Most would plan a trip like this for a while, as it was a trip of a lifetime. However, we learned earlier this year that our daughter, and other students at Penn State University, would be traveling to Zambia in June as part of a long-term project of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program. Living and working with locals, farmers, and business people, the project and the team build self-sustaining affordable greenhouses in developing countries. Our daughter would spend three weeks in Zambia, after which we would meet her and explore Zimbabwe and Botswana.
We worked with Game Plan Africa, in association with Wilderness Travel, for our rather complicated travel arrangements. We highly recommend working with GPA as the trip they planned was amazing and the arrangements flawless.
The flights – Toronto to NY, NY to London, London to Johannesburg, and JoBurg to Victoria Falls, left us rather travel worn but excited to be in Africa on an adventure.
We arrive in Zimbabwe at the Victoria Falls Hotel for a brief stay at the old grand dame hotel, located in Victoria Falls National Park, a World Heritage Site. The breathtaking views of the falls, the manicured grounds and the very comfortable accommodations were most welcome after our long journey. The Edwardian style hotel, rich in history as the British Empire’s primary settlement in the area, and later the site of armed conflict during the civil war that ended with the establishment of Zimbabwe as a country free from British colonial rule. Be sure to enjoy a beautiful breakfast setting from the porch, as well as the lovely pool area. This is a great place to enjoy a couple of days in Vic Falls.
There is a short trail from the hotel to the falls. The trail is guarded, and your walk will be escorted. You come to see why as elephants frequent the area. We arrived to see the late afternoon sun fall beautifully on the majestic falls – truly awesome. Be sure to bring rain gear – we didn’t and got soaked! Watch for panhandlers selling everything from wood carvings to multibillion Zimbabwe dollars for $5US. They are annoying; no way around it. Just say no, firmly.
While in this area we took a sunset cruise on the Raikane boat for a great view of the upstream Zambezi with crocs, hippos, elephants, fish eagles and more. Wine and beer served in living room comfort. Well worth the expense.
Before we connected with our daughter, we headed to Hwange National Park and the Hide Safari Camp for a few – never to forget – days. It is here that we had the good fortune to see and experience Cecil the Lion in his environment, just before his life was tragically shortened.
A two-hour road transfer from Vic Falls, the Hide camp is a tented camp, meaning the walls are canvas under a thatch roof; the tents are quite comfortable. The Hide is a great property with exceptional game viewing – unheard of safari experience with three game drives per day. In addition to the drives (day and night) and other activities, this unique property includes an underground hide (hence the name) overlooking a waterhole. Not just any hide, this one can accommodate ten people comfortably with seating. One evening we had a remarkable viewing experience from the hide of a herd of elephants drinking from the hole. Surprisingly, these giants are so quiet, social and very intimate, touching each other frequently and waiting until the last elephant is finished before moving on collectively.
The Hide also has a remote tree-house sleeping accommodation for the truly adventurous. We chose to visit the tree-house for sundowners instead. The guides were very knowledgeable (David was our guide – very good, we learned a great deal and had a great experience), the staff were quite accommodating and the food and wine were very good. Evening drives in this part of the world revealed the most beautiful, star-filled skies – truly unforgettable. We highly recommend this camp.
After a road transfer back to Vic Falls and across the border (an interesting experience – let’s just say don’t be in a hurry), we arrive at the Zambezi Sun resort. And, after an eight-hour, not so fun bus ride from Lusaka, our daughter arrives here to meet us. (Of note, the Wilderness Safari representative, William, went out of his way the ensure our daughter’s safe delivery to the hotel – we cannot say enough about his service.)
Located in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, the Zambezi Sun is a good property with a great location. The room and food were average. It served our purposes well for two nights. The Royal Livingstone Hotel (literally next door to the Zambezi Sun) is a nicer, albeit more expensive option.
While in Zambia we opted for a couple of activities. The first was an elephant back safari – quite expensive and may not be for everyone. We were transported from the hotel to the Thorntree Lodge in the National Park where we met the elephants and the handlers. The ride itself is approximately an hour through the park and alongside the beautiful Zambezi River. After the ride the tour operator puts together a video for purchase. If you love elephants you’ll enjoy this somewhat touristy activity.
Our next activity is absolutely not for the faint of heart! We were collected by boat at the Royal Livingstone Hotel and took a short trip to Livingstone Island, located in the middle of the Zambezi River and on Victoria Falls. What we thought was an expensive guided tour of the island turned out to be an unbelievable experience! A short trail took us literally to the edge of the falls where, with the help of two guides, you enter the river on top of and literally at the edge of the falls and the103M drop! It is very scary!
Return to Zimbabwe
After that excitement, we return to Zimbabwe. There is a section between countries, after exiting Zambia, and before entering Zimbabwe that has been named “no man’s land.” A short distance between the countries, you encounter peddlers and have the opportunity to bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge if you are so inclined. We didn’t, but our daughter did.
From here we transferred to the Zambezi Sands River Camp, a very lovely tented camp located on the river and inside the Zambezi National Park. Unfortunately this area struggles with game poaching but if you are looking for a great river experience, this is it. Mark enjoyed fly fishing for tiger fish. Our guides, Petrus and Rob, and the staff were great, and the food and wine were good.
Exploring Botswana was truly amazing, beginning with one of several bush flights over the Okavango Delta. Soaring over the Delta in a four-seater prop plane is hard to explain as you experience so many thoughts and feelings – fear, of course, but wonder as you view the intricacies of water patterns of the Delta beneath you. And excitement as you see a herd of elephant or zebra in the bush, or hippo enjoying the cool waters.
We arrive on Selinda Island at Explorers Camp, located in the Northern part of Botswana and in the heart of the Selinda Reserve. This small classic camp offers very comfortable tented accommodations. The outdoor loo and bucket shower do get your attention!
This was our favorite camp. A great combination of the Delta experience and wildlife together with great staff, location, and cuisine, not to mention the authentic experience. Jobo and Joe were a true delight and great spokespersons. Pete was our guide during our visit. Some of the many great experiences – parking close to a pride of satiated lions enjoying a sundowner, parking by a watering hole where hippos hang, and beautiful sunsets in the bush, all great photo ops. Pete was exceptional in safari game driving and was completely accommodating to our needs, including finding a place near the Namibia border so our daughter could find roaming access to the internet to respond to a job inquiry. Exploring the island not only by vehicle, but also by canoe, really provided us with some of the best game viewing and photographic opportunities of our trip. We enjoyed every moment with the staff, including the warm welcome dance. This is a very special place – truly awesome in every way. We highly recommend this camp and hope to return ourselves.
Our next and final safari adventure begins with another great bush flight that delivers us to Hunda Island, and our accommodations at Tubu Tree Camp. This outstanding property is located literally in the trees and connected by a series of elevated boardwalks! Accommodations are terrific. Our guide was a relatively new driver and didn’t deliver the same high-quality experience we previously had, but we nonetheless had one of the best leopard experiences we have ever had. We successfully tracked a mother and leopard cub who we sat and watched and photographed. The sunsets in this part of the Delta were lovely, but our last night was one of the best, silhouetted with wildebeest. So many unforgettable moments.
Back to Reality
We depart Hunda Isle for Maun airport and on arrival we transfer to The Peech Hotel in the Johannesburg suburb of Melrose. This was a good welcome back from safari. The hotel has a small restaurant with good food so no need to venture out if you are tired from the trip. This was our last night in Africa before our long journey home. The end of a fantastic, varied journey.
As we write this blog and relive the experiences, we can’t help but recall how a fellow photographer we met from DC described the disorientation involved in sitting with a leopard one afternoon and unlocking your front door the next.
We had mixed feelings leaving the bush – we are so very happy to have had the opportunity to explore this part of the world but we know we may only ever be there once. We hope you also get to visit that beautiful place called Africa.
… Mark & Dana …