Botswana and Zimbabwe: The perfect twin centre safari

Three days, two countries and one world-famous waterfall. Katie McGonagle twins Botswana and Zimbabwe for an action-packed long weekend safari

It’s getting late, we’ve sipped our last sundowner, and the setting sun is shooting fiery streaks of pink and orange cloud across the sky. Time to head home, our game viewing done for the day – or so we thought.

As we bounce along the tracks of Chobe National Park back to Ngoma Safari Lodge, we spot a herd of wildebeest crowding onto the ridge ahead. 

Something’s up. No, something’s after them. 

We pause a moment, until we spot the source of their consternation – a crafty lioness is eyeing them up from the other side of the track. She crouches low against the ground, waiting for the moment to strike.

And then, in a flash of honey‑coloured fur, she’s off, bounding in long, economical strides across the road towards the cowering herd. Jolted into action, the mass of wildebeest move as one, thundering hooves shaking the ground in their rush to escape.

There’s a moment where we think they might make it. Two errant zebras stumble on to the scene, and the lion turns her attention to them, weighing up which would make the easier target.

But no, her focus is firmly on the wildebeest, stalking them from the cover of lower ground, waiting for one of them to break off from the safety of the herd so she can claim her victim. We watch, spellbound, until the chase moves behind the shelter of the trees, and the sun threatens to disappear altogether below the horizon. Yet even as we turn for home, there’s no doubt in our minds – that lion will have her prey before the night is out.

 

Botswana

It’s hard to imagine any other game drive matching up to the thrill of that chase, but Chobe National Park never fails to amaze. It was Botswana’s first national park and is home to the largest population of elephants in the world. Our base in the Chobe floodplains, in the park’s northeast extreme, is teeming with giraffes, zebras, sable antelopes and cape buffaloes, while an array of bird species, white lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs and hippos can be spotted elsewhere in the park.

Yet on our wildlife cruise along the Chobe River, which marks the border between northern Botswana and Namibia, it’s the crocodiles that steal the show. We spot dozens drifting lazily in the water, only their scaly backs and bulging eyes visible above the surface, or lumbering out of the shallows to sun themselves on the rush-lined banks. 

There, they sit eyeing up the tiny reed cormorants, African skimmers and jacanas – also known as the Jesus bird, for its ability to seemingly walk on water – that dip in and out of the water and go alarmingly close to those huge crocodiles, monitor lizards and cape buffaloes sitting in wait along the banks.

Ngoma Safari Lodge reverses the usual order of a full-day safari to have its cruise in the morning and game drive in the afternoon, so guests see more wildlife and fewer tourists. Our small, 20-seat boat is one of few on the river and sits so low in the water it almost feels like we’re part of the ecosystem rather than just observers. 

The atmosphere is even quieter when we head out for a night safari, tearing ourselves away from exquisite food and ne South African pinotage to explore the park after dark. We clamber into the lodge’s new 4x4 and within minutes we spot the ash of a white-tailed mongoose, the rustling of baboons in the trees and the slightest glimpse of a shy genet before it disappears in to the bush. 

Our guide points out a baby impala on its own, separated from the rest of the ‘crèche’ of young impalas and unable to find its way back in the dark. Will it survive the night? Probably not, says lodge manager Jared, with lions and other predators on the prowl and hours to go before dawn. “But the lioness needs to feed her cubs too,” he adds, philosophically. 

It’s a reminder that this is the wild, where savagery and survival go hand in hand, and amid the beautiful landscapes lies an undercurrent of primal power. 

 

Zimbabwe 

Speaking of power, nothing could beat the sheer force of the mighty Victoria Falls, 85 miles away across the border in Zimbabwe. 

Visits to this natural wonder of the world have been rising steadily. Room occupancy across 10 Victoria Falls hotels was up 18% last year and by a further 13% in the rst three months of 2018, thanks to much-improved flight connections through several African hubs to the new international airport nearby. 

And that was before the resignation of long-time president Robert Mugabe in November put the country firmly back in the international spotlight, with many suppliers reporting a spike in interest for travel this year. 

We touched down in Harare just as new president Emmerson Mnangagwa was being sworn in with an agenda to drive tourism and economic growth, and everyone we spoke to seemed charged with a new sense of excitement and optimism for the future of the country. 

Victoria Falls is certainly a driving force in that effort, acting as a magnet for tourists from all over the globe since British explorer David Livingstone stumbled upon it in 1855. It’s the world’s largest waterfall, twice the height of Niagara, and visible from as far as 30 miles away thanks to its towering spray. Even in a relatively dry period, just getting close to the falls feels like walking through a gentle rain shower, with waves of spray lifted up on gusts of wind, made visible on the air like puffs of smoke and turning the surrounding parklands to a green, rainforest‐like jungle. 

It’s impressive at ground level, but the scale becomes even more apparent from the air on a helicopter flight over the falls, revealing the snaking path of the Zambezi River as it divides Zimbabwe from Zambia. Only then, with tiny dots of people set against the wide expanse of the falls, does the real magnitude start to hit home. 

The same could be said for flying through the air on a zipline, with nothing but blue sky above and the steep‐ sided gorges of the Zambezi a dizzying distance below. 

Local operator Wild Horizons runs a three‐hour canopy tour across a network of nine ziplines through the trees. It’s thrilling rather than terrifying, though there’s a gorge swing and abseiling adventure for those who want to turn the fear factor up a notch, or a rather more relaxing sundowner cruise for those not seeking an adrenaline rush. 

It might be more peaceful, but setting off on an early evening sailing along the Zambezi offers no less of a buzz. Egyptian geese cluster along the banks, while cormorants lift their necks out of the water like a periscope, before diving back down in search of prey. 

Yet it’s the hippos we’re after, and just as the cruise is drawing to a close, we spot tell-tale ripples circling up to the surface, giving way to a pair of wiggling ears poking above the water, followed by a huge, dark‐grey mass surfacing from the depths like a submarine. 

We think it’s just coming up for air – hippos can hold their breath for up to six minutes – when we see a huge, gummy pink yawn, but then it sinks again and reappears moments later right at the water’s edge, pulling itself onto the banks with a speed that belies its hulking frame

Then we realise why: another hippo is in hot pursuit, following the first onto land and disappearing into the trees. It’s a show of aggression rather than amorousness, and given their colossal size, you wouldn’t want to get in the way. But it shows yet again that just when you think you’ve seen it all here, there are still more surprises in store.

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