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Re-Post: 2004 Safari Botswana & Zambia

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When I first posted my report last year, I was new to Fodor's and broke the report up into multiple threads. At the time, I did not have time to follow up on Kavey's suggestion to post everything in one place. Now, having topped individual portions in answer to recent questions, I thought I would do so. Here goes.

Well ... the lions did not get us ... the elephants did not trample us ... the hippos did not charge us ... the crocodiles kept their distance ... the mosquitoes were nonexistent - we're back safe and sound!

In a word, our adventure was FANTASTIC. Southern Africa is indeed a great destination - friendly people, perfect weather, spectacular scenery, and fabulous wildlife. We came away from the experience with the same thought everyone had expressed to us before our trip: you will want to go back again and again. We indeed want to go back again.

I'll warn you in advance that this is fairly lengthy. I'll be posting it in several chapters. For those who are interested in the visual rather than the written, I have a small portion of the 1600 photos I took on this trip posted in Yahoo Photos. The address is: http://photos.yahoo.com/eerkun. There are three albums - 09 Africa-1, 09 Africa-2 and 09 Africa-3. They follow the other albums on the site. Feel free to browse through any and all as I enjoy sharing travel experiences.

Our two-week trip started in New York City, the gateway for our flight to Johannesburg. We went to New York a day early: toured the United Nations; saw the fabulous Broadway musical, 42nd Street ; wandered the streets of New York City the next day until it was time to make our way to JFK International Airport.

We boarded our 15-hour non-stop flight to J'burg in the early evening hours of June 26. As anticipated, the legroom in coach on our SAA flight left a lot to be desired. It could have been worse though - on this sold-out flight we could have ended up in the middle of the four-together seats in the center. Instead we had the window and aisle seats on the left side of the aircraft, which afforded me the opportunity to experience a fabulous sunrise when we neared the continent ... my first African, and indeed my first southern hemisphere sunrise.

The Sandton Hilton was a good place for a layover - both at the beginning and end of our trip. On arrival, the nearby Village Walk Mall afforded us the means to stay awake until a decent bedtime hour, thereby eliminating any jet lag we might have suffered from the 7-hour time difference. Comfortable room amenities resulted in a good night's rest and the excellent buffet breakfast provided ample nourishment. Most importantly, when we returned to the Hilton at the end of our safari, it was such a pleasure to wake up in a warm room.

We could have stayed another night in the bush or in Zambia and taken the only flight from Livingstone to J'burg to connect directly to our overseas flight to the US. However, the less-than-four-hour connection margin was a little too close for comfort for an international flight. Our decision to return to J'burg a day in advance of our flight to the US was definitely validated by the delay we experienced at the front end of our safari (more on that later). Besides, we got a good night's rest before embarking our 19-hour flight back to the US and had a chance to do something we had been unable to do in the bush - shop! After tasting the Amarula liqueur served at the camps, we could not pass up bringing some home with us.

About the return flight. Thanks to the information we read on the boards, we were prepared for the stop that we had not been informed of by either Delta or SAA - in our case it was in Dakar, Senegal. We actually did not mind it too much. Even though we were not allowed to disembark, it helped to break the 19-hour flight into smaller segments - mentally, at least, the flight felt shorter. Since there were passengers disembarking in Dakar, there was a very extensive security search of the aircraft while we were on the ground. We were very impressed with how detailed the cabin search was - not only did they check the overhead bins after we had been asked to remove our carry-ons, but they hand searched each and every unoccupied seat.

We stayed in one "wet" camp and two "dry" camps in Botswana - Xigera, Chitabe Trails, Duma Tau. The water experience at Xigera was fantastic and we enjoyed the camp more than we thought we would. The staff managing Chitabe Trails was great - very personable and friendly. While we enjoyed every minute of our time there, in the future I think I would prefer to stick with raised camps. We have mixed feelings about Duma Tau. We had some of our best wildlife sightings at this camp. However, we did not click with the staff. Amongst the staff, there were exceptions - notably, Cilas our guide. Cilas was really fantastic. I believe the managers at this camp were temporary, and thus the feeling of camaraderie we sensed amongst the staff of the other camps was missing here. Then there were the small things: there was no in-tent coffee and tea, with hot water delivered shortly after the wake-up drums, and rather than a staff member placing hot water bottles in our beds, we were distributed bottles to take back to the tent with us after dinner. None of this really affected our overall enjoyment of the experience, I mention them only to point out some of the differences from Xigera and Chitabe Trails. (To answer questions regarding battery charging: at both Chitabe Trails and Duma Tau there was a single outlet in each tent designed for battery charging; don't attempt to plug any other appliances as you will blow the fuse [a fellow-guest did so]. At Xigera, outlets were conveniently available at the manager's office throughout the day. Make sure you have the appropriate adaptors with you. We took the C & D adaptors shown on www.magellans.com)

The food was excellent - home-style cooking, simple but tasty, served buffet-style. We were amazed to hear that none of the chefs had received any formal training. Nonetheless, they cooked up a veritable feast that was enjoyed by all. Plates were warmed to the point of being hot to help keep the food warm. The communal dinner table was set with linen or wicker placemats and fancy-folded napkins, and decorated with foliage collected from the surrounding bush, adding an unexpected touch of elegance.

Our accommodations in Livingstone, Zambia were slightly different. We were in more of a lodge environment - after a week in the bush, it felt decidedly odd to be locking our door again! I'll go into more detail about our accommodations here as there was little input on this property on the boards. Sussi & Chuma, operated by the Star of Africa, is located on the banks of the Zambezi River. Our boma-style thatch-roofed-room-on-stilts was high enough on the riverbank that it felt like it was actually in the canopy of the surrounding ebony trees. We had a very large bed/sitting area facing the Zambezi - folding glass doors, built into the front, afforded a spectacular view and some protection from the cold nighttime temperatures. In the dressing area, there was an enclosed flush toilet, a large tub with a separate shower stall, and a fridge stocked with drinks. Regular electricity meant we could charge batteries and use electrical appliances if need be. (Electric mattress pads replaced the hot water bottles used in the camps in Botswana.) Overlooking the river we also had a private veranda with two comfy chairs - a tranquil spot when the temperatures were warm enough to sit outside.

The public areas at S&C consisted of a hotel-style reception area and a two-floor dining/lounge structure. The lower level led to the swimming pool overlooking the Zambezi. On this level was also a day-bed for relaxing in the sun, a fire pit, and a dock for small motorboats. The food, I have to say, was quite bad the first day or so. Having the shareholders in camp for a board meeting took care of resolving that problem; the chef was promptly switched out and thereafter we had fairly good meals here as well. The atmosphere at the lodge was different; the intimacy of the camps was missing. A lot of that, and the few small problems we encountered, I think had to do with the fact that we were there at the end of the season. In fact, we were the only guests for the first two days, after which we were joined by a couple who had just concluded a hunting safari in Zambia. Considering the lodge could accommodate at least 20 guests, except for the baboons, hippos, and the occasional gecko, we had the place to ourselves.

The air charters from one camp to another were great. In two cases, we flew 13-seater propeller aircraft; in two others, we flew 6-seaters - small and cramped to say the least. It gets extremely warm in the cabin during the flight, so be prepared to take off any extra layers you may have put on. I will reiterate what experienced safari-goers have said - pay attention to the weight limits. They are critical. Use unstructured luggage; duffels work best. Don't overstuff your bags; they really need to squish and manipulate everything to make use of the tiniest spaces available in the incredibly small cargo space. Our luggage was weighed only once - at the airport in Maun, but I am sure the pilots are experienced enough to know when something is over the weight limits. It's a safety issue, so please do pay attention to the restrictions. (OK - I'll get off my soapbox now.)

You really can get along with a lot less clothing; especially as the camps include laundry service; at least all of ours did. As for toiletries such as shampoo and lotion, and bug repellents: we never once had to use our own small supply. I don't know, however, that I would leave them home as there is always that one time a camp might run out of something.

If you are going during the southern hemisphere winter months, be prepared for the cold. While it never got down to freezing at night while we were there, it was very cold after sunset, as well as when we left for the morning drives. The ponchos provided by the camps for the drives are great, but extra layering underneath is essential - especially if you tend to get chilled easily. I am forever grateful I spent $18 on a pair of glo-mitts (gloves with mittens covering the exposed fingers) - not only were my hands warm, but I could easily remove the mitten when I needed to use my camera. We made very good use of our wool head coverings, scarves, fleece jackets and silk long johns.

The mishap I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up happened on the Air Botswana flight from J'burg to Maun. (I can almost see the experienced safari-goers nodding their head and saying, no surprise.) First an hour's delay was announced - "we're changing aircraft," was the explanation. They actually started boarding us much sooner, but it was indeed an hour later that we were airborne on a 46-passenger ATR-42 twin-engine turboprop. The flight was uneventful, but did take longer to get to Maun because of the switch. (A word to the wise: if you are flying in from overseas and continuing directly to Maun without an overnight stay, make sure you collect your luggage at your first point of entry - probably J'burg for most. Several passengers were under the misguided impression that their luggage was checked directly to Maun and neglected to do so. And in fact, their luggage was checked through, but because they never cleared security in J'burg, the luggage remained at that airport while they flew on to Maun.)

The real problem was that although they had lined up the luggage on the tarmac and had everyone point out their bags before boarding the aircraft, they arbitrarily left some of it behind. Almost everyone on the flight had at least one piece missing; some got no luggage. The explanation was: "there wasn't enough cargo room on the smaller plane we switched to." Since we were scheduled to immediately fly out to the bush, we were a bit concerned about how we would get our missing piece. Sefofane, the charter company for our transfer flights, had good news - the luggage was on the only other flight to Maun later that afternoon.

We cannot fault Sefofane's hospitality, nor their handling of a problem that wasn't of their making. They had ice cold water waiting for us as soon as we cleared customs, which helped cool down more than just simmering tempers. After collecting our on-hand luggage, they took us to their comfortable headquarters lounge. We relaxed there for the next two hours, browsing through books about the Okavango and the indigenous wildlife. In the end, we lost most of our first day in camp, but at least we were reunited with our missing piece. The wondrous nature of the rest of the trip and the friendliness of the locals helped alleviate the frustration of this one glitch.

A short aside here. While we were waiting for our flight to Maun, we met Catherine, the wife of the owner of Abu Elephant Camp. She mentioned that they were selling the camp to return to the States (her husband is originally from Oregon). I later heard at Chitabe Trails that the sale had in fact gone through and that Wilderness was going to be managing this camp on behalf of the new owners.

Next Chapter: Xigera

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    Now, onto the camps in Botswana. I am not going to go into details about the camps since so many of the board participants are already familiar with them and there is ample information on the web about each camp. Instead I will focus on the wildlife sightings.

    Keeping our unexpectedly late arrival in mind, the manager at Xigera had arranged for us to immediately go out for a mokoro ride. As a first timer, allow me to wax poetical about this experience.

    There are no words to adequately describe the astounding nature of a mokoro ride. First of all, there is no noise - none whatsoever. Your hear just the occasional sounds of nature: an animal sounding off in the distance; the swishing whispers of the reeds as the mokoro glides through papyrus-lined channels; the "plop" of a water drop falling from the end of the pole; the gentle whoop-whoop of the flapping wings of a bird flying home to roost - all natural and all barely audible. Total tranquility reigns. It's as though you're in a religious sanctuary. Riding in a mokoro, you automatically start whispering because you don't want to disturb the peace.

    "By the way," Matt (one of our polers) said, breaking into our reverie during our first mokoro ride, "don't worry about that big ole' croc; it's winter and they are lazy now." Until then, we had not noticed the scaly-skinned predator lying along the edge of a termite-mound-turned-island just a couple meters (couple of yards) from us. We were glad to have caught the crocs being lazy - a mokoro would be a flimsy thing to be in during a close encounter with a crocodile!

    On the morning of our departure from Xigera we did a longer mokoro ride. This experience was enhanced by great wildlife sightings: lots and lots of colorful birds, giraffes browsing on acacia, an elephant browsing in the brush - a lone bull that was just a couple of meters/yards from us; we were close enough to look him in the eye as he lifted his trunk to sniff the air when he realized he was no longer alone. Two very rare sightings rounded out the experience: a sitatunga and a Pels fishing owl.

    We also had an opportunity to travel through the deeper channels of the delta by motorboat, which allowed us to see hippos - rather, we mostly heard them since they were hidden in the papyrus and not inclined to show themselves.

    Even though it was a wet camp, we had our first game drive at Xigera. We saw impala by the hundreds - sneeze-like sounds alerted us to two males sparring in the brush while a herd of females looked on. We also came across a breeding herd of elephants. Needless to say, we kept our distance. Just seeing the elephants trudging through the bush was an unforgettable experience - it was a large herd and they kept coming and coming and coming. Our spot in the open plains afforded us an excellent vantage point for seeing these giants of the bush do what they do naturally; eat, eat and eat some more; I won't go into the pooping that followed all that browsing!

    But wait! How could I forget our midnight visitors - and on our first night in the bush! It was a little after midnight that I woke to the sound of toppling trees and branches being shredded. The baboons in the trees were going nuts. It didn't take a genius to figure out that the ellies we had seen near our tent earlier in the evening had come to dinner!

    Despite the warnings to stay inside the tent no matter what, it was impossible to resist the temptation to at least open the sliding doors to see them chomping at the vegetation at the edge of our veranda. With the nearly-full moon as the only source of illumination, we could barely make out their bulk and the glistening white tusks. The scene reminded me of a caption under a photo in Okavango, Sea of Land, Land of Sea - I paraphrase: "... the elephant, itself the color of darkness, faded into the darkening skyline." And that is what they did - sensing our presence and raising their trunks to smell the air, they continued to break off branches and twigs before fading into the darkness of the night. Next morning, the destruction in the foliage fronting our tent was all the proof we needed that we had not dreamed the episode. Welcome to the African bush!

    Next Chapter: Chitabe Trails

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    Our next camp was Chitabe Trails. We had no water activities here, although we did drive out to the Gomoti Channel one day to see the hippos. There was a whole pool full of them - sunk all the way into the water so that only their eyes and twitching ears were visible. Every once in a while, one of them would yawn, showing off its cavernous pink mouth. Nearby, crocodiles sunned themselves on shore, occasionally slithering into the water to feed off an elephant carcass. As Ebs, our guide, put it, there was no need for them to hurry up and gorge themselves; the cold waters of the Gomoti provided a natural refrigerator for the carcass.

    Folk tales about the animals of Africa abound. I am going to insert a story here that was related to us by Wendy from Australia, a fellow-guest at Chitabe Trails visiting the bush for the third or fourth time. You may have heard or read a different version of it. As with all folk tales, this one has more than likely undergone changes with each telling. In any event, here goes - this is how it was told to me:

    When the Creator made the hippo, he made a very handsome creature indeed. The hippo had long, coppery golden hair that was smooth as silk; he was very proud of his hair coat. The hippo was good friends with fire. He loved his friend, and asked him to come for a visit. The fire was touched, but he warned his friend the hippo, "no one wants me to visit." The hippo, however, insisted.

    One day, the fire came to visit. The hippo was so happy to see his friend that he ran out to greet him. Alas, all his beautiful hair burned in the fire. He jumped into the river to soothe his now tender skin. After realizing that all his beautiful hair was gone, he determined to stay in the river for the rest of his life. The crocodile, however, was not happy with this plan and complained to Creator: "he'll eat all the fish in the river."

    Creator went to the hippo and told him he could not stay in the river all the time. The hippo begged him, saying he could not leave since he had no hair; he promised not to eat any fish. The crocodile did not trust the hippo; he asked Creator for proof that the hippo was not going to eat the fish. So Creator told the hippo that everyday he would have to open his mouth wide so Creator could look down his throat and see if there was any fish in the hippo's stomach. Also, he said, "you will have to go on land at night to do your poop so I can check your dung for fish bones."

    And that's why to this day the hippo spends its days in the water and comes on land at night.

    Back to the safari. Our first game drive at Chitabe Trails was definitely a highlight of the trip. Just 20 minutes in our game vehicle and we had our first lion sighting - a male. He was obviously not in the mood for hunting. He just ambled down the dirt road directly towards us, paying no attention whatsoever to the kudu in plain sight at the tree line. He stuck around for a while and checked us out while we checked him out. Having him so close that he literally brushed up against our Landrover was the thrill of a lifetime.

    Shortly thereafter, we came across more lions - another male and three females; Ebs identified them as part of the Chitabe Pride. They were a bit lazier - one of the lionesses was fast asleep on her back, legs in the air; the other two were alternately snoozing and grooming themselves. One of them deigned to eventually get up, go do its business in a nearby bush, and then come and sit right in front of the vehicle. The male lion mostly sat around, periodically yawning wide to give us a glimpse of his huge pink mouth and big, sharp teeth. Eventually he ambled over to the females as though to say: "get up, time to go hunting." Shortly thereafter, they walked past our Landrover and into the deepening darkness. My one regret here is that I was so busy photographing these magnificent creatures, I forgot to get pictures of us with the lions - it was a perfect photo op missed.

    We later came across the pride again. On an evening drive, we stalked them as they stalked a herd of Cape buffalo. The lions crouched in the tall grass and inched forward towards the passing herd of hundreds upon hundreds of buffalo. They were so intent on their quest that they completely disregarded the honey badger that accidentally wandered into their midst. The badger's quick halt and even speedier return to where it came from was hilarious to see - as though to say, "oops, don't mean to intrude!" Neither did the lions pay any attention to us; except to periodically gaze back as though to see if we were up to anything.

    The patience the lions showed as they waited to single out the one animal they wanted to go after was amazing. The buffalo were definitely tense. As they crossed the opening, they would stop and look down the narrow path - it was as though they knew something was wrong, but couldn't quite put their finger (perhaps I should say, "their hoof") on it. All they could see was our vehicle; motionless as the sphinx, the lions were camouflaged by the golden grass that perfectly matched their coloring. We did not stay for the kill, as by that time the sun was well set and in the pitch dark we would not have been able to see much. The next morning, we came across the two males again; they had the contented mannerisms of well-fed lions so I imagine their hunt was a success.

    Before the hunt, we had come across the same herd of buffalo in a wide open range. Never mind that a great many of them are bulls, my husband calls the Cape buffalo "his girls" - he nicknamed them as such because of their wide, upswept horns - they remind him of cartoonish, Heidi-style pigtails with the hair parted down the middle. It was a pretty large herd, spread out as far as the eye could see; nearly 1000 was Ebs' guess. They paid no mind to us when we stopped the vehicle in their midst; simply made sure the calves were in protected circles and went about grazing on nature's bounty.

    Another animal of interest to us was the cheetah, which we sighted twice. The first was a very shy animal that quickly lost itself amongst the tall grasses that offered such a perfect cover for it. The second cheetah, being less shy, parked himself in the clearing in front of our vehicle. He watched us just as intently as we watched him. Playing with us a game of "I can outstare you," he sat around until he became bored with us and lazily ambled away.

    Next Chapter: Duma Tau

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    Duma Tau was our last camp. This camp definitely gave us some of our ultimate sightings - a great deal of thanks go to Cilas, who is an outstanding tracker. We asked and he found. His understanding of the animals, their behavior, and preferred habitat, as well as his knowledge of the area served us well indeed.

    We celebrated the 4th of July with two lionesses and three cubs - Cilas's guess was two boys and a girl, about two months old. When we first encountered them they were just finishing suckling; it was breakfast time after all. They soon rose and ambled down the dirt road, letting us follow right behind them. Watching the cubs padding along single-file, with their mother prodding them along, was a special experience. Eventually, they entered a thicket - we followed. I didn't think we could get through the bushes and trees, but knowing the 4x4's capabilities, Cilas took us to and through places where no man had been before - literally over saplings and bushes that bounced right back up behind us and dead tree stumps that crackled as we drove over them. The hard, bouncy ride was worth it. The lions finally came to rest on one of the thousands of termite mounds that dot the Botswana landscape. For at least 30 minutes we watched the cubs until they wearied and joined their mother in a snooze under the ever-warming sun. (As an aside, this was one of the few times we really went off-road, and I must say I was happy to see that the guides did not gratuitously go off-roading and thus damage the environment.)

    During a mid-day boat ride on the Linyanti we had our first sighting of elephants carousing in the water. Until then, almost all of our sightings had been of them browsing on land. It was such a treat to see them enjoying themselves as well as each other in a different setting. While many of them stayed on shore, protecting the calves from wandering too far into the water and drowning, others moseyed into the depths where they played - either alone or with others. It was hilarious to watch them wrestling with and dunking each other - just like humans cavorting in the water. A young ellie pretended to be a submarine, submerging himself far enough that only the top of his head and the tip of his trunk was visible. One calf was of particular interest as he had lost most of his trunk to the lions. Unlike the others, he had to kneel down to the water for a drink. Our guide said that since the trunk is so much more than just a means for drinking water, the chances of his surviving for long were nil. A sad thing for us to hear, but it reiterated that in the wild the survival of the fittest rules.

    Hippos also abounded in the Linyanti. While a great many of them were submerged, we also got to see them rushing out from the reeds lining the riverbank into the water - I'm glad we were not standing in their way of reaching the water; they would have run right over us! We later saw more hippos in pools of water infested with salvinia molesta - a plant that invades waterways and chokes off the water as it consumes all the oxygen. Landscape-wise, it was a beautiful scene, but obviously this plant is quite detrimental to the environment. The hippos didn't seem to mind much, though, and looked to be using the greenery on the water's surface for added camouflage.

    It was at Duma Tau that we had our one and only leopard sighting. I have to say Cilas's exceptional tracking skills were really demonstrated here. What we would have passed by as scuff marks in the Kalahari sand, he recognized as the drag marks of a kill. Following them, he led us to the mopane tree where a leopard had cached his impala kill. Leopard sightings are notoriously rare, so we were particularly glad to be able to see this one in action - even though he bolted shortly after we saw him hidden amongst the branches.

    Our last morning in camp brought with it a truly special sighting. Cilas decided to once again check the long-dried-out Savuti River Channel where the night before we had glimpsed a couple of wild dogs. We were in the middle of our tea break in the company of a herd of zebra and some impala when Cilas called out for us to drop everything and get in the 4x4. We all moved with lightning speed, never stopping to ask why. Off we went to a distant point where he had spotted a couple of dogs running. They were mere specks on the horizon when we finally saw them for ourselves. Considering how well they blended into the natural setting of the bush, it truly was an amazing feat for Cilas to have seen them from where we had stopped for tea.

    We quickly lost sight of the dogs, but the palpable sense of alertness amongst the impala herd at a standstill in front of us signaled the dogs were not far off. Suddenly, out of the thicket on the far side, animals started streaming out at an alarming speed - more impala, followed by zebra. In the blink of an eye, behind us appeared a baby kudu with two dogs nipping at its heels. I couldn't help but whisper, "oh, no - go, go, go," as it seemed inevitable that he was about to go down; they quickly disappeared out of view in the brush on the opposite side.

    With an uncanny ability to pinpoint where the dogs would come out, Cilas took us to a clearing hidden from view by the trees. And there they were. The kudu had gotten away, but not an impala that had apparently been hiding in the trees. It was no more than 3-5 minutes from the moment we lost sight of the dogs to when we found them, and yet there was little left of the impala - just bits and pieces of its carcass and its head. Knowing that the wild dog kill is one of the most ferocious, I was glad we had not seen, or heard for that matter, the actual moment of the kill; what we did see was brutal and bloody enough to put me off food for the next little while.

    What added drama to the scene was the arrival of a hyena, a notable scavenger of the bush. After snarling at each other and scuffling for a bit, I was surprised to see the dogs let the hyena take away a chunk of the hind quarters of the kill. Moving in front of our vehicle, he started in on his morning treat, shooing off members of his own pride when they tried to scavenge from him. It did not take the hyena long to devour his piece - the crunching sounds as he chewed through the bones was amazing to hear and a testament to the strength of its jaw. No wonder we saw so few animal bones as we traversed the bush.

    Next Chapter: Vic Falls

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    From Duma Tau we headed to Zambia. We had opted to put Vic Falls at the end of our safari so we could use the time along the banks of the Zambezi for R&R after our time in the bush. The Bundu people of Zambia believe the Zambezi River has a spirit called Nyami Nyami. This spirit brings them water to grow crops and fish to eat, so they call the Zambezi "the river of life." Everywhere we looked along the banks of the river, there was life indeed. In fact, the fast-flowing Zambezi, with its eddies and rapids, conveyed a sense of liveliness and vibrancy that had been missing from our lazy-water experiences in the Delta.

    We had little expectation of seeing many animals here, but we were quickly proven wrong. On our way from the airport to the lodge, a traffic jam alerted us to a herd of elephants browsing alongside the paved road. A mixed herd, they served as a great welcoming committee for Zambia - although Tindai, our driver, said they were visiting from Zimbabwe. We saw baboons and vervet monkeys in the trees and had a monkey waiting to greet us at the door to our room. Hippos abounded in the river and roamed the lodge grounds freely at night - we did not actually see them do so, but the ruckus they made was a sure sign of their presence!

    On our first activity, a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi, a herd of elephants crossing the channel in the company of semi-submerged hippos was the perfect complement to the beauty of our surroundings. In the nearby national park, a game drive revealed to us the last of the big five we had yet to check off our list of sightings - the white rhino. We were lucky enough to see all three of the animals that were introduced into the park. A couple of game rangers invited us to get out of the vehicle and walk into the opening to get a closer glimpse. Seeing there was plenty of trees to provide cover should the rhino decide to charge, we accepted their invitation. It was quite an experience to be on the ground with these hulking animals; this photo op I did not miss!

    Victoria Falls was the "natural phenomenon" highlight of our stay at Sussi & Chuma; perhaps even of our entire adventure. Having been repeatedly warned, we were well prepared to get soaked while viewing the falls. Our camera equipment was wrapped in specially designed rain capes. My husband had quick-drying clothes and an extra pair of shoes; not the case for me. So, I went legless - that is, I took off the zip-off legs of my pants. To boot, I removed my socks and wore sandals. Under the hooded, knee-length oilskin poncho provided by our guide, I wore my own rain jacket. The early morning air was cold enough to raise goose bumps on my exposed legs, but it was worth it. My torso stayed dry, while everything else dried quickly in the warmer mid-morning temperatures once our walk was completed. Best of all - I got to enjoy our wet and wild visit to Vic Falls.

    Even though we had read much about them, we still were not prepared for the immensity of the falls and the power of the Zambezi plunging down the cataracts carved out over millennia. We've seen many waterfalls in our travels - some a rivulet gently streaming down a rock face; others a wide wall thundering down a chasm. But ... Victoria Falls was quite something else.

    Our first glimpse of Vic Falls will stick with us for a long time to come - clear blue skies above; the warming rays of the sun streaming in at a perfect angle to create a brilliant rainbow set against the turbulent white surf of the falls; a mantle of mist enveloping the entire scene, giving it an ethereal quality. The natives call the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya - the smoke that thunders; most definitely the right description. The water does indeed thunder as it plummets over the lip of the gorge and the mist is a filmy, all-encompassing shroud.

    The falls cover a wide area of gorges and cannot be seen in their entirety from any one point. Each turn you take along the pathways across from the falls reveals a different and powerful spectacle of nature. We were fairly lucky - the real high-water season was over, although the water level was still higher than usual. The falls, therefore, while periodically hidden behind the mist created by the thunderously plunging water, were sometimes clearly visible to us. Most of the time, though, we felt like we were watching the falls from behind a filmy curtain that was periodically lifted to give us a glimpse of the spectacular nature of the sight in front of us.

    We started off at the Eastern Cataract where the waters of the Zambezi tumble over the lip of the high canyon walls to create the falls. It was dry there. It didn't stay dry for long. As we made our way along the path, and across the bridge spanning a gorge facing the falls, we were grateful for the warnings that had encouraged us to dress appropriately. It felt more like we were walking in pouring rain than under a clear blue sky - a rain against which no umbrella could have offered protection; that's how powerful the mist falling back to earth was.

    Later that morning we crossed over to Zimbabwe to see the falls from that side as well. Getting our day visas was painless. After driving across the Victoria Falls Bridge, we made our way to the park, and wandered the paths and trails along the falls, getting an even more fantastic glimpse into this marvel of nature - newly created gorges combined with well developed ones to provide an awesome experience that was equally wet. Starting at Devil's Cataract, we were soaked almost from the moment we stepped up to the overlook; we got progressively wetter, if that's possible. At some points, the rain-like mist was so heavy that forget taking photos, we couldn't even open our eyes. The highlight on this side was the view of Main Falls, where we could actually see an entire sheet of water toppling down from top to bottom as it churned over the lip and into the river below.

    From a wildlife perspective, there was something equally as thrilling as Vic Falls for us - an elephant-back safari. In the early morning hours of our first day in Livingstone, we went to a nearby camp that is home to orphaned elephants - two of them were orphaned during culling operations in Zimbabwe and another four were orphaned during a bad drought there. These ellies were brought to the camp as they would have been unable to survive in the wild. By allowing visitors a close encounter, they serve as ambassadors for the preservation of their species.

    Our morning started out with a safety briefing, and then we were introduced to the ellies. I've never thought of myself as small, but having multi-ton Danny, one of the bulls, come up to little ole 5'2" (1.5m) me, made me feel downright diminutive. Standing nose to trunk, he raised his trunk to sniff my hand in greeting. There was a gentle glint in his eye, as though to say, "don't worry, I'm your friend; I won't hurt you." Wow is all I can say - it's an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

    Shortly thereafter, we were on the backs of these gentle giants. Because one of the ellies was pregnant, Danny carried four people on side saddles; the others took two guests each. Each elephant also carried a handler. A videographer and an armed guide followed us on foot. Mui and I rode astride Lewa, one of the ellies orphaned during the drought. Together with her handler, Christopher, she took us on a ride through the national park and along the banks of the Zambezi. Her slow, plodding gait was surprisingly quiet as we rode through the bush. In our saddle, we gently swayed side to side in a motion reminiscent of a cradle. She and her buddies gave us the ride of a lifetime - when they weren't stopping to sample the bounty of nature every other step. A branch too hard to break off? No problem, let's just take the entire sapling with us! And so we made our way through the bush while Lewa munched away - it gave "take away food" a whole new meaning!

    Following the ride, we had an opportunity to interact more closely with our ellie. Feedbag in hand, I sat on Lewa's bent knee and fed her - sometimes commanding her "trunk down" to place food pellets directly into her trunk. In a very trusting way she laid her head on my shoulder; ugh! That was quite a weight to bear, but bear it with a smile I did before taking over the camera so Mui could take his turn feeding Lewa.

    Next Chapter: Conclusion

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    I described the highlights of our wildlife sightings in the previous postings; for those interested here is a full list - I think I remembered to write them all down:

    Big 5 (or 6 if you include the Hippo): African Elephant (in our front yard at Xigera, at watering holes, from the air, on land, playing in the river, and nose to trunk on the elephant-back safari), Cape Buffalo (by the hundreds), Leopard (in the tree with an impala kill), White Rhino, Hippo, Lion (males, females, cubs; and stalking Cape buffalo)

    Others (including antelope and primates): Chacma Baboon (mostly in camp; known as Yellow Baboon in Zambia), Vervet Monkey (mostly in camp), Lesser Bush Baby, Tsessebe (welcoming committee at Xigera airstrip, and larger herds later in the trip), Impala (at Chitabe airstrip, and everywhere we turned), Sitatunga (romping through the water at Xigera - extremely rare to see), Reedbuck, Red Lechwe, Greater Kudu, Common Waterbuck, Chobe Bushbuck, Warthog, Southern Giraffe (send off party at the Xigera airstrip, and in groups later in the trip), Mongoose, Nile Crocodile, Black-Backed Jackal, Blue Wildebeest, Cheetah, Ostrich (male and female, and doing the mating dance), Spotted Hyena (in the open, and scavenging at a wild dog kill), Plains (Burchell's) Zebra, Honey Badger, Spring Hare, African Wild Dogs (highly endangered; running in the open, and at an impala kill)

    Feathered Friends: African Fish Eagle, Bee Eater, Pied Kingfisher, Black Egret, White Egret, Slaty Egret, Burchell's Glossy Starling, Gray Hornbill, Green Spotted Dove, Black Winged Stilt, Coppery Tailed Coucal, African Darter, Pels Fishing Owl (very rare to see), African Green Pigeon, Lilac Breasted Roller, Ground Hornbill (inky black and large wings folded behind them, they looked like a cartoon figure of a bent over undertaker, dressed in black, arms folded behind him), Bateleur Eagle, Hamerkop, Grey Lourie (also known as the Go-Away Bird because of the way its call sounds), Frogs & Toads (by the thousands - unseen but definitely heard), Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Francolin (known as road runner for its habit of running on the road in front of vehicles), Saddle-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Long-Tailed Shrike, Crowned Plover, White-Backed Vulture, Tawny Eagle, Yellow-Billed Hornbill (known as the flying banana due to the color and shape of its bill), Red-Billed Hornbill, African Wood Owl (welcoming committee on the railing of our veranda at Duma Tau), Red-Billed & Yellow-Billed Ox Peckers (usually perched on the back of a buffalo, zebra, or even on hippo and warthog), Black Smith Plover, Spur-Winged Goose, Whistling Duck, Brown Snake Eagle, African Jacana

    There were some animals we did not see - namely any snakes. No regrets on that score. Although Stretch, one of the camp staff at Chitabe Trails, did have a close call when a deadly puff adder attacked him (we were in our tent at the time). Luckily he was wearing long pants and the bite did not penetrate. Needless to say, we immediately changed his name to "Lucky Stretch."

    I said it at the beginning, and I will say it again: all in all, our trip was FANTASTIC. The native people of Botswana and Zambia were friendly and welcoming. Fellow-guests at each of the camps were good companions. The amazing landscape was a reminder that there are still places on earth untainted by civilization. The clear day and night skies were a real treat - seeing countless stars in the sky was quite a different experience from the norm of our lives - the gossamer-like Milky Way and the Southern Cross were especially exciting to see.

    One of the nice touches at each camp was a personalized welcome and farewell note from the management and staff. So, I'll end with the sentiment on one of those cards - Tsamaya Sentle; simply put - goodbye and go well.

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    Great report. Though from experience a Wild Dog kill is actually much easier to watch than Lions taking down something big like a Buffalo or young Elephant (seen the latter, would prefer not to see it again).

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