by Brian Jackman, The Daily Telegraph, February 2, 2017
Across Zimbabwe’s vast Hwange National Park the dry season is taking hold. The pans - shallow pools resplendent with blue water lilies and thousands of storks - are now just a memory like the summer rains that filled them. This is the season when the ordeal trees turn to gold and buffalo emerge from the bush under banners of dust, followed by the lions that hide in the grass.
In Zambia a similar story is unfolding beside the Luangwa River. Under the ebony groves, the oxbow lakes stand empty, and as the river levels drop the carmine bee-eaters return, swooping over their bank-side nests in shimmering rose petal clouds. Elephants come to drink in the heat of the day, while leopards sleep in the forest shade, waiting for darkness.
Joined at the hip in colonial times, Zambia and Zimbabwe today are fiercely independent countries. Separated only by the mile-wide waters of the mighty Zambezi, their names reverberate like talking drums, beating out an invitation to explore their legendary big game strongholds of southern Africa and marvel at the seventh natural wonder of the world they share between them – the awesome splendour of the Victoria Falls.
This is unexpurgated Africa at its wildest and there is no better time for a visit than May to October, the dry season months when there is virtually no rain and the risk of malaria is low. Game viewing is also easier when the grass has withered and animals are concentrated around the waterholes. This is particularly true in Hwange, where big herds of elephants come together in the dry season. The temperatures are mild, although it becomes increasingly hot from September onwards. But be aware: this is also the African winter, when nights are cold and warm clothes essential for early morning game drives until the sun has been up for an hour or two.
The later dry season months also provide better panoramic views of Victoria Falls when spray is reduced as river levels drop. However, to see the Falls at their most stupendous, come between February and May as floodwaters peak after the summer rains, crashing into the gorges below at the rate of 600 million litres per minute. Now is the time for spectacular rainbows as columns of spray - the Smoke that Thunders - rise a quarter of a mile into the sky.
Brian's itinerary Day 1
Depart London Heathrow at 9.20pm on British Airways overnight flight to Johannesburg.
Morning arrival and connecting flight to Victoria Falls. From here it is a 40-minute flight by light aircraft to Hwange National Park and a 30-minute game drive through the park to Somalisa ( africanbushamps.com ) for your first two nights in the African bush.
Somalisa is set in a private concession in the heart of a park bigger than East Anglia, known as the Land of Giants for its big elephant breeding herds.
Somalisa is set in a private concession in the heart of a park bigger than East Anglia, known as the Land of Giants for its big elephant breeding herds. The camp nestles in an acacia island at the edge of the plains in full view of the Elephant Pool, a waterhole where the herds regularly come to drink and wallow in the dry season. All seven glitzy en-suite tents were refurbished last year, fitted out with gauze sliding doors, wood-burners for winter nights, copper bathtubs, indoor and outdoor showers and splash pools.
Everybody who goes on safari wants to see a lion, and Somalisa always delivers. This was the home of Cecil, whose death in 2015 at the hands of an American trophy hunter caused worldwide outrage. Although Cecil is no more there are 450 other lions in the park, including those he sired during his reign at Somalisa.
Dining at Somalisa
The best time to track them is on an early morning game drive when their broad paw prints fill with shadow, blossoming like blue flowers in the soft Kalahari sand. Zimbabwe’s professional guides are acclaimed throughout Africa and those at Somalisa are among the very best, enriching every moment with their knowledge and their passion.
Besides lions you are likely to see a profusion of other animals during your morning and afternoon game drives: leopard, cheetah, wild dog, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, rare roan antelope and magnificent sable antelope with scimitar horns. Night drives with a spotlight will reveal some of the nocturnal denizens of the bush, such as porcupines and shy spotted genets, and guided walks accompanied by an armed scout reveal a world of animal spoor and birdsong that you simply cannot appreciate from a vehicle.
Zimbabwe’s professional guides are acclaimed throughout Africa and those at Somalisa are among the very bestWonders of the smoke that thunders
Fly back to Victoria Falls and check into the Victoria Falls Hotel ( victoriafallshotel.com ), one of the great landfalls of Africa. Built in 1904, it was given an extensive makeover in 2013 but still recalls the gracious living of Edwardian days. With its sweeping gardens and broad verandas (not to mention the views) it’s the perfect place to relax after your journey from Hwange.
With its sweeping gardens and broad verandas (not to mention the views), Victoria Falls Hotel is the perfect place to relax after your journey from Hwange.
The Falls are only a ten-minute walk away, reached by a private path from your hotel. Go prepared to be soaked by the spray, so take a light waterproof for yourself and personal belongings such as camera and binoculars.
Victoria Falls National Park (US$30 entrance fee) is an emerald forest dripping with mist and threaded by paved pathways leading to dramatic viewpoints. Once inside the park keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: chacma baboons, shy bushbuck and trumpeter hornbills with loud braying cries. The Falls themselves extend for more than a mile, cascading for more than 100m into the abyss below, accompanied by a deafening soundtrack that can be heard 25 miles away.
My recommendation is to the day with a leisurely two-hour sunset cruise on the Triple-decker Zambezi Explorer ( zambeziexplorer.com ), heading upstream past hippos, crocodiles and elephants as you enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks: great value at US$55 per person (plus US$12 park fees paid at check-in).
Victoria Falls is the Adventure Capital of Africa, renowned for adrenalin-fuelled activities such as bungee jumping and world-class white-water-rafting. Equally thrilling but infinitely more comfortable is the Flight of the Angels, a 13-minute helicopter jaunt operated by Shearwater ( shearwatervictoriafalls.com), costing US$150 per person (plus US$12 government fees paid at check-in). Only from the air can you appreciate the full enormity of the falls as your pilot completes four circuits over the boiling waters.
The Flight of the Angels is a 13-minute helicopter jaunt over Victoria Falls.
Afterwards, there’s no better spot for lunch than the Lookout Café ( wildhorizons.co.za/the-lookout-cafe), teetering on the brim of the Batoka Gorge with one of Africa’s most mind-blowing views spread out below. From here it is only a short stroll to rejoin the private path back to your hotel.
Cross the bridge over the Zambezi into Zambia and Livingstone airport for the flight to Lusaka and the Lower Zambezi national park. Old Mondoro, where you’ll be staying for the next three nights, takes its name from the Shona word for "lion" and is a classic African bush camp with an unrivalled position in an acacia grove right beside the river ( chiawa.com ). With only eight beds, small is beautiful at Old Mondoro. All rooms are en-suite and come complete with splash-tubs and sunbeds.
Days 7 and 8
Situated on the north bank of the Zambezi, the park and its lofty winterthorn glades is roughly the size of Hampshire, a mirror image of Mana Pools national park across the river in Zimbabwe. “This is real, wild, in-your-face Africa,” says Grant Cumings, Old Mondoro’s owner. “What you get here are big skies, big trees, big elephants.”
An early morning start is the best way to look for wildlife, either on a guided walk with an armed scout while the day is still cool and the predators are still active, or a game-drive in an open 4WD vehicle, returning in time for a hearty breakfast.
In the afternoon, a choice of activities awaits. Perhaps a canoe trip down the Zambezi accompanied by an expert guide and paddler, drifting soundlessly past crocodiles, hippos and elephants moving waist-deep through the reed-beds. Or a cruise in a sturdy 18ft aluminium pontoon craft powered by a near-silent, eco-friendly four-stroke outboard.
There's plenty to see at Old Mondoro, including crocodiles, hippos and elephants moving waist-deep through the reed-beds
Keen anglers may also wish to take on the feisty African tiger fish, described by Cumings as a cross between a salmon and a piranha. “Pound for pound it’s probably the best freshwater sport fish in the world,” he says.
Fly by light aircraft to Mfuwe (direct at certain times of year, otherwise via Lusaka) for the 90-minute road transfer to South Luangwa, Zambia’s most famous national park. Mchenja, your home for the next three nights, is an idyllic bush camp overlooking a sweeping bend of the Luangwa River. Shaded by the magnificent ebony trees from which it takes its name, it is run with great style by Norman Carr Safaris ( normancarrsafaris.com ). All five of its luxury tents have a private open-air bathroom and Victorian style bath, and dinners are served under the stars.
Carr was the great Zambian game warden who pioneered the concept of walking safaris half a century ago. He also raised two lions and returned them to the wild long before George Adamson achieved fame with his “Born Free” pride in Kenya; but at Mchenja it is leopards that take centre stage. Normally shy and elusive, these elegant predators thrive in Luangwa’s dappled woodlands. On my last visit I saw eight leopards in less than a week, including a magnificent male stalking puku antelope on the open floodplains.
Days 10 and 11
As in Hwange and the Lower Zambezi, morning, afternoon and night game drives in open 4WD vehicles will take you out into this beautiful park with its unforgettable vistas across the Luangwa River; but South Luangwa is known above all for its walking safaris. More than anywhere, this is where to meet wild Africa up close and personal, following a supremely experienced professional guide and armed scout as they lead you under the ebony trees and along riverbanks teeming with beasts and birdlife – everything from elephants and hippos to tiny jewelled kingfishers.
South Luangwa is where to meet wild Africa up close and personal.
Afternoon flight from Mfuwe to Lusaka connecting to Johannesburg and onward overnight flight to London with BA, arriving early next morning.
This article was written by Brian Jackman from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.