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