Why Zambia- Quick summary
Zambia is the ‘real’ Africa and predominantly (although not exclusively) a destination for the second time Africa Traveller who has got Africa in their blood and wants to move away from the more sanitised experiences, camps and lodges of South Africa. There is a charm and authenticity in Zambia that in my mind far out -weighs its Southern Africa neighbours. It is primarily a wildlife safari experience although the Victoria Falls and Livingstone is fast becoming one of the prime scenic attractions on a Southern Africa circuit (on of the 7 Wonders of the World) and thanks to a choice of daily flights from Johannesburg (1.5 hours) provides a superb grand finale to any SA adventure or itinerary.
Flying internally in Zambia is expensive and mainly dominated by Proflight but Zambia generally speaking works out cheaper than Botswana and the camps and lodges are very well run and offer increasingly high standards of accommodation, guiding and food, not to mention adventure for those looking for it… as this is the mecca for walking & canoeing safaris. Livingstone also provides high adrenalin pursuits (white water rafting, bungy jumps, zip lining across the gorge, walking with lions, elephant back safaris etc) but also the chance to relax and unwind at the end of a safari itinerary and enjoy the sheer beauty of the mighty Zambezi.
The Zambian people are the country’s greatest asset. There are many tribes but they live in harmony and the National motto is One Zambia, many different peoples but one country. They are also the sweetest, gentlest and most welcoming Africans I have met in my many years of travel throughout Africa. They in themselves ensure people will return time and time again.
Wilderness are strong here and offer a variety of different areas throughout Zambia including Kafue which I am unfamiliar with but I would personally recommend the smaller more personalised operations- Robin Pope and the Bush Camp Company in South Luangwa, Chaiwa in the Lower Zambezi and Tongabezi and the Islands of Siankaba nr Livingstone.
The destination especially the Luangwa Valley is extremely popular with the British, more so since Zimbabwe has declined and everywhere we went we met British couples of varying ages.
The Saxon Hotel- Johannesburg
This has to be THE place to stay in Johannesburg and in my opinion knocks the spots off the Westcliff. Situated in the leafy suburb of Sandhurst it’s hard to imagine you are in a major city and just a ten minute drive from Sandton and approx. 45 minutes from the airport (although this depends on the time of day and traffic). The hotel is surrounded by wonderful grounds and while 11 years old looks like it was refurbished yesterday. Everything is immaculately maintained and the service impeccable… although not without African charm.
It’s this sense of being in Africa that I loved. The décor is extremely stylish but unashamedly African with a contemporary twist ….with tastefully chosen artefacts from all over the continent dominating very angle. In this it differs totally from the more classic décor and design of the Westcliff. However if clients are transiting Johannesburg on an African adventure perhaps enroute as we were to Zambia, Botswana or Namibia this hotel, with its very real sense of place, is a great way to start and finish.
It also has an amazing spa (not excessively overpriced- a 45 min massage costing about £47) to refresh travel weary bones with 4 treatment rooms inside and two outdoors in its private garden plus a steam room, and sea water flotation pool. They also offer some very unusual signature sound treatments on a water bed (apparently ideal for restoring equilibrium and balance). The Spa has won numerous awards amongst which ‘Best City Day Spa in the World’.
The hotel is now among the most expensive in Johannesburg and more than justifies the price tag. With just 24 suites (Egoli, Presidential and Platinum) in the main building and 38 in the three villas the hotel has a very exclusive and intimate feel and the main areas have more the ambiance of an exclusive home than an international hotel. It was originally a private residence and on some of the walls of the hotel you have pictures of famous people who have discretely stayed there including Nelson Mandela who came here to edit his biography…The Long Road to Freedom.
The lead in category of room is the Egoli Suite and we were allocated 301 with a lovely view of the pool terrace and outdoor restaurant. Nothing is high rise here so the 3rd floor is the highest- and this applies to the villas too. We were in the main building and our suite was enormous and beautifully furnished again in a very attractive African contemporary style ( a predominance of woods, silks and local weaves in creams, browns and the muted shades in between) but with all the 21st century toys. All suites have laptops already connected to the internet on the writing desks (although wifi is free and available) huge plasma TV screens and just about everything both the business or leisure traveller could want including all international plug sockets- negating the need for an adapter.. There is also a business centre for those who need printers etc.
The bathrooms are superb in warn beige marble with two basins, separate glassed in shower cubicle and same for the toilet and a fabulous and vast bath dominating the centre. Large range of mid-sized Molton Brown products and a staggering attention to detail. All suites come with a butler service. It is, in short, sheer luxury backed by a highly tuned but unobtrusive service.
There are two pool areas (one heated and one not), a small but well equipped gym and an underground garage which also houses some vintage cars.
The three villas are a recent addition and house 38 suites in total. The one I saw had the Egoli suites on the ground floor with garden access and presidential suites on the first floor with lovely views. The Egoli suites here are slightly smaller than the ones in the main building. The décor is very similar the only difference being the bath products which are not Molton Brown. The villas are very tranquil and set in the lush grounds and have even more the feel of a private home .Personally I preferred the buzz of the main building.
Shattered from the journey we actually didn’t venture from the hotel and ate in the Terrace Restaurant at lunch and the main restaurant for dinner. The food is excellent and not overly expensive given London and European prices. Dinner rates as one of the best meals I have had this year with Oysters sourced from Namibia and Lobster from Hermanus. A pianist played over dinner adding atmosphere.
The Islands of Siankaba- nr Livingstone
There are some places that are so special that in a way you don’t really want the rest of the world to discover them. The Islands of Siankaba is one of those. 45 minutes from Livingstone Airport, 50 from the Falls and 45 from the Botswana Border at Kazungula this is a very unique spot offering the best of two worlds…relative proximity to the adrenalin charged activities of Livingstone & Victoria Falls but also total escapism and relaxation in what for me is one of the most beautiful spots in Africa.
This is a 5 star tented camp built on stilts on wooden decking over the mighty Zambezi on two islands linked to each other by a swinging suspended walkway. The reception is on the mainland and you are taken to the islands by speedboat transfer although the staff short cut is by mokoro. The main camp and facilities (dining tent and bar, small pool area and massage and curio shop) are on one island and the accommodation (7 luxury tents) on the other. This is Africa at its most breath-taking and secluded.
The view from the tented accommodation out over the Zambezi in the early morning is unspeakably beautiful..
I had got married from the Islands of Siankaba two years ago so it had very special memories for me. I was worried that going back it would never live up to my expectations. It did and a change of management has brought new ideas and a lovely soft refurbishment. Jay and the Directors are very heavily involved with the local community and Brett and Claire run a great camp in a very unobtrusive bit warm and welcoming style. I do miss Jean Claude though as he definitely added character.
The tented accommodation is compact but exceptionally stylish and on two levels with the large double bed dominating the lower level and the bathroom with a standalone bath and separate glassed and tiled shower cubicle, toilet and his and hers sinks the upper level. The attention to detail and housekeeping is superb and the bath products are custom made and all Aromatherapy based…and full size. I loved the warm colours of the furnishings. Tons of dark woods and the warm reds, creams and ochres of the bedding. The lamps have a slight victroian air. Tea and coffee making facilities and hairdryers plus electricity but no wifi, dvds or TVS on the islands. Nor is there air conditioning but a 5 speed ceiling fan over the bed.
They offer loads of activities like mokoro trips to nearby islands for picnics or to watch the sun go down, sunset cruises, nature walks round the two islands with a guide, guided tours on bamboo bikes (the latest eco bike) to visit the local villages and schools which are funded by the camp, a visit to the Falls and Livingstone…all included in the cost. All the high adrenalin pursuits available at Livingstone like white water rafting, helicopter and microlights over the falls, high powered speed boats through the gorge, elephant back safaris, walking with lions etc. are all offered at an additional cost. We did the day trip to Chobe National Park at US$ 185pp and it was brilliant. You spend the whole day in the park crossing the border by boat (not ferry) and then go game viewing in the park… firstly on a speed boat watching the huge herds of elephants coming down to drink and then a game drive in the afternoon. There are 45,000 elephants in Chobe in 11,000 kms so the game viewing is superb. We also saw a pride of ten lions! Mosi o Tunya National Park is also an option on the Zambian side with Rhino viewing (along with their minders) guaranteed.
The food is generally very good (although it did vary this time) and they are known for the quality of their cuisine which rivals many of the other more expensive lodges and camps on the Zambezi..
This is the perfect camp for people coming off safari and want one last dose of a very beautiful and unspoilt Africa. Lying almost equidistant from both Botswana and Livingstone it is perfect for visiting both. The tented accommodation is not great however in the heavy October heat and more suited to the cooler months May to early September.
The Zambians are one of the most friendly and welcoming people In Africa and the staff are the epitome here of what makes Zambia so special and so addictive. Adorable, Victor, Sad, Conrad, Humphrey in fact everyone we met conspired to make a stay at Siankaba unforgettable.
If I have a small observation to make is that the camp did lack a bit of atmosphere at times and I think they could have got a bit more imaginative at night with their dining options. We ate every meal in the same area and dinner was on a communal table. Considering we were returning to the place we had got married from it was surprising we were not offered the option to dine somewhere romantic a deux on one of the evenings. These were however very small points.
A VERY SPECIAL PLACE
The Royal Livingstone- Livingstone
The position is fabulous on the banks of the Zambezi just a five minute boat ride (if that) to the edge of the Falls. You can see the smoke that thunders from the beautifully manicured & extensive lawns. This is a well-run 5 star International Hotel and perfect for the client who wants to be in the heart of everything and cocooned in luxury. You have to admire its efficiency and décor which is elegant, light and opulent and it has a certain amount of character but in the end will appeal to the less adventurous luxury client who is adding the Victoria Falls to an itinerary (probably from SA). They are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year as well as Azure and the hotel is so immaculately presented that you could be mistaken for thinking it has been finished this year.
The rooms are all in two storey buildings either side of the main reception and public areas and well appointed, not hugely spacious (compact) but with excellent bathrooms and all the 5 star amenities you would expect from a 5 star resort.
While we didn’t dine there friends of our have done so recently and said the food and wine selection were excellent. The setting and views from all restaurants (as you can imagine) is very beautiful as it is just downstream from the Falls themselves. Very romantic, very plush, very impersonal. There is also something rather Disneyesque about the uniforms of the doormen and women.
Clients coming in from the lower Zambezi and North and South Luangwa parks will probably find it just a touch too sanitised but for the market it appeals to…. it does what it does really well and has taken over (after all the problems in Zimbabwe) from the Victoria Falls Hotel as the place to stay near the Victoria Falls but on the less politically sensitive Zambian side.
We transited the Royal Livingstone (which shares its entrance with the cheaper Zambezi Sun) enroute to lunch on Livingstone Island- which was amazing & we swam in the devils pool! This is an excursion run by Tongabezi…and where we got married two years ago which was also arranged through Tongabezi.
Tongabezi- nr Livingstone
I have been coming to Tongabezi for years and have watched it evolve into the magnificent experience it now offers on the banks of the Zambezi. Even in the early days it was unique & very special…it has just risen to meet the ever more demanding standards of the luxury adventure traveller. Its location is a great deal closer to Livingstone than the Islands of Siankaba and offers a greater level of sophistication and comfort while maintaining a charming level of authenticity, tranquillity and sense of remoteness.
The resort (for want of a better word) is situated just 15km from Livingstone with easy access to all the adrenalin activities of the Falls themselves (mentioned earlier) but lies on a very beautiful stretch of the Zambezi….. so within the extensive and beautifully kept grounds there is a real sense of peace and detachment. It’s a great place to relax and unwind at the end of a safari and enjoy the attractions of Livingstone and the Falls.
While Ben I believe is actively still involved, the camp is run by Rudy with greater precision than before but without losing the inherent charm and natural smiles of the Zambian people. I didn’t meet Gary but listened in on part of their staff training programme and was very impressed. The service and food has improved dramatically since I was there last with Tracy two years ago. Staff are also utterly charming and the Chef Zuwri really gifted.
The accommodation is also very unique and stunning but will appeal to a certain type of client and is very popular with the British. There are 5 river cottages (entry level) very private and very beautifully appointed. 5 special houses all individually furnished and designed- Bird House, Honeymoon House, Dog House, Nut House, Garden House…….do look at these individually on the net. Most are open fronted with the ultimate toilets with a view and my idea of heaven. Some are glassed in for those who don’t like the open aspect in Africa.
We were accommodated in the recently completed (5 months ago) Garden House which is perfect for families and I have to say some of the most beautiful accommodation I have slept in for a while but then it would appeal to me. A perfect compromise between sheer luxury and the wilder side of Africa. The walled complex (so totally private) is set high on the bank set back from the river (only disadvantage) near one of two large vegetable gardens (surrounded by electric fences to keep the hippos and monkeys out) It is a small village in itself. 3 thatched cottages one glassed in and two open fronted around a small internal garden and with a raised plunge pool and sunbathing area. It sleeps 4 very comfortably. The main adult bedroom and ensuite but private open shower and bathroom is stunningly appointed and very romantic. The kids room (or second couple) is in the centre cottage, fully glassed in and with its own ensuite with standalone bath and separate shower/ toilet ,double vanities etc. again enclosed and the last open fronted cottage is a lovely sitting room with dining table for private dining, small library and functioning fire place for the colder winter months. It was sheer bliss and came with a wonderful butler called Isaac. All electrical appliances but no TVs, dvd players etc. Apart from reception, the main public areas and restaurant are on the banks of the Zambezi commanding wonderful views across the river and there is also a lovely small pool built into the rock wall nearby. The bar is one of the most atmospheric on the Zambezi and perhaps what I love the most… everywhere you go in the camp someone smiles at you…They are also very imaginative with their dining options. The night we were there tables for two were set up everywhere, on the decking overlooking the Zambezi, in the Look Out house on both floors (one table on each) so very private but again with stunning views over the Zambezi and most spectacularly on the Zambezi on a floating pontoon!. We were also all individually serenaded by the wonderful Tongabezi choir.
New this year is an internet room in the new Look Out building with laptop linked to the web and walled sitting area which doubles up as the interior restaurant during the rainy season. Blackberries sadly work fine here. I just kept mine switched off.
Tongabezi also have a satellite camp on one of the Islands in the Zambezi itself- Sindabezi. This is where I chose to get married from originally but sadly the camp didn’t re-open in time. Tracy and I stayed there but the experience was slightly marred by a poor hostess at the time which led to a lack of direction & atmosphere. This I am assured has changed and reading the guest book (which I always do) the comments from clients who have stayed there this year are excellent. This again is a wilder option and more immediately African bush experience but very wonderful for the right type of client. Simpler and more back to nature than main camp-open fronted cottages looking out onto the Zambezi and if you are lucky elephants swimming across… bucket showers with a sophisticated edge!.
Tongabezi is clever because it caters for most clients except those who want a traditional International 5 star hotel like the Royal Livingstone. It offers luxury with African authenticity and Zambian charm. It’s is also quirky in a very elegant way and unique not fitting any mould other than its own.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED .
The Bush Camp Company/Mfuwe South Luangwa National Park
I have to say I was very impressed with the Bush Camp Company although our 45 minutes transfer from the Airport to Mfuwe Lodge was a bit of a shambles but apparently not indicative of their normal service. From Mfuwe Lodge we were transferred to the four wheel drive vehicles that took us to our various bush camps. I was very impressed with what I saw of Mfuwe Lodge. I had not seen it since the Bush Camp Company took it over and would certainly recommend clients stop over for one night at the start and end of their trip . With just 18 rooms it is still very intimate and they frequently have the wildlife including a full size bull elephant walking through reception! The morning after we left I got an email from Ian the GM saying they had had 6 lions in camp with cubs, While we were there a Civet walked straight across the car park in broad day light! It also has a spa and lovely eternity pool. Rooms are comfortable and well appointed (I did a quick sight inspection ).It’s a long journey from Livingstone, JNB or London to South Luangwa National Park via Mfuwe and breaking the journey is definitely a good idea if the clients have the time. We didn’t so went straight on to our first bush camp- a 3 hour drive which, as it was at night doubled as a game drive as well and we saw loads of animals enroute including Leopard. The time subsequently flew by.
Bilimungwe Bushcamp South Luangwa National Park
This bush camp reopened in July this year after a total rebuild and the resulting camp shaded by Natal Mahoganies and built over two water holes is very beautiful. We sat on our terrace during the siesta time and watched elephants drinking from our water hole, along with warthogs having a mud bath and countless antelope & baboons. We were visited by a pair of stunning bush bucks every day..
The four very spacious thatched cottages are raised on stilts and are huge! The large portioned off main room has a bathroom ensuite with a large and very powerful shower, proper flushing toilet and two washbasins carved out of polished lead wood. There is also a fabulous outdoor shower totally private but open to the stars. Wood predominates and the furniture is unusual, sourced and made locally and very attractive while being in total harmony with the surrounds. The rooms are fully enclosed but with large windows and floor length French windows onto the terraced areas (not glassed but covered in a tough form of mosquito netting giving the impression of total security but still letting in lots of air & light. The balconies look out over the water holes. 2 and 4 are doubles and in ours a huge wooden four poster dominated the room along with a seating area with half-moon cushioned chairs. Bright bedding and cushions in local prints add a touch of real colour. This is repeated throughout the camp.
The main areas are all in an open sided thatched structure in the middle of the camp built in harmony with the local trees… with dining table, bar, library and viewing terrace with a fabulous cushioned alcove & separate platform where on one evening we had a Mongolian barbeque! It also boasts a pizza oven. The Chef was very talented.
The staff are wonderful. Mike and Manda the guide are a great double act and make you feel at home and in very safe hands. I have rarely walked with such an excellent guide. We walked past some amazing game including a young male lion, a badly wounded female buffalo, various groups of elephants, loads of plains game…and not once felt anything but extremely safe in his hands along with Priest the ranger and Alfred who carried the tea.
The only negative was that there is no way to cool down in the very hot months prior to the rains in November. Fans would be a welcome addition. It was however an unforgettable experience.
All the Bush Camp Company Camps are small and intimate as they specialise in walking safaris so the service is very personalised and you are exceptionally well looked after and made to feel one of the family. A minimum of 3 nights is recommended in each camp to get a real feel for and enjoy the experience. A perfect combination would be:.Mfuwe Lodge beginning and end plus 3 nights Billimungwe, 3 nights Chamilandu with its fabulous river position and 3 nights Kuyenda.
Kuyenda Bushcamp South Luangwa National Park
I am biased as this is one of my favourite places in Africa and my third visit although the last one was in 1999 before it became part of the Bush Camp Company. Kuyenda is run by Babette Alfieri and Phil Berry. I used to work with Babette at A&K. Phil has worked in Africa for most of his working career originally as a ranger then licenced guide. Babette originally worked for A&K in Sales in the US but lost her heart to Phil and Africa and moved into Zambia and the Luangwa Valley 30 years ago!
No bush camp is run better or with such flair. They are a unique couple and this adds real character to the camp which is also in a wonderful location with so many diverse areas in close proximity making for great walks and game drives. The décor of the 4 thatched cottages, while it has been updated since my last visit has maintained the beauty and intrinsic simplicity of the original camp and this is part of it inherent charm. The reed and thatch rondavels are completely dismantled at the end of the season and we were the last clients. Little is left behind. Everything you need is there with ensuite bathrooms open to the stars at the back with fully flushing toilets, showers and washbasins and wonderful views through chicken wire covered windows onto the flood plains. We had elephant in camp twice while we were there just ambling and munching their way through but you are totally safe in the cottages and this is Africa at its most immediate. We sat for hours on our deck chairs on the mud patio looking out at the giraffes, zebra and antelope. There are two areas of permanent water near the camp (springs) which also attract a huge variety of fishing birds especially in the drier hotter months.
Walking with Phil through the African bush is a wonderful experience. He is so knowledgeable and also has a very dry sense of humour. I have seen most animals in my long love affair with Africa but never an Aardvark / Antbear and we saw one here!. The bush comes alive when you have such a briliant guide.
I love the simplicity and lack of any kind of pretension in this camp. The staff are amazing and both experienced and charming, the food was amongst the best of the trip and the company superb. We did have the camp and Phil and Babette to ourselves so we were truly spoilt but everyone in the camp, Emmanuel, Zach, Isaiah the ranger- everyone was really welcoming and friendly. There are 8 staff behind the scenes to look after 8 clients and Babette runs a very tight camp service wise. Nothing ever seems too much trouble. Frankly I do not have enough superlatives.
THE GRAND FINALE of a wonderful unforgettable, amazing trip
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