Posts Tagged With: Zimbabwe

When A Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not To Laugh

Zimcon 1221I love animals. This separates me from the .1% of the world that doesn’t. So, if you’re in the 99.9 percent that welcome or outrightly seek animal encounters, allow me to briefly recount an amazing experience that I recently had just inside the Zambian border.

Upon arrival at Gloria’s Bed & Breakfast in Livingstone, Zambia; my wife and I inquired as to an activity recommended by friends who had recently been there: the opportunity to interact and walk with cheetahs. A phone call was made to Mukuni Safaris and a half hour later we were picked up and brought to their facility nestled in the bush just a few kilometers shy of Victoria Falls.

I was originally a bit worried that the dozen or so of Australian pensioners who shared our ride would be included in our session, leaving us little time for what we came there for. Fortunately, they were there for the lion interaction (another worthy activity), so it was just my wife and I along with a trio of guides and a foreign intern. After paying our $120 or so fee (per person) and signing a waiver, we were led to a fenced-in area where a trio of cheetahs – two females and a male – were lazing in the red soil, each with a harness around their chest.

While my first inclination was to rush to pet the kitties (as was my wife’s I’m sure) we had to postpone our enthusiasm until the lead guide thoroughly briefed us on an array of interesting facts about the species – such as when they actually run at their top speed of about 70MPH they are then so exhausted that both they and the prey they just killed are extremely vulnerable as they attempt to catch their breath. We were also given a rundown of acceptable ways to approach the cheetahs (softly, from behind, while speaking in a soothing tone) and where it was or wasn’t appropriate to put our hands (basically so long as you don’t touch the bottom of their feet or inside their ears [who would do this anyway?] it’s all good).

Zimcon 1189

Susie with Susie

Finally the moment arrived, and my wife was first to kneel down and begin stroking the soft fur of one of the females, who was also named Susie. I took pictures and video while she softly cooed and I have to admit my jealousy was making me impatient to get down there with her. Fortunately one of the other guides offered to take my place behind the cameras and it was my turn to join in on the fun.

Playing with kitties in Zambia

Playing with kitties in Zambia

Barely containing my excitement I approached the second female sprawled on the ground and gently stroked the top of her head while she purred like a housecat with an amplifier. When I began petting her flanks she turned her head and began returning the favor by licking the hair on my forearm. Then, once I got the OK I removed my hat and allowed this massive, purring beast to playfully lick the top of my head with great enthusiasm. The sensation was that of being exfoliated by a sheet of 80 grit sandpaper but I couldn’t stop laughing. Pain aside, I’ve never had this intimate an encounter with a ‘fierce creature’ and I was loving every scratchy second of it.

Eventually I saw the need to rise if I wanted to keep what little hair I have left on my head. But all we did is shift positions and take a number of portraits, now with the male in our midst, petting the cheetahs all the while. I’d be willing to bet my wife didn’t take her hands of the animals even once in the 20 minutes or so of quality time with these majestic cats.

Zimcon 1246

Be sure to walk your cheetah once daily

Now that the introductions had been made, it was time to take the cats for a walk in the surrounding bush. Their instincts clearly clicked in, as they all seemed to focus their easily-distracted attention on the dry brush surrounding us, scanning for potential prey. I asked a guide what I should do in the event that the one I was walking decided to take off, since obviously I wouldn’t be able to catch it – it’s scientific. He said not to worry, they’d just come back on their own, and that was good enough for me. So we strolled a bit more, took our pictures, and even walked the cheetahs while holding them by the tail (something I would never have dared to do with my own cat growing up) until it was time to bring them back to the pen.

When I had first heard about the $120 price tag, I thought, “That’s pretty hefty just to pet an animal. After all, I can see a whole zoo full of animals for much less”. Then as we drew near to the facility I thought, “Well, at least the money goes to rehabilitating the animals and reintroducing cheetahs – who have been in severe decline – back into the wild”. But once we said goodbye to those beautiful cats, and I realized that the next time I see one I probably shouldn’t let it lick my head, I wouldn’t have cared if the owners of the establishment were making fistfuls of cash and wiping their noses with my money. For an experience like that, I’d gladly pay again.

So if you expect to be in the area of Victoria Falls, regardless of if you’re staying on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side, do the cheetah walk excursion with Mukuni Big 5 Safaris. It will be the experience of a lifetime and likely make all your friends and followers insanely jealous. And if I’ve stirred feelings of jealousy in you, my readers, don’t despair. If you really want to lick my head, I’m sure we can work something out. 🙂

African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia

African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia

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Categories: Anecdotes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Zimbabwe Really Needs is a Chance…& Some Shoeshine

Come to Zimbabwe and support the friendliest people on earth

Come to Zimbabwe and support the friendliest people on earth

All Zimbabwe really needs is a chance – and some shoeshine. First, let me address the latter. In the dry season, the red soil of Africa, while lovely to look at, gets everywhere, creating spectacular sunsets and the unwanted side effect of dirty shoes. But that is easily fixed. What takes a bit longer is the economic and political stagnation the country has dealt with for a few decades now, which has masked the fact that this is a wonderful place with among the friendliest people on earth.

This landlocked country in Southern Africa was once an agricultural powerhouse and favorite among tourists seeking game parks, near-perfect weather, and of course, the splendor of Victoria Falls. But a combination of radical land reform and subsequent internal unrest blew its economy to pieces and left it with a black eye and negative stigma in the international community (as well as reams of now-defunct Zimbabwean dollars in handy denominations of millions, billions and trillions that street vendors will surely be offering you). This is a shame, because the land and people are ready for business and eager to welcome visitors back.

The capital city, Harare, is rather compact, with a bustling downtown and a mix of modern and colonial-era buildings (it was once known as Salisbury, capital of Southern Rhodesia). On the outskirts are quiet streets lined with graceful jacaranda trees mixed in with shopping malls of varying sizes that cater to the (relatively) well-to-do. Though official jobs are scarce, Zimbabweans seem a resourceful people, and despite a very low per capita income, most had cell phones and tablets. Crime therefore is surprisingly low, and walking the streets of Harare in the evening, while still requiring caution, felt a lot more secure than doing so in affluent Johannesburg.

Walking on the wild side in Mukuvisi Woodlands, Harare, Zimbabwe

Walking on the wild side in Mukuvisi Woodlands, Harare, Zimbabwe

Surrounding the city are various game parks and wildlife centers, but one needs not leave the city to see non-lethal game up close. Mukuvisi Woodlands is a private reserve where for about $6 you can walk its acres (along with a guide) of grassy plains and woodland to view eland, zebra, impala and giraffe on foot. Horseback rides are also available for slightly more, making this an inexpensive experience that the relatively few visitors to Harare shouldn’t miss.

Just outside of the city – and really throughout the country – are interesting formations of rounded boulders piled in stacks of varying shapes called balancing rocks. Most famous are the ones in the Matobo Hills area, not far from Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo. Also in the general area are the stone ruins of the Great Zimbabwe – a World Heritage Site from which the country derives its name, and model for the tower at Harare Airport.

Of course, Victoria Falls is, and will continue to be, the greatest draw for visitors to Zimbabwe – and for good reason. This mile-long sheet of falling water cannot be entirely viewed from one location (unless you’re in a helicopter) and easily surpass Niagara in height and length. The town of Victoria Falls is geared toward tourism with a range of accommodations as well as a gamut of activities that could rival anywhere else on the planet: game drives in nearby Zambezi National Park or farther afield, Hwange National Park; bungee jumping off the famous Victoria falls Bridge, whitewater rafting on the Zambezi through Bakota Gorge, and for the less-adventurous a sunset cruise on the placid waters of the upper Zambezi (open bar included! – for more info see the post Zim or Zam: If you Understand the Question, you can Appreciate the Answer ). From there you can also venture into the surrounding countries of Zambia, Botswana and Namibia that converge national borders not far away. Day trips are available to Livingstone, Zambia and the animal encounters offered there, as well as Chobe National Park, Botswana with its world-famous elephant population (For more info on the awesomeness of Chobe, see the post The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game).

Play the markets in Victoria Falls and support local artisans

Play the markets in Victoria Falls and support local artisans

It is here that the people of Zimbabwe receive the most visitors (and subsequently, the most economic opportunity) so shopping venues abound. It seems the shopkeepers understand that Westerners in particular don’t wish to be hassled while browsing, and have a policy of letting you look around without pressing you for a sale. Behind the upscale shops in a dilapidated tin-roof structure is a craft market in which all such niceties are dropped. Sure it can be annoying to fend off persistent (though respectful) vendors who often are the very ones who produce the amazing carvings and wood figurines they’re selling, but prices are better here, the opportunity for a deal greater, and most of all, your money goes to the people who need it the most. And if you pay a dollar or two more than you originally intended you can take comfort in knowing its going to someone who likely needs it more than you do.

Yes, Zimbabwe is a wonderful place that sadly has gotten a lot of bad press. But I wholeheartedly recommend it as a destination for those looking for authentic Africa and some of the kindest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. As a case in point, one vendor in the Avondale Flea market in Harare, after failing to lure me to view his wares, noticed my travel hat, of which I have adorned with pins from many of the countries I have visited. He made it a point to give me one for free, and asked if would serve as an ambassador of a sorts and tell others that Zimbabwe is a safe place to visit where people who do so would be welcome. So, Mister Vendor-Man, that’s what I’m doing right now. Come to Zimbabwe. Give the country – and more importantly – the people a chance. Bring your spending money, camera, & sense of adventure. And yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to bring a little shoeshine as well.

A lovely Zimbabwean at the International Convention

A lovely Zimbabwean at the International Convention

As a final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a landmark event that took place during my stay in Harare. Between August 22-24, 2014 there was an International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in the National Stadium. About 3,600 delegates from some 30 countries converged to worship together with their Zimbabwean brethren who number some 40,000 countrywide. The amazing thing was that the Sunday program was attended by well over 82, 000 – most of which were non-Witnesses – and was the greatest display of true brotherhood I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I know many have misconceptions or outright hostility toward the Witnesses, but for three days the country seemed to be united in peace, harmony and joy, and nobody can argue that that’s not the way it should be. After my visit, it came as no surprise to me that a country of such loving, humble people would make such a perfect backdrop for the most elusive of human endeavors – genuine peace and love.

Categories: Anecdotes, Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game

Cruising on the Chobe River, Botswana

Cruising on the Chobe River, Botswana

When I arrived in  Botswana just over a week ago, I came for the same reason everyone comes to Botswana: to see the animals. Fortunately, Kasane – the small town where I stayed – is only about an hour’s drive from the tourism hub of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and is also located at the doorstep of Chobe National Park, which encompasses a hefty slice of the riverfront from which is derives its name. It is that riverfront – more so than the game drives in the interior of the park – that granted my wish.

From the Kwalape Safari Lodge (nice accommodations/terrible service) we were brought by truck to a rickety floating dock where a flat-bottomed metal boat with fixed chairs and a canopy awaited our embarkation. This being the dry season, the waters were calm, stirred only by our outboard motor or a passing crocodile. After a brief stop to check in with the powers that be, we spent the next few hours circling a cluster of grassy islands topped with game and crisscrossing the imaginary border between Botswana and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

What makes the Chobe Riverfront such a draw is that instead of having to search for wildlife, such as on a game drive, which can often be hidden from view by trees, rocks or particularly large termite mounds, these mid-river islands are flat and open, leaving the many grazing animals who make the effort to swim out to them (watching elephants do this is an amazing sight) fully exposed to the sun, insects, and your camera lens.

Close encounters of the tusked kind

Close encounters of the tusked kind

Not surprisingly, elephants are the primary stars of the show. Clustered in herds of varying sizes, they’ll munch down on their grass rather indifferently as you point and stare from ten feet away. Seeing an elephant up close is always impressive. Seeing an elephant up close with an unobstructed view and the soft glow of waning sunlight is a photographer’s delight.

Peacefully residing among the elephants are the second member of the Big Five that regularly come calling – the Cape Buffalo. These massive beasts with the tell-tale curved horns seem less ornery than normal as they safely chew their grass out of the reach of predators (aside from the crocs when they swim across). Every once in a while you’ll see them roll in the mud in a fruitless attempt to lessen the annoyance of the clouds of flies that torment them constantly. In view of that, I guess you really can’t blame them for being ornery.

An alert waterbuck

An alert waterbuck

A variety of antelope are also out in full force: the ubiquitous impala, kudu with their coolest-antlers-imaginable crowns, and the hefty waterbuck, which sport an unfortunate white ring around their rear ends that looks way too much like a target. They’re safe here, and the peaceful herds are blissfully unconcerned as you float past. Every so often a pair of giraffe or troop of baboons would also make an appearance. I greeted them like all others – with my camera.

Bee-eater on the prowl

Bee-eater on the prowl

I don’t consider myself much of a bird enthusiast, but even I had to take notice of the flurry of avian activity. Cormorants dive and pose while African fish eagles watch from their perches. The colorful bee-eaters do their thing while kingfishers of all sorts dart out of their holes in the embankments on the hunt for food. I watched as a family of Egyptian geese trooped across the grassy shoreline and made snide remarks at the huge but unsightly storks mingling with the grazing animals and egrets. Somewhere, the Audobon Society is smiling.

Waiting for a handout

Waiting for a handout

Reptile enthusiasts will also find plenty to keep them interested. Monitor lizards bask on dead tree branches or crawl their way through the thick tussock. Crocodiles with green and yellow plating abound in a variety of lengths, with their menacing eyes peeking above the waterline, or as they laze in the sun on the riverbank. The latter allows for some close encounters but beware! That frozen act is just to lull you into thinking it’s safe to come that much closer…

Hungry, hungry hippo

Hungry, hungry hippo

While crocodiles are one of the few animals that truly frighten me, (since it seems that unlike other predators that only eat when they are hungry, crocs always seem favorable to killing you and saving you for later) they are not the most dangerous or feared animal Africa. That title goes to the hippopotamus, the aquatic Bohemoth commonly found in the Chobe River. They may look ungainly with their stubby legs, massive girth, and funny-looking ears. But do not under any circumstances piss one off. They are speedier than they look, and in water are quite agile and also quite capable of biting you in half should the need (or desire) arise. I noticed that our guide kept a respectable distance at all times, which seemed prudent considering that the hippos were certainly big enough to tip our boat.

Sunset over Namibia

Sunset over Namibia

As our safari cruises drew to an end, we were treated to a spectacle that is free of charge and available throughout the entire continent–the amazing African sunset. The sky turned all sorts of shades of orange and silhouetted the elephants, birds, and Namibian fishermen in a passing canoe in a scene worthy of a masterpiece. Add to that the perfect temperatures and cloudless skies and it is hard to image a more natural and desirable place to be on earth than a small boat on the Chobe Riverfront. I’m sure Botswana has plenty more to offer, but give me a seat waterside to watch the hippos splash and the sun set over Namibia and I’m good right here. Kudos, Botswana. Game well-played.

Categories: Destinations, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Zim or Zam? If you Understand the Question, you Can Appreciate the Answer

World Heritage Victoria Falls

World Heritage Victoria Falls

Zim and Zam of course refer to the two countries (Zimbabwe & Zambia) who share a border at the world-renown Victoria Falls World Heritage Site. The question alludes to which side you should visit in order to see them. The answer, in short, is both.

Full frontal scenery on the Zim side

Full frontal scenery on the Zim side

Why Zim?

The majority of the gorge that fronts the seemingly never-ending series of cataracts and spray is located on the Zimbabwean side of the mighty Zambezi. Trails follow the western curve near the so-called Devil’s Cataract at the westernmost side of the falls where a statue of David Livingstone–the first European to set eyes on the falls–overlooks the chasm from the side. Winding through a forest setting that is ever-green regardless of the season (thanks to the unending spray) the path traces the edge of the ravine with periodic overlook points. There are more lookout points than fences and the rocks can get slippery, so use caution. After more than half a mile of nonstop views, the trail ends in a promontory that is separated from the Zambian side by the churning Batoka Gorge. There’s really no place (aside from a helicopter ride, to be discussed at a later time) that allows for a view of the entire falls, but on the Zim side is where you’ll be able to see the majority of it.

Why Zam?

No filter needed on the Zambia side

No filter needed on the Zambia side

The entrance to the Mosi-Oa-Thunya (the original language name for Vic Falls) National Park is on the eastern side of the falls, almost immediately past the Zambian border post. Besides having their own statue of Livingstone, there are a few trails that take in the scenic Eastern Cataract, that is usually less torrential and thereby less inclined to be obscured by spray as the cataracts further down the line. Particularly amazing is the Knife Edge Island trail, which takes visitors via a slick metal bridge to the eastern side of the Batoka Gorge and a different perspective of the Zimbabwean side. During the dry season, in the early morning, stunning rainbows allow for photo opportunities that will have everyone questioning whether or not your pictures were Photoshopped.

Excursions

The only way to see it all if from above

The only way to see it all is from above

Why Zim? Helicopter flights (pricey but well worth it) from the Zimbabwe side not only offer views of the falls, but often take in parts of nearby Zambezi National Park, allowing for some aerial animal viewing. Tours of the historical (and scenically placed) Victoria Falls Bridge let visitors walk the catwalk and view the falls from both the Zim and Zam sides without having to buy a separate visa.

Playing with kitties in Zambia

Playing with kitties in Zambia

Why Zam? Excursions to centrally located Livingstone Island offer close-up view of the bulk of the falls and often include a dip in the Devil’s Pool–a calm patch of water right on the lip of the falls where adventurous visitors can soak in the Zambezi and peer down into the churning abyss. Also on the Zambian side is Makuni Big Five Safaris, which offer nature walks alongside elephants, lions and cheetahs–all with loads of animal interaction.

Where to Stay?

Unless you are staying in a posh hotel (like the Royal Livingstone) on the riverfront, my advice is to stay in Zim rather than Zam. Zim is a tourist-centric town, with a wide range of hotels, far more shopping opportunities than across the border, and a safer feel. Livingstone is a bustling city many times the size of Vic Falls, and other than some decent restaurants, doesn’t have the same feel. This is a gritty, ramshackle African semi-urban setting, which better reflects the actual state of affairs, but doesn’t make for the more comfortable vacation or natural connection most come to seek.

So, to sum up my answer to the question Zim or Zam: Stay in Zim. Play in Zam. And see the falls from both sides. And now that you understand the question, I hope that whether you Zim, Zam or both, the answer leads you to this magnificent part of the world.

Categories: Destinations, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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