By Gary Tang & Scott Wittet
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of an article on a trip to Zimbabwe.
Smoke that thunders
The local name for Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning the smoke that thunders. Looking towards the falls at ground level, you see what looks like a vast wall of smoke, as if a forest fire was stretching across the horizon. But it’s only spray from the massive falls.
Visitors can view them from the Zambia or Zimbabwe sides (a bridge over the Zambezi River that connects the two countries), but the best view is from Zim, as the locals call it. Pay $30 at the entrance of the park (Zimbabwe uses American dollars, no need to convert!) and take your time checking out 16 dramatic viewpoints. Depending on the wind, you might stay dry or it may feel like you’re in a rainstorm. That can change from minute to minute, so you’ll want a slicker. Vendors rent them out at the park entrance, but usually your hotel can lend you what you’ll need. The next morning, we opted to pay $160 each for a 15-minute bird’s-eye view of the falls by helicopter. It was worth it!
Our base, about 40 minutes from Vic Falls town, is called Gorges Lodge. Perched on the edge of the Zambezi River gorge, 250 feet above the water, each of the eight bungalows has incredible views. Gorges has power all day and night, and wifi! The bungalows are strung along the edge of the gorge, with the lodge in the middle. So for us, staying in #1 (best view!), it was a five-minute walk through manicured gardens to breakfast or dinner. We spent two nights there.
If you visit Gorges, you’ll want to meet “Chicken,” manager Debbie’s pet guinea fowl. But don’t get too close to Debbie if Chicken is with her — he’ll chase you away (Debbie belongs to him). Chicken wandered into the compound as a babe, and has hung around ever since. Debbie informed us that when traveling any distance, Chicken prefers the car over walking.
During one of the evenings in Vic Falls, we booked a sunset cruise (raikane.com) on “Ra Ikane,” a ship named after David Livingstone’s guide. There are a lot of “booze cruises” out of Vic Falls (and from the Zambia side as well) that focus on partying. The Ra Ikane is more sedate, with an emphasis on nature. We were lucky to watch an elephant family crossing the river. The mom had to keep prodding her calf to move into deeper water, where only its trunk would break the surface, like a periscope. Again, too cute! We also saw crocs and a fascinating community of bee-eater birds, digging their tunnels deep into riverside sandbanks.
Blessed with lions
We booked one more Imvelo camp experience before heading home. This time, we headed upriver about 25 miles to Zambezi Sands River Camp, inside Zambezi National Park. The river is broad there, and except for a few whitewater sections, is calm. Kayaking with the hippos and crocs is one option, but we were looking for something more laid back. So one evening, our guide Clint, from the UK, set up four lawn chairs in his small motorboat and took us to visit a hippo family and enjoy the river at sunset (with all the required sundowner amenities, of course).
Zambezi Sands was our most elegant camp, even though we were once again living in canvas-sided tents. Our tent was palatial — two big rooms, an indoor bath with a claw foot bathtub, an outdoor bath with a shower, and a large deck with a plunge pool. As with Bomani, this booking was all-inclusive, so our tent had a mini-bar stocked with red and white wine, beer, soft drinks, and snacks at no extra charge.
An unexpected joy of camp life was hanging out with different sorts of people, not just the staff, but other guests. We would eat and do activities together, so there was lots of time to get to know one another. Some families traveled with young children, and an older, wheelchair-bound British man told us that he goes on safaris several times a year. At Zambezi Sands, we spent a lot of time with a mom, Anne, from Florida (a veterinary neurosurgeon) and her two 12-year-old boys.
We didn’t see any big cats in Hwange, but we got lucky at Zambezi. Blessed, our brilliant and fortuitously-named guide, who we all thought looked a bit like Denzel Washington, noticed feline tracks, and was on the prowl. Suddenly, we spotted them lounging on the road — five adult female lions, a young male, and two cubs. We moved as close as we could without spooking them, then sat and watched. Blessed warned us not to stand up or make any sudden movements, as that might make them too curious. Looking at the cats through my binoculars, they seemed to be right in my face. It elicited a primal response deep in my gut. I guess I’m prone to feeling anxious when a predator shows so much interest. Eventually the pack stood, stretched, and moseyed down the road. Very exciting!
After three nights at Zambezi Sands, it was nearly time to go home. We kicked ourselves for booking only 11 days; we definitely hadn’t had enough. Fortunately our last hotel, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge (victoria-falls-safari-lodge.com), also sits in a park, and we could observe a waterhole from our room.
That night, the four of us celebrated our successful safari with what we thought would be a splurge at the Palm Restaurant (ilalalodge.com/the-palm-restaurant) in Vic Falls town. The gourmet meal — in a lovely garden setting, with splendid service and wonderful food, presented elegantly — cost about what an average restaurant meal would be in Seattle. While the food at the lodges had been awesome, considering we were in the middle of the jungle, this was the one truly impressive and memorable meal of the trip. After all, our crocodile croquettes came fresh from the croc farm next door!
At breakfast the last day, we got lucky, bagging a view table over the waterhole. All morning, we were glued to the binoculars, trying to get last glimpses of whatever showed up — buffaloes, impalas, warthogs, crocs. Packing was slow for the same reason — I’d slip a couple of items into the bag, then see something new saunter up for a drink and it was back to the window. Finally, reluctantly, we hauled our bags to reception.
Back home, friends asked, “You’ve checked safaris off your bucket list, so what’s next?” Well, now that we know we love going on a safari, our list has expanded. There are other parks in Zimbabwe to explore, and other countries. Looks like we’ll be getting back in touch with Butterfly before long. Come to think of it, the last time she hinted at good values in Botswana…
Check out our short video on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=zvdifZEfloo) for a look at Vic Falls from the ground and from the air, the places we stayed, and the game we saw.
Gary Tang and Scott Wittet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.