Royal Zambezi Lodge, Zambia: Elephant jam
I had only myself to blame. I did, after all, ask for elephants, lots of them — and that's what Adventure World delivered. What I hadn't envisaged was elephants getting in between me and my lunchtime bottle of Mosi beer.
It was even a surprise to find myself in Zambia. "I want plenty of elephants, and one of those fancy tents," I had said airily, back in Auckland, when presenting my list of South African must-haves to the travel company.
So when Lusaka and Royal Zambezi Lodge popped up on the itinerary, it gave me a moment's pause. Zambia? Where is that, exactly?
A two-hour flight from Johannesburg is where Zambia is, across the Zambezi River from Zimbabwe. Even for a New Zealander, that's a lot of Zs. And the Lodge is a further half-hour flit from Lusaka in a 4-seater plane; but my faith in Adventure World's recommendations paid off as soon as we landed.
* Down the Zambezi River to Zimbabwe
* Swallowed by the Zambezi
* Where to see elephants in the wild
Driving away from the airstrip with safari guide Chris, my husband and I encountered our first elephant jam, a herd blocking the track as they nonchalantly browsed on trees.
Lesson #1: nobody rushes an elephant. Patiently and politely, we waited until they ambled off into the bush, and we were able to get past to the Lodge.
Long and low, Royal Zambezi Lodge lies on a bank above the great river which is two kilometres wide at this point, filled with crocodiles and edged on both sides by grunting hippos.
They provided the backing soundtrack to our friendly welcome, which included the stern warning that, as the Lodge sits within a game reserve and is unfenced, we were never to attempt to walk to our suite after dark without an escort. Hearing that a leopard had strolled through the grounds the previous evening, we weren't inclined to argue.
At the far end of the path, our Presidential suite ticked all the boxes: canvas walls, thatched roof, billowing white curtains around the bed, big copper bathtub, outside shower, private pool and daybed. But it was what the sliding mesh doors opened onto that was really special: a deck overlooking a stretch of river bank where elephants were grazing freely just below where we stood. They were so close that my binoculars were entirely superfluous.
Up-close is what Royal Zambezi specialises in, we soon discovered. Our first game drive next morning through the neighbouring Lower Zambezi National Park brought us elephants everywhere, baboons, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, eland, warthogs and many birds — and then, since I asked Chris for them, African wild dogs.
These elegantly painted, endangered dogs are clever and sociable, and it was a huge thrill to sit in the open LandCruiser near to one that had just killed an impala. As we watched, she had a quick snack on its innards, then loped away to fetch the rest of the pack which, whimpering in eagerness, polished off the carcass in six minutes flat.
It all caused a bit of a sensation back at the Lodge: it wasn't, we were smugly pleased to learn, a common sight, and we owed it all to Chris's superior tracking skills.
We exploited them again on the evening drive, requesting lions, which Chris duly delivered: two males, who gazed at us impassively before yawning widely and displaying their formidable teeth. Even better than them, though, was the leopard he spotted for us, lying right beside the track against a fallen log and perfectly camouflaged in the dry grass.
We had the elephants to thank for that sighting too, since they had got first to the spot Chris had earmarked for our sundowner G&T, and we had had to drive on, coming across the leopard by chance. This seemed to be a habit of theirs: we'd already had to hustle away from our morning tea by the river because elephants came down to drink.
And then, wandering up to the main lodge for a beer before lunch the next day, we were ushered in through a side entrance because there was an elephant and her calf by the front door.
We stood in the lounge and watched them browse around the very edge of the building and then — horrors! — delicately step over a low railing to stand right on the path leading to the bar beyond, the better to reach fruit in the tree above.
In that bar, built out over the river under a giant sausage tree, was the bottle of local Mosi beer I'd been planning to drink. I was, I admit it, torn between excitement and resentment. But then an obliging waiter went the long way round, fetched me my beer, and all was well again (until a monkey stole my meatball, but that's another story).
There were many food and drink-related delights at the Lodge — sitting at the bar watching fireflies dance overhead, listening to the night chorus of frogs and hippos; the surprise bush dinner by the campfire, lit by lanterns; eating lobster, ratatouille tart and Nile perch on the deck by the crackling firepit; watching the red African sun set to the tinkle of ice in a glass at a game drive sundowner stop — and there were also a spa, pool, hammocks and the chance to catch a fighting tiger fish.
For me, though, it was all about the animals. I loved going on the game drives and taking a bush walk (with an armed guard) to learn from Chris, amongst other arcane titbits, that doves use ants for a formic acid shower to kill their fleas.
Watching elephants through my feet while lazing on the daybed was Instagram gold; as was getting eye-to-eye with crocs and hippos as we drifted peacefully in a canoe down a channel of the Zambezi.
Our visit ended as it had begun: waiting on the track for elephants to clear out of the way on our drive back to the airstrip. By then we were used to elephant jams; but the majestic bull elephant lumbering along the airstrip itself? I call that jam on top.
More information adventureworld.com
Getting there Fly to Perth with Air New Zealand or Qantas, and from there with South African Airways (saa.com) to Johannesburg, and on to Lusaka, then take a charter flight in a small plane to Royal Zambezi Lodge (or you can drive). Adventure World will arrange all this.
Touring there A 5-day Adventure World Royal Zambezi Safari is priced from $2317 per person twin share and includes accommodation, many meals, drinks, two activities per day, laundry and scheduled flights from Lusaka. Explore a range of activities from game drives, fishing, river safaris and bushwalks to mountain hiking, canoe safaris, cultural village tours or just relaxing. Visit adventureworld.com, call 0800 238 368 or see your travel agent for more information.
The writer travelled courtesy of Adventure World.