Zimbabwe

The Bvumba Mountains: Still Zimbabwe, Now Cold and Gloomy

Oct. 23-25, 2013

Daphne Du Maurier is best known for ‘Rebecca’, which is often required reading in English courses that cover the Gothic novel. I recently finished ‘The King’s General’, which was written eight years later, but shares many of the genre’s hallmarks: damp stone mansions; high cliffs abutting stormy seas; insane relatives locked in secret rooms; dark, brooding landscapes; dark, brooding people – etc., etc. As we climbed the twisting road through the Bvumba Mountains, the dark peaks ahead mere shadows behind the fog, the trees looming over the road with a sinister lushness, it occurred to me that we had arrived in the Cornwall of Zimbabwe (regional motto: ‘Fewer Sheep, More Leopards’).

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Potholed road at the base of the mountains.

The Bvumba Mountains are in the extreme east of Zimbabwe, right along the Mozambique border. Zimbabwe’s third-largest town, Mutare, lies in the foothills. We decided to head into the mountains because we heard that there were splendid views and some excellent botanical gardens. The views were not much in evidence; I caught a brief, dazzling glimpse down one of the valleys when the fog lifted on the drive up, but it was only a moment before the clouds descended once more.

The gardens, on the other hand, were better than I’d imagined; not because of the plants, but because of the eeriness. The place had the feel of a deserted fairground. At one time, hundreds of visitors wandered the gardens, which covered many acres at the height of their splendour (I would look up the exact number, but this internet connection is painfully slow). The flood of tourists slowed, and then came to almost a complete stop, when the political violence began. Three-quarters of the gardens have now been abandoned, and the most recent entry in the guestbook that the bored receptionist slid towards us was from a week previous. In light of the stalled revenue stream, I am mystified that the gardens manage to remain open at all. Minimum wage in Zimbabwe is appallingly low, but our park entry plus one night camping in the gardens would hardly pay a week of wages plus other operating costs.

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The maps have become less serviceable.

We stayed at the sole remaining habitable campsite. The old campsites were the first place we went to explore. Some minutes of wading through thigh-deep weeds brought us to the old ablutions block. The mirrors had been removed, leaving patches of black mildew, and the corners were thickly furred with cobwebs. In the grass nearby, we discovered a rusted pipe stand.

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Abandoned campsite.

The rest of the park was similarly desolate. Paths were overgrown; signs were peeling; the ‘Scenic Drive’ was closed; the parking lot was no longer immediately recognizable as such.

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The parking lot.

Despite this, walking through the gardens was, I thought, one of the highlights of Zimbabwe. Many of the plantings had a wild, overgrown splendour that I suspect was not in the original plan. Being the sole tourists in a place designed for thousands felt like a rare privilege. If Zimbabwe is ever running properly again, which I imagine it will be eventually, I have no doubt that the gardens will be a premier tourist attraction once more.

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Categories: National Parks, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | 1 Comment

Mana Pools -> Harare -> Masvingo

Mana Pools is in northeast Zimbabwe. From there we travelled south, cutting slightly east of the country’s vertical meridian.

We spent one night between Mana Pools and Harare at a place called Chinhoyi Caves, where you can follow some rough stone steps down to the Sleeping Pool. The pool is not very wide, but is well over a hundred metres deep. It is said that many people have drowned in it, most as a result of being thrown in by Nyamakwere, a mad man of several centuries ago. The water is copper-sulfate blue, but the signs say that this is due entirely to the depth of the water and the angle of the sunlight.

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The Sleeping Pool in Chinhoyi Caves.

Harare
Harare was the most developed city we’d been in since South Africa. It has a museum, which unfortunately was being fumigated while we were there; a botanical garden, parts of which are looking a little sketchy at present; and a small art gallery containing a rather heart-rending set of AIDS awareness posters drawn by local schoolchildren. Like many parts of Zimbabwe, it has the feel of a place that has aged prematurely. The streets are still wide and sunny and strewn with the pale blue petals of jacaranda trees, but the sidewalks have holes in them and the city square features a dumpster where heaps of rubbish are perpetually burning. Parts of the city are regularly subjected to the rolling blackouts that are the temporary solution to the national electricity shortage. However, the situation has generally improved since the hyperinflation crisis of 2008; the stores, for instance, are reasonably well stocked now – certainly more so than in Zimbabwe’s smaller cities, where a single product will often be spaced out over half an aisle of shelving.

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Near suburbia. We have no pictures of downtown Harare, because it is did not seem like a good place to be waving around a camera that could probably be pawned for your average resident’s annual salary.

Most of our three days there was spent walking around the city. Downtown is teeming with people: some walking, some driving, some sitting on blankets and selling tomatoes, green beans, used books, peanuts, lollipops, air time, passport covers. The vendors aren’t aggressive, but they are everywhere.

Darren’s dad once lived in Harare, so we tracked down his old address and took a few photos. It was a surprise to see this building on the road where he once lived:
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Worthy of the Amazing Book of Coincidences.

We saw no other tourists during our wandering, which was pretty consistent with our overall experience of Zimbabwe.

To the Ruins

The Great Zimbabwe Ruins of Masvingo are the stone remnants of a 14th-century empire. We split the drive from Harare to Masvingo with a night at a place called Denise’s Kitchen, a small family-run campsite/lodge just off the highway. It was a pleasant and friendly place patrolled by six peacocks, including an albino. Its one shortcoming was the very large spider that joined us when we sat down for dinner. When I first saw it, it was racing around so quickly that I thought it couldn’t possibly be a spider, and assumed it was some kind of unusual African insect; the rare Manic Beetle, for instance, or the Giant Cheetah Ant. My next guess might have been a very small deformed greyhound. Upon ascertaining that it was a spider, my first reaction was to leap up (this to ensure that my warning calls could be heard by all who might be in danger) and to seize Darren’s arm (solely to ensure that I could forcibly relocate him to a safer spot, should he be slow to react).

These actions occurred almost simultaneously. Unfortunately, they also coincided more or less exactly with Darren cracking open the first cold beer of the evening, which, even more unfortunately, he happened to be holding in the hand attached to the arm that I grabbed. The result was a foamy puddle to rival Lake Kariba. I am pleased to report, however, that no one was harmed during the encounter, presumably due to the swiftness with which I responded to the situation.

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Overview

We reached the Great Zimbabwe Ruins campsite in Masvingo later the next day. For once, we had more than the thieving baboons and vervet monkeys for company: a Belgian couple on bicycles. I felt a flicker of transport envy when I watched them pedal away for an afternoon ride. The amount of time that we spend in the car is – to me, at least – bearable only because the car happens to be moving through Africa. I’m considering a motorized vehicle boycott of indefinite length when we get home.

The ruins are the remnants of a city built by the ancestors of the Shona people, many of whom still reside in Zimbabwe. The city was built from the 14th to 17th centuries if you believe our guide, and from the 11th to 14th centuries if you believe Wikipedia. It was ruled by a king who lived at the top of a very big hill overlooking the Masvingo area. The remains of his royal abode can be seen on the top of a flight of stone steps that have been reconstructed in a few places, but are still largely original. One of its more interesting features is the echo chamber, a rock overhang from which a yell can be heard for miles. Apparently the king used to sit in this chamber and shout orders at his wives, several hundred of whom lived in a stone-walled village in the valley below.
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The Great Enclosure, where the ancient king’s many wives lived.

Apparently the name ‘Zimbabwe’, which replaced ‘Southern Rhodesia’ when the country became independent in 1980, was chosen in honour of these ruins; it means ‘stone houses’, or something of the sort. The bird on the Zimbabwe flag also owes its presence to the site; it’s designed after half a dozen soapstone carvings found in the king’s bed chamber, all of which have since been re-located to the Masvingo museum.
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The Royal Enclosure.

The ruins are a UNESCO Heritage Site, but I felt too ignorant to appreciate them properly. Somehow I never quite convinced myself that the city was actually inhabited at some point. This made it difficult to see the ruins as more than a series of moderately intricate rock structures, which, while of passing interest, are hardly at the same level as ‘dazzlingly well-preserved stone city and trade centre of great historical significance from almost ten thousand years ago’. I found our next stop in considerably more captivating.

Categories: National Parks, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Mana Pools

Oct. 12-Oct. 15, 2013

Panorama

Mana Pools, as mentioned previously, is a game reserve with no fences. We spent four days there. It was pretty enjoyable despite the 40-degree heat, apart from my ongoing concern that I would at some point be strolling over to the ablutions, gazing happily at some antelope in the distance, when a pack of hyenas would leap from the bushes and gnaw one of my feet off. Lest I should be thought entirely irrational, something like this happened in 2010, when five lions attacked a man on his way to the shower (“Mr Evershed was the last of his group of family and friends to take a shower as darkness fell on Sunday . . . “).

I was encouraged to see that this incident made the paper, suggesting that it doesn’t happen that often. On the other hand, how many lion maulings should one consider acceptable? One per year? One per thousand tourists? Should it count if the victim has been treating their putzi fly boils by slathering them with bacon grease, as folk medicine prescribes?

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Darren looks grim as he contemplates an approaching pack of hyenas.

In the end, the only bloodshed we encountered was courtesy of the tsetse flies. These fat, grey, malicious creatures feed on blood, giving a painful bite in the process. Tsetse flies also spread sleeping sickness, making it advisable to kill any in the vicinity. When crushed, they send up a gruesome crimson spray. I was forced to batter one to death against the car window, leaving enough gore to conduct a beginner course in blood spatter forensics.

Camping is a bit different in Mana Pools. The animals can, and often do, pass through the middle of your campsite. Elephants wanderered past our vehicle on the way to the Zambezi River each day we were there, and Cape buffalo sat lumpishly in the shade of a sausage tree in the near distance.

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An elephant thinks about inviting itself to dinner.

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Sausage tree.

At night, I woke to a veritable cacophony: the squealing grunts of the hippos as they lumbered ashore to feed, the manic laughter of a hyena somewhere in the distance, and the scuffling of various hoofed animals as they walked by. There were more fireflies than we’ve seen anywhere else on this trip, although this is probably not connected to the lack of fences.

Driving through the park was not particularly rewarding; it was so dry that most animals had congregated around the few remaining water sources, the largest of which was right next ot our campsite. On the second day, though, we drove slowly past a dried-up water hole and saw a cloud of dust over a patch of ground the size of a soccer pitch. First I thought the dust was just hovering there; then, looking more carefully, I saw that the it had been whipped into a seething torus. At the same time, we became aware of a loud thrumming somewhere nearby. The next moment the entire dust cloud flowed sideways and upwards, re-shaped itself into something that resembled a severely clubbed thumb, and in doing so revealed its source: a dense mass of furiously flapping swallows.

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African swallows, known for swarming. Monty Python fans may recall that they are also non-migratory. This is a tiny part of the flock we saw.

On the way back, the road was blocked by a massive elephant foraging for leaves. Since it was alone, we thought it might be a bull elephant, perhaps entering musth, and chose to turn off the vehicle and wait for it to move on. As we sat in the car, it shifted its weight forward and stretched its trunk to its fullest extent, affording us a rare view of its gaping maw.

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Categories: National Parks, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | 1 Comment

Along Lake Kariba

October 7-12, 2013

Our next major stop was Mana Pools, another of Zimbabwe’s national parks. The most common descriptors applied to Mana are ‘wild’ and ‘the real bush’, which means that campsites are not fenced and common sense is not enforced. You can leap out of the car and try your luck at petting a lion should you be so inclined, but most people advise to be very cautious when getting out of your vehicle and to avoid leaving your tent after retiring for the night (until morning, that is, by which time the predators have had their fill of unwary tourists).

In order to reach the wonders of Mana Pools (‘You’ll want a bucket for your tent,’ advised one South African), we had to get across the district of Binga. This strip of northern Zimbabwe borders Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake by volume. The region is not very developed, and the road that crosses it is a notorious car-wrecker. However, a guide in Hwange had alerted us to an alternative: the Mlibizi-Kariba ferry. By fortunate coincidence, one of the ferry’s twice-monthly crossings coincided with our planned departure date.

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Lake Kariba.

The small two-deck ferry was pricier than I would have liked, but I got some consolation from the thought that our squeaking sixteen-year old Land Rover would probably have broken down midway across the district if we had attempted to drive it, forcing us to pay thousands of dollars in repairs and rescue missions. By taking the ferry, then, we actually saved money. This was my mantra throughout the 23-hour crossing, which, it must be admitted, was very pleasant; peaceful, scenic, and relaxing. This was a welcome change from the hour preceding our boarding, in which we had discovered that the parking deck was too low-roofed for our vehicle, forcing us to remove the roof tent in an effort to make it fit. We then observed – in a rather jarring manner – that, despite this modification, it was still too tall. The boat crew seemed more entertained than inconvenienced; they leapt to assist by unbolting the roof rack, unscrewing the snorkel cap, deflating the tyres to an alarmingly low level, and jumping on the back bumper to obtain a final inch of clearance.

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Not the ferry. We saw this canoe and makeshift sail about halfway across the lake.

Our fellow passengers, who numbered about thirteen, were an interesting mix. None were Canadian; we’ve met no Canadians so far, unless you count the rugby-playing Catholic priest from Calgary, who was a recent New Zealand transplant. There were two middle-aged German men, travelling together, both quite taciturn. I believe they were gay, which may account for it; homosexuality is still a criminal offense in Zimbabwe and is considered a moral perversion by many. One can see why it might be advisable to keep a low profile.

Another couple – these two more talkative – were originally Polish, but had immigrated to South Africa roughly thirty years ago. This put me slightly on guard, though they were friendly enough; what kind of people would choose the South Africa of thirty years ago as an ideal place to relocate? And indeed they revealed themselves to be inveterate racists as the conversation went on.

The man, a spectacled tour operator with a modest potbelly, began with a comment about the types of cars driven by South Africa’s ‘coolies’ and proceed to warn us not to believe everything we read about race relations. His blonde wife added that it was good we had come to Africa because we could see for ourselves that ‘they’ were simply not equipped to make decisions or to function in modern society. ‘Forget everything you read!’ said the man. ‘We have lived here for thirty years. These are facts I’m telling you.’ The woman insisted that they were ‘at a different point in evolution’. My probing made it quite clear that she meant biological evolution, not cultural. ‘I like Africans,’ she said earnestly. ‘Better than Europeans. Why would we live here if we did not like Africans? They’re just different from us.’
‘We employ three Zimbabweans,’ she said later. ‘Our maid Rose, she is Zimbabwean, very nice, very sweet. But oh – they all steal. All Zimbabweans steal.’

So that was rather unsavoury, although there was a certain grim satisfaction in hearing individuals voice the thoughts that our short tour of South Africa led me to suspect were widespread. It was also awkward, as they chose to air these views fourteen hours prior to the conclusion of the journey. We made it clear that we disagreed and forewent their company for the remainder of the passage, but I’m quite certain that they left the ship firmly convinced of their assertions and thinking us irredeemably naive.

Poster

We spent the next three days in Kariba, doing little of note, and then proceeded to Mana Pools.

Categories: Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Victoria Falls

*Photos now added to previous post.*

Oct. 5-Oct 8

The Zambezi River meanders from Western Zambia to the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique. Where it approaches the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, a series of islets forks it into a multitude of smaller channels, each of which forms a spectacular waterfall as it cascades into the Batoka Gorge.

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The Batoka Gorge, as seen from above.

At the end of the rainy season, when the river is at its fullest, I believe these rivulets merge into a single rush of water. I’ve heard, however, that this is actually not the best time to visit; the spray from the falls is so plentiful that much of the view is obscured. Even in the dry season, the thick mists that rise where water hits basalt are sufficient to allow ferns and lush greenery to sprout around the rim of the gorge. When you enter the park, you are directed to a path that runs along the edge of the Zimbabwe cliff. There are roughly a dozen viewpoints along this route, each affording a slightly different view of the falls.

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On the far side of the falls is, of course, Zambia, which is generally admitted to have ended up with the worse end of the falls-splitting deal. They attempt to make up for the marginally more inferior views by offering a unique range of ways to kill yourself while enjoying them. Foremost is the Devil’s Pool. Observe:

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Note crazy people in the upper right corner.

I had seen photos of this prior to our trip and had thought it might look slightly less reckless in real life, but in fact it looks far more dangerous: small clusters of scantily clad tourists prancing from rock to rock, seemingly oblivious to the thousand metre drop a few inches away. For the privilege of partaking in this madness, they pay $60 plus park fees.

For a slightly more reasonable price, it is possible to spend an evening floating along the Zambezi River, content in the knowledge that you are very unlikely to be swept over a cliff.

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On the Zambezi River.

Victoria Falls is also the name of the town that surrounds all this splendour. It is the only African town so far that has reminded me of Southeast Asia, perhaps because is a standard stop on cross-continent backpacker routes. It is popular with Overlander tours in particular. ‘Overlander’, when written without a capital, simply refers to one who is travelling over land, by vehicle; us, for example. When written with a capital, it refers to a member of a particular brand of organized bus tour. These people are typically in their late teens or early twenties and have a reputation for drinking, partying, and high-risk sexual encounters, although no doubt the vast majority are perfectly respectable folks who would never dream of staggering around a campsite bar yelling ‘Africa! Africa!’ while waving around several bottles of Zambezi beer in an alarming manner.

A natural downside of the high levels of tourism is that you cannot walk down the street without being accosted by people trying to sell you things. ‘My friend, my friend!’ they say. ‘I will give you a special price because it is a lucky day. I am the artist!’ When we first wandered down towards the falls, we were approached by a young man clutching several heavy wooden hippos. We both began with variations on ‘No thank you, not today.’ But they were not wholly unattractive hippos, as hippos go, and, when the price had dropped by half, Darren paused to take a closer look. The man immediately thrust it into his hand and began raving over the workmanship anew. Darren handed it back and we carried on, but too late; the locals sense hesitation as sharks sense blood, and within seconds we were surrounded by ‘artists’ who had materialized out of nowhere, each of them wielding hand-carved hippos or giraffes or elephants or a small varnished set of ‘The Big Five’ (lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo, rhino). Defunct Zimbabwe banknotes were also frequently on offer. These were printed to values up to one hundred trillion dollars before the government adopted U.S. currency in reponse to the uncontrollable inflation.

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Sunset on the Zambezi.

More photos viewable here.

Categories: National Parks, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | 1 Comment

Hwange National Park

*Photos now included.*

Sept. 28-Oct.5

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No animals were harmed in the making of this photo.

Hwange National Park, when entered through the Sinamatella Gate, is perhaps five hours north of Bulawayo. Most of the trip was along the A8, one of Zimbabwe’s major roads. It was paved, free of potholes, and – save for the inevitable police blockades – fast. The last forty kilometres took us onto a corrugated gravel road that cut through a foul-smelling coal mine. Massive trucks rumbled by, spattering the truck with black soot, while smoking chasms to our right recalled the orc-spawning pits of Mordor. One can only hope that ZimParks is getting a cut of the profits.

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The road to Hwange.

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The side of the road to Hwange (pre-coal mining stretch).

Eventually we passed through a gate and into the park; and then we went through a second gate and into Sinamatella Camp, the more northern of the park’s hubs. Both the campsites and the reception area appeared deserted. We hovered in the reception for a moment, idly examining the peeling map painted on the wall, until a lone man appeared behind the desk. He checked us in with much grumbling and vigourous stamping of papers. Our final destination, Mandavu Dam, was roughly thirty kilometres away. He handed us a smeary photocopy of the park map.

“Left,” he told us, gesturing at the gate we had driven through, “then right.”

When I asked if we might visit the store that we had heard about, thinking that it would be good to pick up one or two things to supplement our planned meals, he fingered a bundle of keys hanging from his belt. “Yes,” he said. “I will open it for you.” He led us to a narrow cement block bearing a strong resemblance to a bomb shelter. It was dark inside. The man gave a slightly embarrassed smile. “The power went out. Just now.”

After a moment, my eyes adjusted. I saw three worn wooden shelves across one wall displayed a few bags of rice, a carton of maize meal, half a dozen dusty bottles of Fanta and Coke, and an abundance of empty space. A small refrigerator at the end held cans of soda and bottled water. I removed a few bottles, thinking that it would be good to have some back-up water if the pump at the camp wasn’t working. They were very warm.

“And maybe a bottle of Coke,” Darren said as the man counted the bottles.

“You must drink it here,” the man said.

“I can’t take a bottle?”

“No. Bottle deposit. You must drink it here.”

So no Coke was bought. We considered having a late lunch before proceeding to our campsite, but the restaurant, alas, was no longer operational.

Rise and Fall

Hwange was once one of southern Africa’s most popular game parks, known for its high counts of elephants and lions. Many of the sources I consulted when making our Hwange booking (a process that took eight months and entailed no fewer than 23 e-mails to the park’s booking agents) stated that it was absolutely imperative to make reservations should one be planning to visit in the September/October period. Hwange is a fine park and I am glad we went, but the conspicuous absence of crowds – and the state of the infrastructure – made it painfully obvious that the area is no longer the draw it once was. One might almost suspect that mass political violence and the occasional government-sanctioned lynching had a deleterious effect on tourism.

Ten years ago, Hwange must have been comparable to South Africa’s now-famous Kruger. The basic design is the same: a network of roads built around waterholes, some natural and some artificial*, with campsites spaced around a few central areas. As in Kruger, there are water pumps, washrooms, braai stands, ablution blocks, and (in theory) a store and a restaurant at the major camps.

Unfortunately, these things have had only the barest maintenance for at least five years, possibly ten. Cement blocks can’t deteriorate too much, so the washrooms and shower areas are essentially intact (though toilet paper and soap are invariably absent). The pumps, on the other hand, fail regularly; and the fences around the camps are tortuous constructions of crooked sticks and rusted wire. None of this is the fault of the campsite’s caretakers, who work hard to keep everything clean and operational. They’re in the unenviable position, however, of having to do so without access to spare parts or any equipment more sophisticated than a twig broom. As a general rule, if something breaks, it stays broken. Much of the park feels faintly post-apocalyptic; partly due to the fact that everything is in disrepair and partly due to the dead shrubs, the blowing sand, and the sun-bleached elephant skulls. The trees at our second campsite were ringed with decorative circles of animal bones.

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Jambile Campsite.

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The pump at one of the waterholes. It’s made from an old car engine.

Happier Things

Hwange was drier than Kruger. As a result, the game was much more concentrated around the waterholes. One of the best parts of our stay was the day we spent sitting next to Masuma Dam, watching an endless procession of zebras, warthogs, impala, elephants, and kudu make their way down to the water. A herd of blue-helmeted guineafowl kept scurrying down to the edge of the dam, fluttering their polka-dot feathers, only to dash away in a twittering panic when a crocodile glided into their field of vision or a martial eagle, talons bared, plummetted into their midst. The muddy water in the middle of the dam was broken by the rounded backs of the resident hippos, glistening like fat plums bobbing in a sea of murky custard.

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Elephants bathing at Masuma Dam.

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Kudu and impala.

A few days after this, we drove south to Main Camp along the spine of the park’s road network. This road had once been paved, but so long ago that the asphalt had split and crumbled. The potholes were so large that the dirt filling them had developed its own corrugations. In a few places, someone had covered the asphalt with gravel in order to improve the road surface. There were stone cairns with arrows indicating where the roads at each intersection would take you, but several had collapsed or were otherwise illegible.

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One of the better parts of the road from Sinamatella to Main Camp.

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A very helpful sign.

The deterioration of these markers may have been a factor in the very long detour back to our campsite that we accidentally took on our final day in Hwange. The discovery of our error was initially galling, as it was very hot and the road was poor, but the side trip ultimately proved fruitful as it ended with our first proper lion sighting. A few days earlier Darren had spotted the heads of two sleeping lions, but they were quite a distance away and were not moving. This time, there was a large male napping under a bush, and a lioness sleeping next to a second male under a tree. All three were about ten metres away. After a while, the first male got up and padded lazily towards the other two. The other two stood up and they all yawned for a while, then went back to sleep. I imagine it took the first European explorers a while to figure out these creatures were at the top of the food chain and not a harmless sort of feline sloth.

I was a touch underwhelmed by the male lions, which looked disappointing similar to overgrown chow dogs, but the lioness looked sleek and powerful.

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Post-nap shootout.

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Final note for anyone visiting Hwange or Mana Pools National Park: As I wrote earlier, most sources say that reservations for these parks are still absolutely essential. This was clearly not true. Although their desertedness is no doubt partly due to the political situation, several local residents have told me that Zimbabwean booking agencies buy ‘block bookings’ from ZimParks at severely discounted prices, then sell parts of these bookings to tourists. For this reason, the parks are often fully booked but rarely fully occupied. I am told that, provided you avoid the major South African holidays, a campsite can usually be found upon arrival. The logic behind this bizarre system has not yet been explained to me.

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A rock dassie, also known as rock hyrax. The Mandavu Dam campsite was overrun by these creatures.

Categories: National Parks, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | 3 Comments

Into Botswana

Sept. 22-28

Our last two days at Kruger coincided with the beginning of South African school holidays. Our campsite, which had been dominated by early retirees, was speedily taken over by small children pedalling bikes between the trees and imitating the low-to-high whoop of the jackals. Two particularly industrious boys spent many hours hacking at the dirt road with a hammer, enlarging the existing potholes and digging several new ones. They lined these carefully crafted divots with borders of large rocks.

The drive from Kruger to Martin’s Drift, the Botswana border post, was uneventful. The crossing itself was less enjoyable. There is something about borders that makes one feel like a criminal, however carefully one has paid the required fees, completed the necessary paperwork, and removed all citrus from the refrigerator. We had no trouble in the dingy cement-floored hall that served as the Botswana border post. All the same, I had a sense of guilty relief as we drove under the raised barrier and into Botswana. This was soon replaced by happiness at being out of South Africa. We didn’t have any problems there; no one tried to mug us or con us or hijack us or do any of the other things that we had been assured happened with some regularity in South Africa. Indeed, many of the people we met were almost aggressively friendly. Nevertheless, a certain tension evaporated when we crossed the border. My mood was leavened still further when we passed a couple driving a donkey cart along the side of the road, a wizened man and a kerchiefed old woman, both of whom smiled broadly, waved vigorously, and called what sounded like greetings.

Southeast Botswana was very dry and very flat. Cattle and donkeys and small shaggy goats roamed unchecked by fences, often ending up in the middle of the road.

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Donkeys around every corner. These ones appear to be waiting at the bus stop.

The fencelessness of Botswana struck me as a marked contrast to South Africa, where virtually everything that could be fenced, was – generally with at least six feet of concrete topped with a combination of barbed and electrified wire. This openness turned out to be something of an illusion. The government of Botswana is actually very keen on fencing things, though their intention is to separate animals rather than people. Preventing wild herds of buffalo and cattle from coming into contact with domesticated herds is part of an attempt to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease. Unfortunately, many of these fences also happen to cut off the migration paths of the wild herds, resulting in the unfortunate and malodorous death of many thousands of animals. The government has also managed to strand all of the country’s wild zebra and buffalo north of the largest fence. This is true.

Anyhow, we drove a short ways along the A7 (I think it was the A7), which is one of the country’s main roads. It’s paved and in decent shape, although we kept having to slow down for the wandering farm animals. We then turned onto a dirt road wide enough to accommodate four side-by-side milk trucks. This took us to our campsite for the night: a small, quiet area along the Limpopo River, marked by several large signs saying ‘Beware Hippos, Crocodiles. Enter at Own Risk’.

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The river, in addition to hosting several large crocodiles, was home to a number of interesting water birds.

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The campsite was situated behind a farm. I suppose much of what we had been driving through was farmland, though it was difficult to imagine anything growing in the dusty reddish dirt. The caretaker of the campsite smiled politely when I said this, and said ‘Onions – oranges – beetroot’. We later walked past the farm’s own orange grove, which was giving off a strong, sweet floral smell.

Our next stop was Francistown, the second-largest city in Botswana; and then on to Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe. The famously curmudgeonly travel writer Paul Theroux writes of African cities with much loathing, claiming that they are filthy, hot, and jammed with people. Francistown and Bulawayo are probably two of the more pleasant urban centres, but I am not entirely unsympathetic to his point of view. The streets were wide and dusty. Entering them was jarring; we went from driving through open, seemingly remote countryside to wide, dusty streets crawling with vehicles and people. Four-way intersections appeared unregulated by lights, stop signs, or common custom. People crossed the street one lane at a time, halting or backtracking when a car or truck showed interest in hitting them. The drivers simply did not acknowledge pedestrians; we witnessed several near-collisions.

Bulawayo – understandably – was less well-maintained than Francistown. The stores were faced with chipped cement; the sidewalks uneven and riddled with gaps; the air hot and acrid with the fumes of dying cars. Women crouched on the street corners to sell oranges, peanuts, and – bizarrely – lollipops. Younger men, looking lean and ragged, found places to lounge along the side of the road. Their business was car-washing. They appeared relaxed, but approached freshly parked vehicles with a rapid saunter that suggested competition was high.

Despite this, our first impressions of Zimbabwe were favourable. Many people had warned us about the police roadblocks; most had darkly asserted that bribes would be demanded. There were indeed many roadblocks – we encountered eleven in our first three days on the road – but not a single policeman was anything but friendly, courteous, and efficient. The ones who didn’t wave us straight through merely asked to see a driver’s license, checked that our headlights and brakes were working, and then wished us a good day. Even Bulawayo had its good points; the jacaranda trees were thickly laden with blue flowers, and the wide streets reminded Darren of Main Street, USA, 1962. Or so he claims.

Categories: Botswana, Cities, Post-Departure, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

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