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 Martin, 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 every day 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 the thick green bush and occasionally getting stuck on muddy roads or manoeuvring 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 4×4 land cruisers.
Most of us have 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. However, upon forgetting this “bucket list,” we were pleasantly surprised when we came around a corner and spotted two male lions lying in an open area with the Zambezi Escarpment as their backdrop. One lay there 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 the other, both relaxed and content. Most people believe that in order to make their safari worthwhile, they need to see cats within their 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 seeking out these magnificent creatures on the adventurous treks through their natural ecosystem and appreciating all the small things along the way that work together to create the perfect home for all creatures, big and small. Quality over quantity and without a single other vehicle in sight.
If this sighting wasn’t enough, Leo tracked some leopard spoor, and we were lucky enough to come across 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, thrill-seeking, rewarding & beautiful.
On occasions where we couldn’t do a game drive due to heavy rainfall & 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 – an ancient village site that was there before the forming of the National Park. As a result, signs of past human life 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. Walking into the park, the first thing that grabs our attention, 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 with the “confetti” of flying White Vein Butterflies.
What we loved about the walking safari was getting to engage our senses in the smaller things you wouldn’t usually get to 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 due to the regulation of temperature in the mound. The monitor lizard has no maternal part to play as they lay their eggs, leave, and the babies hatch and make their own way into the world.
A little further on from 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. At that moment I remember thinking they were certainly doing their job, as you cannot quite contemplate any evil spirits being in this majestic place. One afternoon we did the canoeing trail, which is done on a channel off the Zambezi River and flows towards the escarpment. The serenity of this activity is hard to describe and makes you feel like you are the only few people on earth at that moment. This adventure is fantastic for birding and seeing game such as Elephants, also known as Zambezi traffic as they cross from one side of the channel to the other invariably making you wait until they pass, Buffalo, Baboons, Waterbuck, Impala and Hippos. The Zambezi River is famous for Tiger fishing which Royal offers on a strictly 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, he taught us how to tie a trace and how to put the bait on our hooks. Fishing guides and safari guides are separate at Royal, both experts within land and water. The Tigerfish is notorious for the fight it gives once caught and jumping out the water to try release itself. The adrenaline you experience from fishing for Tigerfish is something that will keep you hooked; pun intended.
On our boat cruises and DNA’s, there is something to be said about the combination of rain clouds dotting the blue and grey skies and the good morning and good night greetings 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 sunrise so you can enjoy the new day in all its colourful and tranquil glory from the comfort of your room. At the end of each day, either on a boat cruise or game drive, we all sat there relaxing with a G&T in hand and watched as an explosion of red, orange, purples and pinks filled the sky behind patches of cloud, almost as a final goodbye and please come back, whilst the sun dipped behind the Zambezi Escarpment. As we were leaving, one of our group turned to Natalie, the GM who has made Royal her home for the past 8 years, “Why do you call it ‘Secret Season’?” Natalie looked at the other staff, who were all there waving us goodbye and had welcomed us into the Royal family, and answered back with a big smile “Well, isn’t this place just the BEST kept secret?”
We all smiled. It most certainly is.