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Paul Rubio | Photo: Paul Rubio | March 28, 2013
Bespoke safaris and luxury camps polish Africa’s diamond in the rough.
Diversifying its national economic portfolio post-millennium, Zambia opened its borders to tourism with a vengeance. The shift away from a dependency on the copper industry enabled the country to begin capitalizing on its breathtaking attractions, iconic wildlife parks and awe-inspiring surrounds. A mere decade later, Africa’s adventure capital has caught fire as the continent’s hottest destination.
A little larger than Texas—and smack in the center of Southern Africa—landlocked Zambia, which is divided into nine provinces, flanks eight other African nations. Zambia’s Eastern Province is home to wildlife-rich South Luangwa National Park, the sights and sounds of which rival the most active patches of the Serengeti National Park in nearby Tanzania. Instead of game drives, however, Zambia specializes in walking safaris—excursions that invite wildlife enthusiasts to connect with the continent’s vast animal kingdom.
The genesis of walking safaris can be traced back to the 1950s in Zambia (the country was known as Northern Rhodesia from 1911 until the declaration of its independence in 1964). Today Sanctuary Zebra Plains, Walking Safari Camp (sanctuaryretreats.com) celebrates this history with the ultimate experience in bush immersion. This new breed of pedestrian expedition combines hard-core adventure with modern-day luxuries and is able to accommodate a maximum of six guests at one time. During a period of three days, safari-goers trek through South Luangwa National Park and come face to face with zebras, elephants, giraffes and hippos, as well as paramount predators like crocs, leopards and lions. It’s necessary during these exhilarating yet precarious encounters to listen wholeheartedly to the expert guide whose commands include when to remain quiet, when to be completely still and when to drop to the ground—fight or flight moments to be sure, but take heed; these guys know exactly what they’re doing.
Just don’t expect to pitch your own tent after an adrenaline-packed day in the bush. Back at the mobile camp, comfort elements kick into high gear. While groups are off in the field, a dedicated team sets up home base. It’s a class act—think big-top-inspired tents with actual beds and portable flush toilets; gourmet meals prepared via portable stoves; and wine-filled ice buckets.
Beyond Zebra Plains there’s Puku Ridge Camp, another Sanctuary Retreats camp in South Luangwa, where walking safaris are shorter, less intense and optional. Featuring a private outdoor shower, deluxe bathtub, minibar, 24-hour electricity and hot water—all within the confines of a private tent—this deluxe outpost is the quintessential luxury safari experience. Credit also goes to the endless stream of Champagne, three-course epicurean meals and sunset cocktails in the bush—perks that rev up the pampering factor considerably.
Here, the twice-daily open-air Jeep safaris traversing the wildlife-rich savannah woodlands headline the agenda. Game drives at Puku Ridge Camp are beyond amazing. One evening I’m lucky enough to witness a leopard drag its kill up a tree, then watch hungry hyenas gather at its base, eagerly awaiting the leftovers.
Victoria Falls is the other essential piece of Zambia’s adventure puzzle. Locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or The Smoke That Thunders, the planet’s largest, and arguably most impressive, vertical cascade of water is a thrill-seeker’s playground. Boasting a watery rush of power and strength across a width of 5,600 feet, Victoria Falls mercilessly beats the earth and proffers one of the finest panoramas in the natural world. To put this scene in perspective, consider that Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls plummet, respectively, 167 feet and 269 feet. Victoria Falls, in comparison, takes a whopping 354-foot plunge. From the roaring crash of pounding water and the acute whip of residual mist to the formation of colossal rainbows across a visible mile, the ascent at Victoria Falls ambushes the senses.
Fortunately, experiencing the falls isn’t confined to nature trails. Helicopters and low-flying planes also supply jaw-dropping aerial views. And the Victoria Falls Bridge, which splits the falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is sectioned by a bungee jumping platform. So in addition to acting as the world’s coolest border crossing, it also serves as one of the scariest jump-off points imaginable. Those who want to live on the edge can literally do so by taking a dip in Devil’s Pool, a natural water source on the falls’ precipice, or by braving the racing rapids—Grade 5 after rainy season—on the falls-fed Zambezi River.
Located within Victoria Falls National Park, Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, also from Sanctuary Retreats, is the ultimate crash pad for unadulterated Vic Falls rapture. This luxury lodge seamlessly organizes all adrenaline-inducing activities and offers riveting game drives throughout the park; boat cruises along the Zambezi; and walking safaris in hopes of encountering Zambia’s eight remaining white rhinos.
Nestled along the Zambezi River, and surrounded by natural islands, lodge vistas are nothing short of stunning. Add to this panorama a riverside bar, swimming pool and stylish lounge, and you have all the trappings of a contemporary hotel—albeit one situated in the middle of the bush. And nothing is better than elevating your heart rate to the max, then returning to contemporary modern comforts to recharge for the next day’s adventure.
Since word spreads quickly in the age of globalization, it’s only a matter of time before Zambia goes mainstream and tames its wild ways. But, for now at least, Zambia parlays the mystique of Africa in the raw and showcases a vast playing field for both adrenaline junkies and luxury travelers.