By Candyce H. Stapen
All of us need to dream now, and planning a bucket-list trip creates the joy of anticipation, even if the departure date still looms far into the future.
For us, the go-to magic is an African safari. There is something joyous about watching a herd of elephants lumber across a grassy plain, lanky giraffes munch lazily on the tops of trees, and ostriches, necks swaying rhythmically, high-step into the sunset. The seasonal migration of millions of animals in Kenya and Tanzania and mighty Victoria Falls, bordering Zambia and Zimbabwe, deliver unrivaled spectacles.
From our Land Cruiser on a hill in Kenya overlooking the Mara River, my daughter, Alissa, and I ate our lunch of sandwiches and cookies packed by andBeyond's Bateleur Camp. We watched wide-eyed as, two by two, the wildebeests and their voyaging companions, the zebras, snaked through the Masai Mara's golden plains in a seemingly endless line. Hundreds upon hundreds of animals massed on the hill opposite us as they pushed into already crowded circles. Expectation thickened the air.
Everyone waited. Catching a river crossing is part science and part luck. Timing is key. The migration to Kenya from Tanzania's Serengeti occurs from July to October. The reverse journey starts around December or January once the herds have grazed the plains' red oat grass to stubble. The schedule varies, depending on the rain and the animals.
From our vehicle we saw one wildebeest and then another come down the river slope to drink before scampering back up the embankment. Finally, one wildebeest leaped into the water. Then others, loudly braying, jumped into the stream, kicking up a swirl of dust and river spray. Patiently waiting, 10-foot crocodiles picked off a few, but most of the four-footed migrants swam to safety, trotting up the far bank, their backs slick and shiny in the African sun.
Victoria Falls can be accessed from either Livingstone, Zambia, or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We chose the Zambia side because the mighty cascades plummet toward onlookers, creating an expansive view of the UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site. Another plus: Endangered white rhinos inhabit nearby Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, whose name, referring to the falls, means "smoke that thunders."
En route to the waterfall from Wilderness Safaris' Toka Leya Camp we spotted a mushrooming cloud low on the horizon birthed by the mighty falls' rising mist. We zipped our rain jackets (bring one!) to tackle the main path facing the cataract. Even at the end of June the flow, while not at its rainy season fullest, tumbled in thick streams. At the first overlook — a partial side view — the roar amazed us, but we stayed dry. However, each succeeding viewpoint increasingly soaked us. Walking across the Knife Edge Bridge, a slick overpass high above the canyon at the falls' base, was thrilling. The torrents boomed and the spray drenched us, cutting our visibility to only a few feet. Back on a drier trail we looked up to see a broad, arcing rainbow crowning a section of the falls.
In Mosi-oa-Tunya, rifle-toting scouts protect the rhinos. The guards directed us and our guide to a specific area from which we walked silently through the bush to a group of four. Oblivious to us, the prehistoric-looking animals with their thick skin, horns and rounded bellies busily grazed as we admired them. After a while, "Lester," the big male, sniffed a female's rear. She snorted, accompanied by a quick, thud-like turn, and stepped toward us. Frightened, we stayed still as the guard had instructed us to, so she ignored us. Lester, however, rubbed up against his companion, making his amorous intentions clear. Since rhino rumba was likely to ensue, the guards requested that we leave because the animals might become unpredictable.
Driving back to our lodge we passed elephant herds and warthogs. Instead of staying in a multistory hotel in Livingstone, we much preferred Toka Leya Camp. Here are 12 suites, each with a private bathroom and a deck, set along the Zambezi River. We dined to the backdrop of the rushing river and woke to monkeys scampering across our deck. On several walks from our room to the main lounge we encountered elephants chewing the tree branches next to the elevated walkway, and one night a small group stood next to the pool, munching the grass. You can't get that in a high-rise.
WHEN YOU GO
Wilderness Safaris' Toka Leya Camp's rooms start from $685 per person, double occupancy. Wilderness Safaris operates lodges in Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe as well as Zambia: www.wilderness-safaris.com.
andBeyond (also known as &Beyond) operates safaris and tours in Africa, Asia and South America. Tented suites at Bateleur Camp start from $725 per person, double occupancy: www.andbeyond.com.
Candyce H. Stapen is a freelance writer at www.gfvac.com.
Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @FamilyiTrips and on Instagram @CandyceStapen and discover www.hennyskids.org, Stapen's charity that provides solar-powered computers to rural schools in Africa. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
ildebeests cross a river to safety during the annual migration from Kenya to Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Candyce H. Stapen.