Grant Cumings and his family, who pioneered safaris in Zambia's Lower Zambezi National Park, own and operate Chiawa Camp & Old Mondoro, reputed by those in the know to be one of Africa's finest safari operations with Best in Africa award winning hospitality and guiding. Grant is Zambian born and, aside from formal education, has spent much of his life exploring Zambia's wildernesses. He is an Honorary Wildlife Officer, a Trustee, board member and past Chairman of Conservation Lower Zambezi, and established the Lower Zambezi's safari guide training program, examinations and code of conduct.
You can discover more about Old Mondoro and Chiawa Camp at his website - www.chiawa.com
What is the history of your family in Zambia?
Long or short version? My Mum and Dad, (who thankfully are still with us), came to Northern Rhodesia as it was then in 1962 on their honeymoon from South Africa, fell for the place and never left. Dad was an international judoka and he fought as the Zambian champion all over the world for many years. He set up a successful transport business, though we went into the bush frequently as before getting married he lived for three years in Tanganyika working as a field geologist and these years effected him deeply, giving him his passion for the bush. I was educated privately, did a business degree in the US, and then returned to Zambia to not only work in the family business but with a view to establishing a safari operation, the bush also having become my first passion.
Your family own and manage both Chiawa and Old Mondoro Camps in the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia – what is the history of both camps?
Chiawa Camp: Rather than look to setting up a safari operation where others already were such as in the Kafue and Luangwa we wanted to be different and pioneer something special. Although the Lower Zambezi NP was a green mark on Zambia's map it was not managed, developed or visited as such. So after one of many fishing and camping trips exploring the area we applied to the National Parks service for permission to open the first tourism company in the Lower Zambezi NP. To cut a long story short we eventually obtained permission, opened a bush camp in 1989, (called it Chiawa Camp), at the prime site in the park and started better exploring the area. We found more animals than we expected but also found poachers so this problem had to be resolved and is what kick started our interest and activity in conservation. It took many years for us to clear out enough of the poachers to make the LZNP a viable tourism destination by which time other camps had followed us in but we are proud to say that Chiawa Camp is still very much the leader of the pack in the Lower Zambezi on all counts.
Old Mondoro: An opportunity presented itself when Tongabezi which had established Sausage Tree camp in 1996 handed back its lease for a second site which it had operated for a couple of years as Potato Bush camp, to the Zambia Wildlife Authority. By 2001 Jason Mott had gone into partnership with one of their clients who had bought Sausage Tree and we agreed to do a joint venture and develop a bush camp that would service both Chiawa Camp and Sausage Tree. One thing led to another and as Chiawa Camp was supplying most of the business to Old Mondoro, we bought out Jason's shares and Old Mondoro is now wholly owned and operated by us. Since then Old Mondoro's reputation has gone from strength to strength and is a perfect addition to any visit to the Lower Zambezi, most especially when combined with a visit at Chiawa Camp.
What are the differences between the two camps, in terms of quality of accomodation, guiding standards, location and the safari experience offered to your guests?
Chiawa Camp is very much the flagship safari camp of the Lower Zambezi. Sixteen beds, large tents with every feature you can think of, (except air con), an award winning guiding team, an amazing history, conservation connection and presence - and TLC galore for its lucky guests. Its location of being in the Lower Zambezi National Park and looking out at another National Park, ie Mana Pools NP makes it almost unique - you will have to look on the map to see what other camp holds the same privilege.
Old Mondoro is a bush camp with excellent standards of hosting, activity choice, accommodation, hygiene, meals and guiding. Its small size of eight beds makes it ideal to book out on an exclusive basis and is a more intimate, more connected with the bush safari experience than Chiawa.
The locations differ greatly, at Chiawa the habitat & vegetation is more varied, more interesting, with multiple eco zones being passed through on a walk or drive. The Zambezi is at its widest point, (for the Zambezi Valley), at Chiawa Camp and this is where the majority of the lions are. At Old Mondoro the habitat is less varied but more open, with plains and huge groves of winterthorn trees. The river is narrower at Old Mondoro though no less beautiful. Fewer lions but made up for with, (usually), multiple daily leopard sightings.
What is the ecological footprint of each camp and their eco credentials?
Too much to list in one paragraph here, I have pages and pages on our website - have a look at www.chiawa.com/conservation
However in a nutshell we focus on ensuring the LZNP remains a great place for safari afficianado's to visit - by this Chiawa Camp & Old Mondoro lead the way in the LZNP, (and in some cases in Africa), through considerate guiding with discrete approaches and viewing, (a disturbed sighting is a failed sighting), developing new protocols, (PDF website link),such as our two light system on night drives (a red filtered light is used for finding and viewing wildlife, and a diffuse filter is used for photography making for very much less invasive night drives), developing and lobbying for improved angling techniques, (PDF website link), so that the tigerfish can recover to previous numbers - unfortunately we are a very small minority, perhaps the sole operation in the entire Lower Zambezi, that is committed to more responsible practices - other camps don't care, don't want to know, couldn't be bothered but slowly slowly catch ye the monkey. Or so they say.
What are your favourite memories of the early days setting up operations in the Lower Zambezi National Park?
The sense of discovery, having this amazing wilderness area all to ourselves, the sense of achievement in opening the Lower Zambezi's first safari camp, the incredible tiger fishing, having our first anti-poaching and conservation successes - the interesting, fabulous people we have met, (and still meet), along this incredible journey.
What was the park like back then compared to now?
No airfields, no game viewing trails, just virgin bush and river. No one else was there, we had radios in our boats and vehicles to communicate with camp but there was no one else to talk to so although it was a fantastic privilege for us to have it to ourselves for the first four years it was also kind of lonely and we had to be utterly self reliant. There was a lot more poaching going on, and a mega-lion pride of over 42 individuals dominated the western side of the park - I think 48 cats was the biggest we remember it getting to - but this split up into three sub prides over the years as until then they had been feasting on poached ele carcasses. The reduction in poaching must have made meal times more difficult for them. We see more elephants now, in smaller family groups, and which are generally very relaxed - in the old days it was large herds of stressed elephants that would charge us en-masse! One of the down sides, aside from seeing a few other vehicles on activity, is the much deteriorated fishing - despite catch & release, fishing stresses and injures fish and too many boats fishing with outdated methods all year and without a care for the resource is wreaking havoc on the quality of the fishing experience.
What have been your most memorable experiences whilst guiding in the park?
Multiple experiences come to mind:
Watching a young male leopard one afternoon sitting on a branch above my vehicle devour a leopard cub from head to tail although this was a cub that had been dead sometime it was horrific but captivating. The video made it onto various tv shows
Watching a young buffalo caught in a shallow lagoon by a large crocodile, its bellowing got the attention of two hyenas that sat on either side of our game viewing vehicle watching with us, and then the hyenas took off and out of the long grass came a big male lion who then lay down next to our vehicle to watch and wait as the buff would bellow and pull, almost escape but not quite as at the last moment the croc would whip its tail around and whack the poor thing on the head. This went on for about an hour so we left the scene as it was - returned the next morning there was no croc, no buff, no lion, no hyena, nothing - as if the lagoon was deserted and had always been.
25 years and too many stories to repeat - come see for yourself.
What does living and working in one of Zambia’s wilderness areas mean to you? What are your own wildlife passions and what gives you most pleasure/satisfaction when guiding a client?
Zambia's wilderness areas are relatively unspoiled and are a pleasure and privilege to work in however they run the risk, at least the good, well known ones, of becoming over visited and over developed thanks to weak management planning & too many safari operators taking the short term view. My personal and professional challenge is to try protect the Lower Zambezi NP from this, to make it self sustaining on a high value, low volume basis, and ensure its beauty and wilderness aesthetic remain forever. Opening a client's, (we call them guests at Chiawa & Old Mondoro), eyes to a new experience, new information and having them genuinely appreciate it - having our guests see for themselves and appreciate the conservation steps we take to protect the Lower Zambezi - these circumstances give me the greatest pleasure when guiding a client. There is one exception to this however, I met my wife Lynsey, who came to Chiawa Camp nearly 20 years ago as a client; this has to be the best result I had from guiding a client/guest!
What is your client demographic, ie first time safari goer, someone with more experience etc? How can you appeal to a more general audience and how important is it that agents market you correctly?
Chiawa is 25 years old this year, and over time has learnt to tick a lot of important boxes consistently so it has quite a following! We get them all, from all over the world, all ages and all levels of experience. Chiawa Camp appeals to anyone who wants a top quality safari experience, with top guides, accommodation, activities and facilities without it being OTT. As such we have earned an enviable reputation for being at the top of our game - this comes with a price - the expectation is therefore very high and we have to deliver every time; additionally agents need to explain to their customers that despite Chiawa's stellar reputation this is not a fancy boutique hotel in the bush - we remain true to our roots in that we are an authentic safari camp, albeit a really good one.
What can a first time visitor to the Lower Zambezi National Park expect to experience, to see? What do you personally consider to be the park’s highlights?
Elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, hippo - the river and perhaps catch a tigerfish with a herd of elephants and a pod of hippos cheering you on whilst a croc will be lurking nearby trying to claim your prize, or you(!) - the escarpment; the variety of safari activities, (day and night drives, walks, canoeing, fishing, game viewing by boat), - fabulous scenery and wildlife in all kinds of circumstances make for memorable experiences and photos. You can see elephants and lions in lots of places but where else do you get to see elephants and lions from a canoe whilst having to dodge hippos and crocs at the same time?
How does a safari in the Lower Zambezi National Park differ from one of the more popular destinations, whether it be in Zambia or elsewhere?
Nowhere else offers the diversity of activities or the scenery, being able to enjoy wildlife and a river like that at the same time. However the Luangwa has amazing densities and the Kafue amazing variety of wildlife so they all need to be visited.
How do clients usually include either Old Mondoro and Chiawa camps into a more extensive Zambia itinerary? For instance, should one begin or end with you?
Old Mondoro and Chiawa Camp combine perfectly as they complement each other perfectly, as if they have been paired by a master chef! Plus we offer some amazing combo deals such as stay 7 and pay 5. Ideally start at Chiawa and end at Old Mondoro. As part of a master itinerary we recommend visiting the Lower Zambezi at the end of a safari purely because the river has so much additional benefit to offer.
What is the update to the ongoing story of Copper mining in the Lower Zambezi National Park and how worried are you that this project will eventually go ahead? What would be the impact on both Zambia and the Mana Pools side of the river?
Tough question as it's become unfortunately politically charged and now it's in Court so I don't know what I can or can't say without compromising myself. I am aware however of a scientifically based and well researched document that has been circulated which demonstrates that the proposed mine is not in Zambia's best interest.
Aside from the potential mining, what other threats are there to the wildlife in the park and how many cases of human vs wildlife conflict occur on the park’s peripheries? What can be done to negate such issues?
The Lower Zambezi NP has large buffers on either end of it thanks to the Chiawa & Rufunsa GMA's respectively so from a human wildlife conflict aspect, one has to look further afield where Conservation Lower Zambezi, of which I am a proud Trustee, Board member and founder member is working closely with communities to learn and mitigate. No real solutions are on the table however, at the end of the day too many people living and farming in elephant/hippo country results in loss - loss of crops, livelihoods, life, (human and wildlife). Within the park we monitor closely the state of the habitat and indicator species such as the predators and elephant however an in depth ecological study is long over due - we need a base line survey and some recommendations to take this park through the next 25 years.
How do you interact with ZAWA and other conservation and tourism stakeholders in assisting conservation efforts in the park?
This is generally a success story where Conservation Lower Zambezi, which gets its base funding and sustainability from the safari camps, and the Zambia Wildlife Authority coordinate and cooperate to ensure we get maximum conservation activity delivered where it counts for the resources available. CLZ has become a regional role model and where for instance its model is being replicated, (not always successfully), elsewhere, in Zambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique.
How can photographic safari tourism help protect Africa’s wilderness areas if the resources below ground trump what is overground?
Photographic could not protect a wilderness from a mega-below-ground find such as oil which might change the fortunes of a country but it should easily be able to stand on its own two feet when pitted against marginal mineral strikes, agriculture and, (in some areas), safari hunting.
What of Zambia’s marginal wildlife areas? How can photo tourism benefit not only conservation in such places but also the rural communities which exist close to or within?
Photo tourism destinations require some wow factor as the market is extremely competitive full of amazing places to visit. Marginal areas are unlikely in the short term to be able to benefit from photo tourism except if these were to be leased out on long term basis to corporates and individuals with the means and vision to rehabilitate them. These areas are only marginal because they have suffered at the hand of man but nature has amazing restorative powers if left alone. Such projects, and there are some excellent examples, require ample patience and cash. Alternatively well managed safari hunting can have a beneficial role to play in such areas.
How do you interact with local communities and what percentage of your staff come from villages bordering the park? What positions do they hold and what training and advancement do you offer?
The nearest village is 50kms from us so we do not interact very closely on a day to day basis except through our staff; at least 70% of our staff in camp are employed from the local area, most will have been hired on as general workers and the more skilled ones trained up into positions such as chefs, waiters and barmen, river guides and safari guides. We take training seriously and most especially chefs and guides receive annual training. We were the first and currently remain the only safari camp in the Lower Zambezi to employ women into the general ranks. Generally safari camps have female hosts and managers and these tend to come from Lusaka or from other countries however, unlike say Botswana and South Africa, due to cultural perceptions women were never hired to do general work in the safari camps. Chiawa Camp has women in laundry, housekeeping and waitering departments with more to follow in 2015. Perhaps our biggest success story is regarding Daniel Susiku who started working for me as a night watchman straight out of school about twelve years ago - he is now Chiawa Camp's head guide and activities manager, and his star is still rising.
If you were to go on safari as a guest yourself, what would be your expectations from both the property you stay at and the guide? What would be you criteria for choosing a destination, property and guide?
This varies widely depending on the personal requirements of each individual and which is why I feel booking through a reputable agent is so important - getting the right guests into the right camps is their primary role. Location, wildlife, guiding quality, camp quality, (including reliable and sufficient equipment - too many camps are under staffed and under equipped), and then of course a camp's commitment to the wildlife, habitat and local communities should be key.
What is your opinion on the whole ebola issue and how has it affected safari tourism in Zambia as a whole? What about your operation personally: what about next season, has there been a knock on effect and if so what are you doing to counter it? What message have you for readers possibly concerned about booking a safari for next year?
The Ebola issue is serious, no doubt, and it needs to be stopped in its tracks however it has been blown out of proportion by the press in that diarrhea and malaria tragically kill many multiples more people in Africa than Ebola. I guess Ebola makes a better story but unfortunately this has caused many cancellations and non-bookings with many travel agents saying this is worse than 9/11. Fortunately our bookings remain robust for next season but we are mindful that this could change quickly. I hope Ebola's spread stops, but if it does not and an outbreak was to be declared in Zambia with associated travel warnings, then we would refund any deposits received and guests could cancel without liability. We would rather refund some money in the unlikely event Ebola makes it way into the region than for guests not to book in case there might be an outbreak ...
Photos in this interview courtesy and copyright of Grant Cumings and camp photos copyright and care of www.squiver.com.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.