This African encounter is up close and personal

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Robin Pope Safaris pioneered responsible tourism in Zambia via a unique partnership with the community. Sue Watt is impressed with the results

When I asked Maria, a quiet 15-year-old with an engaging smile, what she wanted to do when she finished school, she looked me straight in the eyes and said without hesitation: "I'm going to be a doctor."

Such aspirations from a young girl in a remote Zambian village might normally be met with derision, but this is Kawaza, and Kawaza makes things happen.

This small village of mud-and-thatch houses on the outskirts of South Luangwa National Park has been running a community tourism initiative for 15 years, yet the welcome I received from its residents was as genuine as if this were their first day. Established in 1997 with support from Robin Pope Safaris, a leading safari operator in Zambia and Malawi, the Kawaza Village Tourism Project has become a benchmark for similar initiatives worldwide. In recognition of the tremendous impact of its work on Kawaza and its neighbouring communities, totalling some 6,000 people, Robin Pope Safaris (RPS) won two awards at London's industry-focused World Travel Market in November – the Responsible Tourism Award for Best in Poverty Reduction, and the joint overall winner.

Responsible tourism is no stranger to South Luangwa, however. In the 1950s, the legendary guide and conservationist Norman Carr first conceived the idea of photographic walking safaris here. Home to more than 60 different mammal species and around 400 species of birds, the National Park's mopane forests, riverine woodlands and expansive grassy plains, dominated by the Luangwa River, provide the perfect terrain for observing wildlife on foot. Carr believed that local people should benefit from the income that tourism brought. Robin Pope, a protégé of Carr, is one of Zambia's leading guides. Together with his wife, Jo, he has continued Carr's tradition of working with communities.

Their involvement with Kawaza started in the late 1980s, when Jo would pick up staff for their three camps outside the local school. "It was one building of three very run-down classrooms," Jo told me. "There were around 250 children and only three teachers, including the head. It was in a shocking state. At first we simply took a few guests, they would give some money and I would get some desks made, or fix a door. Then it snowballed and the funds started coming in. We rebuilt and developed the school and now it has nine classrooms, a computer room, a library, many desks, over a thousand children and around 20 teachers."

I joined one of those classrooms of 15- to 16-year-olds, three to a simple desk, with a blackboard covering the entire front wall, full of beautifully written examples of English grammar. Neatly dressed in their school uniforms of white shirt, black skirt or trousers and a tie, the children bombarded me with questions about our lives in the UK.

Kawaza Basic School's charismatic headmaster, Felix Kaluba, invited me into his office, a small room with an ancient computer, colourful photos and charts of school attendance, timetables and a strategic plan crammed on to its walls. In a deep, velvety voice, he described the routine of school life and the problems he is striving to overcome on a daily basis: issues such as gender inequality, early pregnancies, and poverty inhibiting learning. A subject close to his heart – and inextricably linked to his pupils – is wildlife conservation. "You've come here with the main intention of seeing the animals," Felix said. "But once you've seen them, you've come to see us, and we have benefited from you. All the beauty you see around this school is as a result of the wildlife. Because we are its direct beneficiaries, we should be its first conservers."

Guests staying at RPS's camps in South Luangwa would regularly visit the school and the village project was born out of those visits. "One American lady said after [a school visit] she would have loved to stay there a night," Jo explained. "So I talked to the community and we set it up. The concept is that you are staying in a real village and experience a real village day."

I was only visiting for the day, but Constantino, our guide, showed me the six simple yet spotless mud-and-thatch rondavels (round single-roomed houses) built for Kawaza's overnight guests, open to anyone visiting the area, not just RPS residents. Located a few paces away from the main village to afford some privacy, each has two reed beds, mattresses, and immaculately white mosquito nets. The shower room is a reed construction with a platform, but with no obvious shower. "We call it an elephant shower," he explained. "The women bring a bucket of water and you splash it around like this," swishing his arm around his body like an elephant's trunk. The toilets are primitive: one a long-drop hole in the ground and one with a "thunderbox" (wooden seat) over the hole.

Lunch, served in the sitenge, a communal thatched banda in the village centre, was a typical local meal of nshima (cooked maize of a similar consistency to polenta), chicken in a tomato sauce, and pumpkin leaves with chillies that tasted like spicy spinach. Following local custom, I ate the food with my fingers; I enjoyed every mouthful.

Constantino then showed me how to make the local gin. A clay pot resting on ashes and half a tyre with a pipe running through it, balanced on an upturned bucket, were rigged up like a condenser in a rustic chemistry experiment. He offered me a cup of the clear liquid that emerged from the pipe. Still warm, the gin seared its way down my throat like volcanic lava and my body shook involuntarily with every sip.

Guests are encouraged to get involved in all kinds of activities, from helping with the cooking or tending the fields to brewing beer – and distilling that moonshine gin. Or they can go to church, take a bush walk to nearby villages, meet the traditional healer or visit the health clinic: it's up to each guest and their particular interests. Evening entertainment – there's no electricity – revolves around vibrant dancing, drumming and story-telling, none put on for the guests' benefit. It's simply how life is here.

Experiencing typical village life is crucial to the concept of Kawaza. "I think the success of this is keeping it simple and real," Jo told me. "A real village with people who live there, doing their daily activities. Kawaza has remained true to this for over 13 years."

Today, the Popes are less involved in the running of RPS but are still connected to the community work in the area through Project Luangwa, a charity set up by Jo with other lodge owners around the park. "I feel very proud that our work has been recognised," she said, "and I hope the awards firstly inspire other companies to run such projects and interact with the community on a developmental level, and also help to set standards and benchmarks.

"It should no longer be possible to run a successful tourism operation if you don't work with the community to enhance development."

Of course, guests wouldn't have come to Kawaza in the first place were it not for the wildlife and beauty of South Luangwa National Park. Yet it has relatively few visitors, and still retains a sense of wilderness and solitude, enhanced by the quiet intimacy of RPS's luxury camps, Nkwali and Nsefu. With RPS's policy of employing local people and offering promotion and training to management level, or top guiding qualifications, there's a palpable sense of belonging among the staff here. Their families benefit too, since a percentage of guest fees are donated to Project Luangwa.

I stayed first at Nkwali, an elegant camp just across the river from the park and a convenient 40-minute drive from the local airport. I spent the days on gentle walks or game drives led by expert guide Keyala. I saw leopards silently stalking their prey at night, hippos looking like stepping stones basking in shallow waters in the heat of the day, and elephants shunting their tiny baby across the river. And I spotted giraffe, buffalo, zebra, eland and Bambi-like puku all roaming the plains, with lions often following furtively behind.

The next camp, Nsefu, was more remote and has its own place in Luangwa history: at 60 years old, it's Zambia's oldest camp. With its serene, graceful atmosphere, it's tempting to simply stay here and relax. Luckily, I didn't need to move far to find the wildlife – pukus wandered quietly around Nsefu's grounds, eating hibiscus-like petals from the sausage tree, a resident leopard obligingly called by most evenings, and a nomadic lion astounded everyone by devouring two buffalos in two days on the riverbank nearby.

The elephants dropped in on Nsefu too. Returning from Kawaza, I found a huge matriarch, along with her family of five, directly outside my rondavel overlooking the river. Everything came to a standstill for them, and we guests watched silently for over an hour, mesmerised and unable to leave while they remained in residence, eating branches and grasses all around. Fortunately, we were waiting in the best place possible – in the bar with four guides, all trained with support from RPS and all from Kawaza Village.

Travel Essentials

Getting There

Sue Watt travelled with Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com). A seven-night trip with two nights at Nkwali, one in Kawaza village, and three at Nsefu, with all meals, local drinks, and safari activities, followed by a night in Lusaka at Eight Reedbuck, with breakfast, starts at £2,996 per person. The price includes British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flights from Heathrow to Lusaka, and domestic flights to Mfuwe. Passengers on all domestic departures pay an airport tax of US$11 (£7) per person per flight.

Visiting There

Kawaza Village is open to visitors from April to November. (projectluangwa.org)

Red tape and more information

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Zambia. A single-entry visa costing US$50 (£33) is available at Lusaka airport or from the Zambian High Commission, 2 Palace Gate, Kensington, London W8 5NG (020 7589 6655) for £35. Zambia Tourism Board: zambiatourism.com

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