Luxury and remoteness are no longer mutually exclusive in Zambia’s most visited national park. After an extended soft opening caused by COVID-19, the country’s most luxurious safari camp, Puku Ridge, is officially open and bringing game-changing amenities to the bush. For the first time in the history of South Luangwa National Park, visitors can keep cool with air conditioning, sip a cappuccino from a premium espresso machine, and stay connected with in-room Wi-Fi. “Hopefully what we’ve achieved is to attract the more adventurous American traveler without forgoing creature comforts and safety,” says Grant Cumings, owner of Chiawa Safaris and a native Zambian whose name carries serious weight in the safari business.
The eight-tent camp is a collaboration between the family owned and operated Chichele and Chiawa Safaris. Although it’s located within the remote 3,500-square-mile park, the property features something no other camps in the area have: electricity. Puku Ridge has it because its nearest neighbor is Chichele Presidential Lodge. Built as a retreat for Zambian royalty, Chichele has power lines supplied with hydro power. “We could rely on solar energy like in our other camps,” says Puku Ridge’s general manager Kayla Johnstone. “But why not take advantage of the power to provide guests with an experience they normally can’t have here?”
Puku Ridge also boasts the park’s only camp with a private star bed for each tent. Guests climb an outdoor staircase leading to the roof where an alfresco sleeping area, complete with mosquito netting, awaits. At other camps, guests have to reserve the property’s lone star bed in advance, go with an armed scout as it’s usually not on site, and use the bush as the bathroom.
Every tent at Puku Ridge has an en-suite with tub, double sinks, and indoor and outdoor showers. The most lavish water feature is the back deck’s private plunge pool overlooking a massive flood plain frequented by baboons, elephants, giraffes, lions, and puku — the impala’s furry cousin for which the resort is named. Much of this animal activity is the result of the Puku Ridge’s popular watering hole, which fronts the elevated open-air lobby and restaurant. But the best views of the thirsty herds come from the camouflaged viewing hide below.
Most camps have hides. However, they’re usually off site and guests can only visit them with an armed scout. In between their twice-baked triple cheese soufflé and garlic-coated rack of lamb courses, Puku Ridge guests can walk down a flight of stairs and find themselves eye-to-eye with a leopard cub lapping up water or a bull elephant taking a bath.
Puku Ridge’s resident animal expert is Andrew, a guide who doesn’t just know the lion in the distance is a male — he knows which male it is and from which pride. “If you don’t know the animal individually, you don’t know anything,” he says before explaining why South Luangwa is nicknamed The Valley of the Leopards. There is at least one leopard for every square kilometer stretch of the river.
Thanks to the pandemic, the park is quiet right now. Instead of a dozen Land Cruisers kicking up dust, guests might encounter one. Thanks to Puku Ridge’s custom-built Land Cruisers designed to maximize guest comfort, game drives are pleasant, even for the animals. Instead of using the traditional white spotlights on night drives, Puku Ridge uses a red spotlight which doesn’t stun the animals or affect their eyesight.
Since South Luangwa National Park is the birthplace of the walking safari, the property specializes in intimate animal encounters, too. Since they’re sleeping inside the park, Puku Ridge guests have the park to themselves during the lucrative early morning and evening hours. Most of the park’s visitors stay at camps located outside the park. Not having to drive to the park entrance every morning, wait in line, and be out by 8 p.m. is perhaps Puku Ridge’s greatest luxury.
Of course, all of this comes at a cost. Rates at Puku Ridge start at $730 per person per night and include transfers between camp and Mfuwe, game drives, walking safaris, national park/conservation fees, and meals and drinks. To experience Puku Ridge and its Lower Zambezi National Park sister property, Old Mondoro, on the same trip, book a combination package with The Luxury Safari Company. Five-night specials start at $7,000 and also cover chartered internal flights, boat trips, and canoe safaris.
The most comfortable way to get to Puku Ridge from the U.S. is to fly into Lusaka on Emirates via Dubai. Stay the night at Latitude 15, the capital city’s quirky luxury boutique hotel, and fly to Mfuwe the next day. As of October, all Americans visiting Zambia need a visa and a negative COVID-19 PCR test.
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