That special touch
by Dave Gibson
Most midrange and all luxury African lodges and permanent tented camps provide nice accommodations and good food. Of the fifteen I’ve been privileged to visit over the years, three stand out in my mind as being better than the rest. Chongwe River Camp, in southeastern Zambia, is one of those. What sets it apart doesn’t have anything to do with the cuisine or accouterments – although both are superb – but rather the attention to detail and friendly staff that enhance your stay. Chongwe River Camp makes every effort to ensure that your time spent there exceeds already high expectations.
I knew when the pilot circled, waiting for elephants to clear the dirt runway, that I’d chosen a good destination for my adventure. The large pachyderms also blocked my way when Chongwe hosts greeted me upon arrival at camp. A couple of waving staff members were always there to welcome me back from game drives or half day fishing with a smile, sometimes a hug, and a cool washcloth. Idyllically positioned across from Lower Zambezi National Park, at the confluence of the Chongwe and Zambezi Rivers, during September and October winter thorn fruit falls from the arching branches of the winter thorn trees which attracts elephants that frequent the grounds. If there isn’t enough fruit around, they push the trunks of the trees until more falls. Constantly about, one must be vigilant of the elephants’ presence – giving them a wide berth. Moseying hippos are paid the same respect. Elephants used to drink from the swimming pool until they built a barrier around it to alleviate swimmers’ concerns.
All eight of the classic safari tents and two upscale suites face the Chongwe River. Appointed with comfortable king size beds and fluffy pillows, a screened door separates the sleeping chamber from the outdoor bathroom. A stick fence encircles it to provide privacy and a measure of security from wandering beasts. Chongwe is the only camp or lodge that I’ve stayed where an insulated pitcher of potable ice water was always in my tent or room. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are included in the price. One day, the housekeeper fashioned an elephant from a clean towel and set it on my bed.
Whether you prefer game drives in a 4WD vehicle, walking safaris, canoeing, or fishing, Chongwe River Camp has something for everyone. Morning and afternoon drives in Lower Zambezi N.P. are quite often productive. During the dry season when green grass is nonexistent, antelope that are normally grazers become browsers of the brush until the rains return in late November. Two of my mornings were spent next to lions on an African Cape buffalo kill. A new pride was taking shape, comprised of two not yet fully-maned males and a flirtatious and very willing female. Rubbing her head against a suitor and slinking around him, she would settle on the ground in front with raised rump awaiting copulation. As one male fed on the buffalo, the other bred and vice versa. At times the male would snarl and gently bite her ears. At one point, there was a lion feeding ahead of me and a lion to either side. I wasn’t sure which one to keep an eye on let alone take a picture of! After a few days, they abandoned the half-eaten carcass, not to return. Vultures swooped-in creating a cloud of dust that enveloped their squabbles. Three and a half months later, two to four lion cubs will be born.
Before a gourmet dinner, hour-long night game drives in the Game Management Area are conducted. Three drives resulted in five porcupines, four hyenas, two leopards, a Pel’s fishing owl, a civet, a genet, an elephant shrew, and a crocodile that nearly swam into our Land Rover! Aromatic jasmine trees sweetened the still night air. On one of our night game drives we came upon carefully arrayed torches. Camp staff had arranged a surprise bush buffet replete with lounge chairs from which to enjoy a cocktail around the campfire. The moon was full and a telescope had been set up for enhanced lunar viewing – yet another example of that special touch with which Chongwe River Camp regales its guests.