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Walk, Talk and Squawk With the Animals, Then Have a Sundowner

Flatdogs Camp offers some of the least expensive options, from tents to chalets, near South Luangwa National Park.
Flatdogs Camp offers some of the least expensive options, from tents to chalets, near South Luangwa National Park. (Flatdogs Camps)

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By Joseph J. Schatz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Deep in the Zambian bush, hours from the nearest airport, there are roaming lions, bellowing hippos, hiding leopards, few other people and . . . king-size beds.

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Zambian bush camps are full of surprises, as I discovered after arriving at South Luangwa National Park, the pride of Zambia's extensive national park system. Our spacious tent sat on the bank of a river; just below, scores of hippos kept cool in the water. Set on a wooden platform, with a hammock outside, our tent featured an open-air toilet, shower and sink (with hot and cold water), all surrounded by a wall made of reeds. Dinner was served at a table under the stars.

But no walking around at night. Hippos, lions and other animals come into the camp frequently.

Zambian safaris come with a touch of rustic luxury but also feel extraordinarily remote and removed from civilization, in comparison with many neighboring countries. On an early-morning walking safari, our expert guide, Levy, took us within yards of lounging lions and just downwind from a herd of elephants. Those animals sense the presence of humans by their scent; if you're downwind, you're safe. Through it all, we saw few other tourists.

Tucked away in south-central Africa, this landlocked and peaceful southern African nation fancies itself "the real Africa" (the official government tourism slogan) and has become a growing destination for safari-goers with its largely undiscovered, untouched national parks, large game populations and lack of tourist crowds.

Better known for Victoria Falls (shared with neighboring Zimbabwe), Zambia is becoming popular for such activities as walking safaris through South Luangwa National Park, boat safaris through Lower Zambezi National Park or Kafue National Park, and game drives (including night drives) at all the parks. Perhaps most important, Zambia's guides are respected as among the best in the region.

Of course, all this comes at a price. More than a thousand miles from the nearest seaport, Zambia is at the end of a long supply chain, where commodities cost more. Moreover, it is simply expensive to get to this former British colony, which became independent in 1964. British Airways flies directly from London to Lusaka, the capital, but otherwise, getting to Zambia requires a flight from Nairobi or Johannesburg.

Even while aiming to attract the upper end of the market, most Zambian safari operators work hard to keep the environmental impact minimal and the atmosphere rustic. Most bush camps, for instance, are dismantled during the November-to-March rainy season.

"We try and stay as bush as we can with good-quality service," notes Robin Pope, a longtime walking safari guide who runs Robin Pope Safaris, a high-end series of bush camps and a lodge in South Luangwa National Park.

* * *

Bush camps are launching points for one of Zambia's biggest selling points: the walking safari, pioneered by the late Zambian naturalist Norman Carr. Carr's company, Norman Carr Safaris, also runs bush camps inside the park. Living and working in Zambia for two years has allowed my wife and me to explore quite a bit. During our first visit to South Luangwa we stayed at the company's Mchenja bush camp; in October, we opted for Kakuli bush camp for three days with our visiting parents.

To get there, we took a short flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe airport in eastern Zambia and jumped into a waiting open-air safari jeep. We were driven past small villages and run-down shops with names like Faith Kills Fear Grocery, deep in the heart of South Luangwa National Park.


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