By Marj L., 7-time traveler & 4-time Vacation Ambassador from Vista, CA
It was mid-afternoon, and after an early morning drive and tasty lunch, I’d fallen asleep in our tent at the edge of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. I awakened to a slow, rhythmic, but unfamiliar sound—a plodding plop, squish…plop, squish…plop, squish…plop, squish. Heavy, stolid, deliberate. “Shh,” my companion said as, barely awake, I bolted up. “Look,” he whispered, pointing. I peered through the screen at the entrance of the tent to see an elephant munching his way towards us as he fed on the abundant grasses. He stopped stock-still, his trunk against the railing that marked the front of our tiny veranda, and gazed at us as though inquiring what we were doing there. I slithered off the bed, dug the camera out of my backpack and started shooting.
It was the pinnacle moment in a trip full of highlights: the sunset drive where we sat mesmerized by herds of elephants backlit by a glowing sun at a shallow watering hole; the leopard who lounged contentedly—having feasted on his latest kill—while we pulled him in with telephoto lenses for classic close-up pictures; the night ride when we saw our one and only cheetah, surveying prey on the plains from his perch on a rise in the landscape.
We were 15 travelers who had come from all over the U.S. to connect in Johannesburg, South Africa, for an overnight stay before flying on to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, to meet Thompson, the cheerful, efficient trip leader from Overseas Adventure Travel who guided us throughout the safari portion of the trip. After a long, hot wait in Zimbabwe immigration, we had boarded a bus for the trip to our first stop, Botswana’s Baobob Lodge in Chobe National Park near Kasane.
There, we were welcomed by the staff in what we soon learned was customary safari camp fashion—singing, dancing, handing us refreshing damp wash cloths, introducing themselves by name and instantly (or so it seemed) committing our names to memory. We freshened up and ate dinner, then gathered in the lounge of the lodge where Thompson gave us a quick overview of the typical daily schedule for the duration of our trip.
The Daily Routine
- 5:30, wake-up
- 6:00, breakfast
- 6:30-10:30 or 11:00, game drive, with tea served at a break
- Noon-ish (“ish” being one of Thompson’s favorite expressions), lunch at the lodge
- Early afternoon, group meeting during which staff at each of the four camps where we stayed spoke about the history and customs of their countries, geography and wildlife of the area, and other topics of interest
- Mid-afternoon, free time to sleep, read, or visit
- 3:30-7, game drive, followed by dinner at the lodge and an early bedtime
Some days, of course, varied from this schedule. On the last day of our stay in Baobob, for instance, we took an all-day excursion culminating with a cruise down the Chobe River where crocodiles lounged on the banks and hippos mated in the water. It was during our Baobob stay that Mat, one of our driver guides, explained a custom followed by many local families in choosing names for their children.
“Often, couples name their children after significant elements or events in their lives,” he began. “My parents named me Mat after the matsudi, an African mango. When I was born, however, the country was having a terrible drought and they considered naming me the native word for drought.” He paused, then chuckled. “I’m glad they decided on Mat instead.”
The three days at Baobob were our introduction to safari living. The accommodations, the buffet meals, the people and the wildlife experience exceeded our expectations and, though eager to see more, we left reluctantly. As we boarded planes for the flight to our next stop, Wilderness Lodge in the Okavango Delta, one traveler joked, “Well, we’ve seen elephants, hippos, giraffes, even a leopard. What else is there?” But, of course, there was much more to see and many more adventures.
The ensuing flight was just the first of several we would take as we moved from camp to camp, taking off and landing on dirt airstrips. Did I mention that a trip of this sort is not for the faint of heart? The larger of the two planes that ferried us to our new destination carried 12 passengers, none of us short enough to stand upright as we climbed aboard, hunched over, and squeezed into seats behind the pilot. Because there were 16 (counting Thompson) in our group, the “left-overs” flew on an even smaller four-passenger craft. A sense of humor is essential. Sensing some unease on the part of his passengers, the pilot of the larger craft turned around, grinned and assured us we were safe because "this is my second day."
Landing at Okavango, we were driven from the landing strip, dry and dusty, to our accommodations on the edge of the waterlogged delta by a young adventurous soul named Genius. Enroute to the lodge, searching for a pride of lions which he knew to be in the area, Genius drove us through swampy (croc infested?) waters three times, each dip requiring that we remove all items—and our feet—from the floor as water poured in during these anxiety-raising maneuvers. Persistence was rewarded when we came upon the pride resting in the shade after feasting on a giraffe, whose carcass lay nearby.
We had arrived on Botswana’s independence day, and that evening the staff put on a special program to honor that occasion. In all the camps we visited, in fact, we were entertained during one evening of our stay by the staff. Their “day jobs” were as guides and cooks and housekeepers, but they were talented musicians, actors and comedians as well. It was during our stay on the delta that we had the elephant encounter which, to continue the opening story, kept us from our pre-dinner happy hour. One of the first things Thompson had told us as we began the trip was this: “NEVER leave your tent if a wild animal is near. If you don’t show up when you’re supposed to, we’ll come and get you.” Because of the elephant’s visit, we had missed happy hour but, sure enough, five minutes into the dinner hour, Thompson and a guide showed up, banged some boards together to startle the elephant into moving along, and walked us to the lodge. In each camp, the tents were spaced many yards apart and, with much vegetation between them, were very private. Actually, tents is a misnomer; all had indoor plumbing, wood flooring which raised the structure above the ground and a wooden frame, over which had been stretched industrial strength canvas. We’d been told never to leave our tents at night without an escort. Each tent had an air horn, and in case of emergency, this was the drill: 1) the person with the emergency sounds their horn three times and keeps their tent lights on; 2) everyone else turns off their lights; 3) staff then identifies the location of the emergency and goes to assist.
After three days in Okavango, we moved on to Camp Lufupa in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. As usual, the trip was by small plane, but this time the planes were different and, because the larger plane assigned to us could hold only 10, the pilot of the smaller plane had to make two trips to transport the rest of us. My travel buddy Bob and I volunteered to stay behind and wait for the smaller plane to return and take us to Lufupa.
"Uh-oh." You really don't want to hear that from your pilot when you're high above the African plains. All had gone well on this private flight until that "Uh-oh!"...followed by an abrupt earthward plunge before we leveled off. There was a long moment of silence while we all caught our breath (and I waited for my heart to assume its normal position). “Sorry about that bit of fright,” our pilot said, “but we were about to collide with a vulture. When it warms up in the middle of the day like this, vultures sometimes ride the thermals up to our altitude. We’re at about 2,000 feet. If we had hit him, he would have come through the windshield.” (Oh, the visions that played out in my head just then! Not pretty!) We’d been told the African bush pilots are among the best in the world and now I believe it. After reaching our camp on the banks of the wide, slow-moving Lufupa River, we went for another game ride. The highlight? Seeing another leopard, this one taking his ease on a branch high in a tree.
On one of our evenings in Lufupa, a young woman spoke to us about Zambian social customs, the most interesting being the prohibition against young men and women making contact with each other independently. Contact is to be made only through adult friends or parents. If a young man develops a relationship with a young woman without first obtaining permission from her parents, he may be required to pay a “damage fee” ranging from $200 to $2,000 for diminishing the young woman’s reputation! Like youth everywhere, of course, they seek ways around these restrictions.
Leaving Lufupa and Zambia behind, we flew to spectacular Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. This being the end of the dry season, the volume of water pouring over the falls was, by the standards of the area, small. However, the mist was profuse; it felt as though it was raining up, down, and sideways. Protecting cameras while taking pictures was a challenge. After touring the falls, we again boarded planes, this time for a flight to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. There, we met our new driver guides, including the dramatic Lawrence, who introduced himself in deep stentorian tones as “Lawrence of Zimbabwe.” It was during a night drive on our first evening there that we saw our one and only cheetah of the trip. Perched on an ancient termite mound now covered with grass, he watched a herd of impalas, plotting his next kill.
Throughout the trip, we were amazed by the depth and breadth of our guides’ knowledge and skills. They set out each day to give us up-close views of wildlife with nothing but their knowledge of the area, the occasional tip from fellow drivers from nearby camps, and their own tracking skills. They brought us back to camp, always with camera batteries depleted and more information than we could process. No question went unanswered, and they were exemplary hosts. At some point in each game drive, we stopped for tea and cookies, served by the guides, and, of course, a “bathroom” break—the bathroom being one bunch of bushes for the guys and another for the ladies.
Obtaining a guide’s license is not easy. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the only country where guides are permitted to carry guns, applicants must kill five nuisance animals (elephants, lions or other creatures who have been reported as problems by the natives), pass tests over all the animals, birds, and plants in the country, and spend 7 days in the bush demonstrating their skills to an examiner. Their intense training and experience was apparent as they slowed to view animal tracks, stopped to watch birds in flight, turned off engines to listen for tell-tale signals of animal activity, and spotted animals, successfully camouflaged from the rest of us by their natural surroundings.
To further enhance the safari trip, Overseas Adventure Travel, our tour organizer and provider, emphasizes contact with the everyday native people. In Zimbabwe we visited Ngamo, a rural village, and its K-7 elementary school. There, the third grade teacher and his lively students greeted us and led us to their classroom. While verbal communication was minimal (students begin their study of English in the third grade), the kids enjoyed learning the hokey-pokey and dancing with all of us after treating us to energetic performances of some of their own native dances.
Life is hard in this impoverished country. Some of the students, many without shoes, walk an hour and a half each way to attend school. At school, their primitive “restrooms” were those often seen in undeveloped countries—holes in the ground over which one hovers while conducting business. But progress is being made, and the teacher proudly showed us the school’s new well, which provides water on the school site. Until that was drilled, the staff had to carry water from a hand-pumped well some distance away.
Leaving the school, we walked the short distance to the compound of the village headman (this is an inherited position) where we met with him and some of his extended family in a large partially enclosed, circular gathering spot. The men were seated on a built-in bench on one side of the structure; visiting women, on a bench on the other side. Women of the family (and children) sat on the floor. Seeing the seating arrangements, we were not surprised to learn that in village matters men make the decisions, but will consider women’s input if a stalemate develops. Interestingly, however, in this male dominated society, a woman can become “headman” if there are no male descendants in line for the job.
Asked about his most difficult issue as headman, he unhesitatingly replied, “Just getting enough food to feed all our families.” With 400 people in 70 family groups and a national unemployment rate of 90%, simple survival is an ongoing struggle. We ended our stay at Ngamo with a visit to the villagers’ bazaar where we purchased items made by local craftsmen.
Our Last Night on Safari
From the village, we returned to camp and were treated to the grand finale of our safari experience. Arriving at a watering hole, we found a few elephants already there. Soon, more groups emerged, coming across the plains from all directions. As dusk turned to sunset, a brilliant orange orb provided backdrop for spectacular views of elephants in silhouette, the silence broken only by the occasional elephant call or a traveler’s whispered, “Just look at this!”
The following day, it was on to South Africa and re-entry into a more European culture before wending our way home with unforgettable safari memories—and, yes, a desire to return some day.
Winding Down: South Africa
Before booking our trip, we’d been advised by a friend who had previously taken the tour that South Africa provided a good “halfway house” for re-entry from the wilds of Africa into our real workaday world. Eight of us elected to take the post-trip excursion to Cape Town. First, however, we stopped once again in Victoria Falls where Bob took a zip line ride from Zambia to Zimbabwe above the 354-foot-high Victoria Falls gorge.
In Cape Town, we visited Table Mountain (taking the cable car to the top), the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, and (somewhat surprisingly) a penguin colony on the coast. During our free time in the city, we explored the Waterfront (an area of shops, restaurants, and street performers), toured the gem exchange, and visited the former slave quarters of the city, an area that has been restored and now is inhabited by the upwardly mobile.
We also spent an evening with a family (four generations were present) who told us about their history and experience living through the times of apartheid. Though circumstances have improved, they indicated it remains difficult to make a living in a country where 95% of the wealth is controlled by 5% of the population. We also shared with them some of the details of our lives. Once again, a peek into the reality of the lives of people whose experiences are so different from our own before we returned home.
Experience all of the spectacular wildlife and exhilarating adventures that southern Africa has to offer when you join O.A.T. for Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe.