You could call in Africa's answer to reality TV. You settle yourself down and watch. Characters come and go, strike poses, quarrel and chat as the everyday dramas of life are enacted before you. Get into wildlife-watching from a hide, says Mike Unwin, and you, too, could end up so utterly hooked you'll be turning down game drives
I’m sitting on a wooden bench in the dusty darkness of the Last Waterhole Hide, staring through a narrow slit in the thatching grass, when suddenly the scene before me erupts. Without warning, a martial eagle angles in fast and low, bisecting two acacias behind the pool. Wings swept back and talons extended, it rips likes a strafing jet fighter into the idyllic scene.
Thirty-six guinea fowl explode from the water’s edge. In the split-second between life and death there is no time for alarm calls: just the whir of seventy-two frantic wings. Catching the panic, a warthog heaves his bulk from the mud with an audible suck and thunders up the bank.
As the fastest birds hit the safety of the thickets, the massive raptor ploughs into the stragglers. It banks and brakes sharply, spreading an awesome two metres of gleaming wingspan, and clutches at its target like an airborne slip fielder.
Missed! The eagle retracts its talons and glides on over the hide, so low that I glimpse its glinting eye. And it’s gone: just four seconds from appearance to disappearance. Dust and feathers hang over the waterhole. Now, too late, a scolding guinea fowl chorus starts up from the thickets: “That was a close one...! Did everyone make it...? Where’s Gary...?”
Contrary to safari convention, I’m relieved not to have witnessed a kill. I’ve come to know these guinea fowl. Each morning, for the last three days, I’ve counted them in and out. And I’ve despaired at their nervous dispositions: continually scrambling hell-for-leather into the nearest cover on the slightest unseen pretext. Why so jumpy? Well, now I know.
After fifteen minutes the guinea fowl start picking their way back to the water’s edge in fussing coveys. Anxiously I count them in: twelve, twenty-six, thirty-four... Meanwhile the warthog returns, easing backwards into the perfect mould of his mud hollow. A white-fronted bee-eater alights on its regular stump and beats to death a captive dragonfly. At last, the two missing fowls come running down to join the flock, pulling up to peck at the ground with apparent insouciance. Thirty-six.
I had already been glued to the view for three hours when the eagle struck. This view comprised a few hundred square metres of Zambia’s Luangwa valley. It centred on a small, shrinking pool with sloping earth banks, and was discreetly framed by mopane woodland behind, an ebony grove to the right, thorn thickets to the left and – beside the hide – a large sausage tree. It could, in fact, have been almost any small chunk of African bush. But for me its parameters had become a stage, with an ever-changing cast ready to step from the wings at any second. From my seat in the stalls I knew every detail of the set: the leadwood log, stage left, where the vervet monkeys stopped to groom; the patch of drying mud, stage right, where the doves alighted; and the dusty trail that emerged from backstage, leading the herds to the water.
So whenever anything appeared, it had my full attention. I knew exactly how many vervets were in the troop, because I’d seen the same troop yesterday and recognised the big male with the crooked tail.
Yesterday they’d arrived at 7.18am; today at 7.21am. I now even knew which screaming infants belonged to whom, and which aunties were available for childcare. Hey, I was becoming a primatologist!
And the action never let up. With my sights adjusted to the dimensions of the set, small events made a big impact: a slender mongoose that materialised at the base of a thicket had the heart-stopping menace of a leopard. Meanwhile my ears became ever more attuned to a bush soundscape uncluttered by human noise: the constant chorus of doves, coucals and hornbills; the snort of unseen passing zebra; an outburst of baboon obscenities from among the ebonies.
A hide may not be everybody’s idea of a safari. Why confine yourself to a small box when there are miles of glorious African bush to explore? Think what you could be missing – the lions, the kills! A fair point: you could hardly spend a week’s safari in Luangwa without heading out on a game drive. And of course I didn’t.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from hides: it’s not what you see, but how you see it. Sitting quiet and still, simply watching and listening, takes wildlife viewing to a deeper level. After the first game drive in Luangwa, nobody stops for impala; and once the requisite snaps are taken, few even stop for elephant.
Move on, they chorus, we need a leopard. But hides allow no channel hopping: they’re all about concentration span. You don’t just see: you watch. Your view becomes a microcosm of the African bush, and gradually you uncover the secrets behind the familiar.
It is, ironically, this very patience and scrutiny that produces those fabulous wildlife documentaries which lure people on safari in the first place. The camera doesn’t rush around the bush: it takes us into the heart of, say, a meerkat community and builds a gripping narrative around their lives. Such stories are the fruits of sitting, watching and waiting. And talking of cameras, hides are a serious wildlife photographer’s dream. Some top professionals even carry around their own.
Of course, hide watchers do witness their moments of drama. And it’s hard not to feel, smugly perhaps, that these are the just rewards for those who wait.
At lunchtime on the eagle morning, I decide to while away the midday heat at another location, the nearby Hippo Hide. This flimsy-looking thatched structure is fixed right into the bank of the Luangwa, and when I lift the flaps, it raises the curtain on a very different stage. In the foreground, right under my nose (and doesn’t my nose know it!), is a deepwater pool heaving with hippos: at least 120 of them. Eyeball to eyeball with these great beasts, I can count every pore of their battle-scarred hides and bristled muzzles. And when their regular disputes erupt, with much champing of jaws and thunderous grunting, I shrink from the impact.
But the slumbering hippos also host a community of oxpeckers, which hop busily among the mountains of flesh, winkling out parasites and picking into wounds. The rattling disputes of these birds reveal that they, too, have territorial issues to settle – issues that are complicated each time some hippo argy-bargy rearranges their landscape. My attention soon focuses on these birds, and so it is that I witness the first kill of my safari.
By 2pm the heat is intense, and the hippos – tired of fighting – are allowing the oxpeckers an uninterrupted stretch of foraging. Suddenly there is a sharp report, like a handclap, and I look down to see a small crocodile sliding backwards off a hippo’s rump, bird fluttering in its jaws. The noise startles the hippos into another churning melée, and the remaining oxpeckers take to the air. When calm returns, the croc surfaces some metres away, feathers protruding from a toothy smile. It raises its head, opens its jaws and tosses back its lunch.
Early the next morning I return to the Last Waterhole hide for my final vigil. As I arrive, a female bushbuck is already leaving, while a pearl-spotted owl calling from the sausage tree is winding up the local sunbirds. At 5.45am, bang on schedule, the guinea fowl start to file out of the thickets. After witnessing the oxpecker’s shocking demise yesterday, my anxiety for these hapless birds has intensified. Who knows what grisly fate may have overtaken them since I sat here last: grabbed by a lurking python at the water’s edge, perhaps, or snatched by a wily genet from their roost. Maybe the eagle came back and got lucky. If impala are the Big Macs of the bush, then guinea fowl are surely the chicken nuggets: no self-respecting predator can resist them. With some trepidation, I start to count in the flock. Eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty-one, twenty-nine…