Wilderness Safaris’ Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls Lodges

Toka Leya CAMP comprises a dozen tented rooms, all facing the Zambezi River. Seen here is the camp’s pool deck.

Toka Leya CAMP comprises a dozen tented rooms, all facing the Zambezi River. Seen here is the camp’s pool deck.

For many travelers to Africa, the ultimate luxury is a combination of vast expanses of space, stellar personal service and unfettered access to unique experiences. On all three of these fronts, few properties in Africa can compete with Wilderness Safaris’ newly rebuilt Ruckomechi Camp. We were excited to be among the first to visit this remote lodge nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River in Northern Zimbabwe immediately after it opened in early June. Ruckomechi currently has 10 tents with the premium offerings being two deluxe family tents.
It is the only lodge in a private concession that borders lush, green Mana Pools. Another smaller, three-tent satellite camp, Little Ruckomechi, has also been launched.

Due to its remote location, the camp delivers intimate experiences with wildlife, especially elephants; one herd of which is so comfortable with the well-camouflaged luxury tents that they strolled along the river right in front of the dining room and then wandered through the middle of the camp as we nibbled on freshly baked ginger cookies and warm samosas. We’ve encountered few spots in the world where we have been greeted by a dozen roaming elephants.

Following the tea break we headed out for a safari drive to look for other wild animals (some of the highlights include zebra, buffalo, lion and hippo).

Special Activities

Unique activities are another hallmark here. Some of these include a night in a “star bed” set in the treetops (we weren’t brave enough to try it), walking safaris, and a multitude of water adventures that take advantage of the camp’s position on the Zambezi River (think fishing for tigerfish, bream and barbell (catfish); river cruises in a six-seat motor boat; and, our favorite, a canoe safari.)

Linkwasha (here and left) lies in a private concession bordering Hwange National Park. The nine-tented camp’s proximity to the Ngamo Plains makes it an ideal place for game viewing.Pictured: Linkwasha lies in a private concession bordering Hwange National Park. The nine-tented camp’s proximity to the Ngamo Plains makes it an ideal place for game viewing.

Our water trip was led by ranger Chris Saviery, an expert river guide, who had earlier spent a decade as a river specialist. The afternoon in the canoe comprised spottings of crocodiles and hippos, carmine bee-eaters that nest in holes on the riverbank and a few waves from the villagers on the Zambian side of the river. At the end of the sunset trip, a surprise sundowner (literally, a drink as the sun sets) was set up on the riverbank with lanterns and a campfire where the chef roasted chicken wings and popped popcorn while other staffers offered chilled wine and drinks.

Speaking of which, what is it about fresh air and wild settings that makes us so ravenous? Luckily the food at this remote camp is both abundant and delicious, starting in the early hours with toast prepared over an open fire, press pots of coffee made to order, and thick warm porridge or nut-filled granola before the morning game drive; it is followed by a mid-morning coffee-and-cookie safari break; a midday buffet brunch; high tea in late afternoon; drinks and snacks early evening in the bush; and a multicourse dinner at night. We’ll call it an eating safari and leave it at that.

Toka Leya staff takes guests on a trip to the Victoria Falls and provides raincoats to deal with the thick mist.Pictured: Toka Leya staff takes guests on a trip to the Victoria Falls and provides raincoats to deal with the thick mist.

The guestrooms are luxury tents with zippered walls and en-suite bathrooms that include double sinks (we hear they were originally meant for Wilderness’ premier property in Botswana, Mombo Camp, and we found them to be both spacious and comfortable). We loved the long leather couch and stylish touches such as glass beads that filled a bowl on the coffee table. Note: Due to the remote nature of the camp, there is only solar power, which means no heat or air conditioning and very limited power (there are, however, outlets to charge cameras and phones). It’s also quite dark in the camp after the sun sets and there is no Internet and no signal nearby.

Led by General Manager Eddie Mudzimu ([email protected]) and Co-Manager Michelle Kabwe ([email protected]), Ruckomechi prides itself on attentive service. Every time we arrived back at the camp in the afternoons, we were greeted with a warming sherry and a cool towel to wipe away the dust from the bush.

For any special requests, contact Mudzimu at least two weeks in advance; despite his remote location, he will implement anything from dishes for special diets (we sampled a perfect butternut squash soup one evening that replaced a dairy coconut soup served to the other guests at the camp) to preparing romantic turn downs or dinners for two in spots such as the star platform.

Linkwasha

For more modern style and amenities (including being back on the power grid — but not Internet) and a safari experience that focuses on the high grass of desert savannahs, combine a stay at Ruckomechi with Linkwasha Camp, Wilderness Safaris’ most stylish property in Zimbabwe. Opened in the spring of 2015 in a private concession bordering Hwange National Park, Linkwasha is a contemporary glass and blond-wood lodge with nine elegant tented rooms that have everything from new heat and air-conditioning units to hair dryers and stocked minibars. An infinity pool, sleek dining room, and large bar and lounge are all highlights of the main lodge making it feel like a chic boutique hotel in the middle of the African bush.

Although the modern architecture and attentive service are two top reasons to stay here, ultimately it’s the access to wildlife, especially predators such as lions, and the unparalleled guiding by the Zimbabwean rangers (known as some of the best in the business) that are the highlight of a visit. We’ve been on safari before, but this is the first time we’ve watched a pride of lions (five females and one majestic male, Xander) go through the predator-versus-prey ballet that finally ended in a kill. When the lions surprised us by bringing half-a-dozen chubby cubs, usually hidden away from prying eyes, to come drink at the pool and feed from the carcass, our ranger, of course, was able to get us in view as they ambled by.

Truly, this is why you go on safari.

Although these are officially tents, they come with wide double doors with locks, and more impressively, glass walls that overlook a waterhole just in front of the camp. We were able to watch elephants, impala and buffalo drinking while laying on our mosquito net-draped bed (the indoor / outdoor shower offered even more stunning views).

Note: The premium accommodation at Linkwasha is tent 6, called the “family suite.” It comprises two rooms, the first has a king bed and open bathroom with a freestanding bathtub. A wall separates the second space that has a fireplace, and large seating area, plus two single beds and a separate bathroom. It is not only the largest tent at the camp but also the only one that has a bathtub and a fireplace. Although it’s called “family,” it should be the choice for honeymooners as well as VIP clients.

We found that although staff is readily available to attend to guest needs, it is best to request services in writing. Joe Hanly is the general manager and contact for advisors and Avias Ncube is a wonder with all front of house requests. Both can be contacted at [email protected] For VIPs, private dinners can be arranged in several areas throughout the camp, including in the cozy winter lounge or in their rooms. (There’s no extra cost for this service.) Every evening during game drives, rangers stop for sundowners — request a VIP sundowner “Gin Stop” for guests with al fresco gin and tonics created from a range of African spirits, including Inverroche’s Amber and Inception varieties.

Toka Leya

For many travelers, an African safari isn’t complete without a visit to the rushing waters of Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Toka Leya Camp, just a quick 20-minute private flight (and another 30-minute car ride) from Linkwasha on the Zambia side of the Falls, provides a perfect post-safari perch to explore the thundering Falls — an easy mix of prime outdoor access and upscale amenities (including Wi-Fi).

A dozen airy tented rooms, all facing the Zambezi River, comprise the luxury property that spills across a prime stretch of river and nudges against Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. From the patio of the main dining area and bar, we could see hippos floating in the river as we drank excellent mojitos and nibbled on pre-dinner snacks of guacamole and chips at the open-air bar.

A late afternoon river cruise that departs from a sandy bank in front of the camp on a 10-seat speedboat also introduced us to crocodiles hidden along the riverbanks as well as colorful white-breasted bee-eaters and African skimmers. (We had a quick trip into camp on the boat as well).

The lodge offers a range of escorted trips that are part of the room rate. These include tours of Victoria Falls, where helpful Toka Leya staff provides raincoats to assist with the thick mist that simultaneously surround and soak visitors while creating a double rainbow across the sky (what a fantastic sight!).

Linkwasha lies in a private concession bordering Hwange National Park. The nine-tented camp’s proximity to the Ngamo Plains makes it an ideal place for game viewing.Pictured: Linkwasha lies in a private concession bordering Hwange National Park. The nine-tented camp’s proximity to the Ngamo Plains makes it an ideal place for game viewing.

For adrenaline seekers, Victoria Falls is an adventure paradise, where you can fling yourself in, over, and around the water by bungee jumping, white water rafting, “flipping” in glass-bottomed helicopters, or even microflighting (imagine a motorized hang glider and you get the picture). Toka Leya consults with guests upon arrival to coordinate all of these heart-thumping options (there are additional fees for these high-flying adventures).

Another must during a stay at Toka Leya is a trip to the adjacent Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to see some of the few remaining endangered white rhinos in Africa. Only eleven white rhinos can be found in all of Zambia, and nine of those live in the park here, guarded round-the-clock by armed personnel to protect them from poachers. We were able to walk to within a few yards, with guards both front and rear, of the gentle beasts grazing. It was a moment to remember.

For those simply looking to relax, Toka Leya is a perfect fit as well. A small, secluded spa offers Africology massages and facials in two rooms just a few feet from the river bank. Mercy Banda is the aesthetician to request.

Ruckomechi Camp delivers intimate experiences with wildlife, especially elephants.Pictured: Ruckomechi Camp delivers intimate experiences with wildlife, especially elephants.

A large pool and a workout room (to counter a bit of the “food safari”) occupy a lower deck and offer a relaxing spot to soak up the sun while watching the Zambezi flowing along.

Another relaxing activity is a back-of-house tour with plant-master John. He escorts guests through the garden nursery, and lets them plant a sapling of their choice and give it a name; the plant can be visited by the guest on their next trip.

Meals are special treats too, particularly lunch, which offers an extensive menu of local favorites (think South African bobotie, a type of curried shepherd’s pie, or locally caught fish), plus a menu of pizzas crafted in a large wood-burning fireplace — a showpiece of the outdoor dining room.

The 12 accommodations here are the ultimate in permanent tent luxury. These comprise sunken decks for river viewing, large plush beds, minifridges stocked with wine, beer and soft drinks, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and fabulous indoor / outdoor showers that lead to freestanding outdoor bathtubs with some of the best views in Africa. The views include the river, and the birds, antelope, and monkeys who make their home in the wooded concession where the property is located. (In the morning, we were woken up by monkeys using our tent as a trampoline — so much nicer than an alarm clock).

Note: Room No. 4 is a top choice for those with mobility issues; it has a flat entry and is closest to main lodge area (rooms are connected by a suspended wood boardwalk). Room No. 1 is ideal for VIPs as it is a spacious double-size family room, with a king bed and sitting area facing the views and the river, and a twin-bedded second bedroom in the back, separated by a large bathroom area. 

For VIPs, it is essential to coordinate with the lodge in advance to secure a private guide and vehicle that will accompany clients for the duration of their visit, including at the Falls, the white rhino safari, and river cruises (an extra fee but an important addition). For honeymooners and couples celebrating special events, the lodge will arrange for South African champagne upon arrival as well as a surprise dinner served either in their room or in a secluded location on the property. Romantic turndowns include rose petals, candles and bubble baths in the outdoor tub. There is no extra cost for this service, but be sure to request this, and other services in writing from General Manager Nic Moolman ([email protected]) directly.

Note: Wilderness Safaris will not allow client bookings until proof of international insurance is provided. World Nomads is a stellar choice that offers medical, trip interruption, and emergency evacuation services as part of a basic Level 1 plan (this policy covers safaris, but a Level 2 is required for microflights).

Advise guests to have small U.S. bills to tip luggage porters and drivers at Victoria Falls and for guides and staff at Zimbabwe lodges and Toka Leya. The cost of a visa to Zambia is now $50; the entry visa to Zimbabwe is $30; the exit visa for Zimbabwe (paid in Harare airport, but not at bush air strips) is $15. All need to be paid in cash in small bills ($20 and under).