Chiawa Camp

Chiawa Camp: Our full report

Rooms
9 tents
Traveller's rating
Excellent (96%) From 37 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 the 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 visits the camp frequently and 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.

Tents 8 and 9 overlook the often dry Chowe River, while tent 7 overlooks both the Zambezi and the Chowe. With similar facilities to the rest, these tents are a little bigger and the bathroom is off to the side of the open-plan bedroom and lounge area, rather than behind. Because they catch the afternoon sun they also have a thatched roof for extra shade. However, tent 9 (at the far end of the camp) is slightly different again in that its bathroom is outside and is open in the front, although still under canvas and on a raised deck. This tent has also been moved to a new location right up on top of a hill – resulting in even more privacy and stunning elevated views. All three tents tend to see quite a lot of animal activity as wildlife makes its way to the river. Indeed, during our siesta in tent 8 on our last visit, we watched an almost continuous stream of elephants, buffalo, warthogs and impala come to the river to drink.

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, whereas 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.

As with most camps in the Lower Zambezi, Chiawa is open only during the drier months, between about mid-April and mid-November. With a team of excellent and enthusiastic guides, it 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.

Chiawa also has an elevated hide, which overlooks the confluence of the dry riverbed of the Chowe River (often referred to as the Chiawa River) and the Zambezi River. It's a great spot for watching the animals come down for their midday drink; elephants, buffalo, warthogs, impala and baboons frequent the area.

Over numerous visits, including most recently in September 2013, 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. We've seen plenty of elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo here, and of course hippos and crocodiles. If you're lucky you might also see zebra, which are usually found further east in the park, but don't expect giraffe, wildebeest or cheetah, as they're not found in this area. The guides at Chiawa tell us they last saw wild dogs in 2011.

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 abdundance 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. And 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 September 2013, 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 vegetable quiche, fish cakes with homemade tartare sauce, three different salads and homemade chilli bread, followed by a cheeseboard with tea or coffee. The food was delicious, although we did find ourselves distracted by watching herds of elephants come down for their midday drink or to cross the river. Lunch at the lodge will usually be similar, although it's also possible to 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 a four-course meal served by candlelight, often under the stars. We enjoyed mini vegetable samosas with mango and ginger salsa, followed by a light gazpacho soup. The main course was a choice of either creamy mushroom tagliatelle or chicken with a pesto sauce served with spaghetti, mushrooms and tomato. Dessert was a warm baked chocolate pudding with cream, although the lodge is also known for some imaginative – and usually delicious – dessert recipes using Amarula (a creamy liqueur made from the marula fruit), such as Amarula cheesecake or Amarula ice-cream.

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 a great base for exploring this game-rich area from 4WDs, boat or on a walking safari. Meals are taken together, the team is very friendly so solo travellers shouldn’t lack for company. Though Chiawa is never cheap, single travellers appreciate that there's no single supplement.

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Honeymoons: Chiawa's tents are very comfortable; perfect for a Zambia honeymoon. Couples can dine in the privacy of their own room, or romantic dinners can be arranged on the motorised pontoon. The bathtubs are big enough for two, and an outdoor shower under the stars also adds to the romance.

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Birdwatching: Chiawa is great for both water and land birds, with excellent birding guides. Boating, canoeing, walks and a game hide give different perspectives. Our sightings have included an osprey, giant eagle owls, many kingfisher species and Sept-Nov the magnificent carmine bee-eaters.

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Photography holidays: Chiawa Camp uses open 4WD vehicles for safaris, ideal for photography. In addition, boating and canoeing can give great opportunities for bird photography, as does the hide, which overlooks a popular drinking spot for much game. Bring a tripod and a very long lens if you can!

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Walking safaris: Chiawa Camp's high-calibre guides offer first-class walking safaris as well as many other game activities. Walks are a great way for learning about the smaller things in the bush and usually last two–four hours, depending entirely on you and the other guests with whom you're walking.

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Wildlife safaris: The national park around Chiawa area has some of the best game in the Lower Zambezi. As well as excellent birding, the variety of game here – including lion, buffalo, hyena, leopard, elephant, waterbuck and bushbuck – has impressed us on our numerous visits. Nocturnal sightings should be greatly enhanced with the night-vision equipment which the camp brought in in 2014.

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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 – as nobody is allowed to walk around alone after dark. Alternatively, tents 1 and 2 are the closest together, and would work for a family with older children only – 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. WiFfi 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.