It’s 5 p.m., our first evening in the African bush, and the three open Jeeps of 15 Iowans take a slight turn off the beaten path, leading us to a pair of male elephants shaking a tree and pulling at the bark. Our gasps didn’t startle them one bit, and as we inched closer, I knew this was going to be my favorite Friends Club trip ever—Zambia, Africa. We headed to our first sundowner, a daily ritual when visiting Africa. As we pulled up to the edge of a cliff for our breathtaking view, I heard this deep sounding belch. What was that?! Over the cliff, in the water, were tons of hippos, almost looking like large rocks as the sun went down. We enjoyed lovely appetizers and refreshing drinks with tonics, known to keep the mosquitoes away. As the sky quickly changed from glowing shades of pink to pitch black, little did we know that we were in for a big surprise. Our evening safari sightings included a hippo grazing, an elephant sleeping by a tree, a hyena’s glowing eyes, and then, only a few yards away, was Ginger the lion. He was one of the two brothers that led the lion pride at this national park. At first he was lying there calm and collected, and then he walked slowly to the jeep and sounded this deep belly call, marking his territory and letting the pride know his location (video proof available). We were in awe, speechless, and ready for more.
By day seven of our 12-day adventure, we had gone on five safaris in the South Luangwa National Park and the Lower Zambezi National Park. We felt like experts at this point due to our indispensable guides, who were trained local villagers with an immense passion for their land and the animals. We became very close to our guides, learning about their families and culture as they opened our eyes to this world, including the respect for and necessity of these amazing animals. Every turn had something inviting, such as a dazzle of zebras and a tower of giraffes (yes, this is what a group of them is called!). Each time we saw a warthog we sang “Hakuna Matata” from the movie Lion King. The elephants were the favorite of many, including myself, and we were able to get very close and observe these intelligent creatures. Other unbelievable sightings were a lion with a recent kill, the skittish leopard that lost its kill to the lion, Nile crocodiles, and most importantly, the endangered white rhino. Our group saw the “Big Five,” which includes the lion, elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros; most don’t see all five in one visit, so we felt lucky. We also felt lucky to have had the opportunity to visit a school and converse with the children, as well as tour a Zambian village to better understand their way of life. Some of our guides were from this village. It was apparent how aware they were of what they didn’t have but were thankful and humble for what they did have. This was one of the most touching experiences and one I’m still processing.
Each lodge and camp we stayed at had its own personality that spoiled us with attentiveness, lavish meals, and luxury. We were in the bush, and clearly knew it with the baboons, monkeys, and warthogs roaming around freely (one afternoon there was a lioness in the camp resting after a warthog kill). It was an odd combination to get used to the first night, but we easily transitioned with the unique charm of each accommodation. We were escorted to our rooms in the evening as a precaution, and even though you may have heard the hippos and hyenas at night, you felt safe and secure. The wonderful lodges helped us surprise the Friends Club group with a lunch and dinner in the bush. You heard the noises, maybe even felt something watching you, but safely enjoyed an extravagant meal, forgetting the realness of it all. There were opportunities to canoe, placing you up close and personal with the crocodiles and hippos, tiger fishing, and river cruising. Our group did all three and animatedly shared our stories with each other!
There was a raw beauty to the land, which was in its dry season when we were there in early-October. When you travel to South Africa between November and March, everything is green, waterholes overflow, and the rivers rise, which sounds beautiful, but going in the dry season has its benefits. Water is scarce and animals are forced to congregate around the few remaining water sources, making them easier to spot. The grass is lower and dirt roads are easily navigable for safaris. Also, when the Zambezi river is low during the dry season, there is an area at Victoria Falls that has rocks to serve as a barrier from falling, allowing people to swim at the water’s edge. This area is called Devil’s Pool. A group of us hesitantly agreed to do this water excursion, and we could not stop smiling during and after. This was one of many favorite moments. Another moment to mention is when the group visited adult elephants who were rescued as orphans. We rode and fed these remarkable animals.
I have so many stories to share that it makes it hard to sum this trip up. I will never forget what the Friends Club group experienced together on this once-in-a-lifetime visit to Africa. One couple said “this was the best money ever spent.” Another said “the entire experience was surreal.” If you are interested in hearing more about this trip, please feel free to contact me at 319-358-2230. To learn more about Friends Club and our upcoming trips, visit HillsBank.com/FriendsClub.