Zimbabwe is so much more than Victoria Falls!

We flew straight from Cape Town to Jo’burg to Vic Falls and all very smooth, but for a client’s itinerary, you’d probably split up the flights and even have them stay in Vic Falls before going on to Hwange. Anyway, upon arrival at Vic Falls we were met and taken to the Flight Logistics lounge to wait for our flight to Manga Airstrip in the Hwange National Park. Hwange is in a South Easterly direction from Vic Falls en route to Bulawayo. It’s a five hour drive to the park or a 30 minute flight.

Our Caravan (aircraft) arrives which is a nice size and can carry 14 passengers and off we fly. It’s quite a bumpy flight but we arrive in one piece landing on the Manga airstrip – which is basically just a dust airstrip in the Hwange National Park. “That’s it guys, no phone reception for the next few days” Shock horror! What a pleasure it was to have no mobile reception. It’s amazing how reliant we have become and what bliss it was not to have to answer any calls, emails, texts or Whatsapp’s for the next 48 hours. The only time any of us used our phones was to take pictures!

I visited Somalisa Camp five years ago, which is in an African Bush Camp stable and I remember from my last visit that it was very rustic; no electricity (just flashlights), bucket showers and lots of elephants roaming through the camp. We were met by our guide Michael. AKA Magic Mike as he is commonly known, and the best game ranger there is, and has been, at Somalisa for seven years. We’ll come back to Mike…

The drive from the airstrip is approx. 30 minutes through the bush. They have had very late rains this year so the bush is lush and everything so green. From now until November there will be no rain and everything becomes very dry. They even have to pump water into the water holes as they totally dry up. However they are hoping this year the late rains might see them right through.

We drive to the camp which was refurbished in 2015 to make it more luxurious. Now, is this a good thing or bad thing? I guess there is a valid argument for both. I must say I prefer the new Somalisa however the old one was very nice as well.

We arrived at Main Camp which brought back memories – the deck and swimming pool with a water hole very close by, and of course the elephant pool. The reception/lounge had been upgraded, a new bar, a new boma area with a pizza oven and a new dining room. We were met by Engenia our host who was delightful and off we went to our tents for a quick drop off of our bags before we went on our first game drive.

The new tents, of which there are 7, are all on wooden platforms as were the old ones but these are much more luxurious. They have sliding doors with a wooden stoop looking out onto the bush. All have gauze/netting to stop any mosquito’s flying in and you can put the flaps down at night if you so desire. You’ll find a huge big bed in the middle with ample dressing room and hanging space. All the tents are en-suite and the bathrooms are superb with a huge free standing bath and indoor and outdoor shower, as well as a double vanity. The bath also has a view out onto the bush. The tents also have wood burner fire places; they weren’t lit on the first night but we asked for them to be lit the following evening.

None of the tents look into each other and all are spaced quite a distance from each other. We could see the other camp Acacia which is approx. 150m away through the camp, but again totally separate with a great outlook. Incidentally the old Somalisa tents have been moved to Expeditions Camp which is approx. 2 kms away and offer the more rustic experience – although I heard that the bucket showers are no longer.
In the kids’ tent, it was set up with three single beds, all of which could be covered by the mosquito net at night. Saying that there were very few mosquito’s.

Off we went on our drive with Michael. The drive was great with loads of elephants around, as well as nice cat sightings – both lion and cheetah. On our way back to camp in the dark Mike who had his spot light on stopped the car by a bush. He went into the bush and came out with a bright yellow chameleon, how on earth he spotted it I don’t know, but it was fabulous! He then touched it and it immediately turned a brown colour. He did put it straight back into the bush. When we got back to the camp we were given a nice hot towel to freshen up before heading off to the bar area, but before we reached the bar Mike came running over full of excitement, “quick the big male lion has just been spotted by Expedition Camp, let’s go!” Within ten minutes we were looking at the big male lion lying on the road by Expedition Camp, it was an amazing sight.

Back at camp we were enjoying a drink when about 20 elephants joined us for a drink at the elephant pool. A wonderful experience as we were literally 3m away from these elephants who were drinking and spraying water everywhere. From big bulls to small babies, it was spectacular!
Dinner was great, really good choices and good wine. After dinner a ranger must escort you back to your tent for safety reasons. The tent was actually quite chilly, it’s the change of season. However, the beds are huge and the duvets heavy. The noises in the night are unreal, lions roaring, elephants trumpeting etc.

Up at 5am, quick continental brekkie and off around 6am. It’s freezing early morning and it’s going to get colder, mid July temperatures can plummet to -5 in this part of the world. As the sun rises it warms up and then gets to mid to high 20’s. A great game drive and back to camp around 11am. Lunch at 12pm and then siesta or swim until 3pm when afternoon tea is served. No chance of dieting here!

At 4pm we are back on the vehicle following a coalition of cheetahs on the hunt, but the clever impala’s are hanging around a troop of about 100 baboons who let off a warning signal as soon as the cheetahs moved. The lioness with her cubs just lying in the open, and again large herds of elephants as far as the eye can see. This park is huge and vast at 14,000 sq km. With the first star appearing, “no that’s not a star, it’s Venus” said Michael. It’s always the first to be seen in the night sky as soon as the sun sets. Amazing to think the sun is rising in another part of the world. We also learnt that the diameter of the earth is 13,000 kms, not the circumference, but the diameter. The sky is full of stars as we headed back to camp.

That night a stir fry was served in the boma area, a delicious meal cooked on a fire – you could choose all your ingredients. Before dinner the chef would tell you what was being served and you could tell he had been practising this for a while and was very nervous about it but he got through it and his food was superb. It’s nice that the staff you don’t normally meet have a chance to mix with guests. Lying in bed that night we could hear that male lion roaring, he was very close. We felt warm and cosy in our tents as the fires had been lit, but there are also fans for those hot summer nights.

The next day our game drives were just as thrilling. The lion was literally 50m from the camp, walking through the bush before it became too hot. We followed him for a while until he disappeared. On our last drive before we headed back to the airstrip we spotted the cheetahs again. They were still in position waiting for their kill. Those cats are patient animals! We also went past a large herd of elephants cavorting at a water hole where Somalisa have built a deck with the plan for clients to sleep out overnight. Some have already!

We are at the airstrip waiting for our plane which was due to take 1hr 30mins to Bumi Hills. Michael then tells us the flight will be ok as we will be flying on King Air. The plane landed, people got off and we got on. Wow, comfortable leather seats and flying at 23,000 feet like a proper jet with a compressed cabin. And, only 40 mins to Bumi! Up we go and literally down again as we pass over Lake Kariba. I wish all these small planes could be like King Airs’.

We are met by Max our guide at Bumi Hills, onto the vehicle and off we go. The airstrip is only five minutes away from the Lodge. Bumi Hills Safari Lodge has recently reopened and a huge refurb from the old Bumi Hills has taken place. Located on top of a hill overlooking Lake Kariba, Bumi Hills Safari Lodge consists of 10 rooms all with great views of the Lake below.

On arrival in reception we were greeted with a nice welcome drink from our host Hope. Bumi Hills is a resort like property with a stunning pool area with infinity pool. We walked quickly past the WiFi lounge where there is also a games room with a snooker table and a TV. Everything was all very nicely decorated to fit in with the property and the surroundings.

A new bar deck has been put in and the dining room area has been changed. Jaison the Manager shows us the indoor dining room but tells us we won’t be using it. Everything is open and very tropical, you could be in Mauritius! There is also a gym and a very nice spa. After spending time in the bush a great way to end your holiday in Zim is by spending a few nights at Bumi Hills on the shores of Lake Kariba.

Our room is a suite with two bedrooms and a lounge between. There’s a nice large bed facing the view and a huge bathroom with freestanding bath which also has a great view. We had a balcony running all the way in front of the rooms and lounge, however there are lots of baboons around so doors must be kept shut at all times. The rooms are very well appointed. Nice hanging space and plenty of room to store your baggage.

Then off for lunch. The food here was excellent – you get a choice of meals for both lunch and dinner. Very simple homely food like at Somalisa. We decide on our activities for the next few days and start with a game drive. There’s also a choice of fishing tomorrow, a sunset cruise, village visit and a walk.

We can see elephants and hippos in the water from the lodge. We drive down the hill and there are masses of impala and also four lions in the area. This must be like a sweet shop for them. Easy pickings especially with the type of vegetation there with thick bush opening up onto open plains by the lake. We come across lots of elephants and hippos and even a few crocs in the water. Some great bird sightings, lots of Fish Eagles with the call of Africa, although the hippo call is also awesome. A huge Martial Eagle flies over us to try and grab a guinea fowl. He misses and the guinea fowl starts running in all directions. We enjoyed drinks in the bush close to the lake as the sun went down.

We decided to go fishing the next day as it also allowed us a slightly later start. So brekkie at 8am and off to fish at 9am. The five of us got on a boat with our skipper Eddie, lots of crocs and hippos in the water and off we went speeding across the lake to Starvation Island. This island is in the middle of the lake and has game on it and often the elephants swim across. The impala here must be much more relaxed as there are no predators except crocs when they drink at the lake.

We use our bait of earthworms from the worm farm and cast off! Lines in and immediately a bite, and another one and another one…….everyone was pulling in fish including bream which is a local fish to this area and makes a great meal. The smaller ones we released but the bigger ones we kept. We also caught a few catfish – one particularly large one which we kept to put into the fish pond at the lodge and one of the girls hooked a Tiger, but lost it when it was out of the water. We loved our fishing trip – obviously made much easier by having Eddie around. On our way back in our landing net was swishing around. Fish eagles overhead. This was such a great experience and we could have spent the whole day on the lake.

With all the fish we had caught we decided that we would take the fish to the local village. We had found out that Max our guide was from the local village called Mola named after the village chief. His family were there and we asked if we could meet them later and take them the fish we had caught. Very exciting!

First we returned to the lodge, released the catfish we had caught into the man made fish pond by the lodge entrance, and the bream was packed up for us to take to the village. After lunch we went to visit Mola. It is difficult to describe as there are no roads in this part of the world, just dirt tracks and Mola is about 8 kms from Bumi Hills, inland, with game roaming in the bush.

In the village of Mola there are approx. 10,000 people living here. The chief lives 7 kms off the main road. Max is very well known in these parts and as he drives through the village, everyone shouts and waves. “Zola” they shout! “Why Zola” I ask Max. He was nicknamed after Gianfranco Zola. The world’s greatest leveller – at least in my eyes! Max was a kid here and he used to see the game vehicles coming to the village and to his school and he said to himself that one day he wanted to drive a game vehicle and be a guide and fulfil his dream.

In the village people have their own space; in this space there are rondavals, one is the bedroom which is split into two different rooms, but there are no beds! One is the kitchen, one is the bathroom – the nearest water is 3 kms away so every morning and evening you go to get water in plastic containers. You can see people (mainly ladies) carrying the water home on their heads. There is a chicken pen and a goat pen, these animals roam around and provide food for the family. They have to be locked up at night due to wild animals in the area. Often parents and relations live nearby, but these yards are not on top of each other, there is ample space. No litter or rubbish, everything is spotless. As we drove into the village Max showed us the washing area where people go to shower and wash. Also the primary school where he went.
We arrived at his place and his family were so excited to see him and he them. They were so welcoming and all had the biggest smiles. We gave his wife the fish and she was so happy, and we also brought the kids some drinks. It’s amazing how some people live their lives with so little and are so happy. We complain if the WiFi doesn’t work, yet here there are no phones apart one area in the village where you can get phone reception and not that many people standing there. There are fields where vegetables are grown and given by the chief to the villagers, and nearby a fishing village which trades produce with Mola. It is very self sufficient and everyone is happy. The children (Max has four) walk to school and home again. A really different world from the world we live in.

We left Max’s home and headed back to Bumi Hills passing people and waving to all of them who were happy to wave back and make communication. After 45 minutes we were back in the comfort of our suite at Bumi Hills wondering what Max’s family were doing now, probably all sleeping.

On our last night and we had a surprise dinner on the beach at the edge of the lake. Driving there we pass 20 hippos out of the water and elephants were just walking by us. A fire was going where chairs and bean bags had been set left for us. A bar was also set up, as well as a small kitchen. The staff performed for us and we enjoyed a really good dinner in amazing surroundings with the full moon above us. We were then unfortunately told that our flight was leaving at 09:30 the next morning, but we could have definitely stayed a few more nights!
We headed back to the lodge passing the four lions who were ready to fill their stomachs, the impala not knowing which way to go………another night of survival to get through!

Next morning after breakfast, we were waved off by Jaison and the staff. Jaison was fabulous and told us his life story over dinner on the first night. How he only started school late as he worked when he was younger to support his family and siblings. His wife had just had twins and he couldn’t wait to see them again. His other son had just celebrated his 18th birthday but he couldn’t be there as he was working. However, he did his job with such efficiency and he was a real pleasure.

We loaded up the vehicle and went down to the airstrip. The flight to Harare is 1hr 30mins. We waited at the airstrip for the flight to arrive and a Cessna 206 came in to land. The smallest six seater I’ve ever seen! Our pilot Brian came to meet us, and as he’s so experienced, it made us feel a bit better. Brian has flown 747’s and he even flew Bon Jovi on their world tour. He’s retired now and does this as a hobby. What can go wrong I thought as I strapped myself into the co pilot seat and off we went!

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by Steve Bailey

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