It sounds ridiculous, but there can come a time on safari when you stop paying attention to the elephants.
You’ve seen them in every size and stance – protective, ear-flapping matriarchs with cute babies peering out from behind their legs; frisky, testosterone-fueled teenagers; and the old male, stinky with passion and frustrated as hell. When we pass the next cluster we barely slow down to look because we’re spoilt for choice in the Chobe.
A lioness prowling behind two impala. I stare hard and finally spot her head – ears pricked, fangs bared and practically salivating. But she knows the impala would spring away before she could cover the ground, and sinks down to watch and wait. MK finds us more lions lolling near an elephant carcass, their presence given away by vultures hunched on nearby branches. Then he points out a rare puku antelope, and tells us they’re endangered because the females are such delinquent mums that their young are often killed. The parents in the vehicle start tutting, and I swear the poor puku gives a sheepish grin.
It isn’t always like this, of course. I’ve been to the Chobe before without seeing so much as a trunk, but this time the abundance of elephant was astonishing.
There’s also an amazing amount of hippos in the mighty Chobe River, and a two-hour trip on a little boat is wonderful. We chug along quietly, not disturbing the croc patiently waiting in the shallows as an impala scans the scene to see if it’s safe to drink. Hippos pop up everywhere, giving wide-mouthed yawns whenever my camera is pointing in the wrong direction. A black heron stalks in the water, folding its wings into an arc to create a canopy. It’s casting a shadow to lure the fish into its cool shade before it gobbles them down, MK explains.
If you swim in the Chobe you’ll never swim again, he adds, because of the crocs, or the hippos, or both, and he worries even if we dip a hand in the water to check the temperature. But he ignores his own advice and pulls up a water lily, using it as a drinking straw before he turns it into a necklace.
A malachite kingfisher poses for our cameras, and we’re lulled by the buzz of insects and the chirping of birds. Everything else is silence.
After a full and fabulous day we return to Ngoma Safari Lodge, and I enjoy an outdoor shower while I watch the floodplains. Pools of water are already encroaching on the land, and in a few weeks time the panorama will be more water than bushes, until it recedes and the cycle starts again.
Ngoma has eight suites all facing the river, with plunge pools on private wooden decks. Inside there’s a large bed, a settee, coffee facilities, a mini bar and a lavish bathroom.
My metal doorbell clanks as a guide comes to escort me to dinner, because there are no fences so sneaky predators may be lurking in the bushes.
Ngoma is managed by Jarryd and Frances King, a South African couple who are training up the local staff so they can work themselves out of a job, in line with Botswana’s strong pro-local employment policies.
One of the beauties of Ngoma – apart from the plethora of animals – is its proximity to Victoria Falls. They’re in different countries, but Ngoma is just an hour or so from Kazungula border post, and if you time it right, skipping from Botswana into Zimbabwe is a 10 minute doddle.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is a sister property to Ngoma, both run by Africa Albida Tourism. That makes booking a Safari-and-Vic-Falls combo simple, with a seamless handover organised for you.
When the Zambezi River is in full flow it doesn’t take long before you’re not just admiring Victoria Falls, you’re practically wearing them. The unimaginable amount of water pouring over the jagged rocks bounces back up again, creating the famous mist that has me firmly surrounded. From some of the 16 viewponts the spray is so dense that you can hear the thundering, but can’t actually see it. Then the wind shifts and you see the falls across the gorge, magnificent, pounding and roaring with exuberance as water tumbles into the narrow chasms below. I open my arms wide and laugh, delighted to be back and knowing it’s a view you can never tire of.
It’s good to see the paths growing busy again, with much-needed tourism picking up since the overthrow of Robert Mugabe swept in cautious optimism and friendlier staff at Zimbabwe’s immigration desks.
You can visit Vic Falls easily by yourself, but I joined a tour with Alec Zulu, a delightful guide from the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Zulu has a lifetime of anecdotes and experiences, and talks of tribal battles around the land long before David Livingstone arrived and ‘discovered’ them himself.
He explains the topology, and how the edge of the waterfall has already moved back eight times as the force eats away at fault lines and sheers off the basalt rocks. The next fault lines are already being eroded so the views will change again. “See you in 10,000 years,” he jokes.
We see him a lot sooner, however, because Zulu is also the head waiter at the Vulture Restaurant, a daily attraction at the lodge. Vultures are endangered, and the feeding scheme helps them survive and educates people about the threats they face.
We follow a path to a clearing and watch Zulu unpacking hunks of meat left over from the Boma Restaurant. Birds are circling overhead in elegant, easy loops. Others are perched in the trees or loitering on the dusty earth, trying to look nonchalant as they inch ever closer. Zulu throws out the final slabs and dashes away as wings flap, beaks grab and talons scratch. There are hundreds of them, raising a dust storm in a frenzy that’s all over in minutes.
If you enjoy a good hunk of meat yourself, try eating at The Boma. Every evening the sound of drums throbs through the air to draw guests in to the rondevaal for a buffet with warthog, crocodile and other exotic dishes as you watch the tribal dancing. Then you’re given your own drum to pound in a communal drumming session. There’s a sangoma to read the bones and tell your fortune, and a face-painter who’s branched out into painting lovely baobabs on your cheeks.
A river cruise is a must-do too. It isn’t cheap, but the one we took with Wild Horizons comes with inclusive drinks and tasty snacks like crocodile kebabs. (It’s a cliché, but it really does taste like chicken!)
The captain points out birds, crocs and the spray of the distant falls, while I fail yet again to photograph a hippo doing a wide-jawed yawn. I’ll get one next time.
Other attractions at Victoria Falls
Adventure company Wild Horizons offers activities including ziplining in the gorges below the waterfall, canoeing, white water rafting, a gorge swing and elephant encounters. You can bungee jump off Victoria Falls Bridge too.
With various companies offering helicopter flips, the once peaceful area is constantly disturbed by the duff-duff-duff of engines. It’s a little annoying, until it’s your turn to fly! The views are magnificent, swooping over the 1.7km wide waterfall and watching the river froth through the cataracts below.
The waterfalls grow steadily fuller from December onwards, and from March to June the spray can block the view from some viewpoints. Water levels reduce in July and August, and from September to December the view is clear, but the flow may dry up completely on the Zambian side of the falls. That’s when the brave can swim in Devil’s Pool, a rock pool right on the edge of the falls.
Fastjet flies from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and its prices usually undercut other airlines. South Africans don’t need a visa. www.fastjet.com.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge looks out over the bushveld a few kilometres out of town, and a free shuttle bus runs to town and Victoria Falls every hour. An activities desk can arrange other activities. The standard rooms have private balconies, large beds, a coffee station, excellent power showers and views of a watering hole. If you fancy splashing out, its suites have two or three en-suite bedrooms, a kitchenette and a lounge with a patio. It’s lovely to relax there in privacy and still have access to the restaurants and bars at the main lodge, and a swimming pool by the Boma. http://www.africaalbidatourism.com/
Ngoma Safari Lodge in the Chobe Forest Reserve overlooks the Chobe River. It’s 55km from Kasane airport, or an hour’s drive from the Kazungula border with Zimbabwe. Its eight suites have indoor and outdoor showers, a plunge pool, free mini-bar and air conditioning. Meals are served at the main lodge with a choice of menu. The day-long drive and cruise safari is a highlight. http://www.africaalbidatourism.com/