In my view, the beauty and luxury of a safari tends to lie away from the sheet thread-counts, the butlers and the size of the private pool but rather is betrothed to a blend of both serene escapism and front row tickets to nature’s never-ending action movie.
A recent conversation between fellow safari experts revealed that we all feel a warm affinity towards the core tenets present amongst the very first photographic safaris half a century ago. This, for me, is best achieved by avoiding the crowds and secretly sourcing the best guides.
It was a pleasant coincidence then that close partners in Zambia, Norman Carr safaris (now part of Time + Tide) have notified us of a rare special offer in their fantastic camps which fit the above brief perfectly, allowing one a truly immersive wilderness experience. This is a late Christmas gift worth indulging in!
You stay for five nights (including one night ‘sleeping out’) in the north-central valleys of the park. The South Luangwa (and Zambia in general) has built a fierce reputation for top-drawer walking safaris in a big game environment. This was born out of Norman Carr’s strong doctrine
He remarked once: “You don't really know a country until you've walked it", just before he set out to cover Rhodesia on foot, walking alone for months with just a few tea-bags and some quinine in his knapsack. Walking is not compulsory but it is highly recommended in order to feel the pace of life that Carr and the early pioneers did.
This complimentary collection of small seasonal camps combined with a night sleeping under the stars also provides the optional novelty of walking in between all three locations. The emphasis is on top-drawer guiding, personable hosting and simple yet very comfortable stays. In brief:
Five thatched tented suites lie nestled in a grove of ancient mahogany trees, along the ephemeral Luwi River. A permanent oxbow lagoon next to camp attracts wildlife from far and wide, especially during the dry winter months (May-October).
A wildlife hide overlooks the resident hippo pod and offers excellent sightings of the lagoon's frequent wildlife visitors, ranging from thirsty lions to large herds of elephants.
The surroundings are famous for lions and wild dogs. The thrill of tracking them on a walking safari is an experience not to be missed. Game drives and explorations upriver to find the elusive roan antelope, reedbuck, eland and hartebeest. The camp is completely solar powered (no Wi-Fi) and 2 hour game drive transfer from the access airstrip.
Leave on foot from Time + Tide Luwi Camp in the afternoon and walk along the spectacular bleached-sand Luwi River (2-3 hours, depending on preference) before reaching your fly camp for the night. After that, all that’s left to do is pour a G&T, watch the sun sink below the horizon and spend the night around the campfire.
This is the luxury of time and space that is hard to find anywhere these days. You feel like the last person on earth and with the lion’s roar or hyena’s whoop in the distance, you could not be any more immersed in the African savannah!
This is a rustic but extremely well run and comfortable experience. There are no tents as such but top quality camping bedrolls with mattresses and four-poled mosquito nets. There is a long-drop toilet complete with custom-built ‘throne’ and shielded by a screen, but there’s no shower.
As for toiletries and clothes, bring along a small day-pack with the essentials – the rest of your luggage will be waiting for you at the next camp.
A lively river lagoon, a magnet for prey and predators, is overlooked by five thatched tented suites. Lion are especially prevalent in this area; various lion prides use the dry riverbed as a thoroughfare and a means not only of locating their prey, but also their rivals who must be warned to stay away. There's no end to the action around Nsolo!
There are few African experiences more exciting than heading out on a safari early in the morning, having heard lions calling all through the night, finding their fresh tracks and following them through the bush.
With voices hushed and hearts beating your mind is suggesting there is a lion over every rise - this is big game viewing at its best. In addition to walking safaris, day and night game drives are offered. Again, the camp is completely solar powered (no wifi) and a 2 hour game drive transfer from the nearest access airstrip.
In this part of the South Luangwa, one can explore the patchwork of different vegetation zones including the lush environment of the Luangwa River itself; with giant red mahogany trees, sausage trees, knobthorns and the hard, black African ebony trees. Away from the river are the wonderfully open miombo forests, interspersed with natural ponds called 'dambos' as well as the thicker bright green mopane forests – a favourite of elephants!
Day and night game drives are often exceedingly productive. Keystone herbivore species such as elephant, buffalo, the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe and similarly rare Crawshay’s zebra all do well here. Hippos and crocodiles fill the Luangwa river and its tributaries; the former a constant orchestra of territorial jostling and courtship.
On the predator front, leopard are the major draw and exist in some of the highest concentrations the continent has to offer. Lion and hyena do exceptionally well too and are usually spotted over the course of the average stay. Due to some excellent work by the Zambian Carnivore Program, wild dog sightings are improving every year.
A legend in his own right, Norman Carr, who died in 1997 (after an excellent innings at the age of 84), was the founder of the photographic safari in this part of south central Africa in the 1950s.
Slight in nature, but tough and intrepid, Carr quickly established a reputation as an extremely effective national parks warden in early twentieth century colonial Rhodesia (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), a standing which continued amongst the political hierarchy post-independence who highly valued his skills at preventing human-wildlife conflict.
He famously quoted “If I get fed up, I just remember Regent Street (London) with all its noise and pollution. That calms me down”; a mantra that formed Carr’s motivation for establishing small, secluded bush-camps far away from people, as immersed in game-rich areas as they could be.
Today his camps still flourish. With a heart still firmly placed in the 9,000 square kilometre South Luangwa National Park on Zambia’s eastern flank, there are now a few more companies and camps, but, thankfully, the government has followed a qualitative rather than quantitative visitor policy.
Being the first company to operate in the park, Norman Carr Safaris naturally have some of the top spots for both exclusivity and game viewing.
As a well-worthwhile added dimension to any safari, there are some enlightening opportunities to gain an insight into the realities of human life in Zambia and how conservation and communities can co-exist for a mutual benefit.
Norman Carr Safaris, in conjunction with the Time & Tide Foundation, offers some worthwhile philanthropic projects which can usually be visited on arrival or departure day (flight dependent) or as part of a 1 or 2 night extension in the central area of the park.
In 1986, Norman Carr established the Kapani School Project, a non-profit organisation focused on expanding educational opportunities for students from the nearby Mfuwe village. The Kapani School Project's earliest aims were to provide uniforms and books to as many children as possible.
Today, with monetary and in-kind support from the Time + Tide Foundation, the Project sponsors over 80 students across all levels of education.
Additionally, the Kapani School Project runs a Girls Club with the aim to enhance young girls' self-esteem and encourage them to stay academically focused despite the challenges of adolescence and the domestic pressures of rural life.
In 2016, a community-based support service for disabled children in Mfuwe was launched. In remote areas of Zambia, government provisions for handicapped children are limited or non-existent.
In this model, volunteer caregivers are trained to offer physical and social support to children with a variety of disabilities, with the aim to help these children acquire the motor functions and other skills necessary to attend school.
There are currently 98 children enrolled in the programme along with 72 volunteer caregivers across two of the Mfuwe chiefdoms. While the caregivers do not receive monetary compensation for this important work, they are rewarded by their interactions with the children and watching these young people grow and develop.
By demonstrating kindness and care to families that have been ostracized, the volunteers have earned tremendous respect that will hopefully inspire similar clemency in more Mfuwe residents.
The Time + Tide Foundation sponsor a field-based education centre located in a remote section of the Lupande Game Management Area, where students from 7 local schools are taken on field trips over the course of the academic year. While the South Luangwa is the most popular national park in Zambia, very few children who live adjacent to the park have the opportunity to learn first-hand about its natural history.
The education centre is operated by Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust, a Zambian non-profit that specializes in conservation education for primary and secondary school students. The field-based education centre is comprised of a widely acclaimed museum and interactive classroom.
Over the 10 weeks of each term, Chipembele hosts over 400 students at the centre, all of whom attend lessons on the ecology of the South Luangwa and participate in conservation-themed games.
Images courtesy of Time + Tide, Heinrich van den Berg and Will Burrard-Lucas