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A Safari on Foot in Zambia

DESTINATION: AFRICA

Armed with only a guide's rifle and their sense of humor, travelers take a bush walk on the wild side in South Luangwa National Park

April 09, 2000|MARGO PFEIFF | Margo Pfeiff is a freelance writer and photographer in Montreal

SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, Zambia — "Right! Single file. No breaking rank," barked Huw Jones, our lanky, redheaded safari guide, in an exaggerated British accent. "Splennnnndid!"

Then, with a deep knee bend, a quick spin and a long-legged step forward, he mockingly saluted his scraggly, overheated crew and snapped to attention. "We were warned about Huw," one of my fellow travelers joked as we set off into the Zambian bush.

Others may have been warned, but I wasn't. What had I gotten myself into? I was on my first trip to Africa, beginning with a four-day safari on foot in September. Only 18 hours earlier I had been at comfy Johannesburg International Airport, shopping at stores stocked with ostrich jerky, impala pa^te and other exotic treats.

Now I was in the Zambian bush, putting my life in the hands of Huw (the Welsh spelling for Hugh), a 29-year-old London native who seemed more like a Monty Python comic than a seasoned naturalist. The sights, meanwhile, were almost unreal. Impala and giraffes and wart hogs sauntered into the brush. Sausage trees, named for their long, dangling gourds, dotted the landscape. I felt as if I were walking through a National Geographic TV special.

This was the reason I came here. In years past, I had hiked and camped in the Canadian Arctic, U.S. national parks and the Australian Outback. Seeing Africa--on foot, no less--seemed a natural next step.

Few African countries allow visitors to travel by foot in game-rich national parks. Zambia, along with Zimbabwe, is an exception. That brought me to South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. The 3,535-square-mile park dates back to 1950, when former game warden Norman Carr persuaded regional Chief Nsefu to create an animal reserve open to the public, with admission fees benefiting the local people. Carr was ahead of his time in other ways too: In the 1960s, he originated the walking safaris that have become popular today.

The reserve became a national park in 1972, and these days, Carr's protege Robin Pope is one of Zambia's best-known guides.

Visitors find a park with more than 60 plains animal species and about 400 types of birds. Humans, meanwhile, are scarce. Only about 5,000 step foot in South Luangwa each year. That's fewer than the number of cars jamming Yosemite in one day, and that park is a third the size of South Luangwa.

My journey began at Nkwali, a camp next to South Luangwa National Park owned by Pope and his wife, Jo. That first evening I sipped "sundowners," as drinks are called during Africa's cocktail hour, with Jo in the lodge. As the sun sank into the Luangwa River, Jo told me about her first trip to Africa in 1989, when she fell head over heels for Robin.

"He insisted it was just a bad case of khaki fever," she said with a chuckle. Khaki fever?

"That's when you're smitten with the whole romantic mystique of the safari guide," Jo said. She proposed four times before he finally exchanged vows beneath a broad fig tree at the camp.

The next afternoon, after a hot, five-hour, dust-choking drive north, I arrived in the Chibembe area of South Luangwa National Park. Huw, the guide, and Faxon, an African-born game scout armed with a Czech Brno rifle, led the way to our first bush camp trailed by me and my safari mates: John Trowbridge, a retired rocket scientist from Iowa, and his wife, Sandi, both in their mid-60s; and a designer-khaki-clad London real estate agent named Sally Allen who had never ventured outside the world's fashion centers.

Huw proved to be an experienced guide who knew the animals' routines and could read their behavior. No travelers on guided safari in Zambia, he assured us, had been hurt by an animal.

After an hour of easy walking over flat, open terrain, we arrived at the bush camp where we would sleep for two nights and start our twice-daily safaris: one just after dawn and one in late afternoon, together totaling six to eight miles.

Each of us checked out a private, thatch-roofed hut above a bend in the Chibembe River. Twin beds, a sink and a jug for water awaited inside. The accommodations were rustic and comfortable, charming if not luxurious. Toilets were nearby in thatched outhouses. We barely noticed the lack of electricity and running water.

That evening, the group drank wine and dined by candlelight on fresh, delicious Lake Malawi bream grilled with vegetables.

As I drifted off to sleep beneath a cocoon of mosquito netting and the glow of a hurricane lamp, I heard snoring. Hippos, I thought.

I've never been a morning person, but in Africa I couldn't stay in bed once the sky brightened. I awoke to the orange-breasted bush shrike, called the Beethoven bird because its tune sounds like the Fifth Symphony. With a bacon-and-egg feast finished by 6 a.m., we were walking again under endless blue skies.

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