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.
On our 30-minute flight to Royal Zambezi Lodge, the scene below is of different shades of green delineating different crops divided by the tracery of access tracks to the farmlands, gradually merging into the rugged edge of the Zambezi Escarpment all glimpsed through wispy white and grey clouds.
The Zambezi Escarpment, which borders the Great Rift Valley, bulges and rolls below the belly of our plane in rich hues of browns, blues and emeralds –the camera totally fails to do justice to the sheer scale of this massive feature.
You honestly don’t think you will experience views more beautiful than this and then, just like that, breaking through the clouds, it happens. We emerge on the other side of the escarpment to 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 crowned by the silver and blue reflections of the mighty Zambezi River making her majestic way to the horizon. The Lower Zambezi valley below, wedged between the escarpment and one of the world’s most intriguing rivers, is renowned for its rich diversity of wildlife resulting from its funnelling effect.
A smooth landing on Royal’s tarred airstrip, its geometric lines looking as if they have been shaved from the virgin bush, we are warmly welcomed by the friendly smiles of the Royal staff complemented by troops of foraging Baboons, grazing Impala and the various birds which all find protection in the open areas of the airstrip.
The best part of our 5 minute 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 shouting “What is that?” while pointing at a large “towering space-rocket-looking thing.” A termite mound.
Our guide, intrigued and amused turned off the engine 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 perfectly 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 epitome of strength in numbers.
Upon arrival at Royal Zambezi Lodge, we are greeted with a broad smile from Benji, one of the waiting staff, and almost instantly we 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 overhead and the different shades of green in the bush around the lodge.
The tented suites sit on the edge of the Zambezi River, with one suite higher up next to the Bush Spa giving spectacular views all around. You quickly sense how the lodge has been intricately woven into the surrounding environment to ensure that wilderness and wildlife have right of way – just as it should be! Looking out at the mighty Zambezi River is breathtaking – the dazzling, reflections of the sun off the water look like a thousand diamonds.
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 both water and land-based activities on offer makes you realize that you could happily stay for over a week in order to fully immerse yourself in all of them. From walking safaris to game drives, fishing, canoeing, river safaris and our favourite on offer – the DNA, meaning, “Do Nothing at All.”
One of Royal’s glittering jewels is their award winning ‘Spa in the Bush’and the staff encourage you to seriously relax at the lodge, enjoying your suite with private plunge pool & outside bath, pampering yourself at the spa, a spot of yoga on your deck, reading a book in a 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, December to March, so the intrepid traveller is content knowing they have the sanctuary of the whole Lower Zambezi to themselves – the unique novelty of space and the humbling, immense silence of the African bush.
It is highlighted that it is rainy season and so some activities may be limited by weather but that doesn’t worry us with the ever-changing river on our doorstep there will always be something to do and we can find time to fit in a little DNA.
Game drives can be a bit more difficult with the muddy roads but the team of professional guides are in the park everyday and know the lie 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 loves the excitement of “bundu bashing,” basically a game drive with a twist, through thick green bush occasionally getting stuck on muddy roads or manoeuvering around fallen trees. The guides also double as mechanics and you can see they have experienced these situations many times. It is thrilling, amazing and reassuring to see the power of the 4×4 Land Cruisers.
Most of us having been on safari before, during the drier months, were awed by the Lower Zambezi unveiling its rainy season 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 amid the herd. 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 two hundred Buffalo – all of them with new youngsters in tow.
Smaller and surprising sightings came in the form of monitor lizards scurrying through puddles and over termite mounds, so many different birds in flight or singing, squirrels climbing trees and the distant cry of the African Fish Eagle – the national bird of both Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It was inspiring to see the renewed life and rejuvenation of the bush on which the wildlife relies to survive. All around the park we saw lilies blooming – Crinum Lily, Pan Crinum Lily & Spider Lily as we learnt from Leo, adding their subtle pink and white shades to the fresh green hues that had materialised after the rain. Secret Season makes you forget the typical “bucket list” of big cats you believe you have to see, driven by Nat Geo documentaries and Instagram expectations, and makes you appreciate the small things that make up the delicate revitalization of life in a natural ecosystem.
However, upon forgetting this “bucket list,” we were pleasantly surprised when we came around a corner and spotted two male lions lying in a clearing with the Zambezi Escarpment as their backdrop. One lay on its back with its legs in the air, whilst the other stared at us like we were long lost friends and then rolled over to cuddle its companion, both relaxed and content.
Most people believe that in order to make their safari worthwhile, they need to see cats within the first 5 – 10 minutes, which is not the way it should be, unless one is visiting a zoo. In a raw African experience, the thrill of your safari is in seeking out these magnificent creatures on adventurous treks through their home territory while noticing and appreciating the small things along the way. Small things that work together to create the perfect home for all the animals, big and small. Quality over quantity with not a single other vehicle in sight.
If that sighting wasn’t enough, Leo tracked some leopard spoor and we were lucky enough to find a female leopard with 2 adolescent cubs – absolutely INCREDIBLE! One of the cubs had an impala kill and sat there playing with it whilst the other cub climbed the nearby tree and watched us with curiosity. The leopards were a lot more active than the lions and were also not perturbed by our presence. This was just one activity – exciting, thrilling, rewarding & beautiful.
On occasions we couldn’t take a game drive because of heavy rain. To give the roads a chance to dry out, we would opt for a walking safari. You are taken for a short boat ride on the Zambezi to the area in which the walking safaris start – the site of an ancient village that was there well before the drawing of the National Park boundaries.
Traces of past human activity can be found here in the form of pottery, sculpted tools & bullet casings from the Rhodesian bush war. History & Nature – what more could you ask for. The first thing that grabs our attention, as we enter the park, is the explosion of white butterflies all around us, drinking from the puddles created by the rains. Baboons were playing in the flowering baobab tree ahead with babies attached to their mother’s bellies. This could quite literally set the scene for a baboons’ wedding complemented by the “confetti” of flying White Vein Butterflies.
What we loved about the walking safari was having the chance to engage our senses with the smaller things you wouldn’t usually experience on a game drive. Wallace, our guide, took us up close to a termite mound, much to the excitement of our first timer friend. Here he detailed the role of the termites and explained to us that monitor lizards use these mounds to lay their eggs because of the regulation of temperature in the mound. The monitor lizard has no maternal part to play as they lay their eggs and then leave. The babies hatch by themselves and make their own way into the world.
Beyond the termite mound, we came across a green bush with pink and yellow flowers that looked like small Chinese lanterns. Dichrostachys Cinerea, also known as Sickle Bush, is known in these parts to chase away evil spirits. just then I was thinking that they were certainly doing their job, as you cannot quite contemplate any evil spirits existing in this majestic place.
One afternoon we took canoes along an offshoot, of the river, that flows towards the escarpment. The serenity of this activity is hard to describe – it makes you feel as if you are the only people on earth. This adventure is fantastic for birding and seeing game such as Buffalo, Baboons, Waterbuck, Impala, Hippos and Elephants, also known as Zambezi traffic when they cross the channel making you wait until they have passed.
The Zambezi River is famous for Tiger fishing which Royal offers on a strict catch and release basis. If you haven’t tried your hand at Tiger fishing before, we highly recommend that you do. Guided by Shadrick, our enthusiastic and passionate fishing guide, we learned how to tie a trace and how to bait the hooks.
Fishing guides and safari guides deploy different specialist skills and knowledge at Royal but both are experts on land and water. The Tiger fish is notorious for the fight it gives, once hooked, by jumping out the water to try to escape. The surge of adrenalin you experience when you connect with a Tiger fish is something that will keep you hooked, pun intended.
On our boat cruises and DNA’s, we were constantly entertained by the ever changing rain clouds dotting the blue and grey skies from sunrise to sunset. Sitting on your private deck, you are woken by the smell of fresh coffee, with the option of adding Amarula, and the first rays of sunrise. The suites have all been built to face east so you can enjoy the new day in all its colourful and tranquil glory from the comfort of your room.
Whether we had been on a boat cruise or a game drive, at the end of each day, we all sat together, relaxing with a G&T in hand watching the explosion of red, orange, purple and pink staining the sky behind patches of cloud, almost as a final ‘goodbye and please come back’, as the sun set behind the Escarpment.
As we were leaving, one of our group turned to Natalie, the General Manager who has lived at Royal for the past 8 years, “Why do you call it ‘Secret Season’?” Natalie looked at the other staff, who had been so welcoming and accommodating, now all there waving us goodbye (you really are treated like family). She answered with a huge smile “Well, isn’t this place just the BEST kept secret?”
We smiled smugly. It most certainly is.