You may think a walking safari in Zambia (or Africa) means tracking down lions and other “Big Five” animals (leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros).
But you don’t actually want to bump into lions on foot.
You certainly don’t want to run into an ornery old Cape buffalo bull on a walking safari – Cape buffalo and hippos kill more humans in Africa each year than any other wild creature. And stay far away from an elephant in musth. You have to watch out for snakes too; on our previous walking safari in Zambia, we might have stepped on two deadly rock pythons if our armed ranger in front hadn’t spotted them first.
So it’s spine-tingling to walk exposed, single-file and alert, in the bush.
The main point of a walking safari, however, is to learn about the smaller critters (insects, termites, birds), animal tracks, ebony trees, the mopane tree bark that elephants love to graze on – and the whole remarkable cycle of life, death and rebirth in the African bush.
We wonder, then, on our late afternoon walking safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park: Why are there some really big animals right in front of us?
The two-foot wide sandy path we’ve walked along (one of countless “hippo highways” criss-crossing the bush) has just taken us to a lagoon full of hippos. They are NOT the small creatures we’re supposed to see. Their bulging eyes and curled piggy ears poke up through the emerald-green Nile cabbage covering the lagoon, a little too close for comfort.
“Don’t worry,” our guide calmly assures us. “This pool is deep, so the hippos feel safe here. They won’t come out and charge.”
Norman Carr: Pioneer of the walking safari in Zambia
Ever since our first African safari in Zambia, we’ve hankered to return.
You’re sure to see all the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) on a safari in, say, South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve; the game drives are thrilling and most of the lodges are exceptionally luxurious. But Zambia is more remote than South Africa, harder to get to and much less visited – and the safari experience feels wilder, more raw. Safari aficionados say Zambia is what Kenya was like decades ago.
There was simply no denying the tug on our heartstrings. We wanted to go back.
Last time, the Lower Zambezi National Park in the southeastern part of the country was our safari stomping ground.
This time, we try Zambia’s drier South Luangwa National Park. Decades ago, a safari meant hunting and shooting game. The term “Big Five” was coined by big-game hunters for the five most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Norman Carr, a formidable hunter himself, broke the mold. He pioneered the idea of taking visitors on walking safaris to photograph the animals, not kill them; in 1950, he built the first safari camp in South Luangwa. Gradually he added more camps, and now Norman Carr Safaris is famous for its walking safaris. We’ve booked a five-night safari with them.
Five luxurious camps in South Luangwa
We stay at three of Norman Carr’s five deluxe camps in the park, and go on guided walks from two.
You could call our first, late afternoon “hippo” walk a “walking safari lite,” as we don’t walk for more than 90 minutes or so. It’s not a good idea to stay out late and risk being caught in the dark – that’s when lions hunt. Besides, some killer gin-and-tonics are waiting for us back at camp.
Our camp here is Luwi, a seasonal bush camp and the most rustic and remote. It has just four thatched huts for eight guests. Each year, Luwi is completely rebuilt, opening in May after the rains have stopped. Grass mats that cover the packed earth floor in the bathrooms are woven by local village women.
Our second morning walk from the more deluxe Mchenja camp is much longer; we even have a “porter” who carries a massive backpack – turns out it’s for the tea, coffee and shortbread cookies for our mid-morning break.
If you want a more extended walking safari experience, you can walk from camp to camp in a circuit, staying overnight at each. They’re located within a morning or easy day’s walk from each other.
You see more game, closer up, when you’re on a game drive – the more popular way to go on safari these days.
African animals are habituated to the sight and sounds of people seated in an open tiered Land Rover – they’re comfortable letting you approach them up close this way. In South Africa, lions have walked by just feet away from us in a vehicle. Talk about heart-stopping! (A lion smells a little like an unwashed dog.) And we’ve watched lions fanned around in a circle, tearing into the bloody meat of their kill – we’ve been so up-close-and-personal we could hear the snapping of the dead impala’s bones as the lions ripped it apart.
In Zambia, we go on plenty of game drives with Norman Carr Safaris.
On our drive to Luwi Camp, three lions by the river catch our attention. They appear to be waiting to swim across, but they’re cautious, pacing on the riverbank, taking their time. They’ve spotted a large Nile crocodile gliding back and forth right in front of them.
“Crossing the river is a dangerous business,” our guide remarks drily.
On a walking safari, the animals react differently to humans. As upright, two-legged creatures on foot, we’re perceived as predators by prey animals like antelope. Intrude on their space, even slightly, and they become skittish.
The animals’ comfort zone is 500 feet, outside of which they behave normally. At 300 feet, antelope such as impala and kudu freeze and perk their ears up, then sprint away. Get to 150 feet of them and you’re in the danger zone; there’s a very good possibility any lion, buffalo or elephant in range will charge and attack you.
Critical zone? About 80 feet or less – you better know how to climb a tree really fast!
And sadly, the armed ranger who walks in front of you will try to shoot the attacking animal to protect you.
So, it’s a good thing we don’t glimpse lions (or buffalo) on any of our walking safaris in Zambia. We’re content to spot them only on game drives.
The up-close hippos in deep water are okay though…
More information on Norman Carr Safaris
- Norman Carr Safaris was founded in 1950 by Norman Carr, pioneer of the walking safari in Zambia and Africa.
- The company is part of the Time+Tide collection of exclusive safaris and remote island adventures across Zambia and Madagascar.
- There are five Norman Carr Safaris camps in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. A wildly luxurious new camp, King Lewanika Lodge, just opened in Liuwa Plain National Park in April, 2017. Time + Tide also runs Chongwe Safaris in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park; you can seamlessly go on safari to all three parks for three completely different safari experiences.
All photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)
Read more about our latest walking safari in Zambia
See our story recently published in NUVOmagazine.com on “Walking Safaris in Zambia.”
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