The road back home
This is a journal record (only slightly edited) of a trip my brother Jim and I took to Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa from September 3rd through the 18th. It consists principally of spur-of-the-moment thoughts which I dutifully recorded during spare moments along the way. Our travels took us from Miami via Cape Town to Johannesburg (South Africa); then on to Windhoek and Ongava Camp on the edge of Etosha National Park (Namibia); then on to Mokuti, back to Windhoek, and on to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Elephant Camp; then on to Kariba via Hwange; then on to Ruckomechi Camp (on the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe); then on to Vundu Camp (on the Zambezi); then on to Chesa Camp (also on the Zambezi); then on to Acacia Camp (again on the Zambezi); then back to Kariba and via Hwange to Victoria Falls; then back to Johannesburg and Cape Town and finally back to Miami.
Entry: Thursday, September 3, 5:08 p.m., Miami International Airport. Jim and I are buckled in our Row 51 seats (I have the window) awaiting departure of SAA Flight 204 scheduled for 5 o'clock. A voice on the intercom just announced the flight will take 13 and a half hours. On the TV screen is a map with a symbol of an airplane. The route we take will be shown along with trip statistics (altitude, speed, distance traveled, etc.).
Now our huge B747-400 has been backed up, the engines are revving up, and our Africa Adventure begins.
Entry: Friday, September 4, 5:25 a.m. (Miami time), Over the Atlantic. The screen says we're flying at 695 miles per hour at an altitude of 37,000 feet and have traveled 7217 miles so far. We went through some bumpy air for a couple of hours, but now it's smooth. Right after dinner was served I inflated my travel pillow and tried to get some shut eye. I don't remember sleeping, but I didn't see any of the two movies shown.
Entry: Friday, September 4, 8:55 p.m., Johannesburg, South Africa. The flight to Cape Town was 7685 miles. After an hour stopover (we weren't allowed off the plane), we flew 785 miles here, were met by Derrick (Wilderness Safaris), driven about 200 yards to the Holiday Inn, checked in, met with Tina, another Wilderness Safaris representative at 6:15 for a very brief briefing, had supper, then showered, and are now about to turn in. The alarm is set to go off at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow (that's 11:00 p.m. Miami time).
Entry: Saturday, September 5, 6:42 a.m., Johannesburg International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa. Our alarms went off as desired, but Jim and I had tossed and turned much of the night, so were well awake before the signals. We got here to the airport about 5:30 a.m., as instructed by Tina, only to find the airport closed! It opened at 6 o'clock. Jim and I are now in the international departure lounge awaiting our 7:50 departure.
Entry: Sunday, September 6, 1:00 p.m., Ongava Tented Camp, Namibia. The flight to Windhoek was easy. The scenery below was desolate, nothing but desert and scrub. The terrain didn't change all the way to the Windhoek airport. Disembarking the plane we were greeted by a bright sun, a clear sky, and perfect temperature. After clearing customs we were met by our charter pilot who escorted us to a small airplane for our less than two-hour flight to a tiny gravel airstrip which serves Ongava Tented Camp. A twenty minute drive in a Nissan brought us into camp, which consists of only six tents for visitors.
Our guide, Greg, met us as he returned with three guests he had just taken for a morning game drive in Etosha National Park, Namibia's foremost attraction, covering 8600 square miles in the northern part of the country. We had lunch, then proceeded to a most need activity: naps! Afterward we gathered at 3:30 for tea, then departed in the Nissan for a late afternoon and early evening drive. We were looking for rhino and lion and were lucky to find the former: a huge mother and tiny baby marching through the dry scrub. We all got photos.
After drinks and a snack served by the right front fender of our vehicle, we continued the drive in the dark, but saw only a few animals.
Dinner was very good: chicken casserole, spinach pie, carrots, salad, with chocolate mousse. Talk of the day's excitement followed. Then bed.
Early Sunday morning I awoke with the thought in mind I should perhaps unzip the rear screening of our tent to visit our adjoining bathroom facilities. I lay in bed contemplating the magnitude of the need for ten minutes of so, and before reaching a decision saw a dot of light through the front zippered screening. It approached and a pleasant voice (staff member Bernadette's) wished us a good morning as she left a thermos of hot water for coffee or tea. It was our 5 a.m. wake up call.
Jim asked if I had heard the commotion during the night. I had not. He said he thought he had heard a lion responding to my snoring. He said it was most unsettling.
Later, Greg said it wasn't a lion, although he had seen one just 50 feet from the reception/dining room shortly after turning off the camp lights late in the evening. Jim stuck to his story throughout the trip, each animal sound we heard confirming for him that what he had heard was indeed lion.
Greg said a number of animals visited the camp during our stay there in addition to lion, including kudu, water buck, giraffe, steenbok, jackal, and oryx.
Tea was served at 5:30 a.m., then we climbed in the Nissan and drove to Etosha. Right inside the gate we saw a black rhino at a watering hole. He eyed the vehicles lined up there and appeared uncomfortable, but did not charge. Apparently he had his fill of water, but seemed anxious to prevent other animals from taking a drink. His actions seemed almost spiteful. We watched for maybe 15 minutes.
Early September mornings in Etosha are quite cold. I was wearing long pants and my Newburyport sweatshirt, but still needed the heavy poncho that was made available to each of us. In the open vehicle the wind chill can be quite penetrating. The dry climate turned my nose and throat sore.
Aside from the rhino, the highlight of the ride was a group of five elephants heading toward a water hole. Greg parked right by their path and the massive animals strode past within five or ten feet of us. Then we watched quite a while as they drank from the man-made pool. Many other animals were also in the vicinity for a drink, including zebra, wart hog, ostrich, kudu, spring buck, and others.
Back at camp we had a few minutes to freshened up before a tasty lunch of spaghetti and meat sauce, salad, and sliced apple for dessert. Then: a nap!
Entry: Monday, September 7, 1:45 p.m., Ongava Tented Camp. On the late afternoon drive, Greg took us to a spot maybe 5 kilometers from the camp, stopped the vehicle, and announced we were going to walk into the bush. He and the spotter had found fresh tracks, and we were going to follow them.
And just what animal had left the tracks? Lion! Greg readied his rifle as the rest of us readied our bravery. The walk was thrilling as you might expect. Greg and the spotter kept looking for tracks. They would carefully study each set of prints. I kept looking for lions !
After an hour or more, as the sun neared the horizon, we returned to where we had begun, without any lion sighting. With the daylight fading, a small table was retrieved from the vehicle and drinks and a snack were set up. A few minutes later the spotter said something in hushed tones to Greg, Greg retrieved his rifle, changed shells, and told us to put our drinks down. Rhinos had been seen near a water hold and we were going in on foot to see them. Greg used one type of shell for lions, another more powerful shell for rhinos. The diminishing light added greatly to the excitement as we quietly walked through the bush toward the animals.
When we got within sight of the water hole we found fourrhinos. I tried to get a video of them, but underbrush and low light obstructed our view. In addition, I fear I may not have been holding the camera very steady. Greg motioned us to stay in a single line as we moved forward. After some time, when darkness had closed in, we slowly retreated, cautiously making our way back to the Nissan and our waiting treats. Greg stayed briefly to assure our safety. It was exciting! Jim and I pondered what would have happened if one or more of the rhinos had charged.
Back at camp we had time for a glorious shower before dinner. As I lathered up under a full and hot stream of water, above me were only the moon and stars. A cool breeze enhanced the warmth of the water and the beauty of the moment.
Wake-up call this morning was 6 o'clock. We piled into the vehicle for another drive to Etosha. There we saw the black rhino again, then drove to the Etosha Pan, an enormous flat salt-lake-like area about 75 km by 150 km. It was completely dry but fills with water to about one foot depth during the rainy season. We also saw four elephants trek down to a water hole, take a long drink, then douse themselves with muddy water. It was a delight to behold and we watched for quite a while.
Back at camp for a late brunch, then an entry here, and a (much anticipated) nap!
Entry: Tuesday, September 8, 4:00 p.m., Ongava Tented Camp. The late p.m. drive yesterday started with a visit to the 22 ostriches bought by the Ongava people. Although wild ostriches had been ordered by camp personnel, tame ostriches were delivered. It was great fun getting a close-up view of these dumb birds. One had what looked like a silly smile on its face. We had a real nose-to-nose encounter!
In the Nissan we then went looking for lion, but found rhino instead, the same mother and baby we had seen a day or so before. We raced along the road in our vehicle as the pair raced through the underbrush parallel to us, but then these immense white rhinos turned in away from the road. Greg continued on a short distance, stopped the van, then suggested we follow them on foot.
We plodded through the underbrush for the better part of an hour with no success. Or with total success depending on whether you wanted or didn't want to find the rhinos.
The soil at Ongava is very powdery, not unlike a one-inch layer of gray baby powder. With each step your foot kicks up a little cloud of dust. I hope I've captured the effect on video tape. During our drives huge, rolling clouds of dust are generated by the vehicle. If we stop or even slow down we're sometimes totally enveloped with the stuff. During the rainy season it must turn into a gigantic mud pit. But the rain transforms the dry desolation into a garden of green, we were told.
After a snack and drink we prepared for our night drive. Our non-operational spotlight was made operational after much tinkering and lost time. The principal sighting after all the fuss: two rabbits!
Dinner was late but good. Bed followed immediately afterwards.
This morning we met at 6:30 and drove again into Etosha. Our usual sighting, the black rhino, was absent this time. We continued on, driving maybe 15 or 20 miles, stopping at water holes along the way, but found nothing very interesting and little to no game. That is, not until the "last" water hole. Two male lions were lying peacefully maybe 150 yards from where our vehicle was parked. We watched them for some time. Dozens of zebras, kudu, oryx, and other animals kept a safe distance from the water, in spite of their obvious thirst, as the lions reigned supreme over the scene.
Then we spotted five female lions enter the picture from off to the right. Bloated from a recent kill, with blood all over their faces and paws, they crouched down at the water's edge for long drinks.
One carefree wart hog trotted toward the water for a drink, obviously oblivious of the lions, for when he spotted them, he jerked to a halt, made an abrupt about face, and high tailed it (literally and figuratively) out of there. An hour or more went by as the numbers of thirsty animals swelled. Then suddenly, with trumpeting, much commotion, and a cloud of dust, a big herd of elephants marched confidently toward the water. All the animals waiting anxiously for a drink scattered, including the female lions, who by then had been resting comfortably nearby. The elephants drank the water and splashed in it. Then yet another herd of elephants joined them.
Slowly all the other animals edged closer and closer to the hole. After some time, the braver among them got to the water's edge and took a drink.
The episode was very exciting and dramatic to watch and thoroughly entertaining. In all we saw seven lions, 15 elephants, 12 wart hogs, and dozens, probably several hundred zebra, oryx, kudu, and springbok. We were over two hours late for lunch. But part of the delay was a flat tire, the third since we've been here at Ongava Camp.
Entry: Wednesday, September 9, 9:25 a.m., Flying over Namibia. The game drive last night was uneventful. We looked unsuccessfully for lion and rhino. We did not take a game hike through the bush and it was just as well. We had had enough excitement at Ongava. The night drive was also uneventful, to no one's disappointment, I think.
We did most of our packing late last night. Following our 5:30 wake-up call I lingered in bed until about 5:50. Our bags were picked up at 6:15 and by 6:45 or so we were at the Ongava air strip. Our pilot, female this time, was waiting for us.
The 40-minute flight across Etosha to Mokuti was smooth and interesting. At 5000 feet we got a good view of the Etosha Flat and the entire landscape. I spotted only one elephant, no other animals.
After landing we were taken by van about 100 yards to Mokuti Lodge (very nice) for a brief 20-minute stay before returning to the airport for our one-hour Air Namibia flight to Windhoek. Right now as I'm writing this we're descending for our landing.
Entry: Thursday, September 10, 12:40 p.m., Elephant Camp, Zimbabwe. After a little red tape at Windhoek (seat assignments, customs, etc.) we were immediately called for our flight to Victoria Falls, and Jim and I were the first on the plane. After take off I immediately conked off, waking only to refuse first OJ, then breakfast.
Upon landing at Vic Falls and clearing customs, we looked for the Elephant Camp representative. He was not to be found. We waited a while thinking he might be a little late for the flight. He was late all right! I inquired at the information desk and was advised to wait some more. One of the other lodge reps suggested I inquire at one of the souvenir shops at the airport. It turned out the shopkeeper was associated with Elephant Walk, not Elephant Camp, but she called our tour coordinator and from him got the number of the camp office in Vic Falls. I was told to wait at the shop until the mixup could be straightened out.
According to the story, we were expected on a later flight. (Every Snafu has a good excuse.) In any event a land rover was despatched to retrieve us and after another wait a driver arrived, apologized, and drove us the 25 km or so here to Elephant Camp, arriving about 2:30 (our flight had landed at 12:15).
I still felt bushed (no pun intended) and we seemed quite content to sit on our cabin veranda and gaze out through the windowless opening (closed with canvas and screening at night) at a water hole approximately 150 yards away and the great vista beyond.
At 4 o'clock we gathered with the other six guests (camp capacity is only eight) for tea before proceeding to the elephant "stables." Large leather saddles had been strapped on the backs of the four elephants (Miss Ellie, Jumbo, Jock, and Jack). The drivers are not called mahouts here, they're "grooms," and they don't use their feet to direct the elephants, only voice commands (total of about 15) and an occasional smack to the top of the elephant's head with a poker-like device attached to the end of a golf club shaft.
When the other six guests were atop three of the elephants, I climbed the five stairs of a concrete platform (to reach elephant-back height), threw a leg over the animal, Miss Ellie, and with some help positioned myself immediately behind Ernest, the groom. Jim quickly climbed aboard and we were ready to go.
Well, no we weren't. The stirrups were set much too high and my left leg immediately cramped. Jim also said he was about to have a cramping problem. We were told that use of the stirrups was optional, but I feared my cramp was then irreversible. Happily, it was not.
Brian, our guide, instructed us to not lean left or right, not lean forward or backward, and not stand up in the stirrups. As a result we were basically locked into position, like three ice cubes in a tray, and this made videoing an extra challenge. The groom's head was six inches in front of mine, Jim's was about six inches to the rear.
As we started out, the ride itself was relatively smooth, but the elephant's back was not. Sitting on the beast's backbone is not unlike sitting on a row of sharp rocks, even though padded somewhat (not much) by the saddle.
They call it a saddle, but it's really just a large piece of leather with some padding, nothing at all like the rig for horses. There are a couple of leather straps for holding on, but with the groom and two passengers, things are far too cramped to get access to them.
I have never felt closer to my brother than during our ride, as we undulated, elephant back, through the bush. Come to think of it, I never have been closer. It goes without saying I felt a similar closeness to the groom.
At one point the elephant stepped down into a little gully, then stepped up the other side. At that moment our collective balance shifted and the saddle and the three of us were immediately sort of at half mast. The guide, who had been leading our pachyderm parade on foot, had to come to our assistance and make major adjustments in the straps which kept our saddle and elephant together.
This was not a comfortable ride. The challenge was threefold: to simply remain on the elephant, to remain cramp free, and to give every outward appearance I was having the time of my life.
If there were any animal sightings, I don't remember them. Halfway through the walk the guide came down with a bleeding nose. We were all quite pleased when the camp came back into view.
Dismounting in my case was about as delicate as a hippo dancing on a high wire. With camera bag over my shoulder and a video camera in one hand, the guide pulled my other hand to ease me off the elephant. I was unaware that the ride had numbed my legs sufficiently so that when I attempted to stand up, I fell into the groom, nearly knocking him over. Jim and I had and continue to have score-muscle reminders of our first grand elephant safari.
After a shower each, we met with the others and dinner was served. Absolutely delicious: butternut squash soup, steak, mashed potatoes, rice, snow peas, cauliflower, butternut squash, salad. For dessert: some kind of custard cake with peaches and topping. Yum! I washed it down with a Coke and a malaria tablet.
Our 6:30 wake-up greeting gave us only enough time to briefly enjoy the sunrise, then dress before tea. Afterward we watched an elephant training session, and much to our surprise found it was time once again for another elephant ride.
There was complete agreement that half of the eight of us would walk and half would ride. Jim quickly cast his vote to walk, so I found myself again on an elephant's back, this time Jock's. What a difference! One rider is vastly superior to two. I was able to move around a little, get comfortable, and really enjoy the ride, which lasted perhaps an hour and a half. Robert, a pleasant conversationalist, was the groom.
In the bush we stopped, all riders dismounted, and we were served breakfast: eggs, sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, juice, toast, and grapefruit sections. Simply delicious! A table had been set for us with chairs (even cloth napkins), and the meal by the water hole was grand. We were told that the Elephant Camp staff numbers 40, to serve a maximum of 8 overnight visitors plus a number of day visitors.
After breakfast we drove back to camp so some guests could "freshen up," then we started out in the vehicle for a game drive. There was little to see in the way of game, but the scenery is stunning nonetheless.
When we got back to the camp, the elephants were romping in the water hole located just a stone's throw from the "lodge." I rushed down to the water to get some videos. The animals were an absolute delight to behold as they drank, tussled, rolled around in the mud, and generally enjoyed their "free time." I videoed them for maybe a half hour, maybe more.
Entry: Friday, September 11, 10:45 a.m., Elephant Camp, Zimbabwe. After 4 o'clock tea we again made our way to the elephant stable. Much to my surprise Jim chose to ride. I thought sitting would be at the bottom of his priority list, but I was very happy to walk. It's an invigorating and sometimes exciting hike. After an hour or so one of the grooms (Wellington) spotted animals off beyond the clearing. They were largely hidden in a gully by bushes and underbrush. Brian stopped our forward movement and advanced cautiously to get a better look.
There were three buffalo, about 125 feet from our vantage point. Brian advised those of us who were walking to use the elephants as shields, should a need arise. He said he is most uncomfortable around buffalo because they are so unpredictable.
Every animal has three zones of interaction with other animals. Large distances are in the "comfort" zone. Shorter distances are in the "discomfort" zone. Short distances are in the "charge or retreat" zone, depending on the animal. Of course for the buffalo it's the "charge" zone. Sometimes you can get close without a charge, sometimes the buffalo will charge when the distance is quite great. Thus the concern about stalking buffalo.
We observed the buffalo for several minutes before cautiously moving on. Being on foot added considerably to the excitement. Those on the elephants were much more protected.
This morning's wake-up call was at 6 o'clock to accommodate travel plans of two guests. We had tea and toast at 6:30, then were off on yet another elephant walk. I rode Jumbo (Sonny was groom), while Jim, still tender from yesterday's ride, hobbled along gingerly on foot. He suffered not only from soreness, but swelling and rawness as well. Such are the hardships the brave must endure at Elephant Camp.
Brunch was served at about 10:15. Right now we have some quiet time. Jim is lying down, as that position is more tolerable for him. I think I'll assume the same position myself for a little nap.
The many naps may sound unnecessary, but on this trip I've made the best time zone transition ever for an African safari! No headaches. No stomach cramps.
Entry: Friday, September 11, 7:25 a.m., Elephant Camp, Zimbabwe. At the 2 o'clock elephant washing Jim and I participated with gusto. It was a dirty job, the purpose of which seemed to be to transfer all the mud and filth from the elephants to the washers. Then there was another break until 4 o'clock tea which included, as on prior days, cheese, crackers, salad, cake, and other tasty treats.
In spite of Jim's, shall we say "sensitivities," he chose to take another turn on the elephant's back. Now there's bravery! I was happy to walk. This time we drove in the Toyota to a spot a couple of miles from the camp where the elephants were waiting for us. The two of us are now the only two "old timers," and all the newcomers got aboard elephants. Jim rode Jumbo.
I was the only one walking with Brian. After ten minutes or so one of the grooms spotted some animals: five lions. They were to our right, beyond a tree line in a clearing. They spotted us, too. Brian directed me to stay right at his side and I became fly paper. We moved toward the lions. The lions watched us intently.
We walked to the tree line but stopped there, and after a few minutes the cats turned and sauntered off away from us. Talk about a thrill! High excitement levels!
Later we came upon a couple of giraffes, standing maybe 40 yards from us. Brian let the elephants go ahead as they wouldn't frighten the giraffes. When we moved forward they slowly walked away. Brian said it was very rare to see both lions and giraffes on the same walk. It was a fitting conclusion to our wonderful stay at Elephant Camp.
Entry: Saturday, September 12, 12:00 noon, Victoria Falls Airport. The after-elephant ride routine is now very familiar. Showers (there was enough hot water this time; the night before, Jim's shower was cold), meet for drinks around the fire at 7:30, dinner at 8:00, talk for maybe a half hour afterwards, then to bed. Last night we had to fit packing into the schedule.
This morning a full breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausages, toast) followed our 6 o'clock wake-up call. At 7:00 we were on our way first to drop off Joyce (an overnight guest) here (the airport), then to backtrack and continue on to the city of Victoria Falls.
We were scheduled to participate in the usual Elephant Camp activities in the morning, but decided we'd prefer instead to spend some time at the falls since we're so close. The Elephant Camp people were very cooperative and made arrangements for us to be driven there, then shown some other sights, then driven to the airport.
The entrance fee to view the falls has been raised recently from $4 (U.S.) to $10, quite a hike, but the view is worth it even at the inflated price. There wasn't as much water flowing as when I saw the falls two years ago, yet the spectacle was still awesome. It's the largest falls in the world, with heights up to 325 feet, and some say it's the most beautiful. We walked along the path for about an hour, then made our way back to the entrance. Our driver, Judah, then drove us to see a nearby Baobab tree, "the oldest tree in Zimbabwe," "the second oldest in Africa," according to Judah. It's 600 years old, he said. (This was later challenged by another guide who said the tree is 6000 years old!)
But later on I got to thinking: how do they know it's the oldest tree in Zimbabwe? We saw lots of Baobab trees on our trip and who's to say the one near Victoria Falls is the oldest? I concluded it's the oldest by proclamation.
Judah then suggested we visit the Zambezi Wildlife Sanctuary, a nearby crocodile farm, before returning to the airport. Admission was only $2 (U.S.) each, and it included a guided tour! Very interesting. I held a baby croc in my hands as the guide, who had quite a sense of humor, told us all sorts of interesting facts about the animal. The sanctuary also had a number of other animals to see.
We got back here (the airport) about ten minutes ago and are now awaiting our 1:50 departure on Air Zimbabwe 201 to Kariba (via Hwange).
Entry: Saturday, September 12, 8:05 p.m., Kariba Breezes Hotel, Zimbabwe. Sometime during our wait we noticed that the handwritten departure time at the gate (there's only one gate) had been changed from 1:50 to 2:30 p.m., not a good omen. We decided lunch would be advisable. Soup of the day on the menu sounded good, so we asked the waitress what kind of soup it was. "Paraguz," she said. Jim and I exchanged puzzled glances. "What's in it?" I inquired. We were given the impression the waitress was unsure and wished to discuss the matter with the kitchen staff. "Chicken?" I asked, hopefully. "Yes," she said. "Noodles?" "No." We ordered two soups of the day and two Cokes and waited.
Soon the Cokes arrived, but it took some 20 to 30 minutes for the soups to make an appearance. No chicken. It was (we should have guessed) "asparagus" soup; hot and very tasty. When she said "yes" to my question, the waitress apparently assumed I was asking if chicken was on the menu, not in the soup.
By 2 o'clock we were back at the gate. A number of other passengers were waiting there, too. At 2:30 we were allowed to feed all our carry-on items into the X-ray machine. We were each frisked with a hand-held metal detector, then allowed to walk through the metal-detector frame. I later noticed the electronics of the frame had been removed.
After all of us were safely checked into the waiting room, the metal detector and X-ray people left their posts and anyone could have walked through with a thermonuclear device if they wanted.
We finally boarded the plane at about 3:00, then waited 15-20 minutes for takeoff, then waited an extra 20 minutes or so longer than usual at Hwange, our intermediary stop-off point.
Our understanding was that we would be met at the Kariba Airport by a representative and then taken to Ruckomechi Camp, which we assumed was but a short drive away. Wrong! It seems Ruckomechi Camp is a short flight away plus a short drive from the airstrip to reach the camp.
As luck would have it, the airstrip near Ruckomechi has no lights. Furthermore, driving at night in the Mana Pools National Park is not allowed. So, since it was almost dusk when we got to Kariba, our itinerary seems to be falling apart. The rep who met us said she would try to get us a local hotel room, but we'd have to pay for it.
Right now I'm sitting in Room 12 of the Kariba Breezes Hotel which overlooks Lake Kariba. It's not very nice (literature in the room brags this is a two-star hotel), but at least it is a hotel. At least we don't have to sleep on a sidewalk tonight (a real problem, because I don't think there are any sidewalks in Kariba). Jim and I finished supper a short time ago.
When we checked in, the travel rep said the company manager, Justin, would meet us promptly at 7:30 to go over our new itinerary and answer our questions. But after she (the rep) left, someone on the hotel staff notified us that Justin would not be meeting with us after all. All we know now is that we're supposed to get back to the Kariba Airport at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow for a flight to rendevous with the canoe trip.
Entry: Saturday, September 12, 10:00 p.m., Kariba Breezes Hotel, Zimbabwe. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. we got a call in our room from another rep, Norman, who said there was a weight limitation for our upcoming trip. It was either ten pounds or 10 kilograms, I don't remember which. Any overage would be kept for us and returned after the canoeing.
After the call, however, Jim and I found we had a host of unanswered questions and we had no way to reach Norman, Justin, or anybody else with the tour company. Such questions as: does the camera with 4 batters (total weight perhaps five pounds) count in the weight limit? Was it ten pounds or ten kilograms? Would we get any further briefing? Did the weight limit apply to what's carried with you or to the total weight of all items taken? Should we take along our identification, wallet, passport, tickets, and money? Why is the limit so low?
Without anyone to provide answers to any of our questions, we made a whole bunch of assumptions and judgements and I fear we'll regret some of the decisions we made.
One of the decisions was to prepare for a spill in the Zambezi River. Thinking my camera might be lost, along with everything else I had with me, I took the video tape recorded thus far and packed it in the bag to be left in Kariba. I also tore out all the journal pages to date to be left behind.
The power in the room just failed, turning off all the lights (they were out only briefly), so I guess I'd better end this entry while I can still see what I'm doing.
Entry: Sunday, September 13, 7:50 a.m., Kariba Breezes Hotel, Zimbabwe. We were promised to be met here 20 minutes ago for a ride back to the airport. Still no sign of a vehicle or representative. At about 7:30 this morning I got a phone call while waiting in the reception area to check out. It was Norman again. Of course we had been told, he said, that we'd have to pay for this morning's charter flight. Of course not, I replied.
The vehicle with Justin driving just arrived (7:55) 25 minutes tardy.
Entry: Sunday, September 13, 3:00 p.m., Vundu Camp, along the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. We were both surprised on the way to the airport to turn off the main road onto a low-grade side road. The thought occurred to me that we might be waylaid (later I learned the same thought occurred to Jim), given the way our luck seemed to be turning sour, but then I saw a sign indicating we were heading for a seaplane dock. Minutes later our vehicle stopped, we jumped out, and in no time we were climbing into the tiny cabin. Now, finally, the ten kg limit made sense.
We had repacked last night so most of our belongings were in our large travel bags. They stayed in the vehicle in Kariba and will presumably be stored somewhere. We crammed the few belongings we had with us into the plane.
The seaplane bobbed about on the water as we slowly traveled southwest toward Lake Kariba. Then we made a U-tern, the pilot gunned the engine, and our speed picked up. Soon we had overcome gravity's pull keeping us on the surface and were in the air. The pilot banked the craft and we headed directly for the Zambezi River, which flows in a dramatic gorge after exiting Lake Kariba. We swooped down to a height of only 20 to 30 feet, tree-top level, and followed the river as it twisted and turned along the gorge. It was absolutely gorgeous (sorry about that)!
Although advised that the flight would take only 20 minutes (probably to calm the nerves of two other, uncomfortable and complaining passengers), it was more like a 40 minute flight. Except for the portion in the gorge, we flew at an altitude of about 3500 feet.
We passed over wild country, but I could spot no animals. Then we descended and landed on the river. A small power boat met us immediately and we transferred our belongings and ourselves to the boat for a 20 minute ride to the dock at Ruckomechi Camp.
Moments after our arrival breakfast was served (unaware of this timing, we both had breakfast at 7:00 a.m. at the Kariba Breezes), and a delicious breakfast it was. Shortly thereafter we went on a game drive.
The territory here is dry, but not nearly as desolate as in Etosha. The grass is brown, but trees and bushes are green, and game is abundant: elephant, water buck, kudu, impala, zebra, among others. The wilderness area is part of the 850 square mile Mana Pools National Park.
Back at camp we had a few minutes before lunch, so I amused myself trying to video some baboons and impala from the "back veranda" of our thatched roof "cabin." (We were assigned cabin #4 just for the few hours we were at the camp.) Just then Jim got my attention. A bunch of elephants were walking by in front of the cabin right in the middle of the camp.
I leaped to the front door, opened it, and was able to video several pachyderms pass by within a few feet. I counted 13 elephants in the herd, but I'm sure I missed some. They snooped around picking up tree pods that had dropped to the ground, then congregated around "our" cabin. I was taking videos left, right, in front, and in back of our little observation post. It was glorious. I could have taken one step and touched several of these wild animals. What a thrill!
When the elephants allowed, we crossed over (where they had been) to the dining area for lunch. Again, absolutely delicious: ground beef and sweet potato casserole, vegetable salad, potato salad, yet another salad, cheese, crackers, and more.
At 3:00 we were loaded into a vehicle for a ride to our first canoe camp. It seems the wind was a little too strong to allow us to paddle there. Upon our arrival the others (a U.S. Army dermatologist and his artist wife, a pediatrician and his college-graduate daughter, and the two guides) were eating lunch, but we choose not to join them. That allowed time for me to make an entry here and for Jim to catch a very brief nap.
Entry: Monday, September 14, 6:25 a.m., Vundu Camp, along the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. Jim apparently didn't need our 6 o'clock wake-up call this morning. For much of the night he was dealing with hippo grunts, animal calls, and a noisy floppy section of tent canvas. The canvas also got my attention during the night, but I slept pretty well otherwise.
We had a drive yesterday afternoon, then an hour and a half walk in the bush (great exercise; we saw many animals, including elephants, but only from afar), then came dinner (roast beef, baked potatoes, gravy, salad, yoghurt dessert), and bed. Or I should say "cot."
Our tents here are a little like those at Ongava, but without some of the niceties. Here it's a chemical toilet, the shower is a pail of water, the sink is a canvas pouch filled with water, there's no electricity, it's a cot, not a bed, and the space is considerably smaller. But, it's still a whole lot better than just a sleeping bag!
Preparing for bed (I mean cot) in the dark is an interesting and sometimes comical exercise. Brushing teeth is complicated because we don't want to spit in our wash water. So last night when I brushed, I hung my head over the canvas partition (which gives privacy to our little "bathroom" area) and sprayed a mouthful of "brushings" into the wild. When the wind blew in the wrong direction, it got the two of us laughing hysterically!
Entry: Monday, September 14, 7:10 p.m., Chesa Camp, along the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. After a light breakfast this morning we got in the canoes for the first time, Jim and I in one, two other guests in each of two other canoes, and Deseray and Nick (our two guides) in a fourth. The wind had died down markedly from yesterday's blow, and it was perfect weather for a paddle.
There are thousands of hippos along the Zambezi. They usually gather in pods of maybe 10 to 20. Sometimes a single hippo will call one channel his own and will stay there alone. The Zambezi has lots of islands, shifting sand bars, and exposed reefs, creating an elaborate maze of channels, streams, and waterways.
There aren't nearly as many crocodiles along the river, at least as far as we could tell. We would only occasionally spot one sunning itself along the bank, while it seemed a pod of hippos was around every bend. The hippos were so massive and weighty, it made me think I didn't want to be caught between a croc and a hard place. (Sorry about that; I just couldn't resist.)
After a couple of hours paddling, we pulled up the canoes on a sandy spot and headed into the bush for a walk. Lots of game was encountered: impala, water buck, baboons, wart hogs, the usual beasts we've grown accustomed to. Then we came across a big female elephant and we slowly advanced toward it, sneaking up behind one tree, then another, to get a closer look.
We observed the elephant for maybe 20 minutes, but retreated when it showed agitation with our presence. We started back to the canoes, but then looked back and noticed the elephant had descended a steep sand bank and was in the water (Zambezi) munching on the leaves and branches of a fallen tree.
We returned to observe. A few of us decided to climb out on the fallen tree trunk to get a closer look at the elephant. We spent another half hour or more taking pictures and climbing on the tree before heading back.
When we reached our canoes, Deseray and Nick unloaded a number of boxes we had taken down the river with us and set up "camp." A gas burner was set up to cook bacon and tomatoes. A batch of scrambled eggs was prepared on another portable stove burner. But before preparations got too far, we noticed a herd of maybe a dozen elephants heading our way. They eyed us as though we were uninvited guests to their own personal stomping ground (and indeed we were), and they marched right toward our camp.
We made a quick retreat toward the river's edge leaving our breakfast still cooking. Nick readied his rifle. Then we retreated further. The animals poked around our camp momentarily (causing no damage) as if to clearly establish who was in charge. There was no dispute.
After our late but pleasant breakfast in the bush, the dishes were washed (or at least given a serious rinse) and packed along with the camp chairs and all the other supplies in the camoes, and we started off down stream once again.
We continued to dodge pods of hippos, spot occasional crocs here and there, and a couple of times Jim and I got hung up on a sand bar. Our canoe had most of the heavy provisions so was riding lower in the water than the other three.
We were told by Deseray that she had witnessed only one tipover in her years of guiding canoe trips since 1994, but at one spot, when we tried to make an abrupt right turn to view five or six elephants at the edge of the sand bank, the dermatologist lost his balance and fell in the water. Later we were told his canoe had hit a stump or something, but as far as I was concerned, poor canoe technique clearly played a role in the overturn.
There was concern he might have to deal with a hippo or crocodile, but all he had to deal with was intense embarrassment, drenched clothing, and possibly ruined cameras, binoculars, and film. I thought he remained remarkably calm, under the circumstances. If it had happened to me, I would have had a fit.
The other four tourists seemed intent to paddle ahead of us. Neither pair had any real canoe paddling experience, apparently, because it took them most of the first day to catch on to the idea that the paddle at the stern can be used as a tiller. Much of their navigation was a matter of first both paddling on one side of the canoe, then both paddling on the other. As a result, their course was largely zig-zag, all day long. Sometimes near hippos they would overcompensate and find themselves heading straight toward a pod. I'm sure that added to their excitement. I was glad Jim was at the stern. His experience kept us out of trouble and gave me more time for taking videos.
Nevertheless, there was occasional canoe bumping as the inexperienced ones would sometimes crash into us, or cross directly in front of our path, causing us to crash into them.
Later in the afternoon Deseray spotted a lion lying lazily under a tree on the top of a sand bank by the side of the river. We quickly beached the canoes and began tracking what turned out to be two lions, females. We walked into the bush maybe a quarter mile before the lions lay down under a tree. We positioned ourselves behind a giant termite mound to observe.
After several minutes Nick led us (or at least those interested) on hands and knees out from behind the termite hill toward the lions, but the beasts soon grew weary of our peering at them and they sauntered off toward the south, deeper into the bush. It was an exciting encounter.
Near the end of our day's paddling we saw an enormous crocodile lying quietly on a sandbar about 100 yards to our left. Nick said it was 18-feet long.
Less than a half mile upstream from here (our camp for the evening) we came across an ornery hippo in a narrow channel. Deseray and Nick carefully paddled by, then pulled their canoe up onto the mud flat and walked back to guide us individually past this mean old monster. Ours was the next canoe to glide past him. The guides pulled the canoe by hand to keep it as close to the bank as possible and give the hippo maximum leeway. At that point the channel was only about 16 feet wide, so we were no more than a dozen feet from the hippo's mouth.
We made it (obviously), as did the others, and as the big red-orange sun neared the horizon we landed the canoes here at camp. After a brief drink and snack, Jim headed for the shower, while I joined only two other safari stalwarts for a short and uneventful game drive in one of the vehicles. Then I had a shower, got dressed, and made a few entries here. Dinner will be served at 8:00 as usual.
It's interesting that the entire camp - tents, tables, toilet facilities, the "kitchen," everything - must be broken down by the staff after we leave in the canoes each morning. Park rules prohibit anything -even a fire spit - from remaining. All must be left "untouched" as though no one had even been there. The equipment is then trucked to the next location and set up again while the tourists are paddling along on the river.
Entry: Tuesday, September 15, 11:50 a.m., along the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. Dinner last night was extra good. We started with asparagus and hollandaise sauce. The sauce had just the right amount of lemon. Wow, was it good! Then came chicken, rice, salad, baby squash, and a caramel dessert. We were surprised to see a dim band of light on the mountain across the river on the Zambia side. We were told it was fire. The region is so remote, when a campfire or burn off gets out of control, it's simply left to burn itself out.
We were in our tent and on our cots shortly after 9 o'clock, and asleep almost instantly. A good canoe paddle will do that.
Through the night the tent canvas was not slapping as the wind was negligible. The animal sounds, however, were more numerous and intense. One lion roar made me think the animal was in camp. I was told at breakfast it was some distance away. A hyena did visit our camp during the night, however.
The sun was up when we got our 6 a.m. wake-up call. With tea and biscuits at 6:30, we were loading the canoes at 7:00. The wind is up today compared to yesterday and the paddling is much more difficult. A mid-morning rest break was much appreciated and our 11:30 lunch stop couldn't have been more welcome. Originally we were going to lunch on an island in the middle of the Zambezi, but high winds canceled that plan. We've had lunch now and just like many of the wild animals we've encountered thusfar, we're all huddled around the base of a pricker tree, as it provides moderately good shade. It's very sandy here, almost like a desert. There is a tree line, but it's maybe a half mile inland. Aside from some birds, there's no sign of any animals right now, except for scattered elephant droppings.
We've been told we'll pause here for some while, maybe several hours, in hopes the winds will die down enough to allow us to continue paddling without the struggle we had this morning.
Entry: Tuesday, September 15, 7:15 p.m., Acacia Camp, along the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe. Yesterday's wait was maybe an hour and a half. We once again boarded the canoes and started out. The wind had indeed eased, but both Jim and I were tuckered from the morning's paddle and a long afternoon was still ahead.
We paddled along watching for pods of hippos and loners and gave them proper respect. It was a good sign if they stared at us and then submerged. That, we were told, indicated they were comfortable with our being there. It wasn't a good sign if they charged. Fortunately, none did, but once or twice we had to go out of our way to keep the hippos happy.
At one point we paddled across the Zambezi to explore a maze of little waterways on the Zambia side. Frequently the depth is only 16 inches. sometimes only eight or ten inches. A number of times we got caught in a sand bar and Deseray and Nick had to come to our rescue to pull us over or around obstacles.
Deseray advised us to drink liquids throughout the day. We were each issued a couple of bottles of water for the purpose and I was glad I followed her directions. I was surprised to see that Deseray herself drank from a bottle she filled with Zambezi water. She told me it was prudent to avoid floating things when fill ups are made. She also said that at one time all tourists got river water. A number of complaints, probably verbal as well as gastrointestinal, changed the policy.
It was a relatively uneventful day. There were no exciting sightings or animal incidents as occurred yesterday. The reduced excitement level was not regretted, however. Our adrenalin levels were about on empty. According to the guides we had paddled 23 km the first day, 26 the second, but the pediatrician had a GPS device with him, and according to the satellites, he thought those distances were as-the-crow-flies. Thus he thought we might have gone perhaps 60 km during the two days.
But the realization that this was our last safari day hung over us. As the daylight faded, we arrived here (Acacia Camp), the canoes were pulled up on shore, and we toasted a successful canoe trip with a delicious fruit cocktail drink served right at the water's edge.
While we lamented the conclusion of our adventure, we were thankful to be spared any more paddling for the day. We met briefly for drinks and snacks, then headed for much-needed showers. Dinner will be served shortly.
Entry: Wednesday, September 16, 10:15 a.m., Kariba Airport. Last night's dinner was delicious, though buggy. So buggy in fact that dessert and tea were moved from the table (complete with candles) to around the campfire. When the conversation turned to canoe trip highlights, the college graduate, who has traveled all over the world, said her biggest thrill was seeing a firefly.
Apparently everyone was tuckered after dinner, for no one lingered to talk. Although it was unusual, Jim and I were the last to bid Deseray and Nick goodnight. When we flashed our flashlight around just outside our back zippered flap, we saw dozens and dozens of termites who had congregated there while we were at dinner. I went in search of bug spray and found Nick, but he had spotted maybe a half dozen hyenas circling at a distance of perhaps 50 yards from the tents. We were told they frequently visit the camps in search of left-over scraps from the "kitchen." I was more concerned about the termites than the hyenas.
During the night there was, as Jim described it, a cacophony of animal sounds from lions, elephants, hyenas, and a number of less-easily-identifiable sources.
When the 6 o'clock wake-up call came, the sun was already up. We had some tea, biscuits, toast, and guava juice, then loaded everything, including ourselves, into the land rover for a maybe 30-minute drive through the bush to the airstrip. When we started out there were only a few animals discernable, hiding in the brush and thickets, but they became more abundant as time passed: water buck, baboon, impala, and some "junk" animals, as I call them: uninteresting birds, squirrels, and sundry riffraff.
At one point Nick stopped the vehicle and pointed. "Lion," he said. Sure enough, maybe 75 yards to our left was a male sitting calmly in a patch of tall grass. After some picture taking nick drove the Land Rover over the edge of the bank and down a steep incline toward the lion. Disturbed, the king of the beasts got up and calmly strolled off across an opening and up a small ridge into a grassy spot where he lay down with another male lion.
At the airstrip we had to wait about a half hour as our plane was late. The field itself was a bright red clay, a good, firm landing surface. The sky was somewhat overcast. The two-prop plane flew us (six passengers plus pilot) back across the Zambezi Valley to the Kariba Airport (calling it an airport is kind), where, at one of the buildings, we retrieved the baggage we had left when we boarded the seaplane just days ago. But so much has happened on our canoe trip, it seems like it was a week ago.
Our flight back to Vic Falls is scheduled for 11:20, so we'll have a little bit of a wait here.
Entry: Thursday, September 16, 11:00 a.m., Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe, aboard Zimbabwe Express Flight 105. We're not supposed to be here (in Victoria Falls) now. There were delays yesterday before we boarded the plane at Kariba, then further delays at Hwange (our stop on route to Vic Falls), so by the time we got here (3:15 p.m.), our flight to Johannesburg was long gone (it had departed at 3:00). Consequently, our plans for an overnight stay at a five-star hotel in Cape Town and a day of sightseeing and shopping were shot.
During our trip someone suggested the reason Air Zimbabwe flights had been so disrupted was because the country had commandeered all the good planes to transport troops to the Congo to partake in the conflict there. We were told flight schedules had been haywire every day for the last two weeks straight.
Fortunately, the guy at the Air Zimbabwe information desk was quite cooperative. He got us rescheduled on flights leaving today and booked us overnight (that's last night) at the Elephant Hills Resort just outside of Vic Falls. And a fancy resort it is, with tennis courts, a golf course, squash courts, a couple of swimming pools, a number of shops (nothing worth buying, however), very nice rooms, and a couple of good restaurants, too.
After a snack lunch at about 4:00 yesterday (we hadn't eaten since 6:15 a.m. tea and biscuits) and a walk around the place, I called our travel rep in Cape Town so he could cancel our hotel there and reconfirm our flight back to the U.S. He said he'd meet us when we arrive this afternoon and maybe take us to do some sightseeing and shopping if time permits.
After the call we each had a delicious shower, followed by dinner at about 8:30. It was around 10:00 when we headed back to our room to repack our bags and jump into a bed with a real mattress.
Our requested 7:00 a.m. wake-up call gave us time to leisurely get dressed, have breakfast, and check out (it took a little negotiation to get our dinner and room charges billed to Air Zimbabwe), and catch the hotel "bus" back to the airport.
We were a little uneasy when the Air Zimbabwe rep said he'd have to check with his manager before he could issue us our flight tickets, but after 20 minutes or so, we had the tickets, checked in, and purchased our $20 (U.S.) departure tax stamps.
Entry: Friday, September 18, 3:15 a.m. (Miami time), On South African Air Flight 203, over the Atlantic. It was an easy flight to Johannesburg and a breeze through customs. We had to race a bit to catch our flight to Cape Town, where we were met by Derrick (I think that was his name) and taken in his van on a whirlwind tour of the city. Particularly impressive, I thought, were the view of Cape Town from Signal Hill and seeing the mist rolling over Table Mountain like a huge, gray molasses wave.
We may have broken the record for most landmarks seen, most architecture styles identified, and most history described in an hour's time. Derrick then drove us to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to see Table Bay Hotel (where we were to have stayed our last night in Africa) and to walk through a nearby shopping complex.
We then had about a half hour to find and buy all our souvenirs. It was a mission impossible. We looked in four or five stores but found little of interest, particularly when prices were considered. Jim bought nothing. I bought only a zebra napkin holder for Brianna. (However, Jim and I both bought Elephant Hills shirts for ourselves last Saturday, and I also bought a wart hog T shirt while we were waiting at the Kariba Airport.)
Derrick met us at the appointed time and whisked us back to the airport, where we checked in, waited, then boarded this flight.
Right now we're nearing Miami. The TV screen above the aisle says we've traveled 7573 miles since leaving Cape Town.
Our 1998 Africa Adventure is now nearly over. Our three encounters (Etosha, Elephant Camp, and the Zambezi canoe trip) provided varied, exciting, and thoroughly rewarding experiences. The Africa weather was once again outstanding: generally clear and warm throughout each day. The game viewing was impressive and thrilling. Our walks in the bush and animal tracking were real adrenalin-manufacturing moments.
And the wondrous scenery - the bush, mountains, rivers, and marvelous animals - continues to impress. The country's magic still casts a mighty spell. It's unlike anything else anywhere in the world. And here's the best measure of any trip: I want to go back!