One of the most amazing travel experiences of my life was during a visit to Zambia a couple of years ago. I stayed at several camps, but some of my most memorable moments were during my stay at Luwi Bush Camp, one of the Norman Carr Safari camps, in the South Luangwa National Park.

Luwi Camp is under a grove of mahogany trees on the seasonal Luwi River. Nearby is a year-round lagoon filled with hippos and crocodiles. This is the most remote camp I visited and the accommodations were the most traditional, consisting of natural materials constructed each year under the trees. It was a couple of days filled with unbelievable wildlife sightings.

Camp Life at Luwi Bush Camp

We walked and drove early each morning to see wildlife, with glimpses of male lions (the roar of a male lion from about six feet away literally makes the ground shake), elephants, zebras, hippos, water buffalo, baboons galore and sleek leopards. For me, even spotting the plentiful puku (which I think resemble antelope and a local told me was the McDonald’s of the food chain) was a thrill. After a rest midday during the heat, we would head back out each afternoon to explore and experience the traditional sundowner—watching the sun set across the plains as the African animals graze nearby. A night safari was the highlight of my day, watching animals that you would never spot during the sunlight hours. Evenings were spent having dinner under the stars and sharing stories of the day’s adventure.

Zebras and elephants in South Luangwa NP by Susan Lanier-Graham

Zebras and elephants in South Luangwa NP by Susan Lanier-Graham

To understand my “wow moment” at Luwi, you have to understand the layout of the camps and each guest room, which was actually a fairly large “hut”. The rooms are constructed in traditional style with natural materials. The bed was quite comfortable, piled high with down pillows, tucked under the tree branches running through the hut and surrounded by mosquito netting. At night, each room is completely enclosed. During the day, the front opens so you can sit and look out at the surrounding area. Below is my view from my bed at Luwi, which I took during an afternoon rest.

Tent in Luwi by Susan Lanier-Graham

Tent in Luwi Bush Camp. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I was quite comfortable and had my own en-suite bathroom, accessible from a door next to my bed. The bathroom, pictured below, had all the amenities—shower, toilet, sink—and I found it invigorating taking an open-air shower.

Bathroom at Luwi. Photo by Norman Carr Safaris

Bathroom at Luwi. Photo by Norman Carr Safaris

Sounds of the night

When I left for Africa, I wasn’t sure I would like it. To my pleasure and surprise, I fell in love and can’t wait to explore Africa again. For me, the most magical time was night. I would go to bed and lay there in the dark smelling the air—it’s an unforgettable smell of burning wood, grasses and trees—and listening to sounds of the wild. No cars. No airplanes overhead. No sirens in the distance. No whirring of appliances or computers. But definitely not quiet. The jungle sounds are amazing at night. I could hear the chomp-chomp of hippos. The heavy footsteps of elephants as they moved during the cooler nights. There was an occasional scream of monkeys. The chirp of frogs was my nightly lullaby.

But the most magical moment of the trip was when I awoke about 2 am the first night in Luwi. Earlier, I had been listening to stories from the guides about animals that visit camp during the nights. Guests can’t leave their rooms alone after dark. If you need anything, you have to call for an escort because the camp is in the wild and animals roam freely. There is always someone on duty in camp and I never felt unsafe. When I awoke in the middle of that night, it was to the low, grinding sound of a leopard—here’s a very short clip that lets you listen to the sound of a leopard. It’s an unmistakable guttural sound, similar to someone sawing wood. The guides had described it earlier, so I knew exactly what it was when I awoke.

Leopard in a tree. Photo by Norman Carr Safaris

Leopard in a tree. Photo by Norman Carr Safaris

I was still listening to the sound. It was close by. Not on my patio, but perhaps in the trees just outside. I felt a thrill as I lay there in the dark listening to the sound and knowing it was a leopard just past my door. Then, I realized I really needed to visit my en-suite bathroom. However, I quickly assessed the situation. Leopard close by. Leopards climb trees. Bathroom is open air. If I turn on the light, it might scare away the leopard, but it might not. What if the leopard is in the tree above the toilet? I could just see the news headlines. I quickly decided I would stay safely tucked inside my bed and await dawn.

I listened for a long time. I know I was awake about an hour before drifting off to the symphony of the leopard  and the monkeys squealing in protest while the hippos continued to chomp-chomp their way around the camp. The next morning, I came to breakfast and asked if I’d really heard a leopard the night before. Our guide explained that yes, the leopard had been roaming through camp that night and had taken a position in a nearby tree for a couple of hours. That night, we drove out on a night safari and I spotted three leopards nearby—a mother and her nearly adult male sons. Regal animals who were very aware that they had little to fear from their fellow beasts.

Baobab Tree in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Baobab Tree in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I frequently remember that night and how amazing it was to experience the world that way. I felt small but blessed and it gave me an amazing sense of being alive. It was that night when I realized how very lucky I am to see and experience the world I’d dreamt of as a child. For more photos from my African experience, view the video here.

You can read about more of my top travel experiences here.

Click here for more on Luwi Camp and other Norman Carr Safaris.

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