Willy had his quirks. He was our driver for the whole period we were in Zimbabwe that first time, and a more pessimistic man I have never met. He was relatively small, no more than about five foot five. He gave the appearance of being about 80, his back was bent, his wiry hair and straggly beard peppered with grey. He wore a blue suit most of the time, whether in Harare or the middle of the bush, and he moved with such effort that you thought the whole of his brain power was consumed in the task of locomotion. He spoke extremely slowly, as well, and it was often a long time before he got to the point of a conversation. For him, the world was a terrible place where nothing was ever going to go right. The fact that in Zimbabwe he was usually found correct was all the more annoying.
He picked us up cheerfully enough from the Bronte Hotel in Harare and we drove down to Bulawayo without too much problem in the beat up Land Rover. He also drove carefully up to Binga. He never sped, and on the tarmac roads never went over about 60 kilometres an hour, which meant it took a long time to cover ground. We had a problem with the Land Rover after only a couple of days. While trying to cover some ground one day, the suspension bounced severely up and down and we ended up with a cracked fuel injection pipe. The position of this small hairline crack was just on the curve before the cup shaped end. The pressure on that bend was too much for it just to be sealed; what was needed was a totally new pipe, or at least a new end. The vehicle could still move, but the amount of fuel getting to the valves was so minuscule that, even by Willy’s standards, we were going slowly. There was no umph to the throttle and we were having problems getting up long hills.
In Binga, Land Rover spare parts were rare and expensive, and there were few places that could put them together. We were beginning to wonder whether we might have to abandon our trip, only four days in. Willy and Knowledge, our field assistant who met up with us in Binga, went down into the town to make a few enquiries, and eventually came back with some news that we might be able to get it mended down at the Ministry of Transport Depot in the Inner Harbour.
Perhaps I should explain about the strange geography of Binga. Binga did not really exist before Lake Kariba was put in place. It was built as an administration centre for the Tongan majority in the region when the dam was flooded. A fairly good tarmac road was built from Dete crossing, passing through the mining area of Kamativi. It wound across the small ridges that lay above the lake, quite steep and long but not particularly high or wide. The last one of these was right on the lake shore, and almost completely surrounded by water. Two harbours had formed in the area behind this ridge, and a two ended peninsula had formed when the lake filled in. The town of Binga occupied the central ground of this. It was hardly a town. In 1993, there were only about a thousand residents. It continues to grow, but is still small. Nonetheless, it remains the largest centre for three hundred miles, from Hwange in the west to Gokwe and Kariba in the east.
It contains all the administration functions for the region, the town and district council, the police and customs, the weather station, a small hospital just to the south west, and of course the Rest Camp. In 1993, this was the only place to stay in town, but Binga has become part of the tourist route since then and several developments now cluster around the lake shore.
To the south west, an airstrip has been cleared out of quite dense mixed bushland. To the north east, the road drops off the ridge to the hot springs and climbs gently again into the rest camp. Another fork of the road continues to the very end by the outer harbour where many of the fishing boats would come in, and there a small crocodile farm had been built up.
The whole area was wonderful, I felt transported to paradise. Every day I would wake up, with the sunlight bathing the Zambian hills across the lake, the birds twittering away, and lovely hot sulphurous water to bath in the pool below my chalet. The bathrooms were communal, but I never worried about walking along the garden path to the showers, as it was neither cold nor rainy there. The words Rest Camp helped describe the place. Outside in the real world we sweated and toiled in the dry midday heat, but when we returned to the compound, we became truly rested. Coming back about half four, and it being mid winter in Zimbabwe, the sun was already thinking of plunging out of the sky. We would trudge up the path to our chalets and drop our field equipment off, then change into bathing costumes and tread carefully across the lawn (that sharp tropical grass that no matter how well kept it looked, could never match the softness of a true English lawn) to the large shallow bathing pool. It was hardly deep enough to swim in, this top pool, instead we would drop into it and soak in the salt-saturated waters for half an hour, chatting about the day, once having a G&T, and all the time watching the most wonderful light show in Africa as the sun set. The sun drops discernibly and the light changes fast from the bright blue to a turquoise and on through a deep yellow, orange and red as the sun hits the Zambian hills on the far side of the lake. The calmness of the evening made Lake Kariba a perfect mirror and more glorious colour was reflected up at us. The first few fishing boats were already making their way into mid-water to start their evening’s work. The daytime animals started to head for their resting places, the dark outlines of birds stood out against the rosy lake. The nighttime creatures began to stir, a few crickets made noises off, frogs began to croak. The sun disappeared completely behind the hill and the deepest colours made their entrance – maroons and purples bathing the view from west to east. If there were any clouds in the sky, a lingering yellow fringe would show on their tops. And then the darkness would overcome the show and the purples turned to navy and little swines called mosquitoes would start sucking from our exposed skin. It was time to have a further bath in less salty water and get ready for dinner.