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Safari in Southern Africa: Part One

Experience remote, unspoiled wilderness and intimate tented camps on this adventure in Botswana and Zambia

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Safari in Southern Africa: Part One

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Two summers ago, I visited Africa for the first time on a safari in Tanzania, in the eastern part of the continent. Like all good vacations, it was the kind of trip that changes how you look at the world -- and leaves you wanting more.

So this June, my wife, teenage son and I flew halfway across the world once again, this time to check out the continent's other prime safari region in Southern Africa. Most of our days were spent in Botswana, a peaceful and democratic country that is nearly the size of Texas, but with only 1.7 million residents. There are twice that many people within 25 miles of my home in Houston, so I looked forward to a lot more elbow room.

In fact, Botswana's game preserves are so vast and remote that one must fly bush planes to and between them. The country is landlocked, bordering South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe. We traveled on a customized itinerary with a company called African Travel, which has operated on the continent for more than 30 years. African Travel utilizes the best accommodations -- tented camps, lodges and hotels -- in each destination visited. The company operates small-group safaris on scheduled departure dates and also customizes safaris for groups of as few as four people.

We began our adventure in Johannesburg, South Africa, the jumping-off point for tours and safaris throughout Southern Africa. We arrived on a 19-hour Delta flight from Atlanta, which included a refueling stop and mechanical delay on the runway in Dakar, Senegal. That might seem like a long flight, but there was barely enough time to read the paper, eat three meals and a snack and watch all eight feature-length movies on the plane's state-of-the-art entertainment system.

Leaving baggage claim at the Johannesburg airport, we were met by a representative of African Travel and escorted across the street to the Sun Intercontinental Hotel, where we found large and well-appointed rooms and friendly and excellent service throughout. It's a perfect location for travelers in transit, and day rooms are generally available for someone wanting to freshen up during a long layover.

There are more than 8 million people in the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area, and as in all of the world's major cities, wealth and poverty coexist uneasily. With unemployment near 50 percent, crime is a serious problem. It is generally considered unsafe to hail a taxi from the street, and tourists should arrange taxis through a reputable hotel. There are areas of the city -- particularly in Alexandra -- that are unsafe at any time of day or night, so renting a car and simply setting out without a map and a plan is not recommended.

The next morning, we arranged a local driver/guide and minivan through African Travel and made our way to Soweto, the sprawling, all-black township that is home to as many as 4 million people.

We could have started with a wealthy area of the city such as Sandton, but Soweto was the epicenter of the protests that rocked South Africa in the years leading to the collapse of apartheid. We wanted an unvarnished view of life there today.

As we drove, we saw landscape that was reminiscent of Southern California, with rugged, sun-baked hills jutting into view. The sunlight itself seemed even brighter, more intense.

A nationwide strike over wages had become increasingly violent, and protesters closed the roads in Soweto the day we arrived, but that morning we found them open. We saw where former president Nelson Mandela lived during his years in Soweto, and the current home of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent opposition to apartheid.

We toured a wide range of neighborhoods, including a few new streets where successful business people and professionals have built upscale homes behind brick walls, with landscaped yards and red tile roofs. Most of the neighborhoods we saw were much more modest -- rows of small cinderblock homes with corrugated metal roofs and dirt yards, packed tightly together.

Eventually, we found ourselves in a series of so-called "squatters' camps." We were completely unprepared for the squalor and hopelessness we saw there.

Squatters are the poorest of the poor, homeless families from South Africa as well as refugees that stream continuously south from troubled African countries such as Zimbabwe, Congo and Nigeria. Their shacks are tiny, pieced together from scavenged wood and sheet metal, the roofs held down by stones. Entire families live in single rooms of 60 or 80 square feet. In the camps we saw and others, HIV is rampant, and death is never far away.

It was sunny when we visited, but stinging gray smoke from burning wood and garbage hung heavy in the air. Barefoot children raced to our van, begging for candy, as we lurched down the rutted dirt roads. Our guide produced sweets, and we handed out all that we had. It was indeed a pitiful contribution toward such a massive need.

After this humbling experience, we spent the second half of the day at the Apartheid Museum, which provides a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the crippling policy that brought South Africa to the brink of civil war and ruin. The museum is a must-see for anyone visiting Johannesburg -- moving, chilling and, ultimately, hopeful.

Next, we leave for Zambia, where the real vacation begins. We'll slap on some DEET and go on safari, following in the footsteps of Dr. Livingstone (I presume).

After Zambia, we'll take a bush plane into the most remote areas of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, for an up-close encounter with the animals and people of this unspoiled wilderness.

Lost and Found in Zambia

I'm at the Royal Livingstone hotel in southern Zambia, looking out over the Zambezi River. The river is wide here, broken by lush, green islands and glistening blue in the sun. The view is mesmerizing, as interesting as any coastline I can recall. A couple of hundred yards offshore, four hippos wade in still water at the downstream end of an island, protected from currents in the main channels that gather speed as they rush toward the great abyss.

In a few minutes, the water in front of me now will be part of Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. From my chair in the shade of a knob thorn tree, I can see the river simply drop from sight, perhaps a mile downstream, as it plunges 360 feet into the gorge. Beyond the disappearing river, a white cloud of vapor rises 100 feet into the air. The people of this land call the place Mosi-oa-Tunya, or the Smoke That Thunders.

Looking upstream, I can see zebras grazing, and here I am surrounded by mischievous, black-faced vervet monkeys. One particularly cheeky fellow is perched on the roof of a nearby guest room, munching a candy bar just pilfered from below, where a door was left open. Elsewhere on the property are giraffes, baboons, impalas and an elusive python that the hotel's "removal team" has not been able to locate.

Behind me, the lawn gently rises to the gracious and elegant Royal Livingstone, a five-star resort with large and comfortable rooms, fine dining, butler service, pool and Internet center. I was frankly shocked to find such a luxurious property in this part of the world.

The current is too strong for a swimmer here, not that I've been tempted since I saw the first crocodile a few yards from the bank. Unlike bush lodges and tented camps, which have no walls or fences whatsoever, the Royal Livingstone separates its guests from what might crawl out of the river and carry them back in, with a low electric fence and a 6-foot-wide bed of sharp rocks.

We arrived yesterday on a flight from South Africa. As our bags were unloaded at the airport in Livingstone, we realized that some of the locks had been removed and various compartments in those bags were unzipped. Several DVDs and an iPod were gone, stolen by baggage handlers at Johannesburg airport between the time we checked our luggage and the time our flight departed.

We discussed filing a police report with attendants at the baggage claim area, but since we'd already changed countries that seemed utterly futile. We carried our bags through customs and were greeted by a representative of African Travel. We were glad to have the big-city part of our African adventure behind us and the main course ahead.

Leaving the tiny airport, we realized that the short flight from South Africa had carried us a world away, to a simpler place and time. We rolled down the streets of Livingstone, a small town named for David Livingstone, the British explorer and first European to see Victoria Falls, in 1855.

Livingstone was "lost" in the African bush for so long that Henry Morton Stanley was sent to look for him. When they finally bumped into each other at Lake Tanganyika it had been five years since Livingstone had seen another white man. Stanley uttered the famous words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."

This morning we set out on a guided tour of Victoria Falls, slapping on raincoats and climbing up and down stairs to reach all the various vantage points available to tourists. Some of these spots were sunny and dry, but in others we found a drenching rain cast off from the roaring sheet of water as it plunged over the cliff. There were even some places where the "rain" rose up to meet us on a strong draft of wind from below.

From one overlook we could see the bridge spanning a gorge to connect Zambia with Zimbabwe. This bridge is famous for bungee jumping, and it towers above a section of the Zambezi River that is widely recognized as offering the world's wildest white-water rafting.

We left the falls and drove to the open-air Maramba market in Livingstone, where our guide, a Zambian named Jeff, slowly led us past hundreds of small stalls offering everything from dried fish and grain to bike repair services and homemade charcoal. In a common theme among the food items for sale, everything was displayed in four different quantities, so no matter how little money a shopper had, he or she could always get something. For example, cooking oil was available in a large (reused) bottle, small bottle, by the cup or even by the capful, the latter just enough for a single meal.

We saw milky beer made from maize, men making sandals out of old tires, and a butcher hacking chunks of red meat off a carcass hanging from a hook. On the beauty aisle, women had their hair braided or shampooed. Several vendors were preparing the midday meal, a porridge called nshima, on charcoal fires.

The bike repair shop was bustling, and judging from the look of things, no bike is ever thrown away in Zambia.

There were thousands of people in the market but only five white faces, so naturally we received a lot of curious stares. A few people spoke to us in English, and some invited us to look at their crops or cooking utensils. We thanked them for their trouble and explained that we had no kitchen.

As in other African markets we've visited, much of the food was covered with flies and the fish section reeked to high heaven, but we weren't there to eat, anyway. In the market you get a glimpse of how the people live, how they treat each other and strangers. I believe that Maramba is well worth a visit.

This afternoon, we leave for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, on a riverboat called the African Queen. We'll be cruising well upstream from the falls -- engines, don't fail us now. After two days at Victoria Falls, I can't remember which day of the week it is, and more importantly, I don't care. In fact, I don't believe David Livingstone was ever lost at all. It's more likely he found himself here.

Safari by Elephant

The wake-up call came early in the morning, ending a restless night's sleep well before dawn. Although it's June, it's winter in southern Zambia with overnight lows in the 40s and highs in the 70s, and not a chance of rain. We pulled on an extra layer of clothing to ward off the chill and met our driver in front of the Royal Livingstone Hotel. I'd looked forward to this day since booking the trip, and now it had finally come.

An hour later, in the bush along the Zambezi River, our first game drive was about to get under way. We climbed wooden stairs to a platform 10 feet off the ground, threw one leg over a saddle and settled in behind the "driver" for an elephant-back safari.

Adult African elephants are 18 to 24 feet in length and 10 to 13 feet tall, and the first sensation from the saddle was just how high off the ground we really were. We lumbered away from the camp with huge, silly grins on our faces, finding the ride surprisingly smooth and comfortable.

The elephants had come from Zimbabwe across the river, a mix of orphans and others that had been selected to be culled -- killed -- due to perceived overpopulation. They were safe now, well fed and cared for and allowed to roam free with their young, except for a maximum of two one-hour treks each day.

There were five adult elephants in our group, each of which could carry up to two guests plus the trainer, and two adolescent elephants that tagged along for fun. The smallest of the adolescents was less than 3 feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. He was as playful as a puppy, barging through the guests while we stood on the ground just to see us scatter. He went out of his way to climb over obstacles we encountered, and frequently found himself straddling a fallen tree, with front or back legs dangling off the ground.

Elephants eat constantly, from 16 to 20 hours a day, and throughout the ride our elephant munched on leaves, twigs and flowers torn from bushes and trees. There are no lions or other big cats in this park that might bother these animals, so the only concerns were snakes that might spook them or wild elephants that could challenge our dominant male to a fight. To make sure that did not happen, we were accompanied by a guide who walked ahead on foot with a rifle that would be fired only to scare any wild elephant that became aggressive.

We saw no other elephants during our ride, but we did see impalas, waterbucks, eagles, wildebeest and giraffes. The last third of the trek was along the banks of the blue Zambezi, and at one point we waded in to let the elephants have a drink. Crocs and hippos baked in the sun on nearby islands.

If we had visited a bit earlier, we might have seen the last two white rhinos left in the entire country of Zambia, but they were shot just the week before, by poachers. The female was killed and her horn hacked off, and the male was critically wounded. The rhinos had been guarded 24 hours a day by armed game wardens, and no one seemed to know how this could have happened.

Rhino horns are highly prized in some parts of Asia for their supposed medicinal value, and in the Middle East they are used to make handles for daggers. Despite the pristine beauty of all we saw, one could not help but sense the fragility of the system here and throughout the game reserves of Africa, and the risks posed by greed and desperation and ignorance.

Back in camp, we hand-fed our elephants before saying goodbye and returned to the Royal Livingstone for lunch outdoors in the warm midday sun. But the day's adventure was far from over. By 2 p.m. we were 30 miles upstream from Victoria Falls, preparing to canoe the mighty Zambezi.

On the Zambezi

The elephant-back safari was an included feature of our customized itinerary, but our canoe trip through the crocodile- and hippo-filled waters of the Zambezi was arranged separately and is only for the physically fit and adventurous. This is not a good place to learn how to canoe, it is not suited for children or the elderly, and perhaps it is not even suited for people in their right minds.

Still, there we were, signing waivers and climbing into inflatable two-person canoes and setting off into a 25-mile-an-hour headwind that produced little waves with whitecaps that were actually blowing upstream. We pointed our canoes toward the Zimbabwe side of the broad Zambezi, paddling strenuously to make any headway at all in a downstream direction.

Twenty minutes into our float, we spotted our first hippos. Before coming to Africa, I had assumed that hippos were like extra-wide cows in water, basically harmless. In fact, hippos kill more people than lions or crocs, generally when someone has inadvertently come between the animals and the water, causing them to panic, or between a mother and her young.

We didn't have to worry about the former in a canoe, but hippos can hold their breath for five to six minutes, so I wondered how we would know if we were passing close to a nervous mother just under the surface. Our guide's canoe was always in the lead, and he must have done an excellent job spotting hippos in advance, because we saw many in and out of the water but were never close enough to be concerned.

Frankly, it was the crocodiles that had my attention. The first one we saw was small, about 4 feet in length, resting on a root in the shade of a tree that was leaning precariously over the river. We were close before we saw him at eye level, and he watched us pass within 10 yards.

I could almost read his mind: "Mmmmm, I wonder what that one tastes like."

Almost immediately, we saw two more, and they were enormous, more than 12 feet long and sunning just a few feet from the water.

Soon the river took a sharp turn and split into forks separated by islands, and the wind no longer impeded our progress downstream. We were in one of these forks when we heard the roar of upcoming white water.

The first rapids were exciting but manageable, as were the second and third, but there was something unusual about the way the forks came together at the downstream ends of islands. The currents seemed to collide more than merge, with some forks apparently deeper than others and some currents actually appearing to run upstream.

I had just noticed this phenomenon when suddenly the front of our canoe spun 90 degrees from its downstream orientation, turning us broadside in the rapids. We paddled furiously, managing to right the canoe against the pressures that wanted to spin us around, but we were caught in an area of churning water, and all forward progress had ceased.

"Paddle as hard as you can," I called out to my wife in the front, "we're stuck." We pounded the water with all our might, marking our movement against a spot on the shore. As we pulled on our paddles we'd move forward a foot or two, but when the paddles were out of the water between thrusts, we'd drop back again.

After several long minutes, we covered the 20 yards to the edge of the whirlpool and escaped its grasp, but our relief was short lived. Up ahead, we could see that one of our canoes had lost its stern paddler. Someone in our party had been bounced from his boat and was swimming with the crocodiles! We spotted a bobbing head being swept downstream, swimming frantically toward the lead canoe. The guide quickly hoisted him out of the water -- intact.

The rest of our three-hour journey was peaceful -- relatively speaking -- as we drifted by elephants, giraffes, baboons and monkeys in the national parks on both sides of the river. The shadows were long by the time we pulled our canoes ashore near two large and amorous monitor lizards and boarded a van for the hotel.

Tomorrow, we will drive west to the border with Botswana, cross the Zambezi by boat (motorboat, I hope) and take a bush plane into the remote and unspoiled Okavango Delta. We will leave the Smoke That Thunders and the gentle people of Zambia with nothing but fond memories.

If you're looking for a place to begin a safari, Victoria Falls is as wondrous as any. But do stay out of the water.

Safari in Southern Africa: Part Two

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2007. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 291-3346 for current rates and details.

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