Donna and Ann’s Excellent Adventure: Lions, Hippos, and Elephants, Oh My!

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Our trip started in Atlanta when we boarded a Delta flight non-stop to Johannesburg, South Africa. ….15 ½ hours. The next day we discovered what it means to be smack in the middle of a giant prestigious economic conference (BRICS) that was a showcase for South Africa as the host. We have never been safer in our lives. We admired Mandella’s statue and saw school children excitedly taking group photos.

At. Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe, we met Noss, our tour leader, and took a bus to Hwange, Zimbabwe, to start the safari part of our adventure. All together we would visit four camps in three countries, seeing much game and meeting many local people who made our adventure perfect in every way. First, we had a Day in the Life at the local homestead of family in a village nearby. We stopped at local sheds/stores to purchase our groceries’ gift to thank our hosts. Then we were given a tour of the typical bedroom, kitchen, eating room, grain silo, and we also saw bricks being made from termite mound clay used to construct the walls and floors of the structures. We saw the chicken and goat enclosures and saw the local elementary school. This visit helped us understand the daily lives of the local people who work in the camps where we stayed.

Our first game drive was excellent! We saw many, many elephants, impalas, wildebeests, and a crocodile. Donna saw zebra, but my jeep group just saw zebra poop! A baboon troop lives close to our camp and a rank of giraffes was visible from our dining area. The next day the real excitement began. We saw giraffes not 50 feet away. Then the radio crackled….ZEBRA! We took a side path and experienced an “African massage” to get to the spot. Our two vehicles were the only ones there. Then came another crackle….LIONS! We commenced Mr. Toads Wild Ride once more, hanging on for dear life! When we arrived a pride of lionesses had just finished “breakfast” on a cape buffalo and were resting under trees. Later that night, we enjoyed a great BBQ dinner and a chance to interact in conversation with our guides.

After breakfast the next morning we set off on the road from Hawange Park past the coal mines of horror open-air pits (pollution of air and soil) over dreadful roads to catch our bush planes to Zambia. Just after crossing the border we participated in an interactive talk about the state of education in Zimbabwe, where it is a crime to criticize the government, . Landing near Kafue National Park, we were greeted by singing and dancing and we joined right in! We were just about to taste real wood-fired pizza from a real pizza oven when Noss burst in.

“Get in the jeeps quick! Surprise!”

And she wasn’t kidding..LEOPARD! Our late afternoon game drive transformed into an early evening excursion of leopard watching, until the baboons got angry and chased him away. We found out that if an adult baboon bites a leopard, it’s death for the leopard.

The next day, we saw a wide-tail gray mongoose to the excitement of our guide, Pilbon, ,since the last time he had spotted one was in 2019. He called us his lucky charms. After a very late lunch, Pilbon gave us a talk on the history of Zambia since gaining freedom from Britain in 1964 when it was called Northern Rhodesia., and the controversy of trophy hunting in the areas surrounding the National Parks. We couldn’t wait for our evening drive, and it did not disappoint. We spotted six hippos in the river and enjoyed Sundowners by the river before returning to camp for dinner.

On the next beautiful cool morning, Donna and I opted to go on a river cruise with Akim, the bird-finding expert. From the camp base we explored up the Lufipa River where we spotted hippos…and more hippos…who spend the warm days in the river and the evenings on land munching on grass (very near our tent). We saw mommies and babies including tiny newborns and we learned that they live in family groups with a daddy. No matter where we were, all heads and eyes turned to watch our boat. We saw many quite large crocodiles too. We stayed a respectful distance.

Akin pointed out many water birds—herons, fish eagles, kingfishers, skimmers, swallows. When we made a stop for bush tea and coffee a family of eight hippos stared at us the entire time. After dinner, our group made complete idiots of ourselves by singing the YMCA song and Shout in our cultural night exchange. Fortunately, the camp people found us quite funny! On the way to our tents, we spotted Scorpio and the Southern Cross and the Milky Way in the night sky. It was an excellent day!

The next day we bussed on good roads to a secret “stop the bus” moment at Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River, still in Zambia. This is a “white” (wide mouth) rhinoceros’ sanctuary that is heavily guarded, since there are no wild rhinos left in Southern Africa. All are in sanctuaries under guard. Our ranger escorts were heavily armed—against poachers! –with shoot to kill orders. We were able to be extremely close to the rhinos who totally ignored us. We talked to our escorts who described what we were seeing and a typical day in the life of a protected rhino. Other animals, such as giraffes and cape buffalo who live there too also benefit from the protection.

We continued to the border and the Bridge of Four Countries (Friendship Bridge) — Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe — and crossed into Botswana at the most efficient immigration station in the entire world. The procedure: stamp out of Zambia, cross the floor, and stamp into Botswana. We continued to Baobab Camp next to Chobe River National Park. Both the camp and the park border the Chobe River separating Botswana from Namibia, and while people must use the road and immigration station, the river is so shallow in winter, the animals freely walk right across!

We took an evening game drive and saw many zebras and impalas, cape buffalo, and followed behind a leopard stalking his dinner; then he was chased by a large, angry baboon— wow! The leopard was right under our camp, and in the morning, we found his tracks right by the bathrooms near our dining area. Many birds can be found on this river including great white ibis, crested barbets, African white spoonbills, African fish eagles, lilac-breasted rollers, peak-backed pelicans, (black, white, and red) saddle-billed storks, yellow-billed storks, bustards, tawny eagles, glossy and sacred ibis and more! Our camp overlooked the river and into Namibia too; it was a beautiful sight.

Our morning game drive with SP, our guide, took us on a trail along the river in the park. Highlights included a baboon troop crossing the river (babies on Mom’s back), tons of impala, a herd of giraffes, all the birds listed above, and across the river there were herds of zebra, kudu, waterbuck, and regular beef cattle. On our way back, we encountered a herd of female and baby elephants. We were right in the middle of the road, and they were about five feet away. Another WOW morning.

On our afternoon drive we saw giraffes deciding it was safe to go to the river to drink (one was the lookout) and zebras grooming each other (facing in opposite directions). Safety first!

The next day’s all morning game drive with Tsono, our guide, was unbelievable: lions walking right in front of the jeep, a leopard sleeping in a tree, driving right through a herd of Cape Buffalo, seeing both Roan and Sable antelopes (both highly endangered), zebras up close, a giraffe practically in our jeep, a hyena running with prey in its mouth, and a jackal trying to hide from us — plus, elephants, impala, kudu, and a ton of birds …. picnic lunch included!

After tea, Tsono talked to us about Botswana’s zero tolerance for poachers. If detained without resistance—the punishment is life in prison; if there is resistance, they shoot to kill. The problems come from both organized criminal gangs and subsistence native people willing to risk it all for money. Dinner was in a kraal around a fire followed by singing and dancing. The staff sounded like Ladysmith/Black Mabasa on Paul Simon’s album. We sucked, but we tried. Great fun!

In the morning, we sang a farewell “Shout” to our staff at Baobab Camp and bussed to Kasane Airport to catch our bush planes to Okavango Delta—the largest inland delta in the world, formed when tectonic plates rose and blocked the river’s access to the Indian Ocean. On the way, we visited the Kasane Prison Post Baobab Tree where all 15 of us fit inside. It is estimated that the tree is 1,000 years old, and the hollow center was used as a jail for minor crimes back in the day. Then our flight—into a desert! Not at all what we expected when we heard the word delta! However, last year, instead of five months of rain, they had ONE. It was parched and sere and sandy — plants and animals hanging on until the rains hopefully come in October.

Just when our safari trip couldn’t get any better — it did! Our guide, Fantah, is a super-tracker! We searched, following lion pawprints from the ones that roared outside our tent in the night and left the tracks to prove it was not our imagination. After a long trek during which we saw a steenbok, two jackals and a honey badger—-reward—three male lions resting full bellies under a tree. Our jeep got within 10 feet, and there we stayed observing them for quite a while. Our photographers aboard went nuts. Later, while searching for our “bush tea” spot, the call came—leopard on the move. We tracked him for a long time while he alternately moved and rested under bushes—-again we were literally 10 feet away. That was an amazing morning for sure.

After lunch, we had a back-of-the-house tour to learn how the camps operate: the kitchen, laundry tubs and clothes lines, the solar power and water purification systems, etc. Everything is done from scratch and by hand. We saw our freshly laundered bush shirts and pants hanging on the lines and saw our chefs making our bread for dinner. Then the highlight of the trip for me…. our afternoon game drive to see the painted dogs/wolves. We saw four litters of puppies of different ages between two and six months old and then the adults returned home to great excitement by the pups. When our jeeps pulled away, some of the smallest pups tried to follow. The pack had at least 30 members and so this was very exciting for the pups, and quite funny for us. We checked out our sleeping lions, saw a hyena who posed nicely for us and also a honey badger chase an ostrich. After singing, dancing, and sharing a meal in the bama, we came back to our tents to pack for our Cessna bush plane ride to Victoria Falls.

While the safari part of our journey was over, we did enjoy two days in Victoria Falls, both seeing the natural beauty of the falls, which are huge (over a mile) , and visiting the craft market and learning the life of Dr. David Livingston who is considered a hero and whose heart is buried in Africa. After a sad farewell to Noss and each other we flew back to Johannesburg to catch our respective flights to the United States. Truly, this was the trip of a lifetime, and should we hit the lottery, we will return.


Ann Sofia is a retired teacher with the Hillsborough County School System. She was born and raised in New York State and obtained BA and MA degrees from Adelphi University on Long Island. Ann describes herself as “in love with life and perpetually curious.” To that end she engages in an array of mental and physical activities, such as bowling, golf and the gym for fitness and Tai Chi and OLLI for mental stimulation and focus. An eternal optimist, Ann treasures her great friends with whom she celebrates “the happys” …. not the birthdays. She sums up her philosophy with a quote by Warren Buffett: “Wrong decisions are part of life. Being able to make them work anyway is one of the abilities of those who are successful.”

Donna McGrew has been a teacher since 1981 and a diver since 1994, “working” in places that many divers can only dream of visiting. She joined OLLI around six years ago when she retired. Her favorite classes have been Great Books, the zoo and OLLI’s aquarium classes. She’s part of the online Game SIG, the Movie SIG and the OLLI Outdoors SIG, and is on both the Finance Committee and Membership Committee. She will be teaching a class with Diane White in May on photo composition, including tips and practice.

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6 Replies to “Donna and Ann’s Excellent Adventure: Lions, Hippos, and Elephants, Oh My!”

  1. Thank you for putting this together and sharing your adventures! I love the way you two know how to live large!

  2. So enjoyed the account of your African safaris! Those are memories that will last a lifetime!

  3. Thank you for taking us along with you on your fabulous journey. The photography adds such an important dimension.

  4. I could almost smell the campfire ashes and I salivated at the idea of shish-ka-bobs hot from the fire. It was a delight to share your excellent adventures. Live large and keep writing.

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