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Adventures in Zimbabwe
Within fifteen yards of the Land Rover, a pride of 14 lions is resting in the shade of the nearby thorn trees. The dominant male has a huge mane and looks as if he has walked straight off an MGM poster. There are five females and the rest are adolescents of both sexes. That's Zimbabwe for you. There's always a sense of adventure around the corner.
While South Africa has been cornering most of Africa's press coverage lately, there is another country nearby that the serious nature-lover, adventure-traveler, bird watcher and conservationist will find an absolute delight. It is Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, just north of the eastern edge of South Africa, and it has a tremendous amount to offer the visitor.
Several trips to Africa have made me realize that, when visiting that part of the world, it is a tremendous advantage to be traveling with a first-class tour operator. I guess that the extremely young or extremely daring might well be prepared to take the risk of booking with an "el cheapo" organization that doesn't worry too much about health or comfort, preferring to "go native" and take their chances. I have however heard enough stories -- and personally seen enough evidence -- of things that can and do go wrong to make sure that I travel in a way that will optimize the pleasure of my trip.
One only has to pass a single worn-out-ex-army-truck-converted-into-tourist-vehicle full of forlorn looking tourists broken down in the middle of the African wilderness to be grateful that one is traveling with an experienced operator with topnotch amenities and equipment. I've seen other groups heat-stricken in 100F-plus shadeless desert heat while their tour leader and indigenous driver scratch their heads in puzzlement, wondering what to do with an engine that has given up the ghost. The backblocks of Africa are not exactly filled with experienced mechanics or spare-part supermarkets.
Consequently, I have always enjoyed the peace of mind attained by traveling with organizations such as Abercrombie and Kent. There are a number of other outfits that use custom-built vehicles, the very best lodges and camps, and a staff who are more than just excellent guides (some are extremely knowledgeable in the field of botany, zoology and natural history as well).
The last time I visited Zimbabwe the country was in a sorry state. The government was in turmoil, the economy a mess, import restrictions were such that most of the things that a visitor needed were in short supply and out-of-control poaching ensured that game numbers were decreasing rapidly. Since then, politics and the economy have stabilized and the government has realized that tourism has major revenue potential. When the country was still called Rhodesia, there were 240,000 Europeans. 80,000 left during the troubles, but many have come back to what is now Zimbabwe, and many are adding their expertise to the growing tourist industry.
Zimbabwe has now established a very effective animal conservation program which includes an anti-poaching squad and specially trained anti-poaching army troops who are given authority to shoot to kill if poachers do not follow their orders.
On arrival at Harare airport, we are pleased to see a smiling guide holding up the yellow-and-brown Abercrombie and Kent board bearing our name. There is always an enormous sense of reassurance when one is met by expert hands. On the way to the hotel, one cannot help being impressed by the relatively high standard of style and cleanliness in the city. There are still some interesting relics of the colonial days when this was the country's largest city. Today it is still the powerhouse of Zimbabwe. People look happy and live with a sense of purpose.
Meikles Hotel in downtown Harare is another pleasant surprise, an excellent four-star hotel by any European standards, where we first realize what tremendous value Zimbabwe gives for the dollar. Having just been in Europe, we estimate that coffeeshop prices are around one-third of their average European equivalent. This assessment will be borne out by later shopping experiences.
Fully refreshed and rearing to go by the time the smiling A&K guide picked us up the next morning, we head for the airport to fly to Kariba. We travel on a modern, well-maintained Air Zimbabwe aircraft and this perhaps is the place to comment on the two Southern African airlines we experience: Air Zimbabwe and Air Botswana. It was only a decade or two ago that one would have real hesitations about flying such airlines. Cash was short, inexperienced pilots were rumored to be at the controls and one could not be blamed for feeling relieved, at flight's end, to have survived.
Though flying on many central African airlines is still equivalent to a game of Russian Roulette, today, at least in Zimbabwe and Botswana, the picture has changed entirely. Both Air Zimbabwe and Air Botswana use the very latest aircraft. Pilots are extremely experienced and capable and one no longer has the feeling that spare parts were made on a home lathe the night before.
Landing at Kariba, we are taken to the local marina where a launch is waiting to take us to Gache Gache Lodge. This is located on Zimbabwe's Lake Kariba, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world (created by damming the Zambesi River in 1960).
Kariba's 700 megawatt generators, placed in the 579 meter wide dam wall, power most of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The lake is now commercially fished and provides food and employment for locals as well as fish for the markets of Harare. But we are much more interested in the crocodiles and hippos that also inhabit these waters. Our boatman tells us about the twenty-foot-long man-eating crocodiles that infest the lake and I suddenly think what a great idea it would be to send some "Come Swim in Lake " cards to the people you like least! There are half a dozen politicians I can think of, and a few others, for whom such cards might be very appropriate!
Gache Gache Lodge is a classic example of the high standards found in the new generation of Zimbabwean quality game camps. Accommodations are excellent (small, individual African-style houses, open on the side facing the lake to maximize the breeze). The staff is friendly, the service first class and the management determined that each visitor will get the very best out of their stay. We can not understand how the food can be so good until we find out that the chef had worked in some of Harare's finest hotels. However, he is a dedicated fisherman, and the realization that he could spend his spare time doing battle with the elusive tigerfish (one of the world's best game-fish) was enough to persuade him to work at Gache Gache.
In the afternoon, we take a sunset cruise on the camp's speedboat. As we pass along the shoreline, the whole of Africa's wildlife appears to welcome us. Huge crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank flash toothy smiles that look as friendly as that of the wolf in Red Riding Hood. Warthog, the African native pigs made popular in Disney's Lion King, show their magnificent tusks and display their interesting habit of running with bushy-tipped tails as upright as radio-aerials. Our guide tells us that this is so the young warthog, following their parents when running through tall grass, can see the tail tips as markers.
Bushbuck, waterbuck, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, fish eagles and Egyptian geese all stop what they are doing momentarily and watch us pass, then go back to drinking, strolling or whatever had occupied their time as we arrived.
The piece-de-resistance is a pod of some 30 hippos that are socializing at a shallow spot in the lake. We stop our boat to watch them. Only their faces were above water, and every now and then one or another opens its mouth to the size of a small cave, letting out a loud call and showing huge teeth. They are so strong that these vegetarians have no trouble at all biting a sizable hole in a boat.
Our guide explains that, while hippos do not eat meat, they have no hesitation in attacking anything that they perceive as a threat. If you get between a hippo and the water, you are putting your life in danger. So is getting between a hippo and its baby. There is a short learning curve in Africa!
We return to the Lodge and to an excellent dinner. Then we "crash-out" into a deep sleep under the well-sealed mosquito-net that hung over our bed. As with most African safari camps, we are awakened early. At 6:30 am tea and coffee are brought to the cabin as our day is to begin with bird watching. Soon we are out on the water. There are shallow parts of Lake Kariba where the dead tree stumps still remain and it is here that all kinds of birds can be seen. My favorite is the lilac-breasted roller, an exquisitely colored bird with blue-green on its chest and wings. As it takes to the air, it creates a superb flash of vivid turquoise.
Jacanas, also known as lily hoppers, seem to defy logic as they walk from one water hyacinth leaf to another. Goliath herons, huge gray birds that are the biggest in the area, seem to sit around on tree stumps all day. So do giant fish eagles, but both are looking out for any sign of fish which will quickly convert into the bird's daily diet.
Cormorants and their cousins, known as darters (because they have straight, dart-like beaks with which they spear, rather than catch, their prey), run shuttles from treetrunk to the water, diving and often coming up with a fishy prize. Subsequently, they go back to the treetrunk, lifting their wings to dry as if they were stretching them over an invisible coathanger.
Now it is nine o'clock and time to return to Gache Gache. In Africa, game viewing takes place in the two periods when game is most active: early morning and late afternoon. Because of the heat, many animals tend to take a siesta from around 11:00 am to 4:00 pm We consider this a good idea, doing likewise on most days. But today, we return to the Lodge for breakfast and a quick shower to be ready for a drive to the local fishing village.
The trip to the village is a great bonus in that it shows us how the people around this part of Zimbabwe really live. The village is simple, and the whole life of the villagers revolves around the daily catch and the patch of vegetables under irrigation. We can't help noticing that the field, a swath of emerald green surrounded by the cardboard brown of the parched countryside, is encircled by an electric fence. "It's the buffalo that worry us" says one of the villagers. "They've broken into the vegetables a couple of times by pushing their young ones through the fence. Old buffalo are not stupid."
The next day we spend both morning and evening on the lake. In the morning we see a single hippo, knee deep in water-hyacinths, munching merrily away, and calculate that if they could bring in two million hungry hippos simultaneously, they might just be able to beat the water hyacinth problem. This time many new animals, including some handsome, long-tusked elephants are added to our checklist.
In the afternoon we again skirt the edge of the lake to see the beautiful, sleek-coated waterbuck playing in the shallows. Half an hour before sunset we head for a different area, past the houseboats and fishing boats of middle and upper-income Zimbabweans. We stop among the ghost-like branches of the trees and wait for the sun, now a golden-orange orb, to go down over the water. Miraculously, our boatman produces a bottle of gin and several bottles of tonic which we mix and sip as we watch the sun sink slowly in the west. This might sound like the grandmother of all clichÈs, but I can tell you that it's a sunset all of us who were there will remember to our final days.
The following morning we head back towards Kariba by launch to catch Air Zimbabwe's modern Fokker 50 to Hwange, the airport for Zimbabwe's largest national park. Here A&K have arranged for us to stay at Chokamella, another outstanding camp, located on the site of an old, worked-out gold-mine, on the edge of the protected game reserve. During the thirty minute drive to this camp we see elephant, bushbuck, squirrels and various other animals. We especially appreciate the fact that, five minutes before arrival, our driver has radioed ahead with our orders for various cold drinks. That's class!
As we drive into the campgrounds, we can see people repairing waterpipes. It is not until dinner however, that we find out the true story about what had happened. The drought in the area is so bad that the elephants came in to try and get a drink at all costs.
The elephants' first move was to drink all the water out of the swimming pool and, when they had done so, they could smell the water that was going through the concrete pipes, as it was pumped up from the underground aquifer. In their frenzy to get at the water, the thirsty elephants dug down some four feet until they could properly reach the pipe. They then proceeded to rip this up to get at the water.
Fortunately, there is enough in our room's individual tank for us to use, and within two hours the local staff have repaired the ruined piping. All in a day's work in Zimbabwe!
This camp is as user-friendly as the last, and again everything, even unlimited alcohol and laundry charges, are included. We are asked at what time we would like to use the showers, so that our hut's hot water boiler will be fired up when we need it. Like A&K's other game-park locations, the facilities are formidable. For a maximum of twenty guests Chokamella has twenty-eight staff, four guides and seven vehicles. This allows for specialists, whether they be driver-guides, cooks, housemaids or maintenance people. In other camps, a very small number of people often become Jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-none.
Tonight our guide, Elliot Nobula, takes us out on an orientation game drive. We see gentle giraffes moving across the landscape to nibble first on this treetop and then on that one. They have the strangest walk which, Elliot explains, is caused by the fact that these animals put down the two left feet one after the other, and then the two right in the same way. He also explains an interesting fact about Oxpeckers, the little birds that sit on the giraffes' manes and feast on ticks from the giraffes' long necks. It's not because they like the taste of the insect, but rather because they like the blood they contain.
We see many herds of elephants, and no wonder! Hwange National Park is 30,000 square kilometers/18,000 square miles in size and contains 20,000-30,000 elephants. The numbers are, in fact, getting to be an embarrassment. There are so many elephants that they play havoc with the vegetation, often breaking or uprooting a whole tree just to munch on one branch and move on. The government has, on several occasions, asked the UN to lift embargoes on ivory sales and has, since it has been able to almost halt poaching, accumulated vast warehouses full of tusks awaiting that day. In the meantime, however, the only way to stop a complete imbalance and deforestation in the Park is to cull about one percent of the elephant population annually.
Turning necessity into virtue, the Government now issues heavily policed and controlled hunting licenses to well-heeled hunters who pay around US $12,000 for a license to bag an elephant, and an extra US $1,000 per day for the mandatory hunting guides, vehicles and staff required for the exercise. I have never really figured out why people would want to shoot elephants, but then I can't figure out why people want to shoot people either.
Every few minutes, something new is pointed out to us: the way that the impala stop and look when a hyena appears on the horizon, a leafless bush in hibernation that nevertheless sends out trumpet-like flowers, the way baby elephants walk right under their mother's belly for protection shortly after they are born and much much more. We marvel at all this, humbled by the knowledge that, if we had seen exactly the same scene on our own, not ten percent of what Nobula had pointed out would have registered. Soon it is sunset, and we return to camp and dinner...and a good night's sleep.
6:00 am, it's still dark, and we are woken by the African room-maid bringing our wakeup pot of tea. Half asleep, we stagger into our clothes and head, bleary-eyed but eager, for the waiting Land Rovers. Our early morning game drive is about to begin.
The sun has only just crept over the horizon as we bump our way through the predominantly brown, drought-stricken African bush. There has been no serious rainfall in this part of Africa for three years and the ground is tinder-dry. Most rivers have dried up quite some time ago, and so has the waterhole for which we are heading.
Elliot knows every inch of the area and now, some thirty minutes after leaving camp, turns the four-wheel drive along a narrow track. "There's usually some big game at the end of this track," he says. "It's an old waterhole called Inyantue, and though it has been dry for a year now, many of the local animals are familiar with it and like coming here from force of habit. With a bit of luck we might see some lions."
The open-topped Land Rover is fitted with elevated benches on the back, and from these five of us are enjoying the view of the African countryside. The lack of rain has one major advantage. African vegetation is used to droughts, and plants protect themselves by shedding their foliage and going into virtual hibernation at such time. There is even one plant, the Zambesi Morning Glory, which throws out lovely white flowers, but does not have a single green leaf on the plant during the drought. This lack of foliage makes game-viewing much easier and more dramatic.
The couple from Sydney, sitting in front of me, are skeptical. This is their first time in Africa, and in the three days they have been in Zimbabwe, they have not yet seen a lion. "Can't imagine that there'd be any here if there's no water," the wife comments. "Wouldn't be surprised if we never saw any lions at all while we're here. The only ones I've ever seen are at the Sydney Zoo."
Two hundred yards further along, the Land Rover clambers over a rise, and descends to the dried-out waterhole. As we round an outcrop of rock, the driver suddenly slams on the brakes, bringing us to a prompt halt. In front of us is a pride of 14 lions, and they seem to be everywhere. Lions under the trees, lions along the rocks, lions on the path. And they're big! How will they react to our arrival? The woman in front of me turns white, draws in a gasp, grabs her husband's arm and, in a frightened whisper says, "Get me out of here."
Our driver-guide tells us to be very quiet and not to stand up or make any sudden movements. The dominant male lifts his head, looks straight at us, decides that we are neither an immediate threat or a recognizable dinner, and looks away, deciding to "treat us with ignore." The other lions, from the female hunters to the adolescents, are by this time sitting up from their lying position, or have stood up to get a better view of the new intruders on their scene.
They now take their cue from Big Leo and go back to their previous mode, some lying down to sleep, others just watching the landscape. The rest, especially the juveniles, playfully interact in movements that are clearly friendly now, but would easily turn into serious fighting or hunting if anything other than their own pride were involved.
Fascinated, we watch the lions for almost half an hour, during which they totally ignore us. The game here does not perceive vehicles to be any sort of danger. And, possibly because of the scent of the exhaust fumes, we don't give them the impression that we are edible. Elephants in the mating season or angry hippo might well charge us, but that is because of their mood or their perception that we might pose a threat. Apart from that, we are fairly safe. Of course, we must stay in the vehicle to neutralize the impression we make as individuals. If any of us were to get out of the Land Rover and walk away, it might not be long before we are reassessed as an unusual, but potentially delicious, appetizer.
On the following days' game drives, we manage to spot hippos, zebras, baboons, reedbucks, sable, eland, elephants, hyenas, impala, kudu and some fresh leopard tracks in the sand.
Another interesting experience is when Elliot takes us up into an observation hide to watch animals coming to the waterhole. We are just watching an elephant chase a crocodile that has come too close when we hear a racket going on behind and below us.
Previously, we had noticed the posters warning visitors not to feed the animals or leave any food around. We had heard stories about elephants crunching a parked Mercedes underfoot, driven almost crazy by hunger and the smell of a large bag of bananas which had been left inside the car.
The story comes to mind when we realize that the racket is coming from the toilet located at the back of the hide at ground level. A family of baboons are anxiously hanging around the closed door while the sounds of crashing and banging inside the toilet continue. Elliot runs downstairs and positions himself at the door in such a way that he can leap out of the way the minute he turns the handle. Then he opens it and jumps out of the way.
Just as well! As the door swings open, a very large baboon comes roaring out at full pace and disappears down the road as if rocket-propelled. We look inside the toilet and gasp. The baboon has trashed the toilet to the point of ripping the washbasin and toilet off the wall, then smashing both of these into small pieces of pottery. A tourist had left a bag with banana peels in the toilet's trashcan, the baboon had smelled this, gone in after it, and inadvertently closed the door behind himself, so becoming automatically locked in.
Returning to camp we reflect that Zimbabwe is all we had hoped for when we dreamt of an African photo-safari. There is none of the feeling of ersatz game viewing that one might get in a lion park or even in some of the South African game parks that began as farmland and where animals from overstocked game parks were relocated.
Zimbabwe is the real Africa and one certainly hopes that it will stay that way.
The next morning we leave Hwange for Victoria Falls, one of the world's most spectacular natural wonders. Here we will encounter more surprises, and some rip-roaring adventures. But that's another story.
Air Zimbabwe will fly you to Harare from London in their modern Boeings, with excellent service. Alternately, one can take the Air Zimbabwe service from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Best time to go:
Any time, except the rainy season, which is usually from late November to late March.
Zimbabwe is one of the safest countries in Africa and you are much less likely to run into any trouble than in countries like South Africa, Uganda or Angola. If you are traveling with a top operator, you should have no problems whatsoever.
A wide-brimmed hat, comfortable cotton clothes, sunscreen, camera and plenty of film, comfortable walking shoes and the medication you are likely to need. Check with your doctor as to which type of Malaria tablets are recommended and start taking these before your trip, as per your doctor's instructions.
Best Hotels in Harare:
Harare Sheraton, Meikles Hotel or the exclusive Imba Matombo Luxury Lodge.
One of the best adventure operators for boating, rafting and bungy-jumping is Shearwater Adventures, Phone: Harare (236-4) 757831, Fax (263-4) 757836. At Victoria Falls, Phone (263-13) 4471, Fax (263-13) 4341.
Wine and canoe trip is operated by:
Zambezi Canoe and Safari Company, Shop 14, Sopers Centre, Parkway Drive, Post Bag 5931, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Africa (263) 132058/9, Fax (263) 132058.
For more Information:
Abercrombie & Kent
1250 Kensington Road
Oak Brook, Illinois, 60521-2141, USA
Phone: (708) 954.2944
Fax: (708) 954.2814
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.