A really wild walk in Zambia

To experience the real Africa, get out of your car, get down on your knees and learn how an elephant’s footprint can reveal how fast it was moving. Oh, and don’t forget to keep an eye out for lions, leopards and hippos.

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To experience the real Africa, get out of your car, get down on your knees and learn how an elephant’s footprint can reveal how fast it was moving. Oh, and don’t forget to keep an eye out for lions, leopards and hippos.

Go on safari in Zambia and at some point you’re likely to find yourself sitting around a table or campfire with your guides and fellow travellers discussing which species are contenders for the title of Africa’s Most Dangerous Animal.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the mosquito – arguably the world’s most harmful – what species always seem to crop up? I’d always thought the received wisdom was that hippos kill more people than any other beast, but in the bush, Zambians give the widest berth to elephants.

John Coppinger, who set up Tafika Lodge in the South Luangwa valley and who has seen and done it all, admits to fearing crocodiles above all else. But after two weeks visiting Zambia’s top three national parks, there was one thing that really opened up my sweat pores and it was none of the above. It was the sausage tree.

OK, the sausage tree is flora not fauna, but its ambush tactics are as cunning as those of any leopard. The tree grows weights (technically ‘fruits’) of up to nine kilograms, which it suspends six metres above the ground. When hot and weary travellers pause beneath its branches to seek shade and rest, the weights drop, neatly cracking open their skulls.

Simple but deadly

Only those who take to the bush on foot are likely to appreciate the potentially deadly power of the sausage tree – you just don’t get as sweaty in the back of a jeep. You will also appreciate its life-giving qualities more, too – its foliage is munched by elephants and giraffes, its dark red flowers by impalas and pukus, and those leaden fruits by hippos and porcupines.

But I wasn’t (entirely) joking about it being an agent of doom – antelopes are found dead beneath sausage trees from time to time with no obvious cause of their demise other than the innocent-looking fruit beside their bodies.

If walking doesn’t appeal, there are advantages to vehicle safaris, the obvious one being that you can get much closer to a wild animal in a jeep than on foot. Lions, in particular, act as if you simply aren’t there. So, I mixed driving with walking plus the odd boat trip, and saw just about every animal large and small I could have hoped for – plus a few more I wasn’t planning on. 

My list includes seven lion encounters, five leopards and a family of five cheetahs eating a freshly caught roan antelope calf (we just missed the kill), but my abiding memory is of almost stumbling on a pair of sleeping lionesses while walking back to Tafika on my last morning in South Luangwa.

 If you’re still not convinced about this walking lark, have a look at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year portfolio from 2003. In ‘The World in our Hands’ category is a photo of several lions in the Serengeti lying on the ground surrounded by dozens of tyre tracks from tourist vehicles. Is this how you want to see your wildlife? I don’t – and in Zambia, you don’t have to.

Kafue National Park

The last thing I expected on my first close encounter with a lion in the wild was to find it eating grass. But when we pulled up, the pride’s dominant male was doggedly chewing on a few paltry blades in the early morning sunshine.

Half an hour later, looking slightly dazed as if he’d just got up after a night’s heavy drinking, he opened his mouth and retched two or three times, while his six-month-old son looked on with an air of bemusement. So much for the dignity of the King of Beasts.

We were out on Basanga Plains, a huge, flat grassland punctuated by small copses and thickets in the north of Kafue. It’s mostly open, so there is little point in walking because the wildlife will spot you from miles away. As a result, trips are made in open-sided Land Rovers.

Lions are tremendous beasts and a must for anyone on safari in Africa, but it’s a fact that they don’t do very much. They do sleeping well and apparently aimless moseying around well, too. The other thing they get an A+ for – hunting – is mainly done at night.

The plains of plenty

Luckily, on Basanga Plains there is a lot more to see besides lions. Herbivores include pukus, impalas, lechwe, hartebeest and roan antelopes, while some of the more spectacular birds you may spot include both wattled and crowned cranes and several species of stork. The sight of two yellow-billed kites mobbing a much larger African fish eagle was like jackdaws mobbing buzzards but with birds twice the size.

All that would have been enough, but the evening we arrived on the plains we were also lucky enough to stumble across a cheetah and her four one-year-old cubs before we’d even got to the camp. For 20 minutes, they gave us a big cat inquisition, pacing around the vehicle and cuffing the bumper every now and then as if testing it for signs of life.

According to Phil, our guide, they roam huge distances at night when hunting and there was no way we would see them again – so it was a mild but not complete surprise when we found them in precisely the same spot the next morning, feasting on a freshly killed roan calf. We watched for an hour as they ate their fill.

I like to think I’m not obsessed by big cats, and there were smaller pleasures to enjoy: the side-striped jackal that stole into camp one afternoon and troops of warthogs trotting along, heads held high and knees and tails lifted as if taking part in a small town parade.

Norman, the camp hippo

Every bushcamp has its share of visiting wildlife, but Chiawa and Old Mondoro, where I stayed during my four days in Lower Zambezi, had more than most. At Chiawa, there was a herd of elephants that came for brunch most mornings, to say nothing of the warthogs and vervet monkeys that provided almost constant entertainment from my verandah or the hide.

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