With walking safaris and thoughtful conservation efforts, The Bushcamp Company in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park goes above and beyond most other safari lodges.
We have to be very, very still. We’ve found refuge from the equatorial sun in the shade of a large ebony tree near an empty clearing, where elephants are known to take mud baths. A patch of tall grass is rustling just a short distance away—one slurp of our tea or a crunch of our cookies and we might rattle the four-legged creature coming toward us.
A snout emerges from the grass. Then tusks. Then—the prancing legs of a single warthog. Though these are some of the smaller creatures in the bush, you wouldn’t want to be swiped by their built-in weaponry (we’d later see a lioness who reportedly suffered such a fate).
The hairy, plump, and sprightly creature is just 20 feet away from us and we’re not breathing. He stops, turns his head toward us. Sniffs. The sub-Saharan air has grown hotter in the afternoon. We’re not afraid, exactly, but there’s a heightened sense of alertness on a walking safari.
We happen to be in the birthplace of such rare and rustic pursuits—South Luangwa National Park, otherwise known as the Valley of the Leopard (and the elephant), abundant with hippos, bird species, and thousands of other creatures. And yes, you’re welcome to simply walk around (in a straight line, with a guide, and an armed guard) without the metal barrier and thrumming engine of a vehicle to give you away. It’s one of the few places in Africa where such freedom is permitted. This, among other things, makes it a great place for a first-time safari-goer.
The warthog grunts, turns away from us, and trots on. We can all breathe again and begin the trek back toward camp. We’d been tracking leopard paw prints on our way to the clearing, hunching over the dry earth, inspecting the difference between male and female indentions. On the way back, our guide snaps off a twig from a water vine and lets us drink from it. It’s slimy. It holds the vibrant smell of freshly cut grass.
“The bush is very giving,” he says. And that’s one way to put it. Other adjectives I’d use: intimate, unrestrained, raw. I’m inclined to leave it at those abstract terms, because really, you should just go see it—and walk it—for yourself. But there’s more to the story in South Luangwa, particularly as it involves The Bushcamp Company, the 20-year-old safari organization providing my guide service and lodging for the week.
“This national park used to have the most black rhino of anywhere in the world,” says Andy Hogg, The Bushcamp Company’s co-owner and operator, who was born to a copper-mining family and raised in Zambia. “It went from around four and a half thousand to nothing.”
It’s true. Rhinos are just about the only big-name animals you won’t find in South Luangwa, an area that suffered over-poaching in the mid-to-late 1900s, when even the valley’s elephant population was threatened with extinction. The area has undergone a major rehabilitation over the last 20 years, largely thanks to conservation-focused tourism and fundraising efforts like those of The Bushcamp Company.
The park’s main conservation organizations—Conservation South Luangwa, the Zambian Carnivore Programme, and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife—have managed to greatly minimize the area’s poaching problem. Not only does this mean there’s an abundance of exciting wildlife for visitors to experience, but the animals are also calmer because they’re much less afraid of people. On one of the drives I went on, a pride of lions stalked less than 10 feet away from our safari vehicle, practically bored of us.
“True conservation means much more than protecting the animals and vegetation.”
In other words, tourism money funds the wildlife’s very existence, which in itself is great progress in a world where protected natural environments are becoming more and more strangled by modern life and the threat of climate change. But true conservation, Hogg argues, means much more than protecting the animals and vegetation.
“When I first got here in 1992, there was nothing other than the airport serving a few lodges,” says Hogg.
Local Communities for the Win
Now, Hogg’s company provides food for over 2,500 local students a day in the nearby Mfuwe village. Encouraging education is a huge part of Bushcamp’s conservation philosophy—and they don’t just provide education about the local wildlife and land; they also provide education about alternative opportunities to poaching.
“We have students now who have gone on to medical school, gone on to be engineers,” says Hogg. They’ve also become Bushcamp guides and chefs (only one full-time expatriate Bushcamp manager remains), or found work with other safari companies in the area. And while Hogg celebrates the local economic strides, he’s also wary of encroachment on the environment.
“If we built three more schoolrooms in Mfuwe tomorrow, they would be filled immediately,” he says, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing for limited resources like clean water. And though Bushcamp has built 112 (out of a goal of 200) clean-water wells in Mfuwe through their Commit to Clean Water Fund, Hogg has already broken ground on a school for another surrounding community about an hour-and-a-half drive away, in an effort to spread resources more evenly and with less ecological impact.
This scarcity-is-a-virtue mindset permeates the Bushcamp safari experience as well. Given that they are the only operator allowed within the south side of the park, staying in one of their six remote bushcamps means the wildlife is abundant while tourists are few (as few as six, as many as twelve). This plays a huge role in the environmental preservation of the park. Unlike safari experiences in the main part of South Luangwa National Park, or in parks in more mainstream safari countries, like Zimbabwe or South Africa, you won’t find 20 safari cars racing to a leopard sighting, taking turns getting the “good” viewing spot.
“Staying in one of their six remote bushcamps means the wildlife is abundant while tourists are few.”
Out in the bush, we track a single leopard for hours as she offers us private viewing of her lunch process (a lot of self-cleaning and napping—one needs rest after maiming and ingesting half an impala). We’re the only car around. There isn’t a sound, aside from the click of a camera button when two different parades of elephant surround our enclave for afternoon feasting.
It doesn’t hurt that the bush camps are all stellar accommodations, each with a unique relationship to the surrounding environment. From the intimate lagoon and thatched-roof chalets at Bilimungwe to the vast Luangwa River views at Chindeni’s tented camps, it’s hard to believe the pricing here is about half of what it would be in some of the more popular, over-touristed safari destinations.
And you won’t be skimped on the classic safari fixtures, either, which would verge on cliche if they weren’t so extraordinary: gin-and-tonic “sundowners” under a mango-cherry sunset, enjoyed from the back of a souped-up Land Rover 130; surprise build-your-own pizza lunches at the edge of an escarpment overlooking hippo-filled waters; the baboons, impala, giraffe, you-name-it patrolling camp during your afternoon yoga session on the deck; the near-total absence of internet (bless!).
But now I’ve truly said too much. The only other thing I will prepare you for: You will become attached to the bush. Being so up close and personal to the wildlife, soaking up the infinite knowledge of your guides, feeling the dirt under your hiking boots, smelling jasmine on the night air. The bush is quite loud—hippos crying out in the night, bugs buzzing about. But the moment you will relish most, and what you must become, is very, very still.