"Right! Single file. No breaking rank," barked Huw Jones, our lanky, redheaded safari guide, in an exaggerated British accent. "Splennnnndid!"
Then, with a deep knee bend, a quick spin and a long-legged step forward, he mockingly saluted his scraggly, overheated crew and snapped to attention. "We were warned about Huw," one of my fellow travelers joked as we set off into the Zambian bush.
Others may have been warned, but I wasn't. What had I gotten myself into? I was on my first trip to Africa, beginning with a four-day safari on foot in September. Only 18 hours earlier I had been at comfy Johannesburg International Airport, shopping at stores stocked with ostrich jerky, impala pa^te and other exotic treats.
Now I was in the Zambian bush, putting my life in the hands of Huw (the Welsh spelling for Hugh), a 29-year-old London native who seemed more like a Monty Python comic than a seasoned naturalist. The sights, meanwhile, were almost unreal. Impala and giraffes and wart hogs sauntered into the brush. Sausage trees, named for their long, dangling gourds, dotted the landscape. I felt as if I were walking through a National Geographic TV special.
This was the reason I came here. In years past, I had hiked and camped in the Canadian Arctic, U.S. national parks and the Australian Outback. Seeing Africa--on foot, no less--seemed a natural next step.
Few African countries allow visitors to travel by foot in game-rich national parks. Zambia, along with Zimbabwe, is an exception. That brought me to South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. The 3,535-square-mile park dates back to 1950, when former game warden Norman Carr persuaded regional Chief Nsefu to create an animal reserve open to the public, with admission fees benefiting the local people. Carr was ahead of his time in other ways too: In the 1960s, he originated the walking safaris that have become popular today.
The reserve became a national park in 1972, and these days, Carr's protege Robin Pope is one of Zambia's best-known guides.
Visitors find a park with more than 60 plains animal species and about 400 types of birds. Humans, meanwhile, are scarce. Only about 5,000 step foot in South Luangwa each year. That's fewer than the number of cars jamming Yosemite in one day, and that park is a third the size of South Luangwa.
My journey began at Nkwali, a camp next to South Luangwa National Park owned by Pope and his wife, Jo. That first evening I sipped "sundowners," as drinks are called during Africa's cocktail hour, with Jo in the lodge. As the sun sank into the Luangwa River, Jo told me about her first trip to Africa in 1989, when she fell head over heels for Robin.
"He insisted it was just a bad case of khaki fever," she said with a chuckle. Khaki fever?
"That's when you're smitten with the whole romantic mystique of the safari guide," Jo said. She proposed four times before he finally exchanged vows beneath a broad fig tree at the camp.
The next afternoon, after a hot, five-hour, dust-choking drive north, I arrived in the Chibembe area of South Luangwa National Park. Huw, the guide, and Faxon, an African-born game scout armed with a Czech Brno rifle, led the way to our first bush camp trailed by me and my safari mates: John Trowbridge, a retired rocket scientist from Iowa, and his wife, Sandi, both in their mid-60s; and a designer-khaki-clad London real estate agent named Sally Allen who had never ventured outside the world's fashion centers.
Huw proved to be an experienced guide who knew the animals' routines and could read their behavior. No travelers on guided safari in Zambia, he assured us, had been hurt by an animal.
After an hour of easy walking over flat, open terrain, we arrived at the bush camp where we would sleep for two nights and start our twice-daily safaris: one just after dawn and one in late afternoon, together totaling six to eight miles.
Each of us checked out a private, thatch-roofed hut above a bend in the Chibembe River. Twin beds, a sink and a jug for water awaited inside. The accommodations were rustic and comfortable, charming if not luxurious. Toilets were nearby in thatched outhouses. We barely noticed the lack of electricity and running water.
That evening, the group drank wine and dined by candlelight on fresh, delicious Lake Malawi bream grilled with vegetables.
As I drifted off to sleep beneath a cocoon of mosquito netting and the glow of a hurricane lamp, I heard snoring. Hippos, I thought.
I've never been a morning person, but in Africa I couldn't stay in bed once the sky brightened. I awoke to the orange-breasted bush shrike, called the Beethoven bird because its tune sounds like the Fifth Symphony. With a bacon-and-egg feast finished by 6 a.m., we were walking again under endless blue skies.
Most people come to Africa to be wowed by the Big Five: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. But my most memorable encounter came when we reached a grand, silver-trunked baobab, one of those bulbous, hollow African trees that appear upside down, with roots reaching for the clouds.
Huw stepped into a dark opening in the trunk without hesitation. I followed. Inside, a flashlight illuminated a brown, wriggling wall. Thousands of furry, mouse-sized creatures huddled as far as I could see, their muffled shrieks echoing into the far reaches of the arboreal cathedral. "Sweet," Huw mused, "Mauritanian tomb bats."
As we continued our hike, Sally confessed that her two grown children were shocked that their townie mother would take on such a bush vacation. She kept us amused with her commentary on wildlife. Giraffes, she noted, "walk just like Naomi Campbell." The lilac-breasted roller, a bird sporting seven colors, looked as though it had been "dressed by Versace." About a bulging zebra, she fretted, "Stripes are so enlarging on a pregnant female."
Walking slowed us down to the natural pace of Africa and fine-tuned our senses. I began to notice details of the landscape--the ripples of a lion's footprint in the talcum-like earth, for instance--that I would have missed on a Jeep.
Huw pointed out bright red berries, a local aphrodisiac, sprouting from the trunk of a thin tree. He dug through a pile of elephant dung with a stick, extracted a shiny brown pod and broke it open with a pocketknife to reveal three nuts, undigested by the elephant and clean inside their shell.
"Sclerocarya caffra, the marula nut," he announced, handing out samples that tasted like Brazil nuts. He said they're used in Amarula, a creamy South African liqueur like Baileys. After some initial hesitation, we popped them in our mouths. Now I've done it all--eaten nuts from elephant dung.
We returned to camp for lunch and a siesta. After a leisurely afternoon tea, we headed for Hippo Corner. At a wide bend in the river, hundreds of hippos crowded together, their broad backs glistening in the sun and ears twitching nervously. They groaned and grunted at our presence and then yawned in unison, a sign of aggression that meant "Come any closer and you'll get these chiseled teeth." We spent half an hour watching these 3-ton beasts mill around and dive.
That evening, after the others had retired, I headed to the river's edge to watch a full moon rise over the water. Huw joined me just as a lion up the river let loose a gut-wrenching roar.
With winter approaching and the safari season ending soon, Huw was excited to be leaving for Lusaka, Zambia's capital, for a reminder of civilization. "To hear loud music and watch people in a bar for a while," he said wistfully.
I, however, couldn't think of anything better than staying right here in this lap of wilderness luxury, my toes curled in sand still warm from the day's heat.
The next morning we departed for our second bush camp for our last night in the wild. From there we rode a Jeep to the Popes' lavish permanent camp, Nsefu, deep in South Luangwa National Park. The Popes had refurbished its six whitewashed adobe structures, set beneath mahogany and winterthorn trees by the Luangwa River.
Nighttime park drives, outlawed in most countries, are legal and especially popular in South Luangwa because of its 120 or so leopards. That evening we set off with a powerful spotlight. Giraffes appeared out of the black, resting on the ground. Aardvarks and honey badgers scuttled away, and bush babies leaped from limb to limb. We glimpsed a spotted tail dangling from a branch. Five leopards were draped in the tree.
On my final morning in Zambia, after my fellow travelers had all departed, Huw took me through a local village. By noon I was at Mfuwe airport, ready to board a flight to my next destination, Zimbabwe. I reached out to shake Huw's hand, and he filled mine with fragrant flowers. "Wild gardenia and jasmine," he said. Before stepping on the plane, I glanced back and saw him perform one last madcap spin and salute. For a moment I felt a little lightheaded--perhaps a temporary touch of khaki fever.
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Step-by-Step in Zambia
Getting there: To reach South Luangwa National Park, fly from L.A. to Lilongwe, Malawi (bordering Zambia). British Airways, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, with connections on Air Malawi; Swissair and Alitalia fly to Nairobi, Kenya, with connections on Kenya Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $3,640.
From Lilongwe, safari tour companies fly charters to Mfuwe, Zambia, near the park. Expect to pay $180 to $240 one way.
Tour operators can help with complicated itineraries and package deals. I booked through Africa Travel Centre, P.O. Box 1918, Boulder, CO 80306; telephone (800) 361-8024, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
When to go: South Luangwa's safari season is June 1 to Oct. 31; Nkwali (see below) also is open April through December for boat trips.
Where to stay: Robin Pope Safaris operates one nice camp next to South Luangwa National Park (Nkwali), one lavish camp in the park (Nsefu) and multiple bush camps. Contact the company at P.O. Box 80, Mfuwe, Zambia; tel. 011-260-62-45090, e-mail email@example.com, Internet http://www.africainsites.com/zambia/popesaf.htm.
Nkwali is $250 in the June-October high season, $175 in low season, per person, per night, including all meals and beverages. Nsefu is $300 in high season, closed in low season.
Pope's walking safaris (with lodging in bush camps) cost $900 per person for three nights, $1,500 for five nights.
For more information: Mission of the Republic of Zambia, 800 2nd Ave., 9th Floor, New York, NY 10017; tel. (212) 972-7200, Internet http://www.africainsites.com/zambia.