My idea of the perfect get-away is a beach, preferably on a tropical island where I eat sumptuously, down drinks with lots of ice, party, and watch the sun rise or set, as the case might be.
I don’t ‘do’ safaris, camps or animals – well, except for the odd household pet. So what was I doing driving around an African bush in a jeep, binoculars at the ready, trying to spot wild animals?
Blame Judith (aka The Cat Lady). Judith, friend and traveling partner, loves cats large and small and when she told Sandra (the real reason we’re on this trip) and me that one of her three must-dos was a safari, I remember thinking black people don’t do safaris. We hardly even do parks. (Isn’t that the reason Oprah Winfrey did an entire show at Yosemite?) It must be something in our makeup, but these back-to-nature adventures just don’t appeal to most of us. No man, safaris are for old, White people. But Sandra and I are mildly adventurous, so we figured if we stayed close to our guide, we wouldn’t end up as dinner and have an interesting, different and definitely fun experience and lots of stories to tell.
Since we were going to Victoria Falls, Ruthie, our travel agent, had recommended Zimbabwe, which she said, has the best game. Sandra or I couldn’t have cared less. Heck, before arriving at Hwange, I had no idea what the Big 5 was. No, it’s not the lottery. The Big 5 refers to the animals most difficult and dangerous to hunt – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
So following our whirlwind two-day Johannesburg trip and quick tour of Victoria Falls, we were about to leave for Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve and home to zebras, giraffes, lions, tigers, buffalo, hippopotamus, several species of birds, predators, endangered species and over 30,000 elephants.
But before we said our goodbyes, we had one last thing to do: take a look at the Kingdom at Victoria Falls, a hotel we had heard good things about. It didn’t disappoint. Whereas the Victoria Falls Hotel looks like a piece of Britain transplanted in Africa, the Kingdom draws on iconic motifs, like the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and the national bird that place it firmly in Africa.
Peter from the Vic Falls Hotel and Duncan, our driver from the airport pickup, loaded our suitcases into Duncan’s van for the 2 hour drive to the Main Camp at Hwange, the pickup and drop off point for people, like us, going to camps within the park and those who prefer to rent self-catered cottages. From there, we would be transferred to the Makalolo Plains Camp for our three-day game watching experience.
The entrance to the Main Camp is a straight drive on the Victoria Falls to Bulawayo road. Houses and traditional round huts, with mud walls and conical roofs made of a dried thatch, can be seen on either side of the road, which, except for a few vehicles and the occasional cluster of people walking or waiting for transportation, was pretty deserted.
Exactly 2 hours after we left Victoria Falls, we pulled into the Main Camp. Duncan took out a small table and spread it with coffee, tea and cookies. We chuckled among ourselves when we saw a jeep approaching, the occupants decked out in classic safari outfits – khakis, hats, sunglasses and binoculars hanging loosely round their necks. (No, there’s no way they could be on safari!) We didn’t know it then, but we would be switching places with them in the jeep to begin our first game drive.
As soon as our suitcases were loaded up, we said our goodbyes to Duncan and took our seats. Dixon, our new driver, instructed us to keep our hands and bodies inside the jeep as dry branches that overhang the path could easily slash exposed skin as we drove by.
At first, all we saw were denuded trees, brush and termite mounds – lots and lots of termite mounds – some so tall that, from a distance, they looked like they could be buildings.
Winter had turned almost everything in the park beige, brown and tawny brown, and provided a perfect camouflage for the animals.
We drove for about 45 minutes before Dixon slowed down and pointed. I followed his hand but all I saw was brush. Then, there it was. Standing just several yards from our path, neck craned to reach the highest branches, was a giraffe. Not wanting to disturb it, we instinctively began speaking in hushed, reverential tones.
Dixon inched the jeep forward so we could see it better. The giraffe looked in our direction with quiet eyes and, as if it understood that we would want to take its picture, made the most beautifully awkward poses.
I couldn’t stop staring. Years before, I had seen a giraffe at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. but this was different. In its natural habitat, the animal looked even more beautiful, more majestic.
I’m not sure how long we stayed, watching wordlessly, before Dixon’s voice, asking if we could move on, broke the stillness.
We would see many more giraffes in the coming days, but this one will stay imprinted forever in my mind.
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