Old friends, new adventures – and Ginger the psychotic lion. More of him later. If, according to Pliny the Elder, something new always comes out of Africa, the wilderness of Zambia’s national parks never fails to deliver. What will it be this time, on my seventh visit? An elephant scratching its back on the uprights of my outdoor shower? A buffalo bull pursued across the Zambezi by a monstrous crocodile? A pregnant leopard trapped in a bush by a troop of baboons?

It’s over six years since I last flew into Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport and the shabby old place seems different. It IS different – spacious, sleek and silent, a new terminal funded and built by – guess who? – the Chinese. It opened in 2021. And we all know what was happening to the world in 2021; on my agenda is an ambition to find out how the Zambian safari industry weathered the pandemic, and update the fortunes of Chiawa Safaris and the Cumings family.

The new terminal is our first novelty. The old one is now the domestic terminal, where we leave for the flight over the Zambezi escarpment to Lower Zambezi National Park. Here the great river spreads into floodplains and splits into channels, the banks are dense with winterthorn and mahogany, and the bush airstrip of Jeki offers a thrilling river transfer to Chiawa Camp; which – our second surprise – has recently been discovered by reality TV.

I’m travelling with my sometime Africa buddy and daughter Catherine, who never misses an opportunity to return to Zambia, where my 80th birthday trip is disguised as a duty of care. (“I will go on travelling in the bush as long as I can climb into a Land Rover,” I tell her). She once spent a season working in South Luangwa National Park and it, too, is on our itinerary. Merely the size of Scotland, it lies some 600 miles to the north, where the pristine Luangwa river competes for wildlife celebrity with the Zambezi.

Breakfast by the ZambeziBreakfast by the Zambezi (Image: free)

We last met Grant and Lynsey Cumings not in Zambia but Glasgow, Lynsey’s home town before she fell in love with a safari guide and evolved, over the next 20 years, into a leading player in the Zambian industry. The Cumings family have since become safari royalty for their conservation work, guiding standards, multiple awards and green credentials. As their original camp, Chiawa, added Old Mondoro to their Zambezi operation, we veterans of wildlife tourism began to feel Lower Zambezi NP lacked only one rubber-necking presence: giraffe.

Grant and Lynsey had news. They were extending their footprint into South Luangwa, which has giraffe in “journeys” – the collective noun for the tallest living mammal. “So if you go up there, Catherine, you can now get your favourite mammal on a Chiawa safari,” said Grant.

They had just signed up to deliver “all things safari” to two rejuvenated enterprises in the Luangwa Valley, Chichele Presidential Lodge (once the remote retreat of Zambia’s presidents) and Puku Ridge. Then along came an unwelcome form of wildlife called Covid 19.

So here we are, six years and a global pandemic later, en route to Puku Ridge by way of the Lower Zambezi. “You will be AMAZED!” advises a departing guest at Jeki. Catherine and I exchange private smiles. We know of no other wilderness where the game is so immediately available, down to the big monitor lizard which crosses our path to the river, and the hippos, elephants and crocs which observe our voyage to...Juliet Zulu, the soul of Chiawa, waiting at the dock to welcome us back.

Juliet, charismatic perfectionist of guest services, might just be the most huggable person in Africa. Or perhaps that’s Chris Farao, head guide and activities manager, whose gentle erudition never yields to macho posturing. Most of the Cumings’ employees have worked for them for years, and when the international market collapsed during the pandemic the camps were reduced to skeleton operations servicing domestic visitors. But everyone was kept on the payroll.

An elephant walks by just inches awayAn elephant walks by just inches away (Image: free)

Chiawa and Old Mondoro are seasonal camps, which close anyway during the rains, and are effectively re-built every year; an exercise which attracted HGTV, which commissioned a six-part series on the annual “routine” of upgrading and innovating in the most challenging environment. The winter months were thus consumed by the filming of Renovation Wild, which gave the Cumings, including teenagers Scott and Lauren, a taste of international celebrity.

And what of the wildlife? In some African game parks there was talk of increased levels of poaching in the absence of visitor numbers. “If anything,” Chris tells me, “mammal populations seemed to have had a bit of a baby boom.” (Like human mammals when urban life is interrupted by power outages). Elephant numbers went up as the rangers of Lower Zambezi patrolled as usual.

At Chiawa and Old Mondoro you don’t just look at game you live among it. Both sit on the river bank, where everything comes to drink. Elephant wander at will, and you don’t walk unescorted at night. Eager to eat after our first night drive, we find everyone in their tents and the staff on alert. “The lion pride is in camp,” Chris tells me. “You will see their tracks in the morning. “They’re passing through, but dinner will be a little late.”

Chiawa is the showcase camp, discreetly luxurious without sacrificing simpler bush traditions: “bed” tea before sunrise, campfire porridge for breakfast. It springs surprises with every season: barbecues on a sand island when the moon is full, a “starbed tower”, where braver guests sleep under the constellations of the southern hemisphere in a mosquito net “tent”

Old Mondoro, an hour’s river ride away, has only five reed and thatch huts, and its rustic nature attracts bush purists. Here, 15 years ago, I made peace with my fear of elephant; here I step from my outdoor bathtub into the night as a giant shadow drifts by. Old Scratchy back again. He knows I’m a trunk-length away, but he’s no Peeping Tom.

Now we’re on our way to the Luangwa Valley. We have gorged ourselves on the glamour mammals (minus giraffe) and watched an armada of crocodiles form a disorderly queue to snack on a dead hippo. We have also clocked some novelties. Catherine's is an Egyptian cobra, two metres long, oozing home to its den in a tree; mine is an unusually brazen aardvark, shyest of ant-eaters, happy to root for its termite supper in our company.

Zambezi at dawn Zambezi at dawn (Image: free)

Puku Ridge is an hour’s drive from Mfuwe Airport, which is a regular airport with runway and control tower, but beguilingly informal and intimate. There is a game buffer zone between the scattered township of Mfuwe and the park entrance, but unlike the reserves of South Africa there are no fences round this Zambian wilderness. Elephant are inclined to ignore notional boundaries. Catherine reminisces: “We once saved a man on a bike from an aggressive elephant. We just hauled him and his bike into the 4WD.”

The next three days hold, for her, joyful reunions with old colleagues, who tell her South Luangwa safari camps had whiled away the lean times of the pandemic by taking Mfuwe schoolchildren on game drives. And I come to terms with Puku Ridge.

Air conditioning! Wi-Fi! Intricate lighting under sumptuous canvas! The re-modelled complex is magnificent in its 21st century “essentials” and safari chic, and the quality of service and guiding are impressive. But I’m too old for such high tech refinements in the bush. I’d rather sit on the deck watching white-browed sparrow weavers sip water from the plunge pool; or listen to Pious Zulu, our veteran guide, tells us the history of Ginger, the psychotic lion.

“He was the pride male, the Big Man around here until he wandered off about a year ago. He was very lazy. He let the women do all the hunting but during the dry season their usual prey were in short supply, off looking for water. So he killed one of the female lions and ate her.

“We found him on her corpse. I’d heard of such a thing, but it’s very rare.”

Ginger, the Sawney Bean of South Luangwa. Time for some giraffe.

Travel facts: More details and enquiries from res@chiawa.com, who will arrange onward travel from Lusaka. Emirates and Qatar fly, respectively, from Glasgow via Dubai, and from Edinburgh via Doha, to Lusaka. These routes take slightly longer but avoid Heathrow and have competitive rates. Keep a lookout for Renovation Wild, which may be heading to UK freeview but can also be tracked down on some streaming channels..