Enchanted by the abundant wildlife on a small-group tour of Southern Africa

By Helen Weismeyer and Mary Small
This article appears on page 30 of the February 2017 issue.

Black rhino mother and her still-nursing baby in Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, Zimbabwe. Photo by Mary Small
As half of a group of four friends, we traveled with Odysseys Unlimited in October 2015 on their “Africa’s Wildlife” tour. 

We began with a 14½-hour Emirates flight from Seattle to Dubai, where we had a 3-hour layover before continuing on for another 8½ hours to Johannesburg. The flights were very comfortable and offered good service; time “flew by.” 

In Johannesburg, we stayed in a deluxe hotel, 54 on Bath, where, on the afternoon of our arrival, we had high tea (ZAR245-ZAR295, or $18-$22, per person) in the rooftop garden courtyard. (We had arranged and paid for this online before leaving home.) 

In the evening, there was a “get acquainted” dinner for our tour group of 19 plus guide James McKenzie. 

Starting in South Africa

Our official tour started with a bus tour of Soweto, where we learned about the uprisings and the fight for freedom there. Also included was a visit to Nelson Mandela’s home, now a museum. 

From Johannesburg we flew to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The falls at the time of our visit were not at peak flow, so we were able to view them without getting soaked by the mist, though there was still plenty of sound and spray. It was a most impressive place, watched over by the statue of explorer/missionary/doctor David Livingstone and decorated by numerous rainbows in the mist. 

A leopard, at dusk, leaving her lookout in Chobe  National Park, Botswana. Photo by Mary Small

After the falls, we continued on by bus to our lodging. We stayed three nights at The Stanley & Livingstone Safari Lodge, a deluxe hotel with beautiful grounds. A watering hole out in front had many visitors, including a variety of birds and other animals. 

We dined on a large deck that overlooked all the beautiful countryside, and we watched the wildlife while we relaxed. 

This particular place is a private game reserve, expressly a safe haven for the black rhino. There were only a handful of these animals there, including a mother with her nursing baby.

Since we were near the Zambezi River, we enjoyed a wonderful “sundowner” dinner cruise, on which we saw a dozen or so elephants along the riverbank, hippos playing in the river and two or three crocodiles on the bank. 

Riding elephants on this preserve was an experience not to be forgotten!

Each day on the tour, we had breakfast at 5:30 and were in the jeep at 6:00 for a 3- to 4-hour game drive. About halfway through each drive, we would stop at a safe spot to have refreshments: tea, coffee and biscuits in the morning and soft drinks and snacks in the late afternoon, with beer and wine available for a fee. 

Lunch was at the hotel, followed by an afternoon drive from 3:30 to 6:30. Dinner was served shortly after we arrived back at our nicely appointed cabins.

As we left Victoria Falls, we were taken to the Chinotimba Government School, where we interacted with the schoolchildren and their teachers. We had been advised that we could (optionally) bring small gift items such as pens, pencils, rulers, etc., that the teachers could later distribute to their pupils. 

Botswana

The second wildlife location for us was a bus ride away at Kasane, Botswana. We stayed at the Chobe Marina Lodge, which was within walking distance of a number of shops on the main road. Chobe National Park, a few miles away, was our game-viewing area. 

Because we were there in early spring, it was easy to see lots of wildlife through the bushes and trees, which were still devoid of thick vegetation. We saw leopards, zebras, giraffes, elephants, lots of impalas, kudu, Cape buffalo, a few waterbuck and sable antelope and many monkeys and lions. It was interesting to learn that hippos often roam far from the river. 

From our hotel room deck, we could see the Chobe River, on which we enjoyed river cruises as well. 

As an option, we spent an afternoon on a short walking tour to a village in Namibia, just across the river. Of course, this entailed four passes through Immigration offices! 

A goliath heron taking off near Royal Zambezi Lodge, Zambia. Photo by Mary Small

We saw and photographed many beautiful birds. Our tour director had a special interest in birds, and one of our tour members was an avid birder; she added 100 new birds to her list on this trip. 

Zambia

After three very enjoyable days viewing lots of wildlife, we flew north on a chartered plane from Livingstone, Zambia, to Lower Zambezi National Park, also in Zambia. The landing strip was about a mile from our next accommodation, Royal Zambezi Lodge. (The only other access to this lodge is by boat.) 

Upon our arrival at the lodge, we stayed in the welcoming area, waiting and waiting for an elephant to finish eating leaves, etc., off the roof, about 10 feet from us and without a fence in between. Only then could we walk (with an escort) to our cabins. At this lodge, our cabins were literally only feet from the Zambezi River. If we wanted to go to the offices or dining area, we had to call for an escort because of the danger of encountering wildlife.

This was another great area for viewing wildlife. We drove up to a couple of lions basking in the sun, their bellies distended from their just-concluded feast, which accounted for their lack of interest in us, even though we were only 25 feet from them. 

It was exciting to see a leopard leisurely walking down a gully only yards from us, and exciting — and frightening — to have an annoyed elephant trumpet loudly as we passed!

We had Nikon cameras with 28-300mm zoom lenses, and these were adequate for photographing very small birds at a distance. Tripods were not allowed on the vehicles, but every time we saw something interesting, the guide would have the driver stop and turn off the engine, so photography was not compromised. One of us used a monopod, which was very helpful in supporting a heavy camera and lens. 

An elephant showing off its enormous ears — Royal Zambezi Lodge, Zambia. Photo by Helen Weismeyer

We had been concerned about mosquitoes, but apparently we went at the ideal time of year to avoid them. Tsetse flies, which have an attention-getting bite, were there, but wearing dull-colored clothing helped to avoid attracting them. 

The vehicles each had a cloth roof but no sides, so the early-morning drives were quite cold, but midday was quite warm and evenings, pleasant.

Final thoughts

Our tour guide, James McKenzie, taught us much about the animals and birds. Local guides and park rangers were also very pleasant and quite knowledgeable. 

In these game parks, wildlife protection is a passion, and the countries work hard at preserving the animals’ safety. 

We didn’t do much walking on this tour because our days were spent on game drives or cruises, and getting out of the vehicles was forbidden! 

This was our sixth tour with Odysseys Unlimited (Newton, MA; 888/370-6765, www.odysseys-unlimited.com), which specializes in small-group travel, and we have enjoyed them all. As on previous trips, we requested vegetarian meals, and our tour director always, uncomplainingly, saw that we were accommodated. 

This 11-night tour costs $6,554-$7,554 per person, double, depending on departure city and date. The price includes international airfare and all flights on the itinerary as well as gratuities for drivers, local guides and hotel staff.

We considered this our trip of a lifetime and would heartily recommend it to anyone.