Cruising along the pristine Zambezi River in Zambia, my Wilderness Safaris guide, Houston, abruptly cut the boat’s motor in shallow, rock-studded water, so I assumed he was looking for a way to navigate around the obstacles. No, something was up. He silently pointed to the “rocks,” and I realized they were moving.
The gray boulders had bulging eyes and tiny ears that barely peeked above the water’s surface. It was a pod of at least a dozen hippos.
I excitedly clicked away with my camera, determined to capture the scene.
Unfortunately, the behemoths were in no mood for a photo shoot, and they bellowed and snorted at us intruders.
“Can we get closer?” I whispered. It was a stupid request, but I was lost in the moment.
Houston shook his head. No way. Hippos are highly aggressive, territorial animals that have been known to charge boats, so he insisted on keeping us at a safe distance. Good call.
One cantankerous fellow suddenly popped his head out of the water and “yawned,” exposing a mouthful of irregular teeth. I nearly jumped out of my skin. That’s a threatening posture, the equivalent of screaming “Get out!”
We were happy to oblige and made a hasty retreat.
By the end of the day, I had photos of hippos, crocodiles, bee-eaters (a species of bird) and other exotic wildlife that inhabit this complex ecosystem of rushing river, basalt plateaus and dense forest.
When I returned to Toka Leya, a 12-tent luxury camp tucked inside Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, I collapsed onto the king-sized bed draped with mosquito netting and closed my eyes, exhausted but content.
Here’s a little secret; I’m no outdoorsy girl. My idea of roughing it is sleeping on sheets with a low thread count.
That’s why Toka Leya was just my speed. It had a hair dryer, a magnifying makeup mirror and most fantastic of all, a private, outdoor bathtub. I had to wait for the resident monkeys to retire for the evening before I could relax in my bubble bath (they can be naughty little devils, and I had no desire to bathe with primates), but once I submerged myself in that gloriously warm tub, I could have stayed there all night.
Over the rainbow
Scottish explorer David Livingstone reached the largest curtain of falling water in the world in 1855 and named it in honor of Queen Victoria, but the traditional Kololo name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “the smoke that thunders.”
As someone who’s well-traveled, I’m a bit jaded, but when I caught my first glimpse of the legendary waterfall, I stared slack-jawed, completely spellbound by the double rainbow that streaked across an azure sky.
Sadly, I realized no photo could ever convey the beauty and sheer size of this natural marvel or the sense of insignificance one feels when next to it.
Queen of the jungle
I was as enthralled with Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, as I was with Zambia, but for different reasons. At Linkwasha Camp, two game drives are offered daily through the savanna and woodlands, one in the morning and one in the evening.
I started to look forward to the evening drive, partly because of the tradition of “sundowners,” cocktail hour in the serenity of the bush. A guide would select a spot of exceptional natural beauty, let down the tailgate and play bartender.
The only thing visible on the horizon was the silhouette of a mother elephant and her calf, backlit by the last sliver of pink sun.
Sensing I was loath to leave, Richard, my guide, gently reminded me that dinner was waiting back at camp.
Special to the Daily News
Special to the Daily News
We set off but didn’t get far. A lioness was stretched out in the middle of the road (more like a path of Kalahari sand), resting her head on paws equipped with claws sharp enough to tear open a wildebeest. We wondered aloud how long she would nap.
Not long. She rose and stealthily crept to my side of the open vehicle. She turned her head my way, bewitching me with a pair of golden eyes that shone brightly in the last rays of sunlight. She was so close; I could have counted the hairs in her luxuriously thick coat — the exact shade of yellow-brown as the tall savanna grass.
Hippos suddenly seemed about as intimidating as the Easter Bunny.
“Just stay calm,” Richard said.
When someone tells you to stay calm, there’s usually reason to panic.
I collected my wits and my camera and started shooting. Richard said taking photos from my elevated seat was fine as long as I didn’t stand up.
According to experts, lions don’t feel threatened by a motor vehicle as long as the people inside are seated. Passengers are simply perceived as part of an object that is much too large to attack as prey.
What are not too big are impalas. The lioness’ companion alerted her to a herd of the antelope huddled under a tree, causing her to abruptly lose interest in us.
As she sauntered away, I realized I had been holding my breath.
Safely back at camp, I was greeted with a wet towel and a glass of sherry. I headed to the dining tent, the gathering place where everyone s tales of their wildlife encounters.
I certainly had a story to tell that night.
Wilderness Safaris is an ecotourism operator with dozens of luxury camps in seven African countries. The company does not take direct bookings in North America but works with a network of tour operators that specialize in travel to Africa. Wilderness–safaris.com