A walking safari sounds just as described — scouting for animals on your feet, not in a truck. It also has the potential to be as dangerous as it sounds, but for the extensive training guides who lead treks undergo. Here’s why a walking safari is the ultimate adrenaline rush. Now that you’re committed in concept, consider your lodging options. I had help selecting mine: luxury adventure travel outfit Black Tomato connected me to a trip specialist who took inventory of my interests and proposed a compelling itinerary.
Though many companies in Zambia offer walking safaris, these four camps in South Luangwa National Park set the bar high due to the quality of the overall experience. From lodging, meals, to exceptional guides, look to Shenton Safaris and Norman Carr’s Time + Tide Camps first.
Why South Luangwa?
South Luangwa National Park is the second largest of Zambia’s parks and the most important wildlife destination in the country. It’s been up-and-coming for a few years, especially amongst photographers and safari enthusiasts looking to get away from crowds and see the “real Africa,” as guides on the ground like to say.
The park, occupying the mid-Luangwa Valley, is constrained by the Mchinga Escarpment on the west and the Luangwa River on the east. These natural delimitations have allowed wildlife to proliferate, undisturbed, as well as foster the evolution of unique species like the Thornicroft giraffe.
Notes from the Time + Tide website provide another interesting anthropological footnote: “Based on fossil evidence, the South Luangwa Valley is thought to have acted as a corridor for early humans moving between Eastern and Southern Africa, and it is believed that all Australopithecines (an extinct genus of hominins) originated from the Luangwa and Zambezi Valleys.”
Shenton Safari Camps
The website notes that Mwamba means heaven in the local Nyanja language, though the bush camp experience is firmly rooted on land. Shenton Safaris are known around the world by photography junkies for their singular hides. A hide is a dugout that blends into the surrounding landscape in order to shield onlookers from animals, thus giving human voyeurs an unalloyed look at wildlife behavior. Though several Shenton-run hides are scattered around the area, the camp has one inside, a short walk from dwellings. Sightings include lions, zebra, elephants, kudu, birds and monkeys.
At Mwamba, each simple thatch chalet is comfortable though utilitarian. For the adventurous, book a night under the sky. The Numbu Star Bed is available for the exclusive use of Mwamba guests. It is a 15-minute drive from the camp and features a sleeping platform with a queen-sized bed draped in oh-so-romantic-yet-practical mosquito netting lit with lanterns. A guard stands watch throughout the night – just in case.
Shenton is unusual for safari camps in that most of their food is hyper-local, much of it plucked fresh from a garden tended nearby. One reason safari camps, in general, are expensive is due to the limitations in sourcing food and staff in remote locations. Despite the rustic nature of Mwamba’s camp kitchen, the cook did an excellent job with bare bones resources, whipping up satisfying meals each day, including homemade breads, jams, and nut butters.
The comfort-driven sister to bush camp Mwamba, Kaingo was built in 1992 as the Shenton Safaris’ flagship. It’s not big; nothing in Luangwa is. There are only six chalets positioned along the Luangwa River. Kaingo means Leopard in the local Nyanja language; many guests boast sightings. In fact, the name derives from a former resident female leopard, Goldie, who resided in one of the chalets.
Meals are the same as in Mwamba. And all drives and activities, included, are similar though from a different starting point if taking a walking safari.
Time + Tide Camps in South Luangwa
The Time + Tide Camps are considered the gold standard in walking safaris. Norman Carr, co-founder, was a pioneer of the safari-on-foot concept as well as game camps in general in Zambia. Back in the 50s, Carr encouraged Senior Chief Nsefu of the Kunda people in the Luangwa Valley, to preserve a swath of tribal land as a game reserve and “built the first game viewing camp open to the public in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).” Guests who patronize Time + Tide’s network of camps can op to walk between them (walks range between 3 and 5 hours), having bags transferred via truck.
A highlight of the trip, the approach to Mchenga leads through a gorgeous ebony grove, often populated with elephants, before alighting on the riverside site. A small, newly debuted pool provides cool relief during warm afternoon breaks between lunch and evening drives. It’s not unusual for elephants to swing by for a drink, so staff are always hovering to ensure guests hear the thud of their feet or crunch of branches, indicating their approach. One should always slip away before the pachyderms arrive, lest becoming trapped in the pool.
Room décor recalls the timelessness of Out of Africa. Classic safari tents, plush beds draped for mosquitoes, and outdoor showers replete with soaking tubs, comprise the effect. Porch chairs allow for fresh air pleasantries when the elephants aren’t wandering across camp.
Meals are based on standard set menus each day, as they are at most camps. The food, though touted as a strength, was hit or miss. Same for the wine selection, though again, one must temper expectations when on holiday in the middle of a wildlife park in Africa. You’ll be happier that way.
Overall, the style, pool, and setting along with knowledgeable walking guides make Mchenga a recommended stop.
If your cash resources are unlimited or you’ve saved up for the ultimate safari splurge, book a night or two at Chinzombo. The boat ride across the river to the property sets the scene for what is the finest stay in South Luangwa, nay, Zambia. Friendly greeters at the dock shepherd guests and bags up to the viewing deck and common space.
The attention to detail, from service to furnishings, is apparent from the first cool herbal refreshment or glass of South African wine offered at check in. Chic décor evokes how you’d imagine stylish Italians would design a safari experience. Indeed, Chinzombo is the jewel in the Time + Tide collection. Fortunately, nothing feels overwrought or overtly contemporary; rather, particulars like buckles for towel hooks help this exquisite lodge stand out from the competition.
Of course, with high prices come higher standards and the highest of expectations. Though food at most camps wouldn’t keep an NYC restaurant afloat for more than a week, Chinzombo creates dishes you’d seek out back home, from fresh fish in delicate sauces to a tender steak, and fresh greens for salads. The wine list was superb and by far the best seen on the trip. As to be expected for $1000+/night/person rates.
The highlight, however, was the private plunge pool with which each tent comes equipped. I visited Chinzombo for one night at the end of my trip; I’d been walking the lengths of the park for several days and wanted an afternoon to lounge around. I even skipped the game drive to sit with my toes in the water and work (it’s the only lodge with Wi-Fi) but instead, was treated to a wildlife show from my deck. Three elephants traipsed around my tent for 3 hours, sniffing, snorting, and eating tree branches mere trunk-lengths away from the canvas flaps. I zipped myself inside while peering through the vinyl windows, treated to views of broken twigs inside the vegetarians’ mandibles. In the understatement of the year, the experience was extraordinary.
Unless you’re a knowledgeable DIYer who will remember to pack a sat phone on a self-drive from Lusaka, it’s best to book all travel through an agency. They can help you navigate the flights, transfers, lodging, and visa fees in one packaged price. I worked with the excellent outfit Black Tomato who did all the heavy lifting in partnership with operators on the ground.
There are several ways to get to Zambia. I flew South African Airways out of JFK to Johannesburg, then caught a connecting flight to Lusaka. I had a five-hour layover in the tiny airport (bring books to read) before jumping on a small charter flight to Mfuwe, the gateway to the park. Another hour drive led me to my first camp, Mwamba. Fortunately, despite a tiring two days of travel, the transfer to the bush camp served double duty as a game drive.
From Malawi, Fly Ulendo provides a daily service from Lilongwe to Mfuwe International Airport. The flight from Lilongwe to Mfuwe takes around 1 hour.