Dispatches: The joy of sitting still in Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Author and journalist Simon Barnes meditates on the blissful benefits of not doing, not searching, not moving, not exploring – just being in a special place, and understanding why it’s special…

3 mins

Sometimes I think the best part of travelling is sitting still.

I was co-leading a trip to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, and one of our guests, Heather, decided not to take part in the morning walk. This was quite a big deal: it is, after all, the centrepiece of the day – the principal activity, what you’ve come for, what you’ve paid your money for. So I was… concerned.

The others came on the walk, the highlight of which was a herd of 1,000 buffalo going down to the river to drink – you could almost see the level of the water dropping as they did so. Back at Crocodile Bushcamp, the first thing I did was check on Heather. She was smiling in the manner of an angel who had been visiting the vaults of heaven.

“You know, this is my fifth time in Africa. And I realise now that I’d never been here before now.”

“What have you been up to?”

She makes a small helicopter gesture, indicating the immensities of South Luangwa National Park and, with it, all Africa. “Just… sitting."

 

 

Later, I was in my hut. Just sitting. I may be fool enough to go charging about the bush in the heat of the day, but the animals aren’t. They’re just sitting as well. Waiting for the cool. You might as well do the same.

And so for once in your life you sit, time-rich, with the bush all around you. I was so still that a small bird, a Jameson’s firefinch, dropped into the hut through the window (which was just a hole in the grass wall). Glowing like a coal, it foraged on the floor for blown seeds, either unaware of my presence, or uncaring.

No urgent appointment. No jobs that need doing. No connectivity. But it’s not just the negatives: it’s the sense of being in a place you’ve fallen in love with, and having it to yourself. Places can grow on you – and these quiet times are when they do the growing.

 

 

 

I’ve noticed it happening in many of the guests. For the first day or so, we cruise around the park in vehicles, looking for big sightings: elephants under trees, leopards in trees, lions in an insolent doze, lilac-breasted rollers in a million colours, bateleur eagles defying gravity.

And then the pressure’s off. You no long need to tick off anything, or get the big cat photo. You’ve already seen an awful lot… so now you can start to understand it. Understand the place, and how it works, and why it is the way it is.

Profound sitting 

Simon on the banks of Luangwa River (David Bebber)

Simon on the banks of Luangwa River (David Bebber)

 

At this stage we leave the vehicle behind and spend five days walking: coming to grips with the country, ceasing to be a spectator and becoming a participant. After the morning walk, back to the camp, and the long, slow afternoon. Doze, read, chat, look, listen, sit. Sometimes I sits and thinks; sometimes I just sits. And perhaps the second experience is the more profound.

It’s true of all kinds of travel, not just travel to wild places. Perhaps the most meaningful part of a visit to a European city is not the Botticellis but the beer: sitting quietly in a café after the visit to the Uffizi, the impossible images still fresh in your mind.

One evening at Crocodile, we sat down for drinks just as the sun went down. Half an hour later were joined by a dozen lions. We moved away calmly and politely, and then had another drink. It was one of those experiences that stay with you.

But you understand such things better by sitting still. In this wonderful place, you sit there knowing that you are breathing the same air as lions.

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