Boutique safaris in Zambia

Jennifer Byrne heads to Zambia for a boutique safari experience and gets up close – a little too close, even – with the beauty and the beasts.

Chinzombo Camp, Zambia

Sharyn Cairns


Qantas operates daily flights from Sydney to Johannesburg. South African Airways has an African network with flights to Zambia. Proflight operates internal services in Zambia.

Chinzombo Camp

Chongwe River House

Stay in the jeep. This is the golden rule on safari, as the guides keep reminding you. All human limbs inside the vehicle at all times – the idea being that if you’re part of the jeep, you won’t become part of the food chain. This is how wild animals see things, apparently, and I’ve always taken it as gospel, except this sunny evening on the plains of Zambia when it just doesn’t seem to be working.

A young bull elephant, trunk lifted, ears flapping, heads purposefully towards the open side of our jeep. He’s making strange strangled noises and his eyes – are they rolling? – suggest deep displeasure at having us turn up during grazing time with the family.

“Don’t move,” the guide tells the four of us, and waves his arms to make himself look fierce. “He’ll stop,” he says confidently. “Just stay where you are.” Like, where else were we going?

We freeze in our seats. The elephant doesn’t stop.

He’s less than a metre away, his huge head is down, advancing on my side of the vehicle, unfortunately, when the driver ducks, guns the engine, reverses at speed and hares off down the rutted dirt track. We’re in retreat, the very thing you’re told never to do when an elephant charges, but in this case…

The bull trumpets his triumph and chases us for a while, but finally peels off as we collapse on the floor. What happened there?

“Drunk,” our guide Moses explains. An inebriated youngster showing off to his mother. And it’s not an uncommon phenomenon, brought on by eating ripe fruit from the marula tree which grows abundantly on the Zambian grasslands, and is said to have an intoxicating effect on elephants.

This was such a winning explanation for aggressive behaviour – the pachyderm was tipsy, your honour – I should have left it at that. But I couldn’t help myself.

Later I checked it out and, sad to say, it didn’t hold up. By means one can only imagine, researchers at Bristol University staged a series of experiments and reported no elephant could eat enough fermented marula berries to get sozzled.

Well, maybe. All I know is these same marula fruits have a powerful effect on humans when taken in the form of a potent liqueur called Amarula Gold, both the national tipple and one of the world’s most popular duty-free buys. It’s sold, whatever those scientists say, with a charging elephant on the label.

Such are the excitements of a safari in Zambia, a small and wonderfully game-rich republic which sits snugly in central-southern Africa, sharing borders with eight of the continent’s most colourful players – among them Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and one-time overlord, Zimbabwe, back when Zambia was part of greater Rhodesia.

Having eight neighbours is not always a blessing in this part of the world, and since founding president Kenneth Kaunda wrenched independence from Britain in 1964, Zambia’s progress as a tourist-luring mecca has been somewhat unsteady.

It has the huge advantage, along with Zimbabwe, of being the access point to the natural wonder of Victoria Falls, where the mighty Zambezi River turns vertical, attracting droves of nature lovers and thrillseekers. I visited the Zambian service town of Livingstone (named after the famous explorer) a few years back and was mesmerised by a collection of fetishes and mummified organs – “as used by witch doctors” – in the local museum. This is, of course, not what every tourist is after, and when it comes to safaris, Zambia sits well down the African league table.

The big four destinations – Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa and Kenya – remain dominant players and first choice for many Australian travellers; they offer the sort of range and luxury that low-key Zambia has never gone in for in a big way. Hence this trip. Zambia is keen for new business and so we’re headed to the country’s premier national park, the South Luangwa, at the very edge of which lies Chinzombo Camp. Once a simple bush camp, it’s been reimagined and transformed into a modern temple of safari chic.

Getting there was an adventure in itself: a light-plane flight out of Lusaka that took us skimming above a green carpet of jungle broken by wide blue-brown ribbons glinting in the sun: the grand, meandering Zambezi, its vast floodplain ringed by mountains.

At the cleared patch of earth that turned out to be an airport, we climbed aboard an open-sided vehicle for the 50-minute run along a single-lane highway to the gates of the park.

It was a quality 50 minutes, showing a slice of everyday Zambian life – and an immediate vindication for taking this road less travelled. We saw chattering children walking home from school, swinging their satchels, families threading through the fields after a day guarding their rice crops from birds. The evening air carried the smells of woodsmoke, grass and dung, and the unmistakable tang of fried meat, from the string of fires and stalls along the road. It was growing dark by the time we arrived at the park for spotlit glimpses of giraffes, elephants and chattering baboons. The road ran out at the Luangwa River and across the water were the shimmering lights of Chinzombo.

Lining the river were six elegant villas, simple but beautiful structures of pale wood and canvas designed by gun South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, famed for their work on the North Island resort in the Seychelles. Here, they’ve taken the Zambian tradition of the bush camp – the netting, thatching and reed walls – and added steel for strength, timber for solidity and a whizzy eco-conscious cooling system for comfort. Yet each villa sits lightly on the earth and can be taken down and all materials recycled without leaving a mark.

On the inside is soft fabric, deep limestone baths, long linen sofas and lots of creased old leather. Best of all, from the wide front decks, each with its own bright blue swimming pool, is a clear view of the river and the stretch of grass where hippos harrumph of a night and feed of a morning. The central bar and dining area is hung with old photos celebrating the lodge’s history and, specifically, the extraordinary man who built the first camp on this site back in the 1970s. His name was Norman Carr.

I’d never heard of him, but it turns out Norman Carr was a formidable hunter, early conservationist and passionate Zambian – all in all, the classic “white African”, as they used to call Europeans either born or reared in former African colonies who flatly refused the notion of settling anywhere else.

He was packed off to school in England when he was seven, returning in his late teens to work as elephant control officer and game warden in the Luangwa Valley. Like Joy Adamson in Born Free, Norman Carr reared orphaned lion cubs, Big Boy and Little Boy, and wrote a book (Return to the Wild) about their adventures at Chinzombo, including battles with a marauding pair of wild lions he named Goebbels and Stooge. The old photos show the big-pawed cubs shadowing Carr round the camp and later through the bush, where he taught them to hunt and fend for themselves before he released them.

He helped shape the early safari movement in his adopted country, most dramatically back in 1950 when he persuaded Luangwa’s paramount Chief Nsefu to set aside a portion of his tribal lands in exchange for a share of the income from overseas visitors. There were doubts at the time: who would pay just to look at animals, the Chief wondered. But that land became Zambia’s first game reserve.

He built remote bush camps and linked them with guided walks, believing that a true safari involved not jeeps, but boots on the ground.

One of his old guides, Shadreck Nkoma, still works at Chinzombo and remembered when Norman Carr died in 1997: “It was like part of one of my own blood, a family member, was missing”. His funeral was a massive event: “I’ve never seen so many local people. An endless queue. It was Norman Carr who got the local people involved with conservation, to see the animals as more than just food.”

Or, worse, trophies. Currency for poachers, who ravaged Zambia in the “poaching wars” of the 1970s and ’80s when 90 per cent of the country’s elephants were slaughtered, and the native rhinoceros population was completely wiped out. For all the efforts to convert poachers into protectors, the killing and trapping trades still flourish in the Luangwa, although hidden from most visitors’ eyes.

Mornings and evenings are the golden times for a safari, when the light is clearest, the colours brightest and the animals most intent on getting their food.

The peak season is between May and September when it’s dry and the animals crowd together around the waterholes and lagoons. But the wet or green season earlier in the year, when I went, has a beauty of its own. Lush trees, swollen rivers and constant sightings of native species such as Thornicroft’s giraffe and fat-rumped Crawshay’s zebra. Packs of rare and lean African dogs stalk impala but rarely catch them, what with there being so much food around.

A cracking of bones in a shrub led us to a pregnant hyena. I saw waterbuck and warthogs and a pride of sleepy lions. A leopard scuttled down a tree at lightning speed. Crocodile tracks stretched far off into the bush. “Lots of rain and full rivers mean fewer animals come in to drink, so old man crocodile must travel,” Shadreck explained.

In honour of the man he called Bwana Carr, godfather of the walking safari, he hauled me out of the jeep one day – it’s a strange feeling to wander exposed on the savannah, even when accompanied by a guide with a gun. Shaddy was in his element, issuing alarm calls to elephants, beating the bushes for birds. He pointed to deep holes formed by zebras rolling to rid themselves of parasites in the dry; in the wet they become wallows for hippos. It’s the circle of life in the savannah, just like the Lion King said.

And at the end of each day was the extreme comfort of Chinzombo lodge, surrounded by giant stands of winter thorn and ebony trees. Its shelves groaned with books, its tables with food, from spicy stews to delicate white-iced cakes. “Let us run you a bath,” they kept saying, and on the very last night I accepted, returning in muddy boots to follow the trail of flowers, seeds and fruits, which started at the ramp of the villa, threaded through the bedroom and ended at the very edge of a tub laid with towels and filled to the lip with hot water laced with sweet oils.

The difference between the Chinzombo of Carr’s day when visitors stayed in simple huts and its current hot-and-cold-running splendour is dramatic: from dusty rustic to the epitome of luxe. There’s no trace of that old camp: it’s been swallowed by the river, which even now is eating away at the banks of the peninsula on which it’s been rebuilt in its more glamorous form. It may well become an island one day as the landscape shifts constantly.

What won’t change is that across the river, some 9,000-plus square kilometres have been reserved as unfenced national park, in perpetuity.

Driving back along the highway, in daylight this time, we passed through the town of BP – named after the service station, its chief landmark. Hand-painted signs advertised the Faith hair salon, the God Gives restaurant and – my personal favourite – Cherabims executive barber shop.

Two flights later I arrived at another and very different camp to the south, on the riverine flood plain of the Lower Zambezi. It’s called Chongwe River House, built by an old friend of Carr’s. And while the business links are complicated (the same private investor pumping funds into Chinzombo is also the part-owner of Chongwe) the mood and feel are entirely different here.

Wet, wet, wet. An unexpected switch of season, in the form of stratospherically heavy downpours, has thrown maintenance into meltdown. There’s flooding, no hot water and a nest of swallows encamped in one of the four bedrooms. I sensed a marvellous madness at work – for which this idiosyncratic house seems perfectly suited.

Designed by architect Neil Rocher, Chongwe River House is a vast, curvy structure moulded from sand-based ferrocement, with lianas twisting on its white walls and dark furniture of massive proportions, carved from a single fallen tree. It’s a cross between a spaceship and a cave. Gaudí meets The Flintstones.

This is an aqueous environment, the confluence of two rivers (the Chongwe and the Zambezi). We went out in the boat at our private jetty for a chance to catch (and release) one of the continent’s most prized freshwater game species, the tiger fish, aka the striped water dog. They weren’t biting so I pushed for a quick trip to Zimbabwe, on the other side of the river – it looked so peaceful. It was not, the boatman said sharply. President Mugabe took a dim view of unauthorised visitors and was prone to jailing them.

The rain had stopped but floodwaters still flowed from the mountains; twice a day, we forded the deep, swift river between Chongwe camp and the national park. It was here we came across the angry elephant. We also saw a 500-year-old boab tree, which turns out to be not a tree, but the world’s largest succulent. We also spotted traces of porcupine, watched the new moon rise, and spied the fluffy banded tail of a cat-like creature I never knew existed, the genet.

After dinner one night in the courtyard of “the Flintstone house”, which features not a single straight line, the waiters and cooks sang us Zambian songs in the glow of the starlight.

My final safari was on water, on a light canoe travelling along a channel running directly off the Zambezi. The guides paddled quietly, murmuring to each other. The blacksmith lapwing made its tink-tink call, like the sound of a hammer striking metal. The air was crystal clear and after a week of 5am starts I found myself drifting into a daze, close to sleep. That was until the canoe shifted sharply left to let a herd of hippos pass on its way through.

This is what Zambia offers: a direct, unmediated interface with nature. No jostling or jockeying for pole position, at least in the wet season. And meeting good people who really want you to be here.

Driving away from Chinzombo, I remembered Shadreck pointing out his first school, now a block of concrete buildings stencilled with bright-coloured trees and animals; then, just an empty courtyard.

“We took our lessons sitting under a tamarind tree and if it started to rain, school stopped. Now Norman Carr Safaris helps fund the school. This is what tourism can do for our country.”

Zambia is a poor country of 72 tribes, sustained since its independence by copper exports, but now keen to carve out new possibilities for itself. A country blessed with abundant wildlife which has turned close to a third of its land over to national parks and nature reserves. Think of it as a big, green welcome mat – now with added style.

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