The air was redolent with the scent of death.
“Don’t run!” our guide commanded. We were walking through the Zambian bush, the mopane trees alive with vultures waiting for a crack at the carrion — a massive Cape buffalo killed by lions who were feasting on their hapless prey in a nearby thicket.
My husband, Roger, and son, Gabe, and I were heading single file toward the big cats. Leading the way was a National Parks scout armed with a rifle who was forging a roundabout trail across a gully. My anxiety mounted with every crunching leaf underfoot. We heard a slight “grrrr” and soon spied a lion’s silhouette flickering through the bushes. I thought grimly about being dead meat. Then the wind shifted and the mighty beasts, picking up the scent of the ultimate predator — humans — fled into the brush.
We had landed several days earlier on a dirt airstrip in one of the most remote and least-touristed parks in Africa — North Luangwa National Park in Zambia — the tiny Cessna touching down on a smattering of impala droppings. The huge park, just shy of the size of New Jersey, has few roads and can accommodate only 400 or so visitors a year, at least for now (the safari season runs May to mid-November).
Zambia is unsung and unpretentious, blissfully free of animal-locater apps spawning traffic jams around lions and leopards. It is also the birthplace of the walking safari, a concept pioneered decades ago by Norman Carr, a swashbuckling conservationist and game ranger who raised two lions — Big Boy and Little Boy — as foster children.
On a three-week trip to Zambia, we visited two far-flung national parks — North Luangwa and Kafue — which have both been on the front lines of anti-poaching efforts. North Luangwa is home to the country’s only population of black rhino, a species that was declared extinct in Zambia in 1998 because of heavy poaching; the cantankerous animals were reintroduced five years later and are now thriving in a vast sanctuary jointly administered by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife.
In each park, we focused on walking, with a few long game drives in between. On foot we were accompanied by a guide and an armed scout, as per Zambian protocol, with a trainee guide in the rear. We traversed trails blazed by hyena and other animals and teetered on the rims of deep ruts in the earth created by elephants and hippos that had traipsed through the mud during rainy season.
Game drives tend to be spine-jostling and noisy affairs that let you be up close and personal with wildlife with minimal risk. Walking in the bush is something else entirely. It is a slow and sensuous experience in which the lore and nuances of the landscape come to the fore, whether it’s learning about medicinal plants like wild basil, used by local villagers as a decongestant and insect repellent, or tutorials about animal scat and urine used to mark territory, such as how female impala droppings configured in a circle allow males to check out potential mates like an elemental form of Tinder.
I had previously traveled to South Luangwa National Park, the North’s more accessible cousin. So I was familiar with Remote Africa Safaris, an excellent family-run safari operation that specializes in tours in both parks. In Kafue, they suggested Jeffrey & McKeith Safaris, another owner-run operation, and we booked directly with both.
Our first camp in North Luangwa was Takwela, which ispoised at the confluence of the agate-colored Luangwa and the crystalline Mwaleshi rivers. From 6,000 feet above in a Cessna, the Luangwa is a writhing snake of water patterned with sandbars — a crocodile paradise. Just reaching the camp from the airstrip requires deft maneuvering in a flat-bottomed boat around dozens of submerged hippos, ears twitching above the surface. Their baritone chuckles, in which they ho-ho-ho like deranged Santas, are not exactly endearing in the middle of the night when the safari wake-up call is 5:30 a.m.
After a dawn breakfast around the campfire, we crossed the river in preparation for a six-mile walk from Takwela to Mwaleshi, an even more secluded camp on the Mwaleshi River within the rhino sanctuary. Driving to the starting point, we shared the road with helmeted guinea fowl, speckled blue-faced birds whose frantic movements bring to mind the Keystone Kops. Our guide, Moffat Mwanza, abruptly cut the motor beside an innocuous-looking coffee bush. Deep within its branches was a mother leopard with her two cubs; she eventually jumped down and crossed a wash, with her offspring bolting after her.
Mr. Mwanza and the armed scout Phillimon Mwape grew up and live in Mkungule, a nearby village. During his childhood, Mr. Mwanza, now 36, vividly recalls villagers poaching for beer money, using illegal homemade guns. “Some shot for meat, some would send their children to school using the money,” he explained.
Those bad old days in North Luangwa have been in the news because of the controversial “Rambo”-style anti-poaching tactics of Mark Owens, who spent 1986 to 1997 battling to save elephants in the park with his now-mega-best-selling wife Delia Owens, author of “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
During the filming of a segment about the Owenses, an ABC News crew captured the killing of an alleged poacher who was apparently unarmed and then broadcast the incident, precipitating the couple’s departure from Zambia and a police investigation.
But the Owens’s work had another side: When Mr. Mwanza was 8, his parents took him to a school the couple set up where he first learned about conservation. “I said, ‘Maybe I should learn more about wildlife when I become a big boy,’” he said — and a future guide was born.
John Coppinger, the co-founder of Remote Africa Safaris with his wife, Carol, set up a fledgling Mwaleshi camp in North Luangwa during the Owens period. Mr. Coppinger, who grew up in Zambia, possesses a key trait vital in these parts: unflappability. Of the crocodile that wrapped its jaws around the bow of his canoe during an epic river trip he said: “It was somewhat disconcerting.”
Once back on foot, we paralleled the river and ventured deep into the woods, with the armed Mr. Mwape in the lead. On the opposite bank stood hundreds of Cape buffalo, their curved horns swooping upward like Jackie Kennedy’s flip hairdo. But nearing Mwaleshi we encountered a threatening situation: A herd of about a dozen elephants in a clearing became agitated by our presence, flapping their ears and bugling. Mr. Mwape sprang into action, rifle at the ready, gesturing for us to stand motionless behind a tree as he stealthily assessed their behavior — eventually leading us in a huge loop through dense brush around them.
Mwaleshi for me is as idyllic as an Africa safari camp gets: four chalets with woven mats, earthen floors and an outdoor shower open some nights to a radiant half-moon in a pink and mauve sky. We arrived in time for a “sundowner” — a British colonial tradition that originated with malaria-zapping gin and tonics. We gravitated toward the smooth local beer, Mosi, named after Victoria Falls — called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.”
The chances of spotting black rhinos in the sanctuary is slim, though “increasing all the time,” according to Ed Sayer, the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Zambia director and program leader for the North Luangwa Conservation Project. The Society does not release numbers, though males have begun tussling over territory, a sign they are flourishing.
Conservation has become the area’s biggest employer, with most scouts hailing from local villages. In addition to tackling poaching with air and canine units and other strategies, the project jump-starts small businesses and helps villagers protect crops from wildlife, especially elephants.
On walks out of Mwaleshi, we spotted numerous footprints but nary a rhino. On our final day, we tracked a pride of lions that Brent Harris, the camp’s manager, had heard in the night. We headed in their direction — fruitlessly, it turned out — and walked through the most bizarre landscape I have ever seen: miles of stalagmite-like spikes and shards that were the apocalyptic remains of a dead mopane forest.
Kafue is Africa’s second largest national park (the largest is Namib-Naukluff in Namibia) but only draws about 15,000 visitors a year.
We began at Ntemwa-Busanga Camp in the Busanga Plains, 227 square miles of grassland that floods during the rainy season. The immense landscape is prime habitat for vast herds of wildebeest, Cape buffalo, zebra, roan and sable antelope, and red lechwe, a gorgeous antelope with spiraling horns and huge Disneyesque eyes. Warthogs and lions are abundant, and so are birds — from tiny Bohm’s bee eaters, which look like winged emeralds, to imposing wattled cranes with bright red face masks.
Inaccessible during the rainy season, the Plains are dotted with “tree islands” — improbable Shangri-Las brimming with date and fan palms, fig trees and gigantic flowering succulents aptly called “candelabra trees,” their long green arms stretched skyward.
The distances are such that we had to spend long hours driving on “roads” consisting of tamped-down ruts in the grass in addition to walking. We drove past termite mound metroplexes and encountered othersafari vehicles, a sight unknown in North Luangwa.
Mercifully, our guide, Gilbert Chiwaya, was both knowledgeable and a talker, quizzing us on obscure terms worthy of “Jeopardy.” (A group of wildebeests? An implausibility. A group of zebra? A dazzle.)
He also had a sixth sense about lion hangouts. We communed with a collared female named Princess and her two daughters who were sleeping off a kill under a sausage tree, named for the dangling fruits reminiscent of the displays at old-school New York butcher shops. Earlier that morning, we explored some lion droppings on foot, which smelled like 100 boxes of soiled Kitty Litter. We sat transfixed watching impala long-jump over a stream.
This is not to say there weren’t comic moments. On a full-day drive in Busanga, Mr. Chiwaya was forced to abandon his guests’ picnic lunches after his vehicle was chased by a swarm of bees. And while savoring an apple-tomato-carrot soup on a camp dining deck, our communal table was suddenly overrun with biting red ants, necessitating a quick retreat to another spot.
The ant incident occurred at Musekese Camp, which nevertheless is an exquisite place overlooking a green lagoon teeming with wildlife. There’s nothing quite like getting up from a nap to behold a large herd of elephants at the water’s edge, drinking and lolling about in the mud.
Both camps are run by Phil Jeffrey and Tyrone McKeith, who established their first camp near Musekese about a decade ago by hacking a road 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) through the bush. As poaching escalated, the two launched a nonprofit to fund training and vehicles for scouts, to provide satellite technology and helicopters for tracking illegal activity, and to research the impact of it all on wildlife.
“Governments don’t have enough money to build schools and hospitals, let alone look after national parks,” Mr. McKeith said. “We feel anyone with empathy for wildlife would have done the same thing.”
They were prescient: The Zambian government recently signed an agreement with African Parks, a nonprofit conservation organization that manages 22 parks in 12 countries, to take over the rehabilitation and management of Kafue, including law enforcement, for the next 20 years.
After our long drives, it was a balm to float in a flat-bottomed boat downthe Kafue River, a cobalt blue kingfisher following us downstream. Too wide to easily swim across, regardless of crocodiles, it’s the only major river that begins and ends within Zambia without sharing a border.
“The Kafue is as Zambia as it gets,” Mr. McKeith observed. The river’s banks are lined with gnarled and exposed tree roots — fairy-tale-like roosts for a bevy of creatures, from gigantic monitor lizards to diminutive striated herons.
On our final morning, we walked with Mr. Chiwaya, who told us about a gigantic edible mushroom — sold on roadsides during the rainy season — that is so big that “kids use them as umbrellas.” Then we headed back to the river Mr. Chiwaya thinks of as “Mother Kafue.” He steered us upstream, pointing out a massive crocodile whose tail glistened like chain mail in the late afternoon sun. Our destination was a sandbar known as “Skimmer Island,” a landing strip of sorts for African skimmers, fantastical birds with bright orange legs and cupped orange beaks that allow them to scoop up fish on the surface of the water.
As the birds flew into the sunset, their squawks reverberating as they swooped, I felt a pang of longing for a country that felt difficult to leave, a place where skimming the surface seemed like just the beginning.
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