Day 1 - Botswana
It’s an early start and out of my hotel by 5am. At this time of day, what can be a three-hour journey in Dar Es Salaam’s rush hour takes us just 20 minutes. I fly to Victoria Falls, transiting Johannesburg where the clear blue skies belie the 2o temperature.
My mission this week is to review hotels, camps and lodges for two new holidays and extensions that we will launch in our September brochures.
So two flights, four transfers, four countries and 14 hours since leaving my Dar hotel, I find myself in Botswana on the edge of the Chobe National Park at Ngoma Safari Lodge. In the glow of the sun setting over Namibia I can see a herd of elephant make their way down a ridge towards the Chobe River.
I am joined for dinner by Jonathan Hudson, the overseeing manager for several properties in this part of the world. A significant slice of his career saw him based at The Dorchester, so dinner here is a gear shift from the homely cuisine of Tanzania to something altogether more stylish.
Day 2 - Chobe National Park
There is another gear shift when it comes to the accommodation here. Ngoma Safari Lodge is very chic with large stone and thatch chalets, beautifully furnished and boasting terraces with private plunge pools. It sits overlooking the flood plains of the Chobe River, 60 kilometres from Kasane, where we base our Footsteps of Livingstone safari. I have come here to see what this side of the park is like. Whilst the river is not so grand, there are only a few lodges here, and that means less vehicles on safari drives. The river is unusually low as this part of the world had a poor wet season this year. It’s July, so with another three or four months before the rains are due there is concern that some wildlife will not survive that long.
I am on the road after breakfast thinking about how we might offer Saga guests the chance to visit this side of the park. I drive back through Chobe National Park, where many of the trees, particularly the mahogany, are in full golden autumn colour.
Kasane is the main little riverside town that is the jumping off point for game drives and boat cruises on the Chobe river. Whilst the river here is also lower than usual there is still plenty of water for normal operations. I inspect several lodges that are potentially suitable for a new programme that we’ll launch in September. Africa’s Southern Soul is what we call in the business a ‘soft adventure’; a journey by 20-seater four-wheel-drive truck travelling from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, through four countries over 24 days, staying in lodges each night and a mobile camp in the Okavango Delta. If you have never been to Southern Africa before this tour will give you a comprehensive insight into such iconic sights such as Fish River Canyon (the second biggest after the Grand Canyon) and Etosha Pan in Namibia, and will allow you to explore the Okavango Delta by Mokoro canoe, visit Chobe National Park and travel over 3000 miles to finish at the incredible Victoria Falls.
I drop in to Chobe Safari Lodge, a beautiful place that features already in several of our holidays. Saga clients always enjoy staying here. It is set on the river bank with its own jetty for river trips in search of fabulous bird life and Chobe’s famous elephants, sometimes seen swimming across the river. Chobe Safari Lodge completed an adjacent lodge last year so I am able to inspect this; it’s an updated version of Safari Lodge with a modern safari chic feel. It’s very nice and I am happy to have some of our tours stay here.
Yesterday’s travel is taking its toll today, but it’s onward to cross the border into Zimbabwe. It is here that the Chobe joins the Zambezi and four countries meet – Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. To cross the Zambezi there is only a ferry carrying two or three freight lorries at a time, on what is a major trade route for heavy lorries. I hear Operation Stack has been on again in the UK, but lorry drivers here must think ours have it easy, as the permanent tailback here for the ferry means a two-week wait! For me, the border crossing is simple. Zimbabwe and Zambia have introduced a new ‘Univisa’ that allows multiple entry to both countries and is obtainable on the border. $50 paid, and I am through.
The road to Victoria Falls is bordered by the Zambezi National Park. I stop short of Victoria Falls and swap vehicles for an open land cruiser and my guide Clint, who will reveal himself over the next day to be a fantastic guide and considerate host. We drive through the park on tracks of Kalahari sand, encountering elegant giraffe, and stop on the banks of the Zambezi as Clint spotted a herd of elephant making their way to the river. They track upwind of us and the matriarch is decidedly uncomfortable with our presence. She sadly has a foreshortened trunk but still sniffs the air, sensing us. Clint suspects her trunk may have been caught in a snare at some point, or bitten off by a crocodile, or a lion. We back off to allow the giants to drink and continue on to camp.
I am at Zambezi Sands, a very chic tented camp set right beside a rapid on the Zambezi. It’s a fabulous setting and will become the final stay for our new safari, On the Trail of Giants. I know already this is going to be a hit as the individual canvas suites are expansive, with separate lounge and bedroom areas, divided by a bathroom with freestanding bath, an outside shower with views of the river and a vast private deck with a small plunge pool. The suites are linked by boardwalks to the main lounge and dining room, also under canvas with views down river from its deck and fire pit. Nadine and John are the amiable hosts, and Rob, who has been a safari guide for 50 years, so his stories are second to none. When our guests start staying here next year they will have opportunities for game drives, bush walks with armed Rangers, boat trips, fishing and canoeing, but more on that tomorrow.
Day 3 - Zambezi River
I have been on the road since last Thursday week, so today I slow the pace, take the day off and opt to enjoy a canoe after breakfast with Clint and Rob. Safety is the order of the day, so a briefing includes an instruction not to trail fingers or toes over the side – good advice, as within the first 200 metres we see five crocs, ranging sizewise from average to very large, warming themselves in the morning sun! We run gentle rapids, drift through quiet waters, look out for otters and watch fish eagles and kingfishers searching for breakfast. It’s idyllic. I may be biased but the Zambezi, often described as ‘mighty’ is, in my view, one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and here on the Upper Zambezi it is wide with myriad channels and islands. The canoes are very stable, inflatable ones, which anyone with agility can manage with very little paddling involved, as you go with the flow! Downriver I am collected and find a surprise Sunday lunch set up on the river bank. Later on a boat trip to watch the sunset over the river we see a hippo, jaws open 180 degrees, rearing up in an sign of aggression – no wonder we are keeping a wide berth of all hippo pods! Another blazing African sun ends the day.
Day 4 - Zambezi Gorge
Well, it’s Monday morning and I’m back to work, Africa-style. I hit the road at 7am. It’s cold, and I am reminded that often people think Africa is universally hot! But in Southern Africa at this time of year the evenings cool down and the mornings can be decidedly cold. I think it’s probably about 4 degrees but temperatures soon rise to pleasant 24- 28 degrees. Not bad winter weather!
A drive out of the National Park brings forth only a sighting of a honey badger, and I find myself in the slightly less glamorous world of checking the quality and safety of the vehicles we’ll use for our groups. Of course, this is serious stuff; safety is key, and it’s good to learn that all public vehicle drivers in Zimbabwe are required by law to undergo annual medicals and are first aid-trained. In addition, the transport company has GPS tracking of each vehicle so they know exactly where they are at any given time.
I move on to Gorges Lodge. This is the property our guests will come to stay in at the beginning of the new Zimbabwe tour, located downstream of Victoria Falls. I suspect our guests will be blown away by the spectacular location, which, as the name suggests, is set on the rim of the Zambezi Gorge, with the river racing past 600 feet below. It’s one of the most amazing settings for a hotel I have ever seen, with the restaurant, bar and bedrooms perched on the edge of the cliff – perhaps not easy for vertigo suffers! White water rafters pass by and you can hear their gleeful shouts as they run some of the massive rapids. Black eagles glide overhead as I check the rooms and then I inspect the construction of some new tented suites that will extend the size of the current lodge. My vote would be to stay in the new tented suites to enjoy spectacular views down the Zambezi Gorge. The gardens here are also a delight and I’m sure the whole experience will start the new tour with a bang! Debbie and Chris manage this lodge; they are old Zimbabwean hands who will enthrall our guests with tales of living in the bush.
By lunchtime I am on the road to Hwange. The road is tarred and there is little traffic. After two hours I find myself in an open vehicle entering the National Park. One of Africa’s greatest parks, it is about the size of Wales and renowned particularly for its elephant, with over 40,000 of them making their home here! It is also home to over 100 other species of mammals, including 19 large herbivores, 8 large carnivores and 400 species of birds.
A drive through the late afternoon light sees stops at waterholes and riverbeds. I’ve seen surprisingly few elephant so far but I’m overjoyed about two fabulous sightings of lion. It’s been a long day so the final half hour of the journey in darkness feels never-ending, but as we arrive at Nehimba, the lodge where I’ll spend the night, I step into a timber and thatch lounge to an amazing sight. Beyond, in the darkness, I can just make out a huge number of elephant, and extraordinarily some are drinking from the little swimming pool just feet beyond the guests. It’s spellbinding – I have never seen anything like it. They remain through dinner, and though some amazing communication system and hierarchy system they periodically take turns to drink, one quietly moving away as another moves in. The same thing happens every day during this season and later I realise that my timber and thatch chalet is by an elephant highway, as these giants take water at the waterhole and the swimming pool until well into the night.
Day 5 - Buffalo & Elephants
Sarah is the quietly competent and affable host here, but her husband Bruce turns out to be the star of the day. He is a hugely experienced guide and ranger, so early this morning, I accept his invite to track, on foot, one of the most dangerous animals in Africa: buffalo. He is armed to the hilt, but for him, this is literally just a walk in the park! He knows where a herd is grazing and upwind of them we slowly approach, crouched and hidden by long grass. As we get closer one of them spots us and we eyeball for a few minutes. Bruce, in whispers, explains that because he can’t smell us, he doesn’t know what we are, but as the warning calls of birds alert others in the herd to our presence, the buffalo run away. The wind shifts and Bruce takes a circuitous route with the promise of getting a closer experience. Well, if you say so Bruce! My complete and utter trust is with him. He explains the buffalo are defensive feeding, always moving upwind so they can smell predators lying in wait ahead. We stay downwind and this time we manage to creep within 50 feet, to quietly absorb the sound of the great creatures grazing and the background sounds of the bush. Trust me, says Bruce, and have your camera ready… we stand up and walk towards the herd, they spot us and in front of our eyes, a hundred buffalo take flight. It’s an incredible experience but it’s still not over. As we walk back to the lodge we pass a waterhole with a lone elephant taking the waters; with a mock charge and a few stern words from Bruce, the elephant backs off.
It’s time for me to get back on the road, as I want to see the other two lodges in Hwange that we will be using for our guests. Together with Nehimba, Bomani and Camelthorn will be the accommodation depending upon departure date, and with each being slightly different in style they will all offer five days of spectacular game drives and bush walks. I am pleased with this, as I truly want our guests to experience all the things I have during my time here. As I head back to Nehimba in waning light Bruce drives me to a waterhole. We are amidst 300 elephant, from tiny calves running around like children to huge bulls drinking, wallowing and cooling after the heat of the day. Bruce says he has never seen so many elephant at this site before! To top that, when I fall back into camp again that evening, low and behold the refilled pool is being emptied again by these amazing creatures. The new safari will be named On the Trail of Giants, and very apt that is. From my chalet I watch the dark silhouettes pass back and forth and listen to their low rumblings.
Day 6 - Hwange National Park
An early breakfast, during which I’m told that an elephant climbed into the pool last night after I turned in! 36 hours at Hwange National Park has brought some of the most incredible experiences that I have ever had on safari.
All the lodges and camps that we will work with on our new safari are operated by Imvelo Safaris, who have a huge emphasis on conservation and community development. With education, water and health facilities being their priority, they have contributed nearly one million pounds in the past four years to local community development. I am pleased our guests will have the chance to see how this is impacting positively on the communities close to the lodges. It’s a fantastic effort in a country where too many find themselves impoverished for no reason, through no fault of their own. Through these initiatives and direct employment of the locals, by staying in these lodges, guests are contributing both directly and indirectly.
A drive through the park and I spot roan antelope. These are pretty rare, so it’s quite a sight to see nine in one place. Hwange airport proves itself to be tiny and spotlessly clean – with not an aircraft in sight! It is, however, staffed by a smiling and polite team and after a vehicle goes out to clear the runway of wilderbeast and impala, a Cessna lands to collect me. An hour or so later I am dipping over Lake Kariba to land at Bumi Hills.
I have come to check Bumi Hills, which in its heyday 20 years ago was part of the major safari circuit here. It has a spectacular setting on an escarpment and I walk in to a view that could be out of Greece or Thailand – exotic gardens, a sparkling infinity-edge swimming pool, and beyond the sun reflecting off Lake Kariba and the mountains of Zambia. It definitely doesn’t look quite Africa!
This is a charming hotel and we will offer it as an extension to several of our holidays next year. It has style of an African farmstead with just rooms overlooking the lake and of course with a bar and dining terrace with equally spectacular views. This is a perfect pre or post-tour antidote in which to relax, whilst still offering a safari experience either from the terrace as elephant and hippo graze on the lakeside below or on game drives or boat cruises.
Postscript: Since my return I heard the terrible news about Cecil, the lion who was lured from the safety of the National Park to satisfy the strange desires of those who enjoy hunting. Here at Saga the only shooting of wildlife we want to see is done by the camera lens, and our emphasis is always on conservation.
Day 7 - Lake Kariba
I take a look at a couple of the bush lodges near here but none match the comfort levels of Bumi Hills. A stiff warm breeze blows across the lake, making the temperature perfect today. Lake Kariba is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, at nearly 280 kilometres long and 40 wide in places. It was created by the building of the Kariba dam in the 1950s, taming the mighty Zambezi to enable a hydroelectric power scheme to provide power to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It was an epic project that displaced many of the local Tonga tribe and wildlife. I learn of Operation Noah, which rescued many wild animals stranded on islands as the water level rose, although the island opposite Bumi Hills is called Starvation Island, for obvious reasons. It’s interesting to see that is has a resident population of impala, third generation descendants of survivors who have never had to tremble at the sound of roaring lion. They lead a charmed life! On another offshore island, way in the distance, I can spot two tiny specks – a pair of elephants who reached the shore by swimming across from the mainland!
On a sundowner cruise with Nick, the chief operating officer of Bumi Hills, he tells me of his passion for conservation. Specifically, he mentions the development of their own anti-poaching unit at Bumi, and how they work with the local community to educate them in the benefits of tourism and conservation, and how the wildlife here is now in recovery. He also tells me that Bumi employs 60 staff, many of whom are local Tonga, and I have to say they are a delight. Perfect service and wide smiles to match. Here in Zimbabwe, such employees could be the only breadwinner in extended families of maybe ten or more members. It is easy to calculate therefore the benefits we can bring by visiting Zimbabwe, where our tourist dollar could be helping to contribute towards the livelihood of 600 people by staying in one lodge alone.
As the sun sets, silhouetting the drowned trunks and ghostlike branches of mopane trees, darkness descends and the entire 180 degree horizon of the lake sparkles with the lights of hundreds of fishing boats that go out every night to catch tiny, whitebait-like fish. But it’s fresh Kariba bream for dinner for me tonight!
Day 8 - Victoria Falls
Time to move on. One of the great things here at Bumi has been the food. They have a great chef with excellent presentation skills, who has produced everything from risotto to the freshest of salads in this remote spot, so far away from sources of supply.
At the airstrip we have to shoo two elephant from the runway to allow the Cessna to land and collect me. A circuitous flight routing takes me over the Lake where Karl (who is almost becoming my regular pilot!) banks over the Kariba dam to allow for photos. It seems impossibly small from this height to be holding back such an enormous body of water. We fly, following the Zambezi which emerges from a gorge into a flood plain of channels and islands. We deposit two passengers destined for safari at Mana Pools National Park, a World Heritage Site, and I make a note to self to visit one day, as it is another of Zimbabwe’s natural wonders. Another bush take-off but it’s a long haul to Victoria Falls where I am bound, and requires a refuelling stop at Kariba airport, the terminal of which is a perfect gem of yesteryear travel. It’s another 90 minutes flying over the length of the island-speckled lake, following the course of the Zambezi as it flows through its deep gorges below this little Cessna.
The routine this afternoon is to check out several smaller hotels for future African safari holidays, and then meet Bernadette. She tour-manages the Botswana and Victoria Falls section of our Pride of Africa holiday that includes a three-day journey on the luxurious Rovos Rail train from Victoria Falls to Pretoria. Meeting Bernadette gives me the opportunity to get some feedback on the tour and discover how we might be able to improve it. It’s always good to get the local advice from our tour managers themselves and we agree that there are a couple of tweaks I should do to improve it further. Bernadette invites me on to the Victoria Falls sundowner cruise, operated by our agent Bushtracks. She promises me it is different from the many others that go out each sunset and she is right. I have been on others and because of their drafts they all finish up on the same stretch of river at sunset, which takes some of the shine off the trip. However, Bushtracks have small jet powered boats, and we turn downriver towards the Falls and delight in having the river all to ourselves. It splits into channels and amidst forest-covered islets we see hippo pods and browsing elephant, the highlight of which is watching one swim a section of the river. With the river to ourselves we are able to cruise to within 800 metres of the lip of the Falls, which is quite a thrill as the end-of-day light bathes the entire scene in a golden glow.
Day 9 - Adrenaline Seekers
I am staying at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge; it is, as its name might suggest, situated just outside of town, overlooking the bush. In fact, it’s more of a hotel, due to its size – each room has a balcony with sweeping views of the bush and glimpses of the Upper Zambezi. At the waterhole below buffalo, elephant and kudu come to drink. It’s difficult to imagine how close we are to town with so much wildlife about. Warthog graze on the lawns as I take the 5-minute drive into town on the hotel shuttle. My working trip is over but my flight home is not due till tomorrow, so I play tourist and visit the Falls, as anyone should on an African holiday to this region! I have seen them many times, but like the Taj Mahal in India, a visit here will never cease to take your breath away, no matter how many times you experience it. Awesome and emotion-stirring is one way to describe them, and they vary so depending on the volume of water passing over the edge. I weave along the paths that border them, with stopping points for photography, sometimes amidst rainforest created by the showering mists. Bearing in mind the poor rains that afflict the region this year, and the lower-than-average water levels, there is water stretching the entire width. They span both Zimbabwe and Zambia and in the middle is Livingstone Island. This is where the locals, who call the Falls the Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means the Smoke that Thunders, took Livingstone by dugout canoe. When he gazed down from the lip he wrote in his journal “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” – and I can quite see why.
At the new Lookout cafe nearby I watch adrenaline seekers zip-lining, taking a gorge swing and bungee jumping off the bridge. Victoria Falls certainly is an adrenaline capital and I recognise a 60 year old British chap come in for a beer, who I saw minutes ago stepping off the gorge edge attached to a wire… proving that you never are too old to seek a thrill! I stroll up through the public rooms of the grand lady that is the Victoria Falls Hotel. She is a colonial capsule of yesteryear and I see they have finished work on opening up the grand dining room with new French doors to the courtyard.
After coming to Africa for over 20 years the wooden carvings and bowls at the massive craft market hold little attraction but I explore anyway. The fields of hundreds of polished rock statutes are impressive. It is a Zimbabwean speciality and the artistry is admirable, but they are little heavy for the handluggage!
A final supper tonight with a difference, stir fry croc – tastes like chicken !
Day 10 - Homeward bound
Homebound, which I am ready now after such a long trip. Zimbabwe has been a delight and in particular the people have helped to make it. In my view the Zimbabweans are the friendliest, smiley, most service focused and honest of all the Southern Africans. The country is very safe, and there is no hostility towards the British at everyday level – it is surprisingly organised and tourism here is beginning to turn a corner. The individual local economies need this to help the people get back on their feet. Our new safari, On the Trail of Giants, certainly will benefit many directly and indirectly, and is going to deliver a unparalleled African holiday, offering great value for money, as it’s an all-inclusive holiday, with all meals, alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks and even laundry included in the price, as is the Bumi Hillls extension. Sales pitch over!
Travellers I have met on the road here have been from many countries; the main ones are Australians, Americans, Canadians, and a cross section of EU citizens. Of the British I have met I have been surprised by the number of families but most have already had a holiday in Africa before and with their concerns about safety in Kenya, have opted for Zimbabwe.
This morning I cross the iron bridge that spans the Zambezi into Livingstone, which is the town on the Zambian side of the Falls. I stop by the Zambezi Sun hotel – now branded the Avani. Our Footsteps of Livingstone Safari has a stay here, as do many of our guests extending from other South African holidays. They have refurbished the rooms since I was last here so I was keen to see them. They have done a nice job toning down the previous, rather zany, brightness. One of my passions away from Southern Africa is Morocco and I immediately recognise that they have brought in touches of Marrakech in the decor and light fittings to give a slight Moroccan theme. Perhaps a strange choice in this part of the world but they are nevertheless very nicely finished. I am pleased to see too that they have added furniture to the balconies and terraces, which has been missing to date. The big advantage of this hotel is that it has immediate and private access to the Falls themselves, so they are just steps away.
I sit at the brand new Livingstone airport terminal typing this final extract. I am flying back on Kenyan Airways hoping that President Obama’s presence in Nairobi is not going to disrupt schedules. I am interested to know what this service is like, as it seems better than backtracking to Johannesburg to fly on to London. A transit tonight in Nairobi will deliver me home in the morning – as long as Operation Stack doesn’t thwart me.
A few hours later and I am on my way. I am impressed with Kenyan Airlines, who have bright new aircraft since I last flew with them. I am likewise pleased with Nairobi airport, where I change aircraft. The transit is easy and what was once my least favourite airport in the world has been transformed dark and depressing to light and airy, with shops and cafes. As I wait for my flight to London I chat with two over 50 ladies who boarded in Livingstone too. I ask if and where they have been on holiday in Africa and they exclaim… “Oh yes, 24 days in an overland truck from Tanzania to Zimbabwe – our second overland journey by truck in Africa, we love it!” I tell them to look our for our Saga overland journey coming soon; meeting them reassures me that this African holiday is definitely going to appeal to some of our Saga guests. And as President Obama is already on his way to Ethiopia from Nairobi, it’s plain sailing to Heathrow tonight.