The Long March: In Search of Some Big Game in Zambia, Mike Unwin Ditches the 4x4 and Strikes out on Foot
Unwin, Mike, Geographical
The trail had gone cold, lost somewhere in a maze of tracks among the purple pan weed. Our guide, Levy, straightened up, wiped his brow and scanned the tree-line--but without conviction. It was nearly two hours since we had found the first tell-tale paw print etched in the dust. This, it seemed, was one lion that did not want to be found.
So the pursuit was called off--to an almost audible collective deflation. Lions, after all, are the number one safari goal. And what could be more thrilling than tracking one down on foot here in the wild reaches of Zambia's Lower Zambezi National Park?
The tension had been palpable when we had come upon the tracks in the slanting light of dawn. But as temperatures had risen, so expectations had fallen. Clearly we were the most conspicuous creatures around, our cameras and khakis a mockery of the natural world.
That's the problem with walking safaris. You'd imagine that stepping out from a vehicle would bring you closer to big game than ever before. But, in general, the reverse seemed true: the bush appeared to be emptying at our approach.
And yet, perhaps there was more to this walking lark than tracking down the most celebrated creatures in Africa. We had now travelled some distance from the Zambezi, moving through a tapestry of riverine woodland, acacia scrub and open plains. Back at camp, the river had at least provided a visible connection to the outside world. But here the bush was utterly inscrutable, with no pointers beyond the ancient network of animal trails.
Certainly there was plenty of wildlife here. That much was evident in the spaghetti junction of tracks at our feet: buffalo, hippo, zebra, hyena, warthog- you name it, all had trodden these trails within the past 24 hours.
In a vehicle, Levy had explained, you are divorced from the animals' world: the sight, sound and smell of the metal box on wheels has no place in their evolutionary frame of reference. Step out of it, however, and you enter the fray, to be judged on their terms.
But avoidingus was not difficult. The Zambezi Valley, after all, is a big place. This can be hard to appreciate when zipping on wheels from waterhole to lion kill. But on foot such zipping can take hours- hot, thirsty, uncomfortable hours--with no promise that your quarry will wait for you to show up.
The wildlife, meanwhile, still obeys basic natural laws. Lions, for instance, are thin on the ground: perhaps one pride per 250sq km. Any more would overload the ecosystem. To find them, you have to tramp many kilometres. And in the process, you discover that the place is rough as well as big. Invitingly open plains turn out to be murderously rutted underfoot, while the ground swarms with ants and the trees bristle with thorns.
Three days later, I was once again searching in vain for a big cat. But this time the cat was a leopard and I was 400km to the north-east, in South Luangwa National Park--Africa's walking-safari capital. Now our plucky band stood frozen in the sand of a dry riverbed, straining eyes and ears against the dawn. Scattered tufts of …
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Publication information: Article title: The Long March: In Search of Some Big Game in Zambia, Mike Unwin Ditches the 4x4 and Strikes out on Foot. Contributors: Unwin, Mike - Author. Magazine title: Geographical. Volume: 81. Issue: 9 Publication date: September 2009. Page number: IX. © 2008 Circle Publishing Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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