I made my excuses from the dinner table and left the light of the garden restaurant through the little archway to the car park. I passed the doorway of the bar on my left, the banter, laughter and shouting drifting out in pulses. I crunched across the gravel, past our Land Rover and then into the half light of the compound. I reached the tarmac and continued to walk. To my right I saw the small houses of the rest house staff, their shapes dimly defined by flickering fires and their evenings lit by the candles in open windows.
I stepped past the huge metal gates of the compound, and my step became more cautious, lighter and quieter. The hugeness of the bush was in front of me, despite the town of Binga being only a couple of miles up the hill to my left. The eery moonscape I walked on was near invisible now, but I saw into my memory to map the ground. These were the Hot Springs of Binga, salt rich bubbling water spewing forth and sprinkling down the even slope to Lake Kariba. Their discharges killing off all large vegetation and leaving a white salt encrusted land, occasionally interspersed by lurid algae and browning grasses that tolerate the atmosphere and soil. The stink of foul gas is everywhere and the hissing and spurting was discernible against the background of other African night voices.
It was so dark, no moon would rise for another night or so. I stumbled my way along the tarmac roads, avoiding the potholes where possible. When my eyes could no longer see the lights of the rest camp in their corners, I looked upwards, and as I did so my chin fell away from the rest of my head in an astonished gape. For the first time in my life I was looking up into a totally clear sky, no haze or smog, no sodium light pollution, no clouds to obscure the heavens. Above me were a million stars, all crystal clear. A sweep of the Milky Way draped across the sky, so thick with light that the blackness in between was obscured. My eyes watered at the sight and the stars twinkled. To the north, familiar constellations were visible amongst the melange, the Plough and Orion most obviously. Other familiar ones were nowhere to be seen. To the south I tried to spy the Southern Cross. Being the first time in the Southern Hemisphere, I was not confident enough to say which was which. Many groups of stars made the right shape, but I was not afforded the luxury of naming my own constellations.
I turned on the spot to look at each horizon. Despite it being quite late, a few satellites were hurtling south to north or north to south. Their speed was deceptive, once caught in your eye, you could easily lose them. They dodged in and out of the constellations, and changed brightness as they moved into the earth’s shadow.
I stared into the sky for a good fifteen minutes before remembering where I was and there could be anybody…….or anything that could have been watching me. I turned and walked briskly back to the rest camp. The moon’s reappearance after being new meant that it was sight I was never to see in that glory again.
There were a lot of firsts on that trip and the sense of wonderment was overwhelming for most of the time. I was very green in the art of overseas trips, and was wary of making mistakes, but you couldn’t help being caught up in the magic of the scene. Not only was I in Africa, but in one of the most magical parts, the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe.