Walking safaris are what Zambia does best. They offer what is, to many, the ultimate safari experience: meeting a lion on foot. But what happens if that lion doesn’t show up? Mike Unwin recalls one of his all-time favourite safaris, where he learnt there is more to meet in the bush than just big game.
ion! A big male, too, explains my guide, Levy Farao*. We squat down for a closer look at that unmistakable signature: four round toes in front of the pad; twin indentations at the back. The single paw print has all the chilling authority of gangland graffiti. Clearly we are intruding on someone else’s patch. And not just anybody’s: this is Mr Big.
Levy has little doubt that this is the lion we heard roaring during the night. Just three hours ago, at 4am, the explosive snorts of panicking impala jerked me awake. I sat transfixed in the darkness – like a child counting seconds between lightning and thunder – as the big cat’s moans reverberated through the insect throb of the Zambezi night.
So, only fifteen minutes into our walk from Old Mondoro Camp and already pulse rates are quickening. This, I know, is why Zambian walking safaris have acquired their legendary reputation. More tracks confirm that our quarry is heading away from the river and towards the escarpment. We fall into step behind Levy as he takes up the trail. In front is Gideon, our scout, whose rifle provides at least some reassurance. Yet there is a palpable tension: every shadow seems to conceal a tawny body; every swaying twig is the twitch of a tail.
There is something about the Lower Zambezi – that smoky light beneath the browse-line, perhaps – that reminds me of English parkland. It is hard to believe that such formidable beasts as lions prowl this apparently benign terrain. But there is nothing English about the immense elephant bull that we come upon next, casually demolishing a winterthorn. Nor the baboons that scatter shrieking from our path as we detour around the jumbo, the grunting of hippos from the river behind us, and the exuberant tropical birdsong – black-headed oriole, white-browed robin chat, black-crowned tchagra – that emanates from every thicket.
Levy stops frequently to consult the trail. He points out the neat cloven imprint of impala and the heavy, blunter stamp of buffalo – the latter embroidered with the delicate, tiny-pawed signature of a genet. Our lion’s tracks are now overlaid with those of a more recent leopard heading in the opposite direction. I glance around nervously.
But as the temperature rises, so the tension ebbs. Levy is concerned that we are wandering too far off course. And – making his decision easier – the tracks disappear. It seems this is one lion that doesn’t want to be found.
We stop for a drink in the shade of a mahogany and I take a good look around. The wilderness has enveloped us completely: there is not a road, not a building, no sign of humanity but our own ephemeral footprints. And all around us the bush is pulsing with life in its tiniest detail: the glittering webs of a tropical tent spider; the toxic colours of an African monarch caterpillar; the empty brood balls of a dung beetle, ransacked by a honey badger.
As we sit, a side-striped jackal trots out across the clearing ahead – closely followed by its mate. For ten minutes the two canines work their way across a sea of purple panweed, pausing to sniff, scent-mark and greet one another. They are utterly oblivious to our presence.
Three days later and lions once again awaken me in the small hours. But this time I am 400km to the northeast, at Chikoko Trails Camp, deep in South Luangwa National Park.
The Luangwa Valley has been synonymous with walking safaris ever since legendary warden Norman Carr pioneered the concept during the 1950s. And today Chikoko, being accessible only by foot, preserves the purity of the original concept. The camp itself – a jumble of thatch nestling in an ebony grove, and overlooking a floodplain teeming with puku and zebra – certainly seems like the real deal.
And so, after hasty pre-dawn coffee and toast, we hit the trail once more – this time led by veteran walking guide Isaac Zulu. Our route meanders along the Chikoko Channel, negotiating trampled dambos and drying lagoons. At every turn Isaac unveils more revelations from the bush: here, a tamarind in the death grip of a strangler fig; there, the immense haystack nest of a hamerkop.
This morning the theme is dung. Isaac rummages through a civet midden – a prodigious mound, given the modest size of its creator – and reveals, in the crushed fragments of millipede, tufts of rodent fur and scattered ebony seeds, that this animal is indeed an omnivore. He shows us the hazel nut-sized droppings of a giraffe, identifiable by the wide area over which they are scattered, and points out the bone-whitened ‘bush meringues’ left by a hyena.
Again, we have missed the lions. But other game is plentiful: three old ‘kakuli’ buffalo eye us across a donga before tossing their heads and wheeling away; a grumpy hippo crashes out of a thicket and across our path en route back to the river; and a wary party of eland trot away through the mopane before stopping, at a safe distance, to watch us pass.
Late that afternoon we even surprise a hyena, who lumbers off with the remains of a puku ram. Stolen from a leopard, reckons Isaac. We follow close behind the thief – encumbered as he is by his grisly booty – until the fading light suggests it would be prudent to return to camp. A fingernail of new moon hangs above the floodplain as we file back through the head-high ‘adrenalin’ grass, the first bats and nightjars flitting overhead.
The next morning it seems the leopard has struck again. In a dry river bed close to camp we come across scattered tufts of coarse, brick-red fur and a long drag mark in the sand – chilling evidence of where a bushbuck met its demise during the night. Somehow it is just as thrilling to find the killer’s calling cards as to see the animal itself. We are sharing the same terrain. Our paths might cross; they might not. That’s how it is in the bush.
Three days later and I am on the trail of another leopard – still in the Luangwa Valley, but now 150km to the south in the vicinity of Bilimungwe bushcamp.
Now my guide is Manda Chisanga, a past winner of the Paul Morrison Wanderlust International Guiding award (and that’s not just for Zambia, but for the whole world). Manda is not only a goldmine of knowledge and enthusiasm, but also the most accomplished mimic of animal noises I have ever encountered. Right now, though, he is crouched down and listening intently.
We know from the uproar of baboons in the riverine bush ahead that the leopard is close. In hushed tones, Manda explains how the alarm bark given for leopard – the full ‘wahoo’ – differs from the less urgent call given for lions, which generally pose much less of a threat to the primates.
We manoeuvre closer – and, sure enough, there are the leopard’s fresh tracks. But a sudden crunch of foliage means an abrupt change of plan, as a small breeding herd of elephants materialise from nowhere. Quickly we scramble down a gully to a sheltered position below the steep riverbank where, with the Luangwa at our backs, we watch the great pachyderms move out onto the very spot where we’d been standing seconds earlier. Their questing trunks seek our scent. That leopard will have to wait.
As we tramp back towards camp, Manda is explaining how the behaviour of one animal – as with those baboons – often betrays the presence of another. As if on cue, a clamour of agitated bird calls draws our attention to the canopy of a large sycamore fig. We move closer, scanning the branches, and there – high above our heads – are the gleaming coils of a large python. It freezes at our approach, suspended down the trunk like a fat, ornate necktie, while a retinue of drongos and bulbuls step up their shrill displeasure.
Fast-forward four more days and I’m walking beside another, very different, river, 400km to the west. This is the Kafue, whose twisting course forms the eastern boundary to the immense Kafue National Park. Again, lions were roaring during the night, and now we’re out searching for their tracks. My guide is Tom Heineken**, and we’re based at the delightful Kaingu Lodge, which is tucked away on a picturesque bend of the Kafue in the southern section of the park.
Tom leads us through a riverine landscape that is a far cry from the sand banks and shrinking pools of the Luangwa. Here the river tumbles through a maze of small islands, splitting into hidden channels and disappearing among stacks of granite boulders and beneath over-arching waterberries. Dassies scatter among the rocks, trumpeter hornbills lurch overhead, and the telltale spraints of otters litter the jumbled shoreline.
There is an intimacy to this riverine playground. And yet, as we move away from the riverbank and the bush thins out, I realise that we are stepping into perhaps Zambia’s most awesome wilderness. Here there are no people, no lodges, no roads: just thousands of kilometres of bush stretching away to the western horizon.
Game is skittish, being less accustomed to people than in South Luangwa: kudu melt into the treeline and horrified warthogs thunder into the thickets. But clearly there’s plenty of it about. Lion tracks reveal the movements of the resident pride, and we come across a fruiting marula tree that has recently been plundered by elephants, the evidence scattered in their droppings at our feet.
As ever when walking, though, it’s the small stuff that is most absorbing: the sounds, textures, rhythms and routines of the bush that come alive when you set foot among them. And this morning we are treated to a display of one of African wildlife’s minor miracles: the guiding behaviour of the greater honeyguide.
This small, unremarkable-looking bird appears in our path, flitting from tree to tree and twittering insistently as we file through the bush – always keeping one tree ahead. Clearly it is leading us, and its agitation increases whenever we veer off route, rising to fever-pitch until we return to the intended path. Soon we find ourselves approaching a large granite outcrop. The bird leads us around the rocks to a statuesque baobab, whereupon it flits up into the upper branches and falls silent. And there – high on the trunk – is a hole buzzing with bees.
Our part of the deal is now clear: we are meant to climb up and haul out the honeycomb, allowing the honeyguide to plunder the grubs from any scraps we leave behind. But there’s no way anyone’s going to risk life and limb by shinning up a baobab to stick their hands into a wild bees’ nest. And so we head back towards the river with the irate bird in pursuit, venting its frustration in a paroxysm of twittering. Next time, according to African folklore, it will get its revenge by leading us to a mamba.
That evening, my last in the bush, I’m perched on a great granite dome watching the sun set over the unfathomable vastness of Kafue. I reflect upon a fortnight of walking in Zambia’s wildest places. It’s been a crash-course in the ways of the wild in the company of those who know it best. So this time I haven’t see a lion. Perhaps next time I will – after all, guides and guests at every place I’ve stayed have regaled me with campfire yarns of close, on-foot encounters. Yet, in a way, chasing after big cats misses the point. A walking safari is not about what you see, but about how you see it. It’s a rare opportunity to experience one of the world’s most thrilling natural environments from the perspective of the wildlife that lives there. Afterwards a game drive feels like watching animals on TV.
* Sadly, Levy Farao has since passed away following a sudden illness.
** Tom Heineken is no longer at Kaingu Safari Lodge
Ten top tips for walkers
A walking safari is neither endurance test nor adventure sport. But a few basic guidelines can help make it more rewarding.
• Wear neutral colours (greens and browns); avoid bright or very pale colours.
• Lightweight longs are better protection than shorts against ticks and thorns.
• Take a hat (neutral colour)
• Go without deodorant (animals sniff out artificial scents)
• Use sunblock, even on overcast days
• Take a small day-pack for water bottle, field guide, camera etc
• ALWAYS DO EXACTLY WHAT YOUR GUIDE SAYS, especially around potentially dangerous animals.
• If you want to stop – even just to tie your laces – ALWAYS tell your guide.
• Keep binoculars around your neck, not in your day-pack.
• Bring a lens suitable for small, close-up stuff.
Mike Unwin walked from the following camps and lodges:
• Old Mondoro (Lower Zambezi): bookings from Chiawa (www.chiawa.com) or Sausage Tree (www.sausagetreecamp.com)
• Chikoko and Crocodile Trails Camps (South Luangwa): www.remoteafrica.com
• Bilimungwe and Kapamba Bush Camps (South Luangwa): www.bushcampcompany.com
• Kaingu Lodge (Kafue): www.kaingu-lodge.com