Walking Safari: Hippos, Pukus, and Poo Poo

I never dreamed that I would have spent so much time looking at the ground during my first outing into the African bush. Nor did I think I’d be examining so much dung. But there I was, bent over under a rising Zambian sun in the middle of South Luangwa National Park, taking photographs (which you can see here if you desire!) of piles of puku feces.

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Most safari adventures happen in trucks on what is called a game drive, but that morning I was on the ground on a walking safari. From that vantage point I could easily see why South Luangwa National Park was the birthplace of the tradition of the walking safari. Animals (or their leftovers) were plentiful in this diverse and densely populated section of the Luangwa Valley. So I was thankful that Norman Carr, a British conservationist, pioneered this style of safari in the 1950s right in the park I was exploring.
Heading across an open savanna with our Sanctuary Retreats guide, John,  and an armed guard, we soon came across the dismembered remains of a male puku, one of the types of African antelope found in the park. At this moment I realized how lucky I was to be standing next to my guide instead of trying to hear his comments over the roar of the safari truck. And to every one of my many questions, he had answers.

John began to explain to us the difference between “loser” puku and the “cool” puku, but not exactly in those words. The cool male puku is like the sports star, he has all the ladies wanting his attention. The loser puku are all the males that can’t get a date….so they hang out together. Maybe life in the bush isn’t that different than high school? Except that territory fights between males can end in death and not detention, which was evidenced by the puku skull at our feet. John noted that only vultures had gotten to the carcass because if the hyenas had been on the scene the bones would have been picked completely clean.

Further across the savanna we did find evidence of a hyena. John pointed out a small cluster of what looked like white mushrooms. Turns out it was hyena dung which is colored pure white from eating so many calcium-rich bones. I suddenly found myself fascinated by animal dung!

Read more about the walking safari after the jump.

Whereas it is easy to spot elephant dung from a truck (large piles of muffin-shaped dung which can actually be used as a natural version of Presto logs), to spot other kinds of feces, among other things, you need to be on the ground.  I’ve never had an interest in scatology, but thanks to our guide I learned some fascinating facts about the African animals by looking at their droppings. One primary difference between two kinds of African antelopes found in the Luangwa Valley is in how they leave their droppings. Impala leave their loads in the same area to mark their territory with a wide circle of dung, whereas puku go wherever they please and don’t use a group “port-a-potty.”  On the antelope-filled stretch we crossed we had abundant opportunities to note the differences. I also saw the casings of dung beetles and was able to cross off buffalo, porcupine, lion, and giraffe dung off of my list.

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But my favorite story learned by looking down was about the hippo. While walking along a well-worn “hippo highway,” we came across hippo dung which had been splattered across the path. Our guide told us that hippos do this to prove to God that they haven’t been eating any fish. The story goes that since the hippo asked God to allow it to live partially in the water, they promised to God that they wouldn’t eat up all the fish. Thus, to this day, they keep their promise to show the world that there aren’t any fish bones in their feces.

My attention turned away from the ground when we came to the edge of an embankment on the Luangwa River. Below us, a herd of hippo were keeping cool in the shallow waters of the river, submerging and rising. I didn’t realize at the time what a unique vantage point we had, because we were able to see not only their little ears and eyes, but also the outlines of their enormous bodies.  I turned to my right and saw a flock of carmine bee-eaters, the loveliest red birds, perched on the bare branches of a tree by the stream.

At this point in the morning, the heat of the dry season was becoming apparent. Right as we sttarted to head back across the savanna, I heard a snort and turned to see a hippo yawning. Then John told us a second part of the hippo story…..the hippo is letting God check its teeth for fish bones! And I could see his teeth were very clean.

Read Krista’s post about arriving in Zambia here and stay tuned for more African adventures. To arrange your own safari, check out our Africa Travel Planner. Photos by Krista Rossow.