Half-reading, half-dozing by my hotel pool in Zambia, I’m lulled into tranquillity by the gentle heat of the African sun and the distant background music of beating drums. It’s exactly the picture of bliss I’d envisaged for a sojourn.

What I don’t expect is to see, out of the corner of my eye, a zebra foal amble up to the pool and sip from the edge, before casually taking its leave. Had I drifted into a dream?

Jolting upright, I see the young zebra’s parents wandering nearby, allowing guests around the pool opportunities for selfies or face-to-muzzle admiration while groundkeepers employed at Avani Victoria Falls Resort keep a watchful eye on the socialising.

They act with the same discretion as the bodyguards of the president of Zambia – I know this because he visits the resort the next day.

Out of the corner of my eye, a zebra foal ambled up to the pool and sipped from the edge, before casually taking its leave.

Zebras aren’t the only wild animals wandering around the resort, which lies at the edge of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and is just five minutes’ walk from Victoria Falls. Later in the day I spot one of its two resident giraffes munching on trees nearby; a troop of baboons hangs out in the topmost branches. In the evening, herds of elegant impala appear in grassy areas between the buildings – all this and I haven’t even ventured beyond the resort’s boundaries.

safari truck outside hotel

Zambia’s rich and varied wildlife is as much of a draw as Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world and one of the seven natural wonders. “There are no longer any cats or dogs,” our driver Amon tells us as we arrive from nearby Zimbabwe – a blasé reference to lions, tigers and hyenas. “That means you can have the hotels in the national park and still walk around at night. You can relax.”

Despite the lack of “cats and dogs”, there are enough hippos, elephants and giraffes to see in what I am claiming as the ultimate safari experience. It’s one that involves land, river and sky: a game drive in the expansive national park, a cruise down the Zambezi River at sunset and an open-air microlight flight to get a bird’s eye view of the wildlife far below.

Start the engines for a tour of Zambia

My first safari experience is a 4WD trip through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, named after the Lozi word for Victoria Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’. It’s one of 20 protected parks in Zambia and one of the smallest.

However, it doesn’t feel so small when off-roading around its plains during golden hour, listening to Amon explain the strenuous efforts being made to preserve the park’s elephants and nine rhinos. Along the way we spy warthogs, vervet monkeys, marabou storks and giraffes, but the elephants and hippos are shy and the rhinos are out of bounds.

Hippopotamus in the Zambezi

Knowing there will be more chances to see the elusive animals, we head back to the resort for the boma dinner: a traditional Zambian feast of meat, rice and vegetables, served buffet style, while costumed singers and vivacious dancers perform traditional songs and dances. Those brave enough can sample the crocodile tail or grilled mopane worms, and those braver still are invited to join the hip-swinging dances as the evening progresses.

Luxury afloat the rivers in Zambia

The next afternoon, we climb aboard a small boat for a sunset cruise along the Upper Zambezi River. We strike safari gold early on. Disguised as slithery stones near the banks, a bloat of hippos lies under the water’s surface, rising only to take air or grumpily throw their mouths open to bare their stumpy teeth and powerful, pink jaws: a not-so-subtle reminder of our fate if we come any nearer.

The boat’s size means we can move relatively close to the animals, and stop at our leisure. Later, after passing more hippos, we spy a lone African elephant quietly grazing at the edge of an island.

We pause for a good 10 minutes, enjoying the way he seems to pose for us, offering up a front profile then a side view so we can marvel at his size and elegance.

Boat ride

Next, it’s time for a little luxury as we change boats and board the impressive African Queen and African Princess: two large, multi-deck boats that gently cruise along the river as the sun sets beyond Victoria Falls.

Fortunately, it’s a clear day and the glorious sunset lives up to all expectations; dramatic, ever-changing hues of purple and red reflected in the water make it an almost spiritual experience.

Experiencing Zambia from above

I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times and it takes two visits to Batoka Sky’s airstrip to convince me to board a microlight – a contraption that looks like a paraglider atop a sidecar – and fly over Victoria Falls and nearby national parks.

Louis Geldenhuys, a long-time pilot, encourages me to take the flight. “People always ask me if I get tired of flying over the falls,” he says with a reassuring smile. “The answer is no. I could never tire of it. It’s like looking at a campfire, there’s something so mesmerising about it.”

It’s enough to convince me aboard, especially as microlight flying is statistically as safe as horseriding, and this company has a perfect safety record. Before
I know it, my pilot Pascal and I are up in the air.

It’s pure exhilaration: the ride is smooth and freeing enough that any nervousness dissipates. By the time we reach the gushing (and yes, very mesmerising) Victoria Falls, I’m on an adrenaline high.

Microlight

Minutes later, we’re on the Zimbabwean side of the falls and Pascal veers left and right to point out the wildlife he sees underneath us.

We spot herds of elephants, a huge gang of African buffalos and half-hidden hippos disturbing the slick surface of the Zambezi River. We soar over an island where a sole elephant is lying in a pool of mud, a sight I would never have seen but for the skies.

Fifteen minutes is gone in a second and I feel like a kid disembarking a rollercoaster as I cry, “Again! Again!”

My Zambia experience is completed that evening by an elaborate five-course dinner on the Royal Livingstone Express, an admirably restored steam train decked out in rich mahogany polished brass and fine leather.

Served with South African wines and a spectacular view of the falls as the sun sets, it’s a final assurance that this trip is wild enough to last in my memory for years to come.

The writer was a guest of Avani Victoria Falls Resort, through which all activities were booked. See avanihotels.com for details.