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Pride of Zimbabwe

Cecil the Lion's Pride

Calvet Nkomo, our guide in Hwange, Zimbabwe, looks back at us, his brows furrowed as the dwindling remnants of sunlight drift across the plains of Imbiza, imbuing this almost prehistoric landscape with hues of pink and purple. “I can teach and train for years but some things…’’ Calvet pauses again, glancing over at the silhouette of a herd of elephants in the distance. ”Well, some things you just know and feel. They can’t be taught. You can’t Google the bush.’’

This is my first safari, the first opportunity I’ve had to really learn what an experienced guide has to offer, and I’m in total agreement. Four days into our trip and every evening I’m left thinking ‘’How can this possibly get any better?’’ Yet in the mornings I awake with a renewed sense of wonder, and every trip out into the bush somehow seems to top the last.

The next day, after a lazy morning in the gathering heat, a feverishly animated Calvet bounds into camp with a big announcement. “Lions!” We have a choice: afternoon tea, or head out to see the pride during the golden hour. It’s not a difficult decision. Without hesitation, the entire party leaps into the Land Cruiser, armed with our cameras. We had caught a glimpse of Bubesi, the new leader of of Cecil’s pride, the day before and now there is a rumour he is nearby. Bubesi has taken over much of the territory once dominated by Cecil, Hwange’s most famous lion until his untimely death at the hands of a trophy hunter in 2015.

Guides are an integral part of any safari experience. Often building up a store of knowledge over decades, there are few things they don’t know about the bush. As we pass another group watching a dazzle of zebras quench their thirst around a waterhole, I can’t help feeling a little smug. I know we’re in the right vehicle, with the best guide. Calvet, otherwise known as Hwange’s answer to Lewis Hamilton, is a dynamo behind the wheel. He realises time is of the essence and expects us not to mind the occasional bump.We swing down a narrow track lined with tall bushes and trees, ducking low-hanging branches. I hold on tightly, already accustomed to his unique style of driving.

Suddenly Calvet brings the jeep to a halt. “I smell them!” We look around carefully, but apart from a few overgrown bushes, nothing. Then, besides a termite mound, movement. ‘’Yebbo yes!’’ Calvet whispers excitedly. Half-standing with his arms raised at ninety degrees, he performs a little shimmy – what we fondly describe as the ‘Calvet Dance’. Just twenty metres away from us, a heap of lions sprawl untidily across each other, their fur swaying in the breeze and catching beams of golden light.

We’re now miles away from the nearest track, so I ask the obvious question: “How did you know they were here, Calvet?’’
“I just knew” he replies, with a smile in his eyes. No GPS. No tip-off. Pure instinct has brought us this amazing sight.

He brings the jeep around so we can get the perfect photo angle, then introduces us to each of Bubesi’s five lionesses and their cubs in turn. Several of them lethargically get to their feet and approach us, heads tilted upward, more inquisitive than menacing. Calvet assures us they have probably eaten already, so there’s no need to be alarmed. Nevertheless, he is completely alert. Slowly, the lionesses walk past the front of the jeep before laying back down on a grassier, shaded area to our right. The largest of them remains standing, stretching her jaw to give a pained, rumbling roar that carries across the plains. The emotion is obvious.

Calvet whispers “She is crying out for her son, Xanda. They don’t know where he is or what has happened to him.” She roars a second time, before slowly descending from the mound. We turn to each other, horrified that we are seeing first hand the cruel effects of hunting. Earlier this year Professor David Mcdonald, the director of WildCru, authored a government report on lion conservation and trophy hunting. Between 2003 and 2014 lion populations have declined by at least 42%. The stark figure keeps repeating itself in my head as we watch the pride.

After a few moments more of awe-struck silence, Calvet bounces up and down in his seat, grins and starts the ignition. Now on he adopts a relaxed cruising speed (for him anyway), veering onto a more established path towards Imbiza, before quickly tapping the brakes again. We gasp in unison as a herd of elephants appears as if from nowhere, striding directly across our path. As they approach, they part into two groups, passing along either side of the jeep. We gaze in amazement, and I can’t help but be reminded of the scene from Jurassic Park when the children watch from their vehicle as hundreds of dinosaurs casually stomp by. The elephants ignore us, but that does nothing for our feelings of vulnerability and humility.

Night is falling, and Calvet, one hand on the steering wheel, uses the other to shine a torch into the darkness. We jolt forward as he brakes sharply again. “Bubesi. He’s close. This way. I can feel it.” Thinking there is no way we’ll be able to find Bubesi when it’s this dark, I am quickly proved wrong by Calvet’s attuned instincts. Moments later the magnificent Bubesi stands between the headlights. We follow him slowly for five minutes, but not once does he turn back to look at us. He doesn’t need to make any allowances. This is his territory and he knows it.

Back at Somalisa Acacia camp, we stand near the waterhole, watching as reluctant elephant calves are ushered in by their mothers’ persistent trunks. They squeeze through between their larger, older siblings and frolic happily in the water, joyously blowing raspberries. The older elephants watch over them, slurping from the pool and glancing around regularly. They are quite aware that we are here, but they don’t need to make a show of strength to assert themselves. Each time they deeply breath out, their warm, earthy scent fills the air. We sit completely still, mesmerised as the darkness intensifies our hearing.

“Look over there,” whispers Calvet. In the shadows to our right, two leopards approach the waterhole, their stealthy, sleek forms brilliantly etched in the moonlight. Nocturnal animals, leopards are usually elusive. They’re also mostly solitary, so this is an incredibly rare experience. They stare straight across at our group for a moment, before slipping cautiously away back into the darkness.

Unexpected moments like this are the ones we treasure most. There is no commentary, no camera-clicking or lens zooming. Just silence. The majesty of the wildlife is deafening.

‘’Did you see the giraffes?’’ asks one of our party casually over coffee the next morning.
‘’When?!’’ I demand enthusiastically, jumping to my feet and gazing out towards the
waterhole. ‘’Just now? I can’t see them…’’
“About 10 minutes ago,” she replies. “They passed right by my tent.’’
It seems crude to think of safari as a checklist, but we’ve been treated to such a wealth of wildlife sightings over the last few days and I’ve been a little disappointed not to have seen giraffe yet. Perhaps I’m being greedy? But, Calvet, as excitable and generous as ever, springs into action. ‘’We’ll find them before you leave. Let’s take a walk into the bush’’

Single file we trek, eyes wide and eager. We see an elephant slowly making his way down to the waterhole for a drink. As we progress deeper into the trees, Calvet occasionally raises his hand in the air, signalling us to gather round. First to show us a patch of small insects, then to feel a velvety acacia pod – a favourite treat for elephants – then to point out some perfectly rounded giraffe scat. Still a little moist and warm, it gives us hope we are close. It isn’t even 7am, but the sun is beating down. Calvet calls another halt: ‘’I’ll call us a bush taxi’’. The group looks relieved to be escaping the heat, but disappointed the giraffe hunt is probably over. Calvet, however, grins at us as he radios back to camp. My spirits lift. He knows exactly where they are. Within minutes a Land Cruiser arrives. We pile in and assume our positions, and before long Calvet shouts from the front seat.

‘’Yebbo Yes! I see them, can you?’’ He’s no longer a young man, but Calvet’s eyesight is astonishing. He can make out tiny details from incredible distances. It is several minutes before anyone else catches sight of the giraffe. They emerge elegantly from the bush, the male considerably darker and taller than the four females accompanying him. A gangly juvenile follows. While our group is hushed by the serene spectacle, Calvet decides to test our wildlife knowledge.
‘’Do you know why their necks are so long?’’
A moment of thought. ‘’To reach for food?’’ the woman to my left suggests.
“No. It’s because their heads are so far away”.
Calvet’s guiding abilities are impeccable. His jokes are not.

Turning back to the giraffe, his eyes twinkle, and his mouth curves into a wide smile as though this is the first time he’s ever seen one. The almost-childlike enthusiasm is infectious. As adults, we often learn to guard our emotions, but the bush strips all such pretence. Calvet clearly lives for moments like these, and it’s a privilege to discover the bush through his eyes.

Seeing wildlife when on safari is never guaranteed but when you’re with a guide that knows the land and its inhabitants so well, the odds are always in your favour.

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Elephants – Worth more alive than dead

Whilst I am not an advocate of hunting, I can see a commercial argument for it in marginalised areas. However, I was nevertheless very disappointed to read yesterday that the Trump administration will allow American hunters to import elephant trophies to the US, reversing an Obama-era 2014 ban.

A US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the move will allow the two African countries – Zambia and Zimbabwe – to include US sport hunting as part of their management plans for the elephants and allow them to put “much-needed revenue back into conservation.”

Why am I disappointed if hunting can do good for conservation?

In part it is the hunters’ conceited theatrical rituals, the get-up and the vocab – similar to those displayed in hunting (for foxes) here in the UK. In spite of the overall disappointment with http://trophy.film/, there are parts of the film that are impossible to watch without fuming at the grotesque, pampered hunters who preen themselves over the animals’ corpses. I don’t see the difference between one national being allowed an elephant head on his or her wall but another national not being allowed to have an ivory carving on his or her mantlepiece.

But much more importantly, there is a better way. Photographic and conservation safaris https://www.steppestravel.com/south-africa-group-tour-rhino-conservation-project/overview As the below infographic shows, an elephant is worth much more alive than dead.

We are guardians of the planet and its wildlife for future generations.

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Clive Stockil: Gentle Giant in a Giant Park

Chilo Gorge, Gonarezhou

“What is your favourite animal?” Someone asked.

“Each one contributes to one another; we humans can learn from them.” Was the simple and honest answer given by Clive. He was sipping a beer quietly, while watching the sunset on his backyard – Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe.

Clive Stockil, a born-and-bred Zimbabwean, grew up in and around Gonarezhou National Park. His youth was spent camping in the park with his friends from the local community, learning both local languages – Shangaan and Ndebele – which were to become invaluable later on in his life.

Clive Stockil with members of local community

In the early 1980s, he was called upon by the government of newly independent Zimbabwe to be a mediator between the communities and the authorities. He was also made an honorary officer of the park.

During the bush wars of the late 1970s, the Gonarezhou National Park became a base for army troops; communities who lived in the park where forced out and poaching became rife. After the war ended, the communities wanted to move back; however, the government chose to prevent this and to try and save the park. They needed the help of someone who could communicate between all parties concerned.

It was then, under the shade of a tree in Mahenye Village, that Project CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) was born. Clive used his unique understanding of the area and its people to initiate change. He spent many years working with the local communities, fostering a healthy respect for the wildlife that lived on the land they shared.

Now, thanks also to the advice and financial support of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Gonarezhou is one of Africa’s success stories. In fact, elephant numbers are expanding at such a rate that there are too many for the park to cope with; there are now plans to relocate several thousand to neighbouring Mozambique.

Plans are also in place to reintroduce both black and white rhinos. For this to come to fruition, I am sure many more conversations will be had under the shade of the tree in Mahenye.  The success of Project CAMPFIRE means that this model has now become the blueprint across many countries in Africa, leading the way when it comes to the coexistence of rural communities and wildlife – for the benefit of both parties.

The Gonarezhou National Park in itself is rather special. Everything about this park is big – the baobabs, the elephants and the cliffs.  The spectacular Chilo Cliffs are formed from hundreds of thousands of years of silt deposits. At sunset, they look like a wonderful golden layer cake, just waiting to be sliced into.

The ecosystems of the park fold into one another with ease. The bird life is incredible, with some migrant birds flying as far as the northern corners of Russia to enjoy the summer in this magnificent area. The park is also home to lions and cheetahs, whilst elusive leopards and wild dogs have even be spotted.

Looking out over Gonarezhou

The elephants carry the scars of years of wars and poaching, but now – thanks to the work of Clive and his team – they are learning that vehicles are no longer a threat; they really don’t need to charge each time they see one. This is something that some of them are still coming to terms with, but that is a story for another day.

The 30 odd years of trials, failures and triumphs of Project CAMPFIRE are etched on Clive’s face, with each line a different story to tell. Yet this gentle man remains humble and quiet about the monumental role he has played in the success story that is Gonarezhou National Park. He is more excited to tell me that he saw a palm nut vulture that morning than to tell me about his knighthood from the French Government or the lifetime achievement award that he received from Prince William and the Tusk Trust.

As the sun dips over the horizon I raise my G&T to another spectacular day in Africa, with a quiet nod to Clive. He has learnt so much from the animals that he has spent his lifetime with; we are merely visitors to his backyard and could learn a lot from him.

Get in touch to learn more about our Zimbabwe holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Great Zimbabwe – Once a great city

Great-Zimbabwe,-Zimbabwe-Holidays

Great Zimbabwe was once a great city in the south-eastern hills of Zimbabwe near the town of Masvingo between the 11-14th centuries. Great Zimbabwe is also locally known as “Dzimba Dzamabwe” meaning the house of stone or stone buildings. This is where the name Zimbabwe derives from. Historical records show that the Shona people constructed Great Zimbabwe during the late Iron Age under King Munhumutapa.

The ruins of the two main geographical areas of stone wall enclosures are the Hill Complex which is on a long, steep-sided granite hill that rises 262 feet above the surrounding ground; and below this hill are the Valley and the Great Enclosure. The stonewalls which are 19.7 feet thick and 36 feet high, are built of granite blocks without the use of mortar. The building stone was obtained locally from the numerous large granite hills in the area.

There are many theories about who built this city but evidence consistently points to the Shona people. My ancestors, the Karanga are believed to have been part of the groups of people who were at Great Zimbabwe during its hay days.

Back then, the land offered many possibilities: plains of fertile soil to support farming and cattle ranching, mineral rich territories that provided gold, iron, copper, and tin for trading and crafting. It was a thriving city that attracted foreign traders from Europe and Asia.

I had a sense of belonging as I set off on my walk through the ruins of what was once a great state. Most of the walls are still standing which is quite impressive considering that the city’s collapsed in the 15th century. Women used to carry water on their head and walk up to the hilltop. This was a long walk and the people must have been very fit.

The great enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is considered the largest single ancient structure in sub-Sahara Africa. As children we were told stories about how that this area was for the queen and the rest of the king’s wives. The King, Munhumutapa, was believed to have had 200 wives. The conical tower was believed to be a place of worship for the Shona people. The citizens of the Munhumutapa Empire worshipped “Mwari” – meaning God. In the Shona culture,”Mwari”, was the highest deity and all people needed to go through a spirit medium in order to speak to “Mwari”. This custom is still being practiced and was even adopted by the Catholic missionaries. In the Catholic religion, worshippers go through Mary or the saints to speak to God. This made it easy for the missionaries to convert the Zimbabweans because they shared similarities practices. Many Shona people go to church on Sunday and on Saturday they still go and celebrate their ancestors.

The great Zimbabwe ruins are not only an ancient city but the place hosts a lot of ancient spirits that local people still consult. Great Zimbabwe is one of the places where they pay homage to the ancestors. Such a ceremony is called “bira” and it is usually done when there is full moon after 21:00pm. A goat is usually sacrificed and the blood is used to summon the spirits. The affair is not for the faint hearted. People dance till the early hours of the following day. The spirits respond to the call and reveal themselves through a medium who speaks on their behalf. It is a bit like going to the lady with a crystal ball and asking to speak to the dead relatives.

You could call it a myth but it is believed that there is an area in the King’s area at the hill top that European explorers tried to enter but kept on hearing terrifying voices that forced them to give up and to this day that area is closed to the public. My tour guide did not want to spend too much time in this area.

The King had a sister who acted as his advisor. She lived on the hilltop with the King including the soldiers and witchdoctors. It is very interesting that in those days a woman had a say in matters of the state. The woman is portrayed as a powerful and wise woman who never got an eligible bachelor to marry her.

It is rumoured that the King used to stand at the highest point and would call on one of his wives. He also sat on this peak and watched the wives going about with their daily duties. The Queen was also powerful in her own right. She was in charge of the initiation rituals for young girls going into womanhood and made sure that all women fulfilled their duties.

Back then there was a clear division of labour. Men did all the manual work such as cattle herding, farming and other heavy duties around the homestead whilst the wives only did the grinding of maize into flour, making child-bearing pottery, weaving baskets and looking after children. This has since changed in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the world. Women now do the same work as men and both sexes migrate to urban areas looking for paying jobs.

The Great Zimbabwe ruins are a reminder of what the Shona ancestors achieved. Their ingenuity is a real testimony that apart from the pyramids in Egypt, Africa did have wealthy cities that were once well managed. Great Zimbabwe is now a world heritage site and worth visiting.

Get in touch with me for more information on your Zimbabwe holiday with Steppes, call me on 01258 787 560 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Discover Zimbabwe

It’s hard to sum up Zimbabwe, especially its scenery, for it changes and inspires at every turn. In this beautiful country, the landscapes are dramatic, the people warm and the wildlife easily matches its neighbours.

Guiding is key on any holiday but especially on safari – Zimbabwe is home to some of the most qualified and best guides in Africa. Added to this it is currently great value for money.

Who would not like it?

Discover Zimbabwe with Steppes.

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On Kariba

At the most central point of southern Africa, where 5 countries converge, is a body of water which plays a larger role in the development of Africa than just a lake ever could. Lake Kariba is a vast expanse of freshwater – the largest artificial lake in the world yet it is surrounded by countries where drought kills humans and animals on an annual basis.

Visitors to the Southern countries will often fly over the lake and not realise its significance in shaping the countries they land in.

From the shoreline the petrified trees provide roosts for the cormorants as hippo bob around the trunks, a stark reminder of what lies beneath. At night the lights of the night fishermen carry across the rippled surface with a backdrop of the forest fires burning on the Zambian Escarpment.

Kariba has impacted humans from its inception in the 50’s to the present day. The 57,000 strong Batonga tribe were moved out of the Zambezi basin and the wildlife which couldn’t move out of the way of the rising waters were relocated by Operation Noah. It is estimated 7,000 animals were saved from the floodwaters including 44 rhino using rafts and It was a reflection of the dominance of colonial rule in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, that most of the rescued animals were relocated to the Zimbabwean side and most of the people, to the Zambian side.

The scale of the lake is Biblical – at over 140 miles long and 20 miles wide, the physical weight of the 200 billion tonnes of water has caused the earth’s crust to move creating earthquakes – all held back by a concrete wall….

The lake is effectively harvested in three different ways. The massive hydro-electric power station in the dam wall helps power both Zimbabwe and Zambia, Kapenta fish were successfully introduced and now support a healthy fishing industry and on the lake shore the displaced wildlife is photographed by the safari goers. So it provides power, food and money. Next time you are in the area, tip your hat to the lives it has taken and created as without it these 5 countries would all be very different places.

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Everybody hates a tourist

Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics are excellent to take out of context.

On my recent trip to Zimbabwe I was unsure of what to expect. The media excels on hatchet jobs and some places lend themselves to this treatment better than others. So it was time to travel with an open mind rather than harbouring any preconceived ideas of what might lie in store. In many ways this reminded me of some of my first forays in Africa and although back then I was naive and carrying my own rucksack rather than staying in wonderful camps and lodges, it took a different mind-set from simply turning up, taking some photos and then leaving again.

Surely the point of travelling is to experience the destination rather than superficially gliding through in a bubble and viewing everything through a camera? On these travels I frequently meet others who are approaching Africawith a tick-box mentality – they will say they have “Done Botswana” and “Namibia is next on the list”. What defines having “done” a country; is it simply having spent a day in Chobe as one particular couple had?

In many ways a tourist is a net exporter of experience in return for cash, whereas a traveller gets under the skin of the country, learns the culture, makes friends and asks questions that start with “why” rather than “what”. The overall experience for a traveller is rewarding rather than expensive.

It is important to remember that most people on the ground working in the tourism industry do so because first and foremost they are passionate about their country; its landscapes and wildlife and they are keen to meet people from all round the world and share experiences. The fact that our money often goes further than the local currency should not be seen as awkward so long as that money goes into supporting community projects and work on the ground rather than to some faceless emotive charity. At Steppes Travel we work with projects in each of the countries around the world that we visit and try to make a real difference. By doing this we get more out of our experiences and so do the locals.

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Six feet under in Suicide Month

I am standing in a shipping container that has been sunk into the ground. A hinged metal window cracks open at ground level to reveal a view of the waterhole. It is cool in here in my metal tomb, outside the heat haze is warping the air from the ground up. The temperature is holding to a solid 45 degrees.

A snapshot would have most people guessing at the Kalahari, white sand drifts on the katabatic winds, banking against dead twisted tree stumps, scorched by fire and snapped by the desperate elephants.

In the midst of this wasteland is a rhythmic tocking noise carried in waves from a small scrubby bush, emanating from an ancient lister engine, this is the only sound apart from the buzz of silence and the wind. Squinting against the white light you can make out the vague form of the pump, forcing water to the surface in cool bubbles where it flows into a large depression. These man-made waterholes are the lifeblood of this arid region not just for the elephants which arrive in excited groups steadily throughout the late afternoon, but also for the local village. The preferred holes draw as many as 800 elephants through a day. From my position at ground level I am within 5 feet of these giants.

Elephants are large, this is not a revelation but seeing elephants without the security of a vehicle makes them feel larger than ever before, magnify that experience so you are getting a dung beetles view of these lumbering goliaths at a distance of a yard and you suddenly become aware of your heart beating and controlling your breathing.

Hwange in October is a paradox. This is a man-made environment and without the waterholes supporting the elephants their huge population would crash. Dead elephants are bad PR for a country that needs all the positive news it can get. The logic untangles though when that same huge population is destroying the natural environment. For miles the trees that are left are splintered off to a height of no more than five feet. The elephants destroy the trees to sate their enormous hunger and ineffective digestion system. Until the rains break and the grass regrows we have a deadlock.

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Zimbabwe – a destination on the move

2012 has bought with it a great deal of hype surrounding the increased interest in travel to Zimbabwe. The new found confidence in the country as a tourist destination is not only being felt on an international level but locally many operators are also undergoing refurbishments as well as adding new developments to their portfolio of Lodges and Camps.

One thing that is certain is this destination is on the move and now is the time to travel…!

Having received in-depth coverage in magazines such as Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Africa Magazine, the international debate regarding whether it is ‘Time to go back’ is on everyone’s lips. The recent Indaba Trade Show in Durban, South Africa was pivotal in proving that the hype is indeed real. Although many felt the show was relatively quiet in comparison to other years, almost every attendee commented on how the SADC Hall and in particular the Zimbabwe stands were a hive of activity throughout.

We got in touch with Beks Ndlovu from African Bush Camps to find out what the all the hype was about. “As a Destination, Zimbabwe has a great deal to offer to any traveller interested in an exceptional safari experience,” commented Beks, “Not only does Zimbabwe compete on price in comparison to other bordering countries, but from its diverse and relatively untouched landscapes, vegetation and wildlife to the friendly and welcoming spirit of a people eager to please and share their passion for their country, there is no doubt that Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans will go the extra mile to make your holiday the most memorable experience available today.”

African Bush Camps have a portfolio of camps in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Their camps in Zimbabwe include Somalisa Camp and Somalisa Acacia in Hwange National Park, and Kanga Camp and Zambezi Life Styles in Mana Pools.

Whilst the crowds continue to follow the beaten paths of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Namibia, some more adventurous souls are breaking away and trying a new route… setting out to explore the relatively untouched wilderness paradise of Zimbabwe. Why not join them before it becomes too late.

For more information about your holiday to Zimbabwe, please contact Jackie, our Zimbabwe specialist on 01285 650 011.

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Victoria Falls – the adrenalin capital of Africa

Victoria Falls is one of the natural wonders of the world, lying between Zambia and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa.

My father was in the police force and so when we were growing up we moved around Zimbabwe quite a lot, giving me the advantage of exploring some exciting areas including Victoria Falls.

About 10 years ago Zimbabwe was facing a number of problems, but for the past 2 years we have seen Victoria Falls resurfacing. There is a lot of activity occurring in Victoria Falls, hotels and lodges are being refurbished, tourists are flocking from all over the world and with a number of airlines flying in daily the Falls have never been easier to reach.

My holidays were spent visiting Victoria Falls, canoeing the Upper Zambezi National Park and rafting the Zambezi River. I also explored the Falls in a helicopter and an ultraflight. Nothing compares to seeing these magnificent waters as a whole, by air – the sheer volume of water is staggering and makes for a truly dramatic scene set against the African landscape.

One of my favourite experiences was when I did my first rafting trip in the 90s. I remember my mother contacting me early in the morning just before I was picked up for the rafting trip. She sounded very apprehensive that I was doing something that she thought was so dangerous, but I was too excited not to do it. The ride was so exhilarating and the noise of the ‘smoke that thunders’ only added to the thrill. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do it all again and took my husband and did it for the second time. In fact I loved the whole experience so much that I have since taken my 3 teenage children to Victoria Falls and they had a fantastic time too.

David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, is believed to have been the first European to view Victoria Falls. He named it in honour of his Queen and called them ‘ The Victoria Falls’. The falls are just over 1 mile wide and 355 feet high and during the wet season over 500 million litres of water flows over the edge into the Zambezi River. This incredible amount of water generates a huge amount of spray which shoots nearly 1,000 feet into the sky and can be seen 25 miles away; this is where the name Mosi-oa-Tunya (Smoke that thunders) derives.

The Victoria Falls can be visited all year round, with July to September being the best time to see them. October to November is usually the driest and least impressive period on the Zambian side. Zimbabwe has two thirds of the Falls and so during the dry season one should visit the Zimbabwean side, or be prepared to travel for a few hours from the Zambian side.

Victoria Falls and Livingstone are the perfect hub to connect to Hwange National Park, Botswana parks, Zambezi National Park, South Luangwa National Park, Lower Zambezi National Park, Kruger National park and other South African places of interest.

There is so much to do and you can easily spend five to 7 nights in this area. Activities include white water rafting, canoeing, helicopter flights, boat cruises, elephant back safaris and more.

Please take a look at our journey ideas for Zambia and Zimbabwe for a taste of what we could arrange for you. If you would like any further information on your African holiday please contact our Africa specialists on 01285 650 011.

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The Warm Heart of Africa

I have just returned yesterday from the most fantastic holiday journey around Malawi and Zambia and I’m pleased to report that both countries are just as friendly, warm and beautiful as ever. What a combination of countries – I don’t think you can beat it and there really is something for everyone, whether it’s a first time visit to Africa or someone who has been to Africa on safari many times and is looking for something really different, and something “real”.

I first visited Malawi as a backpacker in 1994 and out of all the countries I have travelled around in Africa I can still safely say that nothing much has changed here and it has not been disturbed by too much concrete and development which is not often the case when revisiting much loved places these days. I also worked in the remote island location of Kaya Mawa in the north of the lake on Likoma Island in 2006 and I got the chance to see a bit more of Malawi then which was great.

Having revisited in the last two weeks the island is as friendly and relaxed as ever and I can whole heartedly recommend it to any beach lover. There are not many places in Africa where you can go off on your own on a quad bike, mountain bike or just on foot to go and explore an island and meet some of the local fishermen and their families who are so welcoming and smiley. It’s not called the Warm Heart of Africa for nothing. And the Flintstones-style rooms have been refurbed to the highest degree offering much more space and direct access to the lake.

The Lake is just the most wonderful place for anyone whether young, old or honeymooners – likewise for those wanting to completely relax on holiday or for those bursting to do lots of fun activities! But I do also feel that it is very important as a great family destination – and a gentle place to perhaps introduce young ones to the joys of the underwater world whether just snorkelling through the lovely crystal clear fresh water or trying their hand at diving.

The water visibility is just so clear and there is always some point in the day when the water is as flat as a pancake and just completely inviting… somewhat more so than jumping off the side of a boat in the ocean to swallow salty water and feel slightly overwhelmed on a first time dip into the underwater activities! No sharks or sea urchins to worry about here and I had never really appreciated the difference in snorkelling in fresh water as opposed to salt water, it is much easier and more pleasant for learners in particular!

I also managed to do some wonderful safari in Malawi too – I visited the wonderful new Robin Pope Safaris Mkulumadzi Camp in the Majete Wildlife Reserve and see how that is shaping up and it was just stunning looking over the river in total luxury!

We saw plenty of elephants from the hide having our sundowner and there is a good chance of seeing rhino too – and they had just had two leopard reintroduced from the Kruger National Park so an exciting development there. At the well established Mvuu Lodge in the Liwonde National Park as well, we had great hippo and elephant sightings by boat particularly (100 crossing the river at one stage) and it is a birder’s paradise.

There were more properties that I had the pleasure of visiting in Malawi too and it was certainly all very active with lots of kayaking, swimming, walking, biking, numerous village and project visits and a great chance to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Zambia was just as impressive and raw as ever – having worked in the South Luangwa National Park it was great to revisit and to get straight out in to the deep bush camps of Norman Carr Safaris where the focus in on walking. We stayed in three very different camps here and the reeded rooms made a welcome change from being in a tent and allowed a lovely breeze on some very hot October nights.

The wildlife experience is just as thrilling as ever here and we did not see a single other car or tourist for a few days which is pretty impressive in any African National Park, let alone one where the game is so good – we were miles away from the main gate which is somewhere where you can see a few more cars. The carmine bee eaters were busy in their bankside colonies and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing a lion on foot – luckily a safe enough distance away to not feel threatened! Again, elephants everywhere.

We ended with possibly the thing I’m most proud of – I managed to get myself into the Devil’s Pool on the very edge of Vic Falls on Livingstone Island. No mean feat for someone who suffers from paralysing vertigo and had anxiously studied all the You Tube clips in advance! But I was not going to miss out on this and it was the perfect time of year to do it as the Falls are relatively low at the end of the dry season so how could I refuse. It is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and one that I would recommend to anyone! The guides on Livingstone island were just fantastic and have been there for many years standing on the edge of the pool, centimetres from the edge of the Falls taking photos of us thrill seekers and I felt 100% secure with them.

Whilst the area is busy due to the mighty Falls and the many adrenalin activities related to them, you can still get away from the crowds and justify a good few nights in the area whether you go for an intimate island experience at Sindabezi or a trip into the area’s fascinating history at The River Club where the owner Peter Jones will educate you in such a fun and interesting way with stories from the past.

Amongst other things, we had lovely sundowners on the river in the evening where we saw buffalo, kudu, many birds, hippos, crocodiles on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi and alfresco eating all the way and there are so many activities on offer in the area that I felt I needed a week there alone. I came to the conclusion that if you were short on time for a holiday to Africa you could actually just go there for a week’s half-term or something as you can do day trips into Botswana’s Chobe National Park, or game drives into Mosi Oa Tunya Natioanal Park for your game fix and then there are all these other activities on offer too. Do a few nights at The River Club and then a few nights at Sindabezi Island and mix it all up a bit.

I could go on and on, but please do call me if you think that you might want more information on either country – you can’t fail to enjoy a trip to either country. Fantastic guiding and hosting all the way through it and the most wonderful chance to interact with the friendly locals.

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A New Dawn

I fell asleep to the reassuring rumbles, splashes and moonlight silhouettes of the herd of elephants which had gathered at the waterhole in front of our lodge. Much of the early evening was spent watching the ‘great, grey, gentle giants of Africa’ making their way towards the waterhole. Their steady, lumbering gait often gained a comical pace just before they reached the water, as if the smell of the cool refreshment was all too much. This moonlit scenario was made all the more tangible by the smell of dust, which for me, is the unmistakable smell of Africa.

My sense of smell was, however, in for a very rude awakening, and not from the largest of animals which one would associate with such an overpowering smell, but from the innocent looking ants which we had stopped to look at on our morning walk. Ants use formic acid to kill their prey and to ward off attackers and trust me, it’s pretty potent! Perhaps it was this incident which lulled me into a sense of relaxed enjoyment?

Walking in the African bush is much like a ghost train ride at the funfair, except here, it’s the smallest of things which fascinate, amuse and manage to make your blood run cold…like the small, but unmistakeable amber eyes of a lioness just visible through a nearby bush.

On my return walk back to the lodge after my encounter – the bushes were of far more interest and I was most certainly awake, pumped with adrenalin.

Mandy stayed at The Hide in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, to find out more about Mandy’s travels or to ask her advice when planning your holiday to Zimbabwe please contact her on 01285 650 011.

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A day in Africa

I fell asleep to the reassuring rumbles, splashes and moonlight silhouettes of the herd of elephants which had gathered at the waterhole in front of the lodge. Much of the early evening was spent watching the ‘great, grey, gentle giants of Africa’ making their way towards the waterhole.

Their steady, lumbering gait often gained a comical pace just before they reached the water, as if the smell of the cool refreshment was all too much. This moonlit scenario was made all the more tangible by the smell of dust, which for me, is the unmistakable smell of Africa.

My sense of smell was, however, in for a very rude awakening, and not from the largest of animals which one would associate with such an overpowering smell, but from the innocent looking ants which we had stopped to look at on our morning walk. Ants use formic acid to kill their prey and to ward off attackers and trust me, it’s pretty potent! Perhaps it was this incident which lulled me into a sense of relaxed enjoyment?

Walking in the African bush is much like a ghost train ride at the funfair, except here, it’s the smallest of things which fascinate, amuse and manage to make your blood run cold…like the small, but unmistakable amber eyes of a lioness just visible through a nearby bush. Bushes are not my main focus on a walk, rather the birds, termite mounds and animal tracks, but I can assure you that they were of great interest on the return walk to the lodge! Not only was my adrenalin pumping with relief, but I was also most certainly awake!

*Mandy stayed at The Hide in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.*

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Has there ever been a better time to visit Zimbabwe?

I doubt it, not if the reports we are getting from our partners in Zimbabwe are anything to go by.

So why are things looking positive again for the country that went from being the bread basket of Africa to the basket case of Africa?

Most importantly, the economy has been dollarised which means the ‘fifty trillion’ dollar bills that were recently in circulation are now only good for scrapbooks as a reminder of an economy that was previously in freefall but is now stable. At a meeting with a lodge owner recently he commented: “Everybody is happy because you go to bed with a dollar in your pocket and when you wake up in the morning it is still worth the same!” The shops are full of produce, lodges are open for business and there is a real sense of positive anticipation on the ground especially as Morgan Tsvangorai is now urging travellers to visit Zimbabwe to see the progress that has been made.

By sending clients to Zimbabwe are we inadvertently feathering Mugabe’s nest? As a tour operator, this is the question that bothered me most but I am pleased to say this is not the case. Lodges and ground handlers in Zimbabwe are mainly privately owned and not linked to the government. Yes, taxes will be generated but the money being spent is going straight into the private sector which in turn provides jobs for local people and stimulates the economy as a whole.

Zimbabwe is renowned for having the best guides in Africa. Intelligent and perceptive in the field by day, engaging and witty around the camp fire at night time, Zimbabwean guides are proud professionals with knowledge and passion in equal measure. A safari in Zimbabwe led by African’s finest guides is both educational and inspiring and recent reports of game sightings are all very positive with large herds of elephant and giraffe being seen in Zambezi National Park and leopard, cheetah and lion all being spotted in Hwange.

Steppes Discovery has put together a Journey Idea that incorporates Victoria Falls, Zambezi National Park and Hwange National Park. As well as game drives and game walks, Discovery clients get to join the Victoria Falls Anti Poaching Unit for a morning and gain fascinating insight into the crucial work being undertaken to preserve Zimbabwe’s diverse fauna and in so doing contribute to the overall recovery of this beautiful country.