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The safety briefing for our Zambezi white water rafting experience was conducted by Colgate – a river guide full of bluster and attitude, who’s pearly-whites flashed regularly at the motley crew in front of him. Colgate described the variety of false-moves that Tommy Tourist could make which would inevitably result in tears, and how (preferably) these might be avoided. “If you go for a swim, head for the safety kayaker and grab onto the handle. If the kayak is inverted, do not sit on the bottom” (visions of the kayaker frantically cart-wheeling his arms in the murky water while trying to dislodge Tommy from his boat). Having been divided between the boats, our assorted collection of travellers (American, Aussie, Japanese etc. from 16 to 70 years old) descended the gorge on foot and followed a series of drills in a calm bend of the river. In different ways, each member of our crew displayed their varying degrees of anxiety at the prospect of facing rapids sporting names like “Oblivion”, “The Devil’s Toilet Bowl” and “Commercial Suicide”. Dudley, our 70+ year old was full of fighting talk while Mio was quiet as a mouse, listening intently. Jacqueline from Australia giggled hysterically. The scenery of the Batoka Gorge below Victoria Falls is spectacular; sheer, cubic black rocks fall from the sky to the river which navigates an extreme series of hairpin bends where rapids are interspersed by eerily calm stretches. Depending on the time of the year, you start rafting at The Boiling Pot right below the Falls or as far along as rapid 4 or 11. Between September and November you can expect general carnage – lots of grade 4 and 5 rapids and the likelihood of airborne people jettisoned from flipping rafts. From December to March, the river is more mellow and the adrenalin-factor more moderate. June to August can be either pretty tame or quite manic depending on the water levels
The Creamy White Buttocks is named for the countless ill-prepared rafters who have lost their shorts whilst negotiating this rapid. We faced it with whoops and laughs as our boat was tossed around like a rubber duck on the white boiling water. After this, minefields of eddies and whirlpools, standing-waves and cavernous depths tackled our boats while we laughed at the others who took a swim and rescued our recently made friends loyally from the Zambezi. Returning home flushed with sun and exhilaration of our day on the river, the autopsy of our experiences and dissecting of our collective memories will no doubt take a great deal longer. Find out more about Victora Falls. Image courtesy of Wild Horizons
The sleepy hamlet that is Victoria Falls town came alive this weekend as several hundred athletes and hangers-on descended for the annual marathon. People from all over the world, all shapes and sizes, and athletic capability turned out in whooping, excitable groups as the early morning sun shone through the spray from the Falls. Admittedly with very little training, I had only decided to do the half marathon two days earlier...not ideal. The course was beautiful with the first leg being out along the bridge to the Zambian side, with views over the Falls and the cavernous mouth of the Batoka Gorge and majestic Victoria Falls Hotel. Then, out along Zambezi Drive towards the Big Tree, the road made safe from elephants by numerous game scouts. A few kilometres of running into the Park before looping back round to town. Amongst the crowd were local runners, lean and muscular who ran like the wind at a pace inconceivable to mere mortals. I ran alongside a Zimbabwean woman for a brief stint (and the sight of African women running is not all that common) out of sheer curiosity at her bravery; she was running the full marathon in bare feet. A Canadian lady was sporting a pair of Vibram Five-fingers - an impossibly ugly set of foot-gloves that protect your soles while creating the feel of barefoot running. Most impressively, several local competitors completed the race in bone-shaking wheel-chairs. Amongst the runners were the "Zambezi Man" competitors. Over the last two days, they had rafted 50km of the fiercest rapids the Zambezi has to offer (some grade 6), and then ridden over 100km on their mountain bikes through the bush and sand to finish up with a marathon. As they eased their aching muscles with cold beer at the boat club this evening, I learned of the various tales of personal achievement that had been reached. One man had only ridden his bike three times before tackling the Zam-Man. Another already has sixteen Comrades' Marathons (87km) under his belt (pity his long-suffering wife who spends family holidays in good spots for hill-training and little else). Victoria Falls on any day of the week is a hub for people wanting to do crazy things but on days like today, it is a testimony to the indomitable spirit of folk. Tomorrow I will be trying to find my indomitable spirit (which I think I carelessly mislaid somewhere) as I head out to tackle the white water of the Zambezi myself. Everyone I've spoken to says (in typical Zimbo slang) that the river is quite "cheeky" at the moment...
Once upon a time, before we got all smart and chose to shape the environment to our needs, we were just another species that had to learn to survive everything that nature threw at us. We were probably less soft, pink and hairless, and had slightly more impressive teeth and claws. The knowledge we inherited from our forbears included fewer instructions about how to work the microwave and one or two more useful tips about how to nail a mammoth. We spent our days beetling about in search of our next meal rather than recumbent in a squishy couch playing X-box. How times have changed. But some humans have not sloughed off the knack of living by their wits and in depleting numbers, a few races of people still live as nature once intended – rather more at one with the earth. The San people of the Kalahari are one such tribe. San is the generic term for a collection of kinship groups, sometimes referred to as Bushmen that are found in parts of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. They trace their ancestry back over 20,000 years and have left their legacy painted in bile and pigment on the rocks of Africa; scenes of hunts, spoor depicted alongside their respective animals for teaching purposes, records of the arrival of white people in pith helmets with ox-wagons. No one else in their right mind calls the Kalahari home and it is no small feat to subsist in this hostile landscape. As semi-nomads, the San move with the seasons, their destinations determined by the availability of food and water. It’s hard to imagine that there are still people whose street knowledge includes how to concoct lethal poison from bits of a tortoise, which stunted and desiccated shrub will yield a juicy tuber, and remembering where one buried an ostrich egg filled with water a few months ago. It rather puts a trip to Tesco in perspective. San folk are lively, cheerful and kind and place a high value on family (particularly children), gift-giving and story-telling – told in their largely unwritten “click” language. Their deep understanding of the environment and its inhabitants goes beyond textbook stuff; hunters are so tuned to the psychology of their prey that they can follow animals where the spoor has long since vanished and still come up with the goods. Walking in the footsteps of the San is a unique privilege and puts a completely different slant on Africa and its wildlife. Look at safari ideas that include time spent among the San. See camps that work closely with the San. Look for more information on the Kalahari.
I was speaking to the guys from Nomad the other day and they were telling me about an interesting conundrum they've had to deal with recently. One of the main attractions around Chada Camp is the elephant who regularly drift through camp hoovering up the seed pods from the various large shady trees that the camp is built under. These eles are usually polite and well behaved; they've been coming here for ever and the presence of the camp is of little interest to them. But recently they've been causing problems by tearing the canvas fly sheets of the Chada tents. At first it was assumed this was an accident, although elephant are well known for their dexterity and often happily pick their way between guy ropes with no trouble, so it did seem unlikely. A tailor was called for who meticulously sewed up the fly sheets. But sure enough, just a day or so later, it happened again. This pattern was repeated several times, until the guilty elephant was caught - "red trunked" - resting his tusks on the taught flysheet at the back of the tent and gently pushing down to rip the canvas. Clearly no accident, so what on earth was he up to? The guys in camp went over and over this, but there seemed to be only one possible answer; They like doing it. And it seems as though the noise that the ripping canvas makes is just too much to resist (bubble wrap anyone?)... Seems like a reasonable explanation, but that left quite a challenge for the camp crew. There's only so much sewing up that you can do. So what is the solution? This is where I think it gets particularly good: the solution they have come up with is to replace the torn sections of the flysheet with strips of canvas held in place with...wait for it...velcro. Job done, the elephant still gets the very satisfying noise of the tearing velcro and it's a simple job to patch up when they get bored. I have a feeling this may not be the last installment of this story, but will keep you posted.
Fourth week of August... African wild dog (sometimes known as painted dog or Cape hunting dog) occupy an almost mythical status in many parts of Africa. Local people are fearful and superstitious, holding them responsible for livestock deaths which are often the work of hyena or lion. Their intriguing markings, each one unique as a fingerprint, and intimate social structure together with impressive hunting success rate makes them a fascinating creature to watch. Furthermore, they are amongst the most endangered carnivores in the world with fewer than 5,000 individuals remaining.
Highly intelligent and sociable, wild dog hunt in packs and communicate constantly through strange bird-like hoots and chirps. Since they often face the loss of hard-won kills to larger predators, they try to avoid attracting attention and dispatch their prey as quickly and quietly as possible. The speed with which they can consume an impala (bite-swallow-bite-swallow) would put happy hour at McDonalds in the shade. After the hunt, the pack will return to the den and regurgitate their kill for pups, old and injured pack members. Seeing wild dog is infrequent enough to be special however you do it, but Mana Pools in Zimbabwe is one of the few places that you can do so on foot. Experienced guides who spend their office hours in this scenically beautiful and game-rich park, have got to know individual dogs in addition to the many elephant and lion that reside in the area. The thrill that comes with walking amongst wild animals is difficult to replicate but the opportunity to meet a pack of wild dog on their own terms, hear their calls and watch them interact is a truly once in a lifetime experience. Check out safari ideas that include Mana Pools. Read more about Mana Pools National Park. Learn about painted dogs and conservation efforts in Zimbabwe. Picture courtesy of Vundu Camp.
“The back end of the lion is in the ladies toilet.” I grew up believing this parental fable, and rather like the tooth-fairy, I was embarrassingly old before I reasoned otherwise. Each time I went into the Ladies toilet at Muthaiga Country Club in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi, I looked for the hind-quarters of the rather mangy, moth-eaten and irregularly stuffed half-beast that occupied a glass case at the end of the long corridor. To be fair, there was always a locked cupboard in around the same place where the animals backside should have been...so it was just possible, but admittedly unlikely.
Along the same vein of wildlife toilet humour, a guide recounted an incident in the Ngorogoro Crater many years ago where a lady guest had been bursting to relieve herself throughout the morning’s game drive but refused to visit a bush. He stopped at the Park toilets on the floor of the crater and the lady hastily disembarked and dashed in. Within seconds, she reversed with equal pace and executed a spectacular re-mount of the land-cruiser through an open window. Sauntering after her was a large lioness who had been posing on her hind legs with her front paws on the sinks admiring her reflection in the mirror. Possibly the bush would have been the better option? Sometimes one’s position on a bush toilet is the best place you can be in a certain situation. Guests safely dispatched on an afternoon game-drive in Botswana’s Linyanti wildlife area, another guide took his book to relax on the “throne” of the mobile tented camp. This consisted of a wooden box over a shallow hole, crowned with a toilet seat and screened from the camp by foliage alone. Absorbed in the plot, it was the unexplained raising of hairs along the nape of his neck that made him look up. Twenty metres away was a lioness with her belly to the floor, creeping intently toward him with her head low and shoulder blades riding high on her back. Instinct alone made my friend leap to his feet and, throwing his book high into the air, waddle aggressively towards the stalking lioness shouting “Shoo! Shoo! Get lost...go on!” which she promptly did, fortunately. Knees shaking with relief, the guide returned to camp like a high-speed penquin, still with shorts firmly around ankles, much to the amusement of the camp staff.
When you planned that safari, you foolishly thought you were going on holiday, didn’t you? 5.30am wake-up calls, out walking hard all morning to find the wildlife and earn your breakfast, (and even then they cook it for you in the bush so you can’t sneak off back to your tent for a shut-eye). Only a few hours downtime and you’re off again in search of big cats until the sun sinks. Returning to camp almost (but not quite) too tired to eat that three course dinner and with only enough energy to sink half a bottle of chardonnay, you collapse under the feather duvet. Another taxing day on safari... Well, at least when you clamber aboard that little plane and fly out over a turquoise sea, you will feel you’ve earned a bit of respite. Stretching along the coast of Mozambique lie the four islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. Originally inhabited by a few indigenous villagers, the two larger islands of Bazaruto and Benguerra are now a popular beach destination. A handful of stylish lodges offer relaxation on tap in a variety of guises (be they quiet places to relax with a book, spa treatments or private plunge pools).
Of course, the idea of a beach holiday may not float your boat and if you’re like me (and don’t like the idea of basting yourself with coconut oil and getting sand in uncomfortable places) you still might consider a visit to Bazaruto. Both fly and deep-sea fishing are rewarding pursuits if you know your weights from your lures. For non-fishers, exploring the other uninhabited islands or kitting yourself out in fetching neoprene for a little scuba diving might sound appealing. And if all of that doesn’t blow your hair back, there’s also sea-kayaking, horse-riding and beach walks to choose from. Still not? You may want to consider staying at home and taking up knitting. The Bazaruto Archipelago is not as remote and logistically challenging as Quirimbas, and since it is easily reached via Johannesburg, it combines really well with safaris throughout southern Africa, including Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique itself. Find out more about holidays in Mozambique. Image courtesy of Benguerra Lodge
I must first apologise for the recent lack of “Letters from Zimbabwe”. The last few months have taken me elsewhere in southern Africa. However, I thought I’d share last weekend’s local adventure with you...more for those interested in life in Zim and not so relevant for the safari boffs. I think we can probably all agree that the 1950s was not a decade which stood out as a shining beacon of architectural and design prowess...not the sort of stuff one would want to preserve for posterity. In fact, it’s hard to think of another decade which produced a more generally awful look. Having said that, there do seem to be the faithful folk to whom this era (bafflingly) appeals. At the centre of a steep, green whirlpool of tea fields in a deep cleft of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, lies the Aberfoyle Country Club. One of those classic colonial relics, the club is a slightly surreal little blot in this maze of winding roads, dense indigenous forest and tea bushes. Throughout Zim’s recent tricky period, the Country Club has staggered on, offering a weekend getaway to the dwindling outdoor enthusiasts, keen golfers and people who would simply like to relocate their beer-drinking to somewhere more picturesque. Lush forests bursting with biodiversity harbour waterfalls, exotic birdlife and intense tranquillity. One of the owners is an avid collector of anything 1950s and, immensely proud of this museum piece, regularly procures and ships “collectables” to be displayed in the club. Dark panelled rooms with retro-glass and mismatched furniture are highlighted here and there by a black and white portrait of a well-coiffed and be-pearled dame. The collection includes, rather oddly, three pairs of narrow ladies shoes from that era which are exhibited in the washroom. There remains an ornately carved billiards table alongside a line of fairly utilitarian rooms that overlook a small but beautifully clipped fairway. Blissfully isolated from WiFi and mobile phones, it is a genuine time-capsule. Once a bustling social hub for the white community of the Honde Valley, the club is now gathering itself to face a renewed demand from domestic tourists of all cultures. Rather rough around the edges, the Club feels as though it is pondering how best to tackle this great leap forward into the fast-paced new millennium which does not sit entirely comfortably with its heritage. It seems to me that this same predicament is shared by many people and places in Zim.