“I don’t walk. That’s slow and boring.” This statement, delivered with fact-like conviction, came from the square jaw of a tall, dark-haired, surly guest at Shenton Safari’s remote bush camp Mwamba. “I go on safari several times per year. It’s the ultimate rush; you know, chasing lions, trying to get the shot. I’ve taken thousands of photos.” “Do you ever print and hang your work?” I asked. Five of us were tucking into a starter comprised of vegetables from the camp’s garden. Though strangers, we bonded over the day’s sightings at group meals. “Nah. I’ve not even had time to review photos from my last 8 trips.”
Bemused, each morning I watched the macho Texan suit up in his armor of lenses; gear fit for rapid-fire sports photography or, in his eyes, stalking wildlife in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Then he climbed in a truck, safe behind its metal doors, and was whisked off for fresh thrills.
As a fellow photographer, I understand the desire to score the shot, but the real rush comes not from following a pride of lions aloft in a truck but on foot. While a walking safari sounds dangerous, guides have undergone extensive training to keep guests safe. In fact, walking safaris are the trademark experience in Zambia. What better way to see Africa than with the dirt beneath your boots, the parched air in your nose, and eyes level with the tusks of an elephant.
I experienced my first walking safari at Mwamba. The camp was comprised of four rustic chalets positioned along the namesake river, accommodating an intimate group of guests. It was the end of dry season. The camp had turned hot and dusty, on the precipice of drought. Or as one guest described it: the collective wilderness holding its breath, waiting for the seasonal explosion of rains, was palpable. Late October was prime game viewing, but it would end abruptly, like clockwork on the 31st. Two days after my departure, staff would disassemble the organic structures, pack every stick and stitch, then race out before flooding could render them dangerously stranded.
When you safari on foot, you traverse less ground, but you experience the thrill of wildlife without a protective barrier. Because of safety concerns, you’re forced to engage all your senses, as opposed to the passive experience of a vehicle. You’ll drink in the tiniest details of flora and fauna, like inspecting calcium-rich hyena scat or spotting the “little five.”
Guides provide instruction prior to departure. “Keep your voices low. Walk in single file. If we encounter an elephant, we’ll move out of a downwind. If we encounter a lion, don’t run.” In addition to a trained guide, you walk with a good guy with a gun. To be frank, the gun is for emergencies, though my guide at Mwamba said they’d never used it and if they did, it would be to shoot a warning into the sky. Noise and standing one’s ground while “looking fierce” typically worked.
Mwamba, part of the Shenton Safaris Family of lodging, was founded by Derek Shenton. He built it in 1995 on a poachers’ site, hoping to push the illegal activity out of the surrounding area. This conservation-driven ethos mirrors the premise behind walking safaris. In the 1980s, Norman Carr pioneered the singular experience in Zambia at a time when hunters spotted wildlife from the sight of a gun. He hoped to encourage more travelers to shoot with cameras. Indeed, his efforts were so successful that today, most visitors come saddled with jumbo lenses and multiple bodies. As a result, they prefer the stability and comfort of a Land Rover.
Slow walking may be, but boring, it was anything but. On my first morning out, we saw two lions parked in the shade of a tree, watching us. We stopped and stared back. I held my breath. Nervous, tingling energy zipped through my arms and legs. It was same anxious feeling I had at high school swim meets, frozen on the starting block waiting for the shot of the pistol.
The game with the lions continued for ten minutes before they loped off, slipping into the low brush.
Thirty minutes later, we quietly skirted a pack of elephants. A baby leaned against its mother’s rear legs, its wrinkled trunk swatting playfully at her rump. The group snacked on mopani trees, a favorite food.
Later in the morning, we encountered a gang of buffalo. Emboldened with encouragement from my guide, I approached with deliberate, slow steps, eyes scanning the lead animal’s gnarled black face. This was normally a no-no. Solo animals, especially males, were violent and unpredictable. But a herd acted like a herd. With a few cautious steps in their direction, nearly a hundred simultaneously turned away, churning dirt to flee. Then as quickly as they had spun off, they stopped, motionless. As the plumes of dust settled, they turned back to see if I’d followed.
Hooked on the rush of the walk, I spent the rest of the trip peregrinating across the flat open brush in the cool of early mornings. In the late afternoons, I opted for the drive. The guides packed beers, gin, and tonic, selecting different spots each day for sundowners. You couldn’t drink on foot for the obvious reasons of keeping one’s wits and the possibility of running.
Zambia’s famous pink sunsets, emblazoned across the sky in rich ombré thanks to microscopic dust particles, couldn’t be replicated for Instagram. So, I didn’t try. Lightly plied with booze, I climbed back into the truck’s stadium seating for a passive search to find leopards stalking prey at night. Once the search ended, we would head back to camp for aperitifs and dinner.
On that last stretch home, I developed a routine. I’d lay back in the rear row, all to myself, and look up. Night unfurled its inky wings in depths unknowable in urban settings. Light from a million moons ago unraveled across the infinite stretch in scattered glittering points. The warm air swirled over my face, no wall, no ceiling, no barrier between me and this wilderness of sky. My hometown of New York City is lively, but here, living in this moment, I felt both alive and immaterial.
How to Book
Book a trip through Zambia’s best lodges and landscapes with Black Tomato. Though Zambia was long on my list, once I saw Black Tomato had included Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park in their newest destinations list, I knew they were the outfit I wanted to work with. Black Tomato engaged local partners to organize airfare, transfers, and lodging inside the park‘s best and most unique properties including Shenton Safaris and Time + Tide Camps, co-founded by Norman Carr. Before departure, they sent me a kit with a hard copy itinerary in a beautiful keepsake book, plus luxe Le Labo toiletries for the flight. On the ground, the pre-loaded app had every trip detail recorded, from flight numbers to emergency contacts. I could flip through the app each day to follow my itinerary until landing on the last page, sadly, urging me to the airport to head home.