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    Abby and Helene’s Excellent Safari Adventure

    By Abby Zimberg and Helene Wenzel–

    “Jody nailed every aspect of our dream trip. I am more than grateful to her for listening to what we were looking for and then bringing in an absolutely perfect group of ladies to share our experience. The laughs were endless and we were in awe more times than not. Samsung! Kernel! 14! TP Queen and G&T! … You all made the trip be the best ever!”

    —Shelley Childers

    This past August–September 2023, we went on a safari trip to Zimbabwe with Jody Cole, founder of Wild Rainbow African Safaris. Jody used to live in San Francisco, where she worked in philanthropy and fundraising. She first went to Africa in 1998 after a friend with AIDS asked her what she would do if she had only a month to live. Her answer: Africa. She realized that she could live her dream and decided to start Wild Rainbow African Safaris, in 2004 with Alison Hawthorne who had a travel business, Over the Rainbow.

    Left to right: Allison Fender, Jody Cole, Melissa Magann, Helene
    Wenzel, Shelley Childers and Abby Zimberg at Victoria Falls (2023)
    Photos by Abby Zimberg

    Jody told us for the San Francisco Bay Times, “Our first trip was in honor of Alison Hawthorne’s 50th birthday in 2004 to Kenya. And we just kept going. In 2005, Alison decided to pursue her many other careers so she gave me 100% of the company. I haven’t looked back since. She still manages our insurance and flights. I knew I wanted to create hands-on, personalized safaris for guests deliberately curated based on their specific dreams of Africa. I have not ever repeated one safari, ever, in 20 years. Each trip is unique to the group. I have been to Chad, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, and Madagascar.”

    When we were ready to go to Africa, she said that the trips for 2023 were full. She called back because she remembered that two women in South Carolina had contacted her wanting to go to Zimbabwe. Shelley and Melissa have two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs (aka African Lion Hound) and wanted to visit Rhodesia where this breed had been used for lion hunting and taming baboons. We agreed to join them, and another woman from North Carolina, Alison, joined as well. We named ourselves the Safari Six. All lesbian women made for a very compatible group.

    Zimbabwe had previously been named Rhodesia, after Cecil Rhodes, one of the British colonizers. The name Rhodesia was adopted in 1895 when it was a British colony. With its independence in 1980, the nation changed its name to Zimbabwe. The country, in a nutshell, has an oppressive government, rough roads except around the capital, and a large disparity between the haves and have-nots.

    Giraffe painting inside Nswatugi Cave,
    Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe

    First Stop: Victoria Falls

    After several very long flights from California, we met everyone in Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River cascades into spectacular waterfalls. For comparison, Vic Falls as they call it, is almost double the height of Niagara Falls and a mile wider. We walked the mile-long path with a guide, stopping at the 16 viewing points, including a rainforest where we got soaked. Jody had cautioned us to bring raingear … but there were no worries; the hot sunny section that followed each soaking dried us off very quickly.

    Our visit to Vic Falls ended with a spectacular sunset river cruise on the Zambezi River. There we saw hippos, which we learned do not swim but walk in the water. They open their huge mouths when they sense danger. We caught at least one photo of a large, gaping mouth! We also went to visit a small village of mud huts where we met the chief and his family and heard about their very simple lifestyle. One very interesting fact is that the kitchen is the place where everyone eats, women give birth, and people die. Bedrooms are in separate quarters and are very spare. The villagers also had a variety of beautiful crafts for sale. Of course, we all bought interesting pieces.

    Second Stop: Hwange Park

    Our next destination was Hwange Park, where we stayed at the Khulu Bush Camp. Each glamping cabin was raised on stilts for safety, had its own solar-heated water supply—and an air horn for emergencies! Because elephants and lions and baboons roam free in the park—there are no fences around the camps—we had to be escorted to our cabin each night by camp personnel, just in case … Hwange is known for its elephant herds. There was a large watering area within sight and another at the deck of the camp.

    The first afternoon we arrived, three different herds of elephants came up to the camp, almost close enough to touch. Each herd was a mixed group of huge bulls, slightly smaller females, and obviously very new babies. Interesting fact: Male elephants can drink 200 liters of water a day and eat 660 pounds of food; females consume about one third less. Their dung is used for many things, including fuel and floors, like the ones we saw in the Vic Falls village.

    The first game drive is always very early in the morning when it is cold, around 40 degrees. With a snack beforehand, we bundled up and piled into an open-air Jeep, Helene riding shotgun, with our excellent guide Rob. According to Jody, Zimbabwe has very stringent requirements for their guides, both driving and walking. In addition to our visiting elephants, there were many more elephant herds, warthogs, baboons, and zebras within close proximity. Also impalas, kudu, duikers, springbok, wildebeest, and several other members of the antelope family.

    Zebras at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

    There are many different beautiful and interesting species of birds in Africa. Both Rob and Jody shared information about each bird we saw, and Jody kept count on her app. By the end of eight days, with Jody consulting her app and Rob the bird book, we had seen and heard close to 100 different birds. Jody and Rob both pointed out animals, plants, and birds during frequent stops and gave us information about their habits and lifespans. It was biology, evolution, and nature all day long.

    During the day, it reached a toasty 90 degrees in the full sun. Because it is part desert, there is no moisture (dry as a bone) or clouds. That creates the beautiful Africa Sky at sunset. Speaking of sunsets, each day we stopped at around 5 pm for drinks, snacks, and to watch the setting sun. This stop interestingly is known as a “sundowner.”

    Following good British tradition, we were the gin and tonic drinkers. After a delicious dinner back at camp, we played a quiz game each night to see what we had remembered. Each night’s winner (she who had the most correct answers) was responsible for the next night’s questions. Jody provided some very interesting prizes.

    Third Stop: Matobo National Park

    After a four-hour long drive in a van from Hwange to Matobo National Park, we arrived at our last safari stop: Amalinda Lodge, owned by the same group as the Khulu Bush Camp. This area is surrounded by huge granite boulders formed over two billion years ago. Each unique lodge room, complete with raised bathroom and shower cut into stone, is completely built with these granite boulders, rocks, and wood. Use of hot water was limited to certain hours and was wood-fired.

    In 1902, Cecil John Rhodes, at his request (read orders) was buried in Matobo National Park, atop a granite boulder with a panoramic view of the park. He named his final resting place “View of the World.” Several of us climbed up to see his and other British soldiers’ graves marked by very large bronze plaques. Although Rhodes was an imperialist and more recently, a vilified and polarizing figure, Edward, our Matobo guide, indicated that Rhodes had contributed some good, including setting up Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and promoting education; the very prestigious Rhodes scholarship is named after him.

    Guide Jody Cole observing from a four-wheel drive safari vehicle

    On another day, we did a short hike up a gulley to see rock art painting in the Nswatugi Cave. The painters were the hunter-gatherer ancestors of the modern-day San people in Botswana. Upper layers revealed Iron Age and Stone Age objects.  

    Later, we trekked far on foot, searching for the white rhinoceros. The park guide was armed to fend off any poachers whom they are permitted to shoot if the poacher is armed. Otherwise, they can arrest them. The poachers are looking for rhino horns and elephant tusks sought by some people for various medicinal and ornamental uses. The poachers use snares to trap the majestic animals and cut off their tusks for sale. Many other, smaller animals are injured by these horrible devices. We visited a rehab organization for painted dogs (previously called wild dogs) where the dogs are housed if they are too injured, or released back into the wild once they heal from their injuries. We were finally successful in our rhino search—and were able to move close enough very quietly to a mother and her calf in order to photograph them.

    Melissa Magann, one of our Safari Six, said, “I didn’t know what to expect before we arrived but once we arrived my expectations were blown out of the water. The people were so nice, friendly, and welcoming. The lodges where we stayed were top notch, we didn’t lift a finger, and the food was amazing. We were told seeing animals was not guaranteed, but from the moment we landed, we saw elephants, monkeys, impalas, kudu, zebras, and many, many more.”

    “We were not disappointed at all,” Magann added. “Jody Cole did a fantastic job setting up the itinerary and ensuring that we were exposed to all that Zimbabwe has to offer. We are ready to go back. Our safari was made complete by having the best time with four complete strangers who will now be lifelong friends. The laughs and good times were too many to count.”

    After our last night at Amalinda, we all flew to Johannesburg and from there, the two of us and another couple went separately to Capetown for another four days of sightseeing. We came home with many great memories, some great purchases and COVID-19 as a final souvenir.

    Currently, Jody is working on building an organization, WISE: Women in Safari Excellence. The mission is to connect women in conservation and eco-tourism, and to empower and inspire through ongoing mentoring and support. According to Jody, these dynamic and likeminded women want to create a new and higher standard for guiding and conservation efforts in their beloved Africa.

    For more information:

    Abby Zimberg, MFA and LMFT, is an art therapist, graphic designer, and photographer. She is a regular contributor to the “San Francisco Bay Times.” Her website The Art of Therapy provides additional information:

    Helene Wenzel, JD and PhD, is a San Francisco-based estate planning and elder law attorney.

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