Full of Zim and vigour

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Chimanimani-poolPhil Clisby continues his African odyssey. It’s June 1993, and he is making his way around Zimbabwe, from the Eastern Highlands to the Victoria Falls 

We’re standing at the side of the road, thumbs in the air, seeking a ride out of Harare towards the Bvumba Mountains, which lie on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border. Lorna and I plan to stay at the late author Doris Lessing’s place, now a guesthouse. We’d heard about it through some fellow travellers, Martin and Julia, who are going to manage the property for a couple of months for Lessing’s nephew, Trevor.

Our first ‘lift’ is on foot, when a kind-hearted lady informs us we are standing on the wrong road and leads us to the right one. We start again. Our luck is quickly in, as a truck takes us within 40km of Mutare, the main city in eastern Zim. A farmer then picks us up and drops us at the Bvumba turn-off. Unbelievably, he knows our hometown in the UK well, having been stationed just down the road when he was in the army. It’s a small world.

About an hour later, and who stops to pick us up? Trevor, along with Martin, Julia and our old mate Mike (from our time in Mozambique) – what are the chances? We squeeze into the already overladen vehicle, somehow finding space between several boxes of food and wine.

Sky-high

The Lessing farmhouse is in a beautiful spot, with arresting views over Mozambique. The house itself is full of character, including a cavernous drawing room, complete with roaring fire. We receive a warm welcome from Bright Eyes, the cat; Roots, the dog; and Reuben, the cook, who that evening serves us up a sumptuous roast dinner.

The following morning, we awake to a magnificent sunrise – the whole sky ablaze with colour. This is the sort of place where waking early is not a chore. The next day it was too cloudy to get the full red effect, but as daylight crept in, the clouds hung in the valley, creating a crazy snow effect.

Every morning was a joy. Climbing out of bed, stumbling on to the veranda, wrapped up against the morning chill, sipping a steaming cup of coffee and taking in the fabulous Bvumba sunrise is one of life’s pleasures. A huge cooked breakfast would be followed by a day spent in complete relaxation, slumped in chairs taking in the view, playing tsoro (or ‘beans’ as we called it), reading and eating. The odd beer or two helped to quench our thirst.

Reuben’s little boy, Alfie, regularly beat us at tsoro – a mischievous grin erupting on his face every time he took our beans.

We were in the middle of the countryside, with a sense of being isolated from civilisation. A fact brought home to us when Lorna had an asthma attack. Needing to get to a hospital, we slowly walked the 2km to the bus stop to catch a bus to Mutare, which was about an hour away. The early morning chill hadn’t yet lifted. In fact, it was freezing. There was no sign of a bus. We tried to hitch, but there were no cars. As we turned back, after two hours of waiting, Lorna wheezing badly, a car drew up. The occupants, by some miracle, just happened to be doctors and they turned their car around and drove us to the hospital.

We were rushed in and oxygen was quickly administered. With Lorna’s breathing under control, I went off to reception to pay. The receptionist had me in stiches (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) when a bunch of flowers were delivered for a patient. “Do they really think these make people better,” he said. “They are just a waste of money, if you ask me.”

That night we got to sample a flavour of old colonial Zim as we took a stroll down to ‘The Club’, reportedly a favourite haunt of Lessing. It was like stepping back in time: farmers propping up the bar, downing brandy; shambolic cueing in the snooker room; outside were some, most-likely underutilised, tennis courts; and an old Shona dude, quaintly named ‘Justnow’, served customers diligently behind the bar.

Sunday was the traditional village kick-about, and Martin and I joined the local kids, attempting to show off our refined footballing skills on what, to all intents and purposes, was a ploughed field. We were run ragged.

The next day, we embarked on a long amble through villages, across cornfields and up hills, gaining breath-taking views across the plains of Mozambique from a peak we christened ‘the Nipple’, for obvious reasons. We walked back across the valley, waded through a stream and up into a village with a football pitch knee-high in grass. On the return leg we got fabulously lost, eventually making it back to the house for a well-earned curry.

Reuben was an absolutely incredible cook. I would happily have paid good money to sample his fare in a top restaurant. But when I asked him what his favourite meal was, he replied, with a shy smile: “Sadza.” Really? “Yes, I don’t like this Western food.”

Take it to the ridge

We eventually drag ourselves away from the rejuvenating retreat. Back on the road, we head for the mountains of Chimanimani. By the time we get to Mutare, there is a dearth of vehicles heading our way, so we catch a bus to the turn off. Here, we get talking to a local, who is waiting for his mate to pick him up. By chance he is going our way and we get a ride all the way to Chimanimani village.

At the lodge we meet some other travellers – Bertie, Jaspar and Caroline – who have already organised a lift up to base-camp for the following morning, and we decide to jump on the bandwagon. What a ride! It was the driver’s first trip up this bumpy, twisty route, and he couldn’t handle the slopes. He kept stalling trying to get around a particularly tight bend, and Bertie had to take over the driving.

We finally reached base camp, miraculously in one piece. Ahead of us was a three-hour walk in intense heat with a full pack on our back, up steep, narrow mountain paths.

We lost the trail for a while, and found ourselves atop a rocky outcrop, which afforded us a stunning 360-degree panorama. I suddenly felt a hit of vertigo. I’m not the best with heights, so climbing up mountains was possibly not the best thing to be doing. But any initial fear was easily negated by the view. I had the sense of just being a small dot in this amazing landscape. We eventually reached the lodge and flopped.

The next day we were up early and trekking, in search of North Cave, which is above a waterfall. After a strenuous, sweat-inducing walk we cooled off – or rather froze off – in what had looked a very tempting pool.

Refreshed (and shivering) we headed up to Skeleton Pass – not the conventional way, of course, but over rocks, along narrow ledges, and through thorn bushes and waist-high grass. Another classic case of off-roading… or, if you prefer, getting lost. I’ll admit to being slightly terrified, particularly on the narrow ledges, clinging like a limpet, while some of my more nimble companions seemed to be able to dance across.

It was worth it though. More wondrous vistas awaited us at the Pass: the Mozambique hills rolling away from us into the distance on one side, and the more rocky slopes of Zimbabwe on the other. We really were between two worlds. A huge sign warned us of the perils that would befall us if we stepped over the border. After carefully checking left and right, we couldn’t see anyone, so we hopped across, spending a carefree couple of minutes illegally living in Mozambique.

We progressed on to Digby Falls. The water called my name, but once bitten, twice shy, and the screams of the others as they hit the water vindicated my decision to stay dry this time. We returned up the steep hill to the lodge. Exhausted but elated.

One question remains, though: how do the locals manage to carry gas bottles up there without breaking sweat?

On the Rhodes again

After Chimanimani, we had planned to hitch to Masvingo, but the sight of a bus and the throbbing in our aching limbs from all that hiking made up our minds, and we took the easy option. From there, we made our way to the Great Zimbabwe ruins, and they certainly lived up to their billing – they were definitely great, very much ruined and there was no denying the fact they were in Zimbabwe.

Seriously, they were impressive, especially viewed from the Hill Complex (or Acropolis), which allows you to take in the full majesty of the Great Enclosure. Believed to have been built in the 11th century, and now a national treasure, the House of Stone is a real step back in time. The history here is mind-blowing, and yet so much remains a mystery. If only walls, even crumbling ones, could talk. As we walked around, an army of school kids greeted me with a “Morning, sir,” and then politely touched their hats.

After a couple of days in Harare, we headed for Bulawayo by overnight train. We get talking to Stan, who keeps us lubricated with beer, while he downs a startling amount of brandy. An entertaining travel companion, except for the fact that he woke us up every hour to check we were ok.

In Bulawayo, we stay in lodgings on the estate of a self-made Zimbabwe millionaire, Alan Burke (I’m not sure he was that rich, but hey, why let truth get in the way of a good story). Alan was enamoured with backpackers, and had built accommodation on his grounds, about 5km outside of town, for travellers to stay in. He also ran trips out to the Matobo and Hwange national parks, in addition to his day job. We glean that he is quite a big cheese in the mining world.

One afternoon, he drove us out to Matobo, which means ‘bald heads’ in Sindebele: an area of natural beauty that holds great spiritual and cultural significance for the local people. We spot some impala and warthogs, and are able to approach them on foot. For once they don’t scarper, and we can get close enough to marvel at the warthog’s peculiar way of eating, kneeling down on its front legs. We walk up to Bambata cave to admire the ‘gallery’ of bushman rock paintings before trekking up to World’s View to sit among the balancing rocks, and gaze out at the hard-to-beat landscape. Not a bad place to be buried, I would say – just ask Cecil Rhodes. We then head for Pomongwe Cave, a huge overhang, covered in bushman paintings – well, it would have been if some scholarly types from Oxford University hadn’t coated it in linseed oil in an attempt to preserve them, back in the 1920s.

We followed the path that the cavemen once took to fetch water, up a very steep and treacherous rock – hard enough without a bucket of water on your head. But, as I was discovering, every terrifying climb in Zimbabwe is rewarded with the most spectacular of views – each one seemingly better than the last.

Darkness fell and, as we made our way back, I sat in the back of Alan’s bakkie, shining his spotter’s torch into the bush, and managed to spot a springhare, impala and wildebeest in the spotlight.

We’re with Alan

We set out early, bound for Hwange. Our first stop is the Hwange Safari Lodge, which is not usually accessible to backpackers, but we’re with Alan Burke, so we are ushered in and shown to a table in prime position. As we gorge on coffee and scones, we watch herds of impala and wildebeest congregated at the waterhole visible from the restaurant window. A crocodile lurks menacingly, looking for his elevenses, while monkeys scamper about, trying to nick the sugar from the outside tables. The kudu are in a frisky mood, charging around all over the place. A number of males pursue a lone female, stopping now and again to face off, antler to antler, as they battle for the right to covet her.

Suitably nourished, we continue, spotting more kudu, a silver-backed jackal and a hyena – albeit partly obscured as it hid in a pit – along the way.

We arrive in Hwange town, where we are dropped at the Baobab Hotel, while Alan goes off to do a “bit of business”, which, he said, enabled him to keep these tours affordable. Indeed, at just US$30 for an overnight trip, we couldn’t complain. Alan told us to make use of the swimming pool and bar, and if we encountered “any problems, just say you’re with Alan Burke”. We were beginning to see how much sway this man had.

On his return, we drive to Sinamatella Camp, in the north of the park. It is perched high above the bush, miles and miles of it stretching out in front of us. There are a number of clearly visible waterholes dotted among the trees. A herd of elephant traipse through the undergrowth after an early evening drink. Which reminds me… where did I put my beer?

We drive to a large expanse of dammed water, spotting rock hyrax and squirrel on the way. More little five, than big five, but looking back I would tell my younger self that it’s not all about the main attractions – it’s the smaller, rarer sightings that can make a safari. The waterhole yielded hippo, croc, buffalo and giraffe, and more rock rabbits scurrying around.

After dinner above the escarpment, we sneak out for a night drive (not strictly legal, but, hey, we’re with Alan). We are stopped by some buffalo in the road, which have Al a bit worried as they can be an unpredictable beast, to say the least, but we back up and take a different track, spotting impala, bush babies, springhares and wild cats to complete our personal small five.

Spray that again

The following morning we leave Hwange, but not before coming across some elephants on a wrecking spree, ripping trees to shreds in their quest for food. Alan drops us on the Vic Falls road, and we hitch a ride with Taff, who works at the Victoria Falls Hotel.

We are up early to see the Falls, my second visit to them in the last three months, and they are just as magnificent as the first time. The river is fuller now, and an absolute torrent is cascading down, with some parts totally obscured by the spray – the Eastern Cataract is invisible, hidden somewhere behind the mist. Despite this, there are rainbows everywhere we look, adding to the Falls’ mystical power. We are completely drenched, but ecstatic. We return to our tent and dry out by a welcome campfire.

The next day we go over to the Zambia side, getting wet crossing the bridge – the spray showing no respect for borders. It’s time to get even wetter, especially crossing Knife Edge bridge, a narrow, slippery when wet, walkway, but the sight from here of millions of gallons of water plummeting over a 100m drop for a length of 1.7km is just awesome.

We go for a walk along the Zambezi. Heeding the warnings to watch out for crocs and sidestepping the mounds of elephant dung, we are suddenly stopped in our tracks by a herd of elephants. We watch for a while and then decide to calmly run away as one starts towards us.

The weather has turned cold. But we put on a brave face, don bright yellow waterproof capes and hit the spray again. Looking straight down into the menacing waters below at Danger Point tests my height phobia to the limit, and on Knife Edge bridge I lose a flip flop and have to slide after it, just managing to catch it before it disappears into the abyss. The Falls are as dramatic as ever. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing them.

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