The trouble with articles about African safaris is so many writers draw on the same superlatives:
spiritual, magical, haunting, primal, achingly beautiful, majestic. The thing is, when you play tourist for just a few weeks around this continent, it’s an inescapable thing to do. Having spent 13 years within the craziness of Zimbabwe and its politics, I understand well all of the bleak behind-the-scene realities, yet even I struggle to not do the same. Wild Africa is… hauntingly beautiful. And elephants are… simply majestic. Returning after three years away, felt like I’d never left; felt like… coming home.
My time in what was Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe had been emblazoned with corruption, intimidation, egos and apathy. The three years since my departure had passed in a flash. I wrote and released Elephant Dawn and struggled with interminable health issues – having overdosed on the mad land of the Mugabes. Although not convinced my ailing body would cope, I felt compelled to venture back to the African bush. I needed new memories; new elephant memories.
Hwange in western Zimbabwe is where I’d spent more than 4,000 days working intimately with the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. Given all that had happened, the thought of returning there just yet was unappealing, although the idea of going back to Zim itself was not. I decided I’d fly into the capital, Harare, in late-August, meet with friends and travel by car, via Victoria Falls, across the Botswanan border to Kasane, the gateway to Chobe National Park. There, I would be guaranteed peaceable elephants aplenty.
The thought of all those notorious Zim roadblocks, police officers on a quest for a bribe, was unnerving, but a friendly smile and a little small talk made for mostly trouble-free travelling. It was actually a tollgate that brought a long delay, and a laugh. “It’s akafa,” the toll collector announced, as she slowly moseyed around to manually lift the boom. (That boom was indeed dead!)
I soon found myself exclaiming with a grin: “Bobo!” (pronounced more like bor-bor if you happen to be Australian). It wasn’t surprising that this big daddy baboon, emboldened by regular contact with humans, was the first wild African animal I spotted.
I was surprised though – flabbergasted in fact – to witness the welcome improvements along the Harare to Bulawayo road. Where were all of those hazardous cows and donkeys? A long, long line of barbed wire fencing, well maintained, now ran along both verges keeping these creatures in their paddocks. Even more incredibly, given its prior state, there was barely any litter in sight, with workmen to ensure this continues. And there was impressive new signage. A South African company was responsible for it all, but what a joy that this had been achieved at all.
“There’s a white man,” my white driver blurted, clearly astounded, as we passed through one Midlands town. I couldn’t help but snort. As it turned out, it was indeed the only white person out of a vehicle we encountered for hundreds of kilometres.
Something else slowly dawned on me. There were no chicken buses; those dirty, ancient ones packed high to the sky with luggage on their rooftops, scurrying along like crabs, back wheels at a completely different angle to the front, spewing thick black exhaust smoke, inside which you’d likely end up with a kid (human or animal) on your lap. And a chicken. In their place were new shiny buses, with no piles of worldly goods to be seen.
“What’s happened to all of the chicken buses?” I probed my Bulawayo friend on arrival there. “Oh don’t worry, you’ll still see plenty of them as you continue on towards Vic Falls,” she announced. “And there’ll be cows, donkeys and goats all over the road too. Not to mention old signage. Only the section the politicians regularly travel has been overhauled.”
It was better than nothing. My eyes were still wide with surprise. Even the streets of Bulawayo were, miraculously, cleaner than they had been three years ago. Which I must say wouldn’t have been hard.
The colours of early Spring were stunning as we drove onwards towards Hwange National Park; dark, light and lime green, orange, pink, white and shades of exquisite yellow adorned the trees, at least those that had escaped man’s axe. It was a quiet drive – apart from the endless police roadblocks. Once upon a time, it was only the section between Hwange and Vic Falls which always struck me as grey and foreboding, not the least because of all the sport-hunting concessions along this road. But now the Hwange National Park turnoff struck me in a similar way. Ongoing and improper private grabs of elephant land (previously Protected State Land, right beside Hwange Safari Lodge) had influenced my decision to leave this area, as I wrote about in Elephant Dawn. Deceit and apathy still infests key parts of this wildlife land. I silently wished my beloved elephant friends well, as we quietly drove on by, choosing not to stop for even a second.
My first glimpse in three years of an elephant came as we approached the Botswanan border. It was a thrill to see these graceful giants once more, my eyes suddenly moist with tears. A hassle-free border crossing followed, and we were safe and sound in Kasane, Botswana. Finally away from all of those ridiculous Zim police – who really should heed the song of the Cape turtle doves and “work-hard-er, work-hard-er, work-hard-er”, at something more constructive than hassling tourists.
I’d never fully appreciated why tourists to Vic Falls so frequently choose to forgo a day trip to Hwange National Park, preferring to cross the border to Chobe instead. Now, I understand. A river safari on Botswana’s Chobe River, on offer from the likes of Thebe River Safaris, is… unforgettably magical. Followed by a game drive in Chobe National Park, offering such unbelievably close encounters with ohh-so-friendly elephants is… pure perfection. Elephants are the love of my life and it was such a pleasure to see and smell them once more, so near you could easily lose yourself in the deep creases of their skin. Other species reacted similarly; utterly relaxed in our close presence. If you’re self-driving, a 4×4 is necessary at this time of year in the lead-up to the rains, when deep, soft sand abounds. It’s this Kalahari sand that’s impossible to shake from your soul for sure.
“But they will lock us in,” my personal safari guide declared after I begged to stop for one more photograph, as the intense red glow of sunset descended over this wildlife kingdom and the sweet smell of the Natal mahogany flowers filled the air. “Well,” I sighed, “that would be just fine with me.” I could have stayed in Chobe forever.
Already, I was bursting with unforgettably extraordinary new elephant memories.
One of my most cherished things to do in the wilds of Africa is to savour the simultaneous setting of the sun and rising of the full moon – especially in areas where poaching is less and the moon’s round glow isn’t well-known as a poacher’s moon. I deliberately planned my trip around two full moons; there’s no better time to delight in this Garden of Eden. Despite the lustrous light, I was still able to marvel at the Milky Way, and at its southern end searched for the comforting outline of the Southern Cross. But this late in the year, it’s upside down and low in the sky, so that only its two pointers were visible. It was all so incredibly stunning nonetheless.
In the wee small hours of one morning, I was awoken by gunfire. Shaking myself out of sleep I thought, momentarily, that I was back in Zimbabwe! But I was still in Botswana. The police figured it a good idea to fire shots in the air, to alert a prowler to their presence.
At least I had no worries about malaria. I was already taking 14 times the usual dose of one antimalarial, as an immunosuppressant for the connective tissue disorder that began plaguing me soon after I fled Zimbabwe. Pain is now my constant companion. Romantic infatuation, scientists have since proven, is a powerful natural pain killer. So, I discovered, is being enraptured by the wildlife you love most in this world.
Three weeks passed too quickly and suddenly it was time to leave Botswana. We were not yet even one kilometre over the border when the Zim police struck yet again, still seeking to pocket bribes. This sort of endless carry-on was enough to make me want to race back over the border to Chobe. I could imagine what would have happened had they uncovered my bag full of pills. Another twenty-five roadblocks between Victoria Falls and Harare followed. But I took heart knowing that tranquillity awaited me at the end of the road.
First though, in Harare, there was someone I needed to make contact with. Saviour Kasukuwere. It’s a name those familiar with Zim politics will know instantly; a vociferous supporter of the Mugabes. I couldn’t help but chuckle as this big bear of a man, the previous wildlife Minister, strode towards me, wearing dark suit and sunglasses, looking just like one of the mafia. Always a controversial character, I wondered aloud even then if he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. It was a relaxed meeting, important to healing some old wounds laid bare in Elephant Dawn.
Soon I was welcomed warmly by the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN), an add-on to the wildlife sanctuary Wild Is Life, located behind Harare International Airport. It’s a little piece of paradise amongst the capital city chaos. The year after I left Zim I’d continued to liaise with then-Minister Kasukuwere over the plight of young elephants captured for Chinese zoos. Three young ones ultimately escaped this awful plight and ended up in the expert care of ZEN. Since then, other orphaned elephants had too. While visiting, another young elephant arrived, a victim of a sport-hunting incident. Christened Molly, this gorgeous little one is fortunate to be in this place of hope and love, affording her the best care possible. It’s an immense positive for Zimbabwe that such a compassionate facility exists.
My last stop was Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I longed to spend time in this place where I’d almost gone to work with elephants in 2007, but decided last minute to remain in Zimbabwe. There was no delay cracking open the bottle of bubbles on ice that awaited me. And it was lekker (as the South Africans say).
Visitors to Addo Elephant National Park will quickly notice there’s very few trees within this well-protected area. The thickets are dense, with fast-growing succulent bushes, difficult to see through – but with hundreds of precious unique flora found only in this area. There are wide open spaces as well, and spectacular vistas. When much of Africa is dry and parched you’ll likely find Addo lush green and speckled with vibrant wild flowers. Like in Chobe, the dazzling array of elephants clearly feel in no way threatened and casually walk up to your vehicle to say hello. Not knowing these magnificent giants intimately, there were moments when even I held my breath!
The main section of Addo constantly bustles with tourist vehicles. Nyathi Rest Camp, just a few kilometres away, was out of the ordinary; intimate, secluded, stunning. Strangely, it felt a little like a village in the South Island of New Zealand, or perhaps even Switzerland – but there were elephants at the bottom of these hills! Like most safari accommodation, bedding arrangements favoured couples and with my worsening breathing problems I wondered how much I now snored! “Here’s earplugs if you need to use them,” I offered my friend to laughter. There was more merriment the following morning when it was declared: “You don’t snore. You purr!”… (more likely, I imagined, like the lions outside.)
To spot anything you might have missed inside Addo, the small, well-protected reserve of Kragga Kamma in the nearby Nelson Mandela Bay municipality offers memorable sightings, including of the fast-vanishing rhino, without you barely having to get out of bed. Photographers can’t resist a day-trip, and my own memory cards were positively overflowing.
Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa: For one reason or another in these countries, your heart will incessantly pound in your chest, making you feel… alive. By the time I was done playing tourist I was exhausted, content, brimming with enchanting new elephant memories, swearing to never do it again. But already, I know that I will one day, if I can.
There’s renewed hope that my old home, Zimbabwe, might at last have taken a turn for the better. How the elephants and other species will now fare there is still uncertain. But, Mr President, conservationists and wildlife lovers the world over are watching. More closely than ever. You can be certain of that.
Sharon Pincott’s latest book, Elephant Dawn, is easily available in South Africa and online from the likes of Amazon, and BookDepository (who offer free world-wide delivery). You can follow her on www.facebook.com/ElephantDawn.
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