Mark at sunset near Amalinda Lodge

Four days at Amalinda Lodge, on the edge of Matobo National Park. Where is that, you ask? Why just 25 miles or so south of Bulawayo, of course. It turns out – I certainly didn’t know it – Bulawayo, in southwestern Zimbabwe, is Zimbabwe’s second city, behind only the capital Harare. We drove through Bulawayo on the way down to Matobo and again on our way out as we headed to the airport and both times it seemed like a charming little city with wide streets and comfortable homes. But that’s all we saw of Bulawayo.

As for Matobo National Park, we saw a lot of that over four days and absolutely loved it. Comprising about 165 square miles, Matobo is Zimbabwe’s oldest national park. It is known primarily for the kopjes (Dutch for “little heads”), granite outcrops that, as the surrounding earth as eroded, leave fantastic shapes. The word “Matobo” comes from the local dialect and means “bald head”, indicating all the little round bald heads lying all over. Beyond that the park is the home to a bunch of rhinoceroses (I looked it up; I’m pretty sure that’s the correct plural form) and allegedly the densest concentrations of both leopards and black eagles in the world. And while we did see both rhinos and black eagles sadly we didn’t see leopards; they are among the most elusive of the large animals in Africa.

A big reason to go to Matobo National Park is to see rhinos. It took us a few hours but eventually we came to a little family of a mother and two sons. This is the mother with her one-year-old. The four-year-old was nearby and perhaps as much as 50 percent bigger than his mother.

Four nights was a long stay at the lodge; we learned while we were there in fact that they recommend three nights. The issue is that there isn’t that much to do: the activities on offer include rhino hunting (with cameras, not guns), a journey to the grave of Cecil Rhodes and View of the World, and a tour of some pre-historic rock art. And there are some little walks in the area, but those are the big three. Most people will do one of those activities in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then one more the next day, then leave.

For us, we could do it more gradually, doing one each morning and then having the afternoon to enjoy the incredible beauty and serenity around the lodge grounds. That meant lots of hours of sitting by the pool reading and just enjoying the views of the surrounding hills. It was so quiet and remote, so vast and open. I didn’t need to spend more time there but four relaxing days were heaven.

Mark atop one of the many kopjes that dot Matobo

It’s worth noting, too, that the weather was pretty fabulous. Definitely chilly when the sun went down but for the most part the skies were stunningly blue and daytime temperatures were in the high 60s or low 70s. Can’t ask for more perfect weather.

The unusual part of our stay was how many travel agents we encountered. Apparently we were there right around the time that two major travel agent conventions were ending in South Africa and lots of agents from around the world would take the opportunity to tour the region and get the kind of first-hand experience that must be invaluable. Over our four days there we encountered maybe a dozen travel agents out exploring; for travelers who almost always travel on our own I was almost surprised there are that many travel agents left in the whole world!

The water this time of year was WAY too cold to go in, but the pool was still a fabulous place to lounge in the afternoon, reading and just taking in the beauty and silence

And finally, spending time in Zimbabwe brings you face to face with a bunch of challenging questions about imperialism and colonialism. For instance one afternoon while hanging around the lodge to read I met an older white guy who lives nearby in Bulawayo. He had once owned a large farm – some 10,000 acres, I think he said – much of which was fenced off to protect the big game wildlife that lived there. In the early part of this century then-President Mugabe confiscated the land as part of his land reform movement, distributing it in small parcels to otherwise landless peasants.

The result, as he tells the story? The animals have all been slaughtered, while no one can make a living off their relatively small parcels of land in what is a relatively difficult environment to farm. The peasants are still poor, the animals are dead, he’s without his farm. Back when I was young and studying these things I was always sympathetic to land reform efforts and presumably still am. After all, it is reasonable to assume that at some point, maybe even a couple hundred years ago, his ancestors pretty much just took the land from the indigenous people. Needless to say, though, it’s pretty hard to justify just taking his land and giving it to other people, particularly if he was a good steward of both the land and the fauna.

That’s me walking toward the grave of Cecil Rhodes

And then there’s the question of Cecil Rhodes. Devil or visionary? Although he served as the Prime Minister of South Africa he was a major player in the colonization of what is now Zimbabwe. In fact, the country was previously known as Rhodesia, named for him. Looking back, it seems inescapable to describe him as anything but a white supremacist: he believed the English were “the first race in the world” and described the indigenous population of southern Africa as “living in a state of barbarism.” Given his role in South Africa and his racist attitudes he can reasonably be thought of as the father of apartheid. On the other hand our guide Howard, a native Zimbabwean, described him as an honored figure, someone who left a wonderful and important legacy of development in the country. When Mark asked about the dark side of Rhodes Howard suggested that compared to Mugabe, Rhodes was an angel.

So there you are, Zimbabwe is a complex, complicated place. Beautiful, though, with a great park so far off the grid it felt almost as though we were on a different planet.

They’re called White Rhinos but they’re not at all white. In fact, they’re the same color as the Black Rhinos. The latter will charge, though, while the former are pretty chill.

They’re definitely big

That’s now close we were

Our rhino-tracking friends Guy & Cheryl, from Australia. The ponchos are for warmth, not rain – the temperature was in the low 50s in the morning and we were touring in an open jeep, so the ponchos are lined with heavy blankets making them pretty cozy.

The rock formations were always fun. This one is called “The Chinaman.”

The grave of Cecil Rhodes has some of the most amazing views we’ve ever seen

Me and Mark enjoying an evening on the rocks

Very colorful lizards enjoy the rocks too

Speaking of lizards, I’d lay on the rocks to read and people kept comparing me to a lizard. I’ll admit, I prefer to think of myself more as a turtle.

Big open spaces

We didn’t get as much walking or hiking in as we like so on our last day our guide suggested we walk a couple kilometers down this road and he’d pick us up. We loved it!

One of our adventures was a tour of a cave with ancient rock art. This is estimated to be as much as 11,000 years old.

Giraffes

An antelope

And a person. Our guide Howard pointed out how all the pictures of humans display big butts sticking out, apparently a genuine feature of these ancient bushmen.

This is a shot of our room in Amalinda lodge. The rocks make up about half the walls and you will notice more rock art, estimated to be about 500 years old, to the right of the chair. Right in our room!

Another shot of the pool at our lodge

Mark on some rocks near the lodge

I was nearby

Another picture of me

And Mark

And us

And one more of us

The eastern edge of Victoria Falls. As you move just slightly further up the falls the mist overwhelms you, so this was pretty much all we could see from the Zambian side.

From Johannesburg it was a reasonably quick and easy flight up to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls. I’d been here back in 2003 and thus knew a little of what to expect but for Mark this was all new. And exciting. Victoria Falls is truly one of the wonders of the world.

Known to locals as Mosi-ao-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”, Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi river at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. (That sentence may have more “z”s than any I’ve ever written….) It is neither the tallest waterfall in the world (Angel Falls in Venezuela) nor the widest (Iguazu Falls, at the border of Argentina and Brazil). By many, however, it is considered the largest waterfall in the world based on the combined width – slightly over a mile wide – and height of 360 feet, creating the largest sheet of falling water. To put it in context, it is just about twice the width and twice the height of Niagara Falls.

This is an aerial photo of the falls during the dry season that I snagged of Wikipedia. It shows why you need to see the falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides. Needless to say, during our May visit there was massively more water flowing, meaning we could only see a tiny portion of the full extent of the falls.

As I discovered, your experience with Victoria Falls will vary considerably based on the time of year you come. The rainy period for the broad plateau of upstream Zambezi River runs from about December through early April; at the end of that period the amount of water running over the falls is massive. I’d last been here well into the dry season; there was still plenty of water flowing, but you could still see the falls reasonably well. This visit in mid-May, though, at the end of the rainy season, was pretty much near the very peak of water flow. As a result the mist that blows up from all that water crashing around was also massive. So much, in fact, that for most of the long width of the falls you really couldn’t see anything; you were standing in what was either a steady, heavy mist or – depending on the air currents and all that – what felt like a torrential downpour.

Not as great a view, then, but still a stunning physical experience, just all that water and mist and power.

That’s me up there in what was effectively a heavy downpour. As you might be able to tell, even though you’re very close to the falls you can’t see anything. You can hear the roar of the falls but you can’t see them.

To see Victoria Falls properly, you need a day on each side of the border. From Zambia you can see maybe a third of the falls while in Zimbabwe you can see the other two-thirds. Given the luxury of time that we have, we scheduled two days in each: one day to arrive, then a full day to hike around the falls. That ended up working great for us; in theory we could have done it in less time but this way we had plenty of time without feeling rushed.

The falls, obviously, are the main attraction but there are plenty of other things to do around Livingstone on the Zambia side and the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We did a sunset cruise up the Zambezi river from Livingstone which was pleasant enough. For the bold there is a bungee jump on the bridge that spans the Zambezi, connecting Zambia & Zimbabwe, but we’re not quite that adventurous anymore. There is, after all, a YouTube video of a woman whose cord broke while bungee jumping there. She survived, but still, you would hesitate a bit before giving that a try. Beyond that you can take helicopter tours, go rafting below the falls, go horseback riding, and lots else. For us, the hikes along both sides of the border and the evening cruise were enough.

Sunset on the Zambezi River

As for food, who knew you could find a really good Indian restaurant in Livingstone? Or an acceptable Thai restaurant in Victoria Falls? That helped. Finding a SIM card in Zambia was a challenge until someone pointed us to a guy sitting on the sidewalk; for a couple bucks, then, we had Internet access.

Two more strange things to note about Zimbabwe. There’s been a lot of political turmoil here of late, with long-time ruler Robert Mugabe having been forced out of office in late 2017. The country seems perfectly safe these days, with national elections scheduled in the next few months. The one implication that we’ve seen from all this is that there is, for all intents and purposes, no cash in the country. Zimbabwe uses the U.S. dollar as its primary currency and there’s … none. This is the only time in many years of travel that we go to an ATM and there’s just nothing. You put in your card and the only option you get is to check your balance. No cash. Fortunately we’ve been carrying U.S. cash since we started this adventure so we have enough but otherwise we’d be up a creek.

Walking along these paths the lack of cash didn’t seem so terrible

And then there is the issue of overland transfers. From Victoria Falls we’re headed southeast to Matobo National Park, about 300 miles southeast. There is only one flight a week and not at all at a good time for us so we figured we could hire a driver. The prices our lodge in Matobo were quoting while we were doing the planning were seriously excessive so we figured we would arrange something when we arrived in Zimbabwe. The first travel company we went to made a few calls and then quoted us $3,000 USD. For a 300-mile drive! Another place quoted $900. A guy recommended by our hotel started at $500 before reaching his lowest price of $400. We finally got someone to drive us for $350 but even that doesn’t make sense. Zimbabwe is the poorest country we have ever been in. Unemployment is high, gas prices are normal, and people are desperate for cash. The inability to find a reasonable price for a car and driver is baffling.

The view from the far western section of the falls in Zimbabwe. Again, as on the Zambian side, once you moved just a little further down the path you lost sight of the falls entirely as you were buried in the mist.

Devil’s Cataract in Zimbabwe

Our hotel in Zambia provided us with rain ponchos which were pretty useful. That’s Mark with the stunning falls behind him. Really, they’re right there.

Just a bit upstream from the falls in Zambia

You could see rainbows everywhere

Everywhere

The rainbows practically surrounded you

That’s the bridge that connects Zambia to Zimbabwe (and the bridge from which those more adventurous than us would bungee jump). I love the way it looks as though the rainbow is part of the infrastructure.

On the Zambian side you could hike down to the water’s edge below the falls. The bridge was part of Cecil Rhodes’ dream of an overland train route from Cairo to Cape Town. He wanted it placed just there so travelers could see the falls and even feel the mist.

One of the stranger signs we’ve seen. It’s in English but we still have no idea what it meant.

A comfy little resting spot at the very edge of the Zimbabwean tour

Cruising upstream on the Zambezi

Relaxing on the cruise

One of the crew members

A big old crocodile sunning himself on the shore

And finally, our lunch stop in Zimbabwe. A pretty nice view of the river, with that Zambian peninsula jutting out and the bridge in the background.

The highlight of our stay in Johannesburg was our little 10-room lodge in the Rosebank neighborhood, Ten Bompas. Fireplace, separate living room, free wine and even liquor in the room, lovely pool and outdoor area, great food. That’s enough to make me want to go back even if the rest of the city is boring.

From New York it was the commute from hell to Johannesburg, South Africa. The route consisted of a 10-hour overnight flight to São Paulo, Brazil, an eight-hour layover, and then an eight-hour overnight flight to Jo-burg, as it is known. Yeah, two nights in a row without a bed, followed by some serious jet-lag. Oh, and I managed to catch a cold in the process (probably related to the lack of sleep) so our short stay here was less than ideal.

It’s worth saying that we love South Africa, but we explored it pretty well back in 2000 and I did a couple work trips to Cape Town in 2003 and 2004. So instead of revisiting places we like, especially Cape Town, we planned just a short stop in Jo-burg before moving off to new adventures into deeper Africa.

Neither of us have spent any measurable time in Jo-burg, apparently for good cause. As much as we love the rest of South Africa I’ve never heard anyone say a good word about the tourism experience here. It’s allegedly a good place to live if you need to do business in South Africa and don’t mind living in a secure, gated community in constant fear of crime but for a tourist there’s not much.

The view from lunch on arrival at Ten Bompas. That little couch at the end of the pool with the red pillows was my home the two afternoons we spent there. Heavenly.

One amusing thing to note about Jo-burg: it’s fall here, and it even feels a bit autumnal. What’s cool is that just two months ago we were experiencing winter in Duluth. Then we had spring in Nashville & Atlanta, followed by summer in Miami Beach and Key West. Back to spring in Boston and New York, and now fall in South Africa. We’ve managed all four seasons in just two months!

We did one half-day excursion, hiring a driver/guide to take us to Soweto, the famous black township near Johannesburg that was the scene of student anti-apartheid uprisings in the 1970s. We were surprised by how relatively middle class it seemed, at least the part our guide took us through. In contrast he’d also driven us through downtown Jo-burg which really seems like a deserted, crime- and drug-infested hell hole. Mark asked our driver – a black native South African – if he would be comfortable walking in downtown; he quickly said no.

At any rate, there were two sites to visit in Soweto (short for SouthWestern Townships), a big Apartheid Museum and a much smaller museum consisting of a house that Nelson Mandela lived in for some time and that his wife Winnie kept during his decades in prison. The Apartheid Museum was well done and really interesting. There was a special, temporary exhibit on the life of Nelson Mandela where I spent most of our two-and-a-half hour stop, while Mark focused on the permanent apartheid section. Both were comprehensive, interesting, informative … everything you would want in a history museum. In fact, given that I did one section while Mark did another we could have spent a few more hours there if we’d had the stamina.

Mark standing at the entrance to the Mandela family’s home in Soweto. It was tiny but remained a focal point for the resistance.

The Mandela House, focused on a tiny house in Soweto where Mandela moved in 1946, was a much quicker visit. A local guide there was supposed to show us around but, to put it mildly, she was a terrible guide. Just a monotone “In 1952 blah blah blah. In 1961 blah blah blah.” Everything we hate about most guides except this one was just remarkably bad. After a few minutes I asked if we could just walk around ourselves and read the descriptions on display and that worked at least a little better.

Otherwise there is not much to say about a short stay in Jo-burg. Nice hotels are in secure upscale white neighborhoods. White people live in gated white communities and go to upscale restaurants where everyone else is white and being served by black staff. You don’t walk anywhere, lest you become a crime victim. I’m sure this is an improvement over apartheid but it is still more than a little discouraging. On the other hand on our second night we went to a nice, upscale restaurant where the clientele was almost entirely black and the servers were mixed, perhaps even mostly white. Something to be encouraged by.

From here we hop a quick flight up to Livingstone, Zambia, to view Victoria Falls. That should put us in an African state of mind!

When they say Nelson Mandela was a larger-than-life figure, they aren’t kidding!

One of the riot control vehicles used against students in the 1970s. They weren’t messing around.

Today’s students come to these sites on guided tours. When I saw those purple school uniforms I thought I should have gone there!

On a hill overlooking Johannesburg. Nothing that interesting about the picture, but that pretty much captures my thoughts on Johannesburg itself.

The highlight of our stay, though, was Ten Bompas. Beautiful little hotel with great food, including these two main course dishes from lunch.