The rock that moved
The rats in our tree house were quit tolerable compared to Penny’s uninvited visitor. Penny, a teacher from Canada, is a member of our tour.
Last night, she left the Ngepi Camp lodge after dark and walked back through the woods to her tree house. Hers was the last one on the trail. When she arrived, she noticed a large gray boulder—one she had not remembered—blocking the steps.
Then, the rock lifted its massive head and opened its jaws. A hippo!
She ran back to the lodge. Trompie and Lucas, a local guide, returned to help. Lucas suggested they throw pebbles at the hippo to scare it away. Initially, the beast seemed confused.
Then it charged.
Trompie said the next thing he remembered was that he was hanging from a branch of a tree. Lucas was dangling from an adjoining one.
“What’s your next idea?” Trompie asked. From his perch, Lucas began swatting the animal with a broken branch.
Finally, the irritated hippo headed back to the river.
We heard Penny’s story over breakfast, then boarded the camp’s pontoon boat. The boat headed downriver, past a pod of fifteen hippos. Perhaps one of them was Penny’s visitor.
The boat delivered us to a village populated by the Hambukushu. The Hambukushu are fishers and farmers. They trap fish in cone-shaped baskets, and grow, corn, pumpkins, and sugar cane. At the landing a village woman washed clothes in the river and spread them on bushes to dry in the sun.
Lucas led us through several compounds of huts and fences. A cast-iron pot of beans cooked on an open fire. Chickens wandered free. Electrical cables ran to the huts, a few of which had satellite dishes. At the edge of the village was a row of portable toilets.
Our guide pointed out various construction methods for building the huts, using wood, reeds, straw, and mud from termite mounds. He said a hut typically lasts one or two years before it must be replaced.
We learned how to hull millet by pounding it with a large wooden pestle. Millet is used to make both flour and beer.
Under a tree, a large family separated the seed from the chaff by shuffling it in wide baskets. I asked if I could take a family portrait. They shyly acquiesced. Most of them were carrying mobile phones. Rural Africans lack many modern conveniences, such as piped water and sewage systems, but most of them have cellular service.
We left Ngepi and continued east to the crossroads of Kongola near the Kwando River. Once again, we disembarked from the ice-cream truck and boarded a speedboat, and, again, we were transported through papyrus and reed-choked channels. At the Mazambala Island Lodge, the owner met us at the dock and led us through the hippo gate.
Under a huge sausage tree, he welcomed us in an eloquent, ceremonial manner. He described in detail the lodge’s amenities and the area’s natural wonders.
Trompie said he was a retired diplomat who had obtained permission from the local chief to build the lodge.
The owner, dressed impeccably in khaki, enjoyed holding center stage. His staff stood at attention behind him during his recitation. It was easy to imagine him as a super-villain in his secret lair. “How do you like my island, Mr. Bond?”
We checked into our bungalows and then regrouped in the lodge. Allie and I climbed the four-story tower next to the lodge and enjoyed an expansive view over the flood plain, dotted with grazing antelope.
After a short boat ride, we climbed into an off-road vehicle and headed into Bwabwata National Park. Wildlife were everywhere, especially elephants. Herds of them.
With the Okavango River to the west and the Kwando River to the east, the park safeguards a busy migration route for many species.
We saw hippos, baboons, warthogs, vultures, monitor lizards, and many antelope, including lechwe, reebok, bushbok, and black-face impala.
As we docked at sunset, we noticed an elephant hiding in the reeds across the river from the lodge. We waited for him to emerge while he waited for us to leave. He won the game. We gave up and went to dinner.
The next morning at breakfast we helped ourselves to cereal in the open-air dining room. So did the birds. No one seemed to care.
On the way back to Kongola we saw numerous large crocodiles on the riverbanks. Some must have been sixteen-footers. Once aboard the ice-cream truck, we continued east through the Caprivi Strip, refueling in the town of Katima Mulilo on the Zambian border.
We crossed back into Botswana at the Ngoma Bridge border post. This time we were required to dip our shoes into disinfectant to help prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease.
We stopped in the touristy town of Kasane for lunch at Pizza Plus Coffee & Curry Indian Restaurant and Liquor, a restaurant concept that leaves nothing to chance. (My research turned up that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were married a second time in Kasane.)
Immediately after checking into Toro Safari Lodge on the Chobe River, we left on a river safari in Chobe National Park. The park covers forty-five hundred square miles and is known for having the largest concentration of elephants in the world, as many as fifty thousand.
As our boat moseyed through the marshland, scores of Cape buffalo and elephants grazed around us. (Somehow, elephant babies manage to walk between their parents’ legs without getting stomped on.) Crocodiles and monitor lizards basked in the sun. Hippos snorkeled around the boat. Some foraged on land, a rare sight.
Right in front of us, two elephants got into an argument. One was trying to prevent the other from crossing a channel. Head-butting ensued. The day in Chobe was perhaps our best for viewing African animals in the wild.
Entering the country of Zimbabwe was cumbersome compared to entering Botswana. A queue of people of several nationalities formed in the hot sun outside the post.
Zimbabwe has been a troubled country, due largely to the lengthy influence of dictator Robert Mugabe (now deceased). Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for thirty-seven years until 2017. During his reign, the population of fourteen million suffered through a lengthy depression with an unemployment rate close to eighty percent.
The citizens experienced ongoing government corruption, election interferences, and human rights abuses. Decisions made by Mugabee led to staggering inflation. At one point, one US dollar was equivalent to over 2.6 trillion Zimbabwe dollars. Mugabe’s solution was to print more money in denominations of trillions.
In the town of Victoria Falls, street hustlers sell sets of the trillion-dollar bills for just a few US dollars each.
When we arrived, we headed immediately to the main event—Victoria Falls, “the smoke that thunders.”
The famous falls occur where the Zambezi River plunges into the Batoka Gorge and continues east to the Indian Ocean. The falls are on the Zambian side of the gorge. The best views are from the Zimbabwean side.
In Victoria Falls National Park we walked through the rain forest and along the trail at the cliff’s edge, which overlooks the spectacle. Spray hangs in the air continuously.
Words can’t describe the grandeur of the falls. And we were only seeing the half of it—the volume of water coming over the falls doubles during the wet season.
Victoria is over a mile long and nearly four hundred feet high. While neither the tallest nor the widest waterfall in the world, its combined dimensions make it the largest. Victoria is twice as tall as Niagara Falls. It’s on everyone’s list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
We watched as people clambered along the precipice of the Zambian side to get to Devil’s Pool, a natural infinity pool just inches from the edge of the falls.
At Elephant Hills Resort baboons and warthogs roam the grounds. The staff advised us to keep our balcony doors closed to prevent baboons from entering our room. However, we couldn’t keep Mugabe out. Propaganda films in support of the dictator played non-stop on every channel.
Victoria Falls, a town of thirty-three thousand, was founded in 1901 when the possibility of harnessing the waterfall for hydroelectric power was considered. The friendly smile the town puts on for tourists may hide the pain the rest of Zimbabwe is feeling.
After dark we returned to the park for a moon walk. Sure enough, the waterfall’s spray and the full moon combined to create a moonbow, also known as a lunar rainbow.
Back at the hotel, we attended a bittersweet farewell dinner. Some of the group will leave in the morning. The rest of us signed up to white-water raft down the Zambezi River.
I handed Trompie a tip for leading the tour and joked, “I want you to have this now in case I die on the river tomorrow.”
Gnashing Jaws of Death
When we left the hotel at 6:30 a.m., the baboons were playing on the grounds. Some carried babies on their backs.
At the top of the Zambezi River canyon we were outfitted with helmets, life vests, and paddles. Then we were pointed down a steep, rocky trail to the canyon floor. The wall of the gorge is nearly vertical, a four-hundred-foot descent. Footing was treacherous. Often, we climbed over loose rubble. At the bottom, the parties were split among the rafts. Allie and I joined five others and met our captain, Simon.
We asked if crocodiles live in the river. “Not many,” Simon said. “They don’t like the rough water.”
Over the course of fifteen miles we would tackle eighteen rapids. We got to know each by its nickname. Some are whimsical, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Midnight Diner, and Three Ugly Sisters. Others are frightening, such as Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Overland Truck Eater, and Gnashing Jaws of Death.
Rapids are classified in six categories from class one, the easiest and safest, to class six, the most difficult and dangerous. Ten of the Zambezi rapids are class five with “large waves, continuous rapids, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering, often characterized by ‘must make’ moves.” Yikes!
The most dangerous is Commercial Suicide, a class six and so formidable the rafting companies portage around it. The Zambezi River has been classified overall as grade five, which is “extremely difficult with long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops, and pressure areas.”
We got off to a good start, surviving The Wall, Between Two Worlds, and Morning Glory. Stairway to Heaven drops thirty feet within fifty feet, making it one of the steepest drops in the world.
After Commercial Suicide, the hits kept coming—The Mother, Washing Machine, and Terminators I and II. We managed to stay intact with only two to go. But at Double Trouble with its two large holes, we were all thrown out. Upon surfacing, I first looked for Allie. I was a long way from her and the others. A kayaker gathered me and towed me back to the raft.
The final rapid, Oblivion, is famous for its huge crashing hole. Sure enough, the raft flipped into the air, catapulting us all into the river. Allie emerged beneath the raft, where I couldn’t see her. Simon pulled a few of us onto the top of the bottom of the raft and we helped him flip it over. And there was Allie!
We survived Oblivion. We survived the day.
Perhaps most incredibly, our noses and teeth survived the flailing limbs and paddles.
I suspect our captain had something to do with the two spectacular wipeouts at the end. The video CDs of the trip are much more salable when thrills and spills are involved.
The climb out of the gorge was straight up—seven hundred and fifty feet—in the hot midday sun. The ascent was not just strenuous, but dangerous. In some sections we climbed rough ladders made from sticks and rope, while carrying our gear.
The raft company hired young boys to carry deflated rafts and other gear from the gorge to the top of the cliff for a dollar per trip. They scrambled past us like mountain goats. One passed me twice.
At the top, we collapsed in the shade after a day of physical challenges. The crew served a picnic lunch and Zambezi lager.
For Allie and me, the day was a fitting end to our adventure. We had fully immersed ourselves in the Zambezi, yet only dipped our toes into the vast waters of the African continent.
It is a confounding place to fathom. Patience and flexibility are required.
The rural areas of the three countries we visited are beautiful and unsettling at the same time. Both grand and primitive. Both desolate and lush. The untamed landscapes are jaw-dropping; the exotic wildlife enthralling; the severe poverty heartbreaking.
The people seem full of both hope and despair. Their problems are complex; their joys simple. Africa’s promise is enduring. So are its struggles.
In some ways, it seems like home. I am grateful I had the opportunity to share it with my daughter.
As Trompie says, “Sometimes life doesn’t make sense, so you have another sip.”