What It's Like to Come Face-to-face With an Elephant on a Walking Safari
One by one, in tight formation, we tiptoed around the corner. Nobody dared utter a word, or for that matter breathe too heavily. Though it was only 9 a.m., the sun was beating down on our intrepid group as we made our way through South Luangwa National Park, in the middle of Zambia — a nation perched in the center of the African continent.
And suddenly, she was there.
A proud, dark gray female elephant about the size of a school bus stood before us, ears outstretched, white tusks glimmering and pointed in our direction. She was stunning and slightly terrifying all at once because there was nothing stopping her from running straight at us: This wasn’t any regular safari experience — this was a walking safari.
Yes, walking — as in, on foot — not in a jeep, not in a van, and not behind the protective fence of a zoo. We were in her home, quiet and still. If you allowed your body to move enough for a deep sniff, you could smell her, though she clearly had the advantage of smelling us out first.
We lingered, for just one moment, before our guide, Fannuel Banda, of the Bushcamp Company, (one of Travel + Leisure’s 2018 World’s Best Safari Outfitters) motioned for us to quietly, but quickly, move it along, behind a line of trees. In all, the moment maybe lasted 20 seconds. But it was perhaps the most thrilling 20 seconds of my life. And that’s exactly the feeling a walking safari is intended to invoke.
Zambia, and more specifically South Luangwa National Park, are often regarded as the birthplace of the walking safari. Some three decades ago, British conservationist Norman Carr started offering the close encounter service to guests from around the world as part of the nation’s first safari company, Norman Carr Safaris. Since then, walking safaris have remained an under-the-radar option for those looking to not just be close to nature, but to immerse themselves in it completely.
On our walks, our group of four diligently followed all of Banda’s commands and hung on his every word; the laser focus of his voice made it hard not to. He talked about everything from animal behavior to patterns in bird flight with the knowledge and distinction of a seasoned pro.
Related: The Top 5 Safari Lodges in Africa
Along the walk, Banda could point out a paw print from several yards away. He’d slowly walk up to it, have us circle around, and ask us what we thought it was.
“A wild dog?” one would guess.
“A lion?” another would venture.
Actually, it was a hyena, and you can tell because of its angled interior edges and distinct claw marks as it strikes the ground, Banda effortlessly explained. At one point he held up his hand to stop as we were all unknowingly in the path of one of Zambia’s greatest predators: quicksand. You know, the kind you thought was only real in Indiana Jones.
He’d wave us on, stopping along the way to point out plants you could eat or vines where you could find water if you ever found yourself stranded alone in the African bush. But I had no fear of abandonment on this walking adventure accompanied by Banda and a gun-toting park ranger, there to protect both me from the animals and the animals from me.
Walking through the African wilderness even in the wee hours of the morning may sound like a daunting task, but with The Bushcamp Company, visitors are able to fill their trip with plenty of luxury.
They may choose to stay at its main lodge, known as Mfuwe (from $420 per person per night), and venture out each day from there. Inside guests will find a world-class restaurant serving up dishes like roasted salmon and steak for dinner, along with a library fit for Hemingway and spacious bungalows lining the property’s border. That includes a few overlooking a lagoon teeming with hippos who will chat with you all night long.
For the more adventurous in the crowd, the company also offers stays at its six bushcamps (from $570 per person per night) — the only bushcamps located within the national park.
At each one, guests will stay in comfort and solitude as they each house a maximum of eight guests. In every bungalow, guests will find plush beds protected by mosquito nets, sitting areas, solar-powered lights and fans, and outward-facing showers so they can bathe while giraffe-spotting. What you won’t find, however, is any cell service or WI-Fi. And that was fine with us.
A typical day while staying in the camps involves getting up before the sun, sometime around 5:30 a.m. Don’t worry, tea, coffee, and a light breakfast are already waiting for you. By 6:15 a.m. you’re on the road for your adventure. From here, guests can choose to spend the morning in the outfitted Land Rovers, perfect for traveling far distances in the 3,500-square-mile park, or to get out and walk for a bit with a guide.
By 10 a.m. it’s tea time. At that time, your guide will find the perfect location to get out, sit on a blanket, and sip on some tea provided by a sherpa along with freshly baked cookies.
At 11 a.m. you’re back on the road to the bushcamps, spotting a few animals along the way. There, you and your fellow guests will dine on a surprisingly decadent lunch (considering you’re a good two- or three-hour drive from any town) before drifting off for an afternoon nap.
At 4 p.m., following a change of clothing, you’re back on the road for an evening drive. At this point, you’ll stop again, not for tea, but for “sundowners” — safari lingo for happy hour. Like tea time, your guide will find the ideal location to watch the burnt orange and red sunset over the wilderness, as a few elephants cross through the river, or a pride of lions meanders by with a kill.
A night drive usually follows as you make your way back to camp for dinner, which could involve Nshima, a local dish made of corn that is similar to grits. It’s eaten with your hands as you pick up goodies with it like roasted carrots, tomatoes, and spinach.
Finally, guests will head off for their slumber sometime after dinner, to the sound of a troop of baboons blathering on, a bloat of hippos snorting up a storm, and a cackle of hyenas howling in the distance.
Both the bushcamps and the walks give you what you came on safari for in the first place: intimacy with the land. Over a week-long stay, you’ll see things you didn’t even know were real, and understand animal behavior in a whole new light. And, you’ll get the chance to get to know yourself without the ever-present connection to email, Instagram, and cell service.
With The Bushcamp Company, you’ll be doing some good, too. Each year, the company uses $150,000 from bushcamp bookings to fund its local projects, like the “Commitment to Clean Water Program,” which has dug dozens of boreholes around the community to provide safe, clean drinking water for all.
So go ahead. Get out of your comfort zone. Get out of your jeep. Get out of yourself for a moment and stare down an elephant. It will be one of the most heart-pounding, electrifying, and awe-inspiring moments of your life, too.