Inaugural Guide of the Year Award winner Manda Chisanga spent his bursary on solar cookers in South Luangwa, Zambia. We caught up with him - and the wildlife - in action
It must have been the pack that had been spotted near the lodge. It was still dark, not quite dawn. My ears tuned in to other sounds - it was mayhem out there. Lions, more than one! They must be hunting. Hyenas. And was that the bark of a zebra?
The commotion carried on for a while. Wide awake now, I went to the veranda door and opened it, startling a young baboon in the fig tree above. It fell out, landing with a thwack, and gave me an accusing look before scampering off.
As light gradually filled the sky I made my way to breakfast in the main building of Mfuwe Lodge. As I tucked in, our guide Manda appeared. "Did you hear the dogs? And the lions? I think the lions made a kill - possibly a zebra foal, as I think I heard a mother zebra crying."
Once the other members of our party were all ready we drove out to look for signs of the activity. It was one of those gorgeous, sun-dappled glad-to-be-alive mornings. A large troupe of baboons was busy feeding and socialising close to the lodge. A mother held her tiny baby, just hours old, in front of her, as female after female approached and gently touched the newborn, welcoming it into their world.
We sat for a while by a small lily-clad lagoon that was buzzing with activity. Jacanas congregated around the hippos; six squacco herons were scattered along one side. "I've rarely seen so many," exclaimed Manda. A heron caught a large catfish, but was struggling to swallow it. Moving onto a rock to have another go, it became easier to spot by the pair of fish eagles who live in the area. Suddenly they swept down like fighter planes, one stealing the fish from the beak of the startled heron.
We carried on along the track, searching the sandy earth for lion tracks. To our surprise, we kept seeing the prints of a solitary male. "That sounded like several females this morning," said Manda. Eventually we found the tracks of three lionesses, heading in the opposite direction to the male. We followed them and, rounding a bend, spotted three tawny shapes sprawled on the sunny side of a gully. "They haven't eaten," noted Manda, "They've got empty bellies. I think they made that kill just before dawn, but then the male appeared and stole it." An occupational hazard in the lion world.
While this was in many ways a typical stay in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, with wonderful wildlife encounters and stays in rustic but luxurious bushcamps, our trip also had a purpose. When Manda won the inaugural Paul Morrison Guide Award he was determined to spend his winning bursary on solar cookers for the villages that border the park. With increasing deforestation, the women have to walk long distances - sometimes a 30km round trip - to collect firewood. This brings them into conflict with elephants, and each year several villagers are killed or badly injured.
To uncover the best cookers, but we eventually found a South African company that could supply suitable ones. By the time I went out in June, 34 cookers had been given to villagers and institutions, and I was accompanying some Wanderlust readers (including the aptly named Andrea Solar!) on a visit to raise money for more.
During the drive from Mfuwe Airport to the gates of the park I had spotted two of the cookers. Manda's employer, the Bushcamp Company, had bought some for its camps. On my first day we dropped in at one camp, run by legendary guide Phil Berry and his wife Babette Alfieri. Babette came to greet us with a freshly baked loaf of bread in her hand. She'd experimented with the cooker that morning, improvising a bread tin, and the result was incredibly successful.
The next few days were spent exploring the park on foot or by 4WD. With Manda, every outing is an investigation. We admired leopards and lions, but also learned to interpret the sights and sounds of the bush around us - this was CSI: Zambia. Manda would point at some marks on the ground and ask what we thought had made them. "Work around it" was his mantra. Aaah, yes, this was an antelope, probably a puku, lying down. "What's been digging here?" he'd ask. An elephant - the trunk has made a twisting motion. "This is hippo dung, but was it a male or a female hippo?" Female, because it is all in one spot, not sprayed around.
Perhaps most memorable were the close encounters with elephants. Many of them had recently migrated down from higher ground and were a little twitchy, especially the protective mothers. When our vehicle got chased down the track by a grumpy mum, her ears flapping, it brought home just why Manda had seen the need to introduce an alternative form of power for the locals.
On our last day we headed out of the park and into the village to see the solar cookers in use. A monitor on a small salary has been appointed to assemble and maintain the cookers, to ensure that they are being used, and to answer any questions from either the villagers or intrigued tourists. Isaac was waiting for us near four of the cookers. He was accompanied by Joe, another helper who is paid by the day when needed. It was lunchtime and, even though it was a cloudy day, the cookers were being used successfully for a variety of dishes including stew and rice.
However, nearby stood a still, used for brewing alcohol that could be sold. Fires were still needed for the brewing, and food would be popped on afterwards - there would always be a demand for firewood.
I wondered if we could visit someone else with a solar cooker, someone who wouldn't be expecting our visit. A kilometre or so down the road was the home of Roda Banda, a 62-year-old who was attacked by an elephant a year ago while collecting wood. She'd sustained three broken ribs in the attack; with limited access to medical care, it was obvious that her injuries had not healed correctly and she was still in pain. She lives with some of her daughters and grandchildren, but none of them have jobs and they scrape a living raising goats and selling a few goods at market.
Roda had just cooked relish on the solar cooker and was giving it a clean as we arrived. When she found out why we were visiting, her solemn face broke into a beam and she explained through Manda that she never collected firewood any more but solely used the cooker. "So many people see mine and now want one," she said.
I'd encountered some cynicism about Manda's solar cooker project; it was pointed out that the cookers couldn't work after dark or in the rain. But who says they have to replace firewood completely? Five people in the village had been attacked in the past year, three of them fatally. If solar cookers are used for just a proportion of the meals cooked in Mfuwe village, there should be less deforestation, less animal-human conflict and fewer people being killed. Surely that's good news for the elephants, and for Roda.