalo are bulky, giraffe are gigantic and even the gecko inside my room seems to be on steroids.

In Kanha, the lodges have to be sited outside the parkand even beyond its “buffer zone”. Here at Kaingo Camp, deep inside the Zambian park on the banks of the Luangwa river, you are never more than 50 metres from beasties that are potentially life threatening – crocs patrol the banks with exposed fangs, and little islets turn out to be hippos which, incidentally, kill more humans in Africa than lions. At night elephants stroll through, and there is even a resident leopard. Waking and sleeping they inhabit your space, and occupy your mind.

Even more dramatic, though, is the access. Tourists in Kanha travel on jeeps from which they cannot alight, they are escorted by a ranger and are restricted by park opening times – it is shut during the middle of the day and after sunset. South Luangwa, in contrast, is open for business after dark – last night, with the aid of a spotlight, we came upon a pair of mating lions as they went about their fiery courtship and then followed them hunting. The Milky Way twinkled in the night sky. We had lions on either side bathed in the eerie red glow of the dimmed spotlight as they crept up on a herd of unsuspecting puku. My waking concerns – Euro 2004, Iraq, the phone bill, the leaky tap – were as distant as Alpha Centauri above us. The ambush failed and the puku scattered in a flurry of alarm squeals.

Today at dawn I am on the same turf on foot. Pugmarks and hoof prints in the dust remind us we were trespassing. The walking safari is one of the highlights of the Zambian experience. Flanked by an armed guard, Derek Shenton of Shenton Safaris is leading the excursion. He tells me of an incident last year during a similar walk. “Last year, we stumbled into three big males sleeping. They didn’t wake. We were 10 metres off before we realised. They were so well camouflaged under a bush, there was no warning.

We froze and then retreated very slowly trying not to make any sound. Normally guests are pretty good with lions – we tell them not to run because that gets the lions excited.” The real danger, he says, comes from buffalos, hippos and elephants. This morning, though, the hairiest moment is being eyed up by a curious giraffe.

I ask Derek if he could magic any animal on to his patch for a fantasy safari what it would be. His eyes light up: “I’d love a tiger. Jesus that would be great.” For all Africa’s heart-thumping excitement, there is still one thrill that comes bigger in India.