South Luangwa National Park is known as the home of the walking safari, pioneered by renowned conservationist Norman Carr back in the 1960s. Sue Watt recently visited Deb Tittle's Mapazi Camp, tracking big animals on foot and experiencing up-close encounters with Africa’s amazing wildlife.
South Luangwa is a magical national park. A vast untrammeled wilderness, it’s home to some 60 mammal species including four of the Big Five (elephants, lions, leopards and buffalos – only rhinos are absent), and over 400 species of birds. It’s dominated by the Luangwa River, teeming with crocs and hippos and an essential water source to wildlife in the parched dry season. And it’s famous for its walking safaris.
I love walking in the bush – nothing beats being on foot for the sheer thrill of getting up close to wildlife and that spine-chilling sensation that something, somewhere might be watching you.
It’s all about the guiding
There are different styles of walking safaris. Most focus on the small things like the bugs and birds, the tracks and scat (poo), which can be fascinating, but they tend to avoid the big animals. For me, the excitement of being in the bush lies in seeing the bigger beasts on their territory, on their terms, on foot without the intrusion or security of a Land Cruiser.
The key to a good walking safari is a good guide, one who can truly interpret the nuances of nature – the tracks, smells, sounds, sights and individual actions of wildlife and birds – and help you to understand the significance of their behavior in the bush. With its heritage of walking safaris, Zambia has many excellent guides and British born and bred Deb Tittle is one of the best. She’s recently opened her new camp, Mapazi, continuing Carr’s tradition.
“I like to find out what’s special to my guests and work around that. I want to give them a moment so special, so unforgettable it will stay with them forever,” she told me. “I like to be proactive on walks, to track and find the big animals, and to have some fun – it’s not your normal nature walk…”
Walking in the wilds of South Luangwa
The first time I met Deb, she had me wading knee-deep across the Luangwa River but assured me that seeing people walking through the water would be so unusual for the crocs that they wouldn’t know what to do. I lived to tell the tale (obviously!) and to experience our second safari with her at Mapazi Camp.
This time, always with an eye to personal safety of course, we followed the erratic tracks of two leopards being stalked by hyenas. The tracks were still pin-sharp in the sand and undisturbed by the breeze. We came across runny, smelly poo the consistency and color of molten tar with flies buzzing all around it. “This is fresh – when a leopard’s had lots of blood from a kill it’s very loose like this,” Deb explained. “She’s probably just done it and is sitting somewhere very close watching us…”
Our senses went into overdrive. We listened in vain for tell-tale signs of a predator’s presence: the squeal of tiny tree squirrels outraged that a big cat should encroach on their territory; the chaotic squawking of guinea fowl fleeing in all directions; the veiled panic of pukus’ alarm calls. In silence, we looked for the leopards in shrubs and high up in the trees. Then we spotted elephants, some with small babies, munching tamarind trees for breakfast as they meandered through the woodland heading in our direction. Not wanting to alarm over-protective mums, we moved on quietly, leaving the leopards and hyenas to their game of hide-and-seek.
Later, we stalked a lone hyena sleeping on the floodplain who had the shock of his life when he eventually woke to find us just 4m/13ft away. And we walked beside the river jam-packed with hippos, so many you could barely see the water, all watching our every move.
Mapazi Camp: home sweet home
Days like this are what walking safaris are all about. And when you walk in such a simple, natural way, the camp you’re staying at should be simple and natural too, with nothing to detract from that tantalizing bush vibe. Mapazi Camp is just that. Near the banks of the Luangwa, it has three tents with private bathrooms, solar power and sturdy, comfortable beds and takes a maximum of only four guests.
But it’s more than just another bush camp. With no other camps in this northern corner of the park, this area had been neglected for years and had been easy prey to poachers. Tourism helps prevent poaching – the more eyes on the ground, from tourists, staff, guides and scouts, the more they’re deterred. When Mapazi camp closes for the rainy season from December to April, the national park’s rangers stay here helping to reduce poaching throughout the year.
Mapazi Camp is Deb’s dream come true. “I always wanted to live with these big animals and have one little place in the bush – this is it,” she told me. “This area’s been neglected. I want to protect it and show people just how special it is…”