Those who do visit Zambia tend to head for its most spectacular game park, the Luangua Valley in the east of the country. However, the financial collapse of Zambia Airways weeks before our departure groun-ded most internal flights. Instead, we had to opt for locations closer to the capital, easily reached by road. What started as a stumbling block became a blessing, since our new itinerary took us off the beaten track and closer to the spirit of everyday Zambian life.
On a packed flight to Lusaka it was alarming to see all but a handful of passengers disembark at Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, during a stop-over. But an hour later we were warmly welcomed at Lusaka airport by Adrian Lush, a tall and striking white Zambian who had been born and bred in the bush. Having arranged to stay at Chunga - his small, unusual camp in the Kafue National Park - we were driven by Adrian through drab suburbs and out into the bush along an alarmingly pot-holed road. On either side the unfamiliar woodland of acacia, bao-bab and thorn trees was broken only by tiny villages of mud huts, from which children emerged, hoping to sell us their live chickens and fresh fish. Roadside shopping, Adrian explained, is a way of life in Zambia.
As we travelled deeper and deeper into the bush, dazed and disorientated by the long flight, we passed Zambians ambling barefoot for miles in the heat of the day. By the time we reached Chunga, six hours later, night had fallen, blindfolding us to our surroundings. Among the huts in a clearing, a thousand eyes gleamed at us; it was a herd of impala sheltering in the security of human habitation. Suddenly a jackal appeared, weaving between the herd, and was joined by a lolloping hyena out on the prowl. Moments later the crashing of branches announced the presence of a bull elephant, just feet away, sporting a piece of foliage on its head. It trumpeted its distaste at our intrusion before ambling off into the night.
So ended our first impromptu night safari. Fortified by a nightcap, we made the mistake of quizzing Adrian on local venomous snakes. Nervously interrupting his list of horrible names (including the deadly black mamba) with "What happens if you get bitten by one?", we were met with an apologetic smile. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for you," he said. "This is, after all, Africa".
Proud of ourselves for having braved it thus far, we shrugged off our fear and retired to our round, whitewashed huts. Our tiny lamps threw strange shadows against the walls, emphasising the enormous spiders on the ceiling. We were lulled to sleep by hippos chortling outside, accompanied by a strange chorus of croaking, clicking and screeching.
Most Zambian lodges are discreet, luxurious and costly, situated in the wilds yet offering civilised recreations ranging from game drives to dinner parties and sun-downers by the pool. The ex-pat chit-chat at these is a distant echo from colonial days, when this land was British-run Northern Rhodesia. Chunga, however, since it is deliberately more basic, was perhaps the most romantic and relaxing of all our destinations.
In the morning, over tea and Jungle Oats - Zambia's answer to porridge - we admired the breathtaking view around us. The camp sits on the edge of a wide meander of the Kafue river, overlooking a vast floodplain which is home to grazing herds of zebra, buffalo and the odd hartebeest. After several days spent basking in the strong African sun, walking in the bush and being entertained by the devilish gibbons who shared the camp with us, we packed our bags and headed south to Victoria Falls, aware that it was one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
As far as 20 miles away, we spotted a huge cloud of what we thought was smoke, rising from the endless flatness of the plains. It was in fact spray, created as the Zambezi river plummets down a deep cleft in the plateau after its sluggish, meandering journey of several hundred miles. In Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, the falls are known as Musi O Tunya ("The Smoke that Thunders").
This dramatic natural phenomenon is a crowd-puller. Indeed, Vic-toria Falls town - which lies on the Zimbabwean side of the canyon - has been nicknamed Adrenaline City due to the number of hair-raising activities on offer there. Crossing the border for the day, we declined invitations to brave the world's highest bungee jump, the daunting microlight flight over the falls, and the even more daunting parachute jump. Instead we decided to sample white-water rafting down the Grade Five rapids which lie under the falls.
These are among the most dangerous in the world; we were warned that we might capsize into the boiling mass of whirlpools, eddies and 15ft waves. Minutes after our satety drill, our raft was indeed flipped backwards like a tiddlywink, catapulting us into the white water. We just made it back to the upturned boat before it hurtled headlong into the next stretch of rapids. Was the flip a deliberate ploy on the part of our guide to maximise our excitement?
Certainly, we rafters became friends for life as we heaved each other to safety, drunk with exhilaration. After tackling almost 20 rapids in four exhausting hours, we lay back in the boat, marvelling at the beauty of the canyon rising sharply above us until we reached the shore.
We chose our next lodge well, since Tonga Bezi - on the shore of the river, just 15 minutes' drive upstream from the Victoria Falls - has exclusive visiting rights to Livingstone Island. This is a tiny patch of land clinging spectacularly to the very lip of the falls. Insisting that the island was the ideal place to relax after running the rapids, our new hosts paddled us there by canoe. Once there, we had a unique experience. Safely wedged between the rock pools, we were shown how to dangle our legs over the edge of the waterfall. On either side of us, the wide curtain of water tumbled 350ft down into the ravine. Mesmerised by this terrific release of energy, we watched a glorious double rainbow forming in the spray.
Tonga Bezi Lodge, with a swimming pool fed by a waterfall and showers open to the sky, is what Tarzan might have achieved if he'd had the cash- flow. A riverside path leads from exotic tree-houses, with four-poster beds and sunken baths, to open tented rooms in which we lazed watching the sun set behind the elephants on the opposite shore. Once rested, we were invited to join our fellow guests for drinks and cheese straws by the pool, followed by a somewhat formal dinner party.
Feeling the need to reassert our independence a little after that, we set off on our own the following day to the cultural museum in nearby Livingstone. Trying to return to base on foot, we realised that the lodge's chauffeur was discreetly following us in his Jeep, rather shattering our spirit of adventure.
After three days of comfort and cosseting, "The Real Africa" beckoned once more.The next morning saw us stepping, much to our host's surprise, from the cocoon-like protection of Tonga Bezi on to a packed and barely roadworthy public bus. There we sat happily for the next six hours or so, chatting with our neighbours and certainly winning great favour with the driver by holding together the wires on his battered stereo to release a deafening rumba sound.
Sitting beside us was a university student, with the curiously apt name of Clever, who politely answered our stream of questions about Zambia in his formal English. He too had a burning question: "What it is that I must know is whether the princess will be divorcing Charles."
Though we couldn't answer his question, Clever must have felt protective towards us. When the bus broke down for the third and final time, he quickly took control of the situation and hurried us aboard another equally dilapidated vehicle.
Back in Lusaka, our commitment to roughing it faltered when we accepted an invitation to stay at Lilayi Lodge, set in its own game park just 10 minutes outside the city. Arriving in Lilayi's bar, grubby and travel- weary, we must have looked quite a sight standing next to the smart Zambian and South African businessmen. Though our fellow guests weren't keen to converse, the two brothers who owned the lodge welcomed us cheerfully to their own dinner table. Horse-riding through the grounds the next afternoon, we were delighted to be shown brightly plumed birds, zebra, giraffe and a multitude of game. Some of these beasts had the disconcerting habit of reappearing on our evening menu.
Next we travelled, by bus and boat, to the Royal Zambezi Lodge, just two hours out of Lusaka. The lodge borders a huge National Park where the wildlife is contained by a range of hazy blue mountains on one side, and by the Lower Zambezi river on the other. Our host and guide, Michael, was an entertaining and eccentric British ex-pat. He took us into the park in an open Jeep, across meadows, plains and river beaches. Being in the only vehicle for miles added to the thrill of our hunt for the king of the bush, the black-maned lion.
As night fell, we were driving back to the camp when our searchlight picked up a peculiar mound in the road. Drawing closer, we were astonished to see the lion himself blocking our way. His presence was as welcome to Michael as it was to us, for he hadn't seen the animal at all during the rainy season. Like an anxious parent, he feared that the lion might have come to grief.
Unarmed and no more than two metres away from the yawning beast, one of us had to be restrained from leaping out to embrace it. At this point, the lion clearly showed that it was no cuddly toy by letting out a terrifying roar. For a full five minutes, the valley floor resonated to a sound so powerful that it was a further five before we could speak and register our awe.
That encounter with the lion was the climax of our African adventure. Far from being stripped of its wildlife or crippled by the lack of adequate local transport, Zambia had proved itself a welcoming country for any moderately intrepid tourist. 8Reuse content