First published on www.BizCommunity.com. “That’s a Narina Trogon”, Solilo Kalumba, SK to his friends, pointed out. Armed with my iPhone Bird Guide App, I disagreed. “Narina Trogons don’t live here,” I read from the guide, smug in my correctness. “Look there it is”, he says pointing at the vivid green bird with red under-feathers. SK knows this island and the birds that live here better than my bird guide does. Next he points out a python tree which beggars belief. “It is not a parasite”, he says of the way the tree snakes around another creating giant knots of branches, “It just uses the other tree for support.” With python trees and thousand-year-old baobabs, Katomboro island in the Zambezi River is a rare and special place.
For birders this small island, easily circumnavigated in an hour, is paradise. The call of the African Fish Eagle, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Sudan’s national bird, is heard all along the banks of the Zambezi and you can expect to see Rock Pratincole, Senegal Coucal, Tropical Boubou, Trumpeter Hornbill, Yellow-breasted Apalis along with Kingfishers – Woodland, Pied, Brown-hooded and Malachite on the island.
The Katomboro rapids protect the island from all traffic other than local fisherfolk in their mokoro dugouts. This means that, unlike the rest of the Zambezi which is busy with water traffic and thrill-seekers, the island is a true hideaway. This is the reason why accommodation at Royal Chundu’s Island Lodge is so costly and so incredibly desirable.
Privacy is so guaranteed on the island that an outside bath forms a dramatic feature on your suite’s deck. Seeing it overflowing with a steaming hot bubbles on returning from a sunset cruise on the Zambezi is a pleasure to be added to hedonistic bucket lists.
As a member of Relais & Chateaux guests can expect a high level of accommodation but Royal Chundu Island Lodge vastly over delivers. Suites are huge with timber-framed doors and windows that concertina to open all three sides of the suite to the river and lush forest surrounding it. Guests are encouraged to sleep with doors open, protected from the mozzies and other bugs by a lavish mosquito net. This is probably the closest one can get to sleeping in a forest without getting moss and other creepy-crawlies in your ears.
Royal Chundu has two Zambezi properties: River Lodge, directly on the banks of the Zambezi and about 40-minutes outside of Livingstone, and Island Lodge on Katomboro island which is about 20-minutes down river by boat. They are run independently but check-in and check-out is from River Lodge and all activities, except for walks around the island, start and end at River Lodge.
Royal Chundu is decorated in an elegant yet unfussy African Colonial style with dark-wood and freshly buffed silverware. Elegant napery and cut-crystal glassware don’t seem out of place here although you think it might be.
Cuisine is a highlight especially because Food and Beverage Manager Sungani Phiri, who worked and trained in South Africa, has succeeded in presenting Zambian cuisine in a tasting menu complemented by South African wines. A trio of fish, for example, is served with mundambi jelly alongside a glass of Saxenburg’s White Blend or a Sour Milk Cheesecake with a Musika, similar to tamarind, glaze with Fleur de Cap’s Noble Late.
Much of the fish we enjoyed there, river bream among them, was caught by the chefs and Phiri has developed relationships with community growers and farmers to raise chickens and pigs for Royal Chundu’s use.
Royal Chundu offers a fully inclusive rate which also includes most activities and a partly inclusive rate which includes daily sunset Zambezi cruises and a visit to The Victoria Falls.
We’d been to the Falls the previous year and instead took the 15-minute Flight of the Angels ($175) helicopter flip over the Falls. This is a wonderful way to get a macro perspective and snap the postcard image of the water tumbling into the gorges.
We also took a canoe trip ($50) down the Katomboro rapids. As exciting as it was, this is not the white-knuckle river rafting experience that people think of on the Zambezi but much more sedate. Providing you’re happy to get splashed no one – irrespective of age or fitness – should find it challenging. Royal Chundu’s staff know the river so well they steer away from the crocodiles and hippos that are ever-present along the banks. One especially memorable moment was when we approached a large flock of Great Egrets on the water who took off over our heads, drizzling us with water dripping from their feet.
That night we witnessed the flight of the termites, something that has been on my travel to-do list.
While at dinner we noticed Island Manager Aggie Maseko Banda, one of Royal Chundu’s greatest assets, quickly closing the deck doors. Not quickly enough though as within seconds the air above us filled with what first looked like thousands of elegant moths, more etherial than usual ones with long tapered wings and then, very curiously for the first timer, the floor suddenly began to move. “They’re attracted to the light” Aggie explains and tells us that after the first rains termites fly from their nests to mate and start new colonies. They fly just once and then fall to the ground, their wings left behind like a fairy’s discarded embroidered silk hanky. “They’re delicious too” Aggie says which immediately perks my interest. Termites, like mopani worms, are extremely high in protein. I ask her to save some for me. Starters at dinner the following evening included a plate of deep-fried termites – the way the locals eat them. They taste nutty with the texture of rice crispies. Very good to eat.
Experiencing the flight of the termites is not recommended if you’re taking mind-altering drugs or one of these people who fear the world will be taken over by insects. I have never before seen so many things in flight – a migration, albeit short-lived and difficult to predict accurately, to add to the list of things to see before you die.
A Yellow Fever Vaccination is required to enter Zambia.
We flew courtesy of SA Airlink from Johannesburg to Kasane. We crossed the border at Kazungula which is also noteworthy as a quadripoint where you can see Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. As a five-star deluxe property Royal Chundu and its affiliates shepherd you all the way including through customs. Do not try to cross the border yourself – it takes up to two weeks for trucks to cross and seeing pantechnicons backed up for five kilometres on either side of the border is an image that will also stay with you.