There are some places that you visit once, enjoy, and leave. Then there are the places that just won’t let you go, and that you’ll never quite forget. South Luangwa is one of them. Its combination of beauty, tranquillity and untouched nature is a rarity.
Marula Lodge, situated in the heart of South Luangwa, is a family business, run by Mike and Jenny Waterhouse. When they stepped off the plane in dusty Mfuwe for the first time seven years ago, they met Regina Nkhunghulu, and a great staff of twelve Zambians (who have now grown to number twenty two). The Waterhouses learned everything they know from this great team: who’s who in the village; the price of a heap of tomatoes; how to organise a game drive; and much, much more. Every idea and every plan was home grown, and their unique approach to managing this special lodge has paid off.
My first Marula experience was four years ago when I wasn’t even staying there, but was invited over to use the swimming pool, whenever I wanted. I’ve never stopped coming back and I’m not alone. There are many guests who return year after year; in fact, as often as time and finances allow.
If you ask the guests why they keep coming back, wildlife would certainly be at the top of the list. No one can believe the incredible sightings of leopards, elephants, lions, and everything else the park has to offer. Second on the list, without fail, is the affordability of Marula, and, more importantly, the people at the lodge who make their holiday so special. They love the welcoming staff and their unfailing generosity. They love the enthusiasm and passion that everyone has for their job. They love the fact that the lodge supports the local community in so many ways. They love that it is only a five-minute drive to the park gates. Some even love the sense of humour and fun! This place is a second home for many.
Everyone is welcomed like a friend at Marula
The travellers (not really tourists) come from all corners of the globe. They arrive by plane, Jonda bus, car, shared taxi, bicycle, and sometimes even just hitching a lift. The youngsters are often on gap years, while the more “mature” travellers all have amazing stories that unfold as you sit around the firepit in the evening. I’m always fascinated to discover what makes people give up established careers for an uncertain life with a backpack, but I’m never surprised when they call Marula Lodge one of their favourite stops in their long journeys.
Whilst regular safari folk fly in from afar, volunteers living and working in the region drive in for R&R and a hot shower. Zambians bring families to get away from the city and learn about their greatest natural asset, their wildlife and the South Luangwa National Park. In fact, anyone looking for a quiet, happy, pocket friendly safari experience finds their way to Marula. People book one or two nights and stay for four or five. It’s that kind of place.
You could describe Marula as comfortable, rather than luxury. The rooms vary. Some are new, some are renovated, some are not. Nobody minds because you won’t spend much time in them when there are hammocks and chairs along the riverbank, where you can watch hippos and crocs in low season and birds in the green season. The vervet monkeys and baboons entertain without being a nuisance and bushbuck and banded mongooses wander through regularly. And then there are elephants… more than you can count at this time of year. Watching the eles cross the river is a sight that you’ll never forget. Seeing them wandering silently round the garden always brings everyone, staff and guests alike, to a standstill. Once in a while, the sounds of the wild let you know that there is a lion or leopard nearby. But whether you see cats or caterpillars, you’re bound to be drawn into the magic of the untouched nature that surrounds you.
The skies in the area are a birdwatcher’s dream. Birds aplenty, from the majestic African fish eagle with its piercing call, to the seasonal carmine bee-eaters and the rare Pels Fishing Owl, there’s something for everyone. And once the sun goes down, if the moon is cooperative, the milky way shines so bright that it’s hard to take your eyes off it. Many a marvellous starscape has been taken here.
For guests, their safari guide is the most important person in the universe, none can, or will, promise the earth but ours know “every plant, fish, tree bird animal and grain of sand in Zambia” according to one guest! They know the park, inside out and will make even the ordinary seem extraordinary.
Marula is proud of its work in the community.
Jenny, an ex-teacher, with the help of the Sacramento based charity, Africa Hope Fund, has set up a unique reading programme and library at a local school. Zambian assistants, trained to teach reading, man the library, which is open to the community. It is Marula’s pride and joy to see children who have never held a book in their hands, now lying on their backs enjoying the tales of the world they have yet to see. Community is important to the Lodge and Marula uses the local taxi service and buys as much as possible locally. Once you are in the lodge you’ll find local curios for sale and a lady from the village running her small manicure and massage business. If you choose to go on a stroll through the village to get an insight into life in rural Zambia you will be guided by yet another local youngster earning money to get to university.
Many of the travellers who come to Marula contact us ahead to see if they can pack anything useful for the kids or the community and some of my favourite days have been spent distributing clothing that’s have been so lovingly sewn or knitted on the other side of the world, to families who are really in need. It puts everything into perspective.
So, if you’re looking for a welcoming, exciting, affordable and different holiday, consider Marula.
Take it from me, once you’ve had the Marula Lodge experience, you’ll be back for more…and more…and more.