Abercrombie & Kent Tour of Zambia Review
I recently embarked on my second safari tour in Africa with Abercrombie & Kent, a Luxist Awards' nominee for Best Family Winter Vacation as well as Best Adventure Getaway. The safari took me through three of the Sanctuary Retreats camps in Zambia, as well as a night at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. My tour was custom-made, so you won't find the exact same one online for booking, but you can arrange a trip just like mine or with additional features if you'd like to. This article will take you through where we (myself, another journalist and a PR representative) went and what we did, what to expect and what to bring on a trip through Mr. Kent himself's favorite destination: Zambia.
Our tour began with a series of flights. Surprisingly, we were scheduled on an indirect route, flying from New York to Heathrow, then down to Johannesburg, then to Lusaka and then, finally, to our final destination in Zambia. It was a 41-hour ordeal. When you book through Abercrombie & Kent, you will have the option of finding flights and airfare yourself. Many choose to do this so they can control the airline and use their miles for upgrades, etc., but I would add that you'll also have complete control over your route and how long your journey will take. A representative of A&K told me that the usual flight route to Zambia is straight to Lusaka via Heathrow. If you arrange the flights yourself, you could try another option, like New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways.
Regardless, as a fellow journalist once told me as we waited to board a delayed flight to Barbados for the third time, "once you get there, it doesn't matter how you got there."
The same was true of Zambia. We arrived at South Luangwa National Park at sunset and excitedly photographed our first game: a sole, poorly lit giraffe. We couldn't have been more captivated by his beauty and sense of calm. The drivers were patient with us as we snapped away, taking tens of entirely unusable pictures. Then, we drove through a river to reach Sanctuary Retreats Puku Ridge.
When we arrived at Sanctuary Retreats Puku Ridge, we were greeted with hand towels and refreshing non-alcoholic cocktails. The camp is set beautifully into a hillside with an amazing view of an open expanse of Zambian plain, and each luxury tent features a balcony and an outdoor shower so you can enjoy the view and the game-watching virtually all the time. We went over the rules of the small, seven-tent camp with the husband-and-wife management team, which included not walking alone at night and what to do if you hear someone blowing their tent's safety whistle (you turn out your tent lights -- unless you're the one blowing the whistle, in which case you turn all your lights on; that way they can see which tent is having the emergency). Then, we were excused for much-needed showers (the luxuriously furnished tents feature modern plumbing) and reconvened for a lovely dinner. We could see a white tailed mongoose and a few zebras grazing on the plain just below the balcony upon which we ate. It was a divine first evening and an accurate preview of the rest of the journey.
In the morning, we were woken by our personal butlers with coffee or tea (which we were asked to specify the night before) bright and early for a game drive. In the park, we saw countless animals -- puku, impala, hyenas, hippos, zebras, elephants, lions and more giraffes. We also opted for an hour-and-a-half walking tour, which entailed walking around the park with an armed guard examining the flora and the animal tracks. It was Africa from a puku's-eye-view, and we learned more on that walk than probably any other hour-and-a-half of the entire trip. Many people skip the walking tour in the hopes of glimpsing more big game (it's far more likely you'll run into a lion in your safari vehicle ... and that's a good thing), but I would highly recommend taking it.
We returned to the camp for a lovely lunch, then headed out for another game drive in the afternoon. At sundown, we were served our first "sundowners;" cocktails traditionally imbibed on safari as the sun sets. After sundowners, we headed back out in our safari vehicles to do some "spotlighting." On this part of the drive, an additional man rode along and shone a spotlight back and forth across the plains so we could see the nocturnal creatures. We managed to see a leopard, some hippos and, of course, more lovely giraffes.
A couple things to know: people in light-colored clothing had the best time, as dark clothing attracts tsetse flies. It is recommended that you wear sunscreen, of course, but you should also wear bug spray, which is mercifully provided at all the camps we visited. Also, though there's a mosquito net for when you sleep, don't forget to take your malaria pills; get used to taking them at the right time of day immediately and tell everyone what time of day you've chosen so that they can help remind you.
Another thing to take note of: tipping. While your porter and dining tips are included in the price of your Abercrombie & Kent trip, as with other trips, you'll be responsible for tipping your guides, trackers, drivers and housekeeping. This is a tricky thing to justify; on the one hand, it seems irresponsible for A&K to ask all their guests to carry hundreds of dollars in cash (is that safe?), but on the other hand, the promise of a tip helps to ensure that guides and drivers do a good job. On the whole, tipping seemed to be an uncomfortable situation for guests as, even with guidelines, one's never sure how much to tip and whether they're giving a "good tip" or the bare minimum. Keep this cost in mind while booking your trip and bring cash (US dollars is fine); ATMs are a little out of the way!
After Puku Ridge, we headed to Sanctuary Zambezi Kulefu Camp, a camp on the mighty Zambezi River. On the way to the airport, we stopped at Tribal Textiles, a shop where local artisans can sell their wares. The products are nice, but be aware that you can get some of them for a much lower price in a market where bargaining is encouraged, like right outside of Victoria Falls (if you're heading there). Still, the money goes to support local people, so if you like something, go ahead and buy it.
We took a Proflight Zambia flight to our next destination. Abercrombie & Kent's guidelines specify certain weights for luggage and carry-ons and certain types of bags for these flights, but we saw those rules all but ignored for our entire journey. People had all kinds of suitcases, and when the luggage was weighed (at least we think they were weighing it), they weighed all of ours together -- and certainly never laid a hand on our carry-ons. If the airline specifies those rules and chooses to ignore them, that's certainly not A&K's fault -- and of course they have to inform you of the airline's guidelines to be safe, but be aware that there may be a great deal of leeway on the luggage allowances and don't stress out too much about it. Do take heed of their note that you will be asked to pay $8 cash anytime you fly anywhere in Zambia. That is an annoyance. It would be great if A&K arranged to include that in the price of the trip. A representative met us at each airport to see that we waited in the right place and got to our planes, and I see no reason that that representative couldn't also be in charge of paying the $8 fees to save guests the hassle.
Sanctuary Zambezi Kulefu Camp features seven beautifully furnished tents on the bank of the Zambezi River. The location makes it an ideal stomping and chomping ground for local animals, particularly the hippos and baboons. At night, we could hear them all around our rooms, especially in the early morning when the generator shut down. This happens regularly at Kulefu from about 3:30 to 5:00 AM and the lack of fans make everything very hot and very loud. The Egyptian geese call constantly, and at some points I was sure I heard someone blowing their whistle -- but that must have been just another type of bird.
Because Kulefu is on the water, more activities are available, such as fishing (cruelty-free, so you'll have to throw everything back), boating and canoeing, as well as game drives where we saw waterbucks, buffalo and other game we hadn't seen yet. The bird watching at Kulefu is also exceptional.
Similar activities were also available at our final camp, Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, a treehouse hotel just outside of Livingstone, also on the Zambezi River, where we stayed for two nights. Additional benefits at Sussi & Chuma include a fabulous masseuse (I went for a 15-minute foot massage and oh my, 15 minutes well spent), a nearby island where we were served lunch one day (photos here), a nearby village which permits visitors to tour (Nakatindi -- read more here), and a close proximity to Victoria Falls, the famous Livingstone waterfalls with the permanent rainbow. An excursion to Victoria Falls costs a little extra, as do additional features like bungee jumping, white water rafting, elephant rides and helicopter tours -- all of which you can do from Sussi & Chuma. If you visit the falls, bring some cash -- there is a market with great souvenirs right outside.
After we said our sad goodbyes to the enchanting treehouse hotel, we headed to Johannesburg for one night at The Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas & Spa. After five nights in the bush, we were initially dreading the return to city life, but the lavish hotel which has hosted everyone from Oprah to Shakira proved a comfortable way to make the transition. Our A&K guide to Johannesburg was an interesting character. We quickly realized she had a standard path through the city and had to be pretty tough to get her to deviate so that we could see what we wanted to see on our one day in town. It all worked out and she brought us to an amazing shop we could never have found on our own called Art Africa. The purple jacaranda trees in Johannesburg were in full bloom and we had a lovely day touring, then relaxing at The Saxon Hotel.
That night, it was back to Heathrow and the USA for us. To sum up, I would say that the trip was exceptional, and one of the most thrilling I've ever taken. Zambia is home to an amazing array of animals and the scenery of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River, especially at Kulefu, makes it feel uniquely exotic and wonderfully wild. I can see why Mr. Kent likes it so much. While I loved each individual camp and hotel we visited, I wouldn't recommend going to just one. Traveling around is part of what makes a safari feel like a safari. Furthermore, I would say that staying a night in an African city before flying back to our normal lives made the transition to home a good bit smoother -- though when we woke in Heathrow, I think we were all wondering if we dreamed the whole magnificent thing.
Abercombie & Kent did an excellent job on the whole, and though I think they could stand to streamline the cash flow so that guests don't have to bring so much cash and get their wallets out quite so often, we always felt safe, we always had someone telling us where we needed to be and when, and we definitely had a safari experience we couldn't have begun to put together ourselves. Abercrombie & Kent took care of all the details and had us sailing smoothly through four hotels and about a dozen flights. All we did was ride along with our mouths agape. It was an elegantly crafted tour.
A trip like ours, including a private excursion through Sanctuary camps for five nights and a night in Johannesburg starts at about $7,585 per person and is inclusive of meals, drinks (including local wine and beer and house spirits) and transportation (but not getting there and back). To book a similar journey into Zambia or another exciting destination of your choosing, visit AbercrombieKent.com.
My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.