Archive for the ‘African Safari’ 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.


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.


 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.


 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.



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.


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.


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.


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

Five Animals to Look for on Safari (Besides the Big Five)

Thursday, March 7th, 2013
The regal Legadima, overseeing her territory.  Photo by Claire Tinsley

The regal female leopard Legadima overseeing her territory. Photo by Claire Tinsley

When on safari, the “Big 5″ are on the top of everyone’s list of animals to see, and it is true that lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinos are extraordinary creatures to observe in the wild. Seeing a majestic elephant bathe itself in mud or a lion greeting its pride is a magical moment that will make any journey into the bush unforgettable.

Yet, there are so many animals to see, many equally as exciting or unique as any of the Big 5, that you may be surprised to find yourself at the end of your safari with a new and unexpected favorite. With that in mind, here are five more animals to look out for while on your game drives.

Photo by Claire Tinsley

Photo by Claire Tinsley

Two animals to reevaluate and pay more attention to on a safari are the hyena and the giraffe. Giraffes are simply regal. Watching them walk across the savannah as the sun sets is like taking a deep breath during yoga; it centers, calms and keeps you present. Giraffes are most closely related to the camel (you can see the resemblance if you look closely at their faces) and are among the only animals that walk by moving both legs on one side of their bodies at the same time. In order to drink water, giraffes must spread their front legs very far apart (like they are attempting to do the splits) to get their faces close enough to the water.

Giraffes at Dusk.  Photo by Claire Tinsley

Giraffes at dusk. Photo by Claire Tinsley

Hyenas may seem like an odd animal to highlight. In fact the majority of people claim to dislike hyenas (perhaps because of their poor casting in Disney’s The Lion King!) In reality, these inquisitive creatures are fascinating to watch, especially when their young come up to your vehicle and start sniffing and chewing on the tires. Don’t worry, they aren’t trying to give you a flat tire; rather, this is how they experience and learn about the world. If you knew everything about your house, and then someone came and parked a car on your front lawn, you would probably go investigate it too. Hyenas are immensely playful animals and among the most social species. You may see the young scuffle around their den, but they are quick to stand at attention if their mother calls, as the Spotted Hyena is a female-dominated species. Hyenas are generally thought to be scavengers, and while they are indeed opportunistic animals and wouldn’t pass up trying to steal a good meal from another species, they kill as much as 95% of the food they eat. After making the kill hyenas often make a laughing sound, to signal the rest of their family members that “dinner is ready.” However, this call may also bring in “unwanted” dinner guests, such as lions, to the table.

Three young inquisitive Hyena pups. Photo by Claire Tinsley

Three young and inquisitive hyena pups. Photo by Claire Tinsley

Be sure to be on the look out for the Red Lechwe. If you mention wanting to see one to a guide, you might get a surprised look, but this will be because they are in fact quite common. Part of the antelope species, they stand out due to their hind legs. Lechwe, which eat aquatic plants, are found in marshy areas and have evolved to use the knee-deep water as protection from predators. Their hind legs are considerably larger than their front legs and all four are covered in a water-repellant substance which allows them to run quite fast in knee-deep water. This, more often than not, keeps them safe from land-dwelling predators, such as lions and leopards (although crocodiles still have the upper hand). Seeing them run through a flood plain is a wonderful photo-op, so make sure to have your cameras ready.

A Red Lechwe.  Photo by Claire Tinsley

A Red Lechwe. Photo by Claire Tinsley

And don’t overlook the smaller animals out there. Crimson-breasted Shrikes are small but striking birds with a white wing stripe and florescent red underbellies. They have a distinctive chirp, which will alert you that they’re near, but it’s the bright red in a land of browns and tans that will catch your eye. Look for them in drier thorn-bush areas, thickets and acacia scrubs.

A Crimson Breasted Shrike. Photo by Claire Tinsley

A Crimson-breasted Shrike. Photo by Claire Tinsley

Chameleons are small and fast, but not as hard to spot as you might think, particularly at night. Their ability to change color is well known, but this is not done to match their background as commonly believed. Rather the color changes are used both to communicate and to regulate body temperature. When you come back from a game drive after dark, it can be hard to carry on looking for the bigger animals because all you have to locate them with is the reflective color of their eyes. Chameleons, which you would think would be infinitely harder to find, actually reflect light with their entire body! When a spotlight hits them, their whole body is the color of pearl, for the first couple of moments at least. This occurs because chameleons have multiple layers of chromatophores, the top layer has red or yellow pigments and the bottom layers have blue or white pigment. At night the chameleon shrinks these cells to preserve heat, which makes the blue and white cells more prevalent, and easier to catch in a spot light. You are most likely to see them in trees or bushes where they hope to spend a safe night hidden from predators. They vary greatly in length – from 2.5 cm to 50 cm – so be sure to keep your eyes peeled and get ready to impress your whole group by spotting a chameleon, at night, while driving 30 mph. Just don’t expect to get a picture of this phenomenon; it probably won’t come out very well!

Come experience the African wild with us! Learn more about our African Safari trip 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.


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.


To learn more about our African Safari trip click here

The Elephant in the Dining Room

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

September 2012

Don Wilson, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderDon Wilson is Curator Emeritus of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was director of the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Programs for ten years. A distinguished mammalogist and an internationally recognized authority on bats, his work has taken him around the world conducting field work and research. He has led tours for Smithsonian Journeys to most of the world’s greatest natural history destinations from Antarctica to Africa.  Read his field notes from the trip below:


An African Safari is one of the most exciting adventures offered by Smithsonian Journeys. I lead them regularly, but never get tired or bored. Every trip offers new and exciting views of animals, interesting people, and something to look forward to every single day. This September’s journey was no exception.

Photo courtesy of Don Wilson

We had a very nice, compatible group of about 20 people, and by our final stop at Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia, we were getting very good at identifying mammals and birds, and were becoming more comfortable with seeing large animals such as elephants and hippos up close and personal. Normally we do this from the safety and comfort of our safari vehicles, but we have the opportunity to do both walking and canoeing safaris at Royal Zambezi, and we had already had some exciting encounters with some elephants.

Photo courtesy of Don Wilson

On our final day, a familiar elephant with a recognizable tear in one ear showed up to wish us good-bye. As we were getting our coffee from the deck where we enjoyed our alfresco meals, the elephant drew closer and closer. Finally it was so close it could scoop the fallen leaves and nuts from the rain gutters on the lodge building. A few folks were still trying to get down to breakfast, and they had to delay their approach until the elephant, a young but quite large bull, had enjoyed his fill.

Photo courtesy of Don Wilson


To read more about our African Safari trip click here