Perhaps it was because our guide’s name was Friday and it was a Friday that we had such luck. That’s certainly what the children thought. It was our second day in South Luangwa National Park — a vast protected wilderness the size of a small country in the east of Zambia — and we had been bundled into an open jeep at first light. As we crossed the sprawling Luangwa river we saw a family of elephants swimming home to the park after a night of foraging in nearby villages, and two fishermen in their small boat glide across the brown and silver water, undeterred by the river’s large crocodile population.
Zambia is probably not the first place you would think of when contemplating a safari in Africa. Kenya and South Africa would be more obvious destinations. And it is true that South Luangwa does not have the sweeping, romantic Out of Africa landscape of the Masai Mara or Serengeti. But then, nor does it have camera-toting hordes screeching across the savannah in minibuses. South Luangwa has masses and masses of game and hardly any tourists. It has some of the best-trained wildlife guides on the continent, and the opportunity to see animals at night and on foot. As we were discovering, it is one of Africa’s best-kept wildlife secrets.
In silence we bumped off the main track into trees, the air cool and light still thin. Soon we saw more elephants, grazing puku (shaggy-coated, chestnut-coloured antelopes), and a herd of buffalo coming to drink. We admired the majestic sweep of their horns; unlike their Asian cousins, these giant bovids have never been domesticated.
An expanse of open grassland, golden in the warming sun, stretched before us. In the distance we could see puku and impala standing motionless, their erect heads fixed on a patch of longer grass. We approached. Whistles and snorts of alarm indicated that they had sensed a predator, “I think it’s leopard,” said Friday. Sure enough, out of the flaxen grass she padded, black-and-golden coat shimmering, a fleck of white under the tip of her tail. She moved with élan past our jeep towards the standing antelope. Friday explained that she has to ambush her prey; once they have seen her she stands no chance of making a kill.
Her attention was elsewhere. Three spotted hyenas, cinematically back-lit, were fooling around with the remains of an impala, just scraps of fur and bone now, but it had once been her’s, and should have been breakfast for her cubs. Resigned to its loss she lay down to watch; it was easier for her to kill again than to challenge the scavengers. A second leopard was also looking on, taller, with a necklace of dark markings. But she possessed the same startling pale eyes lined with kohl. Friday assumed that they were somehow related. Leopards are solitary creatures, so to see two so close together like this was very unusual, and very lucky.
The hyenas slunk into the undergrowth. After a purgatorial shriek, one emerged victorious with the final impala scrap in its jaws and led the others off into the bush. The mother leopard went to find her cubs.
Hyena, tick. Leopard, tick. And all by 8am. South Luangwa has a reputation as one of the best places in the world to see a leopard and we would see three more during our stay — all thanks to Friday’s unerring instinct. Now it was “fingers crossed for lion,” and we didn’t have to wait long.
Along the way, Friday was subjected to a barrage of questions from the children: “Fridaaaay, how many bones are in a giraffe’s neck?” Seven, the same as humans and all mammals in fact. “Are there more fish in the Luangwa or the Zambezi river?” The Zambezi, because it’s a larger river. “Does the crest of feather on a crested crane flop over when it gets wet?” No, it always stands up. He had an answer for everything.
During the night, a pride of fifteen lions had killed a buffalo and we came upon them in full and gory feasting mode. The alpha male had already eaten once and lay supine, his swollen white belly rising and falling rapidly; gorging was an exhausting business. The buffalo’s tough hide was intact apart from a large rend in its rear end. Female lions — their heads inside the carcass and legs wrapped around it, in a strange erotic entwinement — were feasting on its flesh. Friday explained that they devour an animal like this from the inside out, soft organs to flesh and finally skin. Vultures hovered, tiding themselves over with an occasional snack on lion faeces. It smelled like a butcher’s shop.
With a scarred face and moth-eaten mane, the male lion had quite a different look from the catwalk couture of the leopards. At one point he lay down in the shade cast by our jeep’s bumper, just a little too close for comfort. Friday silenced our nervous jokes, lions are opportunistic killers he said — just because he’s got a tummy full don’t think you wouldn’t be dessert.
The following day we saw the pride and the buffalo again. The lions were sleeping off their meal some way away in a mass food coma that did not make the most exciting viewing. Just the skeleton of the buffalo remained. Vultures were picking at the remaining scraps of flesh and hyenas were crunching its bones like you or I would a carrot. We listened and watched, amazed, as teeth and jawbone were pulverised and ingested.
A visionary man who worked as game warden in the Luangwa valley set up the first safari camps here in the 1950s and 60s. In earlier years Norman Carr had traipsed across Rhodesia ‘alone for months with just a few tea-bags and some quinine in his knapsack’, believing that “You don’t know a country until you’ve walked it.” Later he pioneered the practice of bringing people into the bush — on foot — to photograph animals rather than shoot them. He believed, years ahead of his time, that local people should benefit from these outside visitors, setting up education programmes and training many locals as guides.
Carr’s legacy endures — today South Luangwa has a reputation of being one of the best places in the world for walking safaris. You can walk for a week or more from one camp to another, never travelling in a vehicle (although all your clobber does) and getting intimate sightings of all sorts of animals. And it is safe; there has never been a visitor fatality. As our children were under 12, we couldn’t do this, but three of us walked on our final morning. My husband and I, and our friend Silke, left her husband Terry in charge of our four children in camp — with instructions on whom to contact if we were eaten.
Masumba briefed us: he was our guide, and if we came into danger would lead us to safety; Misheck was an armed ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) scout who would handle any close encounter. If two warning shots from his gun did not dissuade a charging animal from its course, “he will need to kiss the bullet,” Masumba said. But he assured us that this had never happened, “If you respect the animals, they respect you.”
We felt exposed outside the vehicle but soon found an exhilarating freedom in being on our feet in the midst of this wild land, so different from our familiar human habitat. Without the engine’s noise, sounds were much clearer and louder. Serenaded by a tremendous morning chorus of cape turtle and other doves, we pottered through the landscape looking in detail at things that one just doesn’t notice from a jeep. The mopane leaf, shaped like a butterfly’s wings and the giant dangling pods of the sausage tree; hyena scat, white from the bones they eat, and the difference between the dung of non-ruminants like elephants (large and fibrous) and ruminants like giraffes (quite extraordinarily small pellets); the giant skull of a hippo. We could touch and hold (though not pocket) all of these things.
Misheck spotted the hyenas some 20 metres away. The excitement on his face meant we needn’t panic; instead we stood enthralled by this encounter. Wild animals pay vehicles scant attention and the humans inside them do not register at all. But here, now, on the ground, we were animals too, part of the hyenas’ world. We could clock the moment when they caught our scent. And they looked at us — fixing us with the dark round pools of their eyes and their cocked ears — just as carefully as we were watching them. Assessing that we were no threat, they skulked onwards to their den, but every ten paces or so they would pause and turn their heads to be sure, and they registered every click of my camera.
An evening game drive begins at around 4 pm. You drive for a couple of hours in daylight, then stop in a safe place for ‘sundowners’, chilled beers and soft drinks in front of a textbook African sunset — a burning redness seeping across the sky behind the black silhouettes of trees, or a pink blush over a meander in the Luangwa river where grunting hippos are endlessly re-calibrating their pods and crocodiles are lying like logs on the sandbanks. In the gathering dark, wrapped in fleeces and shawls, you clamber back into the vehicle. You hug your children close. All remaining colour leeches from the landscape, it becomes a patchwork of shadows in silver and grey and darkness. Ancient coppery baobabs raise their spiky leafless branches to the sky.
From the front passenger seat a man starts swinging his high-beamed torch in a great arc across the landscape, seeking out tiny pinpricks of colour, the ‘cats’ eyes’ that will indicate an animal in the night (blue-green for leopard, orange-red for lion). But for the real drama, look up. Stars start to pierce the cloth of the sky, tiny pricks of light, one by one at first, gradually becoming countless millions. You find yourself under a truly glorious canopy of African night, the Milky Way a swathe of cappuccino froth thrown across it. You throw your head back and wonder, feeling very, very small indeed.
Is this why we like safaris? Why else does this ridiculous (even voyeuristic) activity give us such a thrill? Are we seeking a sense of wonder? A lost relationship with the earth and its creatures, with the sky? A connection with a more primal past? The walking safari gave a profound insight into the deep, raw harmony and the extraordinary balance of the ecosystem. We are so far from it now; humans have become such a toxic rash on this planet. But in wildernesses such as South Luangwa you can still feel how it was. And it is utterly compelling.
We flew Emirates from Delhi via Dubai to Lusaka. From Lusaka it’s a short hop on a small plane to Mfuwe airport, close to the park entrance. Indians require a visa to visit Zambia. Contact the Zambian High Commission, D–54 Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.
When to go
The best time is June to October, after the rains, when the land is drying up and animals have to seek water. Zambia is in the southern hemisphere; our summer is their winter. The rainy season is December to March.
Where to stay
Safari lodges and camps dot the banks of the Luangwa river, the eastern boundary of the park. Most are small and owner-run. We loved Track and Trail River Camp (safari packages from $4,835 per person on a twin-sharing basis, trackandtrailrivercamp.com), five minutes from the Mfuwe gate. From our thatched chalet perched on the river’s edge we could watch crocodiles basking and hippos wallowing, their glossy rumps, eyes and nostrils protruding through the surface of the water. Their honked conversations were our soundtrack. Elephants were regular visitors — our friends once watched one retrieve a lemon slice from a gin and tonic with its trunk. The lodges, camps and safaris run by long established operators Norman Carr Safaris (normancarrsa faris.com) and Robin Pope Safaris (robinpopesafaris.net) inside the park are highly recommended. Norman Carr’s Chinzombo camp (opened in 2013; from $745 doubles) is the latest in contemporary wild luxury.
What to see & do
There are other national parks in Zambia (Kafue and Lower Zambezi to name two) but South Luangwa recieves the most anti-poaching money, and has the most animals as well as the best infrastructure. It is home to all of Africa’s big game apart from black rhino (poached to extinction in the 1990s, though recently re-introduced to North Luangwa); cheetahs are also extremely rare.
Lions and hyenas are numerous and South Luangwa is considered one of the best places in the world to see leopards. The Luangwa valley is home to packs of wild dog — a sighting of these rare (only a few thousand left) and unusually altruistic creatures at dusk was a major highlight. Crawshay’s zebra and Thornicroft’s giraffe are subspecies specific to the Luangwa valley. There are more than 400 species of birds. As the birthplace of the walking safari there can be no better place to try one. The pace is slow, it is not a test of fitness, and the Zambian system of armed scout and guide is a very safe one. A night game drive also should not be missed.