First Time in Binga – Soaking up Africa

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Starting from the Livingstone statue who boringly named them Victoria Falls instead of keeping the much more evocative local Smoke that Thunders name, we looked across at the Devil’s Cataract, the most dramatic of all.  The water turns white as it approaches and gushes down the ravine into the deep below in a series of stages, obscured by gallons of spray.  Spectacular rainbows reached across the gorge.  I tried to follow some water down, moving my eyes fast enough to try to freeze frame it, but the sheer force of water made it impossible to keep track of it.

 We dropped down some steps in the forest to the most remarkable viewpoint, about a third of the way down the gorge.  The water from the Devil’s cataract turns a right angle into the main gorge and the other falls can be seen to the left dropping away from the Zambian side.  On the Zimbabwe side, the spray was being whisked up and over the forest, high above the sheer cliffs.  Because we were partly looking up at the falls here, they appeared even larger and more dramatic.  From in amongst the trees, the light was a curious blue and several rainbows stood out against the spray.  The incessant flow of water was mesmerizing and it was hard to drag yourself on to the next viewpoint.  The other falls were larger but less charismatic, the main falls a sheet of continuous white draped across the cliffs, a few ridiculous plants clinging on to dear life on no soil and battered by high pressure jets of water.  The last three falls were hardly visible, the spray on the Zimbabwe side so intense that we were just in a fog.  I walked with Knowledge and Willy out to the Danger Point, the very edge of the cliffs where the river turns south into the second gorge, spanned by the famous iron bridge.  We could see nothing, but the thrill of standing next to the edge on the slippery rocks being drenched in the updrafts of spray was fantastic.  We walked back to Judith soaked through, I held my T-shirt out from my body in a vain attempt to let some dry air in.

 Still probably the most incredible natural phenomena I have ever seen in Africa, you could not wipe the grin on my face as we headed back to Lake Kariba.  Despite that, the Binga Rest Camp remains one of my most enduring memories in all my trips abroad.  After a few nights in the Bronte Hotel in Harare and a curious room in Bulawayo, this was my first taste of the real Africa and I fell in love with it.  Its sheer peacefulness, its sublime beauty and prospect, continue to dwell in my mind.  Either morning or night, the little sounds of frogs and birds, the occasional hum of an insect flying by were all that disturbed the quiet.

 Then the American’s arrived.

 I’m not saying that every American is the same, and far be it for me to stereotype them, but this lot were almost insufferable.  I had been in Africa a couple of weeks, and had got used to the rhythms of the lifestyle here.  I was quietly taking it all in, while protecting my own sanity and methods in a few possessions and rituals.  When they arrived, they brought their cultural baggage with them and dumped them in the rest camp, not just on us but on the whole area.

 They were a group of opticians, ophthalmologists and dentists who spent a few weeks every year here, setting up their stalls in the hospital and treating the many people with eye and teeth problems.  There was plenty of work for them.  I had seen more incidence of cataracts and blindness here than anywhere else I had been, most of it river blindness.  They also tried to fit false teeth to those women who had been rendered unattractive by their protective husbands.  It was noble work and I salute them even now.  However, it was not so much the doctors, as the huge entourage they brought with them, nurses, administrators, families, all crammed into the shared chalets and other beds.

 The first morning, I was rudely awoken, not because of the usual cacophony of dawn chorus sounds, but by a bunch of kids “Oh look, Mary, is that a horse?”  “ I think it is a horse, you know”.  As if they hadn’t seen a horse before.  I got up and washed, and went out for some fresh air before breakfast.

 “Hi guys” came a shriek down the pathway.  “Have you seen my electric toothbrush”.

“ I want my shirt back”

“Heh, when is breakfast”

“Are you alrighty?”

“I’m alrighty.  How are you this morning?”

“I’m very well although I think I lost my contact lens”

“heh come and see this horse”

“Gee that is some horse”

 It really was too much.  I had grown used to having this place to myself.  I walked off down the field, past the lower swimming pool and out of the gate at the bottom of the field, close to the normal-looking horse which had now become the centre of attention.  When I reached the bottom road, I turned right towards the harbour, then veered down to the lake shore through some grass.  There were no hippos or crocs down there, so I stood looking at the lake.  I could still hear the American’s twittering up the hill.

 Twenty or thirty fishing boats were drifting in from their nights light fishing.  The harbour to the right was just a sheltered bay and a small jetty.  Most of the boats tied up as close to the water’s edge as possible, and a human chain was passing the catch back up onto the land.  They sang some quiet hymn as they worked.  A few small engine noises drifted across the becalmed waters.  The lights of the remaining boats looked dim in the gathering sunlight.

 I looked to my left, away from the work, and saw a fish eagle swoop over a small ridge and drop.  It rose again, a small silvery fish in its talons wriggled with futility, and disappeared over the trees above the fishermen.  I sighed with relief.  The Americans may have come and shouted but Africa was still very much here.

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First Time in Binga – Heading to the smoke that thunders

We had two days off in three weeks.  It is something I try hard to avoid now.  In the heat, the difficulty of the terrain and the heavy workload and responsibility you have when working abroad, I try to take at least one day off in a week.  I can go two weeks in a row without a break, but only if that is the full extent of the trip.  In fact in Zimbabwe that first time, even one of the days off was a bit of work, as we had to drop Bob off at Hwange airport, and Judith insisted on capturing a couple of survey points first.  I finally persuaded her that since we were going all that way that we try for Victoria Falls itself.  Although there had been many amazing sites in this trip, I thought to come all this way and not see “Smoke that thunders” would be sad.  Judith took a lot of persuading but in the end I got there.  Logistically the day was a nightmare.  We had to pay Bob so we first drove to the small mining town of Hwange.  The Zimbabwean name is far less of a problem than calling by its old colonial name, Wankie, but many old codgers in the country still refer to it in that way.  “ I’m going to Wankie today” they would boom in a loud voice, and their wives would say “Not in public you aren’t”.

 Hwange looks like Wigan without the charm, surrounded by derelict tailing piles and goods yards, but the town centre itself was approached along a very well kept dual carriageway with brightly coloured flower beds.  We got some money changed in the bank, even then the exchange rate meant you often were given a wad of money in a paper clip that just represented so many hundred Zimbabwean dollars.  Bob stuffed it in his bag, and became incredibly cheerful and full of bonhomie.  Despite our difficult start, he became part of the family.  Knowledge in particular had clung to Bob and improved his botanical knowledge no end.

Our next stop was Hwange airport, not the small airfield near the town but the tourist airport out in the famous National Park.  To do that we had to drive some forty miles back the way we came, past Dete Crossing and our turn off to Binga, and on to the road to the Main Camp.  We dropped Bob off at the near deserted airport.  He didn’t really want us to leave until his plane was ready to go, but knew I wanted to get to Vic Falls and it was already afternoon.

Bob Drummond, Judith, Willy, Me and Knowledge at Hwange Airport

Bob Drummond, Judith, Willy, Me and Knowledge at Hwange Airport

He graciously said he would probably find a lift to Main camp and have a drink with whoever he would find there before his flight.  We bade him farewell and started for the falls.  First we had to traverse the same bit of road back to Hwange for the third time that day, and then on, another 70 miles or so.  Judith almost stopped the vehicle and turned us back, but the hypnotic effect of the road and the draw of the great falls kept us going.  The same repetitive scenery passed us by, but you were always aware that you were losing height.  Almost imperceptibly the road was heading down to the Zambezi River.  On and on we went.  I began to think we would never reach before nightfall.  The road rose slightly about ten miles out to a small plateau on which sat Vic Falls airport.  Out of the bush the fuselage of a jet reared incongruously out at us before it was lost behind more bush.  As we reached the edge of the plateau we saw the final drop.  Although the town itself was hidden, a great white cloud speckled with rainbows loomed above the trees, stark against the clear azure sky.  Even Judith had no thoughts of heading back to work now.  We reached the town, which then was still saved the mass commercialism that spoilt it later.  There were several visitors dotted around but it was not overcrowded.  We grabbed a late lunch in a fast food joint in town… OK so it was beginning to get commercialised, but it was fast food African style.  I remember little about the meal but I remember the waiter’s name was Truth, and he had a brother called Peace.

 Then we went to the falls themselves.  Everywhere in the town, the roar of water could be heard in the back, and the clouds of spray blossomed up above the trees.  Many people will have visited the falls and can report on their experiences more eloquently that I can.  Suffice it to say, that I found it the most incredible experience, partly from the anticipation and then from the realisation of seeing the huge quantities of water fall helplessly into the gash in the earth.  And in 1993, the park was so well run, none of the hawkers that spoil so many other parks; once away from the car park in the rainforest, you are left alone to experience the sheer force of nature.  The rain forest is a product of the fall; here and nowhere else in Zimbabwe is there so much year round water.  The spray which billows up out of the gorge falls like rain on the surrounding land.  Out of the dark forest the rumbling of the falls comes through and your legs tremble as the earth is shaken.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

First Time in Binga – Stuck in the bundu

The little sandy tracks we drove down each day took us to the remotest.  Even in the centre of the communal lands could be large tracts of continuous bushland or Bundu, as many colonists called it.  One track we went down passed out of the habitable communal lands through some areas which appeared to have been abandoned.  One reason for the abandonment may have been drought, but the area was also near the border between Matabeleland and Mashonaland, the traditional areas of the two largest tribes in Zimbabwe.  Much of the fighting during the civil war up to 1980 took place in this region, and many of the Tonga were caught in the crossfire and had to move on.  These remoter areas had often not been recolonised.  It made our maps interesting as we often could detect abandoned field shapes in some areas, where vegetation had taken back its possessions.

Continuing on down this valley we were within about five miles of the River Sengwa where we knew there was current day habitation.  We wanted to reach this river and do a round trip back to Siakobvu via Siabuwa.  We drove through some more abandoned fields and met another small river.  While we could see the track rise on the far side, the sandy ramp on our side had been completely washed away leaving a cliff of some fifteen feet.  No way would the Land Rover drop safely that distance, and our thoughts were that we would have to drive the thirty miles back to Siakobvu and forget this part of the field work.  We looked around for possible alternatives.  I traced the road back east a little way and tried to look to my right to see if there was another way down onto the river bed, where we could at least try and get along its course to the other side of the track.  There was nothing.  I went through an old abandoned field and was immediately stopped dead in my tracks.  Have you ever been caught in a spider’s web?  I felt this wire across my chest which physically halted me.  Looking down I saw this thread, taut and still intact.  To my right a blue spider of nearly six inches span with black and yellow legs was scampering off into the nearby bush.  Now not only was I to watch for lions, but the invertebrates were also out to catch me.

 A shout from Judith told me that Willy had found a way across and as I walked back along our original track, I saw that Willy had driven across a pile of branches put there to stop us, and that a new track, barely used had been marked out to my right (the opposite way to where I had been looking on my little expedition). By the time I had returned, Willy had driven the van over some dry grass to the new track and we crossed over.  I stayed outside to help guide him across a number of slabs of stone in the riverbed and he roared up the far side.  Once on the trail again, the fields disappeared altogether and we drove for several miles through virgin forest, before splashing out across the Sengwa River past some washerwomen who thought the last thing they would see was a Land Rover emerging from the reeds.

First Time in Binga – Bushmeat

Despite the hassly baboons, this was a perfect spot.  Waking up every morning to the fabulous view, breakfast sitting on the step watching the locals go back and forth along the road.  School girls from down in the valley would walk up to Siakobvu in the morning.  They would peer at this extraordinary Englishman on the step wearing a straw panama.  I would often say “hello”, which would be greeted by embarrassed sniggers as they huddled around each other.  They would continue walking but I could tell by the way they kept glancing back and whisper in that teenage fashion that they were trying to set me up with a friend.  It was a shame they never came up with the goods as one night there was a fabulous party in the valley.  We saw nothing but the drums started beating as the sun went down and they were still banging when we woke in the morning.  As we were getting ready for work several groups of bedraggled party-goers trooped back up the hill.

 While in the area we headed north towards the lakeshore at an exclusive resort called Bumi Hills.  Passing through the Mola Communal Lands, we drove up a small hill with bush on either side.  Without warning a young antelope, spooked by the engine noise, leapt out in front of the Land Rover and glanced off one wing.  Willy stopped the vehicle and backed it.  It was a young bushbuck and it lay next to the road side, heavily gasping its last breaths, its legs quivering as it lay on the side.  We left it on the road side to die and continued along the road.  We had not much further to go and on our return about ten minutes later the bushbuck was quite still.  Willy and Knowledge were far too opportunistic to leave the animal to other scavengers, and hauled the young carcass into the back of the van.  I sat in the back with Knowledge and as we jolted back along the road doing some more surveying, I would occasionally glance back at the bushbuck.  It lay there stretched out across the ropes and dust, its immaculate coat still with its sheen and these huge glistening Bambi eyes looking up at me.  We had only driven for an hour when I noticed the smell. A little blood had leaked out from a small gash in its fore leg, had dried and was attracting several flies.  I put up with this for about ten minutes but then had to plead with Judith that we offloaded the carcass at the camp before carrying on with our day’s work.  It was still an hour’s drive away and as we approached the tsetse camp in the Ume Valley, the body was reeking of death.  They hauled the carcass out and hung it in a nearby shady tree and we went on our way, only a few smears of blood on the back of the trailer gave lie to our accidental poaching.

 When we returned in the evening, Willy drove up with a few cuts of meat from the bushbuck and several slivers of liver.  The cook rustled up a feast for us.  For starters he braised the livers in onion and tinned tomato.  They were very salty but good.  The main course was the meat, which tasted strong, but was incredibly tough.  Perhaps it had not hung long enough, perhaps the adrenalin rush or the fact it sat with the blood hardening in its veins for so long spoiled the meat a little.  I often thought we should have tenderised it by driving over it a few more times, but even though we had to chew and chew, my first piece of bushbuck was mouthwatering.

 The bushbuck was the largest creature Willy nabbed with the vehicle. His most popular prey were the flocks of guinea fowl that we found on the sandy tracks.  Up to thirty strong, they formed a black and white speckled puddle in the centre of the road, their queer little heads on rounded bodies were pushed forward as they tried to clear the road.  Willy ensured he veered the vehicle, but not to avoid them, more to catch them.  Knowledge and Willy fed on guinea fowl several times in the three weeks we were there.

First Time in Binga – String, Knife and Paper

We dropped Bob off at Hwange airport and travelled back to Mlibizi for a further night at the Rest Camp.  The following day we had to pick up some supplies from the supermarket as we were to self cater for three days.  Then we travelled the long road from Manjolo to Siabuwa.  It was such a long way that Willy asked whether I wanted to drive.  It was the first time I had driven on the sandy roads and I found it difficult at first.  Not only was I not used to the skidding of the Land Rover on the soft sand, but we were heavily laden down with all our equipment.  Judith and I had our suitcases, which were heavy but compact, but the amount of camping equipment Willy and Knowledge had was incredible.  Whoever says that Africans know how to travel light had never seen Tsetse Control employees move around.  There was the tents, the stools, the pots and pans, loads of food, sticks, poles, bags of clean and dirty washing (even though Willy always seemed to wear the same white shirt and blue suit).  If I started to skid the weight in the back of the van acted as a pendulum.  Most of the time it was OK as the road was wide enough to veer from side to side, but where rivers crossed our path the bridges were confined to single track and I was in danger of going through the metal crash barriers that guided you in.  After the first fifteen minutes I began to get the hang of it and was able to drive on for most of the eighty or so miles to Siakobvu.  I was quite tired as we approached the little town.  Like Binga, this was more an administrative centre than a naturally formed settlement, but it was busy with people conducting their business or heading in or out of town.  We went to the main administrative block and got our instructions for the house where Judith and I were to stay.  We had to double back slightly then turn off on to a road which wound down a steep wooded hill towards to Ume River.  Half way down set in an alcove against a rocky cliff was the most fabulous looking lodge.  A one-storey building with a perfectly thatched roof that overhung a terrace that ran the full length of the house front.  A small neat wall ran along the gravel roadside with one small break where steps led up to the front door.  To one side was a tinned-roof lean to containing bathroom and kitchen and beyond a small concrete backyard with washing line and a few overgrown pots for plants.  Hanging over the terrace was a screen of bauhinias, growing out of the thatch and draping down to the floor.

 Not only did the house look fantastic, but its setting was equally good.  Sheltered by massive trees with great buttressed trunks, a small opening in front of the house gave a marvellous prospect across the Ume Valley into the Matusadona National Park at the other side.  From the shade of the trees, the valley looked bleached but you could make out the smoke rising from the various settlements down near the river and the more continuous forest on the far side.

 The DC’s house had a warden who seemed to be cook, valet and guard all rolled into one.  I am sure he would have done our laundry had we had need.  He spoke little English but we got along quite well.  His cooking skills were geared towards local foods, such as sadsa and more sadsa, so he was a little lost with the tinned goods we had brought, but he kept us sustained for the few days we were there.  Knowledge and Willy were staying at the tsetse camp at the foot of the hill so they made their excuses and headed off.

 We had two bedrooms and had to set up our own mosquito nets that we had borrowed from some colleagues in NRI.  I had great fun setting up mine.  There was a hook in the centre of my bedroom and I was able to hang the rectangular frame from it and drape the net around it.  Judith’s room had no hook and she had to make a jury rig, tying the corners of the net to anything she could find – a nail on the wall, the curtain rail, the doorframe.  The rooms were very basic with a dusty concrete floor scattered with insect faeces.  The living room was Spartan save for a couple of wooden chairs and a table.  There was no electricity and among our lack of preparedness we had no candles.  A few wax stumps in holders were all we had, but Judith and I were very industrious making candles out of melting the wax around some string I had in my suitcase.  Even so, we found ourselves retiring to bed about 8:30 as there was little else we could do. We didn’t even have any beer.

 I always kept a bale of string in my suitcase on those early trips, along with two other items; a penknife and a toilet roll.  Everything else could go out of the window, but as long as I had those essential items, I could live anywhere.  The loo paper, beyond its obvious application (where my own supply was essential in some places), acted as writing material, blood stopper, dishcloth and hankie.  The string was a washing line, something to keep your trousers up, good for tying, and of course a wick for a candle.  The knife was for making all these things, as well as having a bottle opener as I never quite mastered the African trick of opening one beer bottle with the top of another.

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 We would have slept well that night except that we shared the cliff edge with a large family of baboons.  We were very aware of their presence as soon as we arrived, some younger ones were playing in the garden while their parents sat attentively from the branches of bushes above.  I spent much of my spare time watching their antics.  It was unnerving when they were not around as you could not be sure where they would appear from.  I’d see them all troop across the road, some sitting back on their haunches in the middle and watching our movements intently.  They would rustle about in the trees, fight and chatter just a few feet from the house.  We were obviously just visitors and they were the residents.  I realised this was the case when they started throwing stones at my window at daybreak.  There was no glass in the window, only wire netting, but it still made a frightening clatter that would start me into consciousness.

First Time in Binga – Mlibizi

A big disappointment was not to see any rhino, but I suppose that would have been a miracle in Chizarira.  While elephants had thrived in Zimbabwe, the rhinos had been all but exterminated.  Chirisa and Chizarira were meant to hold the last few pairs, and desperate attempts were being made to protect these.  The value of rhino horn, reputedly a powerful aphrodisiac, had attracted poachers into the parks and wildernesses.  Conservationists had caught rhino and cut off their horns in an attempt to make them less desirable to their hunters, but even the remaining stumps were worth enough to let the poaching continue.  Some capture and release had moved the rhinos to more secret locations but there was a good chance the poachers would flush them out.  Captivity seemed a solution and even attempts were made to send rhino’s to Australia in the hope they could range free and breed.  Unfortunately, despite tranquillisation and the best of medical care, one journey traumatised a rhino so much that on its release in the outback, it drove itself against the metal railings and concussed itself to such an extent it had to be exterminated.

 I have since seen rhino in parks in Kenya and South Africa, but the wilds of Zimbabwe seem a natural habitat for them, and I really hope that even if made extinct now from this region, reintroduction can take place when people have better respect for the larger mammals.

 Still, Chizarira, its stunning scenery, its fabulous location and the array of wildlife living together up here enchanted me.  It was with some regret that we turned our back on it and descended through the gorge to the hot steamy valley.

 Martin had to leave us after a few days but Bob remained, mellowed and gradually became an ardent supporter of the work we were doing.  I suppose we were paying him enough and he liked nothing more than to be out in the bush looking at trees, and showing off his vast knowledge of species.  He bored easily though, his specialism was finding new species, of grasses and shrubs as well as trees, and he hated that all we wanted to find were similar looking complexes wherever he went.  He would argue with us for hours about the way we wanted to compartmentalise the areas into simple classes, but eventually accepted that while we understood there was a degree of internal variety, we could distinguish these areas by their homogeneity relative to the surrounding vegetation.  Bob taught me enormous amounts about the trees of Zimbabwe, I could distinguish the major species; Colophospermum mopane, Bauhinias, Combretums, Brachestygias and Julbernadias, Commiphoras, Acacias, Lachnostylis, Diospyrus (also known a the crocodile bark tree because of its thick scale like bark), and my favourite, Tamarindus indica.  Although not a native to Africa, it was widely planted around villages as it gave great shade and of course the huge sticky fruits that could be put to all manner of uses.  Bob was a patient teacher, I would mix up some Acacias with dachrostachys as they both had tangled twigs and little thorns.  He eventually put us right and in many places, if the complexes were simple, Judith and I didn’t need to have Bob along.

 The rest camp at Binga was good for the first ten days or so, but we were having to travel further and further for our field work.  Judith had arranged two other camps, one place, at the western end, we were to travel to with Bob, but then he had to return to Harare from Hwange airport.  Then we were to travel to a new settlement called Siakobvu in the east to cover that part of the image.  Our western home was the bizarre resort hotel at Mlibizi.  Right at the western end of the lake where the ferry leaves for Kariba, Mlibizi was a fast developing village, although it was starting from a very low base.  A full safari lodge style hotel had been built next to the lake and it looked fantastic.  Several rondavel shaped chalets formed a semi-circle around a neat garden, a large jetty stuck out into the lake, and a grand opensided bar and restaurant took up another corner.  It all looked fantastic at first sight, but on closer inspection we saw a million design faults. The chalets we were in were two rooms with a small bathroom off the rear one.  We only had two chalets. After Knowledge and Willy moaning they could not find other accommodation in the area, Judith agreed they could take one and she would pay for all the sundries.  Willy looked like a king at the bar that night, snapping his fingers at the bar man to get yet another whisky.  Judith, Bob and I took the other chalet; Bob and I shared the rear room while Judith had the front.  The front room, although it had a bed, was open onto the garden, no curtain or window protecting it, merely a wire mesh to keep out the mosquitoes.  Judith, wanting to preserve some of her mystique from the outside world, had to put up a blanket from the bed to both keep out prying eyes and stop the early morning sun from disturbing her slumbers.  She was also worried at the reports that elephants occasionally came into the garden.  A flimsy mosquito net was not much protection against two ton of inquisitive mastodon.  There was also no hot water in the bathroom at any time.

Lake Kariba from  Mlibizi - the best view from the hotel

Lake Kariba from Mlibizi – the best view from the hotel

 Apart from the bad design in the hut, the garden looked great but was dysfunctional.  All the pathways led nowhere, stopping at a bush or the middle of the grass, and one had to tread across the dewy grass in the morning to get to breakfast.  I decided to watch the sunset one night from the jetty, but this proved difficult to achieve.  From a distance, it looked fine, a large line of boulders that extended out into the water and a pleasant open sided wooden gazebo at one end.  Up close, I realised that it was about five feet above the land and there were no steps to get up to it.  I had to scramble with my camera up each boulder to reach the grassy surface on top.  After sunset, I had to scramble down in the dark.  Although there were lights set out around the garden they were wrongly placed and never illuminated anything strategic like pathways or doorways.

The jetty at Mlibizi

The jetty at Mlibizi

 Mlibizi was the point where history was made.  As there was no hot water in the bathroom at any time of the day, and I could never wet shave without hot water, so I stopped shaving.  The beard, straggly at first but more substantial later on, was never shaved off even when we got back to hot water in Binga two weeks later.  I had the beard for the next nine years.

 Service in the restaurant was incredibly slow and the food was not all that brilliant either.  While the rest camp was not the Ritz, it gave wholesome food, a good bed and a restful atmosphere, and it was not trying to be something exclusive.  Mlibizi was striving to claim that exclusivity and provide all the 5-star facilities, and in that effort they had missed the basics and made a shambles of the finishing touches.  I cannot say how it is now, the resort had only recently opened when I visited in 1993, perhaps they were only the usual start-up problems.  However the contrast between Binga Rest Camp and Mlibizi could scarcely be more pronounced.  Then I came across the District Commissioner’s House at Siakobvu.

First Time in Binga – Up to the magic garden

 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.

The "peat bog"

The “peat bog”

 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.