05 JUL 2019: As environmental consciousness rises around the world, more travellers are actively looking to support businesses who are doing their part to conserve the environment and uplift communities; and with poaching now at epidemic proportions, they want assurances that a percentage of what they pay for a safari is being put back into conservation.

Charles Nkhoma blows across the rim of his tin mug to cool the bush tea, a small wisp of steam caught in the dawn beam of sunlight. He puckers his lips when he sips, like a bushbuck from the water.

We stand beside his 4x4 safari vehicle, having an early morning brew. Before us is a hippo infested oxbow lagoon, which sources life from the Luangwa, one of southern Africa’s major rivers. Mopane tree forests surround us, many bent over to examine their reflections in the mirror still water. In the grasslands beyond lions roar their welcome to the day.

Charles speaks of his youth and what brought him to become a guide at the Bushcamp Company. At school in Mfuwe, the nearest village to the main gate of the South Luangwa National Park, he was a member of the school’s Wildlife Club. With biology and geography being his favourite subjects, his future was all but sealed and in 2005 he joined the wildlife industry.

“My conscience would not allow me to work for any other safari company,” says Charles. “They do such good work with the community; it would be wrong for me to even consider such a thing. How could I do this?” He looks into his mug, as if he would find the answer there.

In a world where skyscrapers tower above us, untouched landscapes are few and far between; and in an age where people are more digitally connected than ever, the need to disconnect has never been greater. The way people travel and why is constantly changing. Even the most remote destinations are adapting to the needs of the modern life. Travel trends and predictions come and go, yet there’s always the eternal need to switch off and get back to nature – which is why African safaris remain sought-after multi-generational travel activities.

Charles gives me the backstory to The Bushcamp Company, who have long believed in providing schools and assisting community development and affording job opportunities creating lasting and sustainable income.

The Bushcamp Company saw the community’s immediate needs and stepped in. They built new classrooms, refurbished old school buildings, constructed and filled libraries. They pay teachers’ salaries in community schools, send promising students to college and university and supply e-learning tablets. They have gender support programmes, make and distribute especially designed menstrual hygiene pads, and training and employing women to do craft work. All of this is undertaken by the Luangwa Conservation Community Fund, a charity created by The Bushcamp Company.

Tourism makes a difference
“None of this would be possible without tourism,” Charles explains. “One of the most important aspects of wildlife conservation is to have the support of the local communities by way of employment and community projects. When communities feel they’re benefiting from wildlife tourism, they’ll not be tempted by the quick buck offered by the crime syndicates that control much of the poaching.”

Most of the safari related businesses in Luangwa Valley contribute to the local economy by empowering and buying local produce and engaging in all manner of community and conservation projects.

“I’ve lost count as to how many boreholes Bushcamp’s have drilled for the villages,” he smiles broadly. “They pay school fees for students and offer jobs to school graduates. The children are taught about gardening in Home Economics, and in Nature Studies they learn about conservation.”

The Bushcamp Company also engage in green practices which includes vermiculture, recycling, and solar energy. They collaborate with the Zambian Carnivore Project which is supported by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative; and to help Conservation South Luangwa in their anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring efforts, they gifted them a light aircraft.

There is not a school or a village in the region that hasn’t benefited in some way from their annual US$400,000+ conservation and community work contribution. They’re not vocal about it either, preferring it to be done in the spirit of collaboration between the Bushcamps, local authorities, government departments and traditional leaders.

Starting young

Evans Graph, the deputy head at Chiwawatala Primary School, one of the oldest schools in the Mfuwe region, points at a chart on his office wall. It outlines the subjects taught and the number of pupils attending.

"Many of our pupils have progressed to becoming rangers for the National Parks Board, some even are guides for the private game lodges," he smiles broadly, proud to be delivering this good news.

We walk around the school, which is neat and spotlessly clean, then enter a maths class. Standing in unison the pupils acknowledge our presence, in English, then resume their lesson using tablets. "We're big on maths in this school," Evans explains. "We recently won a regional award on the subject. Our children are very bright."

There's a large school 'home economics' garden too and where the pupils grow vegetables. It’s similar to that of Mfuwe Day Secondary School, where senior staff member, Lesley Kalonga, shows me around. This secondary school is near equal in pupil numbers to the primary school with around 1200 students - 350 of which are boarders.

We walk past a couple of men stirring a large cauldron of maize. “This is the Meal-A-Day Programme in action,” says Lesley. “Our lodges make it possible for us to feed 2,500 students every day - across three local schools.” She considers this statement for a moment, then adds: “Not so long ago many of our children would walk more than six miles to class every day, do a whole day of lessons, then walk back home again – with no food. Now their tummies are full.”

She waves at the men cooking lunch and shares a joke. “And these men are paying for school fees in kind. If they are financially embarrassed and cannot pay for schooling, we ask that they can pay in kind - a bag of grain, or to cook the food.”

We take a quick look into the IT department with its haphazard collection of 15 computers, some of which work, then the art studio and the science lab.

Lesley explains the method she employs in creating a house-proud school. "Every Tuesday afternoon the pupils clean their classrooms, dust away cobwebs, clean windows, wipe down desks and mop floors. This is important so they know to be neat and tidy. Then they tend to the gardens directly outside their classrooms."

Leslie points at a small white building with broken windows and a smashed door which was once a grain storeroom. "Back when the elephants used to visit, they would look in through the window and see what is inside, then they would break in and steal our food.”

We continue onto the large vegetable garden which, at one time, used to be regularly visited by the very same grain thieves she spoke of. "Now we use a deterrent in the form of dried chillies and grease which is rubbed onto the fencing. The elephants don't like the smell of chillies and stay far away. So now our vegetable garden is safe."

It takes a village

The Bushcamp Company’s community work is endless. Other than what I’ve seen first-hand, they’ve also created a preschool, an annual calendar project, and have an ongoing tree planting scheme to help curb deforestation. They work with artisan jewellers who create jewellery using recycled snare wires and sponsor veterinarians who work in wildlife rescues and de-snaring.

On the way back to Kapamba Bushcamp, I ask to stop at the Baobab Ladies Craft Shop in Mfuwe, where I meet Leah Zulu and Elizabeth Mvula who handmake tribal cushion covers. After concluding our transaction, Leah tucks the bank notes I handed her into the left cup of her bodice. “Modern business methods are all very well,” she states, “but when it came to the safeguarding of money there are some places which are yet to be bettered.”

A little further along Charles introduce me to Mfuwe’s community gardeners: a group of men industriously tiling the soil growing fruit, vegetables and herbs for Bushcamps, who sponsor them with worm-farm compost, seeds and the necessary hand tools. What the gardeners produce is sold back to the lodge. This demonstrates that the communities rely on the lodges as much as the lodges rely on the community - the one could not operate without the other. People before profit.

Now, deep in the National Park, Charles tells me how immensely proud he is to work in the industry. “But this is not the end for me,” he announces. “I’m an ambitious man and want to study further, expanding my knowledge in wildlife management. Maybe one day I’ll be the head ranger.”

He stops the vehicle abruptly and climbs out. He studies the sand and the reads the landscape.

“This is a leopard - and he’s running very fast." With that he jumps back into the 4x4 and we speed off in pursuit of a leopard on the hunt.

The Bushcamp Company & their safari lodges

Gone are the days where a safari saw you embark on simple game drives, with stays in basic accommodations. Today, luxury safari lodges let you immerse yourself in every eco-inspired wildlife experience imaginable. Of the six lodges owned by The Bushcamps Company within the South Luangwa National Park, time allows me to visit just four:

Mfuwe Lodge, the company’s HQ, renowned for the elephants that march through the lobby Kapamba with its open fronted chalets Colonial themed Zungulila with a copper bath on the deck Chindeni, where you’ll catch your breath, and simultaneously have it taken away.

Accommodating no more than eight guests, each of the Bushcamps has its own distinct character, some are built of reed and thatch at the edge of a water hole, others stilted river treehouses, or stylish tents beside oxbow lagoons.

• Shaded beneath a canopy of ebony and mahogany trees is the multi-award winning Mfuwe Lodge, listed as one of National Geographic’s ‘Unique Lodges of the World’. Mfuwe is a collection of 18 thatched chalets, with private verandas, arranged around a magnificent thatched pavilion overlooking two lagoons. Combined with a dazzling display of wildlife, the allure is obvious and exquisite. In November the local elephants regularly wander through the lobby, making a bee-line, past the gift shop, directly to their favourite wild mango tree on the other side.

• Facing the tranquil Kapamba River, is the lavish Kapamba Bushcamp. This is the ultimate in bush indulgence, combining isolation with superb game-viewing. The central pavilion, shaded by matumi and sausage trees, has a wide deck with far reaching river views. There are just four spaciously cool thatched chalets that are bespoke in every way - and entirely open-fronted with wide verandas looking to the river. Watching elephant wading in the river can be quite an experience when you're lounging in your private stone plunge pool. Clever wrought-iron shutters are drawn each evening so that you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the African night without having unwanted visitors stroll into your room.

Led by some of the best guides in the business, walking safaris are the core of a Bushcamp safari experience, as are their game drives.

• On a quiet bend on the Kapama River is Zungulila Bushcamp, an authentic colonial safari experience, which embodies the essence of old Africa. Zungulila is in the least travelled area of the National Park, so it’s peaceful, untouched even. Its four luxury Meru-styled thatched tents, each with their own private bamboo veranda, have bathrooms you need to see to believe (think brass bathtub on the deck). The central pavilion overlooks expansive grassy plains where lions roam and natural springs attract huge herds of game.

• Perched on the edge of a large ox-bow lagoon and built on tall stilts, overlooking the Chindeni Hills, is the achingly beautiful Chindeni Buhcamp. Here style is personified in four lavishly vaulted canvas tents and where design aficionados have given a modern twist to traditional safari chic. Once you’ve caught your breath, take a walk onto the private veranda and watch nearby hippos chortle and elephants wallow. The same spectacular view of the serene lagoon and its inhabitants can be seen from the central lounge and dining area - a glorious expanse of varnished decking arranged on several levels around the surrounding branches of ebony trees.

www.bushcampcompany.com

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Cindy-Lou Dale

Cindy-Lou Dale is a professional editor, writer and photographer, specializing in high-end travel, luxury motoring and affluent lifestyles. She also writes compellingly of current affairs, African politics and introduces her readers to new-age philanthropy.

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