Wild about Africa
When people hear the word "Africa" it conjures up images of wild animals, adventure, breathtaking scenery and hot, sunny days. If those are the pictures that come to mind, you wouldn't be too far off.
After a brutal 31 hours in transit, the tour group found it hard to imagine why Cape Town is one of the most popular long haul destinations in the world. A thick fog had set over the peninsula and Table Mountain, which usually dominates the city, was nowhere to be seen. Once the fog lifted and we had caught up on some sleep, things took on a different perspective. We spent a busy few days travelling around the Cape Peninsula, visiting the little fishing village in Hout Bay, the Cape Of Good Hope Nature Reserve, the Cape Point Funicular, the Boulders penguin colony, the Groot Constantia Wine estate and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens with its diverse fynbos flora and backed by natural forest.
We then travelled the winelands situated north-east of Cape Town, visiting Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The region is steeped in culture and history with some excellent examples of typical Cape Dutch architecture dating back to the 17th century and we enjoyed wine tasting at its best in areas set amongst rugged mountain ranges.
Departing from the Victoria and Albert Waterfront we took a ferry ride to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of imprisonment. The outing included a tour of the prison buildings and a brief tour of the island itself. Fine weather prevailed so after returning to the mainland we scaled the steep incline of Table Mountain, not by foot but in the rotating cable car. The views of Cape Town and its coastline from the top were not to be missed. We were invited to Mont Fleur, a wine farm belonging to the Trafford family, for our last evening in the Cape, where we received warm hospitality, tasted fine wines and sampled Dutch and Malay styled dishes such as bobotie and potjiekos while mingling with our South Africans hosts and guests. Before flying off to Namibia we were fortunate to be met by one of the Museum directors at Iziko and while the critical shortage of funds for art and culture in South Africa was evident, the fine collection of San rock paintings and engravings made the visit worthwhile.
We arrived in Swakopmund on Namibia’s Atlantic coast by bus after landing at Walvisbay airport and settled into the comfortable Swakopmund Hotel, once a railway station. We explored the local dunes with Tommy Collard, Namibia's Crocodile Dundee, who seemed to know where every creature was hidden, assisted by the telltale footprints in the sand, his ‘Bushman roadmap’. He would suddenly slam on the brakes of his all terrain vehicle, scamper up a dune and begin digging into the sand. Very soon he would return with one of the creatures endemic to the Namib: the sidewinder (Namib Adder), the Palmato Gecko with its transparent skin and beautiful colours, the slow moving but well camouflaged Namaqua Chameleon, the swift moving shovel snouted sand-diving lizard, a burrowing skink and even a spider. We discovered plenty of life in this seemingly desolate landscape and learnt much about the ways in which these creatures have adapted to life on and under the sand supported by moisture from the fog that drives in from the cold Atlantic. A candle lit dinner in the desert with background music by the local Marimba youth band was another unforgettable evening.
The following morning we journeyed back to Walvis Bay, where before our next departure we enjoyed a scenic boat ride of the harbour with its birds including pelicans and a Sub Antarctic Skua and seals, some very large and very friendly which came aboard. A magnificent spread including oysters and champagne saw to it that no one went hungry.
A short chartered flight via the coastline and the now fiercely protected Sandwich harbour, once a port but now sanded over and a sanctuary to thousands of birds and other desert creatures, found us in Sossusvlei, one of the most spectacular sights in Namibia where we were to experience the vastness and silence and the colours of the desert.
The lodge was quite unique, built with adobe bricks and with tents for accommodation similar to those of the Bedouin. Sundowners enjoyed by a rocky outcrop in the red light of the sunset was sublime and the sumptuous buffet dinner held out in the open, included barbequed steaks of exotic African game species. Our sunrise tour of the Sossusvlei, a hard-surfaced clay pan that is almost entirely surrounded by sharp-edged dunes, was breathtaking in every sense of the word. Travelling by our own choice in open sided vehicles for 60 kms in the early hours of the morning and wrapped only in thin blankets, we found the last of the desert night air much cooler than expected. It was bitterly cold. When we arrived the lodge staff had set up a breakfast buffet with tables and chairs under very old Acacia trees for us to enjoy surrounded by the world’s highest dunes. Soon we had to depart. Our stay was regrettably just too short.
After breakfast we flew to Botswana via Windhoek and Maun and in the late afternoon we landed on the partially flooded grassed landing strip at Camp Okavango in the Okavango Delta, Africa's most unique wildlife and wilderness sanctuary. Accessible only by air or water, the swamps remains wild and unspoiled, yet our accommodation was very comfortable consisting of East African-style safari tents with en-suite ablution facilities and private sun decks individually situated on raised teak platforms – very necessary to keep the hippos out. The staff could not have been more friendly or professional. On arrival we were taken on a guided mokoro (dugout canoe) excursion and enjoyed our first sunset in the magical beauty and serenity of the Okavango Delta.
The routine at camp was: early wake-up call (usually 6:00 am); meet for light breakfast ˝ hour later; off on an activity; back to camp by 11:00ish; a big brunch & siesta; 3:30 high tea - usually including a variety of hot and cold dishes, sweets etc.; late afternoon activity including a stop for sundowners – a most wonderful practice which included an open boot bar enjoyed overlooking a watering hole. Then back to camp for a sumptuous dinner followed by fireside chats with fellow guests eager to talk about their game viewing experiences. Staff and guides who grew up and lived most of their lives in the area ate with us at mealtimes and shared their passion for the Delta.
Walking in the Delta's wilderness is definitely the highlight of a 'true safari' experience. On our first morning we left by motor boat for a nearby island for a 3 hour game walk. Water levels were high due to recent floods, making animal sightings more difficult as they tend to move further inland to higher ground. The guides were very knowledgeable and taught us to appreciate the many sights & sounds of the bush. The pervasive smell of wild sage and basil was an unexpected bonus. After 2 hours of walking we stopped for a rest having spotted lechwe, a hippo, a huge Nile crocodile, impala, monkey, giraffe and an elephant. It was only when one of our party stood up to take a group photo that she realised an angry elephant was coming straight for us. “Run for it”, our guide Obed shouted. Unfortunately there was only one tree which we soon realised was just not big enough to hide 12 people. “Keep running” the next instruction came. There was no other option but to cross the open grassland as the elephant was by now no more than 25 meters away and gaining on us. Fortunately it stopped when Obed fired two shots in its direction from a “Bang Banger” which he suddenly produced, which convinced the elephant that further advance in our direction was not a good idea. We certainly got the “close up and personal” wilderness experience on that outing.
Camp Moremi was land based and all game viewing is by open 4x4 safari vehicles in the Moremi Game Reserve. This area is clearly the one with the largest concentration of animals and good sightings are never too far apart, especially as the staff could radio each other if they spotted something interesting. There were wonderful sightings of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala, kudu, crocodile and hippo, countless species of birds and plenty of lions. We arrived within minutes of three lion taking a young zebra down and watched up close as a pack of thirteen females and cubs lay sleeping in the grass next to the road. The vehicles are open and it is a strange feeling to be only a few meters from a predator that could easily jump into the vehicle if it wanted to. The camp is secured by an electric wire at night, at a height to only keep out giraffe and elephant. After dark one had to be escorted by one of the guides when walking between the rooms and the main buildings. This was necessary as one of our couples found out one night when they came face-to-face with a hippo on the pathway. In the evening the staff would sing their African songs around the fire and we would crawl off to bed and fall asleep to the night sounds of the bush.
Our final destination was Zambia. We stayed at the David Livingstone Lodge, right on the Zambezi, so that you could hear the sounds of hippos in the river at night. The main building is a beautiful thatch complex that fits neatly into the surrounding bush. We visited Mukuni village, an authentic tribal village where dozens of inhabitants live and work. One of the local women accompanied us on our walk and explained the customs of the village. Most people live in round thatched mud huts with a small garden often containing a vegetable area and a chicken coup. Few crops grow here as the soil is poor and the rainfall is slight but there is a real sense of community spirit and support. The David Livingstone Museum was very worthwhile and gave insight into the history of Zambia and its people. We ended the day with a relaxing river cruise on the elegant Lady Livingstone watching the sun set over the Zambezi river.
The trip was rounded off with a visit to the Victoria Falls "Mosi-oa-Tunya," the smoke that thunders. An apt description for the awe-inspiring 1,708 meters wide waterfall that plummets between 90m and 107m into the Zambezi Gorge along the Zambian border. It was the flood season, the river was at its peak and it was impossible to see the foot of the falls due to the mist spray. During our walk along the opposite cliff we were in a constant shower and shrouded in mist. Close to the edge of the cliff, spray shoots upward like inverted rain, especially at Zambia's Knife-Edge Bridge where we got totally drenched. It was beyond spectacular and one of those things you have to see with your own eyes.
I am beginning to understand the lure Africa holds over so many people.