Remote Africa

John Coppinger is the owner of Remote Africa and is highly-respected as a guide and operator in Zambia. With a reputation for bush adventure, whether on land or by river, he contributed some invaluable information on walking and mountain bike safaris for our active safari story – and detailed more about the Luangwa Valley as a destination for guests looking for memorable safari experiences.

Being a floodplain, the mid-Luangwa becomes inaccessible during the rainy season and this gives time for nature and the wildlife to reign supreme
Two camp chairs and wine glasses laid out in the Luangwa River for sundowners at sunset on safari in the Luangwa Valley

What do you love most about the Luangwa Valley?
There is no other place I know where nature is so strong – there is very little commercial development along the entire length of the river. Being a floodplain, the mid-Luangwa becomes inaccessible during the rainy season and this gives time for nature and the wildlife to reign supreme.

What makes it a special place for mountain bike safaris/walking safaris - and what makes cycling and walking in this place so special to you?
Cycling and walking are similar in that one becomes a part of it all, unlike being on/in a vehicle and somewhat detached from the surroundings. There are obviously benefits to both for different people but being a part of it sharpens one’s senses and the subtle signs and minutiae of the bush, not to mention behaviour of dangerous game, become a lot more interesting, important, and enjoyable.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Zambia. What drew you there? What has made your passion for these places so enduring?
Well, I didn’t ‘end up’ here…I was born here! My father introduced me to the Luangwa Valley in the 60s when he was surveying the Great East road and was based in Eastern Province for some months. The family would join him on long weekends and go down to the Valley for a few days. That’s when it all started for me.

The sun is setting. Tea, G&T, or beer?
Tea when I am with guests, beer when we get back to camp!

What is the first place that comes to mind where you would love to drink it along your route on one of your safaris? Why there?
Right at Tafika Camp which offers a magnificent vista.

Table laid with ethnic painted placemats under a thatched roof on safari with hammocks and the Luangwa River in the distance

Your pedals/walking shoes must have stories to tell of your adventures over the years. What is the most memorable experience you - and your bicycle/walking shoes - have shared?
Cycling down the Muchinga escarpment and pedalling past a pack of wild dogs, no more than 10 meters away.

And the funniest/quirkiest experience you have had?
Rushing back to camp, late, having dropped off guests for sundowners and night drive. Moffat Mwanza, one of our guides, was cycling by my side when we came across a family group of elephant in the road. Not being familiar with American brakes, he gripped his left brake (which is for the front wheel) with as much force as he could muster and performed a perfect somersault! Fortunately, there were no injuries and the elephants sauntered off, clearly unimpressed.

What wildlife is Luangwa Valley known for? Is there anything in particular people travel to see? What do you recommend guests to the area should be on the lookout for?
Luangwa is historically known as ‘the Valley of the elephant’ but it is also undoubtedly one of the best places in Africa to see leopard. For guests staying for three nights, it would be extremely rare not to see one of these spectacular animals.

What time of year is best for game-viewing? When is the rainy season? When is it unbearably hot? What is the average summer high and winter low temperatures?
The game is most easily viewed in October, when all water, apart from the Luangwa river itself, has dried up – the animals are concentrated along the riverine area and, being the driest time of year, the vegetation is at its thinnest, so visual penetration is greatest. October is hot, with daytime highs of around 40 degrees Celsius, but it cools down at night. The rains traditionally break at the end of October/beginning of November. May is one of my favourite times of year, as all the lagoons still contain water which supports a lot of water birds and, whilst the game is not so concentrated, the animals are in excellent condition. We still see most of the big game too, albeit not as regularly. The lowest temperature would be around 10 degrees Celsius - in July.

Panting leopard with long white whiskers lying amongst some stick branches spotted on safari at Tafika, Luangwa Valley
Wherever there is space and wild places that have been untouched by human hand
Person relaxing in a hammock in the dappled shade, looking out over the bush on safari with Remote Africa in Luangwa Valley

Is there one thing in the area visitors shouldn’t miss?
A safari to North Luangwa National Park, the best managed park in the country and one of the least visited.

Apart from the Luangwa Valley, where else do you love to go on safari?
Wherever there is space and wild places that have been untouched by human hand. There is an abundance of such places in Zambia: Kafue National Park, Liuwa Plains, Lower Zambezi to name a few.

Based on your experience, what are the 5 essentials you recommend clients should bring to go on a bike safari or walking safari.
Good quality (neutral-coloured) safari gear made from natural fibres and not too close fitting: billowing shirts, comfortable but strong footwear, a good hat (cycling helmets are available for guests who prefer them), maybe gaiters for those that react to the odd tsetse fly bite. Last but not least: a good pair of binoculars and a camera.

Is a mountain biking/walking safari for everyone or do you need to be very fit?
A reasonable level of fitness is advisable, although the activities are not strenuous and are designed around guests’ needs and abilities. There are no hills/mountains, but the ground can be uneven (from hippos, elephant, and buffalo cavorting during the rainy season). Bikers need to be reasonably proficient and able to manoeuvre and cycle at a reasonable pace. Again, the speed is controlled to cater for guests’ abilities and preference.

Thatched hut in orange light surrounded by trees and a dark sky of stars on safari with Remote Africa in Luangwa Valley

What have you found to be your clients’ greatest fears on a mountain biking/walking safari and what information/advice can you give them to avert those fears?
Getting uncomfortably close to big game. It is important to be aware that this can happen and it is our job to ensure that we do not put our guests in a dangerous situation. We all have quite a bit of experience keeping our guests safe.

Do you have any interesting information to share on the history of cycling/walking in Africa?
One of my favourite stories is about a gentleman named George Grey who was arguably the founder of the copper mines in Zambia in 1900. He had urgent information to convey to his head office in Bulawayo so, there being no roads, he cycled there – a distance of around 860 miles in less than a week. All he carried was a bottle of Bovril, some bars of chocolate and his shaving kit!

Deck chair and hurricane lamp in the sand next to a campfire overlooking the riverbed at sunset on safari in Luangwa Valley
Interior of rustic hut at the lodge, Remote Africa, with two campaign chairs, safari gear, and a bed with an ethnic quilt

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