CATONSVILLE, MD ( October 3, 2016) – Charlestown retirement community resident Diane Lyons just returned from a vacation trip 7,650 miles from home where she zip-lined at Victoria Falls and mingled with lions and elephants in Africa.
The trip was one of several excursions offered by Charlestown's Special Trips Department and one that Diane, a seasoned traveler, just couldn't pass up. Residents Katy Houghton and Jun Szalkowski joined her.
"I have lived overseas and traveled to Europe, but I had never thought about going to Africa before," says Diane, who moved to Charlestown from Severna Park in 2014. "When I saw the flyer for the safari trip, I said, 'That's for me.' It just hit me that that's what I wanted to do."
Ellie Butler, special trips coordinator at Charlestown, organized the excursion. "It's my job to take the worry out of traveling so the residents can focus on enjoying themselves," says Butler, who is an in-house travel agent of sorts. "We usually take between eight and ten trips each year, but Africa is the farthest we have ever gone."
This unconventional trip, which spanned four countries in just two weeks, began in Johannesburg, South Africa, and then headed northward to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana.
"Victoria Falls was amazing!" says Diane, who zip-lined across a gorge 393 feet above the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. "The other ladies went on a helicopter ride above the falls. I decided to try something even more daring. I think the others who were there with me were wondering what on earth this older woman was doing zip-lining. It was fun. It went so fast, you just speed along. The whole thing felt like it only lasted a few seconds."
The world's largest water fall, Victoria Falls is known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Described by native tribes in the 1800s as Mosi-oa-Tunya or "The Smoke That Thunders," the towering sheet of falling water is nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls.
Diane's appetite for adventure didn't stop there. Almost daily, the Charlestown travelers took chaperoned four-wheel-drive expeditions into the African bush to search for what's commonly known to game hunters as the Big Five: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros.
"We would go early in the morning looking for different animals. Then we would come back to the lodge, relax for a bit, and go out again in the afternoon," says Diane. "On one of the outings we were driving along and there were these lions walking right beside the car. They seemed to ignore us completely like we weren't even there, but I think had we gotten out of the vehicle we would have been lunch. Another evening we had a leopard walk right in front of the car. It was really incredible!"
But for Diane, an elephant ride was the highlight of the whole trip.
"We climbed aboard these elephants that had a driver who sat right behind the elephant's ears," says Diane. "We rode for about 30 minutes. After a while you really got into the rhythm of it. Afterward, we were allowed to get close to them. The one I rode on knelt down so I could sit on her knee and we fed them biscuits. It was really amazing to be so close to this massive animal. I just loved it!"
The accommodations throughout the trip were destinations unto themselves.
"One of the lodges we stayed at in Zimbabwe, called The Stanley and Livingstone Safari Lodge, had a 6,000-acre private game reserve," says Diane. "I could look out from my suite and watch the giraffes walk across the open field. Another place we stayed in Zambia was on the river and had a private porch where you could watch the hippos below in the river. It was wonderful!"