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Last week, I took a trip down to Hwange National Park in the south-western corner of Zimbabwe. I went to check out the newly renovated lodge, The Hide, and see for myself what Hwange is all about. With colleagues on the 9 hour drive down, we discussed the paradox of tourism. In so many places in the world, our impact as over-active, demanding and short-sighted bi-pedals is evident in the slow whittling away of biodiversity and environmental splendour. Increasingly, the places which are left to nature are little islands under siege by human activity. I’m certain that many a conservationist has heard himself muttering about “pesky tourists” under his breath as he tries to ensure that predators are not disturbed on the hunt by fleets of zebra-striped minibuses pursuing them across the plains. And yet, in our world today, is it possible that these wildlife enclaves could survive without the vital funding that tourism brings? I think of park fees often as a tax to maintain roads, pay the salary of the guy that collects the fee, and ensure there are nice signs around the place. I seldom think that if I didn’t pay my fee animals might die and people might not be able to put food on the table for their families. In 2005 (when Zimbabwe was already struggling through farm invasions and hyper-inflation), there was a terrible drought. Hwange National Park was slowly losing its lifeline as tourist numbers hit the floor and from around 45 safari camps in the good times, Hwange was now relying on income from just 10 little ones. At its peak, there were 1000 people employed by Parks and hundreds of others within the private safari camps. Hwange National Park is nearly 15,000km² with an estimated 20,000 elephants in addition to hundreds of thousands of other animals. A big bull elephant needs around 200 litres of water per day and as you can imagine, it’s not a matter of first come, first served when you weigh as much as five landrovers. During that drought, elephants dominated the available water holes, trunks held to the pipe pumping vital water from the ground. Still, over 1000 elephants died because there simply wasn’t enough to go around. Herds of buffalo and other animals would walk miles to a waterhole only to find it dry. Desperate scenes were witnessed as animals had to turn away to start their search afresh while others, too depleted to go on, simply lay down to die. However, the silver lining to all this is tourism. As Gary Cantle (man on the ground for Friends of Hwange) said, “the biggest threat to Hwange is no tourists”. The ten waterholes currently only just being maintained by charitable donations to The Friends of Hwange, are the life-blood of the park. They require $5000 per month in fuel but wind and solar are slowly replacing the diesel engines, making a more sustainable investment. When travellers return to Hwange to see this amazing wilderness and to enjoy the selection of picturesque camps there, they will be directly ensuring the survival of the wildlife within its borders, and the Zimbabweans who work there. Now if that isn’t a feel good factor, I don’t know what is. So come and visit Hwange or buy a round for just $10 which will provide water for 400 elephants for a day. For more information on the good work of the Friends of Hwange, visit their web-site on www.friendsofhwange.org. For information on safaris to Hwange, visit our new Zimbabwe page on www.naturalhighsafaris.com.
Volcanic ash has had something of a bad press this last week, but, at the risk of sounding controversial, I thought I’d stand up for what seems to have become something of a pantomime baddie. This has more to do with plains than planes, but in Tanzania - and the Serengeti in particular - it's no exaggeration to say that without volcanic ash, there'd be no wildebeest migration at all.
Now I don’t want to bore you with (my sketchy knowledge of) the detail on exactly how and when the Serengeti was formed (although you can read that here if you’re interested). Save to say that much of the area around the Southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area is predominantly vast sweeping plains of volcanic ash. What’s important is that the ash has two properties in particular that explain why the wildebeest migrate. Firstly, it’s rich in nutrients like phosphates. Secondly, it's a similar consistency to a cereal like Grape Nuts. In the same way that when you pour milk onto your cereal it all goes to the bottom of the bowl, so the plains struggle to hold much surface liquid. During the dry season there are no rivers, no lakes no water holes. These become dry, dusty and barren areas. But, once it rains there is the most dramatic transformation and the plains are carpeted in phosphorous-rich grasses as far as the eye can see. So juicy and tempting are these grasses that wildebeest willingly throw themselves across croc-infested rivers in the Northern Serengeti and travel hundreds of miles to get there. And, if they had their way, and it didn’t turn dry and dusty once the rain stopped, then this is where they’d stay year round. And having just come back from this exact area with my family last week (missing the Icelandic volcano by a day) I can see why. When it’s green, this is quite simply some of the most epic and staggeringly beautiful scenery I know anywhere in the world. Free from people and rules, and with limitless horizons, it’s like the Garden of Eden. And to my mind it contains a lovely paradox that explains in part why so few people go here. If it hasn’t rained, then just like the wildebeest, you don’t want to be there. It’s a conundrum that we find difficult to explain to people sometimes – “it’s likely to be raining, but we still recommend you go”, but I guess it boils down to the fact that things aren’t always straightforward; sometimes rain isn’t a bad thing. A bit like volcanic ash.
On a completely different note, for any of you who have been lucky enough to visit Greystoke in Mahale or Chada in Katavi National Park over the years (and if you haven't then you absolutely have to make a plan to do this as soon as possible), you might be interested to know that Roland and Zoe Purcell (who built both these camps in the wild west of Tanzania) have now transferred their attention to a stunning part of the wild Donegal coastline. On a walk about in 1966, Roland's Dad found a tiny cottage clinging to the coastline. Today, Roland has upgraded the accommodation by putting in such luxuries as...erm, a kitchen and some doors on the house and if you're lucky, you can stay there and experience one of the wildest places in Europe for your self. This place is wild, wild, wild and not for the faint hearted - have a look at their blog and drop Zoe an email if you'd like to hear more.
Carmina Burana under the stars... hi-tech juggling from the States and Capella from the UK...Scandinavian and Chinese circus and flute recitals...Malian, Senagalese and Camaroonian maestros...South African rappers...African-American “steppers”....dance, song and art exhibitions... Surely this can’t be Zimbabwe?! Well, actually, it is. In ten days, Harare will pretty much grind to a halt as the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) comes to town. Founded in 1999 by artistic director Manuel Bagorro, the festival has ravished Harare for 11 years. Each year there is a theme around which the performances are hinged and this years’ is aptly titled “About Face”. High profile performers from all over the world are hand-picked by Manuel who tours the international events looking for the best. Over 100 acts create a melting pot of modern and traditional, classical and contemporary, international and local. The festival is a highlight in the calendar. Carmina Burana (from Spain's La Fura dels Baus theatre company - responsible for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics) opens the festival on 27th April on the Global Stage in the gardens in the centre of town, under the African sky. Local theatres host other performances and there is a wide choice of free shows that everyone can enjoy. The tickets for the main acts go for no more than $15 making it pretty accessible. So popular is the festival that many tickets are sold out within a day of the box office opening. Local corporates, NGOs and diplomatic missions sponsor the event which is entirely non-profit. So...I’m off to fill my diary with opera, Hamlet (abridged and performed in Shona), a puppet show, The Hothouse Flowers and the Shanghai Circus, to name but a few. I’ll let you know how it went.
Travel and tourism has always had a close relationship with environmental and social issues, for better or worse. Media coverage of some of the main issues over the last five or so years (“how green is your holiday? etc) have led to initiatives to reduce the footprint we leave on the Earth when we go exploring. You might be asked to donate towards reforestation to offset the carbon emitted when you fly or choose to stay in an “eco-lodge” where everything comes from local producers and sustainable sources. I must admit to thinking in the past that we appoint governments to manage this sort of thing and that my individual choices wouldn't really add up to more than a token gesture. After the last few months of travelling around Zimbabwe and meeting people in the industry, it is very apparent that the decisions that we make as individuals are critical in preserving our environmental heritage and can go far in helping people who are poor or suffering. This is especially true where the regulatory bodies are not functioning that well. By way of example, Mana Pools National Park, one of five World Heritage sites in Zimbabwe is heavily subsidised by the safari operators and camp owners in the area. Through the Tashinga Initiative, operators help to fund training, equipment and salaries for game rangers, develop management plans, improve infrastructure and contribute to community outreach programmes. This doesn’t come cheap and is entirely voluntary. In Zambia, operators have clubbed together to form the South Luangwa Conservation Society and the North Luangwa Conservation Project which invests in community and conservation projects. Around $10 per person per night goes directly to these initiatives. The safari operators that we try to promote are well aware that their future rests on the effective management of natural resources and treat them as they would any company asset; they invest in maintaining roads, in educating communities in environmental awareness, and in anti-poaching projects. Critically, they also employ people, giving them an income based on keeping wildlife alive and trees in the ground. Recently there was a debate hosted by The Times online about the ethics of a holiday to Zimbabwe. I followed the discussion with interest and afterwards, asked the people that I met around and about what they felt about it. Did they think that things would improve if people showed their lack of support for the current government by boycotting Zimbabwe or would they prefer if people visited the country (and risk adding pennies to the government’s coffers)? Overwhelmingly, the answer was “please come!”. People need the jobs and support of the international community more than ever and if you make the right choices, you will be investing directly in the preservation of this country’s valuable resources and the lives of its people.