Tongabezi was founded in 1990 as tents with bucket showers along the banks of the Zambezi River. By 2018 it was one of Conde Nast’s Top 20 Hotels in the World.
Benjamin Parker and William Ruck Keene met in 1987 and almost immediately began hatching plans to run safaris together. Previously, Ben had been selling microlights and doing flight instructions as an excuse to travel around the country he had fallen in love with. Will had been running the ‘Deliveroo before Deliveroo’ — a food delivery company with a far more exciting name, Snack Attack!
We are proud to say that our Tongabezi founding fathers were certainly never boring.
Ben and Will jumped in canoes and paddled their way up the Zambezi River from Victoria Falls in order to find their dream location. After a few mishaps and changes, by 1988 they had eventually decided on a stretch right along the river where the riverbank curves away towards the sunset. They found the owner — a retired bank manager living just outside of Lusaka — and made him an offer which he promptly accepted!
However, it actually took 18 months for Ben and Will to be granted title of the land. There was an unofficial ruling at the time that no non-Zambians could own land on one of Zambia’s borders. This means that when Ben and will started clearing land and building the first ever Tongabezi main areas, they did so knowing that at any minute their dream and investment could be taken away from them. It is this level of energetic optimism, sometimes frankly unrealistic optimism and hope for a brighter future, that has been the driving force of Tongabezi to this day.
In 1992 Will and Ben were just getting into their stride at Tongabezi when they found a magical island only 15 minutes away by boat. It had an unbeatable aspect since it overlooked the Victoria Falls National Park and was surrounded by incredible birdlife. With their typical love of risk and adventure, they decided that it was high time Tongabezi had a sister camp, so they christened the island Sindabezi and started to build.
The first Sindabezi was extremely basic, with sand floors in all of the rooms, but it had beds that wheeled out under the stars and right from the beginning captured hearts and minds from all over the world. Over the years Sindabezi was lovingly upgraded and adapted until Fodor’s called it the most environmentally friendly island on the Zambezi River.Sindabezi's Story
Ben and Will soon realised that Livingstone Island – which sits perched on the very edge of Victoria Falls, in the heart of the Mosi oa Tunya or ‘smoke that thunders’ – was the sort of adventure that they wanted to be a part of and make into a legacy. They already had an official ‘Tongabezi plane’ which flew guests over the Victoria Falls, why not paddle guests to the edge of the waterfall itself?
They initially set up a small tented camp on the island where guests would sleep after a two-day canoeing trip down the Zambezi right to the very edge of Victoria Falls. But before long the island was in such demand that it made more sense as an activity. When Ben and Will first started doing lunches on Livingstone Island, guests walked onto and off the island (across from the Zambian side when the water was low enough) and had to carry their own cool boxes. When the water was higher, Will would transfer guests to the island in a rickety boat, apparently taking great joy in every splutter and shudder of the engine, no matter how close the boat and terrified guests were to the roaring edge of the waterfall!
Since this activity began, Livingstone Island’s swimming activity Devil’s Pool has become one of the most famous bucket-list activities in the world. It is certainly the most famous natural infinity pool in the world! Angel’s Pool, the sister activity, probably comes in a close second.
Today food and drinks are prepared in a small bush kitchen, and guests are transferred across to the island via a powerful twin-engined powerboat. In low water it is still possible to walk across from the Zambian side, but this is only safe and legal with an official Tongabezi guide. Nobody knows the edge of Victoria Falls like the Tongabezi guides, many of whom have been scrambling along those rocks for over fifteen years.
Amongst these changes, one individual who would become pivotal to the success of Tongabezi arrived on the scene. Vanessa Saunders came out to Zambia to volunteer as a mathematics teacher. Benjamin Parker (somehow) managed to convince her to stay in Zambia in the capacity of his wife! Vanessa quickly convinced Ben and Will of the importance of running Tongabezi with an emphasis on training and supporting the local team and community.
On the 1st of May 1996, Vanessa Parker opened the doors to a preschool for 15 local children. The Tongabezi Trust School — named Tujatane, which means “Let Us All Hold Hands Together”, now provides a free education to over 300 children, all from within walking distance of the school. Tujatane provides nutritious meals, uniforms, healthcare, and a vital education to all of its students, and then supports them into high school and even university. And all of this is made possible by the generosity of sponsors from all over the world.
The school has fostered incredibly strong bonds between the Tongabezi operation and the people who work in and around this area. Tujatane, as well as the adult training programmes, and our incredibly low staff turnover (many of our team have been with us for over ten years, and some for the whole 30 years!) has created a rightful sense of pride and ownership for the Simoonga and Mukuni communities. Tongabezi would not be the place it is today without our passionate and talented Zambian family.
William Ruck Keene died in a tragic car accident in June of 1997. He was so pivotal to the style and success of Tongabezi, and the business and Ben took a big knock in his absence. We have a Will memorial spot right beside the Nut House, where the view of the Zambezi is quite spectacular as well as the school setting up a Mr William’s music room.
Under Ben’s guidance, Tongabezi grew to include the Garden House and a brand new version of the Dog House, both with two rooms for families. We built a whole new (immense!) lap pool, and a private gym, as well as the Hang Out and Look Out spaces. We even started the main dining area again from scratch, raising it to make the most of the river view. Each room crystallised into the perfect version of itself… and then Ben would come in and upgrade it all over again!
Ben carried Tongabezi forward in the way he knew Will would have wanted, constantly growing, changing, and adapting, celebrating the natural beauty of Zambia, maintaining a sense of perspective about what is really important, and encouraging confidence and creative thought in all of the Tongabezi Team members. He worked hard to maintain the spirit of social responsibility that his wife Vanessa continued to champion.
Tongabezi went from strength to strength, with Ben and his family at the wheel. But Ben knew that Tongabezi could be even more. More environmentally sustainable, specifically. He started looking for a company that would take Tongabezi to the next level, and perhaps give him more time for travelling. Ben had just started talking with a very exciting company when he fell ill at the end of 2018.
Ben's fight with cancer was incredibly courageous, but it was also brief. Within six months he had moved on to his next adventure, where we are sure Ben and Will are clearing land and building something fabulous for us to experience when we are ready. Ben’s spot at Tongabezi is just above the original pool, where you can hear the birds calling even when you cannot see them.
The Tongabezi Family feel incredibly fortunate to know what Ben’s vision for our future was. In February of 2020, Tongabezi officially joined the family of Green Safaris properties.More About Green Safaris