So, you want to go on safari in Africa. But where?
To say that the continent is vast is a gross understatement. Africa holds more than 20 percent of the Earth’s total land mass. Only Asia outstrips it in size, at 30 percent. In comparison, North America is third, with 16 percent, while Europe is sixth, with just under 7 percent of the world’s land.
Kenya, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, Mount Kilamanjaro, and Victoria Falls rate as some best-known parts of the continent, but it also makes them some of the most heavily traveled.
I knew one thing.
I did NOT want to spend the money to go to Africa and feel like I was on some domestic game drive in the United States.
Choosing Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris
I was fortunate to know a couple who have traveled many, many times to multiple parts of Africa. Bob and Andrea both recommended we look at Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia for our first trip. I’d subscribed to Robin Pope’s It’s Monday Newsletter several years ago, and have been regularly entertained with their photographs and stories.
Getting our business wasn’t a slam dunk for Robin Pope though — whenever I go someplace new, I do a LOT of research.
When my sister and I started discussing this safari trip we did homework on Abercrombie and Kent, Tauck, Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic travel, and several African safari operators, one of which was Robin Pope. We read about Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia.
In the end, we chose to book with Robin Pope based on the kind of experience we wanted to have: high end, very small and personal groups, and the kinds of animals we were likely to see — and — for what we found to be competitive price, based on the level of service and accommodations.
If you are thinking about a safari, I’d recommend the same process. Do some reading, watch documentaries of different parts of Africa, make a list of animals that are must-sees for you, choose several potential countries that match your desires, and then dig into the range of tours that are out there. Decide on your budget and trip length. See what fits with your budget and your priorities — and as we all know, this is a very individual thing. Several of our camp hosts also recommended reading the web forum Safari Talk as a much better place to read safari reviews than Trip Advisor.
If you’re looking for the best safari companies in Africa, it’s not unusual that Americans look for either American or at least European tour companies, just out of a sense of comfort. The reality, though, is that you’re going to find the best safaris through local operators — and that’s what the big companies are doing. They put together experiences with local companies, repackage them, and charge you a higher price.
This blog article is the second post of a five part series on our experience on safari in Zambia, and I shall do my best to give you a complete overview of our trip. The first part of the series was Preparing for an African Safari.
Our Safari Itinerary
Robin Pope has a list of standard safari packages that should please a wide range of plans. You’ll find thirty-five different options that give lots of combinations — time in the South Luangwa National Park, visits to Victoria Falls, combination safari-beach getaways, and special focuses like honeymoon or family-oriented safaris. They put together a custom itinerary for us. We decided we wanted to stay in the South Luangwa National Park for our entire trip — to focus completely on maximum time with the animals there.
- 3 nights at Tena Tena,
- 3 nights walking safari in Luangwa Bush Camp,
- 3 nights at Nsefu,
- and our final 3 nights at Luangwa River Camp
Our first camp — Tena Tena
Our first home in Zambia was Tena Tena, the flagship camp of the Robin Pope company. Roughly translated, it means “temporary home.”
We arrived around 7:00 p.m. from the small airport in Mfuwe, and were greeted by our camp hostess, Shannon, with warm cloths to clean off the dust from the road. We stopped at our tents before heading to the bar for a drink and orientation. Of course, it was completely dark. June is winter in Zambia, and the sun goes down around 5:20. We saw our tent-rooms by lamp-light and then one of the night watchmen walked us over to the bar.
- 5:30 a.m. Wake up knock at your tent flap 🙂
- 5:45 a.m. Breakfast
- 6:15 – 6:30 – Leave for morning game drive
- 8:30 – 8:45 – Stop for morning tea
- 10:30 Arrive back in camp
- 11:30 a.m. Lunch
- 3:30 p.m. Tea
- 4:00 p.m. Afternoon game drive
- Stop at a beautiful location, enjoy sundowners
- Night game drive
- Arrive back in camp in time to freshen up, normally 7:15 – 7:30, and go for a drink
- 8:00 p.m. Dinner
Tena is on the banks of the Luangwa River in an area with multiple hippo pods — and man, do they talk!
When we first arrived, there were so many LOUD noises. We were exhausted from two days of traveling, it was dark, and we were constantly thinking, “what is that?!” and “What was THAT??” The night was full of hippo calls, and then came the lion later, not long after we’d gone to bed.
Hippo Vocalization – hit play!
After one day, we were used to it, and the sounds became a normal part of life, no longer alarming.
We loved our tented homes at Tena Tena. The bathrooms are outdoors, surrounded by a wall that varies in height, and covered by a draped mesh top. There is a lot of space between the tents, and the brush around you creates plenty of privacy. You will have a few bathroom visitors: tree frogs and a preying mantis came to see us.
There are only six tents, which means that the camp has a maximum capacity of 12 people. Small, private, and personal are all good words to describe Tena Tena.
The design work at Tena is stunning. Natural wood, bark intact, edges the undulating plaster walls. Fabric for bed covers and cushions is cotton or wool in natural colors of dusty greens, greys, creams accented with bright splashes of burnt orange or blue for contrast.
Each afternoon, guests gathered at the bar for tea before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Don’t worry coffee drinkers — which would be me! There’s plenty of good French press coffee as well! As we visited with other guests, our guides would prepare the kit for the game drive: the all important question, “What would you like for sundowners?”
If you have four people in your group, you will always have your own vehicle. There were three of us in our party, and over twelve days, we had other people join us on just four game drives. Almost all of the RPS game drive vehicles are roofless Toyota Landcruisers. The seats are comfortable, and always covered with a clean fleece blanket. Roofless vehicles — this is VERY important. No photographer wants to have a vehicle roof screwing up shots.
Animals that we saw on the Tena game drives: Many, many impala, puku, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, hyena, several types of mongoose, African water buffalo. So many different kinds of birds, I can’t list them all! Big cats: Lion — two evening sightings, and leopard — both by day and at night — this was in just two days of drives at Tena Tena. Over the whole twelve day trip, we saw lions and leopards many times over!
And the biggest thing of all, the most important thing to me, is what we didn’t see. We didn’t see many people, at all. It started in Africa for us: we have fallen in love with safaris — hopelessly, amazingly.
I’ll end here with a video overview of our time at Tena Tena. It was magical!
This is the first in a multi-article series on our safari in Zambia. Find the second part, Walking Safari: Day One, here: