From where I'm standing, in a meadow of dead grass and gnarled, leafless mopani trees on the banks of the Kapamba River, I can just make out the spotted tail of a leopard, whipping back and forth, somewhat menacingly, as he hunches on the horizontal branches of a sausage tree. Closer, a dozen hippos, each weighing about as much as a Ford F-150 truck, are splashing and snorting as they contend for the few remaining pockets of deep water in the parched river.
My guide, Fannuel Banda, barely registers the exhilarating – and, I can't help but remind myself, potentially deadly – wildlife all around us. Instead, he's down on one knee, studying a pile of giraffe shit. "See, it's flat. Brilliant!" says Banda, 33, speaking in the proper British accent that's a remnant of Zambia's colonial days, as he pokes the dung with his walking stick. "This stuff falls a long ways, so if it's flat that means it was not dry – there must be a lot of moisture. So even though animals are struggling to survive in the dry weather, we can tell the giraffes are getting good nutrition from the green leaves of these trees. These are very healthy giraffes."
Not that Banda, an expert tracker and naturalist, needs to examine the poop to know these giraffes are healthy: Two of them, majestic dark-spotted Thornicroft giants, native to Zambia, are standing less than 50 feet away, looking vigorous and curious, unbothered by our presence as they nibble on high branches.
It's almost noon near the end of October, the hottest and driest time of year in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park. We've been walking in 110-degree heat since sunrise, bushwhacking through crackling-dry mopani forests and along dusty hippo trails as we track lions, leopards, elephants, and other large game along the Luangwa River, the lifeline that runs the length of this 3,500-square-mile park, one of Africa's most isolated, undeveloped, and untouristed destinations. South Luangwa has no permanent settlements, save for a few wilderness lodges at the park's perimeter and a handful of bush camps in the interior. "Zambia is not a chic destination, not very well known," says Banda, who grew up in Mfuwe, a thatched-hut village bordering the park. "But that's what makes it special, because it's one of the world's wonders. It's as wild now as it's been for hundreds of years."
Unlike more popular destinations in Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa, where visitors mainly view wild game from the safety of Land Rovers, in South Luangwa, safaris are conducted mostly on foot. In four days of walking, I did not see a single person or vehicle or sign of civilization. But what South Luangwa park does have is wildlife – 4,000 elephants live in the park (down from around 7,000 two decades ago), along with lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, baboons, buffalo, hyenas, wild dogs, jackals, crocodiles, 15 species of antelope, giant forked-tongue monitor lizards, snakes (including rock pythons and black mambas), and 350 types of bird, from rainbow-colored carmine bee-eaters to giant lappet-faced vultures that look frighteningly prehistoric as they watch you from the tops of baobab trees.