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Zambia: Q&A with Grant Cumings

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This month’s T+L includes my feature story on Zambia, which some (like me) are calling Africa’s next great safari destination. One key reason: the lodgings themselves. While big-name international safari companies have made inroads in Zambia, the field is still defined by intimately scaled (and decidedly un-corporate) bush and river camps, which hew to a more authentic, back-to-basics feel, while still offering a “luxury” level of service. Many of these properties are owned and/or operated by native Zambians, who bring a decidedly personal touch to the endeavor. Case in point: Andy Hogg, co-founder of the Bushcamp Company, whose six stylish camps in South Luangwa National Park are profiled in my story. Then there’s Grant Cumings, whose family runs two excellent properties, Chiawa and Old Mondoro, in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park.

Born in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, Cumings spent much of his youth in the bush, exploring his country’s remote wilderness, studying its flora and fauna, and waterskiing—yes, waterskiing—the croc-filled Zambezi River. After attending college in Florida in the mid-1980s, he returned home to open Chiawa in 1989—the first camp inside the then-six-year-old Lower Zambezi National Park. Over the quarter-century since, Chiawa and its sister camp, Old Mondoro, have earned a cultlike following: a quarter of the guests are repeat visitors, and some even come twice a year.

Cumings now lives in Lusaka with his wife and children, though he still spends part of each week at Chiawa or Old Mondoro, occasionally leading walks and game drives himself. Over sundowners on Chiawa’s riverfront terrace, we spoke about what sets his country apart, what brought him to the Lower Zambezi, and what travelers shouldn’t miss on a visit to Zambia.

Q: In the context of other safari destinations, Zambia is a bit of an outlier—even now, in 2013. Why is that?

Grant Cumings: Zambia is still quite adventurous, still the path less traveled. Infrastructure isn’t as developed, so people have this feeling of ‘Whoa, we’re really exploring here.’ Also, the way the camps are run is much less contrived. In Zambia the focus is on the bush experience, rather than on a boutique-hotel experience. That’s not to say some of us aren’t “boutique-y” in our approach and our service and our amenities. But compared to other countries, it’s a different priority. We want you to get out there and look at wildlife.

Q: Camps and lodges in Zambia tend to be more modestly sized, even outright tiny—some with only three or four beds. Is that by necessity or by choice?

A: Both, to a degree. We have nine beds here at Chiawa [plus four at Old Mondoro], and we’ve been at that number since 1997. The camp actually has the license to expand to 12 rooms—it’s a sleeping cause in our lease; we’d just have to activate it. But it’s worked well at this size so far.

I think, for the type of people who come here, [larger-scale lodgings] may not be the most appropriate way to show what Zambia has to offer. There’s no shortage of good corporate approaches out there, don’t get me wrong. And the bigger players are now coming in [to Zambia]. But the successful, long-running operations here are still the small, family-owned ones. In fact, when the economy dipped, it was the corporate operators who felt the pain—the family-run properties felt only a bit of a nip.

Q: Along with their smaller scale, Zambia’s lodgings are often quite rustic and “authentic,” as people are fond of saying. That’s true even at the higher end.

A: The top Zambian camps don’t offer the same level of luxury that the camps in Botswana and South Africa do. There’s no crystal, no white gloves. There’s no air-con, no gift shop or fine wine list. It’s not Singita. People should understand what to expect, and what not to expect. Again: the focus is really on the bush, the wildlife, the safari experience itself.

Q: South Luangwa, up north, is touted as one of Africa’s best parks, and it’s where the majority of safari operators have set up. What convinced you to come here to the Lower Zambezi?

A: The river. It makes all the difference. There’s more habitat in South Luangwa—here in Lower Zam, we’re restricted between the river and the mountain range, so the geography is narrower. South Luangwa also has giraffe and wildebeest and puku, which we don’t have. But we have the river, and all that it affords: canoeing, wildlife viewing by boat, catch-and-release fishing, plus bush walks and day and night drives. I think everyone should do both [parks]; they complement each other perfectly.

Q: Most visitors do just that: combining South Luangwa with Lower Zam, plus a few days in Victoria Falls. Are they missing anything?

A: Kafue National Park, in the center-west of Zambia, is fabulous. It’s the biggest park in the country, with the greatest variety of species. Kafue [“ka-FOO-wee”] is the only place in Zambia where you have a good chance of seeing cheetah. However, the habitat is such that the wildlife doesn’t concentrate much. And the park is so big that it’s difficult to police and manage, so there’ve been issues with poaching. That said, it’s well worth a look. Wilderness Safaris is running a good operation up there.

Photo credit: Monika Hoefler

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