Across Zimbabwe & Botswana and a Week in Africa’s Biggest ‘Swamp’.

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Thus the curtain has come down on another visit to Africa and I fear it may be the last for some time. I arrived with few expectations from a wintry Europe back at the beginning of March. Things were not easy to begin with in South Africa – no car, no guarantee of work, not many friends – but after a few weeks shuttling around the Highveld looking for a non-existent post-doc position at one of two tertiary institutions I took a time-out and visited my extended family in various parts Kwazulu Natal. I’ve written about that a few months back so no there’s need to revisit it.

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

My salvation (again) came through Workaway, an initiative, or rather a platform, I’ve recommended before as a great way to travel economically. It took me to the Central Drakensberg, an area I’ve never been to, and Ardmore Guest Farm. A month as a volunteer, a month as an employee followed and the company of many interesting people: guests, employees and employers alike. I feel enriched and as a consequence rather sad to have to say goodbye (again), having recently returned for a further 2 weeks. In the long-term what has happened in-between will be of far greater consequence to me, having met my dear Mirjam at Ardmore.

Together we went by bus up to Zimbabwe, first to Bulawayo and hence to the Victoria Falls in all their high-water magnificence; camped several nights in Hwange Main Camp; returned to Bulawayo and walked her wide and bustling streets; continued on to Masvingo and the timeless Great Zimbabwe Ruins (last visited by me some 30 years + before); and finally the capital, Harare. I wrote quite a long post on Bulawayo last year which I hope did it some justice. A bit more on the Falls and the other stops prior to Harare.

The Vic Falls had a smattering of tourists but nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s. At least the streets around the more touristy parts are clean and free of rubbish (unlike the outlying townships). It goes without saying that desperate curio sellers hounded us at every turn. Many wanted to sell us old bearer cheques and bond notes from the ‘burning dollar days’ as a resident of Bulawayo recalled them. Others just wanted to sell a necklace charm – usually of the iconic serpent-like Nyaminyami River God – or maybe an animal wood carving, if only for a few dollars for their next meal or a bus ride home. It was sad to see and, being an empathetic sort, I usually gave in if they were desperate enough. Therefore I have a collection of charms and curios to impart to friends and hosts on my onward travels.

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We became friendly with a curio seller called Everton. I convinced him to take us to Chinotimba Township and the local restaurant I had eaten at the previous year, this time for Mirjam’s benefit as well as my own. She made a good go of a plate of sadza nehove (mealie meal porridge with fish and vegetables) and after the ample meal we agreed to go visit Evan’s family and brother in the neighbouring township. His brother had a T-shirt printing business and supplied a few of the shops in town with his prints. A little too touristy for my liking but he said he did well on the tour groups and had some agreement to supply one of the adventure activity operators as well. Evans told us that life was tough and that he was keen to get himself a passport so that he could try some cross-border trading.

The next day we ventured down to his market stall in the official area designated to them. I was astounded by the sheer amount of carvings and other curios in the general vicinity. I had no idea there was so much, some of it of exceptional quality. I spoke to a stone sculptor called Bainos who was busy chiseling a beautiful abstract carving in black serpentine. They were moderately priced at several hundred dollars but they suggested many hours of patient endeavour. I asked how business was and he replied that it wasn’t all that bad. His pieces were too large for the average tourist to just plonk in their hand luggage or suitcase so he would organise for international freight as well. Or so he claimed.

From Everton we bought a few trinkets and the like and then bid him and a dozen disappointed sellers goodbye. The problem with the local economy was that there just weren’t enough tourists for the amount of stuff these talented artists could produce. Many tourists probably wouldn’t venture too far off the main street fronted by the wealthier franchises and adventure outfits like Wild Horizons and Shearwater. Almost everyone we talked to subsequently asked us if we had eaten at the Boma but we didn’t. Sorry! We did splash out on a white water rafting trip which was fun but rather tame considering the reputation of the great river.

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After 5 or 6 nights in the Falls we took the Intercape coach back towards Bulawayo but jumped off instead at the Hwange Safari Lodge. It is a double-winged hotel of some size rather than a lodge and the extensive grounds in front overlook a water hole and acres of Mopane woodland. However, we wouldn’t be staying on our humble budget and caught a taxi ride instead to Hwange Main Camp within the confines of the National Park. To be honest I found some of the staff a little too keen to leverage our forex from us. We made it quite clear that we were there to camp and would consider the game drive after settling in. Furthermore, the woman who booked us in was loath to take my South African Rand from me even though it was most certainly legal tender.

We trudged to the camping sites several hundred meters away where we met a wizened old National Parks member of staff. It seemed as though he had been there for decades. He was happy to tell us where to set up tent and told us he’d be back later to stoke up the old Rhodesian boiler for hot water. It would also become our de facto camping fire for the sake of convenience. A little later strolled back to the NP offices and looked around to see if we could hitch a ride to one of the nearby water holes, perhaps Nyamandhlovu Pan. There were several land cruisers parked nearby with the names of lodges and private camps emblazoned on the door panels and chassis. We weren’t going to have any luck there I figured. Despite the lack of activity we were quite happy to sit and read in the shade of a large,spreading Acacia tree out front and watch the abundant bird and animal life. Go-Away birds, starlings, babblers, spur fowl and bulbuls competed for access to a stone water bath, although some of the glossy starlings showed more initiative and came to drink straight from the source, a tap connected by a leaky fitting to a hose a few feet from away from us.

After an hour or two we walked back through the very extensive Main Camp in a clockwise direction. It had been a decade since I was last there helping out on a foreign-funded conservation initiative, the Lion Research Project. I’d stayed with an old colleague from Rhodes University days in one of the old Park chalets. Nothing had changed. If anything the bush had encroached even a little further more than before and it wasn’t immediately apparent which were occupied and which weren’t. They were all in need of a lick of paint and a little care and attention. This was in contrast to the newly painted cottages and ablution blocks on the other side of the camp, including the area where we camped out.

Whatever the state of the accommodation the one thing that recommends the site to prospective visitors is the wildlife. Just walking sandy tracks around Main Camp brought us into contact with grazing herds of impala, pockets of zebra and wildebeest, giraffe, any number of different birds and at dusk, a trio of kudu, one bull and two cows. The kudu is my favourite antelope with a magnificent pair of ridged, spiral horns, tawny coat, long neck and attractive facial markings.

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We managed to hitch a ride to a nearby pan on our third and last evening there, courtesy of a young white guide and two black staff members from their private camp within the park. His blonde hair was bleached white by the sun, in contrast to his deeply tanned face and neck. He hadn’t planned to go via the pan but happily diverted there for us. Driving along at a sedate pace he stopped every so often to point out an animal in the vicinity and even passed back a cold beer or two for Mirjam and I, perched high up in the viewing seats behind the driver’s cab. God bless the man! In contrast the pan was a bit of a disappointment – only baboons and a few impala. A middle-aged Bulawayo couple gave us a return ride to camp.

We chatted about this and that but when I mentioned my intention to travel next to Tanzania there was an uneasy silence for a few moments. I wasn’t to know that their son, a professional hunter, had been gored to death by a buffalo there a few years before. They were still in close contact with his wife and young son. The sombre change in conversation was lightened considerably by the sudden appearance of several zebra and giraffe not far from the entrance gate. The photos of these animals are all Mirjam’s iPhone handiwork.

The following day we managed to get one of the park wardens to run us back to the Safari Lodge in his private vehicle for US$10 or $15. While waiting for the Intercape we went out to the front and had a cup of tea. A herd of impala made their way down to the water hole and entertained us for the next 30 minutes or so. The young rams dashed and pursued each other this way and that around the perimeter of the hole time and again. Several of them paired off and sparred in a light-hearted sort of way which suggested to me they were playing rather than preparing to rut with the females.

From Hwange it was back to Bulawayo and a few more nights as guests of the Einhorn’s. On the Sunday we hitched a ride with Pete to town and from there caught a taxi to the local bus terminus to find a coach bound Eastwards to Masvingo.

Masvingo was most memorable not for the nearby and infamous Great Zimbabwe Ruins but for the unassuming little guesthouse where we spent two nights. Not long before sundown the bus dropped us opposite the locally upmarket Chevron Hotel. Prices there started at US$60 per night, somewhat beyond our remit. We asked around at the local taxi rank for alternative options. Someone suggested

Titambire Lodge

Titambire Lodge

a guest house in the opposite direction but fortunately on our side of the main road. We traipsed that way, all the time rather sceptical, considering the suburban flavour of the place, but lo and behold it was there – Titambire Lodge – an unassuming white-walled house with a small red-concrete verandah, painted wire furniture fronting a row of large glass windows and a door. The important thing was that it was far more reasonable at US$10 p/n and clean! We had the use of a little two-plate cooking stove and a bedroom with blankets and clean sheets all to ourselves.

I imagine that it had once been a normal suburban home converted to the purpose of taking guests. In the nearest bathroom to our room was an ancient Monarch boiler above a large enamel bathtub inscribed with a nameplate which read Monarch: Salisbury, Kitwe and Ndola. So it was at least 36 years old (Salisbury is what Harare used to be called). The other bathroom had a shower whose use you had to request so that the geyser could be switched on. The water was freezing otherwise as we discovered to our dismay. A cold front was passing through at the time and standing naked on a cold concrete floor waiting for a non-existent stream of water was not really my thing. And then, even an hour of being switched on, there was only a few minutes of hot water available.

But for the budget price we sucked it up and besides the two male staff on duty were delighted to have us stay at the establishment. One of them, called Douglas, made polite conversation but was never intrusive. We left him some dinner one evening (tuna cooked with tomato and onion and some sweet potato I think) which he declared ‘delicious.’ We may travel cheaply but we do like our evening munch!

Masvingo town itself does not have that much to recommend it although it has always been locally important and a provincial capital. We discovered the local TM, now under the umbrella of the South African supermarket chain, Pick’n’Pay, was fully stocked with everything one could want for an average functioning household.  Mirjam had fallen in love with Marbella sorghum porridge and we found it at last along with selection of local ‘organic’ products. I have to admit that the porridge was actually very good. Most mornings began with a bowl of Marbella mixed with a large spoon of peanut butter, mashed banana, nuts and raisins.

Outside the supermarket the reality of life was evident: numerous vendors selling neat little pyramids of tomatoes and onion, boxes of cigarettes, phone chargers and other basic consumables and electronic goods. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the local people, many of them with some sort of impairment. One blind man sat outside another store nearby, his guitar hooked up to a battery-powered amplifier which was in turn being charged by a solar panel. He sang a sad lament with a typically sonorous African voice. Another blind man tap-tapped his way past us, a black acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, a soiled jacket wrapped around his spare frame. Another man who had been on the bus with us from Bulawayo was selling faux fur jackets spread out on the sidewalk. He tried to get Mirjam’s attention but it definitely was not her sort of thing.

I won’t say much about Great Zimbabwe except that it’s an interesting sort of pace for a day visit and of great importance in the history of the nation. Not only does the country take its name from the place (Dzimbabwe roughly translates to house of stones) but the image of the half-dozen or more carvings of stone birds found here adorn the country’s flag, the conical tower in the main enclosure features on the coat of arms, and there are numerous other associations besides.

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At last we made our way to Harare in a shared vehicle with four other occupants. Distorted gospel music blared all the way to the outskirts of the city where we disembarked at around 4pm. The driver took me aside and implored me to ‘trust no-one’ in the capital and to be careful. I smiled inwardly but appreciated that he would be giving sound advice to a new arrival. For both Mirjam and I it was quite an eye-opener as we transferred by minibus taxi to downtown Harare. The place was shambolic, even by my reckoning. We discovered that people preferred to walk in the road and compete with the traffic rather than be squeezed onto crumbling pavements crammed with vendors and beggars. We were conspicuous by our bags, backpacks and Eurasian skin but no-one really bothered us, so frenetic was the flow of humanity at that late time of day.

We finally made it across to a car park on 4th street that I knew well and deemed to be a good collection point and waited for my friend Drew to arrive. He came as promised and whisked us away to the relative normality of northern suburbia. We would spend the next two weeks or so catching up with friends and immediate family. There is Zimbabwe and then there is Harare in its little bubble. And that’s not to say it’s any fault of the inhabitants, that’s just the way that it is,

Like everywhere else we had been people shook their heads and lamented the sorry state of affairs. The economy was wallowing in uncertain waters (again) and there was a chronic shortage of money. Nothing much had changed since my last visit. Our first evening there we joined my mum’s friend, Aurora, who hosted us for a week, at a quiz evening (we came 3rd). We drank coffee and wine, ate good food and met interesting people. The man across from me, Nick, remarked that he’d been a contemporary of my uncle Paul’s at St George’s College many years before. Another, Pierre, was well acquainted with in-laws of my cousin whilst the lady next to me wanted to know if she could put me in touch with anyone in the mining game including her ex in Tanzania.

I was reminded of the incredibly tight-knit community there and indeed how much I missed it, albeit with a good dose of nostalgia. Life had a façade of normality in northern suburbia but beneath the veneer I sensed the disillusion, anger and perhaps even a hint of resignation. There were friends talking of emigrating when just a few years before such thoughts would never have been entertained. My brother was one of them. He and his family are uprooting to Eastern Australia in December. They’d already ventured across twice and enrolled the kids in their respectable schools, and the perused the property market for suitably spacious properties. On that issue my brother expressed the sentiment of many Zimbo’s, unwillingly moving abroad: “it’s not fair on the kids not to give them the space they are used to.”

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After a few inquiring questions I learnt that my brother’s wife was the real driving force behind the move. I couldn’t blame her with all the prevailing hardship and uncertainty but the prospect of their departure saddened me in an indirect sort of way. Post-independent Zimbabwe had embraced a kind of multiculturalism embodied in multi-racial schools and a certain equality of the races but there were flaws at the outset. For some time the project had been failing and it seemed to be failing ever faster and more dramatically. There is reason for optimism though.

Days after we crossed over at Beit Bridge – a surprisingly pleasant experience on the Zimbabwean side and a somewhat unsurprising-but-still-frustratingly-fraught experience on the RSA side – there was an uprising of sorts amongst the local traders, sick of the extortion and repeated readjustment of the goal-posts. They took an exception to whatever latest tax/license fee was recently imposed and set fire to some infrastructure. Beit Bridge border post is desolate and unkempt as it is so it’s hard to see how it could be any worse.

Not very long after this and a matter of days after Mirjam and I departed the country a little over a month ago, this time via the Plumtree border post, there were widespread and coordinated stay-aways in the country and unrest in the townships. The government was evidently shaken. The inspiration behind the protests was a Christian pastor – Zimbabwe is still a very religious country – Evans Mawarire who mobilised a groundswell of support using social media hashtag #ThisFlag. Check it out and lend your support! The latest news reports that the influential War Veterans Association have withdrawn their support for long-time President Mugabe. Considering the violent and vocal support they have given him in the past this is quite some development.

The journey to Botswana was an interesting experience. We arrived late in the day in Bulawayo on a coach from Harare. En route all male passengers had to disembark at one of a dozen or more police checkpoints for a pad down and perusal of our hand luggage. I asked the cop what they were looking for.

“Guns and drugs” was the reply, but his efforts seemed half-hearted and he didn’t even bother to make us unload the baggage in the side compartments of the coach. That reprieve would later be rescinded at the border post where luggage was compulsorily unloaded and checked by the authorities. On the issue of the police, they were particularly loathed by the general populace in Zim because of their corrupt ways. Vehicles could be stopped at random and fines extorted from the drivers for trifling offences: in our case US$20 for not having a wheel-jack in the car we borrowed from Aurora; in other instances, lacking the correct-coloured reflective tape on the bumper for example. On the one hand it was commendable that vehicle roadworthiness and safety was taken seriously but it was the way in which it was implemented that left motorists fuming.

It was no secret that civil servants hadn’t been properly paid for months. Most government employees just had to suck it up but the police had the means to find an alternative source of income. I do not to imply that every cop in the country is corrupt. There are no doubt still a few good ones out there no-one had anything good to say about them on this particular visit!

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

So onwards to Botswana we went. We boarded yet another African ‘chicken’ bus from the roadside edge of urban Bulawayo. Our taxi driver, Enoch, who ferried us there from the Intercape coach drop-off point, advised us to exchange hard currency for Botswana Pula prior to embarking. We found a youngish guy loitering nearby who fitted the bill. He gave us a rate of 1:10 and assured us that a bus would pass by in the next 30 minutes or so. Whilst we waited I asked the currency dealer the cause of some serious scars on his right arm. His reply was unsettling but not surprising.

“Back in the 2001,” he began “I was going to buy a car from Botswana. What I needed was Pula so exchanged US$ 5000 at the border post with some money changers. But these guys they were crooks and they stabbed me with a knife and ran away with my money.” He shrugged nonchalantly as if this was just a sad fact of life. I remarked that it was somewhat ironic that he was now a currency dealer himself but he saw nothing strange in this and when I think back almost every Zimbabwean has been a currency dealer at one stage or another.

Our bus arrived filled to capacity so we made to stand in the aisle. Passengers in the rear half of the compartment observed us with detached interest for a few minutes before losing interest. Yet even in the discomfort and inconvenience of the moment there was humour to be had. Behind the driver was a neatly printed sign which stated – Patrons over 90 can travel free if accompanied by their parents. There were buckets and blankets and bags to contend with and when we stopped at each of the many road-blocks we had to duck down into the stairwell that connected the passenger deck to the rear side-door since we were evidently contravening the law.

We mysteriously stopped just short of the border and two of the passengers got off. I thought nothing of it at the time. The border post involved the usual checks of passports and baggage and we were all compelled to squelch through a tray of disinfectant at a foot-and-mouth control point before trudging several hundred meters to where the same bus would collect us after traversing the border post. A big neon sign declaring “Botswana at 50” greeted us there. (The country gained independence from Britain in 1966.) A local man co-opted Mirjam and I to join him, grinning, for several photos in front of the glitzy sign whilst his friend snapped away with a shiny digital SLR. That’s what I like about Africa – the cheerfulness amidst the struggle of daily existence!

We dined on two portions of sadza and chicken at a border store nearby and a little while later the bus arrived. We hastily threw the bones and gristle to one of several mangy curs hanging around the edge of the uninspiring establishment and re-embarked. We were back in the aisles despite the loss of a few passengers, or so I thought. A few miles on, night having fallen in the interim, we halted at another road block, this time on Botswana territory. A frenzied scuffle ensued whereupon an unkempt woman slithered past me, another converging from the other direction, both of them ducking into the toilet compartment adjacent to the stairwell. The reason soon became apparent: two police officers came aboard and started checking passport documents.

This took several minutes but they completed their check without accounting for the two in the toilet compartment. As we continued on our way they both emerged warily as people greeted them with smiles and probably a few pointed jokes as well. No one seemed in any way perturbed. A short while later at the next stop we were both able to get seats and I asked my neighbour what had just transpired. She described how those same two passengers, formerly undistinguished, alighted before the border post, illegally crossed without passports, and met us back on the Botswana side a little later.

The scramble to hide in the toilet was simply to evade the authorities who obviously dealt with this sort of thing quite regularly. I admired the fact that there was solidarity amongst the passengers and that no-one had spilt the beans. Life was tough in Zimbabwe and probably almost everyone there was only crossing to buy a few goods in Francistown to sell back home for a small margin of profit. I did meet a young guy from Bulawayo who was returning to study in Gaborone but most looked like working-class traders.

Botswana is a country of almost endless sands and scrubby vegetation, punctuated here and there by more established dry woodland vegetation and occasional salt flats and pans. After a night in Francistown we caught a cross-country bus to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The next week was a wonderful experience, even considering the very conservative budget we allowed ourselves. If I am frugal in much of my travel Mirjam is even more so. When we broke our journey somewhere for a few days she would bake bread for the onward journey and almost never indulged in anything I would call comfort food or takeaways. She had an aversion to sugar but happily dined on nuts and fruit and chunks of homemade bread lathered with peanut butter. She was an inexpensive and uncomplaining travel companion.

By night we slept in a tent in the Maun Rest Camp, across the Thamalakane River from the Old Bridge Backpackers. We forsook sleeping mats and lay with sandy ground directly beneath us as we’d one in the Vic Falls and Hwange. Sometimes I tossed and turned in the early hours and I could often feel a dull ache in my hips and shoulders the following day but I slept well enough to feel reasonably well rested. The Old Bridge is a great place to sit and enjoy the numerous kingfishers, egrets, hammerkop, ibis and other water birds that frequent the river at this time of year. The waters had risen only a few weeks before, draining directly from the massive delta north of there, bringing all manner of life to its banks.

Most mornings and evenings we prepared our food at the backpackers on the other side of the river. It could be reached via the ‘Old Bridge’ referred to in the name of the place, about a 15 or 20 minute walk. At the backpackers there was a bar and main reception and it was usually a hive of activity. It also had the best view of the river and Hippo Pool directly downstream of the bridge (we never did see any of the animals though).

It was enough just to sit and enjoy the ambience of the place: the river; the shady sycamore fig above the outside tables and overreaching the pool; the half-dozen or more pied kingfishers plunging regularly into the shallows; and a pair of much larger giant kingfishers chattering noisily as the swooped from tree to tree. We also watched a moderately-sized water monitor (legavaan) wade along the river bank and up onto an artificial stone fountain on the edge of the camp he’d made his home.

The Old Bridge itself was in a state of semi-disrepair. The gaps were spanned by a series of large hardwood tree trunks lashed together and the intervening structure infilled with copious amounts of soil, a crumbling asphalt surface adhering to the top. It had an interesting history as testified by a rusty information signpost on the opposite bank. It alleged that the bridge was built in the first part of the last century to assist migrant labour from further north – Zambia, Angola, the Congo – making their way southwards to the great gold and diamond mines in colonial South Africa. These days young boys sat and fished for barbel on the leeward side of the bridge whilst couples loitered in the evenings with bottles of beer. All the while a fairly regular back and forth movement of pedestrians, ourselves included, benefitted from the bridge crossing.

I am really very of birdlife wherever I go. I am a self-confessed Twitcher. Everywhere we went I was doing my best to inform Mirjam of the local avifauna. “What’s that over there?” I would ask her later, testing her out. By degree she came to know a boubou shrike from a butcher bird, a sacred ibis from a hadeda. I think I probably drove her mad but she didn’t seem to mind too much. It is interesting how a few birds could be said to define our time together, be it in South Africa, Zimbabwe or Botswana. One was the boubou (southern mostly) which was locally common in all the towns, parks and camps we stayed in. Another was the African hoopoe with its characteristic crest and brown, white and black plumage. But probably the most characteristic was the fork-tailed drongo, present wherever we went and conspicuous by its mimicry of other birds, inquisitive nature and conspicuous foraging.

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After a few days at the rest camp we booked ourselves a transfer by boat upstream to the Boro Community Centre to where we boarded a local mokoro boat for a short trip into the delta itself. It was really a lot of fun and good value at 800 Pula per person, far cheaper than most of the other advertised activities. The mokoro is a boat, traditionally made from a long hollowed-out tree trunk (but in our case reinforced by fibreglass), pushed along by a man (or woman) much like a gondolier or punt, with the aid of a long wooden pole.  Since the delta is only a meter or deep on average this is not an impractical way of getting around. I was really quite surprised how fast our driver shunted us along.

That evening we camped on an island and the next day we went for a 3 hour walk in the vicinity. We were in a wilderness area which acts as a sort of buffer zone between the adjacent communal land and the Moremi Game Reserve further in. We were still some way from Moremi but there was plentiful wildlife here nonetheless. We saw several bull elephant, a small group of lechwe antelope, a large herd of wildebeest (over a hundred Mirjam counted), a herd of zebra and a reedbuck, not to mention a variety of birds: geese, ibis, plovers, stilts, saddle-billed storks, sand grouse, bee-eaters and many more beside. On the return journey the following day we even spotted a pelican foraging in the shallows.

I was sad to have to leave the delta without being able to explore further in, but time was pressing. After a week we jumped on yet another bus for the overnight journey to Gaborone. Packed tight for the initial part of the journey the bus became less compacted after a few people disembarked. A stowaway was discovered in the seat in front of us and ejected by the stocky ticket issuer who poured a tirade of abuse upon the unfortunate young man. Mirjam felt quite bad for him but in Africa many people have so little that seeing another person try benefit from cheating or theft elicits very little sympathy.

At daybreak we arrived in Gaborone and a short taxi ride later we arrived at our faithful Intercape coach, this time headed to Johannesburg. Fortunately tickets were readily available and 45 minutes later we were on our way. The border with South Africa is only a matter of kilometres hence so we arrived there shortly. The rest of the journey was not particularly exciting – certainly nothing to compare with what went before.

For Mirjam, this leg of her holiday was virtually over. She flew out two days later to join her parents in Israel. I will join them shortly. However, in the interim, as you may remember, I went back to the Guest Farm in the Drakensberg. It was hard settling back into things initially but by the time I departed yesterday morning I felt an integral part of the team once again. It’s hard uprooting but in this case it couldn’t really be avoided. At the Gaborone Border Post they had only given me a month’s leave to remain. As two of the new volunteers there commented, “You’ll be back. You belong here!”

Lake Kariba, Past and Present.

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I have some great memories from my teenage years which originate on the enormous body of water known as Lake Kariba. It lies on the north-western margin of the country. Not many people know it but Lake Kariba is the world’s largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume with an enormous storage capacity of 185 cubic kilometers (44.4 cu mi). The enormous mass of water (approximately 180 billion tons) is believed to have induced seismicity in the faulted basin, an extension of the active East Africa rift system, including over 20 earthquakes of greater than 5 magnitude on the Richter scale (wikipedia).

Although the mean depth is only 29m it extends over an area of 5,580 square kms. I traveled the length of the lake by ferry with my family back in the early 1990’s.

Map of Zimbabwe showing location of Lk Kariba

plan map of Lk Kariba, adjacent National Parks, towns, roads and national borders.

The building of the Lake Kariba was a huge undertaking over the half-decade 1955 to 1959 at a cost of USD 480 million – goodness only knows how much that would be in today’s monetary terms. As a comparison, expansion of Kariba South (Kariba South Extension), which will add an additional 300 MW capacity, is expected to cost between USD400 and USD533 million. This is in large part being financed by China Export and Import Bank (China Eximbank) who are providing a loan of USD320 million (allAfrica.com, victoriafalls24.com).

A perusal of material on the popular public domain video-streaming website Youtube has a few snippets of footage from the construction and the various challenges that arose as a consequence of the damming effort, including the controversial resettlement of a significant population of BaTonga tribespeople.

A brief synopsis of this policy is reviewed in the video below by Rudo Sanyanga of the organisation International Rivers. In it she makes repeated reference to the men without knees, with apparent reference to those Europeans involved in the Kariba dam project. If you are reading this and have some insight I would be curious to know the origin of this unusual metaphor.

A clip from Operation Noah, co-ordinated by Rupert Fotherghill, from the archives of British Pathe:

Whatever the controversy and cost of building the dam, once it was realised, there were economic derivatives, namely:

*Hydroelectricity: The dam was built first and foremost as a means to generate power by harnessing the energy of a controlled flow of water passing through turbines beneath the dam wall. Consequently the two hydroelectric stations in this vicinity (the north and south stations respectively) are vital power sources for Zambia and Zimbabwe.The Zimbabwean hydropower station (south station) is currently being upgraded as detailed above.

*Fisheries: The introduction of several commercial species including the Tanganyika Sardine or kapenta, actually a small, planktivorous, pelagic, freshwater clupeid originating from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa (wikipedia). It is an important source of protein for many people in the region. It is usually salted and dried in the baking hot sun of the Zambezi Valley. I have eaten the refrigerated kapenta (a little more expensive than the dried variety if bought from a retailer) and it’s really quite palatable. It is best prepared by a cook on one of the houseboats which ply the waters of the lake (see below).

Other commercial species include fresh-water crayfish and introduced Tilapia sp. which are farmed in large, submerged cages. The latter is a 15,000-ton yield per annum industry (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

*Tourism: Lake Kariba is flanked by a number of National Parks and safari areas e.g Matusadona NP, Chete and Charara Safari Areas; as well as sparsely-populated communities of people, some resettled from that area of the valley flooded by the lake today. The consequence of this is a shoreline populated with abundant wildlife. The populations of most are directly influenced by hunting and poaching pressures e.g. elephant and large antelope. Other species like buffalo have proven susceptible to the rise and fall of the water level of the lake and the influence that the lake level has on the amount of and quality of the grass for grazing (torpedo grass, Panicum repens).

There are safari lodges, hotels and camps in the proximity of the lake which give access to the local wildlife (National Park site) although many tourists, domestic especially, chose to enjoy the luxury of a houseboat from which almost any spot on the lake edge is accessible.

It is this mode of tourism that I remember best. What follows is a gallery of photos from various trips there over the years and an extract from a chapter I wrote on my childhood in Zimbabwe (unpublished):

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The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

It was the ultimate leisure activity in Zimbabwe, and probably still is, to float around on Lake Kariba with a hold full of larger and soft drinks and plenty to eat, and to fish for the multitude of species which frequented the waters of the huge artificial reservoir, 280 kilometers long, constructed in the mid to late 1950s. Prized amongst the fish was the razor-toothed Tiger Fish which predates on many of the smaller species, especially the sardine that had been introduced from Lake Tanganyika, known locally as Kapenta. Only when my father’s law firm had acquired shares in one of the houseboats, the Driftwood, moored in one of the marinas in Kariba township, did we start spending holidays there as well.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

It really was a magical place where one could see a variety of wildlife: enormous herds of buffalo, some of the largest in Africa, but prone to fluctuate in step with the variation in the water level; numerous elephant which would amble slowly along the shoreline and were visible from miles away; pods of hippopotamus in the quieter bays, lagoons and river mouths; herds of impala antelope; groups of waterbuck and birds too numerous to mention.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

As a reminder of its recent past as a river ecosystem and not a lacustrine one, the perimeter of the lake was dotted with the numerous skeletal remnants of trees drowned when the river was dammed, except in the few bays where they had been cleared or where the ground was too steep. The ironwoods were most prominent because, as their name suggests, they are the most resilient of the natural timbers.

The old  lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It's their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The old lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It’s their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The pilots of the boats knew the waterways intimately, which never ceased to amaze me, considering the extent of the shoreline and how the appearance of these dead and sometimes treacherous trees would change as the water level fluctuated. We had hit the occasional stump lying just beneath the waterline whilst chugging along separately in the fishing tender boats which were towed along behind the main houseboat to the mooring spots; fortunately we never capsized although one or other of the tenders had been stuck for a while on one I seem to remember.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot. From left to right: Ivan, me, Dan, my father.

A few exceptional memories stick out in my mind: the first is of a lion kill we witnessed first-hand on the banks of the Sanyati Bay where the victim was one of the multitude of buffalo. After a slight commotion the rest of the herd had continued grazing nearby as if nothing were amiss whilst the lionesses pinned their prey to the ground and slowly suffocated it. The old male of the pride had been in no great hurry to get there, giving an occasional roar as he sauntered over to the kill whereupon his bevy of females had moved to one side; truly ‘the king of the jungle.’

This had been before the buffalo population had crashed, in part due to a deadly outbreak of anthrax but of greater severity to them, the rising of the waters after record rainfall in the upper catchment leading to the loss of the torpedo grass habitat on which they so depended for grazing. It was recognised as a boom and bust cycle and today the population is rapidly increasing once again.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

Another memory is of seeing a cheetah, released from a boma at Tashinga National Parks camp. This was a rare sighting, because cheetahs are Africa’s most fragile big cat species. I had never seen one in the wild before so this was exciting. Whilst my brothers, my father and I were out fishing, my mother, who was sitting on the deck of the boat, had witnessed something very unusual: one of the cheetahs making a kill. The prey this time had been an impala antelope and it had been killed right at the water’s edge she told them on their return. What had happened next was, in some ways, as remarkable.

The pilot of the boat and the cook had quietly disembarked the tethered vessel and alighted on the shore. Before my mother had realised their intentions they had shooed the poor cheetah, still not fully adult, off the kill and proceeded to lop off a hind quarter from the impala with a machete. By the time we returned it was dusk and the cheetah may not have come back to claim the kill before the other scavengers arrived: the jackals and hyenas.

The other memory that is seared into my mind was on another occasion when we had been accompanied by friends from the UK, Meg and Guy Applebeck and their daughter Mia. Us boys, our father and Guy were on the fishing tenders near the holiday lodge known as Tiger Bay which lay slightly inland of the Lake on the Ume River, accessible to houseboats for some distance. Not only was the river renowned for excellent fishing but there was good wildlife along its banks too.

On that particular afternoon we had been fishing peacefully in a small inlet not a stone’s throw from Tiger Bay when a large male waterbuck had come down to the water to drink. The serenity of the scene was shattered by an enormous explosion in the vicinity of the waterbuck as a mighty Nile Crocodile burst out of the shallows and clamped his sizeable jaws onto the upper leg of the antelope. He must have been a very big croc, because the end of his tail was a good ten feet away from his snout. The waterbuck did his best to resist but the leviathan slowly but surely started dragging him through the shallows towards deeper water.

A later fishing trip with my mother's sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and  Philemon, a young lad from Harare.

A later fishing trip with my mother’s sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and Philemon, a young lad from Harare. It was a spot just like this from which we witnessed the attack on the waterbuck with Guy.

We had all been too amazed and overawed by the spectacle to do anything at that point, but suddenly Guy became animated: “Quick, quick, we must save it” he had shouted. It was widely held and indeed decreed that people should not interfere with the acts of nature, no matter how distressing events may be, but it was too awful for us to contemplate doing nothing to help the afflicted waterbuck.

We fired up the engine and approached cautiously. Had we not interfered the croc probably would have had his way and drowned the animal but our encroachment caused it to act hastily and it had rolled over and torn the entire hind leg off the buck before retreating silently into the depths from which he had come. The waterbuck, never uttering so much as a cry, had staggered out of the water on three legs, standing proudly on the bank, its nose quivering, but unable to go much further.

The wound had to be mortal considering how much flesh had been rent from its body exposing the delicate entrails to infection, if it did not succumb to blood loss or predation by other beasts before that happened. We had approached the proprietor of Tiger Bay and implored him to go and put the animal out of its misery but he pointed out that it was a National Parks area and shooting an animal, even a fatally wounded one, was not permitted.

We returned to the houseboat solemnly. I remember Guy muttering darkly about the vileness and under-handedness of the crocodile, but that was what they had done for countless millennia; who were we to pass judgement? Both crocodilian and mammalian had lived side by side well before man had inhabited that environment. Most likely the antelope had become a meal for other meat-eating animals, whether lions or dedicated scavengers like the hyena, we would never know. This was way of the wild and it was harsh and unforgiving.

The houseboat years were some of the best I can remember from my time as an adolescent. There were trips to the Eastern Highlands and elsewhere but Lake Kariba was where we had best enjoyed time as a family.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.