Glimpse the Big Five in Zambia’s beautiful (and quiet) savannah

WE’RE sitting in the back of an open-topped jeep, manoeuvering our way over some rough terrain. The sherbet pink sun set around half an hour ago and already it is dark, the night sky inky black. Fannuel, our guide, has spotted something. He veers off the track and gingerly pulls up to the crest of an escarpment. Down below, quietly sipping water out of the drying up Luangwa river bed, is a majestic female leopard, her belly full from a recent kill and her spots glinting in the moonlight.

It is the sort of sighting that Zambia prides itself on: magical and rare, far away from lines of other jeeps with their flash cameras and intrusive binoculars. We have seen no other tourists on our drive, and there is just us, alone, with this breathtakingly beautiful creature.

Unlike the packaged mass tourism of Kenya, the expense of Botswana and the ludicrous air-conditioned, satellite-televisioned luxury of South Africa, Zambia is a relatively unknown and undeveloped African safari nation. It has a raw, uncommercialised charm about it, its infrastructure less advanced and the camps and lodges smaller and more intimate. We are here for just a week, and already we are enchanted.

The leopard moves off and the jeep softly pulls away to continue on its night drive. Within minutes we see a pod of hippos close to the track and a herd of fragile, super alert impala, with a sinister hyena shadowing them, his jaws hanging open, ready for the first bite of flesh.

Back at Mfuwe Lodge, a luxury lodge in the South Luwangwa National Park, we retire for the night to our sumptuous private huts, escorted by a scout. The escort is essential -- the lodge has no borders and the animals are free to roam wherever they wish. This, too, is typical of Zambia, where the animals have right of way, even in the human encampments.

The following morning we rise early, ready for our first taste of a walking safari. Now copied throughout Africa, these were introduced in Zambia by the doyen of Zambian safaris, the game warden Norman Carr, in the 1950s. He wanted to emulate the traditional safari adventure of tracking big game on foot and of walking from camp to camp the original safari way. And, of course, given that Zambia “invented” the walking safari, it claims to have the very best, largely because of its highly experienced, impressively informed guides.

We assemble for our briefing in the morning mist with our scout Godfrey, a rifle parked ominously over his shoulder.

“Just one bullet shot from this gun will kill a charging elephant”, reassures Fannuel, as we set off in single file behind him with Godfrey up front. “But we don’t like to kill. In the bush, together we stand and divided we fall, so stay in single file, talk in a whisper, and don’t ever panic.”

Being on the ground is far more real than in a Jeep. On foot you feel, hear and smell Africa, not just see it. You are closer to nature, while the sense of possible danger heightens the experience. You also learn more about the flora. We witness a small group of elephants, two females with an impossibly cute calf, from just 30 feet away, and spot a rascally warthog scampering around, but we also crouch down to learn about the different animals’ dung and tracks, scent the pungent aroma of the wild sage and pick “elephant biscuit” pods off the winter thorn trees.

The following day we move on to Nsolo Camp, around a two hour drive from Mfuwe. Unlike the fixed-structure luxury of Mfuwe, Nsolo is a temporary bush camp of conical roofed straw huts that is stripped bare and abandoned in the rainy season. It overlooks the Luwi River and is quite isolated, deep in the bush. As we arrive, a mother elephant and her young are sauntering down the sandy river bed right beside the main hut.

“Oh yes, that happens a lot here,” says Tara, the assistant camp manager, nonchalantly. “Last week we had two wild dogs chasing some lions in the camp and there was a leopard at brunch yesterday.”

Shaddy, our guide, who proudly trained under Norman Carr himself, takes us off on a late afternoon walking safari, and after a couple of hours of more out-of-this-world sightings we come over the ridge of a dry river bed and are greeted by a magical sight of twinkling lanterns, director chairs arranged in a line and a full bar set up on a table laden with delicious canapés. There we chat, sipping on cocktails and watching the burnt orange sun setting behind the distant red mahogany trees.

The following day we move on to another tucked away bush camp, Old Mondoro, deep in the Lower Zambezi National Park and reached by wobbly four-seater plane. It is located right on the edge of the Zambezi, and we enjoy silent canoe safaris along the waters – another Zambia speciality -- sighting a bachelor herd of majestic buffalo posing photogenically on the bank. A deadly crocodile silently slithers into the water just feet ahead of our boat, as well as all kinds of birds, including the swooping goliath heron and distinctive African fish eagle.

Our love affair with this beautiful country is almost complete. Our last stop is Sausage Tree Camp, so-named after the curious tree whose fruit hang like giant salamis in an Italian deli. Creature comforts abound here, and the game spotting is extraordinary; we witness a pride of lions feasting on a recent baby elephant kill, and even go fishing for tiger fish, gin and tonic in hand, on the Zambezi.

Zambia seems to offer the real Africa. Its combination of top game, undeveloped out-of-the-wayness and vast havens of unspoilt wilderness guarantee a safari experience like no other. You must go now, and prepare to be spellbound.

Belinda travelled with the Zambia Tourist Board (www.zambiatourism.com) and Kenya Airways which flies from London to Lusaka and has just launched a new service to Ndola International Airport. www.kenya-airways.com; 020 8283 1818.

THE ACCOMMODATION
ZAMBIA has accommodation to suit all tastes, ranging from the more humble, temporary bush camps that sleep a maximum of eight, to the luxury fixed lodges. Mfuwe Lodge, in the South Luwangwe National Park, is an ultra luxury, newly refurbed lodge with designer, contemporary interiors. It also has several sister bush camps, including the super-chic Chamilandu camp three hours away beside the Luangwa riverbed. Think hanging cane chairs, stilted tree houses that are completely open to nature, and gorgeous designer African pieces.

Norman Carr Safaris also has a main lodge with several bush camps, set up specifically so you can walk between them. These include the traditional Nsolo camp, with its typical safari-themed colour schemes, director chairs and outside showers. Old Mondoro is another bush camp, with a fabulous location in the Lower Zambezi National Park to the south of the country, right on the banks of the Zambezi itself.

One of the most superb properties is Sausage Tree camp, which, as a safari camp, sits somewhere between a bush camp and a fixed lodge. This too has a breathtaking setting high up on the banks of the Zambezi, and consists of immense luxury private quarters and a charming chitenji with sofa’d areas, a pool, and a magical campfire area.

● Nsolo bushcamp (nightly rate from £305 per person), Mfuwe Lodge (nightly rate from £280 per person), Old Mondoro bushcamp (nightly rate from £350 per person) and Sausage Tree Camp (nightly rate from £360 per person) are all members of the Zambian Horizons (www.zambianhorizons.com) collection. Belinda’s last day was spent at the Intercontinental in Lusaka.

THE GAME
Zambia can offer all of the Big Five, although rhinos have been poached out of existence in most parks. Leopard, elephant, lion and buffalo are all to be found in profusion, alongside other traditional safari game such as zebra, giraffe, hippos and of course crocodile.

Each national park is different, however; there are no giraffe in Lower Zambezi (no-one is quite sure why, given that the necessary vegetation is plentiful) and there are few buffalo to be spotted in South Luangwa.

The Lower Zambezi is also better for hippos, given that the Zambezi doesn’t dry out in the main season so there is plenty of water for them to loaf about in. Other game in evidence includes various antelope such as impala, with the distinctive M printed on their behinds, the larger kudu and bushbuck, as well as hyena, several types of mongoose, and smaller mammals such as warthog, baboons and porcupine.

The birds, too, are spectacular, particularly in the Lower Zambezi. There is everything from the African fish eagle, Zambia’s national emblem, to the emerald spotted wood dove with its mournful cry, the jewel-coloured kingfishers, herons and immense birds of prey.

Zambia also specialises in offering a range of different safaris. You can spot the wildlife from the safety of open-topped jeeps, go on walking safaris, sit at the front of a canoe paddled by a guide, or even, for the more adventurous, fly over the beautiful land and rivers in a microlight.