A LITTLE GETAWAY OF EPIC PROPORTIONS
“Ingwe, two blocks north-west of Three in a Row Pan.”
The cryptic message crackled through the Land Rover’s radio. Andries, our driver and guide, turned to us with a grin. “Ingwe is the local name for leopard,” he beamed, “let’s go find it.” The next 15 minutes were spent ducking acacia thorns and holding on for dear life, as Andries went ‘off piste’ through the African bundu. It was a far cry from the frenetic streets of Jo’burg, where – we had to keep reminding ourselves – we had been sitting in a traffic jam only 4 hours earlier.
Leopards are notoriously difficult to lay eyes on. Yet we were in the Sabi Sands, one of the world’s most famous private game reserves, where these usually elusive cats tend to be a little more obliging. Despite knowing this, we were still completely shocked when Andries pulled up beside a large ant hill and casually pointed out a beautiful young Ingwe catching some late afternoon rays. It was a privilege to be in the company of such a magnificent animal, and much clicking of Nikons ensued. We then headed off to attend to some G&Ts. The Sabi Sands and its leopards weren’t done showing off, however, and before we were able to find a suitable sundowner spot, we came across an old, dominant male meditating under a tree.
We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the trip – a 4-day adventure that would see us flying with SA Airlink from Johannesburg to the Sabi Sands, up to Livingstone and Victoria Falls, and finally to Botswana’s incomparable Chobe National Park.
Our first night was spent at beautiful Chitwa Chitwa Lodge, in the north-western section of the Sabi Sands. It’s a true 5-star safari experience, and we’re not sure we’ve ever been so spoilt in our lives. We’ve also never come across such knowledgable guides. Although limited, we loved our time with Andries and his tracker Betuele. Hopefully it’s not too long before our paths cross again.
We were a bit sad to have to leave Chitwa after just a night, but a great lion sighting on the way out – one of the infamous Birmingham Brothers – put us back in high spirits. Besides, there was the small matter of hopping onto another little Airlink plane. And this one was bound for one of the the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The Zambezi is one of the world’s great rivers, supporting an astonishing density and diversity of living things. There are thousands of reasons to visit this mighty river, but perhaps its single biggest drawcard is a 2km long freak of geology, just downstream from the charming town of Livingstone. The local Lozi people refer to it as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or The Smoke that Thunders. Most simply know it as Victoria Falls. We got our first glimpse of the falls out of an airplane window, as we dropped down into Livingstone’s little airport. Over the next couple of days, we’d get to know them a lot more intimately.
Stanley Safari Lodge is tucked away in a Mopane woodland, on a hill overlooking the upper Zambezi valley. Birds chatter away constantly in the trees above, and the falls and their thunderous smoke are an ever-present beacon on the horizon. It’s about as serene a setting as you could imagine, and we were lucky enough to call it home for the next two days.
As tempting as it was to put our feet up on the lodge deck with a couple of ice-cold Mosi Lagers, we decided to head down to the river for a sundowner cruise. Sitting in the middle of the Zambezi, watching yet another psychedelic African sunset, we had to remind ourselves once again that we had been sitting in Jo’burg traffic the day before.
There’s no shortage of cool stuff to do in and around Livingstone. That said, in this part of the world there’s also no shame in deciding to do absolutely nothing at all. We tend to get a bit of FOMO with so much on the go, however. So, we chose to fill our next day with a 10km canoe trip down a more languid section of the Zambezi, followed by an obligatory trip to the falls.
The canoe trip was a truly amazing experience, although at times it was a little nerve-wracking sitting on a glorified lilo with so many crocs and hippos around. When one particularly agitated hippo got a little too close for comfort, we even had to get out of the water and carry our boats along the bank for a bit. But our guide Dominique had spent the last 20 years leading canoe trips down the Zambezi, and we felt pretty safe following his orders. At one point a herd of around 40 elephants materialised out of the lush riverine forest for a morning drink. It was a surreal experience floating quietly past, no more than 20 meters away.
Having seen Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side on a previous trip, we were really excited to get a Zambian perspective. Curtis, one of the super-friendly guides from Stanley Safari Lodge, accompanied us for the afternoon. Curtis must have seen the falls hundreds of times, yet he says every time is like his first. I think he took more pictures than we did! He was also more than happy to kill some time with us while we waited for the light to improve. It’s really hard to do Victoria Falls justice with any words or pictures. The sheer scale, power and incredible beauty of the place is something that you really have to experience for yourself. We’ll say this though; there can’t be many better places in the world to spend the golden hour.
The next morning we made a trip out to Livingstone Island, right on the lip of the falls (if you look closely in the pic above, you’ll see a little roof above the falls – that’s Livingstone Island). Our boat captain was quick to remind us that although we were following in David Livingstone’s footsteps, he by no means ‘discovered’ these falls. People have lived in the area for thousands of years, and a waterfall of this magnitude is fairly hard to miss! The most incredible thing about Livingstone Island is that you can literally stand right on the precipice of the falls and peer down into the cauldron below. In September and October, when the water levels have dropped (and presuming you’re brave enough), you can even take a dip in the infamous Devil’s Pool.
We would have loved to have spent a few more days around Livingstone with the good people of Stanley Safari Lodge. But we had a taxi to catch, and a reservation in Kasane – gateway to Botswana’s world-famous Chobe National Park.
After crossing the Zambezi (and border) at Kazungula, we checked into the awesome Chobe Bush Lodge, a relatively new extension of the venerable old Chobe Safari Lodge, which opened in 1959. Although set back a little from the river, the Bush Lodge offers great value, a chilled atmosphere, and is the perfect base from which to hop onto a boat cruise or game drive into the park. Kasane is also so close to Victoria Falls and Livingstone, that you could easily pop across there for a day trip.
The section of the Chobe river just upstream of the lodge might be as close to paradise as we’ve ever come. Sure, there are a few more boats on the water than there used to be, but you can understand why people from all over the world flock here. A boat trip up the river in the late afternoon has got to be one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles on the African continent. Elephants come down to the water’s edge in their hundreds, where they’re joined by huge herds of buffalo, giraffe, a multitude of antelope, crocs, hippos, and a staggering array of waterbirds. In July, when the water levels start dropping, herds of elephants often swim across the channels to feed on the lush islands. If you’re lucky enough to intercept one of these crossings, trust us, it’s a sight that will live with you forever.
Sitting in Kasane’s airport the next day, waiting to board our flight home – our 5th Airlink flight in four days – we tried to process everything that we had just experienced. Ordinarily we would’ve driven up to this part of the world in our trusty Landy, Andy, a journey that takes around two days each way. With the detour through the Sabi Sands, we’d have needed at least nine or ten days to see and do everything we’d just done. The magic of flying is how instantly it connects you to such diverse experiences. One moment you’re in Jo’burg, the next you’re tracking leopards through pristine wilderness. The next thing you know you’re floating down the Zambezi in a canoe, peering over the edge of Victoria Falls, or rafting the rapids in the gorge below. You could be sipping a G&T while watching a herd of elephants crossing the Chobe river at sunset, and be back in the office the next afternoon. Don’t worry, Andy, we’re not going to desert you just yet. But we’ll definitely be doing a few more of these epic little getaways in the years to come.