Archive for the ‘6. Victoria Falls’ Category

June 19 – Victoria Falls to Johannesburg

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

We are back in civilization tonight, at the Airport Grand Hotel in Johannesburg. Civilization. Right. Noise, crowds, hustle and bustle. Sigh… at least we can pretend.

With all of the hassles of yesterday, everything worked out neatly today. First off, the weather was simply terrific: clear and calm and few if any clouds in the sky. Second, the logistics went off without a snag. Transfer company #1 picked us up at the guest house and got us to the Zimbabwean border where we quickly went through the exit process; that company then turned us over to transfer company #2. Transfer company #2 got us to the Zambian immigration station where we quickly went through the entry process (and, I think, where we astonished — and disappointed — the guy at the counter by having exact change for the exorbitant $135 visa fee to enter a country where we’d be staying for all of three or four hours). And they took us on to the helicopter airfield where transfer company #3 (the one taking us to the airport afterwards) was already there to meet us.

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

The flight itself was terrific. There were four of us in a four-passenger helicopter. Fred took the front seat, and I grabbed a window seat in the rear. The other couple split up, each one coming to a side of the back seat, and I am not ashamed to say I refused to budge. I was NOT giving up my window seat!

The pilot passed the length of the falls four times (up, down, up, down) and gave everyone a very good look — and the weather was bright and clear. So I got some great photos from the air, and some decent video footage as well (which I combined with footage taken from the ground the day we arrived in Zimbabwe).

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(I also volunteered to take the couple’s photo for them with their camera and they were pleased by that. Maybe not enough to forgive me for not giving up my window seat, but hey… They’re tour operators from South Africa and can come back sometime. I’m not in the travel business and I came 8000 miles for this helicopter trip!)

In all, we both felt the helicopter ride over on the Zambia side was nicer than the one in Zimbabwe would have been. In addition, it meant we actually DID something in Zambia other than just fly out from there, which made us both feel a lot better about the ridiculous visa fee that Zambia charges. So, all in all, it was one more case of something that could have been a snag working out for us in the long run.

Livingstone, Zambia is a bustling town that is obviously prospering greatly from the misfortunes of the folks in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The folks in Zimbabwe spoke contemptuously of the Zambians and how they used to have to drive over in their rattle-trap cars to buy gasoline in Zimbabwe and how poor Zambia was. But that’s all obviously past tense. Now Zimbabweans drive to Botswana to do their shopping, and the Zambians we ran into were only too happy to comment about how nice things were in Zambia these days! The contrast between the two towns right now is stunning. The joke going around is that, where the Big Five in Africa are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, the Big Five in Zimbabwe are meat, corn, sugar, rice and milk. It’s sad, and we can only hope things improve in Zimbabwe. I’m glad we stayed where we did, and very glad we went… and very glad we left when we did. (As a side note, it’s amazing that even South Africans keep saying how completely out of touch with the reality of what’s going on in Zimbabwe that South Africa’s president is.)

The airport is small but was packed with a number of flights going out around the same time. Had one bad moment at the airport where British Airways-Comair turned out to be the only airline that actually weighed carry-ons and mine, of course, was over the 7kg limit. The woman gave Fred a white tag for his bag and told me I’d get a red tag at the aircraft. I asked if I’d be able to keep the bag with me and she said yes. I wasn’t so sure… It turned out that if folks didn’t have a white tag, there were people at the side of the aircraft making them turn over their bags to be stowed in the nose of the plane (with the referenced red tag). And there was NO WAY I was going to give up a bag with thousands of dollars in owned and rented camera gear. Fortunately, Fred realized what was going on immediately and without a word simply ran interference for me. He kept putting his 6′3″ frame between me and the folks who were trying to check the bags for white tags and engaged them in conversation so I could simply get on board. Boy was I relieved when I got into the cabin and tucked the offending backpack into the overhead compartment… (I’d apologize to British Airways for this, but the fact is that between us, our carry-ons were under the limit, and if I’d known they were going to enforce it, we could have moved things from one bag to the other and been totally within the rules. So it was a no-harm no-foul situation.)

The only other bad moment was when some idiot decided I wasn’t moving fast enough to get through a security area and pushed a movable gate onto my ankle. I begin to understand why it’s not the Ugly American Tourist in parts of Africa, but rather the Ugly South African… (It’s kind of nice not to be the only Bad Guy in the tourism world…)

Fred agreed to take charge of figuring out what our options are for sight-seeing tomorrow. (Both of us began by feeling reluctant to impose on one of our South African friends (from the Delta) who had volunteered to be our guide, and then it all became academic when I realized I couldn’t find the card he’d given me with his contact info.) We’ve settled on a tour of a gold mine and a driving tour of Johannesburg. We should be back at the hotel just in time for me to head off to my flight.

Civilization does have its nice points, by the way. Nice meal, nice bar downstairs, nice room with coffee machine and a lovely tub to soak in…

June 18 – Victoria Falls

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

How a day can be so good and so bad…

First the good… we got up at oh-dark-thirty to go out to the Lion Encounter. The tour company was supposed to pick us up at 5:30 — they actually got there early. Drove out to the game reserve about five miles from Victoria Falls, where they run an operation that is part of conservation effort principally with cubs from lions that have to be relocated away from areas where their territory is encroaching on people (or vice versa). We met up with the only other two participants — a young German woman now living in South Africa and an Australian woman. (Neither of whom, incidentally, had known about the no-credit-cards rule — we ended up loaning the German woman some cash so she could have dinner!)

You get there when it’s just light out, get a stick and a safety briefing (“just say no no to the cub and point the stick at him!”) and then walk out into the bush. Here, unlike all the time we spent in Botswana, one of the guides carried a rifle; there were also three trainers with the group. Fred spotted something big and dark off to the side and it turned out to be a black rhino. He and the guide (with the gun!) walked over for a closer look. I kept telling the guide I’d appreciate getting my brother back in one piece. When they came back, we walked a little further, the guide asked if we were ready to walk with lions, and when we said we were, he told us to look to our left — and there they came, full tilt, straight for us!

Zimbabwean cubs

Zimbabwean cubs

Now we’d been told there were three cubs, 14 months old. What they do NOT tell you is how big a 14-month-old lion cub is. Their heads are easily up to or past waist-high. Ulp! And all we have are sticks! But they acted exactly like big kittens — playing with each other and with the trainers. They let themselves be petted, they generally came to a trainer when called (try that with your tabby at home!), they even let people walk with them holding their tails… There were two males (Loza and Stitch) and one female (Stancy). Their fur is very rough, their ruffs are bristly.

Cub on alert

Cub on alert

At one point, I was looking at one of the lions and felt a weight against my leg. I looked down, and there was the sole female cub leaning up against me as if to say that she wanted to be petted. The whole thing was just enchanting, and it was very hard to remember that these are wild animals and will, eventually, be trained for and released to the wild. Extras were watching the cubs go on alert when they heard wild lions in the distance, and a kudu herd not far from the entrance. You get a full cooked breakfast when the walk is over (and it’s over too soon, even if it was an hour or more!). It was just wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it more.

Then the bad… we were back at the guest house by about 9:30 and the weather was simply gorgeous, so we were so so looking forward to the helicopter ride. The tour company picked us up and took us out to the helipad just in time to find out that the helicopter had developed problems on the ride just before ours and had been grounded. We waited just long enough to find out that they’d cancelled all flights for today and tomorrow and asked if they could book us on the Zambian side. The company didn’t seem much to understand (or care) that we’d come 8000 miles and would probably not be back, and did nothing more than offer us a refund and a provisional booking for the next day (after telling us that all the Zambian flights the next day were fully booked). Since we have a 1:30 flight out back to Johannesburg tomorrow, this did not look promising. We rode back to the guest house discussing options — some of them wild and some even wilder (trying to hire a plane from Zambia to come get us is not very realistic!).

In any event, we put the whole thing into the hands of Hartmut and Miriam Giering, the owners of the guest house, and in about 45 minutes they felt reasonably confident they had the whole thing under control. But the plans are contingent on the weather being as good tomorrow as it is today and on a series of transfers from one tour operator to another going without a hitch. Ulp… we shall see. And I will be verrrrrrrry disappointed if I end up having come 8000 miles and don’t get to fly over Victoria Falls.

Sunset over Zambezi River

Sunset over Zambezi River

The sunset cruise was okay but filled with loud Americans and we didn’t see nearly as many animals as we did on the Chobe cruise. The area of the Zambezi river where the cruise boats operate is astoundingly close to the falls (it’s the Zambezi that tumbles into the gorge at the falls). And I think we’re both a bit concerned about the arrangements for tomorrow. Spent some time sharing a couple of bottles of wine with the owners and one of the two Swiss women (the other went off to try to see moonlight over the falls after having exchanged some Botswanan pula for my American dollars so she could pay the entrance fee to the park!) and will head off to bed early since we need to be up for breakfast, packing, etc., before heading out sometime before 9 a.m.

June 17 – to Victoria Falls

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008
Grant Craig

Grant Craig

It was surprisingly hard to say goodbye to Grant this morning. In a very short time, he has gone from being “Grant the safari operator” to “Grant, our friend.” We knew we were going off to do other things, more “citified” things, things where we wouldn’t NEED Grant to hold our hands — but both Fred and I felt bereft. Who would we turn to now with our questions? Who would point out the things we might otherwise miss? And we had just gotten to know him, and wanted to know more, and have time to talk about things we hadn’t had time for yet.

It was hard.

I will say this: there may be fancier safari operators in Africa. But there are none who know more and who care more and who share more than Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris. He cares, deeply, for the country, and the bush, and the animals, and he wants, deeply, for those he guides to come away with something of the same appreciation he has for the country, and the bush, and the animals. He became truly upset one night at the Moremi campsite when some campers started dragging a big log — far far bigger than they could possibly need as firewood — into their camp. He sent Likan to tell them it was against camp rules. But as he sat and explained to us, it wasn’t because it was against the rules. It was because it was against nature. If the logs don’t stay in place and rot, then there won’t be food for the termites, and if there aren’t any termites, then there won’t be honey badgers. (Grant loves honey badgers. Or, more accurately, he admires them for the bombastic, aggressive, don’t-mess-with-me critters that they are.) And if there aren’t honey badgers… and so on. To him, it’s a system, and a system that needs minimal impact from humans to survive. And he very much wants it to survive.

I do too. Now that I’ve been there, and seen it, and smelled it, and watched it… I do too.

But the sudden shift from being with Grant to being in a vehicle with strangers headed into a country renowned for its political turmoil was very disconcerting this morning. (It was especially disconcerting when, not 10 minutes inside the Zimbabwean border, we saw a police car pulling over vehicles with plates from other countries… A couple of young Swiss women who were stopped at the roadblock told us the police officer tried to shake them down and they simply played the “we don’t speak the language” card and were finally let go.)

Welcome sign

Welcome sign

At any rate, we understood why Grant kept emphasizing that we needed US dollars and exact change for the visa fees for Zimbabwe when we were at the border station. First off, the whole transaction was a lot faster with US dollars than for folks with other currencies. Secondly, even though we could see plenty of bills in various currencies, nobody but nobody was being given change if they didn’t have the exact amount. Sort of a revenue-enhancement device, as far as we could see.

Amadeus Guesthouse

Amadeus Guesthouse

We arrived at the Amadeus Guest House without incident and found it to be everything Grant had described. It is very nicely appointed with beautiful grounds and nice folks at all levels from the room cleaners right up to the owners. We got everything set up for our extra activities — walking the Falls in the afternoon, dinner at The Boma tonight, lion walk in the morning, helicopter ride in the afternoon and sunset cruise later — and then headed off to an internet cafe to let folks know we were alive and well. (On our way back we ended up sharing the road with a troop of baboons. It surely reinforces that we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto!)

250 million dollars

250 million dollars

Although we’re both very comfortable at the guest house, frankly Victoria Falls is not a comfortable place a week before the elections. There is a feeling of impending disaster that is almost tangible everywhere and the few people we encountered anywhere in Zimbabwe who would say anything (and then only in whispers) were not at all confident that political change could occur without violence. The economy is in ruins — at one point, a Zimbabwean gave us a $250 million Zimbabwean note — and it’s worth maybe a nickel, maybe less, in US dollars. The disconnect between the real value of the Zimbabwean currency and the government-sanctioned exchange rate is so great that nobody, but nobody, takes credit cards here. So… everywhere we went, we went with the vehicle from the guest house. It just felt better that way. All in all, I’d say that Victoria Falls is safe for tourists … in the day time, in groups, with escorts from travel companies or hotels-guest houses etc., and with US dollars in your wallet.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

The Falls themselves are simply amazing from ground level. You can walk the entire Zimbabwean side of the Falls in about an hour (getting thoroughly soaked in the process) and unlike a lot of waterfalls that you see in pictures, the Victoria Falls tumble into a narrow gorge so that from where you stand to where the water is can be a very short distance. (Compare this to Niagara Falls where there’s a wide open area at the base of the falls.) We did our very best to protect things from the water and still didn’t manage. Some things in Fred’s backpack got wet, and I ended up not getting nearly as many photos as I might otherwise have gotten. But Fred personally made up for that!

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This evening, we went over to the Safari Lodge for drinks and for The Boma (a very touristy and great fun set-up for a dinner of traditional African foods). It was thoroughly enjoyable — and we FINALLY got to taste warthog! And, by gorry, it is wonderful stuff. A slightly gamey and flavorful meat that is clearly recognizable as a kissin’ cousin to pork. My only regret is that I didn’t have more! Also had a fruit salad that practically burned my mouth with whatever spice it had! Listened to a story teller and let the traditional medicine man throw bones and tell our fortunes. It was truly striking that there were mostly older people and Japanese tourists at the place and it was still not even half full.

Only took one photo at the Boma — my camera battery finally gave out. I’m in the process of charging a full set for both cameras because of the lion walk, helicopter flight and sunset cruise all scheduled for tomorrow.