It’s an ‘Animal Planet moment’ come alive... a glimpse into the raw, untamed Africa of my dreams, as I watch a herd of wild zebras graze below my balcony. With the constant soundtrack of the thundering falls and the visual feast of the misty spray in the background, our Hotel, the Royal Livingstone, has the unique distinction of being set inside the Mosi-oa- Tuniya National Park. I feel that I have time-warped to the British colonial times: the main thatch roofed building with the lounge and the reception has shaded verandas, strewn with leather ottomans and rattan furniture, animal prints on cushions and sepia portraits on walls. High tea in the lounge with resident monkeys occasionally helping themselves to carrot cake and dainty fruit tarts, and a massage in the open gazebo fronting the Zambezi River, accompanied by the nasal baritone of hippos, sets the tone for the next few days.
For a safari virgin like me, a game drive in the pint sized Mosi-oa-Tuniya National Park around the Victoria Falls is the perfect introduction. As we drive through a crimson African dawn, and the silvery shimmer of the grassy plains, there is the pungent smell of animal dung, merging with the smell of smoke from distant bush fires. We savour the momentary magic of seeing a saddle- billed stork in iridescent black, with a humongous red bill, near a waterhole. Stocky waterbuck antelopes bask in the sunlight, with white patches on their rumps giving the impression that they ‘sat on painted toilet seats’. We spot graceful but skittish impalas with a conspicuous ‘M’ on their white behinds, prompting them being christened ‘the Big Mac of the Bush’ and the kudu antelope with its majestic spiral horns. A herd of African elephants headed by a matriarch cross our road, as we wait patiently, with our camera lenses trained.
Our guide, Francis, teaches us the basics of tracking using the three F’s: footprints, faeces and food remains. We learn to differentiate between the footprints of elephants and giraffes and identify animals by their droppings. All along we see the Ilala palm trees with hard, white nuts like golf balls which are called vegetable ivory and used for carving. Baboons shimmy up the mopane trees with leaves shaped like butterflies, which are rampaged by elephants and are hosts to caterpillars called mopane worms which are a local delicacy. There is a wealth of facts that we pick up: how the mopane trees are used for building and fencing as they are naturally termite resistant, how the pods of the sausage tree can be lethal, weighing over 4 kgs.
“There go the donkeys in pyjamas,” says Francis, as he points to a herd of zebras. There are termite hills as tall as houses; the earth of the termite hills is sold in local markets because it contains iron and it is even used to make clay bricks. We love watching the gangly giraffe with a heart bigger than a football, which Francis calls the first bungee jumper of the world. “Because it gives birth standing up and its baby falls to the ground!” says he. The most surreal sight is a bare baobab tree (elephants strip the bark and eat it) with a flock of white backed vultures on its branches. “Look now, these are the only animals in the bush that kneel and pray”, says Francis. It’s a herd of warthogs which have extremely short necks and relatively long legs, kneeling down on their calloused hairy legs to eat short grass.
We take a sunset cruise along the Zambezi dotted with grassy islands, with our guide, who points out things that we missed on our game drive: tracks made by the hippos in the sand, bee- eaters nesting in the mud banks of the river. Hippopotamuses loll about in the muddy waters like fat old ladies, with their pink ears and noses visible, mean looking crocodiles with beady eyes sun themselves on a rock. Emerald green bee-eaters, herons, ibises and fish eagles swoop overhead. A two-metre monitor lizard lounges in a tree, brilliantly camouflaged.
Livingstone is the adventure playground of the country and you can indulge in white water rafting in the swirling gorges or bungee from the Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi for an adrenaline rush or take a daring dip in the Devil’s Pool at the very edge of the falls! I choose to take a bird’s eye view from a tandem micro light, unencumbered by glass and buffeted by the winds. As I zoom over the red African soil from the Batoka Sky Base, strapped into the small seat behind the pilot, I know that this is a view that will remain in my memory forever. Low hanging mist, acacia forests, herds of elephants and hippos, followed by the magnificent spectacle of a double rainbow over the mile wide falls, make me forget the frisson of fear that I felt as we took off. When I return home with my treasures from the local Market, the animal motif remains omnipresent: giraffe shaped wooden spoons, a hippo in earthy malachite, and a rhino woven in beads.
Published in The Hindu Metro Plus, July 2012.