Written by: Karen Hunting
Photography by: Hadley Pierce
Arriving in the late afternoon at Island Bush Camp in the near-untouched wilderness of South Luangwa, I was warmly welcomed by the local Zambian staff and camp manager. Heading to my chalet, I marveled at the stunning Luangwa River before washing off the dirt from my trip in a bucket shower full of hot water with a view that made me wish the shower lasted hours instead of minutes. The chalets are built from local wooden poles and grass thatch and are open to the river, allowing for a spectacular view and breeze.
Later we walked to the edge of the river bank to enjoy a sundowner accompanied by a hippo choir as the water changed from blue to orange to pink and the red ball of fire that is the sun descended to meet the horizon. Over the hippos we heard the beating of the drum, the signal that food is ready, and a noise we became quite accustomed to throughout our stay at Island Bush Camp.
That night we enjoyed a fabulous dinner paired with a number of delicious South African wines. The meal was made all the more special knowing that it was prepared on a wood burning stove in a kitchen that has no electricity and no roof! At Island Bush Camp, there is a family atmosphere that pervades your entire stay. At dinner, we enjoyed getting to know the other guests from all over the world and the guides that have been working in the area for over twenty years. All of the meals are eaten together with all guests, the manager, and the guide, which makes for very interesting table talk.
After dinner, we moseyed back to our room where we were slowly lulled to sleep by the chorus of hippos grunting away, hyenas’ whooping laughter, and many other sounds of the bush.
The next day, a light knock on the chalet steps pulled me from my sleep at 5:15am, just before the sun began to rise. Walking down to the fire pit, I witnessed the wonders of the ‘Largest Toaster in the Valley.’ In addition to homemade toasts, there was lots of strong coffee – because let’s be serious, as beautiful as it all is, it’s still 5:30 in the morning.
We then headed out for our morning walk with our guide and a wildlife scout. While you may get to view the bigger animals on walks, like elephant, hippo, hyena, and the occasional leopard if you’re lucky, the walks also allow you to view and appreciate the smaller things. We listened as the guide explained how the dung of an elephant can evolve into a small watering hole because of the different ways animals use and interact with it.
We also looked at the three distinct lobes that make up the back of a leopard track that was found just outside of camp from the night before. Being outside of a vehicle allows you to view the smaller details and the more intimate moments of the bush. Our walk lasted about three hours before a very welcome shower awaited our return.
After lunch, was siesta time. While most of the valley is very warm during the middle of the day, Island Bush Camp always has a strong breeze blowing through camp which makes an afternoon snooze very difficult to fight.
While walking through camp, we were always on the lookout for the resident elephant, Mr. Zambezi. Having always had positive experiences in camp, Mr. Zambezi walks happily and relaxed through camp, allowing you to get great views of him walking along the pathways, feeding on trees, or shaking the fruits down from the palm trees just outside your bathroom.
After the drums beat again for a second lunch we were off for the afternoon walk. Driving out for our afternoon walk ensured that we were able to walk in and explore a new area. After a quick 10 minute drive, we hopped off the vehicle and headed out for a shorter two hour walk.
As our walk came to an end, we found ourselves walking up to a bush sundowner all set up for our arrival. Sipping on an ice-cold gin and tonic under a massive sausage tree, we watched the unforgettable African sun set over the sandbank-riddled Luangwa River.
Once the gin and tonics were done and the snacks were finished (more food, of course!), we hopped back into the vehicle and headed out for a night drive back to camp where you get the chance to spot more nocturnal creatures like hyena, Verreaux’s eagle owl, elephant shrew, genet, porcupine, the occasional leopard and more.
On our last day we set out for our last walk at the Bush Camp at our regular time, 6am. The last walk is on the shorter side, and we returned to camp at around 9am.
After breakfast, we were treated to a Kitchen Safari—a guided tour of the Island Bush Kitchen by the Head Chef Godfrey. He explained to us how he cooks the food (a wood burning stove with no nobs—only adding more or less wood to control the temperature), how he keeps the food fresh, and how he protects his kitchen from the many leering eyes of hyenas, elephants, baboons, and monkeys. It’s apparently a never-ending battle, but Godfrey and his sous chef George seem to be winning it.
Finally we said a bittersweet goodbye to the staff and Mr. Zambezi and tried not to look back as we drove away from a very special piece of paradise along the Luangwa River.