Thrill-seeking where three countries collideDangling half way across a gorge high above the Zambezi River, I realise that bravery comes in varying degrees.
I’d felt terribly adventurous, getting strapped into an overgrown nappy of buckles and belts to zip-line through the gorges at Victoria Falls. But that wasn’t bold enough, because I whizzed through spectacular scenery without daring to look down at the dark green river running through a stunning canyon or admire the lush canopy of trees clinging to steep slopes.
My focus was firmly on the wire above or the safe haven of the platform rushing rapidly closer.
Luckily my ‘eureka’ moment - to replace the previous ‘aaagggh’ moments - came in time to relax and finally appreciate my surroundings. “Try to look like you’re having fun,” urged one of my two guides as he snapped photos of me in several precarious positions. I gave a sheepish grin as I finally looked around and soaked up the absolutely splendid views.
I was impressed by the engineering too, since the zip lines run by adventure company Wild Horizons are quite some feat, with nine sturdy platforms melded into the rocks and wires criss-crossing the chasms.
I was zipping because I’ve decided, at an age that precludes this from being a mid-life crisis, to seek a touch more adventure. And the perfect place to do it is a magical point on the map where three countries intersect. By combining Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Livingstone in Zambia and Chobe National Park in Botswana you mix the pleasure of game drives with the beauty of the falls, and adrenaline options like helicopter flips, canoeing, elephant excursions and walking with lions.
November is low season for tourism with a high risk of rain, and a couple of times it pelted down at my first base, Ngoma Safari Lodge in northern Botswana. The lack of tourists is a pleasure, but animals in Chobe were also scarce as they began migrating from the floodplains to drier land. What they left behind were the skulls and bones of dead elephant and buffalo, suggesting 2014 was a tough year for wildlife as well as humans.
An hour’s drive the next day took me into Zimbabwe and I reached Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in time for lunch. Not my lunch, the vulture lunch, with bones and scraps from the restaurants fed to the birds every day in a fascinating but stinky ritual.
The skulking birds watch impatiently, creeping ever closer as bags of waste are unpacked by their feeder, Alec Zulu. Then wings flap, beaks clash, squabbles break out and the photo moment is lost in a frenzied dust cloud.
Zulu is my guide to Victoria Falls the next morning, and as we walk to each viewpoint he shares a lifetime of anecdotes and history. He talks of battles raged around the land before the white men came and explains the topology of the river.
The falls are mere trickles compared to full flood season, and many of the rock faces are dry. Later when I view them from the Zambian side my guide has me duck under a fence and walk out onto rocks that a few weeks later will be drowned by unstoppable torrents. I leave my camera bag by the fence as we walk to the edge, admiring perfectly round holes in the boulders where centuries of swirling water have ground them down. I’m such a Joburger that I’m more worried about my bag being nicked than plummeting off the precipice to a watery doom.
I felt much safer on the sturdy back of an elephant a day later, organised by the excellent activities desk at my Zambian base, the David Livingston Safari Lodge & Spa.
You can argue about the moral rights and wrongs of elephant riding and lion walking and trust me, I did. But I came away happy that Zambezi Elephant Trails and Lion Encounter are as ethical as anything not entirely natural can be.
I make eye contact with one of the larger elephants, Madinda, and decide we’ll be a team. “He’s the naughty one,” my frontman Eliah Chiraba tells me once I’m on board. But he’s also the most intelligent, so I feel quite at home.
Madindah is in his 30s and came to the centre after being abandoned by his herd during a severe drought. The two founding elephants were orphaned as babies in a cull many years earlier. If it wasn’t for this place they would be dead, manager Gerald Chibanda says.
He explains how they are taught to give rides through rewards and positive reinforcement, not by beatings. “We don’t want them to forget how to be elephants so after the rides we take the saddles off and they can go out into the bush,” he says. One broody female allowed herself to be led astray by wild male elephants a while ago. She returned pregnant, as the cute baby ambling along ahead of us attests.
I quickly grow used to the gently rocking motion as we sway remarkably quietly through the trees and across a river. There are a few bouncy moments when Madindah buries his head in a large tree and comes out wielding half of it snapped off in his trunk. I try to take photos from the unusual angle of behind his ears, but all I can see is a tugging mass of grey doing battle with quivering green.
The Lion Encounter based at the same location runs Africa’s first programme to introduce lions born in captivity back into the wild. Handlers begin walking with cubs of about six weeks old, not to get them used to humans but to get used to their surroundings. At a year old the lions move as a pride into a semi-wild but secure environment. When they have cubs themselves, they will be raised by the pride without any human contact to gain the same skills as wild-born lions. The programme is in its third year and has released one pride of six into the wild so far.
There are three cubs on our walk, one of six months and eight-month-old siblings, and the size difference is already well pronounced. We humans have them outnumbered, with three handlers, three tourists and two volunteer workers from England.
First we get a thorough briefing by our guide Friday Ngambi. “You may notice a lion looking at you with a look we call the naughty look, crouched down and looking you straight in the eye,” he says. A naughty look from a lion sounds like a serious proposition, so I watch carefully as he demonstrates how to use my stick to distract a cub that wants to hone its fledgling hunting skills on me. Walk as a group, Ngambi says, and don’t get separated.
“Keep your eye on what they’re doing if they get behind you.” Sneaking up for the kill, that’s what they’ll be doing. It all sounds terribly exciting, so it’s a little disappointing when the playful cubs go romping off together and leave us humans to walk alone.
I wanted a naughty look from a lion, but all I got was the cold shoulder.
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Ngoma Safari Lodge and Victoria Falls Safari Lodge: www.africaalbidatourism.com
David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa: www.thedavidlivingstone.com
Wild Horizons: www.wildhorizons.co.za
Lion Encounter: www.lionencounter.com
Zambezi Elephant Trails: www.safpar.com
SAA flies direct from Johannesburg to Kasane in Botswana, Livingstone in Zambia and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.