I had a dream of Africa. Of vast stretches of tawny grassland teeming with wildlife. Of villages untouched by cheesy American commercialism and Chinese tchotchkes, but filled with friendly locals. Of action and adventure with splashes of old-world sophistication in the form of sundowners and high tea. Of Indiana Jones clones as my safari guides.
I didn't know that I was dreaming of Zambia.
IT BEGINS AT LUANGWA SAFARI HOUSE
Last September, after a 16-hour flight from New York to Johannesberg, five days in South Africa, one night in Zambian capital Lusaka, and a short plane ride to Mfuwe, a dusty outpost town in the east close to Malawi, I dropped straight into my African fantasy: Robin Pope's Luangwa Safari House in South Luangwa National Park. With some of the healthiest populations of elephants, giraffes, and hippos on the planet, South Luangwa is one of the wildest — and most remote — corners on earth. It was my kind of place.
A legendary conservationist, Pope was a pioneer of the luxury safari in Zambia. Luangwa Safari House is super chic, a blend of creature comforts — Neil Rocher-designed architecture, designer furniture, a private chef — surrounded by raw wilderness. It was an excellent way to ease into my ten-day Zambian adventure. Like the rest of the four-bedroom chalet, my room was completely open to the vast savannah stretching out for miles below.
I spent the first day relaxing around the infinity pool as herds of elephants played in the watering hole just beyond the patio. From my lounge chair, I watched a baby elephant nursing. In the late afternoon, I jumped into a safari jeep for a three-hour game drive with Jacob, the resident naturalist and safari guide, who helped me spot a leopard high in a tree with its impala kill, three lions lazing in the late afternoon sun, and a baby giraffe with its umbilical cord still dangling from its belly. There wasn't another vehicle in sight. Take that, Kruger and Serengeti.
Back at the house, dinner awaited, and my diet quickly jumped out the window. I tucked into salads, curries with homemade relishes, and crème caramel. Then it was off to bed, where I fell asleep under a mosquito net to the sounds of the throbbing African night and chirping chameleons dancing around the walls of my room.
SURPRISINGLY AUTHENTIC KAWAZA VILLAGE
The next morning, I set off for Kawaza Village, a traditional Kunda tribe village-cum-government-sponsored tourism project. Having spent nights at so-called "authentic" villages in Laos and Thailand, I was skeptical, expecting to be bombarded by outstretched hands, jaded locals hawking their wares, and a made-for-tourons spectacle. But it was nothing like that. Upon arrival, local elders greeted us and introduced us to our host families. That night, we shared a dinner of maize meal and chicken, drank local moonshine, and danced the night away with villagers around a blazing fire to the thumping rhythms of the Kawaza Village Jazz Band. Come midnight, I curled up on the straw mat on my hut's dirt floor as the party raged on outside.
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: NSOLO TO KAKULI
The next stop was Norman Carr Safaris' Nsolo Bush Camp. Born in what is now Malawi, Carr was an early conservationist and visionary who helped develop a South Luangwan tourism model based on the sustainable utilization of natural resources and community involvement. With that in mind, he founded walking safari in which guests, accompanied by local guides, tromp through the African wilderness among his bush camps.
After an hour drive and a tenuous river crossing in which a territorial hippo blocked our way for a good twenty minutes, I finally arrived at Nsolo, a remote oasis of four cottages with private verandas, running water, and hot outdoor showers. In the main lodge, an open-air, thatched roof structure overlooked the dried up Luwi River.
I saddled up to the bar for lemonade. Different types of birds nests dangled as decoration from the ceiling. Très bush-chic. Dinner at Nsolo was pure magic: a barbecue set on the soft, white sand of the empty riverbed. Flickering lanterns illuminated the spread — a grill stacked with skewered vegetables, springbok steaks, sausages, and chicken, a table set for six, and a bar stocked with top-shelf spirits and Veuve. Hyenas howled in the distance. In the morning, I found their paw prints pressed into the sand.
I set out at sunrise for the next destination, Carr's Kakuli Camp, with Shaddy Nkhoma as my guide. Along the way, I plucked red, orchid-like flowers from blooming sausage trees, examined fallen weaver birds' nests, and crept close to a group of docile Thornicroft's giraffes. After a leisurely three-hour romp through the bush, Kakuli appeared, and behind it, a river teeming with thousands of hippos and crocs. Lunch was bean salad and quiche, then it was time for an afternoon siesta. The hippos' bellows lulled me to sleep.
VICTORIA FALLS IN LOVE AT TONGABEZI LODGE
After five days in the bush, it was time to dust off and tuck into creature comforts at Tongabezi Lodge on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, a few miles upstream from Victoria Falls, outside Livingstone. If Tongabezi isn't on your bucket list, it should be. Upon arrival, Tonga, my personal butler (one is assigned to every cottage), greeted me and began attending to my every need. He whisked away my laundry. He delivered gazpacho and a fresh salad to my cottage, the Honeymoon House, which was perched on a hill overlooking the river. I arrived home from evening sundowners to find a steaming, al fresco bubble bath ready. I got in and watched the sun dip behind the jungle.
I was a week into Shangri-La adventure, and every day was better than the one before. Though, really, it was hard to judge. After breakfast in Togabezi's Adirondack-style boathouse, I hopped into a boat and motored fifteen minutes up the mile-wide river to Tongabezi's private island, Sindabezi, a Robinson Crusoe-style island hideaway. Should you make this journey, don't forget to bring a lover. This place has romance splashed all over it, from the five open-sided, riverfront cottages to the hurricane lanterns, canopy beds, and curtains fluttering in the wind. You'll eat, drink, and be treated like royalty. And in the morning, you won't want to leave. Sadly, I was alone, but I more than got the hint.
PURE ADRENALINE: JUMPING INTO WATERFALLS
I took a sunrise canoe back to mainland where I had to choose from a menu of high-octane activities: bungee jumping, river rafting, zip-lining, and more. I decided to swim in Victoria Falls.
The trip started with a tour of Livingstone Island, the site where Dr. Livingstone ("I presume") first set eyes upon the falls. There were tantalizing views of the misty cataract that stretches between Zambia and Zimbabwe. When we finished the island exploration, the guides brought out life jackets. We stripped down to our suits and followed them down to the river, close enough to see the edge of the falls, hear their deafening thunder, and get drenched in spray. We slipped into the cold water and swam in a cautious line through the strong current from rock to rock to Devil's Pool, a natural swimming hole at the lip of Victoria Falls. We slithered out of the water onto a rocky shelf about five feet above the pool, where you can jump into the eddy. I stood at the top, measuring the distance to falls, about fifteen feet, calculating the danger. The guides seemed confident — laissez-faire, in fact — and I reminded myself that the nice folks at Tongabezi probably wouldn't send a visiting journalist straight into the mouth of danger. So I closed my eyes and jumped.
Cold, gurgling water enveloped me and the current pushed me towards the edge. I felt like I was going to be sucked over. Miraculously, and I'm still not quite sure how, I landed on the far side of the eddy, where I clung to the rock wall. One of the guides stood above me on the rocky barrier separating me from the 340-foot plunge behind him. After our swim, we snacked on scones, French toast, and coffee, all presented on silver and china.
EVEN MORE ADRENALINE: CHARGING RHINOS
Livingstone rivals Cape Town as the adrenaline capital of southern Africa, and the next day, I set off on another death-defying excursion: tracking black rhinos on foot through Mosi-O-Tunya Park. Our guide, Tony Simpson, is one of the preeminent experts on this very endangered species whose global population has been reduced to 5,000, largely because of poaching. My group of six quietly stalked five rhinos through dry grassland, often ducking behind scrub brush to diminish our presence. At one point, an angry male rhino began displaying signs of aggression: snorting, scraping his foot, looking our way. Simpson, who has been clipped by a charging rhino, told us to be silent, still, and to hide behind a tree. When the rhino finally relaxed, we retreated to our jeep.
That afternoon, the action continued. I hopped on a helicopter for an aerial tour of Victoria Falls. Seeing the falls stretched out below me, water cascading down the mile-long fracture in the earth, it's easy to understand why Livingstone once proclaimed, "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
Back at Tongabezi, I topped the day — and my African adventure — off with a sundowner and a soak in the tub. (It's an easy habit to form around here.) I lay back in the bubbles and watched as the blood orange sun sank into the Zambezi.