“Have you seen the nest? The thick-billed weaver nest in the trees by the pool! Did you know there are eight different kinds of weavers on the Zambezi? There’s the golden weaver and the spotted-back weaver and the…,” the little boy rattled off a list of weavers that I had never heard of before. He was so excited that he dropped the spaces between each word and hurried through the list of wonderful little weavers like an auctioneer, hypnotising his bidders.
As a child on the river, there were so many things to learn and as the boy skipped from the jetty after birding cruises on the water each day up to the lodge, he’d teach me more names. “We saw a pied kingfisher! How many kingfishers have you seen? We saw the giant kingfisher too. It’s amazing! And the malachite kingfisher.”
“I saw the pygmy kingfisher,” I told him, his delight too great to resist. “And the woodland!”
“Wow!” he exclaimed, turning to the photos on his camera, and flipping through them to show me the birds he had captured during his stay on the river. A little birder beginning what I was sure would be a life-long obsession. Because that’s what happens when nature’s rumblings and flappings and twitterings and bustlings start to appear to you.
“The fish eagle is my favourite,” I told the little twitcher.
“Oh yes! Have you seen the juvenile fish eagle?” We were bonding over birds, we were bonding over a curiosity for life and in many ways he was teaching me, child teaching adult, how to see.
Over the days, we moved onto the rollers and the warblers and the pratincoles and the quelea. The boy’s checklist was always by his side, his camera around his neck and his binoculars over his shoulder. By the end of the year, he hoped to have ticked off every African bird, whether from sightings on the Zambezi or elsewhere – the Kruger or the Kalahari.
He was competitive and driven and hopeful. Through his eyes, I found my own drive and imagination and hope returning.
His parents shared his enthusiasm too, and headed out on sunrise and sunset cruises or canoe trips each day, with their checklists, binoculars and cameras and long lenses. Sometimes they’d go silent in the middle of a conversation and point those lenses up at the reeds, or down at the water. Suddenly I’d see what they saw: a nest, a dragonfly, a snake, a marabou stork, a tiger fish jumping… The river never felt more alive than when in the company of this boy and his family.
“Have you seen the waterpear tree? Or the waterberry tree?” They were all talking now.
“I have! Do you know the weirdest name of all the tree names?” I asked.
“No, no, what, what?”
“The Hairy Leaved Money Orange Tree!”
“Wow! Is that real?”
“Yes, it’s also called the…,” I paged through my own checklist, “Strychnos madagarscariensis.”
It was my turn to be teacher. The curiosity was catching.
“Can I tell you my favourite smell on the Zambezi?” I asked them and answered before waiting for their reply. “The potato bush! It’s so distinctive. Whenever I smell it here, I feel at home. Whenever I smell it somewhere else in Africa, I think of here, of Zambia.”
Now we had to track down the potato bush! We had to get a photo, inspect its leaves, its small greenish-yellow flowers and roundish berry-like fruits. We had to get closer to that scent.
The whole family, kids leading the way, headed down the dirt paths, with noses in the air sniffing out the way and pencils in hands ready to add another tick to the checklist and drawing to their journals.
Discover more about our Royal Chundu Children’s Club programme here >