Beware the lions! Our walking safari in Zambia with Norman Carr Safaris

In ADVENTURE by Janice and George15 Comments

walking safari in Zambia

You may think a walking safari in Zambia (or Africa) means tracking down lions and other “Big Five” animals (leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros).

But you don’t actually want to bump into lions on foot.

walking safari in zambia

Thankfully we don’t see lions on our walking safari in Zambia, but we see plenty on game drives! photo Will Burrard-Lucas for Time+Tide

You certainly don’t want to run into an ornery old Cape buffalo bull on a walking safari – Cape buffalo and hippos kill more humans in Africa each year than any other wild creature. And stay far away from an elephant in musth. You have to watch out for snakes too; on our previous walking safari in Zambia, we might have stepped on two deadly rock pythons if our armed ranger in front hadn’t spotted them first.

So it’s spine-tingling to walk exposed, single-file and alert, in the bush.

Norman Carr Safaris guests walk in single file on a walking safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park – photo Time+Tide

The main point of a walking safari, however, is to learn about the smaller critters (insects, termites, birds), animal tracks, ebony trees, the mopane tree bark that elephants love to graze on – and the whole remarkable cycle of life, death and rebirth in the African bush.

We wonder, then, on our late afternoon walking safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park: Why are there some really big animals right in front of us?

The two-foot wide sandy path we’ve walked along (one of countless “hippo highways” criss-crossing the bush) has just taken us to a lagoon full of hippos. They are NOT the small creatures we’re supposed to see. Their bulging eyes and curled piggy ears poke up through the emerald-green Nile cabbage covering the lagoon, a little too close for comfort.

walking safari in Zambia

This submerged hippo is saying to us: “I can see you!” Just so long as he (she?) doesn’t come out of the lagoon…

An angry mother hippo in full charge! We hope the submerged hippos don’t decide to do this – photo Will Burrard-Lucas for Time+Tide

Don’t worry,” our guide calmly assures us. “This pool is deep, so the hippos feel safe here. They won’t come out and charge.”

Norman Carr:  Pioneer of the walking safari in Zambia

Ever since our first African safari in Zambia, we’ve hankered to return.

You’re sure to see all the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) on a safari in, say, South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve; the game drives are thrilling and most of the lodges are exceptionally luxurious. But Zambia is more remote than South Africa, harder to get to and much less visited – and the safari experience feels wilder, more raw. Safari aficionados say Zambia is what Kenya was like decades ago.

There was simply no denying the tug on our heartstrings. We wanted to go back.

Last time, the Lower Zambezi National Park in the southeastern part of the country was our safari stomping ground.

This time, we try Zambia’s drier South Luangwa National Park. Decades ago, a safari meant hunting and shooting game. The term “Big Five” was coined by big-game hunters for the five most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Norman Carr, a formidable hunter himself, broke the mold. He pioneered the idea of taking visitors on walking safaris to photograph the animals, not kill them; in 1950, he built the first safari camp in South Luangwa. Gradually he added more camps, and now Norman Carr Safaris is famous for its walking safaris. We’ve booked a five-night safari with them.

walking safari in Zambia

Norman Carr’s son would play with the two orphaned lion cubs his father raised (and later successfully returned to the wild) – photo Time+Tide

Five luxurious camps in South Luangwa

We stay at three of Norman Carr’s five deluxe camps in the park, and go on guided walks from two.

walking safari in zambia

Our guide on our first walk shows us an elephant tooth; elephants typically lose and replace their adult chewing teeth six times in their lifetime

You could call our first, late afternoon “hippo” walk a “walking safari lite,” as we don’t walk for more than 90 minutes or so. It’s not a good idea to stay out late and risk being caught in the dark – that’s when lions hunt. Besides, some killer gin-and-tonics are waiting for us back at camp.

Our camp here is Luwi, a seasonal bush camp and the most rustic and remote. It has just four thatched huts for eight guests. Each year, Luwi is completely rebuilt, opening in May after the rains have stopped. Grass mats that cover the packed earth floor in the bathrooms are woven by local village women.

walking safari in Zambia

Afternoon tea at Luwi Camp

Our second morning walk from the more deluxe Mchenja camp is much longer; we even have a “porter” who carries a massive backpack – turns out it’s for the tea, coffee and shortbread cookies for our mid-morning break.

Mchenja Camp has five bush-chic tented chalets overlooking the Luangwa River – photo Time+Tide

It’s pure delight to shower outside in your private bathroom, like this one at Mchenja Camp

You can hear the hippos grunting in the river; at night they come out and graze outside Mchenja’s tented chalets

What’s for lunch today at Mchenja? Lots of lovely salads and this spinach-and-cheese quiche

walking safari in zambia

We break for tea on our morning walking safari from Mchenja Camp

If you want a more extended walking safari experience, you can walk from camp to camp in a circuit, staying overnight at each. They’re located within a morning or easy day’s walk from each other.

Danger zones

You see more game, closer up, when you’re on a game drive – the more popular way to go on safari these days.

African animals are habituated to the sight and sounds of people seated in an open tiered Land Rover – they’re comfortable letting you approach them up close this way. In South Africa, lions have walked by just feet away from us in a vehicle. Talk about heart-stopping! (A lion smells a little like an unwashed dog.) And we’ve watched lions fanned around in a circle, tearing into the bloody meat of their kill – we’ve been so up-close-and-personal we could hear the snapping of the dead impala’s bones as the lions ripped it apart.

In Zambia, we go on plenty of game drives with Norman Carr Safaris.

walking safari in Zambia

South Luangwa supports large herds of elephants, which we see on game drives

walking safari in zambia

African wild dogs are rare to spot on safari, so we’re tremendously excited when we come across a pack on a late afternoon game drive

walking safari in zambia

African wild dogs, also known as painted dogs, are an endangered species, unique to Africa

On our drive to Luwi Camp, three lions by the river catch our attention. They appear to be waiting to swim across, but they’re cautious, pacing on the riverbank, taking their time. They’ve spotted a large Nile crocodile gliding back and forth right in front of them.

Crossing the river is a dangerous business,” our guide remarks drily.

walking safari in zambia

A lioness waits it out on the riverbank; she doesn’t want to swim across the river when there’s a large Nile crocodile waiting for her!

On a walking safari, the animals react differently to humans. As upright, two-legged creatures on foot, we’re perceived as predators by prey animals like antelope. Intrude on their space, even slightly, and they become skittish.

A walk in the park? Not exactly…

The animals’ comfort zone is 500 feet, outside of which they behave normally. At 300 feet, antelope such as impala and kudu freeze and perk their ears up, then sprint away. Get to 150 feet of them and you’re in the danger zone; there’s a very good possibility any lion, buffalo or elephant in range will charge and attack you.

Critical zone? About 80 feet or less – you better know how to climb a tree really fast!

And sadly, the armed ranger who walks in front of you will try to shoot the attacking animal to protect you.

walking safari in Zambia

One of our armed rangers shows us the bullets for his rifle

walking safari in Zambia

A ranger armed with a high-powered rifle always leads Norman Carr’s walking safaris

So, it’s a good thing we don’t glimpse lions (or buffalo) on any of our walking safaris in Zambia. We’re content to spot them only on game drives.

The up-close hippos in deep water are okay though…

walking safari in Zambia - yellow-billed stork

South Luangwa is also a birder’s paradise; this yellow-billed stork is a pretty sight

More information on Norman Carr Safaris

  • Norman Carr Safaris was founded in 1950 by Norman Carr, pioneer of the walking safari in Zambia and Africa.
  • The company is part of the Time+Tide collection of exclusive safaris and remote island adventures across Zambia and Madagascar.
  • There are five Norman Carr Safaris camps in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park – the most deluxe is Chinzombo. A wildly luxurious new camp, King Lewanika Lodge, just opened in Liuwa Plain National Park in April, 2017. Time + Tide also runs Chongwe Safaris in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park; you can seamlessly go on safari to all three parks for three completely different safari experiences.

All photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)

Read more about our latest walking safari in Zambia

See our story recently published in on “Walking Safaris in Zambia.” 

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  1. This looks absolutely stunning and you saw so much wildlife! I’ve never been on safari but it’s high on my wishlist. Might have to wait a couple of years and do it when we retire ;)

  2. We were camping at the border of South Luangwa National Park. A stunning place as there are no fences and everyday the elephants roam through the camp. It was the National Park where we had most of our leopard sightings.

  3. What an incredible adventure. You were so lucky to see the wild dogs! I’ve spent many months in Southern Africa and keep missing them. So glad you found them!

    1. Author

      The wild dogs are such sociable creatures too. We were really lucky to come across them just before sunset. We saw them sleeping at first, then they woke up, first one, then the others as they they woke each other up. They then licked each other and had a “meet-and-greet” session, nuzzling each other and playing a bit. This lasted for a good 5 minutes, then suddenly they trotted off in single file to go hunting for the night. Fascinating to watch! Hope you see them at some point :-).

  4. We’ve done a walking safari in Tanzania and it was quite exhilarating! You were really lucky to see the wild dogs, we didn’t spot any there

  5. ‘Love your photography!

    I’ve been on a game drive safari in India & South Africa, and even that was a bit too close for comfort! We were about 6 passengers not including the guide and the “security” guy! The cheetahs, lions, leopards, and rhino in particular made me nervous as close up, they’re huge! I don’t think I’d be brave enough to go on a walking safari.

    One of my German girlfriends invited me to go to Botswana a few years ago, to see the gorillas. I politely declined as sadly, I have an enormous fear of anything (ahem) from the primate family which started when a monkey pulled my hair in Bali, and huge monkeys not letting me pass on in peace at the temple, at the Ranthambore National park in India…!

    1. Author

      Sounds like you’ve had your own great adventures — even without going on a walking safari! Was the Bali hair-pulling monkey at the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud? Those monkeys do like to jump up on people; they jumped up on us too :-) See our story on “Monkeying Around in the Ubud Monkey Forest.” Anyway, glad you like our photography :-). Thanks for letting us know…

      1. Ha! Ha! I read your story.

        Yep! It was back in ’99 and I wasn’t even in the Monkey Forest. I was in the car park! And in those days, I had long plaits, so you can imagine what it would have been like to have an unexpected monkey jump on your head behind you, and start swinging on your hair! I don’t scare easily, but I just started screaming as it was so unexpected, and of course, making the whole thing worse!

        My husband, son and I went back to Bali in 2014, they went into the Forest whilst I waited outside! Nothing too damaging happened except for one of the monkeys pulling down the shorts of our son, and another cheeky one trying to get into the shoulder bag of my husband. While it was still on his shoulder! Here’s what I wrote:

  6. VERY INTERESTING AND INFORMATIVE POST. You two seem to have a great feeling for the places visited. You have also expanded your horizons, just as my other favorite bloggers have done in Senior Nomads. Keep up the wonderful reporting and thanks for your visits to Mexico where we live.

    1. Author

      Yes, we get around :-). We write a lot about Mexico, as you know. But we’ve also traveled to Africa, Bora Bora, Turkey, Antarctica (Janice), Indonesia, Egypt, Norway and many other places around the world. Travel is in our blood — and we love to travel. BTW – stay tuned, as we’ll be posting more about our recent Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique trip in future :-). Thanks for commenting!

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