Trying to put our animosities aside, we were thrown into surveying for a number of days in the bush. The first day we gave Willy the day off and went in Martin’s Defender to Chizarira National Park, above the Zambezi escarpment. The entrance to the park was a drive of about 60 miles from Binga, first along the tarmacced road to the small store at Manjolo, in the heart of the Communal land of the same name. From there on we were on dirt, first passing through dry looking fields and little clusters of huts, then through wilder terrain, mile upon mile of mopane trees. The road zig-zagged along the best line between ridges coming off the escarpment, it bridged several wide rivers, none of which had any surface water. To the left of us, the land was untouched, as it had been sectioned off as the Sijarira Forest Land, and then the Chete Safari Area.
At that time I was unused to the way the British colonists had divided the land up in Zimbabwe. Much of the valley was deemed Communal land. This meant it was left for the black population to eke a living from, ruled mainly by traditional chiefs, but still controlled carefully by the rulers in Salisbury. The Commercial lands were the neatly divided white-owned farms which were on the best soils and close to the main markets. Large areas were reserved, for tourist and environmental reasons and fell into three categories; National Parks which were managed and marketed, Safari Areas which were largely left untouched and Forest Land which were managed by the Forestry Commission for timber. In the Zambezi Valley, huge areas of land had been reserved, and the communal lands were squeezed in between. Pressure of an expanding population and need to move from exhausted land had meant in some areas, the farms went right up to the border of the safari areas and national parks. Never did I see any land being farmed across the border though in most areas all that demarcated the communal land from the Safari Area would be a simple sandy track.
All along this road, the Zambezi Escarpment loomed to our right, seemingly impenetrable. But at a right turn in the west of the Siabuwa Communal Land, along a track which looked no different from any of the others we had passed, eventually led us up to the foot of the escarpment. We had a blow out just before we started to climb and watched Martin change the wheel in the mid morning heat. He took off a water bag strapped on the radiator of the Land Rover and took a mighty swig. Passing it round, it was stone cold. The bag was canvas and enough water from the inside leaked to the surface and was evaporated. The latent heat needed to evaporate the water was dragged from the water still inside the bag and cooled it dramatically.
The climb up the escarpment to the park was like passing through a secret entrance to an enchanted garden. Leaving the fields and huts behind the forest became taller, darker and moister. The track wound its way up close to a gorged river. I had heard stories of how elephants came off the escarpment and raided farmers fields at the foot. Some people had said it could not be the escarpment elephants as they could not get down the steep slope, but here in this valley we saw the method – the dung on the road showed that they used the same man-made tracks that we were using to get up to the top. Later I found huge elephant footprints on the steep slopes of the escarpment away from tracks, showing that their sure-footedness could take these huge creatures anywhere they wanted.
We emerged at the head of our gorge and were stopped at a metal barrier. A group of armed guards were playing cards in an open sided hut while listening to the BBC World Service – Lily Bolero ringing out as we approached. We had written to the Parks department asking for permission to do research in Chizarira and showed the guard our letter of approval. He let us through with little ceremony and we entered this incredible paradise high in the sky.
Chizarira lies on its own plateau, although it forms part of the escarpment to the north, there are steep slopes on two other sides as well, to Kariyangwe to the west and Busi to the east. A peak called Chizarira rises slightly above the plateau to the east, but apart from that the plateau gently slopes down north to south away from the Zambezi escarpment. On the satellite image, a remarkable geological pattern was vivid to the east – a series of almost perfectly rectangular blocks of land incised by deep gouges. In the west, where we were to survey, the land was gentler. Shallow depressions in the plateau were the birth grounds of several rivers which tumbled off the escarpment. They formed vleis, wide grassy patches almost like golfing fairways that had dry sandy centres where water might gather. Crossing a narrow bridge just south of the main park camp, we saw standing water and a myriad of insects and birds taking advantage of it. As we followed this upstream to the west, we came across a remarkable raised bog, like the peat bogs of the Peak District in Britain. The sides of the valley dropped downwards, but the centre of the stream was covered in all manner of mosses and grasses which rose in a ten foot high dome, dripping with water. It was the only time I saw a significant body of water away from Lake Kariba in the whole trip.
We surveyed two roads intensively, to the south where dense stands of vigorous Julbernardia bushed up, and went west where a more mixed mosaic of trees inhabited. All day long we came across game, the first time I had seen large quantities in one place in the wild. Impala were everywhere, springing away from the vehicle as we tried to approach. We saw a couple of families of warthog, scampering across the vleis, in one group there seemed to be about twenty little piglets in amongst the adults. And I saw my first elephants.
Across a burn scar, a small group plodded their way through the scorched trees. Martin nonchalantly mentioned them and turned the vehicle to move on, but the howls of protest from Judith and I made him realise that what he found commonplace was very much novelty to us. We stopped the vehicle and watched their progress. To my amazement, the whole group walked behind a bush and were gone. I found it incredible that such enormous animals could camouflage themselves so well but here was the evidence. Their browny grey skins merged imperceptibly with the branches of the leafless trees.