From elephant trespassers to The Lion King singalongs, Jennifer Morris takes on a long weekend safari in Zimbabwe and Botswana.
“You can’t go back to your suite right now, Miss Morris,” says Jarryd, the lodge manager. I stare at him wondering if he’s joking. After a full day’s safari and an evening sipping Amarula (an African cream liqueur), I’m ready for bed. “I’m afraid there’s an elephant drinking from your plunge pool,” Jarryd explains, now wearing a huge grin.
I follow him out of the bar to the path linking the eight luxury suites at Africa Albida Tourism’s Ngoma Safari Lodge in Chobe national park, Botswana, and indeed an “elie” is nonchalantly grazing in the garden leading to my door while four others stroll around the vicinity.
Jarryd and the security guards shoo them away by torchlight and before I know it I am tucked up in my huge bed, curtains wide open in the hope of waking to the sight of a giraffe strolling down to the water hole for a morning drink.
Our long weekend safari begins two days earlier in Zimbabwe after we have flown from Heathrow to Johannesburg and onward to Victoria Falls airport, which officially opened a month after our October 2016 trip, celebrating a new potential annual capacity of 1.5 million passengers.
The view from my balcony at Victoria Falls Safari Club is everything I had hoped for. Beyond a nearby water hole alive with animal activity, all I can see is orange for miles – a dark patch on the horizon giving away a small herd elephants. If your clients prefer lusher surroundings, they can be assured that each year the rains will come and transform the landscape. But there’s something quite beautiful about this calm before the storms.
The tempo picks up later that day when guide and conservationist Charles drives us down to the hide. It’s all pretty light-hearted as baboons chase each other around and comedy warthogs shove their noses in our faces, until Charles presses that we “absolutely cannot come down here unescorted” and it sinks in that we really are in the wilderness. But we get back to the lodge unscathed and happily eat a dinner of flame-grilled warthog and stir-fried crocodile at the MaKuwa-Kuwa Restaurant, glancing into the distance as the odd hyena cackle breaks the silence.
Encounters with the kings of the jungle are yet to come.
“A year’s worth of New York’s water flows over the falls in three days,” guide Zulu tells us as we walk around Victoria Falls, before informing us that we’re on the wrong side of the river to swim in the Devil’s Pool.
“Such a shame,” I lie, still shaky after a morning’s zip lining over the Zambezi ($53 for the Wild Horizons Canopy Tour, and commissionable).
That evening, we’re downstream on a Wild Horizons luxury cruise, watching the sun set on a trio of elephants taking an evening swim ($73.50). You can go from thrill-seeking one minute to cocktail sipping the next here.
The next morning we’re up early for a Bonisair helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. At $150 for 15 minutes, it’s significantly cheaper than equivalents in other destinations and the views are unmissable. We are in dry season, and while the falls will be fuller when the rains come, the gaping fracture in the earth makes closet geographers like me embarrassingly excited.
Soon we’re back on solid ground and speeding through the savannah towards the border with Botswana and our next lodgings. Stepping off the bus into the reception of Ngoma, the views reach new heights.
In the green season, the Chobe River would be thundering through the valley, but now zebra graze on the extensive grasslands. A giraffe and its calf make their way to the water hole beyond and I’m not ashamed to say The Lion King’s Circle of Life pops into my head.
After lunch, we’re finally out in the national park on safari. Here in Chobe, elephants and giraffes seem as commonplace as foxes and squirrels in the UK and I enjoy just watching them, leaving the camera aside.
“It’s a dazzle of zebras, a wake of vultures and a tower of giraffes,” explains our guide, Johane, as he drives us past a swooping fish eagle. “And impalas – we call them the McDonalds of the bush,” he says, laughing. Next he points out a red-billed hornbill.
“That’s the Zazu bird,” he explains, as we pull over for sundowners.
Later that night I watch a clip from The Lion King on YouTube, watching the cartoon versions of creatures we’re sure to see the next day with butterflies in my stomach.
With just one full day left to try to spot the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino), Johane means business.
Chugging along the Chobe River in a small boat, a sudden stench fills the air as we spot a dead elephant on the bank. But our sadness soon turns to excitement as a lioness trots out from behind it and then vanishes.
Before long, we’re back in the car headed towards the unfortunate elephant and hopefully more lions.
As we eat our picnic with Johane (in a safe spot), he tells me: “Botswana is particularly environmentally friendly. It banned hunting. At one point, the national park sent two elephants to Lesotho, but they found their way back here within three months.”
The next morning he takes us to his home village, Mabele, where we meet his little girl after a tour of the primary school. Driving back to the lodge to make our flight transfer, I let the hot, dusty air blow in my face and prepare my answer for anyone asking whether four days is enough to have a meaningful safari experience. Yes.
Book it: The Long Weekend Safari package starts from £1,327pp based on two people sharing until April 2017.
The price includes a one-night B&B stay at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and two nights all-inclusive at Ngoma Safari Lodge, a sunset cruise on the Zambezi Explorer, the Boma Dinner & Drum Show, a guided tour of Victoria Falls (excludes national park fees) and all road transfers.
Discover Safari’s owner and founder of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit
WHY SHOULD TRAVELLERS CHOOSE ZIMBABWE FOR THEIR SAFARI?
Zimbabwe offers some of the best national parks in Africa, including several World Heritage Sites. These wild areas give visitors a fantastic opportunity to encounter mammal and bird species, often exclusively. Victoria Falls is one of the Natural Wonders of the World and has been kept as unspoilt as possible. Zimbabwe is also rich in culture and history and has a great tourism infrastructure with some of the best safari guides in Africa.
WHAT TYPE OF SAFARI WOULD YOU RECOMMEND FOR A FIRST-TIMER?
Here, the client has the opportunity to walk in the African bush with a professional guide as well as game drive safaris and hide sits – each a unique experience.
WHY DID YOU ESTABLISH THE VICTORIA FALLS ANTIPOACHING UNIT IN 1999?
I saw the need to assist the national parks and wildlife authority in their endeavours to combat poaching through private sector assistance. Now we all work together for a common cause and it has been very successful.