Southern African Adventures: Phinda, Victoria Falls, and Chobe National Park
As I was preparing to move to Johannesburg in the summer of 2013, many of my friends spoke wistfully about going on safari and sipping South African wines in Cape Town, but there was only one person who I knew (without a doubt) would make the long trek, my friend Kaycee. Kaycee and I have traveled to South America, San Francisco, and to Scandinavia to see the northern lights. When she bought a plane ticket to Johannesburg with the request to see Victoria Falls and loads of elephants, I began planning another adventure.
Phinda Private Game Reserve
It should come as no surprise that the first stop on our itinerary was Phinda Private Game Reserve. The property is accessible from Joburg (especially now that there is a direct Federal Air flight from O.R. Tambo to the airstrip). Phinda is one of my favorite places to go on safari in South Africa because of the superb game viewing. Yes, it lacks the remote and wild feel of other parks and reserves – power lines cut across the property, at night you can see distant lights from neighboring villages, and there is a boundary fence encircling the property. That aside, the rangers and trackers are exceptional and it is often possible to approach the animals at quite close distances without disturbing them, which provides excellent photographic opportunities.
When we arrived at the airstrip, the rangers were waiting to whisk guests away to their respective lodges. We were met by our ranger, who incidentally had guided me on my previous trip to Phinda. He brings an infectious energy to drives and it is clear that he loves sharing the bush with his guests. He is also certified to do grade two walks – meaning if you request a walk on safari, he and the tracker will search for elephants and rhino tracks from the vehicle and once the animal is determined to be close by, you approach on foot without the animal ever knowing you are there. There is something amazing about climbing off the vehicle and walking through the bush. This is something that you must do when visiting Phinda or on any safari, if it is offered. While I always feel safe during these walks, overall you realize how vulnerable you are. It’s also amazing how much noise you make traipsing through the bush. On our walk we were lucky enough to approach two bull rhinos. At one point we came around a bend and there they were munching on grass just on through the thicket. It was breathtaking.
I love this reserve and one of the main reasons is because it is one of the best places in South Africa to see cheetahs. Cheetahs are increasingly under pressure due to habitat loss which is forcing them into closer proximity and direct competition with larger and more powerful cats. There are an estimated 7,000 – 10,000 cheetahs left in Africa so being able to see 13 different cheetahs while we were at Phinda, including a mum and her four small cubs, was an incredible privilege. Sadly, I didn’t capture any stunning photographs, but just watching them interact, pounce, and play was amazing. There are times when you have to put aside the camera if you aren’t going to get an amazing image and enjoy the moment.
As always, Phinda makes sure your visit includes special touches. On one of our evening drives, we stopped to find champagne flutes with our names tied to a tree branch with two cold bottles of Methode Cap Classique hanging in a ice bucket. They also planned an Easter bush breakfast replete with all of the Easter candy you could imagine.
We spent two nights at Forest Lodge which has sixteen floor to ceiling glass window chalets that look out over the sand forest. The area fenced off to prevent elephants from destroying the delicate ecosystem, although all other animals can pass through. It’s a stunning lodge and despite being one of the larger lodges on the property, it maintains an air of exclusivity and peace. We spent the last night at Mountain Lodge, the largest and busiest lodge on the property. The lodge itself is beautiful and has an incredible view across the property, but I prefer Forest Lodge and the even more exclusive Vlei and Zuka Lodges.
Victoria Falls – Sindabezi Island Livingstone Island, Zambia
Truthfully this was the stop on our holiday that I was least excited about since I had already visited the Falls the previous year. Last April the Falls were so full that it was impossible to get a clear view through the spray. To understand how powerful the Falls are, the spray can reach 1,400 feet and is visible from the airplane and from the Livingstone town. It seemed like a waste to go back at the same time of year and I anticipated the same poor visibility, but Kaycee wanted to visit the Falls and my policy is that if you travel 18 hours to visit, you can pick the itinerary.
We were in Zambia for two nights and our lodge was on Sindabezi Island in the middle of the Zambezi River. The lodge feels completely remote and is often visited by hippos and elephants, although we didn’t have any visitors while we were there. The lodge has five open-sided cottages that look out onto the river. The shower is completely open to the elements and connected by a small walkway to the main room of the cottage. I was lucky to have a toilet inside the chalet, but Kaycee’s room had a shower and a toilet with a view. Given that a number of locals make a living fishing on the river, you ended up showering infrequently and very quickly. Meals are taken in a communal area next to a roaring fire and under the stars. Despite a cacophony of frogs, hippos calling, and the lack of walls, I slept incredibly well.
The lodge offers a number of activities, including twice daily boat cruises on the river, a trip to Victoria Falls, canoeing, fishing, and community visits to name a few possibilities. There are also a number of activities available at an additional cost and we signed up for two – a helicopter flip over the Falls and a trip to Livingstone Island.
Like most of South Africa, the rains had not been heavy in Zambia and the Falls were not at their peak affording us decent views from the Zambian side. Views are apparently better from Zimbabwe, but we didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting a visa and doing a border crossing given our limited time. We spent about 1.5 hours walking around the Falls in large green ponchos and enjoying the sheer intensity of the Falls. Victoria Falls is just over 5,600 feet wide and the amount of water that cascades over the edge makes this one of the largest waterfalls in the world.
From the Falls we went to the Royal Livingstone Hotel where we boarded a boat to go to Livingstone Island about halfway across the river and right on the edge of the Falls. This is where Dr. Livingstone viewed the Falls for the first time. When you arrive on the island, you shed your shoes and don another green poncho for a walk around the island and if you are keen, a swim in the natural pools literally on the edge of falls. It seemed slightly crazy to be scrambling over slippery rocks barefoot on the rim of where water plunges 350 feet into a gorge, but it was utterly amazing and a trip highlight.
After walking around the island, we sat down to a three course meal. Then it was on to our helicopter flip over the Falls which is one of the best ways to appreciate the size, scale, and intensity of the Falls. We made it back to the lodge just in time for a sundowner boat cruise. By the time we finished dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open.
Chobe National Park – Kasane, Botswana
I am glad that we opted for a road transfer instead of flying to Chobe. It’s easy to forget you are in Africa when staying at luxury lodges and being whisked between destinations on private planes. We had a 45 minute drive to the border crossing where we had our passports stamped upon exiting Zambia, boarded a boat, crossed the river, and had our passports stamped welcoming us to Bots. Another vehicle picked us up on the other side and drove us to the Kasane airport where we were met by our & Beyond guide. From there, we had a leisurely game drive to Chobe Under Canvas where we would spend the next three nights camping.
This is truly luxury camping. Yes, we were in large canvas tents without running water, but there were actual flush toilets hooked up to a small tank and warm water was delivered daily for a shower. Every night there was a blazing fire accompanied by drinks, and a fire-cooked meal shared under a communal tent. This set-up is all the more impressive since the entire camp has to relocate camp sites every five days.
All of the action takes place along the river so our drives often covered the same ground, but there was always something different happening. This was my first safari in a national park and there were a number of restrictions – no off-roading, no night drives, and occasional vehicle overcrowding at the big cat sitings. Most of the time we were the only vehicle, but every time we happened upon lions and one sad leopard the vehicles kept coming and coming. While this was certainly a negative, it was the exception rather than the norm.
Chobe is known for its elephants and overall the density of game here is impressive, even if it lacks the diversity of animals. We saw large elephant breeding herds, impressive impala herds, more hippos than I have ever seen together, and relaxed baboon troops. The birding was also quite good and while I am still not an avid twitcher, I am finding the birds more interesting. I had been wanting to photograph a giraffe drinking water and just days earlier at the waterhole in front of Forest Lodge I was lucky enough to witness this. Little did I know that at Chobe, I would see six giraffes drinking water at once. One evening we were also lucky enough to see a female lion with her four young cubs playing on a termite mound, then going down to the river to drink, while the male lion called to them in the distance. On our second day, we also took a leisurely 2.5 hour boat cruise along the Chobe river which allowed us to see the wildlife from a different angle and were often closer to the animals than we were on the park roads.
One evening at dinner we were treated to a not-so-distant hippo fight. As the crashing and grunting got louder, the camp manager and guides told us that if they did come to camp, we should run for the vehicles. Ummm, really? Another morning, 10 minutes before our morning wake up call, an elephant trumpeted incredibly close to my tent. I heard the camp staff scramble around outside trying to determine if the elephant was in fact in the camp; it was that close.
Overall it was an amazing trip. Living far from home can be lonely at times, but having friends and family visit is a highlight. I love sharing South Africa with them, exploring new places, and having adventures. The reminiscing, the stories around the campfire (with a glass of Shiraz in hand), and the endless laughter are almost as memorable as the male lion calling next to the vehicle.