Long-weekend safari: a mini adventure in Zimbabwe and Botswana
Even the most time-pressed traveller can squeeze in a trip to Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park
After David Livingstone set off along the Zambezi river in 1852, he spent the next four years hiking, rafting and hacking his way through the forests of southern Africa.
Few of us now have that kind of time to devote to travelling, and our maps no longer have blank spaces waiting to be filled. Yet our desire for adventure remains, even if it has to be reconciled with a limited leave allowance.
Fortunately, advances in air travel and the African road network have opened up the possibility of a weekend safari that follows in Livingstone’s footsteps - either as a standalone trip, or tagged onto a holiday in South Africa.
Few destinations appear more exotic on an airport departure board than Victoria Falls, yet you can take off from Heathrow after work on Thursday evening and be at your hotel for lunch on Friday. The time difference is minimal (Zimbabwe is an hour ahead of BST, two hours ahead of GMT) and the overnight flight maximises your opportunity to sleep.
The Victoria Falls Safari Club (above), a luxury hotel overlooking the Zambezi National Park, is the ideal base. Serene and supremely comfortable, it is a 20-minute shuttle ride from the airport and about half that from the town and falls. It also serves truly excellent food: after the long flight, a glass of cold white wine and a plate of grilled Zambezi bream with lemon, butter and capers will freshen your palette and mind.
Then your adventure will begin, with a sunset cruise along the mighty river. The Zambezi Royal sets out each evening with a well-stocked bar and onboard chef, who serves up a range of hearty snacks to nurture your spirit of adventure. It motors its way along the broad, flat water of the upper Zambezi, past bathing hippos and the channel which leads to the falls. As the sun sets and the sky darkens, it will turn back towards the town and your hotel, where dinner and a well-earned night’s sleep await.
Now it’s time for the main event: a visit to Victoria Falls. You will hear it before you see it, especially in the wet season - the great roar of water can be heard throughout the town. As you approach along a shady wooded path, what looks like smoke resolves into a plume of spray, which falls sporadically as cooling drizzle, even when the sky above is blue.
When the river is in full flow, from February to May, you should expect to be soaked. It’s a small price to pay for an audience with the world’s broadest curtain of falling water, although you may feel it as much as see it - the billowing spray obscures a lot of the view. As the rains ease and the waters recede, the curtain narrows and visibility improves. There’s less water falling but you’ll see more of it.
The impact is visceral at any time of the year, not only of the plunging water but also the deep canyon it has carved into the bedrock. For Livingstone, the first European to set eyes the spectacle, it was both a wonder and a huge inconvenience: east of the falls, the easily navigable waters are transformed into a series of tumultuous rapids, which forced the explorer and his crew to carry their boats and equipment for miles at a time.
The present-day adventurer, by contrast, can spend the afternoon at leisure, shopping for crafts in the town’s stalls and markets and then heading back to the hotel for a sunset swim and dinner accompanied by a display of traditional drumming. Audience participation is very much encouraged.
Halfway through the long-weekend safari, it’s time to travel west to the Chobe river, where Livingstone’s 1852 expedition began. After an hour’s drive along a quiet and well maintained road, you will cross into Botswana and shortly thereafter enter Chobe National Park. The landscape here has a curiously English feel, its gently rolling grasslands punctuated by oak-like mopane trees. Less familiar are the elephants that seek out their shade, and the zebras grazing by the side of the road.
You will arrive at Ngoma Safari Lodge in time for lunch, served in the open-fronted restaurant overlooking the flood plains below. Depending on the time of year, the stream in front of the lodge, which divides Botswana and Namibia, may be a thin trickle or a raging torrent. It may even fill up before your eyes if your afternoon game drive coincides with one of the spectacular storms that bubble up between November and March.
The best way to understand Chobe’s unusual ecosystem is to get as near to the water as possible. Not in it, though - there are crocodiles, which you will see from close quarters when you venture onto the main river channel on a flat-bottomed boat.
If you visit during the dry season, you will probably circumnavigate Sedudu island, a lion-free refuge for waterbucks and other antelopes, which swim across from the mainland as soon as the floods recede and the grasses poke their heads above the water. Hippos wallow in the waterways year-round, and elephants patrol the banks, crossing the river in from time to time in search of fresh grazing.
On your last day, you will have time for a leisurely breakfast and another game drive before you pack up and prepare for the journey back to Victoria Falls and then on, overnight, to London - a chance to dream of your next adventure.
Audley Travel offers tailor-made trips to Zimbabwe and Botswana. A four-night trip costs from £3,450 per person (based on two sharing) and includes two nights B&B at Victoria Falls Safari Club and two nights at Ngoma Safari Lodge, fully inclusive. The price includes all flights (overnight inbound & outbound), transfers and safari activities. British Airways flies from London to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg