I've been back home for exactly one week and it's time to fill you in on my most recent trip to Africa. Both Rick and I enjoyed ourselves. (Rick is a co-worker who expressed interest in such travel when I first interviewed at PARC in January 1996. The backpacking trip required a minimum of two people, so I asked Rick to come along.)
I not only enjoyed myself but I know the trip was a success because I'm very relaxed (as evidenced by my attitude behind the wheel this week) and my photos are as expected. (This is based on only having viewed 25% thus far; I’m processing my slides over a two week period.) I've also enjoyed the benefits of time shifting (jet lag) this week. I haven't attempted to get back in sync with Pacific time but have been going to sleep between 6:30 and 8 PM and awakening without an alarm between 2 and 4 AM. The serenity of the early morning enhances the quality of life. I've also discovered that there's a lot less traffic at 5 AM as compared to my former commute at 5:40 AM.
In 1995, when we were in Zimbabwe, the driver of the overland truck I was riding on told me that Matusadona N.P. had a reputation for good wildlife viewing. I knew that the next step for me in Africa was a hiking safari and so in February I started searching the web, found some interesting sites and sent off some email describing what I wanted to do and inquired as to what the various operators and agents could offer towards achieving that goal. All my connections, plans and reservations worked like clockwork.
The first two weeks were essentially spent in different campsites almost every night and the last two weeks in hotels, including two nights in London. I don't think I have to say that the camping experiences were the best. Some of the hotels were "three star" hotels and the hotel in Kariba, which we used as a hub for the first two weeks, was a "two star" hotel. Likewise, we preferred the "lesser" two star hotel better than the three star hotels.
We arrived at a "garden" hotel in Harare at about 9 AM and our room was ready. That was nice. We could stash our luggage and recuperate, etc. The hotel was near city center but off in a quiet area. I took a nap after lunch while Rick attempted to go to the national gallery, which as it turned out was closed on Mondays. So we had a peaceful, restful day before heading back to the airport the next day for a one hour flight to Kariba on a 50’s era turboprop Viscount 800. We spent another two nights at the hotel in Kariba before departing for the canoe trip.
There were nine people plus a guide on the four day, three night trip on the Zambezi River; two people per canoe. We began in Mana Pools N.P. which is known for its numerous hippos. Hippos are responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal and neither Rick nor I knew how to steer the canoe. As a matter of fact, we weren’t coordinated initially and were fighting one another when we tried to avoid the hippos. We didn’t have any close calls, although two hippos actually went ashore in disgust, I claim, with our attempts to avoid them. Another canoe trip on a different section of the river, at the same time, did have a canoe punctured by a hippo and the occupants were doing everything correctly, i.e. sticking close to shore. During the heat of the day, hippos remain cool by staying nearly completely submerged. They emerge at night to feed on the grass, sometimes traveling several kilometers to find food. Later that same day, a small crocodile lunged at our guide who was in the first canoe. I was fortunate to see this as we were bringing up the rear. Rick and I spent five minutes circling the exact spot where the croc had been as we were actually trying to pass as quickly as possible. (Rick nearly bursts into tears with laughter when I mention this episode.) As it turns out, the crocs generally slip into the water out of the way as we approach. At the conclusion of the trip, our guide said that this was his most uneventful canoe experience. We saw some, although not an abundance, of other wildlife as we drifted gently down the river. It wasn’t quite dry enough to force the animals to the river for water.
The next three days were spent at a permanent tent camp on the shore of Lake Kariba, in Matusadona N.P. The intent here was to go off hiking in the cool of the mornings and boating along the shore of the lake in the afternoons. The boating enabled us to see the birdlife and some game as well. The "hiking" was a bit of a disappointment. There was, however, an elephant that wondered through the camp the first two evenings.
The next five days were spent backpacking with a different outfit. Everything was provided - packs, sleeping bags and even gin and tonics the first and last night when we were in a semi-permanent tent camp. The licensed, professional guides in Zimbabwe go through a thorough 5 year apprenticeship and must pass several comprehensive exams. Our guide was a tall, 30ish, white Zimbabwean who was very laid back and enjoyed the animals and the outdoors. It seemed as if he could identify every bird either by its flight pattern or by its call. He was also outstanding in plant and animal identification. His Scottish girlfriend joined us on the outing as well as a local tracker who specialized in rhino. Matusadona N.P. is known for its black rhino and lion populations. Despite three days of searching for rhino, we never saw one. On the last day, we were looking for lions and accidentally approached within 15 – 30 feet a pride of 11 healthy females. Lions rest for 20 hours each day and truly wild lions are instinctively afraid of humans. These ran away hissing and growling. We found the same pride later that same afternoon and observed them from a safer distance for two hours. We gradually moved closer and closer until we were about 100 feet away. This was the limit of their comfort zone where one lioness was constantly growling at us. We also had several opportunities to observe elephants "up close and personal." This was the most enjoyable segment of the trip.
We flew to Victoria Falls and I showed Rick the various shopping venues so he could plan his souvenir/gift shopping when we returned a week later. Vic Falls has added an upscale shopping mall in the four years since I was last there. The Makasa Sun Hotel was replaced with a big Vegas style hotel and casino which I believe adds to the gawdy, touristy atmosphere of Vic Falls. Nonetheless, according to one local who I interviewed, the locals are in favor of its presence as it employs many more people than the hotel which previously occupied the site. At some point in our visits to Vic Falls, we wondered out to the bridge to watch the bungee jumpers (364 feet), strolled along the river above the falls, visited the falls and the upscale Victoria Falls Hotel. Another funny note – one morning when we ventured away from our hotel along the river and stopped to observe vervet monkeys, we were actually driven away by one who we guess thought we were threatening his dominance. Perhaps he thought I was another monkey what with my beard and sunglasses.
We ventured into Botswana for four days. I wanted an opportunity to observe Chobe’s elephants. The morning game drives were disappointing from the standpoint that all game drives find an animal, the tourists take a photo and the vehicle moves on to find another animal. One must rent a vehicle and spend numerous days driving oneself if they really expect to have the ability to study an animal. The evening boat cruises along the river were great, though. The bird life was wonderful and we did get to watch some elephants swim across the river and take a mudbath.
As usual on my way home, I spent almost my entire time in London visiting bookstores searching for more books on Africa.
There are several other little tales but I have to catch up on my reading, sort slides and avoid boring everyone. Again, I enjoyed the trip. I was able to satisfy my desire to learn something about tracking on the backpacking segment, the experience canoeing amongst the hippos was exciting and the birds along the Chobe River were great. The backpacking experience was the best. My future trips will include more experiences like that and the canoe trip. Rick was a great traveling companion. We enjoyed "discussing" the habits and attire of the more traditional tourists at the dinner buffets of the three star hotels.