Magazine article The Spectator

Stalk This Way

Magazine article The Spectator

Stalk This Way

Article excerpt

I've always been envious of City boys, not for the obscene six-figure bonuses, the sharp tailoring or the cut and thrust of mergers, acquisitions and trading, but for the pre-dawn starts. I'm inherently lazy, with a predisposition for all things sybaritic, and love aimlessly wandering the streets of London, coming down from the night before as the sun infuses the air with an ethereal sheen -- although, as my thirties creep onwards, my body is less able to take the excess and my dawn meanderings are rarer. So the idea of heading to Zambia for some early morning walking safaris was irresistible.

Zambia is one of the few countries to reap the benefits of Mugabe's despotic tendencies.

Traditionally a hotbed of insurgency -- Swapo, Zanu-PF, the ANC and Unita have all had training and supply bases here -- the country hasn't fallen prey to internal strife or internecine conflict, and after 20 years of stability is reaping the economic benefits of Zimbabwe's failings. For the past decade, Botswana has been the new driving force in the southern African safari market, renowned for a startlingly beautiful delta, a glut of elephants and Mma Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith's detective heroine. Zambia has now become the man of the moment. Geographically remote, one step removed from South Africa, it's not prone to the drive-through tourists in overladen buckies or sparkling, Gauteng numberplated X5s, now omnipresent in Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. Instead, parks the size of Wales are the preserve of a lucky few who choose to explore the dramatic bush in vehicles or, more tangibly, on foot.

Robin Pope is an African legend. With his wife Jo he has tirelessly worked in the promotion and conservation of Zambia. His pioneering safari company in the South Luangwa National Park offers a oneness with nature and the ideal of remote bush-camping.

The gentle knock on the door of the rondavel arrives in total darkness, accompanied by a whispered greeting and a steaming mug of strong local coffee. Breakfast, drawn from the pot of porridge simmering on the fire, is taken on the banks of the Luangwa as the first inklings of a new day warm the air. Way before the sun is even glimpsed, a procession of four solitary figures -- Debbie, the guide; Gilbert, the armed Zambian scout; Kanga, the tea boy/guide-in-training; and myself -- are wending our way down the edge of the river and into the bush, from where we'll next see civilisation in three days' time.

Dawn is a magical time of day in the bush.

Elephants lumber gracefully across the sands, while hippos bellow from the depths as they escape the rising sun's burning rays. Small prides of lions stretch, before slaking their morning thirst, and puku and lechwe nervously keep watch for the primeval crocodiles that fill the river. Inland, troops of mischievous and playful baboons drop from the trees and gather breakfast in the dappled light.

Walkers are quickly taught to uncover the secrets of the bush telegraph -- spores, prints and dung are carefully analysed and quickly, even to an urban simpleton like myself, it's possible to discern who has moved where during the night, and when. The only question is whether to head north after the pair of leopards or east after the pride of lions whose roars punctuated the previous evening's dinner. Leopards are more difficult to find and the whole raison d'être of my trip is to come face-to-face with lions without the protection of a two-tonne Land-Rover, so we head east. …

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