Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion in anticipation of my first safari. From the three flights between New York City (JFK) and Mfuwe Airport to meandering across the tarmac and patiently waiting for my duffle, my anticipation did not make my travels to South Luangwa National Park go any quicker. Before I could check-in to my room at Mfuwe Lodge, I waited for a security guard to walk me to said room. From there, I barely blinked in an effort to avoid missing a single thing. I could hear the hippos grunting outside my room where apparently a lagoon accommodated my wild neighbors. I listened throughout the evening until a glimmer of daylight snuck through my blinds and I was able to take in the first vista of my five-day journey in East Zambia: citrus rays peered over the horizon, illuminating the hippos and their home; just a few feet in front of me—the trip had officially begun.
Though a safari was a lifelong dream of mine, I never pinned down an exact destination for my first experience. Growing up, the fictional magic of the Pride Lands transformed into a tangible longing after my best friend’s tales of a family trip to Kenya. Soon South Africa tempted, as coworkers started checking off their bucket list trips, then eventually, unimaginable images emerged from Botswana, Namibia and Rwanda, as my knowledge of the world expanded and the rise of the internet created somewhat of an obsession to share the most picturesque lodges encompassed by African wildlife.
Zambia—the landlocked country in southern Africa arguably most notable for its Victoria Falls bordering Zimbabwe—somehow flew under my radar for many years. When the opportunity arose to explore the east part of the country—on the opposite side of its famed falls—with The Bushcamp Company, I jumped at the opportunity.
As its name suggests, The Bushcamp Company occupies six private camps throughout the more than two million acres of wooded savannah (African bush) known as South Luangwa National Park—a stark contrast from the vast and sparse plains I envisioned. And though the landscapes varied, the luxe amenities never let me down. As soon as I hopped in the jeep that first morning and spotted giraffes, elephants, zebras, wild dogs, a hyena and a warthog, I was in love with South Luangwa National Park and by default, Zambia. I may be a little biased, but my travel partners would probably agree—here’s why Zambia is the perfect place for your first safari.
Mfuwe Lodge exists as both a gateway and a launch pad prior to exploring The Bushcamp’s six tented lodges throughout South Luangwa National Park. Whether you check into the 18-villa lodge or veer into the heart of the African bush, expect to leave human contact behind for the duration of your trip; both physically and via the Internet. There are only a handful of licensed safari operators throughout, and surrounding, the park, meaning at any given time your safari jeep may be the only one on the dust-strewn highways. Though I haven’t experienced a safari elsewhere, the overwhelming stillness was shared by my travel companions as they assured me at previous national parks they visited, a swarm of jeeps would encroach within minutes of sighting any big game. The time you have with wildlife here is moving and intimate. The ability to slow down and disconnect emphasizes your natural experiences, trading technology for fleeting moments you would otherwise miss without committing full attention.
It is no doubt that the most memorable experiences on a safari accompany the interactions with wildlife, and the game spotted, especially the Big Five: the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. Though the rhino was declared extinct throughout Zambia in 1998, visitors should have no difficulty spotting the remainder of the Big Five. In fact, South Luangwa is nicknamed as the ‘Valley of the Leopard’ so whether you’re tracking fresh female leopard prints on a walking safari or silently watching a male carefully dismember his fresh kill through binoculars, expect to be absorbed by the allure of this ferocious, yet majestic creature. In addition to the leopard, elephants are prevalent throughout the park, and, in relation to The Bushcamp Company, from camp to camp; elephants are a frequent guest at Mfuwe Lodge to indulge on the Marula fruit in its lobby, as well as to the lagoon in front of Bilimungwe for an afternoon drink and bathe. Since it is remote and less populated, animals are less wary of humans and more apt to appear before the naked eye.
One of the thrilling times to spot a leopard is after-dark, post-sundowners with a Gin and Tonic buzz quieting any doubts of sitting in a jeep with no barrier of protection between you and a 200-pound cat on the prowl for supper. This is just one of the perks of a safari in South Luangwa National Park; one of the few reserves that permits night drives not just in Zambia but throughout Africa. South Luangwa is also famed for its walking safaris, with the style said to originate here in the 1950s. In addition to these highlights, there are certain parts of South Luangwa where The Bushcamp Company retains exclusive access, so even though it’s rare to spot another jeep on one of your drives, in these designated areas, it’s a guarantee for one-on-one wildlife encounters.
Though a remote experience, prevalence of wildlife and exclusive access contribute to the recipe of a perfect safari, the bonus of booking with The Bushcamp Company is its luxury lodges; all reflecting distinct personalities, tailored to their precise locations within South Luangwa. From Chindeni’s four tents overlooking the captivating sunrise above the Chindeni Hills to Bilimungwe’s outdoor showers hovering above the watering holes where hippos wallow and giraffes frequent, The Bushcamp Company seamlessly blends luxury and nature, even using the land to develop some of the camps (all the furniture at Bilimungwe was made onsite by fallen wood). Every camp offers daily laundry services, a distinct common area accented with the likes of tree bars and firepits, as well as Mfuwe Lodge’s indulgent spa. It’s enough so that you never feel too far from the modern comforts of home, but you also never feel far from the natural experience you traveled to Zambia for.
The paradox of developing such a pure, remote land can come at a social cost, which is why The Bushcamp Company is cautious in the undertaking of responsible growth, supporting the local communities with employment opportunities, educational development, and also in long-term sustainability to dissuade the loss of culture. Along with employing the majority of its camps’ guides, guards and managers from the villages surrounding the National Park, The Bushcamp Company encourage a tourist’s positive impact through a mandatory fee built into their rate, which helps contribute to the costs of installing boreholes to supply clean water for building schools, paying student fees and providing meals, all in support of its neighboring villages. Due to its size and proximity to the villages, the transparency of where your money is spent quickly becomes apparent and inspiring—and The Bushcamp Company isn’t afraid to share that with you.