SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, Zambia — On the first day of our four-day walking safari, we woke up before dawn under a billow of mosquito netting. Outside our cottage, a thatched aerie overlooking a floodplain, the Cape turtle doves had already begun their lilting calls and a herd of impala — the Barishnikovs of the bush — feasted on grasses before leaping out of sight.
Perfumed with DEET, I tried hard not to think about the plan for the day: Tracking lions on foot in the wild.
I had come to Tafika Camp in South Luangwa with my family to immerse myself in the bush — what I’ve come to think about as a “slow safari.” We hiked along rutted trails forged by hippos and elephants, and learned how to identify the trace of a crocodile’s tail in the sandy soils along the banks of the Luangwa River. Little by little, under the tutelage of wise local guides, our senses became attuned to the landscape’s nuances, from craggy drip-castle termite mounds worthy of Gaudi to herds of fearsome-looking Cape buffalo with upturned razor-sharp horns.
I had first come to South Luangwa with my husband 30 years ago and was seduced by the park’s dense cache of wildlife and subtle beauty. Walking in wild terrain accessible only on foot is a sensual complement to more traditional game drives. This time around, we were accompanied by our 26-year-old son Jacob — his first trip to Africa.
In contrast to more storied destinations like South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which has an app mapping game sightings in real time, Zambia is not commercialized, its lack of pretense symbolized by the triple handshake Zambians use to greet each other. South Luangwa , about an hour’s flight from the capital of Lusaka, is home to lions and leopards, a stable elephant population (though a recent spate of poaching is a concern) and hundreds of bird species — including Little Bee-eaters, winged emeralds with flashes of brilliant yellow. The park also shelters unusual subspecies like Thornicroft’s giraffe, named for a commissioner of what was then Northern Rhodesia, and a fashion plate zebra called Crawshay’s decked out in super-sleek narrow stripes.
We set out in a wooden canoe across the languid, chocolate-brown river, eye to eye with the flicking ears of submerged hippos and the crocodiles sunning themselves on sandbars. There is always an element of risk in the bush – not just from animals but weird flora like sausage trees, which have heavy fruits resembling bratwurst that can inflict serious injury when they drop.
But at respected lodges like Tafika, there is a well-honed drill: We hiked a meandering 5 to 6 miles a day in single-file line led by Reonardo Zulu, a National Park wildlife officer bearing a high-powered rifle (it has been three years since he last needed to use it, to fell a charging hippo). Next was Amon Zulu, a gifted guide with finely tuned antennae who grew up in a village just outside the park and seemed to know the medicinal qualities of nearly every plant and tree. From Amon, we learned that a group of boys on bikes we had spotted before we left the lodge were bound for a high termite mound that was the only place to get cell reception. In grand Rhodesian tradition, a tea bearer named George Nkhoma brought up the rear.
Treading slowly and quietly is the key to spotting wildlife on foot. When you share the ground with elephants, you get a humbling sense of their power; we were enveloped by the sound of a mother elephant ripping up grasses with her trunk to feed her young. One afternoon near Crocodile, one of Tafika’s two overnight bush camps, we watched a young giraffe so unnerved by rackety baboons that she was afraid to cross a marsh to join her mother (she eventually succeeded). On foot, you can smell the wild jasmine, the horsey scent of zebras, the wetness of matted grasses where hippos bed down for the night. Amon taught me more about animal droppings than I thought I wanted to know.
I kept a nervous eye on Reonardo’s rifle, which he now clutched with two hands as he pointed out the adrenaline-inducing three-lobed paw prints of lions. Amon scanned a thicket of grasses with his binoculars — and it wasn’t long before he spied a flickering tail. “Lion!” he said exultantly. He and Reonardo led us to a safe place with a long view: in what seemed like a millisecond, I fleetingly made out the tawny coats of a mother and two cubs hightailing it through the brush – three out of a pride of 13 lions.
After dinner, made with ingredients from Tafika’s organic garden, Amon brought out a celebratory nightcap: a liqueur made from the plum-like fruit of the marula, a tree that he’d pointed out on our walk. I found myself in awe of his ability to juggle dual worlds – one, a universe of safari lodge gin and tonics, the other, life in a remote village in which an emergency run to the hospital during rainy season means pushing a makeshift stretcher through the mud — a day’s journey.
The scariest critter we encountered turned out not to be a lion but a blister beetle, a hideous insect that surreptitiously ambushed Jacob’s leg and secreted a chemical that blisters the skin (our son’s calm fortitude earned him Amon and Reonardo’s deep respect).
Our last morning, we encountered a brigade of guinea fowl, zany birds with speckled plumage that I’d come to regard as the Keystone Cops of South Luangwa.
I clung to the feeling of aliveness – of hyenas whooping in the night – as we paddled back across the river. And I thought about how that next time, having conquered lions, I will be ready for a leopard.