It is the middle of the night when I wake up, suddenly hyper-aware that I am in the middle of nowhere with only a flimsy piece of canvas between me and the African bush outside. For a while, I lie silent, listening to the thud of my own heart. Then, sensing something moving, I try to tune my ears into the sounds of the night. In the distance I can hear the hooting of an owl, on the hunt for rodents in the full light of the moon, and from the plains behind, the eerie whoop of a hyena. Not far away, a stick crackles, signalling something on the move. And then, rupturing the silence, comes the noise that safari-goers dream of hearing, yet slightly fear when it’s right outside their tent: a lion’s snarl.
This being the South Luangwa National Park – one of Zambia’s most wild and beautiful conservation areas, with huge populations of game – a lion is not the only creature about. Elephants have also been browsing in the undergrowth, and the lions have clearly spooked them too. Suddenly the air rings with trumpeting and snarling, the crashing of trees and the crackle of dry bushes, as the lions pad confidently through the tented lodge and the family of elephants flees, bulldozing through trees and tripping on our tent’s main guy-rope as they pass, collapsing the bottom corner of our tent.
For a while, my partner and I lie totally still in the darkness, gripping each other’s hands and listening to the elephants disappearing into the bush. Then, out of the darkness comes the comforting voice of our guide. “Are you guys OK?” he says, readjusting our guy-ropes as we peer nervously out of our zipped canvas door. “Sorry, our neighbours are a bit noisy tonight. Bit of a wild party going on…” In most parts of Africa, to see a lion or an elephant from a safari Jeep is a real treat. In Zambia, though, you won’t just see them, but smell and hear them too.
Having grown up in Zimbabwe, where I spent my holidays fishing on crocodile-inhabited rivers and wild-camping on remote lake shores, I’d heard about the fabled wildernesses of Zambia. It was only after I’d been there on my first journalistic assignment that I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been back eight times.
Why? Every time I go, I discover another part of the country I want to explore further. Zambia is enormous – about three-quarters of a million square miles – the size of France, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary combined – and about a third of it is made up of national parks. Of the 19 vast areas set aside for conservation, of fauna and flora, of game and birdlife, very few are visited. So when you go, it really is wild.
It’s also incredibly varied. Go on safari here and you could come across all manner of creatures that bring out your inner David Attenborough: millions of tiny straw-coloured fruit bats, for instance, which migrate to the Kasanka National Park every year in search of fruit. Or the most exquisite sunbird, which hovers like a jewel-coloured fairy-helicopter over flowers. Or agile cheetahs, with their bewitchingly beautiful spotted coats, which, if you’re lucky, you might see darting across golden plains, trying to catch an antelope for supper. Or the Big Five – including white rhinos, which until recently were extinct in Zambia, but reintroduced into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, near Victoria Falls – of which, no matter how many times you’ve seen them, you can never tire.
In most parts of Africa, to see a lion or an elephant from a safari Jeep is a real treat. In Zambia, though, you won’t just see them, but smell and hear them too
The Victoria Falls, of course, is the country’s most famous attraction. Called Mosi-oa-Tunya – or “the Smoke that Thunders” – by local tribes, the wall of water stretches for two kilometres, spilling into a great split in the earth and sending a plume of mist into the air. While it’s debatable whether the falls are best seen from Zambia or Zimbabwe, which they border (I’d recommend trying to do both, using a dual visa to cross through immigration), the Zambian side has one distinct advantage: a pool right on the edge of the waterfall, which you can swim in when the water levels are low.
If that doesn’t give you enough of an adrenaline hit, there are plenty of other things to do around the falls, from helicopter and white-water-rafting trips to bungee-jumps and gorge-swings. Or, of course, you could relax (not something I’m very good at, when there’s so much to see and do). Zambia has had national parks since the 1950s, when far-sighted conservationists such as the legendary Norman Carr persuaded the government to set aside land, and has therefore had plenty of time to polish its camps and to train its guides, who are among the best in the world. If you’re going to try a walking safari, this really is the place to do it.
What’s particularly wonderful about holidaying in Zambia is that its accommodation is so varied. One minute you might be staying in an ultra-contemporary camp, such as the new King Lewanika in the remote Liuwa Plain National Park (which has Africa’s second-biggest wildebeest migration), or the designer Chinzombo (pictured, top left) in South Luangwa, home of fabulous walking safaris. The next evening you might be relaxing in the laid-back, super-friendly Tongabezi on the Zambezi, soaking in a copper bath in your treehouse, listening to hippos snorting in the river below, or sleeping in a tent in the simple Luwi Bush Camp (below left), after a delicious barbecued dinner around the campfire.
Every time I go back to the country, travelling about seems to get easier, too. In 2016 the airport in Livingstone was upgraded, making journeys more pleasant, and the private air-charter company Proflight regularly adds new routes, making it possible to hop easily about the country without venturing onto a pot-holed road.
An added bonus? Lots of camps in Zambia are committed to both conservation and community projects, so as well as having the safari of a lifetime – in which you might float above the greatest waterfall on earth, walk with elephants, canoe down one of Africa’s mightiest rivers, teeming with game – you will contribute to a fund that makes their lives better too. And who doesn’t feel great doing that?