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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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?"