Travelling with the herd and flying with the angels

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Africa » Zimbabwe » Victoria Falls
August 3rd 2009
Published: September 18th 2009
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 Video Playlist:

1: Pfumo 18 secs
2: Riding elephants 14 secs
3: Flight of Angels 18 secs
4: Flight of Angels 12 secs

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I had a horribly early start this morning, however an elephant back safari is definitely an experience worth getting out of bed at 5.30am for. I collected my packed breakfast from reception and clambered into the mini bus. I munched on rolls, cheese and fresh scones as we drove to Victoria Falls Hotel to pick up the rest of the group. It turned out I was the only individual in the group. The others were all from various parts of the USA but have been travelling as a group through several countries in southern Africa. We drove directly to the elephant safari camp and were warmly greeted by two members of staff. We were offered tea (with elephant milk!) and stood trying to keep warm as the indemnity forms were passed around. The elephants were brought to meet us. We stood on the balcony and they reached their trunks up to greet us. There were a few little babies standing alongside their mothers and straining to reach up as well.
We walked to the mounting platform and went up in pairs. I rode on janet and her baby, Pfumo (whoose name means 'spear), followed along beside us. I got the backseat on the saddle as as soon we were both seated comfortable the driver tapped behind Janet's ears and we set off. It was very relaxing riding along on Janet. We rolled side to side as she walked along the path. Pfumo crashed through the grass and frequently stopped to attack a nearby tree. The elephants stopped to graze as and when they liked and more than one actually picked up a branch and continued the walk proudly carrying their aquisition in their trunk. Janet stopped for a snack by a fallen tree and then walked over it making us lean dangerously to one side and nearly knocking us out of the saddle as the other branches of the trees swept over our heads.
We eventually settled into a sedate pace and I was able to sit back and relax. We came to a shallow stream and one by one the elephant picked their way over the rocks and continued up the hill on the other side. We stopped for a little more grazing and I watched Pfumo and the other babies playing games. We continued on our way and all too soon I saw the centre ahead and knew our ride was nearly over.
We walked one at a time to the mountin platform and got off, most of us walking down the steps with rather bowed legs. We were told we would be able to feed the elephants treats to thank them for carrying us. the elephants lined up on the other side if the fence and we thrust our hands into the buckets of pellets and stepped forward to reward our new friends. We were warned not to get caught between the elephant as they view the pellets as children view chocolate and tend to snatch off each other if they think someone else is getting more. We fed the elephants in two ways, either by tipping the pellets into their trunk or putting them straight in their mouths. It was a lot of fun and we made sure all the elephant in the herd got a treat, not just the ones who'd been carrying us.
Once the buckets were empty the elephant saluted us in goodbye by raising one foot and holding their trunks aloft; then, one by one, they walked away and we returned to the balcony. We saw waterbuck grazing by the stream and then our attention turned inward as we were offered hot tea and coffee. We sat around the long tables under the covered portion of the balcony and were given a fully cooked breakfast of toast, fried egg, potatoes and mince. We tucked into our food and talked and listened to our guide's stories about the elephants.
All the elephants are orphaned or injured elephants rescued from the wild, or born in the centre. They sleep in large stables as a herd and work a couple of hours a day giving rides to tourists once in the early morning and once in the evening. The rest of the day they spend 'just being elephants'. We asked why a couple of elephants don't have tusks and our guide said they chopped them off and sold them for extra cash; then grinned at our shocked expressions and explained they were simply born without them. About 20% of African elephants in the wild are born without tusks. We learnt some other facts about elephants. The largest land mammal in the world the African elephant can reach a height of 3.4 metres at the shoulder and can weigh around 6,300 kg, over 6 tonnes. In the wild elephants are active for 16-20 hours a day, covering large distances in search of food or water. So for the elephants at the centre their two walks a day are to stop them becoming completely lazy and complacent!
We also heard a few stories about the individuals in the herd. Jumbo is generally agreed to be the cleverest of the elephants, and the most stubborn. If he is given two tourists to carry while the others only have one he'll refuse to move. If all the biggest elephants have the extra passengers and the others don't, he won't move. If everyone has the same number of passengers, that's fair and he'll go along for the walk, or if everyone has two and he gets the lighter load, that's good too!
Eventually we all finished our breakfast and went into the auditorium to watch the DVD they'd made of our visit. I was surprised to see tiered seating and a huge widescreen TV attached to the wall. We sat in the mini cinema and watched part of a documentary on the centre followed by the film of our safari. The documentary was really interesting and showed us a lot more about the rescue and proctection work they do for the elephants. Our own starring role was amusing to watch although I think the elephants have more chance of breaking into Hollywood than we do! They are such wonderfully graceful creatures despite their size. They actually walk on their toes, their feet expanding to cushion their weight and allow them to move quietly. They also use their feet to feel vibrations and communicate over long distances, and are able to sense through the ground when something is about to happen. When the tsunami hit Asia in 2006 no elephants were killed as they had all left the dangerous areas long before it happened.
We ended our visit in the gift shop. I bought a copy of the DVD which I can't wait to show everyone at home. I also bought one of Janet's foortprints as a souvenir. The lephants make the footprints on paper with black children's fingerpaint, and all the money raised from the sales goes to the elepahnt keepers to pay for the elephants upkeep. It's really touching to see how much the people working with the lepahnts care for their charges. When someone asked what they do when the elephants die the man looked confused and said 'we have a funeral and bury them of course.' Sadly the ivory actually belongs to the government. I'd argue it belongs to the elephants and should be left with them even after they die, but at least these elephants can have long happy lives free from the dangers of poaching.
I came back to the hotel and had a long rest before my final excursion in Victoria falls. At 2.30pm I left for the 'Flight of Angels', a helicopter flight over the falls. I was driven to the helicopter pad and shown into the shop to present my ticket. I sat outside in the sun waiting to leave and was finally ushered towards the helicopter with a French family. I was rathe rannoyed when one of the French women deliberately hung back so she could get a window seat and I ended up in the middle, the only person without a clear window view. I decided to forgive her once we were in the air though as she constantly moved back so I could get photos.
The flight was only 13 minutes long but it was incredible. The sensation of taking off was unlike anything I have experienced before. It really felt like someone had bent down and picked us up like a child's toy. The ground quickly dropped away beneath us and I could see for miles across the town and the empty spaces of wilderness. I was astounded as we flew over the falls. It really is one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. The aerial view allowed me to see the full lenght of the falls and I could really appreciate their size and majesty. We flew around a few times so we could see the falls from different angles, but no matter which direction I was looking from the sight was breathtaking. It was truly wondrous and despite the short time it is a sight I know I shall remember always.
We landed back on the helipad and I hurriedly steeped away from the awful noise of the whirring propellors and took the taxi back to the hotel for the last time.
I enjoyed my final evening at the hotel. I made myself tea and sat on the balcony watching the sunset and listening to the evening birdsong, so much more exotic than at home. I met Rone in the hotel restaurant and we had dinner together and swapped stories about our activities from the day. It has been a perfect last day in Zimbabwe and I am only sorry I cannot stay longer!

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18th September 2009

Some adventure!
This is definitely a must-do for me. And hey, you still got some real good pics here, even if you were seated in the middle. ;) Am curious how much this all cost you. Send me a PM when you have time, will you? Need to save up for this trip . Good read.
22nd February 2010

Fantastic Writing
I love your posts and I can have enough. this particular one about traveling with the heard and flying with angels is exceptional and very descriptive. thanks for sharing with us your experiences. I know go on to the next entry.

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