By TOM COCKREM
We had become transfixed. A lace-patterned leaf, a green pigeon feather, a medicinal herb, dung-beetle balls - these were what now had us totally absorbed. We wanted to learn. And learn we did.
Sanford, our guide, was a tracker. To him, scuff marks in the dust informed at different times of the mating of guinea fowl, the passing by of a python or a fight among baboons.
A cursory inspection of a porcupine's droppings betrayed the exact constitution of its many different meals the night before.
All this I was learning as a guest at Tena Tena Lodge. It is one of two - soon to be three - properties run by Robin Pope's Safaris in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park.
A member of the elite Safari Guides Company, Robin has made his name with the five-day walking safaris he personally conducts. Though a tad more conventional than these, the lodges also offer walks, as well as game drives in an open vehicle.
More and more, I found myself opting for the walks. South Luangwa is one of the few parks in Africa where "footing" is allowed - take advantage while you can.
Walking safaris can quickly get addictive. There are some disadvantages - the animals, when they see a human form, are prone to scurry off. So sightings are usually from some distance.
That's unless a hippo or an "ele" takes a notion to attack. They can then be from rather too near.
But with a guide who knows his stuff, such attacks are rare.
Safeguards are in place. Leading the group is a gun-toting guard, borrowed for the purpose from the National Park. A shot fired in the air turns most would-be assailants on their heels. In his 10 years of walking, Huw Jones, guide for the bush walks at Chibembe, has seen the gun used only twice.
Huw, English-born, fresh-faced - shy, he will tell you - and impossibly lean, is something of a prankster, with a flair for hilarious send-ups of the pukka British raj.
But he can be serious on a walk. For him it is a listening, touching, feeling experience - something he imparts to the guests.
All of your senses, you learn, come into play when experiencing the African bush. You have to be attuned. A lion could be resting in the long grass only metres off your path. And who knows when a buffalo - a lone stroppy fellow - might be following your path?
The word came to camp that a hippo had died in a dry river bed. The connotations of this are quite stupendous. We set out for the spot.
On the way Huw pointed to every kind of spoor that was related to the death. Lion, hyena and jackal had passed.
The carcass, when we saw it, was a ghastly apparition.
At first you thought the body was totally intact, minus the eyes. Yet not even vultures bothered with it now. Walking to the belly side we saw that the thick hippo skin was no more than a shell. Nothing of its meat and bones remained.
"Everyone has had their fill," said Huw. "We can stop over here for our tea."
An hour earlier we might have intruded on an all-in cat 'n' critter feast.
But we did meet a herd of elephants. It's a thrill to encounter them on foot. A whole new set of rules come into play. You stay down-wind for starters. There were young ones in the herd - a reason to be wary of a charge.
Intent on getting photos, I did as Huw advised and kept in behind the termite mounds, scampering to the top to get the view. The mounds would afford no protection but they did serve as camouflage. My heart was playing bongos as I pressed the shutter down.
"So this is what it's like to track an elephant on foot," I thought, forgetting for the moment the protection from the gun. But Huw had told me (was he joking?) that the guards were in many ways untried. In one famous crisis, a novice guard had dropped the gun and run.
"What did you do?"
"I can use it too," assured my gallant guide.
Huw, Sanford and the rest live, breathe, taste, and maybe even eat the bush. One night at the lodge I strolled past the bar. The guides had got together for a drink.
"Those 'eles' by Chikoko stream are getting stroppier by the day. The matriarch is pregnant," one was saying.
"Yeah, we gave them a wide berth."
"I counted 18 in that lion pride today - fantastic!"
"Hey guys," I felt like interrupting. "Don't you ever talk football or politics?"
But news of that sort somehow loses its punch by the time it finds its way into the Zambian beyonds.
I remembered a chat I had with Huw in the bush. A Frank Sinatra fan of sorts, he was genuinely shocked when I talked about the singer's demise.
"When was that?" he asked in dismay.
The important news as always was coming from the bush.
The more I heard and learned the more I felt at home.
The thin, springy branches of the securanega virosa can make fine bows and arrows, as well as fire sticks. Who knows when you might lose your gun or lack a match?
The ocinum canum bush, or wild lavender, is a mosquito repellent and a substitute for "Vicks." A snake bite can be treated by the useful ante-venom this wild sesame provides.
We were able to feel and smell these plants, and get close-up sightings of creatures that you don't see from the car: a red locust, a lion ant, a puff adder - a little too close, that one. Game flitted in and out of view - impala, warthog, the fluffy red puku, zebra ...
The "tweeters" (bird-watchers) were flying high, as their gorgeously illustrated checklists were now bristling with ticks.
"Vehicle or walking?" was the choice we were offered after breakfast at the lodge every day. By now there was no choice.
"A stroll on the wild side will do very nicely, thanks."
GETTING THERE: South African Airlines fly from Sydney to Johannesburg every Friday. They fly to Lusaka, Zambia, from Johannesburg daily. From here, charter flights go to Mfui in the South Luangwa region.
WHEN: The dry season, from June to September, is the best time for walking.
BRING: Light cottons, a jacket for chilly nights, torch, insect repellent, sunhat, sunblock, binoculars, comfortable walking shoes.
Note that malaria is prevalent here. Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long trousers, especially at dusk.
READING: Lonely Planet has a current edition on Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
By TOM COCKREM