Secret Season in the Lower Zambezi National Park - Royal Zambezi Lodge
Safely tucked into a window seat on a Royal Air Charters light aircraft from Lusaka, on our way to experience “Secret Season” in one of Zambia’s most diverse & untouched wilderness frontiers – the Lower Zambezi National Park, it is hard to imagine what our experience would be like in what is also known as Green Season – the start of the rains in this part of the world.
Taking the 30-minute flight to Royal Zambezi Lodge, the scenery is somewhat unassuming with the passing views of the farmlands below merging into the start of the Zambezi Escarpment, all through periods of wispy white and grey clouds.
The Zambezi Escarpment, which forms part of the Great Rift Valley, bulges and rolls below the belly of our plane in rich hues of browns, blues and emeralds – a picture just wouldn't do justice to the sheer size of this escarpment.
You honestly don’t think you will experience views more beautiful than this and then, just like that whilst slicing through the clouds, it happens. We emerge on the other side of the escarpment unveiling scenes that quite simply, will take your breath away.
The escarpment, still dotted with patches of brown, suddenly drops to greet the Zambezi Valley floor - a lush, thick carpet of vibrant green and crowned by the silver and blue reflections of the mighty Zambezi River on the horizon. The Lower Zambezi valley below, wedged between the escarpment and one of the worlds most intriguing rivers, is known for its wildlife rich landscape as it forms a natural wildlife corridor.
After a smooth landing into Royal’s tarred airstrip, a grey strip that looks like it has been shaved into the thick bush of the valley floor from the air, you are welcomed by the warm and friendly Royal staff as well as Baboons, Impala & various birds whom all find safety in the open areas of the airstrip.
The best part of our 5 min drive from the airstrip to Royal Zambezi Lodge, was experiencing the excitement of one of our friends in the group, who’d never been to Africa, suddenly shout out “What is that?” whilst pointing at a large "towering space-rocket-looking thing." She was pointing at a termite mound.
Our guide, intrigued and amused turned off the vehicle and explained the intricacies and ecosystem of the termites and how they build their home. As we sat there mesmerized at the brilliance of something so small and sculpted by Mother Nature herself, you wouldn’t have thought that the rest of us had seen a termite mound before on our many safari experiences. These small & interesting creatures are the definition of power in numbers.
Upon arrival at Royal Zambezi Lodge, we are greeted with the warmest smile from Benji, one of the waiting staff, and almost instantly feel part of the “Royal” family.
Walking down the stairs to the central area, our senses are overwhelmed by the fresh smells after the rains, the many birds singing, the monkeys playing in the trees ahead and the different shades of green in the bush around the lodge.
The tented suites are sitting on the edge of the Zambezi River, with one suite higher up next to the bush spa with spectacular views from above. You get the sense the lodge has been carefully woven into the surrounding environment and wilderness and wildlife have right of way here, how it should be. Looking out at the mighty Zambezi River is breathtaking – the reflections of the sun off the water look as if a thousand diamonds are shining through & dazzling you.
As wildlife has right of way here, we are given an important safety talk by the wonderful management team. It is during this talk that we realize this is no ordinary safari destination.
The array of activities on offer due to the merging of land and water makes one realize you could happily be here for over a week in order to fully immerse yourself in all of the experiences. From walking safaris to game drives, fishing, canoeing, river safaris and our favourite on offer – the DNA, meaning, “Do Nothing at All.”
Royal is home to an award winning bush spa and the staff encourage you to spend some time relaxing at the lodge, enjoying your suite with private plunge pool & outside bath, pampering yourself at the spa, a spot of yoga on your deck or at the spa, reading a book in the hammock by the infinity pool, birding & nature walks around the lodge and afternoon naps to the sound of Secret Season thunderstorms rumbling in the distance.
Royal Zambezi Lodge is the only lodge open during this time of the year, Dec to March, so the intrepid traveller would be content knowing they have the sanctuary of the whole Lower Zambezi to themselves. A novelty of space in a world experiencing a population of 7 billion plus.
It is highlighted that it is rainy season here and some activities may be limited due to weather patterns but that doesn’t seem to worry us with the river being on our doorstep, as there will always be something to do and we could all quite happily take advantage of the DNA.
Game drives can be a bit more difficult due to the muddy roads but the team of professional guides are in the park everyday and know the lay of the land very well. Game drives during this time of the year are definitely for the more adventurous traveller like most in our group, who loved the excitement of “bundu bashing,” basically a game drive with a twist through thick green bush and occasionally getting stuck on muddy roads or maneuvering around fallen trees. The guides almost double as mechanics and you can see they have experienced these situations many times. Certainly thrill-seeking and amazing to see the power of the 4x4 land cruisers.
Most of us having been on safari before, during the dryer months, were in awe exploring the Lower Zambezi as each area unveiled its own secrets, packaged in splendid shades of green. The first thing we noticed were all the baby impala, whose birth is precisely timed to the start of the rains as explained by Leo our guide, playing & jumping in their herds. You don’t get to see babies at other times of the year so this was a special treat for us. From there it was almost as if the other plains game knew we were there and came out to greet us – we saw Kudu, Waterbuck, Elephant, Zebra, Warthog and a large herd of about 200 Buffalo – all species with babies in tow.
Smaller and surprising sightings came in the form of monitor lizards scurrying through puddles and over termite mounds, so many different birds flying about and singing, squirrels climbing trees and the distant cry of the African Fish Eagle – the national bird shared by both Zambia and Zimbabwe.
We were surrounded by renewed life and rejuvenation of the bush in which this wildlife relies on to survive. All around the park we saw lilies blooming - Crinum Lilly, Pan Crinum Lilly & Spider Lilly as we learnt from Leo, adding their touch of pink and white shades to the emerald colours that had taken over. Secret Season makes you forget the typical “bucket list” of big cats you believe you have to see thanks to Nat Geo documentaries and Instagram expectations and makes you appreciate the small things and the delicate revitalization of life in a natural ecosystem.