Wildlife, Sunsets and Sundowners
As we ended our Madagascar safari and headed on to our adventure in Zimbabwe, we said goodbye to our Malagasy guide, Marc, and maneuvered a chaotic Antananarivo airport - fair warning to anyone who will go through departure there - be certain to allow plenty of time before your flight and “Keep Calm and Keep Smiling”!
After our pleasant and uneventful 3 hour non-stop SAA flight, we landed once again at the Johannesburg airport. Fortunately this time, NWS was in charge and we were met by the wonderful driver, Natasha, whom Arabella had arranged for us. After being in the rainforest for days, everything seemed to be moving a bit too fast. She seemed genuinely glad to meet us and took the time to while driving to the hotel, to make certain that we were feeling well and knew what the schedule would be for the next morning’s flight. Amazingly she even made certain that we were all taking anti-malarial medication and then asked if anyone had a headache...Fred and I both had splitting ones...she told us to be vigilant about avoiding dehydration while on the medication...something that our primary care physician had failed to mention or we had failed to hear. Three large glasses of water with a light dinner later, and our headaches had blissfully disappeared and we were off to a great night’s sleep and dreams of the upcoming second half of our adventure in Zimbabwe.
Our first and only previous trip to Africa had been in 2009. That was to Kenya and Tanzania we had been incredibly fortunate to have seen the "Big Five" during our 10 day stay. After taking the time to ask us about that first trip, Arabella suggested that for this trip, we consider doing something "very different" from that earlier, exceptional experience. We liked her suggestion, and left it up to her to suggest several locations that we could think about and discuss. Budget and time, in that order, were important considerations for us. Arabella’s patience with us seemed limitless what seemed like, 20 or 30 “back and forths” for the reworking of locations and time at each, took place before our group of four, finally decided what we most wanted to do for our budget and time. Our final decision was Zimbabwe and we had no regrets and no disappointments.
Up early for breakfast and preparation for Natasha to pick us up for transfer to the airport and our flight to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Upon arrival in Bulawayo, we were treated to a customs experience that was very reminiscent of a scene that could have been out of the vintage movie “Casablanca” long lines, many serious faces, and tons of rubber stamping action when we finally reached one of the official’s stations. For a bit, it almost seemed to be taking place on black and white film. But, even though it went slowly, it was refreshing “organization” compared to Antananarivo!
Moving through the exit we were excited to meet, as we jokingly called our “handler” and more seriously knew would be another wonderful NWS guide. We exited the doors and suddenly saw a reassuring sigh a welcome sign with our names, Tawandah, our guide for the next segment of our trip was holding it. This lovely, soft spoken man was waiting to introduce himself and his country to us. It was a welcome beginning to Zimbabwe. Bags were sorted, loaded and we were off for an exciting 45 minute drive to Big Cave Camp in Matobo National Park.
When we arrived it actually felt like we had landed on another planet. It would be very difficult to describe the amazing rock formations that Matobo Hills is known for it was like nothing else on earth that our group of four had ever seen. Starting with the fact that only a four wheel drive vehicle was capable of driving up the steep boulder field that the lodge is built on. We knew that we were staying at a strangely beautiful place.
We were checked in and taken to our rooms individual "chalets" built into the boulders. Ours was beautiful, with a balcony that overlooked a beautiful valley. During the mornings and afternoons, we loved seeing the colourful lizards that basked in the sun and the Rock Dassie families and occasional Mongoose that scurried over the rocks below our balcony at night, we sat on our balcony and enjoyed the cool crisp air and the clear sky filled with billions of stars.
To our disbelief, we were the only guests at this beautiful place for our entire stay. We were treated like royalty but "family" royalty. Every meal was enjoyed at a huge family table in the lodge’s great room. We dined with the staff and our guide at every meal. The food was exceptionally good, thoughtfully prepared and presented.
Late afternoon, we went for a game drive near the lodge and enjoyed sundowners that first evening on top of Lightning Rock the climb was “big” but the reward was big also an incredible sunset, wine and another wonderful memory made with good friends.
Today, we had a game tracking experience here like none other we have had or probably will ever have again a rhino trek, on foot. Tawanda and two rangers from Matopo National Park led us, on an amazing adventure--tracking white rhinos. After checking in with the park entrance, two rangers, jumped into the vehicle with us and directed Tawanda to a location where a rhino had been spotted earlier in the morning. We all jumped out and took off at a fast pace, trying to keep up with our rangers and guide. At one point, we all realized that this was either the most amazing thing that we’d ever done or the craziest! A few minutes later, the guide suddenly stopped and motioned us to stop. We saw trees moving and all agreed that we actually did feel the ground shaking. In front of us, in the heavy tree cover, was a bull rhino larger than a city bus. None of us realized how huge rhinos were. Standing there in awe, I had a ridiculous plan run through my mind as to what I would do, should the bull charge. I thought that I remembered watching a documentary that said that rhinos do not have sharp eyesight. Thus, my plan was to drop and roll into the tall grasses and pray that I didn’t become prey! Luckily, the bull moved on in a different direction than ours so my plan never had to be put into action. Later, after Tawanda pointed out the track of one of Zimbabwe’s most poisonous snakes the black mamba, on the trail we had been walking on... the “flaw” in my escape plan became obvious... my luck, should I have needed to implement the manoeuvre I would have landed on the black mamba and then... well, I won’t go there.
We were disappointed that the big bull rhino had never fully emerged from the heavy tree cover so photos had been impossible. What we didn’t realize, was that the trek had just begun. After dropping off our first two rangers, we drove to another location in the park where we were joined by two others. We drove a short distance, parked and followed the rangers who had jumped from the 4X4 and “encouraged us” to keep up! After roughly 30 to 45 minutes of walking through very tall grass it happened!
We were standing within a third of a football field's length of a huge bull rhino and his five females sleeping peacefully under a grove of acacia trees.
We were speechless and spent an incredible 20 minutes or so photographing this amazing sight. The bull finally stood and he and the females began to move on and, we did also, never to forget this awesome experience.
After lunch we headed to an area where we could see a portion of the ancient cave paintings in the area. When we reached our destination, Tawanda told us that he had selected this location for us because it was one of the “easiest to access”. After a 30 minute hike with some very difficult hand over foot climbing at a 60 degree incline in places, we arrived very glad that we had “survived” to see this ancient work of art. The climb down was “a piece of cake” compared to the climb up.
We hurried on to begin our last hike of the day up to World’s View to celebrate another beautiful day with sundowners and another magnificent sunset at what really did seem like the “Top of the World”.
Up early, packing, breakfast and a last walk around the area surrounding Big Cave Camp. From our individual experience, we can't recommend Matobo Hills for game viewing other than the rhino trek but we can highly recommend it for that amazing experience, the exquisite cave paintings, the breathtaking beauty of the area and Big Cave Camp and the wonderful people there who made our stay so memorable.
We said our goodbyes to the staff at Big Cave and our wonderful guide, Tawanda and anticipated another “first” that Arabella and NWS had arranged for us--travelling to our next stop, Hwange National Park, via what we had been told would be a small charter aircraft. We were met by Adam, our pilot and boarded an absolutely beautiful new, 12-seater airplane on which, we were the only passengers! We were beginning to really, really, like this royal treatment! The flight was smooth and our excitement grew when Adam told us that we would be landing in a few minutes. As he circled the small landing strip cleared out of the forest...we saw a giraffe walking below us on the landing strip and a secretary bird, seemingly unfazed by our plane’s approach. Landing smooth giraffe safe secretary bird still unfazed by our presence. We were met by a camp guide who gladly agreed to take our photos next to “our private plane” and then a very short drive to our home for the next three days Somalisa Camp. We arrived and were introduced to Denzel, Somalisa’s manager, the staff, and Peter our guide for our stay. While getting paperwork/check-in sorted out, Denzel clapped his hands and said that he had exciting news and that luggage and rooms could wait until we “got back from an adventure”. Peter, Denzel, our pilot who would be staying the night and the four of us jumped into a camp vehicle and headed out. Not three minutes later, within sight of our camp we saw our surprise, cheetahs.
A mother cheetah and her three adolescent daughters had returned to Somalisa after not being seen for several weeks. We followed them, watching the sunset.
It was magical! They stopped to drink at a waterhole directly behind our main dining tent and stayed for a while, as if to say “welcome”! What an incredible way to start our stay.