4 years ago

A Frightening Halloween | South Luangwa, Zambia

So, I didn’t dress up on Halloween this year, but did have a pair of hair-raising experiences, appropriately.

The first took place just as the 31st began, around 2 am.

It was my last of three nights at Croc Valley, a cool little camp on the river, just across from South Luangwa National Park. There are no fences around South Luangwa National Park, so animals enter the camp routinely, and not just the common, mischievious baboons and vervet monkeys.

We were warned not leave any food in tents, cars, or the kitchen tops overnight. Of course, someone did, and an elephant broke through a car window to get at some mangoes my first night there. So when I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard my big 10-liter water bottle moving outside my tent, I knew it wasn’t the wind or primates.

There isn’t much you can do to cool off during these hot African nights in a tent with sub-optimal ventilation, save for sleeping with little on and using only the mesh layer of the door, which eyes and air can freely move through. I kinda wish I had used the regular door and the rain fly that night. Not that it would’ve done me any good if I needed to suddenly get out, but at least I wouldn’t have seen the source of the commotion, which made me incredibly tense.

Seconds after waking up, I heard the distinct, slow-pounding steps of an elephant coming just inches from my tent. I thought I felt a light graze at one point, but that may have been my imagination. Or maybe it wasn’t. That was quickly followed by the sounds of a potent exhalation and loud snapping of branches above and around me. I suddenly realized it wasn’t single elephant.

Time slowed.

A rush of adrenaline and an eery, very real fight-or-flight feeling moved through me, ensuring I was wide awake in a second. Neither of those two options would have done me much good considering I only had a 3.5 inch blade and an elephant could easily outrun me. I simply tried to remain calm and be as quiet as I could while I lay there. Of course, my inflatable sleeping pad makes noise with the slightest of moves. Thoughts of being crushed or impaled into a visit with Hades ran through my head.

Elephants are majestic beasts and beautiful to look at from a distance, but up close when you’re trapped and unable to move, they are downright scary. I learned that at Addo in my car, but this was scarier, since I really couldn’t move and had but a thin layer of expensive Chinese plastic separating me from hungry elephants.


I reached deep into the archives of my memory but struggled to quickly recall the last time I’d had food in there. I was hopeful that not even a trace of the scent was left. Elephants have terrible eye sight, but a great sense of smell. The last thing I needed was a troika of trunks tempted to tear my tent.

As branches were snapping and debris started to fall, I hoped that the small berries that one of the trees had would not come off onto my tent, but it’s exactly what happened.

As they were bouncing off the top of my tent, I was optimistic that none of them would land near the door. A curious elephant could easily tear it unintentionally with the lightest of touches while reaching for a little berry, and instead find a larger, human head-sized berry to grab.

I was glad the berry situation didn’t play out in such a manner.

Nowadays, I always consider the proximity of tasty animal food when pitching a tent under the shade of a nice tree. You gotta learn from experience.

Seconds after the branch & berry incident, I finally saw a sizable elephant leg swinging right past my door. Then another. And then more. By the time they stopped, no more than 10 feet from my door, I could see most of the three elephants that were there. A large mom, and two younger, smaller ones. But, elephants are still big, especially when they’re that close and you’re laying flat on the ground. From that angle, the massive silhouettes of the pachyderms, slightly illuminated by an outdoor light, felt even more threatening. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so small.

The elephant episode lasted a total of 30 minutes. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my trip.

I’m glad I didn’t get up right away to breathe a big, much-needed sigh of relief outside my tent and splash some water on my face. Because just as I was considering doing so, a hyena decided to slowly follow the elephants off stage right, about 15 feet from my door. A little further away, and a significantly smaller and fast-moving beast, but a scary scavenger to have that close at night, nonetheless. Same animal that dragged a 14-year-old out of his tent at Kruger not too long ago at a campsite. So, yeah, the fun lasted a little longer than 30 minutes.

I got back to an uneasy sleep sometime after three am.

My second scare that morning was slightly-less dangerous, but a little jarring, nonetheless.

When trying to cross Africa from Cape Town to Cairo on your own and on a budget, you don’t get to ride the nice, fully-loaded Land Rovers you see in those colorful glossy brochures and guidebooks. Well, except when they voluntarily pull over to pick you up while on a long, hot walk from Vic Falls to Livingstone. Shout-out to Nick Foley for the welcomed, unexpected ride! You also don’t travel comfortably aboard a tanker-like moving hostels that are overland trucks.

You do, however, end up on all sorts of sub-optimal transportation options, from the back of pick-up trucks and semi cabs, to buses bursting at the seams, slow, hot trains, and speeding mini vans with rusted frames, treadless tires, and dubious safety records. Options that would make every day citizens cringe and lawyers smile big in the U.S. are just a fact of life in Africa. It’s part of the adventure, and a little risky at times, but affordable. Poorly run governments in poor nations don’t care what you drive, how safe it is, or how much it pollutes so long as you’re paying taxes and/or bribes.

So, an hour into a two-hour trip, the front, left tire comes completely off! The driver remained calm, the tire shot out and kept rolling and bouncing speedily down the road and shoulder.  Sparks flew everywhere.

Zambia scare.
Yup. I didn’t help.

We were lucky to be forced into the 3-wheel motion at 80 kph on a straight road with no potholes or oncoming traffic. But it was still a little iffy.

More iffy was the fix to the situation. Since he was missing all but two lug nuts for the tire, he borrowed one from the other tires, which also didn’t have complete sets. So, we ended up with 2 lug nuts on 75% of the wheels.

I couldn’t wait to finish that trip and get to the bus station safely.

Zambia mail
When you can’t find postcards for the stamps you acquired, you make ’em.

Luckily, Halloween was scary but didn’t turn into the nightmare it could have.

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74 Thoughts on “A Frightening Halloween | South Luangwa, Zambia”

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