24-hour room service: Sanctuary Zebra Plains, Zambia

A Zambian lodge that's earning its stripes

Sue Watt
Saturday 28 January 2012 01:00
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To get to Zebra Plains, you need to cross the Luangwa River by canoe. But avoid the temptation of dipping your fingers in the cool water – the crocodiles might be hungry. Walk across the sandy riverbank to the canvas-covered lounge with contemporary rattan sofas, hardwood furniture, a library and the bar, and you'll discover the most luxurious of camps. Despite its remoteness in South Luangwa National Park, Zebra Plains combines discreet indulgence with authentic bush atmosphere.

South Luangwa National Park is synonymous with walking safaris: they were pioneered here by the conservationist and guide Norman Carr over 60 years ago. Today, Sanctuary Retreats' new camp, which opened last June, is continuing that tradition in style.

Zebra Plains is set up for exploring the bush on foot. Guests come for three- or six-day set departures and start their walking experience together. The three-to-four hour walks are led twice a day by Garth Hovell – one of Zambia's best guides – accompanied by a ranger and a "tea-bearer", and provide a truly invigorating wildlife experience.

We came across herds of elephant kicking up grasses for food, hippos wallowing in the river and leopards guarding their kill. But there was no chance of bumping into other tourists; the only camp in this part of the Luangwa, Zebra Plains specialises in solitude.

Garth entertained us with his knowledge that ranged from how dung beetles nest to the medicinal properties of a plant enigmatically called "love in a puff".

Day one may start with a gentle afternoon stroll around the plains but by day three, you might find yourself tracking a lion on foot. Our final walk involved crouching down in long golden grasses waiting for a leopard to return to a half-mauled puku antelope she'd secreted up a tree; sneaking quietly past a sleeping hippo while avoiding a herd of elephants in the opposite direction; and watching six hyena prowling the plains for carcasses. Experiencing the bush on foot provides a rare intimacy with nature that isn't so easily achieved on game drives.

Back at camp, a well-stocked bar and generous supply of food helped to restore energy levels after the walks. (Although the terrain is hardly challenging, the heat can be exhausting.)

Considering the remote location – about two hours' drive from the nearest airstrip – meals were surprisingly tasty. Breakfasts included toast grilled on the camp fire, porridge, fresh fruit and pastries. Morning tea was brewed on fires lit by rubbing two sticks together. Lunch served on the "beach" included beef in mustard dressing, quiche and fishcakes, salads and delicious bread baked in an earth oven. Then came tea and cakes before we left for our afternoon walk, followed by sundowners with canapés on our return. Candlelit, three-course dinners consisted of poutjie (a meat and vegetable casserole), a brai (barbecue) and, on the final night, stuffed quail or herb-crusted tilapia fish on vegetable parcels.

Location

In the quiet northern sector of South Luangwa National Park, an hour's flight from Lusaka followed by a five-hour game-viewing drive. It's a remote area with wild animals and without fences. Children under 12 are not permitted and there's no internet or mobile coverage. It is open June-October.

Comfort

There are four spacious tented rooms. Inside are wooden framed beds, campaign-style furniture and en-suite facilities including an outdoor bucket shower. (Its name belies its relative sophistication.) Outside the front of the tent is a second washing area in traditional safari style, with a copper jug and basin filled by your kapaso, your room attendant named after the protectors of the Zambian clan chiefs. A patio and loungers overlook the river for lazy afternoons. At night, don't be surprised to hear hippos munching outside your tent.

Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers six nights' all-inclusive from £3,620 pp with flights from Heathrow and transfers.

Zebra Plains, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia (00 27 11 438 4650; sanctuaryretreats.com)

Rooms ****
Value ****
Service *****

Doubles start at US$1,170 (£780) full board, with fees and activities.

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