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The first four days of the trip were spent exploring Cape Town, one of South Africa’s most beautiful cities. We were treated to incredible weather and explored the city and its surrounds extensively including a tour of Table Mountain, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a tour and tasting of the country’s oldest wine farm, a hike up Lion’s Head while it was covered in a bloom of wildflowers as well as a picnic in Cape Point Nature Reserve, the south western most tip of the continent. On this day we also stopped off to see Cape Fur seals, African penguins and even some young humpback whales along the way. Cape Town is a city alive with adventure, top quality cuisine, history, culture and beauty and was the perfect place to start our trip.
Paul and Erica continued on to Bayala Game Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal without me accompanying them. They loved this portion of the trip and were spoilt with numerous rhino sightings so typical to the area. They also had incredible lion viewing, seeing a number of different prides with cubs and large, mature males. They were even treated to a sighting of a large male leopard feeding on a kill. Historically it has been difficult to view leopards in this area due to their shy nature but thankfully due to conservation efforts this is steadily changing.
From Bayala, Paul and Erica flew to Johannesburg where I met them for our onward flight to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We spent two days exploring the majestic Zambezi River and the falls themselves. From sunset cruises, a private walking tour of the Falls, a helicopter flip to gain a different perspective on this natural wonder of the world to a gorge swing with a 70m free fall and a whopping 95m long pendulum swing that only Erica was brave enough to take on, this area packed in plenty of astounding beauty and adrenaline to our quick two day stay.
From Victoria Falls we boarded a small flight to one of my favourite National Parks on the continent, Mana Pools. It has towering forests of Winter-thorn Acacia, Mahogany, Ebony and Fig trees that line the mighty Zambezi River and filter an unmistakable blue light onto the wildlife below. It is a haven for those guests seeking the best of Africa’s walking experiences, photographers keen to get a new angle and those wanting true adventure.
Some of the largest elephant bulls in the area have made themselves famous from developing the ability to stand up on their back legs to reach for the highest and thus tastiest branches. We were spoilt with finding one particular individual known as Boswell. Carefully trailing him and his entourage of other elephants, we positioned ourselves tactically and waited patiently, eventually having the herd feed past us within meters. To be on foot with elephants in this way is one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring experiences there is.
Another incredible highlight was finding a pack of the highly endangered wild dogs. We watched them wake and play before moving within a few meters of us to go on their evening hunt. They went on to make an impala kill and being an animal that moves and feeds incredibly quickly, we were lucky to witness them finish off the remains of the carcass.
Other highlights included some amazing lion viewing. There was a severe drought in the area and as a result prey species were weakened and the lions were taking advantage of this. We had various sightings of prides on waterbuck, buffalo and sadly even some young elephant calves that had succumbed to the difficult conditions.
Other special experiences included canoeing on the Zambezi followed by a sunset drinks stop on the river bank, explorations into the centre of a living a baobab and an afternoon watching the stunning Southern carmine bee-eaters flying in and out of the nesting holes in the banks of the Zambezi. Living close to the earth and yet in total comfort in luxury style tents adds another special dimension to the overall experience. If you fear camping, this version of glamping will cure you for life.
I could tell you that Mana Pools is pure wilderness but ultimately it is an ineffable place; it must be experienced.
Uganda was next on our list. We were lucky enough to see a group of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, in Kibale National Park. We got a habituation permit, which allows you to spend the day with a group of researchers who trail the chimps in the area and record their day-to-day behaviour and movements. Despite the sighting being difficult from a photographic perspective with the chimps high up in the trees, it was fantastic.
We watched some of the bigger, dominant chimps chase less dominant males through the canopy screaming and swinging from one branch to the next. We watched them grooming one another, napping and feeding their young as great blue turacos weaved though the trees amongst them shouting their distinctive call. The forests are also teeming with other wildlife and we were spoilt with sightings of primates such as the red colobus monkey, red tailed monkey, black and white colobus, Olive baboon and the shy L’hoest’s monkey.
From here we headed to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, even the name summons up a sense of the adventure, which it promises and ultimately delivers on.
The highlight for all of us was finding the iconic apes, the gorillas. There is a startling familiarity that is felt when a gorilla and a human lock eyes. They are so human and yet not quite and we are so gorilla and yet not quite. The result is a bizarre insight or sense of what it might be like to be the other.
Spending time with the groups feels as if you’re amongst friends. Mother’s nurse their babies as the silverback munches noisily beside her. Youngsters scramble up trees and play rough and tumble, jostling between the adults dotted around the squashed vegetation; some resting, some grooming, others feeding.
On our second day, a female walked right up and sat in front of me with her 3-month-old baby hugging her large chest. The little youngster peered at me inquisitively, sun falling onto it’s face and close enough for me to see the intimate detail of its features. After resting and feeding there a while the mother then wandered right past Erica sitting beside me, her baby scrambling up her side and onto her back, before they meandered into the forest. Another highlight was a few moments alone with a silverback, the largest found in Uganda currently.
This is by far one of the peak wildlife experiences on the planet and I would encourage anyone to leap at the opportunity to witness these incredible beasts.
By Amy Attenborough
“Just over a week into my safari and I wonder how I’ve changed, if at all. Certainly the experiences I’ve had and things I’ve seen have shaped me in someway. But then, as if by some ancient, unspeakable memory, I remember… it’s in my blood.”