Perhaps it’s strange to travel halfway across the world, only to take so much pleasure in closing your eyes. And yet there’s solace to be found in the sounds and smells of this unexpected Eden: the earthy scent of the first rains that touched this parched soil; the haunting call of a nightjar and the chatter of vervet monkeys high in the canopy. But more than anything, it’s the incessant, comforting rush of the river: the sound of the mighty Zambezi.
I’m lingering on the stilted wooden deck of my villa at Royal Chundu, soaking up the tranquility. Zambia’s only Relais & Chateaux accredited property, Royal Chundu is a sanctuary of natural beauty and exquisite design, topped with quality service and situated roughly 30km upstream from the legendary Victoria Falls. In contrast to the hive of activity and tourist traps at the falls, Royal Chundu is well and truly secluded, fronting a private stretch of water enclosed by forest. Split into two separate locations, the hotel begins with the River Lodge, a vast and airy pavilion featuring a bar, restaurant and an infinity pool looking out over the river. Ten beautiful guest villas are dotted along the banks around the main hub, a combination of luxury and low-key style with king-size beds and private decks.
A short boat ride from its mainland sister, the Island Lodge unfurls on a pristine fleck of land in the middle of the Zambezi, a romantic “boma” area featuring two lounges, a dining deck and a plunge pool. The Island Lodge is geared around romance, with just four stilted villas designed for two guests; huge suites with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, double showers and a sprawling terrace with a bath, which, incidentally, is filled with bubbles and bordered by candles every evening at sunset. But all welcome luxuries aside, Royal Chundu is about more than just wallowing in indulgence – although, if that was all I was here for, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed. As the days unfold, I learn that this hotel is a crucial part of its landscape, moreover, in its neighbors’ livelihoods. The nearby Royal Chundu Foundation School provides an early childhood education center, and the hotel’s manager Hessah, whose son also attends the school, explains, “Some 80% of Royal Chundu’s staff come from local communities.”
On a trip to a nearby village I meet Edith, one of the locals. “The hotel gives us seeds, which we sow here,” she tells me, gesturing to a garden blooming with vegetables, “When it’s ready, they buy our produce and serve it to guests.” Indeed, I’d spotted a note on the restaurant menu stating that almost all ingredients are sourced from within a 4km radius of the property. None more obvious than in the signature Zambian tasting menu, a six-course feast of elevated Zambian classics, featuring native ingredients pulled together in a fascinating medley of flavors unlike anything I have ever tasted.
Edith leads me to a clearing enclosed by papyrus reed fencing, where she shows me the house that she has built for herself. Each brick is circular, shaped by a rusty paint tin. I can still see the grooves made by her fingers as she sealed the brick with plaster made from old termite mounds. It’s a far cry from the rooms at Royal Chundu, and understanding the extent to which the villagers use every resource within their reach is an eye-opener. “See the sausage tree,” says Edith, pointing to a towering tree dripping with heavy, elongated fruit; “we use the juice inside the pod to restore blood balance.” She points at the trunk, “and we use the wood to carve dugout canoes.”
Later, I take to a canoe myself, travelling the river at level with suspicious hippos and crocodiles. Past a sea of greenery, through rushing rapids I fly, until I pull into a sheltered bay, where staff members greet me with a huge picnic, a hammock and a blanket beside the reeds. At Royal Chundu, it’s about taking the simple things in life and putting a luxurious twist on them, and my last night is spent this way; on the water, trying my luck at catching a notorious Zambezi dweller, the fearsome tiger fish. A hundred of so water buffalo graze before me, the skies awash with scarlet and vivid orange, foliage billowing from the riverbanks in soft emerald clouds.
And so, I hesitantly make the trip to civilization in search of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A stone’s throw from the great chasm of the falls lies The Royal Livingstone, a 173-room property hinged on the colonial era and named in honor of European explorer David Livingstone, who completed an epic journey from the Zambezi’s source to its mouth. From the hotel’s pool, where zebra and impala forage alongside guests lounging in the sun and waiters carry ice buckets laden with champagne, I can see the mist rising from what looks like the edge of the earth. It’s a spellbinding sight.
Cruising to Livingstone Island, I hop out of the boat and dodge rocks, half swimming, half running to the famed Devil’s Pool. Only accessible when the river is low enough to warrant safe approach, Devil’s Pool is a nook on the edge of the falls, where one stroke into the current might drag you into the gorge. But despite the adrenaline, the fear, the thrill, there’s something serene about leaning over the edge, staring into a monumental abyss where water swells and tumbles, 350-feet from the jagged rocks below. Livingstone once surveyed these sights and labeled them “scenes so lovely, must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Here, from the pounding heart of Devil’s Pool, surrounded by incandescent rainbows and the undeniable power of nature, it’s hard to disagree.
Royal Chundu (www.royalchundu.com) costs from $574 per room per night.
The Royal Livingstone (www.suninternational.com) costs from $560 per room per night. Both can be accessed via Livingstone Airport in Zambia, or via Kasane airport in Botswana.