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Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa Sept 2017: A Different View


janzin
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I mentioned way back at the beginning of this report that adding Victoria Falls was something of an afterthought. Some reports had discouraged us from going at this time of year (September) because the falls would be very low. Still, it seemed like an opportune time to add this destination, as we could fly directly home from Livingstone (or Victoria Falls on the Zim side) via SAA without adding any cost to our International flight.

 

Originally I wanted to stay on the Zim side, at the Ilala, having read good reviews and reports. But it was full for our dates...as was the Victoria Falls Hotel. In the end, we opted for the Avani on the Zambian side.  This actually was a great choice. The Avani has an entrance on its property directly into the Zambian side of the falls, and the entrance fee is included in one's room fee, so it was easy to come and go as often as one liked.  It also has some nice grounds with birds, and two ponds, one with a bird hide! Zebra and impala (wild, but pretty used to people) roam the grounds. Rooms were very comfortable, and food at the poolside restaurant was good, as was the included breakfast (which we sadly only got to eat once, due to early departures the other two days.) You could also walk 10 minutes or take a tram to the Royal Livingston, for dinner or other activities.

 

A funny aside...while we were there, the hotel was hosting a huge, 400-person convention of Tryptosomasis specialists from all over the world. These were doctors, epidemiologists, and other health care workers. I was tempted to ask one to look at my tse-tse bites ;)   The group really had no impact on our stay, as they were in meetings all day long and dined separately, so it was not as if they were crowding the place.

 

We had two and half days (three nights at the Avani) and for this part of the trip, I had a few activities planned. A birding tour in Zimbabwe, a boat ride on the river, and a morning visit to Devil's Pool....if I didn't chicken out.

 

The Avani is low rise with a nice pool (although we didn't use it.)

 

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We had a view of zebra from our room's balcony...

 

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And impala on the grounds.

 

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One of the ponds.

 

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After we got settled, and had a nice lunch at the poolside cafe, we took the short walk into the National Park.

 

Indeed, from the Zambian side, the falls were really dry!

 

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Falls? What falls?

 

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There was a nice view of the famous bridge which connects Zambia with Zimbabwe...where they do the bungee jumps. We didn't see anyone jumping.

 

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Well, we expected the Zambian side to be pretty dry...maybe not quite THIS dry. But the plan was to visit the Zimbabwe side the next day.

 

In fact, we had a full day planned for tomorrow. We were starting the morning with a birding tour on the Zimbabwe side, then visiting the falls in the afternoon.

 

 

 

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Just now, Game Warden said:

@janzin Pour me a glass of red wine, I'm about ready to crash on your sofa :)

 

Matt

 

Hey you are welcome any time...I'm a SafariTalk guiding pal! :)

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When I was planning this part of the trip, I was looking at the various possible activities. Knowing that we wouldn't be seriously concentrating on birding on the safari part of the trip, I tried to find a birding guide for Victoria Falls. There were a few specialty birds in the area I hoped to add to our bird list. I couldn't find anyone on the Zambian side, but I found a mention somewhere (maybe in someone's trip report here, or on that "other site") of Charles Brightman. He has a company called Discover Victoria Falls, and does private guided safaris and also is very active in anti-poaching activity in Zimbabwe. And he does birding tours! We were able to set up a tour with him; he would pick us up at the border crossing at 6 a.m. (or as close to 6 as we could get across) and take us into the park and a few other spots for specialties; then drop us somewhere in town for lunch, and from there we could walk into the National Park. All for a very reasonable fee of $75 a person (plus $15 for the park admission.)

 

Unfortunately, not two weeks before the trip I got an email from Charles...he wanted to know if it was okay if he substituted another guide, Andrew Dazell, because he had some unique opportunity to do a very limited access trail in South Africa (The Whale Trail) which normally needed to be booked two years in advance. I wasn't too happy with this, but I didn't want to deny him his chance to do this trip so I said fine, as long as Andrew knew his birds. He assured me that he did...and he was right, Andrew was excellent.

 

We took a taxi from the Avani to the bridge because I didn't want to walk in the dark. There was a little anxiety when the taxi was very late in coming, but he was able to help us get through the immigration point quickly and he actually drove us all the way across the bridge, which I was surprised he could do. When we presented our KAZA visa on the Zimbabwe side, the agent was very surprised as they had run out of them just about everywhere (in fact we were very lucky to get some of the last available when we arrived in Lusaka.)

 

We met up with Andrew on the other side and our first stop was along the river. The sun was just coming up.

 

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It was a beautiful spot. It was also really nice to be able to get out of the vehicle and walk (this wasn't in the National Park yet.) We had a couple of target birds here: Rock Pratincole and Half-collared Kingfisher.  We went to a few spots along the river where Andrew had seen the Kingfisher before.

 

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We scrambled through some brush and finally caught a glimpse of the Half-collared Kingfisher! Unfortunately, too fast for a photo. 

 

We also were able to get distant views of the Rock Pratincoles. (We actually saw them again, and better, from our boat ride the next day, but this was a life view.) But we were thrilled to already get two life birds!

 

In the last photo above, you can see in the far back a little island that is covered with birds. At first I thought they were cormorants, but on closer inspection they turned out to be Spur-winged Geese.

 

To be continued (have to go make dinner :)

 

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Towlersonsafari

Wonderful cushions @janzin we also have about 10 aardvark place mats sewn from a south African woman's refuge that look a lot like some of your cushions!

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1 hour ago, Towlersonsafari said:

Wonderful cushions @janzin we also have about 10 aardvark place mats sewn from a south African woman's refuge that look a lot like some of your cushions!

 

Aardvaark placemats! Love it!

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We continued towards the park, but made a few more stops. One of the specialties that we really hoped to see was the Collared Palm-Thrush.  We stopped at an intersection where Andrew said he sees them regularly. Sure enough, it wasn't long before we heard and then saw one. And then another...there were several in the area.

 

Not a great shot but they didn't perch in the open.

 

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This one particular corner seemed very birdy. While standing there, we got another on our list: Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird.

 

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Wow, four lifers already and we haven't even entered the park yet.

 

We drove through a wetter area which was behind a crocodile farm. In this little marsh, we picked up several birds. Nothing new but new for our Zimbabwe list :)

 

I hope I got these shorebirds right. Maybe @offshorebirder could double-check for me.

 

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And a few I know for sure :)

 

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By the time we entered the National Park, it was getting quite hot and we didn't see as much inside the park as we did outside. We did have a surprise Osprey...a bird I didn't expect at all.  And some good looks at Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, but too far for a photo. (Since its a National Park, no off-roading allowed.)

 

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We saw a bit of wildlife, but it seemed very scarce. There were some warthogs, buffalo, impala, kudu, and some banded mongooses.

 

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It was getting towards lunch time and time to head back into town. We were very happy with our little birding jaunt; we'd picked up several life birds and many more trip birds.  Andrew brought us back to town and first tried to get us into the Lookout Cafe, which has a fantastic view towards the bridge. But they were full up! We suggested the Victoria Falls Hotel and there was no problem finding a table there.

 

Saying good-bye to Andrew, we sat down for a lovely lunch on Stanley's Terrace. Iced Tea and smoked salmon on a bagel! It was delicious! And what a view from our table.

 

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Some interior shots:

 

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We were really happy that we ended up here, it was a beautiful spot and a very relaxing, refreshing lunch...and we needed a bit of a rest to recharge the energy to tackle the falls from the Zim side.

 

 

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15 minutes ago, Treepol said:

@janzin do you have a contact for Andrew Dazell? I'm up for a half day birding at Vic Falls this year...

 

He was the substitute guide, but I would contact Charles Brightman. This is his website: http://discovervictoriafalls.com/

 

http://discovervictoriafalls.com/victoria-falls-activities/victoria-falls-bird-watching-safaris/

 

He'll tailor whatever you want.

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offshorebirder

Nice photos and flawless bird IDs in my opinion @janzin.    Collared Palm-Thrush - living vicariously.  And I love Tinkerbirds, thanks for sharing.

 

Thanks also for the birding guide tips for Vic Falls.

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1 minute ago, offshorebirder said:

Nice photos and flawless bird IDs in my opinion @janzin.    Collared Palm-Thrush - living vicariously.  And I love Tinkerbirds, thanks for sharing.

 

Thanks also for the birding guide tips for Vic Falls.

 

Thanks, I am never quite sure with shorebirds...even here in the states, they are frustrating to me! In Africa I get hopelessly confused :rolleyes:

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madaboutcheetah
On 3 February 2018 at 10:53 AM, ice said:

 

@janzin thanks for your kind words but I am absolutely sure that whatever negative I have to say my trip with Doug to Mana Pools will lead to heated discussions and arguments and I don't have the time nor the nerve for these. I am, however, willing to talk about my experience in private, especially to folks who are considering a similiar trip. One member has already contacted me by PM and received an answer. 

 

 

Just catching up with the report again ....... @janzin some wonderful photographs as always ...... Especially loved the Carmines. You certainly had a great safari where you were also very lucky to find the dogs ...... 

 

I just about caught these baffling comments by @ice - I think these are very condescending comments and unfair to both Doug and the readers of Safari talk. 

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39 minutes ago, madaboutcheetah said:

 

 

Just catching up with the report again ....... @janzin some wonderful photographs as always ...... Especially loved the Carmines. You certainly had a great safari where you were also very lucky to find the dogs ...... 

 

I just about caught these baffling comments by @ice - I think these are very condescending comments and unfair to both Doug and the readers of Safari talk. 

 

Thanks Hari, the Carmines were one of the highlights of the trip.

 

As for those comments about Mana Pools...best to take that issue to a private message. We don't know the full story but this thread isn't the place to discuss it. :)

 

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madaboutcheetah

Yes indeed this isn't the place for it @janzin and that's why I termed it unfair and condescending ...... 

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There's a path that directly leads from The Victoria Falls Hotel to the National Park entrance. In under 10 (hot) minutes we were there.

 

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We walked the trail up in both directions. Indeed, there was a lot more water here!

 

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I'm sure it pales by comparison to the high water season, but it was still impressive. And cooler in the mist of the falls!

 

Lots of rainbows in the afternoon.

 

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At one point, you could look across and see the people in the Devil's Pool on the Zambia side. Yikes...had I really signed up to do that? (Yes, I had!)

 

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Well, definitely impressive, although I'd like to someday see it in its full thundering glory.  It didn't really move me the way Iguazu did, but its a very different experience.

 

We headed back towards the bridge which is just adjacent to the entrance of the park. Our initial intention was to walk back, but as we started to wind our way through the parked and idling trucks (which seemed to go on for miles) in the heat and the fumes, we started to regret that choice. Honestly walking over the bridge seemed really unpleasant. Fortunately, right at the Zim border post there were taxis waiting to take people across, for something like $5 or $6 dollars; it was worth it. They dropped us at the Zambia border post and we walked through the little craft market right into the grounds of the Avani.

 

That evening we walked to the Royal Livingston where we had reserved ahead for dinner. Arriving early for a drink, we tried to sit on their outside terrace to watch the sunset...but didn't stay but a moment because we were being eaten alive by mosquitoes! This was the only place where we had mosquitoes at all...but it was unbearable.  We quickly adjourned to their inside bar, and had a very nice dinner.

 

Tomorrow....Devil's Pool! And a farewell cruise on the river.

 

 

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Thanks for sharing your extraordinary images and also some of the things that went wrong and also right on your safari. Its a good reminder that we should make our expectations known in advance. I was so lucky on my recent trip to the Mara to have a vehicle all to myself without paying extra for it since the camp was about half empty. It does really spoil you! And we stayed out from about 6:30 am to 12:30 PM, with a bush breakfast sometime in the middle of the drive. The food wasn't hot since it went with us in the morning but I decided room temperature pancakes and hard boiled eggs was definitely preferable over a hot breakfast for the extra time on game drive! If we had come back for a hot breakfast, you have much more time in camp and less time out on game drives...not a good trade-off!

 

I'm especially jealous of your wonderful bird photos--it's often so hard to get them on game drives since they seem to fly away as soon as you get close enough for a picture! The bee-eaters are especially gorgeous!

 

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Wow! I've never seen it that dry! But I guess I've never been there after August or September. In fact I think I've only been there once when Devil's Pool was accessible.

As for Zambia as a safari destination. It has a lot to offer. There are places for the hard core walkers, there are places for the avid photographers, there are places for those who enjoy things a little bit more luxurious (even airco in the rooms). The wildlife is fantastic. In some places the density is maybe not that high (Kafue), but this is then made up by the diversity (highest diversity of ungulates in Kafue of any park in Africa). In other places the diversity might not be that high (Liuwa), but this is made up with photographic quality of the area (clear background as there are only very little bushes, so there is little distraction from the focus of your subject). Many places (Kafue, Luangwa) have a very diverse landscape and I have heard many people commenting on how fantastic that is. For the more exploratory travellers there are even remoter places. There are fantastic waterfalls in Nsumbu NP for example, which are rarely visited, I've enjoyed soaking in small, clear rivers in remote GMAs. Little wildlife there, but seeing carnivore tracks and seeing various antelopes and elephants every now and then, gives a real sense of wild Africa is one is after that. If one wants wide plains with animals Zambia can cater for that (Busanga in Kafue, Kafue flats along the kafue river, Bangweulu or Liuwa. However, it's different from East Africa (I haven't been there yet) or South Africa (more of a wild field in Zambia, and in Botswana imho). It's a pity for @janzin that her holiday didn't work out as she intended it to. I think it's important for clients to clearly express what they want or expect, and for operators to honest about what they can offer. Booking agents can complicate or facilitate this, so seeking a good honest booking agent is important too. Don't hold back to express what you want or expect as a client. It's often harder to cater for somebody who up front claims they're happy with whatever then somebody who has a clear wishlist which can be catered for. This gives the operator, guide and camp managers something they can work with. Something in this chain didn't work optimally with the result being a not completely satisfactory safari, which is a pity. 

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Please, I don't mean to discourage anyone from visiting Zambia. First of all, we absolutely loved Lower Zambezi. Second, I can't speak anything at all about Kafue, Busanga, Kasanka, or Liuwa. I'd love to see the bat migration someday in Kasanka and the Shoebill Stork in Bangweulu!  So who knows, I might even return!

 

All I can do is relate my issues in this particular park at these particular camps at this particular time. And as for some of these issues, as I said before, it may have been just bad luck. I think my expectations were set very high given other's reports I just felt that--compared to other safari destinations I've been to (the Mara, northern Tanzania, the Okavango, South Africa) we just didn't enjoy it as much, nor did we feel the sightings were as consistently good.

 

Also, for us it was extremely expensive...more even than Botswana, which is considered one of the most expensive safari destinations. Our most expensive trip to date. I felt we had to go in the peak season since it would be too hot for us off-season, and that brought up the cost, of course (we were able to do Bots in green season.) So there was that in the back of my mind at times.

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3 hours ago, janzin said:

Please, I don't mean to discourage anyone from visiting Zambia. First of all, we absolutely loved Lower Zambezi. Second, I can't speak anything at all about Kafue, Busanga, Kasanka, or Liuwa. I'd love to see the bat migration someday in Kasanka and the Shoebill Stork in Bangweulu!  So who knows, I might even return!

 

All I can do is relate my issues in this particular park at these particular camps at this particular time. And as for some of these issues, as I said before, it may have been just bad luck. I think my expectations were set very high given other's reports I just felt that--compared to other safari destinations I've been to (the Mara, northern Tanzania, the Okavango, South Africa) we just didn't enjoy it as much, nor did we feel the sightings were as consistently good.

 

Also, for us it was extremely expensive...more even than Botswana, which is considered one of the most expensive safari destinations. Our most expensive trip to date. I felt we had to go in the peak season since it would be too hot for us off-season, and that brought up the cost, of course (we were able to do Bots in green season.) So there was that in the back of my mind at times.

 

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Greatly enjoyed this trip report......and the terrific photographs! 

I agree with @janzin about Zambia being more expensive than other places.

We especially wanted to go to Zambia as we have been to most of the other 

countries.

In trying to plan a trip for Oct. 2018, prices for Zambia from all the operators I contacted were at least $1000 more than quotes for Zimbabwe, Botswana etc.

So, after reading all the favorable comments and trip reports in ST about the 

Porini camps in Kenya (where we had last been in 1988!),  that is where we 

are going.

 

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So while planning this trip I was looking at the various things to do around Victoria Falls and I found the information on Devil's Pool, which I remembered seeing before but not really considering seriously. If anyone doesn't know, Devil's Pool is a natural pool on the edge of Victoria Falls which has enough of a ledge so that you really can't go over, at least not unintentionally! It is only open in the low water season, for obvious reasons. From what I read, it was just a short swim through not very deep water, and then a bit of a clamber over rocks, and then you just slip into the pool (you don't have to jump, as some of the youtube videos show.)

 

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am decidedly NOT the adventurous, risk-taking type. Bungee jumping is out of the question, no skydiving, I won't even go in an helicopter (or a canoe in hippo infested waters!) But this...I dunno, it didn't seem that scary to me :)  I watched a ton of videos and I figured as long as I didn't have to jump I'd be fine. I can swim...although not a really strong swimmer...but it didn't seem like you needed to be.

 

Well I figured, you only live once, and we probably won't go back, and if we did it might be in high water season, and what the heck--let's do it! No way Alan could do it though, as he can't really swim. So it was just me. Of course, he came along, in retrospect maybe he shouldn't have and saved the $$$ but I needed him there for courage :o

 

Only one company offers this trip: Tongabezi, as they (own? lease?) Livingstone Island which is the access point for the trip. And its pricey...at least $110 per person for the morning runs (which include breakfast); more depending if you go for lunch or afternoon tea. You also need to book way in advance, at least if you want a choice. I had read the morning trips were best, as you had incredible rainbows. But the 9 a.m. was already booked full! So I booked the 7:30.  This turned out to be a bit of a mistake because it was really, really cold that early, but it was the only date we could do it so...

 

The boat conveniently left from the Royal Livingston so we could walk over in the morning. After a safety briefing and signing a bunch of forms relinquishing Tongabezi of any responsibility, we were off.

 

The ride over to Livingston Island was quick, maybe five minutes.

 

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After a quick tour around the island...which took all of five minutes...we headed towards the crossing point. They were certainly right about the rainbow...it was incredible.

 

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The crossing point...there are ropes to guide you and I guess to keep you from going over ;)

 

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Somehow there was a group already there, ahead of us, so I guess they actually sent out two boats at 7:30, or else they added an earlier trip. I had thought we'd be the first.

 

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So you can see the crossing. Not very deep or wide. Didn't look too bad!

 

When it was our turn, I started across. But immediately realized two things...it was FREEZING and also, the current was very strong. I was having trouble swimming. I could stand...it wasn't deep...but could barely get any forward movement. I was about to turn around thinking I'm not going to make it, when I was "rescued." Just my incredible luck, our group included two lifeguards from California, and their girlfriends. Lifeguards!!! What are the chances! so this hunk of a guy came over to me and helped me across.

 

 

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Note, that photo and the next were taken by Alan from the other shore. Obviously we can't bring our cameras across. We gave our phones to the guide and he is supposed to take photos of us with our phones. More on that in a moment.

 

So really, the hard part was behind me. We were led across a short rocky area to the edge of the pool.

 

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One by one we slid in (no one jumped, I think the water was too low.) They gave each person or group a few moments at the edge and the guide took photos. Unfortunately...for whatever reason, he mistakenly took my photos with the California woman's phone! Luckily she was really nice about it and sent them to me afterwards. In fact as soon as I got back to the hotel, they were in my email.

 

The pool itself was calm. At no point did you really feel like you could get swept away. There is a ledge that you can hold on to...or sit on. And its not very large so its just a two stroke swim from where you slide in to the ledge.  I actually was not scared at all at this point. Just freezing...my teeth were clattering!

 

The photos are all tiny. Still, they are proof that I did it!

 

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This is probably the ONLY time you will see my photo online. I hate having my photo taken--no selfies for me--and I keep myself offline as much as humanly possible. But I gotta prove I did this :)

 

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They had us do silly things like wave for the camera and I have some videos too, but there's no way I'm putting a video of me in a bathing suit on Youtube ;)

 

It was awesome. AWESOME!

 

The swim back was much easier than going forward, one of the guides helped me a bit but the current seemed easier going back. We then had a good breakfast (eggs benedict, muffins, etc.) and that was it. Honestly, if you can swim...do it! But its really not worth spending the money for the non-participating partner, even though I needed him there to document.

 

 

 

 

Edited by janzin
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OMG @janzin  I almost had a wine-out-the-nose moment I was laughing so hard about the Devil's Pool experience. It all started with the photo of the arrow pointing to your hero...I hadn't read the description above so I kept  trying to figure out why...his trunks maybe? Then I read the caption and started laughing- just because, seriously, what are the odds you are in Zim with a bunch of lifeguards from CA? And then....the whole frightening experience of photos in a bathing suit........just chuckling as I write this. I too LOATHE having my picture taken, will never take a selfie and DEFINITELY, will never have a photo of me in a bathing suit. So, now that I've stopped chuckling....I applaud your tenacity to do the Devil's Pool trip- not sure I would have (and not because of the photos- pretty bad fear of heights for me) - and to go the extra step of pictures to prove it. This has been a fabulous TR and I'm sad to see it coming to an end- seriously. I've looked forward to every update, for your honest appraisal and humor throughout.  Thank you so much for sharing.

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5 hours ago, lmonmm said:

OMG @janzin  I almost had a wine-out-the-nose moment I was laughing so hard about the Devil's Pool experience. It all started with the photo of the arrow pointing to your hero...I hadn't read the description above so I kept  trying to figure out why...his trunks maybe? Then I read the caption and started laughing- just because, seriously, what are the odds you are in Zim with a bunch of lifeguards from CA? And then....the whole frightening experience of photos in a bathing suit........just chuckling as I write this. I too LOATHE having my picture taken, will never take a selfie and DEFINITELY, will never have a photo of me in a bathing suit. So, now that I've stopped chuckling....I applaud your tenacity to do the Devil's Pool trip- not sure I would have (and not because of the photos- pretty bad fear of heights for me) - and to go the extra step of pictures to prove it. This has been a fabulous TR and I'm sad to see it coming to an end- seriously. I've looked forward to every update, for your honest appraisal and humor throughout.  Thank you so much for sharing.

 

haha @lmonmm glad you have found it entertaining.

 

I don't really like heights either, the interesting thing is that you really can't see over the edge...it may look like you can, but you couldn't, unless you lifted yourself up and over (not recommended and the guides would not let you!!) So you don't feel the height so much. You can see across of course but basically you are too busy thinking "omg I can't believe I'm doing this" to take stock of it all. Also unfortunately they pretty much rush you as everyone needs to get their five minutes in on the edge...and then let the next group enter. So it all happens in a bit of a whirlwind.

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BTW, for anyone who might be crazy enough to want to do this, this is the page that I found had the best information and described the experience most accurately.

 

http://www.roamingaroundtheworld.com/how-to-visit-devils-pool-victoria-falls/

 

My one suggestion would be to take the later trip, 9 or even the 10:30....rainbows should still be good but it would be a lot warmer, which would make a big difference in comfort level.

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Towlersonsafari

You are a lot braver than Jane and I @janzin we stayed once at a Tongabezi lodge but we're not remotely brave enough! A splendid report

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