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July 22, 2011 (Safari Day 14)
Itinerary: Morning safari, lunch and packing, 2pm flight to Victoria Falls, arrive in Victoria Falls for a transport to the Victoria Falls Hotel and dinner at Jungle Junction, Internet!!
Animals spotted: elephant, African wild dogs, vultures (hooded, white-backed) Francolin birds, maribu stork, hippo, African hawk eagles, helmet shrikes, wood doves, Victoria Falls Hotel warthogs
We had one of my most memorable safari experiences today, our last day on safari. I am so grateful that our flight was in the afternoon rather than the morning and we were able to go out for our encore safari drive.
This morning, Lancelot, the hippo living outside our room called to us at 5:24am waking us up and 5 minutes later, we heard the typical “good morning” wake up call from the staff filling our basins with hot water. After breakfast around the fireplace as usual, we departed around 6:20am. At 6:40am, 6 or so African wild dogs came racing across the road in front of us straight into the floodplain!!! We’d only seen the dogs through the brambles at their den and seeing them hunting in the wild was exhilarating. They are incredibly fast hunters. We sped down the road to where they might be running to hunting at the river, but didn’t see them. We turned around and at 7:00am we saw the dogs racing back towards the den after finishing their hunt and eating! Andrew says they are probably the most efficient hunters of the park. They hunted, killed, ate, and ran back in just 20 minutes. The dogs look so funny with their white tails and big ears as their most prominent feature. They run very fast and at 50 kph we couldn’t keep up with them on the road. When they hunt, they can run up to 70kph. What a sighting!
We calmed down and drove on where we found many vultures indicating a kill. We hiked out to find what was left of a male kudu kill from last night. All that was left of the kudu was the skull and just a few hairs on the ground. Andrew showed off his tracking skills and walked around telling us the story of the kill from all the marks on the ground. We could see a tiny piece of intestine and some wet spots on the ground where the kill had actually happened. Disturbances in the dirt told us where there was a struggle and lion spoor indicated who did the killing. Lots of vultures were around camped out in trees. We saw a small brown bird called a Francolin and I was reminded of the first time we saw the Francolin back at Hwange.
We had been driving around Hwange and heard a bird sound. Our guide told us, “oh, that’s Franklin.” We were quite amused thinking that there was a bird out there named Franklin and that the guide knew who he was. But we soon found out that Francolin is just a breed of bird. My spieces book actually lists about 11 types of Francolin.
I took photos of the landscape while we hiked and the vultures in the trees and then we drove out past Little Vundu camp (a temporary camp owned by Vundu and available for guests to stay at for short periods). We reached a point in the river where we stopped to look around. A hooded vulture stood dwarfed next to a giant-looking maribu stork out on a sandbar. The hippo in the river were finally in the good lighting and one even yawned for me.
Now comes the big story of the day. We saw a small bull elephant far off the road and decided to stop and hike. While he was still quite far, about 80 yards off, we stopped to hide under a bush and tree. Andrew said he might walk near us if we waited. So we waited. The little guy didn’t look quite so little anymore now that we were crouching on the ground. He slowly picked at bushes and twigs eating and wandering towards us. When he got to where he could tell that we were there, he made a low grumble of elephant communication. Andrew told us later that he was wondering if we were elephant as well and would answer back.
When we didn’t answer, the elephant got a bit nervous and swayed and raised his head. I could see the wheels working in his mind as he tried to decide what to do. It seemed like it took forever for him to shift from foot to foot, raise his head in our direction, open his ears to threaten us and then finally he charged right at us! Andrew banged two sticks together, the tried and true method of stopping a charge like this, but the elephant didn’t stop! While Mark and I tried our best to hold still and not show our fear, Andrew lept up in the elephants path, started yelling and raising his arms. Eventually Andrew pulled his rifle on the elephant and before anything had to happen, the elephant stopped and turned to the side. Woah!
We scampered away keeping the line of trees between us and got all the way back to the car before we could talk to each other. Mark got a video of the whole thing and I was able to snap off a few photos. Honestly, I was too concerned that the noise of my shutter would prompt the elephant into rage, but the experience will live with me for a very long time. It’s one thing getting charged by an elephant while safe in a land rover and another to be charged while hunkering down under a tree. I can’t even imagine what must have been going through Andrew’s head as he stood his ground yelling and deciding when to shoot.
As we silently let our experience sink in and our hearts stopped pounding, we drove and found another young male crossing the road in front of us. He just be traveling with the guy who just charged us as he made his low grumble to communicate. When we didn’t answer, he kept going.
Near Vundu, we stopped the car and went for a hike near the pan we passed on the way to the wild dog den. We found a large termite mound near the pan green with duck weed, and climbed up about 20 feet to sit and watch what might come. Mostly we just saw birds. Wood doves fluttered in the pond below. An African hawk eagle flew over head. A flock of helmet shrikes flew by and we learned that only one pair in a flock breeds and the other stick around to look after the young. When we tired of sitting on the termite mound, we walked to the water and found bits of water cabbage/lettuce in the duck weed. Walking we found a tree with white cotton looking balls and learned that these are flowers of the cabritum tree. It looks dead with no leaves on it, but it does flower. In fact this is the first of all the plants to flower. Around here, the plants don’t all flower at the same time, but almost take turns throughout the year. A sjambok pod tree held about 10+ sparrow weaver nests on the side of the tree opposite the prevailing winds. The tree turns yellow in August.
Back at camp, we quickly packed up and then came back to the common area to chat with everyone and have lunch. The staff we had made friends with seemed genuinely sad to see us leave versus the normal, “bye, have a good time” type of departure. We were sad to leave our new friends as well.
At 1:20, we drove to the Mana West airstrip and waited for our Wilderness Air flight. I figured there would be others here as well, but it looked like we were the only ones leaving today. I noted that this airport consisted of a tree with a sealed box containing a clipboard for pilots to record their arrivals. I had thought the Hwange airstrip/airport was tiny with just a bathroom, but Mana West and it’s box on a tree was now definitely the smallest airport/airstrip we’ve ever flown out of. We had a 5-seater plane all to ourselves except for the pilot. This time, I chose to sit in the middle with Mark instead of next to the pilot and I napped for some of the 2.5 hour flight to Victoria Falls.
Our pilot was very nice and went out of his way to fly over Victoria Falls on the way to the airport. I’d seen pictures, but I really didn’t get a sense of scale as to how large Victoria Falls really was. Also, the way it is formed is very odd looking. There is a long cliff that the water falls over of course, but it falls into a narrow canyon and looks more like a large crack in the earth’s surface with water flowing down into the core of the earth. I always pictured the falls flowing into a large lake or noticeable river. Instead the falls almost looked like the top cross of a capital T with the gorge carrying the water as the base of the T.
In Victoria Falls, we were greeted at our plane by a Wilderness Safaris employee who guided us through the tiny airport to wait for our transportation. We had arrived early and waited with our greeter for about 10 minutes before our transportation arrived to drive us the 20-30 minutes to Victoria Falls Hotel.
After spending 2 weeks in the wilderness and on safari, we were shocked to see so many people. It’s now 5pm and the end of the working day so everyone was out on the road, walking or biking, or using a wheelbarrow full of goods to get around. Women carried little kids wrapped in blankets on their backs and balanced baskets and bags on their heads. Men were pushing carts and riding bikes. It felt very third world to be here, but also so different because it was civilization as opposed to the bush.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is very grand and has been around for over 100 years. The grounds overlook the bridge just downstream from the falls. It is *the* place to be apparently. The hotel greeted us with welcome drinks and showered us with luxury we were not used to. A bellhop gave us a tour of the hotel while we sipped our fruity beverages in fancy glasses and then brought our luggage to our room. We had a wonderful view onto the grounds behind the hotel featuring a huge lawn and warthogs! I’d heard about the Victoria Falls warthogs and there they were, slowly munching the grass acting as lawn mowers while the guests took pictures. In the room we had electricity! hot water! and internet! all day long. This was so different than the last two weeks that we had some shock getting back into the swing of civilization.
We checked out the view, posted a note on this blog saying hi, and went for a little walk around the grounds. It was easy to call and get a reservation at the hotel’s Jungle Junction restaurant. The food was amazing with a buffet and we were treated to a dancing and drumming show while we ate.
We still have several more days of vacation, but we can definitely tell that vacation is almost over. Tonight we sleep in a climate-controlled room and tomorrow we start another adventure.
Below you’ll find a slideshow from flickr showing more photos. If the slideshow does not appear, please click on this link to see the original post: http://thetravelgeeks.com/?p=512 and scroll to the bottom. To view the slideshow, click once on the play button, or triangle, in the middle of the image below.