Alston in Africa
Alston on an elephant ride in Livingstone. Picture: Dean Alston

We are “going like a Boeing”. Actually we are going like an Airbus A340-600 on our way to South Africa. It is already “grand like a piano”.

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We land in Johannesburg then fly on to Livingstone to see the mighty Victoria Falls. There is a slight hiccup. Our hotel, the Victoria Falls Hotel, is in Zimbabwe and our travel agent has flown us into Zambia. About $130 and three taxis later, we cross the border and check in.

The Victoria Falls Hotel is 108 years old and tells its own story: zebra skins on the walls, deep leather couches, polished floors and wonderful proportions. It is easy to imagine the cocktail dresses and British uniforms of 50 years ago as the gin-and-tonic brigade toasts the sunset on the terrace. The hotel is tired but beautiful (like my wife after our flight).

Warthog families forage on the grass terraces of the hotel and the gardeners repair the lawns each day. The warthogs become our favourite creatures. At breakfast, the odd baboon swings into the alfresco dining area to steal titbits.
And the falls? Unforgettable. In the immortal words of Livingstone: “Ee oop. This is bleedin’ grand, this is.” Well, he probably didn’t say that, but surely he would have been pleased.

Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe. Picture: Dean Alston
The spectacle is jaw-dropping. Spray from the falls rises hundreds of metres into the air. The sheer volume of water is hard to take in.

We take the opportunity to have an elephant ride. I draw the largest elephant with an African name which translates to “Farts Like Thunder” or something as magical.

She is huge and as we sway along, she stops to tear off a tree limb now and then.

Meanwhile, I gauge the distance to the ground in case I have to jump. It is a long way down.

Zebras at Khama Rhino Sanctuary. Picture: Dean Alston
The bush is similar to northern Australia, but the man walking in front of us with a rifle dispels the comparison. This is Africa and there are lions about.

Our two nights done, we re-negotiate the border crossing into Zambia and meet our Acacia safari guide, Pete, and our group. We are lucky.

They are all great people. Two Poms, two Canadians, two Italians and an American married to a German girl and their two children. The bus is a 14-seater Mercedes with a trailer for our gear. Very comfortable. Off to the Zambia border we speed. The border crossing is at a meeting place of four countries, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia on the Zambezi River.

We stand in line with Africans and watch the gentle chaos around us. The river crossing is negotiated by a barge which carries people, trucks and animals. There are people struggling off the barge with new television sets and electrical goods and bicycles, and omnipresent army troopers with sling AK47s.

Dust, flies and people. Same deal on the other side. Passports stamped and onward into Botswana.

We see elephants and giraffes immediately by the side of the road. To Thebe River Safari Chalets to unpack (good clean accommodation, small chalets with ensuite) then to the Chula National Park on a game-viewing truck. Chula is magnificent. There aren’t enough adjectives to do it justice. Literally thousands of elephants with their young on an estuarine plain which stretches to the horizon. Crocodiles, baboons, impala, buffalo, warthogs, hippo, zebra and beautifully coloured birds.

After the truck tour, we transfer to a large two-decked boat for a cruise along the Chobe River through the marshlands and grassy islands teeming with game. The sun begins to set at the end of the tour and that is a spectacle in itself, with the brilliant orb of the sun creating a wonderful hazy light across the landscape.

From Chobe, we drive to Maun to begin our Okavango Delta experience. Much of Botswana is flat, desert-like country with grassland and thorn trees. Past small hamlets with traditional round huts and Besser brick dwellings. It is dry season with cold mornings and warm afternoons.

To a sandy campsite, Sitatunga Camp, outside Maun. Clean, cosy cabins. Marvellous hot showers and a bar with a welcoming open fire.

The next morning, we drive to the Okavango Delta, in the Kalahari Basin in the north-west of Botswana.

It is the biggest inland delta in the world, a patchwork of water channels, grasslands, pools and forests providing a rich and diverse habitat for animals and birds. Hippos, crocodiles, elephants, chacma baboons, black and white rhinos, buffalo, lions, cheetahs, leopards, warthogs and wild dogs all move between the islands.

Four hundred species of birds also flourish here. The Okavango River flows into the delta and floods it in season, from March to June. The flood peaks between June and August during Botswana’s dry winter season, and the delta swells to three times its normal size.

We meet our guides and load our mokoros. A mokoro is a long dugout canoe; some are now fibreglass but all fashioned in the traditional shape. Our man “Zero” (so named because his African name contains two zeros) poles us expertly to an island in the delta. It takes two hours, through marshy reeds and hippo pools. We nearly come to grief as a huge hippo launches out of the pool ahead, jaws wide open, ready to defend his territory.

We reach the island and set up camp (two-man tents around a camp fire) and set off on our first game walk.

The evidence of big game is everywhere, elephant droppings and lion tracks. The animals move from island to island in the delta. We see herds of elephant from a safe distance and the ubiquitous zebras.

At night, the guides put on an unforgettable performance of African singing and dancing around the fire. The camping is comfortable and a lot of fun. During the day we swim (having been assured there are no crocodiles) and have a go at poling the mokoros.

At the end of the delta experience, we take a helicopter sightseeing flight which, despite my initial misgivings, is fantastic.

Landlocked Botswana has a population of around two million and the tribes all get on. The people are very friendly and gracious. The country has diamonds and, as far as I can see, the income is being put back into infrastructure and services. There is poverty, but the roads are good and the national parks magnificent.

Our last night is meant to be at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary near Serowe. We arrive and take off for a tour through the park. The wildlife is wonderful; an army base next door means it is virtually poacher-free. We immediately see white rhino with young, giraffes, springbok, impala, ostrich, steenbok and zebra, along with magnificent birds. Anyway, the booking has fallen through, so we relocate to an industrial town some 70km further towards the South African border. Instead of rhino and impala walking past our cabins in the moonlight, it is freight trains and heavy trucks all night — and bed bugs.

Forgetting the forgettable, it was a great tour with mostly good, clean, comfy accommodation. Some long days in the bus, but altogether a wonderful experience. We leave the tour in Johannesburg and travel to Mauritius to unwind. We have experienced Africa and seen the “Big Five” game animals.

(Well, we haven’t actually. We missed the leopards and the lions. We went to the lion park in Mauritius and we’ll try Perth Zoo for the leopards. But don’t tell anyone.)

The West Australian

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