Discovering South Luangwa on foot

A walking safari in South Luangwa National Park

When you say the words ‘walking safari’ most people tend to think no thanks, ‘I’m not fit enough’… So, let’s clear up some misconceptions about the wonder that is walking in the bush.

To start, walking safaris are taken at your own pace. I have been on walks where we walked 5 minutes and came across some hippos, watched them for 2 hours, had sundowners brought to us then we were driven back to camp! I have also been on walks where we covered 10km, got sweaty, saw amazing sightings and were completely exhausted at the end. Perfect excuse to fill up on the amazing food at the lodge and treat yourself with a few gin and tonics!

You don’t see big game on foot. False! Although, the main aim of a walking safari is to focus on the small animals, plants, trees and birds that by no means suggests you won’t see lion, leopard, buffalo or elephant! Whilst the excitement here is to learn how to track, you very often are tracking the larger easier to find animals. For example, several times, I have tracked lions and found them! Once, observing a lion on a kill which proved female power as the male ran off having spotted us and the females didn’t even bother getting up!

lion,south luangwa

Then again, the next day we tracked them to some thick bush, went around the area and saw them hiding under a particularly dense bush! Both equally exciting but perhaps more rewarding as it was a sort of fun game of hide and seek! The second one even more so as a female mock charged us… I say this, but really she growled very loudly and ran off-blink and you’d miss it, but I loved it!

For an insect lover (I know odd) like myself, walking was incredible. I could stop every time I saw something rather than waiting to go explore elephant dung at drinks stops. There is something rewarding about learning how the guides find the animals, seeing how each one fits into the ecosystem and seeing something you would usually miss on a drive. And of course, you feel like a bit of a badass doing it-after all it does take a bit of bravery to leave the comfort of your own vehicle.

Having guided before in South Africa, I know guides are meant to live for walking. Never one to follow the crowd, I love the car… I love my camera and I am always chasing the perfect shot and it is much easier to get closer to an animal in a vehicle. However, away from the cats some of my best shots (or at least my mum tells me so) of elephants, hippos and plains game have been on foot.

elephants on a walking safari

The 3 main rules of photography are portraits, abstract and within a habitat. The latter is perfect for on foot. Alternatively, if you are someone who lives behind the lens (guilty) this is the perfect opportunity to put heavy equipment down and enjoy the bush through your eyes.

You also must hand it to the guides and scouts, they not only find interesting things to show you, providing a history behind a tree name, a medicinal use for a plant, teaching you the difference between squirrel alarm calls (lion and leopard differ) they also manage to teach you tracks, scat and a profuse of other interesting skills as well as keeping you safe and finding you sightings – which is a lot harder on foot.

With my background in mind, I decided on my next trip to SL I wanted to go see some of the proper walking camps and get back to nature as one should try, at least, once! Heading to the north to see the Remote Africa Safari camps and South to see Kafunta’s Three Rivers Camp I was ready to get my walking boots on and get them dirty!

walking safari

Credit where credit is due, all my guides were fantastic. I can never stress enough how important a good guide is, you can be in the best camp/lodge in the world if your guide isn’t top notch you won’t have a good experience. After all, we aren’t there to just enjoy the room. And that is why I think it’s important to go around and test the lodges frequently (at least that’s what I tell my boss!).

My first stop was Crocodile Camp with RAS. Totally rustic yet incredibly comfortable. My guide Moffat sat and had lunch with me as he explained what would happen this afternoon. There had been a buffalo kill yesterday and the lions were around – would I like to track them? Silly question really. Yes!

The RAS bush camps are in an area with no roads so you are literally following the animal highways chasing them hot on the trail. This is where we found the skittish male and relaxed females (go, girls! You are right a short, Scottish lady is not a threat!). We perched and watched them as they relaxed after a feed, cuddling into one another as they geared up for an evening activity.

south luangwa sunset

It was incredibly exciting to be so close on foot (although a zoom lens here does come in handy!) but I should mention I also felt very safe. It is exciting and a bit nerve-wracking but my guide and scout made sure I was happy each time we got a little closer, it’s a bit like watching a pilot if they are happy you can relax if they panic you should too!

We also managed to see a hippo out the water, on foot, thanks to a little drizzle of rain which led to an exciting mock charge from a female who was sleeping in some long grass. Blink and you’d have missed the event my guide and scout didn’t flinch…checked I was fine (thrilled) and we moved on.

The highlight for me (yes bug related) was finding a scorpion, which was being eaten by some ants, which my guide sat with me and explained. We saw flocks of Lilian’s lovebirds, curious warthog and an incredibly inquisitive giraffe. All in all, we saw game up close and my adrenaline peaked. I can’t recommend it enough. For those without a safari background, this is an incredible way to learn how to be a ‘mini guide’.

buh camp

My next walking camp was in North Luangwa (Moffat my guide at Crocodile Camp also came along) where Alex who heads up Mwaleshi led us on two spectacular walks. With a much wilder feel and more sparse woodland its much drier up here and subsequently great for walking as you can see through any dense tree lines.

The focus here is walking (again that shouldn’t scare but excite you!) with the camp based on a river, which you can wade through to start and end your explorations! If you really want to get away this is the place, with rhino in the area unlike South Luangwa it is a special well-protected wildlife haven perfect for those who want to explore an untouched paradise.

From there I went to the very south of the park to Kafunta’s Three River’s Camp based in a game management area just next to the park (although you are free to walk in and out it’s the river that provides the park boundary, not a fence so the animals are none the wiser!). They do ranger training down here for the scouts which should tell you it’s an excellent game area, good for walking and you have an abundance of eager scouts ready to join the walks if you need them! If that wasn’t enough they also have sleep out beds next to your room.

carmine bee eaters

If you fancy an adventure but you’re not quite sure if you would like it here is perfect for you. With the luxury of the camp, hot showers, great food, huge beds in a chalet, not a tent and an abundance of sundowners it is the ideal place to test your adventure ‘limits’! Try the walks if you’re not digging it you can easily jump in a vehicle and go on some drives (they are also excellent) take a sleep out if you hate it, it is a platform next to your room you can jump back inside within 30 seconds!

Would I recommend a walking safari? Yes! I had great fun learning to track, had extremely exciting encounters, learnt a whole lot more than I would when watching a sleeping lion from a vehicle and probably burnt a few calories from the incredible feasting you do on safari! For your next adventure why not at least add in a walk or pop a couple of nights into a specialist camp? Contact us for details!