Tuesday 22 October 2013. Nsefu Camp, South Luangwa National Park, eastern Zambia. It’s 4am and Simon King is already dressed for business. Beige cap, neatly pressed shirt, sleeves uniformly rolled to just above the elbow, and olive green shorts – a poster boy for catalogue bush wear. If King were an animal, he’d definitely be a leopard: he’s an impressive blend of calm elegance and muscular authority. “This never fails to excite me,” he says, preparing to leave the tented camp in search of a pride of lions 10km away. “I know I’m privileged to be here. I’m a very lucky guy.”
The luck is all ours this time around. King is back on our television screens after a selfimposed exile since his last series, Shetland Diaries, was broadcast in January 2011. He returns this Sunday with his former Springwatch pal Kate Humble to present Africa’s Last Oasis: Countdown to the Rains, which promises to be a wildlife spectacle, broadcast directly from here in the rain-starved Zambian bush. As he prepares for the lion hunt, King is reluctant to dwell on the past, but it’s fair to say he became frustrated by the limitations the BBC placed on him – a freelance with no contract – about other work he undertook. “These things happen and you do what you think is right at the time,” he says of his falling out with the BBC. “But that’s in the past. One or two people approached me and asked if I’d consider making this series and it just felt right on topic. I’m very happy to be back.”
He’s not only back on the BBC, he’s also back in Africa, a continent that’s close to his heart. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1962 and every year spends time in Kenya, where he runs safari tours. “Home is Somerset, but we spend time in Kenya where we still have some land. My daughter Savannah is seven now and she loves it there, it’s a magnificent country.”
But for the next five weeks home is an unforgiving location alongside the Luangwa River in Zambia, a country King has never previously visited. In places it resembles a First World War battlefield: black soil turned over by the feet of hippo and elephants after last year’s rains and baked rock hard by the intense and relentless heat. It’s been the hottest and longest dry season in living memory. Not a drop of rain has fallen here since 5 April. Yesterday the temperature was a sweltering 45 degrees. Today, at midday, it’s already passed 42 degrees. So it’s a battleground for the animals, too.
Providing both respite and succour is the river, even though it’s severely depleted by the lack of rain. In full flood it’s up to 400m wide and as much as 20m deep. Today there are places where you could wade across, though the huge numbers of hungry crocodiles would undoubtedly impede your progress.
Yet despite its impoverished state, this slowflowing river is a life-support system to the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and impala that range across the 9,000sq km national park, the second largest of Zambia’s 19 national parks. “It’s like a honeypot,” says King. “Everything has to come here to drink as all the other water sources have long since dried up. So we have this huge concentration of animals in a relatively small area. The crush of life is astounding. There’s a froth of activity and you can hear it fizzing. And that in itself is a fabulous palette to draw from.”
The BBC has despatched a team of 25, recording, reviewing and editing the footage that comes in from King and three other cameramen. In just the first week – and they’re here for another four – extraordinary stories are unfolding: a potential takeover of a pride of lions by two young males; the plight of a young elephant, nicknamed Stumpy because half its trunk was ripped off in an illegal snare; and rare footage of a group of wild dogs – if any species needs a PR makeover it’s these – socialising and frolicking by the river.
But this hostile environment has another centuries-long narrative. How do animals survive these extreme conditions? Hippos and elephants are among those worst affected. “We know that hippos need to eat 40kg of grass a night,” says Humble, “but they come out of the river and find absolutely nothing growing. They survive by walking huge distances in search of food – some say up to 20km a night.”
One unlikely source of nutrition is the huge sausage tree fruit – up to 10kg in weight – that hangs from the kigelia tree in bountiful numbers. One of the dozens of movementsensor camera traps set up around the area captures a hippo tussling with one such large, and impenetrably hard, fruit. Elephants both graze and browse so will take leaves off trees. But some trees, like the marula, contain alkaloids such as tannin that are harmful to the elephant. “All these animals are incredible survivors,” says Humble. “They have limped through months and months of no rain and ever depleting food sources and yet they are still here.”
But hardship and survival is only half the story. The other half is about to be told. For the rains are coming. And all the historical meteorological evidence suggests it will be within the next week or ten days. How do they know this? “The rains come on time because of a shift in seasonality,” explains King. “The trade winds shift with the seasons, which changes the weather systems around, and the cooling of the Indian Ocean then suddenly brings down a dump of rain into the centre of the continent.”
Very quickly the river and the inland lagoons will be full again, the dustbowl will miraculously renew itself and the animals will disperse. Just as they have done for thousands of years. The hunted – so visible at the moment because of the lack of any cover – regain a little of the power. “It feels, smells and sounds as though the land has been holding its breath – and it has,” says King. “Right now, everything is tight and tense and hot, and it feels like there’s a weight on your head. And that’s how the animals are feeling. They are stressed beyond belief.
“With the rain, it’s as if they go… [takes deep breath] You breathe, and you smell the rain on the wind, and you feel the water, and with it comes this explosion of life. I mean, overnight – not even overnight, within an hour – frogs are ringing, termites are flying, bugs are out. Everything is alive. It’s like a natural firework display. Bang.
“Everything goes off and you can feel this great sucking of breath as the rain comes – and you can also feel the tension fall among the predators as their honeypot starts to disappear. And they’re going, ‘Right – we’re back on the road, kids! This is where things get a little bit more challenging.’ So the tables are turned.”
Nature manages this ecosystem, but it is delicately balanced. “How amazing that we live on a planet where still there’s room for this natural cycle. I do hope that the message from the show will be that this is precious, and it is affected – even though it is right in the heartland of a great big continent – by everything we do,” says King. “Let’s hope that we are careful to ensure that it is there in the future.”
Watch Africa’s Last Oasis: Countdown to the Rains at 8pm, on Sunday on BBC2
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