Archive for the ‘Grant Nel’ Category

Time Travelling up a Creek Without a Paddle?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

grantnelx100Grant Nel holds a BSc (Hon) degree in Zoology, has worked in the African wild for 2 decades and has also travelled widely internationally. For the past 12 years Grant has lived a few hundred meters from the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers (both of which feature prominently in your itinerary). The Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park are virtually his back yard. He is a highly respected professional guide and conservationist in the region. He is a former CEO of The Selinda Reserve, and sits on the boards of two local environmental organizations.

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The Zambezi River is hardly a creek. Indeed it is Africa’s fourth largest river that collects nearly half of south central Africa’s rainfall and deposits it, after a 1700 mile long journey, into the Indian Ocean. Its name translates from the Tonga language as ‘The Great River’ which is an apt and befitting moniker. A Smithsonian African Safari is a modern day exploration of this mighty waterway; our itinerary taking us in the footprints of that most legendary of African Explorers, David Livingstone. However, unlike Dr. Livingstone, we have the luxury of modern transport to cover in two weeks what took him many years of grueling pioneering. I have often wondered what drove Livingstone in his quest to open ‘God’s Highway’ to the interior of Africa, and I think I may have found one of his greatest motivators.P1060128515

A Smithsonian Safari through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia makes use of just about every modern transport vehicle bar trains. We do game drives in specially adapted 4×4’s, boat cruises on luxury river craft, view the Vic Falls from helicopters, move from one country to another in luxury coaches or private aircraft, and skim along the Zambezi in small power boats in search of the formidable Tiger Fish. We are so habituated to the sound of the internal combustion engine (or as I call it – the infernal combustion engine) that we consider its intrusive racket as normal. Dr. Livingstone, I presume, would not approve.

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 When our group of Smithsonian Travelers reached the Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia’s remote Lower Zambezi National Park (after a bus ride, ferry crossing, another bus ride, a private charter flight, and a transfer by 4×4) many of us were ready for the tranquility that epitomizes this destination. The lodge offers a wide variety of activities including two of Livingstone’s preferred modes of transport: walking and canoeing.

Simeon, our guide and de facto protector, instructs us with a stern lecture prior to our departure. “Remember” he says, “should your canoe tip over or you fall out, swim as quietly as possible to the shore. Do not splash about as this attracts crocodiles.”. Enough said!

In truth, canoeing is a safe as walking across a busy street – if you obey the traffic lights you are unlikely to get hit by a car. We clamber into our fourteen foot Canadian canoes armed with nothing but our cameras and binoculars, i.e. we are paddleless! This is because each canoe is paddled by a young man from the lodge who knows these waters intimately and is adept at keeping us out of potential trouble.

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 Once we set off the serenity of the river takes over almost immediately. The flow of the Zambezi has us in her gentle grasp and we quickly hit our individual mute buttons. Simultaneously our ‘other’ senses start working and we begin to notice so much we have missed before. Every bird chirp is a loud proclamation of territory, the snap of twigs gives an elephant’s position away, the unmistakable smell of a baboon roost, the sucking noise of antelope drinking, the audible snap of a bee-eater hawking an insect on the wing, the blast of air from a surfacing hippo’s nostrils. The only intrusion to this is the dip and splash of our helmsman’s paddle. The afternoon sun is at our backs and bathes the scene before us in a magical light that emphasizes the verdant river banks of giant mahogany and winter-thorn trees. It picks up the glisten of the crocodiles’ scales as they sunbathe, mouths agape to show off their weaponry, and illuminates an elephant in a halo as he throws clouds of dust over himself. It was at about this point that I was struck with a thought. David Livingstone conducted the first ‘European’ canoe safari on the Zambezi River and what we are witnessing is a scene that must have been a daily experience for him. Ageless wild Africa becomes apparent and, at this moment, a thread through time connects us. Generations of bee-eaters have made their nests in the sheer clay banks we drift past; the lineage of elephants that have drunk from these waters is unbroken; the fruits of the giant trees have provided sustenance for countless baboon dynasties, and always the river flows in a never ending continuum.

 

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All too soon we reach the end of the channel and the connection is lost as we are collected by motor boat for the trip back upstream to our comfortable lodge. Livingstone, on his side of the wormhole, is setting up camp on the bank of the river, staring out over a cooking fire at the mighty Zambezi and looking forward to doing it all again tomorrow.

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To learn more about our African Safari tour, click here.

Victoria Falls – The ‘Smoke That Thunders’

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

grantnelx100Grant Nel holds a BSc (Hon) degree in Zoology, has worked in the African wild for 2 decades and has also travelled widely internationally. For the past 12 years Grant has lived a few hundred meters from the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers (both of which feature prominently in your itinerary). The Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park are virtually his back yard. He is a highly respected professional guide and conservationist in the region. He is a former CEO of The Selinda Reserve, and sits on the boards of two local environmental organizations.

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Mosi-oa-Tunya. The phonetics of the word is romantic all on its own, but the translation is even more so. ‘Smoke that Thunders’! This is the Tonga name given to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world and possibly the most visually spectacular experiences any Smithsonian Traveler can ever have. I am of course referring to the mighty Victoria Falls.

Our visit to this tour highlight is delayed by another truly African experience – the border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Little did we know that the pressing lines, bustling taxis and buses, colorful people, laden bicycles, mingling baboons, rumbling trucks and general melee of a busy border post would contribute so much to our appreciation of Victoria Falls. As time ticked away and each passport was laboriously stamped, so the sun started its journey from zenith to nadir, beginning the play of shadows and light that makes photography in Africa so rewarding.

At last we are through and quickly make our way to the Victoria Falls National Park. It matters not how many times one sees the Zambezi River plummeting 330 feet into the giant scar of the Earth’s crust that is the Batoka Gorge; it is literally breathtaking every time and always exceeds the expectations of the novice visitor. David Livingstone’s 1855 description of ‘…a scene so beautiful, that angels must gaze upon it in their flight.’ still holds true and few could describe the scene more eloquently than that. Our border delay has been an unforeseen blessing. The late afternoon light backlights a 500 foot curtain of white spray whilst rainbows arc across a chasm of black rock that is fringed with the verdant accents of the perpetually wet rainforest.

The resonance of 40,000ft3/sec of water crashing into the gorge is palpable; reverberating beneath our feet, in our ears and against our bodies. Our guide tells us that Devil’s Cataract is so named because the flow of the water above the precipitous plunge has been used for centuries as a form of baptism by the local tribes to wash out and banish evil spirits to the gorge’s depths. The falls extend from this cataract for another mile to the Eastern Cataract and we follow the drenched pathway within the rain forest, emerging every so often onto a lookout point for another view that always seems better than the last. We happen upon bushbuck and vervet monkeys, and get serenaded by birds that are near impossible to see through all the foliage. Suddenly there is a commotion up ahead and a ripple of excitement passes through our group. We step out of the rainforest and are treated to a scene that is primeval Africa – three bull elephants are grazing and walking between the islands just back from the brink of the falls. This is a drama that has surely played out countless times in the 150,000 year history of Mosi-oa-Tunya, but it is a first for me! The ‘diminutive’ figure of the largest land mammal on Earth bestows a sense of scale to Victoria Falls that makes it hard to tear our eyes from the image. For the travelers who set out on this Smithsonian Journey hoping to see this iconic animal in its natural habitat, there can be no better fulfillment of this vision than what is lit before us in the golden afternoon sun. In a matter of minutes the scene dissolves as the elephants wander into the deep forest and reed beds of the islands.

To Zambian border bureaucracy, I say a big ‘Thank You’ for reminding me that impatience in Africa goes against the grain of its Karma. Every delay is just a new, and often wonderful, opportunity to experience something unique and deeply gratifying.

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To learn more about our African Safari tour, click here.

The African Theater- Where Elephants Rule the Stage

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Grant Nel holds a degree in Zoology and has worked in the African wild for more than two decades. A highly respected professional guide and conservationist in the region, he is the former CEO of The Selinda Reserve and sits on the boards of two local environmental organizations.

Grant recently led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a safari adventure across four different countries.

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In the epic drama played in the theatre that is Africa, the elephant surely has the lead role. This gentle giant with its lazy gait, quiet demeanour, inherent intelligence, and subdued power was certainly the central character for our Smithsonian safari where Act I was staged under the mist of Victoria Falls, Act II was played out across the floodplains of the Chobe River, and the Finale was encompassed by the giant amphitheatre of the Zambezi escarpment. The supporting cast of lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard, along with all the extras (kudu, zebra, sable, giraffe et al) all performed admirably, but as always, the elephant stole the limelight. In no other place does this iconic animal give a better performance than in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Home to one of the largest single populations of elephant in Africa, this reserve provided us with some captivating elephant viewing. There is a certain thrilling trepidation that floods the senses when one has their first close encounter with the world’s largest land mammal. For us there was no exception.

Photo courtesy of Grant Nel

The Opening Scene – Gamedrive:
Very soon after entering Chobe National Park, we are treated to a wildlife bonanza that fills the stage that is the Chobe floodplain; buffalo and elephant dot the landscape and we scarcely know where to point our binoculars. As we descend the Ochre Ridge towards the river, we notice a small herd of elephants following their own dusty trail to water; a trail created over many decades by many thousands of serving platter sized feet. The dry season is reaching its height and the Chobe River is the only place for many a mile where wildlife can quench the incessant thirst that is the trademark of the Kalahari wilderness. A small, maybe year old, baby elephant gambols alongside its mother and aunty. Still suckling, it is perhaps not yet aware how important this journey is; for now it remains a chance to frolic in the cool waters and splash mud about with gay abandon. Our vehicle reaches the banks of the river and we stop constantly to watch a parade of animals: warthogs are wallowing, a sable antelope weighs up the risk of stealing a quick drink, impala and baboons share a feast under a monkey orange tree and above us on the ridge, more and more elephants gather in anticipation of water.

Photo courtesy of Grant Nel

Scene II – The ‘Encounter’:

To our right we are watching a bevy of elephants slapping on mud with an enthusiasm that can only be described as pure joy. It has our undivided attention and amusement. A muted shuffling noise to the left interrupts the scene and we swing our heads around to see a small family of elephants heading down the river bank directly towards us. Their mission is to get to water and it appears that nothing will stop them. If it weren’t for the inquiring trunk tips pointed in our direction it would seem that they don’t know we exist. The herd splits and passes front and back of our 4×4 so close we can see every eyelash and the cracks on their toenails – exhilarating! One inquisitive young male is not so blasé and decides he wants a closer look at the vehicle occupants. He gets within trunk range and gives us “The Stare”. The chocolate brown eye that he surveys us with is intoxicating and there seems to be a message passing from one intelligent being to another – a silent one, because a pin dropping right now would be cacophonous.

Photo courtesy of Grant Nel

The Closing Scene – Sunset boat cruise:
Our boat cruise is filled with a myriad of encounters with creatures both large and small. A monitor lizard scavenges a Fish Eagle’s scraps; white-fronted bee-eaters hawk insects above our heads; hippos splash, cavort and yawn at our passing; buffaloes graze chest deep in the water; a giant crocodile basks in the late afternoon sun; and always, ever present, are elephants. They are drinking, feeding, bathing, trumpeting, rumbling, suckling, walking, and sparring. They carry out their daily existence without the least concern of our camera clicking and exclamations of wonder. It feels like it cannot possibly get better, until we turn a corner to reveal a scene that probably qualifies as a religious experience. The Sun, now a bright orange orb hanging low in the sky, provides a backdrop to a gathering of buffalo and elephants that must number in the hundreds. Their silhouettes are haloed by the ethereal light reflected in the mirror-like river. Our voices drop to that respectful whisper reserved for a great cathedral and no-one can wrench their eyes away. Sunset in Africa is a relatively quick affair, and I cannot help but think that it is a perfectly timed curtain fall to an astounding performance. Tomorrow the curtain will rise again, and although the script may change, the drama will remain the same.

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To learn more about our African Safari trip click here