On our tenth day in Africa, after spending six nights in Cape Town and three nights on safari in Kruger National Park, we were transported by air and minibus to Zambia, a landlocked country in the heart of the southern half of the continent. It was the third and final leg of our African journey. We were spending four nights at Royal Chundu’s Island Lodge on the Zambezi River.
I was mentally prepared for luxury the likes of which I had never experienced. Even though we had gotten the fourth night free, it was still a little scary expensive. But Royal Chundu – the name means “meeting place of the chief” – did not disappoint. From the time we arrived, we were in a state of increasing awe. I am still processing it all.
As our minivan approached the gate and we saw the gatekeeper in his uniform, Mark and I both said under our breath, “Welcome to the Raj Palace!” We were reminded of the colonial splendor of our hotel in Jaipur, India. How insufferably global of us! Soon we were being heartily greeted by a trio of staff members headed by the vivacious Aggie, and served a welcome drink on the dockside deck. We were then presented with a menu of activities, ushered onto the pontoon boat, and were heading out to the island.
Royal Chundu is really two properties, operated as one. The River Lodge has ten villas on the banks of the Zambezi River. The Katombora Island Lodge, a leisurely 15-minute boat ride upstream, has four adults-only villas. We were heading to the island along with another American couple, Cindy and Phil, who we’d met at the airport. They had left their teenagers home in Tampa, Florida, and come to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. For Royal Chundu’s history and other details, read this story in Opulent Living magazine.
Aggie accompanied us to the island while Vasco and S.K. piloted the boat. On the way I mentioned that I had seen a story about Royal Chundu in a free magazine I picked up in a Cape Town mall. What!? They didn’t know about it! I fished it out of my bag, and watched their delight as they discovered that their pictures were in a Cape Town advertising mag!
Katombora Island is one of many that clutter the upper Zambezi in the broad floodplain above Victoria Falls. The water was at its lowest, but there was still a swift current swirling around the island, drawn by the 300-foot drop off at Victoria Falls downstream. Our room overlooked the channel between Katombora and another small island.
The private villa was built on posts, with a double shower, outdoor tub on the deck, and gigantic bed with a mosquito net enclosure. The suite was air-conditioned but, if we wanted an outdoors effect, we could open up the wall of glass doors to the deck. Our package was all-inclusive, which meant that all our meals, non-premium beverages, and on-site activities were included. Even the mini-bar, which was stocked with goodies including a bottle of champagne, was included.
When you think of all-inclusive, you might think of large resorts with flowing well drinks, huge groaning buffets, and huge groaning crowds of tourists. “Bad booze and bad food,” as our late, great friend Jim Casey would say. And bus tours owned and run by foreign investors, with most revenues going to foreign banks. It is an understatement to say that Royal Chundu is the antithesis of all that.
While enjoying a late lunch salad, we were presented with our detailed itinerary. All of the activities that we had requested, as well as meal times and locations, were listed for our convenience and approval. And this is how it went. Our every need was accommodated, and even more, anticipated. Would we like coffee delivered to our room in the morning, and at what time? It would be put into a little garage-like partition next to the door, so that we could retrieve it in complete privacy. No need to open the door and see anyone first thing in the morning.
At 5:00 p.m. we gathered at the dock with the other guests for the sunset cruise, joined by Cindy and Phil, a couple from Johannesburg, and a single guy named Mark. We soon learned that Mark marksissons.com, is a freelance travel journalist writing a story about Royal Chundu for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a bit of an ego trip to be able to keep up with him, trading stories about places we’ve been. Even better, he was interested in talking with us for his SFGate story because of the “local connection” to San Francisco.
Like the safari drives we went on in Kruger Park, the evening sunset cruises – and in fact, every single boat trip that we did over the four days we were at Royal Chundu – were a wildlife, birding, and indigenous culture safari. Being November in the Southern Hemisphere, we were there in spring, just as the rainy season was beginning. The landscape had just exploded into green, and the wildflowers were blooming everywhere.
The river was at its lowest, exposing many rocks and islands that are usually submerged. Over the four days we saw elephants and crocodiles at the water’s edge, hippos swimming in the river, baboons and monitor lizards in the bush, and birds everywhere.
And like the safari drives, we were served drinks and appetizers – our regular server Micheal had asked everyone ahead of time what they would like to drink, so they could bring it along on the boat.
Back at the island, there was a hot bubble bath waiting, and then dinner.
White tablecloths, silver appointments, and a three-course, three-star menu. The four tables were widely spaced but still close enough for a friendly word or wave to our neighbors, and the aura was a relaxed, hushed elegance. From the menu we chose Antipasti of Vegetables locally grown in the village; Pumpkin Ravioli, Berry Smoked Quail from the local school, and Zambezi Sea Bream caught by village fishermen. We wanted to split the Chocolate Fondant for dessert, but we could see that Micheal was disappointed that we were not each ordering one of the two dessert selections.
And so it would go for the next four days. Three fabulous meals each day, the likes of which you would expect at the very best restaurants you have ever been to. It was, far and away, some of the best food I have ever eaten and, taken in total, surpasses any previous four days of eating in my life. I really did feel like I was living in a bygone colonial era of fine china, linens, and silver in the African bush. Thankfully, I had brought a long muslin skirt and pashmina so that I could dress and feel a bit like a lady.
The first morning we rose early, and Vasco took us fishing before breakfast. Mark used a fly rod, trying for the famous fighting tiger fish, and I was given a spin rod, so I might catch a bream. We fished various rapids and eddies without any luck. Still, it was a beautiful morning, a great little tour of the surrounding islands, and a chance to get close to a very large crocodile. Afterward, breakfast for me was delicate fish cakes topped with two of the freshest poached eggs I have ever eaten. Mark took full advantage of the chance to eat the breakfast meats including pork, which we don’t have much in the UAE.
Next on the agenda was a midday tour of Mushekwa Village. Vasco took us in a speedboat, along with the other two couples, and we traveled downstream past the River Lodge, pulled up to the shore and were greeted by Edith Mushekwa, the midwife and daughter of the village founder.
Beautiful and gracious, Edith is one of those people who just shines like a star. Sadly, she told us, her husband died, so she raised her children on her own, and now cares for her grandchildren, while her son and daughter finish their educations; he is law school. She took us first to her garden, where she grows the vegetables that she sells to Royal Chundu. Other villagers have similar gardens which feed their families and provide income, and Edith explained how they work cooperatively to supply the resort’s kitchens. She then demonstrated the pedal pump that she uses to irrigate her garden. Having had several vegetable gardens throughout my life, I was immensely impressed. Edith pointed out that the tomato plants were stressed because of the recent rains, and she explained that she would coat their leaves with an oil mixture. Where would she get the oil, I wondered? We soon found out.
The manketti tree, also known as the mongongo, is a most important tree. It has been a source of food, oil, fuel, medicine, wood, string, and animal fodder in southern Africa for thousands of years. “Even the poorest people,” Edith said, “if they have this tree, can survive.” The manketti nuts can be eaten fresh or dried. Using a dried nut – the trees flower in October, and harvest is April to May – Edith showed us how to peel off the paper-thin first layer of shell, revealing an inner coating which she invited us to taste, and of course I did. It was gummy, a bit mealy, and slightly sweet. It reminded me of sponge candy, and tasted unexpectedly good. The nuts can be made into a number of soups, porridges, and hot drinks. But its biggest value is the oil in the kernel, which is skimmed off and used in food and skin care products.
We went through a gate in a reed fence and entered a large courtyard where preschool children were singing “If you’re happy and you know it” in an open-air classroom, next to the little village curio stand. The preschool teacher, we learned, is the wife of Royal Chundu’s Executive Chef. Edith proudly explained that this area was their big ongoing project, being built especially for visitors like us, as resources permitted.
“We thank you so much,” she said again and again, “because you come, and you help our village. If you did not come, we would be poor. You come, and we can have a better life. We have a future for our children.” They are building a shaded area for demonstrations of food preparation like the manketti as well as maize “mealy meal” porridge, and medicinal plants.
There was another plant Edith showed us that is good for treating diarrhea, which is a very serious health threat. Villagers use the clinic only as a last resort, if traditional methods don’t work. Many people do not understand the importance of sanitation, and there is no plumbing or running water. Or electricity, for that matter. A woman from the village was away that very day, receiving training.
Edith told us there would be a “Diarrhea Celebration.” Celebration? In our culture we might call it an “Education Fair.” The Diarrhea Celebration will be held in the big, open area used for games and gatherings. In addition to traditional medicine, there will be people from the clinic to present information on the importance of cleanliness and hygiene.
Then Edith took us to see the new toilet, a seat set over a 4-meter-deep hole inside a small hut. Of course there is no running water, but a cup of ashes is dropped in after each use to cover the mess. Ashes have many uses. We were allowed to look, because it isn’t being used just yet. They are still using the one right next to it but soon, when it’s full, they will dismantle the old toilet, fill up and cover the hole, and the new one will be ready. After using the toilet, the children are taught to wash their hands, using an upside-down water bottle, letting the water dribble out.
While those of us who have always had toilets at our disposal may think of this as quaint, it is serious business in the developing world. So serious, in fact, that the United Nations has designated November 19th as World Toilet Day. Perhaps that was the actual day of the upcoming Diarrhea Celebration. I don’t know.
We saw chicken coops, livestock fencing, kitchens, several types of ovens, and Edith’s beautiful little house, which she built with her own hands out of mud bricks that she made and placed, layer by layer. There was a beautiful pattern on one of the walls, which I thought was charming and creative. Before I could even comment, Edith laughed and told us, “People who come and see my house think that this is a design. But no, it’s like that because I was getting tired of smoothing the mud into the cracks; my fingers were getting worn. So I just poked it in.”
As we were walking around the village, following Edith and listening, I could feel emotion building. I could see, in Cindy’s face, the same things that I was thinking. This was overwhelming. These villagers have what we consider nothing, and yet they have so much beauty, so much dignity. Just a few kilometers upstream, we had everything. And here was the magnificent Edith, thanking us over, and over, and over again.
Because we were there, they could earn money to send their children to school, and improve the food security and health of the villagers. In fact, she said, because of visitors like us, the village was growing. Whereas they once only had 14 families, now they have 35. There are 500 people living in the three villages near Royal Chundu, some of whom work at the lodge as chefs, waiters, guides, drivers, and maintenance, and some who supply produce, eggs, meat, and fish.
On the boat ride back to Katombora Island, I had a sudden, strange urge to cry. It was all so much, the juxtaposition of the simplicity of the village and our lavish lives, the fact that we were eating the best food, and drinking and bathing in clean water. But to me, there was a special beauty about the natural, outdoor life of the village. The dirt floors were swept clean, the people were relaxing under shade trees in the midday heat, and Edith had her busy, productive life, surrounded by children. Everything had a purpose, was made with materials on hand. As Aggie later said, “They have nothing, and we have so much. But, who are the ones who are so happy? It is them.”
The next morning, Vasco took us for a guided walk on the island’s nature path. For me, one thing about Africa that was hard to adjust to was the fact that I couldn’t just take off by myself for a hike in the bush or a dip in the river. You never know when you are going to encounter a crocodile, or get between a hippo and the water – you do not want to do that! – or run into an elephant who may not like to be surprised. There was a well-marked path, and we stopped often to look at the baobabs – the island has 23 of these gigantic 1000-year-old-trees, and the menacing looking python vines, and the birds, which Vasco identified for us. The growth was thick, but it was early spring before the foliage had leafed out, and we could see through it, spotting a monitor lizard through the bushes as he scurried away.
I had asked for something special that wasn’t on the list of regular activities. I wanted to visit the school, and Aggie readily accommodated me. All was quiet when we arrived. It turned out that it was examination day; the students were being tested on the state curriculum, to see if they could pass to the next level. They had their heads down, concentrating on their exams.
There are six classrooms but twelve classes, so they operate a split schedule, with the younger children coming at noon. Because they are hungry when they arrive, the school feeds them mealy meal porridge which is supposed to contain beans, which had never arrived, and sugar, but there was no sugar, either. Aggie shook her head. “What happened to it?” I asked. “Oh,” she said, “it sometimes comes later, or never. It’s … complicated.”
The official language in Zambia is English, and school is taught in English. But we were told that, beginning next year, the little ones will be taught in their native language. The government is concerned, because the languages are being lost.
One of the last things we saw were the buildings housing the toilets. But they aren’t being used right now, because they have been ruined by misuse -- the children don’t understand how to use them. So instead, the common toilet was an open pit under a large tree. Yes, I can see a need for World Toilet Day.
Leaving the school, I again felt tearful. Students’ parents must buy the books and uniforms, which many do not have money for so those children cannot attend school. The school receives $140 from the government every three months for operating expenses. They have so many needs, so little to work with. I thought of my 5th grade classroom in California, packed with more stuff than I could use.
As we left, children were pumping drinking water.
We went back to the River Lodge, where a carafe of cold refreshing water, steeped with citrus and herbs, awaited us. Mark napped while I received a poolside foot rub from a lovely young massage therapist named Ruth.
Then it was time for our canoe trip down the river. This, Aggie had said more than once, is Royal Chundu’s signature activity. It started with a drive through the fishing village where the boats were kept, and where Vasco lives. I had told him that Mark is a former whitewater guide, which delighted him.
There were two inflatable canoes; Mark and S.K. were in one and Vasco and I in the other. We paddled against a current to get out to the main channel, past some hippos which we steered well clear of, and were soon racing through rapids. With the low water it was a little tame, compared to some of the river trips we have been on, but still exhilarating.
And then, we were pulling up to an island. First, we saw the picnic table, set for lunch. Then, we noticed a tall chef’s hat, bending over a long table with a white cloth on it.
After we disembarked a young waiter, with cool cloths, two fruity Pimm's and a big smile, said, “Welcome! My name is Clever. Would you like a drink?”
There was a full bar, and Clever was ready to make whatever kind of drink we wanted next. Lunch was a buffet of a half dozen or so fresh salads. Then the young chef, Thomas, introduced himself and said, “How would you like your hamburgers cooked?” Hamburgers! Complete with a house-baked bun and fries.
Afterward, Mark and I stretched out on the Persian carpets that were laid out for us – there was also a hammock – and Clever and Thomas set up the umbrella for us to relax under. We chatted with Thomas, asking him questions about his life. He lives in Livingstone with his wife and one child, and he works three weeks on and one week off. We talked about Zambia, and Mark asked, “How do people make money here?” “The only ones with money,” Thomas said, “are Pentecostal preachers, politicians, and dealers.” Has he traveled anywhere? Been to Cape Town? No, not yet. Maybe someday, but first he’d like to go to Mozambique.
When it was time to go, Vasco and S.K. appeared. Did they eat a hamburger too, we hoped? Yes, they were rubbing their bellies appreciatively. There were smiles all around, and we realized that they were all enjoying the experience as much as we were.
That night dinner was a Cultural Tasting Menu. If the river trip is the signature activity, then this meal is surely the signature meal. Having visited the villages and the school, as well as gone fishing and taken a nature walk, and cruised the shores of the Zambezi again and again, we were now treated to the best local delicacies, prepared as always with a three-star flair. And with wine pairings! I am not exaggerating. Mark Sissons, the travel journalist, had said “You don’t want to miss this.” He was right.
This was our first luxury eco-lodge experience. It was not a “hang up the towels to show you care about the environment” kind of hotel. At first, it seemed strange that ultimate luxury and ecotourism could go hand-in-hand. “Luxury” implies wealth, privilege, and consumption. I felt guilty, coming to a country with so many desperately, chronically poor people, and then living like a princess while my “servants” live in mud huts, with no running water or electricity. Meanwhile, I have a hot outdoor bubble bath which they have drawn and is waiting for me when I return from the sunset cruise!
Now, I am thinking that this is the best way to visit a place if you want to enjoy the natural beauty, learn about the people, and contribute to the local economy. Why? Because ecotourism is about low-impact tourism that supports the local economy. How is that accomplished? By giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience, where they blend with the environment and local culture in a way that benefits both. You just can’t bring people in by the busload and accomplish that.
According to my reading (African Decisions, Vol.4/2013), standard package tours return about 20% of revenues to the local economy, whereas eco-tours like ours can return up to 95%. Of course ecotourism, by definition, means fewer visitors, with less environmental stress and more economic impact. It is the high-end lodges, not the middle market chains, that are leaders in the ecotourism industry.
Yes, you are consuming the best food and water, and sleeping in the best bed. You have plumbing. You have a hot bath. But if your lodge is employing people from the villages, and buying their produce, meat, and fish direct at fair prices, and if the employees are treated with dignity and respect as I felt they were at Royal Chundu, and they are sharing their pride in their culture with you, then everyone benefits.
We could not have dreamed of a better experience. Mark admits to our friends that when we first began to travel, he didn’t want to go to Africa. Now, we both want to go back some day.
“Oh, you’ll go back,” said our British sailing friend Martin, who does business there. “Nobody goes to Africa just once.”
Thanks to Chantélle Bosch at Icon Expeditions http://www.iconexpeditions.com/ for booking our trip of a lifetime on a continent we could not yet comprehend.
And thanks for reading. Coming soon, stories of Victoria Falls, Lion Sands/Kruger Park safari, and adventures in Cape Town.