THE AFRICAN night was loud with the chattering of crickets and monkeys. I strolled out of my cabin to look at the unfamiliar Southern Hemisphere constellations. Suddenly there was a crashing sound in the brush and an elephant materialized, trotting straight at me. I raced back to the cabin and slammed the door. When my heart stopped pounding I peeked out. The elephant was 10 yards away, calmly pulling leaves off a tree with his trunk.

This was my first evening at Chibembe Lodge, in the Republic of Zambia. Chibembe is one of several lodges in South Luangwa National Park, a vast game reserve in the Rift Valley, which bisects East Africa.

I had come to Chibembe with two companions because we wanted a little adventure on our one-month African vacation. Before our trip we had spent many weeks researching affordable safaris. Most of the brochures we found in travel agencies advertised the sort of hotel where one sits on a veranda and sips chablis while looking at animals drinking from a floodlit pond. That sounded too much like Disneyland.

The other standard safaris provide a week or two in a Land Rover. Most of those trips go to the famous game parks of Kenya and Tanzania, where tourists are forbidden to leave their vehicles and where--we had heard--the sight of a lion draws more Land Rovers than flies. Anyway, we thought we would experience much more on foot than in a noisy vehicle.

Chibembe was the perfect solution. It offered walking safaris. The price was competitive--about $700 for a week. And Zambia definitely was off the beaten path.

Given our yen for adventure, Chibembe seemed regretably civilized when we first arrived. It had 20 two-person wood cabins, each with a modern bathroom. Dinner featured steak, there was a swimming pool, and the bar stocked Johnny Walker.

The spectacle of an elephant lumbering past the bar shattered that veneer. As it turned out, the elephant, nicknamed "George," was a regular nighttime visitor--he liked the seeds on the lodge's thorn trees. George had not hurt anyone, but he was 12 feet tall, had 4-foot tusks and could move at 30 miles an hour. Everyone kept a respectful distance.

The morning after meeting George, we rose early and set off down one of the narrow paths the animals had cut in the grass. In the lead was Moses, our guard, toting a .375-caliber rifle in case of trouble. Then came our guide, Sandy Mathis, the three of us, and a "tea boy" who balanced a box of supplies on his head. Our travel agent had told us bright colors scare the animals, so we wore khaki clothes and hats--and looked like an amateur army patrol.

The land was pancake flat, with scattered low trees and occasional 10-foot-high dirt termite mounds. It was August--Zambia's winter. The sun was hot, but the weather was mild and so dry that much of the grass had burned out. There were long clear views through the trees, broken by occasional patches of shoulder-high elephant grass.

We strolled past zebras, impalas, baboons, elephants and many kinds of birds, all grazing calmly together. "Amazing," one of my companions blurted. "It looks just like the diorama in the Natural History Museum." We stopped occasionally to pick up the datelike fruits of the African ebony tree.

Suddenly, Moses stopped and motioned us to listen. We heard a muffled, throaty groan. Sandy whispered, "Lion--half a mile." Ten minutes later, we found them--a pair of huge, muscular cats sitting on their haunches, sniffing the air. After a moment they saw us and loped into the elephant grass. There they sat, half hidden, gazing at us while we peered at them through binoculars.

The staring contest lasted a quarter of an hour. Then Sandy motioned us on. Even safaris have schedules.

Another hour brought us to our camp--a few thatched huts on a river bank. Sandy told us the bamboo frames would keep lions out. Elephants could knock them down, he said, but he assured us they would not. "Elephants eat trees, not people."

The huts had cots, and there was an oil drum of water rigged up as a shower. We unpacked, lunched on tea, cold cuts and chutney, and then did what the animals do in the heat of the noon sun--napped in the shade.

At midafternoon, we took tea--a vestige of British colonial days--and set off for another walk. We hiked along a bluff above a broad, muddy river. Below us, 10-foot-long crocodiles sunned themselves on the bank, and the large black rocks in midstream turned out to be hippos.

After an hour, a stream crossed our path. Sandy started unlacing his shoes and rolling up his pants. "What about crocodiles?" I asked. "I've never seen one here" was the answer--not totally reassuring because the stream was too muddy for us to see anything.

We made the crossing safely, and Sandy began to teach us how to walk in the wild. "Many of the animals have better hearing than eyesight, so whisper when you talk. Keep downwind, if you can. Learn to recognize different kinds of droppings, so you know what is around. Look for circling vultures--that may mean a kill."

Animals usually spotted us at about 150 yards. They would look up and stare until we got to 50 yards; then they turned and ran. With elephants, though, we were the cautious ones, keeping a respectful distance.

We got back to camp in time for a sudden, golden sunset. While waiting for dinner, we drank beer and chatted with Sandy. He spoke perfect English--the product of a missionary school education and an army training stint in Canada. (Bureaucracies foul up everywhere--he studied snow warfare.) In the wet season, when the lodge is closed, Sandy runs a farm, but he told us he preferred the safari work because every day in the bush is unique.

Sandy told us he admired American culture but thought our foreign policy insane. "You have no subtlety," he said, "no sense of history. Africans think the U.S. is great--everyone wants to study there, not in Moscow. But you support the racists who run South Africa and dictators like Mobutu in the Congo, so you drive the rest of us away. Sooner or later black rule will come to South Africa, and it is in your own self-interest to be on the winning side."

We sat in the black night, listening to the hippos grunting as they crawled out of the river to graze on the banks. Politics seemed unreal and far away, but it was easy to think about the long term in a land where little had changed for a million years.

Dinner was a buffalo stew that tasted like Irish stew. We read under a kerosene lamp for a while and then crawled into beds covered by mosquito netting.

For the next four days we followed the same gentle schedule, covering 5 to 10 miles each day. The bush seemed peaceful, but sometimes we found evidence of death. Once we came upon the skeleton of a large antelope, its legs splayed. "The way it fell," said Sandy, "with a lion on its back." Another day, a sickly sweet smell led us to a newly dead lion--probably killed by a fellow lion in a fight over territory.

The forest hid shaded water holes where we stopped to fish, sip tea, and watch baboons. Moses pulled in a fish every time he threw out his line and smiled gently at our futile efforts. At one small pool, Moses waded in and caught two fish with his hands.

One morning we traced buffalo droppings to a huge herd--1,000 or more. When they smelled us, 30 young males trotted out and faced us in a skirmish line. They were huge beasts, with wicked, black horns. Moses and Sandy walked straight toward them. We tourists fell behind, suddenly preoccupied with camera settings. The buffalo stared and pawed the ground for a long minute. Then, in an instant, they turned and trotted off into the herd's dust cloud.

Chibembe has run these walking safaris for five years. The guards occasionally have to shoot a charging elephant or buffalo, but no one has ever been hurt. However, the bush is dangerous. While we were in Luangwa, a Danish couple foolishly camped out in a light tent, 30 miles away. A hungry lion clawed through the tent and dragged the woman out. It finally let go, but she was badly mauled.

The animals are in much more danger than the people. Hunting is illegal in the park, but the government has assigned only 30 ill-equipped rangers to cover more than 1,000 square miles, and the incentives for poaching are high. A good rhinocerous horn fetches $20,000 in Kuwait, where it is prized for dagger handles. The Chinese pay equally high prices for powdered horn, which they believe is an aphrodisiac. As a result, poachers have decimated the park's rhino population.

Elephants also are victims. On our hike we found four carcasses riddled with fire from automatic weapons. Nonetheless, Luangwa's herds are so big that the park has been dubbed "the valley of the elephants."

There are no native villages in the park. Outside it the people live in mud huts, growing "mealy" (corn) and raising chickens. They sell a little food to buy clothing and beer--otherwise they are self-sufficient.

As we drove by them, villagers smiled and waved at us. But Sandy told us they think tourists who come to Luangwa are quite strange. The villagers stay as far from the elephants and lions as possible, and they do not understand why we pay lots of money to get close to those beasts.

When George wandered back into camp on our last night, it occurred to me that the villagers had a point. But this time I did not panic. I knew how close I could get, so I was able to spend a peaceful hour watching him browse. I felt almost relaxed about sharing space with a wild animal--a common experience for the human race until civilization began separating us from nature. The reunion was well worth the trip.