The main purpose for coming to Africa was to go on safari. It was the only must on this trip. Everything else was a bonus. I don’t want to say we saved the best for last, because there were so many highlights of these two weeks, but this was about to be the part where a big-ticket item on the bucket list was going to get crossed off.
Day 8: Safari-Bound
Getting there was even part of the adventure. We were joined by a family from Australia, parents and a young son, on the ride to Dete Railway station and boarded the Elephant Express Rail Car. This open-air mode of transport clicked along the tracks through the bush as the landscape changed from open fields where antelope roamed to tall trees where a giraffe could hide. We had to slow to let elephants cross, and we startled a congress of baboons gathered among the electric poles.
The ride was long and hot, but once the safari jeeps came into view, the excitement started to grow. We were taken to the Bomani Tented Lodge, our basecamp for the next couple days. Like our arrival to Victoria Falls, this also came with a safety meeting. Since the lodge is situated right outside Hwange National Park, the animals that live there are welcome visitors. There are no gates or fences here. In fact, there’s a watering hole situated right outside the sturdy tent we’ll be sleeping in. This meant no walking alone after dark. We’d be escorted by an armed individual at night. Seeing as we were in a tented area in the middle of a park, water and electricity was also restricted. Water would be heated in the morning and at night, and the power shut off after everyone went to sleep.
There were only a few guests at the lodge on the first night. Dinner was served by candlelight under the stars at a family-style table. For anyone who hasn’t had dinner by candlelight under the stars. Do it. It doesn’t have to be on safari (it helps), but it’s a grounding experience and satisfying in so many ways. We weren’t the only ones enjoying refreshments though. A sound of splashing and a quick flick of a flashlight gave away the buffalo and elephants drinking nearby. We’d fall asleep to the sounds of splashing, elephants calling, and the flickering lights of the roaming night watchman.
Day 9: This is it!
We took full advantage of a full day of safaris. The day started early with campfire breakfast and a peaceful morning drive. Our guide pointed out nearby animals and followed elephant tracks—easily deciphering which way they were headed and if they were in a hurry or not by the drag marks. There are no shortage of elephants in this park, and we come across many herds along the way. In addition to countless animal-related stories, we also learn about the different plants in the area, and how one in particular can be used to rub on your hands with water to act as a soap.
We stop at the top of an open field just as a dazzle of zebras arrive. A leopard tortoise is spotted in the tall grass, and he’s lovingly referred to as part of the Small Five. We head to a blind in the middle of the park to see what animals may stop by to take a drink from the park-pumped watering hole. There’s already a hippo asleep in the deep part, and luckily enough, an elephant herd is heading over.
It’s quite a surreal feeling being so close to an animal in its natural habitat. These elephants are a few yards away, and may not see us clearly peering out at them, but they know we’re there and still carry on with their business. We were on their turf, not in a zoo or amusement park, but where they lived and raised their families. It’s hard to describe the sense of wonder this experience brought. Majestic comes to mind, but all I kept thinking was, wow.
Hot afternoons call for a cold beverage and much-needed siesta. Back at the tent, we learned the afternoon was also the time the local monkeys were in full swing. They skipped around the pond, over to our patio, and effortlessly scampered up to the roof where we could hear them screech and play. Thankfully they never found a way inside. One of our neighbors wasn’t so lucky, and they returned to a ransacked tent.
Drive number two took place after a late afternoon tea. Our guide was on a mission to track a female lion seen roaming the area. We followed her fresh tracks to the same watering hole we visited earlier. There she was, the color of the sand she rested on. Panting and thirsty. Thankfully not hungry for tourists.
There’s a mad rush after dinner back to the jeeps to get a good look at the male lion that frequents the area. This night drive is made possible with night-vision goggles, lights, and spots. After the amazement of seeing this lion strolling the grounds, a guilty feeling washes over me as we continue to blind him with our spot lights. He seems pretty chill, but still gets up and moves to a darker area. It’s said that he’s new to the area, and is already having a hard time blending with the dominant males. I secretly hope he’s not on some hazing mission to bring back a tasty tourist. I say a prayer for his well-being and focus on the fact that we’ve just finished a full day of safari drives.
Throughout the drives, I was always amazed by the close proximity our guide felt safe in. We spot an animal, he’d stop for a moment before trying to get closer. Most of the time this resulted in many pictures of animal butts as they turn and ran. Sometimes they would stop and stare at us, probably wondering just how close we’ll get. There were a few tense standoffs with cautious elephants. And a time when monkeys made a commotion on either side of the road—our guide thought there was a predator in the area, and it wasn’t just our presence.
Day 10: Last Day
Not only our last day on safari, but tomorrow we’d be making the long trek home. Another morning drive brought buffalo to the watering hole, bringing our total Big Five sightings to three: elephants, lions, and buffalo. There were no rhinos in the park, and leopard sightings were rare, so this rounded out our list nicely. We also added hyena, warthogs, birds, and more to that list. A picnic lunch was set up at the beloved watering hole we frequented as much as some of the animals. Then it was time to head back, relax, and pack for the rest of the afternoon. A little dip in the pool, beer at the bar, and sunset glasses of wine followed by our last candlelit dinner ended the night. Little did I know my most memorable safari experience was still to come.
After settling in, the mosquitoes came out to play. They must have known it was our last night, and so they had to take full advantage and bypass the preventative sprays. Since I was already up, I had the thrill of experiencing a 2am wake up call by the resident lion. They say you’ll know a lion roar when you hear it. And not only did I hear it, but I felt it in the chill it sent through my entire body. It was soon followed by a flood of search lights from the night watchman, then a loud rattling elephant call. I didn’t get much sleep at all.
The journey home started with a rough and bouncy jeep ride through the park for about two hours—we did see another giraffe, so, score! We transferred to a comfy van for a smoother ride to the airport for another two hours. Then the line up of flights back home started with Johannesburg, then London, and finally NYC. Before a cab to the train station, and a train ride to New Jersey, and a few car rides back to PA.
They say it’s about the journey, not the destination, but I can safely say the destination was a lot more exciting than this arduous journey. However, all the travel was necessary to experience this trip of a lifetime. They also say nothing good comes easy, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So, since we made through, we’re stronger for it. Stronger for the experiences we had, people we met, food we ate, and stories we now have to tell.