Roar terror: If you want a good night's sleep in Zambia, beware of the lions...

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Zambia possesses astonishing landscapes, luxurious lodges and wildlife in abundance

I am, I think it's fair to say, an urban creature. Whole months pass before I see a blade of grass. Animals? Sure, I like them: chargrilled with garlic and vegetables, roasted and slathered with gravy, chopped up and pan-fried with shallots. Not, you might think, an obvious candidate for a safari, or for nights spent deep in the African bush. But how can I explain the feeling that hit me, after a long flight to Harare, and another to Nairobi, and another to Lusaka and another, in a tiny little plane that lurched and hovered like a bird assessing and then pursuing its prey, to a tiny airstrip in the middle of a wilderness which seemed to go on for ever? It's hard. I can only say that, sitting on a 4x4, gazing out at dry, scrubby wood and brown earth and brown dust, in a light that, even though it was only afternoon, seemed strangely pink, I felt that I was falling in love.

Chongwe River House, our home for the night, was smart and strange. A huge house with walls made out of cement and mud built around the frame of a wild wood tree, it's an intriguing mixture of village hut, thatched cottage and something from The Flintstones. The main room, dominated by a table hewn out of a winterthorn tree, is open to the bush, and so are the downstairs bedrooms. (I, by the way, went for an upstairs one. Frogs are quite wild enough for me.) The views are spectacular: of the river, fringed with trees which break the mass of brown – the red flowers of the flamecreeper and the white ones of the shaving bush combretum – and of the bush beyond.

There was, however, nothing strange about the welcome. Brendan, our guide, took us in a small boat down the Chongwe river, past a vast red wall studded with holes made by bee-eaters, and banks where kudus and baboons were nibbling the pods of the winterthorn tree, and into the Zambezi, where hippos snorted and moaned in the water around us.

Spotting a speck on the far bank, Brendan steered us over. The bank, it turned out, was Zimbabwe, once part of the same nation and now Zambia's troubled southern neighbour, and the speck was an elephant. Gazing at the elephant, and at baboons silhouetted against the sky, and at the huge red sun sinking on the horizon, and listening to the hippos, and smelling the strong, sweet scent of jasmine, we sipped our first sundowners. It proved a hard habit to break.

After a Mongolian barbeque in a garden lit by kerosene lamps, surrounded by hippos which had progressed from the water to a light supper of fresh grass, and a night discovering that the bush, while beautiful, is far from peaceful, and a breakfast of home-made bread and muffins, we were ready for our first game-spotting drive. First, we saw baboons cradling their babies and chomping away at the fruit of the sausage tree, and then bushbucks, slender and agile, with quivering legs poised for flight, and then, under the shade of a mutondo tree, we caught a glimpse of gold. And there they were, five lionesses, lazy in the sunshine, queens of all they surveyed. They'll lie there, Brendan told us, all day, waiting for the game to gather around them, and the right moment to pounce.

Paddling in canoes down the Chongwe, we looked at the plants, and the birds: a white-crowned plover soaring above us, Egyptian geese flapping above the water, the tropical bulbul, which makes the noise of a bird 10 times its size, and the malachite kingfisher, perched on a branch, a rare flash of blue in a sea of brown and green. Just after the kingfisher, there was an overpowering smell. It was, said our guide, elephant musk. This, clearly, is a place where love and death have their own distinctive smells.

It was, alas, time to pack up and move on – but only down the Chongwe, and then the Zambezi, and on to Chiawa Camp, widely regarded as one of Africa's top safari camps. Our "luxury safari tents" – vast rooms, really, but with canvas walls – were certainly splendid. Each had its own veranda and little gadget on the zip-ends to foil the monkeys which are, apparently, a dab hand with standard zips.

We had lunch on a pontoon gliding up and down the Zambezi and an afternoon snoozing by the pool. Then it was time for more game. In the pink light of late afternoon, which soon became my favourite time of day, we saw baboons and kudu, and then, only feet away, a gargantuan elephant. He flapped his ears, swung his trunk and looked us in the eye. He looked, we couldn't help thinking, extremely angry. He looked, in fact, ready to charge.

We managed to pass him safely, and his friends – elephants can, apparently, communicate with each other infra-sonically for up to 50 square kilometres – and drove off the track, and through dense thickets and caught a glimpse of a dark shape in the distance, and curved horns. And then we were in a clearing, surrounded by buffalo. Proud and solid and fierce, they turned to look at us, and then they turned back, as if concluding that we were nothing in the business of their day.

Our silent contemplation was interrupted by a deep voice on the radio and, in a cloud of dust, we were off. There were lions, apparently, not far away. Paul, our South African guide, drove like a Bond villain to catch them in the light: a huge lion and his huge consort, king and queen of the jungle, tucking noisily into a warthog, on the other side of a bank. The first shock was the sparkling whiteness of the bone, in a mass of bloody flesh. The second was the sound of the crunching. The third was the moment the lion got bored. "I think he might be coming over," said Paul, as the lion hovered at the top of the bank. "Do you want to stay?" My companion's "yes" drowned out my "no". Moments later, thank God, the lion changed his mind.

It was too late for sundowners, so we had moondowners instead, chilled white wine by V

C the river, by the light of the thinnest crescent of a moon I've ever seen. On our way back to camp, through a bush now black apart from the flash of the torch that our guide trained on trees, we saw a flash of yellow and black dots, and gleaming eyes. A leopard. Buffalo, lions and a leopard, all between afternoon tea and dinner. Which, by the way, was delicious.

Well fed and well oiled with excellent South African wines, I fell happily into bed. I woke to a loud bang an hour or so later, and saw a giant shape in the half-light outside my door. I screamed. I actually screamed. I switched on the lights, and tried to sleep, but the cacophony of noises – the banging on my ceiling, the creatures scampering around in the rafters, the grunting and snorting and snuffling – made sleep impossible. And then I heard a roar. For the first time in my life, I smelt the acrid tang of fear. When the man came with morning tea a few hours later, I was still cowering in my bed.

"Did you hear the lions last night?" said one of the guides over breakfast by the campfire. "They were right behind the tents!" I nodded wearily. Yup, I did. Very nice, thank you. Next time I hear lions, I thought, I'd quite like to have a bit more than canvas between them and me.

There were no lions on our morning cruise up the Zambezi. There were crocodiles, though, crawling lazily into the water and gliding away. The water was like glass. Hovering over it, and in the trees on the edge of the banks, were grey herons and yellow bead stocks and blacksmith plovers.

Unlike the birds, alas, we couldn't just leap into the air and soar above the river and trees, and the elephants, munching a hearty breakfast. We had to get back to the air-strip and take another tiny plane to Lusaka and another one to Livingstone. After almost no sleep, and the stomach somersaults I was learning were a constant feature of flights in this kind of heat, I landed at Livingstone feeling pretty fragile. I was cheered, however, by my first sight of a Zambian town: the hand-painted shop signs, the "Frozen Delights – It Will Melt in Your Mouth", the "Wonderbake", the "Shoprite", the "Sunnyside Pub, Bar and Restaurant" and the "Fawlty Towers". Yes, really, Fawlty Towers.

We, luckily, were not staying at Fawlty Towers. We were staying on Sindabezi Island, part of Tongabezi, a luxury lodge on the banks of the Zambezi, just up from the Victoria Falls. The setting, and views, are stunning. We had lunch first, on a tiny island and then went, by canoe, to our own island hideaway. There are only five rooms on Sindabezi, each an open-sided thatched cottage on stilts overlooking the lagoon. Below, you could hear hippos munching the grass. A tiny bird settled on the foot of my bed and sang.

After a delicious dinner on the terrace, and a peaceful night's sleep – no lions and a gentle breeze – I was ready for Victoria Falls. It is, quite simply, astonishing. At this time of year (late September, the dry season) there are big expanses uncovered by water, but you can still see the scale of the thing, the sheer, breathtaking grandeur. The best view, apparently, is from the Zimbabwean side, but it's not that easy, at the moment, to get to the Zimbabwean side. Instead, we got a boat to Livingstone Island, the island where the great explorer and missionary apparently saw the falls himself. It's literally perched on the edge of the falls, at the top of a 100m drop. You can sit on the rocks, gazing at the rainbows shooting out of the foaming water – and you can swim. Our guide led us through the rocky water and round to the Devil's pool, a natural plunge pool at the edge. I jumped from the rocks into it – and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. The views are magnificent. What the guides don't mention, however, is the fish. They nibble at your feet and in the end they got us out.

Livingstone was the capital of Zambia until 1935. It remains a town obsessed with its founder. There's a Livingstone primary school, college, high school, church, even a synagogue that's now a Livingstone Church of Christ. Christianity is, of course, everywhere in Zambia. On the way back to Sindabezi, we passed women wearing the red blouses, black skirts and white head-dress of the United Church of Zambia. They were, our guide told us, at a funeral. Anyone, he explained, can go to a funeral and join the funeral feast. You don't have to know the person who has died.

The next morning, at the market, we discovered why you might want to, after trying to scrape a living selling vegetables, chickens, old clothes or old shoes. One man offered hand-painted signs. Another claimed to be a "phone doctor". "You have tried the rest," said his sign, "now try the best and you will never regret." Everywhere, you're reminded of how much people in Africa achieve with so little.

It was time for another flight, back to Lusaka, and then to Mfuwe and our final stop, the Luangwa Safari House, in the South Luangwa National Park. Jacob, our host and guide, was charming. As soon as we climbed into the 4x4, and hit the road people waved. Some of them knew him. Many of them didn't. He was a magnet – for people, animals and us. Every minute in his presence, and the lodge he manages, was a delight.

Designed by Neil Rocher, who also designed the Chongwe River House, the Luangwa Safari House is all gnarled wood, and curving lines. It's big and comfortable and set on a massive open plain, so you can watch baboons, elephants and giraffes feed as you sip your sundowners or eat your lunch. Even I found that I could gaze at them for hours. And in the dawn light the following morning, Jacob took us for a walking safari, pointing out the flora and fauna, the animal tracks, the animal droppings, the bones – and, of course, the animals. It was magical. Utterly magical.

And so was the visit to a local school that followed, the Kawaza Basic School. It has nearly 900 pupils, a host of challenges, including mass poverty, unemployment and Aids, and a truly inspirational headmaster, Mwewa David Mwakwa. The warmth of the pupils in the history class we visited, who were studying their colonised history, and who insisted on posing for photographs in our borrowed sunglasses, was extraordinary.

But then Zambia is extraordinary. This land, of great beauty, and astonishing wildlife, and warm, dignified people, and that strange, gorgeous, early-evening pink light, is truly something special. Go, before everyone else discovers it, too.

Getting there

* The writer travelled with the Zambia Tourist Board (zambiatourism.com) and Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com) which flies from Heathrow to Lusaka via Nairobi, and has recently launched a service via Nairobi to Ndola in the Copperbelt province of Zambia.

Staying there

* Chongwe River House, Lower Zambezi (chongweriverhouse.com). Rates start at £350 per person per night, full board.

* Chiawa Camp, Lower Zambezi National Park (chiawa.com). Rates start at £380 per person per night, full board.

* Sindabezi Island Camp, Victoria Falls (tongabezi.com). Rates start at £265 per person per night, full board.

* Luangwa Safari House (safarihouses.com). £350 per person per night, full board.

* The properties are all members of the Zambian Horizons network (zambianhorizons.com).

Red tape

* British passport-holders require a visa to enter Zambia. These are obtained from the Zambia High Commission, 2 Palace Gate, W8 5NG (020-7589 6655; zhcl.org.uk) and cost £75.

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