Monthly Archives: May 2016

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Part 1 – Zimbabwe April/May 2016

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Living in Houston and spending quite a bit of time in Africa every year is not exactly a hardship and we look forward to and enjoy our regular visits there.  Even so, having to cross multiple time zones several times per year makes you think long and hard about getting there and back.  We’ve done it every which way:  non-stop on South African Airways from JFK to JNB; via Dulles near Washington D.C. with a refueling stop in Dakar or Accra; via Atlanta on Delta non-stop to JNB; via London, via Paris.  And via Dubai on Emirates.  You can watch 7 movies back to back on a 16-hr flight (did it), almost finish reading Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (done that too) or complete much of your trip report (ditto on that).  Or you can simply fritter away the equivalent of two working days sitting idly in a window seat dozing off intermittently, eating mediocre food from tiny boxes and re-watching Pulp Fiction for the umpteenth time.  Which is all very well until you realize that inane trivia is starting to stick.  Why do I even want to remember that Tony Rockamora – aka Tony ‘Rocky Horror’ – was thrown from the 4th floor of a building for allegedly giving Mia Wallace a foot massage?  Really.


Matopos Hills

This time around I experienced not too bad a flight back to Houston having spent a night in Amsterdam on the way.  The plan being to spend half a day there and to break up the long flight back.  It definitely seemed like a good idea at the time.  The Africa trip ended in Cape Town where I had attended the excellent ‘We Are Africa’ trade show, so it made sense to take the overnight CPT to AMS flight on KLM, leaving Cape Town at around 1100P and getting into Amsterdam at 1000A the next morning.  Same time zone, should be a breeze, or so I thought.  I had all kinds of things lined up for what would be my first real visit to Amsterdam.

Male Lion

Male lion in the morning sun

Somehow, I forgot that it is not a good idea to make plans for anything – except maybe a nap – at the end of an 11-hour flight.  Duh!  So predictably I ended up doing absolutely nothing in Amsterdam: no gawking with other tourists in the red light district, no Rijks Museum, no Anne Frank House, no coffee shops… My travel batteries were totally flat.  The bar at the new Airport Hilton hotel had 70 kinds of gin so I tried a couple while waiting another almost 3 hours for my room to become available.   I have to admit that that was the extent of my exploration of Dutch culture.  What little I saw of Amsterdam – well actually Schiphol – was what I could see along the flat, manicured bike path along the edge of the airport, where I went for an 8K run – after a nap. I will have to return there with Kathy some day in the future for a proper visit.

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As for the trip itself, I had one near disaster hit me when I lost all my notes (little black book) on a game drive on the shore of Lake Kariba.  But would you believe a guide from another camp found the notebook last week and they are sending it to me by DHL; arriving here today (Tuesday).  So the trip report(s) will run a few days late.

Sable on safari

The always difficult to capture Sable

In short, the trip  was great.   I am a big Zimbabwe fan and it certainly lived up to my expectations, again.  Northern Hwange (Nehimba and Camp Hwange) was new to me; what stood out was the massive bull elephants which came to the waterhole at Nehimba Camp at night.  Amazing to see these fascinating animals so close up at night; veritable ‘great grey ghosts’ and so quiet, unbelievable.

I did get a few nice pics – particularly of some elephants on the Lake Kariba shoreline, the boulders in the Matobos at sunset and Sable Antelope in Hwange.  My ‘jumping impala’ shots were not perfect but we are getting there.  For the first time I managed to capture several images of these sleek, hugely under-appreciated antelope doing what they do best.

Leaping impala

Leaping impala

I discovered what the real ‘Mana Pools experience’ is like and saw the actual Mana pools for the first time.  Walking there with my guide Henry from Vundu Camp was fantastic. This is what one should do in Mana Pools.  See something, get out of the vehicle and approach on foot.  Even though the camp itself was not up at the time I could easily see myself spending a couple of nights in a tent at Vundu Point.  What a setting!  A small group trip including a Ruwesi Canoe Trail is on the horizon.


Matopos Hills

The best two places this time around were the Matobos (rhino, beautiful scenery & some interesting San rock art) and Matusadona on Lake Kariba.  The elephants there are peculiar to the area – a bit smaller than some but with good tusks and very confiding.  Matusadona also has plenty of zebra which are a favorite subject of mine, and several large groups of impala which were noticeably jumpy, much to the photographers’ delight.  We had one or two good lion sightings on the trip as well – in Hwange.  Unfortunately no leopard (the car just behind us saw two in Hwange); cheetah or African Painted Dogs.  We missed the Painted Dogs in Mana Pools (Vundu Point) by just a day.  Of course this is what happens when a trip is too rushed.  That being the idea with an inspection trip. It is ‘go go go’ to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.

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As a country Zimbabwe can hardly be more beaten down and it is gasping for breath in what is hopefully the last round of a long, exhausting battle.  The people whom I spoke to were almost resigned to the realities of bad leadership, incompetent governance, widespread corruption and bureaucratic impediments inhibiting progress and development. There seemed to be a consensus that things will change for the better when a new government comes into power in a couple of years’ time.  Unemployment is exceedingly high, the country is running short on cash reserves and there may even be a food shortage in some parts of the country later this year.  Fortunately widespread late rains averted what might have been a disastrous drought.

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There is one very bright prospect for Zimbabwe and that is tourism.  Zimbabwe has it all: abundant wildlife, friendly people, scenic beauty and good infrastructure. Plus unequivocally the best safari guiding corps of any country in Africa. And soon it will have a new international airport at Victoria Falls which will make it even easier to come here and to bypass Johannesburg if one wanted to.  Based on what we have seen and experienced on this trip and previous ones we will continue to urge our clients to spend some or all of their time in the rich slice of Africa called Zimbabwe.  Don’t visit Zimbabwe because you want to help its people overcome years of neglect – although that would be admirable. Visit Zimbabwe because it is a great safari destination – one of the best in Africa.  A friendly, hospitable place where you will see lots of wildlife in a rugged, wild environment with few other visitors around and at an affordable price, offering exceptionally good value.

Continue to Part 2: Matopos

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Part 2: Rhodes Matopos National Park

Just before sunset on most days of the year the late afternoon African sun lights up a group of large boulders in a remote corner of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe.  It is an awesome sight in the old-fashioned sense of the word.  In the near-horizontal golden light the boulders come alive, the vividly illuminated blue-green lichen deposits and ochre-colored iron streaks lighting up the rocks like Chinese lanterns.  Even if the place had no history to it, it would be worth visiting.

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But of course this haunted, enigmatic spot does have historical import.  Discreetly tucked in among the boulders is a simple brass plaque which reads:  ‘Here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes’.  This magical, maybe even mystical place  is also known as Malindidzimo which means ‘The Home of the Spirit of My Forefathers’ harking back to the time of the great Ndebele leaders who established the region now known as Matabeleland.  In short, the area is of national and international renown. And lately enveloped in a controversy surrounding the legacy of  Cecil John Rhodes and people like him: uncomfortable reminders of the non-politically correct world we once lived in.

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Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) is perhaps the world’s archetypal imperialist, long harboring an ambition to create a British exclusionary zone from the Cape to Cairo, a “red line” of British dominions from south to north.  In his day a colossus of the British Empire at its zenith around the turn of the century, Rhodes first came across Malindidzimo on horseback in 1896.  Rhodes – who specified in his will that he wanted to be buried here – called the area ‘A View of the World’.  He might as well have called it ‘The End of the World’ as the views stretch into infinity in every direction.  The jumble of giant boulders clustered on top of a massive, sprawling granite dome which drops down and away in every direction is photographically spectacular and its impact is almost visceral.  Walking up to the boulders and touching the rough surface is practically guaranteed to put one into a contemplative, introspective mood.    Even if you live to be a hundred years, your existence would be but a tiny blip in time measured against the geological transformation which has taken place here over the course of 2,000 million years.

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The Rhodes grave site location is powerful and evocative and even the most cynical of Darwinians may experience a jolt of spirituality in this place which is thankfully devoid of all artifice and hype. As Cecil John Rhodes himself remarked at the time – “The peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it: it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we all are.”

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Almost anywhere else in the world, the scene would be difficult to photograph because of the throngs of visitors which would converge on such a singularly striking place.  Not in Zimbabwe.  Other than myself, my Camp Amalinda guide Kevin and two other guests from the camp, there were just 4 or 5 other people around. I had to work hard to even get one or two children into some of the photographs.  It was just the few of us, the boulders and the silent companionship of the dead and departed.

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As the sun dropped below the western horizon, everything changed.  It was as if someone had literally switched off the beauty and what had been a stupendous sight became rather ho-hum in a matter of 20 seconds.  So there you have Rule #1 for visiting the Matobos.  Time your visit to Rhodes’ ‘View of the World’ for late afternoon sundowners on a clear or at worst partially cloudy day. It is just about essential to have some good light on the boulders to experience the true drama of the place.

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That is also the only rule for visiting the Matobos.  Except maybe to schedule an outing to Rhodes Matoppos National Park to see the white rhino on your first day there.  Don’t wait until the last day, like I did.  We almost entirely missed seeing the rhinos because of a change of weather (cool front) which made them move into more dense brush.

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Getting to Bulawayo

My trip to Zimbabwe started with an SA Airlink flight from Jo’burg to Bulawayo.  Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second largest city – has a relatively new and attractive small airport, somewhat oddly located a long way from town, in the middle of the bush.  Don’t let the modern appearance of the airport fool you; the visa and immigration procedures are relics from yesteryear:  bureaucratic and slow.  One line for the visa payment, another one for immigration and every step replete with handwritten notes, receipts and carbon paper copies.  Honestly, when did you last see carbon paper in use?

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After a tedious 45 minutes or so, I finally had my Zimbabwe visa pasted into the passport and we headed out to the destination of the day, Camp Amalinda, the best of several properties in the area close to Cecil John Rhodes’ burial place and Rhodes Matoppos National Park.

I was pleased to see that unlike cities like Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Arusha – or even Jo’burg and Cape Town – Bulawayo’s traffic was light.  Driving along the wide boulevards was a breeze.  Just be sure to stop at the stop signs or red lights because traffic law enforcement is strict.  In no time at all we were heading down a gradually narrowing asphalt road, winding its way through some of the prettiest countryside imaginable.  As we got closer to Camp Amalinda, the typical stacked and weathered boulder formations associated with the Matobos started to show up left and right.  Hill upon hill vies for one’s attention with patches of white syringa trees creating bright yellow bursts of color along the hillsides.

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Camp Amalinda

In summer when the trees are in full leaf  Camp Amalinda hides itself very well.  Much of the camp including all of the accommodation units is practically invisible upon arrival in the car park. Other than a few vehicles in the parking area, there was no sign of rooms or lounges or other structures.  This definitely adds to the appeal of the place. Being built into a large granite kopje some of the rooms – and certainly my room #9 – would be a bit of an ordeal to reach for someone with mobility issues.  Personally I thought it was part of the fun of being there to scramble up a series of rock steps, discovering the dining area with a large captain’s table, noticing a cozy bar with a huge rock overhang, squeezing past a small library and walking up and around an attractive and as it turned out well-used open fireplace.

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On my first afternoon at Camp Amalinda I took a look around the property, enjoyed a delicious light lunch at the pool – with zebras in the background – and went for a late afternoon run.  For the next hour I was enveloped in almost complete silence. Other than a few passing vehicles, all I heard was the sound of my footfall,  some labored breathing and a few bird calls.   The lightly traveled route from Bulawayo meanders around the Matobo hills, and transects some sublimely beautiful countryside.  Any run here is a rave run.

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Other than the previously described outing to Cecil John Rhodes’ burial site, the two recommended activities from Camp Amalinda are an outing to explore a San cave art site and a game drive/walk, specifically to find and observe White Rhino.  There are other activities including a sundowner walk, time permitting.

Camp Amalinda learner guide Kevin

Camp Amalinda learner guide Kevin

San Cave Art

Our morning outing to  Nswatugi Cave, one of the easily accessible and more famous rock art sites in the Matobos was pleasant, taking us on a drive past Maleme Dam through the recreational area of Rhodes Matoppos National Park.  The cave walls are filled with a dazzling array of beautifully done friezes of giraffes, elephants and kudu.  The slowly fading yet still brilliant artwork dates back to about 13,000 years ago.  It is estimated that the last of the San people departed the area around the year 1500, about 150 years before the first Dutch settlement in what is now Cape Town.

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Standing there in a very exposed cave looking at the mural fills one with a sense of wonder and many questions.  What is it that compelled the ancient artists to record these intricate drawings for posterity?  There could not have been anything easy about it.  Paint as we know it was unknown:  they had to make their own by mixing blood and animal fat with ground hematite and ochre and other ingredients.  And then laboriously apply the sticky mixture to a sheer rock face, sometimes standing on rudimentary scaffolding, judging by the height of some of the artwork.  The intimate association between the humans of that time and the natural world around them, particularly the wildlife, becomes abundantly clear.  In retrospect I think I will spend  more time checking out the San cave art on a future visit to the Matobos.  Some of the paintings such as the giraffes are astonishingly good and seemed to have been done by a master artist with an uncanny ability to portray animal shapes and coloration.

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On my last morning at Camp Amalinda, I was up at 5:30 to photograph a few rock formations and cliff faces along the road from Amalinda to the Rhodes Matoppos National Park entrance.  Photography is all about light.  We had driven this same route the previous day and while the stacked and weathered rock formations were impressive, the harsh late morning and mid-day sun obliterated much of the subtlety and nuance of the stone surface. Very early the next day the views were immeasurably better.   With the sun occasionally emerging from behind a low bank of clouds, the true colors of the weathered granite could be seen and the contrast with the beautifully lit green surroundings was fantastic.  So if you want to get some decent photographs of the Matobo rock formations, be sure to get our there at first light.  It is essential.

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Finding Rhino

A little later that morning – again too late for wildlife photography – we set off for a different area within Rhodes Matoppos National Park in pursuit of white rhino.  Without getting too specific about the location it was – like much of the Matobos – fairly hilly, undulating terrain and quite well wooded in patches.  Due to some unexpectedly cool, windy conditions it proved to be challenging to find the rhino despite having advance scouting information.  You’d think that these bulky behemoths would be easy to spot anywhere but that is of course not the case.   They have an uncanny ability to disappear behind even sparse vegetation and in this thickly wooded terrain we were indeed fortunate to find them.  I am sure that the local trackers and guides had been keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the rhinos so it was not all luck…

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Once the rhino – a female and older calf – had been located, we got out of the vehicle and approached them on foot. Due to their tendency to keep their heads low to the ground, white rhino don’t always make the best photographic subjects but seeing them close up on foot is nonetheless an exhilarating wildlife viewing experience.  Just like on my recent Rhino Walking Safari (link) in Kruger Park I was thrilled to be able to get within 10 meters or so of the rhino and managed a couple of decent exposures.  In better light the photographs would have been potentially great; as it turned out they were usable but without much drama.  The young rhino was quite animated and kept pricking its ears and lifting its head, while starting in our direction.  The older female rhino was totally relaxed and kept feeding nonstop, not feeling threatened in the least.

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While it has a somewhat rough-hewn feel to it because of the rocky environment, Camp Amalinda is luxurious and  sophisticated to the point where it will satisfy all but the most finicky of persons,  I would think.  The rooms all have lots of space, an indoor shower and/or bath, flush toilet and plenty of space for your stuff.  With a huge, comfortable bed and quality sheets & pillows I had no problems falling & staying asleep. The cooking at Camp Amalinda was surprisingly good– in fact impeccable – and the breakfasts in particular were superb with good coffee, and a well turned-out omelette.

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In summary the unique Camp Amalinda is located in one of Zimbabwe’s – make that Southern Africa’s – most scenically beautiful areas and it offers an unbeatable trio of activities namely trekking for rhino on foot, visiting caves with exquisite San rock art  and best of all experiencing the grandeur and loneliness of Rhodes’ grave-site at Malindidzimo, one of the most impressive places I have ever visited.

Continue to Part 3 – Hwange National Park