Africa comes alive

African elephants drinking. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

There's something out there. The big bull African elephant has left the waterhole and is standing station the other side, ears pumped out as big as car bonnets, while his herd continues to drink.

He looks out over this treed plain of Zimbabwe towards the plume of mist rising from Victoria Falls - an odd wet, vertical cloud from this flat land.

I have just watched the huge male chase off a smaller bull elephant with a smaller herd, which eventually snuck round the other side of the waterhole to drink. Their need to drink for survival is acknowledged.

Our big bull elephant suddenly stiffens and roughs up the dust with a front foot. Yes, something is definitely out there. Even the gnarly old warthogs look up and in the same direction, though their scatter of babies continues to run around concentrically.

I am watching it play out all from the timber balcony of my room at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which is tucked under a spectacular sea of wavy-edged, golden thatch.

I might have watched it from one of the two swimming pools, which resemble natural waterholes, or from the bar, which has an open-air view, across flat earth that is red to a horizon that quavers only gently with a low scarp.

Or from the lodge's Makuwa- Kuwa Restaurant, where I will dine surrounded by night noises - not on smoked crocodile entree, or the kudu fillet or herb- marinated warthog (these, beef fillet and sirloin steak are all in the mid-$20s), or waterhole fowl similar to those I have just been watching by the elephants, but on a very fine vegetable strudel ($15) with local cheeses and vegetables, and fresh salad.

It is every bit as good as the meal last night at The Boma - Place of Eating, just a few minutes' shuttle- bus ride away, which combines a meal with a cultural show that includes dance, drumming and the polyharmonic singing, clicking and whistling that is the natural Zimbabwean, often impromptu, cultural chorus.

They are both fittingly nutritious ends to nourishing days - classic days on a Bench International tour of southern Africa. Bench International might be a "new name" to many WA travellers, but it has been showing Australians the major destinations in southern and east Africa for more than 40 years.

Victoria Falls is, of course, one.

You hear and feel it long before you see it. First the thundering sound, and then the odd sense of a cool mist.

When I arrive at the entrance, it's hot (the cool, dry months are May to October). So rather than just push on (my usual approach), I decide to sit and drink coffee and sparkling water, and enjoy the moment at the cafe. As it turns out, for US$4, it is one of the best cups of coffee I have ever enjoyed, and I chat a little with the waiter.

"It iss your-a fust time in Zim?" He speaks in the quiet, local way, with a voice as deep, dark and slow as molasses.

Yes, but not in Africa.

Big insects buzz past, slow and loud as vintage motorbikes, dragging their fat abdomens behind them at a low angle through the lazy air. Birds chatter and screech in the trees, and occasionally an argument breaks out. One roller sings more melodically; two notes, one high, then one low. Wel-come. Wel-come.

I have only been here, in Zimbabwe, for a day, so it still has that newness I love in places.

And then I walk the length of the falls - nearly 2km along this great rift in the basalt. We are halfway along the 2700km-long river's length, and here the water drops 108m into the chasm - the highest curtain waterfall in the world. An average of 1000 cubic metres per second fall with a force that pushes the plume of mist vertically out of the chasm, into the sky, just as Dr David Livingstone saw it in 1855.

And I saw the Zambezi River from a different angle this afternoon, on a Canopy Tour.

My guides Takawira and Bhuzani describe them as "slides", but in fact, there are nine ziplines over the Zambezi's gorges. The Canopy Tour only started on June 1, and is safe and well run, and the sort of activity, like Lion Encounter (we published the story about walking with lions a few weeks ago) that Bench International can build in to an itinerary.

Tomorrow I will see the Zambezi River from water level on a sunset cruise, with snacks and drinks, the dying light and hippos surfacing with pop-eyes, pink nostrils and ears flicking.

Bench International's plan for a three-night stay at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, with its 72 suites and rooms, all with private decks overlooking the Zimbabwean landscape and facing sunset, is good. There's plenty of time for the scheduled activities, and I take the lodge's hourly shuttle bus into town and just wander around. I spend a couple of hours, unhurried, at the falls themselves.

There's also time to just sit back and enjoy that view from the balcony - to watch the changing day of the waterhole.

I am staying in a suite, and there's time to enjoy that too, with its thatched roof, bush poles and timber furnishings, day bed, that four-poster and a good wireless internet connection.

And then I am off to Botswana, which sounds dramatic, but it is only a one and a half hour drive from Victoria Falls, across the border and on to Ngoma Safari Lodge, on the doorstep of Chobe National Park. Each thatched suite has an indoor bathroom and indoor and outdoor showers, an outdoor area and open lounge. There's also the lodge's sitting and dining rooms, pool deck and a game-viewing deck that overlooks a waterhole that's floodlit at night.

There are two nights at Chobe, with game drives in the national park. There are reckoned to be more than 100,000 elephants in the national park and at one point we sit quietly during a full day's game drive as a herd of 50 or more pass by and around the open-safari vehicle. The birdlife is staggering.

And then on to the Pride of the Zambezi houseboat on the Chobe River itself for two nights, after crossing the river into Namibia. The Chobe River is a great, untamed expanse, and the houseboat is based 70km upstream from Victoria Falls. It has comfortable ensuite cabins and meals, drinks and activities - such as the morning and evening "game drives" in a small boat - are included.

But even good things end, and on my last morning, I reluctantly leave Pride of the Zambezi and the Chobe River, for a last boat ride back to Chobe Marina Lodge, where I spend a comfortable few hours before flying back to Johannesburg, and then home. In leaving Perth, at the start of this odyssey, I had flown west comfortably overnight with South African Airways from Perth to Johannesburg, then connecting direct to Victoria Falls.

And today I am doing the reverse - flying back to Johannesburg and now waiting to connect for the flight home, reflecting on a trip run seamlessly by professionals. The classic African adventure.

And as I watch the dying African light, waiting for my plane, my mind is back on the veranda at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, in Zimbabwe, with the day dying into amber. Birdsong has transitioned into the playful last burst that comes before sunset, and the move into that other, darker orchestra of velveteen night.

A darkness to look forward to, lying in my four-poster bed, up there on the rise, listening to the African night.


Bench International has itineraries throughout southern and east Africa, and specialists who can advise. Phone 1300 237 422, visit or email Bench International is based at Level 4, 55 York Street, Sydney.

South African Airways flies seven days a week from Perth to Johannesburg and connects to the rest of Africa. SA281 leaves Perth for Johannesburg at 11.45pm and SA280 leaves Johannesburg at 9.20pm, and arriving in the following day at 12.55pm. See and travel agents.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Bench International.