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Zimbabwe   Leave a comment

An immature martial eagle in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park stretches his wings.

Entering Zimbabwe was the second occasion during my recent travels through southern Africa where I took a “left turn”.  That is, I went somewhere outside of the original plan.  A couple days before leaving Maun, Botswana, I met yet another fellow-traveler who recommended “Zim” (as its often called), and so I shifted gears.  I had been planning to travel overland into Namibia from Botswana, but instead I went in the opposite direction, to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  I did make it to Namibia eventually, but it had to wait until I revisited South Africa (posting to come).  It also required me to push my return flight to the U.S. back by a full 3 weeks!

A young lady who works near Zimbabwe’s border with Botswana, proved to be a delightfully mischievous companion for the several hours I had to wait for a ride.

Right away upon crossing the Zimbabwe’s western border with Botswana, I knew this country was going to be a little different.  I was questioned extensively about my pro-looking camera gear.  This was the first time I had been worried about losing my gear, but I can talk my way out of many things, so I got through okay.  I waited several hours for a ride into Bulawayo, in the requisite impromptu village set up by locals selling stuff.  All over Africa (and in other parts of the world too), near borders it is common for entrepeneurs to set up shop.  For the traveler stuck there, it provides prime people watching, much better than being stuck at a lonely spot with nothing but border guards for company.  During my wait, I met a young lady literally brimming with personality and warmth.  Her name was Queen, and she ended up offering me a free place to stay in Bulawayo, at her sister’s place of all things.  I almost took her up on it.

Bulawayo is a large town, modern and clean.  It was merely a stop-off point before I traveled north to Hwange National Park.  I walked around the town a bit, and found a nice coffee shop/bakery downtown.  It struck me as a place of haves and have-nots, but perhaps most cities are that way.  I caught a small bus north, and the trip took hours and hours, made even longer because I decided to go all the way up to Victoria Falls on the border with Zambia.  I wanted to get more info. on the park, and possibly join a tour, and the park turnoff was almost deserted.

This was actually my third visit to Victoria Falls.  The image of the Falls below was captured on the Zambian side looking toward the Zim side.  Note in the upper-right corner the bathers perched at the edge of infinity, in Devil’s Pool.  This is a can’t-miss experience, one only available during the dry season’s lower flows.  Dry season runs roughly from August through November.

There is definitely more going on over on the Zambian side, in the town of Livingstone.  Zimbabwe is not doing nearly as well as Zambia, economically.  For example, Zim does not even have its own currency.  Also, it is quite noticeable when you are traveling through a country with fewer individual freedoms, one run by a virtual dictator who does not appreciate people speaking their minds.  I experienced this to a degree in Venezuela and a few other places.

Here in Zim there was that same feeling, the same sort of atmosphere.  It is hard to explain or give concrete examples – it’s more of an impression you get from the people, a sort of oppressed vibe (but very subtle).  All of that said, if you find yourself at Victoria Falls someday, do yourself a favor and visit both the Zim and the Zam side.  There are unique things about both places; for example, you get more of an in-your-face view of the falls from the Zim side, and you can only access Devil’s Pool from the Zam side.

When people speak of the rise of Africa economically, I think of places like Zimbabwe, and know they are over-generalizing.  The media, and really most people who have never been there, seem to fall into the trap of treating all of Africa as a monolithic entity, as if it was not made up of many different & diverse countries and peoples.

Victoria Falls (which spans the border of Zambia & Zimbabwe) flows with more force on the Zimbabwe side than on the Zambian side during the dry season.

 

Hwange National Park is one of Africa’s richest preserved ecosystems.  It is famous for its enormous elephant herds, and also is one of the best places to see the sable, Africa’s most elegant and beautiful antelope, and also the wild dog.  Cheetahs are abundant as well.  I stayed at a wonderful little camp called the Ivory Lodge, where for not a ton of money I got my own safari tent.  A safari tent, if you don’t know, is a wall tent, normally with a floor and bathroom attached, that has everything a little cottage would have.  They do range enormously in comfort and degree of luxury.  This one was on the basic side, but it beat crawling into my little one-man tent any day.

A lovely Zimbabwean

The people at the Ivory were welcoming and easy to talk to.  A couple from England who had recently returned to Africa from London (they had been born in Zim) ran the place.  Their staff were gentle folk, the food scrumptious.   Best of all, I met a beautiful young woman.  She works for the hotel company who owns the Ivory, so she visits on occasion to assume the role of hospitality agent.  It was my good fortune to be there while she was visiting.  We continue a pen-pal correspondence; she’s my African connection.

The Ivory Lodge has a hide, a small low, covered building that is set up for wildlife watching.  It is located adjacent to a flood-lit waterhole.  I spent hours there one afternoon, writing poems, waiting for wildlife to show, doing pull-ups and push-ups, waiting some more.  The wet season had just arrived in southern Africa, and the rain put a damper on wildlife activity at Hwange.  The guided drive I took next morning was also pretty quiet, though I did see my first sable, plus a gorgeous martial eagle.  I did not like being kept from walking away from the camp, however.  This was for my own protection of course, but still, I am not made to stay within boundaries, of any kind.

And so I only spent two nights at the Ivory then moved up to the main campsite at park headquarters.  I was able to camp on my own, eating in the small restaurant attached to HQ.  Only one other camper was using the campsite, but there were plenty of birds in the area, including weaver birds building their nests, several owls, and hornbills.  Also, I got my first good look at beautiful sunbirds, who were feeding on the blooms of the outrageous blood lily (image below).  I also saw a cute baby zebra (bottom image) who eyed me while his mama brushed flies off his body with her tail.

Unfortunately I did not see wild dogs, and these remained the one species of animal I wanted to see in Africa but didn’t.  I don’t regret it though; one always need a reason to return.  In fact, I want to go back to Hwange one day, when the weather is better, to see what it can really offer.  It was the only park I visited in three months in Africa that was somewhat disappointing for animals, but that was, I’m certain, only because of the rainy weather.  The people I met,  however, more than made up for it, particularly one person.

Blood lilies in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe bloom at the start of the rains, attracting numerous sunbirds.

 

Zimbabwe seems to me to be missing out on the exciting growth throughout much of Africa.  But unlike another misfit (Malawi), it does have plenty of natural resources – copper, gold, platinum, even oil – and yet it still lags.  The abundant infrastructure built by the British years ago when it was Rhodesia is steadily falling apart.  Roads are crumbling, historic sites are falling into disrepair, and there is a general lack of enthusiasm amongst the people (with notable exceptions of course).  The contradictions present in Zimbabwe, the unfulfilled promise, can be laid squarely at the feet of Robert Mugabe, their dictator.  He is quite old now, so at least Zimbabweans will get the chance for a fresh start in the near future.  I have high hopes that they will make the most of it.  I would love to see the people of Zimbabwe finally spread their wings.

Mom uses her tail to swat flies from baby in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

Kafue I   Leave a comment

A large bull cape buffalo, among a herd on the move and kicking up dust, pauses to stare down the stranger in Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

When I traveled through Zambia recently, the new president had been in office less than 2 months.  There was a definite sense of optimism among the people regarding their country’s prospects.  I really think the fact that the election was free of violence (a rarity in most African countries) had almost as much to do with this optimism as did the new president himself.  The country is riding a boom in commodity prices, sitting on huge copper reserves, with China’s investment in and demand for raw commodities being the primary driver.  And so while walking the streets of Lusaka, or even in Livingstone, near the tourist magnet of Victoria Falls, it was not only easy to engage in small talk with the average Zambian, it was also fairly easy to come across those willing to speak about their country’s future.

All seems to depend on how the country invests in infrastructure, education and agriculture in order to avoid the typical boom-bust cycle of a commodity-dependent country.  But in this way Zambia is in the company of countries like Australia, which is not a bad place to be considering the alternative (Mali, etc.).  An academic at Columbia recently wrote an article in the New York Times claiming that Africa was the new Asia, and he put forth Zambia as a prime example.  Well there are a few very serious obstacles to growth that Africa has and Asia does not, so to me the analogy seems way overstated, but the general point is valid.  Africa is doing better as a whole these days, and societies are modernizing, spawning more and more consumers as the village culture is steadily being pushed to the edge.

But this blog post is not all about African economics and politics.  It’s about a place in western Zambia called Kafue.  Kafue National Park is not as famous as South Luangwa in the country’s east – that park has just recently become as popular as big and famous safari parks like Kruger in South Africa.  Kafue is, of course, well known to experienced African travelers, because of its size and sense of wildness, and because it has a very remote feel to it, without actually being all that inaccessible.  It only takes a few hours to drive to the park from the capital city of Lusaka, and that same decent, paved road traverses the middle of the park.   In order to visit the northern or southern reaches of Kafue however, a 4×4 is necessary.

Obviously the lead hippo is the one in charge of this pod, and he doesn’t much like the guy in the boat holding the camera.

This was to be the first time I would rent a 4×4 in Africa, and I experienced some sticker shock when I was told what it would cost.  I couldn’t really afford $200-250/day for the week I planned to spend in Kafue, so I asked around the backpacker lodge I was staying at and soon met a guy who knew a guy.  I checked out the pickup that two young Zambians brought to me, and it looked okay.  It was a Ford of all things, similar to a Ranger.  Although I was able to haggle and get it for $100/day, I was to soon regret my decision to rent from these young “entrepeneurs”.  Later, while driving the lonely road across the park, not far from the camp I was heading for along the Kafue River, it happened.  It coughed a few times, then quit on me.  I couldn’t start it.  I got out and looked it over, but while I was leaning over the engine with the hood up, I suddenly stood up straight.  This was no good at all.  Dusk was rapidly descending, and I was in the middle of an African park, a preserved area with all manner of wildlife roaming free.  I could see this situation going from bad to worse in a hurry if a pride of lions began to stalk me, or an angry buffalo or elephant took exception to my presence.  I couldn’t look at the engine again.  In fact, I literally tripped over myself getting back in the truck.

Soon however, the first vehicle showed up, and it happened to be a group of gregarious Zambian friends who happily picked me up and took me to the nearest town to the park border, where there was cell phone service.  I won’t recount what I said to my friends in Lusaka, but suffice to say I insisted on another truck being delivered to me.  My saviours took me to a small hotel where I checked in.  There was something about the woman who helped me, but I forgot about it as the guys insisted that we go get something to eat.  Later, after they finally dropped me off, I saw the woman again, and spoke to her.  Then I realized, she had a different accent than I had been hearing, and seemed very simple and pure.  She was straight out of a village in remote NW Zambia, and was just different.  She spoke some English, but it was more broken than I had been used to in my travels thus far.  In Africa, most people speak English quite well.  They learn from their first year in school, so it’s only in small rural villages, which lack good education, where you’ll find people who don’t speak English.

Africa is beautiful: a young western Zambian woman.

I was charmed by the woman’s innocence.  I talked to her for quite some time, in that awkward but funny and charming way that two people speak who only comprehend a part of what the other is saying.  As a nice breeze finally appeared, I sighed and thought how different things had turned out.  Not long before I was preparing for a long, sleepless night barricaded in my truck, hoping that no elephant decided to roll this little toy over.  Now I was chatting with a beautiful African girl while the stars twinkled in the black sky.  Such are the twists and turns of travel.  This was to be a night, given my limited experience with women of other races, that I would remember.

The guys came through for me, delivering a blue Mitsubishi 4×4 next morning.  Little did I know as they drove off in the stuttering Ford that I’d be seeing them again at Kafue.   While camping along the Kafue River at     Camp, I watched from my small one-man tent as hippos grazed in the night mere yards away, their small bright eyes giving lie to the enormous bulk and giant mouths behind those eyes.  I also did my first game drive where I was driver and tourist packaged in one.  It takes real skill, I found, to be able to drive rutted and narrow dirt tracks while keeping an eagle eye out for wildlife.

It was getting hot in Africa, toward the end of the dry season, and late afternoon one day in Kafue I just had to break down and take a quick dip in the river.  I walked up to where some rocky rapids lay upstream from camp, and jumped in then out, wasting no time splashing around.  I was pretty sure the crocs and hippos would not be interested in rapids, so felt pretty safe.  Later, at dinner, I let slip what I had done and the guide and few other tourists there just shook their heads.  Next day, while walking again up along the rapids, I spotted the biggest crocodile I had ever seen, staking out a spot right next to the biggest rapid.  He must have gotten word on the predator hotline that there was a dumb tourist swimming there the day before.

 

 

Of the many things I learned in Kafue, one important lesson was how dangerous elephants can be, and how seriously Africans themselves take elephants.  They garner the most respect from Africans of any animal, and this goes triple at night, when they can really get their ire up.  The wilder the herd, the more dangerous they can be.  We entered a small valley on a night drive while at McBride’s, and on the opposite side of the valley there started up a loud trumpeting.  The driver made as quick a U-turn as you can imagine, and as he drove away I looked back and could just make out some huge heads bobbing as they ran after us.  I also saved a couple African girls from an elephant who was growing angry with them as they walked with their tomatoes along the main road, caught by darkness.  I picked them up as they waved wildly in the darkness, and drove them back to the Kafue River Bridge, where there was an encampment of Zambian military, campfires blazing.  From then on, every time I passed the checkpoint (where bribes are normally paid), I was waved through by the men, who smiled and said, “Oh, it is the good samaritan!”

The sun passes below the horizon after a 100 degree-plus day along the Kafue River, western Zambia.

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