Falling for Zimbabwe

The giant’s copper-colored eye was as big as a baseball and he knew we were watching — he could see us and smell us.

Source: Falling for Zimbabwe – Northwest Asian Weekly August 26, 2016

The giant’s copper-colored eye was as big as a baseball and he knew we were watching — he could see us and smell us. But he seemed relaxed, maybe playful. That was a good thing, because we were eye-to-eye with a young and very, very big, bull elephant. Though he could have squirted us anytime, we felt safe in our bunker-style blind, gawking at “his majesty,” as he paused for a drink just 30 feet away.

Across the pond, a large female elephant, her daughter, and a calf emerged from the bush. They seemed content too. The mom rested in a typical position, one back leg crossed in front of the other, at ease. The daughter struck the same pose awhile later, and then the calf, leaning against its mom so it wouldn’t tip over, copied them both. So cute!

I think that’s when we started falling in love with Zimbabwe. Over the next week and a half, we would soar high over a natural wonder of the world; sleep far above, and then next to, the mighty Zambezi River; “rough it” in bush tents with double chandeliers and hot water showers; and munch on crocodile nuggets and interact with some of the most amazing animals on the planet, in their wild homes. And sometimes right in our camp.

I was born in Hong Kong and never had a dog or cat, so all this animal stuff is new to me.

When my partner and I travel, we usually visit places with a rich combination of history, culture, scenery, and great food. While a safari sounded intriguing when we first started talking about it two years ago, I had mixed feelings getting ready for this trip. I was worried about how comfortable I’d be in a tent and that I’d get bored watching wildlife.

But our friends raved about safaris in South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. So I thought we should give it a try. If we stick only with what’s familiar, what’s the point?

In early planning discussions, we agreed that we’d like to see Victoria Falls in southern Africa. That narrowed our decision down to four countries near the falls, which included Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, or Zimbabwe. A friend based in Zambia recommended talking with his travel agent, Butterfly Bishop of Africa Fusion Travel (africanfusiontravel.com). Butterfly was fantastic! She grew up in the region, knows all the parks and safari operators, and was happy to work through different itineraries.

Butterfly had just returned from Zimbabwe and was enthusiastic. Because Zimbabwe’s government gets a lot of bad press, tourism is down. Butterfly told us that the operators there would be very welcoming, that we would seldom see another jeep during bush drives, that the quality of the camps and the guides was excellent, and that the country represents great value compared to its neighbors. After one visit to the Imvelo Safari Lodges website (imvelosafarilodges.com)  — the company she recommended — we were sold!

Riding the Elephant Express

Zimbabwe is a long, long way from Seattle. Following a grueling, 30-hour door-to-door trip, we landed in the tiny town of Victoria Falls. The next morning, we left for our first bush camp. Bomani Tented Lodge is next to an extensive, wildlife-packed national park called Hwange, famous for its booming elephant population. Half the trip was by minibus, then we reached a small train station where we shifted to “The Elephant Express,” the tour company’s private, single car locomotive. The rail trip takes about two and a half hours, unless there are animals. The engineer would stop, so we could ohh, ahh, and take pictures. We smiled at the cautionary “elephant crossing” signs along the route. For us, it was a placid giraffe, ambling slowly over the tracks, that brought the train to a halt. We loved it!

Suddenly, we stopped in the middle of nowhere, five minutes from Bomani. The drive into camp, in the late afternoon light, was gorgeous and fascinating. We passed a pond full of hippos, languidly leaving the water as the sun grew less intense. Later on, a family of nine elephants came to drink from the pond next to the lodge. Baboons and vervet monkeys were all around, so we had to keep the doors closed and windows zipped shut or things would disappear. We weren’t allowed to walk alone from the lodge to our tent at night. We’d always be accompanied by staff who knew what to do if an elephant happened to be camped in front of the door. They advised, “You wait.”

Scott and I haven’t been camping in ages, it’s just not our thing. So the bit about sleeping in a tent was worrisome. Would there be hyenas and big cats sniffing at us through the canvas? What about scorpions and snakes?

It turns out that the tents at Bomani are on platforms four feet off the ground, with 10-foot ceilings, attached bathrooms, and electricity, at least when the generator is on.

July is winter south of the equator, and it was nippy in the morning — we could see our breath. But the big bed had heavy comforters, and every evening, the staff slipped hot water bottles under the covers. Nice touch! In the morning, we’d bolt out of bed and get dressed immediately. It was too cold to shower, so we waited until it warmed up in the afternoon. The chilly evenings meant that there weren’t any mosquitoes or other buggy pests, and that was a blessing.

Many Imvelo staff come from nearby villages — that’s one of the ways the company gives back to the community. These are people who have grown up surrounded by the animals we’ve come to see — they know their stuff. Zimbabwe-trained guides are true experts, and are famous throughout the region.

A day at Bomani went something like this. We were up for a light breakfast at 6:30 or 7.

Campfire coffee really tastes great when you’re still shivering and just out of bed! Then we climbed into open jeeps for game drives, though twice we opted instead for a game walk with a rifle-toting guide. A few hours later, we were back in camp for a hot, generous brunch. After a few hours relaxing or reading, they called us for tea and snacks, then another drive. Drives can continue after dusk, and become night safaris — we shined flashlights into the bush to look for reflections from beastly eyes. One time I saw two, then suddenly there were 20 white discs glaring back at me — a herd of buffalo, getting ready to bed down. Spooky and exciting!

Some game drives started out a bit disappointing. We cruised the bush roads and spotted only common animals, like impalas. But that never lasted long. At any moment, we would come face to face with a group of male giraffes, warthogs, sable antelopes, or elephants. In Hwange, we found two of the “big five” game animals — African elephants and Southern Cape buffaloes. As for the other three, we would see lions later in Zambezi National Park, but we didn’t spot any leopards (they’re elusive) or rhinos (they live only in parks in the southern part of the country). We encountered a lot of other game, though, and learned to love those drives.

The second morning at Bomani, Daba, our guide, noticed a flock of vultures near the railroad tracks — we headed over at once to investigate. A wildebeest had been hit by a cargo train the night before. When we arrived, two jackals were sparring with a heaving mass of vultures, both species trying to strip every bit of meat. Hours later, only skin and bones were left. And when we returned after dark, we saw hyenas fighting over that. The next morning, everything had been dragged away — even the bones — it was like nothing had happened.

Every day at sunset, the guides organized a special treat — what folks in the region call a “sundowner.” It’s cocktail hour in an awesome location, usually with a view of the brilliant African sky and spectacular sunset. The guide and driver would set up a mini-bar featuring South African wines, local beer, and any liquor we requested before heading out (we found gin and tonics to be especially nice served on the hood of a jeep).

There was always a tray of homemade appetizers too, both meat and veggies. We really miss sundowners!

Next week, the thundering Victoria Falls, lions, and crocodile croquettes.