Zambia Walking Safari

Joanna Symons, The Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2012

When I was young my family used to play a game called "Going on a lion hunt", which involved noisy swishing through grass, crackling over dry sticks and scrambling through bushes. "Run for your life!" we'd shout as we pretended to spot our prey and ran squealing to safety.

The thrill of it all came back to me last autumn, rather more vividly than was comfortable, when I found myself crouching behind a tree in a remote area of the Zambian bush, trying not to catch the flat, yellow eyes of a real lion that had suddenly emerged from the long grass about 40 yards away.

But running for our lives, we had been told by our guide, Garth, was the worst possible thing to do in this situation. So our group of six kept obediently still, bar a bit of trembling, adrenalin mixed with wonder as the lion – looking slightly more surprised than we were – turned and stalked off into the bushes.

The close encounter took place on a walking safari in a wild corner of South Luangwa National Park, one of the best places in Africa to see game on foot. Our base was Zebra Plains, a tented camp run by Sanctuary Retreats, only open in the dry season between June and October. It's about an hour's bumpy drive from any other habitation: a little tented grove of luxury amid miles and miles of wilderness. Powered by the sun, the whole place can be packed away as the rains begin, leaving not a sweet wrapper behind.

The camp comprises just three spacious and comfortable guest tents, with views of wallowing hippos and crocodiles in the river below. Inside each is a large double bed with crisp linen, an en suite, open-air bathroom with (warm) bucket shower and, just outside, an old-fashioned shaving stand with hot water supplied each morning. A broad leadwood tree shaded the communal sitting area, furnished with big sofas, maps and books, otherwise there were just a few extra tents housing the staff and a kitchen providing miraculously good food.

It's this combination of wildness and comfort that is so seductive: sipping cocktails as baboons call and carmines – little bee-eater birds – dart like flashing lights across the river bank; or eating a candlelit dinner on the sandy banks of the river as the hippos harrumph and splash nearby.

The joy of the remote location is that you really don't see another human, let alone a vehicle on your walks – a very different experience from some jeep safaris where every lion has its circling circus of vehicles and camera-clicking tourists. "These walking safaris are not for quick-fix types who want to tick off the big five," said Garth. "They're for people who want to see how this place all fits together. This is the animals' home. We walk among them and see what we can."

As it turned out, we saw more than we could have hoped for – largely thanks to the skill of Garth and Matthews, our ranger, who I swear could spot game before it appeared. Matthews always carried a rifle over his shoulder – "but it would be a disaster if we ever had to use it", said Garth. "I like to leave animals as we find them."

On just the first outing, a gentle late-afternoon walk, we found puku, impala, zebra, giraffe, baboons, water buck, stocky little warthogs and some beautiful eland, their black horns silhouetted against the blurred grassland. We watched a baby elephant learning to use its trunk and, lurking behind a bush, a hyena. "Bone crunchers," said Garth as it slunk away. "Those jaws come down with the force of a hippo in stilettos stamping on your foot."

But, as we came to learn over the next three days, the star acts are by no means the only wonders. The great thing about a walking safari is that you also stop to learn about the small things, the plants, seeds, insects – and how they work together in a humblingly brilliant system. There was the sensitive mimosa plant, with leaves that curl at a touch to preserve water, or the Gaudi-esque termite mounds, so deep they go down to the water table. Discovering them became just as engrossing as seeing a herd of elephants.

We learnt to recognise warning calls from birds and animals, and became semi-proficient at identifying animal footprints and spore, gauging how fresh they were and which way the animals were travelling. Instead of hurtling across the plains in a jeep to have an animal presented to us, we had to work at it. Our lion sighting was no accident, but the result of an hour's skilful listening and tracking by Garth.

"Animals quickly get used to the sound of jeep engines and are not alarmed by them," he told us, "but out here, where they see very few humans, their reactions are much sharper."

Finding ourselves out in the wild among lion, leopard and large herds of elephant could have been terrifying with an incompetent guide, but Garth and Matthews (and, as we came to discover, all the Sanctuary guides who led walking safaris) were so experienced, so knowledgeable about animal behaviour, that we could relax and become absorbed in what we were seeing.

We walked for three or four hours in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, through a varied and level landscape of grassy plains, coppices, ebony groves and a park-like valley that we named the Fairway. The pace was easy, with stops for coffee, or for evening beer and wine as we watched vast bloats (herds) of hippos cavort in the wide Luangwa river.

We were there in September, as the heat was beginning to build before the rains, so we welcomed the relative cool of the morning and evening. The 5.30am reveille was a struggle – smearing on what you hoped was sun-cream in the dim dawn light – but it was always worth it to stride out just as dawn began to turn the grassy landscape pink then gold, with light so luminous it felt like the first morning of a new world.

After three days (the maximum stay at Zebra Plains) we and the charming Dutch family with whom we shared our close encounters were driven across the park to Puku Ridge, a Sanctuary Retreats lodge in a less remote but equally beautiful area of the park. It was a wrench to leave the peace of Zebra Plains, but it felt like a return to civilisation to have hot showers and air conditioning – and the solid walls of our room provided much better soundproofing against nocturnal hippo activity than our canvas tent had done.

Rooms here are large, stylish and very comfortable, with high, tented ceilings and balconies overlooking a vast plain, where troops of yellow baboons played with their babies and noisily scolded wayward adolescents. On the second night we woke to hear lions roaring and the next morning, as we ate breakfast in the balconied restaurant, our delightful and enthusiastic waiter rushed over with binoculars to point out two young male lions walking slowly across the plain below.

Five minutes' drive from Puku Ridge is Sanctuary's third property in the park, Chichele Presidential Lodge (the former holiday home of Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda). Set on a hilltop, it has bird's-eye views to distant mountains, and a charmingly colonial feel. The long sitting room is furnished with portraits, sofas, armchairs, books and games and is open to balconies and breezes, while the best bedrooms have sweeping views over the blurred green furze of coppices and the sandy banks of the Luangwa river far below.

At both lodges guests have the choice of jeep or walking safaris. We took an evening drive and found that we could get much closer to the animals than when we were on foot – finding both leopard and lion, which stretched out nonchalantly just feet from our jeep. We took some good show-off photos, but somehow it all felt a bit too easy as we drove from one animal hot spot to the next, and we missed the excitement of tracking game on foot.

So the next morning we opted for a walking safari again, setting out just after dawn with two enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides, Malemia and Alex. The landscape wasn't as remote as at Zebra Plains, but if anything it was greener and more beautiful, with groves of high palms and a backdrop of hazy mountains to add variety. Even here, we glimpsed only the occasional vehicle on our three-hour walk, as the park authorities are keeping a cap on visitor numbers.

It felt good to be striding out again with the rough ground under our feet, watching the red sun rise behind the great mopani trees and pausing to examine tiny lion ants and indigo plants or to watch giraffe grazing and a herd of elephant sashaying slowly towards the river.

Garth was right. Our time in the South Luangwa had taught us how this extraordinary place fits together. We learnt that beyond the confines of our high-tech existence there is another system of life that is so intricately balanced that we cannot fully grasp it. But by walking among it we became for a while a part of that system, instead of mere camera-clicking spectators.

Zambia essentials

An all-inclusive trip to South Luangwa National Park with Carrier (0161 492 1353; ) costs from £2,675 per person, including three nights at Zebra Plains and two at Chichele Presidential Lodge, direct return flight with British Airways, internal flights, transfers, all meals, local drinks and all guided walks and drives; or from £3,640 per person with an extra three nights' b & b at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, Victoria Falls.

For a Zebra Plains walking safari, essential kit includes a good pair of walking boots, khaki- or sand-coloured clothing, a hat, sun and mosquito repellent, antimalarial medication and a really good pair of binoculars for each person (hire them if you don't want to fork out for a pair; has a good selection).

The weather at Zebra Plains is cooler and the landscape greener from June to early August; from then, the heat increases but there is a greater concentration of game. By October, just before the camp closes, it becomes very hot.