Zimbabwe – paradise lost?

21 March 2006

Weird tripping, man. Back in Zim after an absence of 3 or 4 years, but this time I’m told not to say I’m a journalist. “Say you’re on holiday, otherwise they might not let you into the country.”

So for the next 3 or 4 days, I’m a “company director” on “holiday”. It’s bullshit, because the book I’m working on will increase tourism and bring people back to this beleagured little country.

Zim has got so much going for it. The natural splendour is without parallel, the people smile wider than anywhere in Africa and natural resources are abundant. It is like a bountiful basket, overflowing with treasures, seeming bottomless.

But the problem is that this perfect picture is starting to fray at the edges. The hotel, perched on a plain stretching to where Mosi-oa-Tunya belches its smokescreen mist from the jagged Batoka Gorge, is still beautiful, still comfortable, still keeping a brave face. While the staff beam their wide smiles, one senses that all of them, their hotel, the future of their fragile country, is perched on the edge of a chasm gaping desperation.

But I’m not here to judge, or to enter into political barnstorming or whatever the correct phrase is. I’m here to plug into the energy emanating from Livingstone’s great, grey-green, greasy Zambezi.

So, after the usual rigmarole of early wake-up calls, dashing to the airport, checking in, tuning out and marking time via Johannesburg, I finally land in Vic Falls at 12h30-ish.

First up on the programme is the compulsory tour of the hotel and then the adventure will finally kick in. Starting off at a leisurely pace though, with a sunset cruise along the might Zambezi.

I join up with two American guys (a couple, I suspect) and a lady who owns a cattle station in ACT, Australia. This makes for an interesting mix (especially if you take into consideration that the rest of the cruise consists of a gaggle of Japanese people and a lone Polish couple).

In between sinking a few ice-cold Zambezis, we watch the hippos frolic, the crocodiles play submarine, baboons clamber and a laidback leguaan basking on a high tree branch. The sunset is about as good as they get in Africa, and we steam home in a golden glow.

22 March 2006

Big day of play ahead, so I boom out of bed just after 05h00. Don’t want to miss out on the dawn elephant safari, just one of the many outdoor adventures offered in the Vic Falls area.

The Elephant Company does not disappoint and there are four pachyderms waiting for us when we arrive. We have time for a quick caffeine fix and a safety briefing, and then it is time for me to make my acquaintance with Jimmy, my steed for the morning.

At around eleven years old, he is at that difficult teenage stage, but our guide, Themba, assures me that he is a gentle beast deep down. To mount up, we clamber up onto a wooden platform, before settling down onto a canvas and wood saddle set atop Jimmy’s back.

We set off amidst miombo woodland bristling with leadwood, mopani and msasa giants. The elephants’ gait is somewhere in between a plod and a shuffle, sort of like a waggle performed by a broad-in-the-beam Zulu mama.

We make good time nonetheless, snorting and rumbling our way along well-trodden paths, all the while spotting impala, waterbuck and other antelope from our vantage points.

We don’t spot buffalo or giraffe, but it is an amazing wilderness experience regardless. The cherry on top is a bush breakfast under the spreading canopy of a huge acacia and we tuck into the bacon, French toast, eggs and fried tomatoes with a vengeance.

Next up on my itinerary is a walking tour of the Victoria Falls. This majestic waterfall rates at the top of the list of global cascades and the sense of awe you experience when you first see the Devil’s Cataract is …. Well, let’s just say “awesome” does not quite cut it as an adjective.

It is a hot and humid day, so the spray from the falls actually offers a welcome cooling down. I wander along the winding walkway trying to grab a fresh angle without slipping into watery oblivion, whiles simultaneously keeping my camera dry. This turns out to be impossible, so I end up stowing it in the waterproof rucksack while reveling in the indescribable power or what is without a doubt one of the world’s seven natural wonders.

I manage to sneak in a quick tramp across the bridge to the Zambian side, chatting to a Jhb lorry driver stranded in Livingstone while waiting for customers to pay for the wares he transported from South Africa.

I also bump into two girls about to take the bungee plunge off the Vic Falls bridge. They’re Swedes from Ornskjoldsvik, a smallish fishing village in the Haga Kusten region, and they’re thoroughly enjoying their carefree adventure.

The remainder of the afternoon is spent wandering around The Kingdom and Victoria Falls Hotel and I succumb to an invitation to “high tea” at the latter establishment. Let’s just say sweet, decadent and super hoity-toity.

To rid myself of the colonially0induced guilt, I wander home past the Open Market and allow myself to be palpably out bargained by a host of rogues, scoundrels and vagabonds. Bottom line, these guys need that R300 a lot more than I do. Anyone who wants a couple of miniature soapstone elephants, just call me. I’m sure to have a car-boot sale in the not too distant future.

23 March 2006

Crocodile biscuits. That’s what they call riverboarders who brave the greasy, grey-green Zambezi below the mighty roar of Mosi-oa-Tunya.

“But it is OK,” says Big Ben, our river guide, “the crocs here are vegetarian … they only eat white meat.” I know he is trying to wind me up, because any croc who might survive the drop over Victoria Falls is bound to be tiny. Less reassuring is the state of the river though. A bumper rainy season has swelled it to mammoth size, and in places it is running more than 40m deep. Which means that Batoka Gorge has been transformed into a roiling riversnake, nearly as if the legendary NyamilNyami water monster has taken possession of its rumoured resting place.

This is not necessarily good news for river rafters. Firstly, many of the regular rapids disappear under the incredible volume and secondly, the flow escapes from the established channels to create boils, whirlpools, rips and any number of other nasties just waiting to rip into your raft.

“But you should be OK,” smiles Ben as he concludes the safety briefing, “as long as you do not fall out of the boat.” So far, so good. Only problem is that we’re headed for the first rapid of the day – the so-called Overland Truck-Eater – and its ominous roar does not inspire confidence. “It’s also known as ‘Creamy White Buttocks’,” shouts Ben from the back of the raft, “if you fall in, your pants are definitely gone.” We make it without exposing our nether regions though, enjoying a welcome breather while drifting down the spectacular scenery of the Batoka Gorge.

Rugged basalt rock faces stack up steeply from the river’s edge forging a canyon that twists and turns through the hilly landscape. Giant sycamore figs line the water’s edge, white mopane veldt stretches along the craggy slopes. Small waterfalls veil down from the cliffs and the Zambezi seems quite serene.

This is a short-lived impression though, as the ominous rumble of rapid 15 looms around the next bend. This would be scary enough in the raft, so I’m crapping myself when I realize this is where I swap to the Riverboarding.

There is no chance of chickening out though, and Ben indicates that the time has come for me to don my flippers and launch my flimsy little board into the teeth of Terminator 1 & 2. Dups, the safety kayaker, seems to relish this and rubs his hands together gleefully. “Ha man, it is about time I get to do some work,” he grins as he leads the way into the telltale ripples preceding the rapids.

The Zambezi tugs and pulls at me as we surge into the rapid, and a giant whirlpool spins me around like moth caught in a bathtub plughole. I whirl around once, twice, three times, but eventually manage to wrestle myself free of the gravitational forces.

It’s a bit like escaping from the frying pan and landing in the fire though. The fast-flowing river has morphed into an ocean of chaos, with towering waves battering me from all sides. There is absolutely no sense in fighting this water monster though and the only way to make it through is to gulp in huge gasps of air while clinging on like a drowned rat.

The next rapid is less intense, so I grab my camera (in its waterproof housing) from Dup and tell him to stick close to me while we surge into the next whitewater section. This is a bit hairy, as I am drifting down-river backw3ards while shooting pix of him amidst the roil of this awesome river.

I do the same thing with the raft in the final two rapids before lunch, and manage to get some excellent shots. Then it is time to relax, so we beach the rafts on a sandy beach below some spreading Msasa trees.

Some of the Shearwater guys have come ahead, and we tuck into a hearty meal of barbecued meat, potato and salad. The remaining rapids have been flattened out by the rainy season, so that final stretch of the river turns out to be an easy cruise. The same cannot be said for the hike out of the gorge. It is steep as hell, and you gain a good 750 feet of altitude as you sweat your way to the top. But all of this fades into insignificance when you crack an ice-cold lager at the top of the gorge and look down in wonder upon this incredible river you’ve just conquered.

This turns out to be a day of extremes, with me heading straight to Wild Horizons Adventures in order to sign up for the Half-day Adrenaline Adventure. Here you get to choose exactly how you want to get your endorphin rush. On the menu are six options – flying fox, foofie slide, gorge swing, abseil, rap-jumping or bungee and you get to do any three you choose.

Nolan and Tina, my compatriots from the rafting trip, have decided to join me, and between the three of use we manage to cover all the options. The flying fox is up first. If you’ve never wondered how it feels to fly like Superman, this is your chance to find out.

Your harness is connected to a steel cable spanning the Botolea Gorge, with you suspended from this by a carabiner between your shoulder blades. To launch yourself into a space you spring along a ramp of around 10 metres before the whole world drops away beneath your feet. There is nothing below you but hundreds of metres of thin air, and the illusion of flying across the gorge is bound to spike your endorphin count way into the red.

The foofie slide is similar (you can do it upright though), but the biggest buzz of the day has gotta be the pants-pissingly terrifying gorge swing. You’re suspended from a rope attached to a c able spanning the gorge and wait like a condemned man, with your toes splayed over the edge of a platform perched atop the abyss. On the count of five, you plunge down towards the rocks lining the edge of the Zambezi, and your guttural screams are sure to startle the black eagles and hamerkops patrolling the gorge.

You’re saved literally split seconds before splattering your spleen onto the rocks below when your gorge line tightens to jerk you into a pendulum swing arcing away across the river below. Then you wait, with your heart hammering like a bongo drum, while they haul you back to safety with your belay line.

We end off our day of adrenaline with an abseil and rap jump off the Botoka cliffs. This is the only glitch in an otherwise incredible day; the rack-assembly friction devices are way too tight and instead of bounding down the cliff, it is a battle to make your way down to the river’s edge. That said, the views are amazing and there are not many other ways I would choose to end off an amazing afternoon.

22 March 2006

My final day in Paradise Lost. The lion walk has been cancelled for some reason and I have time to sort through my images and get my journal up to date.

It has been an interesting and rewarding few days in Zimbabwe, but it is obvious that the majority of people here are hanging on for change by their fingernails. Vehicles are falling apart, carpets are threadbare in places, shops (even in major hotels) are poorly stocked and the current illusions of normalcy can only be maintained for so much longer.

My final adventure is the “Flight of Angels”, a chopper flip above the falls and along the spreading delta (formed by the mighty Zambezi before it plunges into the Batoka Gorge. The mists of Mosi-oa-Tunya veil below me, while Miombo woodland spreads as far as the eye can see.

But amidst this lush landscape are tiny villages where people toil on patchwork fields, trying their damndest to produce enough grain to seem them through the upcoming dry season. They have done this for many a generation, but every year it is becoming more difficult, and you can only do it so many times before your bleeding hands and unseen tears make your brave heart break.

The fat cats in government (and big business, sometimes) seem oblivious to this heartache. They continue to blame everyone but themselves, and fill their personal coffers in the process. Com on, Bob, it is time to give it up. Ride into the sunset and allow this nation of wide smiles to reclaim a country that surely rates as one of Africa’s paradise destinations.