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Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

When in the Okavango Delta …

February 27, 2011 4 comments

It's a tough life in the Okavango Delta!

 

Make sure you …

1. Take a flight from Kasane or Maun for a fantastic view of the Delta from above.
2. Hop in a mokoro (dug out canoe ride) ride: Xigera Camp is a great spot for this.
3. Swim in the thermal waters of the Okavango Delta.
4. Enjoy a sundowner on a deserted sandbar, enjoying the fantastic African sunset.
5. Get up close with the leopards around Tubu Tree Camp.
6. “Camp hop” – don’t just stay at one camp. 2-3 nights per camp is perfect. Combine a “grassland” and “water-based” camp for two very different experiences.
7. Spend a night in a hideaway, if you dare.
8. Enjoy a “bush brunch” of bacon and eggs in the middle of the Delta.
9. Talk to the staff and other guests. Part of the fun is sharing your experiences and hearing the “bush” stories, especially around the campfire enjoying the nocturnal bush sounds.
10. Take the chance to explore Southern Africa … you can combine the Okavango Delta with the sand dunes of Namibia, the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe & Zambia, the teak forests of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the vast elephant herds of Botswana’s Chobe National Park or the rugged beauty of the Cape area in South Africa. Wilderness Safaris have a great network of around 60 top-class, eco-friendly lodges and camps across Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and the Seychelles. Logistics and coordination can be tricky so it’s often best in Southern Africa to use a safari company to organize accommodation and transport.

From waterfalls to safaris

February 13, 2011 5 comments

Africa's "Four Corners"

From Victoria Falls, it’s surprisingly easy to get around to the neighboring countries so it makes a good base to start out on your Southern African adventure, or to finish off with. (If you choose to end your trip in Victoria Falls, it will probably strike you as a metropole if you’ve spent a few days out in the bush!)

Despite its political instability and shattered economy, Zimbabwe still has some good safari spots but you’ll need to move away from Victoria Falls to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant). Some say that the country’s wildlife has suffered from the poor shape of the economy which has led to increased poaching and more animals “emigrating” to the neighboring countries. However, it’s difficult to measure this and it depends who you talk to.

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest with 14,600 square kilometres of sandveld, forests (including teak), grasslands and saltpans, and, according to some tourists we met, is “awesome” (no need to guess where they were from!).

No internet, no cellphones, no traffic jams, no stress ... lost in the wilderness at Davison's Camp.

Wilderness Safaris has three luxurious eco-friendly camps in Hwange – Davison’s Camp, (named after the park’s founder and its first warden Ted Davison) is one of the best with its nine tents overlooking a waterhole. The six-tented and solar-powered Little Makalolo Camp offers great guided walking tours even though its concession boasts a healthy population of predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards and wild dogs. Makalola Plains Camp, slightly raised on teak platforms has a small bunker hide by the waterhole so you can watch animals drinking close-up. What’s nice with Wilderness is that even if their rates might seem pricey at a first glance, it’s worth every penny of it for the service and quality, and, most importantly you won’t be disappointed with the experience. It’s also nice to know that some of the hard-earned dollars you spend at Wilderness camps are reinvested in local projects, part of the company’s focus on sustainable and eco-friendly tourism. It’s refreshing in today’s money-hungry, commercial-driven society to know that some companies don’t just talk about their dedication to the environment and their “green” best practices to make it look good on paper, but actually proactively do something about it. In Hwange alone, Wilderness support the local anti-poaching, water supply and white rhino reintroduction projects.

A common road sign on the Victoria Falls-Kasane main road.

If you want to get a Botswana stamp on your passport, then the famous Chobe National Park, renowned for its large elephant population, is within an hour’s drive of Victoria Falls. It is considered to have one of the best concentrations of game in Africa, right up there alongside the likes of the Serengeti; it was also Botswana’s first national park. The road connection is good and the Kazangula customs post hassle-free. Visas for Botswana are free and are given at the border. Apparently the Botswanans are paranoid about foot and mouth disease as we have to walk across a manky wet mat to cross the border, while the trucks have to drive through murky-colored water. I wonder if this dirty water isn’t more dangerous than the slight risk of spreading foot and mouth disease.

This border crossing is an important trade route as there are lots of trucks lined up doing their paperwork – some nice sparkling Volvo ones from South Africa, a few MAN diesel ones from Namibia and a handful of battered rusty ones from Zimbabwe. This reminds me that Kasane is close to Africa’s “Four Corners” – the point where four countries meet – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It’s also a gateway to the Chobe National Park.

Kasane is also – along with Maun – one of the gateways to Botswana’s Okavango Delta where we, like other safari-hungry tourists, will board a small plane bound for the swamps of the delta.

Beckie, our chirpy and entertaining Zimbabwean driver, picks us up amazingly punctually at 7.45 a.m. at our hotel in Victoria Falls … too punctual as we expected a 7.45 pick up in Africa would give us about 15 more minutes to finish off our breakfast.

And here's the proof that there is "heavy" traffic along the way.

On the road to Kasane, which runs through a national park, we see quite a few local animals, including a male elephant in must sauntering along the roadside. At one point Beckie pulls over and picks up a chameleon which runs up his arm. “African people,” he laughs, “are afraid of chameleons as they think they bite.” Not this one.

Gecko's don't bite, contrary to African superstitions.

Hiding in the ditches at the side of the road are hornbills, or “oversized turkeys” he calls them, referring to their black and red neck plume. “We associate them [hornbills] with the rains. If you see them, it’s going to rain or get cold”. We almost crush a dung beetle rolling his massive ball of dung across the road and a troop of baboons who insist on sitting in the middle of the road. “In the morning they like to sit on the road to avoid the morning dew on the grass,” Beckie tells us, before we say goodbye to him at the border to Botswana.

Meeting the “locals” on the Zambezi

February 12, 2011 7 comments

Some of the Zambezi's "local" residents.

Whether you are a “first timer” to Africa, a back-packer, on a family vacation or on honeymoon, Victoria Falls caters for just about everyone. While elderly couples sip Afternoon Tea at Victoria Falls Hotel, families mingle at the Boma Restaurant, safari lovers hop around Mwange and Chobe national parks and adventure-junkies can enjoy white water rafting, helicopter and micro-light flights over the Falls and bungee jumping.

The Zambezi river cruise is well worth doing, regardless of your adrenalin-level. We go with a smaller local travel company which charges just USD 15 per person (bigger ones like Wild Horizons charge double the price) for a two-hour river cruise with drinks and canapés, transfer to and from the hotel and, if you’re lucky, a close-up encounter with hippos thrown in. All in all, in a place where the average tourist excursion will set you back at least USD 50, this is a bargain! The boat operators are creative with their cruises – you can choose a breakfast and sunrise, lunch, afternoon or sunset cruise so basically, they run all day.

The mighty Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa, running an impressive 3,540 kilometers from Zambia up to Angola before it empties into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. Besides an amazing supply of African birdlife, the Zambezi is home to many a crocodile and hippo.

We set off on our peculiar looking flat-bottomed river boat and within minutes have spotted the first crocodiles and a family of 12 hippos. Now, forget the idea of hippos being cute and cuddly, these grumpy buggers kill more people in Africa each year than any lion or crocodile. Usually, you’ll just spot their bulging eyes and massive jaws as they surface for air or if they’re hungry, you’ll see them standing on the banks with their massive a***s facing you on the banks. This time, however, we are treated to both views. Half the hippos bathe in the water, keeping a wary eye on us and opening their mouths to roar every so often in case we forget who’s the boss of the Zambezi. Hippos are highly territorial so stay out of their space, otherwise they won’t be impressed. One guy even reverses back into the bank to do his business, too lazy to get out. Several clamber ungracefully out of the water to munch on the grass close by before plunging his two-tonne frame back into the water again. It’s a rare sight to see them getting in and out of the water and we watch them spellbound for half an hour.

Zambezi river cruise: a tourist trap but well worth doing.

In case the hippos haven’t already realized we’re there, our on-board drummer and singer turns up the live music, probably to distract us from the rain which has started falling (it’s the rainy season but it’s still warm) but which we hardly notice.

Heading into our mooring slot, instead of us spotting the local wildlife, a smart Zambezi crocodile has spotted us and thinking he might get lucky if one of us is drunk enough to fall overboard, starts swimming at a marathon pace in our direction. Crocodiles like to “ambush” their prey in the water and can live for long periods without eating due to their slow metabolism. So, as long as we stay on the boat and he stays in the water, we’re not part of the food chain. Still, I wouldn’t fancy wandering around the banks after the sun sets.

A natural beauty: Victoria Falls

February 11, 2011 4 comments

One of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Perched on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls on the mighty Zambezi river, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and, considered to be the largest falls in the world at 1.7 kilometers long and 108 meters high. The “Smoke that Thunders” (as the impressive Victoria Falls are commonly known as), are breathtaking and definitely a must-see on any trip to Southern Africa.

The man himself: David Livingstone

The Victoria Falls were “discovered” by Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in 1855 but he was actually the first European to see the Falls, as archaeological findings in the area indicate that the area was inhabited by local tribes as far back as the Stone Age. Still, to give credit to Livingstone for “promoting” the falls to the outside world, there is an island and town named after him close to the Falls and a statue of the man himself stands in the Zimbabwean Victoria Falls National Park. Just to make sure, probably for diplomatic reasons, that he is not forgotten.

If you think that Victoria Falls is just about its magnificent waterfall, think again! The town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is a bustling touristic hub with colonial roots and a population of around 20,000 – not counting the masses of tourists which flock there each year.

I visited the Falls in 2005 when Zimbabwe’s economy was in dire straits. The hotel I stayed at ran out of orange juice, instead serving us tomato juice for breakfast, with a smile, a shrug and a very polite explanation “Sorry we’ve run out of orange juice and don’t know when we will have more”, a reference to the shortage of supplies in the country. Our taxi from the airport  ran out of petrol five kilometers from the hotel; petrol stations also lay empty….the Zim dollar was still accepted but tourists were advised to bring hard cash, preferably US dollars, with them but South African Rand and Euros were also welcomed with open arms.

Five years later, there is orange juice on the breakfast tables, everything is priced in US dollars and the billion and trillion-Zim-dollar notes are being sold off as “collector’s items”. Even the ATM machines are stocked with US dollars but demand far exceeds supply so by the late afternoon, all the cash machines in Victoria Falls are often empty. The hotels do take credit cards when they have to, but cash is still king. However even though the economy certainly seems in better shape than a few years ago, Zimbabwe is still Zimbabwe, and my profiteroles are filled with custard sauce instead of cream “we ran out of cream” smiles the waiter.

I have a “love hate” relationship with the town of Victoria Falls. On one hand, it’s doing its best to squeeze as much out of tourists as possible. Everything is focused on the tourist, sometimes turning things like an authentic African dinner with every kind of game meat imaginable (zebra, crocodile, impala to name but a few) into a themed African Disneyland-style event. I’m referring here to “The Boma restaurant” which is a lot of fun but also completely tacky and OTT with everything from drum-playing and local dancing to fortune tellers and face painters. But it is a great family event with plenty of interaction and, after a few drinks, you can’t help but start to enjoy it. An Indian guy from South Africa paid his one-dollar-fee twice to get his fortune told “I want to see if this guy is for real”, he explained. Afterwards, he admitted, “He only asked me questions. I told him ‘you’re the one who’s supposed to be answering them, not me! And he told me completely different things than the last time.” But he considered the dollar well spent as he had a good laugh.

Rush hour at Victoria Falls International Airport. The two daily flights from Jo'burg are perfectly timed to land at mid-day, at the peak of the local thunderstorms.

Getting a visa at the airport is also a circus, at times expensive, and at other times totally erratic. In 2005, I was told that I didn’t need a visa because of my Irish passport: “We like your country so you’re very welcome in ours”. This time around I discover that Ireland has been lumped together in the same category as the UK and I have to pay USD 75 for a double-entry visa, higher than any of the other EU countries. I try to explain that Ireland and the UK is not the same, but it’s pointless and I pay up.

On the other hand, as we touch down at Victoria Falls International Airport from Johannesburg, in the middle of a thunderstorm and are welcomed by a group of locals kitted out in leopard-print costumes, and I catch a whiff of the earthy air and eye the luscious greenery … I feel like I am really back in Africa. South Africa is South Africa, and beautiful and interesting in its own right, but Zimbabwe belongs to the “real” Africa. People in Zimbabwe, despite what they have been through, are mainly warm, hearty and hospitable. They’re also business-savvy but with their sense of charm and humor, they get away with it. Tourists may be seen as a cash cow, but they are also well respected and much appreciated.

Zimbabwe, Rhodesia as it was formerly known, was once the pearl of Southern Africa but in recent years has lost that crown. Drenched in colonial history, the Victoria Falls Bridge opened in 1905 connecting Victoria Falls town to Zambia. The area boomed economically and touristically for almost a century, thanks to its natural wonder and good transport connections, before Mugabe and his chums came along and decided to “change” things. Under the surface of the tacky shops and fast food chains in the town center today, traces of its colonial past still lurk. The exclusive Victoria Falls Hotel, “the grand old lady of the Falls”, built in 1904, boasts part of this history – many a royal family has stayed here and they still carry on some quaint traditions like Afternoon Tea.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge: A great safari lodge but without the safari.

While hotel rates on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls tend to be a bit lower than in neighboring Zambia, prices (especially at peak times) can be high. We stayed at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, just five minutes outside the town and ten minutes from the Falls, overlooking a waterhole. It was rainy season so there were just a few impalas and zebras grazing and drinking. The hotel attracts seasoned European safari-goers, “first timer” Americans in Africa, and South Africans on weekend breaks. The hotel is tastefully decorated in African style and comfortable with super-friendly staff who are extremely helpful and hospitable.

If you expect to see animals hopping around the hotel, don’t. There are some resident monkeys, the occasional spider and you sometimes spot a warthog (affectionately known as “the municipality lawnmowers” who graze and keep the grass short!). The locals like to tell tourists that it’s dangerous at night as wild animals like lions roam the streets, but I think this just adds a touch of drama and intrigue to the place … and creates a bit of extra revenue for the Falls taxi service! However, saying that, last week, there was an elephant rubbing his back against the traffic lights at the town’s main junction, so keep your eyes open!

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