Botswana Trip Report – Part 5

At 0945 on a Wednesday morning in June 1998, our Sefofane pilot Neville glanced back at us over his right shoulder, adjusted the throttle of the little Cessna 206 to the maximum setting, released the brake and off we went in dust-blower fashion, bouncing along for a very long minute or so, before the laws of aerodynamics mercifully kicked in and we were airborne. As if someone had flipped the tension switch, we immediately relaxed, peering down at the wonderful mosaic of water, islands, clumps of palm trees, patches of riverine bush and open plains which makes the Mombo area such an animal paradise. We would never forget our stay there.

Our day would be rather typical of a ‘travel day’ in northern Botswana and Zimbabwe. A half hour by air to Kasane Airport, one and a half hours by road to Victoria Falls, crossing the Zimbabwe border in the process, followed by an uneventful commercial flight on Air Zimbabwe to Kariba, via Hwange. We touched down at Kariba by 330PM, repacked our stuff into a smaller bag and boarded yet another small plane for a 30-minute scenic flight to the Tashinga airstrip at Matusadona. From there it was a short 7-minute drive by open Land Rover to the edge of the water, followed by a 15-minute boat ride to Matusadona Water Lodge.

Kathleen had her doubts about this camp, but she started changing her mind, practically as soon as we got there. First impressions were good: the camp had been recently updated and the blue and white decor was quite striking. For once, the camp briefing – presented by Tracy in a crisp and forthright manner – did not include references to animals strolling through camp! She did mention crocodiles, but this being mid-winter, we did not need much incentive to stay out of the water. The ‘mother ship’, which houses the central bar, lounge and dining room, was a real hit with us (and the other guests in camp at the time) and we spent several hours there simply relaxing and chatting away. Guests commute between this unit and their rooms either by canoe or the camp motorboat. We tried both: a canoe when we arrived and the pontoon boat to get back to the mother ship, a couple of hours later, for dinner. By that time our ears had picked up the unmistakable throaty, resonant grunts of hippo. Sound travels incredibly well over water, and the hippo might have been miles away, but we weren’t about to take any chances.

Matusadona Water Lodge and its practically identical sister lodge Water Wilderness both have accommodation for a maximum of 8 guests in four tastefully decorated twin-bedded chalets, each with en-suite toilet and shower. Our room had a very comfortable double bed. Each of the floating rooms has its own cool verandah complete with table and chairs. We briefly tried our luck for some of Kariba’s legendary bream, but for one reason or another they flatly ignored our proffered bait, some local earthworms. It was probably just as well that we did not catch a fish, as it might have distracted our attention from one of the most glorious sunsets which we had ever seen. The sun appeared to be drowning right in Lake Kariba, filling the air with an almost pure pink glow and creating the perfect backdrop for the skeletal remains of long dead leadwood trees. Of the thousands of trees which had perished here in the late 1950’s, when the water started to rise upon completion of the dam wall, the stumps of the leadwoods are all that remain.

With the good rains inland earlier in 1998, Lake Kariba had risen by over four meters and many of the grassy plains which used to line the shores of the lake were under water. The level of the water was not that much below full capacity, and we were told that the sluice gates may have to be opened if they had another good rainy season.

Matusadona Water Lodge has to be amongst the most underrated camps in Zimbabwe. With the new floating chalets, the new decor and its wonderfully secluded site within Matusadona, there are few other camps to rival it. Wilderness Safaris have a superb couple running the camp, Clive and Tracy Meakin. Clive is a full pro guide who did his training at Chikwenya. Tracy complements Clive and they run a great operation. The food was delicious and the range of activities on offer make the place an exciting and interesting one to visit.

The real highlight here is the game viewing – and the night sounds! One does not have to travel anywhere to get to the best game viewing area in Matusadona. You’re already there! On a boat trip, we had some of our best views ever of elephant, marveling at the sight of elephants feeding ‘under water’… Two or three of them were practically completely submerged, rooting around for a type of water plant that obviously appeals to them. On emerging from the water, the ‘clean’ wet elephants appeared to be almost pitch black, their tusks almost blindingly white.

Colin Bell, who visited Matusadona Water Lodge a few weeks earlier, also enjoyed great game-viewing: We had buffalo, lion and elephant around camp! We did not want to sleep at night with the night sounds echoing around the bay where the camp is moored. Then the lions started up in stereo and we could not sleep. It was one of the loudest lion nights I have ever experienced. Their calls from all sides came barreling across the waters. Next morning we found their tracks right along the shoreline.

All too soon we had to bid Zimbabwe goodbye, going on to South Africa for our last stay at a game reserve, the famed MalaMala Main Camp adjacent to Kruger Park. Much has been written and said about MalaMala and we wondered whether it would live up to our expectations, especially following hot on the heels of such as wonderful trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe.

There was no reason to worry. From the moment we were met at reception, it was evident that MalaMala was a thoroughly professional, exceedingly well-run operation. Everything was done smoothly and seamlessly, just as one would expect at a deluxe hotel. Our room itself – Suite #6 – was almost too luxurious for us, but it is the kind of luxury we can get used to in a hurry, with air-conditioning, his and hers bathrooms (one with a bath, the other with a shower), heated towel rails, a telephone, a separate lounge, and a fully-stocked mini-bar. We arrived right at lunch-time, which was served alfresco on the verandah. The food was superb: elegantly presented both at lunch and at the very enjoyable outdoor Boma dinner, which MalaMala does better than anybody else.

The game-viewing and the guiding at MalaMala can only be described as world-class. Our guide Leon and tracker John made a superb, if unlikely team. Leon, who has a degree in zoology, was the perfect host, urbane and gracious, always checking on our well-being. John, the Shangaan tracker, whose father had also been a tracker, didn’t miss a thing. With his amazing eyesight he saw things which we could only make out with binoculars. On our very first game drive that afternoon, we found ourselves – in an open game-viewing vehicle – right in the midst of a massive herd of buffalo, all very relaxed and allowing us to observe and photograph the finest of details. Soon after, we came across a pride of 6 lions, again having the opportunity to observe them closely. Initially, they were just resting up but our eyes soon locked onto a powerful big maned male as he walked right by the vehicle, acknowledging our presence with just a flicker of a disdainful glance. The next day, we had two different leopard sightings, first following two female leopards on the hunt, and then running into another young male drinking at the river, close to camp. Add to that some very relaxed elephant herds and a solitary white rhino, and voila, the ‘Big Five’. We duly received our certificates, putting us into some pretty select company. There are people who make light of MalaMala’s ‘Big Five’ focus, but let’s face it, people do not come to Africa just to see termite mounds or dung beetles. On the way out back to Skukuza Airport – but still on the MalaMala property – we had an excellent sighting of a cheetah, sitting right by the side of the road. If we didn’t have a plane to catch we might have spent more time there…

MalaMala is without equal in terms of ‘delivering’ a consistent, quality experience all-round, from its game-viewing, which benefits from its extensive river footage, drawing large numbers of mammals onto the property, to its superior hospitality and food, resulting in numerous awards over the years. The reason for MalaMala’s success? The personal touch, as embodied by Michael and Norma Rattray and their great staff. The first person we saw as we drove onto the property was Mr. Rattray himself, inspecting one of the roads. Later that evening, he came over to our table and inquired about our well-being. And it was obvious that Mrs. Rattray was treated with great respect by all the staff members. We look forward to a return visit to the property to have a look at the new Harry’s Camp.

The last couple of days of our trip was spent in Cape Town.

Bert du Plessis