ZIMBABWE: VICTORIA FALLS AND HWANGE NATIONAL PARK

MARCH 2015

Continued from Botswana

THURSDAY – Kasane to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

I finally had a ‘lie-in’ on my holiday and woke up at 8 am to complete my packing, have breakfast at 9 am (English breakfast) and be picked up at 10 am.  I was picked up by a friendly driver from Wild Horizons.  The first stop was about 20 minutes’ drive away at an immigration office (I think) where they stamped my passport on the Botswana side.  Then we stopped at another office where I paid US $55 in cash for a visa to Zimbabwe (this is the fee for British citizens, may be different for other nationalities).  I had to switch vehicles here, but there were two gentlemen from Wild Horizons there to help.  One was my next driver, the other was solely there to help!  They guided me on which form to complete, which queue to stand in, and transferred my luggage to the next vehicle.  It was a smooth transition.  After that it was a friendly air-conditioned ride to Victoria Falls where I was dropped off at the Rainbow Hotel.

http://www.victoria-falls-rainbow-hotel.com/

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g293761-d299677-Reviews-Rainbow_Hotel_Victoria_Falls-Victoria_Falls_Matabeleland_North_Province.html

This is quite a nice big hotel.  I had a lovely room with a balcony… and TV!  It was quite charming but also quite standard.  I was able to take the hotel’s free shuttle to the Victoria Falls – the shuttle times were posted near the entrance.  This was very short, only 10 or 15 minutes away.  The driver did point out that I could buy a waterproof cape at the stalls where he dropped me off – just across the road from the Falls’ entrance.  I thought it looked a bit scammy so thought I’d wait until I get inside.  It was US $30 entrance fee to enter a big park that has multiple viewing points of the waterfalls.  It turned out there weren’t any capes being sold inside, so far as I could tell, but that was fine – at the first viewing point I could feel a fine spray which was fine for me and my camera, quite refreshing, in fact.  While there, a lovely couple from the US (Michelle and Johnny, and their GoPro camcorder) who had been at the Old House called out to me– what a coincidence!  We wandered around together and I ended up joining them for the whole Victoria Falls adventure.  We saw the statue, and worked our way down the path.  The further we got, the more we understood the advice to get a cape.  The spray was getting stronger and stronger with each viewing point, and by the last few we were literally being rained on continuously!  I’m glad I had a big zip lock bag to cover my camera in anticipation of this.  I had not anticipated that I would be completely drenched by the falls! 🙂  It was fun though, especially because we were having a good laugh about it.  The Falls are in fact magnificent.  I think either the first or second viewing point had the best view and the weather was lovely so we got some wonderful postcard shots.

**TIP: Buy the cape!  This is from the stands opposite the Victoria Falls entrance.  Also take a waterproof/ziplock bag to keep you camera/phone dry.**

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Tourism-g293761-Victoria_Falls_Matabeleland_North_Province-Vacations.html

I went back to my hotel and met Michelle and Johnny in the evening at the Victoria Falls Hotel for cocktails and dinner.  Rainbow Hotel called me a taxi which took about 5 minutes and cost US $5.  The Victoria Falls Hotel is such a glamorous and beautiful place.  Very elegant and refined, I’m glad I managed to visit it.  The cocktails were delicious (especially the Cape to Cairo which is a creamy Kahlua concoction) and for dinner I has the crocodile masala tagliatelle.  I can’t remember if I’d had crocodile before, and if I had, it obviously wasn’t very memorable.  I’d say it tastes like chewy chicken.  And this was a memorable meal because I enjoyed the evening so much!

http://www.victoriafallshotel.co/index.html

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g293761-d305395-Reviews-The_Victoria_Falls_Hotel-Victoria_Falls_Matabeleland_North_Province.html

FRIDAY – Victoria Falls to Sable Sands

One night only at Victoria Falls felt quite short, but I had done everything I wanted to do (Victoria Falls and Victoria Falls Hotel) so I was OK with leaving.  Another driver from Wild Horizons (who I was learning managed a lot of the transfers and activities in the area) picked me up to take me to the Painted Dog Centre, where I would be picked up by someone from Sable Sands.  This time there were a few other people on the ride, one going to Victoria Falls airport and a couple from Australia, Laurie and Michael. The airport was not far, and after that it was a couple of hours’ drive to our next stops.

The Painted Dog Centre provides information about Wild Dog conservation in Africa.  Wild Dogs are endangered and rare.  Apparently there is a tour you can take where you can see some of the Wild Dogs kept there.  I didn’t have time to do this, but did have a look around the information room and bought a couple of things from the shop before Brian from Sable Sands came to pick me up.

http://www.painteddog.org/

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g298094-d2348376-Reviews-Painted_Dog_Conservation-Hwange_Matabeleland_North_Province.html

Brian is fabulous.  He is one of the owners of the Sable Sands lodge, along with his partner Marlene.  He was warm and friendly from the start and told me about himself and the history of the lodge on the way there.  It is located within the wilderness (not in town) amongst the trees and wildlife.  I was greeted by Marlene in the communal dining/sitting area with a drink and a wet towel to freshen up, and we sat down and had a little chat before I was shown to my room and had lunch.

There are 11 ‘rondovels’ (I think) which are round buildings with thatched roofs.  Mine was lovely with a nice double bed and ensuite bathroom, I think they are all roughly the same set up.  I did notice the interesting shade of toilet/sink (like olive green mixed with mushy peas) but let’s face it, this is not important at all!  The bathroom was clean and the shower was good.

After lunch and a bit of vegging out, Marlene took me out for a drive around the local estate.  The lodge is literally within the wilderness – surrounded by trees with a local waterhole.  Beyond the trees there are some more open grassy areas (the ‘flay’) followed by more trees and I was able to take photos of some birds like larks and European rollers, and some elephants in the distance.  We stopped under some trees for a drink (good local beers) and following some advice to ‘always be prepared’ with my camera, I took it out with me too.  And I’m glad I did!  Mid-beer, a whole herd of elephants came through the trees and dusky red sunlight towards us.  It was wonderful.  We moved closer to the car so that we were not too exposed, and the elephants seemed very comfortable to get very close to us.  My impression was that they were friendly, I didn’t feel scared – well, maybe a little.  In a very respectful way!  They took their time in moseying-through our patch of trees, there were around 35 in total.

That evening, I joined the other guests at the lodge for dinner – a group of ten people travelling from the US who were in their sixties and beyond!  I happen to really like older people, especially the cool ones who enjoy travelling.  They are an inspiration to me.  This bunch was lovely and very friendly.

That night as I got ready for bed… I noticed the hugest friggin’ spider on the wall above my bed.  He was almost as big as the flask of water by my bed.  (This may be a slight exaggeration)

I think all animals and insects are amazing in their own special way – but for some reason spiders really freak me out.  There was no AC so it was already kind of warm, but I was really sweating now.  I guess a small blessing is that it was outside the mosquito net and not inside.  Fortunately the spider didn’t like the sound of my book bouncing on the mattress and ran away… in to the bathroom.  Great.  I made sure the net was tucked securely under the mattress thus creating a formidable spider/human barrier before I finally fell asleep.

I decided to call that spider Fred in the hope that giving it a name would make him less scary.  I do still wonder if Fred was freaking out as much as I was about about the huge human in his rondovel.

SATURDAY

I had a morning and afternoon game drive lined up with Roy who picked me up at 5.30 am.  Roy’s a nice guy and very knowledgeable.  He told me about the lion and elephant tracks that we saw on the sandy paths.   These drives were on the private concession land – between the lodge and Hwange National Park.  One of the differences, compared to being in the National Park itself, is that there is no requirement to stay on the paths.  So if we spotted buffalo in the distance that happened to be on the other side of the flay, Roy would just turn off the path and drive into the grass to get to the right place.

That afternoon was memorable for me.  After watching a herd of around 40 elephants by one of the water holes, Roy drove under some nearby trees and parked.  Soon after, the elephants turned towards the trees and headed straight towards us.  Roy explained that the elephants really like to eat the fallen pods.  What surprised me was how close they came, within a metre of us.  Roy pointed out how trusting they were to come so near, especially given there were also some very small baby elephants within the herd.  What surprised me even more was that some of the elephants faced us and seemed to raise their trunks to us, like they were greeting us.  I asked Roy about this later, he told me that this is also what elephants do with each other – to smell each other and in greeting.  I was really impressed by how friendly, inquisitive and intelligent these elephants were, to want to interact with us.  I think animals are much more intelligent than we humans give them credit for and I was really touched to experience this with wild elephants.  Obviously these elephants had built up trust with the local people to be so trusting and friendly.  They are by no means tame, they are wild herds that roam the lands and are not fed or helped by people.

That evening, Brian and Marlene invited me and a couple of other girls who’d arrived in the morning to join them at a ‘braii’ barbecue with some of their friends.  We took some drinks with us and had a great time!  I was also grateful for the opportunity to meet more people who lived locally, especially the researchers as I love listening to biology chat.  One of them assured me that wall spiders are not poisonous.  We got back at about midnight.

SUNDAY

The pick up for Sunday morning was considerately planned for 6.30 am given the late night.  The morning drive was with a different safari guide in to Hwange National Park.  This guide was friendly and professional, but not especially enthusiastic or jovial. Or a joy to be with.  As I’m not a fan of slating nice people in a public forum, let’s call him ‘T’.  T drove us in to Hwange National Park, which was about 30 minutes away.

This was a spectacularly uneventful game drive.  No interesting animals on the way there, some birds while there, a few zebra, and lion tracks but no lions.  I’ve heard this happens sometimes – game drives with no game.  I wasn’t sure if it was actually bad luck or T.  Or both.  Hmph!  We saw two elephants on the drive back to the lodge.  This was also not very exciting after all the wonderful elephants I’d already seen.  I felt quite disappointed with this drive – for the lack of game and the lack of good company!

I was relieved that my afternoon drive was with Roy again – proven to be good guide and good company. We headed off and drove around… and saw nothing.  We headed towards the forest and drove around by the ponds… and saw nothing!  Hm!  We did stop for a beer and admired the lack of animals.  So it really can happen, days with no interesting wild animal sightings.  I was relieved that this wasn’t my only day of safari on this holiday as that would have been very unfortunate!

As we headed back we went to one of the waterholes where there are often elephants.  We found a group of people, including Brian and Marlene, tracking a collared lion.  We also saw there was a lone buffalo sitting by the waterhole.  This was very odd behaviour as they are usually in a herd and stay together.  We guessed the buffalo was wounded and we knew there were lions nearby, perhaps the perfect formula to watch a lion kill?  Unfortunately nothing happened and it was getting dark, so we decided to go back to the lodge and check in the morning.

But we couldn’t wait that long.  So on my last night at the lodge I was thrilled to go on a night drive!  Brian and Marlene took me and a few others staying at the lodge in their car to track down the lions.  It was pitch black, so we relied on the headlights and a strong torch.  The buffalo was nowhere to be seen, but we drove a little further and found a group of lions – one male and a few females.  It was so exciting to be so close to them in the dark.  We parked about five metres away and watched them for about twenty minutes.  This certainly made up for the lack of animals throughout the day!

Back at my room, Fred the spider made an appearance – in the shower.  He didn’t seem so scary this time.  I set up my tripod, which I had lugged all the way from London and not used once yet, and took a proper photo of him/her.

Fred

What a beauty!

MONDAY

I was up very early for a final short drive with Roy before I headed to the airport.  We headed straight to the waterhole.  Still no buffalo to be seen, but we did find the lions up close by the light of day.  To be honest, lions are pretty boring.  They veg out a lot and move occasionally.  One of the lady lions was in heat – it’s only biology!  I felt very satisfied with the end to my trip in Zimbabwe.

A big thumbs up to Roy for being an excellent guide throughout my trip, I’m glad I got to know him and really enjoyed the drives with him.

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g298094-d5612011-Reviews-Wild_Walks-Hwange_Matabeleland_North_Province.html

I was pleased with my choice of staying at Sable Sands.  This is not your typical hotel set up, which is what I am used to.  I was a little disappointed at first (no TV or air con!) but soon realised that this stay is wonderful as an experience.  By the end of my stay I was thrilled to be there and also appreciated the concept of sustainability a little more, and how I don’t really need air con or electricity 24/7.  The water is heated using wood burners and the wood is collected from the surrounding forest.  And, it’s not camping with ‘bush ablutions’!!

Hot water was only available around mid-morning and early evening.  Electricity, including mains lights, was available from 6.30 pm to 10.30 pm or so.  I was also provided with two portable solar powered ‘desk’ lights in the room which worked really well and the staff arrange for the cells to be out in the sun and also put them back in the lights each day.  There was no air conditioning but the room was always nice and cool compared to the hot weather outside.  There is also a mosquito net in place that the staff set up daily.  The cleaning staff were like stealth ninjas.  I never saw them in my room but my solar lights, bed and mosquito net were seen to twice a day.

The meals were included with my stay and are not at set times.  I was advised to let the staff know when I wanted meals, or just roll up to the dining area to request something.  I found this a little strange at first, but it really wasn’t that complicated!  I would let the staff know at the end of each meal what time I wanted the next one, so my need for a plan was met.  The food was delicious and fresh every time.  There was a basic range of cereals and tea/coffee available for the very early mornings – pre-game drive (that usually started at 5.30 or 6 am) and I either had a breakfast meal when I got back (like omelette) or waited until lunch time.

The winning feature of this lodge by far was the hospitality shown by Brian and Marlene.  They welcomed me to their home and took care of me as their guest.  I was travelling on my own and I felt taken care of – it was above and beyond for them to invite me (and other guests) to a barbecue with their friends and to go on a spontaneous night drive, clearly experiences I would not have had if I was staying in a large hotel.

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g477977-d3850151-Reviews-Sable_Sands-Hwange_National_Park_Matabeleland_North_Province.html

Brian dropped me off at the Painted Dog Centre, which was the pick up point for Wild Horizons to take me to Victoria Falls airport.  Brian was straight on the phone with them as their driver was late, and offered to take me to the airport in case they didn’t turn up – another example of an exceptionally caring host.  The driver did arrive soon afterwards and I said my goodbyes to Brian and the other guests I’d made friends with who were also being dropped off.

The drive to the airport was smooth and I felt quite sad and wistful to be leaving Africa.  I bought a couple of souvenirs – a wooden giraffe and a heavy stone kudu figure – and spent a lot of time waiting in the airport lounge as my flight was delayed.  While waiting, I said hi to a couple of guys who had been staying at The Old House in Kasane, as well as Laurie and Michael who I had met on a Wild Horizons journey – small world.

Another wonderful trip to Africa.

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