Zambia’s Custodians

Many properties across Africa and around the world use tourism to promote conservation, but for Sungani, conservation was its very foundation.

The industry has existed in this remote southern corner of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park since the 1950s. Though an extravagant 200-bed hotel was developed at the site on which Sungani now rests, the guests never came, and it rapidly fell into disrepair.

It was in 2019, that the Davy family visited the reserve. Having spent several lifetimes between them in the safari industry, the Davys were in a position to invest in their own business. Arriving at the now dilapidated ruins of the once-elegant hotel, they were captivated by the setting. A tranquil lake spanned out from the crumbling decking and as they stood on its remains gazing across the spectacular scenery, father, mother and youngest son Michael agreed that “this is it”.

An idyllic setting, the foundations in place and an untouched expanse of wilderness; it seemed perfect – but something was missing: the animals.

Though a property had existed here in the past, it had been many years since the region had had any residents, and during this time, in this remote region far from the reaches of rangers, poachers had decimated the population.

“Unfortunately there was a lot of illegal activity going on here,” says Michael, now the property’s head guide and operations manager, “so the area was quite heavily poached. I’ll be honest, we were very nervous at first.

“It was the wildlife; we didn’t see a lot in the beginning. We didn’t see any leopards, we’d see lions from time to time but very little else.”

The key difference in the family’s approach to development was that conservation came first and foremost, and for that reason the site was ideal. As Michael encapsulates it, “our objective is conservation, but tourism is the tool that we use to achieve that objective.”

Family Colour
The Davy family, at home at Sungani.

In fact, the very names chosen for the two properties that would be built were chosen specifically to reflect this ethos. Sungani is a derivative from the local Chichewa dialect meaning ‘custodian’ or ‘keeper’, while for its little sister camp, Kulandila was chosen as a Chichewa term of welcome – welcoming both guests and the returning wildlife.  

Construction began in earnest in mid-2019, but it was clear from the outset that this would be no ordinary project or, indeed, conventional safari lodge.

“What was so fun was it really was an adventure for us as a whole family,” Michael reflects. “We were camping a lot of the time and sitting down together around a metal camp table with a sketch pad and drawing out ideas and sketching and, you know, ‘how can we achieve this’, ‘what are we going to build’?

“I think we all brought very specific skills to the table.”

Each member of the Davy family would play a role in the development of Sungani and Kulandila. Father, Paul, was the mind behind construction, Michael would play a more hands-on role in structural development, as well as establishing a protected reserve. The mother-daughter team of Lynne and Jordan utilized their keen eye for design in the interiors and furnishings, while older brother Darryl offered a more objective perspective on regular visits from his home in the US.

What eventuated was not only an impeccable amalgamation of their talents, ideas and years spent in the industry, but also more than they could possibly wish for.

With their strong presence in the area, policing the network of trails they had established, the poachers rapidly diminished and retreated. Michael recounts the repopulation of wildlife: 

“As the months passed, and as our presence increased and we were spending more time in the bush, we started seeing a significant increase in animals.

“It has definitely surpassed our expectations in terms of how it has evolved, and what it could become. We’ve been very lucky, and now the wildlife sightings have improved dramatically. With the elephants starting to stick in the area we’re actually starting to see the habitat change.

“We’re seeing a lot of other creatures that we never saw in the beginning, things like Sharpe’s grysbok, jackal, roan antelope; and I think that’s because animals realize when they’re safe. That in turn makes the environment more conducive for other species to thrive. So it’s been a real privilege to watch the ecosystem look after itself.

“Now, five years in, when you drive around you see a lot of life but, you know, we definitely still have a long way to go and there’s always room for improvement.”

Having wildlife is, of course, a key component of any safari lodge, but what the Davys have developed reaches far beyond a comfortable place to rest your head between twice-daily game drives.

A 40-minute charter flight from Zambia’s international airport brings you to the private landing strip at Sungani, hewn from the forest on a hilltop plateau. Peering from the window of the four-seater Cessna as you approach, the distinct lack of development is tangible. Not a single hint of the touch of humankind is visible, and even the lodge itself, with its natural materials and earthy palette, intentionally blends in seamlessly with its surroundings.

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A short drive from the airfield meanders through the densely-forested undulating terrain to deliver you to the lakeside lodge, but even on arrival its marvel and elegance are obscured by the deliberately humble façade. Elevated boardwalks weave through dappled glades, connecting the main property to its seven outlying guest tents and large timbers elevate a sweeping canvas canopy above the communal and dining area. Stepping through its impressive entranceway, one is presented with an expansive open-air deck encompassed by sweeping views of a perennial lake, elephant, crocodile and hippo quiescently languishing in its refreshing waters while birdlife stalks its crop of fishes and snatches insects from its surface.

Though the infrastructure is attributed to Paul and Michael, Lynne and Jordan’s hand is evident in every aspect of the interior, a sensitive combination of old-world colonial and contemporary chic. Lush leather armchairs surround glass coffee tables brimming with informative books and natural curios found in the surrounding landscape; porcupine quills, hippos tusks, guinea fowl feathers and more.

With such vision, it would be all too easy to detach guests from the natural world in pursuit of urban luxury, but not so at Sungani. The breath of nature sweeps through the lodge, evident at every turn and erasing the segregation between inside and out. In the corner of the lounge area lies a small table, photos jostling for position, and across it a wooden walking stick. Testament to the family’s bush heritage, this once belonged to Michael’s grandfather who explored extensively throughout Africa, carving each chapter of his journey into the wooden cane as a perpetual diary of his travels.

Departing the lodge and traversing the boardwalks to the private tents, one is filled with a sense of purest escapism, the bustling world of traffic, wifi and commerce drifting from memory on the gentle breeze. A swimming pool lies just beyond the lodge, a small but superbly equipped gymnasium tucked into the trees a little further on, and each tent is intelligently spaced to induce absolute privacy. Entering through the heavy timber door, one is presented with a similar view of the stunning lake, as elephant investigate the bankside trees just beyond the private deck for lush foliage.

Though Sungani is abundantly luxurious, what rapidly becomes evident is the acute attention to detail given to every aspect of the property.

“An example is the space between the bed and the mosquito net,” Michael highlights, “so you don’t get out of bed at night and get tangled up in it; you actually get space to move around.

“My older brother in the States (Darryl), because he’s not here on the day-to-day, just always brings some brilliant ideas. For example, when you walk into the room, there is a little privacy wall where your tea and coffee gets dropped each morning as you’re lying in bed. You don’t even have to get out of bed: your tea and coffee is there, ‘good morning’, and then it’s left there and then you just go and collect it. So it’s a nice little bit of privacy, but you’re still getting that service.”

The soft furnishings are subtly branded, each power outlet has USB-charging ports, artwork and sculptures evoke a sense of place and culture, timber furniture, natural-fiber rugs and claw-footed bath are offset by the polished concrete floor, a writing portfolio and director’s chair await the penning of the next great African novel, and even the lighting in the darkest of nights is more than adequate yet wonderfully unobtrusive and subtle. Overhead, the rough canvas roof is obscured by a billowing wave of white cotton, and sumptuous towels and bathrobes await you as you emerge from the indulgent tub or rain-water shower, smelling divinely of the complimentary Sungani-branded, all-natural toiletries.

Secreted behind the four-poster bed, a small corridor contains a safe and an intelligently-designed open wardrobe area, invisible at all times, but conveniently accessible when required. Outside, a sunken plunge pool creates an aquatic connection to the lake beyond its rim, beckoning you in after a dusty game drive or for a sunrise dip.

It would be unfair to suggest that Sungani is unique in its features, with many premier lodges throughout Africa sharing similar, equally luxurious facilities, but it is in its subtleties that Sungani stands apart. The boundless depth of thought that has been ascribed to every nuance is evident, every consideration attentively accounted for, leaving nothing to be desired.

This is also true of the public areas. A library of books encompasses history, culture and the specific region and its wildlife, and a small boutique offers the finest safari wear and trinkets.

Cuisine is frequently exceptional on a luxury safari, but Sungani’s attentiveness to personal preferences and dietary requirements is exemplary. The menu isn’t merely adapted to suit; the talented chef researches and creates a menu specific to each client, while the morning buffet is apportioned according to culinary necessities. The variety of dishes and influences is also unparalleled, and even afternoon snacks and treats are handmade daily in house, such as dairy-free frozen berry ice creams and plant-based cinnamon rolls.

Kundalila mimics the larger Sungani in many ways, embodying the same excellence in luxury and facilities. Where it differs is in its setting and inspiration. Nestled on the wooded banks of the Luangwa River, Kundalila – about two and a half miles (4km) from its big sister – has an atmosphere of a wilderness tented camp with a certain Baroque twist. Guests reach their tents through the forest glade along brushed sand pathways and enjoy sundowners around the firepit with their feet on the grassy riverbank. Though semi-permanent, closed throughout the emerald season due to the rise in water levels, Kundalila gives the impression of being fully demountable without relinquishing any of the indulgent and luxurious features of Sungani. 

Here, too, the design is impeccable, reflecting the russets, coppers and terracottas of its environment, rather than Sungani’s khaki and earth tones.

All of this accumulates into a property amongst the very finest in Zambia and throughout Africa, an individuality instilled in every aspect. Where Sungani stands amongst the few is in its hospitality. Again, that isn’t to suggest that other lodges are less hospitable or the staff not equally as attentive, but as a family-owned, managed and attended property, each guest is greeted by its founders and privy to the inspiration and passion behind the veil.

“There’s a lot of emotion behind it,” shares Michael. “We are very invested. It’s a family-run business; if you contact someone here, you’re going to get hold of someone in the family, and we feel that, with us having designed the lodge and the interiors, done everything ourselves, you can really feel that when you arrive. It’s got little quirks that really make it feel like a family-run business. It embodies what we like to call quiet luxury, so everything from an amazing bed, hot showers with good water pressure, incredible food, you know, these are all things that are your base levels of luxury, and that we have then grown from.

“What’s quite amazing is that any guests coming now really are part of the beginning of what we believe is going to be a truly incredible story to tell one day. It’s been an amazing adventure so far, and we are so looking forward to sharing the rest of it with our guests.”

In many ways, Sungani follows the path of a premier safari lodge, or perhaps more correctly, walks adjacent to it. It incorporates every aspect that one might expect to find in a superior African wilderness property. But it does so with its own personality, inspired, crafted and nurtured by a family who, as it is abundantly evident, are supremely passionate about providing the finest safari experience achievable with a heart that remains firmly entrenched in the conservation of this spectacular region.

There is no denying that a stay at Sungani is wonderfully lavish, yet with an understated elegance – a ‘quiet luxury’, as Michael describes it. However, just as in the first moments the family visited the reserve, there is also something intangible, part sensory, part emotional, that makes one fall in love with Sungani and, at regretful departure and a return to the real world, gently whispering the words, “take me back to Sungani”.

Read about our spectacular Sungani experience and our journey through Zambia in our recent blogs:

Images & Videos: ©Sungani