Zimbabwe Wildlife Safari Trip Diary

Sharon and Fred Tooley

03 ago 2015

Wildlife, Sunsets and Sundowners

Day 1

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.

Why 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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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”.

Day 4

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.

At Somalisa, guests dine at a huge dinner table--all together with guides and staff. Sandy, the chef is a magician in his kitchen and we feasted on incredible meals every single day that we were there. After dinner we had drinks around the campfire and talked about the trip so far and “our cheetah welcome”. Off to our very comfortable, well-appointed tents and a good night’s sleep to prepare for an early morning game drive. One thing about travel to Zimbabwe in late May and early June--it is very cold at night this time of the year. Our en suite bathroom and shower...located on the deck attached to the back of each tent... was a challenge at night as were the showers even when boiling hot water, upon request, was delivered to our tent during the day--however, it was all part of the experience and we loved every minute of our stay... even the cold ones. The tents were warmed by individual space heaters during dinner, but after Peter had walked each of us to our tents for the night, the heaters were turned off for safety. There were plenty of cozy blankets and when we tucked our feet under the covers that first night, we found another “surprise” - a “bush baby” - no, not the little warm blooded creature, but a nice hot water bottle inside of a warm fleece cover. Ahh ... small thoughtful details - much appreciated!

Day 5

Up early for an outdoor breakfast beside a roaring campfire. Hot coffee and tea and our choice of juices, cold cereals, toast, butter and jams or a traditional hot Zimbabwean porridge cooked over the campfire, fortified us for our first game drive each day. For today, once again, we are the only guests at this wonderful place. We climbed into the 4X4 and Peter handed us another unexpected comfort--insulated ponchos with hoods ... it was still quite cold in the early morning but we were warm and snug and ready for our first full day of adventure. Peter was an incredible guide. Within 10 minutes we have seen multiple species of birds and he had found the cheetah family. We stopped for more photos and to watch the mother patiently work with her daughters practising their hunting skills. We almost saw a successful ending to those lessons but the “young one’s” timing was a bit off so the antelope lived to see another morning in the bush. We started off again in search of the plentiful game and birds living in Hwange National Park.

We arrived back at camp and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Afterwards we enjoyed a “camp tradition”, two hours every afternoon of quiet time to rest, possibly brave a shower, read and re-energize for the afternoon game drive.

This afternoon, when we arrived at the main tent for our afternoon drive, we were thrilled to meet two new Somalisa guests - Hamish and Bryan from Australia. They would make our group of four, a companionable group of six. One of the best parts of our trips always seems to be meeting new people and in this case, we met two wonderful new friends. We left for our afternoon drive. Peter tracked the kill down that the cheetahs had succeeded in making that afternoon, not far from camp. As he predicted, we sighted mum and the girls again as well as giraffes, zebra, baboon families, and so many elephants that we lost count. 

We stopped for sundowners and enjoyed appetizers and drinks while standing in the middle of a huge herd of cape buffalo. 

Peter assured us that as long as we stood near the vehicle with him that we would be fine ... yet another incredible memory. 

Day 6

Early breakfast, again and our group of six started out in hopes of seeing the cheetah family again today and if we were very lucky, Cecil* and Jericho the resident male lions in the territory, their females and cubs. Peter had seen them and their cubs just a few days before. It was another great morning of birds and game. Sadly, no lions, but we didn’t give up hope.

Back to Somalisa for lunch and afternoon down time. About an hour before time to meet back at the main tent for tea, we heard loud “crunching” sounds. We looked out of our tent’s front opening and could not believe our eyes! Three or four female elephants and their little ones were crossing not 50 feet from the front of our tent. Our friends had heard and seen them also the four of us hurried to the main tent. We were treated to “tea with the ladies” or as Arabella called it-- “tea with the ellies”. It was surreal. Not six feet from us, these glorious creatures were enjoying a drink from the camp waterhole while we enjoyed a cup of tea!

On this afternoon’s drive, Peter took us to a “hide” constructed by the guides--tree trunks and limbs used to build a natural looking structure where guests could view the game without disturbing them. It was located at the edge of a large watering hole that huge groups of the park’s elephants were known to come to throughout the day and night. As we enjoyed sundowners, we watched in amazement as 30 to 40 elephants met at the water hole for drinking, splashing, and socializing. As we were just about to pack up and start back to camp, a truly huge young bull walked with great purpose directly towards our hide. He stopped short, directly in front of Fred, so close that we could have touched him if we hadn’t known better. What happened next is still something none of us, and most especially Fred, will ever forget. 

The elephant stared directly into Fred’s eyes for what seemed like a full five minutes. We all held our collective breathes. 

The young bull finally turned and started to walk away ... then he suddenly stopped and pivoted sharply marching right back to us and he stood in front of Fred again and stared!! This time, it was only a breath taking second or two and then he turned and we watched him walk off into the park. We’ll never know what had just happened. But, what we do know is that those eyes that looked directly into Fred’s eyes, held such a superior intelligence that none of us will never again be the same. Our souls had been touched by this magnificent creature and we would never forget this experience, never.

We returned to camp in darkness with Peter using his spotlight to spot game. We had yet another delicious meal and conversation with old friends and new around the campfire. We went to sleep with sadness knowing that tonight was our last night here. 

Day 7

After breakfast, all of us climbed in the 4X4 for the drive to the airstrip and our onward flight to Victoria Falls. We had each heard lions during the night and Peter promised us one more short game drive to see if we could find Cecil,* or Jericho and their families. Still no luck and Peter told us that he suspected that Cecil* and Jericho had taken the females and cubs to the forest to protect them from a marauding male lion that had been spotted in the area over the last week. We were a bit disappointed but at that very second, we were amazed as a beautiful lilac breasted roller flew over our vehicle giving us a perfect “right place at the right time” photo opportunity of his magnificent colours in full flight.

Then, just as we made the turn for the airstrip, there were the cheetahs! They were lying in the road in front of our vehicle as if they had been waiting to say goodbye. They walked along with us as Peter slowly followed. They turned off the road and then slowly walked out of sight. What a send-off. When we had departed, camp for the last time this morning, Denzel told us that we would always be members of the Somalisa family that will always be our honour. We have a special thanks to Arabella selecting Somalisa as our home while we were in Hwange National Park.

After goodbyes to Peter, Hamish and Bryan, we boarded another beautiful 12 seater aircraft for a short hop to another nearby airstrip where we picked up six additional passengers, not a flight on “our own private” aircraft this time, but still a smooth, enjoyable flight to Victoria Falls and our next adventure.

We were met by a driver and taken the short drive to the dock where we would board a boat to cruise down the mighty Zambezi River to the next wonderful place that Arabella had selected for us to stay, the Victoria Falls River Lodge.

We were met at the docks and our bags were taken to the beautiful lobby area where we were checked in and scheduled for the activities that we were to enjoy for the next two days. We were shown to our “tents” the most incredible “tents” we had ever seen! The only way to tell that we were in tents was to touch the walls and realize that they were canvas. Huge bedroom/ living room area with a spectacular bath area overlooking the private deck and the river...we thought we were inside of a glossy, full colour travel magazine! We quickly settled bags and grabbed water, sunblock and hats and met for lunch. It was delicious food served in the open air dining room overlooking the beautiful grounds and river.

Afterwards, we were met by our guide for the afternoon. We were ready for the drive to Victoria Falls! We arrived and hiked to the observation area. The Falls were everything and more than we had been expecting. 

We stayed several hours watching the mesmerizing flow of the second largest waterfall in the world. 

Locally, it’s known as the “smoke that thunders” and once you’ve seen a million litres of water per second flowing over the cliffs you’ll understand that this description is perfect. This time of the year, the water flow is at its peak so the photos that we managed to take couldn’t do it justice. We took our time experiencing “one of the seven natural wonders of the world”. The experience made us feel humble and awestruck and the memory of the rainbows arching over thundering water is forever part of us.

We were driven back to the lodge in time to board the evening sunset cruise. We were treated to unbelievable sightings of hippos, crocodiles, and families of elephants standing at the river’s edge. Palm trees added to the forest canopy and each looked like exclamation points, dotting the shoreline. The birds were too many to keep count of and we watched a sunset worthy of capturing for a National Geographic documentary. We hated for the evening to end.

After dinner, Fred and our friend, Jim, arranged through the lodge, a half day fishing trip for the next morning we all went to sleep with individual dreams...my friend, Betty and I dreamed of a morning to relax and do absolutely nothing other than to enjoy this wonderful place. Fred and Jim dreamed of landing fierce tiger fish on the Zambezi early the next morning.

Day 8

After an early breakfast we waved the fishermen off wishing them a good catch. Four hours later, we met them at the docks - no fish, but a fantastic tale to tell of tiger fishing on the Zambezi River!

Arabella must have known that after the action packed trip that she had planned for us that at this point, relaxing time at this incredibly beautiful place was the perfect way to unwind and end our safari. We spent the rest of the day catching up on emails, reading, napping and simply “being”. We sat on our deck watching a mother hippo and her baby grazing, out of the water, on a small island directly across from our tent. It was simply put, perfect.

Day 9

Up very early to board a boat for the lodge’s sunrise river cruise. Hot tea and coffee was served aboard, as once again, we cruised down the Zambezi. It was a great way to spend our final morning in Zimbabwe. I don’t think that any of us had ever experienced a sunrise quite so beautiful. 

We saw hundreds of birds, beautiful kingfishers, hippos saying good morning to us by way of their mellow grunts, and once again, elephants grazing along the river bank, what a beautiful morning.

After breakfast we said our goodbyes to this beautiful place. We waved goodbye to the staff as the boat took us back to the dock we’d arrived at two short days earlier, and the driver who would take us to the airport for our flight back to Johannesburg. The amazing trip that Arabella had planned for us was at an end. We had four more days on our own in CapeTown and then two very long flights that would take us home.

We know in our hearts that this is not the last time that we’ll be back to Africa. This immense continent, both in size and beauty, pulls you back again and again. There is so much more to see here that we doubt that we will be back to Zimbabwe again. But, as with Madagascar, we will visit there often in our memories of this incredible country and its people. We cannot thank Arabella enough for planning this unforgettable adventure for us. We can’t wait to begin the fun of planning our next bucket list location with Natural World Safaris!

If you would like Arabella to help plan an extraordinary journey for you, please get in touch now!

*Cecil: Forty-five days after our return home, news reached the US of the tragic killing of Hwange National Park’s beloved Cecil the lion. We cannot comprehend something like this being done by any human being. We along with everyone in the world community, condemn this reprehensible act. Sadly, we didn’t have the honor of meeting Cecil during our stay at Somalisa Camp, but we know in our hearts that the lion we heard in the darkness near our camp that last night, was Cecil’s voice. May his death have not been in vain. May it bring about effective, long term solutions to the conservation of all the world’s wildlife for future generations.

Comments

Donna Cramer

11/8/2015 12:30 PM

I'm not through reading, I stopped after Fred's stare down with the bull elephant. I will get back to your adventures shortly. You've experienced what the rest of us dream of.

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