Chobe

Botswana is perhaps the best place in Africa to see elephants, boasting a population of over 60,000 in the country.  For a change of pace, we took a safari on the Chobe river and found hundreds of elephants, along with crocodiles, hippos and other game straddling the border between Botswana and Namibia.

Elephants take a drink from the Chobe River.

A hippo grazes along the bank, followed closely by cattle egrets looking for insects disturbed by the grazing.

A bull elephant grazing on the Namibian bank.

Male hippos vying for dominance.

Victoria Falls

The Zambezi river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in the southwest of the country.  Meandering gently south, the river comes to an abrupt fall of 355 feet and forming one of the largest—and perhaps the most famous—waterfalls in the world.  Discovered by the intrepid Scottish explorer David Livingstone in November 1855, the falls, named The Smoke That Thunders in the local dialect, were dubbed Victoria Falls after the contemporary English queen.  Forming the largest falling sheet of water in the world, at over a mile in width, the falls were particularly impressive when we viewed them at high water.

The Zambezi river meanders gently 500 meters upriver from the Falls.

The main falls.

The Devil's Cataract, the set of falls closest to Zimbabwe, thunders into the gorge, creating an impressive rainbow.

The main falls, plummeting 355 feet into the gorge.

Josh standing on Danger Peak, where the rock face plummets straight down into the gorge.

An amazing rainbow looking straight down into the gorge where the Zambezi cuts its way south beyond the Falls.

Antelope Park

On our way through Zimbabwe, we took a few days to stop at Antelope Park, a private game reserve with a twist. Years ago, Antelope Park was a hunting reserve where a trigger-happy westerner could pay for the opportunity to hunt one of a number of antelope species.  Nowadays the park is more conservation-focused, with a special focus on Africa’s most famous mammal, the Lion.

 

Over the past thirty years, African Lions have suffered from a decline of approximately 80%.  Because numbers throughout Africa currently stand at around 25,000—which sounds like a lot to anyone—people don’t usually consider that lions are a threatened species.  A few decades ago, however, their numbers were in the hundreds of thousands.

 

The major threat to African Lions is habitat loss.  As with almost every other wild species in Africa, as populations throughout the continent grow and require more living space and farmland, natural habitat is often sacrificed to make ends meet.  In addition to habitat loss, the island effect created by national parks is particularly damaging to lion populations.

 

Hundreds of years ago, when human populations in Africa were sparse and well dispersed, wild animals could roam freely without fear of being killed by humans, hit by a car, or simply coming across a fence line with no end.  Indeed, many species require emigration when their populations get too large.  For lions, when a pride gets too big or a young male begins to threaten the dominant male, the natural response is for bachelors to wander off and establish their own pride elsewhere.  This coming and going of lions from different populations provided valuable genetic flow which maintained the genetic diversity of lion populations, keeping them robust and healthy.  When lions, and any other animals, are trapped inside national parks (the numerous benefits of protection aside) this emigration and genetic flow is not possible.  As a result, lion prides are often subject to inbreeding, reducing the viability and health of the population.  The effects of inbreeding caused by restricted populations are starting to show up in lion populations throughout Africa, and many experts fear that they could be as damaging as habitat loss.

 

At Antelope Park, a novel experiment is being tested to address the problems of declining lion numbers and inbreeding within populations.  The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) has begun a four-stage breeding and wild release program in an effort to raise public awareness about the challenges lion populations face in Africa, and of course provide wild prides with fresh genes to keep populations healthy.

 

Captive lions at the park (either captive-bred or rescued wild lions) are entered into a breeding program to produce healthy and potentially successful young lions—breeding pairs are often selected for their hunting prowess and dominance.  These young lions then spend about a year in tourist interaction programs for education and awareness purposes.  During that time and beyond, they’re regularly released into a controlled game reserve with prey species to build their hunting and stalking skills.  Amazingly, by about 13 months they’re already able to hunt independently and successfully.

 

For stage two, the lions that have showed the greatest success in the reserve are chosen for a semi-wild pride.  A dominant male and several females are released into a 500-acre enclosure, and interaction with humans is completely restricted, apart from the research vehicle that monitors them daily.  The cubs produced by this semi-wild pride will be raised without human interaction and will learn to hunt and survive in the bush as though they were born into a wild pride.  So far, as a result of funding restrictions, Stage 2 is the farthest that ALERT has come with their breeding program, and we spent a day with the researchers monitoring the Stage 2 lion pride.

 

When Stage 3 hopefully comes around, the lions in Stage 2 will be released into a 10,000-acre reserve that more closely resembles a true wild habitat.  There will be competitive predators such as hyena, and the lions will not be able to use the small size of their previous enclosure to their advantage while hunting.  Provided the pride does well in this situation, the cubs born in the wild that have had no human interaction will be released into wild populations across the continent (Stage 4).

 

The 4-stage breeding and release program has attracted quite a bit of attention, much of it criticism from lion experts who question its viability and its benefit to the health of the African Lion population.  My personal view is that the mission of the program is admirable and well intentioned, but the goals may be too ambitious.  To give an idea of the scale of funding required, Stage 2 cost one million US dollars to release one pride, and stage three will cost thirteen million.  These costs would likely result in just a handful of lions being released every three or four years, and I can’t say I’m optimistic that these sorts of numbers will make a significant impact in the health of wild populations.  Given unlimited funding and resources, the program could well make a significant impact, but only time will tell whether or not this breeding scheme will be successful.

Milo, the beautiful 8-year old dominant male of the breeding program, lounges in the bush.

Wakanaka, a 13-month old female, is the flagship of the wild-release program. She is the first cub to be born in the semi-wild pride, although four more cubs have been born in the last few months.

Milo, with perhaps the most beautiful mane ever seen on a lion.

Wakanaka on a hunt with two of the radio-collared females.

He’s just so gorgeous we couldn’t resist one more…

Chimanimani Mountains

The Chimanimani Mountains of Eastern Zimbabwe stand jagged above rolling grassy meadows. Stunned by the natural aesthetic, we took the day to enjoy a breathtaking (if not steep) mountain trek.

The first leg of our hike was steady incline—a proper scramble up the rocks.

Good thing the beautiful vistas forced us to take frequent photo stops.

Upon reaching the first plateau, we discovered a meadow of rock structures. Fancy a game of hide and seek?

We were thrilled to discover this amazing waterfall plus two others along the way complete with swimming pools for a refreshing dip.

This point on the trek, known as Skeleton Pass, is where two countries meet. Just beyond the rocky Zimbabwean ledge is grassy, green Mozambique. We didn’t bring our passports, but still managed to stick over a toe.

Great Zimbabwe

“Zimbabwe” literally means “big house of stone.” After cruising through the country’s rocky terrain, it’s clear just how appropriate the name. Massive boulder structures and balancing rocks riddle the landscape. Picture dozens of natural Stone Henges dotting the countryside. Even the country’s heritage is rooted in stone. High atop a natural granite escarpment, we visited Great Zimbabwe, the palace ruins of generations of African royalty between the 13th and 17th centuries.  The dry-stone construction is reminiscent of early medieval Europe, although the only contact with the outside world that the ancient Zimbabweans had was with Arab traders.

The grounds host two stone complexes. At the base of the hill resides the Great Enclosure where the queen and her children lived. Just beyond that lived the king’s other 200 wives and their numerous offspring.

Inside the Great Enclosure, the queen would hold classes for her children on how to best serve their king.

The narrow passageways between the Great Enclosure’s main structures and its 6-meter thick wall were used by children to make their way to and from classes.

The narrow passageways between the Great Enclosure’s main structures and its 6-meter thick wall were used by children to make their way to and from classes.

The outer wall of the dry-stone complex separated the extremely large royal family (200 wives and all of their children) from the common folk.

Well-built stone steps led the way up the steep slopes of the rocky hillside to the King’s Royal Enclosure. With one navigable route up the hill, the palace was easily defended from enemies even if the rest of the complex was taken.

The Royal Enclosure was built around the natural, gargantuan granite boulders on top of the hill. To create such perfect granite bricks, the ancient builders would pour boiling water on nearby granite outcrops, quickly followed by a bath of cold water. The sudden temperature change would cause the granite to crack in uniform sheets, which could then be easily cut into bricks.

High atop his hillside palace, the King ruled over his subjects from a platform at the very top of a natural boulder. The Royal Enclosure included a treasury, a war room, ceremonial chambers, living chambers, a network of tunnels that to this day have not been explored, and, naturally, a fire that was kept burning for the duration of the king’s life. After a king died, his entire hilltop palace was leveled and a new one built on its ruins. Eight levels have been excavated in the central area, indicating the rule of 8 separate kings over about 400 years.

Can You Name This Animal?

Now that we’ve got a bit of time, how about a funky throwback to the Giraffe Sanctuary that we visited in Kenya just under a month ago?  At the Sanctuary, endangered Rothschild Giraffes are born in captivity, raised to adulthood and released into national parks within their native range.  We were lucky enough to see wild Rothschild Giraffes in Nakuru National Park, one of the few locations where they can be seen.

You guessed it! It's a giraffe!

Zanzibar

Zanzibar: a name that instantly brings to mind the foreign; the exotic; the unknown. For us: a nice change of scene for the Christmas holidays.
Lying just off the coast of southern Tanzania, Zanzibar was once Africa’s connection with the influential ancient Arab world.  Trade was brought to much of Africa through Zanzibar’s ports, and the island remains largely influenced by Islam both in its unique style, its architecture and of course its religion.  Unfortunately, Zanzibar also has a dark history due to its major involvement in the African slave trade—a history that can still be seen in slave pens used during the export of captives and the enormous spice plantations that were once powered by slave labor.  Despite its past, Zanzibar is now a lovely and atmospheric island perhaps more at home somewhere in the Caribbean than off the coast of Africa.  We were glad to spend a few days exploring the narrow streets of Stone Town and all that the northern beaches had to offer.
The Dhow revolutionized trade in the ancient world, allowing Arab traders to cross the Indian Ocean to reach the shores of Africa using the changing monsoon winds. Today, Dhows are still used in Zanzibar and along the eastern coast of the continent for trade and fishing.

Zanzibar’s population thrives off of the bounties of the productive Indian Ocean. This market in Stone Town transforms a sleepy piazza into a thriving, atmospheric night scene catering to both locals and tourists. All sorts of unique local food can be had, from fish and octopus to sweet potatoes and samosas.

A favorite at the night markets is freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, hand-pressed and strained with a hint of lemon and ginger.

The narrow, windy streets of Stone Town have a wholly traditional feel, with local markets, craft stores and shops crammed into impossible places. As we found out, there’s no logic to the layout, and a wander through the streets often leads to a long, confusing walk home.

Stone Town is home to windows and doors with tons of character.

While local men tend to do most of the fishing around the island, women wade through the shallows during low tide to collect shellfish and molluscs.

A man in a local dugout outrigger canoe paddles home in the evening, disturbing schools of sprats and causing them to jump from the water in alarm.