Hang on to that paddle

Simon Calder in Zimbabwe

My map shows the Zambezi river as a serene squiggle of blue between Zimbabwe and Zambia. As you find out by the second rapid downstream from the Victoria Falls, however, there is nothing gentle about Africa's fourth longest river. The Zambezi treats you as contemptuously as an old sock, swirling you around in what seems to be a gigantic washing machine. And as it hurls you through every known dimension, Zimbabwe and Zambia look very similar indeed.

You and the rest of the crew, shackled to the raft and being yelled at by a jet-black Zimbabwean in a neat reversal of colonial stereotypes, have paid pounds 60 to navigate the most challenging commercially run rapids in the world. Nature has designed the ultimate fairground attraction: 15 miles of waterborne terror.

For the traveller with money to spend, Zimbabwe is one big adventure playground. Within an hour's paddling range of the Victoria Falls, you can swim with orphaned elephants; be strapped to a Microlight pilot and swoop through the spray of devilish cataracts; or simply dive into thin air. Pay pounds 60 and pray that the elastic rope attached to your feet holds tight as you descend 350 feet towards the river. Just above the surface, you bounce back and become a hapless human pendulum, demonstrating simple harmonic motion to the cowards gawping from the Zambezi Bridge.

Most visitors shun the bungee, but choose to dip more than a toe in the white water. Here's what rafting is like. You put your trust in a bunch of fellow paddlers whom you have never previously met, and entrust your wellbeing to their mutual ability to carve a sensible course as far as Rapid 19 with nothing but flimsy plastic oars to aid you. Each dizzying descent is followed by a lull, but don't loll about or the crocodiles that lurk in the calmer waters may snatch you. To heighten your terror, each treacherous terrace has been assigned a name: the Terminator, Gnashing Jaws of Death and the Devil's Toilet Bowl. You learn this register of fear at Trevor Soma's pre-float briefing to 60 anxious faces: "If you get your line wrong, the Stairway to Heaven [Rapid Five] turns into the Highway to Hell."

For someone trying to incur as many near-death experiences as possible for pounds 1,000, Zimbabwe is the place to be. But thrills narrowly outnumber spills. Tourists who jet in and stay at the formidable Elephant Hills Hotel, where you can take revenge by dining on crocodile tails, swap stories with backpackers carrying the sort of rucksacks that require HGV licences.

Yet just when you begin to assume that a certain Boy's Own-meets-Disney security embraces every activity in Victoria Falls, human mortality slams home the true hazards of Africa. The day I arrived, a British visitor died. He lost his footing while clambering across rocks to a bathing pool at the top of the Falls. Much of the following day resembled a morbid circus, as his body was extricated from the swirling pool at the foot of the drop that killed him.

Shedding the naivity of northern hemisphere life is essential in sub- Saharan Africa. You may glance at your map and decide that the road running next to the Hwange National Park is on the safe side of the fence; only when a Zimbabwean zoologist plucked me from the roadside at nightfall did I learn that (a) there is no fence, and (b) hungry beasts, such as the leopard that he captured in his headlights, are at liberty to graze on tourists.

My rescuer took me to the safety of the Hwange Safari Lodge, where there is a choice of viewing in your room: the local television news, gleefully showing temperatures of below freezing in London, or the troupe of zebras passing beneath your window en route to the water hole.

The best months for game viewing are from August to November, you are assured - before the rains. I went at New Year, height of the rainy season. At dawn in London, the Cabinet Papers for 1965 were being published, telling the sorry inside story about white Rhodesia's declaration of independence. Meanwhile in Hwange, a black Zimbabwean named Norman braked his Toyota pick-up and pointed through the gloom at a scatter of giant footprints. Pocked amid the elephant tracks were more sinister impressions; not those produced by the soles of your Clark's Nature Trek boots, but the fresh impressions of a large male lion.

We set off to hunt the hunter, touristic predators riffling through the ancient folds of Africa beneath the broadest of skies. The stern grey of daybreak was quickly overhauled by dazzling blue, shredded with shafts of gold.

It was Norman's shrewd interpretation of the movements of zebra that led us to the cats. The zebra were performing a bizarre, stripy shuffle, designed to instil optical confusion among predators. We stopped on a sandy patch in the scrub, in the middle of an alien landscape. In an instant, a collective shiver shot through our spines.

The first time you see a lion in the wild, you can't help but gasp. A hundred yards away, he - plus two lionesses and a pair of cubs - was studying his prey intently. Animal Magic meets Zoo Time meets real life. Norman told me what Johnny Morris never did: that lions can outrun zebras only over a short sprint. So the monochromatic mammals, too far away to make the dash worthwhile, continued their strange dance as they drank from a water hole, watched by five big cats who had not yet breakfasted. We looked on in rapture for an hour, as the sun grew higher and hotter. Suddenly, the lions decided they could wait no longer for the zebras to come within range - and retreated into the bush to rest before their next nocturnal excursion.

We shared the relief of the zebras, and rumbled off to breakfast back at the safari lodge. As I tucked into a slice of impala that didn't get away, 100 miles north the latest raftful of eight novices began paddling frantically in the New Year's first risible gesture against the Zambezi. Zimbabwe, they may wish to remember, is on the right.

Grand total

Heathrow-Harare ticket on British Airways bought through Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) pounds 640

Domestic flights Harare-Victoria Falls-Hwange National Park-Harare on Air Zimbabwe (0171-491 0009) pounds 88

Two nights at the Hwange Safari Lodge (00-263-18 331) pounds 160

Dawn safari with the Lodge's tour operator, Touch the Wild pounds 30

A chalet for three nights at Victoria Falls Town Council Camp Site pounds 15

Full-day rafting trip on the Zambezi with Shearwater (00-263-13 4471) pounds 60

Total pounds 993

Stay cool, baby

Virginia Ironside in Barbados

"But it's not always like this ..." That is the saddest sentence wailed by friends who try to convince you that usually the snow is crisp in Switzerland, that usually the builders aren't working on a motorway extension outside the Spanish holiday villa - that usually there aren't huge storms in sunny Barbados.

Thus I found myself in my room in this lush tropical island arranging my shampoos and conditioners in neat rows in the bathroom while the rain hammered on the roof, reading Lolita while the monkeys screamed outside, tidying my bag while the pawpaws and mangoes dropped on to the swampy grass beyond my window, peering into the mirror to see if I could make out any brown marks from the first day of sunbathing, while the tree frogs yelled in the jungly undergrowth of the garden.

That very first day I'd only had a glimpse of beach life, which is much the same as beach life anywhere. The cool white buildings of the hotels, the ubiquitous fountains, the breakfast buffet (pawpaw, muesli, and strange slices of cheese for the Germans), the half-read copies of Penny Vincenzis and Sidney Sheldons lying on the towelled loungers, the devastating tummies. The only Barbadian distinctions were the white-coated waiters bearing glasses of rum punch, the steel band playing Yellow Bird until you could scream, the sexy jet skiers hassling you on the beach, and the Brits sporting beaded braids on what was left of their hair.

But there is a limit to how long you can lie on a beach and swim, even when it is possible. If, like me, you had actually taken a snorkelling lesson before leaving, you'd have wanted to get out there, puffing through your tube, making new fat-lipped, bulging-eye'd friends under the sea. OK, people are regularly killed, apparently, by the huge Atlantic rollers in the storms, but I wanted to get out and party with the deep.

Until the storm settled, we spent our time in the centre of the island, lush and green and crammed with hummingbirds, turtledoves and tick-birds resting in convoluted trees - calabash, mahogany, tamarind - all groaning with vast pods and prickled fruits. In this steaming, jungly atmosphere you could practically hear the mosquitoes mating. Through the little villages made up of charming wooden houses balanced on slabs of breeze blocks, the inhabitants, many dressed in suits and hats from church meetings, waved and smiled. The place names in Barbados are like chapters in Pilgrim's Progress: Condemned Road, Fruitful Hill, Less Beholding, Cuckold Point, Prospect, Endeavor, Strong Hope, Mount Misery, Lake Beholden, Prerogative, Constant, Industry, Foul Bay and The Risk.

While the winds howled, we ate. We could have tried the Sandy Lane Hotel, where rooms cost an average of pounds 500 a night, and, in the striped-awned dining room designed by Oliver Messel, have used silver cutlery to eat such bizarre dishes as "grilled melon mahi with young spinach beurre blanc".

But we stuck with Bajan cooking. It isn't delicate, but the fare is, like the people, overwhelmingly friendly - and "better is a dish of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therein". Flying fish sandwiches, plantain fritters, candied sweet potatoes, pepper pot - a hot stew that goes on boiling for years - souse (unfriendly, actually, since it's made from pig's tail, snout, trotters, eyelashes and ears), rice and peas, coconut pie. Michael Winner complained about the food in Barbados but had he, I wonder, been to the Atlantis Hotel at Bathsheba and tasted 90-year-old Mrs Enid Maxwell's pickled bananas?

Here, every Sunday, the Bajan middle and upper class, a daunting, well-dressed crowd dominated by women of a matriarchal society far more powerful than that of any London feminist, queue up for Sunday buffet. Through the open windows, the sea pounds against the rocks; inside a letter from Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace records his pleasure at Mrs Maxwell's hospitality and at meeting so many Barbadian young people.

No wonder he was pleased, for Barbadian society is one of the most civilised in the world. The men and women are staggeringly beautiful - Grace Jones would just fade into the scenery here - and they have a graceful dignity redolent of that of the old white Southern States. Barbadians of any class aren't servile; they are simply naturally friendly in a way that made me, at least, ashamed to be suspicious and British. On my return home the streets of my native Shepherd's Bush felt amiable and friendly, instead of sinister and threatening as they had done on my departure.

The storm subsided eventually and we got our swimming in. We lay in the sun. I parasailed - one of the most expensive and boring activities known to man: you sit miles in the air apparently stationary, for minutes on end, rather longing for something dramatic to happen, such as for the rope to be cut. Looking completely ridiculous in my flippers, I did indeed make friends with the fishes, who fed from biscuits in my hand. "Do get a photograph of yourself in your snorkelling gear, mum," said my son, barely able to conceal his glee. "For you and your friends to giggle over," I said crossly. "No, not my friends," he said, "just me."

And there is a risk to Barbados. Nowhere is that sweet, that lush, that syrupy. There is a swampy side to it all, and ever the journalist (a great excuse for appalling behaviour), I went to the Fisherman's Pub in Speightstown on Friday night, the night for the locals, a bar where rum punches flow, and the music is loud and the dancing is close and mean. Normal Barbadian dancing involves a man and a woman, but the difference is that the man writhes behind the girl's wiggling bottom. A variation on this is two men and a woman, one man in front and one behind, or one man in front and a scarf. This process is known as "wucking op" and you can wuck what that means out for yourself.

Before ten minutes had passed I found myself squeezed and ground by two of the skinniest Rastafarians on the island. It was only when they offered, perfectly pleasantly and with no strings attached, to give me an orgasm right there on the dance floor, that the irresponsible child in me gazed helplessly up at the mature agony aunt (blissful middle age when, briefly, both can exist at the same time) and I noticed my friends waving frantically at me like people on shore warning a swimmer of strong currents. I made my excuses to Victor ("My uncle lives in Mitcham but I prefer to party here with you") and left.

A couple of rum punches later my friends and I were more wholesomely swimming naked under the moon on the beach outside the Glitter Bay Hotel - myself, unfortunately, in my glasses. The hot, dark wind got up; the black waves got stronger. As I was clambering through the surf, a giant wave overwhelmed me, sandpapering me on to the rocks and snatching away my spectacles for ever. Yes: yet another storm was whipping up.

It isn't always like this. But even when storms are brewing and the sea's forbidden, Barbados is still a beautiful, heady and yet civilised place to be.

Grand total

Unless you are lucky enough to be able to stay with friends, the only way to do Barbados on pounds 1,000 is by taking a package. A two-week package, May to October, staying at the Hilton, from London or Manchester (pounds 10 surcharge), with Thomson (0171-707 9000), from pounds 719; self-catering holidays available year-round, from pounds 679

Rental of Hyundai automatic for one week through Holiday Autos (0171- 491 1111) pounds 225

Total pounds 944