GREEN SAFARIS. It’s a bold name with a clear aim. In Autumn 2021 when SWM had a series of zoom calls with a prospective new client, we were compelled by the proposition: a relatively young brand (Green Safaris) with a portfolio which included some truly iconic names in Africa travel (Tongabezi and Kaya Mawa), as well as some imaginative new properties (Chisa, Busanga and Shawa Luangwa) with a defined intention to make a meaningful impact on conservation and communities, whilst - in-so-doing - offering first rate travel experience.
The sustainable element is of no lesser importance to the Founder, Vincent Kouwenhoven’s objectives and ideals as the guest experience is. In fact, he believes the two are intrinsically one and the same, and he pursues the macro change (working proactively with government and NGOs) whilst managing the micro details inherent in running and launching a portfolio of 6 camps and lodges, 2exclusive-use houses and 1 World Heritage Site (Livingstone Island). As we later found out this is possible due to his passion about having the right team in place.
Wheel back to November 2021 and we didn’t need convincing to jump at the chance to work with such a company, or - with travel to Africa fortuitously opening up at that point - to join a Green Safaris Fam trip, hosted by Vincent, with a handful of European Tour Operators, to find out more.
So it was, in mid Nov 2021, we set off with high excitement, back to Africa.
First stop: Kaya Mawa
Few people in the industry haven’t heard of Kaya Mawa - the effortlessly stylish beach property, gracing a beautiful stretch of beach on the unspoilt Likoma island in Lake Malawi. So it was hard not to arrive with preconceptions.However, even these were surpassed by the charm of the beach-chic vibe. It’s the sort of place where you’ll kick off your shoes, seek to greet the sunrise with yoga or a swim, dance under the stars at night - and probably wonder how a beach ‘flop’ could possibly be so hectic! (- though, for the avoidance of doubt, flopping IS permitted…!).
The food, prepared by the insanely talented Cephas, is the best that we have ever tasted in Africa (- with 50+ years of travelling to Africa between us –usually involving a LOT of eating - that is saying something-) so it’s just as well there are plenty of ways to burn off some of the indulgence. Activities (all included in room rate) include E-bikes (a wonderful way to explore the island and meet the very warmly engaging locals), paddle-boarding, diving, snorkelling, sailing, kayaking… There’s a spa – a thatched hut exquisitely positioned at the end of a walkway above the lapping waters. Sundowners were spent drifting on a boat and listening to the mesmerising local Gospel choir sing on the beach, lit by candlelight. And if all this were not enough to keep us well-occupied we had a culture / history fix by visiting the second largest cathedral outside Europe, St Peter’s - where the immense scale and architectural detailing speaks volumes for the missionaries’ zeal to enthral and convert the local people on this small, quiet Malawian island. Those interested in Green Safaris community element can learn about the local school partnership or visit their reforestation project on the island.
The rooms are famously beautiful, with the local, award-winning Likoma social enterprise project Katundu (supported by Green Safaris) responsible for the signature style of up cycled glass chandeliers and gorgeous shell-adorned linens which grace the generous beds - and indeed Katundu items are now commissioned and shipped to clients throughout the world who have fallen in love with their distinctive allure.
Peeling ourselves reluctantly away from this lakeside bliss was aided by the knowledge we were heading for some supreme bush adventure, with our next destination on the circuit the newly opened (May 2021) Shawa Luangwa Camp in South Luangwa.
The eponymous Shawa Luangwa Camp pays tribute to world-renowned guide, Jacob Shawa who entered a partnership with Green Safaris to realise his dream of having a camp in what he considers to be the best wilderness left on the planet – the glorious South Luangwa. Born and raised in the area, Jacob knows every nook and cranny – and he carefully handpicked a beautiful, remote spot, overlooking the Luangwa River, on the edge of the GMA bordering the national park, where he now continues to guide as well as help manage the camp.
Green Safaris have pioneered the concept of the ‘Silent Safari’ and it was my first experience of an electric game vehicle. As we bumped over the dry black cotton soil I was trying to conceptualise how the game viewing experience would differ, and this was soon answered as we glided to a stop to observe a ruminating giraffe. Rather than startling and slowly sauntering away as they usually do, he turned his languid gaze towards us and stepped forward to reach a closer branch. Furthermore, the silence of the vehicle also meant that our guide could speak easily without straining to make himself heard above the rumble of the motor. Overall, it undoubtedly adds considerably to the peace and sense of proximity to nature.
We later we visited the impressive Shawa solar facility in the back-of-house area which brought home how the footprint of the entire operation – not just vehicles, but camp too – is contained by harnessing this natural power source, in such abundance. It was brilliant and inspiring to see it all set up and running smoothly, and to know it was cleanly, simply powering everything we did.
Whilst at Shawa we enjoyed numerous Silent game drives with wonderful game sightings, a bush walk, sundowner spots of indescribable beauty and a delicious bush lunch on the banks of the Luangwa. Shawa Camp has a heavenly swimming-pool overlooking the river – and watching the game from the pool on the other bank, binoculars in one hand, cold drink in the other, was one of the more indolent game-spotting moments of the trip!
The team at Shawa are utterly delightful. Many of them were from the neighbouring village, who had been employed to help build the camp last year, and GreenSafaris ended up recruiting the whole team into hospitality roles. Despite no previous experience in tourism, their work ethic had impressed– and this faith in their potential has been rewarded with real loyalty and enthusiasm. There was a very touching moment when Killian, Camp Manager, explained to us why they had dedicated a song at supper to “Bwana Vincentini” recognising the value of the opportunity that had been granted them.
All too soon we were leaving South Luangwa, via Lusaka airport (.- and a brief nosy at the incredible new international terminal!) and on to the Busanga Plains for the other 2021 addition to the GS portfolio, Chisa Camp.
Somewhere on the Busanga Plains there is an industrious weaver bird congratulating himself on the newest, grooviest property in the Busanga Plains - for the imaginative design was conceived by Vincent in camp-planning mode, watching a bird building his nest one day. The result, Chisa, is jaw-droppingly striking and very cool. Guests sleep in one off our neat weaverbird nest-like structures, each of which is optimised for stargazing.
The communal sitting and dining area is exceptionally stylish and welcoming and a wonderful place to watch the mesmerising plains, whether shrouded in mist as they often are in the earlier parts of the day or shimmering in the heat as they were on our visit, with a delectable cold rosé in hand. (Note: rosé not obligatory... Just advisable!).
All the details in Chisa have been meticulously well thought through – lovely glass and tableware; beautifully presented (and beautifully-tasting) food; gorgeous interiors with some lovely objets d’art; and subtle nods to the sustainable structure, such as a section of the wall in the lavatories showing the sandbag material(very environmentally-friendly). There is a plunge pool for cooling off, and one of the rooms has a lift to assist the less able-bodied. E-bikes are available to explore the Plains, as well, of course, as the E-Cruisers for game drives. We only had time for a brief site inspection and lunch, but there is no doubt we have all come away aching to return to Chisa and to these hypnotic seasonal flood plains which draw countless lechwe, buffalo and their predators.
On ward to Ila Lodge, where it all started for Green Safaris, with Vincent’s first lodge: a 10-bedroom property with spacious tents set on raised decks set above the banks of the mighty Kafue River.
We arrived as the November rains set in, accompanied by a rather dramatic storm.The Ila staff welcomed us like swans- unflappable, charming and hospitable as they ushered us to our rooms for hot showers followed by hot chocolate and Amarulaby the fire – whilst underneath they must have been sweeping and mopping like mad to keep everything looking so beautiful.
The next day dawned brighter and we headed off on another Silent Safari game drive, with the good fortune to observe three lionesses with 10 cubs, the youngest of whom were mewing loudly for milk, temporarily getting their way before being told off with a gruff growl when nipped. On our return we were treated to a rare sighting of one of the 120 cheetahs to be found in the Kafue. She was with her kill and again we were able to get incredibly close due to the fact that the EV allowed us to seamlessly glide near without disturbing the animal.
Around the campfire we enjoyed a talk from Panthera, who GS work closely with on their conservation work, and we were informed about the progress in lion population in Kafue thanks, in part, to the work GS has done here and on the plains to invest in anti-poaching measures as well as fire-management. GS donate 2.5% of invested capital annually into their Community Fund. There were some wonderful initiatives which sadly we didn’t have the time to visit but which include theIla Community Farm, which produces food for sale to the local lodges and beyond; support for the building of Lukanga Secondary School; and the creation of a Conservation Education Club at Lukanga Primary School.
Our final safari sundowner was spent on the Kafue River on the E-boat, drifting quietly past hippos, including one small pod who were mourning the loss of one of their group, mouthing the floating corpse and gathered around it to protect it from crocodiles. It was quite extraordinary. Again, we were reminded how the silence of the E-vehicles and boats allows some very intimate moments with wildlife.
On from Ila to our last stop….Victoria Falls and Tongabezi. Our pilot kindly looped over and around theVictoria Falls in such a manner it was almost as if we were having a scenic flight thrown in. It was incredible.
TONGABEZI & SINDABEZI
Travel is about people: those you meet, those you greet, those who have given meaning or left their mark on the places you visit.
Tongabezi, on the banks of the Zambezi as it approaches the Falls, is steeped in the heritage of personality. Standing on the stylish hangout on arrival looking out over the timeless and beautiful Zambezi River one is tempted to ponder time-travel.It doesn’t take much to imagine the elegant interiors of the lodge fade away… Andon the river beyond, conjure into view an alert, intrepid Victorian Scotsman, grasping some maps, standing in a dugout mokoro, with his local guides navigating the rocks and the hippos. He’s peering ahead, anticipating some waterfalls of which he has heard tell and seen the spray from afar– Mosi oa Tunya - as yet unseen by European eyes. As they paddle past, he heads towards a destiny he could never imagine – and a discovery which would forever link his name - and hisQueen’s -with this extraordinary part of Africa…
The place certainly has a magic to it – and perhaps it was in part this magic which appealed to Ben Parker who, with his friend and business partner Will RuckKeene, saw the potential to create something truly special and enterprising on this stretch of river, when together they created the icon that is now Tongabezi, over 30 years ago.
Tongabeziis internationally renowned for the unique beauty of its site, as well as its deep respect for the Zambian people, culture and wildlife. Of equal pride to the Tongabezi team is Tujatane School which was originally set up by VanessaParker to school the children of Tongabezi staff and now offers free education to over 300 children annually, many of whom go onto to achieve great things from humble origins due to its belief in the power to create one’s own destiny.
We arrived at Tonga via a tour of the Falls which were unusually quiet due toCovid, and (whilst there is little to thank Covid for) it was indeed an utter privilege to have this incredible experience almost to ourselves. Our GreenSafaris guide, Douglas, was a true historian and raconteur and we all came away thoroughly moved by the majesty and power of the geological spectacle we had seen.
We returned to the Lodge for a delicious lunch and then back to the Falls for the bucket-list of all bucket-list moments. Green Safaris manage the activity fromLivingstone Island - including Devil’s Pool. As we crossed rushing water at the top of the falls, to reach Devil’s Pool, even the vertiginous amongst us were cognisant that this was not a moment to give in to fear (- for a start, my sons would have disowned me!) - so we braced the flesh-nibbling fish - not to mention the small matter of water pounding down over a 100 meter drop - to procure some photographic evidence that we are indeed Very Brave And Adventurous People–taken by our acrobatic guide who leapt about the rocks, snapping away, giving us the courage – by his example - to relax and enjoy the moment of sitting in a pool at the top edge of one of the true wonders of the world.
Back at Tongabezi, we took a brief boat-trip across to Sindabezi for a very pleasurable sundowner to meet Natasha (Ben’s daughter) and Lauren, the GreenSafaris marketing gurus. Natasha casually mentioned (in the way that only people raised in Africa can) that she’d held her 12th birthday party at Devil’s Pool (…and we promptly felt somewhat Less Brave and Adventurous)!
We could have stayed forever, but time had run out. Our week with Green Safaris had been extraordinary: scintillating, inspiring, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. Green Safaris is exactly the sort of company we love to work with at Small World Marketing– ambitious, pioneering, stylish, dynamic and principled. We know that they will offer any guest a once-in-a-life time experience, which is what it is all about – yet in running their business they seek to give back, meaningfully, even more to the environment in which they operate.
We so look forward to working closely with Vincent, Natasha and the wider team to help spread the word of Green Safaris’ incredible offering and ethos to our trade and consumer audience. Zambia has never looked so good.