By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
There was nothing smooth about our entry into Zimbabwe on this exceptionally hot day in Vic Falls in early November. Even though Kathleen and I were in the front of the line it took us the better part of 30 minutes to get a single entry visa. Our friends the Davidsons did not make it out of the un-air-conditioned arrivals hall for another 30 minutes at least. Perhaps the computerized system (not sure if they have one) was malfunctioning or someone did not show up for work but the glacial pace at which the visas were written (by hand, involving two persons) was absurd. To make matters worse we had some Brits in the line ahead of us who disagreed with the official about the cost of the visa, which wasted another 15 minutes. It really was painful.
Having collected our luggage, we were off to the Vic Falls Safari Lodge. Much as I was looking forward to the time there and as receptive as I always am to enjoy a place, rather than to complain about it, the hotel ended up being disappointing on several levels.
The accommodation was fine, in fact I really liked our split level room with a very nice separate lounge and ‘upstairs’ bedroom – both with good views over the water hole some distance in front of the lodge. However, the air-conditioning in our room did not work and it wasn’t until 7:00P (we arrived at 2:00P) that the management finally decided to put us in a different room. This one had a huge gap to the outside so the air-conditioner was humming very loudly all night, unable to cope with the deluge of hot air from outside.
Food and Beverage issues at the VFSL
My main beef with the Vic Falls Safaris concerns food and beverages. Despite the fact that I had sent the hotel management very detailed information about my vegan dietary requirements, there was not even a token attempt made to accommodate the many ingredients & foods mentioned. The floridly written meat-heavy menu contained some alarming errors such as ‘centred’ incorrectly used instead of ‘scented’. As in ‘centred’ with mint or marjoram or whatever, instead of the correct ‘scented’. This kind of glaring grammatical error simply does not belong in a menu in what purports to be a 5-star establishment.
More alarming were the prices, which were simply outrageous. All food, water and drinks are massively over-priced. Someone clearly has no idea of the purchasing power of the US Dollar. If the VFSL reduced the cost of all food and beverage by 50% they would still be pricey but at least they would not be guilty of gouging to the degree that they are now. For example, 2 small green salads, a bowl of pea soup , a rum and coke plus two 12-oz bottles of water came to US$51.00! Ridiculous.
When I asked for some sadza (a local version of polenta) I was told – by the barman from whom one can order bar lunches at the Buffalo Bar – that I could only get it from the Boma restaurant. When I explained that I didn’t eat meat (the Boma is essentially a meat fest), he was still not responsive until another (female) waiter interceded. I was told that yes they could do something, but ‘we would have to find an equivalent item on the menu to charge it’. So bottom line: the VFSL was more worried about how much they could charge for some sadza (cheap maize meal) than in trying to assist a guest.
Other than the price, my food was simply no good either. The pasta dish which I ended up ordering (the closest thing to a vegan item I could find on the menu) was ghastly. It was supposed to have been infused with a pesto sauce but there was not even a trace of that very, very distinctive sauce to be found. The dish was topped with a stringy vegetable or root (it had no taste) which was totally inedible. To make the entire evening even worse, the service was glacial. We are used to slow service in Southern African restaurants but this was simply unacceptably slow, both ordering and receiving food or beverages. The end result of all this was that we ate at a different restaurant – Mama Africa’s – the following night.
No way to run a railroad
Our stay at the VFSL ended on a most unfortunate note. Despite repeated inquiries from me – I even walked down to the front desk to ask about it the day prior to our departure – the lodge never informed us of our departure time and the onus was clearly on them. We had pre-paid for a road transfer organized by the VFSL to Kasane, to connect with a flight to a camp in Botswana. So being responsible for getting us to the airport in time, one would assume that the VFSL would make the necessary inquiries regarding the flight departure time well in advance. It was never done. So on the day of departure – I had just come back from a run and was standing in my room sweating – the phone rang and I was told that our driver was there. It was 08:00A and none of us had had breakfast yet. Nor had we packed anything. We could have missed our flight, but fortunately made it with a bit of time to spare. The aggravation and panic could have been prevented though.
What is much worse, and which embarrassed me immensely, is that both my wife and I and my clients the Davidsons were forced to pay again for accommodation and transfers despite the fact that we had prepaid all of this by wire transfer previously. The front desk could ostensibly not find the wire transfer; I sent a copy of the confirmed transfer complete with tracking details a couple of days later, by e-mail. I must say that I have never experienced such incompetence on the part of any hotel management as I witnessed on the day of departure from the VFSL. We were subsequently refunded for the double payment and the VFSL also refunded 50% of the cost of the stay to each of us.
VIC FALLS EXCURSIONS
We had previously arranged two excursions through the VFSL – a 30-minute helicopter flight of angels and a 2-hr sundowner cruise. I would rate the helicopter flight as a good experience, even though it was a solid 5 minutes short of the advertised 30 minutes. The pilot unfortunately concentrated mostly on the passenger in the seat to his left so that the two of us in the back right-hand seats never got any really good views of the Falls. I had to shoot the pics mostly through the other window which was not ideal. Even so the view from up there beats anything from ground level; it is simply impossible to appreciate the geological passage of time from the surface. From the air, it becomes clear how the Zambezi has moved from one rocky stretch to another over the course of perhaps millions of years. There was very little water in the Zambezi and I felt sorry for anyone trying to see the Falls from the Zambia side of the river. There was absolutely not a drop of water on that side.
The two most enjoyable parts of our stay in Vic Falls was a sundowner (‘booze’) cruise on the Zambezi in the 12-seater Ra-Ikane and a stroll to the Vic Falls Hotel for high tea which was delicious and nicely presented. We should have stayed there instead. The hotel’s public areas and grounds are in impeccable condition; clearly the new management is doing something right. Likewise the Ilala Lodge, where we enjoyed a cocktail on the lawn with several colorful birds including a couple of gorgeous sunbirds flitting into and out of the herbaceous border. I can still kick myself for not having my camera along on this outing. The sundowner cruise was well worth the US$75.00 per person; we had some great views of elephants drinking, observed several pods of hippo from a safe distance, and saw a myriad different birds species perched and in flight. The snacks were ok and likewise the drinks, except that the dedicated barman was not overly keen to help us. Also the wine was really no good and not cold enough. Neither was the beer. It didn’t really matter though – we had a fine time chugging along the Zambezi – with just a little bit of imagination it could have been the African Queen.
KRUGER PARK – SABI SAND RESERVE
After a short overnight interlude in Johannesburg at the D’Oreale Grande Hotel (small rooms, nice breakfast, pretty garden); we spent the last two days of our Africa trip at Earth Lodge in the Sabi Sand Reserve, adjacent to the southern part of Kruger Park.
Getting to and back from Sabi Sabi was a breeze with Federal Air. The most pleasant young lady assisted us with weighing and labeling our luggage at the FedAir kiosk at ORTI, on the way out. No stress – just a great big smile and ‘have a great time’. If only all flying could be like that! We were promptly whisked away to the FedAir terminal on the other side of the airport – a 10-minute drive – where we hung around the comfortable lounge for 20 minutes or so (complimentary beverages, sandwiches and snacks available) until our ‘Flight 1’ departure was announced. In just over an hour we were on the ground at Sabi Sabi, meeting our Earth Lodge guide Brett, mostly telling him that we had dipped out on lions in Botswana. Imagine that: a week in Botswana and no lions. Had to make up for that in a hurry.
Except there was a problem: the local pride of lions – all 16 of them – had been hanging around the edge of the Sabi Sabi property and had only been seen a couple of times over the last 5 days. This was not what we wanted to hear. Kathleen and I had seen bunches of lions over the years but our friends the Davidsons had not seen any in the wild, ever. We did not want them to have to return to the USA and to be forced to reply with a big fat ‘no’ to the inevitable question: ‘Did you see lions while you were in Africa?”
So for the next two days it was all lion hunting all the time at Earth Lodge. Cutting to the chase, we did find them, but not until our last night there. It turned out to be quite an amazing sighting though, watching the 8 adult females and 8 youngsters – around 9 months – hunting in the darkness. In what might have been a bit of an ethical lapse, our spotter lit up a hare with a spotlight, and the lionesses made short thrift of it, displaying amazing agility twisting and contorting themselves in pursuit of the hapless hare, which soon ended up being carted off, screeching pathetically as it dangled from the lion’s jaws. We had witnessed a kill, but not quite the kill we had in mind.
On the morning of our departure, Brett found the lions again but of our party of 4, only Kathleen was on the vehicle. Gwen and I were both down with a stomach ailment; mine a rather nasty case of food poisoning which did not let up until the following day, despite several doses of Xifaxan. Hint: get your health professional to prescribe some Xifaxan for you on your next Africa or any third world trip. Much better to be protected than not. So as a result of not being on this outing, I do not have even a single lion photograph from this trip, a first ever!
But no matter, we saw much else besides lions at night, at Sabi Sabi. For one thing, we saw tons of white rhino, so many that we almost quit stopping for them. I had my best ever sighting of two white rhino wallowing just meters from us, in a small mudhole which barely accommodated one and a half rhinos. So it was quite comical and entertaining to see both of them utilizing it together!
Other than that, Sabi Sabi delivered a couple of great leopard sightings, some hyena, good close ups of buffalo, quite a few elephants including some tiny babies, a few giraffe, some zebra, and all the other usual suspects. Once again, the Sabi Sand Reserve lived up to its reputation as a reliable Big Five game-viewing area. Even so, three nights there would have been better than just two!
I have not yet said anything about Earth Lodge, probably because I have been savoring the best for last. The entire experience at Earth Lodge, from the moment we met our guide until the afternoon of our departure, was delightful. I had previously seen some photographs of the lodge which left me a little dubious and in truth, it does not look like much on arrival, with a large downward sloping tunnel leading one to the front entrance. But go ahead and enter and you literally step into a world of elegance, enjoyment and immaculate service. To say that the design of Earth Lodge is special or intriguing would be doing a disservice to each of those words. It simply has to be seen to be appreciated. Honestly I could have spent a couple of days just lounging around the lodge itself; both in the room and in the various nooks and crannies (nothing small about them either) in the lodge itself. The foyer, the library, the dining room, the bar area, the new ‘day bar’ dipping pool, each and every area is inviting and practically mandates investigation and experimentation. The ‘ dipping bar’ is one of a kind – a place to sit at a table and sip cocktails in the middle of cool, ankle deep water. Which is exactly what we did, popping yet another bottle of sparkling wine in what turned out to be a 3-week long birthday and anniversary party.
Most remarkable is the combined effect of the massive open spaces, the dominant earth-colored walls and the striking tables, benches and objets d’art fashioned from gigantic pieces of driftwood. Stunning ? Definitely. I found that each day I experienced a new facet of the place – and I really cannot imagine getting tired of it in a hurry either. Earth Lodge does not have the greatest view in the world and for good reason. The lodge itself is the main attraction. Our dining experiences were first-class in every way, from the extensive menu selections, the food presentation, taste and service. Impeccable. A highlight was dinner in the private underground wine cellar. What a terrific spot, seated at the single most impressive table I have ever seen – it must weigh several tons!
I have the same high praise for our room at Earth Lodge; really more a suite than just a room. Kathleen and I tried out every part of it: the huge king size bed, of course, also the sitting area, the desk, outside patio with lounge chairs and the private plunge pool. Everything and every part of the room is functional – there is no wasted space. Need two more reasons why we liked the room? How about a massive tub and an outside shower. Earth Lodge is surely a 3-night minimum stay place, even 4, to allow oneself the luxury of sleeping in at least one morning, or taking an entire day off, to just appreciate the room and the lodge.
Yes I know not everybody will like it and the die-hard safari aficionados will carp about it being over the top, too much this and too much that. Most of them will say that without having spent 10 minutes there. If safari to you means a modest Meru-type tent with en-suite bathroom and sandy trail back to the lodge, that’s great too. But I wouldn’t advise knocking properties like of Earth Lodge without having tried them.
Sabi Sabi has several other lodge options (none tented) including Bush Lodge; Little Bush Lodge (I think that was my favorite) and Selati Lodge. Each with its own charm and special features. Having just briefly walked through these lodges I will reserve judgment & comment for some other time, once I’ve actually spent some time there.
The trip underscored several impressions built up over more than 20 years in the safari business – many of you will be familiar with these already:
* Two nights are rarely enough to do justice to any area or property.
* Transfers between camps are invariably a bit more complicated and time-consuming than one anticipates.
* Few places rival Northern Botswana’s Okavango Delta for its rare combination of wildlife, scenic beauty and delightful tented safari camps.
* For ‘Big Five’ game-viewing (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo) the Sabi Sand Reserve adjacent to Kruger Park is the best choice.
* Victoria Falls – now that Zimbabwe is on a US$ monetary system – is totally overpriced. At the Vic Falls Safari Lodge we paid more than US$50 for 2 small salads, a bowl of pea soup and a rum and coke. My advice would be to rather spend an extra day on safari and omit Vic Falls altogether.
* October and November – essentially the last two months of the dry season in the interior – can be very harsh in Botswana, hot and dry with animals really struggling for survival. Better to travel in August or September (or even earlier in the dry season) or rather consider the ‘Green Season’ when everything is green, there are lots of baby animals around and the wildlife is thriving.
* The Southwestern Cape including Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula, the winelands and the southern Cape, is well worth including on nearly any itinerary. Popular sights such as the summit of Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, the African Penguin sanctuary at Boulders, Hout Bay Harbor and others are much more heavily visited than in years past, but for good reason. They live up to expectations.
BACK TO TOP