Walking along the banks of Zambia’s Luangwa River, watching the antics of kingfishers and African fish eagles over the water, all while following a guide tracking giraffe prints… this is what a really wild African safari entails. Sometimes, your own two feet are the best way to experience the wild wonders of the African bush.
Walking vs driving
As the birthplace of walking safaris, South Luangwa is a great place to get out there, awaken your senses and really experience Africa. Robin Pope has been guiding mobile walking safaris through the area since the early 1990s and believes that when you walk in the wild, you become a part of your environment and enjoy a really authentic safari experience. Depending on the time you have, your fitness level and your need for modern creature comforts, you can choose between a classic 8-day walking safari, sleeping in luxury tents in temporary camps in the middle of the bush, or short nature walks between other safari activities.
While animals will generally ignore you in a vehicle, when you’re on foot, they recognise you as another type of animal. Standing there, watching them at a safe distance, is a primal experience and your own instincts and excitement will kick in, heightening the experience emotionally.
Although you may be able to travel further in a vehicle, on foot you can reach places that a 4x4 can't. You will also be closer the tapestry of smells, sounds and signals of the bush, like noting where a porcupine dragged its quills during the night, where frogs have spawned or how dung beetles tackle their crucial task so diligently.
What makes walking special
A Robin Pope guide, Jason Alfonsi, explains why walking safari encounters are so extraordinary:
‘These interactions can bring wonderful experiences and we are highly trained to safely appreciate them when we are in the right place at the right time. With our armed escort and experience, these exchanges can be enjoyed and appreciated when they happen. It is wonderful to see a baby zebra being nuzzled by its mother or watch the way monkey family members interact with each other.’
Walking safaris also provide you with a freedom incomparable to any other safari activity. Once on foot, you are not constrained by roads and can go almost anywhere you like. The guides each boast an extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna in the area. A pile of bones on the side of the trail or an interesting insect can lead into an in-depth explanation, often coupled with fascinating first-hand guide experiences and stories. You can learn more about the African wilderness on a walking safari than you’ve learnt in your whole live, and walk away with a newfound respect for even the smallest of creatures and plants.
Safety always comes first
Guides track animals using signs and clues to unravel the story of their recent movements in an effort to provide you with fantastic encounters and sightings. Of course, a safe distance is always maintained and respect for the wildlife in their territory is upheld as the primary rule.
As Jason says, ‘As a guide we cannot push or force experiences. Everything has to fall into place naturally. We do not want to create expectations in our guests that we cannot fulfil. Giving the animals as much time as they need to decide on their course of action and not rushing them usually leads to more interesting encounters.’
Predicting animals’ likely behaviour is central to a good guide’s job. Jason shares one of his most memorable encounters:
‘This happened when I did a short walk with the group in the late afternoon. We had just got into the park and came across a big bull elephant several hundred metres away across a lagoon bed. We stopped and I reminded the group once again how to behave in the wilderness. We planned a quick walk around the lagoon into the woodland to approach the bull from the tree line and slipped in behind a big bush so we could watch without disturbing him. At this point he was about 70m / 230ft away from us. It is often hard to see if habituated elephants know that you are there or not as they sometimes simply do not react to humans in any way at all. Wild elephants usually react so you know that they have seen, heard or smelt you. As we watched him, he slowly started moving across in front of our bush.
One of the best parts of guiding is sharing your guests' excitement. He took his time but I had calculated that the path he was taking would bring him about 15m / 50ft in front of us. I reminded everyone to be very quiet and still. As he arrived in front of our bush, he stopped to rest his trunk on the ground, giving the guests a wonderful view of his tusks and massive feet, which are specially adapted to carrying his enormous weight. Then he began delicately breaking off the fresh shoots of leaves, feeding them into his mouth with obvious relish. We were so close that we were able to almost count his long eyelashes and see the individual bristles on his hide through our binoculars. Elephants' eyes show their intelligence and emotions, and my guests got superb close-up photos of this young guy.
After taking his time feeding, he turned his head and stared at us for what seemed like ages, then turned and abled off again. He knew we were there all along and decided to play 'peek-a-boo' with us. He did not trumpet so he wasn’t scared - he was just acknowledging our presence. It was such a moving experience that we all quite silent on our walk back to camp. Elephants are my favourite animal and they are still teaching me things.’
Walking safari options
- Mobile walking safaris These are multi-day bush walking adventures, and you are immersed in the wilderness day and night. Temporary base camps are set up in different spots each night.
- Luangwa bush camping Spend a night in the bush while staying at either Tena Tena or Nsefu (can be extended to three nights for the more adventurous). This is a back-to-basics type of bush camping experience, offering you a taste of adventure during your lodge-based safari in South Luangwa.
- Bush walks These are short, guided nature walks while staying at the lodges and are ideal if your health or vacation time don’t extend to a full walking safari.
Best time to go
Winter starts in June or July, which is also the dry season in Zambia. Days are warm and sunny but can get chilly at night. September brings hot, hazy weather. It's an excellent time for game viewing and bird watching. In October it can get very hot with temperatures going up to 40°C / 104°F in the shade. This is the end of Zambia's dry season.
Mobile walking safaris and bush camping - June to October (dry winter months)
Bush walks - all year round
A moderate level of fitness is required for all options (mobile walking safaris cover up to 10km / 6mi a day with frequent stops).
What to pack
Comfortable walking shoes, insect repellent, a wide-brimmed hat with a chin strap, sunglasses, high SPF sunscreen, a torch, binoculars, and a camera with spare memory cards and batteries.