How it began…
I was super excited to head over to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in October for an educational trip with time in six different regions in just nine nights. It would be called or rather I would be known as Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph… This trip gave me the opportunity to be in Africa, doing what I love, expanding my product knowledge through visiting a collection of old favourites, recently opened lodges and freshly refurbished originals all created and run by one of our favourite bush buddies, Beks at African Bush Camps.
After three scheduled flights and one light aircraft transfer the sight of my first safari camp [Khwai Bush Camp] in the 39 degree heat was a welcome relief. We arrived to a beautifully laid out afternoon tea on a grassy pan surrounding the lodge where animals were grazing. It instantly obliterated the memory of my journey and I settled effortlessly into safari life.
Within a few hours I had seen a leopard with a kill, wild dogs, large herds of elephants, zebra, hippo, squeezed in a few Gin & Tonics and the sun hadn’t even set yet. The trip leapt like a red lechwe from one highlight to another: a mokoro ride ending with 13 bull elephants drinking around us, a doors off helicopter flight over the Savute Marsh with 200 elephants below, 100 buffalo acting as a very successful road block, a humbling but inspiring visit to a local village and school, wining and dining with Zimbabwe’s elephants, lions walking through camp at breakfast, to the finale of spending time with 23 wild dog in Mana Pools (the same pack just filmed by David Attenborough for ‘Dynasties’).
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Khwai
Khwai Bush Camp is a fabulous small, friendly and laid back camp with wonderful staff on hand so one felt at home only moments after arriving. There is a reason there is no need for television or music at safari camps… the views. The view from camp is over a grassy plain with a channel winding through, attracting elephants and lechwe to graze and drink so there is always something to be watching at any time of day.
October is one of the hottest times to travel in Botswana – both days were 39C so pretty toasty, but it was a dry heat which for me is much easier to deal with than humidity. I am not a vain person but when my hair resembles a large Kalahari lion’s mane I worry.
Due to the heat your days start early, with wake up calls at 5am, a quick breakfast and then off on the first game drive of the day. Whilst it is an early start and I was a little bleary eyed, I was soon wide awake with sightings of elephants, zebra and giraffe in the first few minutes all bathed in the beautiful golden light of the new day. In our short time at Khwai Bush Camp we certainly packed a lot in, following our morning game drive in the Moremi National Park where we saw a lioness and her cubs, we had some time to relax back at camp, before heading out (after lunch and tea – the eating safari starts as punctually as game drives!) on a peaceful mokoro ride. This activity takes place on the Sable River, which is a 30 minute drive from camp. On arrival at the river bank we had a safety briefing and set off, being gentled poled along the channel. The focus of this activity is not about seeing the big game, but more enjoying the smaller things that can be seen. However unless you exceptionally well trained eyes it wont be you seeing the small things, but your guide who has the ability to spot a tiny white frog, about 2 inches in length on a reed. We saw some lovely birds including a fish eagle eyeing up some dinner, and as we pulled over to the bank to enjoy a drink we had the chance to watch a lone bull elephant cross the channel and disappear into the bush.
The highlight for me came when we headed back down the channel to our starting point, dusk was setting in and just as we pulled up to the bank 13 bull elephants came to drink and have a splash. My guide knew elephants are my favourite so he poled us a little closer and it was just magical. The elephants had no interest in us but just trundled down to the water and drank, noisily, for about 25 minutes. It was the perfect end to my first full day in Botswana.
The day was far from over. Instead of returning to camp we arrived to a surprise bush dinner, lanterns adorned the area, singing and dancing staff greeted us, delicious food was cooking and drinks were ready – it was genuinely one of the best bush dinners I have ever had and the evening was filled with laughter and bush tales. Eventually it was time to wind the day up, we headed back to camp to go to bed, no such luck. An enormous elephant was contentedly eating a bush right outside the entrance to camp. No amount of arm waving, engine revving or lights flashing could tempt him to even blink. So it was us that moved taking a detour driving to the back of the camp and being dropped off by our guide Banda to our doors.
Waking to a new day, and barely having time to reminisce about what was heard during the night, a pack of wild dogs ran past the deck hunting a young lechwe. Coffee was forgotten and we piled into the vehicle to follow the dogs, with Banda, predicting where they would go as we lost sight of them. He was spot on and as we arrived only minutes after they passed the lodge they had caught their lechwe, mostly devoured it, and were now having a face off with two huge crocodiles who wanted in on the action and some vultures. An interaction that was both unusual and awesome to watch. The day started strongly!
We left that morning bidding a sad goodbye to Banda and the Khwai team and venturing to our next location, Linyanti.
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Linyanti
Next we headed to Linyanti, another very hot day, probably the hottest of the trip and yet we were all still excited for Linyanti Ebony Lodge – perhaps the greatest motivation was its pool! Linyanti Ebony Lodge is the family friendly lodge as there is a two-bedroom family room, next door is Linyanti Bush Lodge, which is very similar but no family accommodation.
On arrival at the airstrip we were met by Dutch, our guide, who within 10 mins showed us two wild dog. Even the dogs were suffering from the heat and taking it easy. En route to camp Dutch talked about the area and once again the knowledge and passion shone through. Linyanti captivated me quickly. Not only did we come across 100 buffalo crossing the road that took us to camp, but on the marsh we also saw over 300 elephants. No photo could do this justice but it was just amazing to see so many in one area. At camp we were given the opportunity to do a doors off heli flight over the marsh, which I jumped at the chance to do. This was a new experience and flying without doors is quite scary it turns out. But brilliant! Flying low over the marsh we could see hippos swimming in the channels, buffalo and the many elephants we saw earlier that day – taking photos was a little tricky with fear of dropping the camera and losing it to the Linyanti but the memories will not leave me. Flying back over camp I noticed a family of elephants around my room. Perfect! I headed straight to my deck and had a great half an hour watching them.
The following morning we woke to a fair amount of chaos caused by a mischievous honey badger who had even tucked into the chilli sambal sauce as well as throwing the coffee table books around. Perhaps that happened post chilli eating. Heading out for a bush walk with 007 James leading us was a great start to the day. Coming across buffalo was exciting but it was learning all about the smaller things that really absorbed me. Understanding the intricacies of the termite mound and the importance they play is so fascinating.
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Livingstone & Victoria Falls
From Linyanti we flew to Kasane and then an easy road transfer over to Livingstone for a one night stay at the stunning Thorntree River Lodge. I spent a night at Thorntree 18 months ago just as it opened and to see it now is amazing. The gardens and trees have grown and are all green and bushy, so much so families of elephants come through camp to feast on the leaves, which is great to see but can cause a few delays when they block the pathway to ones room! All suites have private decks and plunge pools overlooking the river and a huge number of activities are included in ones stay, one being a visit to a local village. The village is supported by the African Bush Camp foundation and we elected to do this activity.
This has to be the best village visit I have done, meeting Beatrice the village head was inspirational. Beatrice is a real character who wants the foundation to support the village by empowering them with tools and education, allowing them to stand on their own two feet and create their own income. We also visited a nearby school where they are building a healthcare clinic, the first one ever to exist that will serve 8 villages and provide healthcare, which is accessible both financially and geographically. Visiting this foundation really shows the incredible effect the African Bush Camp Foundation is having and how the US$10.00 per night from each guest that stays in their camps is being put towards long term projects to improve the lives of the locals.
In the morning we visited Victoria Falls, and headed to the Zimbabwean side where in October the flow of water is much better. I was actually expecting to be underwhelmed knowing it was the dry season but it was amazing! So much water flowing with enough spray to give me a full soaking! It definitely was not disappointing and if that was the only time I ever saw Victoria Falls I would still be mightily impressed.
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Hwange National Park
We then flew to Hwange to begin our Zimbabwean safari, beginning at Somalisa Camp, which is just beautiful. A luxury tented camp, in true African under canvas style. The main area has this wonderful deck on two levels, with a swimming pool for humans, and the original swimming pool now for the elephants, whom coming through every evening in herds to drink the pool almost dry. It is mesmerising.
To be sat on the deck, with a drink in hand and watching these enormous creatures drinking, pushing each other out the way with a shoulder shove and vocal trumpeting, only one metre away was too good to be true. We had to tear ourselves away to go to bed, but the action didn’t stop during the night and in the morning we had lions walking right through camp; breakfast was on everyone’s agenda it seemed.
Hwange National Park is extremely pretty, the light here at sunset spreads this beautiful golden glow, the game prolific, elephants in particular are in huge number at every waterhole, playing and drinking, and lion sightings were superb.
African Bush Camps operate three camps here: Somalisa Main Camp, Somalisa Acacia (next door to Main Camp but with family tents) and Somalisa Expeditions which is a fantastic camp, slightly smaller with only 6 rooms, no swimming pool and only outdoor bathrooms but still extremely luxurious and a great location where game frequently comes through camp. From all three camps guests are able to do a full day to visit the projects run by the foundation and in the Hwange area projects including supplying farmers with fencing to protect their animals at night from predators, which assists in the human versus wildlife conflict, as well as stocking their gift shop with produce made my widows so they have a source of income, and 100% of the shop sales go back to those that made the goods.
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Lake Kariba
Our adventure continued to Lake Kariba where we stayed at the recently refurbished Bumi Hills Safari Lodge. Located on the top of an escarpment the views are directly over the beach and lake edge where you can watch elephants walk along the beach to drink. This really is the perfect breather from safari, with a feeling of a lakeside retreat versus safari lodge, and yet the one game drive we did do we saw two lioness’ stalking a kudu on the airstrip so there is definitely game here! I would personally spend two or three nights here in the middle of a safari trip and enjoy boat trips, fishing and maybe a sneaky spa treatment or two!
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Mana Pools
From Lake Kariba we flew to Mana Pools, for our final few days on safari.
Beginning at Kanga Camp which is known for its ‘armchair safari’ and I quickly understood why. You don’t need to leave camp! Our guide Reggie recommended we stayed in camp as at this time of year, Kanga Camp pumps fresh water into the pan surrounding the lodge (in green season the pan is filled naturally), and this is the only water source for 15 kilometres so the animals come to Kanga.
We had elephant, zebra, buffalo, kudu and baboons in the day and in the evening, we saw leopard coming to drink as well as civets – the action was nonstop! The water pump is just under the deck, and the elephants came so close I could have counted their eyelashes. The camp is rustic and small, the bathrooms entirely outdoors, which I loved.
An outdoor shower is the best way to star the day! The camp also has a small hide under the deck enabling awesome photographic opportunities.
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph explores Mana Pools more
From Kanga Camp we did a road transfer to Zambezi Expeditions, also in Mana Pools but located on the banks of the river. Being a seasonal camp only open from April to December the camp is simple but with everything you need. Large walk in tents with camp beds, en suite bathrooms with bucket showers and one large mess tent created a real exclusivity.
For those happy with more simple accommodation the rewards are reaped. Hippos snuffle around your tent by night, elephants walk through camp in the day and the riverside view never tires.
Days were spent with TK, another of African Bush Camps great guides, who showed us a pack of 23 wild dog (for anyone who will watch David Attenborough’s “Dynasties” these are the dogs filmed), a leopard with its kill and so much more. He also skilfully guided us on a canoeing trip down the river, dodging hippos and somehow magically timing our arrival to watch some elephants with their baby swimming over from the riverbank to an island to enjoy the grass, using their trunks as snorkels. The perfect end to an action packed day.
Whilst in Mana Pools we were also taken to look at African Bush Camps newest camp, Nyamatusi Camp, which was only half way through construction, but wow, it is going to be stunning. Beautiful rooms, with huge outdoor decks and private plunge pools, outdoor showers and a vast amount of space surrounding the camp. This area is fantastic for predators so you could easily combine Zambezi Expeditions for a more rustic experience, in an area known for hyenas and wild dog, with Nyamatusi Camp for luxury, leopards and lions.
Mana Pools offers walking, canoeing, fishing from the river bank and game drives…our advice is go now before everyone catches on how incredible this area is!
Southern Africa wildlife safari Steph wrap up…
Whilst I loved all the accommodation what really stood out from this famil was the guides and the staff. Each and everyone guide we had was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and highly skilled. Every person we met in camp made us feel welcome, had brilliant senses of humours and kept us all well fed, watered and constantly smiling. It was a privilege to experience the camps and if anyone wants to head over to experience it for themselves I would be delighted to help!