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Destination: Zambia : When our walking safari guide yelled 'Run!' we took flight--away from the charging buffalo

October 23, 1994|LEE BROWN | Brown is a retired San Diego State professor and a part-time lecturer at Cal State Northridge.

SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, Zambia — We had lingered too long over coffee and our guide was pacing restlessly beneath the great spreading trees sheltering Luwi Camp, a temporary five-hut settlement in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park. By 6:15 a.m. the four of us had set out on our morning walking safari, having been awakened by the unmistakable, not-too-distant roar of a lion.

Arthur Ansell, 52, the Kapani Safari Lodge guide who directed our safari, was eager to track the lion. In traditional safari walking order, he took his place behind Kalikoko Mwale, the Zambian ranger who carried a .375 caliber Brno bolt action rifle, the only weapon among us. My wife, Carol, and I followed them across the Chimsekata Flats on our way to Nsolo, another bush camp about nine miles away.

Our British travel agent had encouraged us to visit South Luangwa National Park in Africa's landlocked south-central country of Zambia if we wanted a walking safari, which is defined narrowly in Africa. It refers to walking from one camp to another, and it usually means sleeping in one or more bush camps.

Although walking safaris are offered in several countries, including Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, we selected Zambia, which is not geographically spectacular except for its beautiful Victoria Falls, because we were told this is where the modern walking safari was invented. We also learned that Zambia, along with Zimbabwe, is among the few countries that allow walking safaris in national parks; other walks are primarily in private game parks that may not be as rich in animal variety. We choose a walking safari rather than the more traditional motor safaris of Kenya and Tanzania because we had already done those and were hoping for an experience that wasn't tourist saturated.

We knew we would see fewer animals than we had on motor safaris in three national parks in Tanzania, where we had seen the "big five": elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and African buffalo. But we were looking forward to the exhilarating sense of danger that comes from being on foot in the bush--minus the protection of a 4,000-pound Land Rover--as well as the chance to be close to animals unaccustomed to humans.

At Tanzania's tourist-heavy Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, the animals are habituated to humans in four-wheel drive vehicles and I thought actually appeared bored. Once, on the floor of Ngorongoro, we saw a half-dozing lion with a great, black mane inspire a traffic jam of tourist-filled Land Rovers, stopped and lined up to get a good look.

Zambia's modern walking safari originated in South Luangwa National Park under the guidance of Norman Carr, a noted conservationist who began as a park ranger before Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964.

Now in his 80s and something of a legend, Carr remains active in Zambia conservation, although his role in running Kapani Safari Lodge, which he founded, is reduced. The lodge newsletter says he has "been put out to grass," although he remains active day to day.

In Luangwa, the animals are less familiar with man and keep their distance. We had to seek them out, always hoping to find a big predator in the next clump of six-foot-high elephant grass and, at the same time, anxious that we might.

We had been driven in a Toyota Land Cruiser from Kapani Lodge to Luwi Camp the day before in time for a late afternoon walk with Ansell and Mwale. In proper walking order, we explored the banks and the many tracks left in the dry, sandy bottoms of the Luwi River, a flowing stream only during the rainy season that had ended in May, more than a month before our June, 1993, visit.

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We visited a plant-choked lagoon left when the river changed its course, and freshened each year during the rainy season. From a high bank we watched perhaps a dozen hippos and listened to their loud grunts and bellows.

"Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa. They kill more people than any other animal because people misjudge their temperament and how fast they can move. Never make the mistake of getting between a hippo and the water," Ansell said.

I made a mental note not to do that.

We watched a crocodile ease itself into the water from the far bank.

"Crocodiles are the second most dangerous animal in Africa," Ansell said.

Another mental note: Don't get between a crocodile and anything.

We walked the mile or so back to Luwi Camp without incident. Mwale had told us he always keeps a cartridge in the chamber of his rifle; he carried it in his arms almost like a baby. He said he has only to click off the safety to fire.

"When the animal charges, he comes very hard, very fast," Mwale said.

Another mental note: Position myself behind the rifle when anything charges, particularly crocodiles.

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