Aquae Anima Vivens – Royal Chundu
According to science, up to 60 % of the human adult body is comprised of water. The brain and the heart alone are composed of 73 % water. It is no wonder then that so many people have such an emotional and instinctive response to Royal Chundu – a riverside hideaway that tugs on the heartstrings.
Royal Chundu is a luxury safari lodge and the only hotel in Zambia endorsed by Relais & Chateaux. It’s situated almost equidistant between the Zambian town of Livingstone – a favourite holiday spot for those wanting to view the grandeur of the Victoria Falls from both sides of the border – and the Kazungula Ferry crossing, where Zambia and Botswana are divided by the Zambezi River (or the Chobe River if you’re Botswanan). Water is an integral part of life here. Rivers demarcate countries (Namibia and Zimbabwe’s borders also meet at this point), and offer a source of livelihood and sustenance to those who live on their banks. They also attract thousands of tourists every year who come to wonder at the awe-inspiring density of game along the Chobe floodplains, not to mention the bucket list attraction of the Falls. Upstream from the famous “Smoke that Thunders”, the Zambezi River moves at a more sedate pace, and it is from this that everything at Royal Chundu takes its cue.
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress.” – Margaret Atwood
After dry game reserves and dusty dirt roads, the River Lodge appears like an oasis as you are welcomed by one of the ever-friendly staff members, led over a bridge with a happy fish-filled pond on either side, and presented with your first view of the magnificent Zambezi River ambling along so quietly it’s hard to believe that it will soon turn into a thrashing, roaring beast when it hits the Falls downriver. Here though, two sets of rapids cocoon this patch of river frontage, making it serenely calm, and entirely private.
While you sip your welcome drink, the expert hands of the lodge’s massage therapists work away your travel-induced knots, while one of the managers chats to you about your itinerary.
“have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? that the river is everywhere at the same time… and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” – hermann hesse
There is a lot to do here – from bush walks and cruises, to cultural tours and visits to attractions in the surrounding area. But as with the river itself, guests are encouraged to take things as slowly or as quickly as they wish. Schedules are fluid here, and can be changed to suit your whims – which are guaranteed to include more than your expected share of wanting to simply watch the river float by. Time is not a concern here – except when you realise that your trip is coming to an end and you wished you had booked a few extra days.
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” – Loran Eisely
Ten beautiful chalets sit perched on stilts along the river bank, with private decks to best enjoy the view and the soothing sound of the river lapping against the riverbank under each suite. King-sized beds, romantically draped in mosquito netting, en-suite bathrooms dotted with heavenly-smelling amenities and an endless number of spots to relax under the trees, swing in a hammock or take a dip in the pool make River Lodge a haven that has guests – particularly families – coming back time and time again.
But for those craving quiet solitude and the utmost in privacy, Island Lodge,
on Royal Chundu’s very own Katomboro Island, is like finding Neverland in the middle of the African bush. Accessed by a 10-minute boat ride from River Lodge, it might as well be 10 hours from the mainland. The eight guests at a time who are privileged enough to experience the island are so blissfully well looked after by the staff that all thoughts of work and responsibilities float casually down the river, as you sit on the main deck feasting on five-star cuisine and contemplating an afternoon snooze in your beautiful suite.
“thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” – Wh Auden
WH Auden clearly thought love and water were mutually exclusive, but at Island Lodge, you can have both. The four suites on the island are decorated in pretty shades of white and blue that perfectly complement the river views below them. And indeed, everything is designed to make the river the star of the show. Who needs a wall? Especially when the entire front of the suite is floor-toceiling sliding glass doors that open up onto an expansive deck, complete with beanbag loungers and a table and chairs, should you opt for a romantic candlelit dinner on the deck. The giant bed faces the river, as does the lounge, and the glass-fronted shower – where else can you lather up to the morning anthem of hippos harrumphing?
But while outdoor showers were once the height of luxury, Island Lodge takes it one step further. As if a relaxing sunset cruise along the river – including cocktails and delicious nibbles – weren’t romantic enough, nothing compares to coming “home” to find the one corner of your deck lit with the soft glow of paraffin lamps, and the giant outdoor bathtub filled with bubbles. Grabbing two glasses and bubbles of a different kind, we sank into the hot water and toasted our amazing good fortune to have found ourselves in this beautiful place. And then we just sighed and enjoyed the sounds of nocturnal animals of the African bush awakening around us, just as we were ready to feast on another outstanding meal before snuggling into bed.
“My escape is to just get in a boat and disappear on the water.” – Carl hiaasen
After a few days on Island Lodge, you invariably feel the urge to interact with this beautiful river, rather than just looking at it. One of the most enjoyable ways of doing this is to sign up for a canoe ride. Starting at the Kotombora rapids, expert guides paddle you downstream in inflatable canoes along channels between the many little islands that dot the river. The journey is at times sedate, at other times exhilarating – these are certainly not the infamous Grade 4 rapids one finds below the Falls, but they still provide just enough speed and bumpiness to add to the fun. Either way, it is all the while spectacularly beautiful, bordered on either side by lush greenery.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” – John Lubbock
All of that excitement certainly works up an appetite – and luckily, we had been promised a picnic on the river banks as part of our trip. The word “picnic” conjures up many an image, but not once did I
imagine that it would involve Persian carpets, a table with linen and silverware, and a waiter waiting with icy glasses of Pimm’s and lemonade. The chef had set up shop next to the custom-built braai and pizza oven, and clearly thought we had worked up enough of an appetite to feed an army. Different types of meat and salads, sat next to slices of pizza, veggie skewers and braaibroodjies – it took several trips to sample it all, by which time our stomachs were round and protruding like puppies’ tummies.
Luckily, there was another Persian carpet strewn with cushions laid out beneath the trees, as well as two hammocks strung between them. We settled deliciously into these and rocked ourselves gently to sleep, waking only to sip on our Pimm’s, or to wander over to the dessert swing (yes, swing) to nibble on strawberries and chocolate mousse and brownies.
Once you have had you fill of all of this relaxation, the canoes are waiting to whisk you downstream to the lodge, or you can opt to walk back, exploring the island as you go, marvelling at its 23 Baobab and 1000-year-old behemoth Jackalberry trees.
“the tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit.” – Saint teresa of Avila
We celebrated our last night at Island Lodge with a superb Zambian tasting menu. Few would think that traditional Zambian staples could be transformed into haute cuisine – least of all executive chef Sungani Phiri – but once he started experimenting with the foods he grew up with, he discovered a whole new world of fine-dining Zambian cuisine. We feasted
on freshwater crayfish with bean velouté, Zambezi bream, and traditional millet porridge dressed up with ice cream and oat crumble, which is now possibly my favourite dessert of all time.
About 90 % of everything served at Royal Chundu is sourced within a 4 km radius of the lodge, and in particular from the two neighbouring villages, Mushekwa and Muluka, which also supply the lodge with the majority of their staff who are trained onsite. These villagers derive a living from selling fish, vegetables, eggs and wild mushrooms to the lodge, who in turn assist them with the cultivation of their gardens, a school for their children, and other initiatives. The local communities and the lodge have formed a beautiful symbiotic relationship, which is part of what makes Royal Chundu so special.
No trip here would be complete with visiting Mushekwa Village, where matriarch, Edith Mushekwa, will proudly show you around – from the large vegetable garden that is irrigated year round by the tides of the Zambezi itself, to their homes, and their way of life. Edith credits the lodge for providing employment to the area and for allowing her to educate her children. And by extension she says that she views every guest as a gift who continues to allow their way of life to continue – the warm welcome you receive from everyone here shows that she is not alone in thinking this.
“Water is sufficient... the spirit moves over water.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
They say that Zambians are generally happy, friendly people, but Edith and the people she lives with could possibly be the happiest Zambians I have ever met. Then again, she gets to live beside this majestic river and enjoy its soothing rhythms all year round, while we are only given a small taste of it – but it is certainly a taste that I will savour always.