The ten-member Friendship Exchange from District 9800 to Africa is now being overwhelmed by Zambian hospitality. While Zambian clubs are keen to show us their projects, they are also giving us unforgettable experiences, all involving this country’s magnificent animals and the “Smoke that Thunders” – the local name for Victoria Falls. 

Try this for a diary for one day:
7 am: Most of us pile into a mini bus for a short drive to the safari lodge of Livingstone Rotary Club members Sue and Mike Welch. This is on a hilltop overlooking a swathe of thorny scrub and savannah.

After wake-up coffee, we each climb aboard an African elephant for a high-level tour of the park. These beasts are nothing like the small Indian variety you see in Melbourne Zoo. My elephant, “First-Born”, was a huge male teenager, dwarfing the females who ranged from the matriarch to youngest daughters. They are so used to the company of their African guides, we are told, that they would panic if left on their own for longer than 20 minutes, day or night.
My guide Jonas explains that whereas Indian work-elephants are trained largely by negative feedback, this herd has known nothing but positive reinforcement.

Jonas speaks softly to First-Born who lurches down the path. First-Born loves the expedition because he is allowed to wander off the path whenever a nice tree is available. He grabs the top of the tree and with a snap of his trunk, and an almighty ‘crack’, he tears down a thick limb, strips the leaves and continues with the branch in his mouth, grinding off the bark. Jonas keeps up a brilliant running commentary  as an ‘elephant whisperer’.

The track narrows and begins a steep descent. We are all sitting at 45-degrees and can hardly believe it as our mounts with dainty steps descend their huge tonnage into the valley. We are told they are almost unerring with their steps – one exception being a wild elephant who was crossing the Zambesi recently at low water, from stone to stone. He slipped and was captured on video tumbling down the 100m Victoria Falls. In a thoroughly jolted state, I clumsily dismount and discover that my month-old ‘gammy right leg’, from a pinched nerve, is now miraculously cured.

8 am: We start the walk back uphill to the lodge. Before long two lionesses, about a year old, materialize from the scrub. One of them springs at Jonas and whacks him across the upper chest with her paw. Jonas staggers and laughs. The lioness is just being her playful self.

For the next 30 minutes we form an unruly procession, the lions sometimes darting off in mock fights or niggles. They return in Indian file with one hanging on to the other’s tail.
We can pat them but must avoid certain behaviours that could startle or annoy them. I am surprised to find the bushy tip of their tail is full of burrs, but am assured that a few good licks with their rough tongues would get the burrs out. What’s that! Fifty metres off the path to the right, sit two full grown lions, monitoring our passage.

The two young lionesses were orphan cubs brought up by Sue and Mike. Soon they will be released into a safe, controlled environment, and their own cubs will be rigorously excluded from human contact in the hope the cubs will revert to wild ways.

9 am: We spend some quality time with three orphaned cheetahs, now totally tame. I am reminded of Tiepolo paintings where cheetahs are hanging around the royal banqueting table.

11 am: It is now time for us to cross the Livingstone Bridge, build  just below the falls and now connecting Zambia with Zimbabwe. The location was chosen by Cecil Rhodes to ensure that train passengers would get a dose of spray through the windows to really wake them up. The bridge is a predecessor in design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, except the roadway is on top of the arch, not slung below it.

In this case the arches during construction from each side failed by one inch to meet correctly at the centre. Mortified, the contractors retired for the night, which was cold, and in the morning the bridge had contracted so that the rivets could now be dropped in the respective top-most holes.

The previous day we had experienced the power of the falls by crossing the ‘Knife Edge Bridge’ to a mid-stream island. It was horrific, with torrential spray lashing our faces, rushing water 6cm underfoot soaking our shoes, and the equivalent of tropical storms going right through our raincoats. The railings and path were covered in slippery moss.

Our Livingstone Bridge crossing now is an ‘adventure’ passage along a narrow maintenance walkway below the road, similar to the ‘over-the-arch’ Sydney bridge trips. We are buckled and harnessed up and with two ropes clipped onto the walkway safety lines, involving (thankfully) a two-tonne breaking strain.

With each step across, the view to the falls becomes more spectacular and a gorgeous rainbow emerges in the spray, soon joined by a companion rainbow. Right below us is the ‘boiling pot’ where the Zambesi reconstitutes itself and surges in a 60kph whirlpool. In the middle of the bridge, bungee jumpers do their heart-stopping dives.

3pm: Braver members are now at a small airstrip and buckling into micro-light powered wings for a 30 minute overhead view of the falls and the game park upstream. We each sit behind our pilot with nothing below us but a small bucket seat with seat-belt. The pilot’s  control is a bar parallel to the wing, which he tilts with both hands. From overhead above the fall’s ‘smoke’, we can see how the Zambesi has cut its way through basalt cliffs and twists and zigzags below the falls to the horizon.

Game spotting from 300m high mostly eludes me. A giraffe no longer shows a neck and looks like a yellow and black lady bird. An elephant is a small grey football. Hippos? Like bugs.

My pilot Frances must have got sick of vainly pointing out animals to me. But even I managed to locate a big bull elephant pounding across a road, maybe disturbed by our buzzing. The flying wing doesn’t exactly land, more falls out of the sky at the start of the airstrip.

We have to hotfoot it by LandRover from strip to Livingstone station where a luxuriously fitted-out colonial train is waiting to take us on a rail tour with six-course fine meal, wines liberally included. We enter literally on a red carpet, with champagne flutes thrust at us as we go. The old steam engine puffs and grunts and hauls us through a game park towards to the sunset. The carriages are beautifully fitted out with arm-chairs and sofas and it is all Orient Express-like. Just as visibility fades, someone spots a distant rhino and calf – this dignified species is now at extreme risk of extinction by horn poachers.

10pm: Collapse into bed, reminding oneself: “Rotary doesn’t necessarily exclude self-indulgence.”