Victoria Falls – convenient safari stopover in Zimbabwe

On a safari trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe in July, my family and I made a two-nights stopover in Victoria Falls town. Just to brush off the dust of our pants and admire one of the seven natural wonders of the world: The gigantic waterfalls.

Victoria Falls town was a great place to visit, because it offered a contrast to the peaceful savannah (at least peaceful for humans) with all the urban impressions of streets, cars, shops, and people.

We stayed at Victoria Falls Hotel very close to the main shopping street and to the waterfalls. Baboons stole sugar at the hotel’s breakfast buffet and ravaged the shopping street, until a shopowner fired his slingshot at them! Warthogs dug holes in the hotel lawn. Street vendors offered wooden skulptures and 3 billion Zimbabwe dollar bills. We bought one for 1 US Dollar, and found another one (5o million) lying on the pavement.

Victoria Falls Hotel is full of British colonial history. On the walls hung zebras and other trophies, colonial advertising posters, and portraits of celebrities who had stayed at the hotel. Stanley and Livingstone included. According to the hotel book, the first royal guest was”Princess Christian of Slesveig Holsteien” (I am pretty sure Christian was a Danish king, not a princess :))

From the restaurant terrace, there was a superb view of ascending clouds from the waterfalls. Tourists flocked here to have high noon tea. The hotel food was average, but service was great. We preferred The Palm Restaurant at Ilala Lodge Hotel next door, where we had ostrich. On our second night, we walked to The Lookout Cafe for sundowner drinks, and watched four Dutch girls trying a freefall swing in the gorge. Luckily, we did not have time to try it!

After 2 nights in town, we drove to Victoria Falls Airport, to continue our safari adventure in Hwange National Park. Victoria Falls Airport is the cleanest and emptiest airport I have ever travelled through. And Security to domestic fleets was a joke: It beeped when I went through, so they asked me if I had something in my pockets. I said no, and that was it.

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Safari and deluxe camping in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

We arrived in July in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, on an 8-passengers plane from Victorial Falls. Landing on an airstrip (read; a piece of open land with zebras grassing at one end), we were picked up by Albert, our safari guide and jeep driver for the next four days.

On our way from the airstrip to Somalisa camp, Albert spotted a cheeta family. Great start! Somalisa is an abbreviation of a Bushman Chief’s complicated name. He used to live in Hwange nationalpark,where today a well-designed safari camp is named after him. Somalisa camp is divided into three subcamps; family, adults only, and a more basic one. Each camp accommodates max 15 guests in stationary tents overlooking waterholes where elephants come to drink.

Exclusive safari and social dining

We had a private jeep with Albert as our knowledgable guide. Meals were served in a lounge area of the camp, except for our 10-o’clock tea and sundowner drinks, which Albert served us on the savannah plains: He stopped the jeep, sprayed sanitizer on our hands and set up a little table in front of the jeep: Gin-tonic and snacks in the sunset overlooking wildlife is not bad at all.

Our only tiny displeasure was lack of exercise. Running was out of the question, and walking only duable with an armed guide in front. In camp, we had breakfast at the bonfire. Lunch and dinner were served at a longtable for guests, guides and hosts, and we had some cheerful chats  about were we all came from, our itineraries, and adventures on the savannah.

Animals

We went on game drives early mornings and late afternoons, and spotted elephants, giraffs, ostrich, impalas, kudus, baboons, and many other species. But no rhinos. Albert told us there used to be so many rhinos in Hwange that you simply drove past them without taking further notice.

One afternoon we found a pride of lions. They had killed a buffalo and was eating, roaring and pushing eachother to get the best bites. No manners.

When we returned in the evening, the lions were gone, and jakals and vultures had taken over. A couple of hyaenas was on their way. They eat the bones, Albert told us. The next morning we saw the lions again, walking across the plain, the alpa male at the back, limping after a fight with one of his sons. His days as alpha male were numbered.

Next morning we heard a roar and found the lions again, this time at their breakfast: Two baby giraffs, which we had seen alive the previous day. The alpha male was eating one, and the rest of the pride was fighting over the other dead giraff.

Trouble makers

Elephants are vandalists, they break branches and trample trees, but it helps keep the savannah open. One elephant even started to tear tents lines and push railings of our camp, probably because there were some tempting fruit trees in the lounge area.

Another trouble maker was the hornbill, who kept a close eye on our food. Occasionally, it flew down and snapped a cake.

Our hosts told us that what was now a drinking cart for elephants used to be guests’ swimming pool. They had to give it up because elephants stuck their trunk into it to drink. On a few occations, a baby elephant had fallen in and had to be pulled back up by 12 strong men.

Heaters, bush babies and ponchos

Nights and mornings were freezingly cold, down to 2-3 degrees celcius. Luckily, tents were equipped with gas heaters, and every day, the camp people switched them on before we returned from our late game drive. Bush babies (safari slang for hot water bottle) were handed out at the dinner table, to keep us warm during dinner and in bed afterwards. We also had bush babies and fleece lined ponches in the jeep, lovely! One great advantage of the cold nights was that it killed the mosquitos. No bites, no malaria tablets.

Guide humour and horror stories

At one point, we met another group of tourists standing next to their jeep, studying deer droppings. Albert picked one up and said ”you don’t throw it like this (raising his arm) you throw it like this”, and he put the tiny ”ball” in his mouth and spit it away! The tourists gaped, while we drove on, giggling.

Albert also told horror stories: One about a lion coming from another area with no tourists. It had been confused to see jeeps and decided to attack one. Fortunately, it only grabbed a spare tire on the jeep, but passengers had been horrified.

Another time, on a walking safari, a pride of lions attacked the guide. He was killed and the tourists ran, panicked, in all directions. One tourist who had military training, eventually managed to call them back, and they waited 3 hours before daring to approach the guide and call for help over his radio. Albert himself have had to use his rifle one time on a walking safari; something about an American lady who did not follow instructions, but remained standing to shoot pictures, when a angry elephant approached. Luckily, Albert only had to fire a warning shot.

Walking safari 

We went on a walking safari on our third and last full day in Hwange. Driving away from the camp, we heard loud trumpeting. Albert said it was elephants scarring the cheetahs away. Hopefully, they fled in the opposite direction of our walk! Albert gave us a safety briefing, and we left the jeep for a 2 hours hike, Albert in front with a rifle.

We walked through high grass, trying to be silent, but our steps made more noice than the elephants. Albert showed us leopard footsteps and explained about termites (apparently a true delicacy) and anteaters. We missed the cheetahs, but met some elephants and backed off a little. Especially female elephants are not to be bothered. Albert put his finger in a fresh piece of dung and said it was still hot, but that the only way to figure out exactly how hot was like this – and then he put his finger in his mouth. We stared. Then Albert said: ”When you do it, remember to change finger.” Good humour. ‘

When we returned to the jeep, our camp hostess had arrived with two helpers and set up a portable bar with all kinds of drinks, snacks and chairs so we could enjoy our last sunset on the savannah. I have run out of superlatives.

Feeling a bit like Blixen

When standing by the bonfire with a coffee or a glass of wine after a long day of game driving, with a view to elephants drinking at the waterhole, and a billion stars above, I felt a tiny touch of fellowship with Danish author Karen Blixen (who ran a coffee plantation in Kenya). Without further comparison. It is very understandable that she loved Africa and the savannah, because it is indescribably beautiful, even if there are far fewer animals today.

Planning Tip

If you have the time and money, combining Hwange with a few days in Okavango Delta, Botswana, is great because the fauna is so different: Hwange is dry savannah, and Okavango is a lush green lagoon.

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Just returned from Okavango Delta in Botswana, and there it was on tv

I enjoy watching wild life programs, but I don’t always take notice of the location. This summer was an exception: In July, I visited the Okavango Delta in Botswana with my family, and the first wild life program I watched after returning home happened to be from Okavango. And no wonder it is a popular place to shoot wild life programs: It is a lush and green delta in contrast to dry savannah areas like Hwange National Park.

July is wintertime and the best time to visit. No mosquitoes, and many animals because of the water. In summer, the delta dries out, and some waterways turn into dirt roads.

We spent 4 nights in Pom Pom Camp,where we were greeted by our singing hosts. We stayed in one of nine stationary tents overlooking a lagoon, where elephants and rhinos went grassing and stomped around our camp at night. We had a private jeep and two guides with the irresistible names Dalton and Skills. They took us on game spotting trips mornings and late afternoons, in jeep, dug-out canoes (called Mokoro), or speedboat.

Cold nights and camping deluxe

Our travel agent had warned us that nights could be chilly and advised us to bring jackets. But, we had not imaged it to go down to nearly zero degrees Celcius! Thank God for bush babies (African slang for hot water bottles), which were handed to us at dinner.

Mornings started with a wake up call (literally by a lady bringing tea to our tent and yelling good morning) at 6:30 am. We had to pull ourselves together to jump out of bed and put on the greatest possible number of layers real fast before heading for breakfast. It was camping deluxe, so we had a private hot outdoor shower, toilet facilities, beds, couch, and free laundry. But mornings were too cold to shower!

Safety first

Safety procedures were taken seriously by the camp people, and although our tent was merely 8 meters from the main/dining area, they insisted on accompanying us to our tent after dark. We found it silly, but not all tents were as close to main camp as ours. One night, a guide had to scare away a giant male elefant who was blocking the way to one of the other tents.

Spectacular wildlife

On our first game drive we had barely left the camp when we met a large group of elephants blocking the dirt road. Dalton reacted quickly by speeding up and almost hitting the elephants, who jumped aside, loudly trumpeting. Right behind the elephants, on the road, came a hyena strolling towards us. What a start!

My favorites were giraffs because of their gracious moves.We also saw wild dogs resting outside their nest. When we returned two days later, the nest was deserted and we found a pup killed by lions. Dalton really struggled to track down those lions. He arranged a full day drive, to cover more land and, hopefully, spot the lions we had seen tracks of. So, we drove and drove, saw all kind of animals, and had a lovely lunch in the bush. But no lions.

Dalton and Skills were persistant. At one point in the late afternoon, they stopped the jeep and walked around, looking at fresh tracks. Then, they started the jeep again, drove 50 meters, and there were the lions! They looked full, with bellies like balloons, but Dalton said they were always ready to hunt.

Right then, an unsuspecting zebra came strolling 100 meters away, and all lions jumped up, ready to attack. And I moved towards the center of the jeep.

Resting in the bush, dining in camp

We made stops for 10 o’clock tea and sundowner drinks in the bush. And I learned to do my business behind a bush. It’s not comfortable to drive on bumby tracks with a full blatter. On our Mokoro trip in the delta, we had our tea and cookies on a tiny island.

Stunning experience to slide through clear water watching animals and waterlillies. On the motorboat ride we spotted small crocodiles, but the 6 meter long ones remained in hiding.

In the evening, we had dinner together with the 12-14 other guests, guides and hosts. We exchanged stories, trying to outdo eachother – for fun – as to who had the most spectacular photos and wildlife stories. Two New Yorker ladies triumphed with their photos of ”lion porn” as they called it.

Marriage talk at the bonfire

Nothing like a bonfire, especially when you don’t have disturbing elements like internet or television. In the evening, everyone gathered around the bonfire to stay warm and have a drink. We got small insight into each other’s lives – tourists, guides, and hosts. We learned that the host couple was getting married. They talked about challenges of dowry and wedding costs: Not only the closest family and friends were invited, but most of the village, so they had to make room and food for over 100 people. We heard about similar challenges from our two – bachelor – guides.

African guide humour

Apart from struggles of getting married, Dalton and Skills seemed to be in good spirits. We enjoyed their sense of humour and funny expressions. Like, e.g., Hippo highways (paths that hippos make by wading through waterlillies in the lagoon), African Massage (the body shake we got when bumping along in the jeep on dusty tracks). And of course, bush babies.

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Overnight road trip: Tokyo to Hakone and Mount Fuji

IMG_4294 (2)This was our second visit to Japan. It was April and cherry blossom festival in Tokyo and Kyoto, but this time we wanted to see something else. So, we booked a car. After 11 hours flight from Europe, we spent half a day and a night fighting jetlag in cherry blooming Tokyo. Had some lovely sushi, a stroll in the Imperial Palace East Garden, and – after several obstacles – a swim in the hotel pool: (no bikinis, no jewelry allowed, bathing cap compulsory!)  Next morning we went to pick up our rental at Nippon RentaCar. 

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Our destination was Hakone national park, favorite holiday spot for many Tokyo citizens, 100 km from Tokyo at the foot of Mount Fuji. It is a mountainous area with hot springs, ‘onzens’ (baths), cruises on Lake Ashi-no-ko, golf courses, ropeway, cable-car, shrines, and several art museums.

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We left the car rental office in Tokyo, my husband in the driver’s seat. After 800 meter, the police stopped us. (Policemen stand on practically every street corner, directing traffic vigorously with whistle and stick). Luckily, the police was content with seeing my husband’s European passport and driving license. We did not show his international driver’s licence from 1996. A police officer noted something in a book and explained to us in poor English that we had moved too early into a turning lane. Then, he smiled and wished us a good day. I love Japanese politeness.

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We headed straight to the motorway, and all went fine, until we got stuck in a traffic jam for an hour. We knew that Hakone was a popular weekend destination, but we had not expected so many Tokyo citizens to go on a Sunday! Well, it turned out they didn’t: Most cars turned off at the next exit, phew… By the way, driving on Japanese highways can be costly. We paid a total of 160 DKK/22 EUR for a stretch of 80 km. And luckily, we had cash, because not all toll booths accepted credit cards.

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Part of our reason for going by car rather than train was to experience the countryside and towns along the way. However, what we saw through our car windows did not tempt us to spend more time on towns in this area: Unattractive concrete buildings with no link (as far as we could see) to the tradtional Japanese wooden houses with tile roofs and bonsai gardens.

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There was snow in Hakone, and the damp cold surprised us: I normally link Asia with warmer temperatures. We checked in at Hakone Sengokuhara Prince Hotel, a golf hotel with mountain views. Here, we gave the receptionist a headache because we had booked a triple room for the two of us. The receptionist staff discussed the matter in low voice, and kept asking us to wait 5 minutes. As we sat waiting, my mobile rang: It was a Japanese lady from booking.com. She had had a call from the receptionist and wanted to know if I would change my reservation to a double room at reduced price? I explained that we had deliberately booked a triple room and that we accepted the price. The moment I hung up, the receptionist gave us the keys! He had been listening in on my conversation.

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We explored the area by car, cable car, ropeway, and bus. In the evening, we dined in a restaurant close to the hotel, where we had a small discount because they didn’t accept credit cards, and the bill turned out to be 200 YEN more than our cash reserves. ATMs are widely used (there was one 50 meters from the restaurant), but far from all take foreign credit cards. 

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The hotel was located 3 km from Lake Ashi, and we asked the hotel staff if there were a hiking trail to the lake? They pulled out a map, on which we found a path and a bridge crossing a stream on the golf course. However, the staff told us we could not cross the bridge. Instead they suggested us to take a bus! At six o’clock next morning, we jumped the fence to the golf course and crossed the bridge. We found the hiking trail, but this time the fence was too tall to jump. Nevertheless, we had a beautiful sunrise hike on the golf course.

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After breakfast, we checked out and drove on along the lake, heading for Mount Fuji. Finally, the top of the mountain appeared between clouds, and I jumped out to take a photo. Didn’t quite make it, hmmmpfff.  

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Our trip back to Tokyo went smoothly. We followed the flow and ran a lot faster than the 80 km someone had told us was the speed limit. Back in Tokyo, we check in at New Otani, a large hotel with a lovely Japanese garden. We particularly appreciated the executive lounge with champagne happy hours!

Monday night, after a ridiculiously-expensive-but-very-nice Kobe beef dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, we strolled downtown to a lively near-pedestrian street with colorful neon lights and Japanese people in suits and trench coats.

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We spotted a games room and went in. There was an inferno of noise. People sat side by side starring into game machines. Each person fed his machine with money and pressed one button, then the machine blinked and balls rolled. Nothing else! It was an Aha! experience for us. Opium of the people. We failed to understand the attraction. Apart from the fact that, for once, smoking was allowed. Just take a look at the satisfied facial expression on the smoker below!

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If labor inspection authorities (as we know them in Denmark) had stopped by, the place would have been closed immediately.

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The next morning, a long weekend in Japan was over, and I jumped on a shuttle bus and waved goodbye first of all to my husband, but also to the politely bowing hotel staff, before driving through cherry blooming Tokyo to the airport.

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Read about my first Aha! experiences in Japan

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