A Travellerspoint blog

Out of Africa - literally!

Botswana safari plus, day twelve

Making the most of the last few hours

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Rufous sparrow (I think), Ole Sereni Hotel

It turns out that while the Ole Sereni, where we spent our last night in Africa, might well be located on the edge of Nairobi’s city Game Park, the view from our bedroom there was more akin to Spaghetti Junction than to the Masai Mara, and the noise levels equivalent. My sleep was consequently somewhat disturbed!

After a good buffet breakfast we had time to kill before our planned bit of sightseeing - time to relax, catch up on emails etc. and try to spot birds or other signs of life in the park. I had seen a few colourful birds while we were at breakfast, but when I later took my camera out on the terrace by the bar, all I could see were sparrows! Admittedly I think some of these might have been the Kenyan Rufous sparrow, rather than our own ubiquitous house sparrow, but nevertheless not very exciting!

A later visit to the terrace yielded an eagle of some sort flying overhead, and a small yellow bird in the bushes which I’m guessing is a weaver.

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Possibly a weaver of some sort?

Out of Africa

'I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.'
(the opening sentence of 'Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen)

At 11.00 we were picked up by Jackson for our small sightseeing trip, a visit to the former home of Karen Blixen of ‘Out of Africa’ fame. Although I have not seen the film, I was reading her book in preparation for this visit and was intrigued to see the house where she lived.

We drove out of the city centre along the Ngong road, which in her day would, according to her accounts of it, have been little more than a mud track, impassable in wet weather. Today it is a busy dual carriageway, with a large slum to the right (Jackson told us with a tinge of misplaced pride that this is the second largest in Africa, after Soweto) and on the left the affluent suburb of Karen, developed on land once part of her coffee farm.

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Karen Blixen's house


We arrived at the house, now a museum, where Jackson paid the entrance for us and then left us with a young guide, who did an excellent job of showing us around. Firstly, she told us something of Karen Blixen’s story. She was born in 1885, as Karen Dinesen, into a wealthy Danish family and in 19914 married her Swedish second cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, becoming Baroness Blixen. He was keen big game hunter, a pursuit still considered acceptable at the time (something you must bear in mind when learning about Karen and/or reading her book).

Using an investment from their common uncle, the couple bought land in Kenya (in those days, British East Africa), planning to start a cattle farm. But they later changed their minds, having become convinced that coffee would be more profitable. With the uncle they founded the Karen Coffee Company and set about establishing their coffee farm. It did not go well as the First World War led to a shortage of workers and supplies. Nevertheless, they decided to move to a bigger farm and bought a property to the west of Nairobi, near the foot of the Ngong Hills. Of their 6,000 acres of land they used just 600 acres for a coffee plantation – the rest were used by the natives (known as ‘squatters’) for grazing or left as untouched virgin forest. But still the farm continued to struggle. The land here wasn’t really suitable for growing coffee as its elevation is too high and there were other problems too – a fire destroyed the coffee processing factory, there were poor harvests, and so on. When Karen and the Baron separated, in 1921 (and subsequently divorced in 1925) she was left to run the farm on her own, which she did until the company finally collapsed in 1931. Meanwhile she had fallen in love with the English hunter, safari guide and pilot Denys Finch Hatton – the main subject of the film ‘Out of Africa’, in which he was played by Robert Redford (and Karen by Meryl Streep). The book however focuses more on the day to day life of the farm and is very interesting background reading for a visit here.

Our guide showed us some old farm machinery from Karen’s time - ploughs that would have been pulled by her oxen, a wagon used to carry the sacks of coffee to the railway station in Nairobi for onward transport to the port in Mombassa, and a tractor.

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Old farm machinery and a 1922 tractor


Then she took us to the house, starting with the separate kitchen with its iron range and still many of the historic cooking implements in place.

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In the kitchen


From here we went into the main house where we visited a series of rooms, including Karen Blixen’s study and bedroom. From my reading of the book I recognised our guide’s description of her as someone who loved to tell stories and it was good to see the fireplace where she would sit to entertain her friends.

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Study with fireplace

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Bedroom

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Dining room


There were photos of some of these friends on the walls, as well as of Karen herself, her husband Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke and her lover Denis Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the film). We also saw reproductions of some of her paintings (the originals are in museums in Denmark) - I liked those of some of the local people (whom she terms Natives in the book).

A lot of reviews I’ve read since say that photos aren’t allowed inside, but I asked our guide if I could take some and she said it was fine as long as I didn’t include any of the art works. And I felt it best not to use flash, although this wasn't stipulated, which explains the slight gloomy, grainy look to my images!

Outside we saw the millstone converted by Karen into a table, where she liked to sit when asked, as she often was, to make a judgement in some local dispute.

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Rear of the house, with millstone table


From the house we walked a short distance through the grounds to see the old coffee processing machine, where the beans were dried before being packed into sacks and sent to Mombasa for export to England.

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Coffee processing equipment, and path from the house


Walking back to the house we took the opportunity to chat a little to our young guide. She told us that she had done a four month attachment at the museum last year, as part of her tourism studies and once these had finished, earlier this year, had returned to work as a volunteer while waiting to graduate. She has ambitions to work for a tour company and I am sure will succeed, based on the very positive experience we enjoyed with her. Needless to say, we tipped her well.

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Our young guide

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Young artist signing our picture

I found it a little odd, however, that Kenya, and Kenyans, seem so comfortable talking about, and through the museum promulgating, the picture of colonial life painted by Karen Blixen and her views on ‘Natives’ which today we would all recognise as racist. At one point in the book she says that ‘white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God.’ And this is typical of her attitude throughout – while she has a lot of good things to say about the workers on her farm as individuals, these are always filtered through a lens of superiority, and when she talks about them collectively it is always to suggest an inferior or at least less sophisticated level of understanding. I found that much harder to stomach, when reading the book, than her enjoyment of big game hunting (which I recognised as an uneducated anachronism).

I was somewhat surprised therefore that our guide talked about her with a sense of familiarity and affection – ‘Karen always liked to sit here …’, or ‘Karen knew a lot about medicine and often treated her workers …’ And this seemed genuine, not parroting what she thought visitors would like to hear. I can only assume that the impact of the book, and later the film, in widening awareness of the beauty of the Kenyan landscape and drawing visitors here, must have not so much outweighed any consideration of her colonial attitudes but rather caused them to be put totally to one side. Kenyans it seems retain some affection for their former colonial power (all of those we spoke to were rooting for England to win the World Cup!) which perhaps makes them more tolerant of past colonialist attitudes.

Having said all of the above, I enjoyed our visit and would recommend it to others. Even if you haven’t read ‘Out of Africa’, or seen the film, a tour here enables you to see the typical colonial architecture and imagine life for Europeans in Kenya at that time, which is after all a major part of the country’s history. And engaging with such an excellent young guide was a great bonus!

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The card we bought

After our tour we had a quick look round the gift shop but didn’t buy anything. As you can imagine, they are keen to promote the DVD of the film, part of which was shot near here on location, but there are also all the usual souvenirs.

Outside on the veranda was a young artist, Tim, displaying his work. Her explained that normally he would be painting but today was too cold - like our guide, he was wrapped in a Masai-inspired blanket. We took a liking to him and his work so bought a small handmade card, depicting a hippo (one of our favourites of the animals we had seen on our safari), to frame, which he kindly offered to sign.

Tamambo

Our tour also included lunch at the nearby Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Tamambo. The building here was formerly a house on the farm, used for guests, but is now separated from it by other developments including a medical college.

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The Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens

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Zanzibari seafish

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Chocolate mint dessert

We sat in the garden where it was a little chilly, but they brought a sort of iron bucket with hot coals to warm us. There was a set three course menu with a couple of choices for each course - far more than we would normally eat for lunch but all delicious. In this weather it had to be the butternut squash soup to start. I especially liked my main course, a ‘Zanzibari seafish’ in a spicy sauce, and we both loved the chocolate mint dessert.

As a bonus we befriended the two resident cats. Our waiter Nicodemus (yes really!) had told us that the cats had walked out of the forest and they were trying to tame them, but we found that they were already very tame and comfortable around us!

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Making friends

Ole Sereni Hotel

After our meal Jackson drove us back to the hotel to take it easy for the afternoon ahead of our flight home. We took a few photos around the public areas as I rather liked the modern artworks – stylised representations of African animals, for the most part.

The hotel is built on a site formerly occupied by the US Embassy, which found a temporary home here after the August 1998 bombing of its city centre building (it has since moved to a high security location next to the UN building in the north of the city). We had a very good coffee in the bar, and later a light meal in the Big Five restaurant, choosing salads and excellent mini desserts from the large buffet selection, as we were still pretty full from that lovely lunch.

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In the Ole Sereni Hotel

Time to go home

Jackson picked us up again at 8.00 pm to drive us to the airport which was as mad and chaotic as on our previous flight out of there to Livingstone. We went through five security scans between arriving at the airport and reaching the plane - one while still on the road outside, one entering the building, one to access the departures hall and two in quick succession at the gate. Passengers were encouraged to go through the last of these two hours before departure and we then sat for ages on hard seats with no toilet facilities! While there I overheard one girl saying that the spices she had bought as a gift for family at home were confiscated because they were a powder!

The chaos continued right through to boarding, with announcements inaudible and a last minute move to the neighbouring gate. We were pleased to find ourselves on board and settling into our seats for the overnight flight to London. Homeward bound!

The flight was uneventful and we even managed to snatch some sleep, having forked out for exit row seats with extra legroom, which made a big difference to our comfort levels. But British Airways are definitely not what they used to be in terms of comfort on board and service. The food was poor (especially the dry breakfast roll and cereal bar offered just before landing) and although the entertainment system promised '100s of movies', in fact there were only around 20 to chose from and few of those appealing. The TV and music selection was similarly limited and there were none of the games that usually help to keep children amused.

We landed on time at Heathrow, and despite a rather lengthy queue for the e-passport gates, manged to get through there, collect the bags and catch the Tube home all in good time. Within 90 minutes of touching down we were opening our front door!

Posted by ToonSarah 03:57 Archived in Kenya Tagged restaurant history hotel flight museum africa cats kenya author Comments (8)

Closing the circle

Botswana safari plus, day eleven


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Last day at Victoria Falls

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Flowering tree, Victoria Falls

Our last day at Victoria Falls, with no fixed plans until our evening flight back to Nairobi. Real Africa’s Paul had arranged for us to have a late check-out, so we had a relaxing morning, starting with a leisurely breakfast.

We then walked into town, crossing the railway line where an old train carriage seemed to be permanently parked. A local family were hanging out there – possibly they are even squatting there?

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By the railroad tracks, Victoria Falls

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Crossing the railroad tracks

We strolled around taking photos for a while, happy to have somewhere new to indulge our shared love of street photography. There were lots of photo opps, and it made a change from all the wildlife and landscape photography we'd been doing so far on this trip.

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Local street vendors

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Local people

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Shoe repair shop, and local family

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Local man reading the paper

A lot of the people on the streets here have crossed over from Zambia, via the bridge at the falls. Farmers there are able to come into Zimbabwe without a visa and do so on a daily basis as they can get a better price for their crops and produce here.

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Zambian farmers with produce to sell

We had coffee in the rather cool Shearwater Café (which incidentally had some fun signs on the loos!)

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Toilet signs, Shearwater Café

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Locals outside the café

I was amused by some of the other signs in town.

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Signs in Victoria Falls

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Shop sign

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'Sign up, send it, sorted'

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'Clean spot'

I browsed a few of the shops but didn’t buy anything, despite being rather tempted by some colourful cushion covers - realising, somewhat reluctantly, that they would look out of place in our London suburban Victorian terrace house.

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Souvenirs for sale

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Souvenir street vendor

Back at the hotel we had an equally leisurely last lunch at Stanley’s Terrace, with that wonderful view of the spray from the falls. A band (the collective noun) of banded mongooses came past as well as some vervet monkeys.

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Mongooses on the lawn

We said goodbye, again, to Donna and Steve, who had arrived at the hotel the previous afternoon after a brief stay in Chobe. Then it was time to pack our bags and check out.

Back to Nairobi

Our transfer to Victoria Falls Airport was prompt and the airport itself very new and very quiet. Once we had checked in and gone through security we settled into the pleasant café to await boarding.

Our Kenya Airways plane landed on time from Cape Town, some passengers disembarked and we boarded.

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Boarding our plane

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Sunset at Victoria Falls Airport

Once airborne we seemed to turn in a full circle, the reason for which soon became clear. The pilot announced that at the request of some passengers he was doing a flyover above Victoria Falls! We got more excellent aerial views - higher up than from yesterday’s helicopter so giving an even clearer perspective on the shape, but harder to photograph through the plane’s rather grubby windows and in fading light. When those of us seated on the left had been treated to the view he then circled again so that passengers on the right could have their chance. I don’t recall a pilot of a scheduled flight ever doing something like that - point out the sights, yes, but deliberately change the plane’s path to ensure everyone could see them, no, never!

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Victoria Falls from the air
taken through a dirty airplane window!

Dinner was served soon after take-off (fish or chicken, both not bad) with complementary bar service. The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, and we landed on time in Nairobi, a little after 10.00 pm their time.

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Our room at the Ole Sereni hotel

The immigration hall however was chaotic, with a tangle of queues and conflicting information about which you needed to be in, depending on nationality and also whether or not you already had a visa. We thought that we had, having told the Kenyan embassy in London the details of our itinerary and been assured that despite our two separate visits within this trip, a single entry visa would suffice. It had seemed a little unlikely at the time and so it proved to be, so we had to fork out an additional $20 per person for a transit visa for this overnight stay. This is proving an expensive trip for visas!

Once in the baggage hall we quickly found our bags and were out into the night, to be met by Ortieno from Albatross Travel and our driver Jackson who had looked after us so well on our earlier stay. It was a relatively short drive to our hotel, as for this last night in the city we were booked into the Ole Sereni, quite near to the airport. We had a large modern room with all the usual facilities, and the nice extra touch of a bowl of complementary fruits so we could have a snack before turning in for the night.

We were back in the city where the adventures had begun. Tomorrow we would fly home, but there was still one more visit to make.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:30 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged people signs hotel flight airport africa photography kenya street_photography Comments (5)

Above and around the falls

Botswana safari plus, day ten


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Tree in the hotel grounds

Above the falls

Before leaving home we had decided to treat ourselves to a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls and had pre-booked a short flight for this morning. But after taking to Areti and Glen whom we met at Xugana Island Lodge, who had already visited the falls and taken the longer flight, we had arranged to upgrade to this. The difference is that the short flight, about 13 minutes in length, takes you only over the falls and gorge below, while the longer flight, at 27 minutes, also flies over the Zambezi above the falls and over the neighbouring national park, in search of wildlife.

We were picked up from the hotel after breakfast and taken to the helipad a couple of miles out of town, where we were briefed on the flight path and weighed! There were to be five of us on the helicopter and seats were allocated to balance the weight. Our companions were an Australian woman and her two teenage daughters. One of the girls sat up front next to the pilot, while the rest of us were in the main section, with me facing Chris on the left and the Australian lady next to me facing her other daughter. We were strapped in, given headphones (which served both to muffle the engine noise and provide a commentary) and we were ready for take-off.

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Our helicopter landing, dropping off the previous passengers and picking us up

Once in the air we flew towards the falls, approaching from the upper reaches of the Zambezi.

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Flying towards the falls - the spray rises above the Zambezi

The flights are designed to take a figure of eight route, so that everyone gets the same views. Chris and I had the falls on our side at first and from above I could appreciate what we had failed to see through the spray, the topography of this natural phenomenon. Unlike other falls I have visited, which usually lie at right angles to the river’s banks and face directly downstream, the Victoria Falls face an abrupt narrowing of the river and therefore look towards an escarpment. The river flows away through a narrow gorge, creating a sort of wonky T shape, with the smaller right-hand arm lying in Zambia and the larger part on the left in Zimbabwe. Patrick had told us yesterday that 70% of the falls were here in Zimbabwe and just 30% in Zambia, and now I could see what he meant.

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The falls from the Zimbabwe side
You can see the escarpment where we had walked yesterday in the spray, and the transition from rainforest to savannah

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A closer look at the T-shape
Danger Point is just left of centre at the end of one of the paths

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The falls from the Zambia side

We looped around over the bridge to fly over the Zambian side, from where we caught some great rainbows in the spray.

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Rainbow and bridge

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Rainbow in the Devil's Cataract

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Cataract Island
The crack that may eventually become the site of the falls is clearly visible - see below

Then it was the turn of those on the other side of the helicopter to get the best views of the falls, while we looked out over the landscape beyond and towards the upper part of the river. Again, I could appreciate from here something that Patrick had mentioned - the spray creates its own microclimate, with the area immediately around the falls forming a small rainforest in the midst of dry savannah.

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The Zambezi above the falls

Next we flew down the gorge below the falls, Batoka Gorge. This is in fact not one gorge but a zigzagging series of them. They were formed by the waters as they retreated – each gorge was cut by the falls across fault lines in the basalt rock created from lava 150 million years ago which cracked as it solidified. The gorges are numbered, with First Gorge being the one into which the falls spill their waters today, Second Gorge the one spanned by the bridge, and so on down to Fifth Gorge. The falls are currently cutting another gorge, through Cataract Island (see photo above) that will over time become their new location.

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Batoka Gorge

The gorges are popular for a variety of activities, including zip-lining and white-water rafting. We could see rafters in the river far below us and the spray of the falls in the distance.

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This is the point at which the shorter flight turns back to the helipad but we were going further! We looped back over the falls once more, spotting our hotel below us at one point. We got some great views of the Zambezi and could see hippos in the water and a crocodile on the bank in one spot.

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Victoria Falls Hotel from above
The Jungle Junction restaurant is in the foreground and our room behind the right-hand of the large trees on the lawn beyond

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The Zambezi above the falls

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The Zambezi above the falls - rainforest vegetation

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Spot the crocodile!

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And the hippos!

Then we flew over the dry national park area, with the pilot making several loops to ensure we all also saw something of the wildlife here. There were plenty of elephants to be seen and I also spotted a giraffe. The latter was sitting on the ground but got up, in an ungainly fashion, as we passed overhead, presumably disturbed by the noise.

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Flying over the elephants ...

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... and giraffe

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Baobabs in the national park

All too soon our time was up and the pilot turned back to base, but I still got a few more shots of the river and the distant spray of the falls before landing.

Once back on the ground we were shown a video of our flight, or rather footage of our group being briefed, weighed and boarding, and later disembarking, interspersed with general footage of the falls from above, with the commentary we had heard while in the air. We declined to pay the $50 asked for this – not only was it expensive, it was also exceedingly unflattering! But the Australian woman was persuaded by her daughters to buy it, as a record of their first ever helicopter flight.

Incidentally, while this was also Chris’s first time in a helicopter, I had been lucky enough to fly in one when I was just 16 and visiting Niagara Falls on a school trip. But I can remember that only vaguely so it was wonderful to have another chance, and a much longer flight too. We were very glad we had upgraded, despite the cost.

We were driven back to the hotel in time to enjoy morning coffee on the terrace before sorting through the many photos we had taken!

Three Monkeys

For a change at lunch time we walked into town and went to the Three Monkeys, which had also been recommended to us by Areti and Glen. They do good wood-fired pizzas, so we decided to split one of those, a Quattro Formagii, along with a side salad. The food was great and we enjoyed the ambiance too.

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In the Three Monkeys

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Light fitting, and pizza
The pizza was so good we had eaten quite a lot before I thought to take a photo!

Zambezi sunset

When preparing our itinerary, Paul from Real Africa had proposed a sunset cruise on the Zambezi as an activity for our stay at Victoria Falls and we had agreed, without really looking at the specific details. Checking those today I realised that we were booked on the Signature Deck of the Zambezi Explorer.

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A boat on the Zambezi

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Chris on the boat

This boat offers three options for sunset cruises, on each of three decks. The lowest is a standard cruise experience with some drinks and snacks included. On the middle deck you have a more spacious area and the snacks are upgraded to canapés. The upper Signature Deck is the most open, albeit partly shaded, and very comfortable, with large wicker sofas and lots of cushions to lounge on. There is an open bar throughout the two hour cruise (only a handful of premium drinks, such as malt whisky, must be paid for) and of course the canapés. If we had been booking ourselves we would probably have gone for the middle option, or maybe for one of the many smaller boats which also offer cruises, but we loved this special experience so we’re very glad we had left it to Paul!

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The Zambezi Explorer

We were picked up from the hotel by bus and stopped at one other hotel before the short drive to the jetty on the banks of the upper reaches of the river. There we were checked in at a desk set up on the shore and directed to the appropriate deck. Once on board we simply had to settle into our comfortable seats and enjoy the ride.

Drinks orders were taken immediately and more offered whenever a glass was emptied. While we were quite modest in our consumption (two G&Ts for me, three beers for Chris) I did feel one group took advantage of the hospitality and got through a lot of drinks, including tequila shots and cocktails, even asking for one last drink as the boat docked. Their over-boisterousness was the only slight blemish on an otherwise wonderful cruise.

Actually, although called a cruise, the boat doesn’t really go very far, but rather drifts gently a little way downstream - close enough to see the spray from the falls - before turning and making its meandering way a short distance upstream.

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Rainbow in the spray

When animals (mostly hippos) were spotted, the pilot would head towards the relevant shore and turn so that passengers on all sides got a good view. In any case, the spaciousness of our deck allowed us to move freely to whichever side seemed best, but I suspect that wasn’t the case lower down, where they must have appreciated these turns.

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Zambezi hippos

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Vultures roosting by the Zambezi

A waitress came around at regular intervals to offer the canapés. Among others, there were skewers of tandoori chicken, crocodile sliders, mini beef tarts and sushi rolls. My vote for the tastiest went to the crocodile sliders!

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Late afternoon on the Zambezi
You can see that the river is in full flood

As the sun sank lower we continued to drift from shore to shore, as did the many other boats on the river. At one point a crocodile was spotted, and later three giraffes on the river bank, but this experience is mostly about the relaxing ambience and the landscape of the upper Zambezi.

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Giraffes at sunset, by the Zambezi

We had a marvellous sunset out on the water and then turned towards the shore.

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Sunset on the Zambezi

As we started our return to the jetty one of the staff gave a short talk about the Zambezi - its origins in Zambia, flowing through part of Angola and back into Zambia, along the border between there and Zimbabwe, over the falls and eventually down into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. He talked about the ‘discovery’ of the falls by David Livingstone (actually of course they had been known to the peoples of this region for centuries) and how he introduced them to Europeans, creating the basis for the tourism that helps to sustain the local economy here.

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Baobabs at sunset, banks of the Zambezi

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Sunset cruise boats on the Zambezi

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After sunset, the Zambezi River

Once we had docked the bus took us back to the hotel, via several others. We had eaten so many canapés that we didn’t really feel the need for a full hotel dinner, but as we were on half-board and had a reservation at the Jungle Junction we went along to supplement those canapés with some salad from the buffet, a glass of wine and a small dessert.

We then went back to our room to watch the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final on the TV there. Unfortunately this was when England’s great run in the tournament came to an end, the young players finally running out of steam (and maybe out of belief). But they had done a great job and exceeded expectations, which bodes well for future tournaments.

Posted by ToonSarah 08:17 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises animals boats flight river africa zimbabwe national_park helicopter Comments (10)

Mosi-oa-Tunya

Botswana safari plus, day nine


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Although our stay at Xugana Island Lodge had been an amazing experience, one we both would not have wanted to miss, we did appreciate now being able to sleep in a warm room, and to lie in till 7.00! And we woke to a beautiful day and a view from our window of the sun shining through the spray of the falls.

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Victoria Falls spray, early morning, seen from our room

We had breakfast in the Jungle Junction (a decent buffet selection) with more great views of the spray. Then we went to the front entrance to meet our guide for a visit to the falls, Patrick.

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Breakfast view from the Jungle Junction

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Hornbills near the restaurant

The Smoke that Thunders

The indigenous name for Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya or The Smoke that Thunders, and it is a fitting name. The constant spray is as thick as smoke, and the roar of the water is indeed like thunder.

The amount of spray and water varies with the season, with May being the month when it is at its highest. July should be a good month to visit, with the water volume dropping just enough to make the falls more visible through the spray, but this year, Patrick told us, they have had more water than for 20 years and so the spray was still very thick. At any time of year though, you will get wet here, despite the heavy raincoats that are issued to all visitors who want them.

There is a path that follows the edge of the escarpment overlooking the falls, with a series of numbered viewpoints, 1-16. We started, naturally, at point 1, where we saw the statue of David Livingstone. He was a Scottish missionary and explorer, who is believed to have been the first European to see the Falls, on 16 November 1855, from what is now known as Livingstone Island, which divides the waters roughly in their mid-point. It is wrong however to say, as some do, that Livingstone ‘discovered’ the falls, as of course they were known to local people for centuries before his visit. What he did do was to publicise their existence to the outside world and he can therefore be seen as the father of tourism in this area.

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Statue of David Livingstone

I enjoyed ‘meeting’ Livingstone here as way way back when I was at junior school (aged between 7 and 11, for non-UK readers) all pupils were divided into four houses for sports events etc., all named after explorers (I guess to inspire us) and mine was Livingstone.

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The Zambezi and Cataract Island, just above the falls

The next few viewpoints on the path, numbers 2 to 7, are of what is known as the Devil’s Cataract, and are relatively clear of spray. Consequently, I found this ‘offshoot’ much easier to photograph than the main torrents. The Devil’s Cataract is separated from the rest of the falls by Cataract Island, one of two islands that remains visible and above the water level even at its highest.

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Water tipping over the Devil's Cataract

At viewpoint 3 we descended the stone steps (some of them rather steep and all slippery, so I was glad of the wooden handrail) to see the Devil’s Cataract from a lower angle. Here you can look directly along the gorge and see the waters of the cataract shooting down into it. Even with all the spray we got a fantastic sense of the power of this section of the falls – and this is where they are at their lowest point!

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On the path down to viewpoint 3

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Devil's Cataract and First Gorge, from viewpoint 3

At the next few viewpoints I got some more shots of the Devil’s Cataract, some of them quite clear, and some glimpses of the Main Falls beyond.

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The Devil's Cataract

At viewpoint 7 we started to see the full extent of the Main Falls, or at least in part, as they disappeared into the mist.

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Cataract Island and Main Falls

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Start of the Main Falls

The other island that remains visible year-round is Livingstone Island, which separates what are known as the Main Falls from the sections that lie further east – Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls (the highest) and the Eastern Cataract. All of the latter flow as one when the river is in full flood, as it was now, but in the dry season they are separated by other, smaller islets, and at its driest the Eastern Cataract dries out completely and it is even possible to walk out on this ridge. No chance of that today!!

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Spray at Victoria Falls

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia runs through Livingstone Island and then turns along the length of the falls to twist into the series of gorges the Zambezi has carved downstream from them. This means that about 70% of the falls can be viewed from the Zimbabwe side and 30% from Zambia.

How big are the falls?

I hope my video will give some little sense of the size and power of these falls.

There are several ways we can measure the size of a waterfall – its height, its width, the volume of water. On the first two measures Victoria Falls is not the largest in the world; it is neither the highest nor the widest. The prize for highest goes to Angel Falls in Venezuela – 979 metres compared with Victoria Falls’ mere 108 metres! Niagara Falls, by the way, are just 51 metres at their highest and Iguazu 82 metres. The latter wins the prize for width, at 2,700 metres, whereas Victoria Falls are just 1,708 metres. These falls don’t even have the largest volume of flow. So why are they often cited as the largest waterfall in the world? It comes down to the combination of width and height, creating the world's largest sheet of falling water.

But comparisons matter little once you are here, and confronted by this thundering deluge. From viewpoint 8 onwards we were facing the main section of the waterfall, and with the falls still in full flow there was so much spray we had to peer through it to see the falls themselves.

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From viewpoint 8

From this point on I had to abandon using my main camera. Now we really needed our raincoats, and cameras, bags etc all had to be buried beneath them. But I kept my compact camera up my sleeve and pulled it out for a few hurried shots, the lens dotted with drops almost the instant I opened it. It was just possible to make out the alteration in the landscape here – near viewpoint 12 the rainforest gives way to grassland dotted with small shrubs and occasional palm trees.

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This photo from viewpoint 13 shows the grassland drenched in spray
Peering carefully you may just make out the falls beyond!

Walking here in these conditions you would think yourself in a heavy rainstorm! But unlike rain, the spray swirls around you in all directions, even upwards. Despite the raincoats the water seeped in here and there, and of course our shoes and the lower part of our trousers were sodden! It would be a good idea to wear sandals here, but we had not brought any, having had to pack so lightly for Botswana. Still, nothing stays wet forever, even spray-drenched trainers!

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At viewpoint 14 we were a little further from the face of the falls, so photos were possible again

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But this shot, taken immediately after the one above, shows how quickly the spray made photography almost impossible!

It was near here that I started to see rainbows in the spray – not over the falls but looking in the other direction, away from them towards the shrubs around the path.

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Rainbow in the spray

Viewpoint 15 is known as the Danger Point, as here there are only slippery rocks between the path and the sheer drop into the churning waters below the falls. In the dry season it is possible, with care, to scramble out over the rocks for an excellent view of the exposed rock face that at other times of year forms the Eastern Cataract. In the wet season such a scramble is at best inadvisable and at worst impossible. I was so soaked by now that I saw no reason to get even more so on this exposed promontory, especially as I would have no chance of any photos there, but Chris decided that having come all this way he was going to see everything possible, so he took the path around the point although of course stayed off the rocks. You can imagine how pleased I was to see him re-emerge through the mist!

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Chris returning from Danger Point

At the final viewpoint, 16, you can see the bridge that links Zimbabwe with Zambia. This bridge was built at the start of the twentieth century, opening in 1905, to carry the railway line between what was then Northern to Southern Rhodesia. There was a lot of opposition, understandably, to building it here – many saw it as an act of vandalism, destroying the natural beauty of the falls, and campaigned for it to be located further upstream. But Cecil Rhodes, whose brainchild it was (part of his vision for a railway linking Cairo to the Cape), insisted that train passengers should be able to feel the spray of the falls as they crossed – even though he himself never visited Victoria Falls! On its completion his brother Frank, one of its fiercest opponents, said that all that remained to be done ‘was to pray for an earthquake’. Since then though it has become an integral part of the landscape and forms a vital link between the two countries. It was a main driver of tourism in the early part of the twentieth century and the Victoria Falls Hotel, where we were staying, was opened at around the same time as the bridge to accommodate travellers arriving on the new railway.

At this viewpoint there was less spray on the path, but what there was created a beautiful rainbow between path and bridge.

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Rainbows and bridge

From here we walked back to the main entrance through part of the rainforest that surrounds the falls. The volume of spray here has created this mini-ecosystem, a rainforest in the savannah. You will find palm trees, ebony, mahogany and other rainforest plants, just a few metres from the much less lush surroundings.

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Baboon at Victoria Falls

Patrick had told us as we walked about the so-called Big Tree, an ancient baobab that he said was the oldest in southern Africa. He offered to take us to see it, as a small addition to our tour, and we accepted, so he drove us the short distance from the falls to where it stands by the side of the road. A sign says that its girth is 18 metres and its height 23. It is between 1,000 and 1,500 years old.

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The Big Tree, near Victoria Falls

Back at the car park we said goodbye to Patrick as we had decided to walk back to the hotel via the Lookout Café, which we had passed and liked the look of yesterday. This time we stopped here for a drink, with a view of the gorge and some people zip-lining.

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The view from Lookout Café

We walked back to the hotel, our feet still decidedly damp, to dry out, catch up on emails and eat lunch again on the Stanley Terrace. Afterwards we walked into town, or at least the part nearest the hotel, where we found plenty to occupy our afternoon.

Two snakes and a chameleon

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Gaboon Viper, Victoria Falls Snake Farm
Can you see his head among the leaves?

I had seen some positive reviews of the Victoria Falls Snake Farm and as I have an odd liking for these reptiles we decided to visit - and were very glad we had. This small collection of snakes, mostly from Zimbabwe or neighbouring countries, is not a zoo in the conventional sense, as the animals spend just a short time here while recuperating from an injury. Or, in the case of the handful of non-local snakes which have been confiscated during attempts to smuggle them in, while they can be found a suitable home.

We paid the $6 entrance fee and were asked if we’d like a guide. Chris thought no, we could look round on our own, but I had read that you can sometimes handle one of the snakes and I thought that more likely if we were accompanied on our tour. So we accepted the offer and the guy shut up the box office (we were the only people there at that point), introduced himself as Abraham, and proceeded to take us from one snake to another, telling us various details as we went - habitat, rarity, whether venomous or not, and, if venomous, how long you could survive a bite without anti venom! The Green Mamba, we learned, is less venomous than its black cousin, while the Common Boomslang is very venemous but rarely bites humans, thankfully. The bite of the Gaboon Viper will prove fatal without prompt hospital treatment, as it attacks internal tissue.

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Eastern Green Mamba

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Common Boomslang

When we came to the first of his non-venomous snakes, a Rufous Beaked snake, he asked if we’d like to hold it. Of course we would! So first Chris, and then I, were allowed to hold this rather beautiful little creature. He felt very gentle on my skin as he moved slowly across my hand, and posed nicely for Chris’s camera.

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Chris with the Rufous Beaked Snake

We continued our tour to where in one corner there were some small tanks with scorpions and spiders - I didn’t ask to hold them! Then Abraham reached his hand into the hidden corner of one and emerged with a vivid green chameleon gripping his fingers. Would we like to hold him? You bet!

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Chris with the chameleon

By this time others had arrived and were waiting at the ticket office, so he left us briefly to admit them, then continued the tour. This was a family from Windhoek in Namibia who were as fascinated we were, so they joined us in listening to Abraham’s wealth of information. I always enjoy meeting people who have a passion for something and know how to share it, as Abraham does. He told us he had studied snakes at university in Harare and come here to work two years ago. At home he breeds rats, to feed the snakes, and also searches for frogs and lizards, the preferred diet of some. He clearly cares for these creatures and wants them to thrive.

After a few more native snakes we came to a pair of Corn Snakes from the US, among those that had been confiscated at the border. We were allowed to hold these too. The one Chris took, Mikey, was rather sleepy and rested in his arms, but mine, Frank, was really fidgety and I was concerned he would fall. But no, he just wrapped his tail around my arm and continued to explore. I could feel the muscles rippling along his slender body - wonderful!

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Chris with Mikey

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With Mikey and Frank

More visitors arrived and Abraham went to let them in, leaving us holding our new friends. When he returned we passed them to the Namibian visitors, looked at the last couple of snakes, and took our leave, thanking Abraham for the excellent tour. We didn’t come to Victoria Falls for wildlife experiences, and certainly didn’t expect to be holding snakes and chameleons, so this was a great bonus!

Elephant Walk

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Museum at Elephant Walk

Just down the road from the snake farm we came to this group of craft shops, which also has a small museum and a café. We checked out the excellent animal photos in a small gallery and visited the museum which had some interesting displays about Zimbabwean history and culture, and about the development of the falls as a tourist attraction.

We had a cold drink in the café in the central courtyard - a lovely place to relax. The owner came past and stopped to chat briefly about other attractions in the area.

We went into a few more shops (I bought a pretty silver bangle) and took some photos. It was nice to shop in such a laid-back place, as on the streets and on the paths near the falls you are continually harassed to buy by street vendors.

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Cushions in the café

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Stall-holder at Elephant Walk

Then we walked back to the hotel, passing baboons and warthogs on the way, to try to finish drying our shoes, still wet from our morning at the falls.

We started the evening with drinks on Stanley’s Terrace, then had dinner again in the Jungle Junction (we would have preferred to eat at Stanley's but that seemed a waste of money when our half-board deal meant we would have to pay twice for dinner) and later watched the World Cup (France v Belgium) on TV in our room. It had been another super day!

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Warthogs on the lawn at the Victoria Falls Hotel

Posted by ToonSarah 08:51 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged waterfalls bridges trees monkeys monument history statue views hotel shopping africa reptiles zimbabwe snakes Comments (9)

Another country beckons

Botswana safari plus, day eight


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Goodbye to Xugana Island

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Holub's Golden Weaver

It was time to say goodbye to Xugana Island. The lodge usually tries to arrange an activity for guests on their last morning, but our flight was scheduled for 9.05, too early to fit anything in, so instead we had the luxury of a ‘lie-in’, with a wake-up call at 7.00!

We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast, with time to take a few final bird photos around the dining area and deck. The bulbuls in particular were very tame and regularly came inside to look for titbits, while the swallows had their nests under the roof. Others, like the weavers and starlings, were a bit more shy and restricted their foraging to the deck areas.

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Dark-capped Bulbuls

We chatted over breakfast to Donna and Steve, who were leaving on the same flight, and were joined towards the end by the other members of our now-close group, Areti and Glen, whose flight down to Maun would be later that morning. But at 8.30 it was time to say goodbye to them, and to all our new friends at Xugana - Slade (our excellent guide), Bones, Promise, Clifford, Rosa and all the management staff. We piled into the motor boat for the last time and were waved off in true Xugana fashion, to the beat of the drum.

After a short ride we were back at the airstrip where we had arrived just three days before. The plane landed about ten minutes later, but not before we had spotted one last elephant among the trees in the distance.

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Elephant near the airstrip

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Our plane on the airstrip

Flying back to Kasane

This was an even smaller plane, a Kodiak seating just eight people, all in single window seats. Soon after we took off I managed to get a photo of a couple more elephants among the tall papyrus of the delta.

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Flying over the Okavango Delta

At first it was just the four of us, but after about half an hour we touched down at Savute to pick up two more passengers. I loved the sign at the airstrip here!

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Savute airstrip, and view near Kasane

The time passed quite quickly, with lots to look at out of the window, although the light was less good for photos than on the outward journey.

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Kasane Airport

We landed at Kasane and were brought our bags within minutes - if only all flights could be like that! We said goodbye to Donna and Steve, who were headed for Chobe Game Lodge where we had stayed before Xugana, and promised to stay in touch and to meet up some time in London. Then we set off for the border with Zimbabwe with Elvis, the driver who had met us at the airport. He helped us with the formalities both in leaving Botswana (a matter of a few minutes and limited fuss) and in entering Zimbabwe (a long wait in a slow-moving queue to pay $55 each for a visa).

We were then passed on to a second driver to take us to our hotel in Victoria Falls. On the way we stopped off at the offices of the tour company (Wild Horizons) as we wanted to change our booking for a short helicopter flight over the falls into a longer one, on Areti’s recommendation. It will cost quite a bit more on this already expensive trip but I think should be worth it!

Victoria Falls Hotel

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Welcome to the Victoria Falls Hotel

When we booked this trip through Real Africa I queried whether the cost could be reduced by staying a more modest hotel here, but Paul, who organised our itinerary, told me he had a special arrangement here and could get it for a similar price to a three star in town - so of course we went for it! And you couldn’t really find a much great contrast to Xugana Island. The latter is small, intimate, rustic and blends well with its environment. The Victoria Falls Hotel is imposing, historic and on a large scale.

But we received a friendly welcome from the doorman Duly - a real character, with an impressive collection of pin badges from around the world (gifts from hotel guests, I assume).

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Duly, the doorman, and stairs to our room

We were able to get into our room despite being over an hour ahead of check-in time. We were pleased to find that we had a room on the first floor at the rear, overlooking the gardens and with a sideways view of the spray from the falls. The room was very traditional in style (lots of dark wood) and again a complete contrast to what we had left behind that morning - not least in being considerably warmer!

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Our room at the Victoria Falls Hotel

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View from our bedroom

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Central courtyard

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Gardens in the central courtyard

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Victoria Falls Hotel from the grounds
Our room top right behind the tree, and Stanley's on the terrace in front

By now it was lunch time so we went down to the terrace bar/restaurant, Stanley’s, and had some sandwiches. We then took a walk along what is described as a private path leading to a viewpoint of the Falls. We did come to a good spot from which to see the bridge and gorge, in the Lookout Café part way along the path, but at the path’s end we found that we were at the entrance to the Falls, where visitors must pay the national park fee to enter. We didn’t want to do this as we had a tour pre-booked for tomorrow with park fee included, so disappointingly we had to retrace our steps without getting our anticipated first glimpse of the waterfall.

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View of the gorge from the Lookout Café, and from the hotel grounds

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Spray from the falls seen from the hotel

When we got back to the hotel we sat for a while in the garden, enjoying the view of the spray, before going back to our room to use the free WiFi for a much-needed catch-up with emails, messages and what was going on in the world!

Evening at Victoria Falls Hotel

In the evening we went for a drink in Stanley's bar, named of course for he of the famous ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’ comment. We had dinner in one of the hotel’s two restaurants, the Jungle Junction, which was included in our half-board package. We did however have to pay for all drinks - a bit of a shock after the free (and free-flowing) drinks at Chobe and Xugana! I’m not a fan of buffets, other than at breakfast time, but the food was of a pretty good standard, if unexciting, and the show of African singing and dancing was enjoyable.

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Evening entertainment at the Jungle Junction

Back in our room we went to bed with the sound of the falls as a background noise. This really is, as the native people call it, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:58 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged waterfalls birds planes hotel flight africa zimbabwe botswana Comments (7)

Another wonderful day in the Okavango

Botswana safari plus, day seven


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Stalking elephants on Sausage Island

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Dining area from the deck
Note the Greater Blue-eared Starling bottom left

Our morning activity today was another nature walk with Slade and Bones, this time on Sausage Island (named for the sausage trees that grow there, not for the meat!) After our light early breakfast we set off in the motor boat for the ride to the island. It was a little less cold than yesterday, probably because there was more cloud cover overnight. But the sun was breaking through the clouds and the light was as lovely as ever.

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Early morning at the jetty

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The other motor boat setting out

We landed and Slade loaded his rifle, as he had done yesterday. Then we looked around and almost immediately saw an elephant in the distance, among some trees. A couple more appeared, one of them a youngster, which confirmed for Slade that this was a breeding herd of females. I set the camera on full zoom and grabbed some photos, assuming this was the closest we could get on foot.

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Sausage Island panorama
The distant line of trees is where the elephants were

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Zoomed-in shot of an elephant

But Slade proposed taking a circuitous route through a shaded area to get closer to them without being seen. We set off through the long grass till we reached a couple of trees that would help to hide us. There we stopped to take photos - lots of photos! We realised that there were several very young babies in the herd, so small that they could barely be seen above the tall grass!

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Female with little calf

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And one with an older calf

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Have they noticed us?

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Landscape with elephants
This shot isn't zoomed - it shows the distance between us and the elephants, visible near the centre of the photo

After a while Bones noticed another elephant off to our left. It was a bull and Slade said he was quite likely checking out the herd of females to see if any were on heat. We were rather in his path, so it was time to retreat!

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The bull elephant approaching

Back at some distance from the herd we could see that the bull turned away again, so we were able to continue our walk round the island.

We soon came across a large group of red lechwe, with more on the far side of the channel we were walking along. Many of those on our side, spooked by something (possibly us) started to cross the water to reach the others. It was interesting to see them run, with their longer back legs helping them to spring forwards. Lechwe are adapted to live in marshy areas and use the knee-deep water as protection from predators. These longer hind legs make it easier for them to run in the water.

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Red lechwe

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On the far side of the lagoon

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In the water

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Line of lechwe crossing the lagoon

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Lechwe running

We continued our walk, with Slade stopping regularly to show us something of interest - the feather of an owl or of a guinea fowl, the bones of a hippo, the footprints of an elephant or lechwe, and even dung!

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Hippo vertebra

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Slade with the kudu dung

It was surprising how much he could tell us about the latter - not only which animal had produced it but also what it told him about their eating habits. This is kudu, for instance, and he explained that here in the Okavango their dung is moist and clumps together, whereas in drier environments, such as in Namibia, the animals have to retain all the moisture they can, so their dung is dry and won’t stick together.

We saw a variety of birds, including this African Green Pigeon (who knew pigeons could be green?!) and a Red-billed Hornbill.

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Green Pigeon, and Red-billed Hornbill

Then we came across another solitary bull elephant, eating among some dead tree trunks and branches, the consequence of elephant activity (they knock them down to get at the fresh green leaves near the top). Unlike the females we had seen earlier, he clearly knew we were there, but obviously decided we didn’t pose any threat, so carried on eating while we took his photo.

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Bull elephant

We finished our circuit of the island, returned to the boat and had some drinks before starting back to the lodge. On the way we came across a mother elephant with her baby, down by the water’s edge.

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The mother elephant

They retreated as we approached, but not before we had grabbed a few photos, although unfortunately the calf was so hidden in the papyrus he was impossible to capture properly.

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Retreating mother and baby

Back at the lodge

We were welcomed back by the staff, as usual, and went back to the room to freshen up before brunch. The bed had again been beautifully decorated in our absence.

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Welcome back

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Another day, another bed decoration

We enjoyed a relaxing meal (the mini impala pies were good, although I couldn’t help thinking about the many beautiful ones I had photographed in Chobe!) and a quiet afternoon. We spent some of the time sitting out on our deck overlooking the lagoon, and were amazed when two swallows landed on the railing just inches from where I sat and stayed for several minutes tweeting occasionally but seeming completely comfortable with my presence. I have no photos - I barely dared to breathe and certainly not reach for my camera!

But I did get a not especially good photo of one near the main building - it seems from my research that these are Lesser Striped Swallows. I also caught a pair of White-fronted Bee Eaters there - another new species for me, but again the light was tricky and the shot not great.

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Lesser Striped Swallow, and White-fronted Bee Eaters

And the young crocodile who seems to be living under the lodge decking - we saw him there every day.

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Young crocodile

Another mokoro ride

We had a choice of final activity this afternoon. Areti and Glen opted for a fishing trip while Donna, Steve, Chris and I wanted to have a second ride in the mokoros. When we set out on the motor boat ride that preceded it the weather was a bit dull - it even looked as if it might rain. Perhaps because of this we saw fewer birds than yesterday, but there were a couple of Jacanas, some Green Pigeons and a pair of Grey Go Away Birds.

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Green Pigeon, and Grey Go-away Bird

As we got to the mokoro landing spot the sun broke through the clouds. There was a kudu on the nearby airstrip - a real bonus!

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Kudu on the airstrip

We had a wonderful ride in our mokoro, perhaps even better than yesterday’s. The light was beautiful, with a dramatic sky reflected on waters that looked like liquid silver. As well as the photos (sorry, too many I know, but I did weed heavily!) I again shot some video footage to try to capture the sound of the birds and the motion of the boat.

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Papyrus, late afternoon glow

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Late afternoon mokoro ride

Last evening on Xugana Island

We joined the fishing party for sundowners just in time to catch a pretty pink sunset.

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Another Okavango sunset

We returned to the lodge to finish our drinks by the campfire. Then it was time for our last dinner at Xugana Island.

As it was our final night, our group of six was given the special treat of dinner on the floating platform, although we all voted to stay moored to the shore where it was warmer. I wasn’t sure how comfortable an evening we would have, but with hot water bottles on our laps it was surprisingly cosy, although eating lamb chops in the almost-darkness was a challenge! But it was a really good evening with lots of chat and laughter to round off our time here.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:29 Archived in Botswana Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds sky islands wildlife elephants africa safari reptiles botswana okavango lagoons Comments (10)

Exploring the delta

Botswana safari plus, day seven


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Exploring on foot

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Early morning on the lagoon, from the lodge deck

I slept surprisingly well, kept cosy by the duvet and blankets as well as the hot-water bottle. At one point I was woken by the noise of hippos outside! Our wake-up call was at six, which seemed like a lie-in after the five o’clock starts at Chobe. It was very cold so we piled on the layers and went to join everyone for the continental breakfast served at 6.30.

The twelve guests currently staying at the lodge were divided into two groups of six for the purpose of activities, and we stayed in the same group with the same guide, with a different activity allocated to each session. This morning it was our turn for a walk on Palm Island, in a neighbouring lagoon. So we climbed into the motorboat, clutching the hot water bottles we were given to warm us on the ride. Despite the chill it was wonderful to be out on the lagoon at this hour as the light was lovely, with the papyrus glowing orange as it reflected the just-risen sun.

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Setting out

On the way to the island we paused to photograph a Pied Kingfisher perched in the papyrus and spotted a crocodile in the water, eyeing us as we passed.

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Pied Kingfisher

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Slade with his rifle

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Bones on the termite mound

When we arrived at Palm Island it was perhaps a little disconcerting that the first thing Slade did, on going ashore, was to load his rifle! We then had a briefing about safety on the walk. We were to walk in single file, an arm’s length apart, with him at the front and our other guide for the morning, Bones, at the rear. We should talk in lowered voices and watch for Slade’s hand signals. And if we encountered what he termed a PDA, a potentially dangerous animal, we were to bunch together so that we looked like one large animal, make some noise and, whatever we did, not run. Reassuringly he said that he had never yet had to use the rifle, and also that he had never had to deal with a serious threat to any group of visitors. But still …..!

So we set off as instructed in single file, wondering what we might come across. The island is around eight kilometres across when the water is low in the winter months, so there is plenty to explore. We followed one of many narrow paths made by animals, heading towards a large termite mound which Bones climbed to scan the area for wildlife.

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The path across Palm Island
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Palm Island landscape

We passed a so-called sausage tree and Slade explained how the San people (the native hunter-gatherers of this region) use its seeds to make coffee.

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The sausage tree

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Sausage tree fruit

We saw a Hooded Vulture flying overhead and in the distance some baboons climbing a wild date palm - one of the many which give the island its name.

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Hooded Vulture

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Baboon climbing a date palm

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Fruit of the date palm

Then we came across a small group of warthogs, who eyed us for a while before continuing to graze.

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Warthogs

The nearby impala were much more cautious, watching us carefully all the time we stood there.

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Impala

We got a glimpse of a pair of reedbucks walking through the tall grass, and had a much closer look at a pretty Little Bee Eater which posed nicely for us.

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Can you see the reedbuck?!

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Little Bee Eater

Then we started to make our way towards a large area of water from which hippo noises had been emanating (checking a map later, I believe this may have been Jerejere Lagoon which we had visited the previous evening). Sure enough, it was full of the creatures. This was our PDA moment, as hippos are considered the most dangerous mammal in Africa, based on numbers of people killed. Around 500 people in Africa are killed every year because of them, but of course, mosquitoes and tsetse flies are even more deadly.

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Approaching the hippos

Here though, Slade assured us that if we stayed on the bank, well back from the water’s edge, they would not feel threatened and would therefore not threaten us. Most attacks from hippopotami occur when they are on land, not in the water.

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Hippos

It was such a special experience to stand so close to these impressive animals and to go eyeball to eyeball with them like this. We watched them for quite a while, and also saw some babies on the far side of this lagoon. There were so many here that I assumed sightings were pretty much guaranteed, but talking to the other lodge guests later I learned that this is by no means the case, as they hadn't seen hippos on their visit to Palm Island the previous day. As with any other safari experience, it really is a matter of luck, as well as great guiding!

Eventually we left and started to walk back in the direction of where we had left the boat. Slade spotted some elephants in the distance which it was just possible to photograph.

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Distant elephant

We also stopped by a scattering of buffalo bones, which Slade explained had been in this spot for around four years. He showed us the groove on the rib bones which allows each to slot into the next, providing protection for the internal organs.

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Buffalo bones, Palm Island

Back at the boat Slade offered refreshments - tea, coffee, juice or water, plus cookies. Then we headed back to the lodge, stopping for a closer look at the big crocodile we had seen earlier - a much closer look! He was now basking on the bank and Slade brought the boat in right alongside him so we could get some good photos.

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Nile crocodile

Relaxing at Xugana Island Lodge

Back at the lodge we found our room had been tidied and cleaned in our absence, and there was another lovely arrangement of leaves, seeds, coffee beans and towels on the bed!

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Today's bed arrangement

Soon after getting back, at 11.30, brunch was served - quiche, pasta bake, eggs cooked to order, salads, breads, fruit salad and cheese, among other options. Drinks could be ordered (all included in the package) so Chris enjoyed a local beer, but I stuck to the delicious tropical fruit smoothie and a cup of good black coffee.

Then it was ‘siesta time’ which in my case meant sorting photos, catching up with my notes, and trying to check messages online, with some limited success. I had read that there was no WiFi here, and been prepared for that, but on arrival we had been told that they did have it, albeit very slow, which was indeed the case. I managed to get messages and emails but not to access Facebook or most web pages that I tried. Still, it helped us to stay in touch with the world, and importantly with the World Cup scores.

Back on the water

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Doesn't this cloud look rather like an elephant?
Or do I just have elephants on the brain?!

At three we went for afternoon tea (or in my case afternoon homemade lemonade) before our next activity. But ahead of leaving for that we had a briefing from Slade about the Okavango Delta - how it was formed, the challenges faced in protecting this precious environment and so on.

Our scheduled activity was a ride in a mokoro, the traditional boat of the Okavango. But as it was still quite early and the sun rather too bright, Slade proposed a short motor boat cruise first around part of Xugana Island. This was a chance to see a few more birds we hadn’t previously encountered, including a Black-Shouldered Kite and Reed Cormorant.

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Black-shouldered Kite, and Reed Cormorant

We also saw several African Darters, an African Jacana, and lots of day water lilies.

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African Darter and Reed Cormorant

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African Darter

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Jacana

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Day waterlily

Then it was time to head to where the lodge keeps the mokoros, near the airstrip where we had landed yesterday. Mokoros are traditionally made by digging out the trunk of a large straight tree, but these days most are made from fibre-glass, including these ones at Xugana Island. While not so traditional, they are much better for the environment as fewer trees are felled.

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The mokoros

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Steve and Donna in their mokoro

Three guides had come with us, so each couple had their own boat. We were paddled by Promise, who did a great job of pointing out various aspects of the environment and a number of birds – a Bulbul (I am not sure exactly which kind), Stonechat, another Darter.

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We set off

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A typical channel

But it was harder to take bird photos than from the bigger boat (somehow I had imagined that it would be easier) so for the most part I just sat back and enjoyed the ride, which was very peaceful. It was good to be so low down in the water and without an engine, seeing the narrow channels of water from a close-up viewpoint.

The sky was perfect for some landscape shots and I also had a go at capturing the reflections of reeds and clouds in the water, and shot some video footage. Every time I watch the latter I am transported back to this magical spot.

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Okavango Delta panorama

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Late afternoon in the Okavango Delta

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Reed reflections

When we returned to the motor boat Slade took us to a spot for good sunset views, although it was less dramatic than yesterday’s, and handed out the sundowner drinks and snacks. They certainly know how to look after guests at Xugana Island Lodge!

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Sunset at Xugana Lagoon

Then it was back to the lodge and to a good enough WiFi signal to learn that England had beaten Sweden 2-0 and were through to the World Cup semi-final!

Dinner consisted of springbok carpaccio to start with, served with avocado, then either oxtail stew or butter-fish (I had the latter) with potato and chackalaka (a spicy African vegetable stew with baked beans – delicious), and chocolate mousse for dessert, all washed down with a good white wine from South Africa.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:11 Archived in Botswana Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes animals birds sky boats africa botswana okavango lagoons hippos Comments (6)

To the delta

Botswana safari plus, day six


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Final Chobe game drive

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Chobe River sunrise

Today started with another early wake-up call, 5.00. After coffee and muffins we set off in the dark with Dinah again as our guide. As it started to get light we were treated to a truly beautiful sunrise, the pink and orange shades of the sky reflected in the waters of the Chobe River.

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Chobe River sunrise

At first animal sightings were few, apart from the inevitable ubiquitous impala. We did see a couple of red-billed francolin, also known as the red-billed spurfowl. Dinah said that these are relatively rare birds here, although they seem to be generally quite common, from what I’ve read. Unfortunately the light was still too dim for decent photos.

Then as we headed back to the water’s edge, Chris spotted something - a solitary young male lion in a dead tree. Lions only occasionally climb trees, usually when they want to stretch, so he could possibly have been doing his early morning exercises!

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Young lion in a tree

Driving on we passed a private car and the driver told us of two more young lions they had seen down on the river bank. When we reached the spot they were still there, and we were the first vehicle to reach them, so we had a perfect angle for our photos - although stubbornly they refused to turn our way apart from in brief glances.

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Refusing to look at us!

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One brief glance!

Of course, lots more vehicles did start to arrive, and having had such a good look at the pair we decided to move on and let others take their turn. Our next significant sighting was of a Saddle-billed Stork, among a group of other birds by the water’s edge.

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Saddle-billed Stork and Little Egret

A little further along we found a Marabou Stork in a tree, and nearby two others on the ground.

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Marabou Storks

On our way back to the lodge we passed the giraffe carcass we had seen a couple if evenings before. There was relatively little left of it, but some vultures were still picking over what remained, including a White-headed Vulture among the more common Cape and White-backed ones we had seen previously.

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White-headed Vulture

By now we really needed to hurry back if we were to fit in breakfast before our departure, but it would have been a shame not to stop for the herd of sable near the lodge, as the others on this drive hadn’t yet seen these, and we hadn’t had so close a look previously.

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Sable

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Sable with Oxpeckers

Time to go

Back at the lodge there was time for breakfast before being driven to the airport at Kasane, which took about 45 minutes. The airport surprised us by being more than just an airstrip and looked quite modern, but naturally very small scale with just a few check-in desks and no queue at all at the minimal security.

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Kasane Airport

There was just time in the departure area for me to check out the shop and buy a scarf (pale blue with zebra on it) - something I would be grateful for very shortly! We were then escorted across the tarmac, along with six other passengers, to the small plane and its pilot.

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Our plane and pilot

We were asked to check that our bags were in the small pile waiting to be loaded (they were) before boarding and taking a seat. Hand luggage had to be left at the back but I kept my camera with me and managed to secure a window seat at the front, as did Chris further back. Then we were off!

Flying to the Okavango

The small planes that serve the various Okavango camps operate much like buses, dropping off and picking up passengers along the way. We had two scheduled stops before ours, the first after 55 minutes flying time at Camp Moremi, and the second at Camp Okavango, only a short hop from Xugana Island where we were to stay. Our journey would take about 80 minutes in total, allowing for these stops.

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After take off from Kasane

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Our pilot

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Chobe River from the air

We took off and as we rose I could see the Chobe River in the distance below. Flying south over the bush I spotted elephants at some of the water holes, looking tiny from this height.

I shot some bits of video during the flight, trying to capture how the landscape below changed as we moved from bush to delta, and also one of the landings we made, at Camp Moremi. The contrast between the dryness of Chobe and the green lushness of the Okavango Delta region was very apparent.

The Okavango Delta is a unique landscape and eco-system, formed by the Okavango River which flows from Angola into the Kalahari Dessert, where it disperses across a wide flood plain, creating a myriad of channels. These are interspersed with small islands, created by vegetation gathering around termite mounds.

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Flying over the Okavango Delta

The channels are kept open by hippopotami and other animals, and lined with papyrus, creating a fascinating pattern of vivid greens and blues when seen from above like this – and a wonderful haven of wildlife to explore. In the dry season of winter, when we visited (July), the delta is like a massive oasis, as surprisingly that is when it is at its fullest; the rains that fall in Angola in the early part of the year arrive here in the winter months when the rest of the Kalahari is at its driest.

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Flying over the Okavango Delta

Xugana Island Lodge

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Xugana Island Lodge was to be our base for the next three nights. It is located on a small island towards the northern edge of the delta, in a lagoon said to be one of the most beautiful of them all – or as the website says, ‘the most spectacular permanent water site in the entire Okavango Delta, which itself is Africa’s largest and most awe-inspiring oasis’. Having not seen all the others I am unable to judge, but spectacularly beautiful it certainly was!

The lodge has just eight rooms and takes a maximum of 16 guests at a time, though there were never more than 12 when we were there, creating a very friendly, homely atmosphere. Guests, guides, staff and management all eat together, reinforcing this sense of home. As at Chobe Game Lodge (although in other respects very different from it), stays here are fully inclusive of all meals, drinks, activities and even laundry – the latter a necessity when you have to pack so lightly for the flights!

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The airstrip

The airstrip for the lodge seemed dry and totally remote, but only a few steps away was the water channel and a motor boat waiting to take us, and the other couple who alighted here, to the lodge. The ride took about 15 minutes, along a channel fringed with papyrus which stood high above us, and out on to the lagoon.

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A welcome from Rosa

We were greeted at the jetty of the lodge by a welcoming committee of the staff, who sang, danced a little and greeted us with hot towels and cold drinks. We were given a briefing about the schedule of activities, meal times etc., then shown to our rooms.

We had room 4, which like all of them was built of reeds and thatch, and had a view of the lagoon from the deck - and from the shower! It was lovely in a rustic fashion, and the bed beautifully decorated with petals, towels folded to look like swans and more. But it has to be said that it was not very warm. The rooms are screened at the windows but not glazed, and the chilly wind found its way inside all too easily. We were clearly in for a cold few days. I had known of course that temperatures drop here at night, but had expected warmer days, and had also thought that staying in hotels, rather than camping, would mean that we didn’t need as many warm clothes. Clearly I had thought wrongly! So one of my first actions here was to buy a fleece from the small lodge shop, which I would wear almost constantly for the next three days!

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Our room, #4

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Bed decorated for our arrival

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View from our room

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Slade

We had already missed brunch, which is served here after the morning activities, but they thoughtfully laid on a lunch for the new arrivals.

We then had time to relax and settle in before meeting up with our guide, Slade, for our first Xugana activity, which was to be a motor boat ride to another lagoon where hippos are often to be seen.

Evening on the Delta

As well as ourselves, and Donna and Steve from England who had arrived with us on our flight, we were joined by Glen and Arity from Australia. The six of us were to be Slade’s group for the duration of our stay. He gave a short safety briefing, and also showed us a map of the area, indicating which route we would take today.

Then we were off, crossing the lagoon to enter one of the small channels that led off it.

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Setting out on our boat ride

Slade navigated his way through what seemed to me to be a real maze of channels, spotting various wildlife along the way. We saw several Nile crocodiles, large and small.

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Quite small Nile crocodile!

On one of the small islands he pointed out a small herd of Red Lechwe, deer that live in the delta. They were a little hard to photograph among the long grasses but I got a couple of (not very good) shots - I was to do much better later in our stay.

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Red Lechwe

The bird life here is very different from that of Chobe, although a few of the many species we saw were the same. New ones included this pair of Hadeda Ibis, and several others of the same species.

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Hadeda Ibis

We came to the hippo lagoon, called Jerejere, and there were certainly plenty there, although we had been spoiled a bit by our encounters with them in Chobe. Here we couldn’t safely get as close, and also the water was deeper, so my photos were less successful. It was fun to see them however.

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Hippos in the lagoon

As we started to head back we saw plenty more birds, including a Fish Eagle, some Hooded Vultures, Egrets (both Great and Little), and some impressively large Wattled Cranes, their wingspans over a metre.

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Great Egret

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Wattled Cranes

Our first Okavango sunset

Slade moored the boat in a strategic point from which to watch the sunset and served the drinks we had pre-ordered (wine, beer, G&T) along with some snacks. The sun put on a great show for us, which was reflected in the waters of the lagoon.

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Sunset in the Okavango Delta

Once we’d finished our drinks we headed back to the lodge. Without the sun to provide some warmth it was very chilly out on the water, and only a little warmer in our room! I didn’t bother changing for dinner, given that a) I was going to put my new fleece back on top of whatever I wore, and b) it was so dark no one would see what I wore!

Evening at Xugana Island Lodge

There were pre-dinner drinks around the campfire for those who wanted them, and dinner served in the main lodge building which nevertheless is open on one side to the elements. We ate at communal tables, sharing our meal with the guides and other staff. The starter was mushrooms in a cheese sauce, very tasty. We then had a choice of pork chop or kudu - I chose the latter which was very good, as was the cauliflower cheese and sweet potato mash that accompanied it. We were offered a choice of two red and two white wines, and everything was introduced by the chef and waiting staff. Dessert was date pudding and there was also cheese and biscuits for those who could manage them - I didn’t!

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Some of the staff with Steve and Donna
[Donna is applauding, not praying!

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The fire pit

We sat out by the campfire for a short while afterwards, enjoying the relative warmth and also the bright stars overhead. With no light pollution here we could see the Milky Way really clearly. But soon we knew we had to brave the chill of our room. After dark all guests here are escorted to and from their rooms by a guide or other staff member (because of the risk of hippos), so we asked Clifford, one of the management team, to walk us back.

It was so cold that I had to wrap a blanket around my shoulders to write up my notes for this blog, but we had been given hot-water bottles as we left the main area which we had tucked into the bed to warm it. With those and the blankets we piled on top, the bed was actually very cosy and I fell asleep to the noise of the insects outside.

Posted by ToonSarah 00:50 Archived in Botswana Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises people animals birds night planes boats food wildlife hotel flight airport africa safari reptiles lions botswana okavango lagoons hippos big_cats Comments (14)

Last full day at Chobe

Botswana safari plus, day five


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Sunrise on the river

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By the jetty at dawn

Chobe Game Lodge is experimenting with a potential new activity for guests, a sunrise cruise on the river, and this morning we played guinea pigs. We were warned we may not see much wildlife, but we did! We also enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and had breakfast on the river. It was very cold at first but really worth doing - a beautiful outing.

It started, of course, with another early wake-up call, but with the luxury of a ‘lie-in’ - 5.30 rather than 5.00! We dressed quickly and warmly, and hurried over to the main building for coffee and a muffin before going down to the jetty from where we could see the sky already starting to glow pinkly.

Our guide welcomed on board - the same one who had escorted us on our sunset cruise two days before, Gao (pronounced ‘How’). But this time it was just the two of us - no one else had chosen this option over that of a game drive, perhaps put off by the explanatory leaflet which indicated that we might not see much wildlife beyond the water birds.

Gao cast off and set off in an easterly direction, towards the sunrise. We could hear hippos grunting and soon saw a small pod in the long grass to our right, though it wasn’t yet light enough to take decent photos. Besides, it was the sky and the just-rising sun which occupied our cameras for a while at least.

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Sunrise over the Chobe River

Once the sun was properly up we turned our attention to the hippos. Gao took the boat closer so we could watch them enjoying their breakfast. Hippos spend the night grazing on shore so these would just now have come down to the river. Their skin dries out easily so once the sun comes up they need to be in the water.

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Hippos at sunrise

I found it very restful to watch the hippos grazing - I hope you do too!

Not far from the hippos Gao pointed out a pair of Puku on the shore. These are relatively rare in Botswana – the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/11037/0) rates them as ‘near threatened’ and says that their population is decreasing overall, although increasing here in Chobe NP. It seemed the male might be trying to mate with the female but he soon returned to grazing.

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Puku by the Chobe River

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A tentative approach?

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No, eating seems to be the priority!

Later we heard them call, in a high-pitched voice like a football referee’s whistle, to a third puku further up the shore.

There were lots of birds around now:

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Yellow-billed Storks

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Pied Kingfishers

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Grey Heron

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Brown-hooded Kingfisher

We saw some banded mongooses playing in the sun, but a little too far away to get good photos. This was the best I could manage:

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Banded mongooses

A water monitor lizard was basking on a log, warming his body after the cold night:

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Water monitor lizard

Then we came across a troop of baboons and spent quite some time watching them interact - the adults grooming each other while the babies played.

Checking with Gao I learned that these youngsters would be about a month or a little more in age.

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Baby baboons

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Young baboon

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Baboons grooming

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A contented-looking baboon

We arrived at the salt lick area where we had seen elephants and impala on our sunset cruise. This morning there were just impala here - a very large herd.

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Impala herd

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Impalas drinking

We took some photos and then Gao suggested that this would be a good spot for breakfast, to which we agreed. She brought the boat into the shore. Most of the breakfast was already set out on the table in the centre of the boat, under covers naturally. She made instant coffee, then invited us to help ourselves. There were pots of yoghurt with granola and berry compote, pastries and croissants, fresh fruit, cold meats and cheeses, and crackers. There was also fruit juice and even a bottle of champagne on ice! We declined the latter, however, as we would only have drunk a little and it seemed from what Gao said that any leftovers would go to waste. Obviously had we been a larger group that would not have been an issue!

After breakfast we headed back to the jetty, stopping to photograph a crocodile on the bank in passing.

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Look at those teeth!

When we arrived back at the mooring it was to find all the spaces occupied by other boats, ready for the next excursions, so we had to wait a while before we could tie up and disembark. We were met by the lodge’s owner, keen to get feedback on the experience. Needless to say we were very positive, with the result that he said they would consider adding it the regular programme.

We passed through the restaurant on our way back to the room and were offered yet more breakfast, including hot dishes, should we have wanted it. But we had eaten enough on board and were happy to go back to our room where we made hot chocolate which we drank sitting in the sun on our terrace, getting warmed up after the chill out on the water.

Afternoon activity

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White-browed Robin-chat in the restaurant

After a relaxing couple of hours we went to lunch (great venison kebab!) and took a few photos around the hotel. At 3.30 it was time to set out on another game drive, this time with Dinah as our guide. Things started slowly at first:

A lone kudu near the lodge gate:

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Female kudu

A small herd of elephants with some cute babies:

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Elephant and calves

A giraffe, and a Common Bustard:

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Common Bustard

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Giraffe with ox-peckers on board

A Lilac Breasted Roller:

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Lilac-breasted Roller

Dinah heard about a leopard sighting at one point, but when we reached the spot where he had been seen he had already moved on. So we drove down on to the flood plains, where we found more giraffe and a distant hard of buffalo.

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Chobe River flood plains

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Buffalo

There was much more cloud than we’d seen previously, and rain in the distance over Namibia, although looking east the sky was still blue.

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Landscape with giraffe

Then Dinah got word of lions not far away, so we drove in their direction. And what a treat! The pride included four super cute cubs, and a young male. We spent ages in their company, taking loads of photos and watching the antics of the cubs in particular.

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Three of the cubs

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Some time to myself

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And with mum

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Feeling sleepy

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Sticking close to mum

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Brothers

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The cubs at play

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The proud mother

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The young male

Of course quite a few vehicles gathered at this spot, but the lions didn’t seem to mind the company and came really close to us. Only the cubs seemed slightly wary, unwilling to follow their mother across the road between the vehicles even when some backed off to give them a clear pathway. They soon braved it however and were reunited with her.

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Watching the lions

Eventually we tore ourselves away and drove on to the same spot where we had parked yesterday to stretch our legs and enjoy a drink. There were no baboons here today however, and perhaps just as well, as we had little time to linger. The national park closes at 6.30 so we needed to be back at the lodge by then.

We drove back under darkening skies and arrived just a little after that hour, the last vehicle to enter the lodge gates.

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Chobe at dusk

Dinner at the boma

That evening dinner was served outside at the ‘boma’ down by the river, with live music, champagne on arrival and a buffet meal. Although not a fan of the latter I have to say the food was excellent, as were all the meals we had at the lodge. But we didn’t stay very late, as we had to pack our bags. We would be leaving tomorrow, but there would be time to fit in one more game drive before departure, provided we were well-organised and ready to leave straight after breakfast.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:49 Archived in Botswana Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds monkeys wildlife elephants river africa safari lions botswana hippos big_cats Comments (11)

A fabulous fauna-filled first full day in Botswana

Botswana safari plus, day four


View Botswana safari plus 2018 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Sunrise over the Chobe River

We slept very well in our cosy bed, enjoying the silence around us after the traffic noise in Nairobi. Our wake-up call at five came all too soon, but we awoke to the news that England had beaten Columbia in a penalty shootout - amazing!

Before going out on our game drive we enjoyed a warming cup of coffee and hot bran muffins. Soon it was 6.00 and time to head to the departure point outside the lodge.

Morning game drive

As all the lodge guests gathered at the departure point we were allocated to a guide and vehicle. We were with a family of four, including an enthusiastic and very well-behaved young lad, plus a solo American guy - so just seven of us in a vehicle that could seat twelve, and thus room to spread out. Our guide introduced herself as Vivian, and handed out blankets. It was still dark and pretty chilly, especially as it was a windy day.

At first we could see very little as we drove away from the lodge, apart from the shadowy figures of impala among the bushes. Vivian paused when the sun rose so we could get some photos.

Once it was light of course we started to see more of the life around us. There was a large herd of impala, beautifully lit by the early morning sun. Indeed the light was lovely throughout the drive.

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Impala

We saw lots of birds, including beautiful Greater Blue-eared Starlings near the impala:

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Greater Blue-eared Starling

A group of White-backed Vultures on a termite mound:

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White-backed Vultures

A female Black Bellied Bustard, also known as a Black Bellied Korhaan (Vivian had to use the bird book to identify that one for me! Apparently it is not common):

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Black Bellied Bustard

A Grey Go Away Bird, sporting a Mohican hair-do - another new one for me!

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Grey Go Away Bird

Several Red Billed Hornbills (I always think they look rather grumpy!)

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Red Billed Hornbill

We also came across a troop of baboons in the trees by the river, some of them babies. They wouldn't keep still for photos, and the low light made it difficult too, but I got a couple of reasonable shots, although none of the babies.

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Baboons

We caught a sight of a young male lion, but disappointingly too hidden by bushes to photograph. But then Vivian got a call from another guide telling her that there were two lions further along the track we were on. She headed over there and we got a great view of the two lionesses who seemed to be resting together. Certainly they were taking little interest in a nearby herd of impala, nor in a warthog that wandered by.

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Lionesses, Chobe National Park

That was the highlight of the morning but there was more to see on the way back to the lodge, including a Lilac Breasted Roller, a Kori Bustard, a herd of buffalo, and two Black-backed jackals and some vultures picking over the last takings on a giraffe carcass.

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Lilac Breasted Roller

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Kori Bustard

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Buffalo

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Jackal with giraffe carcass

Time to unwind

We were scheduled to do another river cruise at 11.00, and an evening game drive, but because of the wind Vivian suggested we might see more on land than on the river and proposed a long afternoon drive, leaving at 2.00. We decided to take her up on the suggestion, not least because it would give us a little time to relax and enjoy the lodge, and the rest of our group did the same.

We had a good cooked breakfast in the restaurant, then went for a stroll on the riverside boardwalk.

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Panoramic view from the boardwalk

But the wind made that a chilly place to linger, so instead we sat for a while on our own sheltered terrace and also for a while in our room, catching up on messages and sorting photos from the earlier drive.

Afternoon game drive

After lunch we met up again with Vivian and the others for our long drive. And what a fabulous experience it was to be! We drove at first through an area of teak trees, where some giraffes were grazing on the caper bushes.

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Giraffes grazing

We passed a herd of elephants with some babies:

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Elephants in the teak forest

Vivian speculated that they were coming away from a man-made waterhole a little ahead of us. When we reached that point we found ourselves amongst a variety of different animals. Ahead of us were sable and zebra, grazing peacefully together. They too had probably been just recently at the waterhole.

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Zebra and sable herds

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Zebra and sable

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Sable

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Zebra

On our left was the waterhole, and it was surrounded by elephants. For the most part they were drinking amicably, although squabbles broke out from time to time as we watched, which we did for some time. There were quite a few calves, including one young enough to still be nursing.

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Elephants at the waterhole

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Nursing calf

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Elephants in close-up

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Elephant and calf

When a troop of baboons arrived to join the elephants, one of the latter took exception to having to share and tried repeatedly to drive them away, albeit in a rather half-hearted fashion - a lot of trumpeting but little else. Most of the time the elephants drank peacefully and it was a very tranquil scene.

Eventually we left them to it. As we drove away we passed a beautiful Little Bee Eater. There were more giraffes by the path, and further on I managed to get another good photo of one of my favourite African birds, the Lilac Breasted Roller.

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Little Bee Eater, and giraffe

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Lilac Breasted Roller

We then drove down to the river, where we witnessed a bit of a stand-off between two young bull elephants. One was apparently spoiling for a fight, but the other, crossing the river towards him, just wanted to be allowed to pass peacefully. When it became obvious that he was not going to be allowed to do so, he backed off and ran splashing through the shallows. The aggressor pursued him briefly, then let him leave, having won the fight by default.

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Crossing the river

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Face to face

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Turning away from confrontation

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In flight

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The pursuit

Driving on we got a close look at another Fish Eagle and came to another group of giraffes.

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Fish Eagle

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Giraffe on the alert

Vivian spotted that some of the giraffes seemed very alert and were looking some distance away, ahead of us. Then we saw why - six lions were approaching through the grass, on the other side of an inlet of water.

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The approaching lions

They paused on the far side - a lioness and five older cubs. We watched for a long while to see if they might try to take a giraffe, or maybe one of the buffalo that were grazing in the distance. The giraffes were nearer; the buffalo would be easier. The mother stood for some time in the long grass, surveying the scene.

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The lioness

The cubs hung back for a while, then joined her.

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The young lions

After some time it seemed that the buffalo were the preferred option and she led them away in that direction, where we couldn’t easily follow. But we didn’t mind, as we had enjoyed so much quality time with them.

Besides, a bathroom break was long overdue! There are basic facilities provided out in the park so we stopped near one of these. Then it was time for sundowner refreshments - white wine or soft drinks, and some nibbles. As we stood around enjoying these another large troop of baboons arrived, heading for the nearby river. We followed them there and were able to take photos in the lovely evening light. It was nice to be able to do so on foot too, down at their level. They clearly had no fear of us and almost seemed to be posing.

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Baboons at sundown

We were driving away from the rest area when the young boy in our group called out to Vivian to stop, saying that he had seen a hippo. It seemed unlikely up on this dry ground a little distance from the river, and as she reversed the vehicle I think we all expected to find that he had mistaken a rock for a hippo, but a hippo it indeed was. And a mighty bull too, gleaming in the later afternoon sun. Vivian reckoned he had either been in a fight and had come here to recuperate after a fight, although he looked well enough, or was simply fed up with all the females and had come away to get some peace and quiet! Maybe this bush was his man cave?

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Bull hippo

By now the sun had just about set and the light was fading. But our final encounter was to be one of the most interesting of the drive, if somewhat sad. We came back to the giraffe carcass we had seen in the morning, again being picked over by jackals. Nearby stood five giraffes (four young males and a female) and they seemed truly to understand that here was one of their own and to be mourning for him.

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The giraffes standing around the carcass

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Consoling each other?

It is well known that elephants do this, but Vivian had never seen such behaviour in giraffes and was as fascinated as we were. I have since done a Google search for examples of similar behaviour, and it does indeed seem to be rare. This article, https://www.care2.com/causes/4-animals-who-mourn-their-dead.html (published last year but originally written in 2012), cites just three known examples:

‘In 2010 in Kenya’s Soysambu Conservancy, a female giraffe was observed spending four days beside the body of her one-month-old calf. Seventeen other female giraffes also surrounded the body over the four days.

In 2011, a female giraffe in Zambia spent two hours beside a stillborn calf. She splayed her legs to bend down — something giraffes rarely do, except to eat or drink — and licked the calf for several hours. This behavior was repeated for the entire two hours — all the more notable, as giraffes rarely spend time alone.

Also in 2011, a herd of giraffes in Namibia was observed investigating the corpse of a young female giraffe that had died three weeks before. Some of the male giraffes splayed their legs and sniffed the ground.’

There are a few other examples to be found if you search, but it is clearly quite rare behaviour, and most of those I found relate to a giraffe ‘mourning’ her own calf.

This was our final sighting as it was starting to get dark and Vivian had to drive a little faster to get back to the lodge. We had about 30 minutes to get changed and ready for dinner before heading to the restaurant. The food is consistently good here, including this evening’s citrus salad starter, gemsbok in a delicious port sauce, and ‘Eat n Mess’ - which in addition to being oddly named (a misunderstanding rather than an intended pun, I suspect) was also different in containing a sharp berry compote rather than the usual strawberries - but again delicious.

Then it was back to our room to relax a little before another, necessary, early night. Tomorrow morning we would be trying something a little different.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Botswana Tagged animals monkeys wildlife elephants africa safari national_park lions botswana chobe giraffes hippos big_cats Comments (12)

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