The African wild: No distractions, just splendid isolation

To experience the wilds of Africa, you need to forget the outside world for a while. Adrian Mourby travels to two new retreats in Zambia and Malawi

It was dark when the 4x4 pulled into Zungulila. We had driven all afternoon, past wallowing hippos, trumpeting elephants and huge herds of buffalo. Civilisation, as represented by the two-room Mfuwe international airport, seemed a very long way away. We were 50 miles into the Zambian bush and still no sign of even a tent peg. Eventually, I could wait no longer.

"Are we nearly there?" I asked Brian my driver.

"About half an hour," he beamed. I was sure we'd got lost hours ago and he just wasn't telling me.

Suddenly, we rounded a corner and there was a brand new thatched stockade and inside a group of people waving in greeting. Prominent in the line-up were the ranger Steve Mvula and Englishwoman Zilha Fellowes, the manager. Once Zilha had introduced everyone she asked me if I needed anything after my long journey.

"My mobile phone doesn't seem to work," I mumbled. "Is there an internet connection here?" No. In fact, there was no contact with the outside world whatsoever, no radio, no satellite communication. There wasn't even any electricity, so there went any chance of recharging my laptop.

Seeing my face fall Zilha asked if I would like a drink in the bar.

"I don't suppose you have any ice ..." I said.

"Oh yes, Brian brought ice down with you in a cool box."

Things were looking up.

Zungulila is about as away from it all as you can get this side of sitting up a pole like the early Christian Stylites. It's a riverside camp consisting of four fixed tents and a dining room-cum-bar area that has a thatched roof and sand floor. All five buildings overlook a broad tributary of the Luangwa river.

Lighting is by candles and storm lanterns, but there is hot water in the shower thanks to a wood-burning boiler attached to each tent. Twenty minutes later I was clean, refreshed and sitting in the bar with ice cubes tinkling in my South African chardonnay.

Over supper Zilha and Steve told me about how I was staying in the latest and most remote "walking" lodge operated by the Bushcamp Company in the South Luangwa National Park. This area is famed for its walking safaris. People do not come here for game drives, of which there are masses all over southern Africa. The Bushcamp Company's motto is that you see Africa from a vehicle but you feel, hear and smell it on foot.

"And some people just come to get away from everything," said Zilha. "No camp sleeps more than eight. This isn't where you come for your first taste of Africa. This is for people who've seen the Big Five and want something different."

I had to agree. I'd spent too many hours as a prisoner of 4x4 safaris, taking in the natural world through my telephoto lens.

Zilha and I spent the rest of the evening explaining to Steve how odd the English are and laughing a lot while someone kept topping up my ice cubes. This was the kind of isolation I could get used to.

The next morning I was awakened at 6am by a voice outside my tent telling me it was time for my walking safari with Steve. You get to know a great deal about animal droppings on a walking safari. Steve expertly identified elephant and buffalo, lion and impala, porcupine and aardvark excreta. He also showed me impala middens and white piles of hyena faeces that bleach in the sun.

Not since the days of changing my children's nappies have I spent so much time looking at poo. Nevertheless, there is a visceral thrill about walking through Africa at first light knowing that you might come across an elephant or lion at any moment. Of course, it helps if there's a guy out in front with a gun just in case you do.

After wading across the shallow Kapamba river, we stopped for a tea break. Apart from a few defecating impala and some skittish warthogs, it had been all flora and no fauna so far. Steve was sorry. Yesterday, he'd watched lions sharing a kill but I was enjoying just having my feet on the ground rather than relying on my zoom lens to bring me close to Africa.

There was a lot that I liked, especially the red butterfly-shaped leaves of the mopane tree, the stunning green leaves of the sausage tree with its enormous killer seed pods. Steve confirmed that if you're under one of those when it drops, you die.

As we returned across the Kapamba I saw that Zilha was lugging an ice box into the river. She had set up brunch in the water for us. At Bushcamp, any meal apart from dinner is brunch. And sitting with your feet in the river certainly was a great way to cool off after four hours tramping through the bundu.

A few silent days later I flew down Lake Malawi in search of another remote hideaway that has just opened. Pumulani is much more luxurious than Zungulila but there was still no mobile phone reception.

The lodge is the brainchild of Robin Pope, one of East Africa's safari gurus. It's perched on a hillside not far from the original site of Livingstonia, the mission station raised in 1875 to carry on the work of David Livingstone. The shoreline of Lake Malawi looks like Greece. Stick a white domed church down below and you'd swear this was the Cyclades.

My host was a tall blond South African called Mark McKenzie who urged me to join a trip in Pumulani's locally built dhow, a great way to see the shoreline. On board were Luckio and MBwana, the crew of two, plus Dan and Felicity, the only other guests. They were honeymooning here from London, and were voluble about how much they loved Lake Malawi.

By the end of our sunset voyage and some excellent wine I could see why. The creak of the sailboat, the rhythm of the waves and the songs of the fishermen in their dugouts were hypnotically restful.

The next morning I breakfasted alone above the lake on a terrace. Apart from some vervet monkeys performing perfunctory sex acts by the infinity pool, I had the place to myself. In the distance I could make out a village on the shore.

This, Mark told me, was Kasanka. Luckio was from there. In fact, he could take me over if I wanted to visit. So this is what I did, with MBwana piloting Pumulani's shiny new speedboat.

As we drew close, the shore filled with children, who thought it the funniest thing ever when I waved to them. They followed Luckio and me all the way round the village with its wide main street where market stalls were just sheets spread out in the dust.

There were also two brick shops. A jolly lady waved from one of them so I went to look through the grille at her treasury of sweets, watches, toiletries and medicines. The village adults were distant and friendly as long as I didn't try to photograph them, but the kids wanted nothing more than to be snapped and screamed with terror and delight when I showed them their images on the digital screen. Only one boy asked for anything. He might have been 11 and strode over purposefully from his family's hut.

"Hello sir, what is your name?"

"My name is Adrian."

"Can you give me a pen?"

"I'm afraid I have no pens with me."

He then thanked me politely and left. I had the feeling that boy would go far. Give him a few years and I bet he'll have introduced mobile phone coverage and internet cafés all round the lake.

When I got back to the shore, Mark met me in a golf buggy and drove us to an absolutely splendid view of the lake. I watched the yellow spotted hyraxes scuttle up and down the rocks like guinea pigs on speed then turned my eyes to the haze hanging over the far horizon. For a moment, all was serene.

"Is that fog?" I asked.

Mark shook his head. "Smoke. The local Chewa people start fires to clear the hillsides above so they can get about easily. The problem with fires is they destroy trees, which weakens the grip on the soil, and when all the soil is washed down as silt, that will destroy the shoreline habitat for fish."

At Pumulani, Mark was facing the dilemma that besets so many conservationists. How do you convince the locals that changing their traditional ways will benefit them in the end, when all they see is wealthy foreigners living in great comfort?

It wasn't until later, as we returned to that comfort and the certainty of an excellent lunch, that I remembered to ask: "I don't suppose you have a Wi-Fi connection, do you?"

"Well, actually we do," Mark admitted.

Maybe I wasn't going to get away from it completely after all.

Compact facts

How to get there

Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk ) offers a seven-night safari staying at the Bushcamp Company's walking trail camp Zungulila in Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris' new lodge Pumulani on Lake Malawi from £2,900 per person, based on two sharing, including all international and internal flights, transfers, full board and safari activities.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders