Walking safaris were pioneered in Zambia in the Sixties by adventurer Norman Carr, who wanted to share with his guests the experiences he had roaming Zambia as a game scout. Carr's family still operates a lodge near the park, and there are several other lodging options, from tent camps to luxe resorts. My trip was organized by CW Safaris, a Vermont travel company, in conjunction with the Bushcamp Company, which operates the spectacular Mfuwe Lodge – where I stayed the first two nights – and a group of rustic, comfortable bush camps, where I slept during the four-day walking safari.
At the Mfuwe Lodge, built around a lagoon next to the Luangwa River, elephants wander through the open-air lobby to munch on mango trees, and visitors and locals gather at the bar to drink Mosi lager and gin and tonics (another colonial relic), and trade stories about the day's sightings. On my first night, the guides talked about a local fisherman who'd been killed that day on the banks of the Luangwa. "It's foolish and dangerous to fish in the river with the hippos and crocs," a guide named Kelvin told me. "You would pretty much have to be mad or drunk to take the chance."
Banda says that when he was a kid, he learned to swim in the Luangwa with no fear of crocodiles. "The crocs were scared then, they would not bother you. But then someone built a crocodile farm on the river. When it went bankrupt, the owner released all the crocs, who had to then fend for themselves for food – they started attacking humans. It's sad because now our kids don't learn to swim."
Earlier that evening, Banda and I had spotted a massive female lion, not far from the park's main road, napping on her back next to the carcass of an elephant that had been snared in a trap. (Illegal elephant poaching is a growing problem in South Luangwa National Park, as it is all over Africa.) I asked Banda how much danger lions pose to humans. "Lions, like all predators, do their best to stay away from humans, so normally they will give you no problem," he said. "The only time there is a problem is if a rogue lion eats a human – then the whole pride will get the taste of human and must be killed."
When Banda was in grade school, a schoolmate snuck out of his dorm one night to visit his girlfriend and was killed by a lion. Several more lion attacks followed before rangers finally killed the entire pride. This wasn't the first lion to terrorize Mfuwe – in 1991, a 10-foot male cat killed several people before finally being shot by a hunter from California. The lion, nicknamed "Man-eater of Mfuwe," is on display at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
Though South Luangwa is still an off-the-beaten-path destination, signs of a slow growth in tourism are evident around Mfuwe. Around sunset, you might experience the Zambian version of a traffic jam, when lodges take guests out to look for the nocturnal big cats. On my first "night drive," the road was clogged with Land Rovers lighting up the bush with spotlights 800,000 times the brightness of a candle, rolling up nose to nose to let tourists snap photos of a group of freaked-out hyenas or a lone leopard, stressed and panting as it tried to hide in a tree. I found the experience unpleasant and a little depressing, and asked Banda to turn back. He nodded. "My friend," he said, "I think you are ready for the bush."