Along a Zambian river and in an arid South African reserve, the continent shows off its gems, from elephants and white lions to thundering Victoria Falls.

A rainbow highlights mist from the Zambezi River, Africa's fourth largest river, at Victoria Falls. The native name for the falls translates as "the smoke that thunders." Photo: JOHN MOORE, Associated Press

Africa keeps some secrets — wild, private subtleties — that it would rather you not know.

You may see a lion here, like I did. The continent, in general, is glad. Spot a leopard or catch a cheetah out of the corner of your eye, and all is well. Africa beams.

But what it knows — and doesn’t explain — is that none of these are its king. On a recent trip to Zambia and South Africa, I stumbled onto the truth. The real wilderness royalty here is not a ferocious Big Five animal. It is water. Water from a river.

Livingstone, Zambia, where my wife and I spent most of a week, has this in spades. The Zambezi River, wide and strong near the lodge where we stayed, is Africa’s fourth largest after the Nile, Zaire and Niger. It quenches the thirst of hippos, elephants and squadrons of exotic birds before exploding into spray for the 300-foot bungee-jump of a drop at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe border.

The local name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, means literally, “the smoke that thunders,” so Kathy and I arrived expecting a locomotive of sound. What we got was a roar but one that is eerie, echoing, like an animal at night. Because we were there at the start of the rains, the flow was elegant, not loud. The rocks of the gorge displayed chutes of water that rippled and unrolled like scarves.

For a game drive in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, we hired a guide who introduced himself as Chesmore Zulu. “Look,” he said as we passed through the entrance gate. Posted there is a gilt-framed photograph of a chubby man with an air of sympathetic understanding. It is His Excellency Mr. Rupiah Bwezani Banda, president of the Republic of Zambia, which has been an independent democracy since 1964.

We discovered a few shy zebras deep in the park and, eventually, a herd of sand-colored giraffes. Zulu mumbled as he drove. In Zambia, he claimed, it is legal to smoke anywhere “except in a bank.” Kathy and I traded glances. Was this a lead-in to Zulu lighting up in the car?

When we passed some huts that looked like they had been systematically wrecked using bulldozers and steel balls, Zulu shook his head with disdain. “Elephants,” he said simply.

“They did this?” asked Kathy.

I thought I could almost detect some signs of blushing around the back of our guide’s neck and ears. “People stayed here,” he said, “and some of the elephants became angry.” According to Zulu, elephants in the area do not like it when they encounter humans having sex. “I am sorry to tell you this,” he said.

Since elephant herds are common along the banks of the river, we wasted little time before asking others about this back at the lodge. “That’s the first I’ve heard of this,” said a staff member, scratching his head. “But maybe they have a point. I don’t like to be around when pachyderms are mating.”

With rain comes joy

Although it was afternoon and the sky was a dark brown on one side of the Zambezi, we loaded up a dugout canoe and settled in while a sweating, grunting guide paddled upriver. Crocodiles slinked around near the banks and islands, and every log or rock we passed looked like it might be ready to bite. During the wobbly ride, Kathy noticed there were no life jackets on board.

A crash of thunder welcomed us ashore near Mushekwa Village, a cluster of thatched-roof huts where locals keep to the region’s traditional ways. “Greetings,” said a woman introduced to us as Edith. She is one of the village elders and speaks excellent English. “How many days did it take for you to travel here?” she asked on learning that we live in the United States.

Edith escorted us around, putting special emphasis on trees that are used for medicines and for making soap. She showed us some chicken coops that are perfect miniature versions of the huts where villagers reside. “We are a Roman Catholic village,” she noted, although the question had not come up.

Suddenly there was a spattering and then a waterfall of rain. Red clay pathways dissolved almost immediately into blood-colored rivulets of mud. Edith led us carefully into her tiny, circular kitchen and stoked up the charcoal fire.

Shouts could be heard along with some singing between blasts of thunder. Edith clapped her hands. She smiled. Through the open doorway, we caught glimpses of villagers leaping. Boys were spinning in the shifting winds and sliding on the slippery ground.

“The rains have come,” said Edith. “When it is wet, Mushekwa is glad.”

On to South Africa

While Zambia was celebrating rain, the landscape in the Little Karoo region of South Africa, north and east of Cape Town, has been stripped by mountains of its water and is semi-desert — as scrubby as Arizona.

Kathy and I went there to see the dry side of Africa. The lodge where we were booked is deep inside Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, a privately run park that is home to the only free-roaming white lions in the world.

Just before our vacation, Sanbona announced the birth of two white lion cubs, one male and one female, though they’re being raised at a veterinary center until strong enough to be returned to the reserve.

The first animals we spotted were not predators. Springboks, showing off brown and white stripes, looked like giant chipmunks. Kudus stared at us as we watched them, sometimes giving us a shake of spiral horns. “Notice the fine markings on their flanks,” said Marco, our guide, just as the herd decided to make a run for it. It was hard to sneak around out there since our safari vehicle threw up puffs of dust en route.

No sign at all of the rare Riverine rabbit. According to Marco, this mystery mammal is the 13th most endangered in the world — and Little Karoo is its only known habitat. But we got lucky with rhinos. Two white rhino males were scuffling and sparring, raising at least as much dust as we did. Kathy, who seemed to have a talent for spotting game, pointed out a mother rhino resting with her calf, a perfect miniature, right at her side.

On other game drives, there were cheetahs and baboons. A solitary hippo in his private plunge pool. “Banished by the other males,” said Marco.

White lions seem to be solitary, too. They were somewhere nearby. We were positive. Marco was sure. One evening, just as it was getting dark, there was something — a luminescent head and forepaws — by the side of a road. “A female white!” whispered Marco. “Two tawny lions on our other side.”

The vehicle moved slowly. White and tawny were tense. We crouched. When someone creaked in a seat, there was a lion reaction, a paw lick, that shoots Marco’s foot to pedal. Our gantlet was run. And we were euphoric in the dark.

Back at our lodge the next morning we discussed what we had seen. We thought of our own small cats, Betty, Emily and Cecil, and the way they behave near prey. Desert birds zipped in and out of the thatch and from the dining room terrace you could see a nearby watering hole and distant purple hills.

We could spend some time seeing Sanbona rock art. This we knew. Nomadic hunter-gatherers called the San people roamed the area for centuries, making paintings that have been preserved. But we decided on game drive after game drive. More kudus, more springboks; a pair of cheetahs with attitude. Kathy checked off boxes on her checklist. More wildflowers. More birds.

It was late in the final day of our trip. A waiter from the lodge was setting down cups of coffee. “Good news!” he announced. “Boo Boo the owl is in that tree.”

Why is that good news? I asked.

“Boo Boo live here,” replied the waiter. Sure enough, although the light was fading, we could spot a sleeping mass of feathers on a lower branch.

“He watches over the lodge,” said the waiter. “He is, how would you say it? Wise.”

“Can Boo Boo tell us about stuff we’ve seen?” I asked. “Why a white lion is nervous? Or why an elephant gets mad?”

“Boo Boo knows about his tree,” scoffed the waiter, shaking his head. “And about the sky.”

I looked at Kathy, and she was smiling, thinking, listening again to Chesmore Zulu. For a second we were back in Zambia, seeing knocked-down huts and sitting by a charcoal fire. It was raining, again, in our minds and we were being paddled toward the thunder of the falls.

Africa with a river. Africa in dust.

You can pick one, if you want. But I could see, in Kathy’s face, that it was almost equal. In the Little Karoo region, our storms were sand. Our thickets were thorn trees. Our darkness was dry and nearly white with stars.

Boo Boo was unraveling his wings.

We stayed there, stayed and watched, until he flew.

Peter Mandel is an author of books for kids, including “Bun, Onion, Burger” (Simon & Schuster). He lives in Providence, R.I.