Sue Watt discovers walking safaris and night drives bring her even closer to the wildlife in a key national park.
Night is falling at South Luangwa National Park. We're on foot and thunder is rumbling overhead. We have no vehicle for cover and no obvious route to escape our predicament.
"Here's the situation," our guide whispers. "We've got elephants to the left of us and elephants to the right." Then he sings quietly: "... and here I am, stuck in the middle with you ..."
If he'd been anyone other than Garth Hovell, one of Zambia's best wildlife guides, I might have been concerned. Instead, I giggle (quietly) at his bizarre sense of adventure. And adventure is found in abundance in South Luangwa. This is where the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Norman Carr conceived the idea of walking safaris in the 1950s. With night game drives and microlight flights, the safaris in this park offer unusual perspectives on life in the African bush.
The central feature of the 9000-square-kilometre park is the meandering Luangwa River, which feeds rich and varied vegetation that in turn sustains 60 mammal species and about 400 species of birds. Yet for all its diverse flora and fauna, South Luangwa National Park has comparatively few visitors (about 7500 a year), providing a genuine wilderness experience.
Our adventure starts at Robin Pope Safaris' Nkwali camp, near the park's main gate at Mfuwe. A renowned guide who was trained by Carr, Pope became one of the leading safari operators in Zambia, combining excellent guiding with luxury accommodation. Don't be fooled by the word "camp", though - Nkwali's six stylish rooms are built of bamboo, stone and thatch with open views to the river. A small swimming pool overlooks a waterhole near the dining area; an elephant wades past as we have lunch.
Our first game drive leaves camp in the cooler late afternoon and we're introduced to a rainbow of birds: purple-crested turaco and lilac-breasted rollers, vivid green yet prosaically named white-fronted bee-eaters and red-billed oxpeckers picking ticks off the backs of giraffes.
It's the dry season and the Luangwa is shallow - the river swells to a depth of about four metres and a width of about 400 metres in the wet - and here we watch a dozen elephants strolling down for an evening drink, led by a formidable matriarch.
We have our own evening drinks further along the riverbank a safe distance from the elephants. Then we're back in the LandCruiser for a night drive. Darkness produces a new tranche of wildlife, from tiny elephant shrews to giant eagle owls swooping on frogs to feed their chicks. We see the wake of porcupines, scurrying through tall grasses, and genets, similar to domestic cats, which stop and stare, curling their long tails around themselves.
The star of Luangwan nightlife is the leopard. Our spotter sits at the front of the vehicle and swivels the searchlight from side to side; and there she is, elegant and elusive, a leopard stalking an unsuspecting impala. With the almost-full moon illuminating the shadows, we turn off the searchlight to avoid giving either animal an unfair advantage, and wait in silence. Suddenly, a baboon barks in a nearby tree, alerting the impala to imminent danger. It dashes away and we return to camp, exhilarated.
Nkwali's sister camp, Nsefu, is our next base. Opened by Carr in the 1950s, it was the first safari camp of its kind in Zambia. Combining a subtle sense of history with serene charm, its 12 rondavels (round rooms) have river views, wooden terraces and bathrooms open to the sky. The rooms are between the bar and the dining room, which are under simple thatched roofs without walls. Dinners are a delight here; I tuck into eggplant and feta salad followed by roasted tilapia (a popular African fish) with olives and tomatoes, and homemade coconut ice-cream.
It's quite different from the food local people eat. On safari, it's easy to forget that entire communities live alongside the wildlife and its inherent dangers. Carr was ahead of his time, practising responsible tourism decades before it became a buzzword, by attempting to ensure local people benefited from the income brought by travellers. Robin Pope Safaris has followed his example for more than 20 years, including helping to establish a community tourism project in the nearby village of Kawaza in 1997. Today this is run by the community with help from a new registered charity, Project Luangwa.
We spend a day in Kawaza with a local guide, Constantino, visiting sparsely furnished schools and chatting to eager children and their teachers; meeting the medical officer in the busy health clinic; and sharing a meal of nshima (maize) and pumpkin leaves that resemble spinach. We learn how to make moonshine, the local gin, and dance with women and children to a pulsating drumbeat. Beyond the game drives, it's a different and human perspective on life in the bush.
Carol and John Coppinger, from South Africa and Zambia, and New Zealander Bryan Jackson own Tafika, our next camp. They have founded the Tafika Fund, supporting education and a health clinic in Mkasanga Village. As we drive along a dirt road to the village, children rush out screaming "Bye bye!" (synonymous with hello, it seems) or "Photo, photo!" At the school, which is made of brick and concrete, in contrast to the reed houses of the village, students sing angelically. The headmaster, Francis, talks about issues facing his young people, from HIV/AIDS to gender inequality, and explains the importance of education and the value of wildlife conservation in a region that relies on safari tourism. "I've been here 10 years and I've seen many changes, in the school and the clinic," he tells me. "Tafika has made a great, great difference to our lives."
The connection between the village and the camp feels intimate and special. Unusually, Tafika has been home, year round, to its owners since 1995. To us, it feels like home, too. Our reed and thatch chalet, built around a huge sausage tree, has a fairytale quality, enhanced by a golden weaver that keeps flying in to peck at its reflection in the bathroom mirror.
The camp looks tiny from the passenger seat of John Coppinger's microlight aircraft. "Can you see those buffalo looking like a swarm of ants down there?" he asks from the pilot's seat. Not everything looks small from up here - flying above the river, we can see the terrifying length of crocodiles, the massive girth of elephants and the wingspan of a giant fish eagle. And from this vantage it's possible to comprehend the scale of the park and the dominance of the "movious" Luangwa River, a Zambian word that perfectly evokes its tortuous passage through the landscape. Constantly changing course, it leaves oxbow lagoons in its wake that help create the park's diverse habitat, from ancient mopane and riverine woodlands to grassy plains.
Our last camp, Zebra Plains, is in the remote far north of South Luangwa. This is where we walk with Garth Hovell among elephants, on the right and left. He taps a bag of ash, traces of which indicate the direction of a gentle breeze. Fortunately, we're downwind of both groups.
We crouch silently in the grass as the herd to our left moves slowly by, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Hovell is used to such proximity. There are no game drives at Zebra Plains; instead, there are twice-daily walks, during which Hovell shares his encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush.
Walking forces you to connect with the bush, seeing, smelling and hearing things you might never encounter on a drive. We learn how to interpret the alarm calls of Bambi-like puku (any more than four single shrieks means trouble). This didn't save the half-mauled puku we see in the boughs of a sausage tree. We discover its stinking intestines about 20 metres away from the carcass, a decoy likely left by its killer, a leopard, to divert other predators. The leopard will return to finish its meal - and we'll return to see it.
Hovell teaches us about Luangwa's trees, shrubs and grubs: how the roots of the wild caperberry bush relieve haemorrhoids; how delicate heart-shaped seeds of Cardiospermum halicacabum (known as "love in a puff") can help relieve eczema more effectively than cortisone; and how dung beetles build their perfectly round nests. But we also see bigger animals on our walks. A two-metre monitor lizard lounges in a tree, brilliantly camouflaged. About 50 metres from us, six hyaenas skulk in the grasses near a herd of elegant eland, the biggest of the antelopes.
Next morning we return to the leopard's larder in the tree. The cat can't be seen but the puku is still there. Suddenly, Hovell motions to crouch - he has sighted the leopard sleeping under a bush about 10 metres away. Through the grass, I can see his dappled rump. We're so close, I'm sure he can hear my thumping heart.
He lifts his head, looks in our direction, and in one effortless movement rises and sprints away.
He's gone in an instant but that memory of seeing the leopard, of hearing him so close, will last a lifetime.
Sue Watt travelled courtesy of Expert Africa.
Emirates has a fare to Lusaka from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1850 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Lusaka (7hr 25min); see emirates.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 14 days, which is issued on arrival (about $US50, or $46).
Expert Africa has a 13-day Zambia tour from $6070 a person, twin share, staying at Nkwali, Nsefu, Tafika and Zebra Plains camps in South Luangwa National Park. The price includes day and night safari drives, walking safaris, a visit to Kawaza village, all meals, most drinks, transfers, park fees and an overnight stop in Lusaka.
A 15-minute microlight flight from Tafika costs $US130 a person. An overnight stay at Kawaza village can be arranged for $140 a person in simple but clean rondavels. Phone 1800 995 397; see expertafrica.com.
When to go
The dry season in South Luangwa runs from May to October; the wet season is December to March. Evenings can be cool from June to August. By October, temperatures are soaring but wildlife will be easier to find. Nkwali is open all year; Nsefu and Tafika are open May-November; and Zebra Plains is open June-October.