Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Part 6: Victoria Falls, Zambia

On December 11 we said our goodbyes at Chobe Game Lodge and proceeded to the border post at Kazungula, prior to entering Zambia. This so-called road/boat transfer (the alternative is a light air transfer from Kasane to Livingstone) takes about 2 hours. It involves a rather interesting boat trip across the Zambezi River, followed by a real third-world experience of standing in line at the immigration office on the Zambia side of the border, paying your US$50 (no change made!) visa fee and hoping that the person who is handling your luggage has got everything under control.
Trucks lined up for the border crossing - by ferry - between Botswana and Zambia. Apparently it can take up to several weeks during busy periods, to make this crossing. A bridge which will eventually replace the ferries is in the early stages of construction.

Getting ready for the boat ride across the river from Botswana to Zambia.

Somehow or other our driver managed to maneuver his way out from amongst the many trucks lining up to cross the border, and we drove via the town of Livingstone to our last overnight stop. This was Stanley's Safari Lodge, an impressive and striking stone and thatch edifice overlooking the Victoria Falls, with a vapor plume from the falls visible in the distance.

A portion of the main lounge & dining room at Stanley's Safari Lodge

A quiet corner at Stanley's Safari Lodge

At Stanley's Safari Lodge we enjoyed a very welcome light lunch consisting of a fresh mixed green salad, bread rolls and an excellent vegetable torte. The meat-eaters were treated to what appeared to be fried breaded chicken wings.

Late afternoon view of Stanley's Safari Lodge from the pool

The vanishing edge pool at Stanley's Lodge with the Zambezi Valley in the background.

My room at Stanley's was fabulous but somewhat wasted on a single traveler: a massive 'honeymoon suite' which was completely open to the front, with a gorgeous view over the Zambezi Valley and the Victoria Falls in the distance. The huge king size bed is just a few metres from a good-sized private plunge pool, and there is a fireplace, a lounge, an outdoor shower, and a large bathroom with a natural rock bath. Really an amazing room for an adventurous traveler looking for something out of the ordinary. I was anticipating a problem with insects that night, but there were hardly any to be seen and I felt very cozy inside the large mosquito net.

My room at Stanley's Safari Lodge. The plunge pool was a little chilly I thought.

That afternoon, we drove back through Livingstone town to the location of the new Toka Leya Lodge, a Wilderness Safaris property just upstream of the Victoria Falls. I was impressed with the stylish rooms, wonderful common areas & expansive deck overlooking the Zambezi River.

The pool at Toka Leya Lodge with the Zambezi River visible in the background.

A room at Toka Leya Lodge

Another view of one of the rooms at Toka Leya Lodge; the rooms are very secure with lockable doors.

A portion of the deck at Toka Leya with the Zambezi River in the background.

Our last group dinner was a fun and entertaining event, as were most of our meals. Everybody genuinely seemed to like each other and each other's company and there never was a shortage of stories, anecdotes, jokes & light-hearted banter. I would travel with this group again any time!

Main course for dinner at Stanley's Safari Lodge: beef fillet with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables.

The vegetarian alternative: stuffed butternut squash.

On December 12 I woke up in a massive bed elevated over the Zambezi valley, with the exotic sounds and calls of turacos, redchested cuckoos, trumpeter hornbills, an African cuckoo and some robins providing a splendid background soundtrack. Our last day in Africa would be very special. By 0700A we were ready to board a boat for a short trip into the middle of the Zambezi River, for a breakfast outing to Livingstone's Island. This turned out to be a superb adventure, which I would recommend for somewhat intrepid visitors, especially if they are able to jump into and swim in the pond right by the edge of the Falls. It was a most amazing experience to be suspended in the cool water of the Zambezi, just a few feet from the very edge where the river plunges over an almighty cliff.

The boat ride to Livingstone's Island commences from a landing at the Royal Livingstone Hotel.

A few members of our group in the natural rock pool on the edge of the Victoria Falls

Visitors to Livingstone Island can walk to this spot for a photograph; it is afterward that the prospective 'swimmers' get to take their clothes off and swim (yes there's a current!) to another rocky point, from where they can jump into the natural rock pool.

A portion of the Vic Falls on the Zambia side of the Falls.

Early that afternoon, we were off to Livingstone Airport for the less than 2 hr flight back to Jo'burg. After a not-too-onerous immigration procedure (no problems with my brand new US passport!), and some last minute shopping, it was all aboard on the l-o-n-g flight back to the USA. My best advice to anyone who does have the time, is to break up this return journey by spending another (last) night in Jo'burg. It just gets to be too much to have an early morning activity, then fly to Johannesburg in the early afternoon, only to have to face a huge long overnight flight back to the USA. Of course sometimes there is no way around this, as was the case in our particular instance. The flight itself was fine, but I was not. Something I had eaten at Vic Falls (come to think of it, the fruit looked a bit suspect...) caused my digestive system to rebel which was not fun. Fortunately it was a short lived event, by the following day (Saturday night) I was ready for a vegan barbecue sandwich at Field of Greens...

All in all the trip was a great success though; I learnt a lot, saw several new places and camps, met some really fantastic people and I am full of enthusiasm for the new year.

In early February Kathleen and I will be heading to Tanzania for a somewhat longer (2 week) trip, to go and take a look at some of the southern Tanzania reserves such as Selous and Ruaha, and to visit Ras Kutani south of Dar-es-Salaam as well as Zanzibar.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Part 5: On to Savute and Chobe

By midday on December 9, our small group was back in a Cessna Caravan for a flight of about 25 minutes to Savute Safari Lodge, a superb camp on the edge of the Savute Channel which stopped flowing a couple of decades ago due to tectonic shifts. There are indications that the channel may once again be starting to flow for at least some distance from its origin in the Linyanti floodplain.

My suite at Savute Safari Lodge.

Interior of my room at Savute Safari Lodge. The rooms are massive.

We were immediately impressed with the abundance of wildlife at Savute. The 'game drive' from the airstrip to the lodge was fantastic! There were lots of elephants to be seen pretty much everywhere, even though the camp staff repeatedly told us that all the elephants had already left (dispersed) after the onset of the rainy season. You could have fooled us!

An elephant seen on the road between the airstrip and the camp, at Savute Safari Lodge.

Slaking their thirst and taking a splash-bath at the Savute Safari Lodge waterhole. As I said there were lots of elephant around, despite this being the rainy season when they disperse into the woodlands.

Birdwatchers would have been astonished at the abundance of storks of which there were hundreds and hundreds to be seen of 5 different species, namely marabou (everywhere!), European, woolynecked, openbill, yellowbill and Abdim's. There was also a veritable barrage of birds of prey ranging from eagles to buzzards to kites and kestrels. Finally, there were literally thousands of swallows, martins and swifts hawking insects in flight. I have been birding for more than 20 years and I have never seen such a concentration of birdlife in one area.

Savute is known as a predator stronghold and camp manager Kobus Lubbe gave us a useful and interesting introductory talk about the most visible predators in the area, namely the lions, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs. Of these, lions are seen most frequently: over the previous 300 days there had been 248 lion sightings. Lions in the Savute area habitually hunt elephants and they employ a special technique to bring down and kill these lumbering giants. The lion dynamics of the area are in a transitional phase, with a couple of younger males recently having moved into the area. It remains to be seen how the various competing alliances and prides will re-align over the next few months. Leopard sightings from Savute Safari Lodge have been on the increase; Kobus estimated that there were some 15 to 20 leopards resident in the area. Wild dogs, which are a highly threatened species, only number from about 2,000 to perhaps 4,000 total in Africa. There are 12 wild dogs presently recorded in the Savute area. As for cheetah, there are estimated to be three males resident in the area, with females passing through from time to time.

Listening to a talk by predator expert Kobus Lubbe, the camp manager at Savute Safari Lodge.

The view from the buffet deck at Savute Safari Lodge.

The exterior fire-place at Savute Safari Lodge, adjacent to the buffet deck.

Very early on the morning of December 10, I was enjoying a cup of tea just outside the dining room at Savute Safari Lodge. It was a typical African summer morning: cool, clear and totally peaceful. Thoughts of schedules, deadlines and budgets were far from my mind and for a few minutes there, I felt truly connected to the surroundings. My senses felt as if they were in overdrive. With one ear I was trying to sort out bird calls, with another listening for the low moan of a lion which had been calling around camp the previous night. At the same time I was staring at a massive dung beetle negotiating a sandy patch right in front of me. Becoming one with nature is a rare experience for most city dwellers, and I treasure the few 'out of Africa' moments which invariably crop up on a trip like this. On a visit that is less hectic, with a few 3-night stays included, it is easy to fall into the rhythm and pace of the bush, and to truly appreciate the oasis of peace and quiet beyond the game drives and other activities.

Exterior view of the dining room and lounge at Savute Safari Lodge.

A dung beetle; there were many of them on the sandy trails in the grounds at Savute Safari Camp.

A few members of our group and some guests enjoying the swimming pool at Savute Safari Lodge.

Another view of the swimming pool at Savute.

Sundowners at Savute Safari Lodge.

A couple of Carmine bee-eaters trying to get their bearings at Savute Marsh.

Alas, later that morning after a last game drive (lots of elephant, hundreds of birds, especially at the former Savute Marsh) it was time to move on again, this time an uneventful 30-minute flight to Kasane. From there, it was a quick and pleasant road transfer to the well-known Chobe Game Lodge, inside Chobe National Park. I had spent some time at CGL some years ago in the dry season, when the game-viewing was excellent. This time around, the game-viewing was a bit more quiet, but the lodge was looking great.

View of Chobe Game Lodge from the deck.

Part of the lounge area at Chobe Game Lodge.

My room at Chobe Game Lodge.

The view from my room.

For visitors who would like to experience a safari, but who are not quite ready for a tented camp or for the expense of flying into the Delta or elsewhere, Chobe Game Lodge is a great option. Yes it is much larger than other lodges, but it offers a lot of activities and services that are not available in the bush. It offers game drives as well as very interesting boat excursions on the Chobe River for some great looks at hippo, amongst others. Resident professional guides also offer star gazing and guided walks, there is a beautiful swimming pool, a riverside boma area where traditional dancers perform, internet connections and a workout room complete with a treadmill. There is even a pizza oven built from the internet!

The pizza oven at Chobe Game Lodge which was constructed from plans found on the internet. Unfortunately we did not have time to ascertain whether the plans were good, but I am told the pizza is!

The newly renovated (with realistic looking rock slabs) pool at Chobe Game Lodge.

Another view of the pool at Chobe Game Lodge

A portion of the Chobe Game Lodge grounds with the pool on the left.

Chobe Game Lodge has a very well stocked shop with curios, clothing, handbags, handwoven baskets, jewelry, books, DVD's and more. Bring dollars.

The food at Chobe Game Lodge was excellent and abundant. Amongst others I enjoyed the terrific salad buffet which is more than a meal unto itself. On the day that we were there, the restaurant offered a Mongolian barbecue night, with an amazing array of meats and other stirfry options. The next morning, for breakfast, there was likewise a huge variety of meats, sausages, eggs to order, vegetables, salads, yoghurt, cereals, three kinds of fresh bread and more.

Breakfast chefs at Chobe Game Lodge

Our morning pontoon boat outing from Chobe Game Lodge was similar to the one I had undertaken on my previous trip. Like then, we got some good close-up looks at hippo and elephant, some crocodiles, various species of birds and the locally abundant Puku antelope.

Elephants which we saw on our pontoon boat outing from Chobe Game Lodge. I always like to photograph the dark, wet elephants - so much nicer than the regular dusty ones!

This crocodile which we saw on the boat outing, was not scared off by the large pontoon boat complete with camera-wielding tourists...

However, this group of hippo were not nearly as tolerant of our approach and scuttled back into the water with quite a splash.

Part 4: The Moremi Game Reserve

A pod of hippo seen in an Okavango Delta lagoon not far from Camp Okavango. The hippo were very interested in our presence, edging closer until our guide decided it was best to move on.

On the morning of 8 December, we were up early for a walking excursion from Camp Okavango. Before we got underway by boat, there was time for a healthy breakfast consisting of muesli with rice milk, a fresh fruit salad and some toast, with rooibos tea on the side. All the camps also serve eggs to order, usually with beef or pork sausage, bacon and other side dishes.

Refreshed and energized, we enjoyed yet another exhilarating boat ride (same route as on the previous day's fishing excursion) to an island about 30 minutes away. This time around, we had our cameras ready but there was no hippo barring the way... We did make a small detour into a backwater area where we observed a pod of hippos, though. And inquisitive they were too, coming closer and closer to the boat until our skipper decided it was time to move on.

The island where we walked - I believe it is called Lopis Island - has some very diverse habitat consisting of open floodplain, with patches of woodland, and a nice strip of fairly dense riverine forest with sausage trees and large mangosteen trees amongst others. We saw a few elephant at a distance and walked towards a group of giraffe who no doubt saw us coming a long distance away. To make the walk even more interesting, the guides drew our attention to several interesting plant species and talked about their medicinal and other uses.

Back in camp, it was time for --- lunch! As always, the vegan & vegetarian members of the group were more than adequately catered for with salads, an excellent and flavorful lentil dish with rice, a fruit salad and a vegetarian tart.

A snapshot from the Caravan, en route from Camp Okavango to Okuti Camp, in the Moremi Game Reserve.

Another glimpse of some fairly typical Okavango Delta scenery, with floodplain, islands and waterways.

That afternoon, we took a short flight of about 10 minutes to Xakanaxa airstrip, for a brief road transfer to our next camp, Okuti. The design of this camp takes a bit of getting used to, with a type of plastic sheeting used instead of the more commonly seen canvas. I was pleasantly surprised by the interior of the rooms though - they were exceedingly spacious and very comfortable, complete with inside and outside showers. Although the rooms were quite close to each other (the available camp area at Xakanaxa is very limited) there is plenty of privacy and I was not bothered by any noise or conversation from adjacent rooms. The deck area and pool were very nice, and this camp would be a particularly good option for family parties with young children.

The front entrance to Camp Okuti, in the Moremi Game Reserve.

My room at Okuti - plenty of space!

A view to the outside from a room at Camp Okuti.

The pool at Camp Okuti. Several of us spent an hour or so here, cooling off in the refreshingly brisk water, and enjoying the fairly warm summer afternoon, with the temperature in the mid 80's F.

Our afternoon game drive from Okuti was on the quiet side but we did manage to locate a leopard right by the side of the road - this area is well-known for consistently good leopard sightings. Unfortunately there were as many as 6 vehicles at the leopard sighting at one stage.

Sundowners in the Moremi Game Reserve

Dinner at Camp Okuti was most pleasant with a pasta stir fry, roasted vegetables, freshly baked bread, and a very tasty vegetable & tomato soup as a starter.

After-dinner drinks are enjoyed around the camp-fire at Camp Okuti on the deck in front of the dining room/loung area.

Our morning game drive in the Moremi Game Reserve on 9 December was one of the most productive of the entire trip, as we encountered a large herd of buffalo, a couple of leopards in the same area (which is unusual as they are mostly solitary hunters), several giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala and warthog.

Baby impala seen on a game drive in the Moremi Game Reserve

Our guide Shakes worked quite hard to find this large herd of buffalo, following their tracks for at least an hour until he located them.

A closer look at a few of the buffalo. The middle one is either very old or suffering from a disease of some sort.

A small group of giraffe; these fascinating mammals are quite common in most areas of Northern Botswana.

A few more impala seen in the Moremi Game Reserve. These dainty antelope are ubiquitous all over Northern Botswana.

Interior view of a room at Camp Moremi, the camp next to Okuti. We inspected this camp while in the area.

Paul and Gretchen in conversation on the tree deck at Camp Moremi

A portion of the dining room at Camp Moremi

Checking out the deck at Camp Moremi