I didn’t mean to end up scooting across the dance floor of a night club in Livingstone.

Especially one with this invitation – or warning, in my case – painted at the base of the stairs leading to the VIP Lounge: “Smartly Dressed.”

I was dirtily dressed, having trekked down and up a long steep pathway to the Boiling Point at Victoria Falls, a place where the Zambezi River churns into a giant eddy.

Photo editor Kurt Wilson and I traveled to Africa this summer to work on a series of stories about conservation across continents, and I had been warned about this clubbing situation, albeit not directly.

Before leaving, I had lunch with a friend to talk about the trip, and she gave me this piece of advice, along with some others: “Technology will fail you.”

I believed her, but I didn’t know it would fail me over and over again. Kurt and I had traveled to Zambia for a project related to the University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation. Zambia and Montana face similar challenges in saving animals and wild places, and we were going to find and tell those stories.

We booked lodging at the cheapest option UM had suggested, the ZigZag Lodge. The price was right, at $50 a night per room, and the setup was perfect there for our work, with plenty of seats and tables outside in a courtyard where we could do our work.

One night, we’d promised to send a story and photo to the Missoulian, and the editor was counting on it. We sat outside in the courtyard as close to the main building as possible. The building was locked since it was about 10 p.m., but we could still connect to WiFi. Well, Kurt could. He filed his photos, and about two minutes later, I tried to send my story. Alas, the connection was nowhere to be seen again that night.

I stayed outside for a while longer and kept trying to hook into this ethereal link to Montana, but to no avail. At this lodge, guards stand at a locked gate all night long, so it feels safe. I thought they might be able to help me out. I told one of the guards that I had an emergency email I needed to send. Was there any place in town where I could get WiFi?

No problem, the guard said. He’d call a cab to take me to the 7-Eleven. Perfect, I thought.

The 7-Eleven turned out to be a nightclub.

I could hear Bob Marley playing even outside the doors. The cab driver walked me through the downstairs dance floor, then the upstairs one, where I did not get kicked out for failing to be “smartly dressed,” and we handed my iPad over to the very-smartly-dressed-and-sporting-a-cute-hat manager, who punched the club’s password into the computer.

No luck.

The manager tried a couple more times, but it just didn’t work.

So away we went, onto the next possibility, the Café Zambezi, a restaurant where Kurt and I had eaten earlier in the week. Server – and Missoulian rescuer – Martha swiftly plugged me into their WiFi, and I sent the story maybe a dozen times, just to be sure.

***

People refer to The Big Five in Africa, and if you’re a hunter, you probably already know all about this phrase. It refers to five animals, lions, Cape buffalo, elephants, leopard (pronounced “lay-o-perd” in Zambia, which I heart), and rhinoceros. At first, I thought these animals were the ones tourists needed to see, without a doubt.

And it made me wonder. Who’d decided on this list? Why five? Honestly, I didn’t care if I ever saw a Cape buffalo, but I really, really wanted to see a giraffe.

So I started asking questions about The Big Five and promptly revealed my fish-out-of-water status. When I asked our favorite cab driver, Axon Zulu, why the giraffe wasn’t one of the five, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

The man howled in laughter at the notion, chortling on and on, and his hilarity gave me some insight into the absurdity of my proposal.

Zulu, though, didn’t get the last laugh.

Later, I brought up the idea to Oluronke Oke, a planning officer with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Ms. Oke clearly endorsed augmenting the list to The Big Six, and adding the giraffe – or trading out the buffalo altogether. Seriously, she was ready to toss out the list and start from scratch.

When I looked up The Big Five online, I learned the list originally represented the most difficult trophy animals to hunt in Africa, though tourists now use the reference too.

In case you’re wondering, the giraffes were cool.

***

In Zambia, people went out of their way to give of their time, even of the food on their table.

One day, Ms. Oke took us to see the rhinos in a small national park adjacent to Livingstone, and one of the guards told me how lucky we were. Sometimes, tourists have to walk for hours to reach the animals, which the guards follow to ward off poachers. We walked not even an eighth of a mile.

The venture was short, and it wasn’t enough time for me to talk with the guards or for Kurt to get the shot he wanted. We talked about these holes in our coverage, and we decided we needed to return to the rhinos.

Later the same week, we showed up in Ms. Oke’s office unannounced. We told her we understood we’d already had a once-in-a-lifetime experience seeing the rhinos – and we wanted another shot. Ms. Oke has responsibilities at her desk, but she loves being in the field, and she went out of her way to get us to the rhinos a second time. She found a vehicle that was available, a guard that could talk with us, and she put us in the back of a pickup truck with her and away we went.

Sandy Simpson showed us the same generous spirit. The human-wildlife conflict manager hauled us all over the place in his Land Rover, to the Village of Maloni and back again, to Linda Village, to his favorite restaurant, an Italian café with gelato that rivals the dessert at Caffe Dolce. I asked him one time why he was showing us around, and he said, “You seem interested.”

In Linda, a mom cooking pinto beans and nshima, a traditional staple similar to polenta, shared the lunch she had cooked for her children. She passed around one small bowl of beans and nshima with one spoon so all the visitors could eat.

***

At times, Livingstone reminded me of Missoula. The people in town were friendly in the same way I think we are here. When I go to a new place, I like to lace up my sneakers and head out on a run in a random direction to see something different, and I always rely on strangers. The first morning I headed out of the ZigZag, I ran into some people getting off a bus within the first block, so I pointed the direction I was heading and got the nod from a couple of the guys. Just around the corner, the Forever Bridge stretched across a dry riverbed. It was a curved structure with old planks that rattled and banged when you stepped on them, but the view from the top was beautiful.

You could see homes down a dirt road, and the sun through a smoky haze. The bridge turned out to connect a residential area with town, and it was a pedestrian highway of sorts in the mornings, with school kids in uniforms and men in mechanic's coveralls walking up the lane. I was a person the opposite color going in the opposite direction and wearing opposite clothes, not work clothes but workout clothes, my fish-out-of-water status unmistakable. I’ve never said good morning to so many people in such a short time in my life, or had as many people join me for a short stretch, mostly schoolchildren laughing, but also one old lady. I think the dudes on the bus steered me straight because that route turned out to be my favorite.

***

I’ll tell you about my panic attack, too.

When Kurt and I first talked with UM professor Wayne Freimund about the connection he’d built with conservationists in Zambia, we’d planned to tag along with a class. Long story short, the class was canceled, but we decided to proceed at the recommendation of Freimund, and follow roughly the same itinerary since a couple of UM assistant professors were going anyway. The original itinerary included a three-day safari, so we booked that leg in Botswana.

The day we took off for the safari, I was thinking about one of the stories I wanted to write. I knew the theme, that you can’t ask people to care about animals and the planet if their own homes on the planet aren’t safe, but I didn’t know how I was going to tell that story. We were riding around the Kalahari desert, rolling along the sand getting the “African massage,” as the guide described it, and I had an epiphany, and shortly after, a bit of a panic. I figured out that the people in the village of Maloni were the ones I needed to spend time with to tell that story. But we were in another country, and running out of time. These cruisers carry 10 or so people, and I was sitting in the very back, and Kurt was riding shotgun, so I couldn’t say anything to him until we arrived at camp that night. The second we got there, I told him I needed to go back to Maloni ASAP. He agreed to go, too: “We’re a team.”

When we got back to Livingstone, we walked to Café Zambezi for dinner, and Martha greeted us with open arms. It felt like running into a friend at a Missoula restaurant. The next day, Sandy took us back to Maloni, and that’s the reason you were able to read about Robby Kilebwenta and Anthony Sishau, the farmers, and British Mambwe and the Kukus last week.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.