Like any highway, the bush tracks of South Luangwa National Park have their own particular set of rules. For instance: you should slip the clutch delicately when approaching a leopard snoozing on a log. When attempting a three-point turn on a riverbank, you should check the rear-view mirror for oncoming hippos.
And, above all, you should be respectful to other road users. Soon after arriving in the park, I have to do an emergency stop as a young bull elephant barges onto the road. It becomes clear he is the white van man of the Luangwa traffic system, honking angrily at the Land Cruiser and anything else hoping to overtake him. Keeping a sensible following distance is a convoy of giraffes, their heads gently bobbing above the treeline.
It’s said often that safari is one long drama – and, in driving yourself, you soon realise you are, if not exactly a starring cast member, at least a non-speaking extra in the production.
In accidentally bashing the car horn to reach for a sandwich, I send about 20 tonnes of panicked hippos bundling into a lagoon.
Finding your way around requires skill in South Luangwa: a labyrinth of tangled foliage and oxbow lakes where water lilies grow. It means that even self-drivers are advised to sometimes park up at lodges and enlist the services of a guide, such as Yona Banda: a local who has honed a Superman-like ability to spot animals at long range ever since he was president of his secondary school wildlife club. With Yona at the wheel, we soon happen upon a herd of 40 more elephants crossing the Luangwa River-their trunks raised like periscopes as they wade through the current.
“When you look into the eyes of an elephant, you can see they are thinking like us,” says Yona, studying the herd through his binoculars. “They mourn like us too. I’ve seen elephants returning to the place where their friends have fallen just to hold the bones in their trunks.”
He soon scouts a group of 14 lions and cubs, all watching intently on a riverbank as one of their pride swims across the water, three crocodiles in pursuit. Transfixed by the plight of their comrade, the lions don’t seem to register our vehicle, coming close enough that their whiskers brush the car door.
We are the only visitors at our bush campsite, arriving just as the dying sun slips beneath the canopies of sycamores and tamarind trees. We pitch up the Land Cruiser’s built-on roof tents (complete with mattresses and soft pillows!), shaking 800km of dust off the outer sheet.
Cape turtle doves coo up among the ebony trees and tufts of wild cotton drift through the evening air. Logs are chopped, sausages are grilled, beers are clinked. Stories are shared.
Each day on safari is essentially a harvest of tales around the campfire (it is also an unspoken rule that the element of danger is allowed to be exaggerated by approximately 30 percent for maximum storytelling effect). The last embers crackle and die, and it is time to climb the ladder up to my rooftop bed. At this point, tales laughed over by the warm glow of the fire acquire anew, sinister resonance in darkness.
Sure, 260gsm polytetrafluoroethylene-coated polycotton ripstop fabric can repel rain, sleet and snow. It can stand firm in raging winds. But its all-season outdoor performance specifications do not extend to withstanding a sharp feline claw. Lying inside the tent at night, you soon realise that only a few millimetres of fabric separate you from all the animals you have seen on the road: that, for all you know, all the elephants, lions, and crocodiles you’ve spotted could be inches outside (perhaps forming an orderly queue at the bottom of the ladder).
It takes about 45 minutes for the human eye to fully reach maximum sensitivity in darkness. Poking my head out the tent into the inky blackness, it takes 10 minutes before I spot bats flitting through the patch of sky around Orion’s Belt; another 15 before I spy baboons stirring in the high branches of nearby fig trees. But, compared to most mammals, the nocturnal vision of Homo sapiens leaves much to be desired. It takes a full nine hours before I climb out of my tent in the slanting morning sunshine, yawn, reach for my toothbrush and see the footprints of a leopard crossing the tracks of the Land Cruiser on the far edge of camp.