For those in the African safari industry, Grant and Lynsey Cumings are no strangers. In fact, their passion for preserving nature has been tangible and inspiring for over 30 years. They were the ones to bring the first anti-poaching patrols into the Lower Zambezi National Park. In addition, as the owners of Chiawa Camps – a family business which they’ve been building on for the best of 30 years – they were also the co-founders of Conservation Lower Zambezi, which provides resources to protect the national park. Now, they’re offering HGTV viewers a glimpse into their life as lodge owners and conservationists as they renovate two of their camps in front of the camera for a television series titled Renovation Wild.
The series started airing on HGTV on 6 September and I recently got to chat to the two adventurous pioneers who have spent their lives immersed in the wonders of the African wilderness. Grant and his family have been in the conservation tourism industry for 34 years. The flagship camp, Chiawa – which was initially launched in 1989 and pioneered tourism into the Lower Zambezi National Park – and a second camp called Old Mondoro are featured in Renovating Wild. To reach these camps, it takes about a 30-minute flight from Lusaka (the capital of Zambia). Or, if you’re keen on an adventure, you can reach them by road and river. It takes about 2,5 hours to get to the river by road, and then another 2,5 hours to reach the first camp, Chiawa by boat. The bush camp, Old Mondoro, is further down the river.
How did a courtesy renovation become Renovation Wild?
With Chiawa Camps having been around for such a long time, they have agents and clients all around the world. Grant and Lynsey were approached by an American television company who did a show called Renovation Island. It revolved around a Canadian family who had bought a derelict island in the Bahamas and renovated it under camera during Covid. The series was a huge success for HGTV and Grant says he thinks they just wanted something similar, but in another place. “Africa was it and let me just say that the stars aligned,” he says.
Both camps – Chiawa and Old Mondoro – were due for an upgrade. Grant explains that safari camps in Zambia’s national parks can’t be permanent structures and are therefore made from temporary structures that wear out in five to ten years. Hence, they must do renovations often, but according to Grant, Renovation Wild was their biggest renovation ever.
Finding family far and wide
Renovation Wild captures the Cumings family’s pursuit of re-imagining their camps – something that goes beyond bricks and mortar, as even their children jumped in and helped. Their love for nature is entwined with everything they do and this shines through in the series. Added to that is glimpses of personal growth, family values and Grant and the team’s architectural ingenuity.
While Grant, Lynsey and their kids are a close-knit family, Grant highlights the fact that their staff have become an integral part of their lives too – a larger family. “Lynsey and I and the kids are a tight family, but we keep our staff very tight as well,” he says. “When we’re not in camp, the staff are making decisions the way we would want them made and we give them ownership of the decisions; we give them free reign to make those decisions.”
They also learned to take more risks during the filming of the series. “We learned to accept failure not as a failure, but a lesson to be learned from so that we can be stronger and better going forward. I think that pervaded into our team as well. It made us a better team for it.”
Lynsey says in the end it was such a big project and there were blood, sweat and tears – literally. “But it brought us together and strengthened our bond. Not only with our children, but also with the staff. Working so closely together for such a long period of time under those conditions – we all had bad days, we all had good days, we all had to pick each other up.”
Renovation Wild was no easy task
Grant and the camp manager, Simon were largely responsible for the drawings and the architectural side of things during the renovation process. “There’s nothing technical about it,” he says. “All back of a cocktail napkin type stuff,” he jokes. There is truth to it, though as he says they did drawings in the sand and put down some pegs. “We would actually lay things out, mock things up and we physically put stuff there and walked through to see if it actually worked,” he says.
Lynsey was responsible for the aesthetic side of things. According to her, they designed on the job and discovered things as they went along. “Of course, we’re in the bush with no transport for the next goodness knows how many days and you have to make a plan,” she adds. “Although we had those ideas in mind, sometimes they didn’t work out and we’d have to change them.” She’s convinced that she had the easy job – coming in after all the hard work and merely making things look pretty.
Staying in rustic luxury
Chiawa Camp is the flagship camp and according to the couple it is 5-star “by Zambian standards.” Old Mondoro is a rustic bush camp which is still luxurious and very comfortable, but more open to the elements. Grant describes it as rustic luxury. At Old Mondoro, the canvas flaps are open during the day, making you feel one with nature even while you’re in your room. “They both complement each other really well,” says Lynsey.
Their interpretation of luxury is wilderness and unspoilt areas; not air-conditioning or a glass sliding window. As tents go, their tents are very luxurious, says Grant. But, as far as safari accommodations go and what you can see in some parts of South Africa, they’re not luxurious at all. “We don’t pretend to be a boutique hotel or anything like that. We don’t have wines from all over the world stored at different temperatures. We don’t have a spa. For some people that’s luxury. It’s not luxury for us,” Grant continues.
Facing the challenges
Between wild animals, a shortage of time, not a lot of money left, Covid and delays of trucks at the border, the Cumings family certainly had their work cut out for them. Firstly, the camps were being renovated during Zambia’s wet season, which comes with monsoon-type weather. “It is like the hottest, wettest, most dangerous time to be there,” Grant says. “We were on boats in electric storms, flying aeroplanes in thunderstorms…”
With a tight timeline, they could not stop and wait for sunnier days. While they tried to get most of the materials to the camps before the renovation, there were still things they had to order in and the rain made transport rather difficult. “We had to bring a lot of stuff in by boat,” Grant says, remembering the sea truck episode where the boat got bitten and sunk by hippo, with all their materials on it – cement, art pieces and more. “That was a real setback for us,” says Lynsey.
Marrying wilderness and luxury in Renovation Wild
According to Grant, everything in life is location, location, location. “Because we’re located in the Lower Zambezi National Park, we believe we’ve got the best scenic and wildlife sites.” When it comes to design, they are adamant that the whole camp must blend into its environment. “If you’re on the Zambezi, in a plane or on a road, we don’t want you to be able to see much, if any of the camp. It has to be respectful and appropriate to the environment and I believe we’ve achieved that,” says Grant. “And then, when you’re in it, it has to be beautiful, which Lynsey has achieved.” For him, ergonomics are very important. He also believes that there has to be great views, privacy and that the rooms and the lodge should not block the natural flow of wildlife. There are no fences around the camps and animals need to be able to move through the camps and be comfortable in the camp. “You see that at Old Mondoro with the amount of elephants in the camp,” he explains.
Lynsey took a lot of inspiration from nature for the interiors of the rooms. “The colouring is from nature. I tried to bring the colours of the river into the room; the colours of the sand – we integrated all of that into the renovation.” It was all about trying to leave as light a footprint, especially since they are based in a national park.
Home is where the heart is
“I love that we have this extended family and I think it comes out in the show,” says Lynsey. “Grant and I can’t do it without our family.” In addition to that, Renovation Wild also showcases Zambia and the people of Zambia.
For Grant and Lynsey Cumings, family and Africa is home.