Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls

Thursday, October 02, 2014
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
It was another early start on Tuesday. The distance we had to cover didn't seem great and so we were a little surprised by this. When we reached the border we understood why. We exited Botswana fairly quickly and easily but on the Zimbabwean side we were confronted by a scene of confusion and frustration. There were vehicles parked all over the place and crowds of tourists milling around. Some of our group had obtained visas before leaving home and they were dealt with within about 30 minutes but the majority of us had to join the long queue in the very hot sun. We edged forward painfully slowly to pay our US$55 fee and have our passports stamped by which time we were dehydrated and sunburnt. It had taken two hours and ten minutes!
We drove the short distance to Victoria Falls town and whilst Blessed and Mbusi went shopping for supplies the rest of us wandered around the gift shops and had a very welcome cup of coffee . It was strange to be in a touristy place. We would be visiting the falls at the end of our trip in a few days time but in the meantime we were travelling on to Hwange National Park. Soon after leaving the town we found a shady roadside spot for lunch and tucked in to the pizzas which the boys had bought for us today.
Later we drove on through the coal mining town of Hwange eventually reaching the National Park. Here we were to visit the Painted Dog Conservation Centre. This was a little disappointing as they currently only had two dogs they could show us. They rescued orphaned dogs or dogs injured in road accidents or poachers' traps and nursed them back to health hoping eventually to be able to reintroduce them to the wild. The enclosures were all but empty at the moment however and we had to be satisfied with seeing the two long term residents and having a walk around the information centre.
It was then just a short drive to Ivory Lodge, our accommodation for the next two nights. We approached it along a 2 km sandy track at the start of which was a sign prohibiting us from leaving the vehicle on account of lions, buffaloes and elephants . We did not know what to expect but had a real treat in store. It was a beautiful lodge with individual open fronted wooden cabins on stilts. We had all mod cons and an amazing view across the gardens to a waterhole at which we could see a large group of elephants.  
Geraldine and I made for the bar with the intention of buying a couple of beers to drink on our verandahs but encountered Blessed and Mbusi there and ended up sitting and chatting to them. It was dusk by the time I returned to my cabin to shower by which time I was amazed to see about 50 elephants by the waterhole. The sounds of them shifting around and giving the occasional snort was quite eerie.
We had an excellent dinner. The staff couldn't do enough for us and had a cake ready for Alan whose birthday it was. We were the only guests at the lodge and everyone was so impressed with the place that there were a few suggestions that we cancel Victoria Falls and stay here instead! After dinner we walked down to the hide by the water and watched the elephants . The lodge keeps the waterhole topped up with water and puts 100 kgs salt down each day to attract the elephants. It was an amazing experience watching their huge forms moving around just 10 or 12 feet in front of us.
I went off to bed a little nervously. Hilary and David had found a bush baby nestled down in their bag and so I had a good look around with my torch when I returned. The front of the cabin was open to the elements and I had noticed a lot of elephant dung immediately below my verandah. Unexpected visitors could not be ruled out. We had all been instructed in how to use the emergency horns provided in our cabins for summoning help in an emergency.

I tried to read for a while but couldn't concentrate as there was a lot of noise coming from outside and in the end I decided to put out the light and listen to the sounds of the night. The noise increased until it could only be caused by one animal, an elephant. There were sounds of branches being ripped down and trampled underfoot . A little nervously I got out of bed to peer over my verandah. I could see nothing but it certainly couldn't be far away. Finally I returned to bed and the noise slowly subsided. In the morning I learned that Geraldine, who was in the next cabin, had been watching the elephant feeding. It had then passed by the side of her cabin, walked slowly to the electric fence, stepped carefully over it and headed for the waterhole. Sonja and Alan had had an even more exciting night as there had been four elephants throwing their weight around outside their cabin.  
I woke early and was a little disappointed to see that there were now no elephants at the waterhole. As I was cleaning my teeth at the wash basin I heard noises from outside and put my head out of the little back window to see what it was. I came face to face with a bush baby who had run up the pipes with the clear intention of jumping through the window and into my bathroom. We stared at each other for a while and finally the cute little creature turned tail and retreated .
We were going on a full day's game drive in Hwange National Park. The group split into two parties, one travelling in each of the two landrovers run by the lodge. Purely by coincidence the serious birders and those with expensive camera kit were all in the other truck and so we had a fun day calling ourselves "the amateurs" and laughing at our general inability to remember the names of birds or spot small creatures at 100 yards from a moving vehicle, as "the professionals", our colleagues in the other vehicle, could.  
We started the drive from Hwange Park Camp, a complex of bungalows which didn't look as if it had changed since the 1950's. We had by now done several game drives and everyone was getting a little jaded. When the driver mentioned a sighting of "cats" though we immediately became excited and a few minutes later drew up next to a group of six lionesses and young lions. It was the closest we had been to lions and they seemed not to mind the ranks of cameras clicking in their faces. Two of them had been collared and were part of a research project . After a while another lion was spotted approaching from the trees and our group rose one by one and wandered off to greet the other lion. 
Ivory Lodge had provided the picnic lunch today and it was excellent with too much meat as usual. We had large chunks of beefsteak, chicken and pork. Soon after lunch we came upon a large aggressive looking baboon who came a little too close for comfort, but the highlight of the afternoon was finding a dead young elephant at a waterhole surrounded by dozens of vultures who couldn't break through the tough hide but were tearing into its orifices. It was quite a gruesome spectacle. 
The landrovers we were travelling in were not very comfortable and it was a very hot day. We were all glad therefore to return to the lodge for a sundowner cold beer. Sadly there were few animals at the waterhole this evening and no elephants. The staff had prepared a barbecue for us for dinner and so it was large amounts of meat again. Everything about the lodge including the food had been wonderful and we were all going to be sad to leave . They were running on a generator apparently and would be turning it off at 10.00 pm and so it was early to bed again.
We had no visitations from elephants during the night but there were a few at the waterhole. I hadn't bothered pulling down my blinds and so, as I wasn't particularly tired, I spent a while sitting up in bed, surrounded by my mosquito net, watching the elephants drinking just a short distance away. An amazing experience!
As soon as I switched on the bathroom light on Thursday morning a bush baby leapt off one of the shelves, hopped from one piece of furniture to the next across my cabin and then scuttled away upwards into the rafters. I had been hearing the rustle of things moving around in the roof and now realised they must be bush babies. In the main lodge they had become quite an attraction and others in our group had risen early especially to see the nocturnal bush babies return to their homes in the rafters which they did at 6.00 am every day.
After a delicious breakfast we bade farewell to Ivory Lodge and boarded the truck (which had the name of "Dugga Boy", an old buffalo wallowing in the mud) for the very last leg of our journey, to Victoria Falls . It would take a couple of hours but we had several stops on the way.
Blessed was going to see if he could arrange for us to visit a local school and so our first stop was to buy some notebooks, rulers, pens etc to give to the school. We pulled up by a local primary school and Blessed went to talk to the headmaster. Soon the rest of us were beckoned over and the morning routine of the school completely disrupted by the arrival of what to the children could easily have been visitors from outer space. We were ushered first into the classroom of the oldest children, grade seven, whose English, judging by the work they were doing on the blackboard, was advanced but either through their shyness or our accents we found it quite difficult to communicate with them. Next we went to the grade six class, who were in the middle of a geography lesson. It was one of the few places in the world that I have visited where there was absolutely no reaction from the young boys when I told them I lived in Manchester. Usually "Manchester United!" springs immediately to their lips (and occasionally these days, "Manchester City!").
We were going to be there a long time if we were to visit all the classes but after the first two, the head summoned the entire school. They marched in single file out of the classrooms and, gathering in front of the school, sang first the national anthem, then an African song of welcome and finished by bowing their heads and reciting the Lord's Prayer . We expressed our thanks and handed over the gifts and then the children filed back into their classes. They have to pay US$10 a year to attend school but some struggle to raise the funds. Many of them are orphans, their parents the victims of Aids, and they live in large extended families.
A little further along the road we stopped at a settlement. Again Blessed went to obtain permission for us to visit and then we all piled out of the truck. The only person around appeared to be an old lady sitting outside her hut who seemed a bit overwhelmed by our presence. Blessed told us about their life and then a younger woman arrived who showed us how they build their huts by making bricks from the material dug from termite mounds. We walked across a field to see the water pump. These are provided by the government and enable the villagers to draw water from a bore hole. We then peered into the darkness of a hut which was used as a kitchen and took a few more photos of some other people who by now had been drawn in by curiosity.
At the coal mining town of Hwange we had a stop to photograph one of the steam locomotives from the colliery and then continued towards Victoria Falls. We would be visiting the falls later but we had a free day on Friday and so we were taken first to the offices of an activities company to try to interest us in signing up for some trips or activities. Some wanted to do the helicopter flight over the falls whilst others opted for the canoeing or a game drive . Alan (and his long suffering wife Margaret) were of course first in the line for the morning bird walk. I should have liked to cross into Zambia which had initially seemed to be an option but now seemed fraught with difficulties and included a multitude of park fees, visa fees, immigration fees and other taxes. Neither the tram across the bridge, nor the steam train was operating and after our very long wait at the border to enter Zimbabwe a few days earlier I decided it wasn't worth the effort and instead I would have a well earned day of leisure.
We had time to visit the open craft market next but it was extremely hot and we were hassled to buy at every turn. Most returned to the relative cool of the truck at the earliest opportunity. Geraldine, however, was set on purchasing a wooden giraffe. She settled for one about 4 ft high and the negotiations were over quickly but we then had to stand and wait in the searing heat for about 20 minutes whilst it was carefully packed for her.
We checked into the Rainbow Hotel, a large touristy establishment, and then drove down to the Falls . Our guide told us something of the geography and the history of the Falls and then led us to the first viewpoint. It was magnificent! And the scene was augmented by a brilliantly coloured rainbow. This was certainly a fitting finale to the trip. The environs were a lovely change from the arid landscape we had become used to and we wandered happily through the cool moist air of the rain forest stopping every so often at a new viewpoint. It was the dry season and we had been a little concerned that it would not be the best time to see the falls. We were told though that it was probably better than the rainy season, particularly from the photographic point of view, as during the wet season all you can see is a wall of water and you were soaked to the skin. We, however, had spectacular vistas to photograph and hardly got wet at all. 
We gazed across at Livingstone Island where crazy youngsters posed in the Devil's Pool, right on the edge of the cataract and watched with amusement as three young folk unwittingly wandered across the island right into the path of three elephants . We were hoping for a dramatic incident and kept the video cameras rolling but, apart from looking startled, they survived and made it to the Devil's Pool. The last of the falls, the Horseshoe Falls and the Rainbow Falls, which belonged to Zambia were almost completely dry but magnificent all the same. Here the lookout places were precipitous and unfenced, one of them known Dangerous Point. The walk ended beneath the famous bridge linking the Zimbabwean and the Zambian sides of the falls.
Mbusi drove us back to the hotel in Dugga Boy and we unloaded for the last time. He checked the milometer and advised us that during our long journey over the last three weeks we had covered 5430 kms. Victoria Falls was home to both Blessed and Mbusi and they seemed pleased to have the opportunity to see their families albeit briefly as they were off to Windhoek to start another trip in two days' time.
We all had dinner together at a table laid outside on the lawn and were entertained by a troupe of Zulu dancers and singers. There were the usual end of trip speeches . We presented Blessed and Mbusi with their very well earned tips and collected our Cape Town to Vic Falls T shirts.
I awoke as usual at 5.45 am on Friday but then remembered that I could stay in bed for a little longer. I wandered down to breakfast just as Geraldine, Peter, Ifor, Hilary and David were setting off for their helicopter trip. Alison and I took our time over what was a very good breakfast and were joined by Margaret and Alan who had already been out on a birding walk. It seems that Alan knew more about the birds than the guide and so it hadn't been a huge success but they did have a close encounter with a hippo. By the time we had finished eating the other five were back from their 12 minute helicopter trip clutching their personal DVD's and enthusing greatly about the experience.
Geraldine joined Alison and me for a stroll around the shops and we probably visited every gift shop in Victoria Falls before I decided to leave them briefly for a walk around the town on my own. I walked towards the bridge but got no further than the immigration post before having to turn back . Then I strolled to the delightfully old fashioned railway station. It was clearly well kept with freshly painted signs, colourful shrubs and some lively African rhythms being pumped through loud speakers. There were just two passenger trains a day, one in each direction which obviously left the stationmaster with a lot of time on his hands as he soon befriended me, telling me all about the station and showing me his office. He took my photograph on the platform and when I enquired about steam trains offered to show me the steam locomotive. As I was already late for my rendezvous with Alison and Geraldine I decided to decline this offer and was quite glad I did as he soon started the inevitable request for money from me. I did learn however, that the steam train does not run now as the bearings need repairing, and the tram last ran on 1 July when it was involved in an accident. A locomotive driver had lost control of his train and hit the tram killing one of the passengers. 
After a spot of lunch we three girls returned to the hotel for a brief siesta before setting out to visit the Victoria Falls Hotel . We were by now getting a bit fed up with being hassled by youths trying to sell us wooden handicrafts and billion dollar notes, and on the approach road to the Victoria Falls' most expensive hotel they were particularly persistent. One wanted to be Geraldine's African boyfriend.

Eventually we shook them off and entered the beautiful confines of the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904 it had retained its colonial feel and was sumptuously decorated with interesting paintings, ceramics and old black and white photos of visits by the British royals. The lovely lawns rolled down towards the falls and provided a spectacular view of the bridge. On Stanley Terrace we ordered afternoon tea and settled down for a touch of luxury. On a three tiered stand we received a varied selection of savoury canapes, cucumber sandwiches, cakes and of course scones with fresh cream and jam. The tea was served in a silver tea pot and drunk from china emblazoned with the Victoria Falls Hotel logo. We all tucked in and, as we watched dusk creep in and the flag being lowered down the flagpole on the lawn, agreed that it was an excellent way to finish our last day together.