A cheerful yet subtle, "good morning" makes its away out of my peaceful dream and into reality as it's repeated softly outside of our chalet. "Good morning," I repeat, trying to sound as cheerful as possible at 5am. It's our wake up call at Mwaleshi. The chill in the air makes it nearly impossible to step out of the comfort of our warm bed but the excitement of our day overcomes it. I can still see some lingering stars in the changing sky as the sun begins to rise over the Mwaleshi River, alerting us to the start of a new day. The river, still beautiful with it's ankle deep crystal clear waters, all that remains from the end of the dry season, is the only contrast against the dusty background of North Luangwa. In the distance, I can hear the roar of a patrolling lion and if I stand still, I can feel it deep in the pit of my stomach. Excitement rushes over me as I know Brent, who has been following the call for hours by now, has picked a direction for us to explore today, following the sounds of bush.
I nudge Brian before making my cold dash to our ensuite bathroom; he needs at least three wake up calls before even attempting to open his eyes. One of the attentive staff members has, as they always do, placed a piping hot pitcher of water through a secret passageway by the sink. I let my hands linger over the steam long enough to burn before plugging the sink to start my simple morning routine of brushing my teeth and washing my face. The end. If only life could always be this simple.
We dress in earthy tones, shying away from bright whites and reds, and say goodbye to Gregory, our resident frog who snuck a ride in Brian's luggage for what we can only assume is his holiday. He tends to hangout on the handle of our toilet so we are always mindful of him. He somehow managed to travel with us along the Luangwa River on a private plane from Tafika after all, not an easy ride for just a little guy. We walk the narrow path down to the fire pit where we can already see Brent, grinning ear to ear. He knows how we take our coffee by now and offers a hot cup to both of us. "That was a lion I heard this morning right, Brent?" I ask eagerly. He nods his head yes, and you can see he has the slightest look of accomplishment knowing that we can decipher the sounds of the wild. Brent is an incredible teacher.
Breakfast at Mwaleshi is simple. A lovely spread of cereals, fruit, and yogurt; cold meats, cheeses, and hard boiled eggs; two different types of freshly baked breads; and butter, honey, and jam. The fire provides both warmth and functionality as we toast our bread over the cast iron grate. In comparison, at Tafika, breakfast options are endless with pastries, made to order eggs, and a steaming pot of maize meal over the fire every morning (very similar to our grits), and while its till remote, it is nothing in comparison to the isolation of Mwaleshi. I enjoyed both, but welcomed the simplicity of Mwaleshi, as did my waistline. Brent, Richard, Daniela, Leonie, and Jule, the vibrant family from Berlin we shared three nights with at Mwaleshi, are all gathered around the fire manning the toaster. Brent confirms we have had our fill of breakfast, coffee, and tea (he was always so attentive to our needs) and tells us that we are going to try our luck by heading south today. The herd of buffalo seemed to be headed that way, and where buffalo roam, lions tend to prey.
On this morning, we start on foot. With walking safari, you are more limited with how much ground you can cover, so sometimes we hopped in the truck with two rows of raised seats with no boundaries between us and the outside world to get to our starting point. But like I said, today, we walked straight from camp. We form a single file line with Brent and Abel, our wonderful scout, up front and Special (there are many stories as to how he got his name, one of them being his amazing quality to hear and see animals at great distances with only his eyes and ears, the other is... NSFB) closing the line behind us. With every step, we walk quietly, hoping to muffle the sounds of cracking leaves and branches beneath our footsteps. The strength it takes to walk lightly heavies my breathe, which I can now hear in my ears and feel in my chest. Or is that the excitement I feel for walking out in the open among wild animals? The trees are dense and the grass is tall, making me feel tense. With every unexpected sound, I let out a small shreek and manage to whisper an apology to whoever has the bad luck of walking in front of me.
Suddenly, Brent raises his hand and forms a fist, a clear sign to stop. He turns and places his finger over his lips. He flaps his hands on either side of his face, and I realize he is trying to tell us there is an elephant in our path. I keep looking, scared to break formation but eager to see this giant creature, even though we had seen hundreds of them earlier in the week. It never gets old. It's incredible how easily all the animals blend into the landscape. Even the oddly colored zebra with its black and white stripes, not resembling anything in nature, becomes nearly invisible in the bush. Then, I see him. A giant bull camouflaged behind an acacia tree. As he delicately picks the pods from the branch with his trunk, I watch in awe at this seemingly awkward appendage become as dexterous as our hands and fingers. I realize that my cadence of breathing is off as I have unknowingly been holding my breath.
Brent is cautious. We are slightly upwind of this giant, and we don't have a vehicle to swiftly take us away from danger. As the bull starts raising his trunk into the air, we realize he has caught our scent, and we need to continue on. We pick a path through the golden grass to help mask any lingering smells giving clues as to which direction we are headed and just like that, we disappear into the bush once again.
The morning quickly turns to afternoon as we find a shady spot on top of a termite mound, listening to the repetitive cape turtle dove relentlessly chirping, “drink laaaager, drink laaaager.” Once you hear it, you can’t escape it! It is the perfect spot to enjoy our afternoon tea and cake, something I look forward to almost as much as the animals.
As we start following a path of buffalo, Brent descriptively teaches us all about different types of animal dung and footprints and we have the great privilege of investigating fresh droppings from the moving herd ahead of us. And what follows, of course, are the footprints of a stalking lion. There is so much predictability in the unpredictable ways of wild animals. We find the buffalo and shortly after, we find the lions, lazily sunbathing in the afternoon sun. While we watch from a distance, the intimacy of being on foot feels so surreal, a vast contrast to being in a vehicle. The lions and lionesses, some curious, some not, never approach us but make it very clear that we are not to take any steps closer. As a thank you for allowing us unrivaled time, we take our pictures, and head back.
Lawrence greets us with Ice cold Mosi's at the bar as we gather around the lunch table to see what he is selling that day. No doubt, a delicious mouth-watering lunch spread beyond anything I could have prepared in my western kitchen. We overstuff ourselves, per usual, and retire to our rooms for our afternoon siesta.
Tea time awaited us in a couple hours before we head out on our evening trek. There is so much more you are aware of that is overlooked when driving in a vehicle. We feel the difference in temperature in a termite mound, we smell the scent of a genet, and we taste the wild plants and fruits from the trees. We see warthogs trotting away (as I sing Hakuna Mattata in my head) and hear the grunts of hippos on both land and water. We track the footprints of a leopard, possibly chasing a kudu. We have a close call with a herd of buffalo and a family of elephants, which causes everyone in the group to grow a couple more gray hairs. Hearing and seeing a stampede from the bush and not knowing which direction it is headed will be a feeling I will never forget. Everyone, wanting to run, freeze with legs dead from fear keep us bolted to the earth. I hold my breath and turn my head around covering my eyes waiting to be trampled. This is not an exaggeration. Once we realize we are in the clear, you can hear the air release out of everyone's lungs. Brent decides it is enough excitement for the evening, and we head to the edge of the river to watch the great artist in the sky paint the most beautiful African sunset. As the setting sun turns the dusty landscape of the Luangwa into vibrant pinks and purples, we enjoy our sundowners reminiscing about that time we almost got stuck in a buffalo and elephant stampede, not ten minutes earlier.
It is our last night and Leonie has the marvelous idea of walking back through the river, relieving our tense muscles and feet to the coolness of the water and the softness of the sand. We walk a little slower that night, taking in all the sounds, smells, and colors of the bush. The sun, quickly melts away, and the sky and earth become still once again. We stand in the water with our heads tilted up to the sky, close our eyes, and listen. We listen to the beautiful sounds of Mwaleshi, the sounds of North Luangwa Park, the sounds of freedom; isolation; stillness. It is beautiful.
We make it back to our camp, the four chalets overlooking the river barely stand out against the landscape. Mwaleshi is one of the only two camps operating in the entirety of this untouched area. It is, as it claims to be, remote. As we climb up the banks of the river back to our room, I know that an open air hot shower is waiting for me, a simple bamboo shoot delivering the steamy water, heated only through solar panels. I’ve come to the conclusion that all showers should be had outside, breathing in the fresh air that surrounds you.
I didn't realize how hungry I had gotten. The wine and homemade snacks with my sundowner had masked my appetite until now. I am excited to join the round table, buying everything Lawrence is selling this evening for our glorious three course dinner, knowing that a night filled with wine, food, and laughter was waiting to welcome us. We could have sat at that table for hours talking to Brent, Richard, Daniela, Leonie, and Jule, and on most nights, we did. An offer was extended to visit them in Berlin. An offer, I assure you, will not go unaccepted.
Our time with Remote Africa is over, but our memories will last a lifetime. It has a way of getting under your skin. You crave the smells; the sounds; the silence. You yearn for more time in the bush; it put a new perspective on how we approach things. We are so grateful to have spent a week with all the incredible people at this remarkable place. Our wallets may limit us from returning anytime soon, but we know, when we do, it will all be waiting for us.
P.S. On our first walking safari, Brian of course, managed to lose his sunglasses (I really think this is Brian’s mutant power, losing sunglasses). On our second to last day, no joke, Kennedy found Brian’s sunglasses IN THE RIVER. These sunglasses are magic, and also must have been a cat in a past life because of how many times they have found their way back. I totally imagined a hipster wild hyena sporting a pair of Warby Parker's in the bush.
A quick note on Brent Harris and Primal Pathways
Brian and I were overwhelmed when it came to booking our safari. As I mentioned, we were fortunate enough to meet Brent via email through Brendan and Brit. I can't say enough about the impact he had on our entire journey.
Brent is an inspiring human being; he has devoted his life to the bush. When he isn't inspecting elephant dung, you can find him giving talks at different universities and events on wildlife conservation. His passion and drive for this is contagious. It's infectious. You see it in all of his actions, the way his body moves, the way his eyes lighten up, the way he listens to the sounds of the bush. I couldn't imagine our time on safari without him.
Thank you, Brent for making this trip more remarkable than we could have ever imagined.