South African Adventure - Day 17
After spending 12 spectacular days and 11 nights trekking across 4 countries in southern Africa, our journey on board the Shongololo Express was coming to an end. Our train was chugging slowly into Victoria Falls as we finished breakfast in the dining car and said our goodbyes to the serving staff. We returned to our cabin and finished packing our bags as the train came to a stop at the station. We tipped our wonderfully attentive hostess Merica, who told us our bags would be delivered to our hotel, and we made our way to the exit at the end of our car. Once on the platform, the staff gathered to provide a final send off.
Even though we were leaving the train for the final time, there was still one full day of excursions in Victoria Falls as part of our Shongololo package. We disembarked the train at 10:00am onto a sun-drenched platform where we boarded our bus and were driven the short distance from the train station to the entrance of Victoria Falls. A heavy mist above the large grove of trees between the park gate and the gorge muted the brilliance of the sun filled sky. While it is known internationally as Victoria Falls, the traditional name given to the park is Mosi-Oa-Tunya which translates to “The Smoke Which Thunders”. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and truly one of the natural wonders of the world.
We walked the entire length of the falls on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River. The narrow path that follows along the gorge is bordered by rainforest sustained by the mist and consisting of a variety of thick, lush trees and undergrowth including mahogany, ebony, ivory palm and date palm. There are dozens of viewing areas of the falls that lead from the path with very low wooden guardrails. Some of the viewing sites are large open areas with no guardrails and tourists stand perilously close to the edge to get that perfect selfie.
Across the gorge on the Zambian side, is Devil’s Pool, a natural infinity pool that spills into the gorge. A group of people were sitting in the pool right at the edge of the gorge.
The walk back along the rainforest path was extremely humid as the noon sun was beating down through the mist. We were drenched by the time we reached the park entrance where we decided to eat at the only restaurant within the park gates (appropriately named Rainforest Cafe). We managed to find the only table that was available in the outdoor, open restaurant that is covered by a domed thatched roof. As we ate, a couple of infant baboons watching from a nearby tree would scamper down and snatch scraps of food that had been left at an unattended table.
After a leisurely lunch, we exited the park and walked across the street to a small parking area where we were picked up for our afternoon excursion - a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. The helipad was a ten-minute drive from the downtown area and at a higher elevation than the town itself. We checked in and after a quick video orientation, we walked out and climbed into our helicopter.
I managed to get the passenger seat beside the pilot and had an unobstructed view. The ride lasted just over 12 minutes and we made several passes over the falls and town as well as the surrounding area. The views of the gorge and falls from this vantage were spectacular!
Following the helicopter ride we were driven a short distance out of town to a boat launch at the edge of the river for our last excursion as part of our Shongololo Express package - a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Because we had done the optional helicopter ride, we had arrived at the boat launch before the rest of our group. The crew of our double decker tour boat were just finishing the preparations in anticipation of our group, and invited us aboard. We were offered drinks from the bar and found a table along the railing on the upper deck. We enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the river as we sipped our drinks and waited for our group.
Our group arrived and unloaded from the bus, as traditional dancers and singers welcomed them aboard. The boat was loaded and we pulled away from the shoreline to begin our cruise while the crew served us more drinks and light snacks. We sailed leisurely alongside the shoreline that was lined with trees on either side. After about 20 minutes, we spotted hippos bobbing in the water between us and shore. A little further along several elephants made their way down the embankment and into the water to swim to the opposite shore.
Over the next half hour we were mesmerized by the spectacular colours as the sun slid from the sky and slipped into the Zambezi River. This was the perfect end to our incredible and unforgettable Shongololo train adventure.
Following the cruise, we were taken to the Rainbow Falls Hotel where we checked in and settled into our modern and tastefully decorated room.
We decided to go for a walk to a local variety store, but when we asked the concierge for directions we were advised that it was not wise to walk around at night. This seemed odd to us since we had earlier been advised that there was very little crime in Victoria Falls, especially with respect to tourists. It turned out that it wasn’t crime we needed to be concerned about, but rather wildlife. Victoria Falls is inside Zambezi National Park and wildlife, particularly elephants and lions, are often crossing through the town at night. The IT manager for the hotel offered to escort us to the variety store which was about a ten-minute walk from the hotel.
It was nearly 9:00pm when we got back to the hotel and we went directly to the restaurant to eat a late dinner before retiring for the night. The meal was buffet style and while there were various options, it was a bit of a letdown after the wonderful dining that we had enjoyed on the Shongololo Express. Nevertheless, we were still exhilarated from our sunset cruise and we were looking forward to spending the next day in Botswana.
Continue to Day 18 - click here
A sobering thought flitted across my mind shortly after our alarm shattered the silence in the pre-dawn of September 16th - today would be our 2nd to last day aboard the Shongololo Express, signifying that our incredible train journey through Southern Africa was coming to an end. This melancholy thought was quickly replaced by a more motivating and uplifting realization - we would be spending the full day on safari in Hwange National Park.
After an early continental breakfast, we descended from the train just before 6:30am onto a short, concrete platform with a small shelter that served as the train stop in this rural area in the northwest corner of Zimbabwe, near the Botswana and Zambia borders. Our open safari vehicles were lined up and waiting for us against the backdrop of a spectacular African sunrise. We boarded our vehicle and were greeted by our very pleasant and engaging driver/guide, Shamiso. Once we were settled into our seats, she started the vehicle and we headed into the park.
Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife area covering 1,462,000 hectares (14,600 square kilometers), and is roughly the size of Belgium. It contains a variety of animals and bird species, but is best-known for its prolific lion population. Hwange attracted international attention in 2015 when its most famous lion, Cecil (named for Cecil Rhodes), who was being studied and tracked by University of Oxford, was hunted and killed by an American dentist. While I won’t dwell on the controversy caused by this event, you can read more about it here.
Entering the park, we noticed immediately that the terrain was significantly different from the other parks we had visited in Southern Zimbabwe and South Africa. Much of the landscape was flat and consisting of fragile grasslands with clusters of low lying trees and brush. Shallow waterholes were scattered every few kilometers and supported by man-made irrigation - a necessity to preserve the wildlife through the dry seasons.
A short distance into the park, Shamiso slowed the safari vehicle and eased it to the side of the road - she had spotted a male lion resting, well camouflaged in the tall, tan grasses about 15 metres away. His magnificent head with its dark mane was all we could see above the waving grass. A few kilometers further into the park we came across some giraffes browsing at the tops of the short trees.
After a brief stop here we continued along again until we observed a herd of zebra amongst a group of grazing buffalo. Also along the way we came across a herd of elephant that we watched crossing the road. After just over an hour in the park we had been treated to a wealth of wildlife including a variety of vibrantly coloured birds. The best was yet to come.
Shortly before we were scheduled to break for lunch, and after driving for nearly 20 minutes since our last stop, Shamiso stopped the vehicle and stood up, gazing to a crop of trees about 300 metres away. In the sky, above the trees we could see a small kettle of vultures circling the trees. We could also see that there was a venue of vultures perched on several of the trees just below those that were circling. Shamiso settled back into her seat, started the vehicle and turned in the direction of the vultures. As we approached the crop of trees, she slowed the vehicle and continued to proceed very slowly. When we were within about 20 metres of where we had seen the perching vultures, Shamiso brought the vehicle to a complete stop. A short distance away were several female lions, resting in the shade beneath the trees. We could now see what had attracted the vultures. Beneath one of the larger trees was a male lion, protecting the carcass of a baby elephant that the pride had recently killed.
The bloated male, full from his recent feast, was lying beside the carcass and staring down a group of hyenas that were waiting anxiously for their turn at the kill. Not far from away a female lion was fretting as she tried to position herself into a comfortable lying position. It was obvious that she was in distress, presumably injured by the elephant during the kill. She stood up several times and tried to limp to a new position but was unable to move for any distance. We stayed and watched this scene for nearly half an hour and while the sight of the partially eaten elephant was quite graphic, it was another reminder of the circle of life and death in the natural order of Africa.
We returned to the base camp where we were provided with a boxed lunch consisting of wraps, cheese, potato salad and a brownie. We lingered after eating for about 45 minutes and then returned to our vehicle to begin the afternoon trek.
In the first hour of our afternoon drive we spotted quite a few giraffe in small groups as well as wart hogs, water bucks, jackels and wildebeast. We then crossed a large stretch of flat, dry grasslands through which we drove for nearly an hour without any sightings. The afternoon was very hot and there was not much wildlife activity. Shamiso turned off the road and followed a trail through the grasslands for several more miles until we arrived at a large, shallow watering hole. There was a large group of buffalo grazing a short distance from the waterhole. Scattered amongst the buffalo were several dozen zebra and elephants bathing and playing in the water. At the edge of the waterhole was a group of 60 or 70 baboons. Some were squatting by the water while others were drinking or bathing. Young baboons were frolicking and chasing each other near the waters edge.
A narrow sand apron surrounded the circumference of the waterhole. Every few meters along the sand crocodiles were stretched out basking in the sun. In the water, what appeared to be a dozen or so dark, oblong islands turned out to be hippos. They would pop their enormous heads out of the water every few minutes to take a breath of air.
As the afternoon sun slid slowly across the sky, we began our trek back to the Shongololo Express. We arrived just after 4:00pm and in time for afternoon tea. Following a bit of relaxation in the observation lounge, we returned to our cabin to prepare for dinner.
As this was the last dinner on the train, the dining car was lavishly decorated with ornate runners on each of the tables and beaded placemats at each table setting. We were served a shrimp scampi with rice and a decorative dessert.
Following the meal, the entire train staff paraded through the dining car and received loud applause from the appreciative guests. Given the tiny confines of the train, we were amazed at how well we were serviced throughout our 13 day journey. One of our suitcases had been severely damaged on the flight from Paris and would not survive another flight. The service manager on the train took our bag to the maintenance crew who repaired it for us so we did not have to buy another suitcase before returning home.
After dinner we were invited to the bar car which had been decorated with streamers and balloons where we were offered complimentary cocktails. We spent the rest of the evening in the observation car enjoying drinks and lively conversation. It was quite late when we retired to our cabin but we went to bed having enjoyed another great day with some of the most magnificent wildlife in Africa.
Continue to Day 17 - click here
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