It is sundown on the great Zambezi River. The mist from Victoria Falls rises in the distance. A large heron skims the water, dives and glides on.

Our little excursion boat is under way on the "booze cruise," a late afternoon ride during the cocktail hour. We are candidates for a wall poster of racial harmony -- an African family, an Asian family, a white family and a few young singles flirting and singing. We look for elephants coming down to water, and we hear stories of crocodiles eating swimmers. Waiters run around bringing drinks.

Off the bow, a police motorboat cruises slowly. A trooper leans on a mounted machine gun, lifts his glass and calls out with a laugh:

"War is hell!"

It is also bizarre in this part of the world.

On the north bank of the river lies Zambia, enemy land. It is the home of 14,000 Patriotic Front guerrillas led by Joshua Nkomo. They have training and staging camps just beyond the tree line. It would be child's play to blow us out of the water. But that is not one of the rules of the game in this strange war.

Zimbabwe-Rhodesian aircraft and raiding parites attack the guerrilla camps frequently. Now and then, the guerrillas lob mortar and rocket rounds into Victoria Falls. There are skirmishes on the outskirts of the town. Mine fields are everywhere.

But the "booze cruise" is immune. So are the trains that roll daily into Zambia over the Devil's Gorge bridge here, carrying goods and grain from South Africa and Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Some of it feeds Nkomo's men. On the return runs, the trains bring out copper, the main source of foreign exchange for Zambia. The copper is hauled through Zimbabwe-Rhodesia to ports in Mozambique, another of the five front-line states that provide arms and sanctuary for another faction of the Front led by Robert Mugabe. The ports are operated by South African technicians.

A strange war.

As dusk falls on the river, more drinks are served and we all sing an old song:

"It's a long way to Tipperary, it's a long way to go . . ."

The Victoria Falls Hotel is a grand symbol of the colonial era in Africa, whitewashed stucco with broad terraces and verandas looking out over the magnificent gorge cut by the Zambezi River. Monkeys skitter about on the roof. The flower gardens and lawns are impeccable. Ancient trees, cousins of the banyan, shade the terrace tables. An African marimba band plays "Auld Lang Syne." African dancers perform in grass skirts and leg wrappings. Servants are everywhere, saying "master."

There is an air of exaggerated pleasure in the crowd. They laugh too much, drink too much, talk too loudly. They are shop girls from Salisbury, soldiers on leave, a few Africans and persons of mixed race from the cities, Indian and Pakistani mercahnts, farmers, a couple of West German tourists and some of the old colonials, infirm and disapproving.

They have installed gambling casinos here. But still, business has not been good. The war is the problem. Nkomo's men, using SAM7 missiles, have shot down two commerical aircraft loaded with tourists. The game park is closed and sealed off with land mines thatn now and then kill elephants and buffalo. Armed escort cars accompany the tourist buses. On the verandas of the hotel, farmers and soldiers sit around with their pistols and automatic rifles. There is a sign in every room, "In the unlikely event of an attack, turn off the lights . . . Make your way to the first floor corridors."

It is a pity. The prices are right -- about $17 for a lovely room overlooking the gorge. The food is bontiful and cheap. The risks, in fact, are very slight.

But the pervasive byproduct of this "war of liberation" in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia or this "war of national preservation," depending on the viewpoint, is fear. The country is not being overrun. Districts and provinces are not under guerrilla control.

The cities are not under military siege.The fear is from the unknown. Is there a land mine up the road? Will the bus be ambushed? Which plane will the next SAM missile strike? Is a bomb planted in the flower bed?

The tourists stay away, especially the foreigners. But the old hotel and the "booze cruise" endure. There will be a big golf tournament here this weekend and cricket and soccer matches in towns all across the country and Lions Club picnics and dinner parties and disco dancing and fishing contests and parachute competitions and all the normal routines of life.

And out in the tribal lands and in rural and urban hiding places, 14,000 armed guerrillas will go about their normal business.