Southern African Safari Summer
I was blessed to experience an early summer Southern African safari with my partner Kev. Together we ventured through parts of Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. I’ll write this in two parts because it’s rather an epic adventure.
The adventure begins in Victoria Falls. Being a lover of adventure and immersive experiences, Victoria Falls has always been a magnet. Here you could fill a week with its diversity of activities and adventures. My last visit was six years ago, so I had high expectations and was not disappointed.
Southern African Safari Summer: Victoria Falls Adventure
Like kids in a candy store, Kev and I explored Victoria Falls, experiencing new adventures, quirky eateries, breweries and many other brilliant activities. First up, we took to the skies for the 25 minutes helicopter flight (we were elated to discover we had sole use of a 4 seater Zambezi Helicopters Bell 206B Jetranger). Now I know the difference between the ‘flip’ over the Falls which is 12/13 minutes and the extended version. We soared above the actual Victoria Falls admiring this Mighty Smoke that Thunders. Even in November there was ample water flow to weave the magical rainbows from its spray. Our flight path took us down stream following the dramatic Batoka Gorge and the white caps of Zambezi River rapids crashing below before continuing north over the calmer waters of the upper Zambezi River. We marvelled at the little reed islands, endless sandbanks and multiple pods of hippo wallowing in the shallows. The joy of a longer flight is taking in the aerial perspective of Zambezi National Park. Here we saw loads of game like elephant, giraffe and a committee of vultures.
Once back on the ground, it was time to visit Zambezi House. This cool and casual restaurant is idyllically located on the Zambezi River, under a grove of Ebony trees just five minutes out of town. It opened its doors in July 2017 with a purpose of recreating a traditional style Zimbabwean Home where diners embrace the local style communal eating. On the menu are homely local meals and wood-fired pizzas. Interesting local inspired sculptures and trees growing in the middle of the establishment provide talking points and add to the casual social scene. This is a great pitstop for those wanting a local experience, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights when locals congregate.
Onwards to The River Brewing Co. Here, although not a beer drinker, my tastebuds were tantalised by each of the full body flavours from the variety of craft beers on our tasting paddle. Each brew combines fresh Zambezi River water filtered through layers of volcanic rock with malted barley imported from Germany. You can find the brewery in the heart of Victoria Falls Town. The good news for non beer drinkers is they offer a gin tasting paddle and food from a tasty bar menu.
Speaking of food, we started getting hungry and wanted to savour lunch somewhere with a view and the best location is the Look out Café. As the name implies, it’s a brilliant lookout over Batoka Gorge and Victoria Falls Bridge. We sat right on the edge of the deck spoilt with uninterrupted panoramic views including the zipline adventure activity. Our lively conversation was often paused at the screams of people flying across the ravine. It’s on my list for next time.
Southern Africa Safari Summer: Victoria Falls
We decided to walk off lunch with a tour of the Falls on our own.
Many people ask whether it is worth having a guide.
The answer is – it depends on what you are looking for. If you want to learn about the geology, history and local stories we recommend a guide. Keep in mind the time constraint is 2 hours.
Often times we find guests feel a little rushed and do the tour, then repeat the circuit walk so they can take better photographs and savour the experience.
Best time to see the Falls – again depends on what you seek. For me, even though low waters, there was still the main cataract flowing and rainbows at many of the viewing points.
We also had viewing platforms to ourselves so we could linger longer and get that quintessential photograph.
Stanley and Livingstone
Victoria Falls Accommodation
It was time to check into the newly opened Stanley and Livingstone. This delightful property is set on 2,500 ha of the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve. And just 15 minutes away from town. It is a colonial charming oasis away from the constant buzzing helicopters flying overhead.
Original antique cameras, typewriters, restored original Victorian furniture all added to the theme sweeping us away to a romantic bygone era of the property namesake. Tricky to categorise it isn’t really a hotel because rooms are like individual chalet suites and the atmosphere is homely plus wildlife wanders freely in front of the property. So it is more like a safari lodge.
We celebrated our first afternoon in Africa, toasting the day with a gin and tonic savoured whilst sitting outside overlooking the waterhole. Kev was beside himself spotting zebra, buffalo, kudu and bushbuck. Chatting to Alan, the General Manager, we learnt a great deal about Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve and it being home to a successful black rhino breeding program starting with 3 black rhino and now home to 13. They have an anti-poaching unit that circles the perimeter of the reserve daily. Run by our friends at the MORE Group, this property actively supports the local Woodland Village and Masuwe primary school. So your stay contributes directly to the local community and you are offered a lovely authentic village experience.
Victoria Falls Safari Club
Victoria Falls Accommodation
Next day we continued on to our second home away from home, the Victoria Falls Safari Club. It is looking brilliant after a recent rebuild and refurb with an expansive viewing deck offering plenty of sitting and dining areas and a popular telescope so you can get a closer view of wildlife around the waterhole. Kev was constantly entertained here with eyes glued to the spyglass. This place has 20 air conditioned rooms with complimentary mini bars, biltong, fruit and other snacks plus a free laundry service and great quality products like sunscreen and aftersun! There is a cocktail canape hour too that we couldn’t refuse.
The red Boma Bus came to pick us up and whisked a short drive to Boma Restaurant which is part of the same complex. On arrival we were greeted and promptly dressed up in traditional chitengas and our faces painted. We had a hand washing and Zulu beer drinking ceremony too! Although a tad touristy, the Boma is a fun night with drumming, dancing,
traditional stews, game meat and the mopane worm challenge. Kev was brave and chewed it down quickly followed by a drink!
Southern African Safari Summer
Hwange National Park Safari
Our time at Victoria Falls had come to an end too soon and in the morning we were collected and transferred in air conditioned comfort along great smooth roads to Dete Railway Station.
Here we waited for the Imvelo Elephant Express. I have been intrigued to see this since it launched and was elated at the sight of a beautifully restored single carriage train pulling into the station. The train is powered by a land rover engine and runs on one dead straight track some 115 kilometres long.
You board, enjoy refreshments and then take off, game viewing along the way.
We enjoyed listening to our guide and driver Enock – who had worked with Zimbabwean Rail for over 30 years. He retold stories of the railways that had us captivated.
The journey from Dete to Bomani is 86 kilometres, taking between 2.5 – 3 hours depending on what you spot along the way. They can stop for guests to photograph wildlife.
On the train, we were flanked by Hwange National Park on the right and Forestry Land on the left. In between listening to Enock’s stories, looking for wildlife and enjoying another obligatory gin and tonic we had loads of fun donning the Imvelo Captain hat and taking turns to drive the train.
Wildlife sightings encountered along the way were ostrich, kudu, sable, giraffe, impala, elephant and baboons before arriving at Ngamo station.
From here we took a detour just 30 minutes to Bomani so we could see the lovely tented camp that overlooks an active pan. Guests told us they had seen lion the day before come right into camp.
Southern African Safari Summer: Hwange National Park continued…
From here we head off another 30 minutes game drive to Camelthorne – our home for the night. We were greeted by Edward, Camelthorn’s Manager who was clearly well experienced to run a safari property having worked for years in Namibia including the famous Serra Cafema and Desert Rhino Camp. Edward proudly showed us their Imvelo Dentistry trophy. Since 2011 Imvelo has partnered with a team of Italian and Spanish volunteer dentists to provide much needed free dental care to the local people in Tsholotsho and Hwange districts. The annual mobile dentist Safari is run in the green season and in 2015 they extended to include eye care. This is just one of many great conservation and community initiatives by Imvelo. Others include school feeding programs, managing 13 waterholes and 8 remote boreholes to ensure constant drinking water to wildlife even during extreme drought, fire protection and development of Cobra and Scorpion Anti-poaching Units.
In the evening we mingled with other guests around the campfire before dining alfresco on a beautifully decorated long table, set underneath the grand ancient Camelthorn Tree.
In the morning we set off with Mr Sibs and a well-travelled UK couple to the horse stables where we met the proud founders of RAW Zimbabwe, Denis and Sharon. It was evident immediately that this couple is highly experienced and genuinely care for their horses. To reduce stress of the animals at night, the horses are put in bomas so they don’t see wildlife around them at night so we found the horses to be in great condition, well groomed, relaxed and ready to ride. Kev was allocated Flight an ex polo horse and I had Lilly, an ex racehorse. The South African Boerperd horses are the main breed here at the stables chosen for their robust build and sturdier temperament in these wilderness conditions.
We were privileged to meet Steve, the head groomsman, main horse breaker and tracker. Steve has worked with horses his entire life, is blind in one eye and has vision better than those with two. Denis said ‘with what he can see from one eye, it would be scary to think what he could do with the second if it worked.’ Denis recalled the time Steve saved his life from a small deadly snake that he didn’t see for himself. There is a book being written about Steve called ‘The Shona Horseman’ which I know I am excited to read when it’s released.
I was in my element, reconnecting with nature whilst on horseback. This time of year is perhaps not the best because of the heat and October/November is when the horses receive annual vaccinations for ‘horse sickness’. Then for three weeks after, they are not allowed to break a sweat… so it’s great for beginners or those seeking a leisurely ride just not the adventure riders seeking fast pace. Sharon said the best time of year is January – April, the wet season because animals and a wide variety of bird species can be seen everywhere as the area transforms into a delta like experience and you can even canter through waters and across pans. Just remember elephant are not around at this time as water is more readily available so they can make themselves scarce.
The ride came to an end as we dismounted at one of the local villages and here, had the chance to meet local children and take them on a short ride. This was a wonderfully authentic village visit with no set schedule. Each local family takes turns to show you their homes so no two visits are ever the same. There is no awkward moment or pressure to donate money and no ‘curios’ forced upon you to buy because your stay automatically incorporates such a donation by Imvelo.
Next on our itinerary was the remote north western reach of Hwange and the awesome Nehimba camp. Nehimba terrain is flat and on Kalahari sand, dominated by open plains and Mopane and Acacia trees. We spent two nights here and loved every minute. It is a 280 square kilometre private concession (the largest private concession in the park). Kev and I reflect fondly of our time here, we both found a happy place standing on the deck each afternoon mesmerised by the elephant herd that gathered daily to drink from the pool.
The pool is one of the last remaining water sources in the area in dry season and as the evening progressed and the pool water level dropped, elephants became cheekier and more aggressive with each other, fighting for the last drink. Each day the pool is cleaned, and refilled so that the elephants can return again to drink. Assistant Camp Manager, Mike and the other Imvelo guides are amongst the best I’ve ever had on safari. It is not surprising considering the demanding criteria to become a qualified guide in Zimbabwe. It takes 4-5 years of hard work, theory and monitored fieldwork where trainees are put through the paces of dangerous scenarios to ensure that when their day comes they can protect guests and get out of situations safely.
Kev felt an instant rapport with our guide Mike, admiring his tenacity and passion for the bush. Each morning we would start by reading the ‘African Telegraph’, the tracks in the dirt. Mike would interpret so much from a track and happily taught us. We learnt to differentiate male and female lion tracks and even the pace of their movement. It helps you to really immerse yourself in the moment. Kev now wants to write a book called ‘wildlife tracking with Mike’.
Nehimba in the local language means to dig, and a fitting name indeed as the elephants congregate around the Nehimba Seep. Here, they dig to access rich minerals and the ancient water source once used by the San Bushman. We visited the Nehimba Seep during the day and Mike told us many stories. We learnt of lions ambushing elephant. Twenty baby elephant bones were found here and it also served as the location for the documentary ‘Lions Behaving Badly’. We got a great anatomy lesson using the elephant bones from the area and then Mike demonstrated the use of ‘devil’s thorn’ to wash our hands.
We returned late afternoon to watch the elephant congregate around the seep with an incredible sunset unfolding behind.
Time came to savour our last evening and we were blessed to experience an epic wildlife gathering by the waterhole in front of our room with elephant, buffalo and hippo visiting. In awe of this experience we both jumped out of our skin when Mike knocked on the door with flashlight in hand. A wild dog pack had come through and were fishing for catfish. Like the song says, ‘Oh What a Night!’
Next day, we had breakfast and then Mike drove us 3 hours to Mpala gate. As we drove through, the landscape began to morph with hills and rocky cliffs. There was an expansive body of water called Mandavu Dam filled with hippos and crocodiles. We continued to Masuma Waterhole lookout where we had a pit stop and watched impala, kudu, warthog, elephant, maribu stork and vultures plus the healthy, playful Masuma pride of lions.
Our final stop was Sinamentella Camp, set on a hill with sweeping views overlooking the wildlife rich valley below. For guests spending 3 or more nights at Nehimba, they are provided the option to visit all these areas on a full day game drive with packed lunch at Sinamentella.
It was time to now say goodbye to Mike who had become a friend. He was someone we shared so many laughs and stories with and he imparted such wisdom and safari knowledge that we felt sad to say goodbye. It was really tough for Kev who formed a great connection. He sat for 30 minutes in our next transfer vehicle in total silence. Anyone who knows ‘haveachat’ Kev would know this is not normal and when I turned to make sure he was still okay or hadn’t fallen asleep, I noticed his struggle to hold back the tears.
Southern Africa Safari Summer: Devil’s Pool
After another 2 hour journey on fantastic bitumen roads we made it to Victoria Falls border and crossed into Zambia.
The excitement continued now as we met our Royal Chundu driver who transferred us to Royal Livingstone on the banks of the Zambezi. Here, we began our Devil’s Pool Experience. Waivers signed, we jumped into a tin boat and were jetted upstream, weaving around rocks and towards the thundering smoke and edge of the Falls. We jumped off the boat at Livingstone Island, handed over my camera to one of our guides and dived in the Zambezi swimming the rest of the way to the natural rock pool sitting 100 metres high right on the cusp of Victoria Falls. As you can imagine, your adrenaline is pumping! We leaned over the edge for photos, struggling to hear each other with the roar of the water plummeting over the edge. We were in awe and the main sounds were giggles and squeals as hundreds of little fish nibbled at our feet. This was my second time swimming in Devil’s Pool and just as exciting as the first. It is only possible between August and December because it is seasonal for safety reasons.
From here we were transferred to Royal Chundu River Lodge on a massive high and met Aggie and her team who showed us to the transfer river boat. We took off for ten minutes downstream to the private Katombora Island, home to Royal Chundu Island Lodge. With only 4 luxury villas, it is a really exclusive affair. The spacious, colourful air-conditioned riverfront rooms opened up onto a huge private balcony and left us feeling like we were floating on water. Non surprising, being a member of Relais and Chateux, the dining was an experience of its own and meals paired with award winning South African wines.
Next day was action packed adventure starting with tiger fishing at sunrise much to Kev’s delight! Next we visited Malambo Village where Edith welcomed us and explained the partnership. Royal Chundu sources the majority of their fresh vegetables from the village gardens, helps kids with school and offers employment at the lodge to the community once they finish school. Edith shared their customs and pointing out trees used for dying grasses, wood for crafts, describing how they build their houses with termite mounds, and explaining the workings of their kitchen. It was her little nephew Francis that quickly stole our hearts. The next adventure saw us canoeing with our private guide down Zambezi River, through jungle forest and small white rapids. It is a great way exercise, although guides are also happy to paddle for you if you just want to sit back relax and enjoy the riverine scenery and birdlife around you. We pulled up to find an elaborate private island picnic set up with day beds, hammocks, outdoor bar and all kinds or wonderful treats to enjoy for lunch; woodfired pizzas, pork and beef kebabs, selection of cheeses and beautiful fresh salads. This really was the ‘Royal’ treatment, and with full bellies we reclined on the hammocks with a pimms cocktail in hand feeling very content. Kev and I acknowledged this was another happy place for us.
Next day, our adventures through South Africa would begin. Now that’s another tale to tell perhaps early new year…