Steph & Andy’s Africa Adventure
I adore my job. And I want to share my recent Africa adventure with you.
Being an African safari holiday specialist is without doubt the ultimate travel job for those who love adventure, wilderness, wildlife and true escapism. I must say the downside is dangled daily like that carrot, teasing me and enticing me to take another holiday and explore more territory. We see every property that opens its doors with daily promotional materials arriving in our inboxes and the company postbox.
One such carrot propelled me into action last year. It made me immediately sit up, take notice and start planning a holiday to Africa for myself and partner who had never been before.
The catalyst destination was the Lower Zambezi and given it’s a long way to go I snuck in a few other destinations being South Luangwa, Livingstone, world famous Okavango Delta, the Makgadikadi Pans and Lake Malawi. We moved around quickly and certainly the pace is not leisurely so please don’t choose this for yourself. I am accustomed to moving around quickly and the more I see, the more I learn.
Andy and I set off back in June 2017 on our African safari adventure.
I have broken the trip into three chapters of adventure because otherwise I may bore you a little!
Grab a cup of tea and let’s start on chapter one of my great adventure.
Steph & Andy’s Africa Adventure
Overnight in Johannesburg
There is a necessary overnight in Johannesburg if you fly from Sydney with Qantas because you cannot connect that same day to many other countries, basically just within South Africa. So we spent the night at City Lodge OR Tambo which is a great property, convenient, affordable and with all the creature comforts to ward off jetlag.
Makgadigadi National Park Safari
Next morning, we set off on our African safari adventure. First stop, Maun, Botswana. It is the safari capital of the country. You arrive, clear immigration (be patient, it can take a while) and then hop onto a light aircraft flight like stepping into a taxi. We were bound for the breathtaking Makgadikgadi.
Andy took the seat by the pilot, which was a good thing as I had no time for chat, from the get go my nose was pressed against the window whilst we flew out of Maun, and soon started flying over the Makgadikadi National Park, a stunning view of, well nothing really, but to see this huge expanse of flat land, with only the line of a road as a marking thrilled me. The colours changed, steadily becoming paler as we flew over salt pans. We started our descent to an area of total isolation, nothing as far as the eye could see apart from our camp, tiny white specs from the sky. As we landed we were met by our guide and started the short drive to our accommodation. Passing wildebeest on the way, we came to a line of some tall palm trees and there was our camp, the totally amazing San Camp.
This property really had been on my wish list for a long time. I was a mix of nerves and excitement – nerves as it had a lot to live up to and excitement as I was finally there! And wow it really was everything I had hoped for and more. Our tent, if you could call it a tent, was stunning. The camp has no electricity so all light is by paraffin lamps – really romantic and far more sustainable. Our bed was so high you need a little footstall to get up to it. The view from the deck just went on and on, with nothing blocking our horizon. As Andy left the planning of the trip to me (talk about pressure) I asked him to not Google the camps we were going to, so he really was going in with no idea. His reaction – initial silence and then “this is the most amazing place I have ever been to”. Phew!
San Camp Botswana
There is something enchanting about being somewhere with no power, no phones, no internet, just clear skies, a stunning landscape and silence. It is a different form of luxury, one that I think I prefer. On our first evening at San Camp we went out for sundowners where our guide taught us about Botswana, its history and its present, the best setting for a history lesson of my life, and something that I really appreciated.
Whilst staying at San Camp you have the opportunity to meet the San Bushmen of the Kalahari which I was really looking forward to, albeit slightly apprehensive of this, not really a fan of the tourist gawking at local people and invasive style interactions. I was pretty sure this would be different and it really was.
One of the San translated for us and we were taken on a journey into their world, learning about local life, how to hunt, collecting all you needed to survive from the arid environment. Essentially you go on a walk with them and if they see something interesting to tell you about, they will. Nothing about it felt staged, they chatted when they wanted to, walked where they wanted to, sang when they wanted to, and joked around with each other – it was really insightful. To learn that whilst their existence has changed with modernisation, the San are committed to sharing their traditions with visitors so it is never forgotten. This is the reason they are so passionate about the experience and want to make sure it’s authentic and you really see how a culture survived for so many years. I certainly recommend this highly for anyone who has the chance.
Back to camp for a bit and then as the sunset was fast approaching, we were bundled off on quad bikes across the saltpans. We stopped for sundowners on the delicately cracked salt. Surrounded by nothing as far as you can see a gin and tonic was poured. We watched in silence as the sun went down and the horizon took on a blue glow – the shadow of the earth (I learnt something new that day). This was one of my most memorable sunsets on this African safari adventure and indeed ever in Africa (now that’s saying something).
African safari adventure highlight
Another coveted experience offered by the camp is an interaction with the meerkats. Leaving camp early in the morning our guide drove us seemingly into the middle of nowhere, where we met another guide whose sole job is to stay with the meerkats day in and day out (he only leaves them for meal times). He follows them where they want to go, and when they head to bed in their burrows he goes to his, returning at dawn to be there when they wake up.
This experience is basically exclusive to guests at San Camp and sister properties Jacks Camp and Camp Kalahari.
At sunrise, you are taken to where the meerkats bedded down for the night. Sitting quietly on the ground, you watch and wait. The meerkats slowly wake and come out of their burrows, standing on back legs facing the sun to warm themselves up in order to start their day and all the while communicating with one another. Reminds me of myself when the sun came out back in England a few times a year.
From the moment the meerkats make an appearance above ground, the adventure begins. You are literally in touching distance from them and soon the meerkats are off in search of food. You follow on foot as they do not cover a great deal of ground to begin with, preferring to be close to the burrow as the entire gang emerge.
Here comes the really fun bit. The guide invites you to sit down on a slightly elevated bit of ground and if you are lucky, the meerkats choose you as the lookout post and scamper up to your head for a clear view. There is always one on lookout for predators and a potential meal.
Andy of course had a seamless meerkat experience, one ran up his back and popped onto his head, where it stayed for ages surveying its kingdom. I on the other hand had a slightly less glamorous time. Sitting where I was told, and being only 5ft when standing, the meerkats I don’t think were impressed with what would be their view point, one came to sit beside me, this was enough for me, but then it decided to run up my front, directly up my face, think I even got a taste of a meerkats foot, sunglasses went flying, did a few 360 turns on my head, before settling for a short time. It is definitely an extraordinary experience, there is nothing staged about it. You cannot be guaranteed to get that close or have them settle on your head. Regardless, it’s just a pleasure to witness these little creatures so closely. They are fun to watch.
At San Camp we were also blessed to experience a game drive to the Kalahari (just missed seeing some lions!) and enjoyed watching the elusive brown hyenas leave their den for their evening hunt and scavenge. On our last day the first of the migrating elephants appeared, almost like a mirage on the white horizon, this place really is magical!
I was sad to say goodbye to San Camp. Yet excitement kicked in as we prepared for departure and our next stop, the world famous Okavango Delta.
Okavango Delta Safari
After our final morning in Makgadikgadi region, it was time to board another light aircraft flight and head to the Delta for a few nights, although it’s certainly a region that deserves at least 3 – 5 night stay. The flight was once again awesome, we left the stark white, and empty landscape of the salt pans and soon were flying over lush green landscapes, sparkling blue waterways and from the plane we could see herds of elephants trundling towards watering holes – this place really is like the pictures!
Upon landing, we gathered our things (always essential to check you have everything as these planes take off straight away again – their schedule is like a taxi!) and disembarked. We were warmly greeted by our superb guide and loaded into the vehicle with all of our belongings in check. It was just 20 minutes to camp. Now you know you are in good hands when a 20 minute game drive/transfer to camp takes an hour and a half and that was without seeing an animal. Our guide was like an encyclopaedia of the bush – he literally made a termite mound the most fascinating of subjects – I sourced so much content for dinner time conversations!
We arrived in and spent the next few days at a relatively new property, Gomoti Plains Camp. It is a land and water camp which means you game drive, mokoro and do boat cruises and fishing (catch and release). African safari adventures are best when mixing up safari styles, wildlife you’re likely to see and wilderness areas.
Africa adventure highlight
Delving into the Delta
It is always quite difficult to grasp the concept of the Okavango Delta and indeed much of Africa’s remaining wilderness because it’s not just a national park. Far more than that, the Okavango Delta ecosystem is made up of national park areas, private concessions and rural areas. There is a delicate balance between sustainable communities and protecting Botswana’s wilderness and wildlife. Human encroachment could have been disastrous so hats off to the country’s government for getting it right.
So before I delve into Gomoti, let me talk you through the Delta.
It is UNESCO World Heritage listed and for good reason. It is one of the few interior delta systems that doesn’t flow into an ocean and its wetland is almost intact. Uniquely, its annual flooding from the River Okavango occurs during the dry season with the result being wildlife synchronised movements to coincide with native plants and vegetation growth and water levels. Here you will see the large mammals like lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino in one private reserve area if you’re lucky, African wild dog, cheetah and leopard.
From the River Okavango, the waterways are like veins spreading out like a fan and this forms the myriad of waterways, swamps, flooded grasslands and plains.
Gomoti Plains Camp Okavango Delta
Gomoti Plains is located in a private concession of the Delta and it has been beautifully designed to ensure a blend between man made structure and the environment. It is certainly not ostentatious, more casually elegant with big and beautiful tents simply done.
Now when it comes to your safari experience, Gomoti is brilliant because it’s a newcomer to a unique region that previously was untouched. Their strict eco stance ensures minimal impact on the environment so it’s good to know you’re not damaging the precious wilderness. You will not see another camp vehicle when you are here which is my favourite way to safari. In our few days we saw so much amazing wildlife: wild dog (my first time seeing them!), elephants, lion with a zebra kill, hippos, buffalo, and many giraffe – nothing beats going to the loo behind a tree to look up and in the distance see the faces of 8 giraffe staring right at you. Not sure who was more shocked really!
And as my final morning on safari at Gomoti came to a close, I found myself wishing for a few more nights in this magical myriad of waterways and islands.
Next stop, Zambia and my Part Two.
Steph & Andy’s Africa Adventure
Livingstone Victoria Falls
We arrive into Livingstone, the town closest to Victoria Falls on the Zambian side. You can stay in Victoria Falls itself on the Zimbabwean side at any time of year because the water never stops flowing over the cliffs, especially on the main cataract. In Zambia, the water dries up from around September onwards.
We were there in June so the waters are still full flow and spectacular, so it made sense for us to stay on that side where we’d be on safari later on.
What I love about the Livingstone lodges is the majority of them are dotted along the Zambezi river edge, truly stunning. Worth noting you are a drive away from the falls themselves and all of the properties help organise activities so it really is not a disadvantage.
I was blessed this time around to stay at the brand new Thorntree River Lodge, which is really raising the bar on luxury lodges. Each individual suite is enormous, simply huge and photos cannot do justice! The exterior is equally impressive with private plunge pool and outdoor sit-out area. We didn’t actually do much sitting whilst at Thorntree as I wanted to do make the most of the vast array of activities on offer within my short stay.
It’s hard to choose my favourite activity – they are so varied and rewarding. Everything from sunset cruises on the river, visiting local villages, touring the falls and a unique rhino tracking experience.
First, the village visit – important to note that each time a guest visits the school, the lodge pays a per person visitation fee to the village so they are genuinely benefiting from you being here and this money goes towards what is most needed at the time. I think most recently a new classroom was built for the kids.
And then came a highlight, the rhino tracking in Mosi O Tunya National Park. You arrive, have a safety briefing and then join an armed ranger and walk into the park looking for white rhino that live here under the watchful eye of the rangers. Getting close to these rhino whilst they peacefully munch their way through the grass was truly amazing.
Visit Victoria Falls
Of course we visited the famous Victoria Falls – ponchos very necessary at this time of year because the spray from the falls totally soaks you on some parts of the walkway whilst others offer a great view of this spectacle without the saturation.
Flight over Victoria Falls
You cannot ignore the constant sound of helicopters and microlights passing by overhead. It certainly is an awesome experience seeing the Falls from above, sadly our time didn’t permit a flight.
Where to stay in Livingstone
If you are considering Victoria Falls, I ca highly recommend many of the Livingstone Lodges and with high levels of inclusions, I would say three nights gives you time to relax, enjoy the luxury of your surrounds and all of the activities on offer. If you are between safaris, down time here also provides the opportunity to catch up on laundry, family and friends online and of course time out of the vehicle.
Read more about Livingstone and Victoria Falls, its seasons, accommodation and itinerary ideas.
Lower Zambezi National Park
From Livingstone, our African safari adventure took us on a scheduled light aircraft flight to the Lower Zambezi National Park – after a few days away from safari life I was ready to get right back into it. The flight in was beautiful and took us along the vast Lower Zambezi river where we spotted hippos in the crystal clear waters and upon landing, we glanced to our left and saw a young elephant swinging his trunk indignantly and trumpeting at our plane disturbing his peace. The fun had begun and we were not even off the plane!
We were met at the airstrip, assisted with bags into the vehicle and driven a short distance to the river where we boarded a boat for the lodge transfer. Travelling by plane, into a safari vehicle and onto a boat is a great way to get into the spirit of adventure. Immediately we felt blessed and immersed in the wilderness of the Lower Zambezi.
Pulling up to Chiawa was a great introduction to our safari here. This is one of Encompass Africa’s all time favourite owner run camps and of course Jonathon and Danica know Grant Cummings and his family well. Our guests always enjoy their stay because you get some of the best guides in Africa, brilliant safaris, beautiful tents and great hospitality.
That evening we had dinner altogether and one of the guides regaled some of his best safari stories. I wish I recorded him so we could share his stories.
Being my first time in the Lower Zambezi, everything was fresh to me. What I loved about this area is the number of activities one can do. Alongside the usual game drives, you can go fishing for tiger fish, which was fun, Andy almost got one, I tried but having seen the size of the fish that could be caught (ginormous) I decided a cup of tea and having the camera ready was more my scene. But a real favourite was canoeing with a highly qualified and experienced river guide. Elephants are my favourite animal and to go canoeing and see them bathing in the water and crossing from one side of the channel to another in front of us was amazing. At times, you feel like you are playing dodge the hippos but the guides are so experienced here you are in very safe hands – really a great opportunity to do an activity that is not offered in many places.
The game was fabulous, we saw many lion, two brothers roared just as we were passing in our vehicle and you really do feel the reverberations in your chest! At one point our guide told us to smell the air and then asked us if it smelt like boiled rice, it did, and to my surprise he said that was the smell of a leopard marking its territory (you really do learn something new every day on safari).
Sadly the leopard eluded us and the next day we saw its tracks just outside camp – this is exactly what keeps one coming back on safari again and again, there is always something else to see!
Lower Zambezi Accommodation
We split our stay in the Lower Zambezi between Chiawa Camp, Anabezi and Amanzi, the latter two being sister properties and both great – Amanzi was my favourite with just 4 suites and therefore a more intimate bush camp atmosphere. I also ate the very best red velvet cake I have ever had here. How on earth the chefs create the food they do in such remote locations and seemingly simple kitchen facilities is beyond me. It puts my own cooking at home, when surrounded by supermarkets and a decent kitchen to total shame. The Lower Zambezi firmly gets my vote as a winning safari destination: no crowds, stunning surroundings of bush and river, variety of activities and superb game – faultless.
I didn’t stay at Royal Zambezi – yet I think it’s important to share with you its advantage – every booking we make gets a private vehicle and guide! So it’s ideal for families, couples or honeymooners wanting exclusivity and/or romance.
Read more about the Lower Zambezi, its seasons, accommodation and itinerary ideas click here.
South Luangwa Safari
Our African safari adventure continued with another flight from the Lower Zambezi to South Luangwa. It’s really easy with direct flights on Pro Flight in high season. Due to availability and scheduling, we flew via Lusaka which really wasn’t an issue.
The South Luangwa region is serviced by Mfuwe Airport and it’s a tiny facility. So you arrive in, disembark and your driver and vehicle are standing outside waiting for you. From here you zoom off to camp.
Andy and I were staying with the Bushcamp Company, another firm favourite of Encompass Africa’s because Jonathon and Danica have a long standing relationship with Andy the owner. We transferred with other guests to Mfuwe Lodge for a drink and freshen up. Many opt to spend a night or two here before or after their ‘bushcamp stay’ due to logistics. We didn’t due to limited time so headed straight to Bilimungwe deep in South Luangwa National Park. It is approximately 3 hours’ drive and action packed as you see lots along the way. We spotted elephants, a chameleon and many hippos heading to the grass to eat dinner. Bilimungwe and indeed all of the Bushcamp Company properties have a maximum of 4 rooms. There is a lovely main area and everything looks over a series of three waterholes.
There is no electricity here and you do not miss it one bit. With lamps all around it is really magical at night time. The lucy lights – solar powered lights in your room – do just the trick.
Even though it is a small camp the team ensures you eat dinner in a different location each night with your guide, and breakfast is taken in a small boma on the rivers’ edge. Having a cup of tea and bowl of porridge around a campfire watching morning mist rise over the river and hippos making their way slowly along the bank was the perfect start to our next day. Game drives and walks are on offer here and when you’re back at camp, we spent time simply relaxing and watching Harry the resident hippo snort his way around the watering hole, he likes to make his presence known!
The South Luangwa, with its river winding its way through offers yet another feel to being on safari. It has a serenity and openness that is so beautiful.
Walking is a daily activity here and it so refreshing to be out of the vehicle from a physical point of view. Plus you learn about the smaller things: plants and their roles as both food and medicine providers, spoor identification (spoor meaning footprints) and the little creatures like termites.
Coming across some elephants was exciting, seeing them on foot adds an entirely different dimension to game viewing. And being told, whilst we were studying some flowering plant, that a lion was relaxing in the bushes not far from where we were really did make me feel like we were guests in their kingdom – again the guides are so experienced they know exactly how close one can be, are constantly checking the direction of the wind to ensure we were always downwind of the animals not to mention their extraordinary level of observation. Never once did we feel concerned for our safety – I was quickly sold on walking safaris and was lucky enough to do this in Zambia, the home of the walking safari. Here you can do up to 9 day walking safaris between mobile camps – for those that have done their share of vehicle based safaris this is for you!
I don’t want to reveal too much about our daily activities otherwise the surprise will be spoilt for when you go! The Bushcamp Company pulls things out the bag here that made our stay and kept each day varied and fun. There were so many “wow” moments that keep many of our guests returning year on year. This really was an impressive component to our African safari adventure.
The Bushcamp Company operates Mfuwe Lodge and 6 bushcamps, which are all small, with only three or four rooms in each and mostly open for the safari season which is June to October, a few camps are open from April – January. Mfuwe Lodge is open year around, and in November is the scene of elephants walking through reception to reach the wild mango trees in the lodge garden. Something to be seen to be believed!
Read more about the South Luangwa, its seasons, accommodation and itinerary ideas click here.
Steph and Andy’s Africa Adventure
Next for us was Malawi, now that’s a whole new chapter. To find out all about it, visit the blog that I’m working on right now…
Link to come shortly.