Sometimes you have to scratch an itch, even if you know that the relief will only be temporary. Both my wife, Cheryl, and I have a desire to explore the world but, being in our thirties (I have just reached thirty-ten!) and with steady jobs and a mortgage, our strategy is to save up money and holiday time each year to satisfy our sense of adventure in small chunks. Then one day, when the time is right, we’ll pack in the nine-to-five and spend a whole year travelling. What a great dream…
In the meantime, that itch to travel is always there, so to achieve at least some temporary respite, I organised a three-week trip to southern Africa, beginning in Victoria Falls, Zambia, and later travelling on to Kruger National Park and The Garden Route in South Africa. We have a particular interest in wildlife, natural scenery and the occasional adventurous activity, and for many years it had always been a dream to explore Africa.
By booking our flights and certain hotels and activities well in advance we had managed to make some real savings and maximise our leisure time while in Africa. Victoria Falls aside, I had booked hotels and bed-and-breakfasts independently, contacting each by telephone or email. If you follow this example, be sure to take copies of reservation confirmations with you and know how much deposit you have paid and what balance is outstanding.
Despite all my planning however, actually getting to Zambia suddenly brings everything into perspective; I have to admit to being a little apprehensive when piling luggage into the back of a local taxi and speeding away from Livingstone airport. My doubts were soon assuaged by the friendly nature of our driver and we were delivered safely to a very welcoming hotel.
Of course, we were keen to see the Falls themselves as soon as possible and it was great to be able to walk from the hotel directly to the path along the gorge that edges this amazing site. When visiting Victoria Falls, you have the option of staying in the lively surroundings of Livingstone town centre or choosing the Falls resort itself where you have convenient access to the main attraction. All of the Zambians met were incredibly friendly and we soon found ourselves chatting to a well-dressed young man who was keen to welcome us to his part of the world, imparting snippets of information about the area’s geology, flora and fauna (including the wild baboons sauntering across our path). This we realised quickly was a tactic to oblige us to pay for his guidance and we handed him a few US dollars. It is worth politely declining such services early on if you prefer to explore alone, even if most advances of this type are quite friendly.
That evening, I booked a sunset river cruise. This was one of the activities that I had organised back in the UK through The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company. Onboard the boat, we were offered free drinks and snacks. With other trips such provisions had consisted of a beer and some Bombay Mix, but this was different; a full barbecue was being stoked up and I could drink as many bottles of the local Mosi lager as I wanted.
It’s funny how the offer of unlimited free alcohol can affect a man’s judgement. Years ago in Australia, I had taken my opportunity to fill myself with white wine and Doritos as the other party members were congregating at the edge of the viewing platform. Consequently I missed the sun setting over the Northern Territory wetlands, which was the whole point of the cruise!
There happened to be an Australian film crew on board and the presenter asked us if we wouldn’t mind being in the shot, supping beer and watching the giraffes on the riverbank. She looked like a dead ringer for Kylie Minogue’s prettier sister but we consented anyway. To be honest, we would have done the same for Judith Chalmers.
As I gazed into the water, a large head appeared with a crazy, toothy grin, and after a few seconds sank serenely back beneath the surface. Then another hippopotamus surfaced a way off to my left. And then another, this time closer to the boat. I was enthralled at being so close to the kind of wildlife I had only seen on TV documentaries, and as another large beast bobbed up and down, it reminded me of a giant version of a traditional fairground game. All I needed was a giant inflatable mallet! Good stuff, that Mosi lager.
As the Zambezi river became flooded with an ever-deepening red from the dying sun and the soft strumming of guitars began their serenade from the cabin, I felt as comfortable here as anywhere in the world.
The following day, we took an elephant ride around the local Zambian countryside (be sure to specify the Elephant Safari if you want to ride, otherwise the Elephant Encounter is an enjoyable interaction without climbing aboard). Sitting atop the tallest elephant proved a real advantage when crossing the river. Crocodiles slid with an ominous silence from the water’s edge into the murky gloom and it was easy to imagine them reappearing suddenly to snap at dangling legs. A baby elephant stole the show, being constantly guided back into line by her mother and aunt at the head of the convoy.
Cheryl immediately fell in love with the youngster and announced that elephants had leapt straight to her number one of favourite animals, relegating penguins to second.
Later we strolled across the Victoria Falls. We were there during the dry season of April to October, when the falls are at their least spectacular. However, it gave us the chance to walk onto the parched river bed near the edge of the drop to gain a unique perspective of this geological wonder. Apparently, when the Falls are at their full glory, you can’t see the gorge due to the amount of mist generated by the river.
There was still time in the evening for a guided game drive into the Mosi-Oa-Tonya (the smoke that thunders) Game Park, home to the last two white rhinos in Zambia. Although they are wild, rangers with rifles are posted to protect them from hunters and as a result the animals have become familiar with the presence of human beings, enough even for us to leave the vehicle for a photograph near them.
When planning the holiday, I had persuaded Cheryl to sign up for a white-water rafting trip on the Zambezi. Strangely, she had become spooked just by the names of the rapids, with titles such as Oblivion, Gnashing Jaws of Death and Commercial Suicide causing concern. So we compromised on the half-day option rather than the full day.
The start of the adventure was right next to the Zambezi Sun, albeit from the valley floor 300ft below. The scramble down was very steep on loose earth and stones and it became obvious just why a series of steps were being constructed during our stay.
Down at the river’s edge we found five rafts lassooed to boulders on the shore and we were ushered into the same boat as a group of American college girls who were on vacation from their studies in Namibia. As a team of paddlers, we didn’t look the strongest and as I glanced upstream at the mighty torrents of foaming water charging around the imposing headland that masked the source of their recent plunge from a great height, the presence of rescue kayakers was a partial comfort.
The experience was incredible. The weather was glorious and riding the grade three, four and five rapids was invigorating, to say the least. Our boat was the only one not to capsize. Approaching one of the last rapids of the morning, our guide offered us a choice of tack. Towards the right, the water was calm while moving leftwards increased the risk of flipping. It all looked pretty wild to me so my bravado voted for the adventurous route. Democracy ruled, however, and we elected to negotiate the middle section. It was all a sham, though, as the driver headed directly for the maelstrom on the left that immediately turned the boat over and catapulted everybody into an all-consuming whirlpool. I found myself in a different underwater world travelling at great speed and then remembered the advice not to panic; “Count to six and if you haven’t surfaced, then panic!” I was afloat facing the rapid that had just spat me out and it looked even more terrifying from this angle.
The rescue canoe appeared and swiftly deposited me onto the nearest raft. The next rapid was approaching… rapidly, and I had lost my shorts in the haste of my ungainly transfer. What a great decision this morning to wear swimming trunks underneath!
Commercial Suicide was exactly that and the company had remained in business by escorting guests on foot along the Zimbabwean bank of the river to the downstream side of the grade six rapid. We were not denied some excitement, though, as we were offered the opportunity of leaping from an overhanging rock into the turbulent waters beneath and trusted that the currents would ferry us back towards the safety of the shore.
We were the only two who had signed up for the half day trip and as the whole group settled down on the sun-baked rocks for a well-earned picnic lunch, Cheryl and I were pointed towards what seemed like a sheer cliff face to begin the trudge uphill as the only way out of the gorge. This was more exhausting than the rafting. Cartons of water had been thoughtfully tied to the supporting guide rope for those climbers who were close enough to dehydration. We were close but not quite that close.
At the top, our drivers were expecting us and opened up the cool-box. Water, Coke or beer? I chose water first.
Then Coke. Then beer. Then beer. Then beer. I had just cracked open another when the driver fired up the jeep and began the journey back. There wasn’t really a road or hardly even a track, so the violent lurches of the vehicle over the rough terrain made it too risky to raise the bottle to my mouth. At least I had quaffed enough very quickly to keep me going for half an hour; my university education hadn’t been wasted.
Next day we took a trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our guide, who had the looks and charm of Will Smith, welcomed us onto the small motor boat and gave a fascinating lesson about the history of the region. When a disagreement between Botswana and Namibia had descended into a diplomatic crisis over which country owned an island in the Chobe river, international arbitration adjudged in favour of Botswana by virtue of more water flowing along the Namibian border and hence forming a natural boundary.
The bird-life was wonderful, including the African fish eagle, pied kingfisher and the beautiful lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana. It wasn’t long before we saw the elephants though. Chobe is renowned for its elephants and it was an incredible sight to see them interacting with each other in the manner of a highly developed society. As far as the eye could see, large herds congregated at the river or were traversing the wide expanse of the plains.
Our driver could tell we were impressed. Wildlife spotting is normally a game of patience with the occasional disappointment of seeing nothing for a whole day, but we were spoilt for choice. A herd of impala grazed nervously alongside a family of more self-confident baboons. Warthogs scuttled around the legs of buffalo and kudu. Crocodiles soaked up the sun’s energy, slumped lazily on the grassy bank.
A group of hippos were bathing in the shallow water and as our driver allowed the engine to idle, we drifted gently towards them. He explained that the females (as these were) are more aggressive and accounted for more serious injuries and deaths than any other of the larger, more fearsome creatures such as the big cats. As if to prove his point, the nearest hippo turned with lightning speed and charged towards the boat, mouth widening to an impossible angle. Happily, our guide was equally deft and moved the craft to a safe distance.
The journey home included a boat ride across the confluence of two rivers, one of only two places in the world where four countries meet; in this case Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. If your game is to clock up places visited, this is is a good place to aim for.
We left Zambia next morning with a great fondness for the people and stunning wildlife and scenery. This was only meant to be a stopover before the real journey began in South Africa but the country had opened our eyes to parts of the world we had not considered before. For us, this is what real travel is about.