Lyn Hughes catches up with the winner of the inaugural Wanderlust World Guide Awards, on a walking safari in Zambia's South Luangwa Valley
"Manda, is there anything you don’t know?” asked Dr Dipankar Bose ruefully, having had his 100th question of the morning satisfactorily answered. “Forget Google – in future if I want to know something I’ll ‘Manda’ it!”
Manda Chisanga was the joint winner of our inaugural Wanderlust World Guide Award and, having gone out to South Luangwa National Park to sample his guiding first-hand, it was a relief to find that he really did live up to the accolades. The park is known for many things: its rugged beauty; its high concentrations of wildlife; as one of the best places in the world to see leopard; for having pioneered walking safaris. And for being home to some of the world’s best guides.
On the plane I had talked to a fellow passenger who was a guide in another Zambian national park. He had heard of Manda’s award: “Everyone knows – it was great news. I hope to meet him sometime.”
In Lusaka I briefly met Simon Wilde, who had originally trained Manda. “It was obvious from day one that he was exceptional. He was known as Brian then. I left the Valley but several years later I kept hearing about this great guide called Manda. I was puzzled about who he could be – it was a while before I found out it was in fact Brian. Everything made sense then.”
Fortunately the praise hasn’t gone to Manda’s head and he remains as modest as ever, insisting that he is just one of a team. Manda is based at Bilimungwe, one of several camps operated by The Bushcamp Company in the South Luangwa National Park, but we were to spend the first couple of nights at Mfuwe Lodge – the company’s beautiful base just inside the park. I was travelling with Jay Tailor of The U Foundation, which had contributed to Manda’s prize bursary and the Bose family who had bid for the trip in a charity auction.
The Boses were visiting Africa for the first time, and were not sure what to expect. The 40-minute drive from the airport had been interesting enough for 11-year-old Ani who had declared it “the best holiday I’ve ever had!” before we even reached the lodge. It wasn’t long before he could recognise a waterbuck once Manda had pointed out the unique mark on its backside followed by a tale about how it got there: “Noah painted a toilet seat on the Ark but forgot to warn the animals that it was still wet.”
In the late afternoon we headed out for a game drive, but after nearly an hour we still hadn’t got further than the oxbow lagoon fronting the lodge. What initially looked like rocks were actually hippos wallowing in the water, each pod appearing to have a resident heron hanging out with them. I told Manda that I hadn’t seen this behaviour elsewhere.
“The hippos defecate which attracts the fish. The herons are probably more successful on a hippo’s back than on the shore.”
The hippos looked too large and bulky to have any predators, but three hours later, after night had fallen, we came across several lionesses taking one on. One jumped on its back and was carried along for some yards, gripping with her front claws. But it was an uncoordinated attack, the other lionesses not close enough to help her. Eventually she dropped off, and the hippo ran for its life.
While tourism at Mfuwe is still very small-scale, we did see a few other vehicles when we were out. And lovely as Mfuwe Lodge is, it was good to head out a couple of mornings later with Manda to his base in the south of the park, Bilimungwe bushcamp.
It was a glorious, fresh morning as we followed long tracks, deserted except for crossing herds of zebra or antelope. However, much of the bush looked parched. Like the UK, South Luangwa had extremely heavy flooding this year and, as a result, a lot of the grass had been destroyed. Although only August, with a few months left till the next rains, there was very little grazing to be seen. “The animals are going to really suffer this year,” predicted Manda.
We’d already seen some puku (an endemic antelope that is a grazer) eating the flowers of a sausage tree back near the lodge. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that!” Manda had exclaimed. “Maybe it is already because of the lack of grass.”
The browsers (mammals that feed on high-growing vegetation), such as impala and elephants, will have an easier time than the grazers. Elephant numbers are booming here, and we passed several groups, some flapping their ears at us in irritation, others just ignoring us. Baboons were also much in evidence, busily picking through the fresh elephant dung for partly digested goodies.
I arrived to a unique welcome at Bilimungwe (see the footage of our reception here). The camp has just four reed chalets, and is set next to a small waterhole that attracts myriad wildlife. I idly watched the shenanigans of baboons and warthogs as Manda and the acting camp manager, Eddie, talked me through some of the locals. “Well, Flap the leopard is seen every few days, especially when she’s hunting baboons. She made a kill right there the other day. And Big John, an elephant, breaks down that fence over there to get to the winter thorn tree. And then there’s Hoppy, another male elephant, who dislocated his leg. We never thought he’d make it, but he’s going strong. And there’s Billy, who’s got a shorter trunk than John…”
I was to see many of the regulars later on a bush walk and night drive, before arriving back at the camp where the Bose family had arrived, full of anticipation for the next day’s planned walk. The Luangwa Valley is where walking safaris were pioneered, and it is still the best way to really get in touch with this wilderness. “You see, you hear, you understand,” Manda stated.
The next morning we crossed the nearby river by vehicle, before disembarking and slathering ourselves in sun cream. Manda introduced us to our armed scout, Lazarus, employed by the Zambia Wildlife Authority, who would lead the way. Manda would follow, and then we were to walk in single file, while one of Manda’s team would take up the rear.
Our senses were alive as we slowly moved off. Only to stop almost immediately. “OK, who can guess who’s dung this is?” asked Manda, pointing to a massive pile. It could only be an elephant. “Correct. And you can see from the leaves that he has been eating one particular tree. Let’s just check which one.” Manda squatted and examined the dung with the keen eye of a forensic scientist. “Monkey bread tree – I reckon he’s got a problem with his stomach so he’s trying to prevent diarrhoea.”
Over the next three hours we learned the medicinal uses of various trees and plants. We started to feel peckish as Manda pointed out sausage trees, scrambled egg trees, the potato bush and fried egg flowers. All we were missing was a bacon bush (OK, I made that one up).
We also watched an antlion, constipated for five years – it doesn’t defecate. And we learned that women sometimes put them on their nipples, as they believe the ant’s bite will grow their breasts. Nearby was a knobthorn tree, again credited with helping women to grow bigger breasts – someone should tell Jordan.
That night we were all on a high after a superb day. The walk had been a highlight for all. “Manda is encyclopaedic,” enthused the endlessly curious Dr Bose. “He’s extraordinary. I loved that walk this morning, but it was my brain that was getting the most exercise. Today I’ve used it more than I have in a very long time.”
Following a late afternoon game drive we enjoyed sundowners on a sandbank in the Kapamba river.
A further surprise was waiting for us back at camp, as we were invited to make our way for supper in Joe’s Bistro, a dining area we hadn’t noticed previously. The food had been good throughout, but this was possibly the best yet. After we had eaten, the staff sang a haunting spiritual tune. Then they upped the tempo and sang a praise song, naming each of us in turn and pulling us up to dance. It was one of those special evenings, topping a spectacular day, which you never want to end.
The sounds in the night were louder then ever, and lions could clearly be heard. I got up as soon as it was light and went to find Manda who revealed that there had been a kill in the night. “I think it’s a hippo,” he said as we walked a small distance to the river and used our binoculars to watch the pride sprawled on the sand on the opposite bank, their stomachs full, their kill hidden behind a log.
It was my last morning and I was reluctant to leave. However, the drive out was perhaps the best of the trip, with something interesting to look at around every turn. Caught up in the drama of a guinea fowl escaping from the clutches of an African hawk eagle, we got a shock when we suddenly spotted a hyena lying on the track ahead. We pulled up and trained our binoculars on it. “Why’s it hanging out there in the daytime?” mused Manda. The hyena lifted its head to stare back at us, before dragging itself up and nonchalantly moving a few yards into the long grass. “There’s another hyena there too,” pointed out Manda. “There’s a very good chance there is a leopard here with a kill.”
We scoured the trees with our binoculars, but couldn’t see any big cats. Manda turned the engine back on and edged up to where the hyena had been. There, in a tree just 20m or so away, was a beautiful young female leopard, her front legs resting on top of a freshly killed impala.
“This was a typical case of an impala standing under a sausage tree, eating the flowers that had fallen to the ground, and the leopard jumping on top of it,” said Manda. “Impalas go crazy for the flowers, and while their eyes can see nearly all the way round, they can’t see above them.”
Time stood still as the leopard stared back at us. She then gracefully made her way down the tree and into a clump of long grass, stopping to turn her head back to us. We left her, so that she could return to her meal.
The day before, after our bush walk, Dr Bose had announced, “I’m glad we didn’t see a leopard today.” Now I could see he was right: without a big cat sighting, we had focused on everything around us. The sounds, the smells, the tracks, the plants, the insects.
And we had put Manda’s enquiring mind and bank of knowledge fully to the test. But, like Dr Bose, I was still determined to find a question that Manda would not be able to answer.
“So Manda, who has won the Guide Award this year?” I asked. For once, Manda looked baffled.