The story of Chongwe River Camp – told through her decades-long first-hand experience of this renowned safari camp, Sharon Gilbert-Rivett looks at the journey Chongwe has taken and the changes that have shaped its legacy, good and bad.
Legacy. It’s something that’s often spoken of in the safari industry, especially by those of us who have been “doing” safaris for what seems like forever and have witnessed the sometimes-stellar trajectory of lodges and camps across Africa that have become phenomenal global brands. It’s always interesting to chart their progress but sad to note that many relinquish the things that made them special along the way to superstardom, inevitably outgrowing the uniqueness that set them apart and adopting a kind of corporate slickness that’s far removed from the spirit in which they were conceived.
When you are privileged enough to be a part of that progress, that long path from anonymity to recognition, you understand better what goes into creating a destination that people have on their bucket lists the world over and how important legacy really is. So it is for me and Chongwe River Camp, a small, intimate bush camp in Zambia’s breathtaking Lower Zambezi Valley that has been my “go to” place – my special somewhere – for more than 20 years.
Today, it’s part of the Time + Tide Africa portfolio and far removed from its humble beginnings as a camp site where the Chongwe River meets the mighty Zambezi. And yet, it has managed to maintain its “secret sauce” – that magical ingredient that makes it stand out from the crowd and remain, in my opinion, one of the best safari destinations in Southern Africa. How? It all boils down to people, and in particular, Chris Liebenberg and his late father, Boet, who in the late 1990s took a chance on what they thought was the most beautiful spot in Zambia they’d ever seen…
A camp is born
In those days the Lower Zambezi was truly wild and woolly and beset with challenges, not the least of which was a sky-high level of poaching that threatened to wipe out the area’s elephant population. Young Chris had graduated from Rhodes University in South Africa and had returned to his homeland filled with zeal, becoming a qualified safari guide in this rugged, remote and impossibly beautiful place.
His family came from Zambia’s Copperbelt and had always worked in the mining industry, supplying equipment and logistics. But their deep love of the African bush made for exciting holidays, camping out in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion, that nowhere was the confluence of the Chongwe and Zambezi rivers, on a patch of flat ground in the middle of a grove of albida trees with the mountains of the escarpment that forms the northern border of the Lower Zambezi National Park as a backdrop.
Cue divine intervention, rolls of Biblical-style thunder and a parting of clouds. The seed of an idea began to germinate in Boet and Chris and they returned on several father and son camping trips before eventually buying the camp site that had so captured their hearts and a considerable chunk of land around it and along the Chongwe River. They returned as landowners and established a commercial camping site. Chongwe River Camp was born, created by guts, grit and an overwhelming love for a small piece of African heaven.
In those days there was a small central “reception” area for campers and little else. Chris would guide people on safari and they did the rest. Gradually, the camp grew as permanent tents were introduced and camping was done away with. Chris employed local guides to help guests explore the area and staff to prepare simple meals around the camp’s fire. Dinner took place under the stars and revelry around the camp bar, made from an old mokoro.
So it was that I first visited Chongwe some 22 years ago, scouting for locations for a documentary and writing a feature on the Lower Zambezi for Africa Geographic in the process. My Chongwe story began there, on the sunlit floodplains opposite Mana Pools National Park, surrounded by elephants, listening to Chris tell his story.
Death of an icon, birth of a movement
The history of Chongwe and the Lower Zambezi is framed quite simply by the story of one of its most impressive “sons” – a magnificent tusker elephant named Big Boy. This gentle giant was known and loved by all at Chongwe and at the many other camps and lodges that were springing up along the river in the Lower Zambezi in the late 1990s. Chris and Boet both recounted tales of close encounters with Big Boy and the indelible impact he had on both their lives. Indeed, Big Boy saved Boet’s life, but only after losing his to the poacher’s gun.
When shots were heard on that fateful day towards the end of the 20th century, Boet and other safari operators took off with national park rangers to investigate. They found the fallen Big Boy, freshly slain, along the Chongwe River and walked into an ambush in the process, hiding behind the behemoth’s body as AK47 rounds pumped into it. They returned fire and routed the poachers, who took off into dense thicket.
The death of Big Boy galvanised Chris and Boet and the other operators to form Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) – an NGO tasked with reducing the slaughter of wildlife in the valley that quickly gained traction, achieving a 92% reduction in poaching incidents within its first decade of operation. Today, CLZ is a world-class conservation organisation recognised globally for its achievements in bridging the gap between conservation and communities, both founding strands of Chongwe River Camp’s DNA. There is no doubt that the death of Big Boy was a catalyst for meaningful change – not just at Chongwe, but in the surrounding communities of the Chiawa Game Management Area – a vast swathe of land that forms a conservation buffer zone on the western edge of the Lower Zambezi National Park.
Building a brand with people
The Chongwe River Camp I first visited was fairly typical of its kind – a neat, rustic bush camp with Meru-style tents strung out along the riverbanks and a communal bar, dining and lounge area overlooking the confluence. In those early days “rustic” meant simple pine framed beds, outdoor en-suite facilities and zip-up tent flaps. The ethos was authenticity and complete immersion in the surroundings. In that respect Chongwe has always under-promised and over-delivered. Its location is virtually unbeatable, but it took a while to perfect its other secret safari weapon – a fantastic team of people.
While core staff from the local Chiawa community stayed put, in those early years managers and many senior staff came and went on a regular basis. Such is the ebb and flow of the safari industry and Chris, understanding that it sometimes takes time to find a dream team, kept a steady hand on the wheel, spending a lot of time in Camp and commuting between the Lower Zambezi and his home in Lusaka, a full day’s drive or a short, 25-minute flight away.
Reservations manager Caroline Jenkins (CJ) joined the Chongwe team in 2006, emigrating to Zambia from her native Wales after reading about the camp in the article I wrote for Africa Geographic – something I am proud of to this day. You never know the impact your words are going to have on lives until you find out first hand!
Chris slowly groomed a great core team of local Zambian guides, training them to the highest standards, and then, in 2009 he found the final pieces of the staffing puzzle in Florence Mulenga Shawa, hailing from Zambia’s Northern Province and educated in Scotland with a background in hospitality and hotel management.
“Flossie” and her husband, Allan, traded the urban life in Lusaka for the wilderness and the wonderful winds of destiny blessed Chongwe with a match made in heaven. Some 14 years later they are still at the helm, with Flossie the first black Zambian woman to be appointed as a general manager of a major safari company, inspiring a whole generation of Zambian women to enter the safari industry.
Today, 80% of Chongwe’s staff are from the local Chiawa community. The rest are from other parts of Zambia, predominantly Lusaka. Many, like front-of-house supervisors Michael Farao and Watson Chinyama and safari guide Bob Kamambo have been at Chongwe for well over a decade. Others, like spa therapist Twatasha Chibanga, have only just started their Chongwe journey, becoming the newest members of the Chongwe family.
Onward and upward
In 2005 work began on Chongwe House – an exclusive safari villa on the banks of the Chongwe River a short distance from Chongwe River Camp. With four en-suite bedrooms, its own chef, private guide and staff, “House”, as it became known, introduced the Chongwe brand to a new, emerging market – small groups of friends and extended families looking for a highly personalised safari experience.
A couple of years later, Boet and Chris partnered with investor Thierry Dalais to help steer Chongwe on the next stage of its evolution, and so, the Albida and Cassia Suites came into being. These luxury tented villas added another dynamic to Chongwe’s existing nine standard tents, which were upgraded to meet the demands of an ever increasingly discerning international clientelle.
The addition of “luxury” to Chongwe’s tradition of down-to-earth authenticity was subtle and done with due homage to the brand’s humble origins. Luxury for its own sake was avoided and the new-look Chongwe managed to retain its bona fides without surrendering to the gods of décor, opting for an understated practicality instead of over-the-top frippery. A potential sell-out to the vagaries of the luxury safari market was cleverly avoided.
Dalais eventually went on to form Time + Tide Africa and Chongwe River Camp became part of this extended family, marketed under the Time + Tide brand.
Chongwe then and now…
From 2001 to the present day, I have spent considerable time at Chongwe, researching stories, making documentaries, helping to manage the front of house on a relief basis and generally helping out where needed. It became an integral part of me and my life and a personal bolt hole to retreat to when life ganged up on me. The Liebenberg family became my second family, and together we navigated this thing called life. Along the way we weathered tragedy and triumph alike, like most families do.
We have lost Chris’s dad Boet, his mum Sue and wife, Juwayhir, along the way. Chongwe is where we remember them, where we can still hear their voices and the laughter we shared with them.
I fell in love with the Lower Zambezi on my first visit to it in 2000. It reminded me then of the wilds of the Okavango Delta and Linyanti regions of Botswana, with the added bonus of a mountain backdrop. Driving through the Lower Zambezi National Park in those days was jaw-dropping, moving through diverse biomes that ranged from Afro-montane thicket on the slopes of the mountains to open savannah and dense riparian forests.
Dissected by seasonal riverbeds and channels of the Zambezi, forming large islands and peninsulas in the process, one minute you’d be driving through pristine woodland and the next you’d find yourself in a vast wetland filled with oxbow lagoons…
Nothing has changed in terms of the park’s beauty in the intervening decades, although the spectre of greed has descended in the form of a planned open-cast copper mine just 15km above the river, in the western section of the park. The Zambian Government, like most African governments it has to be said, has surrendered to the apparently bottomless coffers offered by China, selling out natural resources quicker than you can say “Africa”.
Having a 24-hour mining operation a few kilometres down the road is bound to affect Chongwe River Camp and all of the tourism businesses in the Lower Zambezi, but its future is largely out of the hands of mere mortals and sits firmly in the realms of politics, with all of the hoopla and baggage that entails, accompanied by no small amount of corruption for good measure.
In 2019 I spent a few weeks at Chongwe investigating the mine story. It had not lost any of its magic and remained the same, precious place that took possession of my wanderlust-filled heart all those years ago. Then COVID hit and I couldn’t go anywhere, let alone Chongwe.
What’s in a name? Everything.
I eventually returned to Chongwe in November 2022 to celebrate my 60th birthday. Landing in the valley, I experienced the familiar sense of peace and calm that the place brings.
A few tears were silently shed on the short route from the airstrip to camp, for people lost, for the incredible memories forged here in this beautiful land. But as I arrived in camp and Flossie’s arms wrapped around me and my friends surrounded me with love and laughter all sadness disappeared. I was in Chongwe, and the birds, trees and river were all shouting their welcome. The place was unchanged. The people unchanged.
In March this year (2023) Chongwe moved into its next phase of life with a makeover that has filled it with vibrant colour. Perhaps it was time. Judging by the pictures, the new look seems great, but without having popped my bum on the new couches and chairs, eaten at the new tables or slept in the new-look tents, I can’t really say “yay” or “nay”!
In any event, one thing I am sure of… The Chongwe experience is still very much alive and kicking and centred around people, and its the same as it always was – relaxed, laid back, beautifully spontaneous, effortlessly professional but Fun, with a capital F. It is still the most beautiful place I have ever laid eyes on and still the place where I talk to God and hear God talk back. It’s a place where hope lives – hope for today, hope for a better future, hope that as a species we will see the damage we are doing before it is irreparable. If that’s not the epitome of a fantastic legacy, I don’t know what is.
Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE