“Do you smell it?”
The guide asked the sisters as he drove them through the African bush, the reeds of the savanna swaying back and forth along the elevated cab of the jeep. They were in Zimbabwe, on their way from the airport to Linkwasha Camp after a stay at Victoria Falls.
“What I thought he was saying was ‘mint. Do you smell that mint?’” Cindy explained. “And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t.’ But what he was really saying was meat.”
“The lions had just killed a wildebeest,” said Rhonda. Their guide was asking if they could smell the kill.
Before even arriving at their first camp, the sisters saw elephants, zebras, a butchered wildebeest and the hungry lioness who had felled it. That lioness was so close to the jeep, Cindy recounted, that she could have touched her fur. It’s rare to see a lion kill on safari, but, by the time the sisters had left Linkwasha, they had seen three.
“The lion is looking at me,” Cindy said. “And I don’t know if I should look at the lion directly, or not look at the lion. And [the guide] is saying, ‘Sit still. It’s ok.’ And the lion is right there.”
The idea that they should visit Linkwasha, or go to Zimbabwe at all, was the work of Classic Africa, a safari company founded by Pierre Faber and Margaret McCutcheon Faber in a tiny rural town of 18th- and early-19th-century houses at a bend in the Connecticut River, 25 miles from the mouth into Long Island Sound.
Pierre Faber, a native South African, holds a PhD from Oxford in business administration. Margaret McCutcheon Faber has a PhD from Oxford in cultural anthropology. Classic Africa has organized this sort of tour in southern and eastern Africa for two decades.
The sisters planned a trip to Africa after their mother died last June as a way to lift their father’s spirits. “It’s something our mother would never have done,” Rhonda said. Their mother was an anxious traveler, uninterested in wildlife, but their father, Carlos, had taken up photography in retirement and was excited to venture out and take pictures of wildlife.
By way of several conversations with the sisters and three iterations of the itinerary – typical for Classic Africa’s clients – they settled on spending the bulk of the two week trip in Zimbabwe, a less popular safari region.
“There are people who are looking to go into remote areas – that’s always a rationale for Zimbabwe,” Pierre said. “It’s a big country with a relatively small population, and there’s pristine wilderness areas .… Very good wildlife.”
Though the country has “a bad brand,” as Pierre put it, the Fabers said safaris in Zimbabwe tend to be more interactive and immersive, in part because of how well the guides are trained. It takes seven years of apprenticeship to become a guide in Zimbabwe, and only in Zimbabwe and Zambia are the guides knowledgeable enough to take the safari out of the jeep and on foot.
Carlos, Cindy and Rhonda texted back and forth as the trip neared. They discussed the packing list and their strategies for fitting their heavy camera equipment and many clothes within the allotted 44 pounds of luggage per person.
“[The packing list] said you should bring a wool hat,” Cindy said. “I thought, ‘Why in the world, in Africa, would I need a wool hat?’ I’m from upstate New York. But I put it in there anyway.”
Just five days before they were to depart, Carlos, who is in his eighties, broke his leg, twisting it as he was turning to leave a reception. He was unable to travel, but insurance covered his portion of the trip, and he encouraged his daughters to go to Africa without him.
Rather than a vacation, in the family’s eyes, the trip was a scouting mission for when they could return with their father.
Soon after, the sisters were off, touching down in Cape Town, South Africa on May 13. They arrived on the night of a huge rugby match that brought throngs of people into the streets. In the morning, when the streets had cleared, they could see the table top mountains framing the city, the ridges of which were lined with “pine trees that look like fractals,” Rhonda said.
In Cape Town, they ate mushroom creme brulee, one of 12 courses at FYN, a fusion Japanese-African restaurant called one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, and drove down the coast, visiting vineyards and the endangered African Penguin colony featured in the Netflix show “Penguin Town.”
“When I posted the video of the penguins walking, [Carlos] said, ‘All the penguins are saying ‘Where’s Carlos?’” Cindy said with a laugh.
After three days in the city, it was off to see Victoria Falls, which spills over the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. The pair arrived at The Victoria Falls Hotel in time for afternoon tea – sponge cake served on silver trays and, just outside, they could see a railroad bridge that connected either side of the Zambezi River. The British-built hotel opened in 1904 and is a favorite of diplomats, royalty and other politicos. Rhonda said the whole place “oozed colonialism.”
For a better view of Victoria Falls, the sisters took a helicopter ride. The altitude allowed them to, as Rhonda said, get “above that mist” formed as the thundering water meets the river, which can obscure the fall’s massiveness from the ground.
The next day, the sisters left for Linkwasha, purportedly just missing the Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The sisters arrived at the campground in the evening and were escorted to tented rooms with sliding glass doors and solar panels that Cindy said were more like “soft-sided villas.” Boardwalks snaked through the grass to connect each tent.
The following morning, staff woke the sisters for a game drive by Jeep at 5:15 a.m. In the cool morning air, Cindy said she quickly found out why the packing list asked her to bring a wool hat, and she was happy she listened.
A herd of cape buffalo ran across their path in a cloud of dust, followed by a pride of 17 lions. The sisters looked on as the lions killed two juvenile buffalo. And that was just the first 10 minutes of the drive, before the clock struck six.
All the camps followed a similar routine: an early rise, a morning game excursion of some sort during which guests would stop to have tea and cookies amongst the animals, maybe at a popular watering hole or in the middle of a grassy field where animals grazed, which the guides called “a golf course.” At sunset, there were cocktails. They drank gin and tonics.
At Linkwasha, Rhonda took a bushwalk on foot. These are more dangerous than normal jeep safaris, and the guide carried a rifle with elephant bullets as big as Rhonda’s thumb. The guide told Rhonda, “we’re going to need to be quiet. I need you to follow my body language.” In case anything went awry, he taught her how to use the two-way radio to call for help.
Almost immediately upon setting out into the acacia forest, the pair encountered a mother elephant and her calf just 50 feet away. Elephants’ smell is more sensitive than their sight, so the guide situated Rhonda and himself downwind and carried a shaker of ash to mask their human scent.
“But then more elephants kept appearing.”
For a time, she watched elephants bang their heads on the acacia – the trees would shake, their pods would dislodge, and the elephants would make a meal picking the pods that had fallen to the ground.
“We were like ‘Ok, we’re shielded from these elephants, but those elephants can smell us … We were getting surrounded by elephants, so we had to make a hasty retreat out of the forest.”
To be in the bush so close to a large animal like an elephant is, by most accounts, an exciting experience, but it’s also a risk — not only for tourists, but for those who co-exist with the animals everyday. Lions eat livestock, elephants eat crops, and both can kill a person, explained Pierre.
“It’s very hard living alongside those animals, and if those animals don’t have value to [the local people], they’re going to kill them,” he said. Through safari, however, conservation of the animals starts to make economic sense: “The animals now have financial value to the local community, because pretty much every camp that we work with has some kind of relationship with the local community.”
Pierre said some camps share profits with surrounding communities. At others, the local communities own the land and lease it to the camps for a price. The camps also create local jobs and buy local produce, “so there’s a lot of money that is going straight back to the local villagers,” he said. “You’re getting conservation and community upliftment at the same time. And that’s critical. It doesn’t work if you don’t have those elements.”
By the time the sisters left Linkwasha for Ruckomechi Camp four days later, they had seen sables, hippos and giraffes. Baboons were everywhere, as were birds, their favorite an African yellow-billed Hornbill, sometimes called a flying banana for its striking, banana-shaped beak.
At Ruckomechi, which sat next to a river, elephants frequented past the sisters’ rooms as they made their way to the banks to drink and play. Over their three days at the camp, they saw crocodiles, hippos and an elephant in the river that “didn’t want to get his tail wet,” keeping it arched above the water as it waded through, Cindy said.
The last camp, Tembo Plains, was the most luxurious and also the most focused on conservation. The room here had 15-foot carved wooden doors, a huge dining room table, a plunge pool and a butler, but because the camp had been a hunting ground, the wildlife was more scarce, and the animal populations have not yet recovered from the days when hunters stalked Tembo Plains’s grounds. The animals that do live in the area are understandably wary of humans and their vehicles.
“This is another great thing about the photographic safari industry is that, as it succeeds, it pushes into areas that used to be used for hunting and expands this non-consumptive version of tourism,” Pierre said.
On one of their last days at Tembo Plains, the sisters saw a lion cub, maybe four months old, with its mother. “And the guide was really excited because they had seen the cub once before, a couple of weeks after it was born, and they thought it wasn’t going to make it,” Rhonda said, but the cub appeared healthy.
“People that do get moved by Africa, which is almost everyone, they get a little bit of an addiction to it,” said Margaret. And despite the 24 hours of travel it took to get to southern Africa, the sisters said they plan to return with their father in tow.
“I think we got bit by the bug,” Rhonda said. “We love the photography, but also the quality of the guides, and what we learned about the nature.”
You can find out more about Classic Africa safaris here
Editor’s note: Neither CT Examiner, nor the editor or his family were compensated for this travel or story