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.
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.
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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.
In the late afternoon, we set out on a game drive, and things only got rougher -- if you consider stopping for a "sundowner" cocktail from the guide's cooler to be rough. The trip soon turned into a night drive, with the guide's assistant using a spotlight to find lurking animals.
The night drive is an option not often available in other countries and a fascinating way of seeing the landscape and wildlife, from elephants to the thousands of antelopes that scamper every which way in Zambia -- impala, lechwe, puku, kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck, sable, eland and more. During a night drive from Kakuli camp, we saw several slumbering giraffes sitting in the middle of the road. As our driver gently maneuvered the vehicle around them, a couple of the animals woke up -- surprised to see us, but unperturbed.
After our drive, we ate dinner under the stars, at a table with the other camp guests and the guides. The camp staff prepares the food, which is delicious, creative and far more gourmet than plenty of restaurants not situated out in the middle of the bush. That night, it was a Zambian barbecue (braai in Southern African parlance), with a chance to sample the Zambian staple of corn porridge (nshima). Other nights, you may have fresh butternut soup and impala. The staff also cleans up. This is camping at its easiest.
Our days began just before sunrise with breakfast around the campfire, then the option of a walking safari or a game drive. On both of our trips to South Luangwa, we spent two nights in the bush camp and chose the walking safari each morning.
While we saw elephants and lions, the three-hour walks were almost as interesting for what we didn't see. Along the way, we learned more about animal dung -- and the way it's sprayed, dropped, collected and used for disguise by other animals -- than I ever thought possible. Meanwhile, an armed scout, mandatory on all walking safaris in the national park, watched for any danger.
We saw no other walkers on our walking safaris. It almost seemed that the guides would head the other way if they saw company. Indeed, Zambia prides itself on the skill of its local guides, and guides from throughout the country come to South Luangwa for rigorous testing and certification as walking or driving guides.
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Zambia offers far more than just South Luangwa. Lower Zambezi National Park is becoming increasingly popular, in part because of the opportunity to take a river safari along the mighty Zambezi, which comes down from northern Zambia, drops over Victoria Falls, snakes along the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and then vanishes into Mozambique and, eventually, the Indian Ocean.
A river safari provides a unique perspective on the landscape and wildlife. During an October visit to Kanyemba Lodge, outside Lower Zambezi National Park, we took a motorboat ride around Kanyemba Island and skirted the shore, where we encountered a group of five elephants silently wading across the river, returning to Zimbabwe after a day of foraging for food on the island. During a guided canoe ride around the island on another visit, our hearts were pumping as elephants trumpeted at us from the shore and we paddled past hippos and crocodiles.
It's also a bird-watcher's paradise. Farther down the river, we stopped and admired the red and green carmine bee-eaters, tiny birds that make their homes in small holes in the dirt cliffs overlooking the river.
Three hours west of Lusaka, the 8,650-square-mile Kafue National Park is the biggest and perhaps one of the most underrated parks in the region. Before we even entered the park, we saw hordes of vervet monkeys and several elephants off the main road. Mukambi Lodge, just outside the park, is popular with families and offers chalets and smaller, more rustic platform tents with cots. It also has two domesticated warthogs -- one of which burrowed into my brother's tent and crawled into his bed (which was, thankfully, unoccupied at the time). With a little more effort, you can pitch your own tent at Lufupa Lodge's campsites, along the river, where we camped and came upon a priceless sighting during our night drive: a leopard perched quietly on a hill.
Poaching decimated the park in the 1980s and illegal hunting continues to be a problem in Zambia, attributed to demand for ivory in China and Japan and to local "bush meat" markets. But the park has rebounded, and poaching is a far cry what it was from decades ago, said Victor Shibomba, a Mukambi guide.
Getting a great safari guide is not guaranteed, of course, and as Zambia grows as a tourist destination, traffic is bound to increase. But Zambian safaris still give you the opportunity to see not only big game, but also the subtler side of nature, such as the puku's alarm call, warning of impending lions. It's nice to know you can see it with a sundowner in hand.
Joseph J. Schatz is a freelance journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia.