Ungava Gin Tasting

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So, a couple of Thursdays ago a friend of mine invited me along to an exclusive tasting of a rather fine new gin known as Ungava.  Labelled as a premium Canadian gin, I didn’t really know anything about it till I went along but hey, I guess that’s what tastings are for, right?

Named after the region of Canada where the botanicals from which its made can be found, this gin is distinctly different.  It’s yellow in colour for a start resembling more a whisky and the aroma is herbal.  Its ingredients include Nordic juniper, wild rose hips, crowberry and also Labrador tea which gives it its unusual hue.

We started with a classic G&T (doubles no less) served with pink grapefruit and Fentiman’s tonic.  This tonic has less sugar than that of Fevertree so it contributes nicely to the drier, slightly sharper taste of this gin.

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My company for the evening tried the ‘Yellow Lady’ next which was a potent mix of just the right amount of sour and sweet.  I think this was our favourite!  We could easily have demolished a few more of these but school night and all that…

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Following on from the Yellow Lady was the Negroni Spritz which, for me, wasn’t a favourite.  As extravagant as it may look with fresh rosemary and orange peel, the overall bitter flavour did nothing to assuage my sweet tooth.  Campari and Vermouth are definitely not on my list of likes…!  Nevertheless, it was interesting to try as a completely different take on your usual gin cocktail.

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We made our way through a fair few of the doubles and another couple of the cocktails before calling it a night feeling definitely merry and pondering the possibility of what to have for breakfast in the morning to help with the sore head that would inevitably follow.  Until next time, Bar99.  More gin evenings please!

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An African Safari – Day 16 -Victoria Falls

Sorry for the delay in this last post about Africa guys!  Life has been a bit hectic of late.  Anyway, getting back to the last day of my safari through Africa…

After the morning’s tumultuous and hectic white water rafting, I arrived back at my hotel pretty exhausted, not to mention rather soggy, so it was a quick change before getting a taxi the short distance to the Falls which are in their own protected area and national park.  There is a fee of around $30 per person to get into the park and once through the gate you are free to roam the pathways at your leisure as well as the souvenir stalls.

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We arrived late afternoon when the sun was beginning to descend towards the horizon and, if completely honest, this was the best time to go as the intense heat of midday was waning making the walk around the pathways and dense foliage much more enjoyable and more relaxed.

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You hear the falls before you can see them and a fine spray of fresh water lands upon your skin and hair letting you know you are close.  Ambling along the pathways you get peeks through the trees of the spectacle to come and eventually you arrive at various viewing points along the way allowing you to fully absorb the views of one of the world’s seven wonders.

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The noise from the water crashing down below is thunderous and we were visiting at ‘low season’ too when the water is by no means at it’s fastest or wildest.  The spray from the water creates a sheen on everything it touches, including you, and also forms one heck of  a rainbow.

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I was trying desperately to keep my camera and lens dry but alas, I failed at this point as you can see specks of water droplets on the image below.

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I guess with it being dry season you can appreciate the enormity of the ravine below you and see just how deep the water travels, I can imagine that at ‘high’ season the noise and movement of the water must be remarkable.

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The low water showed the riverbed and its rocks like those we had to clamber over earlier in the day for our white water rafting – quite tricky when all you have on your feet is a pair of converse lows.

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I dared to creep ever closer to the edge and lay on my front to get this view looking down towards the water.  You can just see tiny coloured specks at the edge of the water which is more rafters clambering down for white water river fun.

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I’d say two hours is all that’s needed to wander around the pathways at the Falls and take ample photographs.  We were there later in the day when it was pretty quiet but I’d imagine at peak season it would get busy through the day and you’d have to fight for a spot at the viewpoints.  Might be an idea to take along something waterproof to protect your camera also and remember to bargain with the guys who want to sell you bottled water at the souvenir stalls.  Our taxi driver was also very  reliable and appeared again 2 hours later at the time we stated to pick us up and take us back to our hotel.  Just give him a decent tip!

Does anyone else have any tips on visiting Victoria Falls?  Who has ever been and would you go back?

An African safari – Day 16 – White Water Rafting

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The last full day of our trip in Africa was another early start despite it being ‘at leisure’.  Our safari tour had officially ended and we were now free to do as we pleased in the small town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  For my second activity after the previous night’s ‘booze cruise’, I had decided to tackle something rather wild which was white water rafting down the lower Zambezi.  Having watched the video for rafting the afternoon prior, Laura (our fellow traveller from the US) had convinced me and others of our group to face our fears and get stuck in to something adventurous.

The previous afternoon I had booked the rafting along with Laura, Melyn, Anne, Pei San, Freddie and Manuela whom I had spent the past 2 weeks with as part of our travelling group.  We wanted to try something different and outrageous since it would be our last day together before some of us travelled home and others began new tours around other parts of Africa.

Unbeknown to me at the time of booking, the Zambezi is probably one of the most, if not the most, wildest rivers in the world for white water rafting. I’ve done canoeing, hiking up fjords in Norway and other outdoorsy pursuits but nothing quite like rafting.  When we watched the video at the booking office there seemed to be a suspicious number of the rafts turning upside down in the rapids and tipping everyone out.  We’d been for our last meal together the night before, and a few drinks, so there were a few slightly sensitive heads but we were being picked up at 7am so there wasn’t time to think about it.  We were bundled into the mini bus and taken the short distance to the meeting place at The Lookout Café which was precariously balanced on the very edge of the Batoka gorge overlooking the river below and towards the bridge where all the bungees jump from.  We were given a safety briefing, as well as a chance to back out now if we wanted, and split into groups.  We were then assigned a guide who would be in our boat with us for the remainder of the day and accompany us through each of the 19 rapids we were to tackle along 28km of the Zambezi.  We were given our kit (helmet and life jacket) and then guided towards the entrance to the gorge where we would descend towards the water and have to clamber across the rocks to our rafts.

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Getting down to the water wasn’t too much to handle, it was mainly climbing down a very steep ladder backwards whilst consciously holding on to the rail and not falling on those in front of you.  At the bottom it was a slow and steady scramble over the huge rocks that line the borders of the river.  It was dry or ‘low’ season so ordinarily these rocks are covered by much deeper water.  Due to this, they have been smoothed over by strong currents over time and were actually quite slippery despite being dry.  The local guys and guides hopped across them of course without even wearing any shoes making the rest of us feel rather awkward and ungainly.  We eventually arrived at our rafts and bounced in eager to get started on the river.

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It must’ve been about 9am by this point and the sun was starting to get hot.  Even Freddie, who is from Namibia and well acquainted with the heat and sun, was plastering on the sunscreen.  Our guide showed us the basic instructions and made sure we understood his directions as we were to listen to him closely at all times.  We had to remember to work together to make the raft go in the direction we wanted and picking up speed is key to make it through the stronger, fiercer rapids.  The rapids are graded depending on their intensity with 1 being the weakest and 5 the strongest/fastest.  We were off!  It started slowly and leisurely but it wasn’t long before we hit our first rapid which was like bobbing about on a small rollercoaster, however, our guide excitedly informed us that a grade 5 was coming up next – nothing like being eased into it.  We paddled as fast as we could and faced it head on each one of us apprehensive about if we’d end up in the water or not.  The water came thundering over us and hit us all in the face which makes it difficult to remember to keep paddling.  Before you make the dip over the edge you see other rafts in the distance disappear into the deep rumbling and metres high spray of the water ahead.  It’s not long before you’re spat out the other side though and carried down river at quite some pace.  The water was cool but not cold and most definitely not for ingesting.  There were screams and whoops as each raft made it through and sailed down to the next one.

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Over the next 6 hours we sailed down 28km of the lower Zambezi, staring in awe at the huge cliff faces on either side of us in-between the 19 different rapids.  We even spotted a few crocs at the side of the water…! The sun beat down on us fiercely so the constant splashes were rather welcome and when we came to a slow moving area of water a few of us jumped in to cool off.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention – any clothes or shoes that you wear will of course get absolutely soaked through so you are allowed no valuables (the guides take care of that and someone meets you with them at the very end) and most definitely do not wear your best clothing.  I had a bikini, old denim shorts and a vest top on along with a pair of these which were perfect for being in the raft.

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Everything was going well for our raft since we had not been capsized yet.  A few of us, excluding myself (I think I was the only one!) had fallen in.  That is, until rapid number 18 called ‘Oblivion’.  Let’s just say this one did its namesake justice.  I politely enquired with our guide as to how many rafts had made it through this one unscathed and still the right way up over the course of his many years working the river.  His answer?  One.  We knew we were in for it then and just had to accept the fact that the churning mass of water ahead would be like being in a thunderous washing machine.  It was exactly that – we had 3 main areas of strong current to try and get through and we failed on the second hurdle with the raft turning upside down, chucking us all out and dragged under the water with no idea which way was up.  I had a slight intense moment of panic but remembered that I had my lifejacket on and that I would, eventually, come out the other side.  This is all easier said than done when you’re being turfed around underwater like yesterday’s pants on a high speed cycle.  But, we made it and were spat out the other side of the crazy rapid before pinging about like a pin ball across the river.

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The only word I can think to describe traversing such intense rapids is exhilarating with a feeling reminiscent to being at the top of a rollercoaster just before you make a massive dip.  Your heart beats rapidly in your chest; you look around nervously at the others for reassurance before the sudden realisation that you have nowhere to go takes hold.  It is at once terrifying yet thrilling…and also fun!  If in doubt, do it.  You won’t regret it.  We booked ours through Wild Horizons which is in the little town centre of Victoria Falls.  Rafting such as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that is definitely not to be missed…if you’re brave enough…

An African Safari – Day 15 – Arrival in Victoria Falls

Waking up the day after being at Hwange National Park meant that we were on our way to Victoria Falls in north western Zimbabwe.  I was keen to take in this location as part of our trip as the falls are classed as the largest sheet of falling water on earth being 1708m wide and 108m in height, which is twice the height of Niagara falls, so I knew they were not to be missed.  The falls divide two separate countries with Zambia being on one side and Zimbabwe the other.  So, after yet another early start we were on the final leg of our trip now and headed to our last location which was the town of Victoria Falls for 2 nights.  It wasn’t a long journey from Hwange to the falls and after a quick stop for ‘bushy bushy’ we arrived early afternoon and were dropped off at Wild Horizons tour office to decide what activities we wanted to do whilst Matt and Freddie headed to the nearby campsite.

Our ever-present and faithful guide, Manda, came with us to the tour office to ensure all went smoothly and we got our bookings done after watching a video of all things on offer.  There was bungee jumping, gorge swing, white water rafting, micro light flights, game drives, riverboat cruises, elephant back rides, horse riding, helicopter tours, bush walks, canoeing – you name it, it was there.  A number of us opted for the late afternoon ‘booze cruise’.  If you’re imagining one of those boats from the Ibiza summer parties then your average booze cruise this was not.  This was to be a much more subdued and leisurely affair of sipping drinks whilst cruising up the Zambezi river at sunset whilst absorbing the sights and sounds.  ‘Yes…’ I thought, rubbing my hands together with glee, ‘Now I get to sip my favourite beverage whilst also getting photo opportunities…’  I was also looking forward to a bloody good shower and being able to rid my feet of Africa’s constant sand (really, it is everywhere and not just near the coast) and for a chance to get a bit dressed up for the first time in what felt like an age!  So, after our booze cruise and my activity for the following day was booked (which was white water rafting but more on that in my next post) we headed to our hotel to get ready.  Yes, we were headed to an actual hotel.  It felt really odd being near civilisation, albeit quite limited, and seeing lots of other people.  For days and days we had been touring in the wilderness across national parks and endless dusty roads and now we were back in amongst people out-with the small family that was our tour group.

We had already pre-booked our hotel room but Kathy and Dave had not and, since they had upgraded to lodge accommodation throughout the trip like myself and mum, I think they were keen to join us at the hotel and make good use of the AC and comfy beds.  The rest of our travellers were staying at the campsite a 5 minute walk away from our hotel.  After we were showered and ready we waited in the hotel reception waiting to be picked up by Wild Horizons to be taken to the river to begin our sunset cruise at 430pm.  Joining us were some of our fellow tour members: Pam, Pete and Manuella as well as Kathy and Dave.

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We boarded a mini bus and were driven the short distance to the river where we boarded a wide, flat river boat and all sat together as we lazily glided up the Zambezi towards the setting sun.  The waiters were attentive and didn’t take long to hop on over and take our order, it was G&T’s all-round and doubles no less.  Well, you’ve got to take full advantage of the price, don’t you?  For the 2 hour cruise along with unlimited drinks it was $50 which I thought was pretty reasonable.  I think we were all grateful for a chance to relax, chat and enjoy some gin after 2 weeks of solid touring – it was quite the novelty.

Along the river we spotted giraffe feeding on tall trees, various birds wading through the shallow waters then we came across this guy peeking out from the water’s edge…He was a youngster at only 4 or 5 feet long…

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And these lovely ladies were keeping themselves cool in the deeper water occasionally rising to the surface to twitch their ears and yawn…

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For me, hippos immediately conjure memories of watching Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘ as a child.  In particular, the scene where the hippos are the most delicate of ballerinas playing a game of cat and mouse with dastardly crocodiles…and here was the real thing!  Except with, you know, less tutus and classical music…

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After we’d been in the boat for an hour or so (and a good few double gins later) the sun started to descend towards the horizon and gave us probably the most beautiful sunset we’d seen the entire trip.  Remember what I said about those African sunsets whilst at Hwange?  Well, they were equally as dazzling on the water.  The sky was a brilliant fiery orange at first with the sun’s reflection shimmering on the water and as it gradually came down towards the trees it melted into a baby pink and faded into sumptuous lilac.  For a short time you could just see the top of the sun peeking out from above the horizon before it disappeared again until morning.

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Now that we were all suitably merry after our double G&T’s, we were off to meet the others for a meal to celebrate our last evening together as a group.  There was a restaurant next to the campsite where we met and got fired into some of the local cuisine including crocodile and mushroom tagliatelle, warthog schnitzel and crocodile curry.  Even though I did try some of these that the others had ordered I played it safe and had a chicken salad.  I had a big day ahead of me the next day as I was getting picked up at 7am to head off on a white water rafting trip along the lower Zambezi.  Looking back, I’m not entirely convinced that we were told exactly what was involved and how extreme it would be but that all added to the anticipation…

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An African Safari Day 13 & 14 – Bulawayo and Arrival at Hwange National Park

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Day 13

At breakfast on day 13 of our African safari Kathy and Dave, our fellow travellers from Canada, were delighted to hear of my midnight encounter the previous evening of one of Antelope Park’s resident elephants waking me up in my sleep by feeding right next to our tent.  They only wished they had heard her for themselves and shared in the experience.  It must’ve been one of the only times I was glad to be a light sleeper and was wakened by her so close.

On day 13 we had a relaxed, lazy breakfast taking advantage of the fact that our next destination, Bulawayo, was only a couple of hours away.  We didn’t leave camp till around 9am but it was a sad farewell to our couple of nights at Antelope Park as we had all had such a fantastic experience there getting up close with the wildlife that we only wished we could stay longer.  As we boarded the truck again it was time to set off for Bulawayo for what was really only a stop over for one night.  We arrived at hostel type accommodation which was set in the grounds of someone’s garden called ‘Burke’s Paradise’.  I can assure you, a paradise it was not…The room we had can only be described as a brick room with a corrugated tin roof with not even a working lamp next to two beds that were squashed into the tiny room that was in the garden.  It was clean but the heat made it so stifling that I foresaw no chance of a good night’s sleep..turns out I was right, staying at this so called paradise was one of the worse night’s sleep of my life!

At least lunch with the group was enjoyable as we sat out on the grass and the owner’s dog bounded over to say hello.  We spent the afternoon at leisure so I decided to read my book whilst sunbathing.  Even this wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been given the rusty old sun loungers and dusty, 70’s looking cushions.  I didn’t even merit the place with a photo as I disliked it that much!  We just had to suck it up though so I lounged in the sun reading my book taking a rest and trying to top up the suntan.  The evening was very uneventful and after another dinner with our fellow travellers we retired to our iron shack in an attempt to get sleep.  I awoke the next day after a fitful sleep incredibly grumpy.  The only thing I could so was try and enjoy breakfast and look forward to a nap on the truck…

Day 14

As we continued on our journey, we were headed towards Hwange National Park (pronounced ‘wan-gay’), the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe and one of the few parks that is not fenced around its perimeter.  It wasn’t too long a journey and only took 2-3 hours to get there.  Day 14 was incredibly hot and as we travelled more inland towards the park this only became more apparent.  By the time we arrived in the afternoon the temperature was soaring towards the 40s easily and were were all feeling a bit exhausted from it having no AC at all on the truck, only open windows.  There had never been any AC in any of the accommodation so far either and it’s funny how quickly you become accustomed to it and can tell when the heat gets really intense.  The day we went to Hwange was most definitely one of those days.  Nevertheless, we were excited for a new location and another chance to see wildlife in its natural habitat.  A trip to an African national park is always an adventure to be enjoyed…despite the heat!

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As we approached the entrance with the temperature rising, we spied a herd of elephants searching for water amongst a rather dried up looking water hole.  The evidence of the difficulties the elephants face in times of the dry season was plain to see, the waterhole being a dried up muddy puddle rather than an actual watering hole.  The advantage of the dry season though is that the animals gather round these holes and provide great viewing opportunities for spectators such as ourselves.

We arrived at our accommodation where the campers set up their usual 2 man tents and mum, myself and Kathy and Dave were shown to our lodges which were a round hut with 2 beds inside and a bathroom.  As with the rest of the trip there was no AC but this day was most definitely the hardest in terms of feeling the heat, I couldn’t tell when I was breathing out as the air was the same temperature…in the shade!  It was stifling.  The heat got the better of everyone and after a quick lunch from Freddie we all napped before our afternoon game drive.  We were due to set off at 430pm which we were all relieved of given the temperature.  As with the game drive at Kruger, we bundled ourselves into 2 safari jeeps and headed off with our guides in search of as much wildlife as we could possibly find.  Along the way, we made many stops to look at spoor (tracks) and observe various birds.  Our guide was informative sharing his in depth knowledge of the bush and spotting animals far quicker than we ever could.  There was also an abundance of damaged trees meaning elephants were nearby.  Apparently Hwange is home to some 60-70,000 elephants which is an enormous number.  However, given recent events such as the shooting of Cecil the lion, numbers do not equal safety.  As previously mentioned, Hwange does not have a fence around its perimeter meaning it is, sadly, more susceptible to the horror that is poaching.

We soon encountered some adult male giraffe bones that, according to our guide, had been killed by a pride of lions and then finished by hyenas leaving the bones to dry out and be bleached by the sun.  We also spotted yellow billed hornbill eating termites found in elephant dung (mmm, yum) as well as a small herd of zebra casually grazing at the side of the sandy road.

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We then spotted a herd of young male elephants known as a ‘bachelor herd’.  Males stay with their female family until around the age of 14 after which they leave to find their independence and occasionally form these herds of bachelors.  Impala and steenbok could also be seen all around us grazing and nibbling their way through what was left of the dry grass.

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The sun was beginning to come down about an hour into our game drive casting long shadows across the trees and bush.  Our guide was taking us to a viewing point next to a well used watering hole in the hope that we would see plentiful amounts of elephants enjoying the freshness of the water amidst the lower temperatures of sunset.  We were not disappointed…

In the distance we saw many other game vehicles but folks had left the jeeps to climb the stairs up to the viewing deck which overlooked the watering hole.  As we approached we could see some ostriches to our right who also had 2 jackals running past them towards the elephants and elephants there most definitely were, at least 50 of them.  Some were playfully flopping in the water, others taking a drink with their trunks and more than one family congregated  relieved to find precious water after a day in the heat.  They were everywhere!  We all gasped in excitement and couldn’t believe there were so many in one place which will remain in my memory as one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever witnessed.  Yep, I felt like I was participating in an Attenborough documentary.  It was everything we had all hoped for and more.  We stayed for at least half an hour but to be honest, I could’ve stayed there till darkness fully descended as it was just fascinating and totally absorbing watching the elephants go about their business drinking, swimming and trumpeting at one another all in their natural habitat as they should be.  Beautiful.

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As I gazed on at the herd in front of me, one old adult male left his friends and walked right across my shot I was taking of the most dazzling sunset.  What perfect timing!  He was headed towards a nearby tree for a good old scratch. Needs must!  It was obviously a well used scratching post given the very lopsided appearance of the tree.

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These adults looked very much to me as if they were having some sort of elephant conference, debating the topics of the day and sharing the news with their counterparts.  The children’s tv show ‘Babar‘ comes to mind…Also, look at the size of that baby – absolutely tiny!  Apparently, baby elephants only fit under their mothers belly until the age of 2 years old.  After that, they’re just too big to make it under the safety of mum.

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There is one sight that I will never tire of and that is an African sunset.  They are absolutely incredible imbued with the most wonderful pastel shades of pink, orange and lilac which saturate the landscape in their fuzzy warmth.  They also create a wonderful backdrop for silhouetted trees and wildlife giving great photo opportunities.  The locals may think nothing of this daily scene but coming from a country where the sun and its heat are not so frequent views like this one take the biscuit.  I miss it terribly!  Our sunsets here in Scotland can be pretty spectacular but none beat those of Africa…we’re also pretty short on elephants but hey-ho, can’t have it all I guess…

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Whilst in Africa, and as mentioned in previous posts, patience is key.  Not only is it a virtue when at visa crossings at country borders but also for crossings of a different variety – elephant traffic!  Only in Africa :)  The family of elephants trotting across the road in front of our vehicle was a pleasant surprise and end to a very productive game drive.  After, it was back to camp for dinner and bed before we left the next day to journey on to Victoria Falls.

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An African Safari – Day 12 – Antelope Park – Part 2 – Walking with Lions

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Following on from my last post where we met elephants at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, later that day we had encounters with the most majestic of beasts – the mighty lion.  We bid farewell to the elephants for the moment and were driven to the lion enclosure to see the adult lions that Antelope Park keep as part of their ALERT program.  The first thing that struck me was the smell of a rotting carcass…which is not something I particularly want to smell ever again.  The males and females are kept separately and for good reason, it would be catfights galore with all those feline hormones raging.  The males are monstrous in size with thick, bushy manes of sandy shades, some being darker than others and almost black in places.  As with most animals, their eyes are the point of fascination for me and a lion’s are no different.  They are deep amber in colour marbled with gold creating a penetrating stare.  They can make you feel as if they are either looking directly through you or that you are the only thing on their menu.  Their glare is a testament to their beautiful ferocity.  What other animal can make you feel that way I wonder?  It’s easy to feel intimidated by this knowing that behind those eyes is over 200kg of raw muscle designed for killing creatures far larger than you.

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As we approached the fence of where 3 males resided I lay my backpack down on the ground next to my feet to get my camera out and take some shots.  However, one had other ideas and must’ve thought the backpack was food as he jumped straight down from his perch and strode over to us snarling and growling behind the fence.  I ended up having to hide my rucksack in a nearby tree to distract him.  It’s hard not be awestruck yet feel equally vulnerable when faced with such a creature.  Their muscles can be seen rippling beneath their sandy-coloured hide and with paws the size of dinner plates they are not to be under estimated.  At no point did I ever feel unsafe though, only transfixed and completely absorbed by the animal in front of me as he paced the fence in front of us baring his large teeth.

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After we had a half hour walk around the lion enclosure viewing various adults of all sizes it was back to camp briefly before we were due back with the lions again to see their ferocity in all its glory during feeding time…

A group of us patiently waited at the fence.  In front of us, the carcass of an entire donkey, innards and all, displayed for all to see.  In the distance, behind a gate, were the adult male lions eagerly pacing back and forth awaiting their meal and for the gate to lift.  After a whistle from the keeper, the gate lifted.  Each of us almost held our breath in anticipation as we waited for the lions to run towards us and the dead donkey…4 sandy brown huge masses came thundering towards us where the first to reach the donkey lifted it with his jaws like it was a feather and dragged the whole thing away from the others not wanting to share.  He clamped on with his teeth and for the next half an hour would not let go.  The others made a swift attempt to recover it from him but only one managed to succeed in getting hold and for the next half an hour the two remained firmly attached to the carcass, their bodies heaving in the searing sun but reluctant to relinquish their prize.  The other 2 males had to make do with what was left of the innards growling their dissatisfaction and eventual acceptance that they weren’t getting a look in.  A battle of patience and strength continued with the other 2 as we watched on in amazement.  The thunderous growling of the lions as they approached their food reverberates through your entire being; there is no mistaking its intent!

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As we left the lion enclosure and returned to camp the heat of the day was steadily increasing.  However, this was abated by the presence of the bar and the lush surroundings of Antelope Park which seems like an oasis in an otherwise very dry, arid African bush. Green grass and foliage is in abundance where hoopoes coo their unusual call and vervet monkeys bounce around the trees scurrying along the branches.  Mongoose also roam across the pathways and the 3 resident mules are accompanied by one lone zebra who tags along like one late to the party perfectly aware he is different to the others.  Never you mind Mr Zebra, your stripes are what make you unique!  Mum and I enjoyed some downtime at the bar overlooking the water and bought some waffles from the café shop whilst the staff and local guys played some football out on the grass on their break.  We met up with Kathy, Dave, Mel and Laura for our late afternoon activity which was to go walking with 2 of the park’s lion cubs.

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We were guided out a small distance from the camp to the bush and asked to wait under the shade of a nearby tree.  Two keepers fetched 2 of the adolescent lion cubs from their enclosure and brought them over to us.  As they padded past the door and up the small hill towards us everyone felt a little nervous but as soon as they approached they head-butted Mel and I affectionately on the legs before both promptly flopping down on the ground in the heat and pawing each other.  One was a young male and the other his sister, both equally playful and both equally impressive.  We walked on a bit so that they joined us.  Whilst walking, the height of them was almost at my hip where my hand fell naturally on their back with their coarse, sandy hair beneath my fingers.  They have a slight musky odour, one I wouldn’t immediately associate with such an animal.  We each took a turn at being photographed with the cubs, careful only to pet their back and never the head or neck as instructed.  However, I soon found myself giving the male, Afrika, a belly rub as he turned over when being petted.  It’s very hard at this point not to cuddle them like a dog!  In many ways they are so similar to their domestic cousins but you have to remember it’s an actual lion.  His huge paws were upturned towards me where tufts could be seen hiding each claw.

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Afrika’s sister (again, I forget her name but it also began with ‘A’) seemed more independent as she walked ahead although she did provide us with fantastic photo opportunities.  I’m really happy with my shots of her, even if the light wasn’t ideal.  She soon clambered up a tree giving us yet more ideal shots.  As we walked, the keepers were very knowledgeable about each lion informing us of how they are kept and fed.  They are only fed twice a week as apparently lions do not chew their food so it takes them a long time to digest it hence not eating often.  I guess in the wild they eat when they can as there is no consistency or regularity to their meals, it’s just as and when they catch it!  Although how any animal chases another to eat it in that heat amazes me, really quite astonishing.  As we reluctantly said goodbye to the lions it dawned on me how unforgettable this experience was and that there are very few people in the world who have done the same.  Antelope Park was the first place in the world where you could do this so I felt privileged to have met these great creatures and see them so very close.

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We had a bit of time before dinner so it was back to our tent to get changed and freshen up for dinner.  We sat sipping gins watching the sun dip behind the trees and joined the rest of the group for another tasty meal a la Freddie and sat around the campfire afterwards catching up on the day’s activities.  We soon retired for the evening and I slept quit soundly for the first couple of hours of the night.  However, around 1230am I was awoken by the snapping of branches, rustling and a groan.  It sounded so close, right next to my head in fact and it wasn’t long before I realised it was one of the elephants.  With a crunch, snap and a thwap she was feeding on some of the trees adjacent to our tent busily munching her way through the foliage.  She was so close that I could hear her teeth grinding whilst she chewed and her belly rumble! She exhaled deeply a few times and I recognised the gentle thwack of her flapping her giant ears against her head having already heard it when we were at Kruger.  Truly amazing.  Never in my life did I imagine that I would be woken up by an elephant feeding next to me but there she was.  She stayed for half an hour before wandering off to roam around the rest of the park.  I drifted off again but not for long as around 4am the lions started their pre-dawn calls and when one begins, the others soon follow suit.  It’s a deep, guttural sound that resonates for a long distance – they sounded extremely close even though I knew they were safely in their enclosures across the river.  Just before the sun rises the monkeys come out to play amidst a cacophony of crickets and birds.  I was initially irritated having had a broken sleep but I reminded myself that where else in the world would I hear this?  I’d say earplugs are a must if you want to get some sleep in the bush.  What an end to a spectacular day though.

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An African Safari – Day 12 – Antelope Park – Part 1 – Meeting Elephants

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After our arrival at Antelope Park in the evening the day before, today meant that we had that rarest of things on a safari, a lie in. Yippee!  We woke up excited as today was the day of our trip where we finally got to meet some of Africa’s finest wildlife, not before breakfast with Freddie and the gang first though of course.  Our first activity that Mum and I chose to do, along with some of the others of our group, was interacting with the elephants.  Antelope Park rescued 4 adult elephants, 3 females and one male, from drought who now reside amongst the park’s 6000 hectares and when not interacting for a short time with human visitors are free to roam this area at their leisure.  Each has a keeper ensuring they are well fed and looked after and whilst staying at the park guests can get to meet these wonderful creatures.

Our activity began at 9am where we bundled ourselves into a safari vehicle with our friendly member of staff who drove us the short distance to where the elephants were waiting for us.  As we approached we could see each elephant in a wooden pen patiently awaiting our arrival.  Both myself, Mum, Kathy and Dave brimmed with excitement and couldn’t wait to get better acquainted with these most intriguing of mammals.

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We hopped off the jeep and sat down whilst each keeper explained about the elephant they looked after, their age, temperament etc. and they showed us a little of their abilities.  Elephants are incredibly intelligent, emotional beings and very akin to humans in that respect.  Perhaps that’s why we find them so fascinating?  Each elephant was thrown a football which they kicked back to their keeper and also threw back with their trunks.  Did you know that elephants are either right or left footed, just like we are with our hands?  Amazing.  One was left footed and when she kicked the ball across to her counterpart, she was right-footed.  The action of kicking the ball mimics the digging they do searching for water during the dry season.

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After their short display of skills, we were allowed to choose an elephant that we wanted to interact with.  We chose one of the females who was almost as old as me at 28 years.  We were  given a generous handful of some sort of maize pellets to which there was no doubt in her mind of what we had.  Her trunk was straight over investigating greedily and searching for those crunchy snacks!  As we deposited the pellets into the end of her trunk, we petted her and got a feel of what her skin was like which was very thick and pretty rough with sparse, coarse dark hairs protruding from it all over.  However, on the front of her trunk it felt smooth despite the ridged appearance.  The end of the trunk, as you can imagine, is pretty snotty!  What a weird and wonderful thing it is though, it seems to have a mind of its own and be a separate entity from the large mass of grey body and head that it is attached to.  How odd!  I couldn’t help but wonder what elephants think about being as intelligent as they are:  how does she see me, as a friend?  As a foe?  Does she feel the searing African sun on her skin as intensely as I do?  Does she have family somewhere that were perhaps killed by the drought and that she now misses?  The answers lie behind those beautiful amber eyes framed by thick velvety lashes and wrinkly grey skin.

One of my favourite shots from the entire trip, look at those lashes!

One of my favourite shots from the entire trip, look at those lashes!

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elephant ear

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It’s important to remember the weight and strength of an adult elephant.  If she wanted to, she could easily cause me considerable injury or worse, flatten me.  However, unperturbed, we carried on completely fascinated and in awe of this colossal yet mesmerising being.  For both Mum and I this was a dream come to fruition.  After years and years of watching documentaries, we finally got to meet one of our favourite animals in the most up close and personal manner possible.  Better yet, we were about to go for a ride on her back!  And so started the second activity of our day, an elephant ride…

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We drove a couple of hundred metres towards a tree that had a wooden staircase adjacent to it.  We were informed that in order to help us get onto the elephant we would climb the staircase and ‘board’ from there.  Just as well, elephants are bloody high up!  The keeper goes on first at the front, Mum went in the middle (after much shunting from me and grunting from Mum) then I was at the back armed with my ever-present SLR camera and iPhone for snaps and videos, naturally.

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Being atop an elephant is like being atop a horse – albeit a very wide and very tall one!  The best thing to do is to wedge her spine between your cheeks..! and relax your body, moving in time with the motion and try not to get too hung up on hanging on.  We were off and ambled around the surrounding area for almost an hour taking in the dry, savannah like environment and neighbouring herds of impala.

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I should also note here that the elephants are not subject to any forms of cruelty from their keepers.  If they were, this is not an activity that I would have willingly participated in especially after seeing so many distressing videos online of the poor elephants in places like Thailand who are used and abused.  These elephants only interact with humans for a very short time and the rest they are allowed to roam freely around the large expanse that is Antelope Park (you will see this in a future post).  The  elephant gets a slight tap on either side of her to indicate the direction we wanted to go…not that she needed much convincing as she trotted along at one point to catch up with the others.  When they pick up speed it’s an idea to hold on!  Also, our elephant (I, frustratingly, have totally forgotten her name) was particularly greedy and her keeper informed us that she always walks at the back in the event that her friends drop any of their snacks she would then recover them.  Greedy indeed!  She also presented us with a couple of stones that she picked up off the ground in exchange for treats .  Food, it would seem, is at the forefront of an elephant’s mind.  Well, they are rather large and have a big belly to fill…no wonder they eat for 18 hours a day…Wouldn’t it be great if we could eat for 18 hours a day and not pile on the pounds?!  Anyway, I digress…

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So after the elephant ride it was time to head back to the main camp area and catch up with the others and take a quick rest before we started our second round of activities for the day.  This time, with the one animal we probably associate most with the great continent that is Africa – lions.

Keep reading to find out what it was like to walk with lions and watch the adult males at feeding time…

An African Safari – Day 10 & 11 – Departing Mozambique and Arriving in Zimbabwe

Day 10

Departure on day 10 from Mozambique was early at 630am as we had yet another long drive ahead of us to leave the tropical country and head inland towards Zimbabwe.  The drive towards the border was uneventful and full of the usual bumps and bounces along the rural roads.  At the border it took about an hour of waiting whilst everyone’s visas were granted.  The delays aren’t helped by the fact that everything is written by hand – how rustic.  However, as when entering the country patience is key when at border control, there is nothing you can do but wait.

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Our next night’s accommodation was really just a stop-over at Msika lodge which was in the middle of nowhere.  Our lodge was a single standing building that was very, very basic with no frills.  A luxury tour this was not but if you want luxury on safari then you need to spend a fortune (or remortgage your house!) and that was sadly not within our budget.  As long as the bed is clean, semi-comfortable and the bathroom and shower are working and clean also then that is really all you need.  You cannot be prissy on a safari.  The definite bonus about this accommodation was the small bar which, most importantly, had gin so that kept me happy for the evening and we were able to relax with a few before dinner.  Everyone was tired after the long day’s drive so it wasn’t long before we all retired for the evening.

Day 11 

Yet another early start on day 11 so we could continue our trip and head further inland towards our next destination, Antelope Park.  We were all excited for this one as not only did we get to stay for 2 nights, meaning less unpacking and re-packing, but we would also get to meet some of the animals which had fascinated us and were the reason for choosing to do a trip such as this in the first place.  The drive from Msika Lodge to Antelope Park was a shorter one, only about 2-3 hours, however we were told by Matt that our beloved truck, Wasabi, was about to give up on us due to a problem with the injectors so we would have to make a longer-than-planned stop at the town of Mutare.  We were dropped at the large supermarket right in the middle of the bustling town centre and made our way through the aisles for some snacks to keep us going and of course some booze.  Mum and I took a wander along the high street and stopped at a local pizza joint for a slice and a rest.  The heat was at its peak during the afternoon and none of us were really that keen to do much in it.  We met up with the rest of the group and patiently wait for Manda to return to us with news of the truck.  Bad news. Wasabi would take another good while to be fixed so we made our way towards a local petrol garage and had no choice but to wait for Matt and Wasabi to make an appearance.  As a means of keeping ourselves amused whilst we waited we resorted to doing a bit of a fitness class complete with yoga stretches and squats!  The locals were most definitely staring at us at this point, one of which even joined in.  Well, at least it kept the boredom at bay.

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Freddie, our cook

Freddie, our cook

Wasabi and Matt finally appeared and it was all aboard again to continue to Antelope Park.  The drive took us up through the mountains surrounding Mutare and gave us a spectacular view of the surrounding area.  We arrived at Antelope Park at nightfall having witnessed a warming and beautiful sunset tinged with fuzzy orange and lilac hues as we approached.

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Darkness had descended fully by the time we unpacked the truck, however, instead of having our dinner we were given a briefing by a member of staff about the ideals and aims behind Antelope Park and what they hope to achieve with such a conservation program.  We were shown a video of the activities on offer and made our decisions as to what we wanted to do the following day.  After, Freddie served dinner to a very hungry group of travellers.

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After dinner we were shown to our ‘room’ which was in fact a tent with a terrace and proper furniture.  Exactly how you would imagine a safari tent to look like!  Much to myself and mum’s delight it was the best accommodation on the trip so far.  Trees surrounded it and it overlooked a small expanse of water where birds and crickets constantly provided a comforting assortment of noise.  I tried to read my book but decided I was too tired and let my head hit the pillow in anticipation of the next day’s activities.

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An African Safari – Day 9 – Vilanculos Town, Mozambique

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Day 9 was a much more leisurely day.  We had a lie in before taking a stroll along the beach as the tide went out in the early morning sun heading for the town centre of Vilanculos.  The tide goes so far out, for almost as far as the eye can see, leaving rippled sand flats.  The boats not already out on the water look deserted and slightly morose, as if they’ve been long forgotten about and are longing for the sea to sweep them up again.  The walk from the beach towards the town centre was a hot one with us all sweating in very unattractive places…!  It didn’t make me appreciate the sand in my shoes either despite having rinsed them off after coming off the beach.  Hey-ho, there’s not much you can do to avoid sand in Africa – it’s everywhere!

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The town centre itself was very basic and pretty run-down.  There are no signs of affluence in Mozambique and it is an extremely poor country.   It’s hard not to feel the evidence of this disparity being a tourist in a country where its people have so little, it always nags at the back of your mind.  But, it opens your eyes to what life is like for some people of this world and it makes you appreciate what you have at home all the more.  The local kids are delighted if you hand them a chocolate bar or even a pen.  It is a humbling experience and one not readily forgotten.

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As we approached the town centre, the buzz of it became apparent with the locals in their colourful dress.  Apparently the women here don’t wear wedding rings but instead, their marital status is marked by the style in which they wear their wraps around their bodies.  I gazed around taking in my surroundings whilst the locals were equally fascinated by us staring in wonderment and intrigue at the foreigners.  We dipped into a small, very hot market full of pungent unusual smells and tried to identify to our best ability some of the items on offer.  We came to the conclusion that we knew little of what they eat here but would be keen to learn more.  However, we had limited time and had to meet up with the rest of the group before making the walk back to the beach.  With no purchases made, Mum and I went in search of water and were soon swarmed by the locals having heard us mention it.  Some young lads fetched us a freezing cold bottle, much to my delight, for which we paid well over the recommended asking price and were given the wrong change back.  Given my earlier observations of the poverty here I was not going to argue with them over a dollar or so.

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On our return walk towards the beach we stopped in past Baobab backpackers as I noticed they had a cocktail bar, how convenient!  I made my desire for a refreshing fruity alcoholic beverage known and it wasn’t long before the others joined me.  It was only around 11am…anyone would’ve thought we were on holiday!  I tried an ‘Electric Smurf’ and an ‘Orange Dinghy’.  We relaxed for a while taking a seat and rest before making our way back along the beach, past the colourful boats, and back to our camp for lunch with Freddie, Manda and Matt.  We had the remainder of the afternoon to ourselves so we had a little siesta.  I started on the sofa reading a magazine but I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open so I ended up having a kip on my bed with the soft breeze wafting through the net covered windows listening to the palm trees sway.  It didn’t take long for me to drift off…

After a nap and a refresh it was time for dinner again.  This time, a chicken pie with bean salad – so, so tasty!  We had a few glasses of white and played ‘Never Have I Ever’ with a set of playing cards.  Such a good laugh and it was great to see everyone relaxed and enjoying themselves, even the crew.  We didn’t stay up late though as the next day was an early start to continue our journey to yet another location.

An African Safari – Day 8 – Magaruque Island, Mozambique

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Breakfast was later today at 7am, a lie in!  And it was the best breakfast of the trip so far – French toast with scrambled eggs, bacon and maple syrup.  Just what I needed.  Our island excursion was due to depart at 8am where we met up with our local guide, Ignacio, and a couple of his pals.  We had to walk a distance out in the shallow water of the ocean towards the dhow and clamber in.  And clamber we did, we must’ve looked like a bunch of absolute buffoons tipping ourselves into this boat.  So ungraceful!  I think Ignacio got a good laugh whilst his friends tried to hide their laughter.  I wasn’t really convinced that the boat would get far through the shallow water with 13 of us and 3 local guys and all our gear.  However, we sped along the smooth sea towards Magaruque Island, the third largest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago.  The sea was a brilliantly clear turquoise with each depth a different shade faded into one another and off-setting the brilliant white hue of the sandy beach beyond.

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As we neared the island, the boat motor stopped and we hopped out.  The water was so warm!  There was a small palapa for us to deposit our bags and towels under whilst we ceremoniously slathered on the suncream.  With the temperature being in the 40s (deg Celsius) the suncream is not to be sniffed at.  Apply or burn!  The guys provided us with our snorkel masks and flippers which everyone eagerly slipped on and glided across to the reef just ahead.  Mum and Kathy stayed ashore preferring to bask in the sun with a cold beer.  The visibility under the water wasn’t great and I wasn’t convinced that we’d see much but further along the fish came out to play and there were some unusual ones on show, darting around us and minding their own business.  There were some beautiful angel fish with long fins as well as the dazzlingly coloured parrot fish.  My favourite were the black and white ones that looked like branches, how well camouflaged they were!

After a while exploring I swam the short distance back to shore, after testing out my new underwater camera, to sunbathe and glug water.  Kathy, Mum and I took a walk further along the island’s beach expecting to find some other signs of life or people but to our surprise we were alone with the white beach stretching in front of us all to ourselves.  As we turned a corner the breeze was more fresh which kept us cool in the heat of the sun whilst it  bronzed our skin. We spent the remainder of the afternoon sunbathing, drinking beers, munching on the freshly caught fish for lunch and feeding some leftovers to the sea’s inhabitants.

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We had to leave mid-afternoon as the tide was coming back in so it was another clamber back onto the dhow and back to the mainland.  It was a longer, slower journey back ashore with the sun having been obscured by large, fluffy clouds.  We were all covered in sand and seasalt by the time we returned so everyone was eager for a shower before dinner.  Freddie surpassed his previous efforts with a rich, tasty beef stew accompanied by the local maize dish.  Dad would’ve appreciated this one.  After dinner it was drinks again and chatting before heading back to that wonderful terrace of our palapa.  I ended up going to bed though as, despite being marinated in DEET, the mosquitos were out in full force and eating me alive so I took refuge under the nets over my bed.  What a pest those bloody things are!

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