I fly into Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, from Cape Town, discovering, only when my passport is demanded, that it is a separate country, an enclave, entirely surrounded by South Africa. The only other two enclaves in the world are in Italy. This is a tiny kingdom, the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 metres. It was known as Basutoland, when it was a British colony (up to 1966). It was expedient for the Basuto people to make an agreement with the British, in order to keep out the TrekBoers - would be Dutch settlers. After independence, Lesotho became a constitutional monarchy, but democracy has been problematic and there has been more than one coup. There have been calls, from some, for integration with South Africa to ease travel restrictions and ease bureaucracy.
Lesotho (pronounced Less-oo-too) is also a complete contrast to what I've seen so far. I skid, in my hired Corolla (with CD player blaring more Johnny Clegg) down very rural dirt tracks. I’m glad it’s not my own car. Lesotho is not known as 'The Mountain Kingdom', for nothing. The edge of the Drakensberg Mountain range, the Maloti Mountains are the highest in Southern Africa. There are wild pale emerald fields, rich crimson soil and soaring spiky aloes. Also a rusting road barrier, and the local bobby.
“Why you no married? No want? What about me?”
To Malealea Lodge, in the heart of the mountains. Shell and flower covered stone rondavels, peacocks with pea-chicks (as opposed to chick-peas), stunning scenery, pouring rain, dramatic thunderstorms and two rugged Afrikaner adventure tour operators. The dynamic duo, Johannes and Andries, are in charge of pony trekking, rock climbing, 4 WD driving (constant competition as to who can be the most manic driver), abseiling and river rafting.
I choose the least potentially exhilarating of the options on offer and go pony trekking along the mountain ridges. Well, the pony ambles along The Ribeng Gorge edge, walking where it wants and eating when it wants and takes me with it. I’m very happy, except when my recalcitrant steed tries to bite me; the views across Lesotho are incredible. A few of the locals, wrapped in multi coloured wool blankets, wander along with us, chatting amicably. Two six year-olds are puffing away on cigarettes.
The next day's trip to the waterfall is cancelled - everyone is ill, I'm told. I'm not too disappointed as it's been thunder and lightning all day and I've played cards with Andries all afternoon.
The following day it’s still the pouring with rain, but we're river rafting. I’ve no idea what the scenery is like. I can’t see. The men do the paddling and their little Staffie terrier, Josh spends the whole day scrambling on and off the inflatables, terrified, leaping onto dry land and then back again as she sees us disappearing into the distance. She’s not the only animal swimming, as cattle too, follow us along the river bed.
There’s no cell signal at Malealea. I drive to the top of Paradise Pass six kilometres from Malealea Valley where I'm staying and scramble to the top of the hill. The mobile works here. I meet two Swiss girls texting their boyfriends.
“Cell Phone Hill” we laugh.
In the evening we have a camp fire and Andries croons Leonard Cohen to his guitar. Lady Midnight follows me to bed. Onwards, to Durban.
I've travelled from Zimbabwe to South Africa in a truck on one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers. We have crossed the border from Namibia at the Orange River, singing Jonny Clegg’s’ Great Heart’ as we go. The river was named in honour of the Dutch ruling family, the House of Orange, by the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon. And here, we have a canoeing expedition. The others get kitted up and splash frenetically. I plead a bad back and am excused active duty. I am paddled along serenely, like the Queen of Sheba. The sunsets here are as blood red as the Namibian dunes.
So, here I am finally back in South Africa, after a brief trip to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the first time I visited Zimbabwe. My next night is spent at Olifants River Valley, after a long day on the road, in the mountains of Western Cape. The Olifant (elephant) is a tributary of the (great, grey, green greasy) Limpopo River. It's gentle and green and very relaxing. This is where all those oranges and lemons come from. And of course, one area is named Citrusdal. There're also honey, rooibos tea and wineries.
Wonderful Cape Town, tourist mecca, one of the three capital cities of South Africa. This is the seat of the Parliament of South Africa, the legislative capital of the country, the oldest city in the country, and the second largest (after Johannesburg). It's known as the Mother City.
Glorious weather, fantastic restaurants and bars, (ostrich, thick tenderloin steaks, sea food and so on) very cheap, laid back, amazing beaches, mountains, vineyards; it’s one of the great cosmopolitan cities. The must see is the iconic giant mesa that is Table Mountain, although you can’t really miss it, as it provides the backdrop, protecting the Mother City. It's one of the oldest mountains in the world. Strangely, photos don’t do it justice.
Before the truckies depart, we take the cable cars to the mountain’s flat top, for 360 degree views of the city, the numerous gorgeous beaches, the busy harbour and Robben Island, the infamous prison that once held Nelson Mandela. There's a Lion's Head formation, to one side and then, to the other, the range of ravines, peaks and gorges that is dubbed the Twelve Apostles. (There are, arguably,18 peaks). These create the stunning backdrop to the city. There is an option to abseil down, but I think not. Instead, we take the spectacular road through the mountains from Chapman's Peak to Hout Bay.
As if the magic city itself isn’t enough, the Cape Peninsula offers a host of attractions. Past the brightly painted facades bathing boxes of Fish Hoek, south to the Cape of Good Hope, which sadly, is not the southernmost tip of Africa after all. Antelope are grazing peacefully on the slopes here. Rock hyrax scamper away. The black and white Boulders Beach, on closer inspection is white sand, jam-packed with penguins waddling and turning somersaults in the water.
Rugged terrain takes us on to Cape Point. but that's not the African extremity either. That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, approximately 93 miles east-southeast.
The truckies leave, but I’m not yet alone. I have a great little hotel on the beach at Bantry Bay and a hire car. I eat kingfish and chips by the waterfront (lots of upmarket hotels, boats, of course and other tourist attractions), along with the seals and a Pretorian called Johannes. And I still have other companions lined up. A South African friend has put me in touch with Ann Gail and Chris.
Ann Gail has a delightfully old fashioned town house and three cats, Sebastian, Sobranie and Tai-Lu, each with their own feeding bowl and scratching post. She takes me to Christmas lunch at the iconic pink Mount Nelson Hotel, nestling at the bottom of Table Mountain. Then, Newlands (the cricket grounds), concerts, theatre, the IMAX (suitably, the Lion King) and a New Year’s Eve concert in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I wind a few South Africans up talking about rugby, but duck if they mention cricket.
Chris, originally South African and visiting his family for Christmas provides holiday romance. We spend two weeks around the city sampling its Afro-chic delights and its numerous beautiful beaches, Bikini , Camps Bay, Fourth, Clifton, Llandudno, Melkbosstrand, Mnandi and Muizenberg, before driving out for a few days at at Hermanus. This is the African whale-watching location and whale themes abound through to museums and huge skeletons. It’s not whale season, but I am lucky enough to catch a mother and calf motor past. The sea is stunningly azure, and inviting, but it's deceptive, the Atlantic currents are numbingly cold,
Romance number one fairly predictably bites the dust, as it transpires that Chris has been entertaining ‘an old friend from England’ in-between seeing me, and forgetting to tell me about her. ‘But it was a prior engagement , of course I felt obliged to sleep with her’.
To the east, it’s an easy journey to the picturesque Winelands destinations, such as Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. Stellenbosch and Paarl are the two oldest large settlements in South Africa after Cape Town. Picture perfect Cape Dutch architecture: green shuttered colonial mansions, whitewashed houses, tiny turrets and cottage gardens. Huge agapanthus flowers contrasting wonderfully. Plenty of boutiques and cafes too.
Ann Gail works in Paarl and provides a tour of the very modern and efficient, steel drummed wine estate. And Franschoek, which was settled by French Huguenot refugees who of course brought their French experience in viticulture. Franschoek is Dutch for 'French Corner'.
Some of the estates provide gorgeous up market accommodation and restaurants. They abound at Franschoek, where I spend one expensive, but very pampered night.
I’m aware I’m beginning to sound like a travel advert - it’s all so gorgeous (except for the romance), but the townships sprawling each side of the main highway are a sobering counterpoint. I’ve been warned to watch out for objects being thrown from the bridges. In fact I’ve been told by numerous people that I’m mad to even contemplate travelling round South Africa on my own.
South Africa is the third-largest economy in Africa and the most industrialized, technologically advanced economy in Africa overall. Since the end of apartheid, government accountability and quality of life have substantially improved. The country is rich in minerals. But poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on an inadequate wage. Crime rates and especially, violent crime are high. There have been countless media stories in the UK about tourists here being attacked and robbed, or worse.
I've been driving around in a hire car, with no problems so far, except the very steep hills and a very small engine. And now I'm departing gorgeous Cape Town for Lesotho.
My journey back to South Africa from Lesotho is far too eventful. The starter batteries on the much-too-little-prop-plane are refusing to comply. The pilot eventually announces that he will start the left one manually. This all sounds much too alarming to me, but we make it to Jo’ burg, though very late. There is a stroke inducing transfer to my next plane and I get bundled into business class (not all bad) and arrive in Durban to find that whilst I’ve made it on time my luggage hasn’t.
So, another late start in a hired VW. Maybe I am mad, driving in South Africa, on my own. It’s raining (again), and I’m fumbling with the map, along the Durban Highway and into the mountain wilderness of Zululand. Twelve kilometres down a dirt road hill composed almost entirely of one foot deep mud. Over a rumble strip and the radio jolts. It’s dead. And the right windscreen wiper is stuck in the middle of screen. Why the right one? Dusk fades into dark, and the cell phone signal disappears too. There is nothing moving in the African bush. Am I glad or not? Finally, slithering downhill to discover my isolated lodge. Survive! Luggage arrives. All’s well.
A thirty five year old American bond broker, pleasant face, six two (not bad then), girlfriend (um), Brian shares wine and jokes. Would I like to tour the battle fields with him tomorrow? It’ll save me driving.
Close by is Isandlwana, where the British were heavily defeated by the Zulus in 1879. The site is marked by white cairns and a church. Six miles away from there is Rorke's Drift. Here, Lieutenants John Chard (of the Royal Engineers) and Gonville Bromhead, (24th Regiment of Foot) successfully defended their station of just over 150 troops against an 24 hour attack by 3-4,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulus had broken off from their main force at the day-long Battle of Isandlwana. A host of decorations, including eleven Victoria Crosses, were awarded to the defenders.
Rorke's Drift is really interesting, with its distinctive rocky outcrop and monuments. It’s even more entertaining trying to imagine Stanley and Michael re-enacting their scenes from the epic film Zulu, which re-tells the tale. How accurately the detail is I'm not sure, though the main story is certainly true. The Zulus don't get much dialogue, even though the film bears their name.
There's a memorial at Ulundi. This is where the British inflicted the final defeat on the Zulu nation. Close by, at Ondini, is a reconstruction of the Zulu Royal kraal., built in traditional manner. The last one was burnt to the ground by the British
Over picnic lunch and in the car, my chauffeur reveals his philosophies and dating etiquette. He is not in love with his girlfriend. Well he's not sure. They now live apart. She comes from Essex but is called Antonia, not Tracey. Dating in England is so much more complex than the States. In the UK girls put out quickly, you shag someone and then decide if you like them. In the States you have sex on the fifth date. If you're lucky the third. You might compromise on the fourth, but definitely the fifth. After that you're going steady. However, girls who have sex on a first date are sluts.
Back at the Lodge we drink champagne and giggle in the garden. Dinner is even louder.
“You're welcome to crash in my room tonight” Brian offers magnanimously. I decline (graciously of course).
“I don't do one night stands.”
He escorts me to my room. A slightly undignified fumble while I reinforce my answer. He leaves muttering:
“Well a guy has to try doesn't he? “
“A case of too much information.”
As I’m drifting off my cell phone beeps.
DBL BED IN MY ROOM. THINK ABOUT IT.
The Age of Romance is not dead.
Brian departs, and I spend a lazy day by the pool, (temporarily the only guest) and walking, escorted by three dogs and a pig. in between our slow ambles they manage to stampede a herd of cattle, and chase a troupe of monkeys.
And then there’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park too. This is the oldest nature reserve in South Africa. It's supposedly home to Africa's Big Five, but all of those, except the buffalo, are elusive. Nevertheless, it's spring, so the park is full of lovely babies - impala, warthogs, kudu and wobbly giraffes blinking in the grass.
Through velvety hills to Uhmlanga, north of Durban. I'd hoped for some beach time, but I haven't chosen my spot very well. The beach is disappointingly dirty and the roads are full of hitchhikers wandering all over the inside lanes. My bed and breakfast establishment is decidedly seedy. The fridge smells and I can't work out how to turn the TV off. So I turn the sound right down and put a towel over it.
My epic South African journey ends with another iconic African destination. The Garden Route proper is a glorious 190-mile stretch of coastline running from the small town of Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay) to the mouth of the Storms River. It’s called the Garden Route because of the lush coastal forests which line the wide sandy beaches. I'm doing what most folk do and travelling the longer distance from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, though most people do it the other way round.
My car and I meander along. More stunning scenery from the thatched cottages of St Francis Bay, to Jeffries Bay with its Disneyesque bridge, to the tourist mecca that is Plettenberg Bay, the oyster bars and beaches of Knysna, to the Tsitsikamma National Park and the adjacent, aptly named town of Wilderness, with its own park.
At Tsitsikamma I wander the beautiful Otter Trail. along the edge of the wild seashore, past the Storm River and a terrifying suspension bridge. There are waterfalls and a diminutive cave turned into a shrine. – Tsitsikamma (pronounced ‘Titzee-car-mah’) is rumoured to still have rare forest elephants walking among the huge old trees.
I’m writing this overlooking the most amazing huge sandy beach, at Sedgefield. Here, there's the Kingfisher Trail to tackle. I had calamari and crayfish by candlelight on the beach last night.
I'm going to catch the 20 million year old Cango Caves, with their stalactite formations, on my way back to Cape Town. Admire the ostrich farms. Then, it's time to go home.
(And read more about South Africa here.)
Namibia (named after the Namib Desert) has been inhabited since pre-historic times by the San, Damara and Nama peoples and from around the fourteenth century by the immigrating Bantu peoples, who today constitute the majority of the population. In 1884, the area was colonised by the German Empire who named it German South West Africa. German rule ended in 1915, after a war with South Africa, and following World War I, the League of Nations handed administration of the colony over to South Africa. South Africa's rule included South Africa's laws and, later on, apartheid. Uprisings and protests against this regime led to the formation of the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) and many years of guerrilla warfare, Namibia finally obtained independence in 1990.
Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Its economy is based on agriculture, mining ( diamonds, uranium, gold, silver and base metals) and tourism. Trophy hunting and ecotourism sit, somewhat awkwardly together. as the main sources of income. The country is home to a wide range of wildlife and Namibia is a feast of sights scenery wise. So, it's an exciting prospect. It's also advertised as the place to go for thrills and spills. I'm less excited about that.
In the north, we overnight at three different sites based around waterholes in Etosha National Park. This is the third largest park in Africa, named after its massive salt pans (75 miles long), The word ‘Etosha’ actually means ‘great white place’. Lake Etosha was part of the larger Kalahari Basin in Namibia. It's thought that a shift in the tectonic plates cut the lake off from its river source, where it became an endorheic, or self-draining lake. Over time, the lake to dried out, leaving the salt and minerals we see today - huge glistening hexagonal (sort of) chunks.
The waterholes at the salt pans draw a huge variety of game including elephant, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, oryx, black rhino, ostriches and giraffe. Meerkats peeping. Hornbills hiding. The game drives are amazing. Mongoose with babies skittering around one of the camps. An endearing baby eagle owl being dive bombed by night jars. At dusk, we sit in an amphitheatre watching the elephants lead the way down to drink. It’s a well-choreographed performance, as the fauna take it in turn to appear. Hyena enters right!
South to Twyfelfontein, in the region once known as Damaraland, after its original inhabitants. And a dramatic change of scenery. Mountains and a red and yellow Tequila Sunrise desert. This extremely arid area was the first to be UNESCO designated in Namibia, because of its ancient petroglyphs. There are over 2500 distinctive rock carvings and paintings on 212 slabs of rock, with 13 additional art rock slabs,, dating back 6000 - 2000 years (according to different sources). Some are badly damaged. Designation doesn't always mean protection and preservation. If you've read my other posts, you will know that I find it hard to get excited about rock art. There are many simplistic drawings of animals to admire, if you are so inclined.
Also, in Damaraland, the Petrified Forest, close to the town of Khorixas, Here, a deposit of large tree trunks have "turned to stone" through a process of diagenesis. There are at two large tree trunks, exposed, each 45 metres long, but there are apparently, many more in the area. It is thought that the trees were swept downstream by a large flood and covered by alluvial sands.
We camp by a dried up river bed, hopeful of sighting desert elephants. Liz sets up a chair on the dried up mud and offers Ali from Zambia a haircut “And where is modom thinking of taking her next holiday”. Our drivers, Brett and Sven, keep us dancing until we’re in danger of our clothes turning to rags.
Further south it’s very dry,. Again, there’s a lot of very different desert scenery to traverse, multicoloured hues and some mountains. followed by marine sights on the renowned Skeleton Coast. This stretch of Atlantic coast is named for the whale and seal skeletons that proliferate along this treacherous coast. There are plenty of ship wrecks too. The cold Benguela Current is said to produce constant sea mist, making visibility difficult. We can testify that this is true. Very smelly basking seals are crammed into every inch of beach at Cape Cross.
The wonderfully named Swakopmund, also known as 'Little Germany', is surprisingly cool and has colonial-era buildings, just discernible through the fog. The main attraction here is affordable adventure (and cake shops). Quad biking on the huge dunes and skydiving beckon, but ballooning later on sounds much more restful. Brett and Ali go sky diving together and the shared frisson seems to be kindling a romance. while we're all dancing later at The Lighthouse.
Flamingos carpet the water at Walvis Bay. the second largest city in Namibia. (The capital is Windhoek.) There are huge dunes sand dunes here - they're numbered and the biggest is known as Dune 7. This one is 388 metres and the highest in the Namib desert. More mountains, the odd canyon, alternating with vast stretches of flat desert. We're not doing so well with food today. At Solitaire we find a scorpion in the lunchbox. The town is a lonely truck on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park , hence the name. Then, there's a sandstorm as we arrive in Sesriem. in the heart of the park. It's very atmospheric and very uncomfortable and dinner is mainly sand.
Sossusvlei, or 'dead-end marsh' is another endorheic drainage basin, a really dry one. As a result the fauna is small (ish) and resilient. Antelopes, rodents and retiles. A hot air balloon ride over the dunes here. These are purported to be amongst the biggest sand dunes in the world, with many over 200 metres. (They have a long way to go. Some in the Gobi desert are 500 metres.) The oldest dunes are blood red, the smaller ones vivid candy floss shades of orange-pink.
The dunes really glow at sunrise, as we drift past, and it's a great way to take in the incredible canyons and lunar landscape. We then partake of the usual après-ballooning champagne breakfast. Later, we scramble up some of the dunes. Number 45 is the most photographed because it's close to the road. It seems colossal, but it's only 170 metres high, very red and very hard on the calves. It's called 45 because its at the 45th kilometre on the road. The largest dune in this area is Big Daddy; that's 327 metres up. Next, Sesriem Canyon from the ground. The stark cinnamon landscapes and spiky plants work admirably together.
Our lunch is, literally, sand - wiches.
The starkly beautiful Fish River Canyon is the oldest in the world, the highest in Africa and the second largest on earth. It’s 550 metres deep, 27 kilometres wide and 160 kilometres long and has been in existence for 500 million years. The solitude is intense.
We motor still further south. Over the border, at the Orange River, and into South Africa.
I'm travelling one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers and I'm going to be sharing with Liz. I swore I was never camping again, but the trip dossier says that the drivers put our tents up for us.
Botswana is very flat, mainly Kalahari Desert, with most of the remainder taken up by the Okavango Delta. Modern-day humans first inhabited the country over 200,000 years ago. For the most part, the eventual settlers were the Tswana (hence Botswana), descended from Bantu-speaking tribes. In 1885, the British colonised the area, anxious about German influence in the area and wanting to preserve routes north from the Cape. They declared a protectorate called Bechuanaland.
Bechuanaland became independent, as Botswana, in 1966. Since then, it has been a representative republic, with a consistent record of uninterrupted democratic elections and the lowest perceived corruption ranking in Africa since at least 1998. It's known as The Peaceful Nation.
Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. 80 % of the country is covered by the Kalahari Desert. So, it was one of the poorest too, but the GDP has improved very rapidly over recent years - due to mining (Botswana is the world's biggest diamond producing country), cattle and tourism. Both the Kalahari and the Delta (during the seasonal floods) are home to a multitude of wildlife. It sounds promising.
We navigate the perimeter of the Caprivi Strip, a strange elongated finger of Namibia, to Chobe Game Park in Botswana. The park is famous for vast herds of elephants (the highest concentration in Africa) and it doesn’t disappoint. They are giant enough to fill the camera frame without a zoom and there are grey specks of elephants, as far as the eye can see, across the savannah. These are Kalahari elephants, the largest of them all. There are also elephant hunting lions (calves and weaklings), Cape buffalo, rhinoceros (both black and white), warthog, kudu, impala, zebra, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, baboons and wildebeest. And more meerkats than any other country in the world.)
As well as game drives we get a boat trip on the Chobe River. Here's a chance to really eyeball the hippos.
But disaster. We’ve been told we have to pitch our own tents. I’m distraught, until it transpires that my tent mate, Liz, loves anything practical. When we arrive at the sites, she packs me off to the bar and sets everything up on her own. She says it’s easier without me. We have two twenty something guide cum drivers (Brett, South African, Sven, Namibian) who amuse us by cooking topless, as well as coping with all the chores. This sort of camping is not too bad at all. It’s just a bit grubby.
I signed up for this trip because it featured an eclipse and I loved the atmosphere of the one in Cornwall in 2000. We pitch up to a clearing in the middle of the bush and get a brilliant clear view. It lasts from 7.05 to 8.20. We all pose for photos in our eclipse tour T-shirts - which we have been made to pay for. On to Maun and a laze by the pool, which we share with a herd of goats..
Next onto the renowned Okavango Delta, a vast and swampy inland river delta (the largest in the world) in northern Botswana (when it's the wet season). Here, the Okavango River runs into what's called a tectonic trough. There's no way out. The water just eventually evaporates.
We are punted past hippos, elephants and crocodiles in dug out canoes (called mokoros); giraffe and warthogs cavort. Even when there is no wildlife to spot, it’s extraordinarily relaxing laying back and peering through the waving papyrus fronds. I think that all I need is a fan and some grapes. Maybe, it’s not as relaxing for Andy and Deb who manage to capsize their boat. Going solo has its advantages at times.
The local villagers, who make their living from us tourists, are very friendly. Sundowners in the bar, to the accompaniment of the Frog Song, leading us to invent a toilet detecting compass. Namibia next.
Arrive at Victoria Falls Airport to be charged twice as much as anyone else for our visas. Mugabe doesn't like the English much. The Victoria Falls are located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and this is the world's largest waterfall, taking all dimensions into consideration. It has a width of 1,708 metres and a height of 108 metres and delivers the world's biggest falling curtain of water. (Twice the size of Niagara.)
Here, the Zambezi flows through six zigzagging gorges (First to Fifth and Songwe), sections of the Granddaddy Batoka Gorge. Currently, this is used for Grade V whitewater rafting (I'm not venturing there again after Jinja), but there are controversial plans to put a hydroelectric dam downstream. The gorges deliver the main cascade and smaller falls (but very powerful due to the narrow width), a boiling pot, cataracts, Knife's Edge and The Danger Point (no prizes for guessing what that involves). There's also a 1905 bridge crossing the Zambezi. If you're mad, you can bungee jump the 365 foot drop.
The waterfalls have been known to Africans for aeons, of course. They were even discussed by geographers and other Europeans pre-nineteenth century. But they were officially 'discovered' by David Livingstone in 1855. He first saw them from one of the two islands formed within the gorges (it's now named after him) and dedicated them to his queen.
Victoria Falls, almost re-named in the local language, Mosi-oa-Tunya (Smoke that Thunders) are majestically beautiful. But there isn’t nearly as much water flowing over the spectacular gorges as on my last visit to Zimbabwe, a very long time ago. The rainy season from late November to early April, and the river floods from February to May (April is best). Then the spray from the falls rises to an average height of over 400 metres.
I compensate by flying over in a helicopter, where the pilot kindly performs a variety of acrobatics, swooping in really close. No impala on the runway, this time, just warthogs on the helipad. When I’m not too terrified, or green, I try and wield my camera. The (nearly) two kilometre wide curtain literally does thunder, as it pours into the narrow chasm. And because it is dry season I can at least see to the bottom of the gorges. I get to fly over Zambia as well. Does this count as a visit or not?
The famous eponymous hotel still has a monopoly on location and views, though no paw prints this time. There aren’t many visitors either - perhaps they are too uncertain of their welcome to the country. I have dinner with a Zimbabwean, Paul who promptly gets rather too inebriated for my liking, so I decamp early.
I’m on a truck travelling from Victoria Falls to Cape Town this time. There are twelve passengers, two of whom are couples. The baboons act as an alarm clock and we're on our way to Chobe, in Botswana.
Rob made camp and then saw a lion make its kill on a rocky outcrop, so he decided to claim this land, and set up his farm there, just outside Karoi. Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, after the World Wars, was a beautiful country, rich in minerals and agricultural possibilities. It was first settled by the Shona (Bantu) peoples and, in the west, the Matabele.
The British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes conquered first Mashonaland and later in 1893 Matabeleland after a fierce resistance by the Matabele - the First Matabele War. Company rule ended in 1923 with the establishment of Southern Rhodesia as a self-governing British colony. (Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.)
He enclosed and settled a large area and, as was the colonial custom, used the local people as labourers. They had their own village of mud huts, and enough to eat, but they were pitifully poor. They helped Rob build his farmhouse and outbuildings and the acreage of maize grew year by year. Later he experimented with coffee. It grows well on the plateau. Other farmers were successful with tobacco, but Rob left it alone. Too labour intensive.
There were few women out in the wilderness of the bush, a harsh life. So Rob wrote to England for a pen pal and was put in touch with Mary. They corresponded for a year or so and then Rob proposed. She accepted and went out and married him. They had three children.
Rhodesian politics were still turbulent. In 1965, the white separatist minority government unilaterally declared independence (UDI) as Rhodesia. The state endured international isolation and a 15-year guerrilla war with black nationalist forces. Rob and his elder son took part.
Mary was my husband Don’s aunt and we visited not long after UDI was revoked, A peace agreement was finally agreed in 1980 and Zimbabwe became a sovereign nation under Robert Mugabe. Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe and the capital, Salisbury, became Harare.
The Karoi area was rich with coppery blue lakes and waving maize in every direction. We stayed in Rob Junior’s little house, tiptoeing over the compound every night to bed, avoiding waking the geese and wary of dozing puff adders. It was a true pioneer’s cottage. Rob had a gnome’s waving beard and spent every evening seeing how many bottles of beer he could put away. He would knock them back with his feet up on a stool and lob the empties into the fireplace when he was done.
Rob had two identical black labs called White and Red. Their names corresponded with the dabs of paint on their rumps. Mary had a spoilt dachshund and a Weimaraner puppy that bit everyone. Mary hated the two labs and would shoo them out of the front door. They knew the drill. They ran round the side of the house to the sitting room window, which Rob would open so that they could jump back in. They’d be sitting in front of the fire again by the time she got back to the living room.
We travelled around the country. For some bizarre reason Rob and Mary decided to pay for just one of us to go on a trip to Victoria Falls and the Wankie Game Reserve (now called Hwange). They said they would loan us the money for the other person. We had been led to believe it was a pre-paid trip. You weren’t allowed to take much money out of the UK in those days. Not that we had any; it had taken all our cash to pay for the flight. They later felt guilty and commissioned Don to design an irrigation dam for them. The fee exactly covered our extra expenses. All the same, it was a wonderful few days.
When we came in to land at Wankie, in north west Zimbabwe, they had to clear the impala off the landing strip. My first safari drives - amazing. lion, buffalo and huge herds of elephant. Hwange has now become famous as the place where Cecil, the lion was killed. by Walter Palmer in 2015. he had a permit! Two years after Cecil's killing, his son Xanda met a similar fate.
Victoria Falls has the accolade 'the largest waterfall in the world'. On the Zambezi River, between Zimbabwe and Zambia, they are not the widest or the highest. But with all dimensions taken into account, including almost the largest flow rate, this is considered to be the biggest curtain of falling water in the world. The falls were deserted and stunning. There were few visitors. Tourists were naturally wary after the war. A spray covered Chain Track led from the colonial splendour of The Victoria Falls Hotel along the top of the chasm opposite the cascade. The ground reverberated and we got soaked. Bushbuck peeped out of the rainforest and there was a fresh lion’s paw print in the mud.
The Zambezi River is not only the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It's the fourth-longest river in Africa, the longest east-flowing river in Africa and the largest flowing into the Indian Ocean from Africa. The Kariba Dam was built to flood the Kariba Gorge and create Lake Kariba, the world's largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume. It took 5 years to fill the lake (1958 to 1963).
The stark grey branches protruding out of the blue waters of Lake Kariba were awesome. Also awesome were the stories of Operation Noah, set up to rescue the displaced wildlife. In a wildlife rescue operation lasting 5 years, over 6000 animals were rescued and relocated to the mainland. Wildlife was moved from the rising waters and largely relocated to Matusadona National Park.
The town of Kariba was built for construction workers on the lake's dam. Houses were also required in the locality for displaced villagers.
Later, Rob took us camping on the banks of the Zambezi, venturing illegally into Zambia. Our tent was so small that we couldn’t decide if we should allow the hyenas to nip our heads or crunch off our toes. Rob had a much bigger tent and a mattress. ‘Why didn’t you bring one too?’ he asked. Knowing they existed would have been a helpful start. He set out to make the experience as terrifying as possible. We fished for vundu (ugly whiskery catfish) and fearsome tiger fish with soap bait on the river and watched the hippos scuttle around us. Rob told us how fearsome and territorial they were. One stuck its head up in front of us, just as our little speed boat was zooming along. We shot straight up and over its back.
There were plenty of crocodiles around too. Rob insisted on using his dinner steak for bait, on a long thick steel line. Don did the same, all strictly illegal. And the crocs weren’t stupid. They took the meat and avoided the hook every time. I refused to let the men have any of my steak, come supper time.
Rob and his younger son terrified me with stories about the savage sting of the tsetse flies, so it was poetic justice when Michael got stung on the way home, travelling in the back of the trailer. Rob blasted over the dusty tracks and shot through the maize on the look-out for leopards and springbok. The latter, of course, were legitimate game and made good biltong. The drying shed was decorated with tender strips, much nicer than the tourist variety. There was also a collection of python skins from snakes killed in the river.
Venturing south, in Harare we stayed in the colonial and respected Meikles Hotel. We drove to the second city of Bulawayo, the preeminent Matabele city and Bight Bridge. We moved on from the latter swiftly, hostilities were ongoing.
Next, Inyanga National Park, now Nyanga. this is the highest land in Zimbabwe, rolling hills, with Mount Nyangani, the highest point in Zimbabwe, at the centre. Mutarazi Falls, Zimbabwe's highest waterfall, is in the south of the park. There are also velvety tea plantations
And then, in the south, the ancient, surprising and as yet unexplained Zimbabwe Ruins. This is a UNESCO world heritage site, a medieval city state, dating from the ninth century onwards, about which little is known. It's thought that the stone city could have housed up to 18,000 people at its peak, and that it served as a royal palace for the local monarch. The drystone walls are up to 11 metres high.
One theory states that it was built by the Bantu people (who would become the ethnic Shona) and that it became one of the major African trade centres by the eleventh century. By the mid fifteenth century, for some reason, the city-state had been abandoned. Whatever its origins, the jungle clad Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, and the modern independent state was named after it.
The trail though the maize was literally blazed at times. Itinerants or political protesters were setting fires often enough to be a genuine threat to their livelihood. Rob would go out on the tractor, harrowing the ground to put out the flames. Once he took us with him. This was rather too much excitement for me and I was naïve enough to think that he knew what he was doing and that the fuel was unlikely to ignite. We were lucky.
A year later Don’s parents made a similar trip to Zimbabwe and Rob and Don’s father went firefighting. But they weren’t quick enough to extinguish the blaze and were encircled by the flames. They were both rescued and recuperated in hospital. Don’s father seemed to regain his full health, but Rob’s lungs were damaged; he died a year later.
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