Zimbabwe 1988

An opportunity and the start of our travels

It all started with a request via the British Council for a lecturer to go to the University of Zimbabwe to give some lecture courses on Engineering Materials. This was arranged for the Long Vacation period of Loughborough University: a six week long visit.
  We then arranged that Joan and Dan should come and join me a week before the end of my work period and, when that was finished, we would have a two week holiday together and try to see the best parts of Zimbabwe.

The Lecturing Part

The trip out was eventful. I left a suitcase to be put with other luggage in the baggage hold. It was forgotten by the airline staff and got left in the Terminal Building and, because it appeared abandoned, caused a bomb scare! The plane was recalled as it taxied out and when we finally got going with another allocated take-off slot, we had lost three hours and the connecting flights of Air Balkan onwards from Sofia were all delayed. Very popular!

Once in Zimbabwe the work proved enjoyable with the students far keener than the UK ones. Also the work only involved lecturing and running practical classes with none of the tedious extra tasks that are part of the normal job.


Wildlife in Visitors' Lodge garden Their mid-winter climate was superb with every day sunny and nicely warm by afternoon. Accommodation was at the Visitor's Lodge on campus with a dozen or so expatriate lecturers. Food was more than abundant and the domestic staff were very cheerful and pleasant.


Rhino The first weekend there produced a remarkable experience. Five of us went for an early-morning horse ride at a Game Reserve some 30km outside Harare. We found two rhino and went close up to them on the horses. At first all was peaceful, but as we moved off the rhino followed and then began to get excited. They began snorting and charging. Since mine was the last horse in the column and I had never ridden a horse before it was all rather alarming. Even now I can remember the feeling of total disbelief that it was really happening.


At the weekends I managed to get to the gliding club on both Saturday and Sunday and had some superb flying. The locals kept apologising for the poor weather (mid-winter) but it was actually better than summer conditions in the UK. Eventually Joan & Dan arrived and work finished, so we were finally off on our holiday.



A main road We had borrowed a car for the first week of our holiday and so we could travel at our own pace and not feel buffered from the country by any couriers and travel agents. The major roads were excellent with a good asphalt surface of two lanes and hardly any traffic. Although Harare is a big modern city, like any large UK city, the rest of the country is empty. It was weird to travel through nothing for hours heading for a major town marked prominently on the map of the country and then find that it was little more than a village.


Great Zimbabwe

Stonework at Great Zimbabwe This was our first major visit. It is an ancient ruin of several hundred years age; vast and of superbly constructed stonework of a quality that was never subsequently constructed anywhere in Africa until the arrival of Europeans. It consists of a spectacular hill fort and a series of walled enclosures in the valley. It was well worth the visit.


Bushman paintings As we set off the following day we travelled round a new road built to the south of Lake Kyle. We found it full of attractive but poor African villages. At one point we followed a small sign and found some Bushman paintings on overhanging rocks. At home such a thing would have a museum built around it.


Eastern Highlands

This is an area at fairly high altitude with quite a cool climate and the country is a mixture of woodlands, moors and mountains. It has a strong resemblance to Scotland with a few differences, like meeting herds of Waterbuck. Here we had our first stay in a National Park Lodge: a substantial house to ourselves, complete with servant to keep it clean, wash the dishes and set up the huge wood fire by which we sat in the cool evenings. The price was so low that it seemed practically free. There was also the hotel that used to be Cecil Rhodes' country lodge. We went there for dinner one evening. Dan and I had to borrow a tie to wear while we sat there eating dinner surrounded by waiters wearing white robes with a red fez.

The Honde Valley

The road drops 5000ft from the Eastern Highlands towards the Mozambique border. At the low section it gets hotter and the whole place is taken up with tea estates. Every hillside is covered in bright green bushes. The atmosphere is feudal with the estates exerting much control; for example there are no public roads and one travels by permission of the estates on their roads.

Rifle slits At the end of the road we arrived at something called the Aberfoyle Country Club. This was deserted when we arrived at midday. The building was the cleanest and most polished I have ever been in. We were signed-in as temporary members, then sat eating beautifully made sandwiches and drinking tea (it was good tea). Dan and I walked around the gardens past the swimming pools, tennis courts and suchlike. As we did so we noticed at intervals raised flower beds. These turned out to be concrete bunkers with rifle slits facing out over the surrounding country.

From the Eastern Highlands we returned to Harare and gave back the car. From then on we travelled by air.


We flew to the airport at Kariba and were then taken to the lakeside where we boarded a small but fast boat. In it we were taken to an island in the lake. (We never did visit Kariba Dam during our trip.)

Fothergill Island

Our hut An absolutely magic place. A huge island with no man-made things on it apart from the place where we were to stay. As the boat arrived we could see buffalo grazing near our landing place. The accommodation consisted of small thatched huts spaced out and each facing out over open country. The decor was rustic and charming. The built-on shower and toilet were both open to the sky.


Hanging in the hut was a whistle to frighten away any wild animals that were getting too persistent. Dan was sitting outside his hut when he noticed a vast lizard alongside him in the shade of the bushes.

Meals were buffet style with excellent food, eaten under a huge thatched roof built to shelter the tables. As we had lunch and were asked what we would like to do that afternoon. We settled for a Landrover safari. The guide was charming and very knowledgeable about animals and birds. The animals turned up on cue; we saw a lot of game and we had our first experience of camera viewfinders full of elephant.

Dinner was eaten after a spell spent sitting in armchairs up in a treetop-height bar, drinking iced beer. Later, during the night, we woke up to hear some light crunching noises. We looked quietly out through the open top of the hut door to see, in bright blue moonlight, two huge kudu browsing on the tree that sheltered the hut door.

Next morning we were up at dawn to drink coffee and then pile into the four wheel drive lorry that was to take us into the Matusadona Park for a safari on foot. It had comfortable bench seats in the back, no roof, no windscreen, but a useful looking rifle conveniently mounted within reach of the driver. After a long drive we stopped in a forest clearing where we had an excellent breakfast from picnic hampers and thermos flasks. Then we went on to a location by the shore of Lake Kariba where we abandoned our truck and followed Foster, our guide, into the bhundu. It was great.

There is a heroic quality about stalking elephants on foot, especially when you reflected that Foster's rifle was a bolt action type firing only singles after a long reload period. We also marched around clumps of bushes to see if we could find a black rhino resting at the other side! To our relief we did not find one; it seems a pity now since it would have made a good story, but failing to find a rhino didn't seem too bad at the time. Still, we do now have some very spectacular photos of elephant.


Buffalo On the drive back we saw a herd of about 2500 buffalo and drove very close to them. This was going on while we were being told about the time one of them attacked the truck and got wedged between the body and the petrol tank.


Elephant grazing on water plants The very early start meant that we were back in good time for another fine lunch. After that we enlisted for a boat trip in a tiny open boat. It is apparently easy to get close to game if you are in a boat. At one stage we got so close to a wading elephant that there seemed to be a very real danger of him reaching out for us with his trunk.


Sunset over Lake Kariba Our boating afternoon included having tea and biscuits, taken moored close to a herd of hippo who came up to the surface to look at us and snort. The journey home was done travelling into a fine sunset, past some of Lake Kariba's dead flooded trees with a liberal covering of roosting cormorants.

Cold beer and dinner were both good and the kudu turned up during the night again to eat some more of our tree. In the morning it was sadly time to go and we travelled back to the lake shore, where we were left waiting for the minibus which was to take us to the airport. As we waited we saw two hippos on the shore nearby.


When the bus arrived it soon became clear that we were in for trouble: we were taken to a hotel rather than the airport. One plane had developed a fault and then so had the relief plane which had been sent to take its place. Some of the people at the hotel had already been there for a day. Chaos seemed the norm with no-one knowing what was happening. All the arrangements were being made at Harare; the people there changed their minds every half hour. Finally we heard that they were sending in a Boeing 737 from one of the international routes but that they were having to empty it of passengers and some of its fuel first. Later we saw it arrive and practise landing and take-off at the airport. Finally we were allowed to the airport and aboard the plane. We seemed to be quite lucky compared with many others, since the plane was going direct to Hwange, which was where we wanted to go.

However we should have been expecting complications by now. We were still climbing away from the airport when the captain announced that we were diverting to Vic Falls! On arrival there we were told by some of the staff that we were going to Hwange by road and by others that we were flying on there in the same aircraft. At one stage some passengers vaulted over the counter and ran out on to the airfield to make sure that the plane did not take off with their baggage aboard. It was total chaos. Gradually it emerged that we were indeed to fly, but we needed special permission from Air traffic Control: by now it was nearly dark and Hwange does not have landing lights.

We were put aboard feeling somewhat apprehensive, together with a lot of other passengers including a few from Bulawayo who had been trying to get to Kariba (where we had just come from). They had been flying all day and had been to nearly every airport in Zimbabwe, apart from Kariba. They were very drunk.

We flew on. It got totally dark. We could sense we were descending but there was nothing to see outside, not even lights on the ground as one might see in Europe. Finally, with flaps and gear down, we realised we were really low. Suddenly there was a row of little flames flashing past the windows and we touched down on a World War Two style flare path!


By now we were now too late for our National Park accommodation, according to the rules. We got our hire car with some difficulty. The Banded Cobra that slid across the road outside the hire car office was interesting. The hire-car company was Hertz but the car they provided would have been taken off the road by the police at home.


Giraffe Luckily we managed to get a key to our lodge and find some food. During the night we woke to find a giraffe eating the tree outside. One wonders how trees in Zimbabwe gardens ever manage to survive.


Zebra Hwange was fun, but a bit like a safari park in the UK. The park has water holes fed by diesel pumps, and these attract the animals. The animals are used to cars and you get a good view, but it is a little bit like a zoo. The best part, for our tastes, was when we were on a foot safari in the bundu. We actually saw very little game but the atmosphere was real and exciting and we preferred the walking to being in the car the whole time.


With game ranger Our guide, Piouse, had a rather natty automatic rifle which seemed more utilitarian than the bolt-action one of our previous foot safari, if matters really got tough.


A Sekumi cabin We had heard of some tree houses where one could spend the night over a waterhole. It sounded a nice idea and so we tried to book in to one. We were advised to ring the Secumi Tree Lodge. We managed to get a place there and so abandoned our National Park Lodge for the second night. It was a mistake: the Secumi was very up-market and dull. The tree-hut was luxurious and almost totally animal-free. The correct place would have been the Bush Camp operated by another hotel in the area. Still we did see some Springhares during the night. We had never seen one before: they are like a hare with kangaroo's legs and a squirrel's tail. My main impression was that I was still asleep and dreaming.

Vic Falls

Vic Falls The following day we had a relatively simple trip by air back to Vic Falls where Hertz provided a civilised car and we set off to a luxurious National Park Lodge. It was beautifully kept by Isaiah, who had been the winner of a Best Hut Boy competition. The table was laid out immaculately on a carefully-ironed tablecloth. Tea was set on a separate small table. Even the veranda floor of concrete was reflecting like a mirror.


Warthog in garden The garden of our lodge lead down through trees to the banks of the Zambesi. A few minutes after arriving we discovered that we had a fair sized herd of Warthogs in the garden and some Bushbuck among the trees.

We went into town so we would be prepared for the morning and found the Victoria Falls Hotel looking just like something from a set for a Victorian colonial film. (We later discovered that this was precisely what it was!) We enjoyed a drink there and sat watching the staff trying to keep the monkeys away from the buffet food which was being served under the trees in the garden.


We also went to watch the African Dancing Spectacular, which was rather touristy, but great fun to watch.


In the morning we were at the hotel early for our white-water rafting. We assembled with the other paying victims for a sacrificial cup of coffee before being led down into the canyon by our very young all-American minders. At the bottom we assembled on a ledge for a lengthy briefing on safety. As it unfolded item by item (e.g. what to do if sucked down into a whirlpool) we all felt very sober, but none of the twenty-odd victims accepted the offer to go back up the path and forgo their fairly large prepaid fee. Later at lunch time many admitted that it had been a close thing!

Rafting Off we went. The first two rapids were pretty frightening, but after that we could see what was required and we began to enjoy it. Up until then we had all pictured white-water rafting as a matter of dodging between rocks in fast-flowing water. The reality was a vast mass of boiling white foam with no rocks in sight, but with vast white waves towering above you. You came bombing down the side of one, rather after the style of a Blackpool roller-coaster, then you hit the next one hard. Everyone in the front had to throw themselves hard at the front edge of the inflatable and lean out into the water. The idea that an inflatable boat could actually go under like some sort of submarine had never occurred to us before, but we soon put that right. There were some 22 rapids. The time between them was spent bailing; twice we had the water flush with the top of the boat. No-one from our boat was lost, but one girl was washed over the side and then back in again as she held on to the security rope. The other boats did have some "swimmers", but they all held on and were quickly picked up again.

The trip took the whole day and we covered 25km. At one stage a local light plane dived down into the canyon just above us and we were pleasantly surprised when he got out again without hitting the wall of the canyon. It seems that the pilot used to work for the rafting company and still likes to come back and see them from time to time. We were supposed to have seen a large crocodile on one section, but he did not show up. Maybe he was hiding under our boat.

The buffet at Vic Falls Hotel At the end of the day there was a lorry-load of Africans waiting to carry the boats up to the top of the canyon. We found it was quite warm work just plodding up to the top. A truly brilliant idea was to have a guy standing there with an ice box full of beer and Coke waiting for us.

After a bit of tidying-up we went for a barbecue and buffet at the Vic Falls Hotel, which was pleasant and a bit up-market on my idea of a barbecue.

Vic Falls Game Park

We were up early the following day and off at first light to do a car tour of Vic Falls Game Park. It was pleasant and much wilder than places like Hwange. The roads were just small tracks and there were very few other cars. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dan was having a great time driving the car; it certainly was a bit different from the roads around Long Whatton.

Hippo We did not do well for game that trip. There were a few viewpoints on the river bank where one could look out for hippo and crocs. They all had notices saying how dangerous it was to get out of your car and how you could be fined for doing so. We did not realise at the time that this was where we would later be kayaking between the swimming hippo and sleeping out in the open on the same river bank.

The afternoon could have been good on most holidays, but seemed surprisingly flat. We first went to see Victoria Falls. They have a tremendous style and character and, to my mind, make the commercialised Niagara seem cheap and nasty. Later we visited a crocodile farm and managed to get there in time for the feeding time which consists of chopped-up elephant eaten every other day.

Visit from the monkeys Dinner at home was preceded by a raid by Vervet Monkeys. They began to assemble on the house roof which seemed quite a novelty although there was a hard-to-define air of business about them. Dan and I were taking photos by the car and Joan was sitting on the veranda by the open door. Joan heard a noise around the corner by the back door and walked to the edge of the veranda to see what it was. Instantly two of the monkeys dived into the house and came back out again at the double carrying a bunch of bananas that had been on the dining table. Quite a neat operation.


Dan and Antonia in kayak Next day we left our Lodge and did some shopping before leaving our cases at the travel agent. After lunch we met up with our new guide, Ray, towing a trailer of two-seater kayaks behind a Land Rover. Our new companions assembled too. One was a girl of Dan's age who had been teaching in a Zimbabwe school for a year. She seemed to be about to get rid of her years accumulated wealth in the next two days. The remaining four were all definitely yuppies. We set off into the Game Park: some 40km deep I think. There we drove off the track to find a camp with table and chairs and very little else apart from sleeping bags and low camp beds. There were two Africans waiting preparing a meal for us.

It was nearly dark as we unloaded our toothbrushes and suchlike, then we drove up the road to a rock outcrop to drink iced beer and watch the sun set over the Zambesi.

Dinner table in the bush In the dark we went back to camp and sat down for a meal, with wine, eaten in the open by the light of candles and a wood fire. Conversation eventually turned to the subject of wild animals. As we prepared for bed we were told two stories. One was of a man, two weeks before, who had gone off to pee without taking a torch and had been charged by a lion. The other was that, three years before, Ray had been woken up at night by something tugging him around. He opened his eyes to find three lions with their teeth in his sleeping bag and pulling at it. He had always advised people to shout to scare lions, so he took a deep breath and tried to shout. No luck, he was speechless. A quick gathering of wits and a second attempt produced some noise and the lions backed off. Quite a story. And so to bed, each in our little sleeping bags, huddled in a circle around the fading fire.


Morning in the bush The next day we were up at the crack of dawn. First some coffee and then a tour around the camp on foot looking at the many different and often highly-coloured birds. Then into the kayaks.


This was our first experience of such a vessel. It felt very insecure as Joan & I paddled away from the bank. Dan shared another with Antonia and looked a little more competent: they had both canoed before. It was hard work and we were glad to stop for breakfast. Our two Africans had used the Land Rover to shift the camp. Breakfast was good but the idea of getting back into the canoes was not, especially since we knew that there was now a string of rapids to negotiate. We soon arrived at the rapids and despite their small size, compared with those on the rafting trip, they looked pretty fierce for beginners in canoes. And so it proved: two of the four canoes capsized. Rather to our surprise, neither flipped canoe contained any Murrays, and so the water was full of swimming yuppies. Lots of paddles and bailing mugs were adrift, but help was at hand. Up until now we had the place to ourselves, but we were obviously the weekly entertainment for the locals and lots of small Zambian boys materialised in little dugout canoes which were OK for the smooth water below the rapids. They rapidly collected the floating oddments in exchange for some sweets.

The rest of the day seemed to consist of two things. One was battling along with blistered hands and aching shoulders against a headwind. The other was creeping along almost touching one bank of a river more than a hundred metres wide in order to avoid trespassing in water owned by colonies of hippos. "If they attack they usually go for the boat, so swim for the shore." It was a weird feeling when a hippo suddenly surfaced and gave an aggressive snort to warn us away. Not very inviting, but even so we would not have wanted to miss this part of the journey.

Also there were some other bits that were absolutely delightful. There was the stop for lunch with the table laid out in the sun and the food cooking on a wood fire.

By late afternoon I was really on my beam ends. I was not in training for this sort of thing and I had been suffering tennis elbow in my left arm and there was still a weakness in my right arm where I broke it skiing at Easter. We were paddling relentlessly into wind on a seemingly endless section when suddenly I noticed some flames licking out from the river bank. It was over. We were at camp.


Alfresco bathroom The flames proved to be a fire lit behind an oil drum full of water. Just opposite it, in the sand of a steep hippo chute, was set an old fashioned galvanised iron bath. Joan was first to use it and I have a fine photo of her sitting there looking across the Zambesi to Zambia.


We were all to have had a bath but, after the first four had had their baths and just as it had grown dark, we heard a strange grunt. "Buffalo" said Ray, shining a torch into the night. He was right and, as the night wore on, we began to see more and more of them until we were totally surrounded. Obviously this was something outside of Ray's previous five years of safaris. He tried not to show it, and reassured us that all would be well unless some lion turned up and drove the buffalo through the camp. It was very strange to shine a torch and see dozens of big orange eyes. Even more strange to turn and shine the torch along the river and see the evil little red eyes of the crocs. After a day of paddling, I got into a sleeping bag and, buffalo or no buffalo, I slept like a log until morning.

The buffalo had gone. The river waited and the wind was blowing against us again. Hands were raw and blistered. We set off. There were some nice parts. There was the wide shallow sandy beach, safe from crocs, where we stopped for a rest and drinks. There was the series of narrow channels slicing through a mid-stream island, all green and overhanging with tree branches. However there was also a set of rapids, quite tame by the standard of the previous ones, but in water likely to contain crocs. Lunch time came and was pleasant, but the final paddle home was against an unrelenting wind. Two of the girls had had enough and were planning to travel in the Land Rover with a kayak on the trailer. I opted to join them and Joan seemed quite happy to go along with that. So the final section was undertaken by one two-yuppie crew, by Dan and Antonia and by Ray in his little slalom canoe. Joan and I sat in the garden of the a'Zambesi Hotel drinking beer. Finally the canoes arrived and soon we were in a bus on the way to the airport.


The holiday was nearly over. Just a clean-up and a meal in Harare with some local friends at a surprising French restaurant operated by the blackest Frenchmen you ever did see.

We will draw a veil over the antics of Air Balkan in getting us eventually home again.

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