The next morning, we visited the tiny villages of Impalila Island, where among the many sights of local flora, we saw marvelous baobab trees with their gigantic trunks and spindly upper branches. At the island’s school, I donated a bag of supplies I brought from New York.
We walked on, and eventually reached the place where our guide explained that his cousin was killed by a crocodile a year ago. He was so casual with the story that I could only surmise that wildlife attacks are common here, yet his demeanor conveyed the lesson he and his family live with every day: defying the laws of nature has its consequences.
The next day we took a 10-person propeller plane bound for Kariba, Zimbabwe. The town exists thanks to the Kariba Dam, which was completed in 1959 to form the world’s largest man-made lake. It’s a surreal-looking lake, with skeletal treetops sprouting from the water’s surface, evidence that this once was a grassy valley.
Here we climbed on board the African Dream to make our home for three nights. With only eight rooms on one deck, lounges and dining room on another, and a spacious roof deck, the ship was truly dreamy. We set sail in time for a magnificent sunset on Lake Kariba, where only occasional fishing boats drifted by.
After the following morning’s breakfast, we took our seats on a smaller discovery vessel, which stays tethered to the African Dream when not in use. Our guide took us to inlets along the lake where we found great pods of hippos both on land and in the water, where their rounded ears and eyes bob like apples, scoping us out. Hippos are nocturnal, we learned, and are only aggressive if they feel their young are threatened.
We cruised slowly to a section of sandy shore that seemed to be strewn with driftwood. When we approached, however, we realized we were looking at dozens of crocodiles sunning themselves, in “crocodile alley,” the nook’s nickname. Some waddled into the water, including one massive croc who entered the lake just a foot from the stern of our boat, letting me see his mammoth head before he submerged.
Our guide pointed up to the ridge, where kudu nibbled leaves and were soon joined by a few elephants tromping through the treeline.
A similar experience followed the next day, on a game drive via jeep in Matusadona National Park (www.zambezi.com/locations/matusadonanationalpark). The park was established as a home for wildlife saved by “Operation Noah,” the six-year effort that rescued more than 6,000 animals from the valley flooded to form Lake Kariba. The park was less-traveled than Chobe, and seemed at least to me to be home to far more elephants. Thanks to our expert guide, we found zebras cautiously grazing near the water’s edge, where hippos slept on the muddy shore.
We cruised for three days, enjoying our game drives and an easygoing fishing trip (with two fresh catches for dinner), and got to learn about Zimbabwe’s fascinating history from a native-born crew member. But it was the tranquility that most enchanted me. Nature was infused into each day, and the Milky Way greeted us each night, like a starry blanket laid out by the cosmos.
On our final leg, our group flew into Victoria Falls, the touristy town serving the great national park. We checked into the sprawling Victoria Falls Safari Lodge (Tel: 263-83-284-3211. www.victoria-falls-safarilodge.com), then embarked on our grand-finale trek to Victoria Falls, one of the world’s largest waterfalls. On our Zimbabwean side of the falls, we could soak up prime views from 13 viewpoints along the mile-long trail. The falls stretched before us almost like an earthly reflection of the stars above, a long crevasse filled with light-catching droplets bathing the atmosphere.
Leaving the realm of nature for a busy city was tough, but thankfully it was a soft transition into beautiful Cape Town, South Africa. I knew after a week of jeeps I’d favor a bit of urban indulgence, so I checked into the luxurious Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa (Victoria Street, Camps Bay. Tel: 21-437-9000. www.12apostleshotel.com).
With views of both Camps Bay and the hotel’s namesake peaks (which are part of Table Mountain), there’s no rivaling vistas from the guestrooms, Azure restaurant, Leopard Bar, or gardens and pool area. Inside, the hotel’s cozy, lavish décor comes with an exceptional art collection featuring works by local artists. I booked an appointment in the serene subterranean spa, where a massage and soaks in the hot tub and saltwater flotation pool were my passage to physical relaxation.
In town, I got reacquainted with modern life at Victoria & Albert Waterfront, home to the stunning Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Silo District, S. Arm Road. Tel: 27-87-350-4777. www.zeitzmocaa.museum).
Winding down my visit to Africa, I found my last great meal during this journey at the LGBTQ-owned Raptor Room (79 Roeland Street, Tel: 27-87-625-0630. www.raptorroom.co.za), where I filled up on peri-peri chicken sliders (spicy!) and quinoa salad. Following local advice, I topped off my evening at the rooftop lounge of downtown’s Gorgeous George (118 St. Georges Mall. Tel: 87-898-6000. www.gorgeousgeorge.co.za). It’s a beautifully designed space filled with comfy furnishings and lots of leafy plants.
As I sipped my cocktail, I channeled the rich natural world of Southern Africa, a place where myriad natural adventures became an essential part of my life, and are just waiting for other intrepid travelers to experience and enjoy.