The first thing you notice is the scale. I am in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, having come almost directly from Kanha National Park in central India. The temptation to compare the two may be futile, but it is irresistible. Everything is big-
The first thing you notice is the scale. I am in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, having come almost directly from Kanha National Park in central India. The temptation to compare the two may be futile, but it is irresistible. Everything is bigger in Africa. South Luangwa covers an area of more than 9,000sq km - about 10 times the size of Kanha.
There are more animals here, and they are giants. Elephants are enormous, buffalo are bulky, giraffe are gigantic and even the gecko inside my room seems to be on steroids.
In Kanha, the lodges have to be sited outside the park and even beyond its "buffer zone". Here at Kaingo Camp, deep inside the Zambian park on the banks of the Luangwa river, you are never more than 50 metres from beasties that are potentially life threatening - crocs patrol the banks with exposed fangs, and little islets turn out to be hippos which, incidentally, kill more humans in Africa than lions. At night elephants stroll through, and there is even a resident leopard. Waking and sleeping they inhabit your space, and occupy your mind.
Even more dramatic, though, is the access. Tourists in Kanha travel on jeeps from which they cannot alight, they are escorted by a ranger and are restricted by park opening times - it is shut during the middle of the day and after sunset. South Luangwa, in contrast, is open for business after dark - last night, with the aid of a spotlight, we came upon a pair of mating lions as they went about their fiery courtship and then followed them hunting. The Milky Way twinkled in the night sky. We had lions on either side bathed in the eerie red glow of the dimmed spotlight as they crept up on a herd of unsuspecting puku. My waking concerns - Euro 2004, Iraq, the phone bill, the leaky tap - were as distant as Alpha Centauri above us. The ambush failed and the puku scattered in a flurry of alarm squeals.
Today at dawn I am on the same turf on foot. Pugmarks and hoof prints in the dust remind us we were trespassing. The walking safari is one of the highlights of the Zambian experience. Flanked by an armed guard, Derek Shenton of Shenton Safaris is leading the excursion. He tells me of an incident last year during a similar walk. "Last year, we stumbled into three big males sleeping. They didn't wake. We were 10 metres off before we realised. They were so well camouflaged under a bush, there was no warning. We froze and then retreated very slowly trying not to make any sound. Normally guests are pretty good with lions - we tell them not to run because that gets the lions excited." The real danger, he says, comes from buffalos, hippos and elephants. This morning, though, the hairiest moment is being eyed up by a curious giraffe.
I ask Derek if he could magic any animal on to his patch for a fantasy safari what it would be. His eyes light up: "I'd love a tiger. Jesus that would be great." For all Africa's heart-thumping excitement, there is still one thrill that comes bigger in India.
Children (don't) travel free
"Yield Management" I think they call it. Another of those gobbledegook business phrases you need an MBA to decode. For parents with school-age children, though, the meaning is all too clear the moment we try to book our flights or holidays. Bargain breaks are not for us, late availability deals don't add up, and the whole ballyhoo of cheap travel turns out to be a cruel illusion.
Where are the 10-quid return flights to Venice when you need them? It is young families, generally on stretched budgets, who could benefit most from the tempting offers that scream from ads in national newspapers and crowd the internet. However, the first law of Yield Management is: "Thou shalt exploit ruthlessly those who are unfortunate enough to have to travel at times of peak demand." And it is hard-pressed parents with 2.7 children in tow who are least able to choose when they take their holidays.
Parents are now in legal trouble if we absent offspring during term time. I have to ring both my sons' schools for permission to take them away for so much as a long weekend. This is not just a courtesy call; failure to secure the schools' assent can result in a £100 fine for each child. The sanction hardly seems necessary given most parents' neuroses about their children falling behind anyway, but it simply underlines our lack of choice.
So we must put up with travelling when everyone else does and accept the inevitability of crowded beaches, full flights, heaving airports and no room at the inn. Not only do we have to endure these conditions but we are also expected to pay more for the privilege. The industry inflicts what amounts to a family tax by ramping up prices as soon as school's out. A survey by the Evening Standard finds that parents are being charged up to 170 per cent more if they stick to school holidays rather than break the law and remove children during term time.
Now the minister for consumer affairs, Gerry Sutcliffe, is asking the bosses of the biggest travel companies in Britain to open their books and justify the fabulous price hikes. What is he hoping to achieve? Yes, maybe the companies will put their hands up in a collective act of mea culpa and reduce peak prices. Yes, and Virgin Trains will run on time. And pigs will be seen sporting feathery accoutrements from their backs before taking off from runway 27R at Heathrow shortly.
While Gerry is looking at the subject, perhaps he could consider other initiatives that might help the bottleneck of holiday demand. How about staggering school holidays? How about a more flexible curriculum that uses travel experiences as a learning tool? Seeing the world is educational. We should be encouraging parents to travel with their children - not taxing them.