This is not quite the piece I had intended to write. The chance to travel to Africa was both exciting and a little daunting. While I would not consider myself a particularly keen animal lover, or preservationist, I thought this would be a unique opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat, and what is being done to help preserve them. Throw in staying in a wonderfully beautiful lodge, and as the date of my departure approached, I grew more and more excited and prepared to have the trip of a lifetime.
Traveling to Zambia is not for the faint of heart. It is a 30-hour journey that is as long as it is arduous. From Los Angeles, the first leg of the trip took me to New York, where I met with my intrepid traveling companions. Stacey Leisca, a freelance journalist with bylines in publications such as Travel & Leisure, Departure, Men’s Journal and more, Megan DiTrolio, the Executive Assistant to the Editor-In-Chief at Marie-Claire magazine, and a journalist in her own right, and lastly, Casey Hamilton, our trip organizer and public relations representative extraordinaire, hailing from Hawkins PR in New York City.
From New York, we boarded our next plane for the long (15 hours) ride to Johannesburg, South Africa. Where after a layover of about 4 hours, we would venture on our next leg, a 2-hour trip to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. Finally, yet another smaller prop plane for our last leg, an hour or so flight to Mfuwe, in Southern Zambia, our final destination.
For those of you who have never been to Africa (I was one of them), it is a sensory experience like no other. Everything. About. It. Is. Different. It is hard to describe in words (I shall do my best) how it all looks and feels. Let’s say that the air is fragrant, but a fragrance that no one that lives here knows. The colors are brighter, more beautiful, the sun is the color of amber, and seem to be the star of its production. The trees are, what can I say, unlike any I had ever seen, majestic, and regal, and this is just off the plane. I was unprepared for what was going to come in the next few days.
Our host, The Bushcamp Company, quickly arranged for us to be picked up at the airport, where our gracious and accommodating driver Calvin, gathered our bags, and just like that, we were on our way to the Mfuwe Lodge, which would be our home for the next day, before we would head to the bush for the next four.
The road to Mfuwe is a somewhat dangerous one-way road; half paved, half made of gravel and dust, which made for the bumpiest ride any of us have probably experienced. However, in the hands of our experienced driver, our transit was somewhat smooth, which was helped by the incredible views aforementioned.
We arrived at the Mfuwe Lodge, and were greeted by the very welcoming staff at the lodge with fresh towels, and the most incredible juice I had ever tasted, (this would be a recurring theme, why in the world does the juice taste so good here? Food for thought.) and baboons, lots of baboons. After a few words by Andy Hogg, the proprietor, and his right-hand woman, Amy Alderman, we put our bags away in our chalets, where I was, once again, blown away by the incredible accommodations. Large rooms, plush beds,(equipped with the essential mosquito nets) incredible bathrooms with rain showers, and all the modern amenities, topped by an air conditioning unit that kept the chalet cool and breezy. It bears mentioning that all this is running on solar energy. The company’s commitment to sustainable energy is admirable and necessary, electric power is not a given in these parts.
However, it was no time for rest, as we were soon en route to our first game drive. It turns out that our driver was also one of the most experienced guides at the Bushcamp Co. Following a safety brief (this is not like those on the plane where most people don’t pay attention. I suggest listening) We enthusiastically climbed aboard the Land Rover, with its open canopy, cameras at the ready, and departed for our first excursion.
Let me be the first to say that everything in the bush looks similar. I am still amazed that our guides can find their way. Everything looks the same, no visible signs, and somehow, even while carrying a full discussion with his very curious passengers, Calvin managed to maneuver us safely while describing the scenery.
Oh. My. God. There is an elephant! Right there. The sighting of one of the noble and rather large creatures brought shrieks of excitement among our crew, which was greeted by a small smirk from our rather calm guide, as if to say: “Pace yourself, folks; there will be more. ” To our unprepared and excited group, this was like viewing the Mona Lisa for the first time, except that it didn’t disappoint (contrary to the actual Mona Lisa who seems very small in real life, elephants are more significant than you can imagine.) This first outing was a rather quick one, as we were to come back to the lodge and experience our first dinner in the bush.
You can feel the British influence on the service, the presentation, and the preparation of our meal. Starting with the rather formal introduction of the menu by one of our ever-attentive servers to the pace of the meal, which is deliberate and meant to enable guests to enjoy a great conversation. The food was fantastic, which would be a mainstay throughout our time, both at the lodge and in the bush camps. After a brief check on email and the world back at home, (the lodge has WiFi, but it is a bit spotty and is available only in specific areas such as the lobby and the library) we were escorted to our room. It bears mentioning that no guest is allowed to roam freely at night without an escort, remember, we are in the bush. After such a long journey, no sooner I put my head on the pillow, I was quickly sleeping to sounds I had never experienced before.
Wake up call came quickly at 5:45 am, where we prepared for the day ahead. It would be our last day at the lodge before departing for the bush camps, and it was a full day, with a visit to the village, and its schools, which are sponsored by The Bushcamp Company. A quick breakfast, and a couple of coffee cups later, we were on our way to Mfuwe with our new guide, who would stay with us for the remainder of our trip, the ever-knowledgeable, passionate, and enthusiastic Fannuel. I could not emphasize how important the guide is to your safari experience. Deeply steeped in the traditions of the bush, and armed with a wealth of information, it is like having a computer at your disposal, except with a great personality.
We quickly arrived at one of the communities, and this is where the trip changed for me. I was wholly unprepared at what I saw. Dozens of young women gathered with plastic jugs around a borehole (a well) where they seemingly continuously pump water to fill buckets and jars. This never-ending task is how they get enough consumable water to drink, cook, or wash. There is no running water or modern plumbing here. For more than 250 households, this is the only available water. These boreholes are relatively new to the villages, and because of the Bushcamp Company involvement, and tourist revenues, these 7,000 dollars life-saving initiatives are now possible. Just think that before that, everyone in the village would travel to the river, where they would gather their jugs and buckets, and fill them with not-so-clean water, surrounded by danger. Oh, that’s right, that is also where lions, leopards, and hippos were also feeding, not exactly the safest of environments.
To experience this would have been impactful enough, but the real gift was to witness the smiles and the unbridled happiness, warmth and friendly faces, and sheer curiosity exhibited by everyone, in light of conditions most westerners would find, let’s be frank, lacking. It completely changed my perspective on life in general, and my own in particular. To witness the graciousness showed by the village’s children and adults alike is something I’ll never forget.
Our next stops were the schools. The sponsorships generously provided by The Bushcamp Company has wholly transformed the educational experience by providing an infrastructure where there was none. New buildings now exist, new and improved classrooms are becoming more and more the norm, and to see the excitement in the children’s eyes at future possibilities is indeed a game changer. What the Bushcamp Company has done is proving them with the tools necessary for success, however modest. Because of their commitment, entire families can dream of a better life.
We met with a young man named Victor, who benefitted from sponsorship, and now is becoming a math teacher. He, like others, are doing their part in helping teach the next generation of students. While there are many success stories, such as Victor, there are still significant challenges, such as absenteeism. Children travel great distances (on foot) to go to school, and it is not a given that they will attend regularly. Programs like A-Meal-A-Day (also sponsored by The Bushcamp Company) immensely help, but more remains to be done.
I was mesmerized by some of the young students we’ve met, among them, a prospective engineer, nurses, and yes, a journalist, who were the carriers of the dreams of a better future. This visit was indeed a transformative experience, and I made a silent, yet sacred vow to do my part in helping change lives here and abroad.
We talk a lot about luxury and what it means/is in the pages of this magazine, and I’ve discovered what true luxury is: the opportunity to use our given advantages, and yes, wealth, for the betterment of humanity. Mind you, we don’t have to travel to Africa for that purpose, but by witnessing the human condition in other parts of the world, we would be remiss to stay on the sidelines and do nothing.
It was only the beginning of our trip. Upon returning to the lodge, we prepared ourselves to venture deep into the bush for the next four days, without internet or phone service (gulp!) and reconnect with nature, while disconnecting with technology. I called this my detox.
We were privileged to visit and stay at two of the six bush camps; Chamilandu, and Bilimungwe. Once again, I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience. To get to the camps, one must travel in the bush from the lodge for approximately 2 hours (maybe more depending on what you see). Our friendly guide, Fannuel as mentioned above, made the trip go by quickly by regaling us with stories and information that would stay with us for a lifetime.
Upon our arrival to the camp, we were greeted yet again by the cold and refreshing towels, and the honest-to-goodness best juice on earth, and we quickly made our way to what can only be described as luxury in the middle of nowhere. The accommodations are superb, and just for a second, you can forget that you are in the middle of the African bush. You quickly come to your senses when looking in the distance and see herds of elephants, dazzles of zebras (that is a real thing) hippos making strange noises in the river, scores of impalas (nervous creatures … with plenty of reasons to be) and the ever-present baboons, which reminds you that are far, far from home. As I stood in my chalet, with an open view of the river that borders Luangwa National Park, I had to pinch myself to believe where I was.
The sights and sounds are incredible, and as we slowly acclimate to life without cell phones, (our devices would act as cameras-only for the next few days), I began to understand how freeing this was, again, a real luxury.
Just because you are in the bush, it doesn’t mean that your luxury experience less than spectacular. To the contrary, it seems like the bushcamp staff is even more determined to make your time even more incredible. Sublime food, appropriate and proper cocktails, (we recommend having a Gin and Tonic at sundown) and more than anything, being able to experience life in the bush, and seeing the most exotic of animals on their turf reminded me quickly of my place on the food chain.
Our first-night game drive, we witnessed a pack of giraffes (yes, a pack!) strolling elegantly, while tasting the top of the trees, as only they can. The elephants, beautiful, wise, powerful, and silent. I’ll never listen again to someone that says “as noisy as a herd of elephants…” it’s quite the contrary, these gentle giants, the real kings, and queens of the bush, are stealthy. How many times, did we turn the corner only to witness a few of them gathered? We didn’t hear them coming. How majestic! We were also privileged to take part in a walking safari, which is unique to Zambia, and the Bushcamp Company. (The walking safari originated in Zambia, by Norman Carr, a British explorer)
The days were full of activities, the nights, with the sounds that make the bush unique. We had deep conversations about the world, and our place in it, politics, both here in Zambia, and in the US. We listened to each other and didn’t speak in soundbites or 140 characters. I shared my passions with other journalists and writers, who were as passionate as I was. We were privileged to witness just about every species of animals which has made Africa famous. Pride of lions, with their cubbies, only feeding on one of those unfortunate impalas. Leopards, silently perched in the trees waiting for their next preys. Warthogs roaming the fields, hippos loudly making a statement. (if you travel to the bush camps, ask our guide Fanuel why hippos yawn with their mouth wide open.) We even saw the somewhat rare wild dogs (with only about 300 remaining in this park, a rare sight indeed). From Chamilandu, we traveled to Billy (short for Bilimungwe) where the fabulous Alex, our host, a former London attorney, who came for a vacation and never left, welcomed us with the same open friendliness that we’ve experienced throughout our stay. When at Billy, you must meet Harry, the pond’s resident hippo, (and Alex’s unrequited crush!) while having a cocktail on the veranda, while glancing at the sunset in the distance.
Spending this time in the bush, I came back even more convinced at the foolishness of men who hunt these animals. I certainly understand the marketplace and the monetary value they provide, but I’ll never be able to be convinced that they need to be hunted. I became fiercely protective of them and felt a deep antipathy to those who would consider hurting them.
Before long, it was time to head back to the lodge for one last night. The end of our trip came quickly and was met with genuine sadness. It was a first for most of us, who travel a lot for a living, and are used to say goodbyes. Ours felt like leaving family, and tears were shed, with a promise to come back.
Very seldom does reality exceeds one’s dream. It was one of those rare times.
I am a better man because of it.
For more information about The Bushcamp Company: bushcampcompany.com
Travel information: NOBLEMAN recommends South African Airways and Proflight Zambia
Please contact a medical practitioner who specializes in travel medicine regarding required vaccinations. We recommend Passport Health passporthealth.com
Words by Yves Le Sieur