Alan Wooding discovers just how rich and varied a trip to Africa can be
Just moments after our Toyota Landcruiser safari vehicle negotiated a series of steep downhill twists and turns through dense undergrowth, suddenly two heavily armed men dressed in khaki camouflage suits came into view.
Despite our initial alarm, we were assured by our driver Solomon that they were there to protect 11 critically endangered Black Rhinoceros from poachers on the vast Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve.
The majestic three tonne beasts share the 2,500 hectare reserve with other members of Africa’s ‘Big Five’, but since it was completely fenced off in 2000 and an intensive Black Rhino monitoring programme put into place, security has been very much tighter.
“Black Rhino are solitary animals,” said Solomon. “We now have eight adults and three youngsters, but our big male is to be sent to another park as we don’t want him mating with his daughters.”
The armed animal protection came about following widespread poaching and the slaughter of both rhino and elephants in the area for their horns and tusks.
“Since then we’ve had very few incidents of poaching,” he said proudly. “However a few years ago several men were caught and jailed for poaching but it’s so crazy, as rhino horn is made of ceratin which is just like your hair and fingernails.”
Solomon also said that several of the reserve’s rhinos have had their horns either removed or trimmed, thus making them safer.
The Stanley & Livingstone reserve falls within the recently-declared KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area which is part of the largest conservation area in Africa. And that area now extends across the boundaries of five countries – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Angola – while its aim is to achieve sustainable ecotourism in the area.
The Zimbabwean reserve is located just a 30 minute drive from Victoria Falls town centre and, apart from the endangered rhinos, there are numerous elephants, several prides of lions, many secretive leopards and a large herd of buffalo.
Driving around in the high-sided Toyota, we immediately came across zebra, springbok, impala, bushbuck, eland, kudos, sable and warthogs while the reserve’s vast bird life is quite spectacular.
There are simply hundreds of colourful species: from stunning rollers and sunbirds, ungainly hornbills, industrious weavers, noisy guinea fowl and their smaller francolin cousins. Meanwhile high above we spotted large raptors like Egyptian vultures, African fish eagles and the huge crested Marshall eagle.
With the reserve intent on preservation and conservation, the vegetation and fauna characteristics are similar to that of other national parks and safari areas while there is a large forested area made up of low scrub and imposing Zambezi teak trees.
A large dam has been built across the Masuwe River which flows through the reserve and joins the nearby Zambezi and, as dusk fell, we witnessed many animals coming down to drink.
The reserve allows local villagers to fish the large lake behind the dam and that has also helped protect against poaching. As Solomon explained: “At one time they were probably the ones who did the poaching but since we fenced the reserve off, the fishermen now alert us to any unusual activity and our rangers are very quick to respond.”
As there are no direct flights between the UK and Zimbabwe, we flew into the Victoria Falls International Airport via Johannesburg and stayed at the three-star Rainbow Hotel on the outskirts of the town.
Obtaining our US$55 entry visas at the airport, Zimbabwe’s currency situation remains in a state of limbo. With the Zimbabwe dollar having been dropped many years ago after the numbers of zeros simply grew and grew, the Government has now issued bonds although almost everybody continues to use the US dollar. We also noticed that every ATM machine in the Victoria Falls area was empty!
From our hotel’s rooftop we could see the spray rising from the falls which was a mere 15 minute walk away. And as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls themselves are absolutely breathtaking.
Formed by a huge gaping cataract, the falls straddle two countries – Zimbabwe and Zambia – and are constantly fed by the mighty Zambezi, Africa’s fourth largest river after the Nile, Congo and Niger.
It also means that the nearby rain forest receives a constant spray, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and although the Zambezi’s level was lower than usual as Southern Africa awaits the spring rains, it meant we didn’t get to see that famous ‘rainbow halo’.
However we did enjoy spending several hours at the falls having paid our US$30 Government entry fee while we also witnessed the world’s highest bungee jump platform from which daredevils plunge the 111 metres down towards the raging Zambezi from the bridge which spans the gorge.
For our final evening in Zimbabwe we opted for a Zambezi evening cruise… and what an experience that turned out to be.
With the sun beginning to drop below the horizon and with gin and tonic in hand, we watched two huge male elephants plunge into the water before making the 300 metre crossing from the Zimbabwean bank to climb out on the Zambian side.
We also sailed past numerous hippos wallowing in the shallows, our boat’s captain being conscious that a big male might charge if we got too close. And with several large crocodiles catching the last rays of the sun on the riverbank and numerous species of water birds dashing for cover as we approached, our Zimbabwean adventure came to a memorable end.