A Safari Diary...

ZAMBIA
SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK WALKING SAFARI
Two Bush Camps sited on the Luangwa and Kampamba Rivers
So you decide to go on Safari!
Thoughts of historical white hunters, shots like Ernest Hemingway, 'the big five', trophies of tusk and snake skin, bearers carrying your camp, even you, during the exacting heat of the mid-day sun. These images might cross your mind?
Today there's a flip side; too many tourists, too many cameras, too many vehicles circling around a waterhole. There is the perfect answer…
Take a Bush Camp Safari in South Luangwa National Park and the majesty, the remoteness, the quantity of game and birdlife, the knowledge of a well-informed guide; these are all yours, together with sheer luxury, faultless service and often a feeling of timeless nostalgia.
The journey begins with a flight to Lusaka; then up country to Mfuwe Airport. A low-flying propeller plane allows you to view the dark green canopy of the bush and the red dirt tracks leading to remote thatched villages. Mfuwe Airport hums safari. There are guides and drivers in khaki shorts and bush shirts; cameras, lenses and binoculars hang from every neck.
Soon a landrover whisks away the select eight that make up our party. We leave behind the tin-roofed airport building and the single short runway. We are off to the first of our lodges. A forty minute drive takes us to Mfuwe Lodge, the hub of the Bushcamp Company enterprise. For a couple of nights our home is a sturdy mud brick, thatched rondavel, complete with a pair of croaking, moist frogs perched by the door. They are catching flies attracted by an exterior light. We have a comfortable bed, quality white, cotton sheets, a large and efficient wet-room and hot water. Mfuwe Lodge is an initial staging post, the hours spent here allow jet-lag to subside, acclimatise one to bush Africa and prepare one for the long drive to the first of the real Bush Camps, Zungalila, approximately a four hour drive up country.
The best month to see game and birds is October, the end of the dry season, before the rains. The long grass is brittle. The trees have shed their leaves to conserve moisture. The water holes and the great river beds have dried up. Animals congregate where there is still a meager trickle of water.
Dust covered, hot and crinkly around sun soaked eyes, we arrive at Zungulila Bushcamp. There are four substantial tents erected on individual concrete platforms. The interior of each tent is a tardis. Floors are covered in colourful kelims, the king sized bed is scattered with subtle arabesque patterned cushions and there's a small travelling writing desk and some leather trunks; it could be an Edwardian camp, that of an early explorer. The outside bathroom has two cheval mirrors. There are pewter fitments.
There's your own private plunge pool. Sit in this and watch parading elephants and stealthy crocodiles. Talk to a huge visiting monitor lizard.
There's a walking safari each early morning, presenting an ideal opportunity to learn about the small details of the bush. A sausage fruit cut in half; it provides succulent food for night time, land-scavenging hippos. Poisonous red berries, dried, are ideal for necklaces. The folding butterfly-shaped leaves of the Mopani tree conserve water; the white chalk poo of the crocodile is crushed bone calcium. A herd of impala might have left a circle of marbles, their excrement. The strength of the smell of a marble dictates the strongest males of the herd. You might even be charged by an agitated rogue elephant. Fear not, you are in the care of a wise guide and a brave armed scout.
Look skywards. You will be dazzled by Lilac-Breasted Rollers, iridescent, petrol hued, Greater Blue-Eared Starlings, Carmine Bee-Eaters, Weaver Birds and Grey Louries, to name but a few. Look up again and there will be raptors, Fish Eagles, African Hawk Eagles, Martial Eagles, Bateleurs and perhaps Pel's Fishing Owl (looking like a Cheshire Cat.) White Backed and Hooded Vultures raggedly pick at carrion.
Walk to the river bed and marvel at the hundreds of Carmine Bee-Eaters in their sandbank nesting holes. Watch the Great White Egret, the Yellow-billed Stork, the Open-billed Stork, the Saddle-billed Stork, the Crowned Crane, darting Pied Kingfishers, a surprising number of Wood Sandpipers, together with Skimmers and Egyptian Geese.
At mid-day, after a cool beer and a beautifully prepared lunch, a different tasty quiche each day, it is time to dip into your private plunge pool, take another shower, read, catch up with the bird book, even sleep!
Afternoon tea is a treat. How are the lightest of lemon curd sponge cakes and doughnuts made in a camp oven?
The nocturnal drive is for game, prides of lions, stalking leopard, giraffe, dazzles of zebra, elephants, porcupines and scarred hippos. You might be lucky and site a pack of fearful wild dogs. Refresh yourself with a sundowner, perhaps seated in the river, complete with a white table-clothed bar. Nothing can compare with an African sunset, the great orange orb and the charcoal outlines of trees and distant hills. Another day in the South Luangwa National Park draws to a close under a black velvet starlit sky; not a trace of light pollution.
The second Bush Camp visited was Bilimungwe, a further hour's drive along the River Kampamba. Bilimungwe has a completely different feel to Zungulila but it also offers incredible luxury and impeccable service. Bilimungwe has thatched wooden cabins built upon stilts. Large, strikingly colourful cotton print cushions make comfortable a spacious wooden deck, overlooking two muddy waterholes, delightful for the cooling mud play of elephants, families of warthog, baboons, visiting waterbuck, kudu and impala. There is a vivid contrast between the ochre of the parched savannah and the bright green of the Nile Cabbage, fringing the waterholes. Here again are early morning walking safaris and evening drives. Some of the rest of the day can be spent in your individual, outside bathroom. Take a refreshing waterfall shower; a robust curtain of water falling from a scooped out branch. Relax before the evening meal with its magical atmosphere of oil-lamps and camp fires.
Bush Camps have excellent natural history libraries and welcoming, well informed camp managers.
Take a Bush Camp Safari and enjoy a 'feel alive' wilderness wildlife experience of a lifetime!
Penny Monro from the UK.
3rd to 13th October 2012

Photo gallery