Zambia: South Luangwa

No, I wasn’t dreaming. There was definitely something moving around outside. There it was again: a sort of rustling and, more worrying, a munching. I crept from my bed and peered out into the shadows. Nothing. Had I imagined it?

Slowly my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I could make out the thatched bar, where just hours earlier we had been enjoying our sumptuous candlelit meal. With only six guests in camp, the bush had seemed all ours, and we had swapped tall stories beneath the towering ebony trees to a campfire chorus of tree frogs and fruit bats. But now, in the small hours, the embers had expired and the camp appeared deserted.

Then one of the trees moved. I stepped back from the window as an immense slab of shadow ghosted into the moonlight. Outside my chalet it stopped, ears flapping, and raised a snaking trunk. I pinched myself – but there was no denying it: a bull elephant was standing on my porch. And what’s more he seemed about to eat it. Crunch! Down came a branch. I braced myself for the inevitable – but the jumbo sauntered off, chunks of tree splintering like twiglets in his cavernous gob. I breathed again.

Derek Shenton, our host, was not remotely surprised by my story the following morning. In fact, he seemed relieved. “I thought it might have been those lions again,” he explained. “Oh, don’t worry – they’re perfectly harmless,” he added, spotting my alarm. “But there’s this one female, we call her ‘Cheeky Girl’, who keeps chewing our bird books. It’s very annoying.”

And so I survived my first night at Mwamba bush camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Mind you, it wasn’t much of a struggle. The wildlife may be in your face here, but the camp itself is a triumph of understated and stylish comfort. My reed-and-thatch chalet, complete with en-suite bathroom open to the stars, seemed knocked up directly from the bush (which indeed it mostly was). Yet with subtle solar lighting, hot shower and flush toilet, I was hardly roughing it. Handmade soaps provided a nice finishing touch for those who like a little pampering in the wilderness.

Mwamba’s sister camp Kaingo (which means ‘leopard’ in the local Nyanja language) is a mere 20-minute drive away – or three-hour guided bush walk for the more adventurous. It’s a slightly more developed affair, with permanent brick buildings, a covered dining area and a riverfront deck. I stress ‘slightly’: ten guests hardly constitutes a crowd, and we still had to negotiate hippos and elephants wandering about after hours.

No wonder Luangwa has become the destination for the safari cognoscenti. Here was nature at its most raw, yet all in such comfort and seclusion. No fences, no tour buses, no generators. Just you and nine thousand pristine square kilometres of bush.

I caught up with Cheeky Girl two days later – on foot. Luangwa is famous for its walking safaris and has reputedly the best guides in Africa. Mine certainly didn’t disappoint. We strode out of camp in the pre-dawn half-light, and within minutes were on the trail of lions – their big four-toed pads printed in the dust at our feet. We tracked our quarry for over an hour, until a rumbling growl from a nearby thicket brought us to a halt. Peering through the tangle, we could just make out six of the great cats breakfasting on a buffalo. We exited discreetly, hearts pounding.

Of course wheels can help too. Game drives took us bumping over dry lagoons and through cathedral-like ebony groves, combing the area for wildlife with not another vehicle in sight. Animals were everywhere – lured to the riverfront as the dry season took its toll. Giraffes loped across the plain; baboons shrieked from the canopy; and great buffalo herds trudged towards the river, their dust cloud hanging in the heat haze.

And the drives didn’t stop in daylight. Every evening, fortified by hefty sundowners, we set off into the darkness, sweeping the bush with a spotlight for its elusive nocturnal inhabitants. Shining eyes betrayed an assortment of oddities – from a family of porcupines to a diminutive elephant shrew. And it wasn’t long before we found a leopard, Luangwa’s top A-lister. We followed this unfeasibly beautiful animal as she padded through the bush, impala snorting in alarm from the surrounding blackness.

When we tired of chasing animals around the bush, we simply sat tight and let them come to us. Derek Shenton has built a number of hides close to his camps, each positioned to catch a different wildlife spectacle. One, set deep in the bush near Mwamba, overlooks the very last waterhole of the dry season. Here we watched a cautious flock of guinea fowl emerge to slake their thirst, only to explode in panic when a huge martial eagle ripped like a jet fighter through their ranks. Another, built ingeniously into the riverbank upstream from Kaingo, overlooks a resident hippo pod. Here we eyeballed the dozing giants from so close we could count every bristle on their massive muzzles.

These hides are, of course, a dream for photographers. Frans Lanting, of National Geographic fame, has returned repeatedly over the last year, while the BBC shot some of their most spectacular footage for the recent Wild Africa series from the hippo hide.

So South Luangwa offers it all: fabulous wildlife, gorgeous camps and that increasingly rare sensation – even in Africa – of an undiscovered corner of the planet that’s all yours.  Yet Zambia has only recently made it onto the tourist map. For years the safari industry looked elsewhere, while Zambia’s wildlife was being poached towards oblivion. Today a more enlightened approach to conservation – and especially the involvement of the local community – has helped turn the tide. Many of Luangwa’s best guides now come from that community, and the development of clinics and schools around the park shows just how tourist revenue can help wildlife to pay its way.

This week Zambia is making headlines for all the right reasons. It was exactly 150 years ago that David Livingstone first laid eyes upon Victoria Falls. To mark this anniversary, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is retracing the great man’s route along the Zambezi. On November 16th, the historic day, he will reach the Zambian island overlooking the falls that now bears Livingstone’s name. There, the man dubbed ‘our greatest living explorer’ by the Guinness Book of Records will lay a plaque to honour his most illustrious predecessor.

It will hardly be Sir Ranulph’s toughest expedition. These days, after all, canoeing the Zambezi is simply another thrill on the Victoria Falls tourist itinerary. And the nearby town of Livingstone, which also celebrates its centenary this month, has become a bustling safari hub. But tourists or no tourists, there’s still little to beat the sight of 550 million litres of water crashing into a mile-wide ravine. “Scenes so lovely,” Livingstone confided to his diary, “must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

I’m not so hot on angels. But as I watch a herd of elephants file out of Luangwa’s bush into an improbably gorgeous sunset, I have some inkling of what the great man meant.

Mike Unwin was a guest of Shenton Safaris ( at Kaingo Camp and Mwamba Bush Camp in South Luangwa National Park, and travelled to Zambia courtesy of Sunvil Africa ( Rates start at $US440 (£250) per day, all-inclusive.

Mike Unwin is the author of the Bradt Visitor’s Guide to Southern African Wildlife (Bradt Travel Guides).