Two metres. Perhaps even a little less. That’s how far away from us the dark, stocky, hunched body eventually came to a halt. Nobody dared move. Not a word was spoken, not a breath drawn. He eyeballed us with suspicion, and from such close quarters that I could count the blades of grass stuck to his pointy horn.
After a few of minutes the black rhino lowered his head and retreated. He wandered back towards the dense thickets where two others – mother and calf white rhinos – wallowed happily in a freshly dug mud pool. Sat in an open-topped jeep, the five of us were utterly dumbfounded at our close encounter with one of Africa’s most under-threat creatures. Safari guide Bongane Mbatha broke the silence: “That’s what we call Mkhaya magic.”
It was indeed a magical introduction to Mkhaya, a small, privately owned and funded game reserve in south-east Swaziland, considered to be among the very best in Africa for rhino viewing. You can even track them on foot. If you’re brave enough.
However, before I could even think about putting on my hiking boots, a troubling sight greeted us at the park’s modest headquarters. Laid out on the ground were dozens of rhino skulls and a collection of nasty-looking snares: souvenirs of a gruesome industry.
Rhinos have walked the earth for more than six million years, and poaching is nothing new. Since at least the seventh century AD, there have been those who’ve thought rhino horns better suited to being cups and bowls. Today, the animals are hunted because those horns are considered medicinal in the Far East. Consequently rhino numbers are in freefall: it’s estimated that in 2013 more than 900 were poached in South Africa alone. But Swaziland – bordered by Mozambique to the east and South Africa to the north, south and west – is bucking the trend, and Mkhaya has become something of a refuge. The park’s rhino population is healthy and growing, although the exact number is a closely guarded secret.
As we headed off on our afternoon’s game drive, Bongane explained the differences between white rhinos (docile and calm) and black ones (tetchy and temperamental). We spotted plenty, none of which gave us a second look. “The rhinos here are very relaxed, especially compared to places like Kruger where they’ve experienced poachers and seen their friends die,” said Bongane.
Etosha had been magical for elephants. In this vast national park, l’d watched a herd play boisterously at Okaukuejo waterhole, just a short walk from my chalet.
And, while driving the park’s easily navigable roads, l’d come across a big white bull, his skin temporarily bleached after a dust-bath in the pan’s salty clay soil. But now I was off to look for a more elusive kind of animal.
I drove west to Damaraland, easily one of Namibia’s most scenic regions. Outside the window lay an untamed wilderness of boulder-strewn plains and massive sandstone outcrops. It seemed empty, lifeless. But remarkably this region sustains a small but wide-ranging population of desert-adapted elephant able to survive the harshness of this sun-blistered, almost waterless land.
Herds are frequently seen around Damaraland’s Aba-Huab riverbed – which is nearly always dry – and at the Aba-Huab’s charming community-run campsite I noticed piles of dung. “Yesterday,” came the reply when 1 asked how fresh it was. The elephants, which can smell water, have even been known to destroy the camp’s reed shower-blocks in search for sustenance.
Even so, I still felt hugely privileged when a family of eight decided to visit while 1 was there. I watched from the sandy stoop outside my tent as they ambled up the riverbed to a clump of gnarled camelthorn trees. Tinged rich ochre by the Damaraland sand, they stretched their trunks to pluck a few mouthfuls of crunchy dry leaves from the unforgiving thorns. Mesmerised I watched as they slowly, very slowly, moved away up the red-hued valley. Their brows looked furrowed, perhaps concentrating on where they were heading next – another bunch of lonely trees, the next place to drink.
Damaraland is a timeless place that exudes wildness and utter peace. Watching these incredible elephants made me realise that some environments are so uncompromising that they transform those who inhabit them – and leave a lasting impression on those, like me, just passing through to another of Namibia’s landscapes, to another adventure.
Because whether it’s wildlife, scenery, culture or more pulse-raising activities, Namibia offers visitors whatever sort of trip they may be seeking – which might explain why Wanderlust readers voted it their Top Country. Although those astonishing eles probably do have quite a lot to do with it…
The Cape Verde islands have historically been a stop-off point amid the lonely leagues of the Atlantic Ocean – a place for planes with dodgy engines to land and troubled ships to dock. But there’s plenty to distract those who linger: sandy beaches lined with nodding palms, and black volcanic hills with sleepy colonial towns perched in their shadows.
Go now to swap chilly British gales for balmy trade winds. Start in Santiago, the biggest island in the archipelago, and take a trip to Cidade Velha – the oldest European settlement in the tropics – with a whitewashed 15th-century church and a beach lined with colourful fishing boats; Vasco deGama stopped in this very spot en route to India, and Colombus stretched his legs in the town on his way to America.
To encounter intrepid seafarers of a different order, take a trip north to the island of Boa Vista, where companies run whale-watching tours in search of the humpbacks that gather here from February.
HOW DO I MAKE IT HAPPEN?
Naturalia offers whale-watching excursions in the waters around Boa Vista between February and May.
There are no direct scheduled flights from the UK to Santiago, however TAP Portugal offers flights from London Heathrow, changing at Lisbon.
Alternatively, Thomson offers flights from London Gatwick to the nearby island of Sal. Getting between all these islands entails taking short internal flights -TACV offers connections between Santiago, Boa Vista and Sal.
Stay at the Hotel Oásis Atlântico Praiamar – a mustard-yellow hotel in Praia, perched on a rocky headland, with attractive terraces looking out to sea.
The falls are every bit as monumental and magnificent as you imagined, their noise greater than a million migrating wildebeests, their mists visible from 40 miles away. Dr. David Livingstone, who in 1855 became the first European to set eyes on them, named them after his queen (who unfortunately would never see them); they were soon widely recognized as one of the natural wonders of the world.
A fantasy destination of every adventure traveler, the falls are a mile wide, spanning the entire breadth of the Zambezi River. As they crash 400 feet to the gorge below, they create a delicate, endless shower of rain, rainbows, and – if the moon is bright and full enough – lunar rainbows that drift in and out of view.
At dawn and dusk the sky, water, and mist take on hues of pink and orange, especially during the wet season from March to May, when the cascades are at their greatest capacity and the opaque spray is kicked 1,000 feet into the sky. It is easy to imagine Dr. Livingstone’s awe as he wrote: “On sights as beautiful as this, Angels, in their flight must have gazed.” So was named today’s 15-minute heart-stopping “Flight of the Angels” over the falls, which rates as one of the world’s most scenic plane trips.
At the foot of the falls, the white-knuckle rapids provide some of the best rafting in the world. This is where the Zambezi plummets through the narrow basalt gorges separating Zambia and Zimbabwe – a mighty corridor of rushing, boiling white water interspersed with welcome havens of calm. The Zambezi’s classic passages – with names like Ghostrider and Moemba Falls – are rated IV and V on a scale of I-VI (you’ll walk around the really bad ones). Yet they are also some of the safest, in large part due to deep water and an absence of rocks midstream.
The first day out following the put-in at Victoria Falls is the most adrenaline-packed: You bounce through ten of the world’s biggest drops, reminiscent of those in the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Some local operators offer short-term, “crash” trips of one to three days, but it’s a shame to travel such a distance only to shortchange the Mighty Z. Nothing tops it.
Huge granite masses – seamed, split, shaped, and sculpted by time and the elements – form an array of giant whalebacks, fanciful castles, and knobbly outcrops that extend for thousands of square miles through the Matobo Hills (aka the Matopos).
This bizarre landscape so bewitched Cecil J. Rhodes (after whom Zimbabwe took its former name of Rhodesia), he arranged to be buried here. No one leaves the park without spending an awe-inspiring moment at the site of his hillside grave, named by Rhodes “View of the World.” The area has deservedly been considered a center of spiritual power since the first hunters and gatherers decorated their homes with rock art some 30,000 years ago.
Cave paintings can still be seen, their quality and quantity as impressive as the wildlife. Many paintings depict the white and black rhinos that still live here in great numbers. So do leopards, cheetahs, and more than 300 species of birds, including the world’s largest number of raptors: eagles (the park is in fact shaped like a giant eagle), hawks, and owls. Lost amid this vast, natural rock garden is the Big Cave Camp, which accommodates just sixteen guests in a 2,000-acre wilderness on the border of the national park.
Anything your hosts don’t know about the area’s geography, art, and wildlife isn’t worth knowing. Dinner is served around a traditional outdoor fire, and if you’re lucky enough to be there when a full moon illuminates the rock configurations, you’ll understand why Rhodes could never leave.
A canoe safari on the mighty Zambezi River, through ancient floodplains toward the Indian Ocean, is a trip through primeval Africa and some of its most remote and beautiful riverine scenery.
Leaving the heart-stopping white-water rapids upriver at Victoria Falls, all is serene as canoers glide along channels and pools and past countless islands. Hippos and Cape buffalo wallow beneath the low-hanging branches of trees full of bird life. The Ruwesi Canoe Safari, a four-day trip, covers the most interesting stretch of the Middle Zambezi, and beautifully sited camps are set up as you progress downstream. Guides make sure you’re canoe-bound just before sunrise, the river’s most bewitching hour.
For the less peripatetic, the permanently sited Chikwenya Safari Lodge is beautifully situated at the confluence of the Sapi and Zambezi rivers, facing one of the Zambezi’s largest islands. The Chikwenya’s guides strike off on bush walks with guests in tow – an activity allowed in very few of the national reserves. You’ll get back to camp in time for the obligatory sunset river ride along the Zambezi, an end to another perfect day in the bush.
Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest, best-known, and most accessible national park. It boasts more than 100 different species of animal and 400 species of birds, putting it in the front ranks of the world’s wildlife centers. It is also one of the few great elephant sanctuaries left in Africa; herds of up to a hundred can be seen finding their way to the watering holes at dusk.
Of the 300-mile network of game-viewing roads, the most popular is the 10-Mile Drive, a loop through and around the most wildlife-packed areas of the park and past the major watering holes, such as Nyamandhlovu Pan with its raised viewing platform.
One of the country’s best permanent safari camps, the Hide, is ideally located on the eastern boundary of Hwange Park. Its name derives from the many hidden viewing spots, some underground and others unobtrusively constructed above, from which you can watch the wealth of wildlife without ever leaving camp.
The Camp Pan, a fossilized riverbed that has long been a popular and busy watering hole, is located just paces from the guests’ dining area. But the Hide’s excellent guides lure guests away from the backyard action with promises of even better viewing in the bush on organized walks and drives.
Just 10 miles or so downstream from the Tongabezi Safari Lodge are the thundering Victoria Falls; although you cannot hear their roar, you are somehow aware of their powerful presence. Yet Tongabezi itself is a place of tranquility, built along the banks of the still-gentle Zambezi so that each guest cottage and its veranda enjoys award-winning sunsets.
The lodge is no bush camp: There’s a tennis court and riverside swimming pool, four-poster beds, and sunken baths (loos with views!). Tasteful natural furnishings one could describe as “high bush” decorate the Tree House, or open-air Honeymoon House, atop a cliff. This is the perfect romantic base for your Zambezi experience, whether for invigorating morning bush walks and bird walks, or for gentle six-hour to four-day canoe trips, overnighting on the river’s many private islands.
You can also choose to soar over the falls in the lodge’s private Cherokee plane or take a wild white-water rafting trip at their base.
The chance for an encounter of the closest kind with a rare mountain gorilla in its last remaining habitat is here in Bwindi National Park. The numbers of this powerful but gentle creature have been gravely reduced by poaching, while the political unrest in neighboring Rwanda has curtailed the great strides that were made by the late Dian Fossey at the Karisoke Research Center.
Today, half of the dwindling population of about 600 beasts lives peacefully in Uganda, a country that is once again courting tourism. Small, controlled numbers of visitors accompanied by authorized guides are permitted to track the gorillas through what was formerly called the “impenetrable” jungle.
The trail through the tropical rain forest is challenging and exciting, and while there is no guarantee that you will see the gorillas, the local guides are experts at interpreting every broken twig and second-guessing the animals’ daily routines. Different family groups of gorillas have been partially habituated to the human presence and eventually come in close to investigate their visitors – first the mighty silverbacks, the leaders of the groups, then the younger ones, followed by mothers carrying or nursing their babies.
The guides, many of whom are affiliated with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, are primate specialists – adding an invaluable element to these trips.
Winston Churchill described Uganda as “the pearl of Africa.’’ In a country on the mend from past political upheaval, you’ll sometimes feel you have it all to yourself.
Murchison Falls are uncontested as one of the world’s great natural wonders and were once described as the most exciting thing to happen to the Nile in its 4,200-mile stretch. Unlike the massive 5,600-foot expanse of the Zambezi cataracts at Victoria Falls, here the mighty Nile narrows from nearly 1,000 feet and explodes through a rock cleft barely 20 feet wide before plunging 130 feet with incredible force. It is a mesmerizing sight, whether approached on foot or by boat.
A water launch on the Nile quietly approaches the base of the falls, slipping past numbers of massive animals – sometimes 100 hippos around one bend, and everywhere some of the world’s largest crocodiles, immobile, watching. There are few concessions to the 21st (or even the 20th) century’ here, and it takes little to imagine yourself a 19th-century explorer in search of the source of the Nile.