The children were being misappropriated for three weeks to The Americas by The Man Who Used To Be Married To Me, aka their father, leaving me with a dilemma. Do I stay at home and drown my sorrows of being childless in gin and cake or do I grab this opportunity and travel? It was not a difficult decision as I knew wherever I went, there would almost certainly be both gin and cake. Or at least beer and biscuits. Or tequila and dried crickets. My sorrows are really not that fussy.
The bigger dilemma came with the choice of destination. Three weeks, from the UK that’s Australia, New Zealand, Japan territory. All destinations on the long list of places to see, but somehow the thought of driving through the Australian outback by myself or climbing a mountain in New Zealand alone did not appeal this time. My default continent is always Africa and my default activity is always gin and cake out of the back of a reinforced Land Rover somewhere in the bush, looking at the sun going down over a waterhole – so safari it was. Having had the privilege of seeing wildlife in 5 African countries to date, I did not need the Big Five or gold taps. Michele from Safari Consultants, a born and bred Zimbabwean, enthusiastically sold me an itinerary that involved walking with elephant, lion and other creatures normally observed from the safety of said reinforced Land Rover with some of the best guides in the country, if not the world. Exactly what legends these men actually are, I did not appreciate until I got there. I was not entirely convinced about this walking lark though, but my mother had done it in the late 70s and early 80s with the great Clive Walker and I will not be outdone by my mother on the bonkers scale.
My choice of destination was met with the question “Zimbabwe? Mugabe? What do you want to go there for?” Well I am not going in order to have gin and cake with Robert, clearly. I am going so that I put my bum on a seat on Kenya Airways and my tired body in a bed in lodges that need my business to survive in a country that has all political odds stacked against it. Because if we don’t go somewhere because of the politics, it’s not the government that suffers, it’s the people.
After landing in Nairobi I just about managed to listen to a voicemail from my house alarm company telling me that my alarm was going off, and could I call them please, before the signal disappeared. I walked through the whole airport in search of reception and was about to buy a local Sim card when standing next to a woman with a fabulous Afro hairdo made the signal come back. I don’t think she noticed when I followed her at quite close range in order to make the necessary calls.
Harare airport sported a big sign about Ebola as soon as I stepped off the plane. Shit. Having completely forgotten about this over the last few months, I wondered if I had missed something on the news or if this was an old sign. It informed us all about the importance of washing your hands with soap. In the toilets, there was no soap. But there was a box of free condoms. I decided it was an old sign. I did not wash my hands using a condom.
My bag was the last to arrive. Yes, I was having tiny kittens by then. More kittens were to be had when told by representative of The Pukey Pukey Plane Company (read safari transfers by bush plane, anything from a 4 seater Cessna to a 12 seater Caravan, but all terribly susceptible to turbulence caused by midday thermals, hence the puking) that I had to wait 4 hours for the other family that would be sharing my plane. Those are four hours of my life that I will not be getting back. Harare airport has one cafe and 2 shops, neither of which were open. One of the most challenging things when travelling alone is going to the toilet when fully laden with luggage, followed quite closely by putting suncream on your back. I have become expert at bamboozling other waiting passengers into watching my luggage and very swiftly walking off towards the soapless facilities before they can even think the word ‘terrorist’. For suncream there are women my mother’s age.
Musango Safari Lodge, Lake Kariba
Having dropped the other family at the first airstrip (Americans, first safari, want to see leopard, good luck with that) and then having a Kim Kardashian moment of being the only passenger on the plane (yes, I stayed in the back) I landed at Kariba and transferred to Musango Safari Lodge, owned and run by Wendy and Steve Edwards. Steve was a shining light in the National Parks Service and has seen it all, from undercover anti poaching operations to being folded in half by a hippo. He was conspicuously absent the first evening, having set up his cameras at one end of the island to capture a meteor shower. He later told me he managed to photograph a plane.
Walking is obviously a big deal in Zimbabwe. The pro guides are the best trained guides in Africa and it shows. They know everything. Apart from how to track a lion. On the first night when floating on the lake on a pontoon style boat, we heard lion calling. The next morning we set off to try and find them. Scott and Crispin were armed with rifles and years’ worth of experience. Stepping off the boat I expected a lion welcoming committee as was quite nervous at the prospect. However, they were conspicuously absent (is there a theme here?) and we walked off into the bush. And walked. And walked. Nothing, nada, nichts. We did find a sleeping hippo though, crept up on him from an escarpment, which was pretty cool.
My emotions went from nervous anticipation, to downright fear every time we came round a corner or walked through Adrenaline Grass, to completely switching off and my mind wandering, to boredom, to accepting that this is reality. The reality of knowing that we probably walked straight past them, the reality that this is their territory, they are the experts here and finding them is really not as easy as you imagine. I found new levels of respect for both tracker and ‘prey’.
This happened two days in a row and on the third day, Steve joined us with his son, Graham, who can drive a Land Rover better than any child in my children’s school will ever be able to and had another go as it was now a standing joke that ‘there are no lion in Zimbabwe’. Only this time the rules were a bit stricter. “Walk in my footsteps, don’t walk over the tracks, stand still when I say so, don’t move when we go off to try and find out which direction the lion is heading, no talking.”
Within minutes of being left standing in the middle of the bush the whole lot of them had disappeared, trying to find the direction of the tracks, swallowed up by the thick Mopani bush. Beth, on work experience from the UK and I looked at each other. Half an hour later we were getting quite hot. I did not really want to see Beth’s skin beginning to match her red hair, so suggested moving to some shade. Not wanting to encounter Steve’s wrath of stepping on the spoor, we stepped on existing footprints and grass knolls to make it to the very dappled shade of a tree. It looked like a bad game of Twister. This is the sort of print we were following:
Apparently it is under the leaf right in the middle of the picture…
Having given up, we walked back to the road. Everybody had either switched off or was still looking on the ground. The little herd of elephants was not amused by our sudden appearance. There was some swearing and scarpering into a ditch. The Land Rover turned up at just the right time. I loved it. We got to the Land Rover and noticed that the lion had walked straight over our track from that morning. I did not love that.
That evening we caught a Tigerfish and fed a fish eagle, my favourite African bird. Amazing. Steve’s knowledge of birds, wildlife, the area and Zimbabwe as a whole was outstanding and astounding, his stories second to none, his use of the word ‘honey’ to describe all women, refreshingly un-PC.
On the third night, a family of 14 Americans descended on Musango, their ages ranging from 1 to 71. I groaned. They were alright, actually. This annoyed me a little. Very interesting to talk to, varied backgrounds and we had an hour’s worth of discussion about fracking. They apologised for the noise the children made, which was appreciated.
I did have an excruciating moment, on the first night of their arrival when I got talking to one of the dads. He was joined by his wife and three long haired, like LONG haired, children. “Oh you have three girls, that’s nice”, I said. “No, this is our son”, pointing to the oldest one. Fuck! It was dark! He was of slight build! He had so much hair you could not see his face! “Oh I am so sorry”, I said, nearly adding “You must get this all the time, how boring.” Then I thought, maybe he wants to be a girl, and then me saying that it’s bad that people mistake him for a girl is not bad at all but what he wants??! I got very confused. I did not say anything else. I had more gin. I felt very much like this elephant.
Goliath Safari Camp, Mana Pools
I was very sad to leave Musango. The hosting was outstanding, the guides brilliant and laughed at my jokes. The scenery stunning, I would never tire of the dead trees in the water, the fish eagle calling, the elephants and hippo on the island. What if the next place was rubbish? The next place was not rubbish.
Goliath Safari Camp is a semi permanent camp in the Mana Pools National Park, which is a World Heritage Site. I arrived with a bag of lettuce from Wendy to Stretch Ferreira, owner and guide and general enigma, with a comment from me that I had heard the food was so shit here that I brought my own. He roared with laughter. He thought I was funny. I immediately liked him. I also told him that his great friend, Steve, had failed to track any lion to a satisfactory outcome, i.e. a sighting. He roared again saying that he, Stretch, never fails to track lion. Hhm.
Mana Pools is stunning. The landscape is very easy on the eye and there are elephant everywhere. Small family groups, but literally wherever you look, elephant. So, so good.
And elephant is why you come here. Stretch has known the bull elephant in this park for all of their lives, knowing them by name and temperament. He is known as The Elephant Whisperer. He is renowned for getting you up very close and personal to these giants. He talks to them and they clearly recognise his voice. It is quite amazing, if somewhat unsettling, that he is prepared to take random tourists, whose psychological dispositions he knows nothing about, into this environment. He clearly has an incredible talent, but I am not sure that will necessarily extend to ‘tourist whispering’.
But when it was my turn, I felt entirely calm and then started to cry with the emotion of being close enough to touch a huge elephant bull. I could have just sat down and stayed there all day. I did however think afterwards that I would not be doing this again. In my mind it is a highly risky thing to do and you are putting yourself in a potentially deadly situation and I am therefore just grateful that I was privileged to have this experience and leave it at that.
The family that was with me in the camp was a family of 7 (what is it with me and big groups?). Again, their arrival filled me with trepidation at being so thoroughly outnumbered, but my fears were quickly assuaged by every single one of their 5 children, aged 21 to 13, coming and introducing themselves, with the parents bringing up the rear. With accents that sounded like Jerusalem played on Dartington Chrystal glasses it would be easy to assume that they could have their heads so far up their own arses that any game viewing would prove impossible. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Polite, engaging, humble, appreciative – it was like being on holiday with The Waltons. I did listen out for the the “Goodnight John-boy”, ‘Goodnight Jim-Bob” on the way back to my tent. Walton Son number 2 got his A level results whilst we were there and it was an honour to celebrate his success with this amazing family. If these children are the future of our country, the future is bright. They also made me miss my children very much. I had a little cry.
One evening the moon and the stars were particularly beautiful and I was having a shower in the dark looking up to the night sky appreciating the stunning display and I found myself in tears again, as that is the hardest thing about travelling on your own – not being able to say “Look at that” to somebody else.
The search for the ever elusive panthera leo continued with Stretch becoming more and more stressed about the fact that he could not locate them, despite spending two days following their tracks.
It appeared that there really were no lions in Zimbabwe. Was this the closest I was going to get?
We did locate two packs of wild dog. The first was hidden in a dry river bed and three of the group, including me, were told by Stretch that we could bottom hotch our way closer. Every single time I put my hand in the dry leaves on the ground to propel myself forward, I was convinced that I was going to die from the bite of a viper whose sole purpose in life was to be in this exact location at this exact hour in order to sink its fangs into my fingers. It was not a pleasant experience. Getting within 10m to wild dogs on foot though was. Oh and they smell. Really badly.
The second pack was being filmed by the BBC, which always makes me over-salivate a little as I still believe that I have missed my calling as a water bottle carrier to wildlife documentary makers. There were 10 puppies and I was as interested in their antics as I was in the equipment being hauled on and off the BBC truck.
Mana Pools is a place that deserves its World Heritage status. Stretch Ferreira is a very funny and engaging host who has an extraordinary talent with animals. I was very sad to leave. What if the next place is shit?
Camp Hwange, Hwange National Park
The Pukey Pukey Plane Gods were having a laugh that day. A four seater Cessna is nothing more than a tin can with wings and a propeller. I kept telling myself that these bush pilots are the most experienced in the world and that I would be fine. I could also not hear anything the pilot said over the engine noise, so did not speak much, he was also having a clearly flirtatious conversation with air traffic control anyway, so did not want to interrupt. This meant a lot of thinking time. Too much thinking time. First stop was back in Lake Kariba to refuel. We had to fly over a mountain range to get there and all I kept thinking was, ‘If we crash here, there is no way on earth I will survive’. The pilot is bound to die first, I have seen that on the telly. Then the radio won’t work. I will stagger around with a bleeding headwound. I will sleep in a tree surrounded by hyena. I tried to work out from the air how to tell from a dry river bed which way the water flows to that I could follow it – whereto? To the sea? We landed. I was ecstatic. It took a lot of self control not to hug the pilot. I complimented him on the landing. He smiled.
The next leg took us over Lake Kariba, the biggest man made lake in the world. Same thought process, only with water, crocodiles, hippo, drowning. It wasn’t my best flight. We landed and Hwange airport restrooms sported more free condoms. And no soap. At least they’re consistent.
Then a three and a half hour transfer by bone shaker road to Camp Hwange. It was going to be a long day. We saw a giraffe…
Camp Hwange is run by Julian and Ashley Brookstein. Julian reminded me of a lion. He was built as such, with beard and curly hair and a rather intimidating sunglasses tan and a deep baritone voice to match. I was a bit scared. But then I saw him a little later with his baby daughter, and one look from her and all the edges softened. God only help any boyfriends she might choose to bring home one day – the man is trained to be a crack shot… This is his office:
It was a beautiful camp, with views over a waterhole that attracted a daily stream of elephants and other game. But the lion gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. Could Julian succeed where the great Steve Edwards and Stretch Ferreira had failed?
More walking, only this time even I could recognise what we were following:
The plan was this. The guide walks in front with his gun. Excellent. The tracker follows with a wood and metal axe. Also good. Then there’s me. So if the gun and the axe fail, we do what? Negotiate? I did not ask this question. I carried on trying to not sound like a herd of buffalo charging through the bush. We were also given the task of looking into shady places for sleeping lion. I was not proficient at doing both. I opted for silence as I thought that if I miss the lion that would not really be my fault as I have tourist eyes that see lion in every termite mound, bush and rock anyway. If however I scared the lion with a badly placed foot, that would earn me a scowl, and then I might cry again. We also got a speech about possible scenarios of coming face to face with a lion and what to do. This NEVER involves running. Ever. It involves doing as you’re told, even – or most importantly – when charged. I put on my best poker face. The daughter of the father and daughter team that was walking with us did not manage this quite as well. Amateur.
We saw lions. I don’t have a photo. 3 of the 4 lion ran away like a bunch of, well, lions, and we just saw the 4th one looking a bit confused, not really knowing why the others where running, but then decided to run anyway, it seemed like the better option. It was awesome. There are lion in Zimbabwe. In fact, before seeing them on foot, we saw a lioness from the Land Rover at dawn. She had called all through the night for her companion who had died the previous week by the waterhole. It was very sad to see her wandering around aimlessly.
The evenings were spent looking for big elephant herds at another two water holes. They were magnificent with stunning sunsets.
And finally, as if showing off, the big finale. A hair-raisingly fast drive to a location given out by another guide, I had to down my gin in order to have a free hand to hold on and we scraped the flies off our teeth and declined meat for dinner as sufficient protein had already been inhaled. I am not sure Julian would have stopped if one of the tourists had fallen out of the vehicle. The big pride:
So Hwange (called Wankie prior to independence … this ellicited a cheeky grin from Julian, The Lion Tracker, Brookstein) delivered on all fronts and once again, I was sad to leave. What if …
Sindabezi, Livingstone, Zambia
I was driven from Zimbabwe to Zambia, this involved three drivers and four vehicles, having to switch vehicles at the border to clear immigration. The border crossing would have been hilarious, had it not been so hot (Livingstone, the tourist capital of Zambia, is also its hottest city, and it was still winter). You really do have to change your mindset when dealing with African bureaucrats. Everything just takes time, maybe because it’s so hot. All officers are clearly obliged to be on the mobile phones at all times as all important customs and immigration business is conducted in this way. Actual people queuing are simply an irritation.
We were permitted to leave one country and allowed to enter another. Then we crossed this bridge, built in 1905. I was glad I did not know the build date when I was driving over it (only one vehicle permitted on it at any one time – clue??).
Sindabezi is an island in the middle of the great Zambezi river. You reach it by motorboat, negotiating more rocks than rapids on this stretch and at this time of year but with some still quite impressive currents. It is just beautiful and the views are spectacular.
The first evening’s activity involved a sunset cruise on the river to see tens of thousands of migrating birds flying like swarms of locust in front of the sun. The noise and agility was phenomenal.
Last on the agenda was a tour of the Victoria Falls – and my penultimate cry. Some people say that coming when the water is low is not as spectacular than in high water season. I disagree. In high season all you see is spray. Yes the noise will be even more spectacular, but at this time of year you really appreciate the rock formation and the landscape too. When you come round the corner for the first time and you see the wonder of it, it takes your breath away. That’s 3 of the 7 Wonders Of The World ticked off. There is also a strong magnetism to the depth of the canyon, one must not spend too much time looking over the edge. And in Europe there is no way in hell you would be able to sit where I sat. Go Africa.
On the way back from the last sunset cruise, a hippo launched itself from the shallows directly at our boat, with full force and menace. It missed us by about a meter as we were travelling forward, which in my mind might as well have been an inch. It landed with an almighty splash and an angry grunt, causing the boat to rock with the resulting waves. The other two passengers completely missed this. The captain and I looked at each teacher knowingly. Time to go home. I cried for one last time when the plane took off for the long journey home, Africa I will miss you. As I landed in the UK, my eldest daughter’s GCSE results came through. The girl did good! The future is bright. The tears streamed with gratitude and relief – but I was on English soil now, so that doesn’t count.
Books to read:
‘DON’T RUN Whatever you do’ by Peter Allison
‘Out of Shadows’ by Jason Wallace **Note of Caution** This is an amazing book written from the perspective of a boy living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s after the war has ended and deals with the complex change in dynamics. Might not be the best book to actually read in Zimbabwe …