We curious humans can’t resist a pull towards out of the way places where the possibility of not seeing another person or car for days is just as enticing as the beauty of the landscape or the local wildlife. The journey, while possibly a tad more challenging, is often part of the adventure and makes it all the more special. From repeated experience, I can testify that a major schlep to reach a place almost always reaps massive returns (and you feel all intrepid and a bit like Ranulph Fiennes for a day or two). In the late ‘90s I took at trip on a ferry from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi to Likoma Island. Having travelled hard for a month through Mozambique, we decided that we’d earned a little luxury and splashed out on a first class ticket (all of about $20), envisaging a cosy bunk and a cabin cooled by the lake breeze. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that and first class turned out to be a hard bench on the open deck. Third class was down in the bilges with a lot of people, assorted livestock, bunches of bananas, pungent dried fish and sacks of rice. Luxury was clearly relative. The on-board entertainment consisted of watching the dugout canoes of traders pulling alongside as we chugged along. These boats were hewn from a single tree and some were vast – I counted a family of ten plus baggage seated comfortably in one. Sales were made to the passengers after noisy haggling and the dugouts paddled off as the sun went down. We disembarked in the dark at 4am. It was rather like the D-Day landings...lifeboats were lowered with a single kerosene lamp suspended from the prow. Passengers in the bottom of the ship fought with each other for space, behaving as if each boat was the last. Finally aboard our own lifeboat, we huddled in the cool of the early morning and listened to the gentle splash of the oars as we headed for the dark island. We sat on the beach and watched the sun turn the smooth lake to mercury as the sounds of the day reached us from the villages on Likoma. We spent several idyllic days camped in rustic thatched shacks on an almost impossibly picturesque beach, accessorized with promontories of big round boulders. We snorkelled in the warm clear water where colourful tropical fish swim, rivalling any marine reef (and lacking only the coral and saltiness of the ocean).
This little patch has now evolved into the beautiful island lodge of Kaya Mawa and Likoma is the jumping-off point for the equally special hideaway of Nkwichi (pictured above), on the Mozambique side of the lake. These are not the easiest places to get to but then again, that's half the appeal. That said, you can still enjoy the solitude and splendid isolation without slumming it on the deck of the ferry. Simple berths are available for the adventurous and there are also charter flights to the island. Find out more about the Lake. Check out Nkwichi - our featured hideaway. Find inspiration for other Wild experiences.
This morning I rode an African elephant. Until now this experience featured on the anti-bucket list...something I intended never to do before I die. I have quite strong opinions about the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity and gaining commercially through rides and teaching them tricks. However I decided that getting on my high-elephant about it in a state of relative ignorance wasn’t very fair. I did some research and decided that Safari Par Excellence seemed like a company with integrity and so opted to go and chat to the folk that work with the animals and experience this popular activity for myself. After the fact, I am still not sure how I feel. Undoubtedly, it was surreal to be so close to these huge animals in such a peaceful context; the cool, tough, bristly hide beneath my fingertips, the smooth groove worn in one solid piece of ivory, the proffered trunk seeking treats, the immense size, the improbable eyelashes. You get an intimate sense of “moving with the herd” and from this vantage point, can enjoy the scampering of the youngsters as they indulge their curiosity and the interaction between individuals. For an animal close to three tonnes, it is astonishing how silently it (or indeed a whole herd) moves through the bush, sensitive pads moulding over the uneven ground with infinite care. An interesting observation was that of the relationships between handlers and their animals. Clover, originally a zoo-keeper from the US and now in charge of this project, says she’s noticed the subtle body language of an elephant towards someone he doesn’t like, and the flirting that one female reserves for a particular handler. The handlers are rigorously trained and anyone who doesn’t make the grade or gel with the elephants falls by the wayside. Interestingly, many of them are Zimbabweans who have also left their homes and families for a new life. Whether the elephants enjoy being ridden or not is unclear but it is hard not to admit that they do seem fairly happy. In between their two rides a day, they go out into the bush to be elephants. One of the females left for eight months only to return pregnant to the habituated herd where she gave birth. Two of the elephant here have bred while on the project which is often taken to be a sign that they are content. Not too long ago, the herd returned from their foraging with a youngster in tow. He had been orphaned and is now growing up with his new family and treats the handlers like his bipedal buddies. I guess I still think that wild animals should remain wild and being able to be so close perhaps dispels a little of the magic. I hope that the operation of elephant safaris remains in the hands of a very few responsible people of high integrity. There is no doubt in my mind that such projects should only serve to give a home to animals that would not otherwise make it in the wild and under no circumstances should wild elephants be captured for commercial purposes. At the end of the day this is going to be a very personal decision and while some people might find it a life-changing experience, others may never quite get used to the idea.
We went to visit the Wild Horizons Elephant Wallow just outside Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side. Although generally anti- the idea of keeping wild animals captive and riding them or having them do tricks for the entertainment of people, this project is certainly worth a second look. It’s important to note that there are many people that offer such experiences around the Victoria Falls area and further afield and not all of them are run with similar sensitivity and integrity. Zenzo is a Zimbabwean who is in charge of this particular project and he speaks well and passionately about its history and the ethos behind it. The core animals that form this herd were orphaned during a culling regime in the early 1990s which at the time, thought that doing away with all the adults and leaving all the youngsters was the way to go. Now we know better, but unfortunately this left a legacy of traumatised and poorly socialised youngsters that went on to become dangerous problem animals. Saving four such individuals from most likely being put-down, the White family took them on and began to instil discipline through training that favoured rewards for good behaviour. More animals joined the herd as word of the successful rehabilitation of these youngsters spread. Some were rescued having been snared and once their horrific injuries healed, joined the rest of the elephants in training. Now, the animals are stabled on a large conservancy on which they roam for most of the day. During an hour in the morning and in the afternoon, visitors can come and ride the elephants as they go out for a walk and a forage. As Zenzo says, their ideal is for all these animals to be released but experience has shown that this is not always viable. They have lost their fear of people and the bulls particularly are likely to become crop-raiders and end up being shot. Some have been released into the wild successfully and work continues with that ideal in mind. In the meantime, the cost of their upkeep and continued care is paid for by people who are interested and passionate about their welfare. Zenzo and the Whites hope that, just as they were one of the first to successfully habituate wild African elephants, they will also be amongst the first to successfully return them to the wild. For now, they have a responsibility to ensure the animals are looked after. Find out more about The Elephant Camp. Image courtesy of Wild Horizons
Water has always had an instant renewing effect on me. I can glaze over and go gonzo for hours just watching a river go by. I get transfixed by drops cascading through a waterfall and if I’m feeling uptight, all I need to do is to have a shower to feel like I’ve sloughed off my old skin and come out all shiny and new.
The last two days on the Zambezi Queen have done something similar to my rather dusty safari-psyche. Sitting in the early evening light watching herds of elephant and buffalo glide by gently as this rather special riverboat chugs gently down the channels of the Chobe has to be something of a unique experience. This morning I woke to the lapping of the water only a few feet below the most comfortable bed in the world, and walked onto my private balcony to see a small herd of elephant swimming across the river with only the tops of their backs and heads exposed, trunks held aloft. Admittedly I think I would get cabin fever if I had to stay on a boat for more than a couple of days – the food is too good and the options for exercise all too limited for my comfort. Fortunately there is plenty to do. I opted to forego a game-drive (maintaining the water theme of my stay) and instead tried my hand at Tiger-fishing this morning and failed to coax even a nibble out of the little beggars. Yesterday evening I ventured out on a simple but immaculately designed little launch to take in the sights and sounds of the Chobe. It proved to be the perfect vantage point from which to sit and watch a herd of fifty elephant peacefully drinking, oblivious to our presence. A youngster, not yet in control of his limbs, experimented with his trunk with limited success. African skimmers wheeled around us and pied kingfishers dove for small-fry just metres from the boat. The crew surprised us by whipping up an impromptu mini-barbecue of chicken and beef kebabs on the prow of the boat. For the ride back to the “mother ship” I took up residence on the top level of the launch and watched the sunset paint the water pink and purple, and stars come out one by one in the warm African night air. Find out more about the Zambezi Queen.