Nerine Dorman samples the magic of the great river and falls under its spell
They melted out of the dusk-shrouded river forest, at least a dozen great dark shapes that resolved into elephants moving along the banks of the mighty Zambezi. Silent, like ghosts they were browsing sedately as the sun’s disc ruby slashes into the lapping cobalt river, until the orb sank behind a silhouetted tree line in a blaze of tangerine sky.
All was quiet save for the slap of water against our bots hull and the haunting cry of the African fish eagles we’d seen feeding their two young earlier. Its not often I have a “Oh lordy I’m in Africa” moment, but I don’t think it gets any closer than this.
We’d arrived in Livingstone at noon that day and I’d had no idea it was so easy to get there. 1Time flies from OR Tambo and before I could blink we’d exchanged the bothered hustle of Joburg and taken a step back in time, touching down at Livingstone’s airport after a flight of approximately 90 minutes. The town’s namesake certainly didn’t have it this easy. Even better is that South African passport holders breeze through customs after their pre-requisite stamp, which suited me just fine because I had forgotten to draw cash before my flight. Biggie, our driver from Royal Chundu Zambezi River Lodge, a Mantis property, waited for us at arrivals, all smiles- two ice-cold bottles of water in hand to refresh us before the 45minute drive to the lodge. And, trust me, that water was a life saver. To say it’s a bit warm in Zambia in November is a understatement but, on the other hand, anyone who has been out in the Namib Desert during midsummer would find the climate refreshing.
As the name suggest, Royal Chandu is situated exactly where you think it is, on the Zambezi. The lodge’s peaked thatch roofs peep out from a dense screen of river forest, built organically around existing trees. Apart from the mostly open-plan main dining and relaxation area (with wireless internet), which flows on the tree- shrouded decks overlooking the river, 10 separate riverside suites are connected by meandering teak walkways. Here are many greenbulls flitted, scolding from the boughs of spreading water pears.
After an alfresco lunch, Thomas and I were off on our first adventure: a river cruise. Solile, our guide, and Frank (he of the wicked G&Ts that miraculously appeared before me) accompanied us downriver on a river boat complete with sun bed. Although this is not promoted as game-viewing excursions, we certainly couldn’t complain about the amount and variety of critters (furred, scaled and feathered) we glimpsed. We checked off hippo, crocs, ellies, monitor lizards, warthogs, baboons, kudu, impala and more birds than I could shake a stick at. Some of the firsts for my twitching list included broad-billed rollers, trumpeter hornbills, African skimmers and rock pratincole, among many others. If birds are you thing, this part of Zambia will not disappoint. Just remember to bring you binoculars. Poor Thomas could only roll his eyes when I squealed with delight and pointed “Look! Look! A Schalow’s turaco!”
That night, sun-kissed and drowsy, we were treated to a boma dinner, which gave us a taste of succulent impala steaks, among many gastronomic treats. We were also offered a sample of traditional dances by youngsters from the local community and I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed when they sang their national anthem. It makes me very glad to see that Royal Chandu invests in the people from the surrounding communities.
Lodge manager Lizelle Nieuwoudt told me about how to take initiative in creating crafts and starting vegetable gardens, which Royal Chandu supports. Her work with the local Aids orphans is especially close to her heart. Sure, these efforts may be a drop in the ocean when looking at the bigger problems our continent faces, but it’s the cumulative effect of many such efforts that will eventually make a difference. I didn’t think I’d fall asleep with the cacophonous amphibian chorus outside but I did, and we woke early the following morning and enjoyed out coffee overlooking the river.
A visit to the neighboring village was next on our agenda, Solile giving us a genuine experience f riding in a dugout canoe or mokoro, as they are called here. Rural families in this area live in scattered communities and I was fascinated by the process by which they built their homes. River mud is plastered onto wooden frames then topped off with a peaked thatch roof. This is quite a labor-intensive process, as walls have to be repaired with each big rain fall.The people live close to the land here, which can be bountiful or harsh in turn. What struck me the most is much labor the women engage in: not only do they care for their families and prepare food, they also farm and construct their homes, while the men fish and herd cattle.
That afternoon I ended up doing something I had always sworn I’d have to be tranquilized for; I allowed myself to be shot down the rapids in an inflatable canoe. Granted, they were baby rapids but that didn’t stop me from screaming like a little girl. Getting completely soaked was worth it, however as I was plunged into a world unlike any I’d seen before. Dense, verdant vegetation crowded the banks of the many channels and reed-fringed islands, where occasionally an egret would take to the air, a slash of white against green, flapping lazily away. Tal grey-barked baobabs stood sentinel, or we’d pass villages where thatched-roofed huts rose from the orange earth. And always there was the sense of the Zambezi. It pervades everything here, an inexorable flood of water so great that when you finally do visit
Victoria Falls you are humbled by the might of a river that truly lives up to its epithet. But Royal Chundu has saved the best surprise for last. Our canoeing adventure brought us to Katombora Island, a private hideaway where four thatched villas overlook the water, embedded in old forest. After a brief fishing excursion that involved Thomas almost losing his nose to snapping tiger fish (duly released), Solile guided us along hippo trails in the dense forest. Here mighty baobabs reign, soaring above the canopy. Our boots crunched softly on a carpet of fallen leaves and, above, trumpeter hornbills let loose with their eerie cries. We honestly could have been the only people in the entire world.
The river made its presence felt, a continuous sense of water, always within earshot. Cicadas asses to an overwhelming insect chorus heralding yet another night an often we paused at clearings, to turn about, marveling at this magical world where human are very small in the greater scale of things. This is especially true considering that after dark the hippos roam, lords of earth and water in this part of the world.
Although we made jokes about Hansel and Gretel, Thomas and I welcomed the lights that greeted us upon our return to the villas main area, where the dinner infused with colonial-era comfort brought yet another full day to a close.
The first summer rains drummed down hard on the thatch and we knew deep within our hearts, we’d have to make plans to return, as Zambia had cast its spell on us.
If you would like to visit this amazing Zambezi River that extends between Zambia and Zimbabwe we have a great Zambezi daytrip cruise. The Zambezi Sunset River cruise is a superb way to relax and enjoy the beauty of the River. You may have the opportunity to see a variety of game; including hippo, crocodile, elephant and sometimes even rhino in their home environment, as well as enjoy the many different bird species.
The Sunset cruise is very popular and includes finger snacks, beer, wine, champagne and soft drinks. There are great photo opportunities against often-spectacular African sunsets. The cruise lasts for approximately 2 hours. Priced from EUR 31/ USD 45 per person.