There’s no better way to explore the bush than from ground level. The anticipation felt when listening for telltale signs is intoxicating. Mike Dexter recounts his recent adventure in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park
Ancient animal paths carved into the earth by the feet and hooves of countless generations of elephants, hippos and buffalo crisscross the landscape. The rough pads of lions and leopards fall silently on trails, allowing them to patrol their territories and stalk their prey undetected. It is along these paths that we are traversing this untamed wilderness.
Our party of five comes to an abrupt halt. I look around warily, unsure of the reason but certain that the stop is justified. Alex Phiri, our guide, is intrinsically in tune with the environment. He crouches down to examine the path while we hold our breath. He beckons us forward and we gather around. The track is clear; there is no mistaking it.
A lioness was here just moments ago. “She turned off the path here,” says Alex. “She must have heard us coming.” We had been walking quietly, with the wind in our favour, so she must have been very, very close to detect us. Further along the trail Alex points to an area of flattened grass in the shade of a small acacia tree where she had been lying. I imagine it’s still warm. Following a lone lioness is unwise as she may have cubs and, in an area as remote as this, you always err on the side of caution. So, staying vigilant, we continue on our way.
We humans tend to have a ‘them and us’ mindset in our relationships with wild animals. In modern times this is understandable: the gap between a first-world lifestyle and finding yourself to be just one tiny element in a wild ecosystem, so much bigger than yourself, is seemingly unbridgeable. But there are still a handful of destinations where we can be reminded of our place in the food chain and be reunited with our roots. Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park is one such place, and so it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that my wife and I had entered one of Africa’s wildest and most remote regions. Walking safaris are the name of the game here. One of only two small seasonal camps in the 4636sq-km reserve, Mwaleshi offers the discerning adventurer a superb wilderness experience. Owned by John and Carol Coppinger of Remote Africa Safaris, Mwaleshi (named after the river it overlooks) is the longest-running camp in the reserve. The camp is rebuilt each year at the start of the new season.
The thin reed walls of our chalet allow for a full acoustic experience of Africa’s nocturnal orchestra. On the first night we hear branches snapping as an elephant walks by, the eerie whoop of a hyena on the prowl and the distant yet unmistakable roaring of a male lion patrolling his territory. I fight the onset of sleep, but at some point lose the battle, as the next thing I know a rapping on the door is awakening me from my slumber. It is well before sunrise and we welcome the aroma of strong coffee on the fresh morning air as we make our way to where Alex is waiting. We are introduced to Andrew, our formidable Zambian Wildlife Authority scout, and Special, our tea bearer (yes, tea bearer). After a safety briefing, where we’re asked once again if we’ve signed the indemnity form (slightly disconcerting), it’s time to begin.
Our path zigs and zags northwards along the riverbank. It winds between dense thickets of sickle bush and buffalo thorn, with their merciless hooks and spikes, revealing this magnificent world one secret at a time. We stop at a sausage tree (Kigelia africana) and Alex explains the value of the huge, grey-brown fruits for which the tree is named. Weighing up to 9kg they provide valuable sustenance to many herbivores. The dinosaur-like tracks that have trampled the earth reveal the recent presence of last night’s sausage eaters: “Hippos,” says Alex. “Many of them.”
The Mwaleshi River is the lifeblood of the reserve, providing a reliable water source throughout the year. In the dry season, however, only small shallow pools remain, which is problematic for the local hippo population. The nearby Luangwa River has the highest hippo density in the world, with up to forty-one individuals per kilometre. At the confluence of the two rivers a series of deep pools form as the water recedes. During the winter months these become home to hundreds of hippos.
In a world where we are comfortable with our position at the top of the food chain, it is a rare and intense experience when the tables are turned. Driving from the camp one afternoon, so we could take a walk in a different area, we round a bend in the road and startle two lions, a male and a female. They move off begrudgingly and Alex turns around with a glint in his eyes and a mischievous grin. “We should approach them on foot,” he says. Yes, why not? It makes perfect sense to leave the safety of the Land Cruiser and to even the playing field. I keep my thoughts to myself while nodding enthusiastically.
Trusting resolutely in his many years of experience we follow Alex in a perfectly silent single file. I can see the male lion lying down about seventy metres away. So far he’s unaware of our presence. We edge closer, almost imperceptibly, until only thirty metres of knee-high grass separates us from this apex predator. He turns his head slowly. With his flawless eyesight he spots us immediately, assesses the situation and, much to my relief, decides we aren’t all that important and certainly not worth making a fuss about. He keeps his piercing amber eyes on us nonetheless, his ears forward, listening attentively. I imagine he can hear my heartbeat. The lioness, until now obscured behind her beau, readjusts for comfort and in so doing glimpses us from over his back. She has an altogether different reaction: I can sense the adrenaline surging through her veins right to the tip of her menacingly flicking tail. Fight or flight is certain — but which is it to be? In a tawny flash, she opts for the latter and vanishes into the thickets. The male, begrudgingly, heaves himself up and lopes after her. Humbled and sweating, we back up to the vehicle.
You do not cover ground at any great speed on a walking safari. The focus is on immersion in the environment, not burning calories. Alex deftly interpreted every track, sign and sound, relating each to the other and revealing a dynamic world otherwise lost to the senses. By the end of the third day we had been on six walks, varying from five to ten kilometres, and had undoubtedly grown more in tune with our surroundings. We could identify tracks that only three days ago we would have missed altogether. We could hear sounds where before we detected only silence and, most importantly, we could shut out all our worries and concerns to do with the outside world. On a walking safari in the North Luangwa National Park you live in the moment, constantly aware of your immediate environment, without a care for yesterday or tomorrow. Here you are more than just a visitor: you are a participant in a free and natural system, where every living creature plays a role and the footprint of mankind is light, fleeting and soon forgotten.
A survival guide
Walking in Africa, of course, involves certain risks. But the guides and scouts are well rehearsed and highly experienced professionals whose role it is to instruct you on the best course of action in any situation. Their words should be taken as gospel. However, here are a few pointers to help you on your way:
Buffalo Listen to your guide and start looking for the nearest tree. A buffalo bull is one of the most dangerous animals to encounter on foot. All animals have a ‘fight or flight’ instinct, and the buffalo, with its heavy set of horns and massive 800kg bulk, usually chooses to fight.
Lion Stand your ground. Flattened ears, growling and a vigorously flicking tail are telltale signs that an attack is imminent. A charge can be very intimidating indeed and standing your ground is a big achievement in itself but stand your ground you must: to turn and flee could be fatal.
Elephant Don’t move, and listen to your guide. Elephants are highly complex creatures that have been persecuted by humans for hundreds of years, so you never know how they will respond to you.
Leopard Stay still and walk backwards cautiously. Leopards are shy, so it is unlikely that you will come across one on foot that is close enough to be dangerous, unless it’s old, injured or with cubs.
Hippo Get out of its way. Hippos kill more people in Africa annually than any other animal. Unless you go swimming with them, they only pose a threat on dry land, where they feel vulnerable.
“The Luangwa Valley is said to be the birthplace of walking safaris. Game viewing by vehicle is common all over Africa but, while it is an effective way to experience African wildlife, you remain slightly detached from the scene. On foot you become a part of it all and your senses are sharpened. With a good guide, the minutiae come alive — spoor, insects, birds, mammals, droppings, animal burrows, trees and plants — and how these are all intertwined begins to make sense. Encountering animals on the ground, especially a pride of lions, focuses one’s attention far more acutely than doing so from the back of a jeep.”
John Coppinger, Remote Africa Safaris
• Getting there Proflight Zambia flies from Lusaka to Mfuwe, from where you can either fly on to the Lukuzi Airstrip or arrange a two-hour transfer by car through South Luangwa National Park. A reputable operator, such as Remote Africa Safaris, can manage all the logistics.
• Where to stay The writer stayed at the riverside Mwaleshi Camp. Although it specialises in walking safaris, you can also explore further afield in a vehicle and visit the Mwaleshi Falls from here. Buffalo Camp, also situated on the Mwaleshi River, is a more rustic alternative and offers self-catering.
• When to go Both camps are inaccessible during summer, so visit between June and late-October.