The Wild Valley
A walking safari through Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
Smoke from the fire dances through the chilly dawn sky, and on the plain behind the boma, where we sit drinking steaming cups of hot coffee, the silhouettes of buffalo stand ghost-like. There is no such thing as a “typical” day in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, or so I have learned over the six or so privileged months I have spent here, but to try and describe a day here, well it would certainly begin like this.
As the sun breaches over the horizon, our breakfast is overseen by colors like nowhere else on earth; a pink has never blushed so coral or a lilac been painted so soft, and reds don’t seem to warm in quite the same way. And the bird calls that accompany the sunrise — the low, booming dulcet tones of the ground hornbills, the bell-like notes of the tropical boubous, the liquid calls of the black orioles — provide a soundtrack of which the Philharmonic Orchestra would be most proud.
The rising sun reveals one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. The South Luangwa National Park covers 9,059 square kilometers and is home to 60 mammal and over 400 bird species, and for as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with it. With a born-and-bred Zambian father, I often holidayed in the Luangwa Valley growing up, and I later returned for a season to run a bushcamp deep in the heart of this astonishing landscape. On this most-recent trip, however, my partner and I have been tasked with a filming job, and we agreed there was nowhere better to capture African wildlife than the SLNP.
We finish our coffee just as the time arrives to head out and explore, but not in the manner that you might expect; in the SLNP, the mornings are dedicated to walking safaris, because “from a vehicle you see Africa, but on foot you can feel, hear and smell Africa” — a sentiment I first learned from The Bushcamp Company. In fact, the walking safari was pioneered here in South Luangwa, and it is no doubt one of the many reasons the SLNP was recently named the “world’s first sustainable wildlife park” — an honor bestowed by Dr. Taleb Rifai, the secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Our guide for the day is Andrew Mweetwa, a man with a broad smile and the knowledge of an encyclopedia. As we leave Mwamba Bushcamp, a bateleur eagle soars overhead, long wings held in a shallow V as he somersaults. We pass the muddy remnants of a lagoon fit to bursting with a fishing party of white pelicans, African spoonbills and marabou storks. Striped policeman, foxy charaxes and other butterflies, too numerous to name, dance around the damp edges.
A paw print in the sand ahead catches Andrew's eye. “It’s a lion,” he says. “You can tell because you can’t see the claws. Cats retract their claws when they walk, and this is too big to be a leopard. And it’s fresh.” We are walking in the very footsteps of the king of the jungle.
Along the way, the small things that would easily be overlooked by car are pointed out and local anecdotes told. Learning about all of the different medicinal properties of the flora and fauna is particularly fascinating. Burning porcupine spines and inhaling the smoke stops nose bleeds; soaking the locally known fried-egg tree’s inner bark and drinking the water cures diarrhea and malaria; rubbing the ashes of burnt acrotome on the forehead of someone bereaved gives relief; and so on and so on. We make a particular note to stay clear of the camiphora zebra plant, whose bark the bushmen used to carve into poison arrows.
At one point, Andrew’s arm shoots out to stop us in our tracks, and he turns to us with a finger to his lips. “Elephant,” he whispers. And sure enough, in a section of dried river bed, two young males are feeding. The strength with which they wrap their trunks around the tree to pull it down, and then the delicacy with which they pluck the most luscious of the leaves, is mesmerizing. Suddenly the elephants step back, ears flapping; they have caught our scent on the gentle breeze. Andrew, however, is unfazed by this change in behavior. “We have surprised them, that is all. Just keep quiet and move slowly.” The elephants watch us for a moment; one rolls his trunk and gives a small trumpet, but they soon lose interest in us and return to their browsing.
As the lions do not seem to want to reveal themselves, we return back to camp after a bit for a sumptuous brunch; in fact, all meals in the bush are lavish and completely at odds with the limited resources from which they are produced. Despite our full bellies following our feast, we forgo our afternoon siesta and instead make our way to one of Shenton Safaris’ incredible photographic hides: The Hippo Hide — a nook dug into the bank of a local watering hole.
Down here we are eye level with the wildlife and very much in among the action, as the pods of hippos vie for territory in the shrinking water. They snort and splash around, so close we can at times feasibly reach out and touch them. We watch as a crocodile glides silently past. “The local people have a saying in Nyanja: Usatukwane Ng’ona Matako Akali Madzi,” says Andrew, “which means, Don’t insult a crocodile before you cross the river.” I make a mental note of this sensible advice.
From the hide we head out on an evening drive, passing a family of Thornicroft’s giraffe (a species that is endemic to the area) which includes the most adorable pair of identical twins. Also known as Rhodesian giraffe, these animals were once endangered due to the local chiefs using their tails as fly swatters, a symbol of their great status. But in 1904, then-district commissioner Harry Thornicroft called for them to be protected, and now a healthy population resides in the park.
We stumble across a herd of buffalo who are moving fairly quickly, and we soon realize why: A pride of lions, the same ones we had been tracking earlier on foot, are following close behind. Their local name is “The Hollywood Pride,” Andrew tells us, and they have a reputation for not being particularly good buffalo hunters. Today, however, it seems their luck has changed. They flush the herd into an open plain and take advantage of an elderly bull at the rear. The old bull gets one good shot at a young male, catching it between his horns and throwing him like a rag-doll into the air, but eventually the buffalo is overcome by the strength of the pride.
As the sun begins to set we stop for sundowners along the river, a tradition in the bush of enjoying a drink of choice and snacks as the day winds to a close. As we finish up our gin and tonics, the excited cackles of a clan of hyena catch our attention, and we hop back in the Land Cruiser to follow the sound. As we get closer, we hear the rasping call of a leopard close by. The SLNP boasts the world’s highest naturally occurring population of leopard; could we be about to get lucky, we wonder? And then we catch sight of her. Velvety soft fur, off white and orange russet in color with black rosettes, shines under the torch’s light. She is up a tree crunching on an impala, and the hyenas are skulking around below.
We finish the evening drive with a spot of star gazing. It is a moonless night, and the stars are glittering like silver paint flicked on a black canvas. I can spot the southern cross and Orion’s belt, but I leave Andrew to point out the others. The sound of a dikkop bird calls wistfully on the balmy night. It is the most peaceful feeling, looking up at the enormity of our universe. Though there is no such thing as a typical day here, one thing remains a constant: the South Luangwa National Park is unquestionably beautiful, beyond human creation, and as David Livingstone said: “It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.”