The great Zambezi River (literally meaning “Great River” in the local Tonga language) is the very lifeline of central-southern Africa, a place of legend, adventure and breath-taking beauty. Rising in a remote corner of Zambia before flowing through Angola and turning back to form the natural boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Zambezi is beguiling, and deceptive. It lures you in with its ever so sluggish demeanour as it wends its way to its ultimate union with the Indian Ocean on the Mozambican coast. Hippos snort, crocodiles bask on the sunny banks and vast herds of wild game come to quench their thirst and disappear again into the surrounding wilderness. This is without doubt, one of the most beautiful areas of Africa.
In these gentle upper reaches you will find Sindabezi Island. Think Robinson Crusoe meets the pages of House & Home. There are just 5 simple wood and thatched chalets nestled around the island. Luxury linens, billowing mosquito nets, copper basins and, in some, even ball and claw baths add elegance to the simplicity. Each chalet is completely open to the front offering unfettered views onto the river, while remaining completely shielded from your neighbours. At night you can cocoon yourself inside by lowering the canvas sides or choose to leave everything open and experience the magic of the African night. Listen to the hippos snorting and the elephants trumpeting as they cross between Zimbabwe and Zambia under the cover of darkness or if you are lucky, watch the inky dark of night come alive with a shower of fireflies.
If you can drag yourself away from your chalet the island offers several intimate spots to enjoy, from the cosy lounge on a rare chilly evening, to private dining decks or even a small plunge pool to cool off in the heat of summer. Let’s not forgetting the roaring fire pit, perfect for whiling away the evenings with tall tales of your adventures.
There is no shortage of things to do while here: river cruises; exploring deserted islands on foot with a sand bar lunch or sundowners; visiting the awesome beauty of the Victoria Falls; relaxing with a spot of fishing; visits to local villages and markets; and maybe even a private dinner on a sampan floating in the middle of the Zambezi. When the river’s seasonal ebb softens the flow guests at Sindabezi are able to visit Livingstone Island at the precipice of the falls. With water flowing either side plunging into the steamy cauldron below you can peer over the edge in wonder.
A stay at Sindabezi is a real treat for the soul, taking a complete break from the pace of the modern world and relaxing into a rhythm of times long past. The true nature of the river, however, is revealed as it unleashes its spectacular power at the Victoria Falls. Creating the world’s single largest curtain of water, stretching 1.7 km (1.1miles) when in full flow (usually peaking in April each year). The water plunges into the gasping chasm below creating one of the greatest natural spectacles on the planet. The power of the water tumbling over the falls creates a spray that can rise up to nearly a kilometre high (3,200ft) creating a cloud of mist that can be seen from miles around. This great plume of mist combined with the bellowing sound of the crashing water gives rise to the local name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders.
The furious waters find their escape, carving a deep channel through the landscape. On the way unyielding rock in its eternal battle with the river provide some of the world’s greatest white-water rafting, a true white-knuckle adventure. Forging ever onwards the river is eventually tamed by man. The giant Kariba dam wall stops the river in its tracks and in doing so creates Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake by volume. When the dam was built and the valley slowly filled with water, one of the world’s largest wildlife rescues took place thanks to Operation Noah. In the process thousands of animals were relocated to the Matusadona National Park forming much of the southern boundary of the new lake. Over the decades the lake has settled, the wildlife flourished and today it is a true haven.
Perched high above the lake with commanding views in all directions is the luxury Bumi Hills Safari Lodge. Bumi Hills is one of the oldest properties on the lake but has recently been completely transformed to become a world class resort.
10 luxury rooms together with a 2-bedroom family suite provide a luxury haven for the weary traveller. The rooms exude modern African style with every creature comfort including sumptuous en-suite bathrooms, air-conditioning, battery charging points and inclusive mini-bars. In addition, each room offers a private viewing deck to soak up the endless vistas. For those in the family villa privacy is taken even further with your own private butler and private vehicle for all excursions.
The sense of luxury carries through to the main lodge area. A large rim-flow pool, complete with palm tree and shaded day beds remind one of a tropical beach resort, with the shimmering waters of the lake below masquerading as the ocean. And expansive deck with never ending views leads you to the ultimate fire pit for long evenings under the southern skies.
Days are spent weaving your way through the lake’s ethereal flooded forests by boat,
watching majestic elephants in the water, and as the day wanes witness some of the finest sunsets in the world. On land you can head out on foot or in open 4×4 vehicles in search of the wildlife that is free to move along the lake shore from the Matusadona National Park, with lions being regularly sighted.
However, man could only tame the relentless push of the river for a while, and onward it forges from Kariba spanning out into floodplains that are home to a spectacular richness of wildlife. To the south of the river at this point lies the incredible Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site recognized for its unadulterated wilderness. Hugging the Zambian northern banks of the river is the Lower Zambezi National Park, with the Zambezi Escarpment rising above the floodplains providing a dramatic backdrop. On both sides you will find a scattering of wildlife lodges, allowing a lucky few to experience this remote wilderness.
Few of the properties in the area can match the history and exclusivity of Chiawa Camp. In 1991 Chiawa “opened its tent flaps” to the very first ever paying guests to the Lower Zambezi National Park. Ever since Chiawa has been instrumental in supporting, protecting and growing the area as one of the finest safari destinations in Africa.
8 double tents and a grand safari suite are strung out along the riverbank, all offering unrestricted views of the teaming wildlife action that lies just beyond. In the true spirit of the best bush camps in Africa, Chiawa Camp is all about blurring the boundaries of indoors and outdoors. The luxury furnishing and creature comforts of the tents are combined with an openness that allows guests to feel they really are at one with the bush surrounding them. Often guests relaxing on their comfortable private day beds will be entranced by the sounds of the bush only to be jolted out of their reverie by a passing elephant.
Chiawa is all about the wildlife experience, and the wildlife is there in abundance thanks to the life-giving Zambezi River. Game drives and walking safaris in the park provide close encounters that match any game reserve in Africa. However, the uniqueness of the area is the incredible experiences that are available on the water. Here you can opt to head out in motorboats and glide down the river as hippos bob up and down like an aquatic game of whack-a-mole and game from far and wide come to the banks to slake their thirst. For the ultimate river wildlife adventure take to the water in a canoe. Here you feel utterly immersed in the grandeur of the nature that surrounds you and offered a unique view of Africa’s big game.
All along its length the mighty Zambezi River sustains life and provides endless adventure for those who visit. Be warned though, once the river has cast its spell on you, you are unlikely to ever want to leave.
Warwick Blow is owner of Safari In Style. Safari In Style uses more than 50 years of personal experience to create tailor-made unique journeys through Africa’s finest safari destinations.