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Zambia is big, bigger than France and Spain put together – add that to the fact that the roads are shocking, and you end up with an enormous proposition that we had to cross from east to west. It took two full days of driving, one 60km stretch consumed three hours alone, several times a perfect bitumen road resembled the surface of the moon, recent rains having done irreparable damage. Zambia was all about rain, heavy storms and downpours punctuated our whole time there – a godsend as the red soil would have got into everything if it had been given the chance to dry.
Our highlight in Zambia was a couple of days in a houseboat on Lake Kariba. It was a great relief to get off the bone jarring truck and onto what looked like something straight off the Mississippi, all it needed was a paddle wheel and a casino and we could have been in a Mark Twain novel. To top it off our captain looked young enough to be Huck Finn! The scenery was nothing spectacular, but it was nice to kick back and watch life float by at a leisurely 7 knots.
Despite desperately needing a break from the road it wasn’t long before everyone started getting restless, finding their own corners of the rapidly shrinking boat. Some of the kids had a go at fishing; a few times I leaned over marvelling at the fact that they were using live bait, only to discover that the tiny silvery fish were their prize catches! Everyone else seemed to be writing journals, today we got up at this time, ate this, did that..what was that guides name etc. Bemused I spent many hours on the top deck, alone, head stuck in my Paul Theroux novel ears pounded by hours of inappropriate Mexican rock music happy to be on the fringe of what was going on below. Actually, looking back, I guess I spent the whole trip on the fringe, enjoying not being in control and allowing for the inevitable sh*t to happen.
During one of these moments I peered up and saw Ireland climbing the ladder, she came over unplugged my iPod (as only a 9 year old can) and asked me to write a poem as everybody else had. Under intense pressure to not let the team down, I looked around me and quickly came up with this.
Kariba Kariba – I’m stuck on you
Kariba Kariba what can I do?
Kariba Kariba – I’m stuck on you
You are my reservoir, I am your boat
When I’m with you, you make me float
Loving you is so easy,
Coz you make my pulse race like the Zambezi
From the flies to the hippos and satellite dishes
Only you Kariba can fulfil my wishes
When I sleep you give me ripples,
I roll over to caress your nipples, (Oops, they’re not yours)
I am your Zim, you are my Zam
And who ever said I didn’t give a damn?
In front of the Kudus, elephants and other wildlife
I will ask the missionary to make you my wife.
Kariba Kariba what can I do?
Kariba Kariba – I’m stuck on you
I was pretty pleased with that, even went well with a bit Spanish guitar, got a few laughs too – except nobody told me that the theme was Ireland and that I had written it in the middle of her school workbook. Ok, so I was running out of material and what else rhymes with ripples?? Anyway she’s going to have to explain to her teacher that the missing page is probably on it’s way to the Indian Ocean by now..not my problem!
Lake Kariba is a large man made lake that was formed by damming the Zambezi River that borders Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is known as a prime location to view game and certainly was on my previous visit many years ago. However due to the rains we only saw a handful of elephants, a few goats and a couple of fishing boats that had enormous round nets that resembled satellite dishes when lit up at night. One evening when Sheridan and I went to bed early to escape the blanket of insects that were attracted to the boat, several of our troupe convinced themselves that we were being followed by sophisticated CIA tracking devices – I hear that Zambezi lager is a good drop! Early the next morning I peered out of my cabin door to discover that the originally green deck was black and I watched in fascination as the crew swept away piles of dead insects into the lake – I still can’t believe that the sheer volume of them only freaked two of us out!
There is no doubt that the Western powers are watching Zambia’s neighbour, Zimbabwe very carefully. Due to a bridge being washed away we almost didn’t make it into Zim before the border closed, worked out well though as they processed us in a record five minutes so they could knock off early for the night – funding a couple of beers for the border guard helped as well. Crossing the bridge into Zimbabwe you could feel a light mist and hear the crashing sound in the background – Victoria Falls, arguably one of the wonders of the world. We treated ourselves to a chalet, best described as an old welsh miners hut for our stay, which gave us a chance to dry off and spread out a bit. The campground was in the centre of town surrounded by high electric fences and patrolled by guards, hey after what we had heard about Zimbabwe it was not unexpected. The state department ranks it in the top ten list of countries not to visit, inflation is over 3000% and the president Robert Mugabe is a lunatic.
As I write this, I have just watched a huge dung beetle crash into a tree, he’s laying on his back unable to get up, lots of movement but going nowhere, bit like Zim, someone needs to give him a nudge! Just as I get up to help him out he has somehow managed to right himself, now I need to make an effort to point him toward the basketball size elephant poo that is right next to our tent.
Zimbabwe is certainly a mess, a third of the population has fled, most of the shops are empty and even bread is not available. One day when having lunch it took us longer to count the money than it did to actually eat lunch!
I changed US$50 on the black market and ended up with just short of a billion dollars, my pockets bulging with wads of cash. It is impossible to use credit cards and fraught with danger if you do as you are billed at the official exchange rate of Z$30,000 rather than Z$1,800,000 to the dollar on the street. Despite the dire economic situation, Zimbabwe is still my favourite African nation, maybe a strong infrastructure combined with the resolve and friendliness of the people is holding it together in spite of the governments every attempt at ruining the place!
Deep into the wet season the Falls were magnificent, the spray often blanketing the view and clouding our vision. You can walk the full length of the face of the falls along a cliff top path through the rainforest, unprotected lookouts allowing for dramatic views from every angle. The girls taught African tourists to thrust their hands in the air, jump and scream as it made for better photos. By the end of our walk you could hear whole families screaming in delight, boys would take off their shirts, then bare-chested, soaking wet, proceeded to high five and body slam each other.
One big African mama nearly knocking herself out in an attempt to leave the ground.
Victoria Falls is also home to the Victoria Falls Hotel, in the same vein as Raffles in Singapore or Mount Nelson in Cape Town, it is a relic from colonial times, with sweeping lawns, white colonnaded passageways, we half expected couples to emerge the gentlemen wearing pith helmets and the ladies carrying parasols. We treated ourselves to a magnificent buffet dinner at Jungle Jims and feasted on traditional English delights with crocodile thrown in for good measure. You may ask where does all the food come from, let’s just say that they are very lucky that Zambia is just over the bridge!
Everywhere you go in Africa you are reminded how lucky we are, I could have given away or traded every item of clothing I was wearing ten times over. Michelle was hounded constantly for her pink rip off Crocs; one guy called Fortune followed her all the way back to camp desperate to swap them for a stone carving. I was warned not to wear my Portsmouth shirt outside of camp, as it would have caused a riot. Benjani, a star Pompey player and the Zimbabwean captain is a national hero. Despite not convincing Michelle to part with her tacky pink shoes we still bought plenty of Shona sculptures, several pieces weighing a couple of kilos, I just love their designs and saw one weighing 100kg that would have looked amazing in our garden back home.
Our final morning in Zimbabwe was the highlight of the trip so far, whilst Sheridan went off to ride an Elephant, Michelle and I chose to walk with lions. This incredible program designed to rest the decline in the lion population by breeding and reintroducing lions to the wild was incredible. After a short briefing of do’s and don’ts and specific instructions on how to behave, we jumped in the jeep, drove several kilometres into the scrub and were dumped in the middle of nowhere where stood a man with a powerful rifle. Together with our guides and a couple of researchers we were led through a clump of trees and there right in front of us were three male lions – around 16-18 months old but to all intents and purposes fully grown. I felt a wetness down the inside of my leg and for a minute I thought my body was in tune with my head but then I remembered that it was still raining lightly. We approached the lions, feeling secure as we were draped in jungle green capes, sticks in hand with the instructions ringing in our ears, if they attack you look them straight in the eye and firmly say no! Doing my best Harry Potter impersonation I was ready for anything. In the end preparation and perspiration were not required as the lions allowed us to walk them by holding their tails – yes seriously they like it!! We even got to rub their tummies as they rolled on their backs like giant pussycats. It was something neither of us could ever imagine we would be able to do in our lifetimes, as these were wild animals not pets or circus performers. Within a few months these same lions will be chasing down zebras and downing them with a single swipe of a paw that packs the equivalent of 100kg of power in a single swipe.
If Michelle was offered a job as a researcher then and there she would taken it and I would have had to somehow explain it to Sheridan, then again she had probably run off with the elephants anyway. Oh well, looks like we will need to move to Zimbabwe to keep the family together, doesn’t sound half bad, I could get a job as a safari guide (I hear they do well with the chicks) and hey we’d be instant billionaires too!
This article was written in 2008. At the time we understood that both walking with lions and riding elephants was beneficial to the long term survival of the species. However it is not a practice we would encourage as recent evidence shows that many of these tourist practices are presented as conservation based but in fact are detrimental to the species and should be avoided at all costs.