High life meets wildlife at the River Club Hotel

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LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- The low-lying banana boat picked me up at a small dock and departed with the caution not to dangle a hand in the water.

The reason soon became apparent. The eyes and hide of a 10-foot crocodile surfaced several feet off the boat, then disappeared beneath the murky waters of the mighty Zambezi.

An hour later, the boat entered a wide stretch known as Atuleo Amanzi, or Quiet Waters, where David Livingstone drifted by in 1855 before discovering Victoria Falls.

High among the trees along the river bluff, portions of several bungalows could be seen on the Zambian side, facing Zimbabwe National Park and the sunset. The boat docked under the trees.

Steep steps led to the incongruously luxurious River Club Hotel. Home was one of 10 thatched chalets, accommodating up to 20 guests, with balconies hanging over the river on stilts, their backsides open to the river.

There was a swanky bedroom on the top level, where draped mosquito netting was an art form, framing an orchid presentation on the bed. An old-fashioned tub and shower were on the lower split level.

The front door opened toward a croquet lawn and an Edwardian home that is the hotels dining room, veranda, library and drawing room.

Visitors to Livingstone, the home of Victoria Falls, are afforded many ways to experience the falls. Photo by Skip KaltenheuserThis particular night, at his private home on the river bluff (a long nature-walk path from the hotel), the hotels proprietor was entertaining River Club guests who sat on makeshift bleachers.

The occasion was a rugby championship, brought in by satellite TV with mercurial reception, cursed by the owner as he fiddled with wires and paced like a panther.

Guests caught the owners enthusiasm as he redefined irrational exuberance every time England scored over Australia and his hounds took up the howl. The River Club chef, an Australian, was as combative until England emerged victorious. He was needled by his boss so mercilessly that guests wondered if a food taster would be a good idea. 

The game, and the relative comfort offered by the club, underscores the duality of African travel -- upper-crust exclusivity contrasting the elemental existence in much of Africa, which depends heavily on the tourism dollars of high-end travelers.

Travelers look to the wildness of Africa for many of the adventures they seek, for the feel of being someplace truly different. A premium is placed on the wildlife that much of Africa struggles to keep in its natural state.

The hotel often boards travelers acclimating to Africa after arriving in the region or decompressing from a package of safari trips elsewhere, from Namibias Skeleton Coast to Botswanas Okavango Delta. Such safari travelers usually arrive by small plane.

Its a mistake for consumers to try to piecemeal a trip. Go with tour operators who know the territory and can better and more reliably coordinate the soup with the nuts.

Rates at the River Club, which consists of a main lodge with a dining room, lounge, library, pool and 10 thatched chalets with sleeping accommodations, are seasonal and start from $730 per person from July to October.

For more information, call (011) 260-97 771-032.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to[email protected].

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