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LIN'S TRIP REPORT: LITTLE MAKALOLO,SAVUTI,TONGABEZI,SAUSAGE TREE,TAFIKA,PUKU RIDGE

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I’d like to start by saying that I know my little summaries cannot adequately describe the unique and fantastic places we visited. I simply tried to tell you what in my opinion were the major highlights and disappointments of our trip. There are so many sources out there for you to consult, I’m just a teeny one! Thanks for reading my report! (Food was excellent unless otherwise noted.)

WESTCLIFF HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG
Hurray, we’re in Africa! We got here early, 10:30 am local time, and wow this hotel was a stunner! Up on a hilltop with views over Jo’burg and the zoo, it was incredible. We got upgraded to a suite with a huge balcony (hotel was obviously underbooked) and there was a bottle of champagne waiting courtesy of my travel agent. Good start. Well since we got there in the morning and were staying over, in order to shake off the 18 hour flight from Atlanta, I had reserved a treatment which turned out to be out of this world so I want to recommend it to you-all. I can’t remember the exact name of it, you have to request their spa brochure, but it was something like the African Massage. Whoa. First you can’t be shy. They put you into a thong, then rub you (rather roughly) front and back with local African herbs and oils, then you shower, then, OMG what a massage. It is a double massage done by two African ladies at once. They are completely in synch and each does one half of your body. They’re incredibly strong and I can’t describe it beyond that. Next we had a facial and both of us fell asleep, which the ladies told us is their best compliment. What a great way to overcome the horrible plane trip!!!!

LITTLE MAKALOLO:
Hwange National Park Environment: Beautiful and diverse vegetation not destroyed by elephants; parts of the park are more barren but others were thick with trees and brush. There was a seasonal color change in July, similar to autumn leaves at home. Lots of waterholes. There is one area with many illala palms which is very beautiful at sundowner time – we went there for the chance to find white rhino but did not see them – they are there somewhere! Lovely game drives.

Game: Excellent especially for antelope varieties. We saw impala, kudu, sable, oryx, duiker and eland – probably more. Lots of elephants, wildebeest, hippo, zebra, giraffe and baboons. Didn’t see any cats though! Just bad luck I’m sure.

As I’ve already posted on the forum, we did a walk among these antelope and zebra and wildebeest, which was awesome until our guide got too close to two hippos in a mudhole and caused one to charge us. We all ran, including Foster, and my sister was swearing a blue streak since she was the closest, like seriously she was 3 feet from the mudhole. Sounded really out of place in that remote spot, but I’d have done the same! The hippo reared up out of the water, roaring, and ran about 3 steps on solid ground before subsiding. Lucky us. All five of us gave Foster a piece of our mind, ‘cuz he ran too, and we said, hey what if something happened to you?? None of us even know where the car is!! And he gave a great big belly laugh…..

Camp: Very nice basic tented camp, on the ground. Very intimate, only five tents! Trickle-y bush shower facing a rather distant water hole, game can be seen from the tent.

Food: I didn’t know Zimbabwe produces wine! It was good!

Guides: Ours was Foster who also manages the camp. He’s an older man and very experienced in the bush. Great sense of humor…we enjoyed him.

SAVUTI (BEST BEST BEST)
Getting there: We did a dumb thing and had to transfer from L.M. to Vic Falls airport, drive to Kasane (1.5 hrs), and then fly to Savuti – wasted the afternoon and missed our game drive. It is really easy to get there if flying from another camp in Botswana.

Concession Environment: Here you are very far from any other camp and people, YAY! Camp faces the Savuti channel which is a dried up riverbed, very wide. It’s all grassy now. The Bots government has placed pumps at intervals along this channel to make waterholes for the animals, the theory being it was unnatural for the river to have dried up so it’s OK to replace some of the water. Not sure about that logic, but I was glad about the waterholes for my own sake. Game drives took place along this channel. The concession also abuts the Linyanti swamps so there’s a river-ish kind of area where we went for a picnic lunch, sat there on the ground and watched the animals come to drink.

Game: Saw it all and mainly tons of elephants.

Camp: Our guide, Richard, met us at the airport, told us it was too late for our evening game drive, and then drove speedily to “get us back to camp for sunset”. At first I was a little annoyed because we could have been trying to do a little game drive on the way. But once we arrived, I understood! First we met the nicest staff ever, who escorted us to the main lodge deck, which overlooks a waterhole that was CROWDED with elephants and the sun setting in the background. We forgave Richard instantly and proceeded, wine glasses in hand, to take in this incredible scene. We felt like little kids. The bar area is very cool.

Elephants moved all over the front of camp, and several came up to drink out of the swimming pool. We also saw zebra and giraffe drinking and a pack of wild dogs ran across in front of us (we unfortunately never found them again). The tents are lovely and camp is up on stilts connected by walkways. The view is fantastic from all units, which overlook that waterhole (the shower too), with elephant noise as a background. After dinner we couldn’t go back to the tent because there was a hyena running around on the walkways. We tried later and had to turn back again because the elies were browsing right alongside the walkway and didn’t like us disturbing them! To top it off we were kept awake for 2 hours that night by baboons, who as it turns out were being terrorized by a leopard in camp (saw tracks in the morning). The baboons were hitting the sides of our tent and screaming. We were scared they would try to get in!

Everyone probably knows about the famous hide at the waterhole. It’s made of leadwood logs which supposedly the elephants can’t move. It’s right at the edge of the waterhole. We were driven to it, crept out of the car and into the hide, and suddenly we could turn in a 360 degree circle and see elephants everywhere, up close enough to see the hairs on their chins and their eyelashes! Absolutely unforgettable. We drank our sundowners while the elephants sucked the waterhole dry, and watched them interacting, which was so educational, and had the backdrop of the orange sky. The elies could see and hear us and would come very close to investigate, and even show aggressive behaviors, but they didn’t bump into the logs (thank goodness!).

There was a very nice shop with craft items made by the staff working at Savuti, so that if you bought something, the money would go directly to that person.

Guide: We had Richard, 30-year-old freelance guide who was excellent, with an obvious passion for conservation and ecology. Thankfully he is not afraid to interact with charging elephants which happened to us during a picnic lunch (yes we were sitting on the ground). He told us “run to the car” and stood in front of the elephant and yelled and clapped his hands and it worked! (Later, he told us the only thing he was worried about was whether we could get up off the ground fast enough!!! Ouch!)

TONGABEZI LODGE
Getting there: It’s about a 20 minute drive from Livingstone airport and situated upstream from the falls so it’s quieter than at the big hotels right at the Falls.

Game: We don’t go to Vic Falls for the game. In my opinion the Mosi O Tunya Park is like a zoo, the animals are tame, because there are no predators! So in my opinion, I wouldn’t waste time on a ‘game drive’ here. (This comment doesn’t apply to the Zim camps.) However we saw hippos and crocs along the river.

Camp: Tongabezi does have a bush-camp feel but it’s very luxurious (electricity, hair dryers). We stayed in the Honeymoon House; there are 4 or 5 ‘houses’ and several ‘cottages’ which I didn’t look at. Our unit was thatched with wood and stone accents, and completely open on the river side. There was a table, sofa, bed, bathroom, ‘loo with a view’, and shower with a view. Outside there was a grassy patio area with lounge chairs and a bathtub. We could choose to have dinner in our unit or in the restaurant, which is on a deck along the river, or we could reserve the ‘sampan’ which is a platform floating in the river, where you are taken by boat and can dine by candle-light. (Too romantic for my sister and I.) We loooved the camp as a respite from the bush. We did the sundowner cruise twice – these are in small motorboats and we stopped on a sandy island for sunset. Saw game along the way on the Zim side of the river.

Having seen the Falls from below last year, this time we only went to see them from the top. Tongabezi and the Royal Livingstone have private rights to Livingstone Island right in the middle of the river and right at the edge of the Falls. We were boated over there for a sumptuous lunch and a heart-pounding walk along the edge (pricey outing though). Great views of the Falls and the rainbow, and no crowds or hawkers to contend with.

Food: OK. Ate crocodile tail which was like rubber. Other meals were better. Lunch on Livingstone Island very good, they are trying to make it a real Zambian meal, so we ate mopane worms.

Guide: N/A but there is an activity director who can arrange anything for you.

The advantage of placing Tongabezi in the middle of our safari was the rest time, get the hair washed and dried, etc. - and the disadvantage was that we really couldn’t go shopping because we still had our weight allowance to consider! There was a shop in camp.

SAUSAGE TREE CAMP
Getting there: Vic Falls to Lusaka (departure tax) then Lusaka to Jeki Airstrip. Once in Zambia, transfers are much longer than those in Botswana!

Lower Zambezi National Park Environment: Camp is right on the Zambezi River, where there is a resident hippo to be seen out front. The river is the main focus of this area. Game drives took us inland but not too far; we stayed between the escarpment and the river. It was very agreeable to see the hills on the horizon rather than the flat plains I’ve been used to. This scenery made for pretty sunsets too. Lots of thick brush in this park, as well as open sandy areas near the riverbank.

Game: Well you don’t even have to leave camp! Here we had our scariest animal encounter. It was siesta time and our tent was at the back and we were sitting in our chairs inside of the tent and along comes a huge bull elephant, munching away in front of us. Of course we were happy about that and grabbed our cameras. Suddenly he charged another male we hadn’t seen at the side of the tent and they clashed about one foot away. The 2nd elie left, and after a moment of silence, that huge head swung our way and KNEW we were there watching. (You know how they always tell you that animals believe you are a part of the tent or vehicle?? We don’t believe that anymore.) We froze. He displayed the aggressive behaviors, flapped out his ears, put up his trunk, seeking, seeking. He stepped toward us and we scrambled to the back of the tent. He proceeded to put his head into the tent opening and started to feel around with his trunk!! He knocked over some stuff and we were really getting scared. We knew we shouldn’t move but after a few minutes of this we just weren’t brave enough so we ran into the brick bathroom attached to the back of the tent. He did not like the noise we made and made plenty of noise himself. He proceeded to keep us trapped there for an hour! The first time he moved off we sighed with relief and stood up (the bathroom is open to the sky) and that dude saw us and came back! From then on we crouched on the floor. Finally he left and the two of us were pretty shaken. Later the guide told us the male elephants were ‘in must’ (heat) and were acting pretty aggressive because of that. His trunk left mucus all over our floor! There were buffalo in camp every night too. Awesome place!

Other than that, we saw some lions with a dead elephant, you know how that goes, they are stuffed and don’t bother to move. The elephant was killed by another elie and the rangers came and removed the tusks so poachers wouldn’t get them and took out the entrails to make it easier for predators to eat, so it was a grisly and stinky sight.

The most awesome game sightings were the hippos in the river!!! Soooo cool - do not miss them. Sausage Tree offers a canoe ride down the Chifungulu channel of the Zambezi River, which meanders through a remote and pristine wilderness. You will not see or hear another person. Each canoe carries one guest and one guide. It’s very adrenaline-inducing because the ride winds around many hippo pods, coming extremely close, so every few minutes one of those huge heads is surfacing and making that very loud aggressive noise! Our guides kept whispering, ‘Don’t worry, we are in the shallow water and they won’t come here.’ But we were scared stiff the whole time. It was so scary that we did it again the next day, ha ha!! That was an experience of a lifetime, you won’t find such an untouched, unspoiled, wild scene anywhere else. There were also many birds, even in July. Plenty of crocs too.

Then we did a speedboat ride for sundowners – put down anchor in the middle of the Zambezi, had our drinks and watched that orange African sky, and cast a few lines for the heck of it.

Camp: Unique round tents with hardwood floors and separate brick bathrooms with no ceiling. Some are in front along the river and ours was in back, about a 5 min walk, among big sausage and mahogany trees. You get your own personal ‘muchinda’ (butler). Lounge area includes a large deck overlooking the river.

Activities are varied which is why our agent gave us a longer stay here. Sausage Tree offers game-drives, walking safaris, canoeing, boating and fishing for tigerfish.

Food: Very good. Dinner was more formal here than in most camps I’ve visited. I think that’s because the manager is an English lady (Jane) and she likes to dress up in the evenings.

Guide: We had Laurence and Moses and they were both excellent. In fact, they graduated at the top of their guide school in South Africa, in first and second place for their year. They’re young and enthusiastic Zambians. There were different guides for the river activities, and every one of the staff was efficient and helpful and knowledgeable.

TAFIKA CAMP

This area MUCH warmer than Bots or Zim camps.

Getting there: Be aware that camps in South Luangwa NP are quite a distance from Mfuwe airport, and for about half the distance you are not in the park at all, so plan on this when you arrange your transfers. OK this is where we had a problem. We were supposed to have a charter flight from Jeki to Mfuwe but somehow this got changed so we had to drive to Jeki (about an hour), fly to Lusaka (another hour), wait there for a flight to Mfuwe, and unbeknownst to us, there was yet another hour and a half drive to Tafika Camp! One thing we did not realize was that Tafika has its own airstrip, so we could have saved the 1.5 hour drive and taken a light aircraft to arrive in camp in about 15 minutes. A big waste of a day for a 2-day stay at Tafika –we should definitely have stayed for 3 nights. I have a little complaint here. We were met by a guide named Isaac at Mfuwe and he was less than welcoming, maybe because we got there so late and that bothered him? (our flight landed at about 5pm). In my opinion, after such a long day’s travel, it would have been nice to be met by a safari vehicle and an attempt made to have a game drive on the way back to camp. It sure would have been more pleasant than the closed car he brought. I also thought the camp should have arranged to pack some sundowners and snacks for us. There was a beautiful sunset as we drove and it would have been lovely to stop for a bit and enjoy it. Instead, we had to request a drink of water (none offered), then we drove fast to get to camp and no one at all was there to greet us. The other guests were out on safari and the managers had gone to meet them for sundowners. It wasn’t the usual warm welcome at all.

South Luangwa NP Environment: In July the Luangwa River was nearly dried up, so you’re looking down an embankment at sand bars and some pools of water. You can see hippo and crocodile from camp. The NP, in this area, was pretty blasted by elephant and fire – sort of a lunar landscape. Lots of the land was barren with burnt tree trunks silhouetted against the sky. The camp itself had a green lawn and some nice mature leadwood trees around it.

Game: Our game drive was AWESOME. It was what I consider a ‘real’ drive. The guide actually read tracks and listened to animal warning cries, and followed them to find the game. Some guides return to kill sites over and over. Some guides radio back and forth to help each other find game. Some guides will never leave the main game roads. But this guide did it right. There were a lot of ravines and some waterholes and we saw Thornicroft’s giraffe, Crawshay’s zebra, kudu, prolific puku, and elephants crossing the river, and a young leopard. It was a bit ‘quiet’ in terms of game but we enjoyed the drives very much. The game we did see was very wild and wary of us, a noticeable difference from other camps.

Camp: I thought Tafika was the prettiest camp we stayed at. The main lodge is decorated beautifully with locally-painted fabrics. It’s a gorgeous thatched building with a tree in the middle. There are lounge chairs out in front facing the river. The thatched chalets are HUGE with two double beds in each and a fabulous bathroom. The showers were the strongest ever, no contender!! Chalets were placed far apart so there’s a lot of privacy.

Microlighting is offered here – you get a 15 minute ride early in the morning before your game drive, for $85. I’m sure it’s awesome but since we had limited time and we had seen the river from the light aircraft, we opted to set out a little earlier for our game drive instead.

Guide: We had Bryan Jackson, and again were lucky to get someone very experienced and knowledgeable, as well as friendly and down-to-earth with a great sense of humor. A high-quality guide.

Staff: Lots of people know John and Carol Coppinger and I know they have a legendary reputation, one of the reasons I was so looking forward to this camp. All I can say is that they did not make us feel welcome and in fact we felt we were getting the cold shoulder for some reason. I’m pretty sure this was some kind of one-time hiccup, but it happened, and so I’m reporting it! It didn’t matter much because they were gone practically the whole time we were there. They went to repair their radio relay station in the hills. The rest of the staff were sweet and friendly and we ended up having a great time with them.

PUKU RIDGE
Getting there: We had scheduled an overland transfer. I asked the Carol Coppinger whether she could help us arrange our transfer to Puku Ridge so that we had a partial game drive, especially since we had missed our drive the first night. She said no, we would have to go back towards Mfuwe and then on to Puku Ridge via the main road. Thankfully, after she left camp, our guide Bryan arranged things much better for us. He had another guide drive us through the Nsefu sector of the park on a 2.5 hour game drive (passing by Robin Pope’s Nsefu and Tena Tena Camps) and then Bryan met us with the car for the remaining 1.5 hours to Puku Ridge. I really appreciated that. If you decide to drive from a camp in the Nsefu sector to a camp in the Mfuwe sector, try to do the same thing and get at least part of the drive done on game tracks rather than the gravel road. If you transfer to Puku Ridge directly from Mfuwe airport, it’s a slow 2 hour game drive or a fast one hour drive. Request specifically how you want your transfers handled in advance, to make sure you get the most out of your day - ask for a game drive with snacks and drinks, or a fast drive on main roads. In season you can even ferry across the river during the transfer to and from Mfuwe airport. That was fun even though it only took 10 minutes. Puku Ridge gives you a warm welcome with the whole staff singing when you drive up!

South Luangwa NP Environment: Puku Ridge sits on a ridge overlooking a big wide valley, with forest in the distance. Game drives took place in the forest and criss-crossed over the valley area using two tracks. The park (unfortunately in my opinion) makes use of a main gravel road for the game drives. There are smaller game tracks leading off of this road. Driving along the road is verrrry dusty and noisy. The vegetation was typical winter bush, not especially pretty nor was it devastated by elephants.

Mmm, the moon was bright orange against the ink-black sky? I don’t know why but it was just as awesome as the sunset and lasted hours.

Game: Strangely in such a remote area, the game was very acclimated to vehicles and humans (staff at Tafika warned us about that, and actually looked down their noses at Puku Ridge/Chichele as too touristy). Even the impala did not run from us! So we got to see impala and puku close up, and elephant. We also saw a leopard and a pride of seven lionesses. But as I have already posted online, the whole experience was negatively impacted by the large number of vehicles in the area at the same time. Spotlights everywhere. We shared each sighting with other vehicles, which were also often right in front of us or behind us on the roads. And we saw them again when we stopped for sundowners. Each vehicle was full of guests, six or seven people. The guides would stop the car and exchange information and then move on to where they were told they could find the game. I didn’t like this at all.

Camp: Incredible facilities and the BEST manager I’ve met. I feel idiotic not remembering her name, I think it is Lindsey. She was totally empathetic to our needs and desires and made sure they were met. She is constantly thinking, thinking, thinking of what needs doing and how to do it best. You’ll love her! There was electricity (outlets in the rooms), hair dryers and ceiling fans☺! (It got hot during siesta.) The rooms are gigantic with two double beds, huge teak verandahs, sunken bathtubs and outdoor showers with views looking out on the floodplains. Great pool, better than a plunge pool, and it’s actually warm enough to swim in July. Close to Chichele Lodge, we could run over there to check out the shop.

Food: Meals were interesting here because the manager is experimenting with a fusion of Zambian and global ethnic recipes. For example, we ate a sort of burrito with salsa and avocado and impala meat! Also, there was an excellent moussaka. But I must say some of the food didn’t taste well. I believe the chefs are in a learning phase.

Another very nice touch was that the manager sensed that we were tired of forced socializing after our two weeks in the bush, and the first night she set us up with a private dinner table by the pool, and the second night she surprised us with dinner on our verandah with our own waiter. She did the same for other guests and I’m sure it was appreciated.

Guides: On the first night we had a guide from Chichele (5 min drive away) and he found us our urgently-requested leopard and lion (it was our last camp and we had barely seen cats). I can’t remember his name although I know it’ll come to me the minute I post this. The next day we had Lawrence. He was just OK. It was kinda like having a bored teacher. I believe the guides are much more intimidated/restricted here than in any of the other camps I’ve visited. They are absolutely frightened of going off-road because ‘other guides will report me’ and they are very abiding of all rules, which I suppose is a good thing, but I bet it would be different if we weren’t in view of all those other vehicles. I mean, I think the guides would be more enthusiastic if they had to work harder to find the game on their own rather than relying on one another to trade sightings.

I told Rocco this stuff in an email, and he made the very intelligent comment that he would have directed the guide to drive only where there were no other vehicles. Not knowing it would happen to us, we didn’t think of that, but if you go to that area of the park, it’s a good suggestion, depending of course on the other guests in the vehicle. Let me clarify it wasn’t only Puku Ridge Camp that was experiencing this crowd scene. We saw vehicles from Nkwali Camp, Mfuwe Lodge, and others, all driving around the same area. If I were doing the trip over again, I would skip Puku and stay longer at Tafika. But truly Puku Ridge Camp was very very lovely.

ZAMBEZI SUN

Well here was something we didn’t plan! Emerging from the bush in Lusaka, we were told that SAA was on strike and that all flights out of Lusaka were booked like forever. So we got a Proflight charter over to Livingstone thinking it might be easier to get to Jo’burg out of that airport – LOL nothing doing, so we stayed overnight here. Hey there isn’t a thing wrong with this hotel except that it belongs in Cancun! Nice architecture, nice bar and restaurant. WEIRD entertainment, Zambian people singing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’, etc. Best part – 5 min walk to see the Falls and the local market, with tame zebra grazing along the way. Rooms are motel-style but very nice and clean. Many families/young kids.

THE GRACE HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG

After a horrendous day trying our best to get out of Livingstone (I won’t bore you with the details but we were completely drained and stressed out and we were the last 2 standby passengers allowed onto the BA flight to Jo’burg) we arrived to find a mob scene at the airport. We had been hoping to try our luck with the European airlines but each desk had a queue a mile lone and SAA the worst of all. After the 6 hours spent at Livingstone Airport I could not handle that, so we checked into the Grace where I’ve stayed before. I want to give kudos to this hotel which is so utterly charming and luxurious in an understated and comfortable way. The staff could not be any more friendly and accommodating. Scattered around the public areas are free decanters of port and sherry and some snacks. Another nice thing about this hotel is that there’s a walkway connecting it to a mall with typical mall shops PLUS an authentic African curio market. Upstairs is a regular priced store and downstairs, you bargain. We had to stay here two nights but hey it sure could have been worse.

END
To appease the curious I’ll end by telling you we had to fly Swiss Air to Zurich, then Air Canada to Toronto, before connecting to our individual fights home to Chicago and Columbus. It was a nightmare and although I took out trip insurance, I’m not sure whether they will cover the high price I had to pay to get out of Jo’burg. We got home 3 days late and $10,000 in the hole.

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