It’s like a scene from “Out of Africa.” Except that instead of Karen Blixen’s bush tents in Kenya, Chiawa Camp hugs the Zambezi River in Zambia.
Unforgettable elephants are the big draw at Chiawa. And hippos, crocodiles, Cape buffalo, baboons and even the occasional lion.
But Chiawa also nails the African, luxury-in-the-bush, glamping experience.
It was the first safari camp to open in Lower Zambezi National Park back in 1991.
Today, Chiawa safari camp is still owned and operated by the conservation-minded Cumings family. And it’s the best of the Lower Zambezi lodges for getting your game-viewing fix of river-based wildlife (rated #1 on TripAdvisor).
Perched on stilts, Chiawa’s nine deluxe permanent tents are made of timber, reeds and canvas.
And they’re all about bush luxury.
Think claw-footed tubs, colonial-style furnishings, plush king-size beds with Egyptian cotton linens and indoor and outdoor showers.
There’s even WiFi!
One tent, the new Safari Suite, is a family villa.
It has a king bedroom, a living area-cum-lounge that converts into a second bedroom, private pool and gazebo.
Mmm… What’s for dinner?
Dinners are four-course plated meals served by candlelight.
Perhaps potato rosti with smoked salmon, cream cheese and a drizzle of maple syrup to start, followed by cream of broccoli soup, then a choice of chicken stuffed with sun-dried tomato and feta, accompanied by cinnamon rice and beans, or home-made pasta.
And for dessert? Maybe a very decadent caramelized sugar pie.
Zambezi safari activities:
As for activities, game drives are mixed up with guided canoeing excursions, where you explore myriad river channels.
You can also enjoy a romantic champagne lunch on a small aluminum boat while drifting down the Zambezi, past hundreds of snorting hippos.
A one-hour speedboat ride downriver takes you to Old Mondoro, Chiawa’s satellite wilderness camp.
With just four tents, Old Mondoro is one of the last true bush camps in Africa.
An intimate and raw safari experience – a safari on steroids. But with all the luxuries you expect in the wild.
The tents are open-sided (the canvas is rolled down at night).
They feature indoor loos plus outdoor showers and splash tubs overlooking the Zambezi River.
Just be aware you might have to jump out of your bathtub if an elephant turns up to drink the bathwater!
A seasoned safari-goer we met at Old Mondoro – who amazingly had done some 50 safaris all over Africa – raved that Old Mondoro was her favorite place in the whole African continent for a pure, authentic safari escape.
Canoeing the Lower Zambezi
“Welcome to canoeing on the Zambezi River, our most dangerous activity at Chiawa,” said Paul, the safari camp’s senior guide, when we showed up for our first activity at Old Mondoro.
“But there’s only been one serious incident with a crocodile in these parts.”
A croc pulled a girl out from the front of a dugout canoe on the other side of the river five years ago.
We passed on the chance to back out, put our faith – and lives – in the supposedly-stable Canadian canoes, and hopped in.
As it turned out, we did see crocs galore. And loads of hippos.
The hippos are actually more dangerous than the crocs, because they can tip canoes.
But we were also treated to a tableaux of amazing birdlife – African jacana, southern ground hornbill, beautiful blue-cheeked bee-eaters, kingfishers and more.
The river scenes were surprisingly peaceful, and the canoeing was a highlight of our Zambezi safari.
And what about those elephants?
About 2,000 pachyderms inhabit the Lower Zambezi National Park – and you’ll see hundreds of them up close when staying at Chiawa safari camp.
You might not even have to leave for a stupendous sighting.
A big long-tusked bull is a frequent visitor to the unfenced camp. Sometimes he wanders right by the al fresco dining veranda at breakfast time, almost within touching distance.
Just don’t spill your coffee if he thrusts his trunk at you and waves.
We found the “real” Africa we were seeking in Zambia. We loved it so much that after visiting Chiawa and Old Mondoro, we returned to the country for a second safari.
Off the radar for most tourists, Zambia offers some of the continent’s most authentic and wild safari experiences.
You’ll probably sleep in a tent without A/C (albeit a luxurious one).
But the wildlife parks teem with animals, and your up-close-and-personal animal viewing will rival what you see on National Geographic TV shows.
Zambia also boasts majestic Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border.
Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa:
To make the most of your Zambia visit, we suggest combining safaris at two main parks, South Luangwa National Park and Lower Zambezi National Park, along with a stay in the tourist town of Livingstone to explore the Falls.
Time + Tide collection in South Luangwa:
In South Luangwa, we recommend trying a walking safari at the Norman Carr (Time + Tide) camps. Don’t worry, you can also do regular game drives as well. For pure luxe, be sure to stay at Chinzombo safari camp, where your “tent” comes with a private pool.
Puku Ridge in South Luangwa:
Chiawa also has a new camp in South Luangwa National park, Puku Ridge – a collaboration between the Cumings family (owners of Chiawa and Old Mondoro) and Chichele Safaris.
Staying at Puku Ridge would allow you to create a seamless Zambia itinerary through Chiawa that covers both the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa.
More Africa safari inspiration
Check out our Ultimate Africa Guide & Safari Planner! Also see these posts of ours:
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Photo credits: 7, 12, 13, 17, 18 and 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Other photos courtesy Chiawa