An African safari is a bucket-list experience for many, but it’s not as hard to achieve as you might think. Some safaris can be geared toward adults, but there are plenty of options for traveling families. Family travel expert Kerri Zane shares some of her favorite family-friendly safari camps in her May Window Seat or Aisle Seat column.
It’s never too early to start ticking off the to-dos on your bucket list. For me, taking an African safari has been on my top 10 for quite some time. As a single mom with no significant other, I did not want that to stand in the way of fulfilling my dream. So I invited my oldest daughter, Rachele, to join me on this vacation of a lifetime. We chose to visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, as well as Zambia. It is the up-and-coming African go-to destination. Our friends and family expressed their concerns about two women traveling to such a “dangerous” place. We didn’t listen, and I am glad we didn’t. Any fears about disease, getting caught in guerrilla crossfire, or being trampled by wild animals quickly dissipated with each and every property we visited. Afterward, we agreed that five safari camps stood out as the best. Here’s a closer look at each one.
Zambezi Crescent, Victoria Falls River Lodge: Location, Location, Location
For me, the most important destination in Africa was Victoria Falls. Rachele and I chose to stay at Victoria Falls River Lodge in Zimbabwe for this part of our excursion. The two-year-old property is the first private game lodge set in the Zambezi National Park on the Zambezi River. The staff creates a very pomp and circumstance arrival. We were whisked from our airport van to a boat dock where we boarded a small watercraft to the lodge jetty. It was a stunning afternoon ride on the river. We had our first exhilarating close encounter with a pod of bobbing hippos. The accommodations in each of the 10 plein air tents are very clean and simply appointed with earthy hues. The bathrooms, complete with a claw foot tub set next to the picture window, are all indoors, which is not the case at every camp. They do however have an outdoor showerhead, should you choose to try a fresh air shower. In addition to the game drives organized through the lodge, the Victoria Falls area offers a wide range of family-oriented activities. You can find bungee jumping, rafting, helicopter rides, elephant-back safaris, and zip lining.
I loved visiting the falls. They are the largest sheath of water in the world, measuring 1,708 meters across, and thus one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Victoria Falls are known to the locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or the smoke that thunders. They did not disappoint. The river’s annual flood season is February through May, with its peak in April. The spray from the falls rises 1,300 feet and, needless to say, we came away soaking wet. I suggest visiting the falls in the morning, then taking a meal at the nearby Edwardian-era Victoria Falls Hotel. It has a great menu, good service, and a spectacular view of the Victoria Falls Bridge, which connects Zambia and Zimbabwe. Baboon families wander freely through the gardens, making for a fun bit of lunchtime entertainment.
Chinzombo: Bush Meets West
The mere mention of the fact that we’d be staying at Chinzombo in South Luangwa Valley, elicited envy among our camp-mates at other properties. Once you set your sights on the ten-month-old property, strategically positioned on a sandy outcropping along the Luangwa River, it’s understandable. The newest addition to Norman Carr Safaris, Chinzombo is the finest example of bush-meets-west. The decor is very contemporary, with rustic details like thick chains, camo green belts, and classic safari photos of Norman Carr, which populate the main dining area. It is the only camp Rachele and I stayed at that offered Wi-Fi in every chalet. They had a temperature control system over the bed called fresh breeze I’d never seen before, and the mattresses were the most comfortable we’d slept on. We also loved finding hair conditioner, in addition to the requisite shampoo and body wash, in the shower stall. Adding to the luxurious feel, the shower, tub, toilet, and washbowls were all contained within the chalet frame. Each person on the staff, from property manager Katie on down, was very accommodating. At every meal, a different staff member joined us at our table. Having their company made our visit feel more personal and familial.
A good game guide is everything when it comes to an African safari. Known for their driving and walking guides, the Norman Carr guides are some of the most savvy and knowledgeable men in the valley. In addition to hippos, elephants, baboons, and impala, our guides also spotted a mama leopard and her suckling cubs, a pride of lions, the elusive hyena, and a tableau of zebras. Of course, all this luxury carries a commensurate price tag. But the Norman Carr folks are well aware of the expense and offer combination packages so everyone can enjoy a taste of the safari good life. I suggest you combine a one or two day stay at Chinzombo with a three-night walking safari or a stint at their more moderately priced camp, Kapani.
Chongwe River Camp: British Tradition with Bush Flair
Chongwe River Camp is a family-owned and operated camp affiliated with Norman Carr, so the staff was as friendly and accommodating as it was in Chinzombo. We immediately felt at home with a warm welcome and a cool hand towel (which, by the way, is offered at almost every camp upon arrival and following each excursion) from camp managers CJ and Flossie. We also got a hearty welcome from a herd of hippos that laze all day across from the camp where the Chongwe and Zambezi rivers meet.
I loved the confluence of design styles with a safari camp-feel punctuated by touches of traditional British influence. There were beautiful indigenous wood beam joists adjoining the walls, classic wood and glass furnishings and proper sterling silver details, like a dainty floral patterned butter cup. Unlike any of the other camps we visited, all of the bathroom facilities were al fresco. In other words, the toilet, showers and sink bowls were outside the bedroom surrounded by stucco walls and covered by a large canvas umbrella. Our guide George treated us to a great game drive. This camp also includes water-based activities. We chose a meandering morning canoe expedition along a crocodile-filled Zambezi tributary. Another safari feature I learned about at Chongwe is the sundowner (most of the camps provide these delicious moments). It is a lovely African tradition, whereby, out in the bush, your guide sets up a folding table complete with tablecloth and treats the tour group to homemade snacks and the perfect cocktail. We chose the Safari classic, G&Ts (Gin and tonic—the quinine is supposed to repel mosquitoes) served in crystal glasses. It’s all in service to toasting another perfect African sundown.
Robin Pope Safari Camp: Bush Camp Redefined
The amazingly friendly staff at Robin Pope Safari’s Nkwali Camp in South Luangwa Valley greeted us upon arrival. The chalets at RPS were similar to Chongwe Camp with a very modern feel and an open bath area, except these facilities are attached to the room, so it feels more private. Luckily, we were also able to spend a few nights at the property’s Luangwa Safari House. Designed by Neil Rocher, this private house looked like a two story, Flintstones-meets-life-sized-dollhouse. There are four bedrooms, each themed to mimic the elements of water, earth, wind, and fire. The spaces are completely open during the day. At night the staff secures the spaces with floor-to-ceiling mesh screens. That way you feel safe and enclosed, yet are still able to hear the sounds of the wildlife that roams area. We had our lunch on the raised deck that juts out over the backyard lagoon. There we indulged in chicken, walnut and blue cheese salad, Parmesan and prosciutto, lentil and tomato salad, and butternut squash quiche while watching an elephant lazily chomp his way through the tall grass. It was an unforgettable experience. The house also affords its visitors a private staff led by hostess Tina (if you bring small children along on your trip she’ll babysit!) and dedicated guide, Jacob. Jacob’s passion for what he called “his office” (the park) was infectious. The Luangwa Safari house can accommodate up to 8 people, which makes it perfect for a multi-generational family vacation or a group of friends seeking a private getaway.
Chiawa Camp: A Bush Classic
If you are looking for a more traditional African bush camp experience, Chiawa Camp, in the heart of Lower Zambezi National Park, is a good choice. Heavily detailed in dark timber woods and camouflage green, the tents are fully enclosed. I have to say, of all the places we stayed, the fine dining at Chiawa Camp was the best. All the camps serve a three-course lunch and dinners, but the chef at Chiawa could not be outdone. In addition to game drives, Chiawa offers variety water activities including canoe trips, river safaris, and angling. One day we floated out to the center of the river on the camp’s barge and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Daniel, our Chiawa guide, proved to be just as dedicated as all the other guides we’d met on our trip. When he heard about a wild dog sighting, we were on it. The whole crew quickly loaded into our game vehicle despite the impending rainstorm, and drove an hour to the see the three pups. Daniel called it our “Ferrari safari.” It was fast, furious, and super fun. When it started to rain, and our jeep had to be winched out of the deep mud sink, but it was still a blast.
While it’s great to be pampered by the staff at the bush camps, you can’t actually get a feel for the Zambian people or the culture until you sit among the locals. We visited Mfuwe where our host, Constantine, gave us a tour of the round houses guests can stay in overnight, shared a traditional Zambian meal of Nshima (a polenta-like cornmeal) and took us to the Kawaza school. We spent time talking to a host of ambitious students, and heard about their dreams of becoming doctors, accountants, and teachers. We shared our ROXO bracelets with all of them. We also got a peek inside their library, severely bereft of books. It was a reminder of how much more is still left to accomplish in order to assist these young people in reaching their fullest potential. Critically important is the symbiotic nature of the bush camps we travelers visit and the conservancy programs taught in school. There is a great bond in tourists, tourism, and the sustainability of African culture, the stunning landscape, and the preservation of their precious wildlife.
A trek to Africa from the US is not for the faint of heart. It was a 30+ hour trip from our home in Long Beach, CA to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Then there were the small plane transfers to the bush camp venues. But, I believe, if you are going to travel so far and long, you should see as much as possible. That’s why it’s great to experience a variety of camps in different parts of the country. For example, Luangwa Valley is home to an indigenous giraffe that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Lower Zambezi has a proliferation of cape buffalo that are more difficult to spot in other areas. We traveled inter-country on the Zambian airline Proflight. One of our favorite rides was to Chongwe River Camp in Lower Zambezi, and our plane was a 4-seater. We met up with 3 other travelers so, with only four seats in the back, Rachele got to sit up in the co-pilot’s seat―an adventure unto itself!
With comfortable flights, great food, safe surroundings, beautiful vistas, amazing wildlife, and warm, welcoming people, you have no excuse and every reason to make this family trip a bucket list dream come true.
By Kerri Zane for PeterGreenberg.com. Kerri Zane is a family travel expert and author of It Takes All 5: A Single Mom’s Guide to Finding the REAL One, on sale now. For more advice on health, parenting or Kerri’s exclusive MomEscapes, visit her at KerriZane.com.