I’m about to take a walk with a couple of lions. My guide hands me a long stick.
“Keep behind them at all times. If they turn and open their mouths, let them chew on the stick.”
Hmmm, this is more up close and personal than I was expecting. The lionesses are huge, powerful beasts; their muscles rippling with every fall of those great paws. I’m a tad nervous.
“Don’t worry, they had a good kill yesterday, they’re full of impala.”
I’m hoping they don’t fancy a little snack.
Although they appear to be ambling, they’re moving quickly and it’s an effort to keep up. I’m urged to pat one on her haunches. I reach out tentatively and make contact. She doesn’t seem to mind.
Her coat feels like a Labrador’s, it’s the muscle mass underneath that’s different. She pauses.
The pair of them take a breather on a rocky outcrop, sprawling out to enjoy the late afternoon sun. I sit with them.
It is a remarkable moment.
These lions are accustomed to human contact. They’ve been brought to the Lion Encounter programme here at Victoria Falls because they were sick, injured or orphaned. Many will be released back into the wild. This conservation programme allows humans a close encounter with these magnificent animals in the hope they will understand the need to protect them in the wild. It’s an urgent mission, given Africa’s lion population has declined by more than 80% in the last 30 years.
Victoria Falls is one of those iconic sights of Africa.
The largest curtain of falling water on the planet, they are beautiful. The mighty Zambezi drops suddenly into a narrow chasm, the water billowing out like a bridal veil. You can see virtually the whole width of the falls, more than 1.5km, front-on from the Zimbabwe side.
We see elephants and hippos grazing as we fly over the falls. Little has changed here since Livingstone came down the river in his canoe to find the source of the “smoke that thunders”.
I can sense his wonder.
My husband Chris and I are staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a step back in time to Britain’s colonial heyday. There are – rather disturbingly, given where we’ve been – zebra skins on the walls, trophy heads of oryx and springbok. There’s also a wonderful set of cartoons depicting various traits of the British character. It’s the sort of hotel that serves high tea with scones and jam on the terrace.
A family of warthogs lives on the lawn. They prove to be very efficient mowers.
The falls are one-and-a-half hour’s drive from the Chobe River. We head there to join the Zambezi Queen. She is based just a few kilometres from where four countries meet – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana.
Once we’re safely on board there’s nothing to do but marvel at the view. Each of the suites – there are 14 in all – has its own private balcony. You can lie in bed and watch the buffalo, hippos, elephants and crocs.
The Chobe National Park is one of the top wilderness reserves in the world and we explore the river bank on a trip downstream to a local village. This is our first up-close sighting of buffalo. They look like fairly benign cattle but they’re known as the widow makers because they claim more lives than any other African animal.
We beach the tender at the little fishing village where there’s salted fish drying in the sun and tiny vege gardens struggling in the heat. The villagers face a constant battle with the elephants. They string beer bottles on flimsy lines to keep them away. Burning chillies also works a treat. Elephants are not spice fans.
We are welcomed in the traditional way with song and dance. I can’t help but join in. These people are warm and friendly. We explain we come from New Zealand and that in our country we sing to welcome visitors and the visitors respond.
So we begin a ragged version of Pokarekare Ana. They are delighted. This has never happened before, we’re told. The women ululate, a high-pitched trilling of the tongue, to show their enthusiasm. We are honoured. And humbled.
Next we head to Botswana to explore one of Africa’s seven wonders, the Okavango Delta.
The camp staff tell us never, under any circumstances, leave our hut on our own at night.
We have a hooter we can use to summon help should we need it.
I can hear the lions roaring from my bed, the hippos too, moving about in the shallow water of the delta just metres from our hut. As we walk along the sandy path outside our hut next morning, we see fresh elephant prints and of course their telltale dung.
There’s something about Africa that heightens the senses. The Okavango Delta has its own heady aroma, the not unpleasant, spicy, musky scent of elephant dung combined with the fresh herbal fragrance of bush sage. It’s delicious!
The camp is enchanting. You could easily miss it if you didn’t know where to look, so perfectly does it sit in the environment.
The delta is a maze of lagoons and hidden channels. The papyrus and reeds grow tall here. There are tiny islands dotted with fan palms. Herds of elephant and antelope graze the broad grassland. This is an extraordinary place, changing all the time, depending on the rains in the Angolan highlands to the north.
The Okavango River drains the summer rains from Angola, down through the delta region in the months from March to June. The water evaporates quickly and by October the white sands of the Kalahari are again exposed.
We very soon settle into the rhythm of the camp. We are awoken before dawn, around 5am, by the sound of gentle drumming. We head straight to a light breakfast and then, clasping rugs around us to ward off the early morning chill, we pile into the open safari vehicle.
Our guide, Rex, drives and our game spotter, Kenny, rides shotgun in a dicky seat out front. He doesn’t have a shotgun. It’s not that sort of safari. We are here to marvel at the animals, not to shoot them.
We head off into the early morning light to see what we can find. The animals of the delta are at their most active in the early morning and in the fading light at the end of the day. Halfway through our morning safari we stop for “elevenses” – coffee liberally laced with Amarula, a local tipple not unlike Baileys, which goes very well in the coffee! It’s apparently made from the fruit of the Marula Tree. Elephants are very partial to Marula berries – now I understand why.
There’s homebaked carrot cake and choc chip cookies, not to mention spectacular cheese scones. The elevenses are beautifully served from a camp table, complete with checked tablecloth and deck chairs.
Then it’s off for more game spotting, back to the camp for lunch around midday and then, joy of joys, an afternoon siesta until around 4pm when we have high tea at the camp before we head off on safari again. The evening safari is punctuated by sundowners in the bush. Our guides prove to be excellent gin pourers. We sip our drinks, nibble on hummus and crackers and watch the huge red African sun slip over the horizon.
Before dinner back at the camp the delightful kitchen staff, all of them local, line up and shyly announce what we’ll be eating that night. Sometimes they get really excited about what they’ve made and they will ululate.
We eat a lot of fish, and game. The game, typically, oryx, kudu (a kind of antelope) and springbok are from special farms, not shot on the safari concession. The meat is generally barbecued or casseroled.
Enough about food. Let me tell you about the animals. On our first night in the Delta we go in search of the “golden boys” as they’re known by the locals.
It doesn’t take us long to find them. They’re lying in the equally golden grass, perfectly camouflaged, enjoying the last, low rays of the sun.
These two young lions are not bothered by the wagon. Kenny, however, relinquishes his seat out front and comes in to the security of the wagon. Further on, we come across a leopard. Kenny has spotted her hanging out in a tree. A male leopard has also spotted her, but she doesn’t want a bar of him and when he shinnies up the tree after her, she snarls and moves further up. She’s playing hard to get. He slinks away and waits, as any bloke would.
An elephant comes calling during our afternoon siesta.
He head butts a nearby palm, then searches out fallen nuts. We feel a little nervous as he explores our windows, then wanders off as silently as he appeared. And that is Africa, a land of surprises, extraordinary beauty and long golden days spent in the company of warm, spirited people.
On our way to the airstrip, as we prepare to leave, we come across a pride of lions. A male strolls through the dry grass to join his females. It’s a perfect image of Africa to lock away in my heart forever.
What to take:
- Pack light – most internal flights ask you to keep it to 15kg and in a soft-sided bag so it’s easy to squash into small spaces.
- Warm jacket. Temperatures can get to around freezing in the desert overnight and early morning.
- Scarf, also useful to wet down and wrap it around your neck in the heat of the day.
- Binoculars are essential
- Camera, preferably with a quality zoom (about 30mm plus).
- Sun hat – although safari vehicles are covered, the sun is fierce, especially in the middle of the day (around 40ºC).
- Eye drops are invaluable for clearing the inevitable dust from the eyes.
- Hand sanitiser and wipes.
- Mozzie repellent.
- Neutral, sandy coloured clothes, not bright colours.
- Electrolytes are available in packets from chemists and are very handy if you do get dehydrated.
- A good medical kit of steri-strips and butterfly clip bandages for drawing wounds together that may otherwise need stitches, and antiseptic cream, antihistamine, anti-diarrhoea and nausea tablets in case of upsets.
Judy travelled with Bon Voyage Travel and Cruises.
Read part 1 of Judy Bailey's African adventure here.