We were walking through a remote wooden savannah in Zambia when dozens of baboons dropped from a nearby tree like acorns in autumn and bounded away into the bush, sounding the alarm as they went. They were warning of a predator—one that wasn’t us.
Fannuel Banda, our safari guide, lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scanned the spiny bushes and elephant grass before us, tinged rose gold in the morning glow. “A leopard has made a kill,” he whispered before adding, “Let’s get closer.”
We crept through the thicket in a single file line—a national park scout bearing a rifle, Banda, myself, three travel companions, and a guide-in-training—as silently as we could but not quietly enough to evade the big cat’s attention. When we peeked into the clearing, all that remained was a felled antelope.
“She’s not far,” Banda said, as we hurried back to our Land Rover, parked under a leadwood tree a mile away.
We were in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, where its namesake river supports an astoundingly diverse wildlife population that spans the feathered and furred spectrum, including Thornicroft’s giraffes (found nowhere else), elephants, zebras, lions, crocodiles, hippos, baboons, and more than 400 species of birds. The concept of walking safaris originated in the park in the 1950s and helped give rise to its popularity as a travel destination. I was here to connect with the landscape in a way that only getting out of a safari vehicle can allow. My host was the Bushcamp Company, whose various camps are working to protect the park’s 5,600-square-mile wilderness for future generations.
The Bushcamp Company is the sole operator in the southern area of the park and owns six camps and three lodges near the park’s entrance (Mfuwe, The Director’s House, and the brand-new KuKaya). I spent a week hopping among four of them, going on foot in the relative safety of the morning light and then opting for game drives for outings that would go into the night. I appreciated the variety of designs and locations that helped me get to know different parts of the landscape and its wildlife. Kapamba, for instance, included four thatched cabins each with a wall open to the banks of a shallow river lined with sausage trees, whereas Chindeni’s canvas tents sat on a vast oxbow lake surrounded by ebony trees. They all had one thing in common, though: luxury.
“It used to be that when you said ‘bush camp,’ you meant a basic camp,” said Andy Hogg, the Zambian-born cofounder and current head of The Bushcamp Company. “We wanted to redefine that to just mean small.”
Compared to most other safari lodging companies in Africa, The Bushcamp Company stands apart in that it holds the right to build camps and access roads within this national park—a right it has exclusively. As a result, its lodges provide access to parts of the park not easily reachable by other tour operators. Having the privilege of operating so far into the park allows The Bushcamp Company to create experiences unavailable to other safarigoers in the area—ranging from sundowner gin and tonics in (actually in) the Kapamba River to surprise build-your-own pizza parties in the bush. It also allows for watching nature unfold without jockeying for position with groups.
I’d been on safari before, but the combination of game drives and walks offered me an intimacy with the landscape that I’d never experienced. One day we watched on foot as a pair of lionesses walked the muddy bank across the river from camp. I could see that their faces were smeared red, but their bellies weren’t extended, indicating that hyenas likely stole their breakfast. Later, as we drove to where we’d start our bushwalk, we were able to get closer to a cluster of Cape buffalo grazing, a trio of partially submerged hippos with herons perched on their rumps, a mated pair of African hawk eagles circling above, and a bachelor herd of puku lazing on the river bank, dangerously close to where crocodiles were sunning themselves. On another day, while we were on foot, Banda pointed out tracks in the red dirt and showed how wild basil could be used as an insect repellent. And as the sun set, we boarded the safari vehicle and spotted a pregnant hyena kicking up sand as she tore across a dune, the rib cage of a kudu in her jaws, before we parked close enough to two sub-adult male lions that the vehicle trembled when they roared.
All day, though, we didn’t see any other people.
Back at the clearing, now with the added protection of the safari vehicle, we looked for the leopard and its kill. It was quiet; the only movement was the wind through the trees and golden butterflies fluttering in the tall grass. Banda soon found her in the bushes at the base of a natal mahogany tree. There was thick vegetation—perfect for avoiding unwanted dinner mates, like larger leopards, lions, hyenas, or wild dogs. Between bites, she fixed her wide pear-colored eyes on us but ultimately seemed to decide we didn’t pose a threat.
“This is National Geographic on your doorstep,” Banda said, adding that photographers and filmmakers “spend weeks trying to see what we’ve just seen.”
Another afternoon, we hopped in the vehicle again to get a closer look at elephants. We came around a bend to find a herd ambling down the dirt road in our direction. We pulled over and watched the procession: nursing calves, playful young bulls, and a stately matriarch that seemed to pause and check us out. Banda pointed out one with a mangled trunk. He explained that during COVID, people in local villages had set up snares to capture smaller animals because they had nothing else to eat. This elephant’s trunk, he said, must have gotten caught and was damaged as she fought to free herself. She’ll live with the help of her herd, but her trunk will never be the same—she’ll struggle to breathe and won’t be able to grasp smaller objects.
“People coming here helps prevent things like this from happening,” Banda said. “Tourism pays for conservation programs and allows for more game rangers who can sweep the park for snares.”
Tourism also helps to fund projects that help area communities in need. The Bushcamp Company’s Luangwa Community and Conservation Fund supports the creation of boreholes so that residents can more easily access fresh water (currently there are more than 200, each of which serves roughly 300 people); providing more than 4,000 children with free lunches every day during the school year; and paying for the education of employees’ children, all the way through their chosen level of schooling (even if that means a doctoral degree). For Hogg, those community-based projects are an essential part of wildlife conservation.
“If people understand that there’s water, there’s education, there’s health that comes directly from protecting these places, then there’s a chance to save it,” he said.