Safari on foot: Walking with lions in Zambia

The country's unique walking safaris get you out of the jeep and up close and personal with lions, elephants, and hippo droppings.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Local guide Aubrey Njovu and the author's wife, Parsa Sanjana, watch for wildlife (r.), on a walking tour in the park.
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    A few in the bush: A view of giraffes around a waterhole from the Kakuli bush camp in the South Luangwa National Park.
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'If the animal charges, please don't panic. Wait for instructions," said our guide, Abel Banda, with a straight face as we began a walking safari through Zambia's South Luangwa National Park in late October.

The comment is greeted by silence, then nervous chuckles from our motley crew of safari-goers – my wife, Parsa, myself and our four parents.

We needn't have worried. As we walked into the bush that morning, the sun was arching up the sky, the crickets were humming, and the white-browed sparrow weaver was calling – but the lions and elephants were hiding.

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Walking in the bush at dawn without the safety and distance afforded by vehicle affords a rare opportunity to learn about plants, animals, birds, and local beliefs up close. And offers more than you ever wanted to know about animal droppings.

Our three-day safari was the centerpiece of a two-week visit by my parents and my wife's parents to Zambia, where Parsa and I moved 18 months ago. She manages an HIV/AIDS program; I work as a journalist.

It was the first trip to Africa for all the parents. Suffice to say, my mother and father, born in western Massachusetts and New York City respectively, and my wife's parents, born in Bangladesh, never imagined they'd come to the middle of southern Africa on a safari.

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Zambia, a peaceful but largely poor nation of 11.5 million, is generally less well-known for safaris than countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. But that is changing. Zambia boasts abundant wildlife and national parks that have escaped the rampant tourism promotion that results in one lion being surrounded by 25 safari vehicles, as I experienced earlier this summer in Kenya. The Zambian government touts the country as "Zambia: The Real Africa."

What makes Zambian safaris particularly unique, however, is the walking safari, pioneered decades ago by Norman Carr, a conservationist born in 1912 in the town of Chinde, then a British-controlled town in what is now Mozambique. For the big occasion, we picked the company founded by Carr – Norman Carr Safaris – which runs a lodge outside the park and four more rustic "bush camps" located within the park's boundaries. The bush camps are open from May through November – Zambia's dry season – and are torn down and packed up before the annual rains begin.

To get there, we took a two-hour ride in a small plane to Mfuwe, the gateway town to South Luangwa National Park. An open-air safari vehicle picked us up at the airport and drove us past miles of villages and into the park to the Kakuli bush camp.

Some visitors choose to stay at all four of Carr's bush camps, hiking between them by day; others, like us, opt to stay at just one, doing walking safaris in the morning and game drives at night.

Carr, who died in 1997 at the age of 84, also pioneered the idea of getting local communities involved in conserving wildlife and helping them realize its benefits. Today, many Zambian guides have been trained to lead walking and driving safaris in the area. They enjoy a reputation of being among the best in Africa; they also enjoy the benefits of stable employment in a society where jobs are extremely scarce.

Guides throughout Zambia come to South Luangwa to train and take their examinations. A "Level 2" certification allows a guide to take customers on game drives in vehicles. "Level 1" allows him to lead bush walks. The examination process includes a written exam as well as a field test with certified guides acting as customers, testing the student guide's ability to react to tricky situations.

In South Luangwa, walking safari groups are required to have both a guide and an armed scout. That way, if a dangerous situation arises, the scout can focus on dealing with the animal threat, and the guide can move the tourists to safety.

That's important because such close encounters do happen. The morning before we arrived, British guests had unexpectedly come face to face with two lions. And last year, when we were on a walk near Lower Zambezi National Park in southern Zambia, an elephant started what's known as a "mock charge." (It certainly doesn't feel "mock.") The elephant backed off after our guide waved his arms and yelled at the top of his lungs.

But the walking safari isn't just about seeing big game. It's about getting a feel for the dynamics of the natural landscape – the symbiotic interaction between plants, animals, humans, and birds such as the honeyguide, which is known to lead people to beehives. Once the person has removed the honey, the birds feed on the remaining wax and larvae. Local tradition, Mr. Banda said, was to "leave a small amount of honey for the honeyguide. If you don't do that ... then one day it will guide you to a very dangerous snake." He adds, "But that's a belief – not a fact."

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The parched floor of the Luangwa Valley resembled a moonscape littered with the skulls and bones of buffalo and hippos (October is the height of Zambia's dry season). About two hours into our three-hour walk, we came upon scores of hippos gathered near a river bank, keeping cool in the fast evaporating water. At that point, we took a break for tea – brewed over a quickly assembled fire. The weather was hot, but the walk wasn't arduous.

Oh, and the poop. You learn how hippos spray their excrement, what to look for in elephant droppings, and how leopards will roll around in the dung of their prey – the better to sneak up unnoticed. It's what one guest called "dungology."

The bush camp, from which we could see eight giraffes drinking from the nearby river, is in many ways just as fascinating as the walk. While you can't get a newspaper – or a cell phone call – out here, that doesn't mean there aren't any comforts. Staying in bush camp counts as camping, but it's actually all very civilized. You dine with your guides and the hostess, Laura, at a table under the stars.

All of this comes at a price, however. Since we live and work in Zambia, we paid the local rate, which is still a steep $225 per person per night, all inclusive. Foreign tourists who are not visiting friends or family have to pay rates exceeding $500 per person per night.

The large tents at Kakuli bush camp boast queen size beds and open air bathrooms, featuring a shower and a toilet surrounded by a wall of reed. The monkeys and baboons can see you – don't worry, they're not that interested. They're more comfortable drinking among the antelopes, our guides told us. The antelopes and baboons alert each other to a lion's presence with their respective alarm calls. And a lion could be anywhere – we found tracks outside my parents' tent one morning.

Indeed, when you're out of the jeep and on foot, nature seems much more real. During our second walk, my father-in-law, Zahid, turned to me and asked warily about the hippos: "They can run much faster than humans, right?"

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