Story by Jo Kromberg
Photographs supplied by Norman Carr Safaris
So here I am on my way again, my powdered heart and I with friend and coleague Louise Donald in tow.
We land at Lusaka from Johannesburg and the midday heat quickly dislodges our South African cryogenic state as we walk across the tarmac to board our next flight in the microscopically small Proflight Airlines plane to the lower Zambezi. It’s hot, really hot in the 4-seater Dinky Toy and as our Italian pilot Mateo slowly starts taxiing down the runway, a trickle of sweat rolls down my temple. Excitement or sheer mortal terror, I know not which. The engine roars into action with an almighty racket as we accelerate and suddenly, light as a feather, we are airborne. Higher and higher we fly above the russet bush beneath us but still low enough to see things quite clearly on the ground.
At just over 4000 square kilometres, the Lower Zambezi National Park (and our location for the next couple of days) stretches in a narrow swathe from the Chongwe River in the west of Zambia to the Luangwa River in the east. It is home to all of the major species with excellent sightings of elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard a regular occurrence.
The Camp is situated on the Zambezi’s banks with a canopy of trees above and the peace and silence is immediately enveloping.
Our Albida suite is described on the website as a luxurious self-contained colonial-style tented suite which sleeps four guests in two spacious, octagonal bedrooms set on either side of a private dining room and lounge area with its own bar fridge, plunge pool and fire pit. The feeling however as one is confronted with this palace in the bush is overwhelming. We have a spectacular view of the river before us, looking out to Zambia on the one side and Zimbabwe on the other.
Our guide George takes us on a canoe ride that afternoon and we paddle slowly along the river, spotting monkeys, elephants, crocodiles, hippos and birds.
Later we sit by the fire watching the gently setting sun with a gin and tonic, marvelling at our surrounds. Dinner is served by our butler in our own dining room and consists of a frightfully delicious corn soup followed by beautifully cooked steak.
We retire again to the fireside after dinner and an otherworldly sight stuns us into silence. The crimson moon, huge and languid, peers slowly above the river like a blood red balloon and then rises into full bloom. Much later I creep into my enormous bed with its percale linen duvet and dream of Africa.
I wake up with the mystic river as my view from the bed and jump out, refreshed and as eager as a child to experience the next adventure.
We spend time in the main area of the camp for a couple of hours where high tea is served and Wi-Fi is available, before we set off on a boat cruise again with George.
Apart from cruising, Chongwe River Camp also offers a range of game activities in the park including full-day picnic trips and fishing excursions, day and night game drives and walking safaris. The Lower Zambezi is also widely known as one of the best places to catch (and release) a tiger fish or two.
After dinner that evening, George takes us on a night drive. The night sky is adorned with a billion stars, vast and unending and the Milky Way is clearly visible, flowing through the black sky like silky vanilla magma and George amazes us with his knowledge of the constellations.
A young elephant bull visits us metres from our room the next morning, silently and peacefully strolling past in his timeless way.
We say our sad goodbyes to the wonderful team at Chongwe and board our tiny plane back to Lusaka. And then it’s into the untamed heart of Zambia – the South Luangwa Valley.
Camp Mchenja is a stylish, rustic tented camp overlooking a huge sweeping bend in the Luangwa. The accommodation is more basic than Chongwe but the location is spectacular, making you feel like you are truly some of the last people on earth in this untamed wilderness.
The haunting cry of a fish eagle breaks the dawn the next morning. I open the flap door onto my deck and in the pink-grey changing colours of dawn, the magnificent river reveals itself. After a light breakfast we set off on a 2-hour hike through the bush with trusted guide Innocent. We encounter elephants and a few smaller creatures but the feeling of wondering in the wild and delighting in Innocent’s explanations of plants, dung and animal tracks is more freeing than anything. A gorgeous brunch is set up for us as a surprise on the edge of the river to complete the experience. As night nears on our game drive later, a pride of lion makes their appearance and we follow them as they stalk a puku, an antelope similar to an impala. Their bodies are stealthy masses of ominous rippling muscle as they quietly flank their pray. Suddenly the night silence is pierced by almighty ferocious and primordial growls and snarls as the lions pounce. We watch in stunned silence as this show of the merciless cycle of life in Africa plays out some 20 metres before us. The cubs are just as brutal as the adults as they try to snatch whatever piece of the now mercifully dead animal they can but they are unceremoniously swiped away by the older ones. “That puku didn’t know what hit it,” says Innocent.
That night I stare up at an infinite blanket of stars above. Some fall, most stay.
We leave early the following morning for our second last destination in Zambia, Chinzombo Lodge. We have to cross the river for a very short boat ride and Chinzombo looms on the other side – an absolute paragon of luxury and definitely the next generation in luxury safari lodges. And here I will cheat and use someone else’s words to describe this place since superlatives fail me: “Webster’s describes “stunning” with the following synonyms: amazing, astonishing, astounding, blindsiding, dumbfounding, eye-opening, flabbergasting, etc….but he left out one important word:
Chinzombo…. This place is indescribable. It’s not only a camp but it’s a lifestyle experience.
Imagine Ralf Lauren Home meets the bush. Posh (in) every detail imaginable; from the private plunge pool in your villa (to) the perfectly fitting bathrobes, to the champagne on the hood of an open air safari vehicle.”
So says a chap called globalSwagger in his Tripadviser review of Chinzombo and it’s spot on.
After lunch we retire to our enormous villa with its gorgeous own pool overlooking the savannah and the river beyond. The rooms are well spaced so you have privacy without total isolation.
We chase the sunset that evening for photographs and Innocent takes us across the river on a pontoon for that purpose and onto a hilly outcrop overlooking the entire valley and as the sun exhales its last scarlet breath onto this magnificent land, he suddenly whispers: “Wild dog!”
On the way back, we also spot a hyena, zebra and of course hippo in the pitch black with only the spotlight and the million shining stars in the heavens above.
Back at the Lodge, a guard escorts us the few metres back to our villa and suddenly he whispers: “Wait! Hippo…But don’t worry.” As I almost become airborne in my quest to reach the lit safety of the villa I idly wonder what about a hippo right in front of you in the pitch dark might make you not worry…
Our very last Zambian treasure remains the next day, close to Livingston. We fly directly to Livingston and then it’s a short 15-minite drive to Tongabezi Lodge on the banks of the Zambezi, just upstream from the Victoria Falls. Tongabezi reveals itself like the dance of the seven veils. It must be one of the most romantic places on earth. The dining area is designed to accommodate different parties in split-level nooks and crannies, all under a canopy of trees overlooking the mighty river. A 15-minute boat ride with our guide Brian takes us to our own exclusive private island camp Sindabezi, also belonging to Tongabezi. The island is tiny with only five open-sided thatched cottages and a distinct castaway feel about it. It is one of the Top 10 Lodges in Africa according to Fodors Travel Guide and deservedly so. There is absolutely no connectivity or cell phone reception of any kind so I soak up the serenity instead. The bed is elevated and I feel like I am floating above the river, listening to the hippos chat. The linen curtain “walls” bulge lazily in the soft breeze as the sun fades. The exposure to nature is disconcerting at first – there are no doors or walls at all, only tents flaps that can come down at night – but after a while, you realise that your soul actually craves this commune with nature.
As we stand at the edge of the Victoria Falls the next day on a quick visit before going to the airport, the sense of Man’s insignificance rushes at me with visceral and raw ferocity in the face of one of the magnificent Wonders of the World beneath me. The thundering falling waters go on for miles and it looks to me like a place where the earth broke. My poetic proclivities leave me bereft like a joke searching for a punch line when trying to describe this corner of Africa. Zambia, of thee I sing.