OFF THE GRID Six­teen days, five game-lodge des­ti­na­tions and none of them alike

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Anne Z. Cooke

MFUWE, Zam­bia — Alex Ste­wart, wait­ing on the steps of Bil­imungwe Lodge, deep in the Zam­bian bush, likes noth­ing bet­ter than sur­pris­ing first-time vis­i­tors to this wilder­ness out­post with an in­tro­duc­tion to the next-door neigh­bors.

“Come in, come in, you’re just in time,” she urges, a twin­kle in her eye, lead­ing me to the rear deck of the lodge, one of six Bush­camp Com­pany lodges in the South Luangwa Na­tional Park. When she points to the back­yard wa­ter­hole, I get it.

There they are, two fe­male ele­phants and a baby, splash­ing each other, cool­ing off on this hot Oc­to­ber day.

“Ju­nior is a year old now,” says Ste­wart, beam­ing as the lit­tle guy rolls over and over in a bath­tub-shaped hole, smack­ing the wa­ter with his trunk and feet.

“And that’s Harry,” adds Ste­wart, as a hefty hip­popota­mus rises up in the wa­ter, blinks at the com­mo­tion and sinks back down.

“He walks over from the Luangwa River to get away from the other males,” she says, toss­ing back her hair, a thick white mane. “He likes it here, where he’s top dog.”

Af­ter 26 hours and three flights from Cal­i­for­nia to Zam­bia, in south­ern Africa, with a three-hour drive from Bush­camp’s Mfuwe Lodge to Bil­imungwe, I was drag­ging. But not for long.

I’d for­got­ten how it feels on your first day in the bush: ex­hil­a­rated and wide-eyed, over the moon. And then, sober­ing up, ea­ger but cau­tious. A sa­fari lodge is a thou­sand times bet­ter than any zoo, but you — not the an­i­mals — are the ones in the cage.

“You need to be aware, to look around you and, es­pe­cially, never go out at night with­out an es­cort,” says Bush­camp man­ager Amy Al­der­man.

The safe way to watch lions is from an off-road ve­hi­cle, which the big cats ig­nore. When your tracker climbs up on the fender and your guide shifts gears, the ad­ven­ture be­gins: a search for lions, leop­ards, ele­phants, rhi­nos, hip­pos, buf­falo, hye­nas, ze­bras, im­palas, gi­raffes, wilde­beests, rhi­nos, croc­o­diles and more.

Our plan called for fly­ing to Jo­han­nes­burg, then north to Lusaka and Mfuwe, trans­fer to Mfuwe Lodge, then to Bil­imungwe and later to Chami­landu. Next, fly south to Liv­ingston for a cou­ple of days at the Is­lands of Siank­aba, the river­side re­sort in the Zam­bezi River. Fi­nally, a flight to Skukuza, in South Africa, for a visit to Earth Lodge and Bush Lodge, in the 160,000-acre Sabi Sabi Pri­vate Game Re­serve, on the border of Kruger Na­tional Park.

Six­teen days, five gamelodge des­ti­na­tions and none of them alike.

There are no African sa­faris you can’t af­ford. Tent camp­ing and 35-per­son tours, fa­vored by stu­dents and young cou­ples, are cheap and fun.

High-priced lodges cost more be­cause they of­fer more, from per­sonal air­port trans­fers to pri­vate cab­ins, com­fort­able beds, meals, bev­er­ages, game drives, off­site tours and laun­dry ser­vice. All-in­clu­sive sa­fari lodge rates per per­son, per night, range from about $570 to $1,000 or more.

I picked Bil­imungwe and Chami­landu for the lo­ca­tion, in the wilder­ness and off the grid. With rustic cab­ins, six to eight guests, friendly staff, first-class guides and a ded­i­ca­tion to wildlife preser­va­tion, they sounded per­fect.

Built of logs, planks, reeds and thatch­ing, the cab­ins were a work of art. And with striped pil­lows, African col­ors, flush toi­let, run­ning wa­ter, screens and a sin­gle so­lar­pow­ered night­light, I felt right at home. But the lodges weren’t iden­ti­cal.

Bil­imungwe looked over a wa­ter­hole; Chami­landu had a river view and a “hide” above an ele­phant path. Chami­lan

STEVE HAG­GERTY/TNS PHO­TOS

Top: The Zam­bezi River is calm enough above Vic­to­ria Falls for Is­lands of Siank­aba lodge guests to take a ca­noe ride. Above: As­sum­ing the yoga po­si­tion, the “wa­ter­hole bend,” this gi­raffe gets a drink at Bil­imungwe in Zam­bia.

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