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Africa Week 2: The Animals!

Jody and I reached Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and met with our group in the airport. Bio Bio Expeditions (based in the US) worked in conjunction with Wild Horizons (based in Africa) to organize the trip. Our group of 20 took shuttles to the first lodge, Imbabala, a small, magical (or so it seemed) resort with individual bungalows surrounding a large center yard where we ate family-style meals all sitting together at one long table. The food and the atmosphere amazed as we looked at the Zambezi river from the table and from our porches. We could see elephants swimming to the island in the river and hear hippos calling to mark their territory. We watched groups of 100 or more impalas bed down in the yard between our huts and the river and wondered what animals the night watchmen chased from the area while we slept. We had high tea each of the three days there at 3:30pm and boarded the pontoon boats afterward to watch the sunset from the water while drinking gin and tonics made by our boat driver and trying to catch glimpses of animal activity. We safaried on the grounds around the lodge, seeing a slue of animals and birds that were once only real to me in zoos and childhood stories, and when we went to our rooms at night, the beds had been surrounded by sheer veils of mosquito netting. It was truly an exquisite place.

We took two excursions while staying at the Imbabala. Our first excursion was an adrenaline-pumping trip to the gorge swing and zipline, and when we arrived to Victoria Falls River Lodge, those who dared donned harnesses to await their turn. While we waited we gazed down 355 feet down into the beautiful, gaping gorge that held the Zambezi River at it’s bottom, which we would raft in the days ahead. Jody and I both decided to do the biggest of the three options available – the gorge swing. We had three options for leaving the platform: stepping off forward, falling off backward, or doing a handstand on the edge and diving in. I chose the handstand and before the countdown ended, the weight of the ropes pulled me from the platform, and I free-fell, screaming, for 210 feet. The ropes caught, and I swung to within 70 feet of the river at the bottom of the gorge, where a large crocodile lurked in the water. My heart resettled in my chest as I hung in my harness over the great Zambezi at the rope’s end waiting to be raised back to the platform. Several people in the group did one or all of the adventures, and we took video and pictures of everyone screaming like little kids. It was a great bonding time.

Our second outing took us to Chobe National Park in Botswana, a refuge for all kinds of African animals. The first half of the day, we took a boat on the river through the park to see the wildlife and the second half of the day was by truck. We saw hippos, elephants, impala, kudu, water buck, wart hogs, baboons, water buffalo, giraffes, crocodiles, and birds of all kinds. The guide told us that over 120,000 elephants live in the park. I did not know that many elephants existed, and it was amazing to see them in a natural, protected habitat.

On our last night at the Imbabala lodge, some of us went on a night safari. When we went on safari in the open-air trucks with stadium seating, we drove in what seemed like endless circles through the bush. I asked the guide if he ever got lost. His response? “You are never lost; you are only temporarily unsure of your position.” I like that. Soon after we were greatly rewarded on our night safari by seeing two hyenas, a lioness, and an adolescent lion – the first and only big cats we saw in the wild. Early the next morning another group went on safari and saw the lion and lioness mating. All of the animals we saw were completely wild… and some very close to our lodge – so close that some people had a wild elephant eat out of a tree next to their hut, proving that the watchmen were a necessary part of this place.

The Lioness
The Lioness

We left Imbabala on day three and paddled down the river in crocs, inflatable canoes, to reach our camp site along the river for the night. We maneuvered around a few hippos, but the first day was very low-key on flat water. When we arrived, the staff had erected tents with mattresses in them for our posh camp site and the group dinner table and serving table both had table cloths. Otherwise, the space would have looked like another shore on the river with trees and brush and sand. They made a meal of potatoes, chicken, and vegetables, and then we sat around the camp fire and listened to the night while talking and sipping on glasses of wine before going to bed.

The next morning, sunrise called us out of our tents where basins of hot water waited for us to wash our faces. We ate a hot breakfast and then put on our life jackets to start down the river for a second day in the crocs. At one point the guide told us to swing right to avoid a hippo on the left and as we watched the hippo on our left, a large hippo surfaced and began charging from the right. The group split in two and we paddled like mad to get away from both hippos. Luckily, they were spoof charges, and everyone made it safely through the chaos. A few small rapids, more hippos, and one crocodile later, we made it to our take-out point.

We rode in safari vehicles to our next bed, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, to shower (it had been a few days), rest, and have dinner at a theatrically African restaurant. They served all kinds of local foods, and I tried wart hog, impala, African Guinee hen, and kudu…as well as mopani worms (slightly squishy and chewy and crunchy, but not bad). Then, everyone in the restaurant was given a djembe drum, and we, along with the other 200 diners in the place, tried (and failed miserably as a group) to play a beat. ┬áLuckily, the real musicians had microphones on their drums, and we still experienced some African rhythm. After the dinner experience, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed to get good rest before we started the next part of our great adventure: rafting the first 21 rapids of the great Zambezi.

I continue to be mesmerized by all the beauty in this world – and the similarities across time and space. I am so thankful for this time and these experiences wandering through the world.