Locals share their culture with visitors
(Photos by Willie Smit and supplied by Royal Chundu)
Rush hour. Arguably up there with some of the most irksome of human experiences. We snake through traffic lanes in slow-motion en route to OR Tambo International airport early on a Wednesday morning and even though our flight only leaves mid-morning, this is the kind of stress I don't need. Finally on the plane, I drift in and out of an exhausted torpor on the British Airways flight from Johannesburg en route to the bustling little African town of Livingston in Zambia.
I drowsily become aware of the almost 40 degree heat as we disembark and go through the (relatively quick) motions of passport control and baggage collection. Two days ago I arrived from a blisteringly cold Cape Town and I had the week from hell so the idea of a couple of blissful days in the bush on the banks of the Zambezi in one of the most luxurious lodges in this part of the world makes my soul salivate.
Our destination is the much vaunted luxury Relais & Chateaux Royal Chundu Lodge and ebullient driver Fred collects us on cue for the hour or so drive. Royal Chundu is equidistant from both Chobe National Park and the world-famous Victoria Falls so while being based here you can easily go on day trips to both of these great destinations.
I sleep all the way to Royal Chundu River Lodge and wake up like a child on Christmas morning. We are graciously greeted at the entrance to the lodge with ice cold drinks and towels and then the vista of the entire river opens up before us. I swoon at the scene before me and go silent. This is a rare, rare thing. Situated on the mighty Zambezi River, the larger of Royal Chundu's two lodges, River Lodge scatters 10 suites along the riverfront with wooden decks ensuring intimate and serene views accompanied by uninterrupted privacy. In fact, you have 15 km of private waterway all to yourself. These luxurious suites gaze across the massive river, and peer into neighboring Zimbabwe's picturesque landscape. An outdoor boma for dinners around the fire as well as a lounge and bar encompass the main area where there is also an exquisite infinity pool. It is also I close proximity to the helicopter pad.
But what immediately catches the eye is the beautifully bright décor and unusually creative architecture. Every detail has been lovingly designed and the colors and quirky objects, statues, fixtures and fittings reflect the amazing and unique style of the place - and of the owner, as we are later to learn.
We are then seated under a massive and ancient canopy of trees on the wooden deck for lunch, with elephants, hippos and a lone kingfisher for company across the river banks. We almost impolitely wolf down the superb food - without any shadow of doubt the best cheeseburger I have ever had. The delightful Hessah comes and introduces us himself as our guide and after a quick check in, shows us to our quarters.
Thatched roofing and interior furnishings of the massive chalets echo the Zambezi hues and accentuate the surrounding natural beauty. The chalets beautifully blend natural African materials with colonial charm.
We saunter down the wooden walkways later for our sun downer cruise.
The staff here are magnificent and you get the royal treatment from the moment you set foot here and the boat ride is no different. We shoot the breeze with a lovely couple from Chicago as we spot more elephants, kingfishers, fish eagle and of course hippos who pose for us with massive yawns just for the camera.
The sun sets brilliantly in its vermillion magnificence as we sip our artisanal gin and tonics and muse about Africa.
Back at the lodge the entire place is transformed into a magical fairyland of lanterns. Dinner is served at 7.30 and my, what a feast it is! We are served a fusion of traditional Zambian and Western cuisine. Spicy butternut soup is followed by vegetable spring rolls with seasonal veggies all sourced from local farmers. The Zambezi bream with its sweet potato parsley sauce is superb and the bite of slow roasted duck I steal off my photographer's plate melt-in-the-mouth. The wine paring with the food is also spot on.
Our waiter Dominic explains the local mubuyu plant used in many meals and drinks and even shows it to us. We are also each given a tiny wooden replica of a traditional makoro boat. Small touches that make the world of difference.
Vegetables all grown locally
Sounds of Africa
Later, I sit on my private deck, staring out over the black water of the Zambezi River. Somewhere a few frogs croak and I can hear the hippos grunt. On the Zimbabwe side the elephants are playing in the dark and just sit, taking it all in wondering what good I must have done in a previous life to get so lucky. The sounds surrounding me are the sounds of the eternal circle of life. The sounds of Africa. High above the stars twinkle in the ink black sky and I can smell the soft smoldering smoke from a nearby village drift lazily by.
We get to sleep in the morning until the ghastly and shameful hour of 8.30 am. This is just one more of my favorite things here - no up before sparrow's fart for lengthy and uncomfortable game drives. You are allowed to set your own pace here. Breakfast is served outside on the deck with the most beautiful white linen, silver ware and copper pots. Your hot breakfast is made-to-order and for the first time ever in all my years as a travel journalist I am asked the question I have yearned to hear so, so long: "Ma'am, how would like your scrambled eggs done?"
Heart happy and stomachs full, we are off to see the village, the wonderful village of Chundu. The community tour offered here is quite unique in a number of ways.
Fishing at sunset
We meet the people who call the riverbanks around Royal Chundu home. The lodge exists in unison with the surrounding villages of Mushekwa and Muluka and a walk through the villages is both humbling and educational. Through interacting with the villagers - and the incomparable matriarch and guide Edith Mushekwa in particular - we gain insight into the local traditions and customs as well as on the plants and herbs used for traditional medicine and to make cooking oil, soap, and other necessities.
The Lodge employs only people from the villages. It is not only by humanitarian design but a utilitarian, mutually exclusive one too; they bring with them vast traditional knowledge of Zambian cuisine and the natural surroundings - from the indigenous plant life to the birds and fish of the Zambezi.
The Zambian people are well known for their amicable nature, their warmth and simplicity. To them, etiquette and respect for elders are very important. The diversity in Zambian culture is reflected through the many cultural forms - the music, dance, food, religion, customs and crafts; from basket making to drumming (an integral part of Zambian music and dance and all major celebrations). And of course the children are simply adorable! With both hands waving, it's back to the Lodge where, to my wonderful surprise, owner Tina Aponte is there to welcome us. I could spend weeks talking to this amazing, completely absorbing mensch. All of a sudden all of this beauty and happiness make sense. She imbues everyone and everything around her with her indomitable spirit and great big heart.
But it's time to be off to the Lodge's sister property for our last night - Royal Chundu Island Lodge. And for that we have too mess about in boats for the next half an hour or so. A canoe trip on the Zambezi must surely rate up there on anybody's dream wish list.
Cocktails to liven up a picnic
We are handed our cocktails upon arrival and there is our picnic table -should we prefer to dine upright - long with a gorgeous, home-cooked tapas lunch made by our personal chef in the outdoor kitchen. We spend our time dining on this fabulous food, drinking our cocktails and listening to the rapids coursing past. To me reality has passed into fantasy, like stepping trough the idiomatic mirror and I exult in this feeling of being completely encompassed by nature.
Much later, we peel back into the canoes for the five minutes further to the lodge.
It literally assails the senses and the enveloping pulchritude of this place is visceral, a sensory tsunami if you will and our wonderful host David cannot but help laugh at my obvious expression of stupor. Island Lodge is positioned on the private island of Katambura, surrounded by tranquil river channels and shaded by baobab and jackalberry trees.
It takes me back in a nanosecond to that day so many years ago, when I first got glasses and I could barely comprehend the bright and beautiful world around me. I know, I'm gushing but I can't help it.
The beautiful infinity pool overlooks the river and the villas - oh the villas!!
There are currently no direct flights between Zambia and China but there are daily British Airways flights between Johannesburg and Livingston. Every week, British Airways operates 7 flights between Johannesburg and Livingstone. The first British Airways flight is 6291, which departs at 11:00 AM. On average, a British Airways flight from Johannesburg and Livingstone takes two hours 20 minutes.
Go to: https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/destinations/johannesburg/flights-to-johannesburg