On our last morning at Victoria Falls we were up early and headed out to explore the Zambesi river bank above the falls. A couple of hundred metres from the hotel we were reminded of Africa’s perils when we encountered a large herd of Cape Buffalo beside the road. Along with a cyclist and a couple of other pedestrians we opted to make a detour and give them a wide berth.
We skirted the enclosed area at the falls and took Zambesi Drive following the outside of the fence. This led us to the river. The bush is fairly open except along the bank. We made note of some very fresh elephant dung and proceeded with caution. At the river edge we caught sight of a guy who apparently was sleeping rough there. His first response was to duck out of sight but after a brief pause he came out and warned us of the presence of the elephant and urged us to be careful.
The target species was Rock Pratincole and we soon had some fairly distant views, to get closer we would have to swim with the Hippos and Crocodiles. We passed on that idea and made do with a photograph of an African Openbill instead …
Then, not wishing to be surprised at close quarters, we circled back through the more open country away from the river passing a number of White-fronted Bee-eaters and racking up a good list of birds …
and back to Ilala Lodge for breakfast. Joseph was waiting outside he may have wondered where we spent the night. He was sad to hear we would be leaving and was still keen to come with us. We shook hands and gave him a small present. A nice kid obliged to live off his wits.
After our cereal and fruit juice it was check out time. A drive across the border into Zambia and the airport at Livingstone. Soon the Congo.
The Zambesi thunders over the falls and makes a sharp left turn through a deep gorge. A cloud of spray ascends high into the air. Opposite the Devils Cataract and the Main Falls there is an area of luxuriant forest bathed in a steady light rain. Once you get away from this the surrounding countryside is quite arid.
The birding and botanising are quite rich in this small patch. The appropriately named Fireballs Heamanthus sp.
Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin …
Black-eyed Bulbul …
White-browed Robin Chat …
and the spectacular Trumpeter Hornbill …
There is an excellent cafe where you can enjoy a local beer and watch the staff deal with unwelcome guests …
We encountered Bushbuck, Warthog, Chacma Baboon and Vervet Monkeys, like this little guy waiting for his lunch, inside the fence. It was well worth spending the whole day there which gave us the best of the light for our photography, early and late.
Joseph, of course, was waiting at the gate …
Or in English, the smoke that thunders, otherwise Victoria Falls. It’s huge.
So big that, like Iguazu, you can’t take it all in at once. On the ground you have to move from view-point to view-point and add it all up in your head. The only way to photograph the whole thing is from the air.
Visiting in November the falls were at their minimum flow, virtually nothing was going over the eastern end. The western half remains spectacular. It may not be the worst time to visit however, in April, peak flow, the spectacle is obscured by the spray rising out of the gorge, hiding the foot of the falls and soaking visitors and their cameras. Even in November the spray rising above the falls can be seen from kilometres away.
Mark and I left Ilala lodge bright and early. A short distance down the hill there is a broad footpath sweeping away to the right. There is no signage on it but it is the most direct route to the falls. Joseph and a cabal of carving sellers were waiting for us there. They were only able to accompany us as far as the gate because you have to pay to go in. It’s $30 US for foreigners, somewhat less for locals.
It’s probably best to make your way to the west end first. Here you will find Livingstone’s Statue. A Scot, he went to Africa in 1841 as a medical missionary with the London Missionary Society. In 1855 he was supposedly the first white fellah to see the falls which he named after his queen. He spent most of his adult life in Africa and it was a life far more beneficial than say the King of the Belgians or the present führer of Zimbabwe.
Not far from the statue you can stand above the western end of the falls. From here the far end of the falls is 1,708 metres away. The water drops 108 metres in the centre. The first chute is called the Devils Cataract. It is separated from the next broad expanse, the Main Falls, by Boaruka Island. Then comes Livingstone Island, from where the good doctor first saw the falls, then Rainbow Falls (the highest) and the Eastern Cataract.
The waters of the Zambesi pour into a gorge which sweeps around a number of horse shoe bends before heading off towards the Indian Ocean. When the water level is low you can get down into the gorge but not to a position that will give you a great view. Your $30 gives you a number of splendid views from above. The Devils Cataract …
The Main Falls, looking west …
Rainbow Falls looking from the east, a small party on the Zambian side are getting ready to swim in the Devil’s Pool. Only a tiny minority are swept to their death.
You could spend the day there, and we did …
Every man gotta right to decide his … own destiny
After lunch we left Leon Varley and were driven to the little Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls.
After checking into the luxurious Ilala Lodge we headed out for a quick look around. We decided to save the falls for the following day but headed in that general direction. We were soon approached by a group of men with things to sell. You could buy the big five immortalised in wood or the complete set of the former Zimbabwean bank notes and who wouldn’t want a trillion dollar note for a bookmark? Well, no thank you, no, no thank you, no …
No, it wasn’t going to be that easy. One particularly engaging young man switched tack and assumed the role of guide. Joseph was fifteen, what he really needed was a job. He was very willing to work, he said, could we take him to Australia and he would work for us. He took us to the gorge, was suitably patient while we wasted our time photographing and sorting out the identity of various little brown birds and explained the problems that he, an Ndebele speaker faces at the hands of the Shona.
Zimbabwe is a land divided and made poor.
Robert Mugabe came to head the resistance movement that would eventually become the ZANU-PF in 1975. The independent state of Zimbabwe came into being in 1980 with him as prime minister. It rose out of the ashes of the former Rhodesia. At that time it was a fairly rich country and a net exporter of food. The wealth, though was not shared particularly fairly. The newly independent country was greeted with a great deal of optimism by Australia’s then prime minister, Malcolm Fraser and celebrated by none less than Bob Marley.
Malcolm Fraser’s little mate is still in power, now the president. He has managed that by intimidation, violence and fraud. One of his early efforts was to unleash the Fifth Brigade on the supporters of his rival Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe’s power base was in the east amongst the Shona speaking people, Nkomo’s was in the west amongst the Ndebele. Between 1984 and 1987 the Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korea, mounted a campaign of terror and rape. They executed about 20,000 civilians in the west of the country. To the victor the spoils, the Shona are first in line for the jobs. The Ndebele are last in line for scarce food.
Not that there are plenty of jobs. Mugabe found it expedient to toss the white farmers off their productive farms which ended up in the hands of his cronies. The farms now produce next to nothing. When private ownership ceased to have any meaning, not only the farmers left so did the investors. Hyperinflation made impoverished billionaires out of everyone. By 2008, the inflation rate was 231 million percent. The true victors were Mugabe and a small clique. New wealth came from diamonds and other resources, the nouveau riche are the ones that control the mines or take a slice of the profits from outsiders for access to the resources.
Mugabe is in his nineties, currently he is setting up his much younger wife, Grace, to continue the dynasty. She was his mistress, he married her after his first wife died. She is commonly known as Dis Grace, or the First Shopper. She is on to at least her third palace. She qualified as Dr Grace PhD after only two months of study at the University of Zimbabwe although apparently her thesis is unavailable from the University archives.
All in all a stable and successful kleptocracy.
This bridge spans the mighty Zambesi, the border with Zambia is in the centre … you’ll be able to spot where.
We were five days with Leon Varley. I developed a considerable respect for him and Obeid, the tracker and especially for the large wild animals that we encountered. The bird list mounted up and I added Honey Badger to my life list of mammals. Leon made sure we got our 20 km a day, three square meals and a drink. Our lunch time vigil overlooking the little water hole paid dividends. We learnt that in the animal world’s game of rock paper scissors warthog beats baboon. No matter how large the baboon, time at the water was up as soon as a warthog arrived. The poor birds had to wait until all else had vacated.
That’s a Bushbuck above. We encountered elephant and giraffe every day. We saw Lions on two days. On only one occasion did we get close to Burchell’s Zebra.
On a couple of occasions we encountered fresh tracks of Black Rhino but we could never find the beast itself. Perhaps just as well, the last few years have seen many rhino killed by poachers. There are possibly as few as nine left in Hwange, the future looks very bleak for impotent Chinese, they may have to switch to Viagra.
On the other side of the coin the park is overburdened with elephant. They are doing considerable damage to the Baobab trees which are soft enough for elephants to eat. Leon predicts that there will be next to no mature Baobabs in the park within a few years.
The most interesting piece of botany was represented by this very attractive flower …
This is Strophanthus kombe, it’s one of the poison arrow plants. An arrow coated with a paste containing just three seeds will kill a giraffe.
So, is a walking safari for you?
The accommodation is a tent with an outdoor shower and toilet en suite. Luxury no, but you will survive so long as you don’t walk off the cliff in the dark. Food is pretty good for camp cooking. Alcoholic beverages are included.
You need to be fit enough to back up a few long hot dry days of walking with enough in reserve to run on demand.
It’s not for you if you will spend all your time frightened that the animals might kill you. They might … we all have to die some time.
Leon delivers what Leon delivers, that is a lot of walking and as many of the big five as he can find. I think if you said to him at the outset that you were only interested in hairy caterpillars he would go out of his way to deliver a lot of walking and as many of the big five as he can find! He really has no idea why hairy caterpillars or, for that matter, little brown birds are of any interest to anyone.
If you are primarily interested in photographing the wildlife you would do better from a vehicle. Animals permit closer approach of vehicles and a good guide will anticipate an animal’s movements and put you in position, sun over your shoulder for that perfect shot. On foot you have to take what the situation permits.
I loved it.
We were moving slowly and quietly along the bank of a dry river. In the river bed there was a gathering of elephants of all ages. They were drinking from small pools that had been scraped in the fine gravel or waiting their turn. We made a fairly close approach to one group. Elephants have poor eyesight but good hearing and smell. As Leon Varley puts it in his webpage …
To approach a single elephant on foot is worth a hundred sightings of elephant from the back of a vehicle. When you’re afoot everything is of significance. Wind direction, terrain, vegetation, how the animal is behaving. To walk in Africa is to be part of Africa.
The group in the river bed was on our right the wind was from the right. The bank was lightly wooded with Mopane just like the photograph above. It limits visibility but one can walk through it fairly easily. Off to our left a male elephant caught our scent, trumpeted and charged. It came through the Mopane scattering the bushes. Four puny humans turned and ran. Because of our starting position the two tourists were bringing up the rear. Obeid, the tracker, was magnificent. After a few steps he stopped and stood his ground with his hand gun raised. “Run” he urged as we passed him. Leon led the way.
In the gravel of the river bed progress was slow, I was thinking that four large flat feet would find it rather easier than my two size nines. Then behind us Obeid burst into gales of laughter and called us to stop. He beckoned us back. I could think of a number of better directions to take but Leon was keen to see what the story was. Obeid was excited, his usually good English was unable to keep pace with the retelling. So in a mixture of English, Ndebele and charades we were treated to the story of the elephant that charged, snapped the small Mopane like match sticks but finally hit a tree that withstood the onslaught. Only just, it was now standing at a crazy angle with the bark missing from a large area on one side. The force had caused the elephant to lose its footing and stumble. When it picked itself up it decided it didn’t need to charge any more. Obeid’s grandchildren will hear this tale and thanks to him so will mine.
It was a big day for wildlife. We had already seen Spotted Hyena and Wild Dog and later in the day we would encounter a pride of Lions.
It was late morning and getting very hot. The lions were asleep in long grass. We were blissfully unaware of each others presence. We were moving almost silently. Obeid pointed out some tracks, Leon said “Lion”. Twenty metres away five lions got the shock of their lives and scattered in random directions. For a moment two were heading straight for us but realised their error immediately. And they were gone. All over before the scene could be processed, no chance for a photo.