Fly camping in Zambia is often done on soft riverbeds.

Fly camping in Zambia

For a never-to-be-forgotten Zambia safari, visit South Luangwa National Park. Take a hike from your lodge and set up a rustic camp in the heart of the African bush, where you’ll fall asleep with only a mosquito net between yourself and the wilderness – camping in Zambia at its best.

As luxurious as our South Luangwa lodge was, both my partner and I wanted to experience the thrill of a Zambia safari under the stars. So, one afternoon we tore ourselves away from camp and set off on foot with a game guide and armed scout, bound for a night of fly camping.

The weather was perfect for walking, slightly overcast with a cool, northerly breeze. We were both terribly excited, but also a little nervous, given that we’d witnessed the battle over a carcass between lion and hyena that very morning. And now we were on foot … in their patch!

We meandered across beautiful terrain studded with red mahogany trees and cut by sandy riverbeds. Led by a knowledgeable guide, Inonge, the walk was an education in the lives of smaller animals, as well as birds, insects and flora.

Inonge showed us how to identify fresh tracks … which brought with it a sense of expectation and suspense. Could that fresh lion spoor mean a close encounter around the next bend?

We didn’t have to wait long. Coming out of a thicket, we happened upon a herd of elephant. Inonge stopped and held up his hand. We crouched down, our hearts beating faster. He shook a gauze bag of ash to test the wind direction. Then he slowly led us to within metres of the breeding herd: mothers, teenagers and babies lazily stripping tree bark and munching on leaves.

On we walked. The sightings came regularly: giraffe, zebra, Cookson’s wildebeest and, in the distance, a pair of old buffalo bulls that we steered well clear of, as they can be notoriously crotchety. At one point, a huge, sand-coloured eland emerged to munch on a bushwillow right in front of us, then dissolved back into the leaves.

I found that walking in the bush gave me a whole new take on the environment. Even the approach to game viewing was quite different to being on a vehicle. It involved a receptiveness to what the bush was telling us and getting in tune with its sounds, smells and rhythms.

Just before reaching the camping spot, we had a close encounter that upped our adrenaline quotient. Coming round a bend, we walked straight into three male lion. They couldn’t have been more than 50m away. One of them took umbrage at our presence and let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we weren’t welcome. A thunderous growl and the scything of his tail had me looking for the nearest tree. Inonge told us to back away slowly. We gave the cats a very wide berth.

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at the perfect spot for a fly camp. It was right in the middle of the sandy bed of the Luwi River. We all pitched in to lay out the bed rolls and erect mosquito nets. The camp soon looked like a cluster of transparent sugar cubes.

We cracked open ice-cold beers and took a perch beside the fire to watch the purpling dusk. A dinner table was laid under the stars and we were treated to a candle-lit, three-course barbecue. The meal included boerewors sausage, marinated steak, potatoes and honey-glazed carrots cooked on the coals with a chilli, tomato and onion sauce. Simply perfect.

After supper, we sat around the fire, recounting the day’s adventures and listening to the sounds of the bush. ‘Fly camping was established by early hunters and trackers who couldn’t carry large amounts of gear with them for days on end,’ explained Inonge, as he poked the coals with a stick. ‘Instead, they just packed a mosquito net and basic foodstuffs. They could set up camp very easily by simply stringing up the nets, and could move on just as quickly the next morning.’

Eventually, we retired to bed, serenaded
 by frogs, crickets and the distinctive call of an African scops owl. Stargazing while lying on a camp bed is unforgettable. The bedrolls were warm and comfortable with soft sheets and fluffy pillows. Who could ask for more idyllic sleeping quarters?

Something woke us in the early hours. Perhaps it was the snapping of a branch. We sat up in bed. There in front of us, less than 30m away, was a herd of elephant, passing like a fleet of ghost ships in the moonlight. We watched silently, transfixed, until they’d vanished back into the night.

Next morning, after a hearty camp breakfast, we prepared to head back to our luxury Zambian lodge. Inonge doused the fires so as to leave no sign of our stay. Walking back, I thought about how our night under the glittering Milky Way, with only a thin net between us and the wilderness, had been the highlight of our Zambia safari.

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