Walking safaris: be a part of the African wilderness

The air is crisp on this sunny morning in South Luangwa National Park. We are walking in a single file, trying not to make a noise. We can only hear our feet crushing dried leaves and the calls of the birds. 

Our guide stops. We gather in a semi circle around him. "Here," he says, "is a mopane tree. Its leaves look like the wings of a butterfly. In our local language 'mopane' means butterfly!". He picks one of the leaves from the ground and gives it to me. 

Incredible! I think to myself. The leaf truly does look like wings! I pass it on to the guest behind me. We are six in total, all coming from different countries. I see a German couple chatting excitedly to each other as they handle the leaf. I smile. 

I had been on walking safaris several times but I still thoroughly enjoy seeing people's faces light up when they realise the bush is so much more than just watching zebras, impalas, lions and leopards from a vehicle. 

As we resume our walk I watch the armed scout from the Zambian Wildlife Authority as he checks his rifle. It is a big weapon, able to take down an elephant if he must. Luckily though scouts rarely have to resort to such measures thanks mainly to their tracking skills and their ability to read and predict animals' behaviours. 

After a little while we stop for a delectable coffee/tea break in the shade of a Marula tree. Elephants love marula fruits, our guide explains. I look around carefully but there are no pachyderms in the vicinity. I catch the guide's eyes who puts a finger on his lips and points at something a bit further in the distance. "You are safe here, but these elephants are coming our way so let's pack and move out of the way," he says. 

I can feel the excitement build up in our little group as we spot a group of about 10 elephants steadily heading towards us. They walk incredibly fast for such massive animals! Soon enough though, we are downwind and out of their way and watch them walk past us, about 100 metres away. What a fantastic sighting! 

Later on we find lion tracks in the sand. They are rather fresh, from last night, our guide says. "Have you ever seen lions on a walk?" one guest asks both the scout and guide. "Many times I have seen lions when walking" the scout replies. "But they run away when they see us. They don't like white people. Not good meat, not tasty you see". He laughs and we all join in. I love African people's sense of humour!

We learn that a hyena scat is the only one that turns completely white because of the high concentration of calcium with the exception of that of a crocodile which looks and can be used as chalk since it is so white and hard. From the markings on the soil, which to us look like nothing in particular, our guide then makes out the tracks of a porcupine. He takes his book out to compare both tracks and indeed it is a porcupine!

I am amazed at the knowledge of our guide and how well he can read the bush. As for the scout he look like nothing could break his concentration. He is always on the lookout. I feel safe and also a little envious. Here is a perfect example of how intimately these two men know the bush. They truly are one with nature.

It makes me appreciate the moment even more. Here I am on a walking safari in the Zambian "bush", smelling the musky air, truly hearing the various birds which I can rarely make out while in a safari vehicle and seeing animals at eye level!

The car appears in front of us but as we step around a massive tree we come up almost face to face with a giraffe. "An old male," our guide remarks. "See his very dark coloured pattern? The older they are the darker they get." Incredibly this old boy doesn't even move when wee get closer but instead gazes at us lazily all while munching on a stack of leaves he has just picked from a tree. 

Click. Click. All cameras are out. I take mine too but I have only a 300mm and didn't take my wide angle lense. It is impossible for me to take a picture of the animal since it is so close to us! I settle for a shot of his magnificent hide and then decide to simply enjoy the sighting. 

While you usually see a lot more animals on a game drive, walking safaris truly are another extraordinary way to enjoy the bush. 

They were originally started by Norman Carr in the Luangwa Valley in the 1950s and have since become a very popular activity in the Luangwa Valley. 

Walking safaris are very safe and highly recommended for anyone keen to experience the bush in a more intimate way! Here are some useful tips to help you prepare for your walk:

- Wear cream or brown or khaki green coloured clothes. Do not wear black or blue (this attracts tse-tse flies, or white or bright colours as you would stand out too much).

- Wear a trousers, rather than shorts. This helps when you go to high grass, you don't get bothered by thorns, bushes and itchy grass.

- Closed shoes are a must. This is obvious, shoes must be closed in case you walk into a muddy pond and for protection against injury.

- Have a small backpack. Put your water bottle, sunscreen and a hat in your bag. Your guide will have water so make sure you ask if you need more, but having your own is also a good idea.

- Take a small camera with you. While the walk is slow and not a race, carrying a big, heavy camera is not ideal. A smaller camera during your walk will be easier to manage.

- Ask questions on the way. Your guide will explain many things but don't hesitate to participate or ask questions too.

Article written by Luangwa Wildlife Magazine editor-in-chief and wildlife journalist Mahina Mahina Allkemya Zulu. Cover Picture: Ian Salisbury. Article pictures: Kelvin Zulu, Luangwa Wildlife Magazine photographer and expert safari guide. Contributions (articles and/or pictures) are welcome and can be sent to info@luangwawildlife.com. For advertising enquiries, email us at advertising@luangwawildlife.com.