We wake up before the sun for our 5:30am guided drive through Chobe—our last of the trip. It is cold, especially on the 8-minute drive from the lodge to the park gate. They supply us with blankets, and we end up just throwing them over our heads.
There are 9 of us in our truck and about 10 trucks just from our lodge alone—many more than there were on yesterday’s drive. This is when the whole safari thing can start to feel a little bit like Disney World.
When we get to the gate, the guide asks us what we want to see. In a way, it’s laughable. They tell you all the time that nature isn’t predictable, so the only thing they can guarantee you’ll see are impalas. People throw out requests—lions! snakes! We yell from the back, “Tigers! Black bears!”
The reason you get up so early for these morning game drives is big cats, so naturally, that’s what you hope for. But, our guide tells us, some days you see them, some days you don’t.
We drive for a while and see some grazers, mostly impalas. After about an hour, we stop to take pictures of the impalas, and this is where I think, “If we’re stopping to take pictures of impalas, this might be a bad sign.”
After another half hour or so, our driver stops. He points at the ground. “See that?” he says. We all look at the sand. “That’s a lion paw print.” It’s massive. He tells us he’ll see if he can track it, and we only drive another couple of minutes before he says, “There!” pointing into the bush to our left. We’re all craning to see what he’s found, and out saunters a beautiful lioness. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a lion in the wild, it is breathtaking every time.
Our guide tells us there are more, so we stop the vehicle and wait. From the bush, every few seconds or so, walks one lion after another, and then, lion cubs. We see 13 in all—9 adults and 4 cubs.
We follow the pride down the road to see where they will go. They’re eyeing a herd of impalas, our guide tells us. He sends out a message on his radio, and before you know it, there are about 6 or 7 vehicles there watching the lions. The lions don’t seem to mind us. In fact, they don’t even seem to register us being there, walking around and between the vehicles. More trucks come, and I look at one more closely. The back of it looks familiar. I try to get a good look at the driver. I can’t believe it. It’s Toby from Chobe! Everyone else is pointing at the lions, and there I am pointing like a crazy person at a truck driver.
We follow the lions until they’re off again into the bush. And before we know it, our last game drive of the trip is over. What a drive to end on. We get back to our camp, still on a high from seeing the pride of lions, and make a quick breakfast before heading off to Zambia. As a sweet goodbye, one of the vervet monkeys hanging around our camp steals our breakfast and runs it up a tree. They’ve gone from endearingly cheeky to down-right maddening.
It’s a 30-minute drive from Chobe to the border, where Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe meet. We stand in line for a half an hour to pay $50 USD to cross the Chobe River by ferry into Zambia.
Once we’re on the other side, we learn there are about 5 more steps we need to take before we can actually drive into Zambia, including paying for the ferry, insurance, a car fee, city fees, toll fees, etc. etc. None of the buildings we must go in are marked in any way. There’s no clear understanding of what we need to pay for, or what currency we must use. Credit cards aren’t accepted. Some take only US dollars, some take only Zambian Kwacha, none Pula—even though Botswana is only 200 meters behind us. We don’t have any Kwacha, and only about $30 USD. Why would we have more? We’re in Zambia. The ATM is broken. And at the same time, there are loads of people telling us they can be our guide through the mess. So, at a time when we’re feeling like we have no idea what is going on, we’re saying constantly, “No, I got it. Thank you, no. Please LEAVE ME ALONE.” It is a mad house.
Quite a few of the 7 days before this were spent just trying to get through, or get out of, the wild. We had to physically push our car through the sand and were desperate to find water. It is such a strange juxtaposition to have to negotiate the border control bureaucracy here in Zambia. Such different stressful experiences.
After two hours of running around, we finally make it through. At the gate, they only ask for one of the 6 papers that we paid for. Hmmm.
We drive another hour or so to Livingstone, and the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Even from the road, we can see the steam of Victoria Falls rising above the trees. Our original plan is to stay at a camp in the city of Victoria Falls, until we realize that it’s actually in Zimbabwe, just across the border. After the afternoon we had between Botswana and Zambia, we decide crossing another border isn’t worth it, and that we’ll drive around until we see a sign for another camp.
About 10 minutes from Victoria Falls, we spot a sign for two camps, and decide to check them out. We drive. And drive. And drive. The camps are way out there, about 45 minutes from the main road, but one of them is called “Rapid 14,” so we think it might have a nice view of the Zambezi River.
At a fork in a rural village, we make a decision based on the signs’ fonts and drive to the first camp. It’s lovely, and the view is incredible from the restaurant. There are no other guests staying there, so the manager tells us we can choose whichever camp site we want for about $20 a day.
It’s a pretty good spot, and we head back into town to buy more provisions. But, on our way there, decide we might as well check out the other camp since we’ve come this far. We head off towards it, and drive through a gate into a camp called Overland Missions. An American woman welcomes us, tells us it’s a missionary organization where they host missions groups and do trainings. They’ve also got sites available for people passing through who need a place to camp. She says we can stay for free. Sold.
We explore the camp—it’s like a mini, self-sustaining village—and meet some of the other people working there. All Americans. They tell us about a campsite that they’ve just made available. “It’s pretty rough,” they say, and not near any ablutions. “But you can’t beat the view.”
They’re right. The view is amazing. We camp right on the gorge of the Zambezi River, above Rapid 14. They tell us it’s about a 3-day current from Victoria Falls, meaning if something goes over, it will wash up at the bank beneath their camp in about 3 days. When a couple of elephants tragically went over the Falls recently, there they were, below the camp three days later, like clockwork.
Overland Missions is made up of proper houses, tents, bath houses, and a huge main building with a kitchen and eating space. It’s nearing 5:00 and we still have to set up our camp and head back into the town to buy provisions. So, when they mention that they have dinner together every night, we ask if we can join. No shame. Because they are so nice—SO NICE—they say they would love to feed us dinner and breakfast the next morning and even offer to fix our broken car window the next morning.
We eat at the camp kitchen and meet loads of missionaries who work at the camp, as well as others staying there for a training. Most are Americans. All are the nicest people. I’m sure we smell terrible and look terrible and eat like savages, but they’re warm and inviting, and ask us to a meeting after dinner, which we go to for a little bit before ducking out when there’s an invitation to start speaking in tongues.
We make a fire and then go to sleep with the sound of the Zambezi River roaring below us. How did we find this place? What a weird turn of events— tracking lions in the bush, banging our heads against walls at the border crossing, and then sitting through a Pentecostal worship service. It feels like a week’s gone by, not a day. We’re never bored, that’s for sure.