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A River Runs Through It

On the banks of the Zambezi River, RICHARD HOLMES discovers a safari escape that blends effortless style with easy access to one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas.

Separating Zambia from Zimbabwe, the Zambezi River forms the heart (and soul) of any safari to the Lower Zambezi.

OF ALL THE THINGS I was expecting to find on the banks of the Zambezi River, the graceful sweep of a Cape Dutch gable rising above the canopy of acacia and purple-pod terminalia trees wasn’t high on the list. But then, the Zambezi Grande isn’t like most other safari lodges in southern Africa.

For years this intimate lodge, perched above the languorous Zambezi River in south-eastern Zambia, was simply a much-loved holiday home shared by three South African families. They had purchased it to indulge their love for the river and the wilderness of the region, but in 2021 opted to share their bolthole with a wider audience, transforming their private getaway into a five-star lodge overlooking Africa’s fourth-largest river.

The river grabbed my attention the moment I stepped off the transfer vehicle that had brought me from the nearby airstrip. Wandering from the gravel drive through an elegantly tiled entrance hall and out to the pool deck, I saw the Zambezi stretching in a broad sweep that all but fills the landscape. At sunrise the mercurial waters swirl in tones of burnished orange, morphing through a day of bright sunshine or seasonal winds before returning to a calm mirror at sunset.

Whether you’re heading out at dawn with fishing rod in hand, seeking out a lifer in the reeds that frame the islands, or simply admiring an African sunset, the river will define your stay.

And the chance to explore the river in all its moods is the essence of a stay here in the Lower Zambezi valley.

The heart of the region is the Lower Zambezi National Park, an easy 30-minute safari drive from the lodge. This 4092-square-kilometre stretch of wilderness was once the private reserve of Zambia’s president, until it was set aside for conservation in 1983 to become the country’s newest national park. Due to the topography of the Zambian bank – a narrow valley floor sandwiched between a steep escarpment and the wide Zambezi River – the game viewing is exceptional. Perhaps little wonder that Time magazine included the Lower Zambezi National Park in its list of the World’s Greatest Places for 2022.

Wide terraces from which to admire the Zambezi River.

And yet the national park is only one part of this vast tapestry of wilderness. Across the Zambezi lies Zimbabwe’s famed Mana Pools National Park, while surrounding the Lower Zambezi National Park is the vast Chiawa Game Management Area (GMA) in which communities and wildlife coexist. It’s here that the Zambezi Grande is situated, offering unfettered access to the river and easy game excursions into the park itself.

I opt for the river first, heading out at dawn to cast a line for tiger fish. Hydrocynus vittatus is legendary among sport anglers, who come here from around the world in search of a fish famous for its ‘fin-walking’ and relentless fight. September to November is the best time for tigers, as the clear, warmer waters at the end of the dry winter months make the fish more active. But in truth, there’s rarely a bad day out on the river, and even if the tigers are slow on the bite, there’s never a lack of distractions.

Pods of hippo huff and sneeze as our boat drifts past, tight lines in the water, while an endless parade of birdlife often sees me abandoning my rod to reach for my camera. On our first outing, we had kingfishers diving for breakfast, curious Burchell’s coucals clambering through the tree branches nearby and flocks of open-billed storks soaring gracefully above the river. On dry land, herds of impala and waterbuck, sun-bathing hippos and ponderous elephants dotted the shoreline. Besides the tiger fish, there are other worthy opponents in these waters too.

Not long into our first morning, the line screamed off my reel as a large vundu took the bait and ran. These catfish are the largest freshwater fish in southern Africa and put up a hefty fight. It took some 15 minutes until my 20-kilogram leviathan was aboard and unhooked. While local villagers prize the meat, mine was safely released to fight another day: for guests at the Zambezi Grande fishing is only allowed outside the breeding season and is strictly catch-and-release.

For those with little interest in fishing, more luxurious boats offer sedate sunset and birding cruises and the opportunity to spot crocodiles, elephants and antelope on the shoreline. Or to hop on for a game drive.

Separating Zambia from Zimbabwe, the Zambezi River forms the heart (and soul) of any safari to the Lower Zambezi. Tiger fishing is best in late-winter, when the water warms up.

Although there’s plenty to see in the Chiawa GMA itself, the short drive into the national park is also worthwhile. The Lower Zambezi is home to four of the Big Five – there are no rhinos – and drives regularly turn up sightings of lion, leopard and African wild dog. But even on a game drive the river makes its presence felt, as the roads track the shoreline to meander through forests of winterthorn acacia, whose pods draw herds of hungry elephants in the winter months. The park is a haven for birders too. More than 400 species have been recorded here and we ticked a variety of bee-eaters, rollers and raptors before returning to the lodge late in the evening for dinner at the fireside.

There’s a welcome focus on food and wine at the Zambezi Grande, with a concise daily menu of culinary experiences.

Spacious suites offer romantic open-plan bathrooms, with river views.

The wine list is particularly impressive, with a carefully selected range of house wines complemented by a cellar of reserve wines drawn from leading Cape estates. The fact they’re poured into delicate Spiegelau glasses is a bonus.

That attention to detail is woven throughout the lodge experience too, with meticulously chosen decor across the 10 rooms and suites. The Zambezi Grande’s five luxury rooms are set slightly back from the river, while the free-standing superior suites offer stylish havens for whiling away the hours between activities. Suites 1 and 5 book-end the property and offer the most privacy, boasting large terraces with sumptuous day- beds gazing out over the swirling waters. In- doors, the decor blends subtle vintage safa- ri charm with a sense of contemporary style and homely luxury. Subtle motifs of indig- enous foliage and local wildlife are cleverly reimagined and incorporated into the look and feel of the space.

From the kitchen, expect global cuisine fused with local fare, all dished up with warm Zambian hospitality.

The origin of the lodge as a family escape carries seamlessly through to the communal areas, where open-air lounges and fireside tables encourage guests to feel immediately at home. The aesthetic is the work of interior designer Michele Throssell, whose work graces safari lodges across southern Africa.

 

“There is a preconception that all story- telling happens when guests are out on safari with their guide, but I believe a lodge and its design can tell stories too,” says Michele. “The inspiration for the Zambezi Grande’s interiors was the verdant landscape of the Zambezi Valley, so when it came to sourcing for the lodge, of course we looked locally for designers and artisans. Not only do we want to tell stories and showcase traditions through locally made artefacts, thus enriching the guest experience, but we also want to support our local community.”

Ultimately, the Zambezi Grande is a lodge with a deep sense of place, where the river and the surrounding landscapes flow through almost every facet of the experience. Whether you come for the birding, the fishing or the sheer unfiltered wilderness, it’s time to add the Lower Zambezi to your travelling bucket list. V

 

Getting there

Proflight Zambia offers direct flights from Cape Town to Lusaka. From Lusaka it’s
a 30-minute charter flight to the Royal Zambezi’s airstrip, followed by a 10-minute transfer to the lodge.

When to go

Like most lodges in the region, Zambezi Grande is open seasonally, during the dry winter months from March to November.

Booking

www.zambezigrande.com
SADC rates available on request.