Monthly Archives: August 2016

TRIP REPORT:  SOUTH AFRICA & MADAGASCAR – SEPT/OCT 2015

Part 1:  PRETORIA AND CAPE TOWN

Is there an anti-dote for jet lag?  Not really.  The best you can do is to stay up when it is light, and try to sleep when it is dark outside.  Your body’s natural circadian rhythms will adjust on its own.  It takes several days to overcome skipping across seven or eight time zones, which is why the first day or two of an Africa trip can be rough. My best advice?  Rest up for a couple of days before you go on safari.  In cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg or Nairobi you can find many interesting things to explore while you recuperate.

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So it was that I found myself on a mid-September day enjoying breakfast on the patio in the cool, dry air of a spring day in Pretoria, having been wide awake since 2 am.  It was about as perfect an African morning as you can imagine, with the softest of breezes carrying a hint of smoke, Jacaranda flowers and freshly mowed grass.   Add a  clear blue sky and you have  a typical spring morning in the highveld.  For a Houstonian, this is simply gorgeous weather, Southern California-like.   Minimums around 50F, afternoon highs of about 80F.

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My accommodation for the three nights in Pretoria would be Castello di Monte – an elegant and quite imposing Italianate villa in Waterkloof Ridge, an eastern Pretoria suburb.  The property is  roomy and quiet in a beautiful garden setting, with some pretty views from the balcony, towards the north.  Don’t feel like venturing out into Pretoria much in search of sustenance?  Don’t worry.  Castello di Monti’s more than capable kitchen can whip up something delectable for breakfast, lunch & dinner.

A table d’hote 3-course dinner at about $20.00 per person on the night I arrived, included a choice of two entrees, a beef or fish main course and a couple of desserts.  It was all good and deftly served in the softly lit main dining hall with piped classical music blending with the muted conversations of a few fellow guests.  Over the course of three days there I heard mostly American and English accents, with some Afrikaans as well.  Castello di Monti would be the perfect choice for a night or two at the start of a Southern Africa trip, or as a stop-over before or after a Blue Train or Rovos Rail trip.

An apartment in Cape Town

On Sept 18 our group assembled in Johannesburg Airport for the SAA flight to Cape Town.  As always, it took almost exactly two hours to cover the 1,000 miles between the two cities. Once we had collected our luggage in Cape Town Airport (it took too long!)  it was a quick 20-minute drive to the V & A Waterfront where we were going to spend the next five nights.

Our serviced apartment at 106 Juliette turned out to be ideal for us, with 3 en-suite bedrooms, one with a safe.  The apartment had a well-equipped kitchen, a spacious lounge with HDTV, properly functioning high-speed internet and a pleasant enough view over the V & A Marina, with the One & Only Hotel visible in the background.  It was quiet and peaceful and we felt totally safe due to the high level of security; two of us had to be photographed for temporary access cards.  Other than the door to our apartment being left wide open one morning, security was indeed tight and you couldn’t move around without an access card.

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Table Mountain Cable Car trip

Our first day in the Cape was a clear, crisp morning with not a cloud to be seen and practically windless.  Which means just one thing:  Table Mountain.  A quick Uber-ride later, we were in line to buy tickets for the 4-minute one-way revolving cable car ride to the top of the mountain.  Apparently the ride had been shut down for the previous two days and there was clearly a backlog.  Dozens of buses were dropping off multiple dozens and even hundreds of visitors, all with the same goal.  Get up the mountain.  There were two lines:  one for people who had pre-booked online and others who had not.  On this specific day it didn’t really matter which line you were in – it took the better part of 2 hours to get to the front of the line.  If you do want to beat the crowds go on a week day (not Saturday or Sunday) and be there early.

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No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the view of Cape Town, Table Bay and the surrounding areas from the top of Table Mountain is as fresh as a newly baked cookie.  I have been looking down over it off and on for 50 years, first having traveled to the mother city as a youngster.  The view hasn’t changed much.  The city itself has grown somewhat but the view of the bay, the coastline, and distant Robben Island is just as pretty as ever.

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It is now easier to get up there than before.  The older versions of the cable car were much more likely to be forced to a halt by high wind and would sometimes remain inoperable for several days.  The current roomier gondola can take as many as 60 persons at a time and the interior rotates, for great views in every direction.

Noticeably, photography has become much more ubiquitous over the years, since the advent of cheap point and shoot cameras and of course, smart phones and other digital photo devices.  Everybody’s a photographer now and over the space of a few hours on the top of the mountain, I witnessed dozens of landscapes, portraits, selfies, selfies-with-a-stick and even some action pics (‘jump’!) being taken.  Some of these no doubt better than others.  Between the four of us we made some pretty decent captures too!

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Sanlam Cape Town Marathon

The next morning two of our group tackled the 26.2 mile (44 km) Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, spending 4 hours or so traversing the streets of Cape Town and parts of the Cape Peninsula in the company of several thousand other runners.  As marathon weather goes, it was not ideal with the starting temperature around 60F, topping out at around 72F later in the morning.  The race was well organized with packet pickup at ‘The Lookout’ which is walking distance from the V & A Waterfront.

If you’re not quite up to the full marathon distance, there is also a 10km Peace Run, on an out and back course along the Green Point and Sea Point promenade, a wide, flat brick walkway which is almost never without some runners, walkers, bicyclists, kids and dogs enjoying the gorgeous setting.

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The four of us enjoyed a post-marathon cold beer and burger – or fish & chips – at Mitchell’s Tavern, a popular venue judging by the number of patrons we saw there throughout the day and night.

Chapman’s Peak Drive

By mid-afternoon our rental car was dropped off and we went on a sight-seeing excursion along the Atlantic Beach drive, through cosmopolitan Sea Point, Green Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay and via Hout Bay up into the hills and on to Chapman’s Peak Drive.

It has been several years since I last drove this route and some significant changes had been made.  For one thing, Chapman’s Peak Drive is now a tollway with tariff of ZAR40.00 per person per entry (less than $3.00).  In a couple of places the road now runs under an artificial overhang, protecting the cars and their inhabitants from falling rocks, a real hazard here.

These structures do not detract from the experience.  Driving over Chapman’s Peak is still an exhilarating, even heart-stopping experience with a cliff-face sometimes mere feet from the vehicle on one side and an abyss on the other.  The narrow winding road exposes new and different views to both passenger and driver constantly with glimpses of cliff-sides, distant coastlines, shimmering water and sky combining to create an unbeatable natural kaleidoscope.

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We were fortunate to find ourselves at a viewpoint close to the crest of the pass just as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean.  A long orange line stretched out over the water for a few minutes before the sun disappeared into the water.  For a couple of minutes the dozen or so onlookers stood around and enjoyed the rosy afterglow.  Then the darkness set in rapidly.  Quietly we all got back in the car and drive back to Cape Town.  A sunset like that puts everyone in a contemplative mood.

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Dinner this evening was at Meloncino which has become a favorite of ours over the last few years.  It is a reliable Italian restaurant in the Victoria Wharf section of the V & A Waterfront.  Many of the tables have nice views over the city & Table Mountain but more importantly, the food is good!  This time around we tried some lamb chops, steak and a pasta dish and we rated it as one of the best meals of the entire trip.

No Sharks Today – Wine Country instead

This day was supposed to have been devoted to a Great White Shark cage-diving outing out of Simon’s Town with ASEC but it was cancelled due to a prematurely early end to the season.  We will be trying again in 2016.

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Instead we opted to drive out to the Cape wine lands, first along the N1 to Paarl and then the R45 to Franschoek.  Franschoek is unquestionably the prettiest of the wine lands towns, surrounded as it is by the craggy peaks of the Cape Fold Mountains, one of the oldest geological structures in Southern Africa.

The town itself is still quaint even though it has become a popular tourist stop.  En route into town we made a quick detour to La Residence, a superb boutique hotel, famous for hosting celebrities like Elton John.  We peeked into his favorite suite – the Maharani – which like all the other La Residence rooms was exquisitely furnished in Liz Biden’s signature style, with individual handpicked antique pieces, vivid colors and lots of imagination and verve.

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At L’Ormarins Estate – now part of the Rupert empire – we walked through the superb Franschoek Car Museum where about 80 cars (from a collection of nearly 300) are exhibited in four purpose-built halls.  From Model T Fords to Nelson Mandela’s BMW, a McLaren F1, Ferrari 250 GT SWB and an exquisite 1929 Mercedes Benz S-Type.  My personal favorite?  A shiny Shelby Cobra looking fast and aggressive even in such a demure setting.

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The L’Ormarins red wines are of a consistently high quality and their Optima, Cabernet Franc and Syrah were impressive as before.  Likewise the white wines which included a Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.  Uncharacteristically the tasting experience seemed disorganized and disjointed.  There were no crackers or bread or cheese available to cleanse the palate between varietals and it took nearly 20 minutes to get an order of 3 different teas, apparently due to an issue with the labels.  For a winery of this quality and reputation the Rupert organization really should get this right.  We enjoyed the intimate setting and the wine expert was quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic but the execution and ‘choreography’ were a major fail.

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Wine-tasting at The One & Only

By late afternoon we were back in Cape Town and seated around a table at the luxurious One & Only Hotel, a stone’s throw from the heart of the Waterfront.  In front of each of us was an array of delicately stemmed wine glasses and a platter with several different types of cheese.  We were there to enjoy the One & Only’s Signature winetasting which we proceeded to do under the guidance of one of the hotel’s knowledgeable sommeliers.  Starting with an elegant South African sparkling wine from the Graham Beck stable, we steadily tasted our way through a chenin blanc, a viognier, a chardonnay and a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon.  Interspersed with much playful conversation and laughter and a sliver of blue cheese or brie every now and then.  The next hour or so slipped by very quickly.

Sea Point Promenade and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens

This morning we retraced the route of the 10K Peace Run, spending about an hour running along the Sea Point Promenade, the noisy waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing into the seawall right by us.

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The occasional cyclist and walker passed us by, and there were several hang gliders landing in short intervals at the small park adjacent to the promenade.  Once or twice a deliberate detour over the surf and across the waves elicited squeals from the hang glider passengers who no doubt did not relish the prospect of landing in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

 

We stopped to check the temperature of the water, looked at a couple of art installations and peered through a ‘gun-sight’ at the Rhinosaur sculpture, a chilling work of art which symbolizes the imminent demise of Southern African’s rhino population as a viable species in the wild.  Depressing thought.

 

Back in the apartment and a light breakfast later, we piled back into the car for a trip to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.  Of all of Cape Town’s many attractions, this one is my favorite.  It attracts more visitors than any other sight in the Mother City.  Even so, there are no long lines here; at worst it takes a few minutes to buy a ticket.  No 2 to 4 hour wait here like at Table Mountain Cable Car!

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We arrived at Kirstenbosch in late September which is arguably the very best time of the year to be there; less than a month after the end of the rainy season with the full spring bloom effect visible everywhere.  I had not seen Kirstenbosch in such splendid shape in many years.  There were blazingly colorful displays of red, yellow, purple and orange to be seen all over the place.  The Namaqualand daisies, vygies, pincushions, arum lilies, watsonias and many other species were in full bloom.

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We wandered around for several hours, enjoying each beautiful visa, every now and then looking up at the mountain slopes dominating the scene.  Finding a Protea Cynaoroides (King Protea) in bloom was a highlight, as was a walk across the Boomslang canopy walkway.

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We finished off our Kirstenbosch experience with an enjoyable lunch at Moyo Restaurant; everyone tried the quasi-traditional fare with innovative expressions of old favorites such as as bobotie, samoosas, pap and boerewors rolls.

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Our Cape Town stay came to an end with a dinner at the always reliable Baia restaurant at the V & A Waterfront.  I enjoyed reconnecting with some old friends and we all enjoyed Baia’s expertly grilled Kabeljou and langoustines, among others.

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Part 3 – Hwange National Park

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Sunrise at Nehimba Lodge

To the casual observer or first-time visitor, Nehimba Lodge in north-central Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe seems to have been built in a non-remarkable area.  There’s not a view to speak of in any direction, a mountain in the background, no river to be seen or even much in the way of impressive vegetation.  Spend a day or two there and you will no longer have to guess why the camp is where it is.

On my first visit there one cool April night, my unasked question about this was answered in the form of several huge bull elephants that came lumbering out of the darkness to quench their thirst at a pumped fresh water source a few meters off the wooden deck.  Nehimba is located in this spot because that is where subterranean water was found.

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My friend Bob Pattan and I from Houston and two other guests – sisters from Australia – were wide-eyed and animated, shrugging off jet-lag and travel fatigue as we excitedly pointed at the approaching beasts, marveling at their size, their ivory and their simply unbelievable ability to walk around so nimbly and quietly.  Like great grey ghosts in the brilliant moonlight, they approached the watering point and either timidly or boldly – depending on their dominance ‘ranking’ – dipped their trunks into the clean pumped water again and again.  We watched as they lifted up their trunks and heard the liquid gurgling into their stomachs.  Imvelo Safaris’ MD Mark (‘Butch’) Butcher reminded us that there were still many ponds of water out in the woodlands so the elephants did not ‘have’ to come to the camp’s water source.  Just like us they may simply prefer clean pure water over the murkier version from a natural water hole.  Or perhaps they like the minerality of the pumped artesian water.

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On this evening – and the following one – we watched the night-time elephant activity for the better part of two hours, impressed by the seriousness with which they approached the water hole, particularly when there were other elephants present.  There were a lot of meaningful stares, loaded glances and the occasional bump or two, but nothing overly serious.  It gets a lot more hectic of course later in the year when the competition for dwindling water resources heats up considerably.

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Sunset at Camp Hwange

In the dry season it becomes all too clear that Hwange is in fact all about reliable sources of underground water.   This Switzerland-sized reserve in far western Zimbabwe – on the edge of the Kalahari – does not have any rivers to speak of, except in the far northern area of the park.   The erratic summer rains which usually fall from about December through March fill up some of the pans and leave behind scattered ponds and water holes.  They don’t last long.  In a month or two most of the pools of fresh water are consumed by the animals, drain away or evaporate.  From July through October and often stretching well into November and even later, much of the wildlife in Hwange and particularly the elephants depend on pumped water for survival.  If it weren’t for the approximately 65 or so artificially maintained water holes scattered throughout the park  elephant numbers would likely crash dramatically and Hwange would become far less hospitable a place for wildlife.  Not so much over the few wet months of summer but definitely during the long dry season or in years when the summer rains are sparse or fail altogether.

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Rock rabbits along the road to Sinamatella

Water has been pumped in Hwange for more than 80 years ever since the first warden Ted Davison drilled the first bore hole in the park in the 1930’s, in an attempt to provide a year-round source of drinking water for the animals.  His program has proven to be wildly successful to the point where Hwange now has 30,000-plus elephant seasonally moving into and out of the park.  This puts a lot of pressure on the water holes and in the dry hot months of September and especially October, camps like Nehimba and many others experience a non-stop parade of elephants coming to slake their huge thirsts. Which can be stressful for the animals but a boon for visitors who are treated to some of the best close-up views of dozens and sometimes hundreds of elephants, often in large breeding herds with lots of babies, a good indicator of the degree to which the animals are thriving.

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Last April we found ourselves in Hwange just a couple of weeks or so after some substantial and widespread rains had fallen.  Even though the rain was late by historical patterns, it was welcome and likely averted what may have been a catastrophic drought in much of the park.

It does have an effect on game-viewing though. Over the course of several days at Nehimba and Camp Hwange in mid-April, it became clear that the northern part of the park – which is dominated by mopane trees – is not at its best in the wet season.  Several times we found ourselves driving around aimlessly during the early morning and late afternoon ‘golden hour'; the time of day when any serious photographer wants to have his/her lens trained on a perfectly lit subject.

Giraffe seen en route to Nehimba

Giraffe seen en route to Nehimba

That is not to say that we did not enjoy the time spent at Nehimba and Camp Hwange; in fact we had a marvelous time there.  Even so, they are best visited later in the dry season, from about June or July onward, through October and November.  At this time of the year the water holes at both camps as well as at the natural seeps which are found in the area, and at pumped water holes such as Shumba, are hives of wildlife activity.  Visitors can be assured of viewing and photographing a good number and variety of animals including of course elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, eland and many more.  Plus good predator activity including lions and with a bit of luck, African Painted Dogs.

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An outstanding feature of a visit to Hwange National Park – it applies to all of the Zimbabwe parks – is being in the presence of or better yet walking with a Zimbabwe professional guide.  On average, it takes someone about 5 to 7 years to obtain the qualification which is without doubt the ‘gold standard’ for guiding throughout Africa.

 

Bob Pattan in action at a water hole, Ngamo Pans

Bob Pattan in action at a water hole, Ngamo Pans

Becoming a Zimbabwe Professional Guide

In an interview with Safaritalk, Zimbabwe Professional Guide Julian Brookstein described the process and requirements for qualifying as a Zim pro guide; what follows is a summary of Julian’s much more detailed description.  The process of becoming a Zimbabwe pro guide is complicated and demanding.  It starts with a written exam for a learner’s guide license which covers habitats & animal habits, firearms and legal issues among others. With this license and basic first aid training you can guide, but only in a vehicle.  You then take up an apprenticeship with a safari company which takes from three to four years but can be up to ten years.  During this time, while gaining experience and knowledge, a learner guide also has to hunt at least four dangerous game animals; this is usually done in a situation where a problem animal has to be eradicated.  Over this entire apprenticeship period, learner guides have to keep a logbook of everything from camp maintenance work to drives taken, walks in the company of fully licensed guides, approaches to dangerous game – in fact anything and everything to do with guiding.

Once a learner guide is at a stage of proficiency where his/her mentor thinks the person is ready to move forward, he/she has to complete an advanced first aid course, and then a shooting exam which tests the applicant’s speed and accuracy under conditions simulating an animal charging or the pursuit of a wounded elephant or similar.

Eland at Ngweshla

Eland at Ngweshla

The last two steps – which are the also the toughest – is an interview for final proficiency and then the actual proficiency test.  During the interview for proficiency as many as 10 qualified guides will test your knowledge of mammal skulls & skins and any other matters relating to guiding.  Passing this test comes with an invitation to proficiency, which happens once a year in the first week of October.  The aspiring guide usually teams up with another apprentice and sets up a full fly camp to host at least two examiners.  The camp is expected to be fully functional with food and beverages to be provided (you can take in a camp hand or two to assist).  After a camp inspection, the next week is taken up with small groups of apprentices and examiners spending hours out in the bush and the applicants having to answer questions on all aspects of the fauna and flora, tracks etc.  Most importantly, guide applicants will be put in a situation where they have to successfully shoot and drop an elephant with a single shot.  After all this, a guide will be fully qualified as a Zimbabwe Professional Guide and only then will he/she be allowed to lead guests on foot, in any of the Zimbabwe National Parks.

Sunset over Ngamo Pans

Sunset over Ngamo Pans

What does this mean to visitors?  It means that you can get out of the vehicle and follow your Zim pro guide on foot with the greatest of confidence.  They are trained specifically to be able to protect you under any and all circumstances.  The guides try to avoid potential danger but if something unexpected happens, you will know exactly what to do because your guide will have already properly briefed you.  It is on foot where Zimbabwe pro guides really shine and are best able to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.  So if you find yourself at a safari camp and someone asks if you’d like to do some walking, say yes.  It may end up being one of your best ever safari experiences!

Ivory Lodge - A good choice for a family safari

Ivory Lodge – A good choice for a family safari

Over the next week, I spent two nights each at several Hwange safari camps; here are some impressions:

Nehimba Lodge

Friendly, hospitable staff and management, casual atmosphere.  Huge rooms with comfortable beds, old-fashioned bath & outdoor showers. It was nice to have an electronic device to alert camp management when you were ready to be collected from your room.  We were guided by one of the most experienced Zimbabwe pro guides around (the MD of Imvelo Safaris) and experienced a good close encounter with a bull elephant while on foot.  Highlight was undoubtedly the elephants coming to drink right by the pool & deck at night.  Great food including a memorable traditional meal on the day of arrival, with three types of meat, sadza (local version of polenta), morogo (traditional spinach), a bean salad and more.   Wonderfully remote and peaceful area – highly recommended for particularly elephant aficionados. WIFI = Yes.

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Twin bedded suite at Nehimba Lodge

Camp Hwange

Exceedingly well-run camp with superior guiding staff.  Everything was spotlessly clean and in perfect working order including the vehicles which had nice special features such as an interior roof light which is useful when arriving back in camp after dark.  Highlight was seeing two male lions in perfect light near Shumba Pan on our last morning there. An all-day outing to the Sinamatella area was educational – we saw a part of the park which we had never traveled in previously – but ultimately disappointing due to very thick bush conditions making animal viewing difficult.  All three guides with whom we interacted namely Julian Brookstein, Spike Williamson and Adam were extremely knowledgeable, friendly and tried their very best to find animals for us.  We enjoyed a couple of memorable meals at Camp Hwange which had the highest occupancy of any of the camps we visited.  WIFI = Yes

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Main area interior at Camp Hwange

Lion seen on game drive from Camp Hwange

Lion seen on game drive from Camp Hwange

Somalisa Camp

Currently the most luxurious camp in Hwange, by a significant margin. Absolutely no comparison with the ‘original’ Somalisa Camp; the only thing the two  have in common is the location.  The new Somalisa has beautiful and expansive common areas and deluxe rooms which are huge, elegant and luxurious in every way, complete with old-fashioned bath and  shower.

Elephants at a watering hole near Somalisa

Elephants at a watering hole near Somalisa

The camp has easy access to Ngweshla which is one of Hwange’s best game-viewing areas, bar none.  Always something to be seen; over a couple of visits there we experienced great views of eland, zebra, impala, colorful birds and much more, previously we had also seen roan there.  Our afternoon game drive out of Somalisa with our guide Lewis was one of the best of the trip with great views of breeding herds of elephant with lots of tiny babies, among others.  Plus delicious meals including a memorable pita lunch with lamb meat balls, a variety of salads and couscous.   WIFI = Yes

Interior of room at Somalisa

Interior of room at Somalisa

Part of lounge at Somalisa

Part of lounge at Somalisa

Linkwasha Camp

This new Wilderness Safaris property is a sleek, well-designed new camp in the southern part of Hwange, close to Ngamo Pan.  I like the spacious, well-equipped rooms (overhead fan and efficient standing fan), excellent lighting, nice view over a nearby pan, mini-bar and indoor-outdoor shower with great water pressure.  The food was superb.   This camp delivered the best overall game-viewing of any of the Hwange Camps we visited this time.  Ngamo Pans is a jewel of a place for the green season and this camp – or Wilderness Safaris’ Little Makalolo or Davison’s Camp – is a great choice for the summer months.

Ngamo Pan at sunset

Ngamo Pan at sunset

A worthwhile side-trip was a visit to Ngamo Village where the local Headman Johnson Ncube (aka Mr. Johnson) and his wife Dorothy showed us around the neat little village and their private homestead.

Dorothy Ncube in the dining room at Ngamo Village

Dorothy Ncube in the dining room at Ngamo Village

Many game-viewing highlights with our professional guide Bulisane Mathe (‘Buli’) such as a fantastic viewing of a herd of Sable antelope seen in good light inside a simply gorgeous Rosewood forest; a small pride of lions at first light near camp and a spell-binding sequence of events when a few elephants chased away a couple of lions at sunset.  Our last morning game drive out of Linkwasha produced the first good viewing of eland on this trip and I captured a couple of good images, one showing the relative size of these giant antelope quite clearly, compared with a diminutive impala. WIFI = No.

Eland vs Impala

Eland vs Impala

Conclusion

In summary, Hwange is one of Southern Africa’s most underrated wildlife sanctuaries. Those of us who know it and who visit it regularly know only too well that Hwange delivers a fantastic African safari experience, time after time.  For one thing the abundance of elephants almost guarantees a great safari.  Everyone loves elephants and even on a slow day, you’ll see more than just a few.  But Hwange isn’t just about elephants.  They are the highlight but over the years we’ve had some brilliant sightings of lions, cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, sable antelope, roan, eland and many more – plus fantastic birdlife.

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Lion in early morning light near Linkwasha

Lion in early morning light near Linkwasha

Add to that the best guiding in Africa, top-quality camps, relatively few other visitors at practically any time of the year, a good road network and you have the recipe for an amazing safari experience.  Don’t rush it though.  Hwange is best experienced slowly so take your time and spend at least three or four nights at one camp and by all means do some walking with a Zimbabwe pro guide.  Take some time off from game drives, sit and wait at a water hole and observe and magical things will happen.

Secretary bird

Secretary bird

A few practical hints:

  • If you are a serious photographer, take a long lens (300 to 400mm) as off-road driving is sensibly not allowed inside the park.  The road network is good and most of the animals are seen at or near waterholes so there is no need to drive right up to them.  However occasionally you will need a good long lens to capture some of the smaller mammals and birds away from the vehicle.

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  • Hwange gets very hot in the southern African spring and summer months from about October to March or so, yet it can be bitterly cold with temperatures right down to 32F in winter (June, July & August).So go well prepared depending on the season:  layering is essential in winter, as are gloves & proper head-cover.  In summer the lightest of lightweight clothing would be appropriate and at any time of the year you will need a good hat and plenty of sunscreen.

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  • Hwange combines well and easily with several other Zimbabwe parks & areas.You can start a Zimbabwe trip in the Matobos (rhino, Rhodes’ grave-site at the View of the World & San cave art) & then go by road transfer (about 3.5 hrs) to Hwange.  Hwange is also a drivable distance from Victoria Falls (5 to 6 hours depending on what you see along the way inside the park) but better to fly.  For a longer Zimbabwe trip consider combining Hwange with Matusadona National Park (scenery, Lake Kariba boating & fishing, excellent elephant-viewing) and Mana Pools (remote, atmospheric, good game-viewing, very diverse range of activities).

Continue to Part 4: Matusadona

Ngamo Pan

Ngamo Pan


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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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Conclusion

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


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MalaMala, Sabi Sand Reserve

High resolution photos available at Flickr!

By: Lyndon Duplessis

Woke up around 8AM at the hotel and got in a quick breakfast before heading to domestic departures and taking the short 45 minute flight to Skukuza.  From there we were met by a driver with a covered vehicle and driven the remaining 40 minutes to camp.  This is really a superior option than flying to Kruger Mpumalanga as the transfer from there, although scenic, is significantly longer.

Malamala has long been a favorite of ours due to its relative proximity to Johannesburg, its quality lodging and most importantly the expertise of the rangers and the abundance of game on the property.  Once again it delivered in every respect and set the bar high for all the camps that followed.

The property itself is well manicured with the grass cut in the immediate vicinity to make it easy to spot a predator should they venture close to camp.  The gravel walkways are painstakingly combed over by the staff for aesthetic reasons and also to keep track of what animals have been in the area recently.   There is literally always someone working on these things so when you see some animal footprints you know it was very recent.  Rooms are air conditioned/heated and there are two bathrooms in each.  From the terrace at my room we had a great view of the Sand River, often times with animals grazing on its banks.  In fact many antelope can be seen all around camp.

We met our ranger, Morne, just before lunch.  He was friends with the ranger I had on my last trip, Peter, who was not in camp at the time.  The lunch buffet was plentiful and we grabbed a beer or two as we had the unlimited alcohol option.  After lunch we had a little bit of time to ourselves and as it was warming up I decided to have a quick dip in the pool.  It was a bit too cool for me but refreshing nonetheless.  The pool also overlooks the river and it is a treat when you spot the head of a giraffe on the far bank peeking over some trees as you float in the pool.

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The first game drive of a safari is always filled with anticipation and excitement.  We were treated early with a good giraffe sighting followed up by general antelope and a lone elephant before hitting an early jackpot with a leopard sighting.  The rangers here have no fear of off-roading so we were able to follow it across some very tough terrain for a quality viewing.  Eventually even the sturdiest vehicles cannot keep pace with an active leopard.  Unless you spot one in a tree you will inevitably lose it.  Also saw a white rhino on the way back to camp that night.  By this time it was quite dark so the sighting was not excellent but it’s always nice to see one of the big five, especially since it was everyone else’s first time to see one.

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Woke up at around 6:30 the following morning in an effort to head out around 7:00 but it took us a little bit longer to get sorted out.  Weather was surprisingly warm though it would change in the following days.  Early on in the drive we began to track some lions using footprints on the road.  As we were searching for them we came across a buffalo which made 4 out of the big 5.  It took us a while but after turning around a couple times we finally found those lions and it was absolutely worth the trouble.   2 males with a female and 2 tiny cubs.  The cubs were rowdy and noisy and it was a pleasure to watch them all interact.  The cubs are very inquisitive giving long glances to the vehicle and occasionally taking a few steps toward us.  They growl constantly to everyone’s delight.  On our way back to camp we saw a nice herd of elephant as well as more general game.  Had some delicious bobotie for lunch which is a South African specialty consisting of spiced ground beef with an egg based topping.  I’m going to have to bug my dad to help me cook some when I get home.

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Our afternoon drive was productive as well.  Some wild dog had a den within the property and they were lying down outside as we arrived.  We waited for quite a while for them to go hunt but unfortunately they did not comply.  Multiple times one of the dogs seemed to make the rounds and try to get the others stirred up but to no avail.  The alpha female had recently given birth but the pups were too young to come out.  It was still a pleasure to sit amongst them as we enjoyed a little tea and coffee.

Almost had the sighting of a lifetime when we returned to camp.  The sun had gone down and a big male leopard was stalking some impala.  We got a great look because he was using the road to stay low and hide behind the tall grass.  Time seemed to pass slowly because it appeared that he would pounce at any moment.  Even now I am surprised he didn’t take a run at them.  I suppose he knows what he’s doing a little better than I do.  It looked like the impala either spotted him or caught his scent and we had to get back for dinner but a beautiful sighting nonetheless.

The night’s dinner was enjoyed in the outdoor boma area under the stars.  We had some great soup, kudu venison, mixed vegetables and salad as well as one of my favorites, malva pudding.  We also decided to get up earlier the following day.

6:00 wake up this morning and we made good time heading back to the wild dog den.  It looked like they had been hunting as several had blood around their mouths.  Had our morning coffee in the vehicle as we watched them and then let another vehicle come in to observe.  Shortly after we left we spotted 3 white rhinos, 2 females and a male.  Absolutely massive horns on these prehistoric looking beasts!  The evening drive netted us 4 different lions near the airstrip.  They were doing what most lions do bathing in the sun and then moving into the shade once they get enough.  We had gone to the northeast side of the property which borders Kruger in search of cheetah but to no avail.  We were treated to a wide variety of plains game to the tune of zebras, wildebeest and ostrich.  Heard lions roaring around camp before dinner which is always cool if not the slightest bit unnerving.

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Our final drive on the property was a little quiet but still enjoyable.  Went in search of cheetah again but wound up finding more lions.  3 adults and 3 younger cubs.  The adults were resting while the cubs fed and played around a bit.  On our way back to camp we saw a nice variety of animals at a water hole including elephant, zebra, wildebeest and impala.

Malamala remains one of my all-time favorites.  It delivers time and time again and whenever we include it in someone’s itinerary I know it will be one of the highlights of their trip.  This stay was no exception and I only wish we could have stayed longer.

Our motley crew at MalaMala

Our motley crew at MalaMala


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