Taking a walk on the wild side
Now celebrating 50 years of independence, politically stable Zambia is a great place for a safari on foot, according to Sarah Marshall
LISTENING to someone noisily chew their food isn’t especially pleasant, but I find myself mesmerised by the loud-mouth diner munching his evening meal just five metres away from me. As his jaw pounds heavily up and down, greens hanging from his bottom lip, I’m gripped by this mundane daily activity.
But sitting down to dinner with a rhino is a rather novel experience.
I’ve stumbled upon this raucous feast while on a walking safari through the dusty scrubland of Zambia’s Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. As the dipping sun bathes the landscape in warm yellow light, wildlife scout Alfred signals me to edge backwards into a thicket, while he assesses the rhino’s mood.
“If you see him tilt his tail upwards, it’s time to exit,” warns Alfred, one hand gripping the rifle slung over his shoulder. Fortunately, the 14-year-old male is more engrossed in his food than the small crowd of spectators who have gathered in front of him.
Observing rhino at eye level, rather than the elevated comfort of a safari vehicle, is both exhilarating and humbling, and a reminder of how powerful and unpredictable nature can be.
Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe are credited with being the birthplace of the walking safari.
Celebrating 50 years of independence this month, Zambia enjoys both political stability and a rapidly developing infrastructure which, in combination with great game and impressive landscapes, makes it a favourable option for safari.
Mosi-Oa-Tunya is its smallest park, encompassing just 66km2, but it still has massive appeal – mainly in the form of 10 white rhino currently living within its grounds.
In the 1970s, when the park opened, there were 60,000 rhino in Zambia, but by 1989, there were none. The main cause of their demise was poaching, an epidemic which is still sweeping across Africa at an alarming rate. Rhino horn is now considered more valuable than gold and sells for 35,000 US dollars per kilo on the black market.
In 1992, five white rhinos were transferred from South Africa to Mosi-Oa-Tunya, where the small scale of the fenced park facilitates 24-hour security, and the population has since doubled. Ten guards take it in turns to watch over the precious creatures, often allowing tourists to join them.
A short drive from Livingstone airport and reached by a Tarmac road, Mosi-Oa-Tunya is far less wild than Zambia’s bigger, more remote national parks. On a drive through a mixture of gnarly bush and open woodland, I encounter buffalo playfully locking horns, elephants bulldozing their way through thickets, and giraffe kneeling down to sleep at dusk, their long necks remaining upright. None is particularly perturbed by a vehicle driving past.
The park is also within easy reach of one of Zambia’s greatest tourist attractions, Victoria Falls.
Containing the biggest volume of water of any waterfall in the world, the roaring falls stretch for 1.7km, although the largest slice belongs to Zimbabwe. When I visit, the Zambezi river is swollen from heavy rainfall and the water level is high.
With so much mist lifting from the water, the face of the waterfall disappears into a cloud of white noise, as rainbows form overhead. And as I walk along a wooden bridge that runs along the front of the Falls, a plastic poncho does little to protect me from a drenching. But it’s the sound – the bottomless, aching roar of an insatiable beast – that communicates Victoria Falls’ real power.
Even further along the Zambezi, while sitting on my riverside verandah at Sanctuary Retreats’ Sussi and Chuma lodge, I can still hear the rumbling, although at this distance it is more of a pressing whisper.
We in elaborate spherical tree houses on stilts, designed in dark wood with stand-alone baths and four-poster beds. Rooms are connected by suspended wooden walkways often patrolled by curious vervet monkeys.
At night, hippos tramp clumsily below, while elephants pass calmly through the camp, often stopping to drink at the lodge’s pools.
Given the abundance of water, it’s surprising to discover that the nearby Nakatindi Village only recently received funding for boreholes. When I arrive, I’m besieged by children wanting to hold my hand and pestering for sweets. Mavuto, a 28-year-old, has been given the role of village guide.
His tour begins with an introduction to the homes; spherical mud huts thatched with elephant grass. With barely any room in the dark chambers, people spend most of their time outside. Although living only a few kilometres from the national park, most children in the village have seen very few animals in the wild.
There are plans though, to take them to see Mosi-Oa-Tunya’s 10 white rhino. After all, it is the next generation who will benefit from their protection and, in 50 years’ time, hopefully Zambia will have another success story to celebrate.
Peaceful setting of the Sussi and Chuma lodge and, inset, lively children in local village
Hippos in the Zambezi River