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Step Into the Wild: South Luangwa Walking Safaris

You’re woken by a gentle knock and softly spoken “Good morning to you!” as the aroma of freshly-brewed Zambian coffee wafts into your tent. It’s really early and your sleep-fuzzy brain reminds you that you lay awake until late into the night – safely cocooned under canvas in the snug comfort of your four-poster bed, listening to the whoops of hyenas and pensive hoot of an owl.

For a moment you consider snuggling down deeper under your duvet. On any ordinary day that’s exactly what you’d do, but you’re far removed from the everyday and ordinary in this remote tented bush camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Besides, you’ve come to love those languid, quiet minutes just before dawn, sipping coffee on your deck as the chorus of wild pheasants grows ever louder.

Nope, you don’t want to miss a single thing. It’s time to get up and put on those walking shoes: adventure awaits!

Step into the Wild - the South Luangwa landscape
The South Luangwa National Park is a remote wilderness characterized by the sunny riverbanks and countless oxbow lakes of the Luangwa River.

Wild and Game-Packed: The South Luangwa

What is it that draws you to a safari in Africa? For many first-time visitors it’s the chance to see big game: to get close to the great, grey bulk of an elephant; follow a lion as it stalks its prey on the wide savannah plains or catch sight of a leopard, the twitch of its tail the only giveaway to its shade-dappled camouflage high in a tree.

You’ve got a good chance of seeing these big players and more on game drives alongside the meandering waters of the Luangwa River. Its countless oxbow lakes attract herds of elephant and buffalo, Nile crocodiles bask on sunny riverbanks and big cats stalk through the surrounding woodlands. With all this abundant wildlife you’d expect plenty of people too yet the South Luangwa has remained an under-the-radar safari destination.

It is this wild, raw edge – unspoiled by crowds and safari bus queues - that makes the South Luangwa (or ‘The Valley’ as it’s locally known) a top choice for those in the know. That, and the chance to walk through big game country while discovering those quieter moments and sensory experiences: evenings spent around a crackling campfire, the rich golden quality of early morning light, the scent of the African bush – this is what’s addictive, this is what keeps people coming back again and again. 

Step into the Wild - along the river
From huge pods of hippos lolling in the shallows, to lion prides looking for their next kill, the park offers superb game-viewing experiences.
Step into the Wild - river walk
Taking socks and shoes off for a cooling river stroll.
Step into the Wild - a friendly tortoise
You'll be amazed by the small wonders your guide reveals on a walk.

What is it About Walking?

Game drives cover a lot of ground, but it’s only when you get out of your vehicle and set off on foot that you shift from being a camera-clicking observer to an active participant in the wilderness. As your armed guide leads you along well-worn elephant trails your senses sharpen and you notice things you’d otherwise miss in a vehicle: the alarm call of a troop of baboons as they sound out the presence of a predator, paw prints on a sandy riverbed, the rich scent of sweet mahogany blossoms.

Wildlife too is acutely aware of your presence, you’re now in their territory walking amongst them;  your outline no longer obscured by the box-shape of a jeep, your scent no longer masked by metal and diesel fumes. From downwind you’re likely to see rears running as antelope keep a safe distance from you. Approach upwind, and you’ll get so close you can hear elephant steadily munching on leaves or see the twitching ears of graceful impala as they graze.

Walking safaris were pioneered in the South Luangwa back in the 1950s, and this incredible reserve is still the best place in Africa to track big game on foot. Nothing in an authentic wilderness is guaranteed so this is not an activity for travellers pursuing a game viewing checklist. Instead it’s a chance to become absorbed in the smaller mysteries of the wilderness as you learn how this extraordinary place fits together. That said, if you do manage to successfully track an apex predator, that surge of adrenaline mixed with wonder is a feeling you’ll never forget!

Step into the Wild - luxurious Chinzombo Camp
Luxurious Chinzombo Camp is situated in the park and sundowners on the sprawling deck offers a welcome respite from a day out on foot.
Step into the Wild - taking notice of the small things
The guides are well equipped and extremely knowledgeable.
Step into the Wild - safe with your guide
A walking safari can bring you close to larger game.

Brilliant Guides & Bush Camps

Each day you set off in single file with an armed scout in front, followed by your guide and then usually a tea carrier at the back of the line. Walking through big game country may initially seem like a scary idea, but you'll soon feel safe in the knowledge that the South Luangwa guides are some of the best in Africa: vastly experienced and trained to deal with almost any eventuality. You’ll be swept away by their encyclopedic knowledge as they share incredible facts and entertaining anecdotes about the wildlife, plants and local superstitions.

And don’t be fooled by the term “bush camp”. Even at basic bush camps you’ll return from your walk to a delicious feast, chilled drinks, snugly comfortable bed made up with crisp white linen, hot bucket showers and some of the most beautiful settings Zambia has to offer. If basic is just not your style, opt for a luxury camp with spacious villas and private plunge pools.

Step into the Wild - comfortable Zulungila Camp
Comfortable Zungulila Camp is a perfect example of rustic luxury in the heart of the South Luangwa National Park.

Good-to-Know Details & Practical Advice

In a vehicle you are likely to see more game and get closer to your sightings than on foot, which is why most visitors combine walking safaris with game drives. Either pick a lodge that is well known for both activities or, if you really want to focus on walking, spend your first few days on game drives snapping those close-up photos of lion and elephant, then head to a recommended camp deep in the park to explore on foot. You can even arrange to walk from bush camp to bush camp.

Each walk lasts about three to five hours, depending on what you see. Your guide sets an easy pace with frequent stops for tea beneath shady trees. To enjoy a walking safari you need to be of average fitness and children must be 12 years or older.

Step into the Wild - white-fronted bee eaters
While the South Luangwa is known for its big game, it's also a haven for birds. The white-fronted bee eater is a common sight near river banks.

Travel Fact File

  • Best time to travel: Zambia’s dry season months of May to October.
  • Best walking tour: the 9-day Walk the South Luangwa starts at luxurious Mfuwe Lodge then takes you to three small and remote bush camps for an extraordinary safari experience.
  • Best all-round camp: Puku Ridge is a lovely tented camp offering both walking safaris and game drives. What’s more the fantastic location means game viewing begins before you’ve even left camp!
  • Best luxury camp: between game drives and walking safaris spend leisurely hours relaxing alongside your private plunge pool at Chinzombo – a luxurious bush camp with 6 beautifully designed villas.
  • Best authentic bush camp: Zungulila is a classic South Luangwa bush camp with 4 comfortable tents. The focus here is firmly on game viewing and on exploring the South Luangwa on foot.
  • Discover what else you can do on your holiday by reading our Top 5 Zambia Safari Experiences.

 

 Written by Sandra Mallinson. Connect with her on Google+.

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