By Nat Hab Traveler Connie Owen, originally published in Jackson Hole News & Guide
It wasn’t on my bucket list. I didn’t want to go. I was kicking and screaming all the way to the airport.
Here are the reasons why I didn’t want to go to South Africa: It was a 17-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. I might get sick. Traveler’s diarrhea, malaria, COVID-19 or something worse. It was expensive. I might not like the food. My diabetic equipment might fail. I didn’t like the idea of riding on light aircraft from camp to camp because I might get airsick or we could crash. There were three nights when there would be no hair blower in the room. I might lose my luggage with all my medications. I was too old for such a complicated trip. The list goes on and on.
This is how it unfolded: It was kind of fun flying first class. I didn’t get sick, didn’t even see a mosquito. The food was fit for a king. I gained 5 pounds. My diabetic equipment worked fine, I didn’t get seasick or airsick. The small planes did not crash. I survived without a hair blower in my room. I didn’t lose my luggage and, most importantly, I learned that one is never too old to have an adventure.
It all began in Johannesburg. The next morning Jim and I were up early to take another flight to Kasane, Botswana. That is where we met up with our team leader, Anthony, the star of the show. His genuine love of the environment always shined through. He took good care of the nine of us.
First we stayed in a secluded location with easy access to Chobe National Park and the Chobe River. We spent three nights there seeing elephants, hippos and crocodiles, etc. It was a birdwatcher’s paradise. We also got to meet local villagers and experience their culture.
From there we took light aircraft to Lake Kariba and boarded a 110-foot riverboat. It was pure luxury for the three nights we were onboard. Lake Kariba is the largest manmade body of water in the world. Twice a day we would leave the boat to enjoy wildlife-focused activities via smaller boats and safari vehicles. This was located in Matusadona National Park.
Another short flight by light aircraft took us to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, which is the country’s largest and renowned national park. This was my favorite place. We glamped at Davison’s Camp for three nights. There was a watering hole in front of our tent. You could sit on the front porch and watch wildlife come and go, They were just a few yards away and we were mesmerized. Hundreds of elephants, water buffalo, baboons, zebras, giraffes, black sables, etc.
We were up by 5 a.m. for breakfast so we could start our 6 a.m. safari. At 11 a.m. we would return for brunch, and then we were able to rest until about 3 p.m., when we would head back out to the bush. We always stayed out well past dark so we could watch the sunset. Dinner was at 8 p.m., and we were ready for bed after dinner. Our beds were always turned down, and treats were left on our pillows.
The drivers radio one another with sightings. One day our driver started driving like a bat out of hell on a sandy and windy road. I thought he had gone berserk. We were bouncing like crazy in our seats. I started screaming, and he turned around to see what I was screaming about. I told him his driving was scaring me. He had a report of a lion sighting, and they have to move fast so we don’t miss out. Anthony yelled at me to take off my hat and hold on. It was worth the ride, because when we arrived there was a male lion. That was the highlight of my trip. We were able to park just yards away and watch him for as long as we wanted. Going back to camp that night we saw a cheetah. The next day we saw lions mating and a leopard. Each day turned to be better than the day before.
My passport was stamped 24 times during this trip. One time when passing through security, I was asked what was in a particular bag. I replied, “My drugs.” Oh boy! My bags were searched and I was patted down. My fellow travelers and guides never let me live that one down. On one light aircraft flight, the pilot looked to be about 14 years old. She had to sit on two pillows, and she had two pillows at her back. That was a little unnerving.
Sometimes we broke for lunch in the middle of the bush to find a table ready, laid with tablecloth, cutlery, champagne and fresh food fit for royalty. You never knew what to expect, but whatever it was, it was always first class. Happy hours were part of the daily routine, always in the middle of nowhere. Full bar with appetizers and snacks galore.
Again, we flew by light aircraft to Victoria Falls and stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a five-star colonial landmark that opened in 1904. We joined Anthony for a walking tour of Victoria Falls National Park. The falls are the world’s largest curtain of falling water. The next morning, we flew to Johannesburg, where we left South Africa.
To be able to enjoy gorgeous landscape and wildlife was an experience of a lifetime. I get tearful when remembering this wonderful adventure that I got to take this late in my life.