In Zambia, Safaris With a Penthouse Touch
GO on a safari in Kenya or South Africa and you’ll likely encounter rows of tourist buses armed with shiny zoom lenses all aiming at the same sleeping lion. It’s a different world in Zambia, and not only because its game reserves are as yet unspoiled by mass tourism. This is the home of Africa’s best walking safaris, and instead of driving for hours in search of the big five, you explore the bush on foot.
And those feet are as likely to be in Gucci shoes as Teva sandals.
In recent years, Zambia has transformed itself from one of the world’s poorest countries into Africa’s newest luxury destination. There are private “safari houses” with designer décors and individual guides, luxury-filled islands at the edge of Victoria Falls and riverfront chalets where you can watch hippos from the comfort of your own sunken tub.
Add to that the recent land-rights disputes in neighboring Zimbabwe, which has chased away tourists, and it’s no wonder that Zambia is emerging as Africa’s top destination for safari connoisseurs.
“Zambia has a lot to offer that other countries cannot provide,” said Jo Pope, the wife and partner of Robin Pope of Robin Pope Safaris (www.robinpopesafaris.net), an outfitter in Mfuwe. “It’s the combination of wild areas, walking, night drives and superb guides in small owner-run camps.”
The Popes opened their first safari house, Robin’s House, in 2002 on the banks of the Luangwa River near the South Luangwa National Park. Unlike most safari camps, where strangers break bread together, the entire two-bedroom bungalow is rented to a family or a group of friends and has its own private kitchen, a chef, a valet, a safari vehicle and a guide.
The intimate concept proved so successful that the Popes added two other luxury homes and built two more safari homes this year (www.safarihouses.com). One, the Luangwa Safari House, made of 25 ancient leadwood trees and hand-set stones, has four bedrooms, a plunge pool and a second-floor deck overlooking a lagoon.
The other, the Flintstones-like Chongwe River House in the Zambezi Valley, is constructed of ferro-cement walls, twisted wood branches and river stones. Designed by Neil Rocher, known for over-the-top safari camps in Kenya, the house is equipped with a swimming pool, furniture carved from a single winterthorn tree, and a staff that includes a house manager, a chef and an armed scout. Rates start at $2,500 a night for four during the high season, July to September.
The Popes also have a new nine-day Bush Camping tour with expert guides from late May to October. These go through the game-rich areas between Tena Tena and Nsefu and along a dry riverbed called the Mushilashi River. Several will be led by Mr. Pope and timed around the full moon. The rate is $5,440 a person.
Other luxury camps include the Islands of Siankaba Lodge on the Zambezi River (www.siankaba.net), where seven teak-and-canvas chalets and a restaurant sit secluded on two forested islands, and the Kapamba Bushcamp (www.bushcampcompany.com), where an outdoor hot tub offers views of hippos bathing nearby.
Zambia’s untamed attractions have also caught the attention of large operators like Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com). It just opened the Shumba and Kapinga Bush Camps in Kafue National Park — an area of western Zambia that is home to leopards, wild dogs, cheetahs and tree-climbing lions. In 2007, it will open a 24-bed luxury lodge along the Ntemwa River.
Shumba Camp may be the most spectacular. This 12-bed premier lodge overlooks the game-filled Busanga Plains and in the morning, guests can gaze out over the endless plain and big sky from an oversized four-poster bed. At night, the dining room, elevated on stilts under enormous fig trees, glows with candlelight as a small army of waiters serves meals and choice wines.
Still, it “doesn’t have half the charm of a simple meal served under a giant acacia tree overlooking herds of antelope,” said Dave Bennett, managing director of Wilderness Safaris Zambia. “To me, luxury means waking up to the far-off call of the ground hornbills and the crimson sky of an African dawn.”