We were fortunate to be in Cape Town when the drought broke, the hills were greening, and the reservoirs were filling again. The Western Cape and the city were vastly interesting and stunningly beautiful and should be a destination on everyone’s radar. But after three months of slow, immersive travel it was time to move on. After greatly enjoying our first safari at Schotia Game Reserve, just watching Donna’s joy viewing the wild animals was priceless for me, we decided to head to Chobe National Park in northern Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to continue our adventure.Flying over the Northern Cape, we watched from the window of the jet as the fresh greens of the Western Cape slowly faded to the reddish sands of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, that straddles the border with Botswana. From the air it looked like a flat, dry, desolate landscape broken by faded veins – forgotten dirt tracks to who knows where. Further into Botswana the vast whiteness of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park intensely reflected the sun as the park’s 2400 square miles of salt pan stretched to the horizon below. The area was once the immense Lake Makgadikgadi, that covered an area almost the size of Switzerland, but dried up more than 10,000 years ago.While the Cape Town region had fortunately recovered, Zimbabwe was still suffering from its worst multi-year drought in 40 years and the countryside looked tinder dry, as if it would erupt into a massive mushroom cloud if you breathed too hard on it. As a result of the severe water shortage, electricity was being rationed due to insufficient water levels to run the turbines at the hydroelectric dams along the Zambezi River.At the Zimbabwe Airport, the queue for visas to get into the country was very jammed and moved slowly. We were in the middle of the pack, surrounded by organized tour groups so we felt our progress would proceed smoothly. It did not. The delay was extensive and twice I had to skirt security and walk past the border control booths to the baggage claim area to check that our luggage was still there. (It was lucky that I did, as our bags had been gathered into those of a large group tour and we nearly lost them.) But somehow, while we waited in line, it was as if we had grounded a boat on an unseen rock, and we ended up as the last couple entering the country at passport control. Everyone else had managed to sail past us. We were finally about to get our passports stamped when the power failed and the computers went down! And to top it off we had to ask the border control officer to return the change due us from purchasing the visas.Our mood was restored by the warm greeting we received from Fungayi, our guide for the next three days and the owner of Afro Honeyguide Adventures. “Does it usually take that long for folks to get through passport control?” “No, that’s the longest I’ve ever had to wait. I was beginning to think something might have happened. Let’s not delay any longer – it’s time for that cruise on the Zambezi River.” And off we went.The Zambezi River starts high in the mountains of northern Zambia near where the borders of Angola, the Congo and Zambia converge, and is the fourth longest river in Africa at 1600 miles. It flows south then east for hundreds of miles as the natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Thundering over Victoria Falls, its waters eventually flow through Mozambique and empty into the Indian Ocean. It’s a vital life source for people and animals of the region.
A steep boarding ramp emphasized the river’s low level and led down to a variety of vessels, from replicas of Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen to mini cruise ships. We were the last to board a medium size pontoon boat before it cast off.
In stark contrast with the dry landscape we passed on the way from the airport, the banks of the Zambezi were lush with verdant brush and trees. It was a dense screen that shielded the animals from our prying eyes unless they were right on the riverbank. Though elephants were elusive, herds of hippos ruled the afternoon. On shore they protected their young and displayed their hierarchy with dusty charges and bellowing growls, groans, and grunts. In the river, turbulent pools of hippo testosterone battled for dominance with wide gaping jaws amidst violent sprays of water. More menacing was coming upon a submerged hippo with just its eyes and nostrils showing, the bulk of its tonnage hidden below the surface. They are in fact Africa’s deadliest land mammal, killing over 500 people each year. A few crocs and numerous bird sightings rounded out a satisfying afternoon.As tranquil as our water safari was, the river was surprisingly busy with activity, but so well-spaced it didn’t infringe upon our enjoyment of the afternoon. As the sun set, our captain skillfully positioned our boat to capture the last light of the day.After a long day of travel and sightseeing it was finally time to check into the Nguni Lodge, a pretty 14 room boutique hotel, in a private compound on the outskirts of Victoria Falls. “See you in the morning; we’re headed to the falls tomorrow,” Fungayi said as he waved good night to us.
As we were exploring the property the next morning, the gardener enthustically beckoned us over to look at a plant, the branches of which he was separating to reveal a camouflaged chameleon that blended in perfectly with the leafy background.Victoria Falls was originally named by the indigenous tribes of the region, who called it Mosi-oa-Tunya or “The Smoke that Thunders.” The mile wide and 355 feet high falls have been one of the Seven Wonders of the World since British explorer David Livingstone stumbled upon them in 1855 as he was trying to elude that pesky reporter Stanley, and of course he claimed their discovery and renamed them as imperialists did.“When the river is full you can’t see the falls across the gorge. It’s just a thundering cloud of mist. It’s much better for photos this way,”our guide offered, trying to put a good spin on a dire situation as he pointed across the gorge toward Zambia. If you are not convinced of climate change, witnessing firsthand the dramatic reduction of water flowing over the falls might change your mind.
Even with a reduced volume of water, the fascinating trail along the edge of the gorge traveled through a unique, jungle-like, misty microclimate that offered shaded sanctuary to small animals. Two hundred yards further inland the landscape was dry as a bone.With an unscheduled afternoon ahead of us Fungayi suggested we lunch at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. “They have a vulture feeding program and a wild game watering hole visible from their terrace.” We never realized that vultures were endangered, but as with so many other threatened animals in Africa, the problem originated with poaching. As conservation efforts improved and anti-poaching ranger patrols increased, poachers stopped shooting elephants and rhinos. Instead they started to poison waterholes or the carcasses of an animal they had killed so that the vultures would die also and not reveal their activity in an area by circling over a dead elephant. Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem by picking clean the rotting meat from animal carcasses. Their stomach acids destroy rabies, botulinum toxins and anthrax, which could kill other animals or spread to humans. Poaching is still a huge problem in Africa and until all levels of the people involved in this illicit trade start doing some serious jail time, it always will be. China and Vietnam are the chief destinations for all sorts of endangered animal horns and parts, where they are used in traditional medicine remedies. Carved rhino horn is even considered a good investment by some wealthy Asian businessmen. And to muddy their blind-eye support of this poaching even farther, in October, 2018, China reversed a ban on rhino and tiger parts in medicine. You might find these two articles by the New York Times and Scientific American informative.
I know this is difficult, but if we are sincere conservationists, we need to talk with our money and avoid buying products made in China.The “Big Tree,” perhaps Zimbabwe’s oldest Baobab tree at an estimated 2000 years, was on the route to our lunch spot. This majestic Baobab was truly impressive with a girth of 74ft and 80ft height. Perfectly adapted for the drought prone savannahs of Africa, the trees drop their leaves during dry periods.The view from the hotel’s shaded terrace looked out over the watering hole and beyond it across an expanse of the Zambezi National Park that stretched to the Botswana border many miles away. In a year with average rains the trees would have been thick with foliage. Instead the landscape looked burnt, like it had been ravaged by a recent uncontrollable forest fire. We watched as small groups of cape buffalo and zebra kicked up clouds of yellow dust as they trudged their way towards the water, avoiding the resident crocodile that bathed in the heat of the afternoon sun. Occasionally the buffalo would turn and charge the zebras away if they felt they their space was being encroached upon.We spent our last day in Botswana on a game drive and river safari in Chobe National Park. Fungayi picked us up early for our transfer into Botswana at the Kasane border crossing. Here we had to pay a Zimbabwe exit fee, then travel a short distance through a buffer zone between the two countries and walk through a tray of disinfectant, to prevent the transmission of hoof and mouth disease to cattle in Botswana, before finally purchasing an entrance visa to a country we have long wanted to visit since reading the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith. His love for the country is visible in every page and character. Here a local licensed guide gathered four more tourists and bundled us into a Land Rover that later broke down as we were entering Chobe. This situation was quickly remedied though with the delivery of a Toyota safari truck. According to African safari guides, the Land Rovers enjoy an undeserved reputation as a safari vehicle; Toyota trucks are much more reliable.
Chobe is reputed to have the highest concentration of elephants in Africa and during the Botswana dry season, June to October, large herds of elephants migrate from the park’s vast interior to the banks of the Chobe River for water and food. Buffalo and antelope herds also follow this ritual which makes game viewing along the river extremely rewarding. We were not disappointed. Within minutes of leaving the park entrance we traveled down a dusty sidetrack and encountered impala and kudu working their way down to the river. Along its grassy banks, herds of antelope grazed peacefully and, in the distance, Nambia shimmered through the heat waves rising from the earth.The bird life along the water was interesting too with sightings of regal fish eagles, kingfishers and wonderful rainbow plumed lilac-breasted rollers.
Further along clouds of dust in the brush signaled a large buffalo herd moving toward the river. Later upon reaching the water the herd would swim across to the islands in the middle of the Chobe River to feed on the lush green grasses.We hadn’t spotted any elephants yet, so we turned into the forest to look for them. Here we encountered several small elephant family groups, all following their matriarchs in search of food. On the way out of the park, heading to our river safari, we viewed giraffe and more antelope.
After lunch, our intrepid group boarded a small boat for the water safari on the Chobe River. Viewing wildlife from the water offered a different perspective on the animal life. Gape-mouthed hippos and crocodile sightings were frequent now.
Some elephants were gathered on the riverbank waiting for the right moment to swim across to the islands, following others that had crossed earlier. The black coats of the buffalo were now glistening in the sun. Unfortunately, we didn’t witness any herds swimming across to the islands, but there were distinctive water lines on the elephants that had forded earlier.
African darters, yellow-billed storks, grey herons and great white egrets searched the waters for fish. Along the shore an eerie-looking monitor lizard crawled along in search of bird nests and their eggs.
On the way back, we passed floating houseboat style hotels that offer multi-day excursions that follow the river further upstream to more isolated sections along the Botswana – Nambia border. Surprisingly, there was even a border control station on the riverbank to monitor the movement of people and commerce on the waterway between the two countries. It was a rewarding afternoon with Donna definitely being in her element. And those riverboat hotels got us thinking about potential future trips.So many things change yet many things stay the same.
We now have jet travel, cell phones, and the internet, and yet many places in Africa have barely changed at all, with folks still walking many miles each day to gather water and forage for firewood. And malaria, as it was in Livingstone’s time, is still a deadly disease.
Till next time, Craig & Donna