Imbabala Lodge - a Zambezi "hidden gem"

Sally Wynn, Wild Zambezi • 7 April 2019

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I had previously visited the lovely Imbabala Lodge briefly in February 2013 (without overnighting) and had VERY favourable impressions.  I was therefore delighted to find this delightful safari lodge little changed in the intervening 6 years, apart from some soft-furnishing modernisation of the interiors, and the addition of the spa and the more expansive “honeymoon suite” at Lodge 9. 

Our stay at Imbabala reinforced all the good impressions that I had previously (and more).  This place is an unpretentious, traditional, old-style, intimate thatched safari lodge set in beautiful surroundings overlooking the Zambezi River.  It is an ideal “getaway” destination for families and small groups and is more affordable than many of the grander properties in Victoria Falls. It is simple and down-to-earth and that’s what I like about it.  And, because it is on its own concession, it offers magnificent wildlife and birding opportunities which are exclusive to its guests (no jostling with other operators for the best sightings).

The most significant change to the area (and to the view over the Zambezi from Imbabala) is the ongoing construction of the new bridge at Kazungula a few kilometres upstream from the camp at the “Four Corners” point where the boundaries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Nambia meet. 

While this has little direct impact on the lodge itself (it is too far away – you can only see it clearly through binoculars), it has become a feature of some interest for game drives and boat trips on the Zambezi.  Hopefully, once it is completed, it will divert most heavy haulage-truck traffic through Botswana instead of the Victoria Falls area.

Wild Horizons’ comfortable minibus road transfer to Imbabala from Victoria Falls doubles up with depositing and collecting cross-border visitors at the Kazungula borderpost.  A quick vehicle switch is conducted at lightening speed by the Wild Horizons staff, and before you know it, you are in the back of an open safari vehicle looking out for wildlife during the short 5-minute trip to the lodge. 

We were warmly greeted by camp managers Himal and Irene and their staff, and formalities, including a safety briefing were quickly and efficiently dealt with (the camp is unfenced and wildlife can wander through at any time). 

The camp is small - it accommodates a maximum of 20 people in 9 old-style thatched lodges extending on either side of a large, central living/dining/bar area. 

The rooms at Imbabala have a twin/double bedroom at the front with bathroom behind (one lodge is a 4-bed family unit).  Each has its own verandah (and hammock!)  They are nestled into the natural woodland facing onto a gently sloping lawn with magnificent specimen trees.  Lodges 1-5 have a lovely view down over a short strip of bushland to the Zambezi River, while the others are more secluded, with the Honeymoon Suite (No 9) at the end of the row. 

Thatched roofing is now out of vogue in modern safari-camp design.  Personally, I think this is a pity. Imbabala’s thatching is ingeniously designed to allow light and air into the lodges. In winter this provides a cosy warm feel, and in the heat of summer in the Zambezi Valley, it is wonderfully cool.  No energy-wasteful air-conditioning is required, the gentle ceiling fans at Imbabala are quite adequate  This, combined with solar-heated geysers contributes to the camp’s genuine low environmental footprint. 

The rooms are cleverly designed to maximise on space available.  Beds are comfortable with large “walk-in” mosquito nets.  There is a tea, coffee and water station (well done Imbabala for reducing waste by providing re-fillable drinking waterbottles) 

The bathrooms at the back are open-plan and surprisingly spacious and include cupboard space, a dressing area and a lockable safe for valuables.  Two of the lodges (including the Honeymoon suite) have baths and an outdoor shower area, while the rest have showers only.

Meals in summer are served al fresco under the magnificent trees in the centre of the lawn at Imbabala at a cleverly laid-out outdoor dining area next to the central swimming pool.  They are freshly prepared by the chef on site, and are simple and tasty. 

We found the staff friendly and attentive at all times.  In the colder months, the dining area in the main lodge becomes a focal point and the fire-pit deck is a central gathering point for teas and pre-dinner drinks.  (Don’t leave Imbabala without sampling their famous home-made Iced Tea – it’s the BEST I’ve ever tasted!)

The Imbabala concession fronts onto the Zambezi’s floodplains and along the Zimbabwean bank of the river and extends southwards through forested areas down the border with Botswana.  Activities at the camp include morning, evening and night-time game drives, pontoon boat cruises on the river, tiger fishing excursions and guided walking. 

Despite its proximity to an international border, the Imbabala concession is FULL of wildlife and it is renowned as a prime birding destination. Our game-drives and boat trip in the company of Imbabala’s wonderful guide, Stan, did not disappoint.  I was astonished at the numbers and variety of animals that we saw and how extraordinarily tolerant they are of the vehicle (or boat) and our presence. 

In our short two-night stay, we saw a huge herd of buffalo, plenty of elephant and giraffe, impala, zebra, warthog, waterbuck, kudu, wildebeest, jackal (black-backed and side-striped), spring hares, hippos, crocodiles, a green water snake and several water monitors.  The big cats eluded us (although we tracked fresh lion and leopard spoor), and we just missed a wonderful sighting of a pack of wild dogs that were spotted by another group from Imbabala on a night game-drive. 

Stan was the BEST of guides in every respect.   I was most impressed.  His initial safety talk before we departed was sensible and brief.  He shares his expertise quietly and calmly, with a twinkle in his eye and the odd bit of humour thrown in for fun. 

Stan’s long-term experience in the area and the extent of his knowledge of its flora and fauna is a wonderful asset to Imbabala.  He obviously has a natural curiosity and a profound and deep love of the African bush. 

I know that Imbabala is a very special birding destination – and Stan’s birding knowledge (and ability to spot things) was incredible.  My bird list for the trip included about 25 species which are not at all common and 5 that are “Specials” to the area and that I had never seen before (Coppery-tailed Coucal, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Red-billed Spurfowl, Yellow-billed Oxpecker and Whiskered Tern).  This was VERY exciting!

Imbabala is one of the Zambezi’s little “hidden gems” less publicised and, yes, less glamorous, than most modern safari lodge properties in the vicinity of Victoria Falls.  But this is a much-loved family-owned camp that has stood the test of time.  Its clients are often repeat visitors from all over the world, who loved it so much the first time, that they just have to come back.  I feel privileged to count myself among them.  And yes.  I’ll be back!

Click this link for more: Imbabala Safari Lodge

 

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