Arrival/Check-In: Part of the adventure of the Royal Zambezi Lodge is getting there, and after flying from Washington Dulles International Airport on South African Airways and overnighting in Johannesburg, we caught an early flight to Lusaka, Zambia. Once we arrived at Lusaka Airport, I followed the detailed instructions for, one, getting a Multi Visa, as later in the trip we were visiting Zimbabwe; and, two, collecting our luggage and taking it to the Royal Air Charter office through immigration. If we were not sure we were in Africa before, Zambia let us know this was “real Africa.” The crew at Royal Air Charter was friendly and directed us to the screening area for the next leg of our flight.
We boarded a twin-propeller aircraft with other Royal guests whom we later got to know at the resort. Sitting directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, we taxied and took off for the Royal Zambezi Lodge. After about 45 minutes, we landed at the lodge’s own airstrip and were met by the team to take us to the riverside location. Guests departing the lodge said hello and told us how much they enjoyed their stay and wished us the same. After a short drive in our Toyota open-air Land Cruiser we arrived at the lodge for our introductions and review of activities.
Check-in took place in the main section of the lodge, where I was welcomed by the property’s general manager, Natalie Clark. Natalie runs a wonderful operation and has at her fingertips the pulse of the lodge, as her husband runs the physical plant and power generation essential to a stay at Royal Zambezi Lodge.
Guest Quarters: Traveling with my wife and daughter, we occupied the Royal Zambezi Lodge’s two presidential suites, but each was distinctive. My wife and I were in the Frontier room, located on the far edge of the property and just before my daughter’s accommodations, Kansanshi. Both were equally lovely. Frontier and Kansanshi are both constructed with a combination of tenting material, thatched roofing and a mixture of hardwood plank flooring and concrete supported by massive poles. The huts/tents are not air-conditioned, but we enjoyed perfect weather at the time of our visit in June. Every room includes a large fan, which we used mainly to drown out the sounds of the hippos that reside in the Zambezi River, which the room overlooked.
Entering our Frontier suite, we were impressed by the spacious room which served as a combination bedroom and living area with a desk and a vanity. The bed was draped with mosquito netting, lowered around the bed when we were away at dinner. A large leather sofa faced the quadruple glass doors out to the deck overlooking the river, where hippos and occasional elephants and baboons grazed and foraged on the flatland. Two chairs faced the other direction, creating a conversation area; a coffee table held picture books on Africa and the Zambezi. Between the bedroom and bathroom tents/rooms, a breezeway (tented and roofed) with a concrete floor offered ample storage in an armoire and dresser.
The bathroom featured a large, copper-sided tub that sat proudly in the open, allowing guests to gaze out the window to the Zambezi River. A double-sink vanity and mirror stood against the wall, with the door to the water closet on the left.
Outside the back door, an outdoor shower with solar-heated water and a rain showerhead supplied a wonderful experience. Don’t worry — there are no people to look in while you are soaking in nature! Beyond, there was a small plunge pool and, on the far end of the boardwalk that extended around the hut, a day bed with views you can only imagine. Kansanshi is similar but distinct in its set-up. Each room at the lodge is individually created using available resources. Even getting cement is a struggle here, as it has to be driven from Lusaka over dirt roads for much of the way.
Services/Amenities: Where to begin? If you like to fish, this is the place for you. Safaris are also a dream come true with lots of elephants, leopards, hippos, crocodiles and many more types of animals roaming about. One of the best experiences we had was a river cruise where we fished for the prize catch — the tiger fish — then cruised in our outboard boat with our guide, Luke. I suggested a late-day start and a picnic lunch, which the lodge turned into an outdoor feast for two. We were celebrating my wife’s birthday in style — it may have been the best experience we had on our entire trip to Africa.
Our main guide, Chris, and his tracker, Jimmy, took us on safari several times in the Lower Zambezi National Park through the Chongwe Gate, just a short drive from the lodge. Even before the park entrance you can spot animals, and elephants often trek through the lodge property itself. In the evenings, you must be escorted to your room to be safe from elephants, leopards and other nocturnal visitors.
Another high point was a canoe trip through a canal that runs just off the river and is populated with all sorts of game. Our adept guides made sure we got through the canal safely while coming close enough to hippos and elephants. A small island on the right side of the canal became populated by an elephant family that found the grasses growing there irresistible, thus causing an “African traffic jam” as we had to patiently wait in our canoes until they completed dinner. A bull elephant mock-charged us from the bank, making our passage more exciting.
We also took an afternoon cruise upriver to an authentic African village working with little or no electricity (a small solar set-up offered some power). A lifelong friend of mine, Henry Kartagener, who represents the lodge, built a maternity hospital in the village with the steadfast support of his wife, Claire (the hospital bears her name) — very moving for me after meeting all the kind people, including the headmistress of the village school.
You will not go hungry, nor will you be disappointed with the cuisine at the lodge. When we visited, Pippa Denton, the new food and beverage manager, had taken over after spending a great deal of time in London. She crafted the menu and service based on her international experience while keeping in mind the setting and culture of Africa (having been born in Zimbabwe, across the river). Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served outside on the main deck facing the river; fires and kerosene lamps set the mood in the evening, while in the morning you can witness a little game when the staff scares away the monkeys stealing fruit. A buffet is served at breakfast, and you can order a cooked meal from the menu. Lunch is served family-style, and I had the best potato salad I’ve ever tasted. Pippa said all the Americans rave about the potato salad; I said that was because we were mostly of Irish descent, and we all laughed. Dinners offer a selection, which they show you at lunch and request you to preorder. We had many lovely meals of beef, fish and pork. Wine flows, and you must stop at the bar for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail; it overhangs the river and is supported by steel I-beams — an architectural signature you can spot when you return from the river.
The lodge winds down earlier than most resorts, as early in the morning you return to activities. The team created two spectacular eating events while we were in residence. The first was a bush dinner just outside the camp, complete with pre-dinner cocktails by a fire and a sit-down dinner with river views. The second was a lunch on a river delta, which at different times of the day is submerged. Taken by Luke in the boat, we anchored and then walked for about 150 yards in the Zambezi River where the water was about calf-deep. A tent had been set up with a full bar, and wait staff served an exquisite luncheon for three while we watched the elephants grazing on the opposing shore.
◆ Take the walking safari as one of your choices; a Zambian Wildlife officer escorted us through an area of the park, rifle in hand.
◆ Jimmy makes the best gin and tonics, served at the end of the safari as the sun set in the Lower Zambezi National Park. We came to love this part of the safari, getting out of the Toyota Land Cruiser and enjoying each other’s company.
◆ I chased a green snake from our porch, and little did I know I chased him into our tent. Minutes later, I heard my wife scream as the snake went into the bathroom and curled up on the toilet paper dispenser.
◆ I can’t imagine any place on Earth having more hippos than Royal Zambezi. You can almost always hear them barking, and the night seems to be their most active time.
◆ Royal Air Charter, the lodge’s airline service, operates a bevy of aircraft. We were particularly fond of the flight from its landing strip to our ongoing destination of Victoria Falls on its Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia plane.
Royal Zambezi Lodge
Lower Zambezi River
tel 260 979 486618
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