Get out of that Jeep

 A Zambian boy shows off his homemade birdcage. (JAMES FLINT)

A Zambian boy shows off his homemade birdcage. (JAMES FLINT)

As the world-craze for charismatic mega-fauna has intensified, safari has become more "White Mischief" than "Born Free". Today the standard safari experience involves turfing up, often by coach, to a large and lavishly appointed lodge on the edge of a large national park. The lodge is usually inside an enclave, perimeter-fenced and patrolled in order to protect the tourists not only from contact with the animals but also from the poor-as-dirt locals, and big game viewing is generally conducted from the back of a jeep unless you're lucky enough to be in a location where slightly contrived elephant-safaris are the order of the day.

Guides are generally white, kitchen staff, guards and servants, black. Building materials, food and labour are brought into the area from far away, often from neighbouring countries; any profits tend to make the return trip. Even the traditional thatched rooves found on the lavish hotels clustered around Victoria Falls, for example, are done not by Africans but by English thatchers.

Robin Pope Safaris is not like this. Superficially, yes, there are similarities. Turning up at the operation's Nsefu camp (one of half-a-dozen they operate in the South Lwangwa national park, as well as a couple of truly mobile camps) and seeing the six neat, thatched rondavels, their open-air bathrooms appointed with Jonelle toiletries and trimmings, plus a bar complete with a 1920s grafonola, a selection of jazz-era 78s, and a book-shelf stocked with the works of Laurens van der Post and Anya Seton as well as a wad of 1930s and 1940s Royal Family Photo Souvenirs, you might be forgiven for thinking that you'd talking a wrong turning off the Kings Road and ended up in someone's dream of long-lost Empire.

A conversation with Jo or Robin Pope will quickly disabuse you of this notion. Nsefu has been given the colonial touch for a reason. When Robin first came to work as a safari guide in Zambia he worked for Norman Carr, the man credited with the invention of the modern "photographic safari". Carr is something of a legend; he not only brought the first non-hunting tourists to the banks of the Luangwa back in 1949, but also made a point of funnelling a proportion of his profits back into the local community. Nsefu was his camp, and its rondavels today have official status as protected national monuments, being among the oldest permanent structures in Zambia.

After Carr's death Nsefu fell into a state of disrepair until Pope, a gentle and very quietly spoken man who seems somewhat walled off from the world by the enormous lenses of his spectacles, decided to buy it back three years ago and restore it to its former glory with the help of his wife Jo, who as a charismatic forty-something with a reputation for acute business acumen and the first woman ever to qualify as a walking safari guide, is the more ebullient of the pair.

By this time the couple had been running their own safari business for well over a decade, and what a wonderful operation it is. In a typical week with RPS you'll spend a night or two at Nsefu, probably at the end of your trip, and a night or two at either the seasonal camp of Tena Tena or the permanent site at Nkwali. Nkwali is the only camp accessible by tarmaced road; the others are served by dirt tracks running through regions of heavy black cotton soil which turns to glue during the rains, rendering them impassable to vehicles. When you consider that the camps have to be removed and then rebuilt every year, they manage an extraordinary level of comfort. They are also very small, each camp only sleeping 8 or 10 people at any one time. Staying in them you'll be served all the delights of any high-end safari: jeep trips at dawn and dusk (with a stop for complimentary sundowners during the latter), ensuite bathrooms with hot-water showers (and hot-water bottles), campfire chats, lions found wandering absent-mindedly through the bar after the guests have (supposedly) gone to bed, magnificent views of the Luangwa which at 40 hippos per kilometre is the most heavily infested river in the world (and, growling like brontosaurs all day and night, they don't let you forget it).

But it's what happens in the middle of your trip that makes Robin Pope stand out from the competition. Unlike the vast majority of other safari operators, RPS offers walking safaris, and it offers these in concert with the local community in an initiative that could - if the world were a good and wholesome kind of a place - act as a model for low-impact, non-exploitative tourism throughout southern Africa.

It goes without saying that South Luangwa national park is a beautiful place; it also goes without saying that it's better to see it on foot than from the back of a jeep. While the latter may allow you see more animals - in most parks now, animals are so used to vehicles that lions will use them as cover while hunting, while they're still very wary of anything that travels on two legs - until you get off your butt and bust some leather you're still mighty distant from the all but invisible aspects of action: from the real behaviour of the animals, the mysteries of dung, the manner in which the various species construct their zones of habitation, all the quiet tensions of the bush.
But this is still only half of the story. Understanding something about the people who live here is key to understanding anything about the region, and if you want to do that, stopping at the side of the road to buy an imitation sacred stave or palm-leaf bowl just isn't enough.

Enter the Kawaza Village Project, which started life back in 1987 when the Popes, following in the footsteps of Carr before them, began putting money into a nearly defunct local school. In addition, in the early 90s they started bringing groups of sixth-formers over from England on cultural exchanges; kids who'd often never been out of Britain before coming to stay as the guests of kids who'd never seen a town or even a metalled road.

The visits were a great success and led to Kawaza becoming a regular stopping off point for RPS safari-goers, until around three years ago however, the villagers approached Robin and Jo with the suggestion that they should themselves take over the management of the visits and, in addition, start to offer tourists the option of overnight stays in the village itself, so that they could really get a taste of traditional Kunda life.

Much discussion of the various issues then took place, the key problem being the transformation of what had been a fairly ad hoc arrangement into an autonomous business while keeping the village from having its culture and traditions swamped by the careless input of a bunch of rich foreigners keen to assuage their Western liberal guilt. On the other hand, the village had no intention of preserving itself in an pseudo-virginal state for the edification and delight of those same foreigners. With the outside world impinged ever further upon it, the community understood that change was an inevitability, and the idea was to invent mechanisms to enable the villagers to adapt to that change on their own terms, rather than - as has usually been the case in Africa - having those terms forced upon them.

The solution they arrived at was to split the money earned from visitors - including an average of 60 overnight guests a year - between the village and the school, with the aim of making the school self-sufficient from donations and allow it to provide an education for even those children whose parents were too poor to pay the £1 per term school fee. By making the school the focus, the villagers have not only helped ensure the future of their community, but they have prevented excess funds from getting unevenly divided, causing rivalries and power-bases and disrupting what is still primarily a barter economy.

During your stay in Kawaza village, then, you might get to help pound maize for making shima, or help thatch a hut. You'll probably be taught some basic Nyange, an simple, grammatically-fluid trading language like Swahili that allows the members of the sixteen dominant language groups in Zambia (and seventy-two sub-dominant) to communicate with one another another. You might learn how to catch lovebirds with half a sweet potato and some tree sap. You might get to chat the local healer, who blends traditional medicine with Bible quotes, dresses in a white nurses smock and hat decorated with a red Christian cross, and who takes her name from St. Etina, the spirit which she claims has granted her her powers; a hour spent with her will give you an incredible insight into how traditional magic, the intricate rituals of which are in fact expressions of a deep social psychology, modulates harmonies in a small village societies whose inherent social conservatism is of tantamount importance to its ability to survive.

On the other hand you might do none of these things, the deal being that when you show up you just have to get involved with whatever it is that is going on, as nothing that happens during your visit to the village is staged. (Nothing, that is, except the fireside dance in the evening, put on less for your benefit than that of the villagers, who treat it more as a band practise than a performance and take the opportunity to make great fun of whitey by getting him, or her, or you, to get up and dance.)

Already, the school is seventy-five percent of the way towards financial independence, and the villagers channel excess profits into the support of the local handicapped and some of the area's many AIDS orphans, sections of the population for whom the traditional social structures are not robust enough to provide. For their part, RPS and the other local camp operators in the area pay for a qualified doctor to attend the clinic local to Nkwali camp six days a week, as well as providing much needed employment opportunities.

And for once the jobs available to the locals aren't just behind the scenes: cooking, cleaning and so on. Our guide for the duration of our walking safari was Keyela, a young man born in the area and educated at Kawaza school, and at twenty-five already tipped to manage one of RPS's camps, though having spent four days with him I'm sure that he won't be stopping there; Keyela has the kind of patience, intelligence and infectious enthusaism whose proper outlet will only be found in the running of his own business operation.

Traditional tourist wisdom had it that travel in Northern Africa is about people, while travel in Southern Africa's all about the animals. This is no longer true; it is no longer acceptable, politically, environmentally, or economically, to try and divorce the needs of the human population from increasingly threatened national parks - to try and do so is to perpetuate the very kind of neo-colonialism in which my fellow party go-er had accused me of participating. And to see a blueprint for a possible future in which these two things may be fitted back together, you could do far worse than visit RPS and Kawaza village.

At least then, at the end of your trip, when your jeep carries you back to the Mfuwe airstrip across the black cotton soil coating the villages it passes in clouds of dust, and the children run out from the huts to wave and shout "Musungu! Musungu!" (White man! White man!), at least now you'll be able to shout back "Bwanji wakuda, zikomo! Salani-bwino!" (Hello black man, thankyou! Goodbye!) Which isn't much, but it's something. Especially if you've left a donation to Kawaza school in your wake, along with all that dust.

- Independent on Sunday, December 2001