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Zambezi Grande Review: Into the Wild

Zambezi Grande at a Glance

Zambezi Grande, set along the mighty Zambezi River, offers an intimate, luxury safari experience in Zambia's pristine wilderness. Reflecting old-world elegance, the lodge feels like a riverside home adorned with safari curiosities, boasting only six lavish suites complete with grand beds, bespoke in-room bars, and private verandahs overlooking the river. Guests are treated to gourmet experiences, including crafted cocktails and award-winning local gins, all while being surrounded by the mesmerizing sounds and sights of the wild. Whether indulging in rejuvenating massages or embarking on private game excursions, Zambezi Grande promises a unique blend of opulence and raw nature.

Zambezi Grande Fire Pit, Luxury Safari Zambia

See Best Safari Lodges in Southern Africa

Our Story of Zambezi Grande

Leon draws a circle around two enormous prints in the shallow sand beside the Land Cruiser. He places one of his soft leather boots beside the spoor to show us the size. "Lion," he said, beaming up and awaiting our reaction. He looks around for further clues to investigate. There's another set of prints on the crest of the tire tracks, but the soft sand has started to collapse.

Zambezi Grande walking safari

You can see his mind ticking. For Leon, tracking animals is a skill he's learned from a lifetime in the bush. Like many trackers, guides and scouts in the Lower Zambezi, he grew up learning about the environment. He turns to listen to the bird calls in the distance and takes a moment to piece together clues before leaping back into his seat and starting the Cruiser. As he drives, he leans back to explain our route in the vast Lower Zambezi National Park.

Zambezi Grande is our last stop along the mighty Zambezi River. For the past month, we have followed the river downstream from where the Kwando and Zambezi meet to Victoria Falls and far beyond Lake Kariba to the east. We've back-tracked a few times while navigating tired roads within national parks and tiny gravel airstrips to reach these far-flung destinations.

Zambezi Grande Luxury Room

Luxury Zambezi Safari Lodge (Zambezi Grande)

On our last morning, we savour our time in the lodge before we begin our journey back to Royal Airstrip. Zambezi Grande lives up to its reputation for being an intimate lodge. In fact, it feels like home – a large dining room flanked with chairs, a communal fire pit and safari curiosities scattered on hardwood surfaces. It's old-world elegance with an undeniable warmth that lulls you into a state of riverside ease.

Zambezi Grande Old Wood Decoration

Here, just six suites preside over the banks of the Zambezi River, boasting grand beds, four claw baths, outdoor showers, bespoke in-room bars, and sweeping private verandahs – in between safari siestas and adventure pursuits, book a massage and enjoy an hour of rejuvenation while listening to the sounds of the wild.

Man in Luxury Infinity pool overlooking zambezi riverr

A short meander to the elevated main lodge reveals a spectacular pool that hangs high above the riverbank, a suspended (and wildly romantic) lower deck, and possibly the best bar in the Lower Zambezi. For three days, we sipped brightly coloured pressed juices, local Zambian ales and crafted cocktails that looked like art. Order a G&T made using Iconic African Gin, an award-winning Zambian gin distilled from ingredients like wild-forage grapefruit and baobab. And for the end of another night under a glittering African sky, browse the extensive wine list and have a tipple for a nightcap around the blazing fire.

Romantic Luxury Safari Zambia

Zambezi Grande Private Game Experience

In the golden light of the afternoon, we leave the lodge in pursuit of the wild. In the distance, the escarpment weighs on the horizon in shades of green and distant blue. As we meander through the Game Management Area (GMA) towards the national park, we're transported into true wilderness. The dust from passing elephants hangs in the warm air, blanketing the leaves of the roadside apple leaves in a thick, orche-coloured coat. We careen through the soft sand as trails of slender mongoose dance through the bush before us. From the thicket, we eventually move into a vast grassy savannah in the shadow of the escarpment where scatterings of impalas move amongst tawny grass, and above, red-billed aquilia swoop in the sunlight.

Elephant in Lower Zambezi National Park

On route, powdery river sand slipways cross a tangle of trees and steep single roads that trail off into the unknown. Despite the warmth, it's still winter in Zambia, and the bush is dry. The rains will arrive in summer, refreshing the land with new growth and lush emerald sprays. But for now, animals are coaxed out from the thicket to the banks of the river in search of water, and we drive on, hoping to pick up the lion's track.

Leon stands to push low-hanging branches away as we inch forward through the thicket. A franklin's alarm call had turned Leon's attention down a trail that led towards the river.

Lower Zambezi National Park Wildlife

After a steep descent, we find three lions in a clearing just beyond the water's edge. The males are scattered amongst tall blonde grass, stretched out with large paws extending into the air. The acrid smell of a carcass lingers, and crocodiles lurk in the shallows. We can't see the kill, but the weary faces of the lions are covered in damp, dark blood stains. Every now and then, one of the lions lets out a deep groan, exposing his bloated belly to the sky before rolling over and returning to his sweet slumber. We sit in peaceful silence, observing the lions while flutters of water birds emerge and disappear just as quickly as the cry of an African fish eagle echoes above.

2 Lion Cubs in Zambezi National Park

With the light beginning to fade in shades of golden amber, we slowly move on from the water's edge, scanning the nearby trees for birds as we slink away. In the distance, a large bird glides towards us. While peering into the binoculars, bird book ajar on his lap, Leon called out to my husband in the back. "Juvenile fish eagle," and just as quickly did a double take, prompting my husband to study the bird as it landed on the ground nearby. I recalled many conversations with my husband about the "lifers" he longed to find, topping the list of nearly 300 bird species we had already spotted in the region. He shares this passion with Leon, who spent many hours in the bush with us, identifying and discussing the birdlife.

Fish eagle on tree on zambezi river

"No way," Gareth said as if speaking to himself, passing his open bird book to Leon, who confirmed what we hoped. We watched in spellbound fascination as the lone palm-nut vulture drank from a wayward stream. I could feel the elation coming from Leon and Gareth, who couldn't look away. Unlike other vultures, the palm-nut vulture primarily feeds on fruit and seeds. With such scattered distribution across Southern Africa, this chance sighting felt profound. As daylight dipped, the large bird, with its red face and bold black and white, moved from the riverbanks to a tree branch further away, proving too dark for our lens' to capture. For a while, we forgot entirely about the lions who were beginning to stir. With some scribbled notes on the spine of our bird book, we reluctantly left the vulture and continued back to camp to share our news.

Walking in Lower Zambezi National Park

We're briefed before we climb out of the Cruiser just after the first light on our last morning in the Lower Zambezi. At Chongwe gate, we meet Emmanuel, a scout stationed in Lower Zambezi National Park. Stripped in a uniform of Winterthorn-green, brown and sand. For the first time since our arrival, clouds covered the entire sky, and morning clung to the fresh, cool air. Emmanual is employed by conservation Lower Zambezi (CLA), and he's permitted to carry a rifle – AK47 – which he slings over his shoulder during our walk and steadies with large, weathered hands. The metal has rubbed silver along the edges, and I sense he's served his country for some time, his intuition finely tuned to the bush we're entering. He walks tall and proud but has a calming presence as he patiently waits for us to settle into the environment. We follow our guides in a slow single file, falling silent.

Friendly safari guides

Pioneered in Zambia more than half a century ago, the walking safari has, over the years, transformed traditional safaris in the region, favoured by conservationists and naturalists as the best way to see wildlife and experience true wilderness, away from the hum of a Land Cruiser. Despite its name, walking safaris are leisurely and safe in the wild with a professional guide, although a reasonable fitness level is generally advised. Last night around the fire, Leon reminded us to wear only neutrals – no whites, blacks or blues.

Over my time in the bush, I've learned that the secret to a deeply enriching walking safari isn't only about big cat sightings or observing elephants from a distance; it's about blindly trusting your guide. Suddenly, when you're on the ground, everything is magnified. You're exposed to the elements and at the mercy of a downward breeze alerting animals of your presence. I take great comfort knowing that Emmanuel and Leon are charting our course as we follow quietly in a wilderness they've walked countless times.

The air is warmer even in the short time we've been walking. Leon pauses beside a termite mound that towers far above his head. He uses a long stick he's recovered from his small backpack to point to the busy termites and the scattering of entrances covering the surface. There are only four guests on this walk, and our guides stop and investigate branches, birds and insects, welcoming our questions with encyclopedia knowledge.

In this part of Lower Zambezi National Park, towering ilala palms dot the banks of the Zambezi River and rustle in the light breeze. "Zambezi means the water of God," said Leon as we trail the river. And there's little wondering why. The water glistens in the African sun and laps at rich banks. In the shallows, hippos grunt and twitch their comical ears in tandem, and rutting impalas compete nearby. Somewhere around the next bend, Soloman is waiting with housemade crunchies, savoury bites, and our morning coffee. When we reach him, he's laid out a wooden table with a checkered cloth. Together, we enjoy hot rooibos and coffee in the shadow of an ancient baobab, recounting our sightings in the wild.

Lion infront of safari truck

Before long, we're boarding a tiny Cessna to fly back to Lusaka. Like our cameras and bird books, our hearts are full. Leon waves from his parked Cruiser and awaits his next guests, who are clambering from the plane beside us. I'm secretly envious, knowing what they're about to encounter: A few days, maybe more, in one of the most enchanting places in Africa and the warm Zambian welcome awaiting at the lodge. We'll be back, I promise myself as we ascend above the mighty Zambezi. We'll be back soon.

Where is Zambezi Grande?

Nestled in the heart of Southern Africa, Zambezi Grande finds its abode on the tranquil banks of the mighty Zambezi River. This oasis of luxury and wild charm sits in Zambia's pristine Lower Zambezi National Park, a realm where untouched wilderness embraces the river's ebb and flow.

While it may seem remote, and rightly so, for it promises an untouched experience, reaching Zambezi Grande is a journey of adventures in itself. One would travel along the serpentine river, traversing national parks with their untamed trails, or might choose the sky, landing on one of the quaint gravel airstrips nearby. The lodge, with its old-world elegance, stands as a sentinel to the wild, offering luxury amidst the calls of the wild and the gentle whispers of the river.

For those seeking an authentic African sojourn, combined with touches of luxury and raw wilderness, Zambezi Grande is the beacon that calls out, promising memories etched in golden sunsets and the songs of the wild.

Lower Zambezi National Park

The Lower Zambezi National Park, cradled between rugged landscapes and the shimmering Zambezi River, is Zambia's untouched jewel. A mosaic of floodplains and woodlands, it teems with life, from majestic elephants frolicking by the riverbanks to an eclectic array of birdlife that turns the skies into a vibrant tapestry. More than just a wildlife sanctuary, it's an intimate experience where serene moments meld with raw nature, offering a profound connection to the wild, whether you're on foot, in a canoe, or simply soaking in the tranquil ambience.

Fishing on Zambezi River

Interesting Facts about the Zambezi River

  1. A Journey Across Six Nations: The mighty Zambezi River, Africa's fourth-largest river system, weaves its narrative through six countries, beginning its tale from the wetlands of Zambia, caressing Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, only to culminate its journey into the Indian Ocean from Mozambique. As it flows, it binds these nations in a tapestry of shared tales and heritage.

  2. The Whispering Waterfall: As one meanders with the Zambezi, they encounter the world-renowned Victoria Falls. Locally christened as "Mosi-oa-Tunya", which translates to "The Smoke That Thunders", this natural marvel creates a mist that can be seen from miles away, and its roar resonates like nature's own symphony. The fall's breathtaking splendour is a testament to the river's grandeur and might.

  3. A Haven of Biodiversity: The waters of the Zambezi are a cradle of life. As it winds its way, it creates a myriad of habitats: from the floodplains of Barotse to the Lower Zambezi's swamps. These waters sustain a plethora of wildlife including hippopotamus, crocodiles, and a myriad of fish species, while its banks teem with elephants, lions, and countless bird species, making it a magnet for eco-tourists and nature aficionados.

  4. A Lifeline of Civilization: For centuries, the communities along the Zambezi have revered the river as a life-giver. From sustenance to spirituality, the Zambezi have shaped the cultures, rituals, and livelihoods of many, being central to their tales of origin, folklore, and daily life.

  5. A Play of Dams: Amidst its natural splendour, the Zambezi also bears the mark of mankind's endeavours. Two major dams harness its power: the Kariba Dam between Zambia and Zimbabwe, creating one of the world's largest man-made lakes, and the Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. While they stand as testimonies of human engineering, they also influence the river's flow, ecology, and the life it nurtures.

Article by Amber Hunter. Images via Zambezi Grande

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