The Skies of Africa – Part 4, Serondela

As we observe Earth Day this week, it seems a great time to celebrate one of the most magnificent continents that our planet is blessed with.

There’s so much to see in Africa – the vast plains of the Serengeti, gorillas in the jungle, some of the greatest rivers on earth – that it takes some serious thinking to decide where to go on safari. Even one trip is a great gift, and yet there can never be enough visits. My hubby and I have been there four times – we’ve seen the pyramids of Egypt and cruised up the Nile, watched antelope stand up on their hind legs to graze and Samburu villagers dance for us, gotten soaked to the skin in the spray from the waterfalls named after England’s queen – and we’ll never get enough of it. It’s the only place that we don’t want to leave to return home.

So as we weather this pandemic and watch the unsurprising effects on nature of having humans mostly leaving it alone, we can take the opportunity to rethink our role as caretakers of all the precious places where we can still see animals living freely the way that they should be.

One of the greatest of those places is Serondela.

By this time in our safari, you might think we’d be jaded about seeing animals in the wild. Yet I’ve been on three different safaris, and I can tell you that every game drive is exciting and different. Should you ever go on a safari, don’t sell yourself short with just a handful of drives – the more your trip includes, the better! Every habitat is different, and the way the animals interact with it.

After the excitement of a leopard sighting in Savute, what could Serondela hold to top that?

The journey from camps Three to Four involved a long morning drive toward Kasane, the ‘gateway’ town to Chobe National Park and the Serondela Reserve within it.

The scenery began to change dramatically as we drove up and down long rolling hills, flanked by deep green shrubs and towering trees as the tires of our truck kicked up clouds of red dust. Occasionally someone would pull a bandana up over their nose and mouth to block out the sand, and guests who wore contact lenses learned pretty quickly to carry moisturizing drops in their day pack.

We could tell we were getting near ‘civilization’ again as we began to pass more vehicles going in the opposite direction and our guide made us put our seat belts on.

Directional signs and the odd roadside billboard began to show up, like this one about HIV, which was a big issue in Botswana at the time. It was nothing for visitors to worry about unless you planned on having a fling with one of the camp staff, which would have been challenging within the intimacy of a small tented camp. We could often hear our fellow travellers like laughing with each other, or cursing if they dropped something on the floor of the tent in the early morning darkness.

It was impossible not to know what your fellow guests were up to any given time. Although a bit disconcerting at first, we soon got used to it – sharing battery chargers or a friendly euchre game, laughing over unavoidably bad hair, helping each other recall what that bird or animal was that we’d seen over by the river or at the bend in the road for our journals. Having worked in the pharmacy business for many years, I always carry a well-stocked first-aid kit and was often treating rashes and scrapes. (The guides have their own kits, but I have a few ointments and concoctions that I like to keep on hand.)

As we got closer to Kasane we could see outlying farms, threatened by the rising waters of the Chobe River, which had already started swallowing shrubs and small trees. Some of our fellow guests had brought school supplies to donate, so our guides had arranged for us to visit a small school on the outskirts of town.

The school consisted of several low buildings built of dusty pink brick and plaster, lined up in a sandy clearing. We were greeted by the principal, vice-principal and one of the teachers, who were welcoming but quite formal and serious. They led us into the cool interior, past classrooms, walls full of the students’ artwork, and cork boards with the usual teachers’ notices.

We sat around a wide boardroom table while our guides introduced us. Botswana has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and the school was in good condition, but for anyone interested in contributing something to a country they’re visiting, extra school supplies are always welcome. On the way out, I decided to try thanking the principal in Setswana for allowing us to visit – our guide had taught me the phrase, Ke a leboga. I suspect that I mangled the pronunciation somewhat, but the effort was worth it, because the stern principal, official in her pink suit and hat, broke into a wide smile and gave me a big hug!

Kasane straddles a fine line between residents and the surrounding wildlife. As we approached town a herd of elephants decided that they needed to cross the highway, and it can be quite dangerous to argue the point. We waited patiently from a safe distance, although one little elephant, straggling behind the adults and already annoyed with an oncoming car that decided to bypass him, turned around and decided he wasn’t happy with us either. He flared his ears out, stamped his little feet and blared at us crossly for a couple of minutes before trundling off to catch up with the rest of the herd.

In town, there are a number of shops for buying souvenir t-shirts and handmade jewellery, and for restocking supplies. While our guides filled up their gas tanks and some supplies for camp, we were able to check out a small grocery store (impala steaks, anyone?), bottle shop (liquor store), camera supply store and a variety of t-shirt and jewellery vendors. There was a small internet café for anyone who wanted to fire off a quick email or two. Warthogs and other amiable critters wandered the streets freely!

After our short shopping excursion, we had another picnic lunch just outside the entrance gate to Chobe National Park.

There is no shortage of delicious food on safari, even in bush camps where the chefs may be cooking food on a jury-rigged stove – a grate set over top a wood fire, with a metal baking box resting on tin cans. You can do far more luxe safaris than this, but if you want a genuine Hemingway-worthy adventure, this is the way to do it.  

We drove along the river, spotting more animals on the way to our fourth and final bush camp. Serondela has its own unique atmosphere. The river attracts large herds of a variety of animals – the elephants are famous for their daily excursions down to the water, which teems with hippos as well as crocodiles.

It’s de rigeur to do a boat cruise on the river, but our guides warned us not to reach down and touch the water! Basically, if you fall in or get pulled in, there will be no chance to rescue you.

The river is the focal point, but wildlife is everywhere. In the cool morning air, marabou storks spread out their wings to dry off while warthogs rooted around in the dirt for breakfast. Along the river bank, crocodiles were warming themselves, their jaws open towards the sunlight to draw in the heat.

Fish eagles perched on top of trees, waiting to swoop down and snatch a meal out of the river.

Rock cobras, almost perfectly camouflaged, slithered through the scrub.

Giraffe spread their legs to reach down low enough to lick salt from the ground, looking so awkward in comparison to the elegant kudu.

There’s a large and rambunctious troop of baboons who took over one of the old safari camps years ago and had refused to give up their turf. We’ve seen them striding the grass like a street gang looking for a rumble, pursuing amorous liaisons (or sometimes refusing them ungraciously), indulging in some grooming while babies romped in the dirt, or sometimes just harassing other animals for the fun of it.

On our boat cruise, just as the elephant herd was coming down to the water’s edge for a nice drink and a bath, the baboons decided they wanted to throw a party. They proceeded to run up and down the sand and up the trees, chattering and screeching. The elephants were having none of that, though! They stomped back and forth along the water, bellowing their displeasure and shaking the trees for emphasis.

It had little effect, to be honest, but eventually the baboons seemed to get tired, or bored, and moved back up the hill to annoy elsewhere. Then we were treated to the spectacle of an entire lineup of elephants jostling for drinking room, the babies sometimes falling in the mud and being rescued from their own endearing clumsiness.

Farther down the river we carefully skirted a large pod of hippos, and our guide stopped the boat probably about 20 yards away so that we could watch them slowly swimming around their little inlet, flapping their ears and snorting water. They seemed unconcerned with our presence – until a massive male suddenly reared up right behind our boat and lunged at us with a roar!

He must have been swimming around below the surface – we hadn’t seen him anywhere nearby. Our guide, who had prudently left the motor running, fired up the engine and we lurched across the water, the hippo in hot pursuit.

Hippos are extraordinarily dangerous. They’re extremely territorial and have very short fuses. Couple that with surprising speed in the water, enormous strength and a massive jaw full of long teeth, and they’re responsible for more human deaths than any other creature in Africa. They’ve been known to bite canoes in half, and this one could have easily flipped our motorboat if he’d caught up with us, dumping us into those pretty crocodile-infested waters. It could have been an abrupt end to our safari. Fortunately, the guides in Botswana are some of the best-trained in the continent (the testing is rigorous), so while we watched in shock our guide got us to safety.

As dusk falls, the lions come out to hunt, strolling right down the sandy road. From that vantage point, we were able to see the black markings on the backs of their ears and the tip of their tails. With their beautiful buff coats, they blend well into the taller grasses and use the markings to find each other.

Sunset along the river is magical, and one evening we caught up with the wonderful sight of a trio of giraffes lifting their heads into the evening breeze as the sky turned pink and lavender.

Even the nights in camp were exciting. One evening we could hear two male lions sounding their territory. It’s not a growl or a roar, more like a throaty huffing noise that carries for miles. A couple of times hyenas visited the camp after we’d all turned in – we could hear them sniffing and chuckling as they passed right between the tents.

A bush safari puts you right in the midst of the untamed African wild – by turns remarkably peaceful and incredibly exhilarating. The animals you see are fairly used to the game vehicles bouncing around, but they are never to be considered tame or safe. Most will run away, and elephants will usually mock-charge and make a lot of noise if they think you’re too close.

But when you run into the fierce water buffalo, you can see on their faces that they’re not to be messed with. The words ‘mock’ charge are not in their vocabulary – we were told that if one of them takes a run at you, you get the hell out of there.

After two days in Serondela that were a little more exciting than we’d anticipated, we were heading to the border to cross over to the place that explorer David Livingstone made famous, where the great Zambezi River separates Zimbabwe and Zambia – Victoria Falls!

We were reluctant to leave behind beautiful Botswana, and the amazing safari staff who had taken care of us over the past eight days. We’d become more than guests — we’d become friends whom they were proud to share their country with,

For me, having grown up near Niagara Falls, I wondered if I’d be very impressed with the other equally famous falls we were soon to see.

Join me next week for the final leg of our safari, the expedition to Mosi oa Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders!

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.