Tongabezi is perfectly located for visiting the Victoria Falls.
Tongabezi: Our full report
Set on the steep banks of the Zambezi River, about 18km upstream from the Victoria Falls, Tongabezi has long been one of the region's most romantic – and exclusive – hideaways. It was founded in 1990, many years before most of Africa’s safari lodges, and from the beginning it has been a trend-setter in lodge design. It’s still owned and run by one of its original founders, and has continually re-invented itself over the years.
Tongabezi has a very secluded location, amongst dense riverine forest. Indeed floating down the river, you’d scarcely note the presence of the lodge, stretched out along the bank. To understand it, it’s worth looking back a little at Tongabezi’s history. The lodge was started in 1990 by William Ruck Keene and Ben Parker, two well-spoken, well-connected young English guys. Their large, smart rooms all had individual names and were completely open on one side to the river; this was as revolutionary at the time, as it is commonplace now. In the early 1990s, the lodge got some early press coverage, and started to do really well.
Shortly afterwards, Will and Ben started two camps in the Lower Zambezi: Sausage Tree, which still exists although is now under different ownership and management, and Potato Bush, which stood on the site that Old Mondoro occupies today. With typical tongue-in-cheek humour, together these made a “bangers and mash" combination!
William died in a tragic accident in 1997; Ben continued to own and run the lodge, he is still very active in marketing and overseeing it, although there’s usually a manager in charge of the day-to-day running. Today Ben lives with his family at Tangala House, just up the river, when it’s not being rented out by families!
At the very heart of Tongabezi’s communal area is the Main Lodge, a substantial, open-sided building under thatch that overlooks the river. Here guests will find both a dining area with long table and a lounge area with comfortable seating. There’s a tea- and coffee-making station, too, with stocks replenished throughout the day.
In fine weather, meals at Tongabezi are taken on wooden decking which just out over the river. While breakfast and lunch are served at individual tables, dinner is usually taken in a group with your guide or the manager. That said, one of the beauties of Tongabezi is its flexibility, and dinner can be served privately in a variety of locations around the lodge.
Aptly named is The Lookout, a multi-level wooden structure built right over the river and housing a couple of breezy lounges as well as a computer room complete with internet connectivity. Guests can request a private dinner on one of the platforms or simply while away the afternoons in the comfort of a gigantic sofa, perhaps with a book from the library.
Close to the water’s edge, the firepit is a great place to warm up with a coffee in the morning or to unwind in the evening, perhaps with something a little stronger. Nearby is the lodge’s main swimming pool, partially set into the rock and complete with its own waterfall.
For those wanting total relaxation there is also a spa at Tongabezi with a qualified masseuse. Treatments include Shiatsu and reflexology.
Tongabezi offers a variety of accommodation, including:
Five smaller River Cottages– which all share the same design and footprint, plus six individual, separate ‘houses’, each with its own style, character and often a quirky name:
- Furthest from the centre of the lodge, and most provocatively named, is The Nut House.
- Constructed on three levels,The Tree House is perhaps the most secluded of all the houses.
- A very airy and open-plan structure,The Bird House is spectacular.
- The Honeymoon House was famously described as ‘worth getting married for’.
- The Dog House is right on the river, and quite cave-like and cool.
- The Garden House, Tongabezi’s most recent addition, is a huge, self-contained family suite.
Whilst at Tongabezi, staying on any of the cottages or rooms, you’ll be looked after by your own attendant, or ‘valet’, who will take care of you throughout your stay, organising meals and activities, and making sure that your stay runs as smoothly as possible.
As you’d expect from a lodge based near the adventure capital of southern Africa, there’s no shortage of activities to do, and many of these are included (at no extra cost) with your stay at Tongabezi. Most guests will do a tour of the great Falls at least once in their stay, and having the flexibility of a good vehicle and a guide from the lodge is a lovely way to do this.
Guests can also choose to take canoes out on the river accompanied by an experienced and fully qualified guide, or enjoy the scenery and a cool sundowner on a sunset cruise; on our last visit to Tongabezi, in March 2011, the guiding on these was excellent (but don’t expect to see a huge amount of big game; come instead for the scenery – and the birdlife). You can indulge in an island lunch, or even arrange for a private, candlelit dinner on a pontoon in the middle of the Zambezi (A ‘Sanpan’ dinner), tended by your own personal waiter. In addition, there are visits to a local village where many of the staff live with their families, as well as guided bush walks, museum tours, market visits, fishing trips and game drives in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Often more than one activity can be combined into an excursion.
There is also an activities centre at the lodge that can book any trips and excursions in the local area which are not included in your stay. And, of course, no one at Tongabezi will mind if you decide to spend the day relaxing at the lodge.
One thing that we really notice at Tongabezi, especially in recent years, is the high level of service, and the very professional management. It’s also very notable that the vast majority of the team are Zambian nationals, giving the place an efficient but essentially Zambian feel.
Another key aspect of the lodge is the extensive support that it gives to a local school, which it was instrumental in founding. Originally this was done for the children of the lodge’s team; now it has much wider admissions and has been hugely supported by work done by the lodge, and donations from the lodge’s visitors. The school is also trying to teach its students to “think green". In practice, this means trying to save, recycle and re-use resources where possible.
Tongabezi is involved in a number of other local projects, and it’s good to see the place continues to set trends after being around for over 20 years.
Our viewTongabezi provides a tranquil base from which to visit the often crowded and frenetic area around the Victoria Falls. Having gone through an inconsistent patch a decade-or-so ago, the service and food are now top class and we’re continually impressed with the constant work that they do to gradually re-invent the lodge and how it’s run. If you have two or (better) three nights in the falls area, then Tongabezi is a great place to stay with an excellent range of complementary activities.
Ideal length of stay: Two nights – but three is much better, allowing you to make the most of the many activities included. Or possibly combine a few nights here, with a few nights on, Sindabezi Island, Tongabezi’s smaller sister-lodge.
Directions: Tongabezi is approximately 40 minutes from Livingstone Airport by road or around 40 minutes from the Botswana-Zambia border post.
Owner: Ben Parker
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: The food at Tongabezi is exquisite.
Breakfast consists of a large buffet with a variety of fruit salads, cereals and yoghurts as well as savory muffins and cakes. There’s a good selection of locally sourced fruit juices too. Guests can order a cooked breakfast from the kitchen and on our last visit we had a very tasty breakfast burrito.
After spending half an hour or so enjoying sundowners around the campfire Dinner then began with a tomato and herb gazpacho soup served cold with freshly baked bread and relishes. The main course was fresh and locally caught bream with vegetables and rice all in a creamy white wine sauce. A choice of either profita rolls or a cheeseboard for dessert made for a nice end to a very enjoyable meal.
Dining style: Individual Tables
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Soft drinks, bottled water, spirits, local beers and a selection of (generally) South African wines are included. Imported wines and spirits and champagne cost extra – and may need to be requested in advance.
Attitude towards children: Children of seven and over are welcome at Tongabezi.
Generally recommended for children: Yes, for children aged seven and up.
Notes: Tongabezi sits right on the banks of the Zambezi River. There’s no shortage of large crocodile and hippo which often come out onto the banks around camp. The river also flows very quickly this close to the Falls and as such parents should pay particular attention to these hazards.
Power supply: Mains Electricity
Communications: Tongabezi has WiFi and a computer that guests can use. There is also good cellphone reception.
TV & radio: None
Health & safety
Malarial area: Yes
Medical care: The nearest doctor is in Livingstone, about 30 minutes’ drive away.
Dangerous animals: Moderate Risk
Security measures: The security here is very good – with an electric fence and radio-controlled security gates. Every room has an individual digital safe.
Fire safety: Fire extinguishers are positioned throughout the lodge.
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included.