Before our first hike, Banda laid out the rules: We walk single file, with Moses (and his rifle) in the lead, Banda in front of me, and Mwase watching the rear. "You need to show respect for the animals – that is the most important thing," he said. "Keep your distance, pay attention, stay quiet. The animal will tell you if he feels threatened, or if he is angry. You can move closer if the animal allows it, but you must do as the animal wishes."
Each day, we woke up at five, ate breakfast, then started walking at sunrise. This time of year, the whole region is parched and cracked, and many animals won't survive unless the rains come soon. Still, Banda says, there is plenty of nutritious food, even for a human. "You will never go hungry in the bush," he says. During a tea break, he sets off to prove it, foraging in the woods and returning with what he calls "a proper English breakfast": sausage fruit ("full of flavonoids"), a spongy-looking pod he calls monkey bread, and a delicate flower with white petals and a bright yellow center, like a fried egg. Banda's grandmother was a local herbalist, and frequently he points out plants that have been used by local tribes as medicine for centuries: sausage-fruit seeds for melanoma, and about a dozen plants that all seem to be some form of bush Viagra.
At first, being in the bush can overload the senses. The hallucinatory heat, the way the monotone gray-brown woodland seems to literally undulate with life: swarms of ants and mosquitoes; bushes alive with scrub hares, civets, mongooses, and even six-ton elephants, which walk so silently behind the trees that you might not notice them until they're 50 yards away. Most disorienting of all are the sounds – the buzzing, crunching, whizzing, and screaming – a relentless, rhythmic thrum that is unnerving at first, and loud enough to keep you from sleeping. But after a couple of days, I found myself getting used to the heat and the sounds, and noticed my senses getting sharper, able to pick out the urgent alerts of baboons warning of predators nearby, and even the soft thudding sound of leopards jumping out of the trees. I could soon spot well-camouflaged scrub hares and civets from a distance, and, with Banda's help, began to identify warblers and plovers and different types of waterfowl. During siesta time after a hike, I found it hard to nap or pick up a book – I spent my downtime scanning the riverbanks and fields with my binoculars, watching bush babies swing in the trees and zebras run and splash in the river.
One afternoon, at an idyllic tent camp called Chindeni, I was lying in the hammock outside my tent when a herd of elephants ambled up the riverbank in my direction. I'd been told to keep my distance from elephants, which can attack with little warning. But as the herd – six females, including a mother and baby – turned up the hill toward my tent, it was clear they could see me, and clear they weren't bothered. So I stayed still in my hammock as the mother paused to chew on branches and let her baby nurse. Four of the elephants got so close I could hear the rumbling in their stomachs – a main way elephants communicate with each other. At one point, the mother playfully wrapped her trunk around one of the stakes supporting my tent's platform, then lowered her head and leveled one huge brown eye at me. She stared at me for a good five seconds before letting go of the stake, snorting once, and walking off, with the other elephants marching behind her out of camp.