Africa keeps some secrets — wild, private subtleties that it would rather not share.
You may see a lion here, as I did. The continent, in general, is glad. Spot a leopard, or catch a cheetah out of the corner of your eye, and all is well. Africa beams.
But what it knows and doesn’t explain is that none of these are its king. On a recent trip to Zambia and South Africa, I stumbled onto the truth. The real wilderness royalty here is not a ferocious Big Five animal at all.
It is water. Water from a river.
Livingstone, Zambia, where my wife and I spent most of a week, has it by the boatload. The Zambezi River, wide and strong near the lodge where we stayed, is Africa’s fourth largest after the Nile, the Congo and the Niger. It quenches the thirst of hippos, elephants and squadrons of exotic birds before exploding into spray for the 300-foot bungee-jump of a drop at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe border.
The local name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, means “the Smoke That Thunders,” so Kathy and I arrive expecting a locomotive of sound. What we get is a roar, but an eerie, echoing one, like an animal at night. Since this is late fall, just the start of the rains, the flow is elegant, not loud. The rocks of the gorge display chutes of water that ripple and unroll like scarves.
For a game drive in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, we hire a guide who introduces himself as Chesmore Zulu. “Look,” he says as we pass through the entrance gate. Posted here is a gilt-framed photograph of a chubby man with an air of sympathetic understanding. It is His Excellency Mr. Rupiah Bwezani Banda, president of the Republic of Zambia, which has been independent since 1964.
We discover a few shy zebras deep in the park and, eventually, a herd of sand-colored giraffes.
Zulu chats as he drives. In Zambia, he claims, it is legal to smoke anywhere “except in a bank.” Kathy and I trade glances. Is this a lead-in to Zulu lighting up in the car? In fact, smoking is prohibited pretty much everywhere in Zambia.
When we pass some huts that look as if they’ve been systematically wrecked using bulldozers and steel balls, Zulu shakes his head with dismay. “Elephants,” he says simply.
“They did this?” asks Kathy.
I almost think I can detect some signs of blushing around the back of our guide’s neck and ears. “People stayed here,” he says, “and some of the elephants became angry.” According to Zulu, elephants in the area do not like it when they encounter humans having sex. “I am sorry to tell you this,” he says.
Since elephant herds are common along the banks of the river, we waste little time before asking others about this back at the lodge. “That’s the first I’ve heard of this,” says a staff member, scratching his head. “But maybe they have a point. I don’t like to be around when pachyderms are mating.”
The next afternoon, although the sky on one side of the Zambezi is an espresso brown, we make plans to visit a village that’s near the lodge but away from town. Kathy and I load up a dugout canoe and are paddled upriver by a sweating, grunting guide. Crocodiles slink around the banks and the islands, and every log or rock we pass looks as if it might be ready to bite. During the wobbly ride, Kathy notices that there are no life jackets on board.
A crash of thunder welcomes us ashore near Mushekwa Village, a cluster of thatched-roof huts where people from the Lozi and Tonga tribes keep to the region’s traditional ways. “Greetings,” says a woman who is introduced to us as Edith. She is one of the village elders and speaks excellent English. “How many days did it take for you to travel here?” she asks on learning that we live in America.
Edith escorts us around on a tour, putting special emphasis on trees that are used for medicines and for making soap. She shows us some chicken coops that are perfect miniature versions of the huts where villagers reside. “We are a Roman Catholic village,” she notes, although the question had not come up.
Suddenly there is a spattering and then a waterfall of rain. Red clay pathways dissolve almost immediately into blood-colored rivulets of mud. Edith leads us carefully into her tiny circular kitchen and stokes the charcoal fire.
We hear shouts, along with some singing in between blasts of thunder. Edith claps her hands. She smiles. Through the open doorway, we catch glimpses of leaping villagers. Boys are spinning in the shifting winds and sliding on the slippery ground.
“The rains have come,” says Edith. “When it is wet, Mushekwa is glad.”
For the second week of our trip, Kathy and I fly to the Little Karoo region of South Africa, north and east of Cape Town. While Zambia is celebrating rain, the landscape we are driven into here has been stripped of its water by mountains and is semi-desert — as scrubby as Arizona.
We’re here to see the dry side of Africa. The lodge we’re booked into is deep inside Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, a privately run park that, thanks to conservation efforts, is home to the only free-roaming white lions in the world.
Just before our vacation, Sanbona had announced the birth of two white lion cubs, one male and one female, though they’re being raised at a veterinary center until strong enough to be returned to the reserve.
The first animals we spot on safari are not predators. Springboks, showing off brown and white stripes, look like giant chipmunks. Kudus are antelopes with excellent posture and an air of pride. They stare at us as we watch them, sometimes giving us a shake of their spiral horns. “Notice the fine markings on their flanks,” says Marco, our guide, just as the herd decides to make a run for it. It’s hard to sneak around out here, since our safari vehicle throws up puffs of dust wherever we drive.
No sign at all of the rare riverine rabbit. According to Marco, this mystery mammal is the 13th most endangered in the world, and Little Karoo is its only known habitat. But we get lucky with rhinos. Two white rhino males are scuffling and sparring behind some trees, raising at least as much dust as we do. Kathy, who seems to have a talent for spotting game, points out a mother rhino resting close to the road. Her calf — a perfect miniature — is right at her side.
On other game drives, we spy cheetahs and baboons. A solitary hippo in his private plunge pool. “Banished by the other males,” Marco says.
White lions seem to be solitary, too. They are somewhere around here. We are hoping. Marco is sure. One evening, just as it is getting dark, there’s something — a luminescent head and forepaws — by the side of a road. “A female white!” whispers Marco. “Two tawny lions on our other side.”
The vehicle moves slowly. White and tawny are tense. We crouch. When someone creaks in a seat, there is a lion reaction, a paw lick, that sends Marco’s foot shooting to the pedal. Our gantlet is run. And we are euphoric in the dark.
Back at our lodge the next morning, we discuss what we saw. We think of our own small cats, Betty, Emily and Cecil, and the way they behave near prey. Desert birds zip in and out of the thatch, and from the dining room terrace you can see a nearby watering hole and distant purple hills.
We could spend some time seeing Sanbona rock art. Nomadic hunter-gatherers called the San people roamed the area for centuries, and their paintings have been preserved. But we decide on game drive after game drive. More kudus, more springboks; a pair of cheetahs with attitude. Kathy ticks off boxes on her checklist. More wildflowers. More birds.
It is late on the final day of our trip. A waiter from the lodge is setting down cups of coffee. “Good news!” he announces. “Boo Boo the owl is in that tree.”
Why is that good news? I ask.
“Boo Boo live here,” replies the waiter. Sure enough, although the light is fading, we can spot a sleeping mass of feathers on a lower branch.
“He watches over the lodge,” says the waiter. “He is, how would you say it? Wise.”
“Can Boo Boo tell us about stuff we’ve seen?” I ask. “Why a white lion is nervous? Or why an elephant gets mad?”
“Boo Boo knows about his tree,” scoffs the waiter, shaking his head. “And about the sky.”
I look at Kathy, and she is smiling, thinking, listening again to Chesmore Zulu. For a second we are back in Zambia seeing knocked-down huts and sitting by a village charcoal fire. It is raining, again, in our minds and we are being paddled toward the thunder of the falls.
Africa with a river. Africa in dust.
You can pick one, if you want. But I can see, in Kathy’s face, that for her they are almost equal. Here our storms are sand. Our thickets are thorn trees. Our darkness is dry and nearly white with stars.
Boo Boo is unraveling his wings.
We will stay here, stay and watch, until he flies.
Mandel is an author of books for kids, including “Bun, Onion, Burger.” He lives in Providence, R.I.