Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia

Africa stole my heart.

June 29, 2018

After flying into Johannesburg, we board our small plane to Victoria Falls. It’s neat to look around the flight and note that locals and non-locals alike have the same sense of excitement. We are all off to see one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. There is a great sense of anticipation.

FYI

The list of the natural wonders includes:

  • Aurora Borealis.
  • Harbour of Rio de Janeiro.
  • Grand Canyon.
  • Great Barrier Reef.
  • Mount Everest.
  • Paricutin.
  • Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls

It is now the 5th May and we are transferred to our accommodation at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. This is quite a large complex and yet, as it sits amidst the trees you cannot see much of the surrounding buildings. The dining areas are elevated with viewing over the water holes for animal viewing.

On the grounds is a Bomo restaurant. This is a themed restaurant with tables in a rugged setting with traditional African food on offer. You can try warthog steaks, impala kebabs etc. Dinner and show are well worth a visit.

Today we were also lucky enough to experience a sunset cruise on the Zambesi river. Snacks and beverages, interspersed with interesting narrative and sightings of alligators, hippos, vultures, and a gorgeous sunset.

Impala

 

May 6th

We head off for our walk through the falls walkways. No photos will ever do it justice, or capture the roar of the violent waters and the “thundering steam”. The walk takes an hour and a half and by the end we are soaked through as promised simply from the spray that comes up from the falls with such a force that you get “rained” on from above and below.

No trip here would be complete without a flight over the falls, so we take a helicopter ride with fascinating commentary and are lucky enough to spot some giraffes on the way back. They are such ungainly looking animals, especially from the air, and I can’t wait to see some more of them.

Tonight we board the Livingstone Express for dinner. An early 1900’s steam train. Silver service on rails as we meander along the tracks. It was fun to stop on the bridge and haggle with the hawkers, to drink wine and watch the view.

Sunday we arrive at Royal Zambesi Lodge. We have flown from Vic Falls in a Banderante and landed on an airstrip in Zambia, where the game must be chased from the tarmac so the plane can land. There are safari vehicles waiting for us.

This lodge is unfenced from the wild and borders both the State Park and the Zambesi river. We are to fully expect monkeys, hippos, lions and elephants to wander about from time to time and we are to watch out for “Dave” the croc and friends.

After settling into our rooms we are treated with a set lunch. Everyone’s dietary requirements have been catered for and lunch is delicious. Soon we are heading off on our evening game drive. I’m itching to have a look around this beautiful lodge, but it will have to wait.

We head back out in the safari vehicles armed with cameras and cellphone cams, deet, something warm and great expectations.

We see an impala and great excitement ensues, then a leopard tortoise, so cute. We stop at every new find and paparazzi the hell out of every animal. Then, around the corner there are hundreds of impala, then elephants, water bucks and baboons. The wild basil, crushed by our tyres, is so aromatic. Then the alarm call goes up. The baboons are in the tree, screaming, and looking all in one direction. The impala retreat. There is a predator about. We seek him out. Our guide is sure it’s a leopard and although we search for some time, he remains elusive. Then a call from another truck. Lion! So we head over to see him, the patriarch of the area. A grand old fellow, sleepy in the sun and nonplussed by us.

Evening is closing in and we are taken into a clearing for a very civilized drink to the sunset before boarding again for a bit of spotlighting. We are looking for our leopard but find a lot of impala and then a hyena. Just one by himself, he chooses to slink silently into the shadows. We spotlight a few cross-looking elephants and then suddenly, with a scream, a hippos lurches forward and hurtles towards us, veering off when it sees us and screeching into the darkness. Hippos, it seems, are afraid of shadows, and thinking he was being chased by some predator a hippo can move at an alarming rate. You could hear his chubby little legs rubbing together as he thundered past, closely followed by uncontrollable laughter from his onlookers. Heading out of the park and one of those cross elephants takes exception to our joviality. We give it the jandal and hightail out of there.

We think we are heading back to camp but suddenly we are in a clearing by the river, with long tables and candles. There is an open fire and a ring of chairs too. We settle in for some pre-dinner drinks around the fire and share some tall stories. Dinner is being cooked in iron pots over flames, and again all of our dietary needs are catered for deliciously. We are tired now and head back to the lodge.

Monday arrives with a thud as the alarm goes off after a night of strange noises and footsteps in the camp. There has been a lion in camp and I wonder if those are the noises I heard. Today I am off to the local village by boat. The lodge is sending up fresh medical supplies and we are invited to visit some families who will open their homes and tell us about their lives. The boat trip should take 45 minutes, but we girls point at everything and our guides happily help us explore the wildlife of the Zambesi river on the way up. I am amazed at the number of hippo pods we encounter, some with 7 or 8 members, each bobbing up and down as they draw breath ready to stay under again for up to 6 minutes I learn that hippos are from the same genus as whales! There is a large crocodile on an island in the river. He is about 2 ½ metres long so we approach him with caution.

Before we arrive at the village, we begin to encounter people along the river banks, first a small boy with an older child and their mother, then a group of young men with long sticks beside a thatched fence. We stop and they explain that they are catching birds for food by scaring them into the thatching. They give us an energetic and amusing demonstration.

Then just before the village we encounter a group of young women and their children collecting washing water at the river’s edge. They work within a fenced construction of bare sticks buried into the riverbed to create a half-moon bay to keep the crocs out.

Even the short walk from the river to the village is an education of unusual plants and oversized bugs. We are met by the village’s Head Man at his house. His grandson and puppy are sprawled out on a mattress in the sunshine. The adorable puppy is named Danger. There is clearly nothing dangerous about this little dude, or anyone else we meet that day. The Head Man explains how leaders are chosen and the process and reasoning behind it all and talks proudly of the rudimentary solar power they have and the hotwire hooked up around the crops to zap any intruding hippos and elephants.

I didn’t expect the intensity of the village visit. Not only were we welcomed into the homes of the villagers, we were treated like honoured guests. We were entertainment wound up with wonder and awe. It was humbling, unforgettable.

This place is mostly unchanged, but for the new trickle of aid from the local tourism operators, and I feel finally a sense of pride for an industry that so often feels frivolous, a small glimmer of something good.

The day is intense. It is good to deliver medical supplies and to visit the hospital that tourism and some good hearts have made. No trip would be complete, however, without dispensing a few lollies for the children. We were almost crushed in the throng.

The trip back down the river is far more subdued. A local beer is most welcomed as we blat back and reflect. Reflection is cut short suddenly as a herd of elephants take exception at our presence on the riverbanks and proceed to flap their ears and trumpet at us. We are drawn back into the animal world.

This is a lovely lodge and I have no doubt that I will return. The owners, the staff, the lodge, the layout, the animals, the food. I don’t know what, but the combination is heady.

We are treated to so many things before we leave, notably a lunch in the middle of the Zambesi river on a sand bank. Completely unexpected, completely delicious, and wouldn’t it be completely romantic if I had my husband with me. Maybe next time.

From here we navigate the Zambia/Zimbabwee crossing and head to the Elephant Express. I’ve been looking forward to this!

The Elephant Express is more, and different, to my expectations. The train station is completely primitive and disgusting. The train is more like a tram. On board we are greeted with a modest lunch and a glass of what-you-fancy. As we clack-de-clack off, the fun becomes evident. And what fun! We are on a train with open sides, clacking through the plains of Africa with a glass in hand, wind in face, and everyone laughing. Then the animal viewing begins. We have been told to expect to see some animals on the way, but looking back I can honestly say the train was the most successful game drive of all. Made all the better for a glass of wine in hand heading into a sunset, the game viewing was exciting and the numbers viewed were astounding. This train is an incredible asset to the journey.

Camelthorne lodge.

We arrived at dusk, this is a lovely property and the game viewing was very successful and very different to the last. The knowledge imparted was phenomenal. The viewing from the bunker was an experience I will never forget and the outdoor lunch with elephants wandering about was unsurpassed. A personal highlight was the walking safari. Stalking animals on foot is quite another level, and I loved it.

The rooms are probably as big as my house and are truly amazing – beautiful! There is a mini-bar and like most things here, all fully included. It was lovely to sit on the upstairs deck with a glass of wine and look out over the trees into nowhere and contemplate.

We visited the school the next day and it was lovely to see the interactions of the lodge owners with the school children. The kids knew who they were but this was obviously a treat, not the norm, and the kids were scrambling not to miss out. In contrast to the first village visit, we could now see the effect of tourism on the locals, and it felt good. They still felt like they were them, not a new version of the west.

I left here feeling differently to when I arrived, and having found a cheetah.

The ride back on the Elephant Express feels different. It lacks the excitement of the arrival, it feels familiar though and we know we will miss this place.

Matetsi awaits, and I have been anticipating this place greatly.

The main lodge is lovely – much what you imagine in your imaginings that such a place should be. The outlook as you dine is incredible. The food was gorgeous. The wine selection at the property was awesome. The service to the rooms was unmatched. It was truly lovely, only, such a long way between rooms. I enjoyed being back on the river bank, with the activities of water and land at my disposal. Vic Falls also is at hand and in a way you have the best of all worlds available. However, I felt the game viewing was nowhere near the two previous properties. It definitely felt like a hotel, not a lodge.

They did however have an amazing shop! I managed to fulfill all of my promises in one shop and then set about trying to make my pack comply.

It suddenly occurs that this trip is going to end, and as much as I miss my fella, I don’t want to go. I have felt this before, twice. Once in Ireland, and once in the sub-Antarctic.

We head to Jo’burg, and this time we will spend a night there.

Cathay Pacific pulls out the stops for business class all the way home. I’m in love. The check-in staff are under pressure and still lovely. Business class is great. No swollen ankles, great food, proper cutlery and a lie-flat bed.

I slept 10 hours on the way back in business class and did not have to spend a night in Auckland, and in fact was fresh enough to drive home to Whangarei.This product not only saved me time and stress, I had the pleasure of the lounge in Hong Kong. This place is a destination in its own right and is just the stuff of a sci-fi movie. In-cred-ible. Seriously. Sell tickets! I’m buying.

To be honest, as an owner, not a selling agent, I have not thought overly about air types, but this experience has me insisting on a higher minimum quality of carriage.

Africa, I will be back. I miss you already.

By 

Stephanie Mitchell

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