Tina Aponte is Managing Director and Owner of Royal Chundu, a beautiful 5 star lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River, just upstream from the Victoria Falls in Zambia. Royal Chundu is Zambia’s first and only Relais & Châteaux property and Zambia’s Leading Safari Lodge, as voted in the World Travel Awards for six consecutive years.
It was Tina’s father, Hugh O’Mahoney, Zambian born and bred, who first saw the potential of the Royal Chundu property and purchased it with the hopes of turning it into an exclusive lodge beside a 15km stretch of private waterway of the Zambezi River.
Tina’s eye for décor and design and her passion for travel and marketing soon led her to take over the management of the lodge, turning Royal Chundu into the sanctum of quiet solitude and untouched beauty that it is today. Specifically significant to her is the celebration of the region – her belief that the lodge should always embrace the tradition and geography of the area while incorporating stylish and sophisticated accommodation, world class service and Zambian-inspired cuisine.
With her home on the same riverbank as Royal Chundu, which she shares with her two young sons, Tina is intimately involved in the running of the lodge and excited by sharing the beauty of this remote part of Africa with guests.
How do the experiences you offer at Royal Chundu give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region of Africa?
My father grew up in colonial Zambia and built the lodges in line with this history of his. When I took over running the lodges, I wanted to share more than just one segment of a forgotten history. I am personally passionate about travelling and immersing myself in where I am at. I like to have a sense of place through people I meet, food I savour, scenery I spy and so on. So, I took what moved me when I travel and tried to incorporate that into our experience here.
We are the only lodge in Zambia that is 100% Zambian-managed, run and staffed. All of our staff come from our local communities, giving guests a truly humble, heartfelt Zambian hospitality where the stories that we weave into our experience, are those of modern day, current Zambia. We have also developed a Zambian Tasting experience to add to this sense-of-place immersion where we’ve taken all the elements of what is eaten traditionally and rurally in Zambia and created a unique, experiential dining opportunity for our guests this way. On top of this, we donate seeds for vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruit to anyone in our rural communities who want to have their own business and that community member then grows that produce and sells it back to us at market-pricing so that we empower our local communities, give the guests freshly grown, organic, close to source supplies of fresh produce. Visually, Zambia is also a very bold and bright nation too: red soil, navy river, verdant green riverine forests, burning orange sunsets, piercing pink morning skies and our communities wear brightly clashing sarongs – chitenges – which I’ve brought into design elements throughout both lodges, getting rid of the colonial browns and beiges of old. In everything we do, we try to honour who we are and what we are and that is very simply a luxurious, authentic Zambian experience. We have a strong sense of place.
How has the experience of staying at your two lodges evolved since they first opened?
Oops, I think I answered that above. Basically I have moved it from being a generic, colonial-inspired experience to being a fully immersed Zambian experience honoring who and what we are and who and what our Royal Chundu family of staff are.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
The noticeables are our Persian carpet picnic as my grandmother used to do with Pimm’s and silverware on an island in the middle of the river, our homemade mint tea in all the rooms, big bathtubs outside at the Island Lodge, etc, but two things that might not be noticed is our staff and communities’ involvement in everything we do: the local fresh produce supply story as mentioned above. My head guide supplies us with paraffin and lettuce, one of housekeepers supplies us with all the oranges for freshly-squeezed orange juice on the breakfast tables, one of our carpenters is a beekeeper so he supplies us with honey for the tables and bee boxes around the lodge for our garden pollination, everyone has a hand in what we are doing here so the story becomes more than just one person’s story, it’s a collective energy that weaves our little tapestry together.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider where to stay and what to do when traveling to Zambia?
To realise that Zambian is seasonal so the river has a vertical change of 5ms a year. The scenery changes, the Victoria Falls adjusts, the fauna and flora respond accordingly – just go with it and embrace where you are at all times.
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of the experiences you offer?
Always travel with a cotton scarf in my opinion. It is a multi-tool! Covers you from the sun, doubles up as a neck-warmer in winter, shawl over your shoulders on sunset cruises when the sun dips in the evenings, acts as a face-mask when there is dust in the air if you happen to come to us via Botswana or go for a walk on a dusty road, acts as a baby carrier if your little ones fall asleep and you need to carry them back to the room, list of scarf functions is endless! I have been known to use mine as tablecloths in the bush too as a table should always be dressed appropriately!
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
I am still totally enthused with experiential travel as that talks to my soul – celebrating genuine experiences wherever you are, but I am also very excited about customised experiential travel where we tailor-make trips for each and every guest individually, no one-size-fits all. This is where the need of expert travel planners is critical to facilitate these individually carved and uniquely planned experiences. I am not sure that this is a trend or a lifestyle but I am also raising my two boys with travel being a huge focus of their education as I truly believe that getting children thinking and learning differently will ultimately change the system that doesn’t seem to work for all. It isn’t a one-size fits all either. Travel opens one’s mind, allows us to honour other’s differences and not live with fear but rather embrace cultural uniqueness globally. Something sorely needed I feel. Being an African, I also love conservation-focused travel where guests are being made aware of the challenges of conservation and being taught to honour that instead of ticking off lists of animals seen or places visited.
What sets Royal Chundu apart from other lodges near Victoria Falls?
We are the only lodge that is 100% Zambian from the top down. We are also the first and only ever Relais & Châteaux lodge in the whole of Zambia and the entire Victoria Falls area, both sides of the river. We don’t try to compare ourselves to what anyone else is doing as everyone does what they do well. We just try to be the best version of what we can be and by doing so, give our guests the most heartfelt, genuine, authentic and luxurious Zambian experience.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Surrender to all experiences. Don’t try and impose your daily boundaries on travelling – so much of the experience is out of your control when you travel and so much more can be celebrated and learnt if you open yourself to the surrender of it all. Go with it!
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
I’ve never run the business as a vertical hierarchy. I have always run our business as a mother first and foremost. I believe that everyone has something to offer in terms of ideas and processes so we act as a family always and that is felt by the guests. Our family feeling is one of warmth and love and that’s the platform that we do everything from. I think that defines our soul here.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Being ADD! Challenged as a child but hell it’s helped as an adult! Having ADD energy coupled with obsessive planning practices and being guided by the most incredible people that have been kind enough to offer life lessons and support to me has been my saving grace as a single mother running this business in rural Zambia on the banks of the Zambezi and trying to raise two feral boys at the same time.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
We make people cry a lot… In a good way! I am stopped a few times a week by guests who have been moved to tears by their experiences whether in the village, at our school on the property where we have 54 children all learning on tablets (so state-of-the-art technology for children limited by their geography), by our staff’s kindness, so many little magical moments that the list is too long to mention. One that stood out recently, we had a couple from the US celebrating one of their big wedding anniversaries with us. Their children are all grown up, they have recently retired and were on a bucket list multi-experience African Adventure which included us as their last stop before returning back to the USA. They had spent the day visiting our local village, canoeing down our rapids with a private Persian carpet lunch picnic and then they came out of their rooms and walked down the jetty to enjoy their final night, sunset cruise with us. We had prepared one of the boats for a private experience just for the two of them with a daybed and every romantic gesture imaginable and they both burst into tears (always the tears!) and they said that being here at Royal Chundu was on a par with the birth of their children in terms of happiness and the emotions they have felt. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. When you emotionally move someone due to an experience you create for them personally, our life’s work is done.
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