Ah, the power and privilege of Social Media. No longer do you have to visit your local library to dig up juicy tidbits of information on your subject. You simply “stalk” them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, which is exactly what I did a week before my trip to Royal Chundu. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon the pages of the very regal Tina Aponte, General Manager and Owner of Royal Chundu.
Her affinity for the finer things in life is evident; she dotes on her two boys, two golden retrievers, and delights in the odd G&T. I go in search of the perfect beverage to take along as a ‘thank you for hosting me’ gift. The question beckons – what do I buy to enthrall a lady of such stature? Armed with a premium bottle of Gin, I set off for Zambia, hoping she will enjoy the contents as much as I thrived on purchasing it.
A three-hour flight takes me from Cape Town to Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport where the late afternoon is enveloped by a warm breeze. The airport is quiet and after a quick smile into the camera at passport control followed by a stamp and a ‘Welcome to Zambia’, I am met by my driver, Francis Chileka from Bushtracks. My journey to Royal Chundu takes me along Nakatinde Road and through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park where we spot some warthog and impala. We drive past Simoonga Village where kids are playing soccer and people are going about their business selling charcoal along the roadside.
The one hour drive to Royal Chundu is over in a flash and we arrive at the steel gates behind which I will be spending the next three nights and four days. The sun has set and the entrance to Royal Chundu Zambezi River Lodge is illuminated by beautiful beaded chandeliers. The magnificence that lies in front of me is jaw-dropping – the view over the pool onto the mighty Zambezi River is almost too much to bear. Fortunately, my thoughts are disturbed by Hessah Silwebbe, who welcomes me and takes me to the jetty where I am transferred by boat to Island Lodge. I have been whisked through River Lodge and am now in transit to Island Lodge and in all five minutes, I have become so captivated by this place that I am tempted to ‘drop’ my passport into the Zambezi River. What a great tale that could become – a crocodile or hippo ate my passport?!
I’m jolted back to reality with our arrival at Island Lodge. Set on the pristine and private Katombora Island, these four glorious Villas bear testament to one man’s foresight – that of Hugh O’Mahoney. Like so many prior to him, after many a visit, he had simply relinquished his heart to Africa. His exploration of Africa took him to a game reserve in neighboring Zimbabwe with subsequent trips to the Victoria Falls and the surrounding waterways. When he stumbled upon an old fishing camp with six self-built wooden huts located between two sets of rapids on the Zambezi River, he knew he had struck gold. Upstream, he discovered the unspoiled sandy-beached island of Katombora. His lifelong dream of establishing an exclusive luxury lodge was to be realized.
In 2005, after the acquisition of the fishing camp and Katombora Island, the wheels were set in motion. Two years later, he demolished the old structures to make way for ten magnificently crafted stilted suites in the river and four larger villas on the island. Meticulously built, these havens of luxury were completed in 2010.
If ever I was fortuitous to be marooned, Island Lodge is undoubtedly the place to be. Twenty-five wooden lantern-lit steps lead you to the deck of Island Lodge. My habitation is Villa 1, aptly named Heron as these winged creatures frequent the waters of the Zambezi River. This is a pure refined luxury on another level. Hessah shows me around my room, which comes complete with a lounge area, a bedroom with a King-sized bed, an oversized shower with his and her shower heads and taps. The pièce de résistance is a free-standing bath on your outside wooden veranda.
Dinner is served on the deck overlooking the crystal clear infinity pool. Reminiscent of a bygone era, Colonial charm is not lost on Royal Chundu as every meal comes complete with silver service and at night, you dine while candelabra and lanterns light your way.
The Zambian Tasting Menu is what awaits my palate tonight and I start with the refreshing Zambia piña colada, which is a baobab fruit cocktail. My starter is freshwater crayfish with bean velouté, followed by pan-fried Zambezi bream in an aniseed fish broth on a kapenta visashi. After a palate cleanser of ‘Ichisongole’ monkey orange sorbet, it is time for the Zambian bush feast – a delicious beef fillet with vinkubala crust served on creamed, horseradish pearl barley accompanied by braised oxtail tortellini, fried bondwe, sweet potato leaves, wild Zambian mushrooms, and Lusaka. I conclude my meal with the very sweet Zambian banana split with village peanut ice cream.
The ingredients for each meal are carefully sourced from within a four-kilometer radius of the lodge, ensuring complete freshness, wonderful taste, and community involvement. Food and beverage manager Sungani Phiri combines all the local produce to create the most delectable meals to feast on.
Back at my room, a bubble bath has been prepared for my indulgence. I immerse myself and drift into the fantasy world that has been bestowed upon me at Royal Chundu. This is the place where fantasy has become reality; your wish is their command.
My bed has been turned down and the cool white luxury linen awaits my slumber. The beautifully handcrafted headboard forms a canopy for the wooden beams that hold your mosquito net, safeguarding you against any unwanted winged companions.
After a good night’s sleep, it is time for my morning beverage, which is served in the hatch of my room, another unique feature at Royal Chundu. No concern about answering the door in your sleep attire sans make-up.
Breakfast is a veritable feast of the most delectable fruit, mouth-watering pastries and made-to-measure choices from the menu. For those who might have over-indulged on their tipple the night before, there is a fully-fledged Bloody Mary selection to regain your composure.
River Lodge will be my domicile for the remainder of my stay. The well-maintained teak wooden decks link all the rooms to the more frequented area, which has a very large relaxation area, dining areas, a bar area, a pool overlooking the Zambezi River and a hammock suspended between two tree trunks. The more family-oriented River Lodge has all the conveniences of Island Lodge; the only missing ingredient is the bath on your veranda. Here you can relax by the pool or have a Spa treatment in your room or in the gazebo while your children go in pursuit of bugs and butterflies during their tailor-made Children’s Club outing.
Stilt number 4 is where my bags get delivered and I quickly accessed my schedule for the rest of the day. Today is canoeing day! My trepidation is evident and I’m hoping that my guide won’t sense my fear. I reluctantly lower myself into the canoe and as we set off, I glance backward towards my guide, Kelvin, who is rowing like a pro. I pick up my paddle and realize I’m getting more water into the canoe and onto myself than I probably should. This is the Zambezi River, home to lots of wild and wonderful creatures and some heart-stopping rapids. My concerns are set aside when I ask Kelvin whether I might become crocodile brunch. ‘The crocodiles are vegetarians Ma’m’, he humorously assures me. Not far down the river, we encounter a family of five hippopotamus, which Kelvin steers clear from as these territorial animals are extremely dangerous.
We approach the first set of rapids and I hold on for dear life. Fortunately, my camera is safely stored in the dry box. Nothing earth-shattering – just a mild splashing of water. The second set, however, has me completely soaked and exhilarated! We stop at Katombora Island for our picnic lunch, a feast that might have you taking a siesta on the Persian carpet or a snooze in the hammock. Think salads, sandwiches, kebabs, fried chicken, pizza, fruit, and dessert. The fully stocked bar is filled with whatever drink tickles your fancy. You might not want to leave here – ever! After digesting our food, we go on an island walk where we are faced with the gigantic statue of a beautiful baobab tree. What an incredible sight.
We meander our way on foot back to Island Lodge where we are met quayside by our guides, who transport us back to River Lodge in our canoes. I take refuge in my air-conditioned room and emerge in time for the sunset cruise. We set sail and Kelvin points out the well-camouflaged crocodile on the banks of the river, when suddenly he slithers back into the dark water. The unmistakable sound of an African Fish Eagle calling cuts through the dusky sky. We see him perched high in the treetops. He ‘poses’ for a while before taking flight and his impressive 6-foot wingspan has everyone clamoring for their cameras and binoculars. The sun has begun to dip behind the horizon and the clouds are painted a beautiful golden hue.
My dinner tonight is served in the wine cellar, where wines from all over the world can be paired with your meal of choice. I opt for the aged beef with hollandaise sauce, grilled to perfection and concluded with chocolate fondant. Before retiring for the night, I take a shower and am suitably impressed with the generously sized bottles of The Victorian Garden African Indulgence Collection seaweed and cypress shower gel, basil and rooibos shampoo and argan and vanilla hair conditioner. Refreshed, I lather some macadamia and marula ultra-rich body lotion onto my sun-kissed skin.
Sunrise the next morning is a sight to behold – golden rays light up the early morning sky. Breakfast is served on the deck and I order the perfectly prepared flapjacks with cinnamon sugar.
A visit to the Royal Chundu Foundation School is scheduled for the morning and after an easy walk, I am met by headmistress Luckie Siamoonga, who together with other teachers lovingly takes care of 55 children, between the ages of four and six years old. Another great initiative spearheaded by Tina, who realized that building a school for her staff’s children will go a long way in securing their futures.
I combine my sunset cruise with a birding safari and Fred describes every bird we see along the way in great detail – from the black-winged stilt, the African Skimmer, the African open bill, the Squacco Heron and the Bee-eater. We take in the rare sighting of a breeding pair of African Fish Eagles.
Back at River Lodge, we gather in the Boma for the traditional dances and drumming displayed by Zambian dancers. It is time for the Cultural Ala Carte Menu. It starts off with a Chibwantu cocktail beautifully presented in a shell, followed by a trio of fish with mundambi jelly. My main course is organic ‘village’ chicken ravioli with salad and dessert is sour milk cheesecake with Musika jelly and tamarind ice cream.
The next morning heralds the most magical sunrise. It is time for me to leave and as I say my goodbyes, I realize just like the sunrises and sunsets, here at Royal Chundu, this place is pure gold.
Thank you to Marina Smithers-Carlaw for taking care of all my arrangements. A huge thank you to everyone at Royal Chundu for taking such great care of me. A special thank you to Tina Aponte for allowing me to share your incredible heavenly piece of paradise with me. For more information, visit www.royalchundu.com
*** Views expressed are the author’s own.