Take your kids on a Zambia safari to see African Elephants roaming free – before it's too late. It's an ideal family safari destination for children aged seven and upwards, says Louise Hall.
We’re bumping along a dirt track in the Lower Zambezi National Park, following a trail of fresh elephant poo.
We’ve been lucky, so far; we’ve seen baboons, waterbuck, sables, kudus, impalas, zebras, hyenas, buffalos, even wild dogs and lion. But, no elephants – yet. We’re scanning the landscape, eyes peeled, ears tuned, bodies tense, expectant. When, "Look!” whispers our guide, Chris Musonda, drawing our jeep to a shuddering stop, cutting the engine, pointing urgently to distant shadows. We look. We look some more. And then we see.
"Elephants!” A herd are lumbering by in the distance, large flanking small, baby trunk wrapped around mother’s tail, watermarks on bellies. We count 10. "That’s not bad,” says Chris. Some herds 100-strong have been sighted at the river’s edge here but not recently, due to poachers. "We still have lots of elephants but it’s hard to keep track of them,” he explains, heading homewards. "They’re rangers, they cover huge distances, for feeding and breeding; they can travel 50 miles in a day.”
Later, quenching our thirst at the lodge’s Sausage Tree poolside bar overlooking the Zambezi at sundown, comparing photos, Zambian-born and trained Chris explains how unusual elephants are in the animal world, in their ability to show compassion to each other, that they are one of the strongest, most emotive and human-like of animals. The irony isn’t lost on us: after all, they’re endangered because it’s us humans poaching them for parts of their body that have become more valuable than life itself.
As recent news reports have indicated, the African Elephant is under threat like never before. Did you know that elephants are dying at the rate of one every 15 minutes? That despite an international trade ban on ivory back in 1989 36,000 were killed last year? That in, China – the biggest consumer of ivory, for carved ornaments, jewellery and medicine (there is a widely mistaken belief it can "cure cancer” and be an aphrodisiac) - a single African Elephant tusk can sell for around £1,500? That experts are predicting that at the rate they’re being poached, they’ll be extinct in the wild by 2025? (That’s before your toddlers become adults, so now’s the time to visit, if you want to experience them in the wilds.) Nor did we. Not until we saw the news headlines. So we’ve come to Zambia to learn more about the fate of the endangered African elephant and experience them roaming wild and free here on the shores of the Lower Zambezi, one of the most impressive places in the world to see the African Elephant - while we still can. After all, there’s no better way to teach a child, or fire their imagination, than to show them, and animals can be the greatest teachers of all: watching their behaviour can help curious little ones learn patience, listening and observing skills.
We’re staying at the Royal Zambezi Lodge (RZL), one of Zambia’s best-loved, most family-friendly and easiest-to-reach world-class safari destinations. From Lusaka Airport (Zambia’s capital), it’s a short-hop 25-minute charter-flight up and over the emerald Great Rift Valley then down to the valley floor and the vast, sweeping shores of the Lower Zambezi: the mighty giant that is Africa’s fourth longest River, snaking westward over the Victoria Falls to the Indian Ocean. It’s worth the journey, for the flying safari views alone; this is the heart of Africa that I know and love.
Zambia may be known for understated safaris, strong conservation heritage and great guides, not showy safari camps. But on first impressions safariing here is not exactly slumming it. Linen-pressed safari guides greet us on the private airstrip with iced water, cool flannels and a super-smart, soft-suspension Land Rover emblazoned "Where Luxury Meets The Wild”, to whisk us the five-minute drive to the lodge.
Walking in, jaws hit the deck. "Wow!” we exclaim, as the full force of the Zambezi hits us. As experiential travel goes this is something else. To say the location is unique (it’s world-renowned to have some of the best river views, frontage and game viewing opportunities in the area) is an understatement; the main lodge, a private, thatched African-style house opens to a large-deck-restaurant and steps leading to a smaller pontoon where the safari boats are moored. It is stylish and considered in a low-key manner, making for a relaxed family-friendly atmosphere - all large open fires, sofas, wicker armchairs, antique chests, well-thumbed books, coffee-table books and board games.
It’s the sweeping 180-degree river views that catch you in your step, and the drama of nature evolving around you. There’s so much to experience, it’s a riot to the senses: dancing light on water; cloud shadows on land; the ubiquitous "tok-tok” cry of Fish Eagles overhead; bullfrogs croaking from the River banks, baritone hippos grunting from the deeps and cicadas trilling in the African breeze. It’s a sensory overload etched on our retinas. "You never tire of the views,” says Natalie Black, the Zambian-born, British-schooled general manager. "Did you know that’s Zimbabwe, just there?” she says pointing at the opposite river bank. Amazingly, we didn’t. It’s Mana Pools National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which makes this whole area one giant natural wildlife playground.
Be it from your bed, bath, private plunge pool, outside shower, daybed (we are staying in the Frontier Suite which has its own outdoor day-room, which is basically a bed where the baboons like to pillow fight), the spa (manicures and massages are order of the day) or simply playing with little ones on your deck, the camp offers "rooms with views” at all times. At night, under the stars, with the kids in bed, the candles flickering, it’s blissfully romantic. Immersed as we are in the surround-sounds and sights of the Zambezi, it feels not unlike being inside an ultra-surreal Imax cinema.
A main highlight is the guided canoe safari (12 is the minimum age), where we glide through tributaries, seeing a brood of baby crocs scuttling over each like tiny lizards, each not more than 15cms, their mother’s eye poking out of the river blinking at us, as we drift quietly past. Another is sipping sundowners (gin-and-tonics for the adults, lemonades for the kids), watching the sun set pink, blood orange, red over the River as a huge pod of hippos lounges lazily in the deeps; we count 22 eyes blinking and nostrils flaring, while egrets swoop overhead and Vervet monkeys, all swinging limbs, chatter away. Then there’s cruising the river at sunset and the world-class tiger fishing (guides are on hand to help you catch that elusive 10-pounder: the trick, we learn, is to cast the line where the deeps meet the shallows, where the bigger fish come looking for the small).
The joy of a family safari is that there’s wonder in everything. Children and adults alike are awed by big game wandering through this wilderness camp, usually at first or last light, as they make their way to and from the river. But clearly this presents a danger too. "It is the most magical place to bring kids but you need to be alert to the dangers at all times,” advises Nat, which includes zipping up your tent. (We found fresh lion prints one morning.) That’s not to say you can’t relax though. You can opt to stay in the safe zones – the main lodge house, swimming pool and bar – with the kids, where there are guards on watch – and adopt the well known RZL "DNA” ("Do Nothing At All”) approach, which includes the spa with the best views imaginable.
An African safari may not be right up there on your list of holiday destinations when it comes to ease of travel but there’s nothing quite like it for giving your family a bonding adventure and memories to last a life-time. And whilst Zambian safaris aren’t necessarily the best choice for the less adventurous or those with younger children (some of the river lodges, including the Royal Zambezi Lodge, advise not bringing children under seven), it’s one of the ultimate go-to places for big-game viewing. It’s raw and remote - the off-piste of safaris, if you like – so the big beasts (huge pods of hippos, buffalo, leopard, lion and elephant) roam here.
A main reason to visit Zambia, the scenery aside, is stringent tests means the guides are some of the most informed you’ll find. This makes it extra exciting for the older kids who can really engage, absorb the fascinating facts and get the most out of the sightings. Meanwhile, the smaller ones can enjoy the simple pleasures of drawing in the sand, playing with the ants, chasing Geckos or marvelling at the kaleidoscopic dragonflies. This is the kind of education they won’t get in a classroom, museum or zoo.
Another great thing about travelling to Zambia is no jet-lag (GMT + 1 hour). Safaris can be non-stop, so it’s a good idea to build in a few days of relaxation, to make the most of your time here. Before flying to the Zambezi, we stopped for a few nights at Lilayi (, one of Lusaka’s best hotel and restaurants (with an impressive wine cellar) that’s had an elegant refurbishment. Set within the lush, grassy grounds of a 1,500 acre Miller-family-owned game conservation reserve, it has giraffe, eland, zebra and much more. This is a safe - ultra-safe by African standards (there are no predators here) - introduction to family safariing, where wildlife steals the show too.
As a family-friendly first-step safari destination, Lilayi ticked all our boxes. A short-hop 25-minute transfer from Lusaka Airport, it’s the perfect place for a few nights fly and flop, with plenty of optional activities: running trails, adventure playground, horseback safaris, and game drives. (For us, the taxi ride was an eye-opener in itself - we passed wildebeest grazing roadside, women in bright African kaftans carrying water urns and boys ploughing fields with oxen.) To be off the plane and swimming, followed by a power shower and sundowner, within an hour of touch-down is pretty dreamy. The 12 brick chalets (ask for one of the two family chalets) each have their own veranda , so you can view game from the safety of your room; having kids playing safely under your gaze whilst watching impalas drinking at your private watering hole, sure beats the TV or iPad from a parent’s point of view. Be aware that weekends get busy with local families.
And then there’s the neighbouring Elephant Orphanage, run by Game Rangers International on land loaned by the Miller family. The next morning we rise early for a quick run on one of the running trails (we spot impala and buku) and pool dip before going on a private tour of the elephant Nursery (exclusive to Lilayi guests, $100ppn). Valerie, the assistant manager, and GIFT, the head keeper, give us our ‘behind the scenes tour’ (daily 11:30-13:00, Mondays are free, weekends also best avoided as busy). If your children are anything like mine, they’ll love the baby elephants. We learn how the rangers rehabilitate the orphaned (usually from poaching) calves, feeding them nutrient-rich daily milk to make them fit and strong again, for release back into the wild (in South Kafue National Park).
At dinner that evening, a pair of zebras stroll leisurely across the lawn from the woods in the misty half-light, to the watering hole outside our room. It’s the most normal sighting in the world here at dusk, it turns out. But for us, fresh off the plane from London, it’s as if we’ve encountered mythical unicorns. It’s magical moments like these, etched in our memories, that make a family safari worth all the obvious cost, planning, travel, hassle and safety hurdles.The zoo will never be the same again. Let’s all help Save Nellie.
Daily flights to Lusaka are around 12 hours with one stopover. Time difference is 1 hour GMT. Return flights are available from £461 (Kenyan Airways), or £494 (Ethiopian Airways). Royal Zambezi Lodge arranges permit to the Lower Zambezi National Park. A VISA is required. E-visas should take between three-five working days.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit is mid season from June to September (but all lodges are open from April to November) and some lodges, such as RZL are open at Christmas too – which is when we visited. Tiger fishing is best in September/October.
Zambia is a Malarial area. Mosquito repellent is an essential. Be sure to contact your doctor prior to travelling to discuss using a suitable prophylactic, if required. Remember – prevention is always the best option, so wear long- sleeved clothing and plenty of repellent.
HOW TO BOOK?
Louise travelled with Abambo a UK-based specialist luxury family safari and beach African holiday expert, which offers a package for two adults and two children (under 12) from £7,932 including flights between UK and Lusaka, transfers, 3 nights accommodation in the family chalet at Lilayi (lodge), entry to The Elephant Orphanage Project’s (EOP) Lilayi Elephant Nursery, three nights fully inclusive at Royal Zambezi Lodge (family units for two adults and two children start at around £1,140 per night). Entry to Lower Zambezi National Park is included, as are all activities at RZL.
World Elephant Day is August 12 2017. Go here to find out more about how to help our elephants.
Spring 2017: The Wild Issue, Family Traveller magazine