Spurwing Island in Kariba: a relaxed bush escape in Zimbabwe for all the family

lonely planet kids pathfinders bloggerThis article was featured on Lonely Planet Pathfinders: top family travel posts.

I wrote this article because there are many readers in the UK (and elsewhere) who would love to visit the Zimbabwean bush, but perhaps have very young families and aren’t sure of the logistics of balancing the wilderness with a wild-child. I recently stayed at Spurwing Island in Kariba with my family, and found that it is possible to do both.Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Game Drive

I’m looking out over an expanse of water that is such a mesmerizing shade of blue I can’t stop staring. Beyond the sapphire hues, beguiling shadows creep down a mountain range encircling the lake. It is as if the sinewy mountains are protecting us from the world beyond; encircling us in this place of splendour. My gaze is broken by a creature emerging from the shadows, advancing towards the shoreline. It puts its trunk into the water and tips its head back to spray the contents into its mouth. A contented low rumble comes from its throat and echoes across the water. This is elephant territory, and I never want to leave.

Spurwing Island Zimbabwe Kariba Game Drive

I’d been yearning to be in the African wilderness for a long time. Living in the UK with my husband and our toddler son, my thoughts are often in Zimbabwe, where I grew up. We try to visit every year, but since having a child, it has become trickier to extend our holidays to ‘the bush’, as Zimbos call it. Whilst I love exploring the capital of Harare, with its child-friendly lifestyle and array of outdoor eateries, there is always a hankering to go somewhere truly wild. But how to go to the bush with a toddler who is still too young to understand the dangers of wild animals? A two-year-old wandering around a campsite, with almost zero previous experience of animals, would make easy prey for a lion, hyena, or leopard, and wouldn’t understand the silence needed in the presence of elephant or buffalo.

With this in mind, I had a number of criteria when looking for a bush lodge for this part of our holiday. The lodge had to be accessible from Harare (which would be our base during our Zimbabwe trip). The lodge had to be affordable in price, especially as we were going with a number of family members. I liked the idea of the bush getaway being a treat for all of us, so I wasn’t drawn to the idea of cooking in a self-catering lodge. Most importantly, I wanted to be close to truly wild animals, and to get that feeling of escape that comes from the bush, without worrying that my child’s safety was at risk from wild animals (and vice versa). Mana Pools is just a little too untamed for this stage of life. Yet I wanted to introduce our son to these creatures safely, and to show them how special they are. I was tempted by a houseboat holiday, but preferred a land-based venue that gives plenty of space to run around and first-hand experience of the natural surroundings.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Family

This led my search to Lake Kariba/Matusadona National Park and to Spurwing Island. I’d been to the island once before, about twenty years ago, and remembered that I had enjoyed the trip immensely. Because the island is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel for most of the year, certain animals such as lions, leopards and hyenas can’t easily access it. This means that some of the more dangerous animals don’t usually live there − but you have a good chance of seeing them on game drives because they are still extremely close. Other wildlife does live on the island, including elephant, jackal, hippo, crocodile, serval, genet and much more. A walled bank deters animals like hippos and elephants from climbing into the residential area, and enclosed cabins stop them from entering the rooms themselves.

Map Spurwing Kariba Zimbabwe

Decision made. Soon we were flying from the UK to Harare. After some time in the capital, we went onwards to Kariba by car. Three tollbooths and six police stops later (most of which we were waved through), the 5-hour drive to Marineland Harbour in Kariba was relatively uneventful. From the harbour, a speedboat transferred us to Spurwing Island. The speedboat was around a 15-seater, and the lake was relatively calm so it took us just 30 minutes to get there. There were life jackets available, although we had brought along a borrowed one for our toddler just in case. As I held on to my precious cargo, the wind in my hair, it feel like we were escaping further and further away from the pressures and unnecessary add-ons of modern city life, as well as the cash shortages and other realities of current-day Zimbabwe.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba AccommodationAs we approached the island, three elephants congregated along the shoreline, just around the bay from the lodge itself. We stepped off the boat on to the jetty and were met by smiling, easygoing staff who offered us much-appreciated cold drinks while our bags were carried to our rooms. Three types of accommodation are available on Spurwing: chalets, cabins and permanent tents − all of which have lake views, ensuite facilities, fans and mosquito nets. We were staying in cabins, which are slightly cheaper than chalets. Our cabin had a comfortable bed with wraparound mosquito net, an ensuite shower and toilet, plenty of space for a camp cot, and a verandah looking out over the lake. Spurwing is not a luxury resort but it offers something priceless: an easygoing atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re staying with family. Indeed, the island is owned by a group of families, and they have done well to uphold its homely feel whilst keeping the facilities in good order.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Accommodation

Have I mentioned the view? As we unpacked our suitcases, two hippos placidly grazed on the bank in front of our cabin. This was the first time that our son was old enough to understand what a hippo was, and he was enthralled. A large group of marabou storks swooped around a favourite tree. A fish eagle called its evocative cry across the lake. We paused to sit on the verandah and drink it all in. This view, this feeling is what we came for, and we weren’t disappointed.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Accommodation

We quickly got into the rhythm of Spurwing life which revolved around food, animals and good company. We awoke each morning to a cool August breeze flowing from the lake and a cup of tea being brought to our cabin (or not, if preferred). The treat of a full English breakfast, freshly-cooked muffins, doughnuts and fruit in the main lodge. Reading on the sun-loungers and playing games in the swimming pool. Hearing the beat of the drums signalling the start of a simple but tasty lunch in the open-air dining area. Watching elephants meandering along the scrub line below the lodge, their tusks gleaming in the sunlight. Seeing crocodiles occasionally snapping in the direction of a marabou stork at the water’s edge. Going out on an evening game drive or water cruise, where seeing wild elephants up-close became the norm. Being engrossed as fiery rays of sunlight transformed the expanse of sky, our view unhindered by man-made structures. Returning to the lodge for a four-course dinner, usually with the option of bream freshly caught that afternoon, discussing all that we had seen on our excursion. Seeing duiker blinking in our torchlight as we walked from the main lodge back to our ‘house’ as the children call it. Hearing jackals scuffling and calling outside our cabin. Going to sleep with the sound of hippo grunting in the bay below. Appreciating all of these things through the eyes of a wide-eyed two-year-old who clearly relished every single moment of it. There was no need for expensive toys or activities here: these existed abundantly in natural form.

GreatZimbabwe Sunset Kariba

The lodge is comfortable in its own skin. If it were a person, you would like it for the generous hug it gives you, more than the sensible clothes that it wears.

Spurwing lived up to my expectations and exceeded them in a number of ways, namely, the food, staff and identity. Meals were excellent: servings were not huge but food was freshly made on site and very tasty. This is testament to the talented kitchen staff and also to the organisational skills of the manager, Mitch. To keep the lodge’s kitchen stocked with eggs, milk and fresh produce is a tough task given everything has to be ordered in advance and transported from Harare, 400 km away. I cannot sing the praises of the staff highly enough: each one of them was attentive, proactive and full of good humour. Many of them have been working at Spurwing for more than a decade; I am told that the longest-serving member has been there for over 30 years. The third aspect is that the lodge has a distinctly Zimbabwean identity. It isn’t trying to be ‘hip’; it isn’t trying to copy its East African counterparts; its decor doesn’t embellish every surface with safari-kitsch. The lodge is comfortable in its own skin. If it were a person, you would like it for the generous hug it gives you, more than the sensible clothes that it wears.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Accommodation

My biggest hope for Spurwing had been the ability to balance ‘bush’ and ‘baby’. This had indeed become a reality. We were able to go on game drives in the evenings whilst grandparents took turns to babysit at the lodge. Staff babysitters are also available for visitors who need this service. Our game drive with Cliffy was world class: read all about it here.

Spurwing Island has the wild and untamed feel that I had been longing for. It is by no means a risk-free destination for children, but it has enough measures in place to quell my overactive imagination. In the evenings, young kids’ dinners were served slightly earlier which meant that we could put our son to bed, close the cabin and then go to dinner ourselves, something I would never do if we were staying in either an open-air room or human-populated area.

As I was leaving the island, I looked again at the Matusadona mountain range encircling the lake. Our time at Spurwing had shown us the best aspects of Zimbabwe; sharing it with our son made it even more poignant. It was as if the mountains had indeed been protecting us from the problems facing this nation. Of course, there is no such barrier; the owners and staff have been dealing with many challenges in ways that we will probably never understand. Perhaps their tenacity makes this island, and places like it, even more special. Despite everything that has been thrown at them by politicians, police and rollercoaster-economies, the people at Spurwing are still offering a world-class holiday experience with big-hearted personality. And that is something to be recognized, commended and celebrated.

Despite everything that has been thrown at them by politicians, police and rollercoaster-economies, the people at Spurwing are still offering a world-class holiday experience with big-hearted personality.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Accommodation

Practical information on Spurwing Island in Zimbabwe

  • Getting there: The island is ~20 km from the Marineland Harbour in Kariba and you can travel to the island by boat or air. The boat transfer takes 30-45 minutes depending on lake conditions (photo below) and the size of the boat depends on number of passengers. Remember that Kariba is a large lake and there will always be waves of some sort. Read more information on getting to Spurwing Island, including details on transport from Harare and Zambia.
  • Accommodation info: Spurwing Island is able to cater for a maximum of 40 adult guests in three different styles of accommodation (chalets, cabins and permanent tents). All accommodation has ensuite bathrooms. All rooms have scenic views over Lake Kariba and the Matusadona mountains. Insect spray, mosquito nets, fans and repellents are provided in the rooms. For special events more guests can be accommodated, and houseboats can be moored to the island with prior arrangement. Nightly rate includes early morning tea, full breakfast, two-course lunch, afternoon tea and cake, and four-course dinner. It does not include drinks, activities and the 2% government levy. Children under 3 stay free. Children between 3 and 12 years are half price. See more of my photos of the accommodation at Spurwing.
  • Additional fees: Activities and drinks, as above, plus National Parks fees. National Park Lake Entry Fees need to be paid prior to boarding the boat at Marineland (US $5 for Zim residents, US $ 10 for non-Zim residents). Vehicle parking at the harbour is also available at US $5 per vehicle per night.
  • Activities at Spurwing: Game drives are done in the Matusadona National Park which involves a short speedboat trip from Spurwing to the mainland for a safari guide-led drive. In my opinion the game drives are excellent value because of the vast knowledge that your professional guide will have. Some of the drive will happen in think jesse woodland where you may not be able to see much, but be patient and you will be rewarded when you get to the shoreline. Here’s a post all about our game drive with Cliffy from SpurwingBoat safari cruises offer excellent photo opportunities of the animals along the shoreline, as well as good sightings of crocodiles, up-close experiences with hippos, and more. Boat cruises aren’t led by safari guides so you will be given less information about the animals than you would with a game drive. See photos of our boat cruise/safari here. Other activities include prolific fishing, spectacular gorge boat trips, and walking safaris with a professional guide.
  • Health info: Spurwing Island is located in the north of Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River and malaria prophylaxis is recommended year-round, although its distance from the mainland does decrease malaria risk. We took Malarone which is also available for children. (For our toddler I crushed the tablet each day, mixed it with 5ml of sweet juice and gave it to him in a medicine syringe.) Read more advice about Health in Zimbabwe.
  • Best time to visit: Spurwing is a year-round destination but the temperatures lake condition and game viewing are at their best from April to September. See more info on weather in Zimbabwe.
  • What to take: A hat, swimming costume, camera, binoculars fleece jacket and torch are my recommendations. Read more ideas in the article What to pack for a Zimbabwe holiday. If you have space in your suitcase, perhaps bring some exercise books and pencils for the staff’s children on the mainland. The baggage allowance for the boat transfer is 20 kg per person.

With thanks to Spurwing Island Zimbabwe for partnering with me on this sponsored post.

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Transfer

The boat that transferred us from the Kariba harbour to Spurwing Island

Spurwing Zimbabwe Kariba Accommodation

One of the chalets at Spurwing Island

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