Lord it at a Zambian lodge that was once a retreat for royalty and heads of state. In South Luangwa National Park, Sanctuary Retreats Chichele Presidential Lodge delivers a royal experience.
A small group has gathered on the veranda of the main lodge, peering excitedly past the breakfast table. Only a few metres away, beyond the immaculate manicured lawns surrounding the lodge, an elephant is grazing on a low-hanging tree branch.
We are at Chichele Presidential Lodge in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, a sprawling lodge which was once the private retreat of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Although South Africa’s Nelson Mandela might be better known on the world stage, Kaunda was also a key player in southern Africa’s struggle for liberation. World leaders like Queen Elizabeth II and Chairman Mao have stayed here. Kaunda came to power in 1964 during a time when African countries were fighting for independence from their European colonial masters. After he lost the presidency in 1991, the lodge was neglected until a tourism company Star of Africa converted it into a luxury safari lodge.
In January 2008, African safari company Sanctuary Lodges re-launched the lodge after a makeover. Behind-the-scenes renovations include a new generator, a brand new staff village, extensive work on the roof and a new water system. New decor, soft furnishings, crockery, glassware and table linen were chosen.
The ambiance is “safari colonial”. Touches of Victorian style compliment exotic African adornments. Common areas are decorated with fine China plates, needlepoint cushions, brass lanterns and polished brass candle holders. There is an antique gramophone and a grand piano. Zebra skin rugs, carved timber tribal masks and stuffed antelope heads provide a local touch.
The 10 suites, each housed in an individual cottage, are spacious. Four-poster beds are swathed with mosquito netting. There are comfortable arm chairs and elegant writing desks. Modern comforts include a fully stocked mini bar (included in the rate), hair dryers and air-conditioning. Suite number one was where Queen Elizabeth II slept during her visit in 1979 whilst attending a Commonwealth Heads of State summit.
“We’re trying to maintain the lodge’s original ambience,” says assistant manager Suku. But renovating a luxury resort in the middle of a Zambian national park has its challenges. For instance, the original toilet cisterns from the 1960s needed upgrading but sourcing a model that would suit the period decor was a challenge in Zambia. So the new cisterns were exported from South Africa.
Bathrooms have twin basins, claw-foot bathtubs and large feature walls decorated with sketched collages of local birds.
Even though day and night game drives as well as walking safaris are offered at the lodge, you don’t need to go anywhere to experience the wildlife. Views of the savannah flood plains can be enjoyed from a number of spots. You can sit in a comfortable rattan chair on the veranda and watch the wildlife through binoculars. Or lie back on a pool lounge and soak in the view beneath a shady umbrella.
As the grounds are not fenced, warthogs, baboons and elephants are regular visitors. One morning, my travelling companion is trapped in her cottage while an elephant grazes on the trees near her front door. Our guide, Keennan, rescues her through her back balcony in his open-air 4WD.
“One time, in the middle of the night, a baby elephant romped through the main living area of the lodge,” says Suku gesturing towards the soaring ceilings of the open-air hallway. Yet another time, while making his way back to his room, another member of our group came across an elephant attempting to squeeze through the arches of the outdoor walkway.
One afternoon, as I’m sipping tea beneath the shady veranda, a family of warthogs decides to join me. They nibble contentedly on the green manicured lawn. I’m tickled pink. To me, impromptu moments with warthogs and elephants are priceless.
A stay at Chichele is full of memorable dining experiences. Afternoon tea is an institution following the English colonial tradition. The tea table is laden with dainty crustless cucumber sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. Another classic experience is the “sundowner”, sipping gin and tonic while watching the sun setting over the river.
One morning, while on a game drive, Keennan takes us to a shady spot beneath some trees. A table has been set with crisp white table linen. Here we dine on a scrumptious barbeque brunch while gazing at the giraffes and zebras on the plains. Another iconic moment is sitting around a fire sipping Amarula, a creamy African liquor made from the marula fruit, while listening to Keennan tell wild tales about the Zambian wilderness. It’s a lifestyle I could easily get used to.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Abercrombie and Kent
South African Airways flies to Johannesburg with connections to Lusaka. Transfer to Mfuwe Airport with Zambian Airways. Rates at Chichele Presidential Lodge start from $US380 a person a night and include meals, game-viewing, park fees, laundry and most beverages.