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Two women in Africa

1 February 2012

wildWomen                                                                                                 IN THE BUSH  

 They are the same… and very different. Vivienne Heinecken takes no nonsense from life. Penny Johnson smoothes over the wrinkles of living in the bush with a smile and an infectious laugh. Vivienne was born in the Congo and had to leave when Uhuru happened. Penny is from England and fell in love with Africa. They both have an iron will – and a lodge to run.

 Text and photographs: Amos van der Merwe


I found Vivienne Heinecken on all fours, inspecting the new floor of the refurbished reception area of Kaingu Lodge. There’s a lot of work still to do, and she’s not going to allow Africa to slow her down.

The new Kaingu Lodge will boast a wide wooden deck overlooking Zambia’s mighty Kafue River, while the reception/bar area is housed under thatch.

This, I think, is nothing like the Out of Africa picture with a neatly dressed lady being waited on by a horde of dutiful servants. Here you do it yourself or live without it. Your only chance of success is if you lead by example.

Vivienne smiles up at me, gets to her feet and offers a strong hand in greeting. She is grey-haired, and with a delightful smile, remarks on the difficulty of getting everything perfect.

Difficulties are no stranger here. Animals in the camp, snakes and malaria all contribute to the reality of living in remote Africa. Supplies come from Livingstone, over the notorious River Road through southern Kafue. It’s a two-day trip in the dry season.

When Vivienne and husband Tom arrived, more than a decade ago (with one bakkie, a make-shift trailer and an impossible dream) she lived in a dome-tent while Tom built their home, using whatever he could find in the bush. Her oven was the classical ant-heap affair.

I don’t know many women who would happily pack all that they hold dear into an old Raider, go into the absolute wilds and start off from scratch when her husband decides to leave a sound job (as a scientist) to pursue the dream of having a lodge in Africa.

Over the years, Kaingu Lodge has grown, and the campsites have become legendary. Rapids 1 and 2, situated on the banks of the river, are grassed, secluded and tranquil and offer all the amenities a serious traveller in Africa could want. The sites have their own ablutions with really hot water, and wood is delivered to your fireplace daily.

The tourist looking for more comfort can stay in luxury. There are four double chalets, a main lapa, a lovely self-contained villa that sleeps four people – and a half-finished Director’s Residence. This comes with a boat, a chef and a personal guide.

Tom is the planner and the builder – the one who starts every day with a reading from Angus Buchan’s books with the staff of 12. He is the famous river man who knows the nooks and crannies of the Kafue intimately. He is, in short, the well-known and respected face of Kaingu.

But, as so many successful men will admit, the power behind the throne is the determined and charming lady he married when she was 19. Forty-five years later, nothing has changed. Vivienne is still the quiet driving force that makes his dreams come true.



Now travel with me to the other great river that made Zambia famous – the Zambezi. Great changes are taking place in western Zambia. One is the tarring of the road that will link Katima Molilo with Mongo. Personally, I think it will take a lot of the fun out of travelling there. Progress has killed a lot of the romance of touring Africa. Still, for the average tourist, it will make places like Mutemwa Lodge much more accessible.

Mutemwa is situated on the western bank of the Zambezi, and here, in 1996, Gavin Johnson and his young wife, Penny, started building a lodge from scratch, like the Heineckens.

They also decided to leave city life and take up the challenge of running a lodge in almost impossible conditions.

Over the years Mutemwa has gained a reputation for excellent fishing (tigers and bream) and unparalleled hospitality. The seven luxury tents and the main entertainment area are all beautifully adorned and maintained.

Here you’ll meet the exceptional Penny Johnson. She administers the books, co-ordinates staff duties, trains the chefs and home schools her three lovely daughters. And she helps Gavin entertain the guests in style, while encouraging him in his efforts to establish a transfrontier park in the region. (See Leisure Wheels, November 2011).

Gavin is the ultimate adventure man. Kayaking down the Zambezi, taking safaris to Liuwa Plains, camping at the idyllic Maziba Bay – that’s where you’ll find him when he is not involved with the local community, or planning new lodges and camps in the proposed transfrontier park.

At Mutemwa, the responsibility of running the lodge falls squarely on Penny’s shoulders, and she does the job with grace and apparent ease. Even the fact that the Johnsons had to go without their old Lister generator for eight months (no freezer, only a cool room) did not impair the way the guests experienced Mutemwa. Guess who made it all work out in the end?

When you return home after a visit to these two lodges, you realise that the beauty of Africa is not confined to the vistas and plains, the forests, mountains and animals. The true beauty of Africa lies in the people and their dreams.

You may realise, too, that Africa has a feminine side – soft and endearing, yet tough as nails. It’s in the dawns and sunsets, the lick of a lioness for her cubs, and the protective instincts of the mother elephant. It is the matriarch that keeps the herd together and determines the route to the future. At Kaingu and Mutemwa, this is true as well. The ladies you’ll find there are true women of Africa.


• Amos van der Merwe has left the medical world to spend more time writing. With three books on the shelves and two more in production, he shows no signs of slowing down. His blog-site has a healthy following, where he publishes short stories of Africa, the imaginary town of Rolbos and his conversations with a 92-year-old lady. It makes for interesting reading, so don’t hesitate: go to Enjoy!