African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

Having returned from the remote South Luangwa National Park irrevocably enthralled by my first experience in the African wilderness, I was yearning to get back to Zambia. When there is a will… I was off again the following June, to discover the national parks along the Zambezi River, right at the start of the ideal “dry season.”

Lower Zambezi National Park

Byy the end of the rainy season, the Lower Zambezi flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lagoons.

Located on the northern bank of the Zambezi, downstream from Lake Kariba, the Lower Zambezi National Park remains an area of primeval wilderness. This 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch of land between the Chongwe River and the confluence of the Luangwa River extends 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland to the Zambezi Escarpment. Although the park covers an area of 1,580 square miles (4,092 square kilometers), the escarpment acts as a natural barrier to many species, concentrating most of the game’s activity near the edge of the river.

Hippos rush to the Chongwe River.

The valley was home to many mammal species including hippopotamus, elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, genet, civet, and a large number of gazelles. It also offered some of the most abundant and colorful birdlife I had come across anywhere. The river bank was scalloped with channels that created lush islands along the main river. This idyllic environment had led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of luxury camps along the river. My favorites had managed to retain a laidback bush camp vibe.

Chongwe River Camp

The view extended across the Zambezi to the Zimbabwe.

Stretched along the bank of the Chongwe, at the point where it met the Zambezi, the Chongwe River Camp offered a sweeping view of the western boundary of the Lower Zambezi National Park and Zimbabwe’s famed Mana Pools on the far bank of the river. The inspired architecture of the lounge with its curving concrete platforms lined with thick pads and toss pillows, showcased the exuberant wilderness that surrounded the camp. Throughout the day, elephants and buffalos came to the water for a drink or a bath, while pods of hippos filled the river like so many moving islands.

A Goliath Heron takes flight. With a wingspan of 185–230 cm (73–90.5 in), it is the world largest living heron.

Drives across the Chongwe River into the park were always exciting, but my favorite way to explore this unique environment was from the water. Canoeing down the quiet, shady channels was as blissful a safari experience as I have ever come across, enhanced by the expertise of my guide, Wedmore Kumbani. He could unobtrusively stir our canoe to find a leopard stealthily quenching its thirst or a fifteen-foot long Nile crocodile sunning on the bank. I also credit him for introducing me to the joys of birding by allowing me observe close-up the rich birdlife on the river, from the giant Goliath Heron to the jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher.

Memorable first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher.

My first sighting of the latter remains an adrenalin-charged memory to this day. Wedmore spotted one of the tiny birds clinging to a reed and maneuvered us to it. I single-mindedly began shooting while he was nudging the canoe to get me ever closer. Suddenly, from beneath us, a submerged hippo decided to make its presence known. It abruptly surfaced, its flank scraping the side the canoe, sending it spinning. Wedmore skillfully steadied it while I clung frantically to my camera. The bird was long gone by now, but I had memorable images of my eventful first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher, and after calm had returned, of my closest encounter ever with a hippo.

Chiawa Camp

My tented suite featured an open deck with an irresistible claw-footed Victorian bathtub with a view.

Chiawa Camp was my idea of what Eden should be: spectacular views, abondant game activity, and outstanding creature comforts. Nestled under a lush canopy of riverine forest in the heart of the Park, Chiawa blended so unobtrusively into its surroundings that elephants and buffalos routinely paraded within feet of my tent on their way to the river. More than once, the short walk from the lounge to my tent was delayed while a pachyderm ambled down the path, claiming its incontestable right of way. 

An unexpected visitor shows up for lunch at Chiawa.

The two-story open-front lounge sat a short walk up a gentle slope from the edge of the water. The upper deck offered a panoramic view of the river. A telescope made for close up observation of the game hiding in the high undulating grass that covered the small islands nearby. With so many enticements to an armchair safari, the hardest thing about Chiawa was to select from the variety of daily game watching activities, on land and water, available at the camp.

Connecting with a young lion with along the Chilanga channel.

My visit to Chiawa was rich in exceptional moments, such as canoeing along the secluded Chilanga channel. As my guide smoothly navigated the canoe in the dappled shade of overhanging winter thorn acacias, we came upon a pair of lions enjoying a drink a few feet away on the riverbank. I experienced a prolonged spine-tingling eye contact with one the gorgeous felines before we all carried on with our own pursuits. Another moment forever imprinted on my mind, while star-gazing in the warm night echoing with bird calls and hippo snorts, was to discover the Southern Cross, perfectly outlined among the millions of stars in the black velvet of the African sky. Safari doesn’t get any better than this.

Victoria Falls

Mosi-oa-Tunya is the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“Smoke that Thunders” in the Kalolo-Lozi tribe’s dialect) plunge 108 meters (355 feet) down in a stunning 1.7- kilometer (1.05- mile) wide waterfall across the Zambezi River. Columns of spray can be seen from miles away from the estimated 500 millions cubic meters (150 million gallons) of water per minute that plumet over the edge. British explorer David Livingston is thought to have been the first European to set eyes on the falls (on November 16, 1855), which he named after his queen.

My Tongabezi guide took took me to the edge of the chasm for a close up rainbow experience.

The Falls are within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a 66 square kilometer (25 square mile) stretch of land that goes from the Songwe Gorge below the Falls in a north-west arc along about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of the Zambian river bank. Roughly one million people visit the Falls each year, which has prompted the development a large tourism infrastructure, especially around the town of Livingston, just upstream from the park, where lodges now crowd the river-frontage and hotel buildings lurk on the horizon. Fortunately further up-river, a few prestigious, long established river lodges have retained their timeless elegance and pristine riverfront environment.

Tongabezi

A magical Tongabezi sunset.

While exchanging experiences with kindred adventurers traveling through the game parks of Zambia, conversation would often drift to favorite lodges and camps. Invariably, someone would bring up Tongabezi. Those who had visited where enthusiastic; those who had not were wistful. Guides and staff always spoke of “Tonga” with respect. As soon as I arrived at Tongabezi, I understood how it had come to be a standard by which Zambian luxury properties were measured.

Al fresco dining at Tongabezi.

Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) upstream from Victoria Falls and Livingstone, across from the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side of the river, Tongabezi was nestled in a  meticulously tended grove of ebony trees overlooking a magnificent bend of the Zambezi River. With its superb service, exquisite cuisine, and the mighty Zambezi shimmering under the midday sun or reflecting the rising moon, it was a serene haven for a gentle re-entry into the outside world after two weeks weeks in the bush. And the perfect venue from which to explore the Falls.

Pied Kingfisher were a constant sight along the river.

My first visit to Mosi-oa-Tunya was at ground level in the company of my guide, who took me along trails that allowed me to get dizzyingly close to the abyss, where I could feel and breathe the spray, and capture perfect rainbows. After this exhilaratingly visceral experience, I went to gaze upon the Falls just as Livingston first did. Tongabezi held the concession for what is now known as Livingston Island, at the head of the Falls. Here, after a short boat ride, I enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch at the edge of the chasm. David Livingston never had it so good!

Areal view of  the geological evolution of the falls and gorges.

I returned the next day for a bird’s eye view of the Falls, in a small bubble-canopy helicopter that flew me all around the area. In addition to taking in the thunderous natural wonder, this areal perspective gave me a fascinating view of its geological evolution. Since its original formation in the Upper Paleolithic age (20,000 b.c.), six individual gorges have formed, and the Falls have recessed eight times, all previous positions clearly visible from up high.

The Lower The Zambezi National Park stretches between the Zambezi River and the Escarpment.

Good to Know

  • Lower Zambezi — Because of its remote location and limited infrastructure, the Lower Zambezi National Park is not easily accessible. It is best reached via small (loosely) scheduled prop planes to air strips barely larger than a dirt road. However, its pristine isolation and the outstanding density and variety of game congregating along the river, coupled with the luxury of the camps along the river make it superb destination well worth the effort.
  • Chongwe—Chongwe River Camp has nine classic tents under thatch and two private tented ‘suites’, the Albida (two-bedroomed) and the Cassia (one bedroom honeymoon). 
  • Chiawa— The camp is a property of Chiawa Safaris https://www.chiawa.com . It has nine luxury tents that can accommodate up to 16 guests, each raised on wooden decks with river views.
  • Tongabezi—The awards-winning Tongabezi Lodge https://tongabezi.com offers six private Houses and five River Cottages nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River, accommodating two to five guests each.

Location, location, location!

Victoria Falls, Zambia

South Luangwa National Park,

African Diaries—Into Zambia

African Diaries—Into Zambia

First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.

Life in the Desert

Damaraland-Kudus

Kudus manage to exist on the sparse vegetation.

Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.

Damaraland-Welwitschia.

The welwitschia plant traces back to Jurassic times.

At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.

Mountains of Burnished Gold

Namibia-Damaraland

The colossal sandstone ridges are ablaze in the setting sun.

We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.

Damaraland-giraffe

Angola giraffes have adapated to the arid rockly terrain.

Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.

Damaraland-Desert squirrel.

The desert squirrel uses its bushy tail for shade.

 

The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.

Damaraland-Desert elephants.

Desert elephants are constantly on the move in seach of water.

By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.

An Uncertain Spring

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Valley.

The sandstone valley of Twyfelfontein holds one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Africa.

The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein engravings.

The engravings include a diversity of animals and foot prints.

However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Lion Man.

Twyfelfontein’s most intriguing figure is known as the Lion Man.

The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.

One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.

Damaraland-Vista

Prehistoric Damaraland vista.

Good to Know

  • Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Nestled in the heart of the famed 5,400 square kilometer (210 square mile) Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of the oldest and most pristine in South Africa, and with an unfenced border to the western boundary of the legendary Kruger National Park, Motswari Private Game Reserve is a safari-goers’ dream. It is teaming with the iconic Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) and a supporting cast of over 140 other mammals and 500 varieties of birds.

To Conserve and Protect

South Africa - Motswari rhino.

Motswari takes an active part in supporting rhino protection.

In the local Tswana language, Motswari means “to conserve and protect.” Motswari Private Game Reserve has been living up to its name since the Geiger family acquired the property in 1992.
From the onset, the original owner, the late Paul Geiger, focused on wildlife conservation, environmental management, and the creation of meaningful employment and growth opportunities for the local communities.

 

 

South Africa - Motswari elephants

The look of environmental protection excellence.

On the public stage, this has earned Motswari an impressive number of prestigious accolades, including its on-going accreditation by Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa (FTTSA), a distinction the property first earned in 2008. Motswari also achieved Gold Class status in 2013 on the Heritage Environmental Certification Program (based on internationally recognized sustainability and responsible business initiatives), making it the only environmentally certified lodge in Timbavati.

 

What does this mean to me, the tourist? A lot actually. Beyond the personal satisfaction of knowing that my visit contributes in a small way to supporting a shared environmental and social ethos, choosing Motswari has a considerable positive impact on the quality of my safari experience.

A Family Country Estate

South Africa - Motswari main lounge

The main lounge.

The first thing I notice as I settle in is the relaxed atmosphere of the property. The décor, an unpretentious mix of comfortable rustic furniture, local safari antiques, crafts and random personal mementos, has the charm of a family country estate that has developed organically over time. The lounge and dining area open onto a free-form swimming pool overlooking the river and the bush beyond. There, as in the nearby library, intimate seating arrangements invite to settle in, chill out and enjoy the view.

South Africa - Motswari, Duiker

All the bungalows are named after bush animals. Mine is Duiker.

My own bungalow is a light-filled circular space with large French doors that open onto a private terrace overlooking the dry riverbed. It is furnished in an uncluttered, retro-style mix of rustic wood and rattan furniture, with a sumptuously comfortable king-size bed swathed in mosquito netting taking pride of place. But nothing retro about the vast en-suite bathroom with its deep built-in bathtub and separate walk-in shower with rain showerhead and great water pressure. Or in the thoughtful details at my fingertips to ensure a comfortable stay, from quality biodegradable toiletries to electrical outlets conveniently fitted with universal adapters to accommodate North American and European plugs.

South Africa - Motswari library.

The library.

Another detail that enhances the enjoyment of my safari is what is not found at Motswari. (Spoiler alert – here comes one of my pet peeves). There had been a trend in recent years for upscale properties to include such sophisticated urban amenities as elite spas, painstakingly curated antique artifacts boutiques or haute cuisine restaurants with pre-dinner visits to in-house wine cellars.

 

South Africa - Motswari pool

The pool overlooks the bush.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the occasional bit of over-the-top pampering, in its own time and place. In the bush, however, I find it an unwelcome distraction from my wilderness experience. On behalf of safari purists everywhere, thank you Motswari for keeping it authentic.

 

The People Factor

In incorporating responsible tourism as a key principle in its operating philosophy since its inception, the property has created a close-knit community where some employees have been with the lodge all of their working life and others are now second generation staff members. All are regarded as members of the extended Motswari family and feel enormous pride in their lodge. This is reflected in the positive way staff and management interact with each other and with the guests. I take with me warm memories of the genuine friendliness and concerted attention to details from the entire team to ensure that I enjoyed a memorable visit.

South Africa - Motswari leopard.

Guiding excellence means repeated leopard sightings.

The people factor is not just about superior service. It is inscribed in the success stories of staff members who, with management support, were inspired to follow their passion, and went on to raise the bar in their chosen field to deliver outstanding experiences for the guests. People like Godfrey Mathebula, the now Assistant General Manager, Motswari Private Game Reserve, who grew up on Java, Paul Geiger’s original property, where is parents were caretakers.

South Africa - Motswari leopard with kill.

This elusive male has concealed his kill high in a tree.

The Geiger family supported him through school, then gave him a job in the maintenance workshop before his passion for the bush led him to the guiding field. After passing with a near perfect score the first level certification of the prestigious Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGSAS), he began guiding, went on to pass every level of certification available, become Motswari’s lead guide, and set a very high standard for every guide that followed.

 

Outstanding Game Viewing

South Africa - Motswari lionesses

After the hunt, two lionesses groom each other.

With the property’s privileged location at the unfenced edge of Kruger National Park, its 150 square kilometer (60 square mile) swath of traversing right within the game-rich Timbavati Nature and its long established wildlife conservation efforts, my guide could have ensured daily Big Five sighting with relatively little effort. But that’s not the Motswari way. Less than an hour into my first drive I am reminded that regardless of the abundance of game and birdlife, it is the guiding team that ultimately makes the difference between routine game viewing and an unforgettable experience.

South Africa - Motswari lion kill

A male lion and his buffalo kill.

My guide and tracker are among the best I have come across anywhere. With them every drive is a front row seat to the ever-unfolding drama of the African wilderness. We track through dense bush a leopard stealthily returning to the tree where it has concealed its fresh impala kill. We witness a territorial dust off between two males leopards, so sudden that the pursued has literally propelled itself to the top of a 20 meter (65 foot) yellow acacia by the time we spot its discomfited pursuer.

South Africa - Motswari elephant and calves

An elephant cow and two calves.

We observe at close range the dynamics between two male lions feeding on the carcass of a young buffalo, and lionesses and cubs from a resident pride grooming off each other the traces of a recent kill. Then there are elephants, large breeding herds of them on the move with their nursing calves, mud-encrusted rhinos crashing their way out of a waterhole, and cheetahs on the prowl.

 

 

When we eventually return to the lodge, still buzzing from the experiences of the past few hours, it is to sumptuous brunches cooked to order or to formally served dinner or braai (South African barbecue) around the boma’s central fire pit.

Amazing Grace

South Africa - Motswari teatime

Teatime is announced with a song.

Meals are a never-ending feast here. And another Motswari people success story. Young Grace Mnisi discovered her passion for cooking when she joined the kitchen staff as a kitchen assistant right after school in 1996. She steadily worked her way through the ranks to pastry chef and sous-chef and finally head chef in 2004. Along the way she has ranked for Best Food among the top lodges in the country in national Bush Banquets competition and even found the time to earn herself a Professional Chef college certification. Today, Amazing Grace, as Chef Mnisi is often called, and her kitchen team treat the guests throughout the day to imaginative meals beautifully prepared from fresh local products. Her cuisine focuses on South African specialties with subtle international accents.

 

South Africa - Motswari, boma.

Dinner is served around the fire under the stars.

Dinner is always a delicious three-course course affair, served plated at candle-lit tables under the stars. But I have a special fondness for the teatime ritual. Served in the lounge just prior to the departure of the afternoon game drive, it is announced by the sound of female voices singing in the close-harmony style for which South Africa is famous. The voices belong to the kitchen staff who regally walk in bearing large trays and bowls of delicious salads, relishes, meats and savory and sweet pastries that are promptly arranged onto a long buffet table

A Better Place to Be

For three decades now the owners of Motswari have managed the property according to principles that would later be summarized in the 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism as caring for the wildlife, the land and the local community to “create better places to live in and to visit”. Thank you to everyone in the extended Motswari family for making it one of my best safari experiences ever.

Good to Know

  • Motswari has been owned by the Geiger family for two generations. Current owner is Marion Geiger. The property is managed by Newmark Hotels, Reserves and Lodges. Motswari Private Game Reserve. motswari.co.za e-mail: reception@motswari.co.za or reservations@motswari.co.za. Or call: + 27 (0) 21 427 5900.
  • It is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg or 75 minutes from Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport .
  • Accommodations consist of 15 bungalows that can welcome a total of 30 guests.
  • Complimentary WiFi service is available throughout the day and evening in the public areas.
  • First designated as a protected area in 1898, Kruger National Park became South Africa’s first national park in 1926. It is also one of the largest, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 square miles) in the northeastern corner of the country. Two dozen private reserves that share an open border with the western boundary of the park contribute an added 18,000 square kilometers (700 square miles) of unfenced land dedicated to conservation where the rich game population of the overall Kruger area can roam at will.
  • Collectively known as the Greater Kruger National Park, these private reserves are home to a number of upscale lodges ruled by charters that strictly limit the number of guests and game viewing vehicles allowed on their land to ensure that their guests enjoy an optimum game viewing experience as well as activities such as nature walks as well as off-road and night drives that are not allowed within the boundaries of the Kruger National Park.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motswari Private Game Reserve

Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Like most visitors to Malawi, the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley, I was drawn there by its eponymous lake. But beyond the shores of the dazzling “Lake of Stars”, I discovered an endearing little country with exciting, if limited wildlife viewing opportunities.

Liwonde National Park

Malawi - Liwonde Sable Antelope

An elusive Sable Antelope sighting in Liwonde.

Located in the Upper Shire Valley, the 580-square kilometer (220-square mile) Liwonde National Park is considered the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Malawi. It stretches along the left bank of the Shire River, the only outlet of Lake Malawi and the largest river in the country, on its 400-kilometer (250-mile) way to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

By far the main attraction of the park, the river allows it to support one of the densest populations of elephants and hippos in Africa (about 900 and 2000 respectively). Liwonde is also known for its abundance of birdlife and due to the absence of major predators, it is home to a good a variety of antelopes. It’s where, after five previous trips to some of the most vaunted safari destinations in Africa, I have the pleasure to finally encounter sable antelopes.

 

 

Malawi Village

Malawi village home.

It’s a solid two-and-a-half hour drive from Blantyre, southern Malawi’s major city and airport, to the Western gate of the park. The paved road becomes gradually less so as we get farther away from the city. It disappears entirely as soon as we get off the main north-south thoroughfare. It’s all rocky dirt roads from here on, lined with tiny brick homes covered with disheveled thatch, each sitting on its small patch of ground. My driver drops me off at the park’s gate where my arrival is duly recorded and announced by phone to the Mvuu Lodge.

Mvuu Lodge

Malawi - Liwonde Mvuu Lodge

It’s a short boat across the lagoon to Mvuu Lodge.

Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance and the only property inside the park, the Mvuu Lodge can be reached only by boat. It is so well integrated into the dense grove of yellow acacias that I don’t notice any sign of human habitation at first; until a small wooden craft detaches itself from a spindly dock and chugs its way across to collect me.

 

Malawi - Shire River Hippo Pods

Shire River hippo pods.

The lodge immediately lives up to its name (Mvuu means hippopotamus in the local Tonga language). We zig-zag our way across the lagoon, giving a wide berth to pods of hippos submerged save for dozens of periscope eyes that follow our progress with a baleful gaze.

 

 

 

 

Malawi - Mvuu Lodge Lounge

Mvuu Lodge common area.

Mvuu is an upscale, environmentally-friendly wilderness lodge with a casual atmosphere and an attentive, friendly staff. Raised high into the trees, the open-sided thatched main lodge provides an perfect hide-like retreat to observe the constant activity of the lagoon.

 

 

 

Malawi - Mvuu Crocodiles

The Shire River is home to a large colony of crocodiles.

In addition to its many hippos, it is home to a large resident family of warthogs and a colony of seriously oversized crocodiles. A late model telescope on a tripod invite guests to take a closer look at the birds that fill the trees all around.

 

 

Morning on the Shire River

Malawi - Shire River Kudu

A male kudu in the brush by the river.

The riverside location allows for a mix of cruises and drives that provide a close and varied view of the game as it goes about its daily life. Game-viewing is generally interesting at Mvuu but never more so than on the river. An especially memorable morning begins as a typical pleasant boat ride punctuated by a steady stream of photo opportunities of the waterfowl and raptor population, various antelopes coming to the water and a small breeding herd of elephants wading across in the distance.

 

Malawi - Shire Sleeping Elephant

A “big tusker” snoozes by the water.

We then come upon a few venerable “big tusker” bull elephants lined along shore, dousing themselves by the trunkfull with river water. I spot one of them snoozing at the edge of a wall of savannah grass. Yes, elephants do sleep lying down. I can hear his stentorian snore drift toward me. Suddenly several more begin to emerge from the grass and congregate on the shore. The snorer stretches awake.

 

Malawi - Shire Wading Elephants

Come on in, the water is fine.

After a half hour of what looks like a palaver to weigh in the advisability of going in for a bath and considerable testing of the waters by various parties, they all wade in over time. What follows is a “horsing around” session of epic proportions, with these grizzled behemoths splashing and dunking each other under the waterline before rearing back up like teenagers at the beach.

 

 

Malawi - Liwone Elephant at Play

Liwonde elephants at play in the Shire River.

It is this spectacular encounter with that I take with me at as the iconic memory of my visit to the Mvuu Lodge.

 

 

 

 

Good To Know

  •  Mvuu Lodge opened in 1998. It is owned and managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), a Malawi company wholly owned by founders Chris and Pam Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaries, cawsmw.com/index.php/lodges/mvuu-lodge/, e-mail: info@cawsmw.com, or call: + 265 1771 393/153.
  • Accommodations consist of eight spacious tents under thatch that can welcome a total of 16 guests. The tents are raised well above the ground on vast wooden platforms that include a wrap-around deck overlooking the bush. They are scattered along neat sandy paths at the rear of the lodge for complete privacy. Each tent has full bathroom facilities, including a shower with hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. There is solar power in the tents.
  • Wifi was not available at the lodgeat the time of my visit
  • Although lion tracks have been occasionally spotted and a male lion sighting reported recently, I didn’t see any “big cats” during my stay. But in addition to the large and active population of elephants, I found the abundance of antelopes, the excellent bird-watching opportunities and the warm Mvuu hospitality well worth my visit.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Liwonde National Park