There is only one place in the world where four countries meet. It’s on the Caprivi Strip, a place where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia touch borders. It was once well-known as the place to do a relatively easy safari circuit: you simply started at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe before hopping into Botswana for Chobe National Park, one of the most animal-rich parks in Africa. Big waterfall, big game, big holiday – easy.
Then, in 2000, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe went rogue and sanctioned the takeover of white-owned farms. Zim’s tourism industry dried up like a summer wallow and the little circuit of big safari was broken.
Today President Mugabe (93) doesn’t have long to go, and the town of Victoria Falls is clearly enjoying some post-pariah business. At the charming market of Elephant’s Walk, artisans are happy to chat about their beaded jewellery and mahogany carvings; over at the colonial Vic Falls Hotel, the staff are once again pouring tea on the verandah.
The town is tidy, quiet and gentle, but sits besides an especially violent bit of the planet – a 1.7-kilometre wide gash into which 1,000 tonnes of Zambezi pours every second. When I visit in March, the famous falls – more poetically called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or The Smoke that Thunders – are fat with summer rains. Walking on the viewing trail, I’m alternately bathed in hot sunshine and deluged in the sort of spray that daunted Captain Ahab.
I ask guide Jotham about the origin of the name Zambezi, Africa’s fourth-largest river. “It means ‘Only those who know the river will bathe’,” he says. “Because of the crocodiles.” The crocs are real, but he’s joking; the name is probably a Bantu word for a locality near the river’s source in Zambia.
Watching the river plunge 100 metres before squeezing beneath the tiny (and very beautiful) British-made railway bridge should be enough for anyone. But local companies have decided it’s not. The big surprise of the town’s return is the number of adventure options on offer, many of them provided by the very savvy Wild Horizons company. Their staff could have chucked me into the abyss in any number of adrenalin-sapping ways, but I’m hooked up to the Canopy Tour which sees me zigging and zagging over the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia on zip lines. I enjoy exhilarating views of the roaring gorge, intimate encounters with cliff-side jungle and a rare chance to alliterate with the letter z.
The game is not meager around Vic Falls (as a bull elephant lumbering onto the road attests one morning) but Zimbabwean operators are likewise offering something extra when it comes to animals. On the Lion Encounter, guests take a dawn stroll through the African bush with two 75-kilogram cats. The efficacy of the operation as a conservation tool is dubious but there’s no doubting it’s a chance to learn about lions and love them a little more as you scratch their hindquarters. (Lions don’t smell. Not at all. Who knew?)
At the Elephant Camp boutique lodge, I get to meet Sylvester, an abandoned cheetah cub. Now the size of a great dane, he is soft and patient, and he doesn’t smell either.
Not far away is the Elephant Wallow – a more earthy-smelling stretch of river where a dozen abandoned tuskers have been tamed for interactions (and also for elephant-back safaris). The sight of them lumbering towards a thatched compound to be fed and watered by guests is arresting, not least because the irascible African elephant was thought to be untrainable. The knowledge of manager Zenzo – who has spent 20 years with elephants – makes it an extra-special encounter.
But my favourite animal experience is at my accommodation, the Safari Club, a five-star thatched edifice set high over bushveld and waterhole. At precisely 1pm, a kitchen hand takes guests to the edge of the resort and empties a bucket of bones. The hot sky is already speckled with vultures wheeling in anticipation; in a flash, 150 birds are scrummaging metres from my feet. They are extraordinary. And they stink like the devil.
The two-hour road crossing into Botswana is a breeze and Chobe National Park, as if on cue, opens up with game numbers you dream about. The electric fence around the park’s solitary retreat, Chobe Game Lodge, is there to keep out the 90,000 elephants said to inhabit the park’s 11,700 square kilometres. It works fine for elephants and buffalo, though lions are found feasting around staff quarters on the third dawn of my stay. The Game Lodge is a 40 year old local hero, a place of trimmed lawns and cool Moorish décor located beside the wide Chobe River. It’s generous and gracious, laying on silver service dinners beneath the stars and allowing the staff to make a meal of singing to birthday guests. (I witness a truly joyous impromptu performance of African a capella that lasts 20 minutes.)
Chobe also spoils its guests with the thing they want most… The evenings are reserved for river cruises, affording intimate water-level encounters from small steel boats. A riverbank dubbed Happy Valley is so absurdly populated that it evokes Disney: baboons lark on chalk cliffs while impalas, kudus and giraffe look on. When large herds of elephant crash through the bush, they obligingly drink, swim and tussle in the shallows. A young male elephant spends half an hour chasing baboons, trumpeting angrily.
For those who want to stay for the show, the Chobe River is also plied by a few houseboats that can moor in waterlilly-filled shallows. I’m installed in the Ichobezi Mukwae for a night, a houseboat that borrows from the 1950s with its sunny white interiors, plush lounges and fresh river breezes. It affords me the thrill of waking to a hippo, just eight metres from my bed, munching noisily on lily shoots. Not that the hippo cares, but if he hauls himself onto one side of the river he’s in Botswana. If he emerges on the other, he’s in the lowlands of Namibia – specifically the Caprivi Strip, a marvel of 19th century geopolitics and a wetland corridor defined by the meeting of Chobe and Zambezi Rivers.
Ichingo Chobe River Lodge is my final accommodation and lends yet another perspective to the safari. It’s on the Namibian side, on the island of Impalila, among forests of curious trees with names like woolly saucer berry, bird plum and Kalahari apple leaf. But the stay is dominated by the broad Chobe, now dropping over rapids to shoot furiously past the pylons of the lodge and meet with the Zambezi.
The river is the only way in and out of the shady open-sided lodge. The rapids are the music that accompanies the lamplit dining table groaning with meats and South African wines. They’re also my opportunity to go big game hunting for the fearsome tigerfish. Two hours are spent with river guide Felix who navigates the fulsome waters where the rivers meet. “Tigerfish can be big,” he says, “up to a metre.” We drift a kilometre in a matter of minutes, all the time casting with large baited hooks for the voracious predators. Equipped with razor-sharp teeth and powered by a slab of muscle, tigerfish have been seen launching themselves to snatch small birds in flight. Sure enough, the strike on my line is like a mule-kick. It’s almost a relief not to land the thing.
After dark, within my carefully tailored tent, I lie listening to the gushing Chobe, rushing to join the Zambezi and make the short 90-kilometre trip to the smoking gash that is Victoria Falls. The circuit of big falls, big game and big holiday is back on the map.