It’s 5:30 am when I step from the canvas chalet and sit on a wooden lounge chair next to my private plunge pool. The sun hangs low across the Lower Zambezi River as shades of deep lavender and magenta radiate from the orb’s golden core. In the distance, six sets of eyes emerge from the water and fixate on me as they float along the river’s swift current. This is the first time I have viewed hippos in the wild and they are curious creatures. Their ears rotate like satellite dishes when I cleared my throat to push the last breaths of evening air from my lungs.
In a few minutes, I make my way down a paved path past a skeleton of a tree with hearty leafless branches to Royal Zambezi’s main lodge. This expansive open-air space, consisting of three covered gathering areas and a large deck that extends the width of the structure, is perched directly on the river’s edge. A short boardwalk connects the lodge to a circular bar wrapped around a sausage tree, an adjacent deck that cantilevers over the water and a large infinity pool.
It’s hard to imagine that only 24 hours earlier I was flying from JFK on a series of Emirates flights to Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, followed by a 20-minute chartered flight along the Zambezi River to Royal Zambezi Lodge. Now, I enjoy a bowl of yogurt and granola overlooking the very same river I flew over.
My visit to Royal Zambezi Lodge is the first segment of a 12-day exploratory sojourn for Frontiers International Travel (organized by KAI Associates) to experience the four corners of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. This is my first visit to Africa and I can’t imagine a more perfect first impression than along the Zambezi River and at Royal Zambezi.
There is no shortage of things to do at the lodge with all of the activities dedicated to exploring wildlife from every imaginable angle. A bush walk serves as an introduction to game viewing by focusing on the micro versus the macro perspective. Our guide, James, educated us on the “little five” – elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, lionant and rhino beetle – as we walk along a path that leads hippos to the river. In the afternoon, we took part in the most relaxing game viewing experience I have ever encountered, a canoe safari. Herds of elephants and impala, baboons, buffalo, kudu and countless birds came to the water’s edge for a drink. More than a few crocodiles sunning themselves slipped into the channel as we drifted past. During one of several game drives, we hit the jackpot by discovering a leopard walking in the distance, which was followed by a pack of young lions lounging on a small peninsula along a creek. The moment was a photographer’s dream as we snapped hundreds of photos of the lions, with an elephant and hippo in the background. Our activities were not limited to the land or water’s edge. Leisurely boat cruises and a morning fly fishing for tiger fish gave us the opportunity to soak in the river’s vastness. The lodge also offers an activity called DNA or “do nothing at all.” With so many things to see and do, DNA was a lot harder to achieve than we first anticipated.
Exceptional meals and celebratory sundowners in breathtaking locations punctuated each activity. Natalie, the general manager, emphasized during our arrival debrief that there would be no shortage of food during our visit. Her staff stayed true to Natalie’s word. Breakfast before the morning activity consisted of sliced fruit, yogurt, cereals and fresh-brewed coffee. Upon returning, a full English breakfast was served. Lunch became a game viewing experience in itself as we watched elephants graze on tender river grass while we ate couscous, grilled chicken, vegetables and salad served family-style. Multi-course dinners were savored by the lanterns’ amber glow including a specially organized bush dinner complete with a roaring fire surrounded by lounge chairs. Even during our fishing excursion, bacon and fried egg sandwiches were offered on the boat.
The customary greeting in Southern Africa is “Hello, how are you?” With the recipient responding, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” This warm exchange of hospitality perfectly embodies my experience at the Royal Zambezi Lodge. Each time I walked from my chalet to the main lodge, ordered a Mosi Lager from the riverside bar or climbed into the open-air Land Rover for a game drive the staff made me feel right at home. It was hard to say goodbye when we departed for Victoria Falls. So instead I simply said, “until next time.”