The Skies of Africa – Part 5, Victoria Falls

Our final morning in Serondela was bittersweet. Ahead lay the spectacle of Victoria Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, but it meant that we had to leave behind the safari staff who had come to feel like family. The night before, one of our fellow travellers remarked that he’d been nervous about visiting Africa before the trip began, and now he had a completely different opinion of the continent. Africans are well aware of how much bad press their home receives, and they are incredibly grateful to be able to show the genuine side of their countries to visitors. I hope that our fellow guests don’t mind my posting this photo, which expresses so clearly the depth of our bond with our Botswanan friends.

Victoria Falls is the result of the Zambezi River tumbling over about a 330-foot-plus drop as it straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our Botswana safari guides drove us on the main road, edged by farms and women carrying goods on their heads, as far as the Kazungula border post and steered us through Customs.

We sadly said our goodbyes and crossed into Zimbabwe, where we were picked up by staff from Matetsi River Lodge for the approximately 45-minute drive to our home on the banks of the Zambezi River for the next couple of nights.

Matetsi for me was the epitome of a romantic African lodge in the wild. I loved it so much that on a return trip we made a point of staying there again, renewing our acquaintance with Obert, the lodge manager at the time. I say ‘was’ because several years ago & Beyond renovated it into something more sleek and upscale, so sadly you won’t be able to stay at the beautiful place in our photos.

Upon arrival at the Matetsi Reserve, we were dropped off at the entrance, given some refreshing cold drinks and cold wet washcloths to freshen up with, and loaded into safari vehicles for the drive through dense bush to the lodge.

The main building houses an open-air lounge, bar and round table, on a hillside overlooking a terrace very close to the water with a larger dining table and a round barbecue.

Our blue-tinted cabins were tucked away along the river’s edge, each nestled into its own private shrubbery, with a big bedroom and separate bathroom area, joined to each other by a small covered area that led out to a stone deck and a private plunge pool.


The bedroom and bathroom each had their own lockable door to keep out marauding monkeys, and there was even a slingshot handily draped on a hook should we need to scare some off. We never saw any near our cabins, but there was a big monitor lizard that visited several of our lawns, lumbering peaceably through the grass in the late afternoon.

There was also a small pavilion with a gift shop, where you could buy jewellery, mud cloth and clothing. Everything was tucked quietly into the bush, connected by sunny stone pathways which we were allowed to wander during the day, but when dusk fell we were escorted by lodge staff – we were in the midst of Matetsi’s large private game reserve, after all.

After lunch, we were taken into the town of Victoria Falls for the main event. Vic Falls town bustles with travellers out for adventure. There are a wide variety of accommodations for most price points sprinkled throughout the town and sprawled discreetly along the Zambezi. The Falls sit within two protected parks, one in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia, so you can see the Falls in all their glory in pristine wilderness, unlike Niagara Falls which slinks its way past hotels, casinos and tour buses.

Inside the visitor centre, we were given rain ponchos and an orientation to the river and falls. Then we were led along a path that brings you to the statue of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of the Falls, even though the native peoples had been living in the area for years, and even other Europeans had been there previously. It was the romantic figure of the Scottish missionary and explorer – who named the Falls after his queen and became really famous after being lost in Africa for several years and then found by Henry Morton Stanley, an intrepid American reporter – who captured the public imagination and got the credit.

Even at the statue, we couldn’t hear much, and I was truly wondering how impressed I was actually going to be – until we caught our first sight of Devil’s Cataract and heard the deafening roar of 3 million gallons of water churning over the precipice every second! I stopped dead and stood there with my mouth open. I’d never seen anything like this!

It was April, the tail end of the rainy season, and the Zambezi was in full flow.

The Lozi tribe had given the Falls the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and so it did!

As it flung itself over the Falls and crashed into the bottom of the gorge, it created multiple rainbows, and a mist that billowed over 1,000 feet into the air, making nearby tall palm trees look like little ants. The mist falls as dense rain and creates a strip of tropical jungle in the midst of a dry African savannah. It can be seen from over ten miles away. Even with ponchos we all got soaked to the skin, which wasn’t unwelcome in the hot sun.  

Hubby and me, in our intrepid Tilley hats at the Falls

Exploration on the Zimbabwean side takes a while, as there’s a long trail to see the different gorges and very close to the bridge between the two countries that carries the rail line built by Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in the diamond fields of South Africa before stripping Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) of much of its resources and endowing Oxford University with its most famous scholarship.

One of Rhodes’ dreams was to build a railway from the Cape of South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – commemorated on this flag post on the ground of the elegant colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel.

The busy bridge has lanes for foot traffic, motor vehicles and rail. if you don’t mind heights, the walk across has great views of the Zambezi and all the human life around it.

Back at the lodge we all took full advantage of the full bathrooms – while hot bucket showers in the bush are fun, there’s nothing like being able to take your time in a proper shower or a hot bath.

Evenings at the lodge start near the bar, where an assortment of liquors wait to be mixed into whatever drink you like. Visitors usually welcome the opportunity to use blow-dryers and put some nicer clothes on – nothing overly fancy, but a little up from bush garb. We all chuckled at our transformation.

Delicious meals were cooked on the big round grill and served with linens and delicious wines. It was so dark that we couldn’t see much beyond the terrace, but the torches kept any animals away. Then it was off to our wonderful netting-draped beds for a well-earned deep sleep.

Breakfast overlooking the Zambezi was a special experience, with cereals, juices and fresh fruit in the cooler morning air while we watched the water lazily flow by before it gathered speed 25 miles away.

Victoria Falls is one of the adventure capitals of Africa and of the world. If you’re a bungee-jumper, it has to be on your bucket list. We elected to take a helicopter flight over the Falls and surrounding area, which allows you to see the deep gorge that the river has carved through the landscape over millions of years, and to see the Falls in their mist-filled entirety – although if you go in low-water season around October or November they will look much different.

The bungee-jump station straddles the bridge at the exact point where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet – apparently so that if any jumper is injured, neither country will have to take responsibility. Two of our fellow travellers decided to do the jump, and as the rest of us stood on the bridge looking over the dizzying long drop to the raging waters below while they got rigged for the jump, most of us thought they were insane!

At that time of year the rapids were so strong, up to Category 6, that white water rafting was cancelled. The zip lines were open, but some people chose to go shopping while a few of us decided that golf in Africa was not to be missed.

At the time, the economy in Zimbabwe was still quite depressed – we were able to buy souvenir money in completely devalued trillion-dollar denominations for a couple of US dollars – so the golf course at the elegant Elephant Hills lodge wasn’t getting used much.

We were given the services of two caddies, but we had to walk nine holes in 90oF heat, with no beverages anywhere out on the course. We saw a few animals – herds of impala, and I had the unique experience of waiting to tee off while a family of warthogs had a leisurely meal – and the water hazards were not to be messed with.

By the time we finished I was suffering from a pretty good case of heat exhaustion. I don’t remember much of the bus ride back to Matetsi, but we arrived back at the lodge to find that the staff had prepared candle-lit and flower-strewn bubble baths for us! I made it through dinner and then crashed in bed for 14 hours.

Victoria Falls has the main airport in the area to catch flights home via Johannesburg, but there’s also an airport in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the Falls. Viewing the Falls on that side is a more intimate experience, as you can sit on a boulder right alongside the edge, and a little further along there’s a side area that’s shallow enough to wade in – a favourite activity of the local residents on a hot day. There’s a decent museum in Livingstone, and plenty of shops to replenish camera supplies and buy crafts.

On our first safari there, we only had one night at Matetsi, and elected to stay on the Zambian side for a couple of nights to be able to do more activities.

The Zambezi Sun lodge is a pretty adobe-pink mid-range hotel set inside the national park, so zebras frequently wander through the grounds and visitors are advised to keep their doors and patio windows shut and locked at all times or the monkeys will invade and destroy everything you own as well as the room you’re staying in. From the hotel it’s a short walk over to the Falls, so near that you can always see the spray shooting over the rooftops.

We did our helicopter ride on the Zambian side. The flight centre was 11 miles from the Falls and the mist was clearly visible from there.

We also took a sunset cruise on a boat named the African Queen – for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies, that was an irresistible choice. Everyone goes on a cruise to watch the sunset over the Zambezi, but it’s a lovely peaceful ride with a glorious sunset at the climax.

And so, at some point it becomes heart-breakingly necessary to leave Africa, to me the most magical continent on our planet. We had amazing photos and souvenirs to bring home – an Angolan harvest mask we bought at a gallery at an upscale hotel in Zambia, a hunting set from Botswana, baskets and mud cloths and handmade copper bangles – but we’d found a second home 8200 miles away that we didn’t want to leave.

The hunting set in the cowhide bag, all baskets, the carved wood box and the long red and white necklace are all from Botswana. The beaded collar necklace is from the Samburu tribe in Kenya. All of these were bargained for and purchased on our travels in those countries.

In this blog I’ve only managed to skim the surface of our amazing journeys. A trip to Africa, if done authentically and immersively, changes your life.

Before we’d left the first time, at a party a family friend named Leo, who was a class-A pot-stirrer, decided to needle me about why we would want to undertake hours of flying, and then all the dust and heat and discomfort of being there live, when we could just watch all about Africa on television from the easy comfort of home. I just smiled and said that places were meant to be experienced live, that nothing on television could ever capture the feeling of being there in person.

A few weeks after we returned, we put together a photo presentation with dinner for much of the same group of people. Leo was surprisingly silent through the entire two hours of photos and videos – no snarky repartee, not even a smile. As our guests were stretching their legs and getting ready to leave, I was standing by the front staircase chatting when he came towards me. Uh oh, I thought, what is he up to – has he saved all his gibes for last?

He stood solemnly in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Thank you. That was amazing! Now I understand why you wanted to go there in person.” Even through just the lens of my camera and our stories, we’d managed to share our transcendent experience with other people.

When this pandemic is over and the opportunity to travel is available again, if you love our planet at all you must go to Africa – cradle of civilization and so beautiful you’ll never forget it. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I know exactly what he meant.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lengthier look at going on safari and that it’s transported you for a little while through the magic of the mind’s eye. If you would like to ask me any questions about these places and about how to put together a good safari, please post in the comments or email me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Tsamayang sentle.

The Skies of Africa — Part 3, Savute

The overland trip from Khwai to Savute is a day full of adventure. The road is long and dusty, often trapping the tires of self-drive visitors whose rented SUVs don’t have the suspension to handle the very deep sand.

Rescuing a self-driven couple stuck in the deep sand

In April, as the rainy season that brings storms and high waters to the Okavango Delta trickles to an end, the landscape progresses from fresh and green in Khwai, through thick mopane forests with their odd butterfly-shaped pairs of leaves, and then into the dry beige grasslands that Africa usually brings to mind.

Mopane shrubs studded with tent caterpillars

The journey is essentially a day-long game drive. Elephant paths criss-cross the road, and you’ll often find yourself waiting patiently as one of the big grey creatures leaves the brush on one side, lumbers across unconcerned with the trivial presence of motorized vehicles, and disappears surprisingly quickly into the scrub on the other side.

A stop for morning tea might be overseen by a curious troop of Chacma baboons, romping up and down the trees around the clearing where the safari staff have set up the cups, thermoses and plates of cookies. We watched a trio of youngsters play ‘king of the termite mound’ until a big adult male chased them off and claimed the throne for his own.

In the heat of mid-day, the guide will choose a shady spot to stop for lunch, where there’s still enough visibility to make sure no predators are resting under the shrubs.

Lunch is a picnic in the bush, where you can watch a large monitor lizard slink through the grass or a herd of wildebeest graze in the shade of acacias while you enjoy dishes like roasted chicken, potato salad, buns, three-bean salad, cold cuts, creamy rice salad and other amazing food, cooked by the camp chefs that morning and packed in metal containers for the trip.

Finally, in the late afternoon, you arrive at the Savute Channel, one of the strangest places in Botswana. The channel is a deep valley that links two sets of marshes, Savute and Linyanti. The first time we were there, we drove along the bottom, swerving between the tree-lined sides as we spotted banded mongooses and searched for that elusive leopard. The channel had been dry for about 20 years.

Three years later, the channel had experienced one of its mysterious flows and was full of water. Decades of research have failed to reveal the reason for this strange phenomenon, but geologists attribute it to some kind of tectonics that sometimes block the flow of water, and other times let it through.

Camp is set up on the top edges of the channel where it’s always dry, and there are always flat plains to enjoy all the wildlife and the spectacular sunsets.

That first safari, we arrived at the channel in the late afternoon. Our guide decided to explore the bottom of the channel while we still had some daylight. He said that, with all the rocky outcrops, it was a place where leopards liked to hang out so they could lurk on the rocks and look for prey. We drove from one end to the other and up the other side – nothing. It was getting late, so our guide decided to cross back and head for camp, and was nearly at the bottom when a fellow guide radioed the exciting news: a leopard sighting! It’s one of the advantages of a guided safari – all the guides from the different safari companies will share the location of sightings with each other.

The sometimes-dry bottom of the Savute Channel

Our guide screeched to a dusty stop, made a quick three-point turn and tore back up the hill. We were all hushed, holding our breaths so we wouldn’t make any noise to spook the creature, and scrutinizing every shrub and shadow right along with our guide. I was at the back on the right side of the vehicle, camera ready and repeating “Don’t scream, don’t scream” silently over and over in my head. While I’m not normally a screamer, it’s hard to stop yourself from at least a tiny shriek of excitement when you see something special.

We rounded a curve in the road and suddenly I spotted the leopard, lounging in the sparse grasses of a little clearing just off to the side! I whispered as softly/loudly as I could to the people ahead of me, “It’s over there! It’s right there!!”, and pointed frantically. It felt like forever as word made its way up to our guide and he carefully pulled over into the dust, slowly approaching the animal.

It was a small female, lying quietly in the dusk. She was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, even more stunning in person from just a few feet away. She didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all, lying there graciously for about 20 minutes while we quietly snapped photos. Eventually she got up and calmly licked herself a bit – as if displaying all her elegance just for us – and then faded away into the brush.

My hubby looked over at me at one point incredulously. “Are you crying?!”

We had done it. We had found a leopard, all lethal beauty and grace, lying right out in the open for us. By that point I’d been fully convinced that we’d never see one. And I’d been the one to spot her first. I was incredibly moved by the experience. That evening in camp we all cracked open a special bottle of wine at dinner to celebrate.

The amazing sightings continued.

One morning an entire flock of ostrich paraded across the savannah as we had morning tea.

In another section we watched two male impalas lock horns in a deathly battle. One of the males flipped the other so hard it crashed into the side of our vehicle. We were sure it was dead, until it suddenly leapt up and sprinted away, the other male hot on its hooves.

Around a bend we surprised a big male lion courting a female right at the side of the road. He let out a massive aggravated roar, making every single one of us jump in our seats. Our guide told us that he was one of three brothers, any of whom would happily dethrone him. Through three days of prolonged, repeated and exhausting mating needed to stimulate the female into conception, the male had to be constantly on alert lest one of his brothers attacked, so he was a bit testy.

A muddy pit held the heartbreaking remains of an old elephant who’d got caught in the muck and hadn’t had the strength to get out. We sat there in respectful silence for a few minutes. No one took any photos, and we left it in peace as we continued on our game drive.

A flooded road in the water-filled Savute Channel

Three years later, the abundant waters of the full channel had changed the migration – now large herds of animals remained in Savute instead of moving on to Linyanti, and we were overwhelmed at the sight of so many zebra forming a crazy piece of op art with their dizzying clusters of stripes. Scientists believe that’s the  purpose of the stripes, to confuse predators so that they can’t tell where one zebra stops and the next starts. In such groupings, it’s easier for the vulnerable babies to disappear between dozens of legs.

Beyond the zebras the landscape was full of herds of giraffe loping along the ground and elephants taking dust baths.

Guinea fowl supplied comic relief, with their fat speckled bodies topped by long necks and small red and blue heads. When they’re disturbed, they dash in absurd clusters through the grasses. The guides call them ‘running teapots’.

There was an impala run behind our camp, and every day at tea time in the afternoon the antelopes seemed to get their own version of cat-crazies, bounding back and forth along the base of the hill until they’d worked off their energy.

On one afternoon game drive we drove to an area high up in the Savute foothills where hundreds of years ago San bushmen painted rock art of the animals they hunted, best seen in the golden light of late day, after some steep scrambling up the boulders!

As the sun began to sink, a pair of lionesses on the hunt prowled through the grasses right in front of us.

And then there were the sunsets.

We all loved Savute and were as sorry to leave it behind as we were excited to move on to the Serondela region and the Chobe Reserve with its world-famous elephant herds. The reserve runs along the wide Chobe river, and would give us the opportunity to take to the deeper water amid crocodiles and big pods of hippos. Join me next week for our surprisingly dangerous venture into Serondela!

How can we love a world that’s in such turmoil?

Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!

But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.

We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.

We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.

There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.

Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand –  talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.

The slipyard where RMS Titanic first took shape

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.

Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.

Samburu Reserve

On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.

Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.

One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.

In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.

Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.

Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.

There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since  nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.

The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..

What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means:

Many suppliers are indeed looking at improving their environmental footprint. Expo 2020, taking place in Dubai from October 20 2020 to April 10 2021, will include a climate-focused event that “looks to further advance the conversation, and encourage action on climate and sustainability issues that are leading to an increase in natural catastrophes.” As citizens of the world, let’s do our part and be responsible travellers.

Peace at heart, peace with our global home

In three days, on September 21, the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. This year’s theme, Climate Action for Peace, is multi-layered, calling for us to recognize that human conflict and environmental negligence will impact our lives and those of future generations, and that they are tightly interwoven.

Imagine if there were no pollinators. Bees around the world are in dire straits.

How would we grow enough food for our exploding human population without bees, and how would plant-eating animals survive? In a global food shortage scenario, who would have access to the limited supplies of food? Would it be the average person, working to make ends meet, just like you and me? Likely not.

What would happen to the flowers that fill our gardens with beauty, the balm of nature that can ease our stress and bring joy to our lives? What if there were no roses to stop and smell?

Outdoor sports as we know them might disappear, like your favourite golf courses.

While things like golf courses may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, they are just one of the many, many pleasurable things in our world that we take for granted. Imagine a world where there was no green space to play in.

Each year, since 2001, the United Nations asks all nations and all of us for one day “to put down … weapons and reaffirm their commitment to living in harmony with one another.” There are many days when that seems like a really tall order, but amazing things have happened when enough people get behind a movement. Governments don’t change until the people of those countries start to speak up.

For each of us personally, let’s get back to a social climate of kindness and respect, for each other and for all the other creatures and plants that share the only home we all have.

Here are some of my favourite photos from around the world, both near and far — I hope they inspire you to realize how badly we need to protect the climate that allows these beautiful places to exist. It’s an unnervingly fragile balance.

Samburu Reserve, Kenya
Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Andes Mountains
Floating reed islands, Lake Titicaca
Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario
Lake Muskoka, Ontario
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Sugar cane, Mauritius
Linden tree in bloom, my back yard

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.