Naturesways Safaris – Mana Pools Canoe Trip – Overview

3 Day Canoe Trip September 3-6, 2016

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The Zambezi is a wide, shallow river with deeper channels that forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. During our 2 days on the river we saw no other canoes. There was a group of Spaniards just behind us but we never saw them on the river.

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There was the occasional motor boat from the Zambia side but they are not allowed on the Zimbabwe side. In general game is pretty scarce along the river except for numerous pods of hippos.

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The water levels do fluctuate from day to day making it necessary on some days to pull the canoe through the shallow sand bars.

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You do spend a fair amount of time in wide open channels so any game on shore, including birds, is generally far away, but not always.

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What makes the trip interesting and fun even if you are not an avid canoer is watching the reaction of the hippos. The guides are very cautious and try to keep you away from the pods but you are never 100% sure where they will pop up.

We saw a fair number of crocs including one that swam up next to the boat. Craig slapped the paddle on the water to scare it away. The loud crack scared me more than the croc did.

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The guides stop frequently to stretch legs and pee, break for coffee and have lunch. For coffee and lunch they pull out a table and stools, table cloth and simple but nice spread – scones or muffins served with coffee or tea;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor lunch quiche and salad one day, deep dish pizza sort of thing and salad the next.

With only the two of us on the trip they split up the guides, one guide with each of us. They do take groups of up to 12 but business has been slow in recent years due to the political climate.

With a guide in each of the canoes, the paddling could be as easy or intensive as you want to make it. Days were well broken up without long stretches of just paddling.

Mobile camps – moved each day and were generally set up before you arrive.

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Mana Pools Canoe Trip-11The sleeping tent was large enough to stand up in with two single, low narrow beds, a small table and a chemical toilet for middle of the night trips to the loo. Nice and open with mesh sides and top to catch the breeze or stars, but which can be closed for privacy.

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Shower Tent

Camp has a pit toilet, dug fresh each day, and a bucket shower tent with enough hot water for a good shower at the end of the day.

Drinks and soft drinks are readily available.

Appetizers are served by the camp fire and dinner is served family style with the guides. The first course is served and the main course and sides are buffet-style. Dessert is served individually. Red or white wine is available.

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Meals are cooked over an open fire

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Before Dinner

First Dinner  – potato wedge with spicy avocado dip appetizer followed by roast beef, roasted potatoes, green beans, cheesy cauliflower and pudding cake with custard for dessert.

Second Dinner – fresh caught tilapia and roasted chickpea appetizers followed by a pork casserole over rice with stir fried mixed vegetables and cake with custard sauce for dessert.

Batteries can be charged in the vehicle but only while it is moving. We did not charge anything. The wake-up call at this time of year was before 6AM to get on the water before the wind picked up. In the morning they fill a basin next to your tent with hot water for washing up.

The temperatures were generally pleasant in the morning and evening, cool nights, warm in the afternoon and hot in the sun.

Canoes are stable but there is always a risk that a boat could tip due to hitting something in the water or a hippo surprising you.

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Day 2 – Natureways Safaris – Mana Pools Canoe Trip, Zimbabwe

Sept 5, 2016

5:45AM wakeup call.

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 2

Our departure this morning is not rushed. Quite pleasant by the fire sipping coffee.

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 2-2Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 2-3Before heading out I spend a few moments with the hippos just in front of the camp. To avoid these guys they bring the canoes a few hundred meters past the hippos where we begin the morning float.

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The water level is driven by releases from the large hydroelectric dam upstream and has gone down more than a foot from the previous day. Craig and Elijah frequently have to get out and pull the canoes.

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In and out of the boat trying to find a channel deep enough to navigate without hitting bottom. Don takes his turn at helping Elijah pull the canoe.

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Coffee Break

 

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 2-10As we approach the wider channel, the hippo pods become more numerous. Crag does a great job of keeping us on the safe side of the hippos, i.e., not between them and deep water, their safe place.

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We reach a point where a hippo pod is smack in the middle of a narrow channel with no way to get around it. Craig gets out and tries to persuade them to move along, but they’re stubborn and stay put.

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He decides that they’ll pull the canoes through the channel from shore and we’ll walk past the hippo pod. The plan worked. The hippos dive to deeper water and leave the canoes alone.

Despite Craig’s efforts a hippo surprises us both and pops up right in front of us. We quickly cross to the other bank and he stays away.

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Finally past hippo city, pods of hippos everywhere, we have a calmer section of river before the big push across an open wide section to Chiwenga Island, a pretty wooded island. We make the push and reach the island just before noon.

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Lunch is set-up – pizza, slaw, avocado and tomato salad, rolls, and a choice of drinks.

Craig clears out a shaded level area and rolls out thin mats for our siesta. Quite warm but tolerable in the shade with a soft breeze blowing.

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Craig and Elijah head off fishing in different directions. Craig comes back empty handed and Elijah comes back later with a mess of fish.

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We decide to try Elijah’s hot spot and take the canoes further up the island and then walk to the pools. Lots of game in the area – hippos, elephants in two directions and a herd of water buck. Craig tries to shoo away the elephants but they remain stubborn and don’t budge.

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The guys fish the pools. Don catches a fish or two but Elijah again cleans up.

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I find a shady spot of grass and watch the elephants in the distance. At one point Elijah calls me to come over to where they are fishing. I hesitate because I want to stay in the shade, but acquiesce and gather my pack. As I do I glance behind me and realize there is a large tuskless mother coming towards me. I make my way quickly towards the others but don’t run. Never run!!

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This mother is very nervous to have us there and makes several false charges. Craig is nervous enough that he cocks his rifle. Finally another mother comes up to her and this soothes her enough that she backs off and they all make their way across the water to a mud wallow.

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By now there are elephants in 3 directions and Craig decides we should head back to the canoe.

Only trouble is as we get close to the canoes four elephants are munching on the bush along the narrow channel that separates us from the canoes. We circle around the area to the river bank and back up stream.

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Craig has us wait at the shore while he and Elijah sneak up to the canoes and bring them back to us.

We get in and make our way to camp. A croc passes close to the boat and I’m about jump out when Craig slaps the water next to him with the paddle with a load crack.

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A couple more pods of hippos to pass and just when we thought we were through the worst of it a hippo jumps out of the reeds at the bank just in from of the canoe. We back away and cross to the other side all the while he tries to find the deeper water. The hippo, however, is stuck on the sand bank until we can back off enough for him to pass, a dangerous position to be in.

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After all the excitement of the afternoon, the light softens and it’s a pretty float into camp where a mother elephant greets us.

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A nice open camp with pretty sunset views over the water. Sun drops behind the mountain top. Sundowners around the fire with Craig and Elijah.

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Day 1 – Natureways Safaris – Mana Pools Canoe Trip, Zimbabwe

Sept 4, 2016

Wakeup call at 5:45AM

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1

Coffee in front of the fire.  Cold buffet with fruit and hot porridge (oatmeal), toast, jam and cereal.

Craig, our guide, wanted to get on the river before the wind picks up, but just before we leave camp he spots wild dogs in the distance. I grab my camera and we hop in the vehicle and drive a short distance before walking towards the dogs for a better look. They have 9 puppies, all running around and playing.

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They don’t stay in one spot. We follow them but soon they run off again.

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Amazing to watch such animated and social creatures. They don’t seem too bothered by our presence even on foot. Craig has us crouch down as to not intimidate them.

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Soon other vehicles show up. The dogs run off and we head back to camp to finish packing up for the canoe trip.

We take very little with us, leaving our valuables and big lens in our bags to be transported with the rest of the camp gear. I have just the older canon body with the 70-200 lens. Don has the Olympus instamatic for documentation photos.

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Craig gives us a safety briefing. The canoe is very stable and packed for a coffee break and lunch.

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Since it is only the two of us Don and I are put in different canoes, each with a guide in the back of the canoe steering. We just paddle.  At first it isn’t that interesting, a slow paddle down the big wide river with skies hazy from the fires across the river in Zambia.

 

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Hippos in the distance but Craig and Elijah make sure we never get too close. We start to see some crocs on land. One bolts into the water just ahead of me before I even realize he was ever on shore.

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About 8:15 we stop for a pee break then paddle some more – wide river, motor boats on the Zambia side. Craig explains that motorized boats are not allowed on the Zimbabwe side of the river.

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Stop for a coffee break at 9:45. Nice setup with a table and stools. Coffee or tea with scones, butter and jam is served.

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After the coffee break the wind picks up and the channel narrows, making it more difficult to get around the hippos. Craig bangs on the canoe to let them know we are coming, giving them time to head for deeper water. You never want to be between a hippo and deep water.

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A few more crocs.

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Two hippos plunge into the water ahead of us.

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As we near camp the channel narrows even more and Craig has us stop to wait for the hippos to get on land and out of our way.

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2 stubborn ones don’t cooperate and he gets out of the canoe and chases them off with his oar.

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Turns out we are camping just across this narrow channel from where the hippos are grazing.

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They haven’t quite finished setting up camp but set lunch out for us – veg quiche, bread rolls, Greek Salad cheese platter and picked beets, onion and cucumber.

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During lunch our bags finally arrive at 1:30PM. Our tent is finished after lunch and we rest before the afternoon activity.

Afternoon activity – We drive to a place where we walk to a hippo pool. We are joined by a group of Spaniards that are doing a 9 day canoe trip.

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Craig explains how elephants drink out of deep holes in the sand.

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The hole is very deep!

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-24Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-25Examined skulls of a large croc and hippo.

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Eland

Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-26Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-29Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-28On way to the hippo pool we pass eland as well as zebra and a hippo roaming about.

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Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-31Mana Pools Canoe Trip Day 1-32Craig points out how the sunset lit up the water around a heron fishing off the back of a hippo. Just as I set up my camera he catches a fish.

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Sundowners, G&T by the pond and then back to camp by 6:30. You’re not supposed to be on the roads in the National Park after dark.

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Leaving Victoria Falls and the Start of Mana Pools Canoe Trip, Zimbabwe

Sept 3, 2016

After a short break in Victoria Falls, the next phase of our safari trip in Botswana and Zimbabwe is a canoe camping trip on the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe.

We had a leisurely last morning at the Ilala Lodge in Victoria Falls as our flight to Mana Pools wasn’t until 12:30. The 12PM hotel pickup with Wild Horizons to transfer us to the airport went smoothly.

Arrival Mana Pools

The driver handed us over to a handler at the airport who told us that our flight was delayed until 1PM. We had to pay a $15/each airport tax at the new Victoria Falls Airport.

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The airlines crammed 5 of us into one tiny plane for the 2 hour plus flight. Don was quite uncomfortable with next to no legroom. Our luggage was supposed to follow in a second plane. Thankfully, at the suggestion of the pilot, we brought all the camera gear and everything essential with us as the second plane didn’t arrive until the following afternoon. In hindsight the pilot must have known something was not quite right but we never did find out the full story.

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Leaving Victoria Falls

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Dam that creates Lake Kariba on the Zambezi River

The pilot was very nice and explained our route following the river and impressive lake, very hazy sky.

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Mana Pools Airstrip

Craig and Elijah from Natureways Safaris, our guides for the next 3 days on the river, met us at the airstrip. We were told our bags would follow in a couple of hours. We drove slowly to camp at Vundu, stopping at the office to pay $258 in camp fees, not included in our voucher. We were able to pay with a credit card.

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4 elephants were hanging out at the office eating the acacia pods.

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On our way to camp we stopped in an area where 6 adult lions were lazing about. A couple of other vehicles were in the area.

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Elijah stops the vehicle and we follow Craig on foot for a better look at the lions. First time we’ve been allowed to do that!

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We waited for an elephant that was milling in the trees behind where the lions were resting to chase them away, but he disappointed us and went on his way, leaving the lions in peace.

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Hyena on the way back to camp

We reached the mobile camp just after sunset and were told we will have our bags first thing in the morning. They flew them to another town and it was too late to fly them here before dark.

Sundowners by the fire with an appetizer of fresh hot tilapia, a  local river fish, and sauce. Chatted with Elijah and Craig while waiting for dinner.

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Sleeping and Dining at Ilala Lodge, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

September 1-2, 2016

Getting to Vic Falls from Chobe Nat’l Park

From the Chobe Elephant Camp we had a 9AM transfer in the lodge minivan to the airport where we met our overland transfer to the Zimbabwe border. The driver gave us the needed forms for entry to Zimbabwe.

Vic Falls Ilala Lodge

Transfer at the Kasane Airport

Getting out of Botswana was quick and easy. Buying the visa for Zimbabwe was a slow line, about an hour, involving a long, handwritten process that takes 3 clerks to complete. If you are planning to go to Zambia, the other side of Victoria Falls, be sure to get a double entry visa.

Once we got our visas we were transferred with our luggage to a larger bus for the boring drive through a leafless forest to Victoria Falls.

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We arrived at the lodge around 12:15 and had lunch at the bar while we wait for our room to be ready.

Sleeping and Dining

Ilala Lodge, a smaller establishment than the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel, is just a 5 minute walk to the historic hotel and a 10 minute walk to the falls themselves. The grounds include a pretty outdoor terrace and open air covered bar.

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Rooms are spacious and comfortable with covered balconies. Amenities include – coffee and tea service, safe, hair dryer and bug repellent lotion. Wifi is OK but on the slow side.

Overall the food is excellent. The dining room, The Palm Restaurant, was the number 1 restaurant on Tripadvisor at the time of our visit.

Vic Falls Ilala Lodge-14While sandwiches and burgers in the bar are a bit pricy at $12 for a sandwich, dinner mains are quite reasonable at $20-24.

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Breakfast includes a cold buffet – fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt and excellent bread and pastry choices, including flakey croissants and pan au chocolat. Good pastry is a rarity in most hotels here. Hot choices included a number of egg dishes and eggs made to order.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe tried the Palm Veg Breakfast – sweet corn fritter hash browns grilled tomato, mushrooms and eggs to order. All the items were made to order and piping hot but almost all were fried.

The dinner menu includes a wide selection of proteins. We dined here both nights on their outdoor terrace and tried:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARoasted quail – pork and mushroom stuffed quail with sautéed greens almonds and blueberry sauce.

Open Ravioli – chargrilled vegetable ravioli with plum tomato compote.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrocodile Frikadelle – served with a lemon and vodka mayo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlesbok shank – served with mashed roasted veg and honey glazed vegetables.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPan roasted ostrich fillet – with truffle infused salt and a chocolate chili sauce, accompanied by orange honey and cumin glaze vegetables.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPork meets warthog – slow roasted pork belly alongside a sous vide warthog fillet on a lemon Brussel sprout risotto.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOlive and feta chicken supreme – with pancetta, baby potatoes and greens with beetroot puree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARhubarb and Berry Crumble with crème anglaise.

All were well done but out favorites were the blesbok shank and the ostrich fillet.

 

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Victoria Falls in September, Zimbabwe

September 1 – 2, 2016

Staying at the Ilala Lodge on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, it was an easy walk to the entrance of the Victoria Falls Rainforest Reserve. We visited the park twice, once late in the day on the first afternoon and again the following morning at sunrise. Plenty of rainbow both in the evening and morning.

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Photographing the falls turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. The mist from the falls made focusing challenging while managing the light conditions. The wide angle lens may work well for the larger falls but when they were at a lower volume the 18-135 lens worked better.

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In early September the water level is quite low in some sections, but still high enough in the main sections to give you an idea of what the falls are capable of.

Afternoon Visit

About 4:30 we headed out to see the falls in the low afternoon light.

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Once inside the Vic Falls Rainforest Reserve there is a pathway that runs along edge of the canyon on the Zimbabwe side of the falls with the various viewpoints numbered, 1-16.  The greatest volume of water is around the main falls with it petering out as you head towards the bridge to Zambia, i.e. the higher numbered viewpoints.

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Morning Visit

We woke early to be at the entrance to the falls when they opened at 6AM. Sunrise was at 6:23.

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I didn’t know where the best sunrise spot was at this time of year. I focused on viewpoint 8, the main falls. In hindsight I would have started at a later viewpoint, 15, for the pre-sunrise color, where there is a better view of the whole sky and worked my way back to the main falls to catch the sunrise through the mist. The sunrise should move further south towards viewpoint 16 until December and would have been further north in May to August.

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Once the sun was higher in the sky around 7:30 the first rainbows started to appear.

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Bridge to Zambia

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River above the falls

Soon after sunrise the sun is too harsh for photos from the Zimbabwe side. Late afternoon light would be better. Best to use a polarizing filter, camera rain jacket and tripod. I had only a monopod with me.

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From viewpoint 2

Be sure to walk to viewpoint 16 for a view of the bridge and back to 2 for the 38 steps down to a lower viewing deck.

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Chobe Elephant Camp, Chobe Nat’l Park, Botswana

August 30 – September 1, 2016

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The compound is set on a ridge overlooking the river valley. The open air common rooms and pool area as well as the cabins all have the same great sunset view.

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The rooms, individual stucco cabins, are smaller than the higher priced Kwando tented camps, but comfortable. The front porch faces the sunset. Basic bathroom including an indoor and outdoor shower, solar powered hot water, safe, laundry service and mosquito netting over the bed. Only one outlet in the room.

 

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Breakfast – Rather than the quick cold breakfast before the morning drive served at other camps, they serve a full buffet at 6AM with hot and cold items available – eggs, bacon, porridge, fruit, cheese, yogurt, toast, etc.

The first evening we dined with the other guests and camp management at a large table in the open air dining room. We enjoyed meeting the other guests and swapping stories. Dinner was buffet style – lamb tagine with couscous, sweet potato, baby patty pan, veg bean casserole, Ginger cake with cream for dessert. Everything was well prepared and tasty.

Chobe Elephant Camp

The second evening they set up tables for the 3 individuals groups under the stars around the fire. No management was present. The buffet dinner included – roasted chicken, roasted potatoes, peas, veg paella with a curry carrot soup to start, excellent with a bit of heat. White wine poached pears with chocolate sauce for dessert.

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With a late arrival on our first night, a packed second day and a fairly early departure on the following morning we did not have much time to just hang out at the camp.

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The common areas and bar, however, were comfortable and nicely appointed and the staff friendly.

The one negative was a power surge during the night that fried the power supply to my computer, which turned out to be irreplaceable in southern Africa, including Johannesburg.

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