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Zimbabwe Adventure 2000

by Sheryl Smith Levinson

Here's Cheryl and her husband, Ellis, and their new African friend.

Hi Cheryl, Hi Ellis
(Photo credits: Cheryl & Ellis Levinson, unless otherwise noted.)

After a year of planning, I had serious reservations about embarking on an African safari. Our destination was Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, and hotbed of civil strife. Robert Mugabe had been its President for the past twenty years. The last eight years, he became dictator-like, gaining wealth and prestige at the expense of his small country, situated in southeastern Africa. Several months before our adventure began, Mugabe was openly encouraging the violence perpetrated by black Africans who were squatting on white-owned farms. Right before my husband, Ellis, and I left the U.S., at least thirty people, black and white, had been killed. An advisory from the State Department warned us not to engage in political demonstrations, or to travel close to controversial areas. As you can imagine, I was concerned for our safety. The tour company, Wilderness Safaris, assured us that we would be nowhere near the conflict. We were, after all, traveling in the northwest part of Zimbabwe, through three National Parks, far away from cities and farms.

A digestive problem I had struggled with for several months added to my trepidation. Would I be able to eat exotic African food? Would the prescribed medication work or would I be a ball of physical discomfort while traveling in a foreign country? I was also consumed with a third fear, that of “light plane” travel. We were to take three of those flying contraptions in order to get from one National Park to another.

To begin with, the flight to Zimbabwe took twenty-two hours (without much legroom, believe me).  First, it was non-stop from San Francisco to London where we had a ten-hour layover. Our travel agent booked us into a hotel near the airport where we napped and showered. Refreshed, we weathered another eleven-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. From there it was ninety minutes by plane to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where we spent two restful days before beginning our safari.

Victoria Falls is a small tourist town with lovely hotels and the largest falls in the world, compliments of the Zambezi river. Upon entering the small airport, I was greeted by the smell of sweating bodies. Every uniformed man and woman who sat behind the long tables, and ushered us along to purchase our visas, emanated the same scent. In the United States, this is labeled body odor, and to be avoided at all costs. Here, in Africa, there was something about the smell that enlivened me, connected me to the earth, to stark reality without the veil of frequent showers, deodorants and perfumes. “I am here, really here,” I thought, intoxicated by just being here in this strange new land.

Wow
Victoria Falls

The first evening we dined at Bowmas, a buffet-style restaurant. It was an open-air, African village of sorts - a great introduction to the region’s cuisine. Because we eat mostly vegetarian we didn’t go for the ostrich,  pig, or kudu meat.  Instead, we relished the salads, rice and corn-based Zimbabwean beer. Of course, we just had to taste the worms, which were fried in oil and garlic, a delicacy I plan never to grind my teeth on again. While we ate, a dance troupe of young men and women in colorful African costumes entertained us with tribal chants while they danced to the beat of Congo drums.

The next morning, my husband and I spent two hours in the market place which was an easy walk from our hotel. Young African men and women hawked their wares: wooden bowls, breadbaskets, carved elephants and giraffes, tribal masks, and sculptured heads.  Due to the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, the tourist trade was almost non-existent. The struggling merchants followed the meager flow of tourists and harassed us unmercifully. 

“Let me take you to my shop; my shop is the best shop. I have beautiful things, you’ll see, Miss.” The “shop” consisted of a rectangular patch in an open-air stall surrounded on all sides by other shops. We bargained our way into buying several carved animals, two bowls, a zebra-patterned tribal mask and a breadbasket.  That accomplished, we spent the rest of the day hiking the paths alongside Victoria Falls.

Raincoats, which we forgot to pack, were absolutely necessary. It was easy to rent them from the young men who accosted us as we walked toward the entrance to the waterfalls.  We spent about a dollar each in American money for two chintzy plastic ponchos. Visible a mile away, mist from Victoria Falls billowed up into the atmosphere like smoke from a raging fire. It rained on everyone who walked the trails near the mountains of rushing water. Without protection, our cameras would have certainly been ruined, but what a worthwhile hike! The almost deafening roar of the falls was testimony to its incredible power. To this day I can recall the sound by simply closing my eyes and remembering.

Later, we walked over the bridge into Zambia to see Victoria Falls from a closer perspective. Along the way, a baby baboon used its mother as a jungle gym. He somersaulted on and off her back and finally slid under her belly where he hung on while she walked on all fours. Mongoose ran across the road as if they had an urgent appointment, and two young warthogs butted heads in play before disappearing into the brush. These creatures were merely the appetizers, whetting our taste buds for the main meal - the African safari that was to begin the following morning at 9:00am.

It was a three-hour trip in an open land rover to Hwange (whong-gay) National Park. In all, there were six of us on the safari, including our guide, John, who did all of the driving. We bumped along, our muscles and bones adjusting to the primitive roads and the rough rhythm of the vehicle. We passed villages with grass-roofed huts. Goats ran rampant amidst clotheslines and brush, capable of eating everything. John explained that goats were a sign of wealth. They were also used for milk and, unfortunately, slaughtered for food.


Photo credit: Carrol Chrys
In contrast to the bustle of Victoria Falls, Hwange was a different world.  Soon after driving over its invisible border we encountered an elephant lurking behind the trees just off the road. His huge head was so close I could see the deep wrinkles carved in his skin, and the long eyelashes that protected drooping eyes. His magnificent ears spread out on both sides of his head like giant fans. “Wow,” was all I could think. “Wow.”
Three giraffe walked across he road into the brush. They soon merged with the trees, stretching their necks upward like limbs, grabbing leaves with expressive mouths, and munching contentedly. The way they moved those long legs was pure poetry. Later, we saw a herd of giraffe run across the plain they shared with zebra and elephant, it took my breath away.

We drove into camp after witnessing a stunning sunset near a water hole where jackals, baboons and vultures coexisted. We were greeted by three young African men who cooked our meals, kept our tents tidy, as well as hand washed and ironed our dirty clothes. 

That first night, we acquainted ourselves with camp life as it would be for the rest of the safari. Before dinner, we sat around a campfire while chips and nuts were served. Drinks were offered: wine, beer or we could mix ourselves a cocktail. One of our hosts then served an appetizer at the long table made festive by candlelight. A buffet dinner followed. There was always one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian entrée along with fresh vegetables cooked to perfection. Dessert, brewed coffee or tea, an after dinner liqueur along with conversation about the day’s game viewing were the treats we enjoyed after each evening’s meal. With this kind of TLC, I knew from that first night that my stomach was going to be just fine.

A table with a candle, and two cots decorated our 10’ by 12’ tent. En suite, there was a flush toilet and a hanging bucket with a showerhead attached to its base. Generally, we showered in late afternoon when the temperature was warmest. Upon request, our hosts brought us two gallons of hot water which they poured into our hanging shower bucket. John instructed us to wet ourselves first , then turn the water off and lather up.  We could then use the remaining water to rinse ourselves off.  Containers of shampoo and shower gel sat on a small table in our “bathroom.” Large towels were laid out on our cots. The bedding was thick and smelled fresh. It kept us warm throughout Zimbabwe’s chilly nights.


The dining tent, complete with wine glasses, folded napkins, and drinks.

Our camp (at left) and our hanging 
shower bucket!


There was a clear advantage to traveling through sub-equatorial Zimbabwe during the dry winter season, however cold the nights. Daytime temperatures were in the upper sixties to low seventies. An added bonus was the absence of mosquitoes. There was no need to spray our tents or ourselves with insect repellent. That stroke of good planning, plus the fact that we were taking Larium, kept us free from worry about contracting malaria.

The following morning, we were awakened at 6:30 am by one of our hosts approaching our tent and saying something akin to “knock, knock.” He poured hot water into two large stainless steel bowls propped up on stands that sat outside the front flap of our shelter.  I crawled out of bed, and stumbled outside to the just rising sun. Pretty. I splashed my face with warm water, then brushed my teeth. I had long since given up on any attempt to make myself beautiful. No hairdryer could possibly survive on a safari. Eye make-up was out of the question. It would have smeared and irritated my eyes after a mere fifteen minutes in the wind-tossed Land Rover. Clearly, au naturel was the way to go on this trip.

After a light breakfast we were off to view game. John, it turned out, was an expert at tracking wild animals, naming birds and plants, and educating us about the habits of many wondrous creatures. That morning we went to an area where vultures sat like sculptures in a leafless tree. John had gotten a tip from another guide that a lioness’s carcass was lying nearby in the grass. We gathered round the dead beast, who had, most likely, expired from old age. The carcass had pretty much turned to bone, except for her head which still resembled a female lion with fang-like teeth. 

We continued through Hwange’s Kalahari region viewing elephants, zebra, elegant impala and herds of wildebeest. Later that morning, a young buck elephant, clearly put off by our Land Rover, challenged us. He stood in front of the vehicle, shook his head from side to side, then stood perfectly still and stared. He filled his trunk with dirt and, with an arrogant twist of his proboscis, sprayed the dust all over himself. As a final statement, he again shook his head, ears, and trunk as if to say “get outta here!” Magnificent brave warrior. I had long before sworn off zoos and animal circuses. After this encounter, though, I vowed to shout my protest about the use and abuse of animals for entertainment from the tallest buildings and highest mountains.

After brunch, a shower, and tea, we took off again to track lion. We came across hippos in a small lake maintained by the national park. They floated like fat logs. At sunset, they treated us to their song that went something like this: Snort, snort honnnnnnk! One started, then ten others chimed in. A bit beyond this site, eagle-eyed John spotted a pride of lions in the distance, sitting around a large termite mound. There were two mamas and three cubs, which we observed for an hour through our binoculars before making our way back to camp.

After a divine vegetable curry and rice dinner, John talked us into getting into the Rover and searching for lion in the dark. We never came upon a lion, but we did encounter several brown spotted hyenas, who skulked around in front of the truck. One turned his head over his left shoulder to glare at us, the glint in his eye exaggerated by our vehicle’s headlight. Chills ran up my spine.


The second night in Hwange, I awakened in the wee hours to strange sounds. It was a kind of agonized mooing, certainly an animal in excruciating pain.  John also heard it and surmised that a wildebeest had been killed by a hyena. So, after breakfast, we drove off into the cool morning to investigate. 
Giraffe
A giraffe, dining!


John went directly to the place where we had seen the hyenas the previous night. Sure enough, we spotted at least three of them. The dominant hyena was walking with the wildebeest’s spine in his mouth, the bones still covered with red meat. Poor wildebeest! It didn’t have a chance against the pack of hyena, brilliant hunters that they are. The “laughing” attributed to this predator is merely one of its many sinister sounds. Hyenas laugh (cackle is more like it) when they are excited about a kill, and when they call to other hyenas to feast on their luckless victim.

Our next destination was Chizarira National Park. A twin engine, eight-passenger plane transported us, and the flight was surprisingly smooth. We said goodbye to Hwange from 7000 feet, and landed on terra firma forty five minutes later (much to my relief).  Chizarira was the least interesting of the three National Parks. The wild animals that inhabited the place were not accustomed to humans or Land Rovers. They ducked into thick brush at the slightest sound. Whereas Hwange was mostly flat plain, conducive to observing the wildlife for hours, Chizarira was mountainous. Located on the escarpment of the Zambezi Valley, this remote and rugged place did have some magnificent views.

On our one complete day in Chizarira, John, Ellis and I were the only ones who went game viewing. As the Land Rover negotiated gullies and ruts we discussed  the fate of Zimbabwe, its poverty and soaring numbers of people infected with HIV. John, a native of this country, could only hope that Mugabe wouldn’t win a majority in Parliament come the elections which were scheduled for June 24 and 25th. It was common knowledge, however, that these elections would be rigged. On that sad note, John led us to a rock plateau where we sat and looked down upon a pool.  A crocodile was sunning himself on a rock.  He snapped shut his massive jaws, which sounded like a clap of thunder. The slightest noise sent him back into the pond, fast as lightning.  He then rose to the surface and stayed just under water like a ghoulish thing, floating in complete stillness for awhile. Minutes later, he sank into the depths of the stagnant pool - gone from our sight forever.

The plane that was to take us to Metusadona had a single engine, and could hold eight passengers. I sensed that the pilot was nervous as we piled the luggage into the craft, and settled ourselves into narrow seats. He revved the engine in preparation for the takeoff, then suddenly turned it off

 “Something’s wrong with my brakes,” he said. 

“Yes,” said our trusty guide. “As I’m looking out the window, I can see brake fluid spurting out of your right wheel.” 

The pilot went on to say that the plane was carrying a heavy load, and that he was pretty sure the takeoff would be OK. It was the landing he was worried about. We were ushered off the aircraft while John conferred with the pilot. 

“It’s your plane,” I heard him say. “You need to let me know if it will transport my clients safely. We’re not on any time schedule, and we don’t have to take this plane out.” 

The pilot mumbled something like “It can get us there,” (not with enough conviction, however, to satisfy me). 

“We don’t have to get to Metusadona today. I can drive everyone back to camp, and we can just as well go tomorrow,” I heard John say. 

Pacing in a circle amidst the tall grass that lined the airstrip, I told Ellis there was no way I would get back on that single prop wonder. He urged me to inform John immediately. 

“This isn’t going to work for me,” I called over to John. 

“Well, that’s it, then,” he said to the pilot, undoubtedly relieved that someone took a stand which helped him make a clear decision. The upshot was that two members of our safari chose to fly to Metusadona in the questionable plane, along with our luggage. Three of us, along with John, stayed behind. We hung out at the nearby visitor’s center while our leader radioed for another aircraft.

Three hours later, we flew into the sunset awestruck by the panorama of Lake Kariba and its shoreline that encompassed Metusadona National Park. There was a moment of excitement (bordering on the dangerous) when the pilot attempted to land.  A herd of impala blocked the runway, so he had to quickly pull up the plane, bank again, and land on a different airstrip. Very cool. As for me, all I could think of was “two light aircraft down safely, and only one more to go.”


While Hwange National Park had the best game viewing, Metusadona was the most beautiful. The vistas along the shore of the 175-mile long Lake Kariba were lush. The lake itself is man-made, formed by the Kariba Dam which produces hydroelectric power. This body of water forms some of the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and eventually flows into the 2200-mile long Zambezi River.

Our campsite was picturesque, positioned on the banks of a dry riverbed. Lead by John, a rifle over his shoulder, we took several hikes through the riverbed hoping to spot a lion. No such luck. The second day in Metusadona, while we were taking a short walk to a creek, we came upon a tuskless mother elephant with her baby. Suddenly, John yelled “Run everybody! Go back to the truck!” We scrammed all right, and ran until we were gasping for breath. Back on the road, John explained that we had startled Big Mama, and that she started to charge through the brush toward our group. “Even as I was running behind you,” he said, “I heard tree branches snap.” Whew! We were just relieved that John didn’t have to shoot the elephant in order to save us. That would have put quite a damper on this safari.

“We’ll see rhino this afternoon,” John said during breakfast. 

“Guaranteed.” 

“Sure, sure,” I thought. This was our last viewing day on the safari. With all of our drives and hikes, we never came upon any of the black rhinos that had been rounded up and put in Zimbabwean protection zones, thereby saving them from extinction. Their numbers plummeted from sixty thousand in the 1970s to less than two hundred in 2000. Anyway, we hiked to the area where John said we would see rhino. 

“See this?” he whispered. “This is fresh rhino dung.” We walked a little farther on tiptoe, looked up, and sure enough, two or three of these pachyderms were casually munching on bushes. 

It turned out that they were young beasts who had lost their mothers to poachers. (The rhino horn is surrounded by myth and is sold for medicinal and decorative purposes). These eight hundred pound “babies” are part of a Metusadona National Park program to save and reintroduce the black rhino to the wild.  Their trainer sat casually up against a tree. Handled by humans who teach them how to survive in their natural habitat, the rhinos are eventually taught to stay away from those same humans. They are then released into the national park to fend for themselves. One “little girl” was pretty adorable. She followed Ellis around like a huge dog, hoping he would scratch her ears. We were instructed not to accommodate her, since she needed to learn to separate from, and develop a fear of, all humankind.

The final afternoon, I chose not to go out in the Land Rover. By now, I had a cold and craved rest. Three of us stayed behind and toured the clean, organized camp kitchen. Our hosts showed us the gas-powered refrigerator, the iron with hot coals inside its base, and the rectangular hole in the dirt where cakes and breads were baked. All cooking as well as the heating of water was done over a wood fire. Awesome!

The next day was the most arduous of the entire trip.  My cold was in full blossom and I hadn’t slept well. We drove an hour in the Land Rover, and caught the ferry (really a small motorboat) which puttered its way across Lake Kariba, finally docking in Kariba Town. Amidst hugs and promises to e-mail each other, we said goodbye to John and the others. Shuttled by van to the airport, we climbed into our final light aircraft and flew back to Victoria Falls. After a three-hour layover, we boarded a real plane, (Lord be praised!), and flew to Johannesburg.  Four hours later, we were cozy in a Virgin Atlantic jet, and slept our way to London.

After two relaxing days in London, happily reunited with porcelain toilets and real showers, we were ready to fly the last eleven hours home. As I look at photos and recall our safari,  I realize that game viewing wasn’t really the whole story. So much was in connecting with the landscape: the sweet smelling grasses, the brush, the acacia and baobab trees. It was also a journey of sound: the grunt of the male lion that surrounded our campsite one night in Metusadona, the scream of baboons, a soulful bird trill at sunrise, and, of course, the torrents of Victoria Falls. My senses are filled with the memory of Zimbabwe where I hope to return someday. In the meantime, I hold good thoughts for this little country. May it transcend its present struggles. May its terrain, wildlife, people, sunsets, rising yellow moon, rivers and lakes forever glow in the dark.


Note To Readers: According to statistics, at least one in four adults is infected with HIV in Zimbabwe. With this fact as background, John recounted a sad-but-true story: Young, educated American girls frequently visit Victoria Falls to learn whitewater rafting. The river guides are muscular, strong and good-looking. The women are easily attracted to their macho charms, and engage in indiscriminate sex with them. A great many of these men are infected with HIV. And so the virus spreads to young American females who know the facts about AIDS, and risk their lives anyway.


 
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