Thursday, May 30, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 5: Kruger

Our final stop on our tour takes us to Kruger National Park.  Outside of that park are our latest digs and final tented camp.

If The Victoria Falls Hotel is the epitome of class, then Lions Rock River Camp is … shall we say … a little more rustic.  

The tents here are much smaller and much more … tent-like … than those at Iganyana (Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 3: Hwange).  To say the least.

But you really can't beat the view.  

And while our tented camp is a bit off the beaten path, the towns surrounding Kruger is bustling.  There is traffic.  And traffic lights.  Homes fill the valleys.  And tree farms, vegetable farms and fruit farms fill the landscape.

We are finally able to break out the cold-weather gear we've been advised to pack.  Fleece beanies, gloves, scarves, and all the layers.  Winter is finally settling in.

It’s here that we will make our final game drives of the trip. 

Our quest to see the "Big Five" not yet complete.  We've seen the Elephant, Lion (albeit, the females and their cubs), Water Buffalo, and even the Leopard.  At least, I'm claiming we've seen the leopard; we spotted something big and cat-like making it's way through the thick bush while in Chobe. 

South Africa

That leaves us with the Rhino.  Find one and our trip will be complete.  

Kruger National Park is one of the largest game parks in Africa.  Over 7500 square miles of paved roads (and a few off-roads too) make it easy for your average visitor (and by that, I mean those in “regular” vehicles) to traverse.

The bush here is thick in many places and a bit more open on the southern end of the reserve. 

It is filled with large formations of rock which appear to have just been dumped in the middle of the savanna, though that’s hardly possible given the size of them.  

I imagine it is here where the Disney Imagineers got their inspiration for Pride Rock and I half-expected to see a baboon raising a lion cub above his head for all the animals to bow to.  

But that never happened.

Our first game drive in Kruger was unsuccessful, where spotting the Rhino was concerned.  We just knew we would find them.  But alas, we drowned our sorrows in Windhoek Lager upon our return to camp that night.  

The next day, we enter the park before sunrise.  We're afforded early entry because we're in a safari jeep.  I suspect they realize we have just about frozen our bits off on our way to the main gate.  And require the warmth of the sun to keep the hypothermia at bay.

Again, I imagine the Disney Imagineers being inspired.  Inspired by the magnificent sight of the sun rising over the savanna.

South Africa

And for the second time this trip, I hear it.  The opening to "The Lion King":

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba
Sithi uhhmm ingonyama

(Which, by the way, translates to "There comes a lion. Oh yes, it's a lion.)

Shortly after sunrise, as we make our way to the southern part of the park, we see a few jeeps stopped on the road.  This tells us there's something ahead worth seeing.

As we get closer.  We see them.

The rhino eludes us no more.
South Africa

Our guide tells us that the white rhino has a wider mouth than the rare black rhino.  The story goes that the person who first saw this unique breed of rhino, the one with the wide mouth, was trying to explain to others how to differentiate between this and the other rhino, the black rhino.  Because both breeds are, in fact, the same color:  gray.  As the native was trying to explain it, others heard him to say, “white mouth”, rather than “wide mouth”.  And so, the “white rhino” was named.

By this, our seventh and eighth game drives, we are seasoned game spotters.  We’ve long since tired of seeing the JAFIs (don’t remember what that stands for, check it out here:  Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 2: Chobe).  And truth be told, even an elephant sighting late in the day doesn’t require a stop for pictures.

We’re content to sit, and bounce, and observe.  And soak it all in.

This.  Is.  Africa.

It really has been a great tour!  I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little concerned when we realized most of our touring group were in their 70’s and even 80’s.  

I’m so very happy to report that any concerns were quickly alleviated.  All were seasoned travelers.  They were flexible, positive, always on time, and friendly.  There were also no complaints; even the guy who got swiped by the thorns of an acacia tree while on a game drive, requiring 5 stitches in his ear, was positive. 

Add to that, a phenomenal guide who was patient, organized and humorous, and we simply could not have asked for more.

It’s here that we bid adieu to the group we’ve been touring with.  Some are flying home.  The rest are going on to Cape Town.  We'll join them on the flight, and then part ways.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 4: Victoria Falls

Zimbabwe is home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is the center of the country’s tourist industry.
Locals call it Mosi-Oa-Tunya, or, The Smoke That Thunders.

The mist rising to the sky in plumes that resemble smoke. The sound of the falls thunderous as the massive amounts of water pound the rocks below.

We know it as Victoria Falls.

The first European explorer to see the falls was Dr. David Livingstone. The Scotsman named them after his Queen, Queen Victoria. 


Fed by the Zambezi River, the falls are certainly regal. Majestic. And amazingly breathtaking. They cover a one-mile expanse and drop into the Zambezi Gorge

They are also very, very wet.

The mist so thick at times (depending on the strength of the wind combined with the water level of the Zambezi), you can’t even see the falls in some areas. It’s during such times that you can expect to get soaked.

The moisture seeping into your bones. Straight through your poncho. And when the wind kicks up just right, you might as well have just stepped from the shower.

Still, it’s a most incredible sight.

The city of Vic Falls is surrounded by the National Park. A park, like all the other game reserves, that is filled with wild animals.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise then, to see the unsightly warthog on the perfectly manicured lawn of the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel. But still, it was. A surprise. 

Isn't it cute how they kneel when they eat?

Not so surprisingly, was an animal conservation center. One that cares for injured animals in hopes that one day, they can be released into the wild. The center also hosts school visits as most local children have never seen the animals one might see in a game reserve.
It was at the center where we first met 5.5 ton Jumbo (along with a handful of other elephants).
The gentle giant’s trunk would’ve easily made two golf bags. His skin, leathery. His hair, wiry. His appetite equal to his name.

“Trunk up” and you toss a handful of the treats into his mouth. Getting a good look at those chompers and backing away quickly.  Because you know, you're standing between his rather large gigantic tusks.  And yeah, I know he and his fellow pachyderms are herbivores, but still ...

Despite the bustling tourist industry in Vic Falls, many of the people, unable to find work, leave the city and opt to return to rural living.

On the outskirts of town lies the homestead of one Chief Mpisi of the Ndebele tribe. The Chief’s village spans 35 square miles. His homestead houses him and 16 members of his extended family. 


Before he shared with us, a glimpse into village life, he asks each of us our names. “Sharon,” he said, “flowers.” Keith, “the wind”.

He wasn’t wrong.

He talked of village life - economics, farming, education. He touched on politics (American politics, in particular, when asked), made a brief and very pointed statement about our current administration and quickly moved on. He is a wise man.

We stepped into the hut occupied by 4 of his granddaughters. In it, two concrete blocks on which lay two twin mattresses. A single dresser held the girls’ belongings.

Mpisi’s hut, one of the larger ones in the compound, contained two rooms. One contained a table & chairs and his “office” - a single desk from which he conducts business for the 19,000-member village. And a second room that sleeps he, his wife and one child.

Each of his children and their families have their own hut.

The kitchen, used for communal cooking, sits in the center. Here, the women tend to the cooking over an open fire. The smoke fills the room and your lungs, as there is no ventilation.

As we left, the Chief took my hand. “He (Keith) works hard to make you happy,” he said, “you take good care of him.” It wasn’t an observation. It was a directive.

More wise words from a wise man.

We ate dinner in the township of Chinotimba. Chinotimba is not a shanty town (which is what I would normally think of when I hear the word ‘township’). It’s also not a rural village, like that of Chief Mpisi’s village. It’s a regular neighborhood. Homes built of cinder blocks and concrete.

We are invited to the home of Tich and Luni Tandi. Luni has prepared for us, a meal of polenta, beef stew, chicken stew, kale, kale and peanut butter, and kale and carrots. They really like kale.

The polenta, a large round mound of white corn, resembles mashed potatoes, if a little stiffer. It is used in the same way a fork or spoon would be used: to pick up the meats or the veggies. There are utensils set out on the table, but we choose to eat the way Luni and her family eat: with our fingers.

For dessert, she serves salty fish (similar to sardines) and worms.  All but one of us passed on the delicacies.  Keith was the brave soul who saved us all from offending our host.  He reports that neither the fish, nor the worms, tasted like chicken.

Over dinner, Luni, a beautiful storyteller, tells of growing up in Zimbabwe, her three children, and details the very complicated process of getting engaged and then married. 

It’s more than a matter of how many cows will transfer hands between the prospective groom and his fiancée’s parents.

A woman’s aunt (or grandmother) will serve as her advisor throughout the engagement period. It is the aunt, in Luni’s case, who was responsible for ensuring that Luni was … “in tact”, she says. A virgin.

But she left a little something out of the narrative.

Apparently, it’s not uncommon, for the prospective groom’s family to request assurances that his betrothed is, in fact, fertile. In order to confirm this, the woman is sent away to be with a distant cousin.

And by “be with”, I mean, doing the deed.

If she bares him, this cousin, a child, then it can be said that the deal (the engagement) is a good one, guaranteeing children to be born into the marriage. The child then reared by the cousin’s family.


Once married, the groom and his family must pay their debt (the agreed-upon number of cows) before the woman passes away. If this debt is not paid, the woman cannot be buried until it is. We’re still not sure what would be done with the body. Luni didn’t seem to be too worried about it since Tich had already paid the ten-cow fee to her parents.

Before we leave Vic Falls, we visit the Chinotimba Government School. The elementary school sponsored by the tour company we are traveling with. 


We are greeted by the sounds of singing and drums beating. As we get closer to the classroom, the children greet us with native dance and song.

At the end of the program, each child steps forward to tell us their name, age and what they want to be when they grow up. They speak quickly, perhaps because of nerves. But I do catch that several want to be teachers. Others, electrical or chemical engineers.

1800 students study at Chinotimba. The number of classrooms, insufficient, forcing the students to attend in ‘shifts’. They take basic elementary courses. There is a computer lab. The older students take home economics and carpentry - both boys and girls. 

Volunteers cook lunch; and for some students, this is the only meal they will eat that day.

Yet the students smile. And wave.

Zimbabwe was spectacular. Largely because of the spirit of the people. Despite the corruption and their bleak economic situation, they recognize they have to move forward themselves.

They are responsible for their own happiness.

We, the students, have been taught well.

Our next stop: Kruger National Park!

Friday, May 24, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 3: Hwange

Zimbabwe has a tumultuous past. A past with a corrupt leader whose greed devastated the economy and the people. 

As they recover (the corrupt leader ousted via a coup), they’re fighting to improve their staggering 90% unemployment rate. For many, their cattle IS their bank account.  

They are thankful for our visit and we hear this many times over. We’re certainly glad to help. 

Whereas in Chobe, the animals were plentiful thanks to the Chobe River, which provides sufficient drinking water. Here, they have to work hard to keep the animals from migrating elsewhere. 

In this particular park, Hwange National Park, there is no river. It’s the end of the rainy season and many of the watering holes are already dry. 

The solution:  solar-pumps which bring water up from the ground, filling some of the watering holes.  The alternative, man-made watering holes. 

Hwange, Zimbabwe
It was a man-made watering hole just outside our camp’s communal area that brought the elephants to us while we enjoyed dinner each evening. It was, to say the least, surreal to see these gentle giants up close. They certainly seemed to be curious about us!

In addition, we dined under a blanket of stars. The Milky Way and Southern Cross shining brightly in the sky. I can’t say I’ve seen either; to say the starry nights were spectacular is quite an understatement. 

At night, we were treated to a lullaby of growling, then trumpeting elephants. Some nights, it lasted only a few minutes. But other nights, it lasted an hour or so as the herd warded off predators (hyena, lion) who had their eyes on the babies. The adorably, squishy little babies. 

Our wake up call came in the form of baboons playing (or fighting - it’s hard to tell the difference) or a deep-throated bird with a baritone mating call.

This park was filled with underbrush; tall, golden grass (making lions difficult to spot), and thick bushes. Bushes that will lose their leaves soon as winter sets in. 

ZimbabweAt our camp, the elephants so used to guests, they approached our jeeps in order to get a closer look. The babies, three months old and younger, hiding amidst their mother’s legs. 

Numerous baboons nearby were quite ... shall we say ... odiferous. 

The water buffalo so numerous, a herd of hundreds greeted us on our arrival. 

In Zimbabwe, families pay for their children to attend either a public or private school.  Public school may cost one cow per three-month term compared to private school which may cost three cows per term.  There are three terms in the school year.  And for as devastated as the economy is, their literacy rate is 98%. They know the importance of education. 

Our guides were highly educated.  They are required to obtain a certification before they can take guests out. 

They track the animals by their prints or by the freshness of the dung. We learned to do the same, though I stopped short of picking up the poo to inspect it. 

One of our guides, a local named Paul, was extremely passionate about the animals. He runs a non-profit, D.A.R.T. (Delete. Animal. Rescue. Trust.) The organization responsible for attending to animals which are injured in poachers’ snares. 

Paul darts the animal, removes the snare, doctors the wound, and ensures it can safely be returned to its family. 

Similarly, if a nearby village has encountered problems with predators attacking their livestock (and thus, compromising their livelihood), they will call on Paul to ensure the animal is returned to the National Park. 

Another guide, Raphael, tells of the day when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip we’re visiting Hwange in 1991. 

He drew in the elephants to the lodge by throwing out seed pods (which they love to eat).  Queen Elizabeth so impressed by this animal whisperer, she asked for him specifically, to serve as her guide. 

“I would like to see”, she said, “a giraffe.”

As you probably know, there's no guarantee you’ll see any animals on a game drive; in fact, on one of our dives, we scoured the bush only to find a column of ants. That and one giraffe. Not even an Impala was in sight. 

Raphael, it would seem, had quite a task ahead of him.

It was a stroke of luck when he rounded a bend, and there stood a giraffe. Pleased, the Queen pulled her little camera from her purse, snapping pictures of the spindly-legged creature. 

I’ve snapped hundreds of pictures so far this trip (and if you’ve been following, I hope you’ve enjoyed them!)

Mostly of the animals, because, you know ... safaris and all that. But the landscape is just as beautiful. The valley and savanna that’s spread in front of the camp.  The sun coming up as mist rises off the watering holes.

And the sunsets. The variety of colors filtering through the trees. 

Our bodies a bit weary from the many game drives we’ve been on so far, it’s time for something a little more ‘refreshing‘.

Victoria Falls awaits!

For more information on the work that Paul does, check out:

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 2: Chobe

Before our trip, our pumpkin girl asked me why we were going to Africa (she’s 4 - she’s all about the “why”). When I told her we were going to see elephants and giraffes and zebras, she looked at me, shrugged her tiny shoulders and said,

“Meh. I can see all those in the zoo.”

I mean ... she’s not wrong. 

But there’s something amazing about seeing them in their natural environment. 

Here in Chobe, located in the village of Kasane, our lodge adjoined the 257,00 square acre game reserve, without a fence. As such, some of the animals roamed the lodge’s property freely. 

Monkeys are always a source of entertainment. Even when they’re wreaking havoc and I’m sure, causing the lodge staff any amount of headaches. Still, the little buggers sure are cute. 

One afternoon, the banded mongooses played on the lawn outside our room. I switched my phone to ‘video’ as they began chattering with each other. 

Only to have one mount the other, completing the agreement they had apparently just made. The male stopped mid-thrust and stared back at me. Me, having ruined their good time. 

Chobe is full of elephants. Make no mistake, they are the king of the bush. They don’t have a single enemy here (read:  no animal is foolish enough to go up against a 4-ton behemoth). 

Sadly, we’ve heard the rainy season didn’t produce enough water and many will likely die from starvation as winter (and the hottest months of the year) sets in. 

Elephants are only outnumbered by the impala. Impalas are so numerous here, that the locals and the guides call them JAFIs. Just Another F’n Impala. ‘‘Tis true, you know - our guide didn’t even stop today when we came across them in the bush. 

And we didn’t ask. 

Our sighting of two lionesses and their cubs was certainly cause for excitement. Though we celebrated quietly, lest we make them anxious and they mistake us for a snack. And then we made our getaway post-haste. 

My day was made when we found a ‘tower’ of giraffes. Six in total, including two babies. The elegant creatures with the elongated necks and spindly legs looked at us looking at them. They twitched their little ears and returned to eating leaves. The patriarch, with the darkest spots, roaming solo. 

A typical river safari yielded sightings of elephants, hippos, Cape buffalo (water buffalo), crocodiles, water bucks, a plethora of birds and water lilies. 

Beautiful, dainty water lilies. 

If there were any culling of impalas (to curb the population), I think I know what happened to them. It was common to have Impala stew or Impala steak on the dinner and lunch buffets. It wasn’t too gamey-tasting, but it was a bit on the chewy side. 

On the other hand, kudu sausage alongside a serving of eggs, was actually very tasty. 

And I’m quite certain the roasted chicken legs were that of a real chicken and not that of an African Chicken, otherwise known as the Guinea Fowl. 

I skipped the charcoal ice cream. 

The food aside, I think Chobe will forever hold a special place in my heart. So many moments, generating smiles and happiness within. 

Bouncing along in the bush, the ride reminiscent of Kilimanjaro Safaris at Walt Disney World. Our guide, talking with other guides over the cb radio in their native tongue. Not surprisingly, several safari vehicles ending up in the same location so that everyone can marvel at the pride of lions. 

The majestic movement of the giraffe and the equally majestic movement of the elephant. The eyelashes of an elephant. The water dripping from the mouth of a thirsty water buffalo. The strength of the hippos jaws as he messily chomps his lunch. The beauty of a maribou stork in flight, though their lot in life a bit on the disgusting side (as it is similar to a vulture); circle of life and all that. 

And the sunsets. 

There was one amazingly beautiful sunset while we were here. The purple as bright as that of a crayon. Reds and oranges providing the perfect accents. 

There were no pictures. The beauty of it tucked away in my memory. 

And I can hear ... 🎶

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba
Sithi uhm ingonyama

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 1: Johannesburg

A few thoughts about Johannesburg before we depart for the bush. 

Joburg is a HUGE city (approximately 14 million. 22 million or so, if you include the suburbs). 

Like any major metropolitan city, there is a storied history here. A time of conflict, of struggle, of oppression. And the people’s champion. 

Also like a lot of other big cities, there are the very rich and the very poor. Likewise, different areas of town reflect exactly this. 

One guide described the area known as Howerton as “marginal” and as such, suggested visitors not enter this area without a guide. The hop-on hop-off bus tour had discontinued a stop in a different area, Newtown,  for the same reason.

“The City of Gold” still evident in the areas of Sandton and Rosebank. In Sandton, where we stayed, many of the extremely large and beautiful houses (one might call them ‘compounds’, they were so big) were surrounded by walls so high that only the rooftops are visible. 

The same could be said for Soweto.  In part, known for its shanty towns (or, “informal settlements”, as the government liked to call them during apartheid), the newer homes built by the government are also surrounded by ceiling-height walls, barbed wire attached to the top.  

Economic differences aside, we found the people of Joburg (and those who travel in from the surrounding suburbs each day for work) to be incredibly friendly. 

Including a Soweto local who approached me with “Well hello, mama” as he looked me over. A special thanks to my husband who had walked ahead of me!

We felt safe here. Although ... we didn’t exactly head into South Town after dark. 

There was a really nice mall adjoining our hotel. Evenings were spent watching the sunset in our hotel’s rooftop bar, followed by dinner in one of the mall’s many restaurants. 

The food here is much like what you might find at home. Sandwiches, salads, fish & chips, and steak. It’s all been very yummy!

Various tour guides or Uber drivers suggested we try the steak. They didn’t realize they were talking to the daughter of a Texas cattle rancher. 

Still, I decided to give it a try. 

There was something definitely different about the center-cut fillet. I can’t really describe the taste other than to say I happily ate every bite of it, along with the accompanying roasted purple-skinned sweet potatoes. 

Even the home-cooked meal we had while on tour in Soweto was so good. On offer were salad, cole slaw, baked beans, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, corn, butternut squash, polenta, roasted chicken, beef sausage, and beef stew.  In a word:  tasty!

We’ve really enjoyed our time in Joburg, but it’s time to get wild. 

Tomorrow, we head to Botswana and Chobe National Park. A day of travel and lounging around the lodge, which is reminiscent of my beloved Animal Kingdom Lodge (at Walt Disney World) awaits. 

Our first game drive, Monday morning

Lions, giraffes, & elephants, Oh My!