Monthly Archives: July 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

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

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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Zimbabwe Trip Report Part 5: Mana Pools

Take a poll of Southern African safari aficionados, asking about remote, authentic and memorable safari experiences and the two words ‘Mana Pools’ are sure to feature in the results.  If keen wildlife enthusiasts had not been to Mana Pools already, they want to go.  If they’ve been before, they want to return.  It is that kind of a place.  Intriguing and fascinating – the Africa of adventure books and fire-side tales.  Lots of animals, not so many people, equal measures of excitement, fun and exploration all taking place along the banks of the Zambezi in one of Africa’s most atmospheric valleys.

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Some buffalo seen on a game drive from Vundu camp

Mana Pools is a Zimbabwean National Park and World Heritage Site in the Zambezi River Valley, opposite Zambia’s Lower Zambezi region.  On this – my second – visit to the area, I found out what the ‘real’ Mana Pools experience was all about.  For one thing, it is actually seeing and visiting one or more of the four natural pools (relic oxbow lagoons) referenced in the name of the park.  The Mana Pools experience also includes walking.  Simply driving through the park in a safari vehicle won’t cut it:  you really should get out and walk.  While you can do it on your own legally (due to a quirky park ordinance) we wouldn’t advise it.  You’re likely to get lost or worse.  Always walk with a Zimbabwe professional guide or an experienced learner guide.  You’ll see more, experience more and return home safely.

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Mana Pools with Zambezi River in background

Over the course of four days I checked out two different properties in the area – Vundu and Kanga – having previously visited Ruckomechi which is located on the western edge of Mana Pools.

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Typical Mana Pools flood plain habitat

VUNDU CAMP

Vundu Camp and its sister property Little Vundu – a seasonal tented camp erected on one of the best spots in all of Mana Pools -are unabashedly ‘plain and simple’ with no pretensions of luxury.  Don’t go here if you absolutely want hot water 24/7 or if you equate being on safari with being pampered around the clock.  Vundu is all about the Mana Pools experience:  it is right on the edge of the Zambezi in one of the park’s best game-viewing areas and if you spend a few days here any time between (approximately) July through October, you will find out what Mana Pools is all about and why people who know it, like it so much.

On this visit I flew into Dandawa airstrip where I was picked up by my Vundu guide Henry – a Zimbabwe Professional Guide.  Henry knows the area exceedingly well and I greatly benefited from his knowledge about Mana Pools and every facet of its natural history.

On the drive of about an hour and a half to camp, we were initially in very dense forest and thicket, only occasionally emerging into patches of floodplain adjacent to drainage lines.  As we got closer to the Zambezi River, we entered the typical Mana Pools habitat which is open woodland, dominated by massive acacia albida trees, lending the area its distinctive ‘gallery’ look.  Over the course of several days in the area it becomes clear that what you see around you is part of an ongoing process, kicked off many thousands of years ago when the precursor of the Zambezi scoured away massive swathes of the Zambezi Valley.  Large scale erosion followed by alluvial deposits created a series of massive natural terraces descending down to the river itself.

Some elephant seen on the drive into Vundu Camp

Some elephant seen on the drive into Vundu Camp

Mana Pools is particularly well known for its large herds of elephant and buffalo, while eland, zebra, waterbuck, several antelope species and their predators including lions and African Painted Dogs are seen regularly.  The Zambezi River itself holds good numbers of hippo and Nile crocodile.  The birdlife is abundant with more than 400 species having been recorded.

I very much enjoyed the hospitality and friendliness of the staff and management at Vundu Camp even though the rooms are rustic.  The shower ‘floor’ was a bed of round rocks which I did not care for at all, but of course other visitors may like this ‘outdoorsy’ feel.  The lighting was fair and the space ample.

Room interior - Vundu Camp

Room interior – Vundu Camp

The elevated central area is terrific; the ideal spot for a relaxing pre-dinner drink, watching the majestic Zambezi go by.  Power boat traffic is prohibited along the Mana Pools side of the Zambezi.  So while an occasional motor boat does come charging by on the Zambia side of the river every now and then, the area is by all standards quiet and peaceful.

This is not a statue - elephant guarding walkway into Vundu

This is not a statue – elephant guarding walkway into Vundu

The food at Vundu Camp is good and tasty (not gourmet, no pretensions) and the managing couple Alex and Marie is young & energetic. The main reason to go there is for the true Mana Pools experience as the camp is perfectly placed inside Mana Pools National Park. In the company of an expert professional guide like Henry, this is a place to experience close-up encounters with big game and to also spend some time on the Zambezi itself.  While I did not have an opportunity to do it on this trip, canoeing on the Zambezi is an adventurous and exciting pursuit, given the presence of many hippo and some huge Nile crocodiles.  For this activity you definitely want an experienced local guide either in the canoe with you or close by.  Canoeing as an activity can be done from and back to camp while a 3-night canoe safari – the Ruwesi Canoe Trail – is also available.  This is ideally combined with a few days at Vundu Camp itself.

Canoeing on Zambezi River

Canoeing on Zambezi River

The seasonal Little Vundu Camp may be an even better bet; I spent a couple of hours at the site and it is spectacular.  Although it was not the best time of the year for Tiger fishing, I promptly hooked and released two good-sized Tigers, casting from a small bluff on the river’s edge.

Mana Pools scene with Zambia escarpment to the north

Mana Pools scene with Zambia escarpment to the north

KANGA CAMP

From Vundu, it is an interesting drive through mostly thick forest to Kanga Camp, a small luxury tented camp which nestles up to a large natural water hole.  As safari camps go, Kanga is in the ‘sweet spot’ between luxury and functionality.  It has everything you need and more in the large, well-appointed safari tents, right down to a massive outdoor bath.  Even so it has regular walkways to the main area which keeps one ‘connected’ to the environment and the zippered tent ‘door’  lends an air of authenticity.

Kanga room interior

Kanga room interior

The pool at Kanga

The pool at Kanga

Kanga is really all about location, being on the edge of a pan which – in the dry season – attracts a large variety of animals and birds.  Clearly the camp is highly seasonal and I would not recommend visiting it much earlier than July or even August.  By late April this year the area was exceedingly dense, having received substantial rainfall.  Under such circumstances the thick bush makes it practically impossible to find and see the wildlife, with the exception of elephants which wander into some of the more open drainage lines.  Several elephants did come to the camp waterhole while I was there, and the birdlife was diverse and abundant.

Lonely hippo in a pond near Kanga

Lonely hippo in a pond near Kanga

Later in the season the Kanga Pan becomes a hive of activity as it attracts a growing number of mammals and birds and that is when you want to be there.  Kanga lends itself perfectly to the pursuit of an ‘arm-chair’ safari.  Resting up comfortably in a cushioned chair on a raised deck looking out over the edge of the pan, participants wait for the action to come to them.  Anything can and does show up at the water hole including of course dozens of elephants, buffalo and a multitude of antelope.  As the camp photo album vividly illustrates lions, leopard and even African painted dogs also visit the Kanga Pan, sometimes with unexpected results such as when a kudu took refuge in the camp pool, trying to escape a predator.

A woodpecker seen on a drive from Kanga

A woodpecker seen on a drive from Kanga

Even though the game was scarce on my visit to Kanga it did not matter a great deal.  Over the course of a couple of nights there I was fortunate to be in the company of an English couple (yes Brexit did come up and we all got it wrong), a trio of South African visitors including a set of identical twin brothers and a couple from Germany on their first safari.  As so often happens on safari, the eight of us became instant friends exchanging stories about family, jobs, other trips, previous safaris and camps we had been to on our current itineraries.  We enjoyed the relaxed, away-from-it-all setting, the delicious food – the cooking at Kanga was exceptionally good – and the fine South African wines and other beverages.

Outdoor dining area at Kanga

Outdoor dining area at Kanga

A last word about Kanga:  it is a delightful but highly seasonal property so best visited from about July through October, and also best combined with a few days at a camp on the Zambezi such as its sister property Zambezi Expeditions, or one of the Ruckomechi camps.

MANA POOLS GOING FORWARD

The stable of Mana Pools properties is steadily expanding with Wilderness Safaris opening a second small camp in the area in July 2016 – the 4-roomed Little Ruckomechi – having just recently totally rebuilt their flagship property here, Ruckomechi Camp.  I have fond memories of visiting the previous iteration of the camp in early Nov. 2013.  Here is a link to the (trip report).  At that time the game-viewing in the area was superb and I recall vividly seeing the razor-like browse line on the underside of the beautiful mahogany trees, exactly at the level which can be reached by an adult eland antelope raising its massive head to its highest point.  We also enjoyed some great lion sightings and a boat safari on the Zambezi.

Al fresco dining on the Ruwesi Canoe Trail, Mana Pools

Al fresco dining on the Ruwesi Canoe Trail, Mana Pools

Another well-known Southern and East African safari operator – Great Plains – has announced its intention of erecting a camp on the western boundary of the park, along the Zambezi.  There is also a new safari camp already in business close to the Chitake Springs area.  While nobody wants to see a huge increase in traffic in and around Mana Pools there is ample space for growth and all this is good news for the wildlife of the area, notably the elephants.  The presence of tourists, camps, guides, vehicles on game drives and people out on foot safaris – plus a vigorous and well-funded anti-poaching campaign –  are all essentials elements in reducing the impact of poaching.  Unfortunately the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory is a growing threat in Mana Pools given the abundance of elephants in the area.  This activity reaches a high point each year during the wet season when the human habitation of the area reaches a minimum.  Poachers thrive under conditions where there is essentially nobody else around.  A growing and stable tourism industry in Mana Pools will draw more visitors and will create more jobs, helping to prevent poverty which is often a driving force for poaching or other illegal activity.

African Painted Dogs, Mana Pools

African Painted Dogs, Mana Pools

Want to do something to help the elephants of Mana Pools?  Go and see them for yourself.  It is a magical area where the sense of remoteness is palpable and where adventure and even adrenaline-pumping action is as close as the nearest canoe, or as easy to find as going on a walk.  It is also a place where you can find a quiet spot, sit down and look across the Zambezi to the striking Zambian escarpment to the north.  With very little to disturb the eye except perhaps a few elephants moving across the floodplain adjacent to the river, it is as calming and tranquil a place as you might ever get to.  Pure Africa.

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PART 6 – TOKA LEYA, ZAMBIA & VICTORIA FALLS HOTEL, ZIMBABWE

Victoria Falls is what you make of it.  Spend three days in the area and you may walk away with vivid memories and great photos of a stunningly beautiful set of waterfalls, splendid rainbows and rain forests.  Experience peaceful river cruises or heart-racing adventures and enjoy genteel hotels, excellent waterfront lodges and some of Africa’s most iconic views.

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Rainbows over Vic Falls Zambia

Stay at the wrong place, eat at an over-rated and over-priced ethnic restaurant or worse yet find yourself in a casino, and you might leave thinking that Vic Falls is a tacky theme park.  Expensive, crowded and noisy with helicopters and other aircraft practically drowning out the sound of the falls themselves.

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The view from the Vic Falls Hotel

Of course the ‘real’ Victoria Falls is somewhere in-between.  On my most recent visit last April, the purpose was to get a quick refresher on one of my all-time favorite hotels, the Victoria Falls Hotel, and to spend a couple of nights on the Zambia side of the Zambezi at Wilderness Safaris’ Toka Leya Lodge.  I had not been to the Zambia side of the Victoria Falls in several years.

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Sunset over the Zambezi – Toka Leya

This time around – as opposed to my last visit to Vic Falls – the Zambezi was in flood stage and the Falls themselves were simply amazing to see.  Some of the close-up views of the masses of water flowing over the Eastern cataract were mesmerizing.  With as much as 600 million liters of water crashing over and down the giant basalt cliff into First Gorge every minute, the sound is almost as impressive as the view.

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Vic Falls from Zambia Side

The views are easy to remember but hard to describe:  multiple rainbows against the sky, foam shooting into the air, never-ending spray squalls coming down over the rain forest, and of course the constant rush of a meters-high wall of water curving down and then hurtling over the abyss, frothing into a sheet of white fury.  It is not even remotely possible to capture the overwhelming sensory effect in a photograph or in words.  What I can say is that it is definitely worthwhile to time a visit to Vic Falls to be there in late April or early May – and to visit both sides of the Falls.  Wear grippy shoes which you won’t mind getting wet, have something to protect your electronic gear from the moisture and then get ready for the experience of a lifetime.

For the first time ever I walked out onto the small bridge on the edge of the Falls on the Zambia side of the Zambezi.  Fittingly called Knife-edge bridge, this is about as close as you can come to the Falls and the views are stupendous.  Only when the water in the Zambezi is high though.  In the late winter and  spring months from September through November there is often very little water to be seen from this vantage point.  On this day in early May it was exhilarating with the spray intermittently obscuring the views while the super-slippery edges of the metal walking surface turned the experience into an obstacle course of sorts.  There is no danger of falling off the bridge – it is very secure.  Even so the feeling of being suspended high over the roiling waters below while gingerly making your way towards the end of the bridge can be intimidating.

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On the other side of Knife-edge bridge there is a spot from which the main bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia can be clearly seen and photographed.  Together with the view of the bridge from the Vic Falls Hotel this has to be one of the most awesome spectacles in Zimbabwe.   There it is right in front of you.  About as iconic an image as exists in Southern Africa.  Looking for all the world as if it has always been there, spanning the chasm between two countries, a relic of the British Empire and in its day a civil engineering masterpiece.

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Victoria Falls Bridge

Viewing the Falls from the Zimbabwe side when the Zambezi is in flood stage is likewise an amazing experience but unless you are well protected with a solid raincoat and water-proof hat, you are going to get wet.  In early May this year the furthest I could walk – with a ‘non-waterproof’ camera – was lookout point #5.  Beyond that – right across from the main Falls and further to the eastern edge of the falls – it was pretty much a sheet of water coming down all the time.  Under these circumstances it is better to do what you can on foot; get as close to the main falls as you can for some good photographs and then go up in a chopper the next morning for some views from the air.

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Main Falls

On this trip I made the walk from the Vic Falls Hotel direct to the entrance of the Falls; it takes less than 10 minutes at a moderately brisk pace.  One of the guards at the entrance of the hotel gate would be happy to accompany you.  This is a good idea as there are often elephants wandering around in the area – driving across from the Zambia side earlier that day I had seen a small herd right across the road from the entrance to the Falls.  Once inside the National Park, it is a short walk to the first viewpoint at the Devil’s Cataract, and from there you can make your way along the edge of the Falls, getting a few pics at each point along the way.  Or simply admire the view.  There are often Bushbuck, a few overly habituated baboons and many species of birds to be seen around the rain forest as well.

TOKA LEYA, ZAMBIA

Having only once before made a brief site inspection at Toka Leya, I was looking forward to spending a couple of nights here on the edge of the Zambezi, only a few kilometers upstream from the Falls themselves.

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View over the Zambezi from room #9 at Toka Leya

I was not disappointed.  The two days at Toka Leya turned out to be two of the most enjoyable days of the trip.  Right from the word go I was impressed with the high level of personal attention I received, including being joined for dinner by the General Manager both nights.  In talking to other guests I soon found out that they were experiencing the same superior hospitality.

I did not spend a lot of time in my room at Toka Leya (too busy!) but it was nice and spacious with a comfortable king size bed and effective mosquito net, excellent lighting, effective air-conditioning, indoor shower and a large outdoor tub which was pre-filled with hot water both nights.

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Room interior – Toka Leya

The food at Toka Leya was of an exceptionally high standard with multiple choices available for breakfast and dinner.  Likewise the afternoon high tea offerings were delicious and creative.  There was one slip-up with a delayed dinner order but it was soon rectified.  All-round my expectations were more than exceeded.

I’ve always considered Toka Leya to be a 2-night destination and this trip underscored it again.  There is too much to see and do to spend just one night.  Even with one full day (2 nights) at one’s disposal, you can barely squeeze in 3 or 4 activities such as a visit to the Falls, a sundowner boat cruise, a village visit, a fishing outing, a guided walk or one of the many adventure activities available in Vic Falls, such as bungee jumping, helicopter rides, or whitewater rafting.

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View from the gym at Toka Leya

I was keen to find and photograph some birds in flight so I signed up for two Zambezi River excursions with my Toka Leya guide.  There were lots of birds around but not many in flight, unfortunately  Even so I captured a few good images of bee-eaters nesting in the banks of the Zambezi.  We also tried fishing for bream for a while, without much luck but the guide did hook a nice specimen.

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A hippo seen on sundowner outing – Toka Leya

With the Zambezi being at near flood stage, the sundowner outing was fairly uneventful, with few animals or wildlife seen due to the high water pushing right up to the treeline.  We did spot a few crocodiles and of course there were hippos everywhere.  What was more interesting was seeing the many other river-craft, boats and skiffs out on the water, enjoying the balmy climate and watching the sun set over the Zambezi.

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One of several other boats on the Zambezi – late afternoon

Undoubtedly the overall highlight was the outing to the Vic Falls on the Zambia side, as mentioned previously.  The photographs can’t do the experience justice, but they do show the massive volume of water crashing over the precipice.

For a couple of days or so before a Botswana or Zambia safari, Toka Leya is the ideal place to rest up after the long trans-atlantic journey, see the Victoria Falls, participate in some adventure activities, enjoy the local culture and get your ‘Africa legs’ before venturing into the bush.  Alternatively, it is a great spot to unwind for a couple of days after spending a week or two in the bush, and transition back to civilization, in a manner of speaking.

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Bee-eaters seen on river cruise from Toka Leya

VICTORIA FALLS HOTEL

I’ve written about the Victoria Falls Hotel before at length – here.  Since then most of the rooms have been refurbished, starting with the deluxe stable rooms which are still our favorite ones.  Quiet and secluded and some with nice views over the gardens.

Of course when I visit the Vic Falls Hotel I am not in search of new and cutting edge.  While it is great to have fast broadband in my room the hotel is all about the setting, the atmosphere and being transported back to a different era.  Earlier, less complicated times when oceans were crossed by boats and there were still parts of the world wholly undiscovered.  When people like Cecil John Rhodes had grandiose visions of a Cape to Cairo route, commercial aviation was in its infancy and the great mammals of Africa still ranged over nearly the entire continent, south of the Sahara.

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Stable Wing, Victoria Falls Hotel

As if it has slipped into a time gap, the Victoria Falls Hotel remains evocative of those bygone times, of an Africa filled with discovery, danger and romance.  Sit somewhere quietly early one morning for a few minutes, perhaps on a bench looking out over the Batoka Gorge in the direction of the Victoria Falls bridge and you will find it easy to imagine stepping back more than a century ago.  Just like the iconic view in front of you, the Vic Falls Hotel is timeless and graceful.  Spend a couple of days there and you will discover a very special place where time really does stand still.  If a guest from 1916 were to return today, he or she might be startled by the sight of a helicopter hovering over the Falls, but not by much else.

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The view over Batoha Gorge, Vic Falls Hotel

Something else that hasn’t grown old or stale at the Vic Falls Hotel is its reputation for quality and service.  I’ve been going back there every couple of years or so lately and if anything, the experience has been improving steadily.  Most noticeably the various restaurant offerings have been updated and the standard of the cooking is now as high as it might ever have been, in my opinion.  I have not had the opportunity to dine at the Livingstone Room lately but several meals on the Stanley Terrace have been surprisingly good – as was breakfast at the Jungle Junction, recently.  Simply an astonishing variety of items from as lavish a buffet as you can imagine, plus of course eggs just the way you want them, in addition to several other a la carte items. Don’t be shy.

On my most recent visit I ended up in a deluxe stable room which as I had noted, is our preferred choice for the Vic Falls Hotel.  It was quiet and private, cool and comfortable.  Plenty of space to roam around if you wanted to, good lighting, shelves and closets for all of one’s stuff and a good-sized bathroom with an enormous bathtub and enough water pressure to fill it promptly.  I thought the in-room mini-bar was rather sparsely stocked (only water and beer?) but then again, the Vic Falls Hotel has better options for a drink than one’s room.  Take a walk to the Stanley Terrace and sip on something cold there, with one eye over the garden and the view, and the other on the passing parade of humanity.  Young couples on honeymoon, older couples trying to emulate them, Europeans, Americans, a smattering of South Africans – languages and accents from every corner of the world.  Think Rick’s Cafe ‘Africaine’.

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The Lobengula Room, Vic Falls Hotel

There are very few Southern Africa travel experiences which rival a couple of days at the Vic Falls Hotel, for sheer entertainment value.  And it doesn’t have to be only when the Zambezi is in rip-roaring full flow with millions of liters of water crashing over the Falls.  Even when the Falls are at their lowest point in November or early December, the views of the main falls are still impressive from the Zimbabwe side; you can do a leisurely sundowner cruise, walk along the edge of the rain forest, take in a bit of curio shopping at the Elephant Walk, jump off the Vic Falls Bridge on a bungee cord if you really want to, or take to the skies in a ‘chopper for the best photographs imaginable.

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View of Stanley’s Terrace, Vic Falls Hotel

Whatever it is that you choose to do, make some time in your busy schedule to spend in the garden of the hotel.  Sit very still and a few members of the huge colony of Banded Mongoose which lives in one of the interior courtyards will relax around you, watching you warily as they escort some of their youngsters to and from a crack in the pavement.  Wait for the sun to set and the lights to come on in front of the property, as the darkness closes in.  When it gets quiet and the flying has stopped, is the best time of the day at the Victoria Falls Hotel.  Other than the occasional squawks of a few birds settling down for the night, there is nothing to disturb the serenity of an early evening in this timeless place.   You won’t need to remind yourself that you are in Africa.  You will know it instinctively and remember it forever.

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