Victory Wallace in the co driver's seat, on a game drive.
Victory and David Wallace both grew up in the Midwest and southwest of the USA. They met on The Aranui, a working freighter out of Tahiti to the Marquises Islands and back. During the 3 week trip they fell in love and Victory followed David to San Diego from Hawaii. David studied geology and then pharmacy, (it was where the jobs were), and Victory worked in resorts for 13 years before going back to school to get her degree in nursing. They both love the outdoors, nature, animals, birds, and travel. They are both passionate about saving wildlife and the environment and both want to be a part of doing just that. During a trip to Southern African countries in 2005 they fell head over heels in love with Africa and decided to see what it would take to build and run a bush camp. It took more than they could imagine but wouldn’t do anything differently. They have one son, Demian, without who’s help there would not be a Zikomo Safari. They named the camp Zikomo, (thank you), because they feel thankful to live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
To find out more about Zikomo Safari Camp, visit the website here - www.zikomosafari.com
What made you want to buy and run a safari camp? How much experience had you prior to Zikomo in the tourism industry, whether safari or other?
My husband David and I have always loved to travel. When we traveled to Africa and went on our first safari we were sent to small bush camps where there were no more than 20 people and everything was comfortable but rustic and wild. We fell totally for the way we felt in the bush; alive and excited to just be there. I told David we should figure out a way that we could stay in Africa full time, not just come as tourists. He told me it sounded great, but really not very realistic. When we got home I started googling everything I could find about buying a camp and looked specifically at Botswana and Zambia, (our favorite places). It all looked like huge money and I put it on the back burner until we went on safari again. On that safari I started looking for land. I knew I wanted something far away from other camps. A place that was on the water and with lots of trees. Zikomo is all that and more. Everyone wanted that piece of land, but there was a HUGE reason why no one ever got it, let alone developed it. When we found out what we were up against we thought about leaving. I am so glad that I have such an amazing family. David and our son Demian chose to stay and fight for it with me and without them, there would be no Zikomo.
Before Zikomo I had worked in resorts for a number of years and then I went back to school, became a registered nurse and took care of people in a different way.
How does the reality of owning and running Zikomo live up to your original dreams?
I love being at the camp. There isn’t a day that I don’t look around and think about how lucky I am. It is much harder than I ever thought it would be. When I thought about having a camp I had this idea of a few bungalows with a couple of guides. Somehow it never occurred to me that it would be like running our own city. To run a camp in the bush you have to run a restaurant, a bar, a mechanics shop, a laundry, housekeeping, an office, a store, and then there are the guides and the airport pickups and drop offs, coupled with minor emergencies, and keeping track of it all. Once in awhile I even have to be the nurse. And then there is all the paperwork, licenses, permits, regulations, not to mention you have to become your own ad agency and market in a very competitive market! It’s a lot of work, but to live and breathe where elephants, lions, leopards, wild dogs, walk through…so worth it!
How long did negotiations for the land take and how were you accepted initially by local land owners?
That was a nightmare! We were given 3 different pieces of land and were dealing with a Zambian guide who was supposed to be working for us but instead was busy ripping us off. Each piece of land had some problem and when we finally got the land Zikomo is now on, we found out it had been ‘given’, (code for sold), 5 times. Each time the hunting camp 2 kilometers away drove the people off with one visit. We wouldn’t go. Our son was on the land when they came and warned him to leave. It took us 6 years of lawyers, court, fighting for it, to finally get the Title Deeds and a 99 year lease. How we got it is because of the stubbornness of my husband and son and the fact that we wanted to own a camp to be part of what kept wildlife safe. That was how we saw camps like ours. When we found out that elephants were being shot on the land we decided we could not walk away and live with ourselves.
What have been been the difficulties you’ve encountered and how have you overcome them?
The difficulties were that nobody wants someone new to come in. Other camps didn’t want us there. The hunters didn’t want us there. We had to battle on every front to stay. Now that we have proven ourselves to be people who don’t run away easy and who want the best for this area, many camps have started to be kind to us and even send business. It’s nice. But difficulties are part of being in Africa. Actually just part of being alive. There will always be difficulties and we will work through them.
What was the design brief for the camp and how arduous was the EIA process?
Since we are right on the Luangwa River, we wanted the main block to be in the middle of the camp and the chalets to all face the river and be on either side of the main block. It has worked out really nicely. We are lucky we have a floodplain on the front of much of the camp so it doesn’t wash away the way the cliffs do. The camp is spread out so there is a park like feeling to it. What was arduous about the EIA? All of it. There is so much red tape and every single part of the process is at another location. You can’t just go to one building and take care of things. You run to Lusaka for this license, then to Chipata for that, back to Mfuwe for this paper and on and on. Very time consuming and at every point there is the need for money, money and more money.
What are the camp’s eco credentials? For example, how is grey and black water treated, waste and rubbish disposed of? How is energy generated for the camp’s electrical supply and from where did you source the building materials used in the camps construction?
All the materials are local. We sourced lumber from the forestry department, bought local grass for the roofs, used sand, stone, palm, thatch, the camp is made African style with Mopani poles, porcupine thatch roofs, brown and red soil walls. Everything is purchased locally. We have solar batteries and panels and a generator for emergency. The electric lines were just too far away to consider at first and now we really like staying off the grid. We just keep buying more and topping up the solar. We have septic tanks designed Zambian style. Water tanks with a bore hole and since recycling is now starting to be available are trying to do that as much as possible. The paper and other burnable products we dig a pit as far from the camp as we can and dig it deep! All left over food, cardboard, biodegradable stuff is put in the compost and used in the garden. Even in the campground we ask the campers to keep their leftover food hidden away till the security guard picks it up in the morning otherwise, if they put it in the trash bins we will have the same baboon problems they have in Mfuwe. Once the baboons know they can get food somewhere they never leave and get more and more aggressive. We have a couple of wild baboon troupes but they just move through - they don’t stay.
How do you interact with local communities and how does it benefit them to have a tourism operator in their area?
We have been operating now for 2 and ½ seasons even though we have been on the land since 2007. It took so much money to fight the hunter and to build and stay. We really started out hand to mouth. It has been growing and people seem to really like the camp. I keep hearing that our camp is the kind of bush camp you look for but don’t think exists anymore, until you get to Zikomo. I like that. This year we started Nsefu Wildlife Conservation Foundation a nonprofit organization registered in Zambia and California to fight poaching and to help the community through community projects that will create jobs for locals and help fund scholarships for children in the Nsefu sector. We always wanted to have a nonprofit to give back and help. Helping to stop poaching isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a business one which all camps should think of. Without elephants, lions, why would anyone come? We have a responsibility to help save wildlife and make sure that the poaching stops! We are working with an amazing organization that is one of the best in the world at stopping poaching through cutting edge techniques. We will have an announcement about the program soon and I will tell you at Safaritalk exactly how it is done. Since it is now being discussed I can’t say more than this.
How many local Zambians work with you at Zikomo and what positions do they hold? Can you introduce a couple of them to us here, what their roles are and talk about their backgrounds?
We employ 25 people and they are all Zambians. The only white faces you see are ours. Zick Kolala, (a Zambian of course), is our manager and has been in tourism for quite awhile. He has done managing, working as a guide, and is game for anything. When he first came he actually quit a job that paid higher to come and work with us. He is one of the few Zambians I have ever met that think long term. He told me that it was okay if he lost money at first because he knew Zikomo was going to be the number one camp in South Luangwa one day and he planned to work with us his whole life. He is very keen on our nonprofit: on the board of the nonprofit in Zambia we have our family, our co-founder Coe Lewis from California and the rest are Zambians. We have a business in Zambia. If we can find Zambians who can do the job why would we outsource? Doesn’t make sense unless we couldn’t find anyone qualified, but we can and did.
Who are your guides and what is their previous experience in the safari industry? How many are from the local area?
We have two full time guides plus Zick who can fill in if needed. We are in the process of hiring one more. Masumba is the senior guide and he has a lot of experience working for Robin Pope safaris for a number of years and then he worked in North Luangwa and Lion Camp. Ephram is a protegy of Masumba's and although he has less experience, he has a great personality and takes learning very seriously. They are both local and so is the guide we are thinking of hiring.
In terms of wildlife, what was the Nsefu sector like when you first moved in compared to how it is now? To what factors do you attribute these changes?
When we first came to the land there were not many animals who stayed too close. Since our land was one of the worst poached areas and the hunting camp routinely hunted on it, elephants either charged or ran. Nothing came around. Now, it is very different. We had lions born at the camp last October and wild dogs denning across the river and playing on the riverbank. Elephants routinely come to the camp day and night. We have one big bull I call Billy who comes more and more frequently, to the point the dogs play with him. Funny thing when the elephants started coming they would always go to the outside gym and sniff this one area. We couldn’t figure out why it was their first stop until a worker told us that he had worked for the hunting camp before and the area by the gym was an old soak-a-way or drain. The hunting camp used to butcher animals in that space and drained the blood into the drain so they wouldn’t attract predators to their camp. The elephants were stopping there to see if the blood scent was old or fresh! Since there wasn’t any fresh blood, they would put their heads up, look at their family and lead them in.
There are so many more animals now. They feel safer. They don’t hear gun shots all the time and that is making a huge difference. Seven years of no hunting on the land and 2 odd years of us operating makes a huge difference.
What is the game density like in your area? What might a guest expect to see on a walk or drive? What would they consider themselves lucky to see, i.e., what are the rarities including birds that one might encounter?
Everything except cheetah, (the land is not conducive to them), rhino, (although one day soon we will bring them back!), and ostrich, (just isn’t here). There are prides of lions, frequent sightings of leopards, wild dogs, giraffes, zebras, eland, impala, hyena, hippo, crocs, kudu, puku, bush buck, Cape Buffalo, civet, honey badger, porcupine, bush babies, monkeys, baboons, snakes, wart hogs, and of course my favorite; elephants. You name it we have it. The only animals that you can’t guarantee are the night predators. Some people see lions every time they go out, day and night. Other people don’t see one in four days. You can’t book them. It is a matter of the right time, right place. There are over 450 species of birds in South Luangwa and there are so many to see it’s a wonder. Since we have so many big trees and fruiting trees we have an abundance of bird life.
Tell me about birding at Zikomo and the Nsefu sector. What is the best time for birding and what species are regularly seen? What about the Pel’s fishing owl, have guests been lucky enough to see any around camp?
Although I was not a birder before we had Zikomo I always loved birds. I have 2 African Grey parrots that I got as rescues in California, but I was not up on birds the way birders are. I have seen enough now to say I am fast becoming a birder. I love the different bee eaters and during the migration of thousands of Carmine bee eaters, (in late summer and fall), we get many thousands on the cliffs by the first chalet. Fish eagles, yellow crested cranes, it is truly a birders paradise. I will have to ask the guides about the Pel’s fishing owl.
What are you doing to help wildlife conservation aims in South Luangwa and how do you interact with conservation organisations and government authorities?
I already mentioned our new nonprofit and we plan on working with the existing conservation organizations in South Luangwa. The Nsefu sector is large and when there is a problem in Nsefu it takes too long for someone to come and help from Mfuwe, especially if they are already trying to help in another area 2 hours away! We don’t want to take anything away from anyone else, only add to it. We are also trying to work closely with ZAWA and include them in our conservation work.
What examples of poaching have you seen in your area of South Luangwa and how efficient are authorities in dealing with it?
Poaching is a horrible problem everywhere and we get enough sightings of different animals that have stumbled into snares and need help to have them removed coming over the radio to know it is a big problem. There are sometimes gun shots in the night and we know that it is poachers. That is another reason we started NWCF to stop poaching in Nsefu and everywhere else we can. I have been told at least 4 elephants are poached out of the park every month, but that is just what they know of. This greed which produces pain and suffering for the wildlife and then pain and suffering for humans as the money from poaching goes to support terrorism, there is a direct connection.
What is your relationship with other tourism stakeholders in South Luangwa?
We are developing good relationships with many different lodges and companies and we hope to continue making friends and alliances. If things we need are available locally we buy it locally. We try and support people we see doing good work like Tribal Textiles. Tribal Textiles is a wonderful company that has created so many jobs and makes the most beautiful textiles. We use a lot of their product at the camp and will soon start selling it at the gift shop.
How easy is it, as a family run and independent operator to attract guests and have exposure in what is I assume a competitive safari sector?
Starting off is very difficult. Many lodges have been around for many years. Some of them have names people recognize. People don’t realize that they have been sold and are no longer owned by the person who’s name is the reason they came. But all of that changes as people come and see what you do. We have return guests and we have only been open 2 and ½ seasons. We have people who come for a day and stay for 5. Every year we are more noticed and we have the best location I have ever seen in all the places we went on safari. We have great chefs, friendly staff, loads of wildlife, comfortable lodging, great guides, and all in all an amazing place. I think we will be very successful.
With regard to marketing Zikomo, how do you position yourself as a property and what is your target clientele? What is the break down by country/region of your visitors?
About the last thing we got to was marketing. After fighting to survive and stay we were really low on money by the time we opened. We had no money for marketing. That is now starting to change and we are positioning ourselves as an affordable bush camp. We try and work with people as we don’t think just the rich should be able to go on safari. We actually wanted to use a sliding scale but people aren’t all that honest if they think they can save a bit. It is amazing when you are new how many people want you to give them a discount. I usually ask them if they give discounts at their business and they look at me like I am crazy and don’t get the irony. This year we are going to Cape Town and Indaba travel shows. Next year we will hit a lot more of the shows. We are listed with Africa Geographic and Zambian Tourism but we are also trying to take advantage of social media marketing and asking travel agents and tour operators to stop by and see the camp. We get a lot of Dutch, German, people from the UK and some Americans, Spanish, Italians and lots of campers from South Africa. We are amazed at how people hear of us and how many people they send after they have stayed with us. Really a complement to have referrals.
Can one specify use of a private vehicle and if so, what is the daily cost? Further to this, what are your game drive vehicles and how is the seating arranged? What about equipment for photographers, i.e., lens mounts etc?
With advance notice people can get a private vehicle and it is about $300 per day. We try to never take more than 9 people in a game drive vehicle and usually less. We have one Land Cruiser that we keep the top off for photographers and are upgrading by buying 2 more Land Cruisers. We also have a Land Rover and a Hilux game viewer. The bush is really hard on vehicles. One is always in the market for another it seems. We would like to have mounts fixed for photographers in the future but do not have them now. We also plan on opening during rainy season this year or next and having a swamp cruiser that is already outfitted for cameras.
What in your opinion is an optimum stay at Zikomo and how would a visitor incorporate it into an extended Zambian itinerary? What activities would you cover during that time?
That depends so much on what type of visitor. For photographers, 10 days is probably not enough. For the average tourist, 4 days is a good amount of time to see some amazing places and wildlife. We are really lucky that our bush walks start right from the camp. We don’t have to drive somewhere and then start the walk. There are many great areas to go to, like the hot springs, different parts of South Luangwa National Park, the escarpment. Morning game drives are always wonderful but the late afternoon, early evening can be just as exciting. We have just started volunteer safaris where people can choose to spend one or two of their days doing anti-poaching patrols/bush walks with rangers to try and find the snares poachers leave that can so badly cripple or kill an animal as small as a civet or as big as the elephant. We are also working with the local elementary school who so appreciate any help with the kids since the teachers are overwhelmed by the number of students per teacher. Eventually we will have many more volunteer activities as Nsefu Wildlife takes on more community projects.
What is the future both for yourselves and Zikomo Safari Camp?
We plan on keeping Zikomo Safari for the rest of our lives and when we are gone putting it in trust so it will continue to be a small, wild, bush camp with just enough comfort for people to want to stay, but never so much civilization that they forget where they are!
We want Nsefu Wildlife Conservation Foundation, (NWCF), to co-exist with Zikomo helping the community with jobs and education, safeguarding the wildlife and keeping a good relationship with the people of Nsefu. Nsefu is the name of our sector and is the name for the eland and Zikomo means ‘thank you’ in Nyanja. We are thankful every day for what we have and that we can share it with other people is the best!
We would not have Zikomo Safari right now and would not have been able to start Nsefu Wildlife without some amazing people who jumped in, (without question), when we were floundering. My friend of 30 years, Tony Hunstiger who although he had never in his life dreamed of being a part of a safari camp, came to our rescue because he believed in what we were doing and today does as much as he can because it is now his dream too.
And the there is our friend and co-founder of Nsefu Wildlife, Coe Lewis, who is an animal advocate and a media personality in San Diego who has helped put our anti poaching project into warp speed by bringing in Dr. Tom Snitch who is one of the two top guys with the new drone projects which started with South Africa and is coming to Zambia. And of course Zick Kolala our manager who dreams big.
And my two rocks on which all this is built; my husband David and our son, Demian, without them Zikomo would be a dream stuck in my head! Demian came to Zambia to save the land and built Zikomo. He lived in a tent with no running water or any conveniences while he built the camp and fought our battles! David still works full time to support us, (until we can stand alone), and puts up with us being separated 7 months of the year while I help run the camp taking on the 14 rescue animals we have in California!
We are so blessed We want Zikomo to help make South Luangwa a true sanctuary for bird and wildlife and a great place for people to experience African safaris.
All photos courtesy and copyright Victoria Wallace/Zikomo Safari Camp.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.