By Karen Loftus
Many savvy travelers head to Zambia on their second or third trip to Africa. Typically it is hit only after the South African travel and safari are ticked off the list or an excursion to Kenya. Then if interested, some dig deeper and discover Zambia, coined the real Africa. Every one of the five in our group had been to Africa at least once, be it South, Kenya, Namibia or Botswana, but it was a first for all to Zambia.
We started our journey with a quick layover in Johannesburg. After two long jaunts, one in to London and the second trek in to South Africa, I was ready for an in transit break before our adventure kicked in.
Walking out of Johannesburg’s airport you almost walk in to the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, a few feet from the airport door. It feels so civilized to relax and spread out in a lux atmosphere after one too many air borne hours. South Africa is so savvy, especially after the World Cup. They really know how to accommodate international travelers. Next trip in, I will be sure book an immediate massage on site to kick start the stagnant circulation or perhaps grab a local wine before I make my next move.
Many of the guests I met made the Intercon their home base in Africa. They would stay overnight in between other African jaunts to Malawi, Namibia or Botswana. They’d take a night, change clothes and then store their luggage while away.
Word to the wise, be sure to pack light for Africa, any part of Africa. The little commuter planes are very strict with their weights. In the case of one couple, they were only allowed 12 kgs, not the international 23 allowance in their private four seater flights. No fun for the fashion savvy, but trust that you will want to leave excess baggage behind. Many of the camps will do your laundry daily, a needed and nice amenity.
As impressed as I was with the Intercon, I was happy to delve in to a South African suburb, if only for a night. My cohort and I grabbed a driver from the hotel and headed to the Rosebank neighborhood, an upper crust suburb of Jo’Burg to the Monarch Hotel, an impressive Mantis property.
Once the 1930’s Saxonwold Post Office, this iconic building boasts a seamless mix of old world charm combined with modern elegance. It’s a living gallery as their twelve suite retreat hosts an array of stunning contemporary art in the rooms and throughout the property of both established and emerging South African artists. As sophisticated as the art is, there is an air of cheekiness that lets you know they’re not too precious about it. In the public bathroom in the hallway, men are privy to beautiful female nudes while women too are given an equal offering of male nudes in their loo. It’s a clever touch. In the restaurant there is a mad mix of African plates that fully adorn the wall with sayings not suited for print. It adds an air of levity to the elegance.
On top of the stunning surroundings, it’s the staff, known to be one of, if not the best in Jo’Burg, that seal the deal.Grab a local Stollenbosch wine in the sleek James Bond-like bar or have their ever lovely James serve dinner prepared by esteemed chef Keith Frisley. James, with his deep and well-meaning smile, will thank you throughout the meal as if you’ve done something besides consume it. I adored him and wanted to put him in my pocket by night’s end. Monarch was the perfect respite and a great kick off to the trip.
Once in Lusaka, the capitol of Zambia, we scooted to Eight Reedbuck, another boutique property in Kabulonga, a suburb of Lusaka, where each of the ten suites is named and meticulously designed in line with a different Zambian tribe. We had an overnight before connecting to Mufuwe, where our only option in Lusaka was to shop.
We grabbed a cab and headed to The Kabwata Cultural Village, clearly geared towards tourists. Upon arrival vendors go in for the kill. So, be ready to bargain. We held back as it was the first minute of the trip, but in hindsight we realized it was the best market we saw all tolled. If you like it, first stop or not, go for it. In the women’s hut, I found beautiful bracelets made of three different heavily weighted types of local wood and bone. They were edgy Afro-chic and dramatic from a distance.
In true African fashion, once back I relaxed in my luxurious and expansive Lozi Chief suite and garden and gave thanks for my local fashion find while trying to figure out how to get their artwork in my suitcase. A local Zambian artist whose work was shown throughout the property was soon to be shown in New York. Art can be bought off the wall at Eight Reedbuck. Like the market, get it while you can as they are big on promoting their own and the work is sold on site and around the world.
Once in Mufuwe everyone was anxious to get on with the safari. An hour after arriving at the airport we landed at Luangwa Safari House, where safaris happen spontaneously. As we walked in to what looked like an African Castle I stepped out on the deck, which doubles as a dock during rainy season in winter and saw a herd of elephant elegantly saunter by. There were mothers, babies, all sizes, a sprinkling in each direction right before us. It looked orchestrated. It was that iconic Africa moment one could only imagine. And so the trip began...
After a buffet of fresh salads, pastas and South African wines we wasted no time and were off with Jacob our ranger. As daylight waned, we came upon a leopard with its kill. It was in its second or third day with its captive prey, licking the bones of what was left of an impala while a hyena patiently waited below. The gorgeous female leopard that doesn’t dare eat until the male is finished seductively waited high above in the opposite tree, across from the male. It was pure bush theatrics.
The male who had had his fill finally exited, safari left, while the female took center stage up in the tree. To add to the climactic moment, another character, a hyena, approached to get in on the kill, clearly infringing on his nemesis’ territory. According to Jacob, the female leopard sent out a signal, a sound to communicate to her baby hidden in the bush from hyenas.
As she desperately tried to get a few licks in, she dropped the dangling head to toe carcass to the ground. The new eager hyena swooped in and ran off with it all. Drama! That is what rangers call a moment. Apparently leopards drop 70% of their kill, which works well for opportunistic hyenas, who are scavengers.
As we sat there in the then dark, we could hear the hyena, which has the best jaw in the jungle, crunching bones in the background. If you see hyena droppings in the bush, they look like chalky snowballs as their waste is calcified due to the bones. In true theatrical fashion the sound was the score to the scene that eerily seemed to surround us.
The allure of Zambia is that you can experience moments like that and be one of two if not the only jeep ten feet away bearing witness to it. As Zambia’s parks are not private game reserves, you don’t know what may wander in or what’s to come. It’s that element of surprise that’s inherently Zambia.
After a candlelit dinner on deck we retreated to our respective suites. In true castle fashion we were locked in, floor to ceiling regal doors locked and loaded behind us, like captive queens. I retreated to my open, airy suite and stood out on my second floor terrace like Juliet from above and looked down in the dark only to see two supersized porcupines several feet high scurrying by.
Before leaving we had an early morning drive with Jacob. We watched a male elephant be booted from the herd as he was having a sexy sexy moment as Jacob called it and a baby elephant was tripping over his trunk trying to figure out how to use it. Yet the moment of the morning was watching a herd cross the river leaving the scared baby behind. Its sister stayed with him trying to find a shallow spot for their crossing. The mother finally reached her trunk out from the other side to coerce her little one. A baby elephant belly flop followed. It was an amazing montage.
Jacob later drove us to the river passing us off to the crew from Nsolo, our next lodge, also in South Luangwa National Park, but a few hours away. As we shoved off across with forty or so hippos by our side, one bull charged towards our tiny overloaded boat letting us know he didn’t want us in his river. A bonk on the head with a rock by one of the rangers oddly made him turn around. Yet he proceeded to show off, running fast, seemingly on water, back and forth towards and away from us. The awaiting jeep was a welcomed site.
“Safari walks are about the little things,” Shaddy our guide from Nsolo pointed out. The abundance of Zambian birds, the famous sausage tree with oversized rock like sausages known to enhance male endowment and the art worthy mahogany flowers complete with stems picked from the bush floor were some of the small things we saw. What was grand was the African sunset over the pearly dry river bed that is typically a raging river, the Luwi in rainy season. It was an otherworldly experience that could only be topped by the traditional brai (barbecue) prepared in the bed that followed. The succulent steak, sausage and lamb enjoyed by the fire in the wild were a sliver of safari life I will not soon forget.
After an evening of snorting buffalos outside my tent and hyenas howling in the distance, we set off to Kakuliin the morning. Our new camp was set on the confluence of the Luangwa and the Luwi River. I have never seen so many hippos in my life below our deck at camp and on our walk with Aubrey, the ranger. We watched a hundred or more hippos with a dozen or so crocs nearby. Apparently they get along, but as was stated by more than one ranger, they’re opportunistic. So, if your hand drops in the water while rowing, a croc will nick it and if you fall in the water, game on. Same goes between the two species.
On shore we saw what looked like a dead baby hippo, which as Aubrey mentioned may have wandered. The crocs were in line based on seniority, having their fill. Later that day we heard a primal wail by a hippo. They snort and chat and make a good bit of noise, all a part of camp ambiance, but this was different. As we looked down, a mother hippo was trying with her nudging head to wake what appeared to be two dead baby hippos floating in front of her. Three crocs ominously circled her. She eventually left the scene, which is uncharacteristic of mothers, hippo or otherwise, wailing. It was heart wrenching. As our ranger pointed out, that’s the bush.
That night we experienced the perfect sundowner, a makeshift bar overlooking the water in the middle of the wild, mid drive. Comparable to the brai in the bed, it just doesn’t get any better, the allure of Africa. The sun, serenity and chilled glass of champagne…I wanted to live there.
Over dinner Aubrey and fellow ranger Andrew, his nephew, a cheeky one full of fun, gave me an African name. Most locals tell you their Christian or English name. Inquire further as the African ones are the good ones and I wanted one. They named me Chimwemwe, which means joy.
On our quick flight to Livingstone we had a fortuitous meeting with Mukuni, the chic High Chief of Livingstone, who was flying back from a series of meetings in Syria. We learned later that meeting Mukuni was comparable to meeting a mix of Arnold and Obama. He was rocking a silver silk suit and a thick ivory necklace of two large lions facing each other. He had us at hello.
On the last leg of the trip, we were shuttled by boat to Sindabezi, a private island on the Zambezi River for an evening. It’s been touted as one of the most private places on the planet by The London Times. The five open villas with river views are well suited for the big I Do, romance or reflection. It’s amazing how much I didn’t miss TV or radio let alone internet. Sitting on my deck was all the news I needed.
We enjoyed bacon wrapped apps and wine by the fire and a pesto pasta and seafood dinner by candlelight. For dessert,the chef and crew danced and sang (with us) traditional songs around the fire as a way of welcoming us. I was ready to put everyone in my pocket.
Once at sister property Tongabezi,on the riverbank of the Zambezi, we were appointed our own valet for our stay. On top of that, there was an accommodating and vibrant staff full of local charm. Every one called me Chimwemwe throughout the stay. It felt as much of a friend’s home as it did a luxe safari camp.
The menu fixed each day was fresh, homemade and locally sourced from as close as their garden. Your schedule at Tongabezi can be as busy as you want it to be from private sunrise and sunset cruises on the Zambezi, rowing around the hippos, which we did and of course the Victoria Falls excursion, which is the can’t miss.
Soak in the aesthetics of one of Africa’s and the world’s great wonders. The competent crew at The Falls will walk you across mossy rocks and have you swimming upstream against turbulent currents that could send you over the edge. Next you’ll be jumping in to the infamous Devils Pool at the earth and the fall’s edge. The only thing more amazing than the adventure is the picture taken while doing it.
We bid our final adieu to Zambia with an overnight at nearby Stanley Safari, by Victoria Falls, where the amazing Mabvuto, our group’s official valet, realized our every need before we did. Craving one last animal encounter we did a walking safari in Mosi-O-Tunya National Park with Aussie Tony Simpson of Bwaato Adventures, who’s a rhino specialist, among other things. After a very wordy safety monologue that boiled down to “Don’t run,” we were off. His crew tracks the rhinos early morning to better the chances of our seeing one of the only five white rhinos in all of Zambia.
In less than an hour we were face to horn with the full Monty, all five of the dinosaur looking creatures. They’re called the real king of the jungle as even lions know better than to mess with them. We had a definitive moment when we were told to walk up on a hill as the snorting male seemed irritated by us. The lead bull in front sussed us out, staring us down while his ears twirled around as they do in 360 degrees. Then they all went back to grazing. Phew…
After fifteen minutes of fab photos, but a mere twenty yards away, we quietly walked on. An hour later I looked up and there they were tracking us. I was happy to jet back in the jeep after our close encounters.
Hearing Tony’s poacher stories caused an immediate cinematic spin in my head. Just as I was mid plot, we passed what one in our group swears was Steven Spielberg in a jeep with cameras and crew. All we were told is that it was a very VIP in the park.
I’m guessing you just might see the seduction of the safari and the African ambiance in yet another slice of cinematic drama. However, I’d suggest your own close encounter. After my second trip to Africa and first spin into Zambia, I know I’ll be back.
Luangwa Safari House
Nsolo & Kakul
Sindabezi & Tongabezi
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