Travelling inside the belly of a metallic wasp might rank as one of the most turbulent (and sickening) flights you’ve ever experienced. But it’s all worth it. When you arrive at the Royal Zambezi, a porter greets you with chilled towels to ease the effects of the sun’s radiance. You’re offered fresh juice in flute glasses and Martin, the Lodge Services Manager toasts to your stay at the Royal Zambezi Lodge.
Extending over 200 hectares of the Chiawa Game Management Area on the northern edge of the Zambezi, the Royal Zambezi Lodge borders the Lower Zambezi National Park, where your main interests lie. You’re here to connect with nature, to observe the wild animals in their simplicity as they frolic and feed in their natural habitat. You’re here to take in all the wonderful sights and sounds. The park is known for its beautiful birdlife, scenic views of the Zambezi River and many other creatures, large and small, land based and aquatic. This might just be what you need.
As you walk on the stone paved path to your lodging, you hear birdcalls you’ve never known before, and small critters scurry in the foliage around you. Your room at the Zambezi is a deluxe, just one tier below the presidential suite, and one above the classic. It’s beautiful stained mahogany furniture compliments the wood that stands between its canopied canvas walls. The attention to detail is so impeccable that even your towels are folded in a way that would make an origami master envious. And with its decorative tiled floor and smooth mud walls, the airy bathroom seems like a place you’d spend more time than necessary. Two sliding doors past the foot of the beds open to a picturesque view of sandbanks on the Zambezi. Your redwood deck has a plunge pool that entices the exhibitionist in you and leads to an outdoor shower, a free standing copper bathtub and an outside bed for afternoon siestas or more grown folk activities. You’re excited by the luxurious amenities at your disposal. But you also feel they might distract you from your goal to become one with nature. It’s not until you stop to take it all in that you realise, you could actually enjoy the best of both worlds. You could treat yourself at the hotel and balance this out with the visual treats of the earth in the park. After all, they share an invisible.
After a delicious lunch with something you can’t quite pronounce, you have a brief conversation with Martin about what activities you could enjoy in and around the park, as well as the lodge’s ethos.
“Royal promotes culture, commerce, conservation and community,” Martin says. Most of the staff are recruited and trained from a nearby village and the lodge also contributes funds towards conservation of the wildlife in the area.
One of the best ways to view the wildlife in its splendor is to go canoeing. “I’ve been canoeing for 13 years and I’ve never had an incident,” Wallace, your guide says as he escorts you from your room. “But I cannot guarantee that nothing will happen.”
Trees, some flowering and green leafed; shade the path from your rooms. Green grass and well kempt lawns stretch out on either side. Above them, intricate vines house a few critters and birds. A Green spotted bush snake quickly slithers in the dry leaves. Monkies play in the trees. Pretty winged insects click a savannah melody. All this before you even get to the awe-inspiring mass of water that is the Zambezi. You’re taken out on a motorboat to meet the canoe. Every minute there seems to be crammed with tiny little adventures or mind blowing moments. An array of birds spread their colourful wings as your water engine splashes its way between miniature islands and banks. Local fishermen cast their homemade fishing rods and look on as you pass by.
The Nkalange Channel is about 7KM long. Its water snakes between shallow canyons with baboons and big buffalo browsing on nearby banks. This is where you take a calm canoe ride before sunset and soak in the Lower Zambezi’s beauty with other visitors.
“Crocodiles are opportunistic feeders. Do not give them an opportunity [to feed] by dangling your limbs,” our guide tells us. The conniving reptiles marinate themselves in the cool waters, making it hard to distinguish them from floating logs and tree debris. This makes the tranquility of canoeing a bit of a paradox. The slow speed at which the paddlers move is meant to help you relax and appreciate Mother Nature’s work. Reaching a Zen-like state is also difficult considering that water spouting hippos pop up around every other curve. But the paddlers reassure you they have done this hundreds of times, showing off their prowess by reversing and even parallel parking the canoes for photo ops. The Zambezi Escarpment looks so picturesque in the distance, with many green trees and shrubs dotting its face. This is what your Instagram was made for. If only you could get past your fear of tipping over and having to wrestle a crocodile.
The Lower Zambezi National Park is home to a number of species. From your garden variety impala and magnificent Egyptian Geese, to long tusked elephants and silk haired baboons. Lions and a number of leopards have also been spotted in the park. As you near the end of your water activity, your paddler explains how baboons and impala coexist to stay alive. “Boons keep a look out as they eat wild fruit in the trees above, and send out distress calls when they spot a predator. The impala also give out a holler of their own when they identify a threat and help keep the animal community safe.”
When you return to the mouth of the Nkalange Channel, a herd of elephants awaits you. The majestic beasts bathe and bask against the beautiful backdrop of the escarpment. Some spray water into the air and others smear black mud onto their tough skin with their trunks. The little ones prance about their mother’s feet and the teens play flight. As the herd crosses the channel, you feel closer to nature. It’s fascinating to see how animals go about their lives. There is an admirable simplicity to it. You try to shed the existential crisis you carry on your shoulders and opt instead to immerse yourself in all you see before you. You must get even closer. And you do.
Sunset means an evening safari. You hop from your canoe, your toes squelching through the wet grass, and jump into one of Royal’s open canopy Land Cruisers. Wallace drives slowly and provides a great opportunity to observe the large land mammal up close. The perfect views seem almost orchestrated. A bull stands on a cliff, flapping its large ears as the red sun shimmers goodnight. And to remind you that you’re still in the wild, a young elephant charges at your still vehicle. Wallace revs the engine to keep it at bay. The young one stares your vehicle down as you fidget with your phone to take a video and wonder whether this might be the last clip you ever take.
You survive the brief ordeal. Your guide stops literally in the middle of nowhere to provide you and the rest of the passengers with some refreshments. A double gin and tonic on ice cools you off as you make small talk with the guides and other passengers. Before you proceed with your night game viewing, the car’s radio spews some static and then a voice comes through. The other guides had spotted a leopard near your location and suggest you pursue it. When you get to the coordinates given, a panicking impala confirms this leopard’s presence. Wallace’s co-pilot, Mainza beams an orange spotlight into the bushes, the trees above and the surrounding grass. The impala continues to give its alarm call. Unfortunately, the leopard is stealthier than anyone had hoped. Your posse moves on. The orange light later lands on a civet, a hare or two and even more elephants. Beetles take to the air alongside nocturnal birds as the wind hits your face and you traverse the roller coaster terrain of the park. Though you don’t get to see any big cats, the drive is exhilarating. It’s the closest you come to the rear end of an elephant.
You return to the lodge to gather some things and Martin and his crew await your arrival with fruit flavoured shots to warm you up. Unlike a number of places you’ve visited, the staff members of the Royal Zambezi are genuinely friendly and passionate. They don’t wear fragile glass smiles, but exude warmth that makes you feel at home. This warmth is carried out to the bush dinner at a spot lit up with candles, lanterns and of course the soft light of the moon. The spot is between a sickle of the Zambezi and surrounding forestry with elephants feeding and trumpeting as you dine and converse with the other guests.
True to the Royal’s motto, luxury does meet the wild. The rich taste of the impala stew is a culinary adventure that comes close to rivaling the actual adventures of two Italian guests sitting at the long table with everyone. Their travels have taken them from abandoned palaces overrun with pigs; to offers from the Algerian police to give guided boat cruises in exchange for a fee. The range of conversation illustrates the diversity of Royal Zambezi’s guests. Some come here seeking downtime from their busy schedules. Others come to spend time with their families and do something new each year. You’re here, gazing at the stars and wondering whether Mother Nature is trying to whisper something to you over the wind.
After an airy night’s rest, you wake up to a gorgeous sunrise. The sun starts out as a piece of celestial ember and ignites the rest of the sky into a vivid technicolour dream. The deck is inviting you to climb out of your bed and take a closer look as birds sing and hippos snort their morning songs by the water a few metres away. You marvel at the transformation of the sky, wishing you could share this moment with someone. So you snap a quick photo and share it with what are mostly acquaintances on social media. When you start to check how many likes you have, you realise you’re still not in touch with the outdoors; that you’re still craving for instant gratification and not simplifying your life. The sun continues its fiery ascent.
The copper plated freestanding bathtub on your deck beckons you. A hot bath is always good for relaxation and the scenery outside is lovely. White egrets and charcoal grey storks take flight as you splash steaming hot water over your body. A motorboat burs by with two guides patrolling the waters. It’s a good thing you’ve fully dressed up by the time they do. You’re reminded that it’s almost time for your own boat cruise.
Wallace is your guide again. His companion reverses the boat over some reeds and takes it out to deeper waters. “See that croc over there?” he points to a large reptile on its belly soaking in some early morning sunlight. “The females get more aggressive around this season because they are taking care of their eggs,” he continues as your boat speeds across the water. Zambia is a wonderful country. Though you can spot a lodge or two in Zimbabwe right across the water, this part of the Lower Zambezi is said to be one of the most unexploited parts of the land. You can observe the animals in their natural environment. Large hippos shy away and submerge themselves into the water when your boat gets closer, and birds warn their kin of your coming. The wind caresses your face as the boat speeds up, and in the distance, the water touches the sky. Wallace continues to share more fun facts and animal knowledge, his voice beginning to sound distant as you let go. You’re at the point where the sky becomes one with the water. You’re one with these vast bodies. You’re trying to tune into the frequency of the wild. You end up dozing off to the buzz of the boat’s motor.
After breakfast you sit by the main deck to converse a little with Martin. Even though he’s worked here for a while, he feels the Royal Zambezi and the park don’t lose their novelty. “The area here by the main deck is a gem. You see elephants and hippos come out at the same time,” he says. Its wonderful to watch as birds, both indigenous and migratory join in this scenic harmony by the water.
Martin recounts some of the other activities at the Royal and the national park that make your stay more memorable. In addition to what you’ve already experienced, fishing and even hiking in the dry season are some of the other activities you can engage in. But the activity that appeals to you most in that moment is an anti-activity. Something the people at Royal call, DNA (or Do Nothing at All). This literally means just hanging back, relaxing and doing nothing but enjoying the sights and sounds in your location. The idea is that while guests relax, they might see something interesting, or even incredible.
Your trip is coming to an end in a couple of hours, so you decide to try out the philosophy of doing nothing at all. To squeeze in the most from the remainder of your trip, you take a dip in the plunge pool by your room. The water is cool on this sunny afternoon and you’re not the only one cooling off. In the distance, an elephant drinks from the Zambezi and dances on the sand to a tune you can’t hear. It stomps its legs and lowers its head to the ground, feeding on the grass and appreciating the bounty of the wild. Looking on from the pool, you’re right there with the elephant, dancing to the song of the birds. You’re finally one with nature. You’re ready to go home.