The following morning, our assistant guide and chef, Job, delighted us with a mountain of French toast before our schedule visit of a model village of a Caprivian tribe.
Our guide for this activity’s name was Gift, a diminutive chap whose good favour we gained immediately by giving him a foil-wrapped gift of the part of the French-toast-mountain we had not been able to demolish.
Inside an exterior fence of rush mats lay a central courtyard area and several mud huts with straw roofs. The “actors” of village life were already present and, poor things, were clearly wishing the chill of the early morning had not lingered quite as long as it had.
Meal was pounded vigorously to make pap in a large mortar and we were also shown some ingenious traps and a blacksmith’s furnace before being treated to a medicine man’s trance dance and some traditional music and dance. Amusingly, the same man appeared in a multitude of different outfits throughout the visit, playing, in order, blacksmith, trap operator, drummer, medicine man and dancer. It brought to mind Eddie Murphy multi-role performance in Coming to America.
After tipping the troupe generously for their exhibition, we were hastily bundled back onto the bus so as to make our next stop in good time.
We were to spend two days at Chobe National Park, back across the border in Botswana, prior to our final destination of Victoria Falls. Chobe covers an expanse of 11,000 square kilometers and is home to a bewildering number of animals of all shapes and sizes. I secretly hoped, having missed out in northern Namibia, that I would get to see the King of the Jungle, the lion.
Auspices were good and we saw some impressive beasts even before pitching camp. Some of the creatures had decided that humans offered more opportunity than threat and several vervett monkeys and a carbunculous snuffledom (my own neologistic collective noun) of warthogs had sauntered past us before we had time to look surprised.
Day two was the big day: an early morning game drive followed, a siesta later, by a late afternoon boat ride to see the animals from the river.
We assembled at 5.45am, swaddled in layers of clothing and were given blankets to use in the open-topped jeep that was to be our transport. Just minutes after entering the park, we spotted large numbers of vultures, perched expectantly on the bare branches of nearby trees. “There must be a carcass nearby”, our guide opined. Sure enough, as we rounded the bend, there was the carcass of a baby elephant, moreover, it was accompanied by four young male lions, “finishing their breakfast” as our guide put it. (Video)
If you’ve ever seen a lion up close in the wild you will understand how I felt – I was awestruck as I looked into the deep green-yellow eyes of this supremely powerful, primal beast, who was at once both terrifying and beautiful. I was just five metres away and, had it been inclined, I could rapidly have been converted from spectator to lunch. I held my breath, captured the moment without even looking at the screen of my camera – I didn’t want to miss one second of this experience – then exhaled deeply as first gear engaged and we left the scene behind us.
Lunch and siesta behind us, we boarded the boat for our river-based game drive. Just metres out from the jetty we heard shouts of “Crocodile!” so scanned the shore for reptilian activity. It was a crocodile, alright, but far smaller than my Hollywood-based beliefs had suggested it might be. I felt a little cheated. Until…….
A few minutes later, to our starboard side, pointing fingers indicated the floating body of a dead buffalo, drowned during a river-crossing towards the main eyot at that part of the river. And the surrounding water was moving. At that moment, two adult crocodiles, far larger than the baby croc we’d just espied, surfaced near the buffalo, prehistoric and cruel. I felt cheated no more. To spare the more sensitive reader, I shall not describe what ensued in any great detail. Suffice to say, I have a new respect for the bravery/lunacy of the late Steve Irwin.
This paved the way for a series of wonderful sights: dueling hippos, herds of buffalo grazing peacefully, an enormous fish eagle diving for prey, a group of elephants crossing a shallow channel of the river and, in so-doing, washing of the dust from their lower bodies so they appeared two-tone on reaching the shore, and, most impressively, two elephants swimming, actually SWIMMING, to an island in the river for lusher grasses.
It turns out that a baboons rummaging for food in a dustbin can be a very effective alarm clock. And so began the penultimate day of the adventure. Destination: Victoria Falls. Arriving in the town around midday, we decided to book activities for the next day before visiting the falls. As the adrenaline junkie that I am, I chose white-water rafting and a bridge swing comprising a 100m drop before swinging out over the Zambezi river.
So to the falls.
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls is the highest waterfall in existence. It changes its face with the seasons: towards the end of, and for some time after, the rainy season, the Zambezi river, engorged with flood waters from its many tributaries, thunders over the daunting precipice and the gorge is all thunder and spray. As the dry season bites, the flow dwindles and the river, once broad-shouldered and commanding, becomes thinner, weaker, like a hibernating bear, but all the while knowing that, when it wakes, fed by the rains, it will regain its strength.
Running water, like fire, has a mesmerising quality that can keep the beholder in its thrall. From my first view of the falls I could have stood there for hours, days even. Only a few weeks into the dry season, the torrent was majestic, and, most impressively, standing on the far bank, some 100m above the plunge-pool below, we were drenched in spray ranging from light mist to heavy rainfall.
Once our thirst for beauty was slaked, we were bused back into town where we helped Colin, the guy from South London, to celebrate his thirtieth birthday with warthog steak and a few bottles of Lion beer.
Shivering in the Zimbabwean winter morning, the new trentagenarian, Colin, his girlfriend, Harriet, and I boarded our transportation to rapid 11 of the post-falls Zambezi. The full rafting course comprises 24 rapid, however, during high water, the first ten are too treacherous to be attempted by rank amateurs. We were to be joined in the boat by two Canadians, Craig and Gerard, from Calgary and a Sydneysider, Rob, in addition to our skipper, Kazi. Our support kayak was to be manned by Funny Boy and the filming would be handled by Black Coffee.
During our safety briefing we were told that we would be getting out between rapid 13 “The Mother” and rapid 14 “Surprise Surprise” and walking to avoid some big whirlpools that would be “bad for business…” We were also told that no one had been bitten by a crocodile since rafting on the river began in 1985, however, one of the other guides sauntered past at this point and casually interjected, “tell the truth!” which received nervous laughter.
The trip turned out to be immense fun (I will upload and link the full video in due course) but the highlight was when Kazi suggested we jump in the water and hang onto the boat to ride one of the smaller rapids. As we clambered back on board with adrenaline-carved smiles, Funny Boy pointed out a crocodile basking on a (very) nearby rock. I turned to Kazi and said, with mock incredulity, “Did you just get us to swim in croc-infested water??” He smiled broadly and responded with, “Well, you DID all sign the indemnity form.” Cue uproarious laughter from the whole crew.
After a precarious 280m ascent from river to road that would have given European health and safety officers cold sweats, we feasted on barbecued meat, washed down with ice-cold beer. I hoped the beer would give me Dutch courage as my next stop was the bridge swing. Colin and Harriet were doing a zip line onto the bridge so Kazi dropped us off where we needed to go.
Both the zip line and the bridge swing are administered from the Zambia side of the gorge and, therefore, we had to pass through Zimbabwean immigration and through into Zambia in order to jump. Thinking this would be an arduous, bureaucratic process, we left ourselves plenty of time. Zimbabwe, so tricky on entry, all but waved us through; Zambia asked how many of us there were, wrote the number 3 on a piece of paper in biro and, on handing this in at the checkpoint gate, we were in Zambia!
We registered and decided I would film their zipping in return for their filming my swinging (easy, tiger!) This, unfortunately, gave me the chance to watch several other victims jump. When I say “jump”… In at least one instance, the comforting hand on the back from the ride operator offered kinetic persuasion at the end of the brief countdown.
At last, my turn came. I was trussed like a turkey in a reassuringly elaborate harness and led to the edge of sanity. 3…2….1…. Determined to be master of my own destiny, with a loud “Geronimo!” I jumped. And surrendered myself to gravity and hope.
The fall felt endless, but finally, the rope went taut, I jolted then swung out along the gorge, above the proud Zambezi. I let out an involuntary whoop of relief and elation and it was only as the adrenaline surge subsided that the word “chafage” forced itself into my mind. After being winched up, the operator asked me how it was and I responded, “An incredible rush, but I may never have children now.”
That evening brought our final dinner as a group and we headed to Lola’s Tapas Bar which, contrary to the suggestion of the name, was mainly hearty African fare. Six of us opted for the tasting menu which boasted enough meat to put a Brazilian churrascoto to shame.
The starter was crocodile sliders and worms. Yep, that’s not a typo. Worms. Here is where I tell you that they were actually delicious and encourage you to be more open-minded. But I can’t. They both looked and tasted like the devil’s eyebrows. The meat of the main course, thankfully, was as copious as promised.
(Over)Fed and watered, we slept like baby elephants (to borrow a phrase from our assistant guide, Job). Or at least until the meat sweats kicked in in the early hours of the morning.
With a 7am departure time, farewells were brief yet heartfelt, details exchanged, luck wished, then ignition, gear, gone.
Great experiences made better by good company: true now, true always.