I HAD what could be called a free-range childhood in the African bush.

My two brothers, sister and I spent our days climbing trees, foraging for mangoes and avoiding deadly snakes. Looking back, it does seem idyllic, although when I was sick with a mystery tropical illness for a year with no doctors nearby, it must have felt less so for my mother who cared for me, relying only on a well-thumbed nurses’ handbook.

We moved to Zambia in 1969, five years after independence from Britain. It was a time of political unrest and racial tension as Europeans and Zambians struggled to adjust. But as a child, I was blissfully unaware of these adult problems and more concerned with spotting the elusive bush baby that lived in an enclosure at my primary school. Unlike Scottish schools, there were no railings or tarmac playgrounds – just trees, red dirt and miles of open bush where we were free to roam.

It was always hot, even in the rainy season when the red dirt churned to mud, and we were rarely indoors. At night, we’d sit on the veranda with our parents and watch the spider lilies – nocturnal blooming flowers – burst open to greet the moon. Many of these vivid and fond memories found their way into my latest novel, Looking for Evelyn, which is set in 1970s Zambia and is about a woman who returns to the Africa of her childhood to uncover the secrets behind an inter-racial scandal.

My family was there because of my father’s job with the British Council, setting up a teacher training college. While he was at work, our lives revolved around school, making fires to roast lemons, and building dens. We had to watch out for snakes and once a spitting cobra spat at my father. His glasses saved him from being blinded. After the houseboy Samson had whacked it over the head with a machete, one of my brothers dared me to pick it up. I screamed when it twitched in my hand. Another time, my eldest brother was nearly bitten by a puff adder when he went to retrieve a ball that had landed in the scrub. I’ve been terrified of snakes since.

We attended school with local children and my best friend was the houseboy’s son, Elijah. He built toy cars out of chicken wire and used to tell me about the witchdoctor who blew blue powder through keyholes to cast spells on people.

My mother had to cope with shortages as the village shop’s supplies dwindled. Once she made us a local delicacy of fried flying ants. They tasted of butter and were satisfyingly crunchy. We balked at picking hairy caterpillars off the tree trunks and eating them alive – another delicacy.

Even though I wasn’t fully aware of the trouble that was bubbling under Zambia’s red soil, we did encounter some hostility left over from colonial times. One villager trained his dog to attack whites and set them on my brother as he rode past on his bike. There was an air of menace that gathered momentum in the run up to our departure in 1974, just before white farmers had their land taken off them.

I desperately missed Africa when we left and I still miss it despite being happily settled in Scotland. My childhood was a colourful adventure, made more exciting by the threat of danger.

Looking for Evelyn by Maggie Ritchie is published by Saraband, priced £8.99