Hwange Safari – Zimbabwe

Pinch me – I’m in Africa seeing the animals I dreamed about!

After our six AM “wakey-wakey” greeting from Phanuel and a quick breakfast, we embarked on a ten-hour safari. We saw more animals then we had seen the day before-elephants, impalas and wart hogs. But most exciting of all were seeing the animals we hadn’t seen yet – hippos, giraffes, lions, crocodiles, zebras, baby hyrax, and kudu.

Yesterday and today we saw so many elephants that we almost developed “just another elephant” syndrome. We even had another elephant charge the back of our Jeep. Phanuel told us the elephant was a young bull who was just playing with us. He knew because his ears were out and his trunk was down.

Albert, our guide gave us a lesson about elephant nutrition and digestion by breaking open a large hunk of elephant poop and showing us what was inside.

We saw an elephant drinking and refreshing himself at one of the watering holes.

We stopped at one of the largest lakes in the park for tea. While watching a crocodile swimming in the lake, I noticed black blobs popping up and down. Phanuel told us they were hippos.

Right below where we had our tea was a den of adorable baby hyrax.

After more game viewing we stopped at the Masuma watering hole for lunch. Our guides set out a lovely lunch for us.

It was an animal bonanza with hippos, crocodiles, lions and beautiful birds.

On the ride back to camp, we saw four zebras. I hope to get a better zebra picture before I leave.

For our final night in Camp Kashawe , the staff performed a thank you song and their beautiful national anthem. They invited us to join them in some African dancing around the fire. I was so very touched by their beautiful words and the warm atmosphere they created for us. It was a beautiful way to end a perfect three-day stay.


A Day in an African Village

Today we had the privilege of meeting the residents of an African village and learning about their daily lives. Francisca and Phillip, the owners of the homestead (villages are composed of family homesteads) we visited, welcomed us to their home and showed us how they lived.

Francisca, her friends and the children sang a welcoming song for us.

We went in to their kitchen which is a small building with their dishes and an open fire for cooking.

Residents at a neighboring homestead were preparing to build a new hut.

A very special part of the day was sharing tea and butter and jam sandwiches the villagers prepared for us. Francisca had invited some of her neighbors to join us for the day and during tea they introduced themselves and told us about their families. Then we did the same. After introductions, we asked each other questions about women’s lives.

Before going to their homestead, we went to a market with a list of food items to take as gifts. The list was in Shona, one of the languages of the area, so we had to get help to know what to buy. People in the market were helpful, and everyone laughed as we figured out what to get. I took a picture of three of the girls who helped us. They didn’t like how their picture looked and wanted to pose for another one.

One of the most interesting items on our list was a long bar of soap. The villagers wash their clothes by hand using a slice of the soap to rub on their clothes.

The Zimbabwe economy is in bad shape right now; they have no cash. The ATM machines are empty most of the time,and the banks often do not have any cash. People line up in front of the banks early each morning in the hopes of being able to get cash. We gave our cash for the groceries to Phanuel who charged the groceries and took the cash back to the camp staff. Most transactions are conducted via a cell phone app and no cash changes hands.

On the way to the village we stopped to talk with some women who had been occupying a tent for the last year to protest their husbands not being paid. The men, who worked in a government-run coal mine, had not been paid in five years.

I had an almost close call this morning when I ran back to my tent to get my water bottle before we left. I made a wrong turn and rather than heading to my tent, I was heading out of the camp. Lucky for me, two of the staff were walking down the road and showed me the right way to go. They also pointed out the tracks of the lions who had been on the road the evening before.

We went on a short safari before dinner. After about an hour we had only seen two impalas and a few birds and I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t see many animals. Suddenly Godfrey, our safari guide, stopped the safari vehicle and quietly said, “elephant to the right.” We were thrilled to see an elephant not too far off the road. And then we saw two elephants. One of the elephants came closer to our safari vehicle. It was so exciting. Suddenly he was only about two feet from me. Just when I was starting to feel he might be a little too close, Godfrey stepped on the gas and took off. The elephant charged after us.

Farther along we hit an elephant bonanza-at least ten elephants were walking through a field.

We spent so much time looking at the elephants that it was dark before we headed back to camp. On the way back we heard an elephant roar close to our safari vehicle and an elephant came charging out of the trees. It was all pretty exciting.


Johannesburg to Zimbabwe

Today we flew from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls and boarded a van for Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe. Phanuel, our OAT trip guide, met us at the airport and pointed out sights along the two-hour drive to the park. At the entrance to the park, we boarded safari vehicles for a one-hour game drive to our camp.

Camp staff welcomed us with music and special drinks.

The main area is open air, and we each have our own individual tent cabins. Once it is dark, we must be escorted to our cabins by a staff member armed with a rifle.

Our cabin is really a tent with canvas sides and screen doors, but it has electricity and a bathroom with solar-powered hot water. It is totally charming.

After dinner, Phanuel imitated the animal sounds we might hear at night and reminded us not to leave our cabin unescorted. As I lay in bed listening to all the animal sounds, I heard an elephant and at least two other animals I couldn’t identify.

Lesedi Cultural Village

After an incredibly enlightening but very sobering visit to Soweto and Johannesburg yesterday, today we enjoyed an uplifting and joyous visit to Lesedi Cultural Village. Victor, our wise and knowledgeable tour guide, provided amazing insight and information about African history and culture on the three-hour round-trip ride to and from the village. We felt so fortunate to be able to talk with him about his experiences growing up in South Africa.

Located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, the Lesedi Cultural Village is composed of traditional homesteads inhabited by the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho and Ndebele tribes who live according to tribal folklore and the traditions of their ancestors. Nelson Mandela was a member of the Xhosa tribe. Young men in tribal dress greeted us with song and music as we entered the village.

Before going to the villages, our Zulu guide gave us a brief African tribal language lesson and history of the tribes. Zulu and Xhosa languages incorporate a clicking sound which made it a bit challenging to repeat the words he taught us.

The Zulu village was our first stop. The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in Southern Africa and were known as a powerful people. Our Zulu guide demonstrated how visitors would safely enter a Zulu village. After we received permission to enter, the gates were opened and we went in and toured the village.

In each village, tribal members in native dress demonstrated daily activities like weaving straw mats, grinding corn and carrying water in head-top containers.

In one of the villages, we went inside the one of the dwellings.

A traditional African dance show was a powerful ending to our delightful visit.


Soweto and Johannesburg

First stop today was Soweto, the black residential southwest townships of Johannesburg. Soweto has a population of 1.3 million with 99.5% black or colored.

The area was larger and the homes more diverse than I expected. Many of the homes were small and crammed closely together.

But there were also lovely homes with well-tended gardens. Winnie Mandela’s home took up an entire block.

On the Main Street of Soweto, a group of young men entertained us with a peppy song and dance routine.

A young woman gave us a guided tour of Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto.

In 1976, the students of Soweto protested the requirement that all education be delivered in Afrikaans, the language of the government but not the people of Soweto. Fifteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be shot and killed by the police. The picture of the dying Hector being carried away by his sister and friend became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.

The Soweto uprising brought the fight against apartheid to the world’s attention.

After visiting Soweto, we went to the Apartheid Museum. It was a somber visit looking at the history of apartheid in S. Africa.

It was an afternoon of contrasts as we first drove through downtown Johannesburg, which  has boarded up buildings because so much business and commerce have left the city center for the beautiful nearby city of Sandton. Beautiful modern architecture, clean streets and new buildings on almost every other block confirmed what our guide told us about the decline of Johannesburg and rise of Sandton.

My experiences in Soweto, Johannesburg and Sandton today left me troubled by the reality that a city of more than nine million people could be building beautiful new office buildings but not provide a public transportion system so people would not need to walk miles to get to work. Life is hard for many of the people here, but in spite of the hardships the people were friendly and welcoming. I think it must be true that people visit Southern Africa for the animals but return for the people.

Welcome to Johannesburg

We are here! I am amazed at how great I feel after a fifteen-hour flight, the longest ever for me. Here’s my explanation- a long flight provides more uninterrupted time to sleep than a seven or eight-hour flight.

We had  great arrival-our luggage all made it, customs was welcoming and our smiling transfer driver was waiting for us as we entered the airport lobby.

Larry, our transfer driver, shared his enthusiasm for his country as he drove us to the hotel. He told us that that there are twelve official languages in S. Africa; he speaks six of them. His step-father was a visiting lecturer in African studies at the University of Illinois. When he learned we would be here a few days, he said we could not leave without visiting Soweto. After planning a visit to Soweto for the next day and hearing from people about how unsafe it was, I was thrilled to hear his recommendation.

After settling in to our room, Jeanne and I had a wonderful dinner of stuffed black mushrooms and S. African wine.

Off to Africa

The day is finally here-I am leaving for my dream trip to Africa.  Almost two years ago, my dear friend, Jeanne Asakura, said, “Sure, I’ll go to Africa with you.”  Since husband Paul’s business requires him to have reliable internet access, I was thrilled to find an enthusiastic travel buddy who could go “off the grid” with me. Fourteen months ago we booked the last two places on our Overseas Adventure Travel safari and today we start our adventure. Packing for this trip was a bit of a challenge. OAT advised us to wear muted earth tones, not black or blue which attract tsetse flies, or white or bright colors which have traditionally been used to keep animals away. Not much in my closet is beige, khaki or olive.  I did a little thrift store shopping and now have an adequate safari wardrobe of earth-tone clothing.

We begin our adventure with a couple of days in Johannesburg to see the sights, visit Soweto and recover from our fifteen-hour flight. Then we connect with the fourteen other members of our  group and fly to Victoria Falls to meet our tour guide, Phanuel. From there we travel by small planes and motor vehicles to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. Our last stop will be a return to Victoria Falls to explore and then back to Johannesburg to fly home.

Most of our accommodations will be tented camps in national parks. I loved canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota, so I know I will be just fine with my lodgings.  The tents are pretty luxurious with en-suite bathrooms and electricity and I have heard that the food is excellent. Some of the camps are solar powered and the amount of available light and power each day will be affected by how sunny the day was.

Internet availability will be scarce in the camps, maybe non-existent.  I plan to write each day, but I will only be able to post when I am somewhere with WIFI.

So much about this trip excites me-viewing the animals in their natural habitat, being in a place that is so different from what I know and meeting people from different cultures. Because I traveled with OAT to Peru and Ecuador, I know there will be wonderful opportunities to interact with local people and learn more about how they live.

Let the adventure begin!

Leiden, Netherlands

Yoga in the sun room  of our charming little row house was a perfect start to our perfect day in Leiden, our last stop before going home. As we walked into the town center we noticed all the people enjoying the beautiful day on the canals. The Old Rhine and the New Rhine rivers meet in Leiden and after Amsterdam, Leiden has the most canals of any city in the Netherlands.

A tour boat ride on the canals gave us a different view of the city.  Operated by Rondvaart, the tour, narrated by a Leiden University student, lasted about an hour. Our guide conducted the tour in both Dutch and English, but as we were the only English-speaking people on the tour, I don’t think we got quite as much information.  There are a number of boat tour companies, and some of them may focus more on English, but we enjoyed our tour and our guide and learned a lot about Leiden.

It was interesting to learn about Leiden history and architecture.

It was fun to learn some of the quirky things about the city.  As we passed the beautiful new library at Leiden University, our guide told us that the university had recently renamed the library “Leiden University Library” to better reflect their international focus. Unfortunately, no one anticipated that the name change would become a bit of joke because the acronym, LUL, is a Dutch word for penis.

All over Leiden people were sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful day. We found an outside table at a little corner cafe for lunch.

Nothing on the menu looked recognizable to us, but we saw a great-looking dish go by and asked the waiter for two of those. Our surprise lunch turned out to be a wonderful open-faced sandwich with speck, brie, honey, walnuts and thyme.

After our delightful lunch, we visited the Leiden University Botanical Garden, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Begun at the end of the 16th century, it was originally established to benefit medical students. The beautiful garden winds around one of the canals and was the perfect setting for an afternoon walk.

I especially enjoyed the Traditional Chinese medicine herb garden.

As we arrived home, the two neighbors we met the night before were sitting outside. We had a great time talking with them about traveling, bicycling, and local culture. Having the opportunity to meet locals is one of my favorite benefits of staying in home-sharing rentals.

For dinner we had the best Thai food I have ever eaten at Siri Thai. Like many other businesses in Leiden, they did not take credit cards. Our waiter told us that was pretty common in Leiden to only accept cash.

We loved our time in Leiden and hope to return. The beautiful canals, winding streets,  bicycling culture and friendly people reminded us of Amsterdam, but Leiden is quieter, slower and quainter.

The following day we used the few hours  before leaving for Amsterdam to fly home to take one last little stroll to the Leiden center. The quiet atmosphere on a cloudy Monday morning was very different from the vibrant activity of the sunny Sunday afternoon the day before. We stopped for lunch and Paul had a final local beer, Texels which is from the Dutch island of Texel.

We had a great time talking with our young waitress. She recommended that we visit de burcht before we left.  We took her advice and enjoyed our visit to the 11th century structure in the center of the city. Formerly used for protection, the site is now a park and the views of the city from the top were lovely.


Mechelen, Belgium

Today we said “good-bye” to Lille and left for Leiden, Netherlands, our home for the next two days. On the way to Leiden, we stopped in the lovely town of Mechelen, Belgium, just south of Antwerp. As we approached the square, we saw the dramatic St. Rumbold Cathedral Tower and heard the beautiful bells ringing the hour. Mechelen is the home of the Royal Carillon School, the first and largest carillon school in the world..

We had a great time exploring the quaint town. It was a beautiful, sunny market day. We saw some people eating this yummy looking fish at the market and decided to try some for lunch. The people next to us were also drinking a yummy looking beer with their fish, so we got some of that as well.

The most delightful young man helped us choose cheese from his choices of young, old, older and oldest.

Since we were in Belgium, I had to buy more chocolate. The most helpful woman at Gauthier Chocolate helped me choose some wonderful chocolates.

Our few hours in Mechelen went much too fast, and it was time to be on our way to meet our landlady in Leiden, Netherlands.  Our adorable little row house in Leiden is in such a friendly neighborhood. I went outside to take a picture and two women next door introduced themselves and we had a great little chat.

The best part of this house is the enchanting back yard. I am looking forward to having my morning coffee there tomorrow.

Brussels and Beer

We had a great day in Brussels today-took the high-speed train from Lille, walked from the train station to the Grand Place and joined a guided walking tour.  The Grand Place is one the most beautiful i have seen; so many of the building are embellished with gold.

Our walking tour guide was from Scotland but did a great job leading us around Brussels. The popular symbol of Brussels, Manneken Pis, a small sculpture of a little boy urinating was one of our first stops.

We saw the first mural of the fifty murals on the Comic Book Route which honors Belgium’s role as a leader in comic arts.

In the afternoon we did a beer tasting and brewery tour.  After tasting and learning about some of Belgium’s traditional beers, we toured the Cantillon Brewery, the only brewery in Brussels that makes Lambic beer.  Unlike most other beers that use brewer’s yeast, Lambic is fermented by exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria in an open vat.

We got to taste the  first stage of the Lambic beer.  Our guide told us it was quite a special treat to taste the Lambic, but we didn’t really like the sour taste.

In our nine hours in Brussels, we tried the big four culinary specialties of the city-frites, chocolate, beer and waffles.  We ate frites for lunch and drank Belgium beer in the afternoon. Before our beer tasting we had a Belgium chocolate chaud, a big square of chocolate on a wooden spoon stirred into hot milk.

We ended our Brussels adventure with the best treat of all, a Liege waffle. Our beer tasting guide directed us to Maison Dandoyher favorite place for waffles and told us what to order.