African High Adventure: Luxury Style
Story and photos by Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher
HighOnAdventure.com October 1, 2009
Adventure, fortunately, comes in many packages. For some it’s an Appalachian Trail overnight. For others it’s an Inca Trail trek.
When we travel, we prefer a sturdy roof over our heads and an easy walk to the spa. But we’ve dreamed of an African safari for years. So when found a luxury, tent-camping safari with Abercrombie & Kent’s (A&K) Sanctuary Retreats promising “Adventure by day and luxury by night,” we quickly boarded the plane.
The lion is one of Africa's Big 5. (Fletcher/Newbern photo) An albino baby baboon playing at the watering hole at Puku Ridge Lodge in Zambia.
It takes effort to get here, but it’s worth every flight-mile logged, from jumbo jet to eight-seat charter landing on an open-field airstrip. When the blacktop runs out, the plane continues to taxi on packed gravel. When it’s remote you’re after, as one fellow “camper” put it: “the smaller the plane, the better the place you’re going.”
We sampled two Sanctuary Retreats camps and one “treehouse” camp in three national parks in Zambia.
To get to Zambezi Kulefu Camp, we experience the best airport transfer of our career. The one-hour ride 4-wheel drive from the unpaved landing strip at Jeki to Kulefu takes three hours because we keep stopping to see the elephants, zebras, birds, wart hogs, impalas and baboons along the way. This camp alongside the mighty Lower Zambezi River is uber-remote - no cell phone reception and electricity via generator.
Nick Davies, an A&K travel specialist explains, “Most of the time on an itinerary going from point to point, we put four to six people only in a 4x4 vehicle.” (These are comfortable, behemoth sport vehicles with a roof but open sides for maximum viewing and photo shooting.) “It’s good value – an authentic, real safari experience.”
Safari, indeed. In only five days, we righteously spot the almighty Big Five – so named by big-game hunters as the most difficult to hunt on foot, and some say, the most dangerous: the rhinoceros, African elephant, cape buffalo, lion and leopard.
We got to shoot them all – with our cameras.
Elephants are easy to spot but still majestic. (Fletcher/Newbern photo) One of the Big Five, the Cape Buffalo is considered the most dangerous by many guides in Zambia.
Zambezi Kulefu Camp
Because of our slow, photo-op filled, three-hour transfer from the Jeki airstrip, we arrive in Zambezi Kulefu after dark. So it’s especially exciting to hear (but not see) the hippos bellowing in the Lower Zambezi River as we enjoy a three-course dinner with fine wine.
Our four fellow campmates return from a night drive to excitedly report seeing a leopard stalk her prey.
Later, deep in the night, we hear our first lion roar. We’re glad to be inside our luxury tent. At each camp, we’re escorted to our room after dark and given an emergency whistle in case of a too-close animal encounter, which indicates just how “in the wild” these camps are.
Kulefu is the most remote of the six camps in the Lower Zambezi National Park. Its seven tents accommodate 14 guests in unparalleled luxury considering the locale.
“What’s the secret to the magic?” we ask the camp’s assistant manager.
“It’s the place. It’s the animals. It’s still unspoiled.”
Enjoying a white-tablecloth lunch outdoors beside the river following a morning of fishing for tigerfish, a relative of the piranha (sorry, we struck out but witnessed countless hippos, crocodiles and other creatures), we smile and recall his answer as we watch a line of elephants swim cross the river.
Hippos in the Lower Zambezi River, Zambia, Africa. (Fletcher/Newbern photo)
No two zebras' stripes are alike. (Fletcher/Newbern photo)
Sussi & Chuma
On arrival at Sussi & Chuma, situated alongside the Zambezi River, we spot a dozen hippos lounging on the facing shore. The camp tour becomes meaningless; we are too mesmerized to pay much attention by the pod of hippos so close.
Before dinner, Junior Mweemba, our personal guide, takes us on a river cruise as our “sundowner,” an excursion named for the sunset but encompassing cocktail hour as well. Each Sanctuary Retreat offers some sundowner variation.
Here we spot an elephant, water buck (similar to an elk), crocodile (no one swims in the rivers here because the crocs are everywhere), and hippo close up.
This camp has unique “treehouse” accommodations – luxury cottages with soaking tubs and beds draped in netting. The huts are connected by raised, wooden walkways, which occasionally must be replaced when elephants walk through them. Through the night we hear hippos moan and other animals call.
A day, driving safari provides sightings of speedy, graceful impala; giraffe, less than five yards from our vehicle; zebra, no two are striped alike; water buck; wart hog; and chacma baboon. We find ourselves trying to recall all the characters from “The Lion King” to compare them to their live counterparts.
The rhino is a tough one to see. Thousands of them used to roam Zambia, but poachers killed them for their horns, rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Mosi-oa-Tunya, Zambia’s smallest national park at 66 square kilometers, is your best chance to see rhinos since the park’s five white rhinos, though actually gray, are guarded for their protection. We see four at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park near Livingstone after armed park rangers escort us into the brush to see them grazing.
The rhino is tough spot, as they are in short supply. Thousands of them used to roam here, but poachers killed them for their horns, rumored to be an aphrodisiac. At Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park here in Livingstone, you have a good chance as they have five protected white rhinos grazing. (Fletcher/Newbern photo)
An armed guard and Puku Ridge Lodge guide Keennan Tholex pose by hippos in the Luangwa River.
Puku Ridge Camp
We owe a huge thanks to Puku Ridge Camp guide Keennan Tholex, who’s been in the business over 20 years.
Mere hours before our plane was scheduled to depart, Keenan worked diligently to make sure we spotted the last two of the Big Five we needed: the lion and leopard: a male lion feet from the vehicle, and a leopard resting in a tree so well camouflaged amid the foliage that we never would’ve seen it without Keenan. We understand why Zambia’s president requests Keennan as his own guide whenever he’s in town.
Puku Ridge is inside South Luangwa National Park, prime-viewing territory and rated among the top five game reserves in Africa.
We ponder why we need to go on safari, because sitting on the porch of our luxury tent we have stunning views of numerous animals drawn to the vast floodplain and its watering hole: baboons at play, zebra in the distance and passing impala and pukus, the African antelopes for which the camp is named.
This part of Zambia is where the walking safari originated, and guide Keennan is one of the leaders in that field. Walking is the best way, incidentally, to spot the Little Five: The Buffalo Weaver, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, Ant Lion and Rhino Beetle.
Since we didn’t see all of them, we’ll simply have to return –on foot.
In Zambia, you can spot giraffes mere feet from your 4 x 4. (Fletcher/Newbern photo) Baboons roamed all around Sanctuary Retreats Puku Ridge Lodge. (Fletcher/Newbern photo)
If You’re Going
Abercrombie & Kent, offering premiere luxury travel since 1962, has year-round safari offerings in Zambia and other African locales: www.abercrombiekent.com
Sanctuary Retreats are a collection of luxury travel portfolios from lodges and camps, in Zambia and beyond, to villas and cruises: www.sanctuaryretreats.com. A spokesman says guests typically travel a Zambia circuit, enjoying 2-3 nights at each camp for a river experience, a highlands experience and maximum game viewing. To plan a stay, he suggests, “10 days would be good.”
For more on Zambia and its 19 national parks, visit www.zambiatourism.com
Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, is accessible from both London Heathrow and a number of international airports on the African continent. Various options include Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (Nairobi, Kenya), Dar es Salaam International Airport (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), as well as O.R. Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg, South Africa).
Livingstone, home of the Victoria Falls, is also serviced by direct flights from O.R. Tambo International Airport.
To reach some lodges and camps, there are charter and scheduled flights from both Lusaka and Livingstone. And since these lodges are located in pristine and often remote locations, flying is the recommended mode of transport.
U.S. based, award-winning travel writers Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher write about luxury, spas, cruising and romantic destinations when not operating their personalized romance novel company, YourNovel.com, where they put you in the middle of the romance and adventure by starring in your own book.