You may think walking safaris are all about tracking down lions and other “Big Five” animals (leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros).
But you actually don’t want to bump into lions on foot.
You certainly don’t want to run into an ornery old Cape buffalo bull on an African 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…
Walking safaris – what you’re supposed to see
The main point of walking safaris, 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.
“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.”
The lure of a Zambia safari
Ever since our first safari in Zambia, we’ve hankered to return.
You’re sure to see the “Big Five” animals (lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinos and elephants) in, say, South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve; the game drives are thrilling and most of the lodges, like Simbambili, 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.
Norman Carr: Pioneer of the walking safari in Zambia
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 South Luangwa safari with them.
Types of walking safaris
There are two types of walking safaris.
Multi-day walking safaris:
“True” walking safaris are multi-day trips in the bush.
You’re on foot most of the time, perhaps walking from camp to camp, or returning sometimes to the same bush camp for a second night.
Half-day bush walks:
The other type is a guided bush walk ranging from a couple of hours to half a day. These are offered by some African safaris in the morning or late afternoon as an alternative to going on a game drive.
This is how we experienced our walking safaris – going on guided walks at two of Norman Carr Safaris’ camps in the South Luangwa.
Five luxurious South Luangwa safari camps
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.
Luwi Bush 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 Bush Camp 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.
Mchenja Bush Camp:
Our second morning walk from the more deluxe Mchenja Bush 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.
Other bush camps:
The two other bush camps are Nsolo and Kakuli.
Multi-day Norman Carr walking safaris:
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.
The fifth Norman Carr camp in South Luangwa is Chinzombo. The most deluxe, it wowed us with luxury (and killer leopards).
(We don’t do any walks here; our game drives are exhilarating enough. Plus the camp is so drop-dead gorgeous, it’s sometimes hard to leave!)
Safari game drives
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 Sabi Sands Game Reserve 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.)
On that Big 5 safari, we also watched lions fan around in a circle, tearing into the bloody meat of their kill – we were so up-close-and-personal we could hear the snapping of the dead impala’s bones as the lions ripped it apart.
Here in Zambia, we go on plenty of game drives with Norman Carr Safaris.
On our drive to Luwi Bush 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 safaris vs. game drives (danger zones)
On walking safaris, 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.
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.
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…
Other walking safaris in Africa
Where is South Luangwa National Park?
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Photo credits: 2, 6, 9, 10 and 12 to 24, © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Lead image Will Burrard-Lucas for Time+Tide