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Lower Zambezi

Lower Zambezi Trip

The Voyagers team recently visited the Lower Zambezi National Park. Given the current situation, it is probably worth letting everyone know about the experience on a door-to-door basis as travel is a bit different from years gone by.

The team left Ndola as a party of four, two adults and two children (aged 10 and 7). We drove to Ndola airport and dropped the car at the Europcar parking for valet as we would return to the airport and collect it five days later. The check-in at the airport was smooth with Mahogany Air providing a great standard of service. Hand sanitiser was distributed in the airport and on board the flight. We were pleased to see that almost everyone was wearing a mask.

The flight to Lusaka has no issues and followed the normal pattern with an inflight drink and snack service. Generally all of the passengers kept their masks on throughout the flights, apart from a family of four at the front of the plane who took their masks off for a cross-aisle noisy conversation – which was a bit worrying.

When we landed in Lusaka, we collected a car from Europcar (www.europcarzambia.com) at the airport – a 4×4 Ford Everest (Group FFAR) and drove to the Protea Towers Hotel at Arcades which provided a family-friendly room, efficient check-out and all-round pleasant environment. A quick walk around the roof-top pool suggested a lot of potential for fun gathering on a summer evening later in the year. We all decided it would have a funky vibe!

The next day we set off mid-morning to the Lower Zambezi, missing the usual early morning Lusaka traffic and enjoying a leisurely drive through town heading south. The roads were great with wide tarmac, very few potholes and only one toll gate costing us twenty kwacha. The drive through the escarpment was pleasant with great views, spectacular cliffs and some beautiful forested areas. All in all it was a lovely drive; the police stops were low-friction affairs populated by smiles and a quick wave-through and the truck drivers were conscientious and helpful by letting us pass them.

We fuelled up at the SGC fuel station close to the turnoff to Lower Zambezi and we were seriously impressed with the fuel efficiency of the Ford Everest – the 2.2 litre engine had managed about 12.8 kilometres to the litre despite running the air conditioning and some urban driving in and around Lusaka.

A short drive on dirt road had us at Gwabi Lodge on the banks of the Kafue River where we met a friend and the proprietor of Gwabi, Tony Weber, for lunch and a coffee. Gwabi has had some developments done in the years since we last visited: comfortable well-appointed rooms, a nice bar and pleasant relaxed atmosphere. Although well-known within the fishing community as a launch pad into the Kafue River and the Zambezi River, the lodge offers a much more rounded experience with petrified wood in the environs, wonderful birds and access to both rivers.

Dropping into the Lower Zambezi is just a drive to many, however one of our Voyagers team members is a geek and closet geologist. The Zambezi Valley is an extension of the Great African Rift Valley that dominates large areas of Zambian geography creating features that include Lake Tanganyika, the Luangwa Valley and helped to create the Victoria Falls. There is a common misconception that the Zambezi Valley was created by the river but in fact, the Zambezi River used to run south into the Makgadikgadi Pan when it was a huge lake and then into the Limpopo River; only after tectonic changes did the course alter. This history lends a fascinating subtext to the journey.

From Gwabi we headed into the GMA (game management area) property. The bridge across the Kafue River provides speedy access and the road has been maintained rather well. One thing that did surprise us was how soon we came across wildlife in the GMA, including elephants. Please keep this in mind and keep to a slow speed.

There were patches of litter along the road; one can’t help feeling that some of the new recycling plants in Lusaka would welcome the plastic material – it wouldn’t be too difficult for some of the supply trucks heading back to Lusaka to haul up plastics gathered by villagers with everyone getting a share of the income. This symbiosis is evident in areas of the Copperbelt where the Kitwe-based recyclers, like Athol Plastics and The Quattro Company, have joined forces resulting in a decrease in plastic litter along the roads, for example the Kitwe to Solwezi route.

We arrived on the edge of the Chongwe River at 3pm. This was an area we had some concerns about – we had envisaged the Ford Everest being somewhat of a soft off-roader. The following ten minutes was a wading exercise across the river, with some sandy ascents and descents and reversing up a steep incline in sand. We ran into a fellow visitor and that allayed any fears that we might have had; the Ford Everest handled everything with aplomb and competence.

At the gate we were greeted by a friendly Parks and Wildlife official. The invoicing and receipts process was laborious and slow - it requires some patience! However, the official was extremely talkative and we could not help but feel, given the dearth of visitors, perhaps he was a bit lonely!

We stayed at Sausage Tree Camp midway into the park. Unfortunately Sausage Tree Camp is not currently operating as its season has been horribly impacted by the Covid-19 situation. Jason, a long-time friend of Voyagers, allowed us to stay as a favour. We were blown away by Sausage Tree Camp, it was magical. The rooms and location are all superlative. A first beer on the deck overlooking the Zambezi River was sublime. This is definitely one of our favourite places in Zambia. We liked this video by Jason on what is happening in the park with our current situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6QiY7u6-bU .

Over the next couple of days we took games drives into the park, multiple fishing expeditions and generally sampled all that the area has to give. Great sightings of kudu, elephants, buffalo and a tremendous variety of birdlife were made. No predators were spotted – however this was probably a result of concentrating on fishing as opposed to game viewing – but in the evenings we could hear lions and hyenas. Potato Bush Camp next door is open on a super high-end self-catering basis and we would recommend Zambians take this once in a lifetime opportunity to stay in world-class lodges whilst the rest of the world is locked out!

Highlights of Sausage Tree Camp:

  • The kids cooking – great apple pie, cookies and popcorn by the fire; we were so lucky to be part of this family-centric experience.
  • The views – wow, just wow!
  • The rooms, space, plunge pools, more views and peace
  • The old Kakuli bull in camp (old bachelor buffalo)
  • Jason’s hugely innovative solar program – leading the way on sustainability

After saying goodbye to Sausage Tree Camp, we made our way back through the park on a slow game drive towards the gate and on to Royal Zambezi Lodge in the GMA.

The scenery in the park is beautiful and very similar to the terrain at the World Heritage Site just across the river – Mana Pools; glades of winter thorn trees interspersed with groves of Natal Mahogany run along the river giving way to different, drier and less dense bush further inland. Close to Jeki Airstrip there are wide open plains (which is where you need to go to see zebra) and encircling the whole area is the majestic escarpment. The diversity of landscapes is one aspect that makes this area so special.

Royal Zambezi Lodge is located about twenty minutes from the Chongwe River and park entrance. We joined a large group of friends who had flown in on a Voyagers arranged charter straight from Ndola. The Royal Zambezi team members bent over backwards to cater to the numerous children, dietary requirements, varied lodging requests and activity preferences. From group boat trips to Sandbar Island lunches to game drives with sunset liaisons, everything was accomplished in a manner reminiscent of an upstream bound swan - peaceful serenity on the surface and frantic hard work just below the surface.

We stayed in the Frontier Suite, the most westerly of the rooms at the lodge, imaginatively designed with a plunge pool, outdoor shower and ample space to accommodate a family of four. Lovely touches such as towel origami, hot water bottles and beautiful linens married with a room that brought the outdoors in and allowed the magic of a Zambezi sunrise to grace every morning.

Highlights of Royal Zambezi Lodge:

  • Escarpment sundowners – a truly magical area of the Lower Zambezi offering panoramic views, totally different scenery and an area we would love to explore in the future.
  • Island lunches
  • The team at the lodge led by Martin
  • Fishing – the boys loved trying their hand at catching Tiger fish and Chaser.
  • The boat trip – discussed below

We took the opportunity to take a boat all the way to the confluence of the Zambezi River and the Kafue River, zig zagging across the river, seeing wonderful game on either bank and of course the hippos and crocodiles on the river itself.

Whilst on the boat trip, we stopped off for a bite to eat at Kiambi Safaris and met with Rob, one of the owners, and the team whilst having a look around the lodge that offers a huge variety of accommodation options, ranging from camping through to high end air-conditioned en-suite rooms. We arrived at Kiambi just before the long weekend influx and would have loved to have spent a bit more time there. We think Kiambi would be the perfect launching place for a family expedition into the Lower Zambezi, enjoying the two rivers and the game viewing on the Zimbabwean bank of the river. Although Kiambi is a bit of a distance from the national park, a day trip into the park would be a fun expedition.

We were really impressed with the friendly staff and the efforts to remove invasive species like the Lantana plant from the surrounds of the lodge. It also has, without doubt, one of the best views of the Zambezi River. After leaving Kiambi Safaris, we boarded the Royal Zambezi boat and headed back downstream.

Wildtracks was our next stop on the boat trip – a small lodge able to cater for groups and individual travellers. Wildtracks is family-owned and run by friends of Voyagers so it was great to catch up for a beer. Offering a variety of rooms ranging from self-catering through to en-suite family units comprising of a double and twin room combination, as well as a safari tent with en-suite facilities. The lodge at Wildtracks is beautifully set in dense riverine bush and they are active in conservation and education so we are excited about working with them in future, especially for school trips and educational holidays.

The run back to Royal Zambezi Lodge was on mill pond water that mirrored the sky perfectly. We had a couple of beers (for the adults) and popcorn as we made a sunset return which was memorable; it was a great privilege to be able to show our little ones such a beautiful place.

One thing that we feel that needs to be considered by all the users of the Zambezi is that we are all custodians of a unique ecosystem, one of the world's truly wild areas. We must accept that people want to explore and stay in this magnificent area sharing this treasure. Lodges and private individuals need to try and develop their properties in a manner which sits comfortably within the environment and does not compromise the wilderness. Houses and lodges driven by ego that clash with the environment and shout their presence for kilometres up and down the river are a blight so please let's try to keep the wilderness wild, pull back from the river, be subtle, elegant and classy – not brash and loud!

On leaving the Lower Zambezi, Royal Air Charters gave a Voyagers Rentals Europcar driver a lift from Lusaka, so we handed the Ford Everest across to him and boarded a Proflight Cessna Grand Caravan for the short hop back to Lusaka with the plane to ourselves.

A final word on the Ford Everest:

  • Comfortable
  • Easy to drive
  • Very capable off-road on rocky terrain and in the sand
  • 4x4 was engaged at the touch of a button and disengaged the same way
  • Ample luggage space and the reassurance of having a road-side assistance service in the form of RZAM (www.rzam.co) on speed dial made it a welcome companion for the trip

As always, it was great to see the Zambezi River from the air and marvel at the scale of the Zambezi Valley.

The Lusaka airport was subdued as we arrived and our caravan was the sole occupant of the apron with everything seemingly deserted. We hopped into a Europcar Toyota Corolla and headed to Bonanza Golf Club (www.bonanzagolfcourse.com) for lunch just 15 minutes up the road. This gem just to the north-west of the Lusaka airport will soon boast a new Protea Hotel, conference and events location all combined with its lovely Peter Matkovich designed golf course. Lunch was great and we ran into old friends from the Copperbelt and Lusaka.

So how are things different in the Covid-19 era of travel? Well first things first, everyone from the lodges to the hotels to the airlines prioritised social distancing and excellent hygiene – hand washing stations, sanitiser and masks all being ubiquitous. Dry and chapped hands will continue to be a phenomenon well after winter ends this year!

Our fellow customers showed less adherence to regulations in certain circumstances and yes, we were also guilty of lapses. That said, visiting the bush on safari has to be about the safest place on Earth as far as Covid-19 is concerned; massive open spaces devoid of other human beings, fresh air in abundance, outdoor dining, game viewing, walking safaris or fishing – there is nowhere better in our opinion.

Of course things do feel different; hotel bars devoid of patrons, airports with a novel cathedral-like hush, empty car parks and patrons opting for stairs over lifts – these all tell us something odd is afoot. However,  we would urge you to take another look at Zambia for your holiday options – go local – please check out our Local Deals. The tourism sector is taking a huge hit and any support you can offer would be highly appreciated. We have a magical country full of wonderful people, places and experiences just waiting to be enjoyed. You will never get the opportunity to visit so many of our wild places in such seclusion at such good prices. We urge you to get out and enjoy all we have to offer.

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