Tembo Plains in the Sapi Private Reserve, Zimbabwe. Rewilding the land of the elephants.

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Tembo, meaning elephant, reflects more than just a name honouring the animals on these protected plains. It speaks to the long and unique relationship and empathy that renowned Great Plains Conservation founders Dereck and Beverly Joubert have with elephants. An intimate conservation-driven camp, Tembo Plains is built by them into the thick riverine forest on the edge of the Zambezi River in the Sapi Private Reserve and draws on the pace and essence of elephants for atmosphere and inspiration. It is also the only Relais & Chateaux property in Zimbabwe.

As written for Amadi Travel and appears in Hamaji Magazine.

Great Plains Conservation, Rewilding the Sapi Private Reserve

This fragile landscape came into the Great Plains Conservation fold in 2016 as land that had been excessively hunted since 1957. Great Plains immediately put a stop to all hunting in the area, recognising the 118,000-hectare Sapi Concession as an important area on the Zambezi River, one that borders Mana Pools National Park. ReWilding Sapi was to become one of the largest – and most ambitious – wildlife relocations ever carried out in Africa. It demonstrates the regenerative power of nature to restore itself when given the opportunity.

Closing the hunting was the starting point and once that was done, they embarked on a ‘light footprint’. They developed basic infrastructure, roads, and communication systems; wildlife monitoring; anti-poaching; and started the reintroduction of thousands of species, from impala to buffalo, to wild dogs, lions and elephants sourced from overpopulated areas elsewhere in Zimbabwe. Great Plains teamed up with world-renowned experts for this, and in close partnership with Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), formulated a strategy for this unique piece of land.

Driven by Dereck and Beverly Joubert – award-winning filmmakers, photographers, conservationists, and National Geographic Explorers-at-Large, who have been observing, and championing wild places in Africa for over 30 years. In five years they have taken SAPI to a pristine photographic concession rich in relaxed wildlife.

This amazing wildlife sanctuary, along with the neighbouring Mana Pools National Park, now comprises over 337,000 hectares of prime protected wilderness. Collectively they form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the core of the Middle-Zambezi Biosphere Reserve. Beyond the regular sightings of elephants, wild dogs, lions and leopards around the camp area, buffalo and hippos are often seen up and down the river.

Specialities and rarely seen species include the Sharpes grysbok and Suni. The middle Zambezi is listed as an essential staging post for migratory birds, and an estimated 380 bird species recorded, making this an excellent option for birding safaris. Specialities include Shelly’s sunbird, Shelly’s francolin, rock pratincole, African skimmer, racket-tail roller, Arnott’s chat, white-breasted sunbird, broad-tailed paradise-whydah, and Pel’s fishing owl, amongst others.

Tembo Plains Camp, Sleeping Under Canvas

If you are after luxury, privacy and superb wildlife you’ll find it at Tembo Plains Camp. Lying on the banks of the Zambezi River, the camp is intimate with four double (or twin) suites, each with its own private indoor lounge area, outdoor swimming pool, exercise bikes on a wide veranda and outdoor dining area. Stunning, handmade baths and indoor and outdoor showers further enhance the experience. With photography an encouraging activity, each tent comes complete with a professional camera and lenses, plus high-quality binoculars for use during your stay. There’s Wi-Fi and a work area for catching up on business, or simply to back up your images each day. All these little touches add to the luxury Zimbabwe safari.

The beautiful and expansive Tembo Suite comprises two tented en-suite suites with a shared private lounge, dining area and swimming pool. Ideal for two couples, a family or a couple looking for complete privacy. In the camp’s central area there’s a wine cellar and interactive 5-star kitchen. The spa and curio shop is tucked behind beautifully weathered Zanzibar doors – which feature throughout. The design inspiration for Tembo Plains comes from the famous Zimbabwe Ruins, yet without losing the sense of adventure so alive when sleeping under canvas. Stone walls stacked on top of each other reflect the style of old kings’ fort, as do circular towers, columns and semi-circular hollows, all subtly referencing the history. 

Captivating the Essence of the Reserve, Activities on Offer

Time at Tembo Plains is spent unlocking the essence of the reserve and its story, with exploration by day and night game drives, bush walks, canoeing and boat trips on the Zambezi River. The canoe trips are particularly rewarding, bringing you close to the elephants as they come down to the water’s edge to drink. Game drives are taken in custom-built, Toyota Landcruisers specially designed with photography in mind. They have raised roofs, photographic bars, reference books, drinks and snacks – and allow you to cover greater distances for just reward. Otherwise, venture into the wild on foot. Visit the legendary Mtawatawa pan and learn more about this incredible ecosystem. The reserve has a large stillness of baobab trees, one of which is believed to be the final resting place of the personal paraphernalia of Chief Chikwenya including bows, arrows, and spears. The tree itself is estimated to be around twelve hundred years old and has decayed within, creating a huge hollow inside the bark walls – where more of the mystery seems to lie.

The Luxury of Letting Go, and Awakening Your Senses

As much as time in the reserve and its story will fuel your soul, the onsite spa is designed to further awaken your senses, while taking you on a deeply relaxing experience using locally sourced African plant extracts. Believing that wellbeing extends beyond the individual to the community, conservation, and the planet – the camp’s wellness concierge ensures this balance and that all wellness needs are met during your stay. Definitely try one (or two) of the Great Plains signature treatments.

Tembo Plains Camp is a space to breathe. It feels like the whole area, including the Sapi Private Reserve, is breathing again.

What we love about Tembo Plains Camp

  • In staying at Tembo Plains Camp you are supporting a greater, most essential conservation effort. There is a vast difference between doing something and doing nothing. Tembo Plains is a symbol of this choice and reminds us that doing something – such as making the right choice of safari camps – is keeping places like these alive.
  • The intimate theme of a deliberately small camp created by a passionate team who love where they are, what they do and who bring the area to life while having their hearts in the right place.
  • The exceptional Relais & Châteaux style of food, spoils and service in the heart of the bush.
  • Children older than 6 years are welcome and the camp’s Young Explorers Program has been thoughtfully designed to offer a range of experiences from birding to cooking and tracking wildlife with young in-camp guests.
  • The ‘must try’ delicious Tembo Tiple sundowner, created and perfectly poured at sunset using two tots of Great Plains’ signature ‘Ra Di Tau’ Gin (Father of Lions). Cheers, to the things that matter!

Getting there

Access is by light aircraft transfer from Zimbabwe’s Harare International Airport and Victoria Falls International Airport to the Sapi Private Reserve airstrip. Here you are met and transferred by road to Tembo Plains, the drive takes approximately 45 minutes and doubles as a game drive with wildlife almost always spotted along the way.

Booking Details

As recommended by AMADI, a conscious luxury travel brand that designs conservation focussed journeys for like-minded travellers across Africa. AMADI supports the ongoing work by Great Plains in protecting and rewilding areas such as the Sapi Private Reserve. A stay at Tembo Plains is well matched with Great Plains’ Mpala Jena Camp in the Zambezi National Park, upstream from Victoria Falls for that beach-bush combo. Connect with AMADI for additional information and for assistance with your travel arrangements.

Contact me for more details should you wish to visit or mail me.

** Read my other articles from AMADI travel as featured in Hamaji Magazine.

Hamaji Tembo Plains

Hamaji Tembo Plains

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