Chiawa Camp

Chiawa Camp: Our full report

Rooms
9 tents
Traveller's rating
Excellent (96%) From 45 reviews
Children
Best for 12+
Open
Mid-April to Mid-November

Chiawa Camp is situated on the banks of the Zambezi River, beneath a grove of mahogany trees in the heart of Zambia’s game-rich Lower Zambezi National Park. Opened by the Cumings family in 1989, Chiawa was the first camp in the park and is still run by a member of the family, Grant Cumings, who is very hands on. Over the years, the camp has evolved in size and comfort to a high degree of understated luxury.

As with most camps in the Lower Zambezi, Chiawa is open only during the drier months, between about mid-April and mid-November. The camp has nine very comfortable Meru-style tents, all beautifully furnished in neutral colours and mahogany wood, and with en-suite bathrooms. Linked to the main areas by sandy pathways, they all have broadly similar facilities but some differ in terms of their layout or outlook.

  • Six of Chiawa's tents (numbers 1–6) overlook the main Zambezi River and are closest to the main area. These tents are raised on wooden platforms, large and sturdy, and are entered by a proper door to the back or side. The front opens out onto a private veranda with lounge chairs and a coffee table. Inside, each tent is large and open plan, incorporating a bedroom, bathroom and changing area. As well as twin beds, or a double, beneath a mosquito net, you'll find a wooden writing desk, ceiling and free-standing fans, and two armchairs. Located behind the bed are a changing area and the bathroom, with twin sinks set into a wooden counter, a free-standing bath, flush loo and rain shower. A private outdoor shower completes the picture.

  • Two of the tents (7 and 8) have similar facilities to the rest, but these tents are a little bigger and each has a bathroom which is set off to the side of the open-plan bedroom and lounge area, rather than behind it. Because they catch the afternoon sun, these also have thatched roofs for extra shade. Tent seven overlooks both the Zambezi and the Chowe rivers, whilst eight overlooks the often-dry Chowe River.

  • One tent, at the far end of the camp (tent 9) beside the Chowe River, is slightly different again. Its bathroom is open-fronted, although still under a canvas roof and on a raised deck. This tent has been moved relatively recently to a new location, right up on top of a hill – giving it more privacy and better views.
There are plans to remodel tents seven, eight and nine, keeping their current locations but realigning them to optimise their views of the large amount of wildlife that makes it way past tents on the way to the river.

The main area at Chiawa is a double-storey construction with uninterrupted views across the Zambezi River. Built mostly of dark wood, reeds and thatch, it exudes a pleasantly rustic air of outdoor living. Downstairs you'll find the bar, and two separate lounge areas with wooden chairs and benches and cane furniture with soft cushions in neutral tones and earthy reds. There's also a small library of books and magazines and a natural-history display table. Upstairs is a third comfortable seating area and viewing deck with a telescope.

The food at Chiawa is usually excellent and most meals are taken in the separate dining area, which is open to the front and overlooks the river. Dinner is often by candlelight under the stars, but on our most recent visit we were treated to dinner away from camp in a section of dry riverbed, illuminated by candles and storm lanterns.

Lunch is a movable feast, perhaps under the shade of the trees or on Chiawa's motorised pontoon, and breakfast is set up around the campfire. In the dining room you'll also find a 'help yourself' tea and coffee table, which is always stocked with freshly baked biscuits.

For those hot days on the Zambezi, Chiawa Camp has a small shaded plunge pool. You might also be tempted by the small shop, stocked with good-quality curios.

With a team of excellent and enthusiastic guides, Chiawa offers a full range of flexible activities, which include game drives (day and night) in open 4WDs, walking safaris, canoeing and boat trips. Catch-and-release fishing on fly and conventional tackle (using artificial bait) with expert guides and custom-built pontoon boats is also an option.

The guides are professional and knowledgeable, and over numerous visits since our first in 1995, we've come to appreciate their willingness to go out of their way to try to fulfill each guest's interests. Having said that, if you're serious about fishing then consider booking a private boat, especially during September and October when fishing here is at its best and demand for this activity can be high. Expect a cost of around US$175 per boat for half a day (about four hours) or US$350 for a full day. The number of boats is limited to two, so advance booking is advisable.

In the corner of the camp Chiawa has an elevated viewing platform, which overlooks the confluence of the dry riverbed of the Chowe River (often referred to as the Chiawa River) and the Zambezi River, which is ideal for watching animals come down for their midday drink. There are also two hides, one just outside the entrance of the camp next to the river, and one sunk into the ground next to a waterhole, allowing a unique ‘eye-level’ view of buffalo, warthogs and other thirsty animals.

Over numerous visits, including most recently in October 2014, the game viewing in the Chiawa area has been superb. It's not unusual for camps downriver to head west to watch wildlife in the area, or for vehicles from the GMA just outside the park boundaries to head east. On our last visit we were able to spot a pride of lions, four leopards, a jackal, porcupines and zebra all in one evening drive. If you’re lucky you might also see wild dog, which were spotted twice in 2014, but don’t expect giraffe, wildebeest or cheetah as they’re not found in this area.

For the keen birdwatcher, the Lower Zambezi is great for both water and land birds. Boating, canoeing and walking safaris give a different perspective and if you're very quiet and cautious, may sometimes allow you to get closer to the birds without disturbing them. Great sightings have included the giant eagle owl, spurwinged geese, kingfishers and an abundance of Goliath herons. From around September to November, the carmine bee-eaters are quite a spectacle.

Chiawa's team is one of the founder members of Conservation Lower Zambezi, a non-governmental organisation which aims to reduce poaching and misuse of resources in Zambia's Lower Zambezi. Chiawa remains particularly active in its support of CLZ, and Expert Africa has also started to help support this worthy charity.

Our view

In many ways, we think Chiawa is one of the best, and best-run, camps in Africa. The service and food are top-notch, with a team who tend to go out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable – and left us feeling that nothing was too much trouble. The camp manages to be luxurious, while still feeling homely and welcoming, a balance that can be difficult to get right. A good complement of excellent guides and a flexible attitude towards activities means that guests will usually get to do what they want, more or less when they want. We love it.

Geographics

Location: Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

Ideal length of stay: We recommend a minimum of three nights at Chiawa, although many visitors stay for longer to take advantage of the variety of activities on offer. Chiawa also combines well with its sister camp, Old Mondoro.

Directions: Following a flight of about 35 minutes from Lusaka to Royal airstrip, the transfer to camp is around 20 minutes by 4WD, and a further 20 minutes by boat.

Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer

Key personnel

Owner: Owned and run by Grant Cumings and his family.

Food & drink

Usual board basis: Full Board

Food quality: Expert Africa team members have visited Chiawa Camp many times, first in 1995! On our most recent visit in October 2014, as on previous stays, the food was typically very good and the portions very generous.

You'll be woken just before sunrise with a 'knock knock', when tea or coffee will be brought to the door of your tent. Guests meet around the campfire for a light breakfast, which usually consists of toast, muffins or pastries, cereal, yoghurt and porridge.

Lunch is served at around 11.00am or 11.30am, once you've had some time to freshen up after your morning activity. Lunch may be enjoyed in various places around the camp in the cool shade of trees, but most recently we were treated to one of Chiawa's special lunches on their motorised pontoon. We had rare beef fillet, sautéed potatoes, three different salads and homemade garlic bread. The food was delicious, and enjoyed while watching numerous elephants and buffalo along the riverbank. The lunch that we had at the lodge was a very tasty vegetable carbonara with a selection of salads, although it is also possible to also order eggs, sausages and bacon.

Afternoon tea at about 3.30pm usually involves both a freshly baked cake or cookies and a savoury dish. Then you're off on your afternoon activity.

Dinner is usually a four course meal served under the stars in the main area, and we recently enjoyed a potato rosti with crème freche and cured ham, French onion soup and chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes with a basil sauce and butternut squash mash. Dessert was a delicious slice of chocolate torte. On our last visit we were also treated to dinner in the bush, with a variety of meats cooked on a brie accompanied by some traditional Zambian dishes.

Dining style: Group Meals

Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining

Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included

Drinks included: Bottled water, soft drinks, local beers and spirits, and a selection of South African red and white wines are included. Champagne and cellar wines are excluded.

Further dining info: No

Special interests

Solo Travel: Chiawa is never cheap, but it has no single supplement, making it a more affordable option for solo travel in Zambia. A combination of communal meals and incredibly friendly staff also means solo travellers shouldn’t lack for company.

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Honeymoons: Chiawa's tents are very comfortable; perfect for a Zambia honeymoon. Couples can dine privately in their room, or dine romantically on the camps motorized pontoon. Bathtubs big enough for two and shared showers under the stars add to the romance.

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Birdwatching: Chiawa is a particularly good Zambia camp for bird-watching: it’s great for water and land birds, with expert guides. Boating, canoeing, walks and a game hide give different perspectives. Favourites here include an osprey, giant eagle owls, many kingfishers and magnificent carmine bee-eaters.

See more ideas for Birdwatching in Zambia

Photography holidays: Chiawa’s open-topped 4WD vehicles are ideal for photography, whilst boating, canoeing and two hides (both overlooking waterholes) give different perspectives on the wildlife. Then there’s the camps excellent guides, and the stunning backdrop scenery of the escarpment behind camp.

See more ideas for Photography holidays in Zambia

Wildlife safaris: The Lower Zambezi is one of the best parks for wildlife safaris in Zambia; Chiawa is one of very few camps inside the park itself and has top-notch guides. Red-filtered spotlights further improve night drives, creating less disruption to the wildlife.

See more ideas for Wildlife safaris in Zambia

Children

Attitude towards children: Chiawa welcomes mature and responsible children over the age of eight years. However, the minimum age for walking and canoeing is 12.

Property’s age restrictions: Minimum age of children visiting is 8 years, however walking and canoeing has a minimum age of 12.

Equipment: An extra bed could be made up in the tents and Chiawa have a bunk bed that they can add at a squeeze. Alternatively, tents 1 and 2 are the closest together, and would work for a family with older children only - but you'd still need an adult in each tent as nobody is allowed to walk around alone after dark.

Notes: Chiawa Camp is unfenced and dangerous wildlife often wanders through. The riverbank is open, and steep in parts, and the swimming pool is unfenced. Children need to be closely supervised by their parents at all times.

Infrastructure

Power supply: Generator

Power supply notes: There are plug points in the tents for charging batteries, iPads, phones etc.

Communications: There is no direct phone line – although the camp does have satellite communications for emergencies. Cellphone reception is very intermittent and not reliable. WiFi is available, but is very slow and is restricted to guest tents; it does not allow for transmission of images or applications such as Skype or Facetime.

TV & radio: No

Water supply: Other

Water supply notes: Water is pumped from the Zambezi River and is filtered. Showers and bathtubs are plumbed in, with hot and cold running water. There are flushing toilets.

Health & safety

Malarial protection recommended: Yes

Medical care: The camp managers and guides are trained in first-aid. The closest doctor is in the village, 1½ hours away by boat. In case of medical emergency, guests would be evacuated to Lusaka and then potentially to Johannesburg.

Dangerous animals: High Risk

Security measures: Chiawa is an unfenced camp, on the edge of the Zambezi River. Wildlife, including elephant, hippo and leopard are known to roam through the camp on a regular basis. Guests are escorted to their tents after dark and a safety radio is provided in each tent.

Fire safety: There are fire buckets with water at all the tents and behind all the thatched buildings. There's also a fire blanket and fire extinguishers in the kitchen.

Extras

Disabled access: On Request

Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included, except for ladies’ underwear, for cultural reasons. Washing powder is provided in each bathroom for this purpose, as is a small washing line.

Money: There is a safe in each tent. The camp does not offer any currency-exchange facilities.

Accepted payment on location: Any extras such as purchases from the shop or special fishing trips, need to be settled in cash, preferably in Zambian kwacha. However, small amounts of US dollars are usually acceptable.