Safari Special: The king and I: up too close and personal in Zambia

A Zen frog, a black mamba, a pride of lions - luxury lodges may have civilised the bush, but wild is still wild. A visit to one of Africa's great wildernesses gave Sankha Guha a little more contact with local animals than he had bargained for
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The Independent Travel

From the air, the little strip of green we are heading for looks very lonely. Set against rivers, swamps and thick bush on all sides, the airstrip seems a symbol of human vainglory. We are in such a remote area of central Zambia's Kafue National Park that during the rainy season it is completely inaccessible. Even in the dry, access is by private plane only.

At the Lunga River Lodge, a sun-downer is thrust at me and we join other guests on a sundeck cantilevered over the river. The Lunga is fast flowing, fed by the run-off in the rainforests of the Congo. Its steep banks are lined on both sides by ebonies, sausage trees and palms. It looks clean and cool, but jumping in would be fatal. Beneath the placid surface lurk hippos and crocodiles.

I feel a sense of dislocation. My mother, travelling with me, is equally bemused. The evidence is against us, but we could be in Surrey. Here, with a couple of twigs and a bucket, Ed Smyth, a former Rhodesian commando, has created a suburban Eden over the past 12 years. There is a library, a steam room, a plunge pool and thatched cabins with interiors that would not be out of place in House & Garden. The punchline: it's all been made on site.

Venture "backstage" and you see workshops with enough lathes, generators, pillar drills and welding kits to keep Ikea in business. Ed is carpenter, designer, mechanic, architect, plumber, electrician, pilot, ice cream-maker and business manager. He talks of "skills transfer" to the local Kaunde people, 65 of whom he has trained and now employs. Why they need skills more appropriate to an aspirational lifestyle in the Home Counties is not clear to me, but the sheer bloody-minded achievement is impressive.

The lodge is at the northern end of the Kafue National Park - at 22,500sqkm, one of the biggest in Africa. Yet this vast wilderness has only six safari lodges and a handful of bush camps, allowing a more intimate experience . The rarest animal in the park is the human. You could go days without a sighting. There is none of the ancillary junk of civilisation either - no traffic, telly, sirens, mobiles or transistor radios. Just blissful silence, in as much as the jungle is ever silent.

Out on a night drive, we can hear the deep, visceral roar of lions. The terrain around the lodge has a lunar feel; meadows are spiked with thousands of waist-high termite mounds - solid enough to disembowel a Land Rover that strays off the beaten track. The spotlight shines into the eerie gloom and is met by flashing eyes. First an African hare dashes for cover, then a little oribi - a pygmy antelope - is caught in the beam. It freezes - all of us aware that lions and leopards are prowling not too far away.

We take a day trip to the Busanga plains; the 750sqkm flood plain stretches to the horizon in every direction. Even by Africa's standards, this is one of the greatest pristine wilderness areas. It is early in the season and still too sodden to navigate by Land-Rover so we skirt the edge, glimpsing zebra, wildebeest and rather daft-looking crowned cranes. Cheetahs hunt here, but they must be keeping their heads down today. On the way back, we get a consolation prize when we sight a male sable - an elegant designer beast in black and white with wickedly curving scimitar horns.

Part two of the safari takes us to the South Luangwa National Park. The second biggest in Zambia - it has less of the frontier feel of Kafue. The animals, however, are just as wild and no one has told the elephants to let tourists have the right of way. As we approach our first camp, a huge male tusker is blocking the track, if not the sky. He backs off, then attempts a half-hearted charge. Mum is sure it's all over - "He's going to charge, we should go, let's go." It is a hell of a welcome.

The "bush camp" at Chamilandu is shamelessly luxurious. This is not camping as Lord Baden-Powell would have recognised it. Guest rooms are on huge, L-shaped platforms erected on tree-trunk pillars about 12 feet off the ground. They are completely open to the elements; no door, no lock, not even a wire screen to keep out a monkey, let alone a curious leopard or a hungry lion. The bathroom is open to the skies and the view. While having a hot shower you can watch giraffes crossing the Luangwa river.

I find a little green tree frog in the wardrobe. He is so completely still that at first I am convinced he is an ornament. He is a Zen Frog. I move him to the edge of the terrace. Instead of jumping he simply turns his back on me. I admire his sangfroid. But a thought crosses my mind; if frogs are here, what about things that eat frogs (eg snakes)?

Snakes feature in conversation over dinner. No bush tucker trial here, incidentally - it is silver service, pumpkin soup, tender pepper steak, crunchy mini-corn, apple crumble and custard. Richard, a guide from one of the local villages, tells us about the time he was attacked inside his jeep by a 9ft black mamba that had reared up on its tail. It seems a tall snake - and an even taller story.

Richard used to play in rock bands and raised money for his church playing Rolling Stones numbers including "Sympathy for the Devil". He chortles. His sons are called Elvis and Hendrix.

His story about the Mamba attack is true. I have it confirmed the next day by an unimpeachable authority. Phil Berry is something of a legend in the South Luangwa, a respected wildlifer who can identify the Thornicroft's giraffes of the valley individually by the patterns on their necks. He is a gentle man, old school, self effacing and immediately likeable.

Phil runs the Kuyenda Bush Camp, rondavels - huts - made from reed, thatch and wood that are dismantled and rebuilt every year. I ask about the chicken wire across the front of my accommodation. "That," he says, "is to keep out the lions."

As we return from a game d rive there is a commotion. Lions have been spotted just outside the camp. We scramble back on to the jeep, and rocket down the track leading to the Manzi River. Phil sees something. We turn along the river bed and there, in a bend, is a pride lying down.

Phil eases the jeep up on to the bank. We emerge, feet from the resting cats; three females and two young males. They ignore us. We are so close I can hear them breathe. The presence of an armed ranger on the back seat is reassuring.

For the next 40 minutes we watch the lions doing ... precisely nothing. The occasional flick of a tail, nuzzling, rolling. Nevertheless, we cannot tear ourselves away. A male rises, stretches and amblestowards us. He crosses in front of the open jeep, then leaps up on to the bank. He is perhaps two bounds from the front passenger seat where my mother is sitting. "Phi-i-il!" she hisses. But he is as calm as Buddha.

The lion passes by into a thicket where, with a surprising display of modesty, it answers the call of nature.

This is the defining moment of our trip. Proximity to a flashy predator on its own turf delivers an adrenaline burst that defies logic. A captive lion is not the same beast; this animal is master of his domain. It may be a cliché, but we sense nobility - even in the lion who came to pee.

Give me the facts

How to get there

Sankha Guha travelled as a guest of Hartley's Safaris

(01673 861 600; www.hartleys-safaris.co.uk).

The South Luangwa (The Bush Camp Company) and Kafue (African Experience).

Hartley's Safaris offers a seven-night safari in The South Luangwa - three nights at Kuyenda Camp, Chendeni Camp, Bilimungwe Camp or Chamilandu Camp - and The Kafue - two nights at Lunga River Lodge and two nights at Busanga Plains Bush Camp - from around £2,660 per person, based on sharing. The price includes return international and all local flights, accommodation, meals, drinks, activities and park fees.

Further information

Zambia National Tourist Board (020-7589 6343; www.zambiatourism.com).

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