Sometimes it’s a good idea to look back and reflect, unless of course, you’re driving. When it comes to travel, those glances into the rear-view mirror can do more than show you where you’ve been, they can bring back the feelings you experienced while you were there. In this first installment of my Bite-Size Destination Throwback series, I’ll be spotlighting my epic trip to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in the summer of 2014. In it, I will follow a simple formula: what brought me there, what I loved, and what I would do if I ever went back. So let’s get started.
What Brought Me There
The primary reason for my visit was to attend an international convention being held in the capital, Harare. But there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing one of the seven natural wonders of the world (Victoria Falls) while I was in the ‘neighborhood’. As my plans solidified, after a week in and around Harare for the convention, we were off to Victoria Falls with excursions into Zambia, Botswana, and even just barely into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
What I Loved
Foremost among the things I loved were the people. Despite abject poverty, political insecurity and little prospect for improvement, the Zimbabweans I met were welcoming, courteous and even outright generous. I’d be willing to say that most were actually happier than your average person in a developed land, which is saying a lot in view of the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
I also loved the African landscape, with its abundant wildlife, rugged interior and breathtaking sunsets evening after evening. Africa has an entrancing effect on me, and memories of sipping a sundowner while the sun sinks in a blazing orange sky to a symphony of insects while the stately silhouettes of elephants graze in the distance is truly a mental ‘happy place’ for me.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My limited timeframe forced me to fly directly to Victoria Falls from Harare. Given another visit to the country, I would rather take the rails down to the Motobo Hills to enjoy the unique landscape of stacked boulders that characterize this corner of the world. I would then make my way back toward Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park, with its healthy elephant populations in full display.
Have you been to Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts by commenting. And if you want a great Zimbabwe souvenir, check out the Zimbabwe Rugged Country Code Collection unisex t-shirt by clicking here.
Cheetahs are known for many things: superlative speed, feline gracefulness and remarkable agility. I would also like to add another trait to that list – they have tongues like 80 grit sandpaper, and if they lick you, it’s not polite to laugh.
I never knew about that last one until August of 2014 when I experienced Mukuni Big Five Safari’s Cheetah Walk program near Livingstone, Zambia. After that, there was no way I could forget.
What it is
The company’s stated objective is to conserve and breed the threatened cheetah through education and understanding. Both education and understanding are accomplished via the opportunity to interact with these magnificent creatures in a way that very few do. As an animal lover, I was impressed by the kindness and attachment they showed toward the animals under their care, which left me feeling good about the type of treatment they receive. With your consciences now clear, let’s move on to how you too can experience this bucket list item for yourself.
How to Get There
Complimentary hotel pick-up is included in the price (approximately $120 US per person) for those staying in the Livingstone area. If you’re staying in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the camp is only a few kilometers from the Zambian border, but will likely require a 24 hour visa available for purchase onsite. See your friendly neighborhood Zambian customs control officer for current prices.
How it Works
Guests are ushered into an open-air reception center where they can enjoy a cup of coffee and pay their fees while waiting for their safari. This is also where you will be asked to sign a waiver exonerating the company of all responsibility in the event of being eaten, chewed upon, or trampled to death by any of the animals. If you chafe at the thought of relinquishing such rights, bear in mind that even the remote possibility of any of the above happening means that you are in for a special experience. Just sign it and leave the legal mumbo-jumbo for your lawyer.
Before you get to interact with the cheetahs, you will first be escorted to a large, fenced-in clearing where the guides will have them waiting for you. Your guide will then explain a lot of details that you will completely ignore as you admire the cats up close. From the little I can remember, you are advised to only approach them from behind, avoid making sharp noises (like laughing loudly when they lick your head) and for some reason refrain from touching the inside of their ears. I can only imagine how it was that someone figured out that last little tidbit. I’m assuming they’re the reason the rest of us have to sign a waiver.
Once the whole introductory spiel is over, you’ll finally get your chance to pet the kitties. As the largest cats that purr, the sounds of the bush will be drowned out by the throaty rumble coming from the cheetahs as they sprawl out under your excited caress. I’d be willing to bet that my wife didn’t take her hands off the cats even once in the entire twenty minute session.
When it was finally my turn to join her, I was thrilled to run my fingers through their soft fur and exposed bellies. I should also mention that this is when the licking began.
Our guide had just finished explaining that as a sign of contentment, if you offer them your forearm they might lick you in return. This resulted in the exfoliation of a lifetime as the cheetah went to town on my right arm. I was both chuckling and wincing at the same time until I noticed that one of the handlers had one-upped me by offering the cheetah his head. Not to be outdone, and consistent with male-competitive stupidity, I too offered the cheetah my head, and soon enjoyed an abrasive tongue-bath along my forehead and scalp. As entertaining as it was, I think I’ll just stick to shampoo.
I will say that as that cheetah tested the limits of my remaining hairline, it was hard not to indulge in the aforementioned laughing as I considered the absurdity of the scene. If it were possible to ask my friends and relatives back home what they thought I was doing at that very moment, I’m pretty sure having my head licked by a cheetah wouldn’t even make the top ten. Signing away my legal rights for the chance to do something crazy, on the other hand, would certainly make an appearance.
As if the interaction wasn’t already worth the price of admission, the next phase is to ‘walk’ your cheetah on a guided tour through the surrounding bush. While eager to do so, I did have some questions. Foremost, was what do I do if it decides to run? I won’t be able to catch it—it’s scientific. That extra twenty pounds I need to lose has nothing to do with it.
Fortunately, even if the cheetah did make a run for it, these particular cats would return on their own. So instead of worrying about a footrace, we were able to enjoy our bush walk in the company of predators, which was sort of like strolling through a rough neighborhood while escorted by local gang members—as dangerous as it might be, nobody’s going to mess with you.
All Good Things…
Eventually our time with the cheetahs, like all good things, came to an end. It was then that I realized how important it is that we conserve our planet’s natural habitats so that majestic animals such as these will have a secure home for future generations. It was also then that I realized that the next time I saw a cheetah, I probably shouldn’t let it lick my head. Either way, I felt like I walked away with a greater understanding to go along with my bucket list experience.
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, there’s no need to despair. If you really want to lick my head, I’m sure we can work something out. But first, please sign this waiver…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.