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Sneak Preview Report...Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa...

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Jun 12th, 2004, 09:31 AM
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Sneak Preview Report...Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa...

Well, I must be brief because I only have about 15 minutes free before I board my flight from Joburg to London.

First off, let me say that I love Zambia more than ever, and I will never return to Italy again unless it is on a top cruise ship like Radisson, Seabourn, Crystal or Silversea. While Zambians are the warmest and friendliest people I have ever met throughout my travels, Italians, on the other hand, are the least friendly and most unappreciative people I have ever met.

In any event, I will just write a couple paragraphs about Italy since I need to justify my villification.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was travelling with a group of 40 people half the time or the fact that I was staying in 3.5* hotels, rather than in 5* hotels, but even so, everything was a struggle...it was if they wanted a confrontation in half the places, and I am talking from the bottom all the way up to the hotel managers.

Why Americans continue to flock to Italy is beyond me. It was a zoo and I was there in late May...I hate to imagine what late June - early September is like in Italy when there are twice as many people.

Moving on...the Lower Zambezi is a beautiful area but Kulefu, unfortunately, is Star Of Africa's "Red-Headed Step-Child." While it was right on the riverfront a couple years ago, a flood took care of that, and now it sits back about 1,500' from the riverfront...not a terribly long distance, but enough so that you cannot just sit on your porch or balcony to enjoy the view.

The managing couple, Andy and Catherine, and the primary guide, Morad, and the rest of the staff, were really the only positive things that this camp has going for itself. They were very low on supplies for our entire four night stay, as they awaited a supply truck coming in all the way from Livingstone or Lusaka. The manager actually had to beg of tomatos from a lodge a few miles away to satisfy scaredtodeath's dietary requirements.

Also, unfortunately, the game viewing was poorer than at any camp I have ever experienced. I do think I just had a streak of bad luck because right before I arrived, one of the other guests was just returning from a game drive on which he saw not one, not two, but THREE leopards...that is two more leopards than I saw during my entire 11 nights in Zambia, having many other close calls where I just happened to be in the wrong vehicle or arriving a day late.

It was COLD in Lower Zambezi, dipping down to about 40 degrees f. each night. Three blankets and hot water bottles were fine for sleeping but game drives were not very comfortable.

Also, I wanted to do a couple game walks but Kulefu could not get a ranger. I was so disappointed with the gameviewing and lack of bush walks that I actually braved the hippo and croc infested Zambezi River, not once, but twice! We literally went through walls of 30+ hippos a couple times and at other times, while in narrow channels not more than 10 meters across, waited for 5 minutes for a descending hippo to surface, only for the hippo not to surface and then paddle for our lives through the narrow channel. Again, I was so bored that I did this not once, but twice!

I did have a chance to see Kasaka River Lodge and that is a beautiful first class camp! I regret not taking them up on their offer of $300 pppns, $100 pppns more than Kulefu, but a million times nicer. Kasaka even had a resident jack russell/dachsund mix named Vodka that I am sure scaredtodeath would have loved the entire time.

Anyway, thankfully my trip did not end at Kulefu, but it did take the wind out of our sails before arriving to South Luangwa.

South Luangwa is the best! My four nights at Kaingo were a lot of fun and Kaingo was really nicer than I had expected. Plus it was in a very isolated northern part of the park, with no other operating lodges anywhere close. Only once during our four nights did we encounter another vehicle.

Our gameviewing was much better at Kaingo. Although I didn't see a single leopard, we did see lions, hyenas, too many elephants, giraffe, zebra, puku, impala, kudu, genet (sp.?), civet (sp.?), mongoose, thousands of hippos and crocs, and the best birding that I have ever seen anywhere.

Derek Shenton is a really nice, down to earth, guy, and his mother and niece were in camp at the time and they were both great. Our primary guide, who also acts as the assistant manager (with Derek Shenton and his femme-du-jour, Juliet, act as the primary managers), was a British guy named Ian, who formerly ran Kulefu two years ago when it was still known as Kiambi, before Star Of Africa bought it out.

Ian was really nice and very knowledgable, guiding for the last 20 years, after first coming to Zambia to act as a teacher in the Copperbelt region, but then being offered a job by a game lodge owner that he met at the airport the night before he was due to return to England. 20 years later he is still there and seems to love it.

Ian did show us his guest register from Kiambi (Kulefu) and it does seem like it used to be a great place, but he says now the very best place is Chiawa, with Sausage Tree Camp next.

Anyway, the honeymoon suite at Kaingo is not ultraluxurious, but it is very nice and has its own private outdoor bathtub overlooking the Zambezi. We paid only $160 pppns for this room and it was well worth it. I am sure that this was probably close to half price, but I don't feel too terrible about paying just a fraction more than the rest of Southern Africa, instead of being charged full American/European rates.

Kaingo was very flexible and after we had our sattelite phone stolen by some piece of **** Italians at the airport (after it was checked in), Kaingo allowed us to use their sattelite phone, although we did have to pay $3 USD per minute. The Italians also got us for our DVD player which made Kulefu hell for scaredtodeath. At least Kaingo allowed scaredtodeath access to the kitchen and she had a blast doing a lot of the cooking and hanging out with the staff.

I am nearly ready to board, but moving onto Chichele Presidential Lodge, all I can say is that in my opinion it is right there, neck and neck, with SINGITA! Nic and Tracy are the very best managers that I have yet encountered. Besides being great people, Nic is the best guide that I have yet come across...he really is deserving of his own television show and leads each game drive and bush walk as if he is leading you through a television show. Tracy was a sweetheart and allowed scaredtodeath use of her laptop computer for the entire three nights so that she could watch her DVD's that the Italians left behind.

We passed on our two nights at Puku Ridge, not wanting anymore tented camps after our bad experience at Kulefu, and Star Of Africa tried to charge us $40 pppns more for our extra two nights at Chichele but we refused to pay it and after telling them about our experience at Kulefu, they quickly yielded and apologized.

But, I did have the opportunity to visit Puku Ridge and it is an incredible lodge, with HUGE rooms, and beautiful common areas overlooking a nice plain with plenty of game, even in early June. By August it just must be filled with game.

The food at Chichele was excellent...at least as good as Singita. The only place it fell short of Singita was with the room, yet the room was still bigger than most junior suites or even suites, at a hotel. The room measured about 800 sq. ft., but with the balcony, I am sure that it was closer to 1000 sq. ft.

The common areas at Chichele are BEAUTIFUL. It would have been absolutely perfect if they had music going at dinnertime. It is such an elegant place and the staff was the best staff I have experienced at any game lodge, including Singita.

On one of our morning game drives, Nic entertained the request of the guests in the vehicle and instead of arriving back to the lodge by 9AM for breakfast, he kept going on the game drive until after 1PM!!! It was over a seven hour game drive and the best drive I have ever had. Although we didn't see leopard, there was plenty of other game and just his knowledge and patience to explain everything made it the best drive I have had yet.

On another day, we went out for a bush walk, and we really walked! It was just over four hours and we must have covered at least 9 miles and encountered at least five groups of elephants. While the elephants were close enough to take good photos, Nic never put us in harms way.

Even at the full rack rate of $425 pppns, Chichele would be totally worth it, but I am sure that a better rate is possible, as the lodge was only at 30% capacity (3 rooms out of 10). There was another American couple staying there and they paid the full rack rate, and while I felt bad for them in the beginning, after our political stances did not agree, I have no regrets.

If I had to do this trip over again, I would have not combined Italy with Zambia...just too long. Also, I would have opted for 10 nights in South Luangwa, and left out the Lower Zambezi, staying three nights at Kaingo, three nights at Puku Ridge and three nights at Chichele. Although Puku Ridge and Chichele are only separated by perhaps 3 kilometers (2 miles), they are both such great places that I do think they are each worthy of three nights. Also, Kaingo is in a very unique area and offers a completely different, but quality, experience.

That's all for now...I have plenty of great pics to post in the coming days.

Cheers.
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Jun 13th, 2004, 05:09 PM
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cant wait to hear the rest of your report rocco. i look forward to your pictures and more descriptions. hope you've gotten home by now.
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Jun 14th, 2004, 12:51 AM
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Great airport report, Rocco. So was your dvd player stolen at the airport or elsewhere in Italy? We are thinking of getting one before our trip to Europe. BTW, which one did you get? I'm so sorry it's gone - can your trip insurance help? Or your homeowner's insurance might cover it.
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Jun 14th, 2004, 11:09 AM
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Roccco thanks as always for your trip report from Zambia. Living vicariously through your report for now.

I followed up a post you made earlier about a great deal at Bushcamp Company and booked 8 nights in S.Luangwa and will be going this September.

Welcome home and look forward to hearing more on your Zambia adventures.
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Jun 14th, 2004, 08:34 PM
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Welcome home!

One leopard in eleven days?#-o

Can't wait for your trip report!
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Jun 15th, 2004, 09:40 AM
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Oh I have been waiting for this - a HUGE exhale of thanks now that I have heard how much you liked Chichele! I am so happy we booked there, even though you had been singing the praises of Puku Ridge. How was Mwamba and the food at Kaingo? Can't wait to hear about the whole trip!
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Jun 15th, 2004, 03:54 PM
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Safarinut,

I know that one leopard in 11 nights sounds pathetic, but I was just terribly unlucky. There were others that had a total of two nights at some of the places I was staying and they saw three leopards in a single night. This happened both at Kulefu, just as I was arriving, and at Chichele, when unfortunately I was in the wrong vehicle.

What was missed in leopards, was definitely made up for in other experiences, and especially in birding, when, even I, could not help myself from getting excited at certain birds, even learning to identify perhaps a couple dozen different birds.

This trip also showed us tragedy in the bush, with the spotting of a month old lion cub who, unfortunately, had been gored to death by buffalo, as well as other animals that met their demise.

Also, not previously mentioned, I had so many close encounters with elephants on this trip. I would never have imagined that in the South Luangwa that this would occur, but the ellies were just EVERYWHERE! I even experienced my first mock charge, while in camp at Kaingo, and you have never seen a fat American spring so fast! While the ellie only took a couple steps, I took a couple hundred before looking back.

On another occasion, an elephant bull chased our vehicle on our final night at Chichele, trumpeting the whole way. While it was probably a good ten meters behind us, it felt as if I was going to be impaled on an elephant tusk, as scaredtodeath and I were in the last row. That was quite a rush, and I screamed like a little girl.

I promise that Chichele and Puku Ridge hold their own against any of the top game lodges in South Africa, and from the reports I heard from a couple that has visited Botswana on a couple occasions, having just arrived from a two week mobile safari, that the South Luangwa measures up very nicely. Also, while the weather was literally freezing and less than freezing each night in Botswana, it never dipped down below about 50 degrees f. at night in the South Luangwa, and was a very pleasant 77 - 80 deg. f. each day, allowing for swimming one day in the Chichele PL swimming pool.

Hopefully I will have pictures posted by this weekend. I am glad to report that I have actually learned to use my camera properly after 2.5 years, and I had no problems, whatsoever, with my camera, as I had feared I would.

Cheers.
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Jun 15th, 2004, 09:53 PM
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Roccco

Sorry to read about your bad luck with leopard sightings but it sounds like you had a great trip.Can't wait to read your trip report!
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Jun 16th, 2004, 04:26 PM
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melissaom,

Ultimately, I stayed my entire four nights at Kaingo's main lodge, passing on my two nights at Mwamba. After Kulefu, the last thing I wanted was a bush camp, and Mwamba is nearly identical to Kafunta Island Bush Camp. While under most circumstances I would welcome such a camp, after roughing it for four nights at Kulefu, the last thing I wanted was a rustic bush camp.

The food at Kaingo was pretty good, although the only food that I shared with the other guests was breakfast. Kaingo serves a hot breakfast each morning, in addition to fresh fruit, cereals and toast. The waiter will take your order for eggs (scrambled, fried, poached, omellete or however you want them), baked beans, grilled vegetables, bacon, sausage, etc.

My dinners, however, were all specially prepared by scaredtodeath, as she was given full security clearance and took control of Kaingo's kitchen during our stay!

She successfully changed my menu, making such modifications as substituting pizza in place of quiche for a couple of my lunches, steak instead of pork for dinner, and, don't ask me how, but was even able to make refried beans and Mexican rice to go with fajitas that she made for me one night!

Scaredtodeath did insist on stopping at the produce market in Mfuwe en route to Kaingo, and after the experience we had at Kulefu, who could blame her? It was really fun, stocking up on organic vegetables and fruit, paying the equivalent of $7 USD for what would have been quadruple the price in Los Angeles, and she was probably being overcharged!

No cooking by scaredtodeath was necessary at Chichele, as the food was excellent. Upon arrival from Kaingo, they were just putting out a lunch of...CHICKEN ENCHILADAS...AND THEY WERE GREAT! They even had guacamole, sliced avocados and hot sauce to accompany the enchiladas.

On another occasion, we had pasta and it was better than any pasta I had in my 11 nights in Italy.

The wines and liquor at Chichele were all very high quality and they flowed quite freely, although after a single night of indulgence in Italy, I never had more than a couple drinks a day for the remainder of my trip.

I cannot express enough how nice the staff at Chichele is and how genuinely warm the staff is to the guests. Their appearance is also impeccable and while they take a lot of pride in their work, they never forget that they are there to jump as high as they can for the guests.

Upon our departure, we were already a couple minutes away on the road, when the vehicle was summoned back to Chichele because they had forgotten to give scaredtodeath a plateful of very tasty homemade muffins that she wanted to take with her. As we pulled back into Chichele, one of the waiters was waiting at the entry pillars with a beaming smile on his face and presented scaredtodeath with the muffins. Once in town, we found a mother with children and gave her the plateful of muffins.

Just a note about Kaingo's also excellent service. I forgot my battery charger at Kaingo, and Kaingo made a two hour drive to Chichele the very next day to deliver my battery charger! I would have been DEAD had I not had my battery charger and would have missed out on at least 75 pictures that I eventually took at Chichele and Puku Ridge. I didn't stay at Puku Ridge, after all, wanting to spend all my time at Chichele after seeing how amazingly beautiful it was, but I did think highly enough of Puku Ridge to request a visit and I did take perhaps a dozen photographs of Puku Ridge.

I cannot wait to post some of the elephant pictures I took this year. One elephant especially seemed like it was actually posing and allowed us to turn off the vehicle and observe from within 10 meters! One picture actually has this cow puckering up, making an "O" with her lips while lifting her trunk to the sky.

Melissaom, I am sure that you are going to have a fabulous time at Chichele. Hopefully they listen to my advice and start playing some themed music at dinnertime. With the right music, it would be easy to believe that you are in a different decade, if not a different century, with Chichele's antique Victorian decor.

You really should request Nic as your guide. I don't know if they will make any promises, but he is the best guide I have seen yet. I did a google search on him, Nic Polenakis, and there are a couple bio's on him, stating all his credentials. He did manage to spot three leopards during my first night at Chichele, but I was in the other vehicle for my first night and we only caught up to one of his spottings.

That's all for now.
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Jun 17th, 2004, 08:08 AM
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Roccco, thanks for your report; can't wait to see the photos.

You and scaredtodeath are now the only two people who I know have been twice to South Luangwa. When I visited that park in August 2001 I hadn't come across anyone who had even been once and I wasn't sure how the experience would be, but it turned out to be a great park. I didn't see any leopards there either.

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Jun 17th, 2004, 10:47 AM
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Thit cho,

When I was in Luangwa a few years ago I met an American in his 80's who had been on over 40 safaris (many for a long as a month or more!) He had visited Zambia (specifically Robin Pope's camps) over and over again and spent much of our US winters on continuous safari...I suppose it could be considered the retirement safari option!

Roccco I'm sorry you didn't enjoy Italy I've had so many wonderful times there over the years. For me the secret to a great time there is not better rated 5* hotels but smaller family run establishments.

I'm looking forward to your full report.
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Jun 17th, 2004, 04:13 PM
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Thit Cho,

Of course I would like to see Botswana, Tanzania and Namibia, but if I have the financial wherewithal to do so, there is no place that I would like to regularly visit more than the South Luangwa NP. While my opinion may change after visiting Botswana, as long as the prices and political situation remain stable in Zambia, South Luangwa is my number one choice.

Can you imagine a South African game lodge picking a guest up for free and transporting them two hours back to a lodge?

Can you imagine a South African game reserve making a four hour round trip by vehicle to a competing lodge to deliver a forgotten battery charger to a s*** for brains guest?

Can you imagine spending only $160 pppns for staying in the honeymoon suite at a Botswanan or South African game lodge, with airport transfers, alcoholic beverages, laundry and three game activities per day included?

How about spending only $200 pppns at a lodge, Chichele, that I honestly rank in the same league as Singita? Even the full rack rate is only $425 pppns, less than half that of Singita, and unlike Singita, including airport transfers, and unlike Singita, enough flexibility, as I experienced it, to allow a 7 hour morning game drive, and a 4+ hour bush walk?

It should also be noted that the food at Chichele is at least as good at Singita, and the service at Chichele is superior to the service at Singita. Plus, Chichele offers a much more intimate dining experience, with the option to dine at your own private table or with the group.

Another thing I love about Zambia is the warmth of the Zambian people. Children rarely fail to wave enthusiastically to passing vehicles from the lodges as they pass through their villages (to and from the airport, but also in very small villages between the three hour drive from Kafunta to Kafunta Island Bush Camp).

Also, it should be noted that South Luangwa is an amazingly scenic park, with the Luangwa River, Chichele Hill, various lagoons, towering ancient Baobab Trees, Sausage Trees, Mopani Forests, the tallest Palm trees I have ever seen, and an incredible assortment of birds and other animals.

As I have said too many times already, my 11 nights in Zambia (4 nights at Kulefu, 4 nights at Kaingo and 3 nights at Chichele) cost me less than 2 nights at Singita would have cost me. Even if I upgraded to nicer lodges, I still would have had 10 nights (3 nights Kasaka River Lodge in the Lower Zambezi, 4 nights at Kaingo and 3 nights at Chichele).

Only in Zambia are guests able to deal so easily with most every lodge, and discounts are available at most lodges (Chiawa and Sausage Tree not included).

The perfect safari for me in a couple years will be the following:

3 nights at Puku Ridge
3 nights at Chichele
4 nights at Sand Rivers, Selous, Tanzania
3 nights at the Palms, Zanzibar
3 nights at Swala, Tarangire, Tanzania
2 nights at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
4 nights at Kirawira, Serengeti

It is an easy 2.5 hour charter flight between South Luangwa and Selous, and if I can get four other Fodorites together, it would be a very affordable transfer on an Airwaves Airlink 5 passenger plane. The pilot of my Airwaves transfer between Mfuwe to Lusaka said that he had flown guests before between South Luangwa and Selous.

But...that trip is possibly three years away. I think I may want to take a break from my beloved Africa and go to Australia and New Zealand next year, and possibly to Antarctica and Argentina the next year. That would give me all 7 continents prior to my 35th birthday.

Anyway...hope to have some pics posted this weekend.
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Jun 18th, 2004, 06:59 AM
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Good luck trying to hit all 7 continents. I had been to 6 by age 33, but I still haven't made it to Antartica.
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Jun 23rd, 2004, 10:45 PM
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Thanks for all the details and the guide suggestion, Rocco. I will definitely post after our trip as well as I think it will be interesting to compare the different seasons (we are going in October).

I am so excited!!!!!!!!!!!
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Jul 2nd, 2004, 02:44 PM
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Rocco
Wonderful to hear about your trip and such energy and warmth (in the good bits)... sounds fabulous...
I keep thinking I ought to fill in the gaps/ other continents. I'll be visiting my 6th (Antartica) later this year (having just turned 33) but am still missing Australasia from my list!
Of course, in reality, I'm dreaming of future trips to Africa and I only got back home this morning!
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