From the moment you step into Royal Chundu’s vast lounge/bar/reception area, opening out to the river, you’re surrounded by “class”.
From the oversized earth-toned sofas to the specially designed clay chandeliers to the mahogany bar adorned with tall silver vases to the Makishi masks on the wall, you know you’ve entered the epitome of good taste. Chundu’s posh suites, star-quality dining room and general pampering of its guests have a legacy to uphold.
“What we’ve tried to do is take all my grandmother’s magnificent standards in creating the lodge experiences,” says Tina Aponte, Kitchie O’Mahoney’s granddaughter, daughter of Hugh and Royal Chundu’s managing director. She speaks warmly of her “incredibly beautiful” grandmother - dark-haired with piercing blue eyes and “the essence of charm” - born Madeleine Armstrong on 29 March, 1917 in Kuala Lumpur, now Malaysia.
Kitchie - a name given her by her Malaysian ammah or nanny, meaning ‘little one’, which she wasn’t - grew up in County Dorset, England.
After she married Mike O’Mahoney in 1942 during the Second World War, her life was to radically change. Mike got a post as a surveying engineer in what was then still Northern Rhodesia, and the family - Mike, Kitchie and the first two of ultimately five children - moved to Fort Jameson, where they stayed until Mike was transferred with Rhodesian Railways to Livingstone, once Zambia’s capital and the jumping-off point for Victoria Falls.
“They didn’t even have a map of Northern Rhodesia when my grandfather went to Rhodesia House in Trafalgar Square,” Aponte says, “before he moved his family out. Intrepid!
“Kitchie embodied refinement in the extreme - regardless of the terrain.”
This refinement has left its touch on many aspects and activities at Royal Chundu. The Island Picnics, for instance.
“I’ve drawn from the anecdotes that my father has shared with us,” Aponte says, “of how my grandmother would picnic with them on the Zambezi. She would literally take her entire dinner service, full tablecloths and other proper linen to islands in the middle of the river and put on full lunches. She refused to lower her standards, ever.
“So now we offer our guests something similar,” Aponte continues. “Island picnics with fully made up tables, silverware, a full bar, Pimms Cups, Persian carpets, hammocks, the works!
“All as homage to my magnificent grandmother, who wore gloves, hats, stockings and a cardigan even in the sweltering heat of Africa. Graceful, elegant and charming and a lady to the bitter end.”
Kitchie died in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 1994, but other traces of her linger at the lodge. Such as the Bulawayo Club Hatch in every suite, enabling guests to receive their morning tea and coffee without opening the door in their pyjamas - a throwback to the clubs frequented by Kitchie and family in the 1950’s and sixties.
And the antique silver, a conspicuous feature at the lodge.
“My grandmother always served everything in silver,” Aponte says, “so I scoured antique stores and websites to find individual tea and coffee services for every room - each one is totally unique, individual, authentic.
“We still serve all chocolates at the end of our ‘silver-service’ meals in silver bon-bon dishes - exactly how she insisted when we used to dine with her as children.”
South African Lizell Nieuwoudt, 30, and her husband Werner make up the General Management couple at Royal Chundu, but she’s as much a mother as a manager. She’s the real mom of nine-month-old Elizabeth, but also ‘mother’ to many on the Royal Chundu staff and their children.
In charge of housekeeping and the curio shop, Lizell also always finds time to support others working at the lodge - whether it’s in their daily duties, computer literacy, Sunday school teaching or just a plain heart-to-heart talk.
“On a daily basis I need to make sure that the staff are happy, motivated, dressed in a full, clean uniform, and groomed,” Lizell says.
But there’s much more to it than that. Lizell has also had a hand, literally, in showing staff hospitality trainees in Lobster Ink, a programme of the Royal Chundu University, their way around Mac computers - particularly how to use the ‘mouse’. And, with the help of fellow staffers Christine Nvanachele Nyambe, Judith Nutena and Chef George Nalisa, she continues to lead Sunday school lessons once a month for staff children.
“At the first Sunday school lesson, I knew just how blessed I was when I saw one little girl, aged four, hiding her cooldrink under her dress,” Lizell says. “It made me realise how much I have to give - even if it’s only just a cooldrink and a loving heart.
“We started with 25 children, but now - a year later - it’s increased to 65,” she adds. “The children have just kept coming and coming. I still remember praying and saying, ‘I need help! I don’t have enough cooldrinks and popcorn for all these children.’
“And just like the story in the Bible, with the bread and the fish, the Lord provided.”
A former employee, with her husband, of the old Royal Chundu Zambezi River Lodge, Lizell has been at the reincarnated Royal Chundu for six years; it sounds like she never intends to leave.
When she’s not gently guiding staff or offering a supportive shoulder, Lizell loves to go tiger fishing with Werner on the river, taking in the technicolour sunsets. Or just reflecting on this place she calls home.
“It’s a great feeling looking back to where I started, with all the same staff, and to see how everyone has grown,” Lizell says. “We all were involved in the building of the new lodge, making it our home.
“We have shared difficult times, like losing a close friend and one of our best waiters, Frankie. On a happier note, we all helped planning and giving the best wedding to our Financial Director, Robert Ulrich - a great success.
“Working so close with each other, there is no other way to see everybody on our team: we are family. This beautiful river, stunning lodge, and the kindest, warmest Zambian people cannot be replaced by anything in the world.”
When you first meet Edith Mushekwa, the ‘mother’ of the traditional Mushekwa village just a short makoro ride downstream from the lodge, you immediately sense her strength and compassion. Edith, 55, cares for 26 orphans, aged 8-17, most of whom lost their parents to Aids. Edith’s five own children are grown now; she has seven grandchildren. But it seems the children in Edith’s life will just keep coming.
“It takes a village to raise a child”, the saying goes. Perhaps in Edith’s case, “it takes Edith to raise a village”.
If you’re a guest at Royal Chundu, you can take a tour of Mushekwa with this amazing woman - midwife and marriage counselor, among many other things, whose father founded the village (pop. now 320) in 1965.
She’ll show you her modest, immaculate mud and thatch house; her chickens in their roost; the mats and baskets she makes to support and educate the orphans; the community garden where she grows vegetables with other village women to sell to Royal Chundu - also to support the orphans - as well as feed the village; the manketi trees whose nuts they eat and grind for oil to use and sell; and a host of other plants this fishing and farming people - the Toka-Leya - rely on to survive.
“Even if you are poor you can survive on this nut,” Edith says on a recent village tour, holding up the small brown manketi nut. She peels it down to the inner layer, the inner nut, which is ground for oil. She eats the outer layer.
“We use these berries to make soap,” she says as we pass a bitterberry tree. “And in this community garden here, we women grow maize, eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage - we do it together.”
When she has a rare spare moment, Edith works in her own pepper garden; she’s also a devout churchgoer.
When, after the tour, you leave Edith waving on the riverbank, surrounded by children playing football or chasing down to the river to fish, you know you’ve left the village in good hands.
And as for being a good mother?
“You have to be patient, advise the community when need arises, and teach good works - as well as going to church,” says Edith.
Lizell’s verdict? “It takes a big heart, good communication, and a LOT of patience - and always stay strong!”
Kitchie isn’t here to share her philosophy on mothering. But certainly - in the words of English clergyman and poet George Herbert (1593-1633), words made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby - Kitchie would have taught, and inspired, her family by example: “Living well is the best revenge.”
For further information contact central reservations by Telephone on +27 (0) 87 7008310, or by email on [email protected] or visit the website on www.royalchundu.com