Our 3rd day in Israel began with an inspiring sunrise over the Sea of Galilee that we enjoyed from our hotel balcony. After a fulsome buffet breakfast in the newly finished Sea of Galilee Hotel Resort we boarded our bus that would take us to the area where many of the most renowned Christian stories originated. While our first 2 days in Israel focused on Roman ruins and architecture, Crusader castles and Muslim mosques, today’s focus would be almost exclusively on the locations of the early Christian teachings of Jesus. And we were prepared for a very full day.
The drive from the hotel to our first stop, the Church of the Beatitudes, was only about 20 minutes and would have been shorter if the long winding entranceway from the hotel to the main road had been finished. In its current state, the entranceway was little more than a narrow, dirt trail which taxed our driver’s skill to maneuver the tour bus around some of the sharper turns.
We eventually found our way to the main road, a modern highway that follows the coast of the Sea of Galilee through rolling hills and valleys. It turns out that the Sea of Galilee is not really a sea at all, but rather a fresh water lake (also known as Lake Tiberius) that is approximately 13 miles long from north to south and 7 miles wide from east to west. It is tucked away in the north east corner of Israel near the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Its’ eastern shore forms the western border of the Golan Heights.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Beatitudes, a Roman Catholic church built atop a hill that overlooks the north eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This area is said to be the location where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The church, built in the 1930’s, is surrounded by beautiful gardens and mature trees enhancing the feeling of peace and tranquility that seems to fill the entire area. We wandered around the gardens, taking in the natural beauty of this space and enjoying the bright sunshine filtering through the majestic trees.
Following our meditative repose at the Church of the Beatitudes, we re-boarded our bus and drove a half dozen kilometers to our next stop - a kibbutz run fruit winery that produces a surprisingly large selection of wines and liquors which are only sold at their location. We sampled several of their offerings including pomegranate and passionfruit wine as well as a decadent dark chocolate liqueur. Proceeds from the sale of their products are shared with the whole community. Everyone in the community receives the same salary regardless of the kind of work that they perform. Work on the farm is split and all of the food is shared. In order to join the community, one needs to live in the kibbutz for a minimum of 3 years before making the final commitment. All children in the community are raised as siblings, so they marry from outside the community. This was a fascinating insight into a way of life that is simple and collaborative.
We purchased a couple of bottles of wine as we left the winery and then headed back towards the Sea of Galilee where we would stop at the Church of the Primacy. This is only a short distance from our earlier stop at the Church of the Beatitudes, but it sits right on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. This is purportedly the location where Jesus, after the resurrection, re-instated Peter as chief among the apostles and where he fed the apostles a breakfast of bread and fish. A limestone rock, believed to be the “Mensa Christi (table of Christ) is enshrined inside the church. The church looks out onto the lake where the miracle of Jesus walking on water was also said to have taken place. Like the gardens around the Church of Beatitudes, the whole area surrounding the Church of the Primacy is serene and tranquil.
After leaving the Church of the Primacy we drove another short distance to our final stop along the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee - the ancient town of Capernaum. According to some Gospels, Capernaum is where Jesus ministered after leaving Nazareth. Some of the apostles were believed to be from the towns and villages around Capernaum. The ruins of the synagogue where Jesus is said to have taught his followers is also located in Capernaum. A modern day memorial has been built on top of the ruins of the original structure of St. Peter’s house.
We left Capernaum aboard our bus and headed south along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee for about 20 minutes until we reached the town of Tiberius where we stopped for lunch. The restaurant, called Hermitage Oriental, is situated on a promenade on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Almost everyone in our group ordered the house special, St. Peter’s fish. It was available either filleted or whole. While many in our group chose the whole fish, Kim and I enjoyed the fillet without the head and tail.
After a hearty lunch we drove to the town of Magdala, very close to where our hotel was located, and visited the ruins of an ancient city dating back to 66 BC. The ruins were discovered by accident in 2006 when the local convent was building a hotel and the construction workers unearthed some artifacts. Building was halted and the area surrounding the hotel became an archaeological site. The hotel remains unfinished and the excavation site has grown. The original town is said to have been the home town of Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene).
Finishing up our visit to the ruins of Magdala, we carried on to a museum a short distance away, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The museum is significant because it houses the wreck of a 2000 year old wooden boat that was found in the waters nearby.
We then walked down to a long pier at the water’s edge and boarded a relatively more modern wooden boat for a sunset sail on the Sea of Galilee. As we boarded the large wooden craft, a large flag of Canada was unfurled and hoisted on the mast. The Canadian National Anthem was played on the ships speakers as we were welcomed aboard. We were entertained by a very talented crew that performed traditional song and dance as we casually sailed past some of the places we had visited throughout the day. The sunset was surreal as we glided across the relative calm of the Sea of Galilee, the birthplace of one of the world’s most important religions.
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Why Use A Travel Agent? A key reason is knowing WHEN TO TRAVEL.
Many places have high demand and off peak or shoulder seasons. Determining when these periods fall and lining them up to your trip can make a huge difference in your individual experience.
There are several factors that I ask my clients to consider -
School schedules and holidays – these range from country to country and breaks can be at different times in different regions. Some countries even stagger their school holidays to help with their own tourism within certain areas. High peak times are busier and tend to be more expensive.
Weather can have a major impact on the time of year to visit. While there is never any guarantee with Mother Nature – there are patterns and typical weather patterns expected within certain seasons. When is hurricane or monsoon season? Are water levels on rivers higher or lower at different times and does the area you want to visit have a regular rainy or severely hot season? Depending on your plans for your vacation, weather can provide you with a great or a not so great environment.
Additionally, religious or cultural holidays can influence how you spend your time away. Some significant sites are closed while holidays are observed while other locations may have special festivals or events that can enhance your experience or draw significant crowds. I help you to understand possible limitations or opportunities and this helps manage expectations accordingly.
Don't choose the wrong time to travel - work with a specialist while planning your holiday to ensure a memorable experience.
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Our second day in Israel started with a buffet breakfast at the Grand Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv. After breakfast we joined the rest of our group in the hotel lobby to board the tour bus for our journey northward along the Mediterranean coast. The bus pulled away from the hotel and turned north onto the main coastal road through Tel Aviv. We travelled approximately 20 minutes through the city before reaching the outskirts where it would take us another half hour before our first stop in Caesarea.
As we travelled along the coast, our guide, provided some cultural backdrop about Israel and Judaism. One of the first things he shared was the strict observance of halakha (Jewish religious law) by conservative and Orthodox Jews. Observing Halakha is especially significant during the Sabbath (sunset Friday to just after sunset Saturday). We noticed this at our hotel in Tel Aviv as we had arrived on Friday afternoon. One of the hotel elevators was designated “Sabbath”. We had been advised not to use this elevator as it stops at all floors during the Sabbath. The reason for this is that the use of electricity is forbidden by Jews on the Sabbath. By entering the specially designated elevator, there is no need to press any buttons (which generates the flow of electricity) as the elevator is programmed to stop at every floor both while ascending and descending. Religious Jews also tend to live near Synagogues in order to avoid driving vehicles during the Sabbath and since lighting a stove is also restricted, their Sabbath meals are eaten cold.
Our mid-morning arrival at Caesarea was washed in sunshine and bright skies. We exited the bus in the parking lot just outside the entrance to Caesarea National Park which contain the ruins of the ancient Roman city. Caesarea was built along the seashore as a major port between 25 and 13 BCE by King Herod the Great. While it was initially set up as the administrative centre for Judea Province of the Roman Empire it was subsequently conquered and ruled by the Byzantine Empire from the 4th century to 7th century. In the 7th century, it was the last city in the Holy Land to fall to the conquering Arabs who ruled it until the arrival of the Crusaders at the beginning of the 12th century. Caesarea regained some of its former greatness under the Crusaders until it was eventually conquered again by the Arab Mamluk Sultan Baybars who attacked the city in 1265. Fearing that the Crusaders would return, the Mamluk’s razed Caesarea to the ground and abandoned the city.
Despite (or maybe because of) the many conquests, there remains a wealth of archeological ruins in the National Park. Of significance is the large Roman Amphitheatre and Hippodrome which cover a large area along the coastline. Between the Amphitheatre and the shoreline are the ruins of King Herod’s Palace - the upper palace for public gatherings and the lower palace for private engagements. This area also includes the ruins of a private pool which stretches out into the Mediterranean. King Herod’s Caesarea is also the site where Peter baptized the Roman Centurion Cornelius, who became the first non-Jew to become a Christian.
Other visible ruins from the Roman period include baths and an aquaduct. Walking north along the shoreline and past the Hippodrome some of walls and structures from the Byzantine, Muslim and Crusader periods have also been excavated. We ended our visit to Caesarea at a juice stand at the exit to the ruins. A vendor was squeezing fresh pomegranates and oranges into cool, refreshing juices and we couldn’t resist the bright red nectar of the pomegranate.
Our next stop along the north western coast of Israel was at Haifa, Israel’s 3rd largest city with a population of approximately 300,000. Haifa is a major port in Israel and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and Mount Carmel on the other. We began our tour of Haifa with a visit to the Stella Maris Monastery and Church, located on the side of Mount Carmel and reportedly situated above the grotto that served as the home of the prophet Elijah. The Monastery serves as the worldwide centre of Carmelite spirituality.
There are several religions represented in Haifa including Judaism, Christian and Muslim along with one of the world’s newest religions, Bah’ai. Bah’ai’s believe in the oneness of God, the unity of humanity and the essential harmony of religion. It is a monotheistic religion that sees each of the major religions and their prophets (Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad being the most recent in the period before the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh) as an orderly and progressive revelation of the one true God. The prominence of the Bah’ai religion in the area around Haifa and Acco is manifested in one of the most visited sites in Israel - the Bah’ai Gardens, a World UNESCO Heritage site on Mount Carmel in Haifa. We were awed by the beauty and symmetry of the terraced gardens and the incredible vistas from the top of Mount Carmel over the port of Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.
Just another 20 minutes up the coast we arrived at Acre - known locally as Akko. While only comprising a population of around 50,000 it is purported to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on Earth. It is home to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bah’ai’s (who regard it as the holiest city of their faith). Much like Caesarea, Akko underwent several conquests dating back to the Bronze Age including by Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders and Mamluk’s. The old city of Akko is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its main building is an Ottoman Fortress built on the foundation of a Knight’s Hospitaller citadel.
We walked through the secret tunnels of the original Crusader fortress that run under the city out to the sea. As we exited the fortress we arrived in a square that led to another market on the streets of Akko. We found a spot for a late lunch and feasted on falafel and shwarma then walked around the market where we spotted a street vendor selling an interesting popular Middle Eastern desert called malabi. It is a creamy, milk-based pudding that is flavoured with rosewater. Though quite tasty, the texture was very different to what we were expecting.
Since Akko was our last scheduled tour for the day, we boarded the tour bus for the one hour drive east towards the Sea of Galilee Hotel in Magdil where we would be spending the next 2 nights. We arrived just after sundown and checked in to this brand new hotel just off the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The hotel had only been open a couple of weeks and while it was pristine and modern, it wasn’t quite fully finished. It was comfortable though, and featured a modern bar and lounge just off the main lobby. Our room had a magnificent view over the hotel pool and beyond to the Sea of Galilee which offered a sensational sunrise that would summon the beginning of our 3rd day in Israel.
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Why Use A Travel Agent? One key reason is to have PEACE OF MIND.
Have you ever had anything not go as planned on a vacation? Having that peace of mind that your agent is available to handle things for you is extremely important. Booking through a website does not ensure you will have someone to talk to should something need to be changed or fixed from a far-away destination. Cancelled or delayed flights, last minute tour cancellations or weather issues – they can all happen at any time.
An example of how an agent can help you on the ground was when clients called saying their flight was delayed and they didn't think they were going to make their ship departure. By the time their flight landed the cruise line had already been contacted, a hotel reservation made and the flight was in place to get them to their first port of call. While it wasn't the ideal situation, it was managed for them and was essentially stress free.
You never anticipate interruptions to your vacation plans but this way you know you have me at home – and trust me I care. Rest assured I am invested in my clients' happiness and satisfaction and I want to make sure each and every trip is packed full of positive lifelong memories.
Another thing to consider is knowing that your agent has booked what you asked for. Travel has become more complicated than ever – so many times people are unsure about what exactly they are purchasing since they didn’t take the time to read the fine print. Unbundled airfares with so many new options can cause major confusion and disappointment when it comes time to travel and you have to pay for seat selection or luggage fees all at an extra cost. And cruising is also more challenging now – with dozens of new ships coming out I can help you sort through all the cruise lines with a multitude of cabin categories and so many different rate codes, refundable vs. non-refundable rates, guaranteed cabins vs. cabins with free perks. When the rules change, as your agent, I am uniquely positioned to provide vital advice. I help people find the best offer based on what’s most important to them - when you know someone is looking out for you it makes all the difference in the world.
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We began our journey to Israel on a cold January day from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where we met up with our group of fellow travel agents for our direct flight to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Our overnight El Al flight was smooth and uneventful and we landed at Ben Gurion in the late morning under bright and sunny skies.
Our small group of 20 travellers gathered in the baggage area, where we cleared immigration and filled out our visas. We were met by our tour guide who introduced himself and then led us out of the terminal to our waiting tour bus. On our 30 minute ride from the airport to the ancient port of Jaffa, we learned that the population of Israel is roughly 8.5 million people comprising of approximately 82% Jews, 17% Muslim and 1% Christian. The nearby city of Jerusalem has a population of 900,000 and Tel Aviv has approximately 450,000.
Jaffa, our first stop in Israel, is the Holy Land’s most ancient city. Jaffa is tied to several significant biblical stories including Jonah and Solomon. Jonah began his sea voyage from the port of Jaffa before being swallowed by a whale. Jaffa was also the entry point for the cedars brought in from Lebanon that were used in the construction of the Temple of Solomon.
Our bus navigated through the old, narrow streets of this small but bustling town before dropping us off in the square a few blocks from the Mediterranean Sea. We were given some free time to have lunch and wander around the town square. Kim and I found a street side falafel house that had a few tables tucked inside. We each ordered a falafel which were large, fresh pita stuffed full and doused in tahini. It was very tasty and would be the first of many falafel that we would enjoy on this trip.
After our quick lunch, we walked down the street to an intersection that led to several smaller streets which comprised of a large antique market. We meandered slowly through this market which at times resembled a large garage sale with a variety of odd and quirky items spilling out onto the sidewalk. After walking down several of these side streets we eventually made our way back to the town square in front of the tower in the boulevard to start our walking tour of the old port.
Our guide led us back towards the market and along the main street that runs parallel to the sea coast. We walked uphill along the street past the port mosque and then towards Saint Peter’s Church and the monastery where Napoleon stayed in 1799. Saint Peter’s Church is built adjacent to the house of Simon the Tanner with whom Peter is said to have stayed after raising a Christian woman from the dead. It is also on the roof of Simon’s house that Peter had his vision of the sheet filled with both “clean” and “unclean” animals - believed to be the end of the separation between believing Jews and god-fearing Gentiles which led to the spread of Christianity. On the way back from Saint Peter’s to the square we walked along the port promenade that separates the Mediterranean Sea from the town proper.
We boarded our bus and drove the short distance along the coast from Jaffa to Tel Aviv. Our hotel, the Grand Beach, was located across the main street that runs along the coast. After checking into our room shortly after 4:00pm and dropping off our bags, we decided to go for a walk before dinner to catch the sunset. Our walk took us along the main street for about 1 kilometer before we crossed over onto a side street that led to a boardwalk which ran the length of the beach. We walked at a leisurely pace, as joggers and skateboarders passed us by. We came across a beachside restaurant which had chairs and tables set on the sand overlooking the sea. We each ordered a glass of wine and watched while sailboats and surfers danced across the waves. After relaxing over our wine, we headed back to the hotel as the sun began its slow glide towards the western horizon.
At the hotel, we joined the rest of our group in one of the main meeting rooms where we met Saliba, the owner of the tour company, who were hosting us on our Israel pilgrimage. After our meeting with Saliba, we capped off our first day in Israel with a bountiful buffet dinner in the hotel restaurant.
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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CUSTOMIZATION More and more I am hearing from my clients that they want something customized for them. Fortunately, I specialize in creating a customized, personal vacation specifically tailored to your needs. I work with vendors that are destination specialists entrusting you to the best of the best.
You can ask my clients - I take a very individualized approach with each person I work with. Here is a short testimonial from a current client:
"I highly recommend Kim for all your travel needs. Her knowledge and expertise is a huge asset when planning your next vacation. She will always give you the pros and cons on your holiday options and will work with you to ensure you've made the right choice. She's always available to answer any questions you may have. But most importantly is her follow up skills before, during and after your vacation. She guides you through the entire process. I wouldn't book my travel with anyone else."
I spend time asking you questions about your priorities for your holiday, your preferences and what you like to do while you are away. Then based on your interests, your wish list and your budget, I create a solution that is perfect for you. This can include private tour options, small group tours or be combined with other available package solutions such as cruises or existing tours combined with pre and post stays, that meet your individual requirements.
Think about it…all this personal service from a live human being is something that you can’t possibly receive from a static online website! This is yet another reason to consider working with an agent.
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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.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.