Puku Ridge-avoid

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Apr 24th, 2005, 03:08 PM
  #1
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Puku Ridge-avoid

I've read a few messages about this place. I stayed here last year and would not recommend it. While the camp itself is okay (we were the only ones staying there), the food is very average and more importantly there are serious flaws when it comes to safety. The guy who runs it does not seem to prioritize safety. For example, he did not carry a radio with him whilst on a walk. On another occassion, again on a walk, we watched some hippos in a river below. A hippo proceeded to then chase us. The guy with the gun was some old guy who could barely walk and did not think quick enough to shoot. The guide (also the guy who runs the camp) then proceeded to abandon us and ran way ahead of us whilst he should have put himself between the hippo and us. Fortunately my family found some grass to hide behind and the hippo proceed to run past us (about 30 feet away).
The point is that while you have to accept some degree of risk on safari, this can be minimized by the guide taking appropriate precautions to avoid this kind of situation, which is what they took at other camps such as Chiawa.
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Apr 24th, 2005, 03:51 PM
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Laguna,

What was the name of the guy who runs the camp?

I was at Chichele Presidential Lodge, Puku Ridge's sister lodge located less than 2 miles away, in early June, and there was a young woman who was managing Puku Ridge. I suppose she could have been half of a managing couple, while her partner was away at the time I was there.

A full trip report would be appreciated. When exactly did you visit? For how many nights? Did you visit any other South Luangwa camps?

I find it surprising that the food at Puku Ridge would be bad, because at Chichele it was possibly the best food I have had while on safari, and this includes Singita. I can tell you that the service at Chichele was even better than Singita.

However, it is worth noting that I did stay at Kulefu Tented Camp, Star Of Africa's camp in Lower Zambezi, and I thought that the food was very average, the supplies were minimal and the location of the camp was not good. Star Of Africa's website says that they are relocating the tents to be along the Zambezi in time for this season, building a swimming pool and are upgrading to more luxurious tents so maybe it will be improved for this year, but I would much rather take my chances with Kasaka River Lodge which is a beautiful camp in a much more convenient location, a mere 10 minutes from Royal Zambezi airstrip.

I saw as many elephants transferring between Royal Zambezi airstrip to Kasaka River Lodge (where a speedboat was waiting to take us 90 minutes away to Kulefu Tented Camp) as I did in my whole 4 night stay at Kulefu. I was told by the former manager of Kulefu, Ian, who is now a guide at Kaingo, that Kulefu is an excellent area for wildlife, but that things don't really get started until about August as the weather warms.

Anyway, please share more about your time at Puku Ridge, as I know there are Fodorites scheduled to visit there now and we would all appreciate learning more about your experience.

Thanks.
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Apr 24th, 2005, 04:49 PM
  #3
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I was there in late August. Game was good. I did go up the hill to Chichele and it looked very nice. I did like the rustic feel of Puku and the position/view. I was there three nights. I beleive the name of the guy running it was Rogers.
This was the only camp I visited in S Luangwa. Food was about 100 times better at Chiawa.
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Apr 24th, 2005, 05:59 PM
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laguna92688,
My wife and I are scheduled to go to Puku Ridge in Sept. Please tell us more of your experiences and be as specific as you can. The lack of safety and lack of respect for the clients greatly disturbs us. Puku Ridge came highly recommended by others on this board as did Star Of Africa in general.
Thanks for your help.
Mike
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Apr 24th, 2005, 06:07 PM
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Hi Mike,
We were there for three nights in August. The fact that we were the only guests there was an initial indication that something was not quite right. This compared to a full camp in Chiawa.
The safety issue was a big one. Rogers who ran the camp and was the only person to take people out on drives just didn't seem to take it seriously. I remember one occassion when we asked him why he didn't take a radio on walks and his response was something along the lines that he should but didnt care what the rules were.
As you may know there are some strange rules in Zambia around who can carry a weapon. I believe that the only person who can has to be a national parks employee. We were accompanied on our walks by Rogers and this guy who must have been close to 60 and he just didn't seem to have a clue-read the hippo story earlier.After the inclident we did write to Puku and there only offer of compensation was a free night. There is no way that I would set foot there again. Unless something is done somebody is going to die or at least get seriously injured. I'd think twice about it.

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Apr 24th, 2005, 09:59 PM
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Sorry you had such a bad and dangerous experience! How did you come to pick this camp?

This really illustrates somthing I have said before, that if a camp is offering superdeals during high season, BEWARE!! (this is not the same as off-season deals...) It is simply silly to pick camps based on brochures, internet research (unless you have talked to a reliable person who has been there recently) and great pricing deals.
The best camps don't offer them during high season, because they are full.

I stayed at 2 camps run by this operator (Lechwe Plains & Kulefu) in 2003, I had a wonderful time at both--but I was the only person at Lechwe Plains... and Kulefu looked very tired, even in 2003)

Some troubling things happened after that, with the biggest indicator being that they were offering cutrate deals during the high season. It sounds (from laguna's story) like they are not able to attract and keep quality staff-- there could be management issues, money issues or both.
In Zambia, the scouts (with rifles) are ZAWA employees, but it seems that the management of the camp does have a great deal of influence (if not control) over the scouts. If a camp doesn't have good guides, they won't have good scouts either. In fairness to Zambia's scouts, I have had nothing but EXCELLENT experiences with them, and I've been to many places in Zambia over several years. If anything, they have been cautious and protective to a fault.

I might be willing to spend a night or two at a place like this to give it a chance, but I would NOT build a vacation around it...experiences like this make or break your expensive holiday.
PS--Roccco, this is the type of concern that I have about Luangwa River Lodge. New, not local, unproven. Don't know who they have been able to hire as management or guides. I'm not saying they are bad...I'm just saying they have absolutely no track record or experience, and I don't know a single person who has stayed there. Being nice when you are making reservations doesn't count...it's just not the most important thing about running a camp.
Caveat emptor...
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Apr 25th, 2005, 06:28 AM
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d110pickup,

You could always consider dropping Puku Ridge in favor of Luangwa River Lodge. Although I originally was going to do both Puku Ridge and Luangwa River Lodge, I ended up selecting Luangwa River Lodge only.

Here is what convinced me...scroll down to the post dated November 25th in this link:

http://tagasafaris.mywowbb.com/forum1/23-1.html

I appreciate what Tasha is saying about going with more established lodges, but I have heard mixed reviews of Robin Pope Safaris, kind of along the lines that it is great when RP is around to supervise, and not necessarily as great when he is not.

You already have a fine choice in Kaingo & Mwamba, but you will need some luxury after 6 nights with Kaingo / Mwamba, and perhaps with this new information on Puku Ridge, it may be time to consider a switch. Had Nic Polenakis stayed with Chichele Presidential Lodge, I would have endorsed Chichele, but since he is gone, I am not able to do so.

Although Luangwa River Lodge is definitely a wild card, at least it is personally run by the owners, Barry & Tara. That goes a looooong way towards guaranteeing a nice stay.

I would be surprised if Star Of Africa yet has any of your deposit, so you would likely still be able to switch, if that is your desire, without penalty.

It is worth noting, additionally, that Luangwa River Lodge would be only $350 per person per night, compared to, I believe, $400 pppn at Puku Ridge.

Lastly, here is a review of Luangwa River Lodge from The Lowdown magazine, a monthly Zambian publication that features one lodge in each issue:

http://luangwariverlodge.com/reviews.htm

I would not panic yet about Puku Ridge, but there is always a luxurious backup in Luangwa River Lodge. However, since you are going at the height of high season (late September, I believe), I would make a decision one way or the other as soon as possible.
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Apr 25th, 2005, 06:57 AM
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Also BushCampCompany is a local, well-established company with great, beautiful camps and lodges and a very reliable, safe reputation. I have stayed as 2 of their camps, and know several people who have stayed at the other 2. They have very well-established guides (Phil Berry is one of the two top guides in Zambia, and may be the very best. Although they have 4 camps, the owner is VERY involved in operations in all of them. Be aware however, that these camps (other than Mfuwe Lodge) specialize in walking, and while there are drive opportunities, this will not be the major part of your activities.

Also, I've stayed at all the Robin Pope camps, several times, and know that they have a very loyal return clientele, AND they are always full in high season. So while Roccco may know a person or two who gave mixed reviews, it it hardly the situation that he describes. (In fact, Roccco, weren't you dreaming about a stay at Robins House, which is a private house at Nkwali camp, and didn't you post a really rave review from a knowledgeable friend of yours who stayed there? I think Roccco is miffed because , being that RPS is always full, they will not negotiate discounts directly with travellers! That may be a pain if you like to arrange your own travel, but on the other hand, it does indicate that people not only pay the RPS price, they happily do it again & again on return trips.)

Finally, John Coppingers camps always get great reviews (Tafika is in South Luangwa). Haven't stayed here, but have heard from tourists and locals that they were very happy.

And unlike Luangwa River Lodge, these places have established reputations with people who have worked in safari camps in Zambia for years. That doesn't mean I wouldn't go to Luangwa River Lodge (I'd like to try it sometime) it just means that I wouldn't build a whole Zambia itinerary around a lodge the (like Puku Ridge!!!) is built/run by newbies who are not from the area!! (In fact Star has lots more experience, because they ran safaris in Zim before moving to Zambia...and look at all the "kinks" in their new operations...
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Apr 25th, 2005, 07:36 AM
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We are in process of loking at the other lodges. Kapani has availability for the days we need. Checking into Luangwa River Lodge also. Anyone who has stayed at these lodges, please let us know. Another alternaitve is one of the lodges in Lower Zambezi such as Old Mondoro or Chiawa or Sausage Tree -- Has anyone stayed at these? We are at Kasaka for 4 nights already and the Kaingo - Mwamba camps for 6 nights. Trying to fill in the three nights in between. Thanks
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Apr 25th, 2005, 10:02 AM
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Tasha,

Actually, I have friends who stayed at Nkwali and loved it. Curiously enough, they stayed there because they were able to cut quite a good deal and get a direct booking. However, it is worth noting that they were a family of nine, but it was still cheaper than Star Of Africa was willing to do for them.

With 6 nights that will be previously spent at Kaingo & Mwamba, I just thought it would be nice for mpkp and d110pickup to enjoy the personal service and luxury that they are more likely to receive at Luangwa River Lodge than at Robin Pope Safaris.

No doubt about it, at RPS, there will be more experienced people there. However, Luangwa River Lodge is doing things their own way, and I can appreciate that. My wife does things similarly with her business. Rather than hiring an experienced person (or as she says, a "corrupted" person), she would much rather train someone with little or no experience to meet her own (higher) standards.

Perhaps this is not what everyone is looking for, but I love the fact that the guides are excused for dinner. Not to sound like a snob, but I will get enough of dinner with the guides at the other lodges, and I very much appreciate the fact that I will be hosted, instead, by a well-educated, well-traveled British couple that is roughly my own age.

How many times has dinner conversation been forced with guides while dining? I mean beyond the flora and fauna, what conversation do you share with a guide whom has never set foot outside of Africa and has few or none of the life experiences that we, as wealthy westerners or northerners have come to know?

One day I would love to visit Tena Tena and Nkwali, but for a 3 night stay that will follow 3 nights at Kaingo and 3 nights at Mwamba, now that Puku Ridge has seemingly dropped the ball, I think that Luangwa River Lodge would be an excellent choice. Bushcamp Company seems like a quality operation, but they already have their bushcamp in Mwamba.

However, I do not think they could go wrong with either Nkwali or Luangwa River Lodge. I just think that availability at Nkwali may pose a problem at this point, and again think that Luangwa River Lodge will offer a nice luxurious and personalized experience that would complement the Kaingo/Mwamba experience very well.
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Apr 25th, 2005, 02:32 PM
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Tashak,

You make a good point re the guides at Luangwa River Lodge (or Tamarind as it is still known as locally). When we were at Nkwali & Kapani this year we asked how a new lodge finds their guides. The feedback was that in the off-season they use the "spare" guides from the more established places (I think these are the guides that are usually at the various bushcamps associated with the main camps). However once the peak season comes and the bushcamps open, all these guides go back to the bush camps. Both the managers at the two places we stayed commented that they didn't really know where Tamarind would get its guides from during the peak season.

So Roccco, if you haven't already done so, I urge you to ask about who the guides will be during the time you are there and where they trained / what experience they have.

Also it's worth adding that the impression we got is that there is definitely a "career path" for guides - Rocky is a good example; he started at Mfuwe Lodge, moved to Kafunta, then to RPS where he is the main guide at Tena Tena when it opens and at Nkwali during the off-season.
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Apr 25th, 2005, 03:03 PM
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Call me naive, but I also think that the guests have plenty of influence over the guides. For one second I will not tolerate a guide that I believe is putting me in danger on a bush walk or game drive. Canoeing is harder to gauge the danger on, because, after all, you are getting into a little canoe in a very big river with an incredibly high number of crocs and hippos all around.

Canoeing in the Zambezi is more of a thrill sport, if you ask me, tantamount to bungee jumping or sky diving. I will not deny that I feared for my life while at Kulefu, but this was my own choice as I jumped into the canoe with Morad, the most fearless guide I have yet met, not once, but twice. However, Morad's actions were never without my own consent, although had he done the same thing with another person, it may have well led to someone posting a similarly negative report about Kulefu.

I had my own issues with Kulefu that I have previously reported, but my time in the canoe with Morad was one of the few highlights at Kulefu.

So, simply put, I do think that guests have to let the guides know what is and what is not acceptable to them. I have a feeling that I likely went on a bush walk with the very same national park scout, but my walks were led by Nic Polenakis, a very experienced guide who is the best guide I have ever had. My point is not to blame the guest, but I am saying that I think I will have more of a command of the situation while with my assigned guide.

I spent four days with Rocky at Kafunta, and while he was a competent guide, he did not strike as a "great" guide. He was very nice, but soft spoken and I definitely consider Josephatt who has remained at Kafunta to be a better guide than Rocky. So, just because Rocky is at Nkwali now and Josephatt is still at Kafunta, I don't think that says anything about their ability.
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Apr 25th, 2005, 04:24 PM
  #13
 
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This message is for Mpkp.
Last June my husband & I spend 3 nights at Chiawa, 4 nights at Sausage Tree and 2 nights at Old Mondaro. My prefered camp is Sausage Tree hands down; Jason & Kelly were outstanding host/hostess. Nothing was too much trouble for them. They always greeted us with a smile and offered us an ice cold drink when we returned back to camp after our daily exsurions of fishing, walking, canoeing, game drive or cruising around the river. Matter of fact we're returning this June for 6 nights!!! I love this place!

I enjoyed both Chiawa & Old Mondaro, but my favorite was Sausage Tree. If you wish, pls drop me a line at [email protected] for additional information.
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Apr 25th, 2005, 07:13 PM
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PS to Roccco: I absolutely LOVE the fact that you do immense amounts of research which you are willing to share, and I respect your spirit of adventure about trying new places and camps. We are all looking forward to your reports after your upcoming trip...now if you would always just add "I haven't been here yet, but this looks good to me for these reasons"...just like you did in the previous post in this thread...well then I would never have reason to disagree with you!! (Wink, wink, friendly nudge!)
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Apr 26th, 2005, 03:45 AM
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Thanks. We have heard back with no problems cancelling the reservation at puku ridge. Now we just need to figure out where we want to stay for those few days. Will let you know.
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Jun 21st, 2005, 08:20 PM
  #16
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Just to set things straight, Rodgers has been fired and his problems shouldn't be held against this lovely camp.
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Jun 21st, 2005, 10:11 PM
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I am looking forward to my 3 nights at Puku Ridge with great anticipation. After originally switching to Luangwa River Lodge, I will now be splitting 6 nights between Luangwa River Lodge and Puku Ridge.

Given the fact that this is said to be a very dry year, I expect to enjoy incredible game viewing right from camp. There are very few lodges that enjoy the incredible view of Puku Ridge. Their swimming pool is also pretty great!

http://www.star-of-africa.com/gallery/pukuss.htm
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Jun 26th, 2005, 10:20 AM
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Pleased that Rodgers has gone. Nevertheless I'd recommend a good deal of caution - it's taken Star of Africa an age to respond to some really serious issues - no walking safety briefing, no radio, no first aid kit, incompetent guard, abject night drives, real danger. Although Rodgers may have left, you have to ask whether there is any system in place to make certain that things are now ok. I don't spook easily - a couple of Zambezi canoe safaris and a lot of walking will bear that out - but Puku Ridge was not acceptable at all
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Jun 26th, 2005, 12:55 PM
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I stayed at Phil Berry's bushcamp, Kuyenda, which is in the general area of Puku Ridge and loved it! While Bushcamp Co. is known for their walking safaris, we did game drives at all the camps...no problem for them. Another camp of theirs is Chamilandu, which is right on the banks of the Luangwa River. I'd recommend any of their camps.
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Jun 26th, 2005, 05:52 PM
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uksafarigoer,

I have had only excellent guiding while at two different Star Of Africa camps.

At Chichele Presidential Lodge, Nic Polenakis is the finest guide I have ever experienced. I could be wrong but he may be a silent shareholder in Star Of Africa. He is not at Chichele or any other Star Of Africa camp this year, but I have not allowed that to dissuade me from ending my Zambian safari at Puku Ridge. It is just an incredibly beautiful tented camp. Each tent is enormous, features a sunken bath, an incredible balcony, as well as an indoor shower and an outdoor shower. I don't know any South Luangwa camp that offers better views.

While I was at Kulefu Tented Camp, their Lower Zambezi property, again the guiding was excellent. Unfortunately I arrived too early in the season for quality game viewing in Lower Zambezi (early June), but each Andy and Morad were excellent guides.

Star Of Africa is not perfect and could improve in some areas, but I have no issues against their guiding or the interior design of their camps.

Also, it is important to note that the vehicles at Chichele and Puku Ridge that I saw were all newer Land Rovers and very comfortable in comparison to some other vehicles at South Luangwa camps that I have visited and the other vehicles I have seen on the road.

Another positive about Star Of Africa is that I found them to be completely flexible and not at all regimented. While at Kulefu I was able to do morning game drives, mid afternoon canoeing and night game drives.

On a final note, I will say that I found Star Of Africa to be very generous. Despite the fact that Chichele Presidential Lodge was only about 25% capacity when I was there, I have no doubt that they were employing 20+ local people at that lodge. Also, upon my departure, they sent my wife and I away with about half a dozen fresh baked muffins for our journey home. The guide made no protest whatsoever when we gave these fresh backed goods away to a local woman with children in Mfuwe, and did not even protest when we emptied out their ice chest and gave away all the soft drinks and water away.

Needless to say, I have a very different opinion of Star Of Africa.
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