After nearly 3 weeks exploring southern Africa, we were about to spend our last day on this amazing continent. We awoke at 5:30am and finished packing for our arduous flights back to Toronto. But before leaving Victoria Falls we still had some unfinished business to attend to. To this point, we had visited a total of 5 countries - South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Since we were spending our last day in Victoria Falls, at the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, we decided to visit one more country before we left.
After being informed the night prior that you shouldn't walk around on the streets in the evening due to the "animals being on the move", we decided to take a cab from the Rainbow Hotel at 6:30am to the Zimbabwe/Zambia border. On route the driver stopped at the Old Tree in Victoria Falls which is said to be 1000 to 1500 years old. We arrived at the Zimbabwe border at 6:45am and went through immigration to get our exit visa stamped. We walked across the bridge that spans the Zambezi River through "No Man's Land” on the way to the Zambian border. At the border we went through immigration to get our entry stamp into Zambia. After passing through immigration we checked out the price of the park entrance on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. While the cost was only 10.50 USD per person, it was a lengthy walk so we opted not to proceed as we had a very limited amount of time. We walked back through immigration and got our exit stamp from Zambia. In total we spent about 15 minutes in Zambia before walking back across "No Man's Land" to take some pictures from the bridge. Kim bought a bracelet and teak elephant from an entrepreneurial Zambian 'artist' who also moonlighted as a tour guide. We then crossed back into Zimbabwe where the border control officers were humourous and friendly, noting that we had exited Zimbabwe 3 times in 2 days. In total, the walk from Zimbabwe to Zambia and return, including border checks was about 1 hour.
We took a cab from the Zimbabwe border to the Victoria Falls Hotel where we walked though to the Jungle Junction restaurant for a buffet breakfast that was $25.00 USD per person. This was a much better buffet with far superior service to what we received at the Rainbow Hotel for $20.00 USD the day before. The view and ambiance of this location are unsurpassed in Vic Falls as the terrace overlooks the rainforest that borders the banks of the gorge a short distance from the falls. We finished up our breakfast that included Eggs Benedict (Denis), omelette (Kim), bacon, sausage, baked tomato, home fries and then topped it off with a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream (for sustenance). It would be several hours before we would have a chance to eat again and that would be on an airplane.
After breakfast we walked back through town to the Rainbow Hotel (20 minutes), picked up our suitcases and checked out. Our driver, Handsome, picked us up at just after 10:00 AM and we headed towards the Botswana border, about 45 minutes away. En route, we spotted a venue of vultures picking at a large carcass just off the road. A short distance further down the road, Handsome spotted a male lion resting in the shadow of a tree. Just a regular day in Zimbabwe.
We arrived at the border crossing shortly after 11:00 am. We went through Zimbabwe customs to get our passport stamped. This was the 2nd time we had exited Zimbabwe in the span of 4 hours. After getting our exit stamps, Handy drove us a couple of hundred meters to the Botswana border control where we moved our luggage to a Botswana vehicle and then went through immigration to get our passports stamped once again. On exiting the customs building, we again walked through a dissinfecting solution that looked like a muddy puddle to clean our shoes as a precaution against foot and mouth disease. We then boarded our Botswana vehicle with a new driver who took us to the airport in Kasane, about 20 minutes away.
We arrived at Kasane International Airport just before noon. The Kasane Airport consists of a single tiny modern terminal. As you enter through the main door, there is a small coffee shop/restaurant with 4 or 5 tables on one side and a ticket and check-in counter for South African Airlink on the other. The electronic flight board showed a single international flight (ours) departing at 2:00 pm and a single domestic flight departing at 10:30 am. No other flights for the day were displayed. After checking our bags we went to the cafe and each ordered a glass of wine. At about 12:30, the line at the Airlink counter was finished and the attendants all left. Only a handful of passengers remained in the terminal so we went through security (in record time) and waited a few minutes in the gate area before being escorted across the tarmac to our waiting Embraer 190 that would whisk us to Johannesburg for our connecting flight through Paris and then on to Toronto.
While we had been away from home the better part of a month, and we were anxious to get back to Canada, we felt a sense of melancholy at having to end our African journey. We have both travelled extensively for business and pleasure over the course of our lifetimes, and this was the most fascinating adventure thus far.
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As our 3 week trip to Southern Africa was winding down, we were about to embark on our last 2 safaris - our fifth on land and our first water safari. We awoke early and had a fulsome breakfast at the Rainbow Hotel in Victoria Falls before being picked up by our driver for our 1 1/2 hour drive to Chobe National Park in Botswana. We were accompanied by a group of 5 Australians who had just completed a trek to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda.
As we headed east out of Victoria Falls through Zambezi National Park on our way to the Botswana border we spotted small herds of elephant and several giraffe browsing the trees along the roadside. After about an hour we reached the Zimbabwe/Botswana border where our driver escorted us to the Zimbabwe customs office to have our passports stamped. We were then driven a few hundred yards to the Botswana customs office where we had our passports stamped once again and then walked in single file through a narrow boardwalk and stepped into a shallow tray of disinfectant to prevent hand, foot and mouth disease.
After passing through the border it was another 20 minute drive to our meeting point - Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane. We wandered through this beautiful African resort before making our way down to the pier to board our safari boat.
Once we were settled on the boat, we left the pier and motored slowly along the Zambezi shoreline in anticipation of what we would spot first. We did not have to wait long.
Within a few short minutes we spotted a herd of over 40 elephants strolling down the sloping bank on our port side towards the water. Our pilot cut the boat’s engine so we drifted quietly along the shoreline to watch the first few elephants enter the water and begin their long swim across the river to the opposite bank. Only a few minutes later a massive herd of buffalo appeared as we rounded a bend in the river. We were able to drift in right to the shoreline with unobstructed views of the buffalo only a few yards away. Dotted along the shore were numerous crocodile basking in the morning sun.
As we meandered around the Zambezi, crossing from shoreline to shoreline we had many more up close encounters with elephants, buffalo, hippos, crocodile and a variety of birds. Compared to the other parks that we had been to, the water safari at Chobe presented us with the largest number of wildlife that we spotted in a single safari.
We returned to Chobe Safari Lodge where we enjoyed a well-presented buffet lunch and the company of our Australian travelers. After lunch, we boarded an open safari vehicle to begin our afternoon land safari in Chobe National Park. We trekked along the sandy slopes dotted with acacia trees and patches of grassland that led to the banks of the Zambezi River. We covered much the same area that we had in the morning by boat, only this time we were following the river from the shore. This gave us an opportunity to get up close to some of the wildlife that we hadn’t been able to see from the water.
Hidden amongst a group of small trees, we pulled alongside a pride of 4 young lions who were resting comfortably in the shade of the acacias. Not far from the lions, a herd of impalas was scattered across the grassland. As we travelled back toward the park entrance we encountered several groups of impala, zebra and giraffe making their way methodically towards the water.
We exited the park and stopped for a brief water break before we changed vehicles to go back to the Botswana/Zimbabwe border for our journey back to Victoria Falls. Once again, we had our passports stamped as we re-entered Zimbabwe, a process which took a considerable amount of time due to the number of people in the queue.
We were dropped off at our hotel to have a refreshing swim then prepared for our African themed dinner at the Jungle Junction Restaurant in the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel where we met up with our Tasmanian friends with whom we had travelled on the Shongolo journey from Pretoria. The restaurant is an open air venue with a superb buffet offering a variety of cold and hot foods. Several carving stations offered up meats such as kudo, beef and crocodile while other stations featured curries, seafood and sushi. Live entertainment was provided by costumed tribal dancers and singers who performed energetically throughout the meal.
As the evening wound down and we were ready to go back to the Rainbow hotel for our last night in Africa, we realized that it was time to say goodbye to our vivacious and fun-loving Tasmanian friends Helen, Tina, Merv and Julian. They had provided us with constant companionship and endless conversation and entertainment over the past few weeks for which we are eternally grateful. While it was difficult to say goodbye, we look forward to spending time with them again when we visit New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania in 2021.
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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.
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.
We awoke on our 10th day on the Shongololo Express near the city of Bulawayo in South Western Zimbabwe. Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe with an estimated population of 1.2 million. It was founded in 1840 by a Ndebele King and was captured in 1893 by soldiers from the British South Africa Company in 1893. The Ndebele besieged the city in 1896, but in doing so neglected to cut the telegraph lines into the city. As a result, the British were able to send for reinforcements and the siege ended in 1897. Bulawayo has historically been the industrial centre of Zimbabwe, producing cars, electronic products, furniture and food products. As such it is nicknamed “kontuthu ziyathunqa"—a Ndebele phrase for "smoke arising" because of the smoke stacks from the coal powered electricity generating plant in the city center.
We left the train at 9:00am and drove for about 20 minutes from Bulawayo before arriving at the entrance to Matopos National Park. Once we were registered at the park office, we were loaded onto our open safari vehicles - a fleet of aging, but well-maintained Range Rovers. One was a vintage 1960’s model and it was amazing that this vehicle that was more than a half-century old, was able to handle the rigours of everyday use, surviving the African heat and “barely-there” roads. Apparently, Range Rovers are used by this company because of their reliability and easy maintenance.
The park was established in 1926 and was named Rhodes Matopos National Park after the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), Cecil Rhodes. The park is situated in the Matobo Hills, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so designated because the area exhibits a profusion of distinctive rock landforms rising above the granite shield that covers much of Zimbabwe. As we drove through the park we admired the myriad rock formations that had been formed by the eroding effects of the harsh African weather. Some formations seemed to defy gravity with teetering boulders, stacked one on top of another.
As we drove through one area of the park that was relatively flat and covered in grasses and low-lying bush and trees, our guide stopped the small convoy of land rovers near a pair of armed uniformed men. These were anti-poaching rangers and they were protecting a herd of Rhinos that were in the area. Our guide instructed us to turn off our phones, as poachers are known to track tourists’ cell phones to determine current locations of rhinos and elephants.
We disembarked from the safari vehicles and followed our guide and the rangers off the road and into the grasslands.
We walked in silence for about a kilometer, traversing from the grasslands into a bushy area and proceeded for about another 500 meters. Finally, we came to a stop and our guide pointed to a group of small acacia trees about 20 meters away. Just behind the acacias, was a group of 5 White Rhinos. While this wasn’t our first sighting of Rhinos on our African adventure, it was the first time that we weren’t sitting in a safari vehicle and viewing from a relatively safe distance. What an awesome experience!
We stayed with the Rhinos for nearly half an hour before making our way back to the main road. As we headed back to our vehicles, our guide revealed to us that most parks will remove the horns of adult rhinos (which grow back over a period of time) on a regular basis. They do this in a way that doesn’t harm the animals. This is to try and prevent poachers from killing rhinos in order to harvest their horns. The horns that are removed by the parks are stockpiled. Many African countries have been lobbying to allow the sale of the stockpiled horns in an effort to curtail the prevalence of poaching. Creating a legalized market for horns and tusks that have been humanely removed would satisfy the black market since there are hundreds of tons currently stockpiled. They argue that the proceeds from the legalized sale of horns and elephant tusks could go back into the preservation of diminishing rhino and elephant populations. So far, the western world has resisted those proposals.
When we returned to the vehicles, we continued our drive through the park and moved into hillier terrain as we approached our destination - a visit to one of the many spectacular bushmen caves that are dotted in the Matobo Hills. We parked in a small opening and dismounted the vehicles. We walked along a stone path, lined by thick bush and vegetation, that led upwards to an opening in the side of the granite hill. The cave opening was large and led into a natural, amphitheatre-like room. The curved ceiling was nearly two stories high at its centre. The walls and ceiling were covered in faintly-coloured paintings that depicted the life of the San (bushmen) who had last occupied these hills more than 2,000 years ago. Relics, clay ovens and other artefacts have been found in the hills that date back to the Pre-Middle Stone Age around 300,000 years ago.
Our guide, Ian, had been visiting and studying the bushmen and their caves for nearly 30 years. He was extremely passionate about the San and has spent time with them, even learning their unique language which consists entirely of clicking sounds. While there are still a few San left, they have been nearing extinction, still preferring to live in nature and away from urban areas.
We walked back down the hillside toward the parking area and entered a small block building that served as a museum and housed many of the artefacts that had been discovered in the surrounding area. After a brief visit, we climbed into the Range Rovers and drove further down the hillside eventually coming to a road that followed a meandering river. We drove along the river to a camp site surrounded by a group of large trees. Tables had been set under a couple of the larger trees and hot and cold buffet dishes were spread across the tables. We helped ourselves to the food and found a spot in the shade to sit while we enjoyed our lunch.
After lunch, we boarded our vehicles and drove to Malindidzimu, the hill on which Cecil Rhodes is buried. The hill is also a traditional indigenous burial ground and the legendary place of benevolent spirits. This is where Rhodes used to rest and dream of his beloved Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His grave, and several others from his era, are dug into the granite at the top of Malindidzimu, surrounded by giant granite boulders.
There is a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view of the mountains and valleys that surround this hill. While the graves are quite simple and their location not easy to get to, the trek is well worth it. He once described the view from this hilltop as “the view to the world” - after being there, we would wholeheartedly agree.
We left the gravesite in mid-afternoon to return to the train which was about a 1/2 hour drive away. We capped off another wonderful day in Africa with a traditional gin and tonic in the observation car before preparing for our meal in the dining car.
If you are considering visiting Zimbabwe, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
We woke up on the 9th day of our African train trip in the city of Gweru situated close to the middle of Zimbabwe. Gweru is the 6th largest city in Zimbabwe with a population of approximately 150,000. It boasts the largest University campus in the country. Britain’s influence on the education system in Zimbabwe has led it to being the most literate country in Africa. According to our guide PJ, from 1980 to 2001 the syllabus for Zimbabwe universities was controlled by Cambridge University. One of the fascinating ironies of Zimbabwe is despite its high level of literacy and long-standing focus on education, it remains one of the most impoverished countries in Africa.
After taking breakfast in the dining car, we left the train and boarded our bus for the short 20-minute drive to today’s destination - Antelope Park. The park is set in over 3000 acres of open savannah grassland and is a unique game reserve that is home to the world-famous African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) lion rehabilitation programme.
As we disembarked from the bus and walked toward the magnificent grounds surrounding the various thatch-roofed buildings comprising the lodge at Antelope Park, we were greeted by the rhythmic sounds of traditional African music and song.
Following our musical welcome, we gathered in an open grassy area where we were served tea, coffee and pastries and given a briefing of the park, its purpose and the impact of the ALERT lion rehabilitation programme.
ALERT is a multiphase lion conservation initiative that is working to ethically re-introduce the offspring of captive-bred African lions back into the wild. The first phase of the initiative is rehabilitation, where cubs born to captive-bred parents are hand-raised in a controlled environment. Part of the rehabilitation involves the cubs being taken on human-led walks in their natural habitat between the ages of 3 and 18 months. The second phase of the initiative involves releasing the lions as prides into fenced, managed game reserves, where they live as a wild pride – hunting and breeding naturally without human interference. During this phase they are monitored closely to determine how they are interacting socially as a pride. The final phase of the program is reintroduction where cubs born to parents that were acclimatized to their natural environment in the second phase are reintroduced to the wild in national parks and reserves that are seeking to restore lost, or augment declining lion populations.
After our briefing we were given an overview of the activities that were available for us throughout the day. While there were a wide variety of activities offered by the park, including canoeing, game drives, horseback game viewing, elephant interaction, bird-watching cruises and carriage rides, the one that we had been excited about and most looking forward to since we first started planning our African adventure was the Lion Walk. While the Lion Walk was our top priority, we had nearly 2 hours before it was scheduled to start so we also booked the Lion feeding, and then a couple of activities that we would do in the afternoon - elephant interaction and afternoon game drive.
The lion feeding is a spectacular, albeit disturbing event, that gives a glimpse into the ferocious nature of lions competing for food in a quasi-natural setting. Unlike zoo lions that are fed measured amounts of food at the same time every day, lions in nature will eat only when they make a kill and will gorge themselves on that kill as it may be several days to a week or more before they make another kill. The lion feeding at Antelope Park attempts to demonstrate how lions would feed in the wild. A group of 4 male lions are released from a living space into a large rectangular fenced area where an animal carcass has been placed near the fence at the opposite side to where the lions enter. The lions rush towards the carcass, roaring ferociously, attacking it and competing for the best portions of the meat. Each group of 4 male lions is fed this way once a week. Spectacular, dramatic and quite disturbing.
The Lion Walk was the highlight of our day at Antelope Park, and quite frankly, one of the highlights of our trip to Africa. It began with a safety briefing explaining the do’s and don’ts of the lion walk. For instance, it is important not to run or panic - this is a sign of weakness and identifies you as prey. Don’t crouch down - again a sign of weakness - standing tall above the lion is a sign of dominance. It is also important to always be alert and know where the lions are. They are stalkers and will watch and stalk you if you are unaware. It is also important to stay in the group. When you are walking with the lions in a group, you are part of their social pride.
Once the safety briefing was given, we were each given a long, thin stick to carry with us. While totally useless as a weapon, raising the stick over your head and speaking firmly at the lion exudes dominance in the event that it is paying too much attention to you. With our sticks firmly in hand we walked as a group for nearly a kilometre to the massive enclosure that represents phase 1 of the alert programme. We went through several gates to the controlled, natural environment, and once we were through, a park ranger led 3 lions - one male and two females, towards our group.
The engagement with the lions was surreal. We walked with them, in their natural habitat for over an hour. At times they would sit and we would take turns approaching them from behind and petting them gently. Like family cats, they are social animals and seemed to enjoy the attention. At other times they would pace impatiently around the group. At one point, a petite woman in our group was being stalked by one of the lions and a ranger reminded her to stand tall.
At one resting point there was a dead acacia tree that the lions played on for several minutes until one of them noticed a herd of impala in the distance. At once, all three lions spread out in front of us and stood perfectly still, staring at the prey. The herd eventually moved on and we, along with the lions headed back towards the park.
This was a truly amazing experience - check out a quick video of our walk here:
We returned to the lodge where we had lunch in the outdoor restaurant. After lunch a safari vehicle took us out to the park where we spent about half an hour with 4 magnificent elephants. Elephants have always been one of my favourite animals and I have never been so up close and personal to them as I was on this excursion. We had the opportunity to stand beside them, touch them and feed them. I was amazed at how massive they are, particularly their heads, yet they are so gentle and patient. Equally impressive was how nimble and dexterous their trunks are, grasping peanuts delicately from the palms of our hands.
We left the elephants and continued on to our afternoon game drive. This was a bit underwhelming after the Lion Walk experience and because we had been on such incredible safaris at Kruger and Kapama earlier on our trip.
After the drive we ended our day at Antelope Park with an afternoon swim in the pool by the lodge. This was a great way to cap off our day and reminisce with our friends who had accompanied us on the Lion Walk.
We returned to the train for our red-carpet welcome before we boarded and headed to the observation car for a gin and tonic cocktail. Then off to the dining car for a risotto appetizer followed by a rack of lamb served with rice and cauliflower with pecan pie for dessert.
Another excellent day in Southern Africa!
If you are considering visiting Zimbabwe, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Following a full day and night of train travel on our way through Zimbabwe, we were looking forward to an excursion into the countryside. We started with a hearty breakfast at 7:00am in the dining car and at 9:00am left the train at the Oreti Siding and boarded our bus for the drive to the Great Zimbabwe Monument. Today’s drive was just over an hour long, but the time passed quickly as we sped through the impressive granite hill country in South Central Zimbabwe as our guide PJ, described some aspects of life and conditions in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe is comprised of 10 provinces and has a total population of just over 16 million. Harare, with a population of 1.4 million, is the capital of Zimbabwe and lies in the north west part. At the time we were visiting Zimbabwe, there was a travel alert for Harare due to the disputed election results that had taken place in July. Protests and rioting were prevalent in the capital and fortunately for us, Harare was not on our itinerary.
The majority of the people, nearly 85%, are Christian while approximately 14% follow African traditional religions and the remaining 1% are Muslim. As a result of the British education system that had been established during colonial times, there is a 90% literacy rate in Zimbabwe, which is one of the highest in all of Africa.
One of the most disturbing statistics that PJ provided was that the life expectancy in Zimbabwe is only 49 years. Life expectancy is actually declining in Zimbabwe primarily due to the rise in poverty, economic crisis and organized violence perpetrated by government. It is hard to imagine that a country that was once rich in natural resources like gold and diamonds could have such a devasting economic outlook. It is estimated that it will cost about 30 billion USD to revitalize Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
Listening to PJ describe the socio-economic conditions as we travelled through the stunning landscape toward the Great Zimbabwe Ruins seemed surreal. After all, the Great Zimbabwe Monument and the surrounding area was where ancient people lived and mined gold and silver. It is the legendary location of King Solomon’s Mines that brings forth images of wealth and prosperity. The ruins themselves are a hugely celebrated monument which is the largest precolonial monument south of the Egyptian pyramids. It is situated on the southeastern edge of the central plateau and is an ancient city built by the Rozwi people.
We arrived at the entrance to the ruins shortly after 10:00 AM. The sun was already getting high in the sky and we could feel that this was going to be a scorcher of a day. As we gathered in preparation for our climb to the top of the monument, we were divided into 2 groups. One group would take a minibus around the ruins and meet the remainder of the group at the lodge for lunch. The other group would walk up the ancient steps that wound up and around the ruins to the top of city. Needless to say we joined the second group.
The climb was steep and the footing on the ancient steps was sometimes unsteady. The path wound in and around a mountain of granite. At times, the granite walls formed narrow halls that we had to squeeze past in order to make our way through. We took several breaks on the arduous climb, but the end result was well worth it. We arrived at the top and wandered around the various stone rooms of the ancient city. This was where the king lived. The view from the top was breathtaking. In the distance was another ancient walled village made of stone. While the king lived in the ancient city on top of the mountain, his wives and children lived in the village below.
As we started back down the mountain on the opposite side from where we came up our guide pointed out a concave hollow in the mountain facing the village below. Our guide explained that if you stood in the hollow and spoke very loudly, the sound carried all the way down to the village below. The hollowed cave acted like a natural megaphone. It was here that the king would stand and shout down to summon one of his wives when he wanted companionship.
It took nearly 2 hours for us to walk up to the ancient city and make our way back down to the walled village where the kings family and people lived. As we entered the village, there was a grouping of several rectangular shaped stones in a large open area. In ancient times, this served as a sundial for the people of the village. After our walk around the village we visited the museum on the way back to the entrance to the ruins. The museum contains a variety of artifacts including pottery, art, spearheads and jewellry that help to portray how the Rozwi lived.
Following our tour of the museum, we re-boarded our bus and drove about 10 minutes to the Great Zimbabwe lodge where we were welcomed to a grand outdoor buffet on the grounds in front of the lodge. We found a table that was partly shaded by a massive oak tree and after a filling lunch we changed into our swim suits (or bathers, as our Tasmanian friends referred to them), and enjoyed a refreshing swim in the outdoor pool.
It was nearly 3:00pm by the time we left the lodge and we arrived back at Oreti Siding just in time for afternoon tea (or for us, afternoon G & T)! As we settled into the observation car, the train started up and began its trek to our next destination - Somabhula.
If you are considering visiting Zimbabwe, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
On our 7th day on the Shongololo Express the train started to pull away from our overnight stop at 7:00am as we continued our journey north through South Africa on our way to Zimbabwe. This would be our most leisurely day on the trip as we would be travelling through Limpopo province to the Zimbabwe border where we would clear customs. Because this was a non-safari day, we lingered in our cabin until just after 8:00am and then made our way to the dining car where we were served a full breakfast. After our relaxing breakfast, we walked to the back of the train to our usual spot in the observation car to take in the beautiful scenery and our final glimpses of South Africa.
Limpopo province is in the north of South Africa and shares borders with three other countries: Zimbabwe to the north, Mozambique to the east and Botswana to the west. As such the province is known as the gateway to other African countries. The Limpopo landscape is vast and various changing from tropical forests, bush and shrubs to semi-desert areas with small trees, bushes and mountains to large areas of flat lands. During our full day of travel we would see life along the tracks - we had an intimate look into the homes of the area, small sparse towns and people travelling on foot everywhere. This was a vantage point not afforded by the usual road travel and gave us an appreciation for the reality of the African's rural life.
Since we would be travelling for most of the day, with no outings or excursions, a lecture had been planned by our South African guide PJ. He shared with us his perspective on the unique cultural and socio-economic conditions of Southern Africa. While he spent nearly two hours passionately detailing life and times in Africa, I will cover only the highlights here.
According to PJ, China is becoming the new colonial master of the continent. China extended a $64 billion dollar investment in South Africa in August of 2018. Almost all of the new structures being built in Mozambique are financed by China. As a result of previous government corruption and dealings with colonial overlords, Africa is hundreds of billions of dollars in debt and has sold off a good deal of its natural resources with very little in return to the peoples of Africa. China has taken a different approach by forming partnerships with African governments it invests money with and insisting that 15% be used for social development as a condition of the investment. As a result, Africa is benefitting with improved infrastructure such as running water, proper sewage and sanitation and reliable electricity. Despite the benefits, Africa may be losing control of much of its remaining resources to China.
By the time the lecture was over it was nearly 1:00pm and the train had stopped at the border town of Beitbridge, Zimbabwe where we needed to clear customs before proceeding. Lunch was just about to be served, so we went back to the dining car and enjoyed duck salad, cucumber rolls with cream cheese and raspberries with chocolate ice cream for dessert. After lunch we disembarked from the train and walked along the platform at the station where we could see baboons jumping around on the tracks. The station building is an old, long and narrow structure that has multiple sections. One particular oddity is the segregation of waiting areas and washrooms. Whereas most public transportation areas usually have separate waiting areas for business and regular class, Beitbridge has 4 separate classes of waiting areas and washrooms ranging from 1st class to 4th class. 1st and 2nd class are close to the centre of the building were roomier and much cleaner than the 3rd and 4th class areas which were near the far end of the station.
Just past the 1st class waiting area was a small room with several chairs and a low table. There were 5 customs officers seated at the chairs going over all of the passports and visas from the nearly 70 passengers on the train. The task was painstakingly slow and the clearance process took several hours.
While we were waiting at the station we took the opportunity to visit parts of the train that we had not seen before. Up until now, because of our daily excursions off the train we had spent most of the time in the observation car, lounge, dining car and our cabin.
While the original steam locomotives have been replaced by diesel or electric engines for reliability, the coaches are original early 20th century cars that have been meticulously restored. Shongololo captures the romance of a bygone era in the detail and elegance of its wood-paneled coaches which offer a simultaneous experience of luxury and efficiency. Public areas included two lounge cars, two dining cars and the observation deck. While the cabins are small, they offer everything you need including private bathrooms with showers, full size beds with luxurious linens and pillows and surprisingly ample storage.
During our stop at Beitbridge we had the chance to visit some of the other cars on the train that were not accessible while we were travelling. We visited the laundry car and were amazed that this tiny space was able to service the needs of nearly 100 passengers and crew. Equally incredible was the galley at the front of the train. This tiny but efficient space was used to provide meals for the entire train in a very strict timeframe. After surveying these working areas, we had a renewed respect and appreciation for our train crew who provided the same level of service that we would expect at a 5 star resort, but under far more restrictive conditions.
At 4:00pm, tea was served in the lounge and we found ourselves in the observation car for our now routine afternoon gin and tonic. At 4:30pm, all of the clearance processes were completed and the train once again resumed our trek northward. We settled in for dinner at 7:30pm, where we enjoyed a hearty beef and vegetable stew.
As we were entering Zimbabwe where wifi service was not available on our data plan, we purchased a local SIM card for $1.00 US. We were able to add data to the card for $2.00 US per 24 hour period which included 2 Gigabytes of data. This allowed us to keep in touch with family back home at a reasonable price and keep us connected for the last leg of the trip since our phone plan did not offer service in Zimbabwe.
We had a quiet evening and looked forward to our stop planned for the next day.
If you are considering visiting Zimbabwe, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
The 6th day of our trek on the Shongololo Express found us waking up early at 4:30am as we prepared to embark on the 2nd of our 5 game drives in Southern Africa. Today we were heading to Kapama Private Game Reserve in the north eastern part of South Africa where we would spend the morning on safari and the early afternoon exploring the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.
After a quick continental breakfast in the dining car, we boarded the bus and took the short 20-minute drive, in pre-dawn darkness, from Hoedspruit Train Station to the entrance of Kapama. At the park we left the bus and climbed onto open Safari Land Rovers that were waiting for us. As our driver, Rowan, checked us in at the park entrance we covered ourselves with the safari blankets that were on our seats. Even though the temperature was forecast to be in the mid-20’s (Celcius), early morning weather in South Africa in September is quite cool.
The park is privately owned and covers nearly 13,000 hectares in Limpopo Province. It is named for a Swazi king who’s tribe inhabited and hunted in the area in the late 1800’s. We began our journey into the park just after 6:00am and as we headed east, we saw the sun just breaking over the horizon, creating a spectacular sunrise as if to proclaim our entrance to Kapama. Our early morning start meant that we would catch the stirrings of the various wildlife as they were beginning (or ending) their day.
About 20 minutes into the safari we had our first spotting - a lone zebra grazing by the roadside. We meandered along the dirt road for about another 30 minutes before we came across a pair of white rhinoceros. From that point on our sightings became much more frequent. First, a magnificent male giraffe towering over the brush and grasslands. Next we came across a dazzle of zebras, the adults grazing while the younger ones frolicked in amongst the group.
Our most impactful moment came when we arrived at a small, secluded watering hole near a crossing of two of the parks dirt roads. Lying blissfully beside the watering hole were a pair of young lions. Rowan maneuvered the Land Rover off the road, carefully and slowly, to a position about 10 meters from the pair of lions. After positioning the vehicle and turning off the engine, Rowan pointed to a small acacia tree a short distance from the watering hole where another pair of young lions were lazing in the shade of the tree. A few moments later he pointed to a grassy area just beyond the acacia where an adult female, the mother of the adolescents we were watching, was keeping an eye on her pride. We watched in amazed silence. The lions seemed quite oblivious to our presence and one of the two under the tree joined the pair by the watering hole and began playing, teasingly with its sibling. We continued to absorb this incredible living portrait of a family of lions in their natural habitat for another 20 minutes before reluctantly moving on.
Our lengthy stay by the watering hole had left us behind schedule and we had to hurry to meet up with the rest of our group at a base camp where coffee and light refreshments were being served. After our brief stop, we headed back towards the Kapama main gate about 45 minutes away. En route, we came across a group of female white rhinos, and a single, massive male a few meters from the roadside. We stopped to take some photos before continuing to on our way out of the reserve.
Back at the Kapama entrance we disembarked from the Land Rover at the Hoetspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC). The Centre is self-described as a unique African wildlife facility focusing on conservation and the sustainability of rare, vulnerable and threatened species. According to its website, the centre is actively involved in research; breeding of endangered animal species; the education of learners, students and the general public in conservation and conservation-related activities; tourism; the release and establishment of captive-bred cheetahs in the wild; the treatment and rehabilitation of wild animals in need (including poached rhinos); and anti-poaching initiatives on the reserve. Cheetah Conservation is one of its core disciplines and a hallmark of the Centre.
Our tour of HESC included a brief film that talked about its origins and goals, focusing on the holistic approach to its conservation activities. Following the film, we boarded the now familiar open safari vehicles for a drive into and through the individual enclosures where we observed rhinos, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and leopards. At both Kruger National Park and Kapama Game Reserve, we had heard countless heartbreaking stories about the devastating impact of human encroachment and poaching on the African wildlife population that are driving some species towards extinction. HESC deserves credit for its efforts in education and wildlife preservation and in continuing to follow its mission to be a unique African wildlife sanctuary which focuses on conservation and the sustainability of rare animal species.
Our early morning start coupled with brisk touring at both Kapama and HESC had left us feeling a bit tired and hungry as we drove back to the Hoedspruit Train Station to board the Shongololo Express for a late lunch. After lunch we organized our visa paperwork as we were about to leave South Africa for the last time and venture into Zimbabwe for the next leg of our journey. We settled into the observation car to watch the stunning landscape of Limpopo province fall behind us as we chugged towards Zimbabwe. The train stopped at 4:00pm to replenish our water supply. At 6:30pm it started up again as we prepared ourselves for the 7:30pm dinner call. On this particular evening we were served vegetable risotto followed by a main course of salmon with asparagus and red cabbage and finished off with apple crumble and cheese. As usual, our after dinner routine consisted of lively conversation and reminiscing with our Tasmanian companions in the observation car to the soothing clickety-clack of the steel wheels rolling along the track. The train came to a stop at 11:00pm which meant tonight would be a restful and uninterrupted sleep.
If you are considering visiting South Africa, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
While our itinerary said we were going to be spending the day in Swaziland, it turns out that King Mswati III, one of the world’s few absolute monarchs, had renamed the country to Eswatini in 2018 during his 50th birthday celebration (which coincided with Swazi’s 50th year of independence). The name Eswatini means “land of the Swazi” and it was apparently changed from Swaziland because the King implied that wherever he went people referred to his kingdom as Switzerland.
The official languages in Eswatini are Siswati (similar to Zulu) and English. The population of Eswatini is estimated at 1.5 million and it is geographically, the third smallest country in Africa. The borders of the kingdom were defined after the Boer War. The King owns the lands of Eswatini and has 20 Royal Residences scattered throughout his kingdom. While there are approximately 3600 roads throughout the kingdom, only about 1000 are paved. As with other African countries that we visited, China is investing heavily in Eswatini’s infrastructure and economy, although the unemployment rate is still quite high at over 25%.
Culturally, the country tends to follow its African traditional roots. Approximately 18% of the population uses traditional healing methods. Polygamy is legal and accepted with the King boasting 14 wives (although not as many as his father who had 125!). His youngest wife is 16 years old. The biggest health issue in Eswatini is HIV and it is estimated that 27% of adults 15 to 49 years old are living with it, with more than 40% of pregnant women in the country carrying the virus. As a result of the high incidence of AIDs related deaths, the life expectancy for men is only 54 and 61 for women.
After a short drive from Mpaka Station, we arrived at the first of our stops in Eswatini - a small but thriving market and candle shop just off the main highway. Swazi hand-made candles are renowned for their detail, vibrant colours and vast product range. As we meandered through the candle shop, artisans were rolling and pressing warm wax into exotic animal shapes, then mixing in paints to create lifelike giraffes, elephants, lions and myriad other wild game. They also had a wide variety of animal prints in all shapes and sizes. We could not leave the shop without purchasing some unique Swazi souvenirs.
Outside the candle factory, we wandered through the outdoor market that was filled with more hand-made crafts. Carved, wooden and soapstone figures, metal pots, hand-made jewelry and lines of coloured fabric covered the market area. We purchased a beautiful, carved wooden giraffe and a couple of brightly coloured table clothes emblazoned with Africa’s “Big 5”.
We boarded our bus and continued along the paved highway through the Ezulwini Valley, crossing the pastoral, rolling landscape towards our destination at the Mantenga Cultural Village in the west; a small enclave of the Mantenga Nature Reserve. As we approached the Mantenga Cultural Village, we wound through the valley amongst a small crop of mountains. The village is nestled in a thick forest and overlooks the lush valley and stark mountains in the background.
We disembarked from the bus and walked about 200 meters from the parking lot along the dirt road that leads to the cultural village. The village represents Swazi cultural heritage and tribal life as it was in the 19th century. There is a dozen or so grass huts surrounded by reed fences which provide protection from predators and the wind. Each hut serves a distinct purpose and the village is divided by gender with separate areas for both men and women. As with most polygamous cultures, the wives all live within the village in their own huts. There is a special place for the first wife, who occupies the largest hut and for her mother, who also has her own hut where community ceremonies and feasts are held.
After spending time in the village and getting a chance to explore the huts and talking to the villagers who live there, we were escorted to an outdoor amphitheatre where we were entertained by dancers and singers in brightly coloured traditional dress. The dances were interpretations of different rituals and customs, including a courtship ritual. Each dance was accompanied by traditional African drumming that set a primal beat to each performance. The dances were loud, passionate and vigorous - full of energy and life. This was as much an exhibition of athleticism as it was a cultural performance.
Following our cultural experience at Mantenga Village, we drove a short distance to Mantenga Lodge, a boutique resort that overlooks Shebas Breasts Mountains, the same mountains we saw from the cultural village and the legendary site of King Solomon’s Mines. The most prominent peak is known as Execution Rock, so named because criminals and those accused of practicing witchcraft were forced at spear-point, to walk off the cliff to their death. It was against this surreal backdrop that we enjoyed a lovely lunch on the patio of Mantenga Lodge.
After a relaxing time at the Lodge we reboarded our bus for the 90 minute drive back to the train. As we drove back through the peaceful Ezulwini (which means ‘place of Heaven’) Valley, we learned that 10% of Eswantini is allocated to Nature Reserves. We also learned that, unlike many of the other African countries where nature reserves abound, there is virtually no poaching in Eswatini. The reason? Quite simple - poachers can be shot on sight with no consequences to the shooter. A rather extreme, but effective deterrent.
We boarded our train (after the usual red-carpet treatment and welcome back drink, of course) at 4:00 pm and the train left promptly at 4:30pm. We took our usual spots in the dining car at 7:30pm, where we enjoyed venison pot pie and French beans. As we were eating, the train stopped at the South African border control and remained stationary until just after 9:30pm. When it continued its journey, it travelled until 3:30am, a stretch that included quite a bit of jarring because of the condition of the rails in this part of the country. Nonetheless, we had experienced another fabulous day in Africa.
If you are considering visiting Swaziland, please contact us for expert advice and assistance.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.