Shahida Yousuf says that while growing up in Zambia, every holiday was a safari. “We stayed at so many different lodges and camps. It was such a wonderful time and I just loved being out in the bush.”
Yousuf is at her home in Dubai Hills, but her mind — and her heart — are clearly in Africa. Or, more specifically, in Lolebezi, the new luxury lodge Yousuf and her husband recently opened on the banks of the Zambezi River in southern Zambia. While their successful business makes Dubai a convenient place to call home, this is a family with their roots in African soil.
It was the memory of those childhood holidays that sparked the family’s dream of owning their own safari lodge, and of finding a corner of Zambia where they could celebrate their African heritage while contributing to the economic upliftment of the country.
In 2019, the couple began searching for the perfect site. They wanted a place that would showcase Zambia’s remarkable natural beauty, and where they could build a lodge that would deliver the levels of luxury and service they had discovered in Dubai.
“The South Luangwa National Park is already well established, and we wanted to tap into an untouched wilderness; an area that didn’t already have any other notable lodges,” explains Yousuf.
The Lower Zambezi National Park fit the bill perfectly. Situated only an hour’s flight from the international airport at Lusaka, the park is renowned for its concentration of large game. There are only a handful of other lodges within the park boundary, ensuring a true wilderness experience, with the Zambezi offering an array of water-based safari adventures. Little wonder Time magazine recently included the Lower Zambezi National Park in its list of the World’s Greatest Places of 2022.
So when a five-hectare private concession with a kilometre of private river frontage became available, Yousuf flew out to take a look. “The moment we set foot on this site, there was just no looking back. It was perfect,” she recalls. “The area was untouched, there had never been anything in this area before. It was wild.”
Set on a promontory where the Zambezi splits into a quiet waterway dubbed the Discovery Channel, “it’s one of those game-changing sites in southern Africa”, says architect Jack Alexander from Fox Browne Creative, the highly respected South African studio brought in to develop, design and construct the lodge.
Lolebezi rests within a forest of winter thorn acacia, and the inspiration for the lodge’s design aesthetic came, literally, from the ground up. “On that first visit I picked up a seed pod and was just fascinated by the details and curves of it,” says Yousuf. “I loved the contours. I loved the shape. I realised, this is our story. I wanted this winter thorn pod to tell the story of Lolebezi.”
Today, that inspiration is the golden thread tying the lodge together, with the curled pods informing its circular architectural forms. This is most evident in the striking “circle of light”, a raised circular walkway framing the arrival at Lolebezi, transporting guests into the boughs of a winter thorn to soak up dramatic views of both the Zambezi and the forest.
From this central point, the lodge is spread out along the riverbanks, with gravel pathways linking spacious communal areas to the spa, fitness centre and eight expansive suites. Here, airy bedrooms and bathrooms open out on to spacious private terraces, complete with plunge pools and shaded salas overlooking the Zambezi.
Indoors, beautiful hand-printed bed throws reference the acacias, while organic textures are complemented by detailing celebrating Zambia’s heritage and culture. In the bathroom, copper shimmers above the striking bathroom vanities, in a nod to one of the country’s key exports, while the hand-stitched mosquito net encircling the bed is ringed with imfibinga beads, wooden discs and copper plates.
Throughout the lodge, there’s a celebration of local craftsmanship. Above the main lounge, a swirl of woven grass spanning four metres across comes from the artisans at local project Tribal Textiles, while a striking curtain of curled reeds framing the seating area was hand-stitched by local women.
It’s a space that is rooted in Africa but designed with an eye for global aesthetics. Unlike so many safari lodges, tired wilderness cliches have no place at Lolebezi.
“The result is a fresh take on luxury canvas and glass design, effortlessly combining sophistication and sustainability,” says Chris Browne, co-owner of Fox Browne Creative. The lodge fosters “a dramatic, authentic connection with the mighty Zambezi River and the African landscape”, he says.
Guests at Lolebezi will spend many happy hours making that connection. Activities here include game drives to seek out lions, leopards and elephants, and thrilling bush walks where you may stumble upon a pack of endangered wild dogs. Lolebezi is operated by the experienced team from African Bush Camps, meaning its highly skilled safari guides are some of the best in the business.
Yet, it was the water that truly enchanted me during my stay at Lolebezi. A flotilla of boats and skilled local river guides are on hand for everything from relaxed sunset cruises to exhilarating canoe safaris. Be sure to spend some time casting a line — battling the Zambezi’s razor-toothed tiger fish is a thrill you’ll not soon forget.
For while Lolebezi enchants with its luxurious suites and on-point service, it’s the wilderness of the Lower Zambezi that is the real star here. And who knows? Perhaps, like Yousuf, you’ll leave a little piece of your heart in Africa too.