In 2014, I took my family of six to Chongwe River House in Zambia for a seven day African safari. My children ranged in age from 9, 11, 13 and 17 years old. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of our lives. We thank Africa Exclusive, an English travel company, for including the Chongwe River House in our African experience. We were pampered and treated to exceptional service by a staff of 16. In addition, we stayed in a beautiful home without doors and windows just steps away from the Chongwe River. Hippos, elephants, warthogs and crocodiles came and went below our deck as we sat by the pool, ate our meals and drank delicious cocktails. We were served gourmet food all day long. It was simply magical.
I wrote about the service, accommodation and food in an earlier blog called Chongwe River House: A Luxury African Safari with Kids. In this blog, I am going to write about the amazing safaris that were offered. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to experience safaris in Kenya, South Africa and Botswana. However, none of my other experiences provided the selection of safaris that we participated in at the Chongwe River House. It was astounding.
Six Types of Safaris
Chongwe River House offered six different kinds of safaris alone, each providing a distinct and memorable experience. Every day, we chose two of them. One typically started around dawn and ran the balance of the morning. The other was either in the late afternoon or evening, depending on the activity that was chosen. These were our options:
Safari by jeep
This is the most traditional type of safari – a land based safari with an oversized open air jeep. We would leave the house by jeep and travel the 30 minutes or so to the gate of the Lower Zambezi National Park. There wasn’t a fence around the Chongwe River House or the National Park so in reality, the safari began as soon as we walked out of the front door of the house. Indeed, one day we found four or five lions around 5 minutes from our house.
Safari by small speedboat
We would travel by speed boat from the back of the house along the Chongwe and Zambezi Rivers to the centre of the Lower Zambezi National Park. It would take around 45 minutes each way. There, we would meet our safari driver with the jeep who would have left earlier that morning to make the long drive to the centre of the Park.
This was our favourite option. Without over-exaggerating, every time we stepped onto the boat and travelled along the rivers, we were dumbfounded by the beautiful scenery and animal life that we were watching.
Hippos were everywhere, including mere feet from our boat, looking aggressive as we passed. A couple times they charged the boat from shore, splashing furiously trying to intercept our boat (thankfully, unsuccessfully!). Once a hippo erupted from the water mere inches from our boat with its mouth wide open ready to attack. It was completely submerged beforehand so we were taken completely by surprise. In the moment, it was frightening. Upon reflection, it was an amazing connection with wildlife that I was happy to have had, and yet, had no desire to repeat!
Enormous majestic elephants were also everywhere. Chongwe River was extremely narrow so when we floated along it towards the Zambezi River, we were very close to the animals. However, the Zambezi River in that area was very wide with little islands here and there no bigger than a football field, and in some cases much smaller. There would be some trees and grass for animals to eat, but for the most part, these islands were barren. Consequently, it was very easy to watch hippos and elephants, who had swam from the mainland, wander around without them being aware that humans were nearby. These were amazing opportunities to observe these incredible creatures.
This sounds like a pretty stupid idea! Let’s go far a walk in the National Park where hippos, elephants, lions, leopards, and elephants freely roam and see what happens! We did this once. Our two youngest (9 and 11 year olds) were not allowed to go. Our two eldest joined us. We had one National Park ranger with a gun who led us on our walk, but other than that, we were defenceless and without a vehicle to run to.
This was a beautiful walk and we saw a few animals in the distance. They were keenly aware of our presence and kept close watch of us. However, many of the animals are naturally camouflaged or use the brush and trees to hide. We were very aware that we were surrounded by animals, even when our human senses couldn’t find them. It was an unbelievable feeling to know that with a wrong turn, we could have found ourselves face to face with an elephant, or a pride of lions eating its prey.
One afternoon, my husband and I canoed down another tributary off of the Zambezi River. We each shared a canoe with a guide. Our 17 year old declined to come and our other three children were not allowed to do this. This was an extraordinary experience. The river was extremely narrow. We were literally a dozen steps from the shore on each side of us. We were mere inches off of the water. Around us were crocodiles, hippos, and elephants, both on the shore and in the water. We were extremely vulnerable. If a hippo or elephant had charged or tried to capsize us, we would have been helpless. However, the scenery was beautiful and serene. My heart rate was racing, but it was a remarkable experience and I would do it again without hesitation.
This was similar to the speed boat safari except we would start this in the late afternoon. We would cruise down the Chongwe River to the Zambezi River. Cocktails were mixed and served. Hot hors d’oeuvres were passed around. We would watch the sunset while the animals prepared for the night. It was breathtaking.
This was a very cool experience that we did a couple of times. In the late afternoon, we climbed into the jeep and headed to the National Park. Once darkness fell, we continued with our safari with only a large handheld spotlight for light. There were no lights in the National Park. There wasn’t any civilization inside or near the Park except for a few safari camps 40 or so minutes away. Consequently, it was absolutely black at night. There wasn’t any glare from any residual light grid or settlement. The only things that were visible while we drove were those that happened to pop into view through the small handheld spotlight.
The experience was exhilarating as we never knew what the spot light would uncover at a moment’s notice. We had to slam on the brakes a couple of times when we almost drove into a elephant or two. Then, we had to drive in reverse when the elephant wasn’t inclined to stop blocking our path and began flapping his ears warning us to retreat. We spotted a couple of animals that were only nocturnal, which was interesting.
However, by far the most amazing experience during these night safaris was the sky. When the spot light was turned off, and we stopped and looked into the sky, we could see thousands and thousands of stars, including the Milky Way. The sky was absolutely mesmerizing. I could have gone on a night safari every night.
Participating in any African safari is an amazing privilege. There is nothing that I have experienced in the 50 countries that I have visited over the last 40 years that comes close to the rush of emotion and adrenaline that you feel when you come face to face with these animals.
Take this up a notch and you have our African safari experience at Chongwe River house in Zambia. Not only are you connecting with nature, and the ebb and flow of animal life in Africa; but you are also experiencing it in six different ways. Each way is completely different from the other. Yet, the sense of intimacy with the animals and sometimes, the sense of danger remains a constant notwithstanding which type of safari you choose.
I would go back in a heart beat. In fact, I miss it desperately.
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