Recently, I was interviewed on Roundhouse Radio about traveling with children. One of the questions asked was, “What was the best vacation you’ve ever been on”. At first I thought the question would be impossible to answer in the few minutes that I had left. I had been to approximately 50 countries, sometimes multiple times, and had some unbelievable experiences. How could I pick only one? However, in the end, the answer was surprisingly simple – our one week stay at Chongwe River House in Zambia, Africa. Since that interview, I have been reminiscing about my time there and all the adventures that we had. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. If I could, I would return in a heartbeat.
I will be eternally grateful to Ross Cambray and the English tour company Africa Exclusive for recommending Chongwe River House. Many times I questioned whether the cost could possibly be worth it. However it was, without a shadow of a doubt, worth every penny!
I have divided our experience into two blogs. This one focuses on our incredible experiences at the house – the accommodation, the service and the food. The second blog called Luxury African Safari: Six Different Types of Safaris That Must Be Experienced focuses on our many unique safari experiences that have forever defined for us what an African safari is supposed to be.
Chongwe River House
It was July of 2014. My children were 17, 13, 11 and 9 years old. We spent three weeks visiting South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia. The last seven days were spent at Chongwe River House in Zambia. Without knowing it, we had kept the best for last. This is why.
Chongwe River House was located in an isolated part of Zambia. We flew by private plane from Victoria Falls to an airport close to Chongwe River, a tributary of the Zambezi River, near the western boundary of Lower Zambezi National Park. The flight was around 1 1/2 hours in length.
The airport consisted of a runway carved out of dense foliage, a little hut, and a vehicle or two. When we first approached the runway, we swooped down low and flew the length of it before reascending into the sky. I thought this was a little odd. The sky was sunny and clear, and there wasn’t another plane (or person or house) as far as the eye could see. On our second attempt, we landed safely and without incident. Later, we learned that this was standard procedure. The airstrip was fenceless. The fly-by confirmed that there weren’t any animals on the runway and discouraged any that were thinking of heading that way. Elephants were the most dangerous – it was unlikely we would have survived a collision with one of those.
We were met at the airport and driven approximately 40 minutes to the House by an oversized open air safari jeep. There weren’t any roads, so I’m still unsure how we found our way. Animals were everywhere. And so it began…
The house was both fantastic and fantastical. The architecture was a blend of Gaudi and Disney. Walls were curved, windows were irregularly shaped, and ceilings undulated. The front door was the only door in the whole house. There wasn’t a pane of glass on any of the windows, and there simply wasn’t a back wall along the whole width of the house.
There were four large master bedroom suites all with private bathrooms and separate entrances. Each bedroom had custom built beds that could either be two double beds or one ginormous bed (larger than a California king). There wasn’t a kitchen. Instead, there was a fully stocked open bar. There was a large deck off the back of the house with a pool, outdoor couches, and large table and chairs where dinner was served every night under candle light.
The deck was around 15 feet off the ground. Chongwe River was another 50 feet or 15 metres away. Like the airport, there weren’t any fences surrounding the house or the property. Most days, there were three or four warthogs who grazed on the grass below the deck. Crocodiles, hippos and elephants came and went. Monkeys were everywhere.
We had a 16 person staff who were all lovely and kind. Several butlers/house keepers kept the house tidy, prepared drinks at the bar, did our laundry and served food from a separate building with a kitchen, hidden somewhere on the property. This included a private cooking staff who prepared multiple meals per day. In addition, we had our own naturalist guide and a driver who spent each day with us on every safari we took. The managers of the house were an English couple. They coordinated all of our wishes, babysat our children if we chose to do an activity that wasn’t suitable for the younger ones, and made sure our dinner and drink choices were prepared. In other words, we were spoilt beyond anything that we had ever experienced in our lives and it was wonderful!
It seems like every moment that we were not having life changing experiences watching animals on the river or in the Lower Zambezi National Park, we were eating. The food was incredible. The managers consulted with me on a daily basis about the menu. I highly recommend only packing pants and shorts with elastic waistbands, or clothes one size too big.
6:30 am – Breakfast was served very early in preparation for a morning safari. There was plenty of fruit and yogurt. Eggs, pancakes and toast were cooked to order. Bacon and sausages were also available.
10:00 am – At this time each morning, we found ourselves on safari in the middle of the Lower Zambezi National Park. The guides would find a quiet spot under trees, near a watering hole, and park the jeep. Then, a folded table and chairs would magically appear from the car. Piping hot chocolate, coffee and tea would be served with a selection of cookies. We ate and drank, and stretched our legs, all the while being keenly aware that we were out in the open and surrounded by animals. It was an exhilarating experience.
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm – When we returned to the house from the safari, lunch was waiting. This was served on the deck buffet style and was normally comprised of several salads and a hot entree, like lasagna. Multiple kinds of fresh baked bread were available. Dessert was last. The same salad, entree or dessert were never repeated during our seven day stay. It was impossible to make even a dent in the amount of food offered.
This was normally when “Judy” the monkey would make her presence known. She was partial to the fresh bread. Judy and her buddies sat in the tree beside our table, keeping an eye on things. As soon as the buffet table was left unattended for a second, Judy would swoop down to try and steal one of the loaves. A couple times, she was successful! Later in the week, emboldened by her success, she ran off with a bottle of liquor. We spotted her a couple of times trying to open it. She was very entertaining!
3:00 pm – This was tea time. In the same place as lunch, tea, coffee and hot chocolate were laid out, next to a beautiful cake. Every day, a new cake was baked. It was never offered again, even if we only ate a sliver of a piece. We were doing our best to try and eat everything that was painstakingly created and served, but we were clearly not up to the task.
5:00 pm – This was the cocktail hour. If we were on a sunset cruise, all mixed drinks, wines, beers and ciders that we liked wondrously appeared, on ice if required, and with a twist of lemon for a perfect gin and tonic. If we were back at the house, they would also be offered, or we would choose another drink from the full bar. And just in case we needed a nibble or two, hot hors d’oeuvres appeared – delicious, irresistible, gourmet hors d’oeuvres!
7:00 pm – 8:30 pm – Dinner time fluctuated depending on what type of safari we were doing in the late afternoon/evening. If we did a sunset cruise, then dinner was served closer to 7:00 pm. If we went on a night safari, then dinner was served later. Dinner was a four course meal. Like before, everything was served fresh, made to order, and never appeared twice on our menu.
10:00 pm – Bedtime snacks appeared – usually cookies – for a last minute bite.
Without even discussing one safari experience that we had, our time at the Chongwe River House was astonishing. The level of service was exceptional. The staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating. The food was abundant and delicious.
And of course, the setting was magical. Chongwe River House sat completely alone on the Chongwe River, a short trip away from the much larger Zambezi River. Without any effort, we watched from our deck dozens of animals and birds visiting the river at all times of the day. Throughout our whole week, we only saw a handful of tourists each day in the National Park and then, it was only from afar. It truly felt like we had found one of the last untouched places in the world.
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