Trip Report on our Inland Africa Trip, by gan63©
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, and Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa.
I feel a trip purpose note in order before getting into the details of the report: We made the trip primarily to experience the natural side of the parts of South-central Africa we were visiting. Regional safety and friendliness of native peoples also guided our destination decisions. We also tried to plan the trip at the level of travel we are accustomed to, if possible, and we realized that the Zambia portion would probably not be able to supply upper end accommodations. We tried to rely on operator lodging descriptions and existing trip reports. Our comments and descriptions reflect things as we found them. I am sure no two couples would describe things exactly the same, so please try to keep this in mind while reading this report. We planned our trip in 3 parts. Part 1 being African bush natural environment, part 2 being a rejuvenating short stay at one of the world’s natural wonders, and part 3 being a decidedly upscale experience at an acclaimed luxury lodge in a different part /environment of Africa.
Part One Luangwa River Lodge; Mfuwe, Zambia- Early November, 2006
The Luangwa River Lodge (LRL) is sited along the bank of the Luangwa River in south-central Zambia. The closest village/airport being the area of Mfuwe, Zambia. LRL has been in business approximately 2+ years. We visited as the dry season was just changing over to the “wet” or rain season, a great time to see the park begin it’s transformation. LRL was still accessed by road. Access during the “wet” season is via boat from the main park roads being as the lodge is on the south side of the river and no wet season roads to the lodge exist on their side of the river. The north side of the river, the National Park side, has year round access via rough raised bed roads. LRL is in a beautiful setting, a truly magical area. We almost always felt our personal safety was accorded proper diligence, with only a few shortcomings in this regard.
Across the river from the lodge is the South Luangwa National Park, one of three parks along the river in this area (south, central, and north). Air access is from the city of Lusaka, Zambia. Direct flights from London via British Airways to Lusaka, then via Zambian Airlines to Mfuwe, made for a fairly easy travel scenario. From Mfuwe via LandRover to LRL is approximately a 30 minute drive.
The wildlife viewing in the park was beyond our expectations, while the lodging unfortunately was somewhat below our expectations.
The LRL is advertised by the owners as “having all the comforts of 5 star lodging”. While this may be true if the country of Zambia has its own definition of 5 star lodging or perhaps the owners do, we found the LRL to be a 3 star lodge at best. There were several reasons for the afore mentioned opinion, some being, but not limited to:
1- An obvious lack of capitalization for an upscale lodge had to be the first and foremost. The LandRovers’ condition and the electrical generating backup issues for example. New and more advertising that was being undertaken may help occupancy, but a lack of requesting honest feed back at the end of our stay (consistent with most upscale lodgings) did not bode well for the LRL. Perhaps capital injection on a large scale and the addition of career hospitality people will help turn this lodge into what I’m sure the owners have desired from the start. Or perhaps the site location issues and lack of capitalization will bring the closing of LRL. Only time will tell. The lodge was due to close for a few months for “minor repairs” we were told. Yet we also learned a larger party had been accepted for the holidays (“the revenues would cover staff and operating costs for a month” mrg. quote). We hope future guests can get as much out of the natural side as we did, making the visit worthwhile.
2- Maintenance, or lack there of was fairly obvious. A leaking roof in our chalet, if not for the top panel of the bed mosquito netting a dripping on the head was to be expected. This problem should have been obvious to the staff due to water staining of the top panel of bed mosquito netting and sure enough when it rained the roof leaked. Thankfully it did not rain enough yet to make this an issue we would have refused to deal with. A backup electrical power generating system which was not automatic nor turned on immediately or sometimes at all during the frequent power outages. Some of the materials and construction was sub standard and seemed to lack the foresight and planning of professional regional planners, designers, and constructors. Poorly fitting and hard to operate and needing repair bi folding doors. Lack of any grab bars in shower and recessed tub areas compounded by lack of non slip floor surfaces. Lack of sufficient lighting in some areas of the chalet (dressing/bath areas). These were some of the issues. Lack of chalet safes was also noted. Objectively, I am sure our construction company ownership background played some role in our opinions.
3- In our opinion upscale and even at times mid level hospitality experience was decidedly lacking. Candles were few, matches less, and lanterns were never offer during the power outages. During one evening outage while I was on a drive and my wife was alone in the chalet, the staff never bothered to check on her or offer an escort to the main lodge to await my return, which she would have preferred. This after being warned not to traverse the grounds unescorted while dark. Their means of communicating to the main lodge were whistles, not very comforting considering the distance and the frequent winds or blowing rain during some outages.
It was assumed we would prefer to take our meals with the resident owner/manager. While in fact we would have preferred to choose whether or not to dine this way. Being frequent travelers and a somewhat private, seclusion loving couple, this was most disheartening at times. Meal options were non existent with only one offering at each meal, cooked the same for everyone. Most red meats were served as the chef saw fit, rather than taking the care in inquiring first if a guest preferred their meat cooked medium rare or well done(as one of us would prefer) for example. Morning meals were generally all carbohydrates and never an egg was seen.
The mid morning meals (post morning game drive) were more of a late lunch or early dinner variety. We can only assume the talented young chef did the best he could with what was provided him.
A Chicken Kiev was an exceptional dinner offering, we enjoyed very much. Potable tap water was in our opinion suitable for bathing and the like, but bottled water was always preferred by us for drinking, and if asked for there was no shortage of the latter. Sundowners, break time snacks/drinks on the evening drives, were offered. I usually went with a nice SA Merlot or Cab, my wife a gin and tonic or a single malt scotch; along with chips or popcorn (snacks or canapés not consistent with the 5 star advertising).
One uncomfortable lunch had a rather rude and somewhat offensive friend of the owner/manager thrust upon us, while another lunch had some very pleasant conversation with a couple(who ran the local massage business) included. We must say the massage business, which came to the lodge (Personal Touch, a separate off site company) was one of the hospitality side highlights of our stay. Such were the inconsistencies of the LRL. I must say that we did not make the journey to Africa to socialize with “expats” and doubt many people do, and if they did would book B&B type lodging, with it’s attending cost differences.
The selection of spirits/libations was very adequate, and I highly recommend the Amarula, made from the nuts of the Marula tree. This spirit is very similar to a Baileys Irish Crème and combined with the excellent Zambian coffee, or straight over ice, was enjoyed very much.
The chalet interior decorating was nicely done, along with the main lodge building. Furnishings were well appointed, although the quality/comfort of the bed decidedly not up to the star rating claims. Again perhaps this was the best available, but we felt perhaps the capitalization issue again entered the picture.
Hospitality side employees were very polite and accommodating to the best of their in-experienced abilities. We were never asked and did not offer constructive critique or complaints as we do not feel quality control is the guests’ responsibility and we felt that it would be useless and undermine what we did enjoy for the rest of our stay.
All in all visitors traveling to LRL who are accustomed to higher end travel should remember the following:
Zambia is a developing country and the Luangwa park(s) area is in a very difficult area concerning access, building materials, and utilities. We did observe other lodges, on the park side of the river. Although we did not stay at any of them, some of them did appear to be far better capitalized. One bright side of our visit was that the lodge had no other guests during the majority of our stay, so we had a Landover to ourselves. In contrast, some of the other LandRovers from other lodges were so loaded with guests that we wondered how someone seated in the middle of the 3 row seating arrangements could possibly take proper photos/videos. A private LandRover would be a must in our opinion if doing serious photo or video work, as we lucked into here; and was included on part 3 of our trip- in South Africa at the Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge.
Our opinion would be that for experienced travelers Zambia is surely a place calling for a lot of research and prior reporting study beforehand, and for all visitors, higher end travelers or budget minded travelers, lodge selection would be a very important issue. Perhaps true upper level lodging does exist here, or will be forthcoming as the area continues to evolve.
The wildlife viewing, game drives, and interaction with our obviously experienced ranger/guide was by far the highlight of our stay. Mr. Victor Mpatisha, Zambian, with past experience with the Zambian government’s wildlife services; was a very experienced, knowledgeable, respectful and all around fun to be with person. Victor’s knowledge of all things, big and small, was excellent. Because our stay was a bit longer than the norm, he was able to point out many remarkable plants and animals beyond the traditional. He also made a point of asking us and talking about what our individual interests were. He would plan each day’s trips accordingly. We both learned a lot from Victor and he was also very genuinely interested in us and the environment/wildlife of our home country. There developed a very comfortable give and take atmosphere between us that we will always cherish. Being an avid outdoorsman myself I will always consider Victor to be a true friend and a credit to the Zambian outdoor experience.
The morning and evening game viewing drives are each approximately 3 hours long.
I also had a wonderful 3 hour walking excursion, Victor and myself being accompanied by Patrick(armed) from the Zambian wildlife agency. It was interesting how many of the agency people Victor knew from his days of working with the agency, many of them trained by Victor.
The Park and wildlife never failed to amaze us. Animal numbers and diversity were phenomenal. If you go only looking to see the “big 5” you will be missing 90% of what this area has to offer. The bird life/diversity was truly amazing, as were the insect, floral and fauna offerings. Some of my favorites ranged from the elephant shrew to the blood bug to the African bees thru all the different animals big and small. One can hardly do justice describing what it’s like to be in the middle of elephant or buffalo herds, sitting in your LandRover, video camera running almost continuously.
My wife being somewhat of a “birder” was daily overwhelmed with diversity and sheer numbers. Being from the USA the floral and fauna were both mystifying and fascinating.
Some of the highlights regarding this part of our trip:
1- River crossings of well more than 100 African buffalos and over 150 elephants, of all sizes and ages.
2- Observing mating rituals and hunting practices of the magnificent lions.
3- The “bush breakfast group”- Sausage trees, Potato shrubs, Fried egg tree.
4- The magnificent Baobab tree, the leopard orchid plants growing in trees, the strangler fig trees, and the plentiful African ebony trees.
5- Meeting the newly appointed Zambian minister of tourism, flying with us to Mfuwe.
6- The Norman Carr memorial plaque and stone in a beautifully secluded river side area.
7- Victor’s stories of native lore and beliefs.
8- The carpets of dropped lilac flowers on some of the trails.
9-Interaction with the Zambian government “ranger” Patrick, who accompanied Victor and I on one of our “walks”.
10- The timing of our trip- right at the changing of the dry to the wet season, and the birthing time for impalas, baboons, and other animals.
11- The unbelieveable numbers/diversity of the bird life.
12- The “gang” of Hippos at a beautiful “sundowner” site on the river bank, and the awesome crocks accompanying them.
13- The experience of a morning game viewing/drive during a period of fairly heavy rains. The animal actions changing somewhat, the clay soil side trails making for some challenging driving (to put it mildly) made the morning quite a story in itself. (note- a decent set of tires on our LandRover would have made for a less harrowing experience, once again the experience of my native ranger/guide Victor more than made up for the conditions. Tires were supposedly on hand though not installed, I guess they were waiting for the dry season ).
In total I felt privileged to experience so many game viewing drives, my wife somewhat less, but she enjoyed her massage times equally. Depending on each traveler’s level of desired immersion into the natural environment, careful planning and execution can certainly achieve traveler’s goals. Whether it be a couple of days or a couple of weeks, a carefully planned trip to this part of Africa can make for memories of a life time.
Lists: (I am sure we are neglecting to mention some of the animals and plants we saw, as the magnitude of same was at times producing “sensatory overload”; believe me when I say, “ You would have to see it to fully comprehend what we are trying to describe in this concise report”.) Some of the sightings listed here were from other parts of our 3 part Africa trip, as we have only compiled one listing for all three locations visited.
Elephants, Hippos, White (or square lipped) Rhinos, Lions, Crocodiles, Zebras, Giraffes (the indigenous Thornycrofts variety of the Luangwa area and common giraffes in SA), Warthogs, Mongoose (multiple varieties), Baboons, Vervet Monkeys, Cape Buffalos, Kudus, Water Bucks, Pukas, Bush Bucks, Impalas, Steenboks, Hares, Tree Squirrels, Elephant Shrews, Spotted Hyenas, African Civets, Spotted Genets, Tortoises, Geckos, Scorpions, Frogs of many varieties, Dung Beetles, Termites, Guinea Fowls, Duikers, Klipspringers, Francolins (many varieties), Fish Eagles, Martial Eagles, Yellow Billed Storks, Saddle Billed Storks, Hornbills(crowned and red bills), Crowned Cranes, Egrets, SpurWinged Geese, Egyptian Geese, Hamerkops, Pearl Spotted Owls, Ibis, Vultures (hooded and white headed), Wattled Cranes, Plovers, Sandpipers, Doves, Giant Kingfishers, Blue Woodland Kingfishers, Carmine Bee Eaters, Spoonbills, Blue swallows, Warblers, Weavers, Redbacked Shrikes, Longtailed Starlings, Finches, Crested Barbets, African Cuckoos, Fiscal Shrikes, Millipedes, Centipedes, Cicadas, African Honey and Killer Bees, Redbilled Oxpeckers, Cape Glossy Starlings, Bronze Winged Coursers, Green Pigeons, Dark Capped Bulbuls, Village Weavers, Jacobin Cuckoos, Spoonbills, Blue Waxbills, African Python, Harrod Snake, Spitting Cobra, Puffadder, Black Mamba, Monitors, and others I’m sure we are neglecting to mention.
Baobob trees, African Ebony trees, Strangler Fig trees, Sausage trees, Potato Shrubs, Fried Egg trees, Leadwood trees, Mahogany trees, Citrus trees (orange, lemon, lime, mango, guava), Marula trees, Palm trees (seldom), Buffalo Thorn trees, Acacia trees, Torchwood trees, Bloodwood trees, Knob Thorn trees, Bushwillow trees, Bushveld Candelabra Euphorbia plant, Leopard Orchids in bloom, and many other trees, shrubs, and plants; and a multitude of Flowers and Grasses.
Misc. travel notes:
1- British Airways flights were excellent, on time for the most part, and ultra comfortable for the long haul segments of our trip. The 2 for 1 first class tickets were a plus and absolutely worth the price. Nice lounges for layover time, escorted check in and boarding, and impeccable service.
2- Johannesburg, in our opinion, is definitely a place for overnighting and not much else.
We stayed at a beautiful hill top hotel, the WestCliff in a junior suite; another true 5 star property. Although in retrospect the Johannesburg airport Intercontinental hotel would have served the same purpose and saved us the trips through the city.
3- Non stop flights from our home city to New York via Midwest Airlines on their signature service flights were comfortable and on time for the most part.
4- Airport transfers between JFK and LaGuardia airports were well handled by New York Limousine Services Company.
5- British Airways, LRL, Royal Livingstone Hotel, and Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge were our own choices. The WestCliff Hotel was recommended by LRL.
6- Some of our Zambia transfer arrangements were booked by LRL, they were professional and courteous.
7- South African air transfers via Federal Air were arranged by Sabi Sabi, and were most enjoyable.
In closing, yes travel like this and to these kinds of locations is expensive; but consider what is to be gained personally and spiritually. Next time you’re looking to trade up on a luxury car you’ll have for a few years or a home larger than you really need, consider the African continent for a truly life altering experience.
Again our heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who helped make this truly a “Trip of a Lifetime”
All 7 pages of material in this report, part of a larger report and travel article, are copyrighted and the property of the author, registered “trip advisor member” gan63©
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Trip Report on our Inland Africa Trip, by gan63©