Jon and I capped off our amazing trip to Amsterdam with an amazing trip in its own right – Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe), Chobe National Park (Botswana) and eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland). It was pretty spectacular to visit these places I’d heard so much about and we had an awesome time.
Our first stop was Vic Falls and we flew from Joburg to Livingstone, Zambia. The immigration process at the airport was a bit crazy because they offer visas to just Zambia, to Zambia and Zimbabwe (who share the falls), Zambia and Botswana (since they’re so close and people often go to Chobe, as well), etc. So, people were trying to get everyone form lines and keep it orderly but it was still a mess. (And Jon and I already had visas from when we went to South Luangwa were forward-thinking enough to get a multi-entry visa. It costs the same to get a visa that lets you enter as many times as you want within a 90-day period as it does to enter twice! And it paid for itself, truly. You’ll see…) We finally met our contact from the hotel and rode over with a few other eager guests. We checked in, got settled in our room and started poring over the activities list provided by the hotel. See, Vic Falls is a cornucopia of adventures – there are helicopter rides, guided hikes, boat rides, places to sit right at the edge of the falls (like a terrifying whirlpool of sorts), white-water rafting, safaris, etc. Jon and I only had one full day there so we decided we would go on our own and just arranged for the complimentary shuttle to the falls the next day, first thing in the morning. That night, we decided to forgo the music sunset cruise (as our hotel was lovely but pretty far from the top of the falls) and took a taxi to a hotel right at the edge of the top of the falls. Our friend, Bella, recommended it for sundowners (i.e., drinks at sunset) as the views are spectacular and the setting is lovely. Indeed it was! We got there about an hour before sunset because she told us it fills up and, man, it got packed as sunset approached! You could see the mist rising from the falls from the sheer force of the water below and we watched hippos and crocodiles swim in the more calm water near us. It was delightful. After, we went back to our hotel to have dinner and go to bed early.
The next morning, we woke up at 6:00 am and went to breakfast at the hotel. It was a very extensive buffet and I was in heaven! We got on our shuttle to the falls and the driver took care of the entry passes for us. He let us off at the gate of the park and we looked at a map to see which course we wanted to do first, as there were tons of trails there. We decided to take one that a very popular one, around the outside (giving a more ‘holistic’ view of the falls), since it would just get busier there. It was incredible. These falls are nothing like I’ve ever seen. I know that I’m supposed to be extra-proud of Niagara Falls (being from the U.S. or something) but these kick Niagara’s ass. The falls go down into this massive, narrow and long canyon and the force of the water is insane. (Jon said it’s something like hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per minute. Woah. It’s also the biggest falling curtain of water in the world and one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World.’) And we were there during the ‘dry season,’ where it’s supposedly much weaker. We then walked on the bridge that goes over where the falls drop in a big section and that’s where our raincoats came in handy. We weren’t actually sprayed by any water but because the force is so intense, the mist that comes up absolutely soaks you. It’s incredible. We didn’t have full-body raincoats so everything below our waist was drenched. (Yay for waterproof hikers!) Wow. We then went on the ‘Boiling Pot’ hike which was a short hike down to a really cool pool that is basically like a pot of water, swirling and bubbling from the pressure of the water coming down. And you are not allowed to get close to the edge because the current is super strong. On our way, we saw a cute family of baboons playing on the trees next to the path so we let them cross. And one of the females decided to sit herself down in the middle of the path so we decided to wait. But, then, we saw a humongous male start walking towards us. We stayed put, unsure of where he was going, but he kept coming closer to us. I started to get a little stressed, as baboons are not to be messed with. (Vervet monkeys, who we also see on safari all of the time, are a bit mischievous and might knock over your trash can, but they’re harmless. And mostly vegetarians. Baboons eat meat, are aggressive and have very sharp teeth.) So, we started backing up and he kept striding towards us. We finally stopped at a little cove and he got really close. Jon swatted at him with our bag and he moved on, looking at us as he walked past. We ran ahead and got back on the path. Seriously, it scared the mess out of me. I knew that we needed to be calm but I’m also very aware that these are wild animals and we need to be careful. After calming down, we watched another family of baboons play, the kids taking turns swinging on a branch (and pushing each other off), from the safety of the path (with others there, too). It was quite an experience on the Zambian side!!
We started the process of going to the Zimbabwe side, which was quite interesting! There were people at the Zambian exit that were offering us rides over there but they can only drive to the border and then there’s still quite a bit to walk, so we just decided to hoof the whole thing. (Which, didn’t take long at all, in the end.) There’s a massive bridge that connects the two countries and there’s an incredible, famous bungee jumping station from the center of it. We watched a few people go and it looked unbelievably scary. You couldn’t pay me. We reached the Zim side (Jon and I kept saying, “Zim! Zam! Bots!” all weekend because we are super cool. Also, we were going to all three countries in such quick succession!), got our visas and went into the park. The Zim side was always the more popular side – it’s more built up and has a bigger part of the falls – but after the economic issues they’ve had, the Zambian side had time to flourish. So, I was excited to see what it would be like over there! It was already more commercial – there was a restaurant (which we happily ate at because we were hungry and there were no other options) – and other things to look at/buy. We went to the falls after we finished eating and you can walk pretty close along the crevasse, even to a place called Danger Point where you are basically overlooking the huge depths below with no rope or guardrail. (Needless to say, when the water levels are as high as they were then, this isn’t recommended.) Jon and I got soaked, again, because the spray was just relentless over there! It was beautiful. We then walked through town to a really old, historic hotel called the Victoria Falls Hotel (naturally) for our high tea reservation. We’d heard this was a great experience from our friend, Silke, and we decided to check it out. The view was incredible and the high tea – Jon’s first! – was just lovely. Fresh scones and other pastries, really nice sandwiches and yummy tea. Just beautiful. (We even saw a wedding let out and the wonderfully-diverse wedding guests seemed to be having an amazing time.) After we finished, we took a cab to the border, did our exit process, walked to the Zambian border to re-enter (see? Multi-entry for the win!) and then we found out that the cabs were quite sparse. I thought I’d seen some up the road so we walked and there was no one. And it was getting dark. We ran into a young lady from Spain who asked to share a cab and Jon actually walked back to the border to get us one and come back to get us. (Ironically, three cabs came while he was gone but we couldn’t have known that. Also ironically, the hotel we’d gone to for sundowners was right there and we could’ve gotten a cab from there. But it was more exciting this way!) We dropped her off at her friend’s house and then went back to our hotel for a light dinner and to go to bed. Exhausted.
After a good night’s sleep, we got an early breakfast and waited for the ride we had arranged with our lodge in Chobe. I didn’t realize that when I mapped it on Google, that we’d be taking the river route for part of it. It was much faster that way instead of crossing into Zimbabwe before you go to Botswana! The boat ride was only five minutes (between Zambia and Botswana) but we saw the point where four countries meet – Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. (We didn’t quite cross over to there, though, so I can’t say I’ve been to Namibia. Yet.) We then got into another car and did the border crossing for Botswana. It was only 10 minutes more from there to the lodge and we got checked in to our lovely chalet. We went to have lunch at the lodge’s restaurant and then went to read until it was time for our first activity. We met at the front of the lodge and got in a minivan to be taken to the dock for our river safari. The process for loading the cars and then the boats was very unclear and frustrating but we tried to just go with it. Unlike our river safaris in South Luangwa, the boat was very crowded and we didn’t get as nice of views. But we drank the cocktails they provided and made the most of it. We also ended up seeing amazing stuff – lots of elephants, crocodiles, a few hippos (surprisingly few) and lots of cool birds. We got back and went to dinner, which was a lovely, tasty meal. We went to bed pretty wiped out, excited for the next day!
The next morning, we woke up early for our game drive and it was pretty slow at first but we started to see some really nice birds, which made Jon happy. It definitely wasn’t as densely-packed as some of the other parks we’ve been to (and no rhinos anymore, unfortunately) but the pièce de résistance was when we saw a pride of lions with three females and five of some of the cutest cubs I’ve ever seen. They were frolicking with each other, running after their mom(s?), etc. It was awesome. We didn’t see them for too long because they were on the move but we got to take some great shots of them. It was incredible. We got back to the lodge and had a really nice breakfast before heading back to our chalet to shower. We took our books to the pool area and read in the nice breeze (before it got too hot), hanging out there until lunch. We then had some tea on the deck and read some more. (Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do our traditional safari activity, playing a board game, since we’d had such a packed trip before Chobe and didn’t have room in our suitcases.) We got ready for the boat ride and made sure to position ourselves better this time, sitting closer to the front. It was a much nicer ride, with fewer people and better views. We saw an incredible herd of elephants that was just having a grand ole’ time playing in the water. We also saw the biggest herd of cape buffaloes that I’ve ever seen – it must’ve been hundreds of them. (The sunset was amazing, too…) We got back and the staff at the lodge told us they wanted to do something special for our last night so they took us past the restaurant, to the boma (or fire pit). They’d set up a private dinner for us and it was really nice! Later in the meal, the manager told us there was some confusion on when we were to leave in the morning and asked if we could leave earlier than we’d planned. Jon told her that he’d been told leaving after the morning drive would be fine and we really didn’t want to miss it, if possible. She said that they’d figure it out and we said we’d be ready to go as soon as we got back in the morning. So we went to our chalet to start packing and went to bed.
The last day, we finished packing up and met up with everyone for the game drive. We were with kids in our truck this time – the first time for us when they weren’t in our family – and it was quite interesting. They were mostly well-behaved and it was actually pretty neat to see how amazed they were by every sighting. (It showed me a really sweet innocence that I thought was quite special.) And boy, were we glad that we didn’t have to miss this drive – our guide started barrelling down the trail at an incredible speed (always a good sign) and we saw the pride of lions again and got incredible shots of them! But… that wasn’t the real amazingness. We saw a LEOPARD! Just sitting there, on the side of the road, looking out at us. It was incredible. We felt so lucky to see such a reclusive, majestic animal. And then, we almost lost our minds because… there was a SECOND leopard! Unbelievable! It’s super rare to see these solitary animals together, unless they’re mating and then they quickly separate. So we got some great shots of them! Then, you won’t believe this – there was a THIRD leopard! The guide said he’d never seen that before. We were all in total shock. And what was really nuts was that they were sharing an impala that they’d killed. (We couldn’t really see the impala because they had it tucked into the brush – probably because of the nearby lions – but Jon did see one of them carry a leg away from the others… Sad…) It was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen. We made it back to the lodge (slightly delayed because the guide clearly hadn’t gotten the message that he had to be very prompt) and the staff was slightly disgruntled. We told them we couldn’t affect the time we returned but not to worry, we were ready to go. We got our bags and started the journey back – we drove to the border, exited Botswana (for those of you keeping track from the title of this post, that’s country* #1), took the boat across the river, and crossed back into Zambia (#2). Apparently, there was a totally full van waiting for us so we could all get back to Livingstone. Oops… That was awkward. We apologized profusely and told them we had no idea they were waiting for us. Luckily, they were just going back to town and didn’t have a flight to catch. We got to the airport after dropping them off, had an awful meal at the only restaurant there and flew back to South Africa (#3).
Jon had a business meeting come up while we were in Amsterdam so we decided that I would join him since it was a drive (and not an additional flight). We adjusted our return flight to Malawi by a few days, rented a car at the airport and made the drive, stopping at the best rest stop that has a watering hole where giraffes, zebras, etc. visit. (Remember, Kate and Alyson??) We made it to eSwatini (#4! Four countries in one day!!) and got our entry stamp. We drove to our hotel – which, we found out that week, didn’t have availability for us for a third night that Jon unexpectedly needed to add, whoops – and had dinner there before crashing. Phew. The next morning, Jon went to the office and I had planned to explore the area but the weather was terrible – rainy, cloudy and cold. Blech. So I stayed at the hotel, read, watched some TV and relaxed. Jon got back and we went to one of his favorite restaurants in town, which was just lovely. (He has come here quite a bit now.) The next morning, Jon went to the office again and I had breakfast before getting a ride to our second hotel, which could accommodate us for the third night.
It was way out of town but it was quite lovely, situated in a national park (very close to Kruger National Park, I might add). They had a really nice lounge there and I had lunch, got settled and then read and had tea in the lounge until Jon arrived. We had a great dinner at the hotel and went to bed. We were able to have a quick breakfast in the morning and then I went with Jon to Baylor’s office and read while he had his last meeting of the trip. We started the drive back after lunch, stopping at the amazing rest stop and getting to SA in good time. We had to stay at the airport because our flight was early in the morning so we ate dinner there (it was just spectacular, ahem) and crashed.
What an amazing trip!! Overall, in less than a month, we were in seven countries – I feel pretty confident in saying that’s my record – and had really amazing, varied experiences. It’s been quite a year for travel and I’m so lucky…
– By Naama