Hyenas are among the planet’s most maligned creatures. (Disney’s The Lion King, which depicted them as conniving wise guys, is partly to blame.) But on a recent trip to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, I discovered a great tenderness for these surprisingly sweet-looking beasts, whose resting expression approximates a guilty smile.

Like all members of the animal kingdom, they spend their lives scouring the earth for food, and the industriousness is astounding. From a raised seat in a Land Rover Defender, my safari vehicle for the week, I watched a pregnant female emerge from the Luangwa River, gnashing the blood-dripping rib cage of a felled kudu, while a downcast male skulked away, empty-jawed but resolute.

A hyena on the banks of the Luangwa River.

Of everything we may experience in travel, the safari is somewhat of an outlier. It requires the jamming of the brakes of life—a mellowing of the modern human experience. With senses attuned to the smallest detail, travelers can immerse themselves in the drama of silky air and striking landscape, and focus all attentions on animals in the wild. Often, as with the hyenas, proximity brings great empathy.

In colonial times, safaris meant, mostly, shooting Africa’s majestic beasts for “trophies.” Today it is a more contemplative and compassionate experience. “When people go on safari, I want people to feel like they are part and parcel of nature,” says Fannuel Banda, my guide for the week, as we watch an elephant snack on a spiny combretum tree.

The modern interpretation of safari is a more contemplative experience.

South Luangwa is the second-largest of Zambia’s 20 national parks, a country with a landmass roughly that of Texas. Entirely landlocked, Zambia is ringed by eight countries. Victoria Falls, its own wonder of the world, crashes into neighboring Zimbabwe. But Zambia is lesser known as a safari destination. What the tourist bureau lacks in numbers, the visitor gains in privacy.

“Zambia is still being discovered,” says Victor Ives, general manager of the bushcamp Chindeni, who has worked in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. “In other places, you have 12 to 15 vehicles full of people taking pictures of the same lions. Here, you are the only one.”

At Kapamba, guests are immersed in their surroundings.

Along with Chindeni, I also visited three other camps—Kapamba, the brand-new KuKaya, and Mfuwe Lodge, known for the parade of pachyderms that visit each November to chomp on the wild mangoes in the courtyard. All are part of the Bushcamp Company, which runs a circuit of eight properties, connected by a network of roads, and was co-founded by Zambian-born Andy Hogg, who remains at the head of the organization.

I watched a pregnant female hyena emerge from the Luangwa River, gnashing the blood-dripping rib cage of a felled kudu, while a downcast male skulked away, empty-jawed but resolute.

In South Luangwa, Hogg saw an opportunity for visitors to experience its lush landscapes and abundant wildlife in low-key, intimate settings. “It used to be that a bush camp meant a basic camp,” he said. “But we wanted to redefine it to just mean small.” Dinner includes all the South African wine you can drink, but, he says, “we just don’t make the wine cellar the most important thing.” A meal could include butternut-ginger soup, lamb chops, grilled tilapia or rotisserie chicken and potatoes, with sticky pudding or banoffee pie for dessert. It is best enjoyed on the airy camp porch, under the stars.

With a level of comfort and service that lifts them into the realm of luxury, these smaller camps pay elegant tribute to their rustic origins. Kapamba’s stone cottages and Chindeni’s and KuKaya’s tented villas are kitted out with flowy linen curtains and four-poster beds, and roofs that are painstakingly thatched (and, eventually, re-thatched) with native elephant grass.

Chindeni is one of the eight properties managed by the Bushcamp Company, which was co-founded by Zambian-born Andy Hogg.

One aspect was, at first, alarmingly retro: at Kapamba and Chindeni, there was no Internet connectivity whatsoever. I had not prepared for stepping off the grid for a spell. Stillness, I would learn, is an antidote to the madness of our world, even lingering ailments from a coronavirus infection that had stolen much of my summer.

Each camp is staffed by Zambian locals, often from the surrounding communities. Fannuel Banda grew up in Mfuwe, the nearest town to South Luangwa National Park, and Gwen Mukumbi, a soon-to-be-accredited guide and our spotter, was raised right in the park, where her father was a prosecutor of wildlife poachers. “I always knew I would work here,” she said.

The vacationing masses have not yet stumbled upon Zambia.

Bushcamp has exclusive 15-to-25-year leases with the Zambian government, so no one else can develop any operations in these areas. On game drives, we explored an average of 5,000 acres of pristine wilderness each outing. Even with the rumble of tires over cracked earth and elephant tracks, I was lulled by calm but roused frequently by animal sightings. Puku and kudu antelope, Cape buffalo, hippo, and crocodile were staggering in their sheer numbers, something I’ve not seen in other trips to Africa.

A trio of Thornicroft’s giraffes—endemic to South Luangwa—crossed the road, offering cool stares from eyes that appeared to be rimmed with kohl. Two lionesses, bellies bulging and full, napped under a milkwood tree, which Banda called by its Latin name: Sideroxylon inerme. A polymath, Banda has spectacular knowledge about every aspect of the bush, from the alcohol content of fermented marula fruit to the larynx peculiarity in male lions, allowing their roars to soar so powerfully our vehicle shook.

The Thornicroft giraffe exists only in South Luangwa.

South Luangwa is the birthplace of the walking safari, and each morning, dressed in camouflage-y beiges and khaki, I set out on foot with Banda, Mukumbi, and a scout armed with a Czech rifle. Banda plucked a pungent tuft of wild mint, used medicinally for eye maladies, and we examined the bleached skull of a long-gone hippo. Its teeth seemed carved from Carrara marble.

Known as the “Valley of the Leopard,” South Luangwa has the highest concentration of leopards in Africa. Fannuel knew one was on the move when baboons sounded raucous alarms, as did swarms of Meves’s starlings. “They are warning anyone who can hear that a terrorist is on the loose,” Banda said. Soon, we entered a clearing to the sight of a freshly killed impala.

Visitors to Zambia tend to leave the country seeing things a little bit differently.

Back behind the wheel, Banda located the natal mahogany tree to which the leopard had swiftly dragged the carcass, which she hoisted to a high branch to dine above any scavengers. Her green-gold eyes peeked through the foliage, and her face was blotched with blood. “She’s happy,” said Fannuel, “because now she will not starve to death.” Out here in the savanna, every story has two sides—predator and prey.

Pods of hippopotamuses bathed in the river and, at night, stomped about the shore looking for fruit, grunting like motorcycle engines. Once, Banda stopped to split open the fruit of a baobab tree to offer us a taste—like marshmallow, with the slippery texture of a lozenge. “These were the only candies we had growing up,” he declared.

Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, baby elephants are now a fairly common sight.

Poaching remains illegal in Zambia, and, during a game drive, a plane owned by the Bushcamp Company flew overhead on a regular reconnaissance mission. Even highly lucrative trophy hunting has been suspended by Zambia’s popular new president, former opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. “Wildlife is a nonrenewable resource, and if we don’t conserve it, at some point it will disappear, and so will tourism,” says Banda, citing the eradication of rhinoceroses from the park, which were officially declared extinct in the 1990s.

Out here in the savanna, every story has two sides—predator and prey.

During the same time period, elephants had been poached to near oblivion throughout Zambia. But with the help of 90 full-time anti-poaching scouts from Conservation South Luangwa (C.S.L.)—and given the large number of baby elephants I saw strolling with their mothers—their populations have been steadily increasing, from approximately 5,000 then to an estimated 27,000 countrywide today.

Bushcamp initiated the Luangwa Community and Conservation Fund, and a percentage of each guest’s fee goes to numerous local projects, such as meal programs for schools and the drilling of wells for fresh water. “The community has to benefit from what we are doing here,” says Hogg, who notes the connection between an educated and healthy local population and wildlife conservation. “And for visitors, it’s really important they arrive knowing about this work.”

A friendly tussle.

That sense of mission is a fresh look for safaris, something collaborative rather than exploitative. And yet it was the adrenaline rush of wildlife sightings, combined with the hypnotic rhythm of each day, that restored me (and my virus-scarred lungs). Mornings were accompanied by homemade bread, grilled outdoors on a brazier, and swallows of strong Zambian coffee; each evening, cocktails on the bluff of an oxbow lake, across from the soft Chindeni Hills. Not scrolling, not troubled by much, just appreciating the comfort of existing in real time, and the astonishing spectacle of elephants silhouetted against a purpling sky—silently, patiently grazing on their dinner.

Marcia DeSanctis is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure and writes essays and stories for Vogue, Town & Country, Departures, and BBC Travel. Her new book, a collection of travel essays called A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, is out now