Tangible excitement mounts as the engine revs; Mrs Smith gently squeezes my hand; final checks are done. ‘Hear it's going to be a bumpy ride,’ says the co-pilot to the captain in his warm Lusakan twang. Mrs Smith feigns confidence but the squeeze noticeably becomes a clamp. And we're away! The six-seater rockets down the runway of the 'international' airport; departures are a slightly less formal affair here than where we began this adventure back in Blighty.
Confident or nervous, the flight takes my breath away, the Lower Zambezi National Park stretching as far as the eye can see in any direction. The high peaks of the escarpment lead down to the savannah plains surrounding the river – Zambia to the left, Zimbabwe to the right; just remember to keep cameras to the ready at all times. After much begging of the pilot to do a Top Gun-style fly-by (I know, clearly an Eighties kid at heart), I got to have my dream come true, only this time it was of a bloat of hippos gently cruising round the river we were buzzing instead of a control tower. Mission accomplished.
Much to our disappointment, we were denied the opportunity of the high-speed river transfer, and dodging crocs while sipping cocktails, as the required air strip was having another layer of dirt put on it to make it more ‘all weather’. Instead we had the pleasure of long, hot, dusty midday ride, our snooze only being rudely interrupted by wild dogs. This was an auspicious start, however, as many bush aficionados never get the chance to see these rather ugly mutts. We parked about three inches away from some of Africa’s most vicious killers. (They kill in seven out of ten hunts, according to that wealth of information driving our convertible, no-doored Land Cruiser.)
The camp itself is set right on the banks of the Zambezi –, the only permanent building being the most important: the bar. This thatched two-storied affair gives you a spectacular viewing platform and somewhere to enjoy a romantic breakfast. For the time being, we were shown to our tented suite and given the rules: ‘Now remember, there are no fences around the camp so, after dark, you have to be escorted everywhere you go.’ Mrs Smith and I exchange glances. What, pray tell, is stopping the lions during the day? As we learnt during our stay though, one of the greatest pleasures of being in the bush is the sense of space, the lack of constraints, the freedom from the BlackBerry and all that.
We were greeted by a view from the suite’s dark mahogany deck of a dry river bed leading to the Zambezi, with buffalo, hippos and impala casually basking in the afternoon sun. The deck doubles as an airy bathroom so that you can enjoy the spectacle from the roll-top bath or the outdoor shower. (Luckily the loo benefits from a strategically placed partition.) Despite its wild setting, our suite wasn’t short on luxury, with acres of bed shrouded in mosquito nets, and a soft white couch to collapse on after a day out searching for game. The 1920s fans and bedside lamps even have back-up battery power in case the mains fail.
‘Echo, Charlie, Alfa, Foxtrot – Zulu Chief to base, over.’ Yes, the child managed to get his dirty mitts on the radio. Our guide promptly arrived to escort us to dinner and no more was said on the less-than-adult use of the radio. I could see he found it funny though by that smirk on his face – or was it the ‘safari look’ I had tried to achieve on the clothing front? Cocktails were served at 7pm and dinner was a communal matter, which, despite our initial misgivings (us being Londoners of the traditional ilk who don’t even dare look at others), was a riot of conversation and much mirth.
This is the heart of the camp where Grant and Lindsey, our hosts, spin yarns of life in the bush to us city-dwellers well into the wee hours (trust me, 11 o’clock in the bush is late). As we sipped Amarulas on ice, the air was filled with the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ of a very jealous audience.
The next day, we headed out early on a game drive. Don’t even get me started on the pride of enormous lions with piercing yellow eyes that just stare maliciously straight through you, or the profusion of thousand-year-old baobab trees staffed by fish eagles, crying like Frodo’s Ring Wraith nemeses. This fantastic experience was followed by an invitation from a wonderful Swiss couple (travelling with their own private pilot, no less) to lunch out on the Zambezi – service immaculate, setting flawless, food just right and drink free-flowing.
Over lunch, your evening preferences are taken: ‘What would you like for dinner, sir? Game drive or canoe down the river?’ Except this evening was no ordinary one. I had a few plans up my sleeve and co-conspirators in the two-staff-to-one-guest camp were not hard to come by. Mrs Smith had hit a milestone – her fourth decade beckoned – and where better to celebrate it than in such a place?
We spent a magical evening watching the sun set while elephants swam across the fiery red river. As darkness fell, the Land Cruiser collected us downstream for a night drive and a mission to fulfill my entirely unreasonable demand to see a leopard. Within an hour there he was, a magnificent sight in the headlights of the jeep, chasing his own tail. This was very shortly exactly what we appeared to be doing.
Joe, our previously infallible guide, seemed to be completely lost. We stopped to get our bearings. ‘What’s that?’ shouted Mrs Smith. ‘Ssshhh, looks like poachers,’ whispers Joe. ‘Sorry guys, we need to check this one out.’ Hearts beating wildly, we round the corner and bang – before us is one of the most beautiful settings for dinner I have ever seen. Everyone is there and smiling at our surprise. Encircled by lanterns, we sit down at a table laden with delicious food as the smoke from the braai rises into the night sky and an African choir bursts into song.