Zambia, real and imagined

Sue Wheat enjoyed wildlife from a dining terrace, then went in search of the troubled world beyond

It was a scene straight out of a documentary. As we entered the South Luangwa valley in eastern Zambia, we found five lions so stuffed with their recent kill that they barely managed to raise their tails at us.

It was a scene straight out of a documentary. As we entered the South Luangwa valley in eastern Zambia, we found five lions so stuffed with their recent kill that they barely managed to raise their tails at us.

At sunrise on our first morning we had set off on a walking safari, and spotted a leopard within three minutes. Over the next week, the safari continued to be exceptional. By day we saw puku, kudu, Cape buffalo, crocodile, the Thornicroft giraffe, zebra and incredible birdlife. Every evening we watched the sun set over the river while sipping "sundowners". And at night we stalked genets, owls and honey badgers from the comfort of our jeep.

Our rooms at Nsefu camp were no less spectacular: hundred-year-old mud huts refurbished into simple, cool and stylish rooms, with gold-tapped, en-suite bathrooms open to the sky. Baboons strolled around outside collecting nuts and berries and hippos bellowed from the river below.

It was not difficult to realise, however, that this was an exclusive sliver of Zambia. Robin Pope, owner of Nsefu, and Douti Unjovu, the Head guide, suggested I visit a nearby village outside the national park to get a taste of "real life". The locals had a rudimentary set-up for tourists called Kawaza and were using the profits to help fund their school and provide water.

I was introduced to two English-speaking guides, Meya and David, and given a "chitenje" (a local sarong) to wear around the adjoining villages. Here, I watched a blacksmith at work, a traditional healer go into a religious trance, ate with the local women and observed at close quarters the day-to-day process of subsistence.

I slept in a small grass hut like all the villagers, although a bed, mosquito net and blanket were given as concessions to my Western "needs", and I woke at 5am to hear the pounding of sorghum.

Returning to the luxury of the safari camp for lunch the next day was bizarre. I found my fellow guests watching an elephant drinking at the waterhole only metres away from the dining terrace. Their cutlery and wine glasses clinked surreally as the elephant sloshed.

But Kawaza had provided a good transition into the next stage of my trip - travelling on my own round one of the poorest countries in the world.

My first stop was Lusaka, the country's capital and a city with a dangerous reputation. Its crime is, of course, rooted in poverty, and what struck me most was the local survival techniques. Taxi drivers, for instance, always got petrol at the beginning of a journey (any petrol left in a car is frequently siphoned out by other drivers) and, in the city's shanty towns, children rummaged through waste tips looking for things to recycle and sell.

From Lusaka I went to the Copperbelt region in the north of Zambia. Once one of the world's most prosperous areas, thanks to mining, it is now one of the poorest. At first, the towns here seem much richer than Lusaka but look closer and you see it's the decaying veneer of a previous age. Miners' bungalows, corporate hospitals and schools stand - but only just.

Most people were "retrenchees" - they'd been made redundant - and the local Aids epidemic seems to touch every family. Life expectancy is 40 and falling. At Mulenga compound in Kitwe, Dr Ganda Uheni came up to me and introduced herself. She was a traditional healer and wanted to show me around. I walked with her through the market which had plenty of goods but no buyers, past a school set up in an old tavern, and to her house.

Here I saw the first animals since my safari. This time they were dead - a snake skin and a lion's tail hanging above a shelf of medicinal herbs.

"People come to me because they can't afford to go to the hospitals. And, even if they can, they don't have any medicine there to give anyone."

Back in Lusaka I visited Kabwata Cultural Centre. Young men stood surrounded by beautiful wooden icons of the animals I'd seen so close-up the week before. "Good price, madam," said one, insistently. Others competed for my gaze.

I haggled badly for eight tiny hippos. I knew my friends would think them unutterably cute. But to the young Zambian men, the hippos were as foreign as we were, representing, not natural wonders, but their own survival. "Survival of the fittest" I realised, is a motto for the whole country, not just the wildlife in its national parks.

Sue Wheat travelled to Zambia with Sunvil Discovery (020-8232 9777, www.sunvil.co.uk), which offers seven night lodge safaris from £1,250, including accommodation, meals and British Airways flights from London Gatwick to Lusaka.

Visits to Kawaza can be organised through Sunvil Discovery or Robin Pope Safaris (www://africa-insites.com/zambia/popesaf.htm) from £20.

For further information contact the Zambian National Tourism Board (020-7589 6343)

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