The Patient Travelers in Zimbabwe and South Africa – October 2-22, 2012
While I've told some stories in another post: http://www.fodors.com/community/africa-the-middle-east/long-awaited-return-to-southern-africa.cfm This is the actual, formal trip report.
Something most travelers have in common is a desire to learn and be engaged in something, or some place, different from home. We were first drawn to Africa in 2004. Our safari experience in Botswana, flying between three different camps over a weeks’ time, charmed us from the first moment. It seemed everyone else we met was on their fourth, or tenth, or even eighteenth safari. We were blown away by the intelligent and enthusiastic guides, trackers, and camp staff we met and felt we “knew” after sharing but two days and nights. The bush and the delta landscapes were mesmerizing. The wildlife – the primary “drawing card” – did not fail to amaze us. We knew that while we may not become as experienced as most of our fellow guests, we would be back again.
Having just returned from our second set of adventures in Africa, I’m struck by how much wider my eyes were opened on this trip, how much more I’ve learned about the countries and people we visited, and how important it was to remain patient and let everything unfold at its own pace. More than being a “slow traveler” in Europe or elsewhere, Africa demands time and patience, and patience is always (eventually?) rewarded.
Wow. Impressed myself with the prosaic introduction. Now I’m going to have to pump up the journal entries I made on the little note-pad app to match that level, so here goes:
There are more flight options from the US to Africa now, and this time we flew Delta’s non-stop from Atlanta to Johannesburg, after a shorter flight from Raleigh-Durham. Delta now offers an affordable upgrade to “Economy Comfort” for those of us who don’t have the points or budget for Business or First Class. I had taken advantage of this offer for the flight over and we were pleased that I had done so. Every seat on the flight was filled, and extra legroom plus a deeper seat recline is invaluable on a 16-hour flight. So too, was the ability to arrive at our destination with fully charged electrical devices.
The safari portion of this trip was booked through Zambezi Travel’s Victoria Falls Office. Chris Worden and his staffers, Liz and Helen, took care of every detail and provided us with excellent information about what to expect from each stop, transfer, and activity we booked. When we arrived in Johannesburg, a driver was there to greet us and help me find the Voda-Com desk, where I could purchase sim cards for my phone and iPad (I knew these wouldn’t work in Zimbabwe, but I wanted to be ready for the Cape Town/Garden route portion of our trip when we returned from safari, ten days later.)
Our driver took us to Outlook Lodge, just far enough from the airport to provide peace and quiet, and an EXCELLENT bed and bathroom with a huge tub and wonderful walk-in shower. http://www.outlook-lodge.com/ And yet, it was still hard to sleep. We awoke around 4:30AM, made ourselves stay in bed until 6:30, then took advantage of the fantastic shower once again. I REALLY needed sunshine, and fortunately that morning was gorgeous. We walked the pretty grounds, played with the two dogs, and then had a wonderful breakfast before we were again picked up and taken to the airport to catch an 11:25AM BA flight to Victoria Falls.
Oops. First snag: the BA flight was delayed from 11:25 til 2:00. Meaning we lost the day to travel. But at least they gave us vouchers for a meal, and we met a charming young American couple on their first Africa trip. They were headed to one of the Botswana camps we’d visited back in ’04, so we gave them our glowing reviews and kept their spirits up. Once we arrived at Victoria Falls and gathered our two checked duffel bags, a driver from Wild Horizons was there to whisk us to Ilala Lodge. http://www.ilalalodge.com/
While we had planned to see the Falls that afternoon, it was 5:00PM by the time we checked in, and although we knew the Falls were a short walk, the helpful lady at the front desk told us the park closed at 6PM and we might prefer spending more time there the next day. Probably good advice, we decided. Our brains still felt like mashed potatoes.
The Ilala hotel is nice. We had a good room with a great bed. We enjoyed a couple of Windhoek beers at the inviting and comfortable outdoor bar. Chatted with an Aussie couple and their 20-something son, who was planning to do EVERY adventurous offering possible. Oh to be that young and athletic again!
The menu looked interesting and seemed well-priced, so we decided to eat dinner there. I’d read some mixed reviews about the hotel’s food, but we very much enjoyed a kudu steak, grilled loin of warthog, and a glass of a good South African Cabernet. Plus the waiters were charming, easy to chat with, and the night had cooled.
The next morning we’d scheduled to meet Charles Brightman, of the Victoria Falls Anti-poaching Unit at 6:15AM. Steve wakes me with a start...It's 6 AM! Woke me from sound sleep, only to discover it was merely 12:30. We finally get up at 5:30, shower and dress to be in the lobby at 6:15 for pickup. About 6:45, we have the desk clerk call, and discover they had us down for the next morning. To be honest, we really didn’t mind postponing to the next morning. This was, in all truth, the first actual day of our vacation. We have the luxury of all that time ahead of us.
Besides, the breakfast buffet they were laying out in the dining room looked scrumptious…and we very much enjoyed it. About 9AM, we take the walk to the Falls, and nearly have it to ourselves. Amazing. Yes, the water levels are “low” but this still is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Mist, rainbows, DOUBLE rainbows, flowers, beautiful birds, some cute banded mongoose (mongeese?) We make our way down to the bridge overlook, and watch to see if there are any bungee jumpers. No takers, maybe it is too early? Too hot? On the way back, we have a great view of folks climbing into the Devils’ Pool on the Zambia side. The temperature has climbed to the mid 30s C. We sweat all the way home and, possibly because of the heat, are only approached by one or two fellows selling carvings, who are easily dissuaded when a couple of uniformed guys appear on bikes. While not as exotic as the Devils’ Pool, we decide to take dip in the hotel pool. WONDERFUL. We are joined at the pool by two couples from Florida. They had broken away from a tour that had been at several safari camps, and the heat had been too much for them. They decided to go to Victoria Falls to stay in air-conditioned comfort for a couple of days ahead of their group, who would be finishing up with a night across the street at The Kingdom. They had spent one night there, and decided it was too much like Las Vegas, so they were happy to get rooms at Ilala instead. It seemed they made the right decision for them.
In the meantime, the hotel’s lunch menu was quite inviting. I LOVED my grilled crocodile and potato salad. Told my husband it tastes kinda like…. alligator.
We headed back to our room to nap before walking into town to check out the market and shops. We had AC off, the fan on and the windows open. The birds were singing…there was just something about that breeze…the sunshine we’d enjoyed…that nice cold Zambezi beer with lunch…I actually fell asleep, and I’m not a napper.
It’s hard to think about buying souvenirs at the beginning of a long trip, but having seen what the JNB airport shops carried, I figured we might do a bit to contribute to the Vic Falls economy. First we walked into "town". I thought I would at least see a pharmacy, maybe a grocer...but mostly it was just tourist goods in shops. On the street, the touts try to sell you 10 billion+ Zimbabwe bills...for $1. It is sad when you think that one time – and only a few years ago -- someone worked hard for that currency, saved it, etc. Now it is virtually worthless. There are some wonderful bargains to be found. We particularly liked the “Elephant Walk Market”, simply as it was located in a grove of shade trees, and caught what breezes there were, plus manufactured them with strategically placed fans. Inviting shops, and a small cultural exhibit detailing Zimbabwean crafts. There are beautiful giant sculptures exemplary of Shona stone carving. You would need to be wealthy enough not only to buy them, but to ship them home. I limited myself to three woven flat bowls with geometric designs. I negotiated a price of $6 per piece. I know similar pieces were selling in the airport gift shops for two to three times that price.
Showered and dressed for dinner we headed to the bar for drinks. I’ve decided I like Zambezi beer, but that night, I enjoyed the Ilala 's special Pimms cocktail: ginger ale with muddled mint, garnished with Granny Smith apple sticks. Steve’s rather a devotee of IPAs, and is pretty much out of luck, so he must stick with lager. We chatted with a couple from England. She had been awakened early in the morning, and looked out their window to see a leopard! We had only seen warthogs, baboons, vervet monkeys and an elephant or two. We are a bit surprised a leopard would show up in such a populated area.
We had an excellent dinner with a bottle of Molderbosch rose wine. I had a baked brie appetizer, Steve had Kingclip fish cakes, then I had the warthog and Steve a rib-eye steak. This hotel has a very good chef. The waiters are proud of their knowledge of the menu - where the vegetables come from, etc.
Finally, both of us had a good night sleep. We woke around 5:30, dressed and were picked up by Charles Brightman at 6:15 to tag along with the Vic Falls Anti-poaching unit. Charles is an enthusiastic and dedicated professional. He gives an informative presentation of how they are working to stop poaching, not only of animals, but also of indigenous hardwoods. At one time, poachers were mostly people trying to provide for their families, but now there is a professional element that is more dangerous, and for whom the financial rewards are great. Yet the VFAPU has seen continued success over the past several years, and they need to keep their focus and continue their programs of policing, education, and community involvement.
We then piled into Charles’ vehicle and drove to a park entrance, where after coffee and a brilliant tomato-and-cheese sandwich prepared by Mrs. Brightman, we picked up a young scout and walked a trail looking for evidence of poachers’ snags. For us it was mostly a wonderful walking safari. We saw tracks of a busy previous night: giraffe, water buffalo, elephants, leopards, hyenas, various species of antelope, etc. I thought I got some good pictures of a couple of amazing maribou storks and a flock of parrots. (Later, something happened while downloading my photos, and I seemed to have lost them, along with some we’d taken at the Falls the day before). We learned so much about fauna and flora, and discussed many environmental issues that relate to the economically challenged Zimbabwe of today.
We asked if the lady’s sighting of a leopard right outside her hotel window was possible, and he confirmed that it was. Leopards are very adaptable, and he had recently lost some house cats to a leopard. We saw some impala, and a large herd of buffalo. We picked up a couple plastic bags, and plucked a large white poachers' bag from the river’s mud. It was a wonderful experience and much more worthwhile to us than any of the touristy activities on offer in Vic Falls. He offered to comp the tour, as he was truly embarrassed to have had us down for the wrong date, but we refused. The money was “spent” and we would rather have the money go as a donation to VFAPU.
Besides, our trip was unfolding at its own pace, and we were becoming adapted to a smaller world that has challenges and frustrations that are much more basic than those of a couple of retirees on vacation from North Carolina. Back at the hotel, as we readied for the road transfer to Imbabala, the TV news has reports of power and water shortages in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. Obviously, it wouldn’t impact our trip. And of course, the results from a recent Cricket Test-match: Tourism and Sports are bright points in Zimbabwe daily life. People with jobs in tourism and wildlife management know they are fortunate, and are contributing to their country in a positive way. Nearly everyone we met seemed to be confident and professional, and eager to share their knowledge, carefully phrased opinions, realism, and humor.
Next: On to the Safari Camps
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The Patient Travelers in Zimbabwe and South Africa
The Patient Travelers in Zimbabwe and South Africa – October 2-22, 2012