Here's the short version: I had my best vacation ever, despite the detention, despite the large bribe, despite the near drowning, despite the concussion, despite the camera-smashing.
And here's the much, much, much longer version, with photos.
When I told colleagues where we were going on vacation, they wondered if I had a screw loose. The months leading up to this had been filled with dire news: Horrible violence against opposition workers ahead of the runoff election, subsequent shell of a vote, no sign on the horizon of the possibility of a compromise.
But my wife was desperate to see home again, and my brothers-in-law assured us that it was OK to come. So my family went off to England and South Africa in mid-July, and I followed on the last day of the month. After 24 hours traveling, I set foot in Johannesburg, back in southern Africa for the first time in 17 years.
First off, a three-mile hike at a botanical garden in Jo-burg, followed by a family reunion.
Then nine of us flew on to Harare on a Sunday night, arriving late and getting stuck behind a group of Ethiopians without visas at immigration! After that was sorted out, out into the cold Zimbabwe night (it's winter there, and at 4,500 feet elevation, can be pretty frigid).
Our drivers met us and we sped in two SUVs toward my brother-in-law Graeme's house in a swanky subdivision. Well. Most traffic lights and streetlights were out. When you do approach a stoplight at night, you don't stop -- chance of robbery too high.
But finally we were safe inside the complex's gates, a sanctuary from the chaos outside. In fact, it's a little like being in Rancho Sante Fe -- if Rancho Santa Fe were dropped into the middle of the poorest country on earth during a period of extreme political unheaval. Beautiful golf course, huge mansions set on perfectly manicured lawns. It's SO safe, that people even leave doors unlocked. How, you might ask, is this accomplished? Well, on the hill a couple streets up from Graeme's house, sits an imposing white manse with a commanding view of the subdivision below. It belongs to the head of the military. 'Nuff said.
The next day, we were off to Lake Kariba. But first, a stop at another golf club to meet up with a bunch of friends and scatter my father-in-law's ashes. And we think that's when CIO started following us. We were in two SUVs leaving Harare, my brother-in-law Neil, my family and a couple of friends in the lede, Graeme and I and his family behind. The problem, we think, is that Neil had sent his SUV up from South Africa with a trailer full of food for us -- it's desperately expensive in Zim, and many items aren't available -- so he had South African plates, red flag for Zim police. The OTHER problem is that the night before we arrived in Harare, the central police station had been bombed.
At the first police road block leaving Harare, an unmarked Mercedes roared in between us, and the police waved Neil over. They let us go through, but we pulled over a couple hundred feet up the road to see what was going to happen. Pretty soon, two plainclothes CIO guys marched my wife up toward our SUV. They wanted to see my passport and Graeme's, then all the rest of our passengers'. Then they wedged into our SUV, phoned their comrades and announced we were headed back to central Harare police station.
Now, central Harare station is not a place you want to go. The prison there ... well, people go in and they never come out. The brother of a friend, a Reuters photographer, was thrown in there during the election (trumped-up charge about him having an unregistered satellite phone), and he spent four days with 50 people in a cell meant for maybe 10, no food, no water, no heat, no toilet; in a word, unpleasant.
Anyway, it was the first time I've ever seen my brother-in-law nervous. But as we drove, I think it quickly became clear to the CIO guys that we couldn't have had anything to do with the bombing and were in fact tourists (all kids in both SUVs under strict orders not to mention my profession). So then, we think now, their mission changed: Get some money out of this. They changed our destination, first to Borrowdale police station, then to Graeme's house. And when they saw where his house was, then THEY started to get nervous.
In the end, they took $1,000 US from us and let us go. In retrospect, we might have been able to bluff our way out, but when you've got two cars full of kids ... Anyway, the kids had a great experience with several of the less savory aspects of Africa. We turned and headed back to Kariba -- had to go through the SAME roadblock, but had no problem this time.
The drive to Kariba is four hours, traveling northwest through rural areas and bush on good road, passing a few small towns -- Banket, Karoi. What stunned me after so long away is the state of the farms that we saw, and the state of the people. Where 20 years ago there would have been fields full of winter wheat, greenhouses bulging with vegetables and fruits, there was only abandonment and weeds. We saw only one operating farm, and the white owner had been arrested the previous week in an effort to force him to give up the land. And the folks we saw along the road were desperately poor -- even back when, they might not have had much, but at least they had enough to eat. Now, no.
We got to Kariba and after a stop to check on a business associate's crocs, we picked up a friend's 26-foot speedboat to ferry the 12 of us across the lake to Spurwing Island, a private resort.
Lake Kariba was formed by the damming of the Zambezi River. The hydroelectric plant provides nearly all of Zimbabwe's electricity and much of Zambia's, and the huge lake is a wildlife and recreation paradise. The water teems with bream, vundu and tigerfish -- and huge man-eating crocodiles, so no swimming! Along the shores are elephant, hippo, rhino, kudu, impala, cape buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, lion, leopard, hyena ...
It was a beautiful evening, and we had an interesting welcome committee at the cove where we launched the boat.
From there, it's a 15-mile trip to Spurwing. This is a great resort and a real find for American travelers -- $100 US per person per night, including three meals! It consists of thatched roof, open-front huts surrounding a central open bar and a central open dining room. Because it was winter, they had tents set up inside the rooms to keep some heat in, but really the weather was ideal, cool at night, pleasantly warm in the day. The staff is just wonderful.
We got in, stowed our gear and relaxed at the open bar. Two elephant came out on a point of land nearby. Very peaceful. (But don't let that fool you. Some years ago, a Cape buffalo killed both grandparents of a friend right there in the resort.) Spurwing is separated from the mainland by a narrow, shallow inlet that elephants and buffalo can swim across. We had elephant around camp every day (no buffalo though!).
Over the next several days, we went on game drives and walks, did some fishing (our daughter, Leah, was the champion bream catcher: 24 in one afternoon), sipped cocktails while watching the sun go down ... idyllic, really. The kids swam in the pool (too cold for this Alaskan). We took the boat for evening jaunts to the mainland. Had some very nice close-up encounters with animals in Matusadona National Park. Saw leopard and hyena tracks, but no actual carnivores. That was fine with me!
One day we motored across the rest of the lake to the Sanyati River gorge. It's surrounded by high ridges, the Matusadona National Park on one side, tribal trust lands on the other. Tried to land on one nice sandbar, but the 12-foot crocodiles wouldn't move. So we went farther down to a small cove and scrambled up a dry stream bed. Despite the extremely steep and bouldered terrain, there was fresh elephant dung down in the dry stream! Very agile, these pachyderms.
Too soon, it was time to pack up and head back to Harare for the next leg of the journey: Victoria Falls. We were lucky to have access to light aircraft (an Apache and a Cessna 206) for this part -- it's a nine-hour trip from Harare by car, less than two hours by plane. Zimbabwe's white community was never more than a couple hundred thousand, but now it's really tiny, no more than 10,000. Turns out that Lindsay went to school with the wife of one of the pilots and the mother of the other!
Got to Vic Falls just in time for an evening booze cruise on the Zambezi above the falls. It's quite the spectacle: All these big pontoon boats loaded with tourists, drinking away, flocking to the odd hippo or elephant along the river. But I noted that there were a lot of boats still sitting at the dock. The political situation has really hurt even Vic Falls. It's still the easiest destination in Zim for foreign tourists: 737 flight direct from Johannesburg, avoiding the problems of Harare.
And the hotels around the falls are absolutely fabulous. We stayed at Lokathula Lodge, because Graeme has a time share there, but there's also the Elephant Hills Hotel, a beautiful five-star hotel (it was rocketed and burned during the war, but has been completely restored), and, of course, the Victoria Falls Hotel. The first time I was there, 21 years ago, it was run down, painted a sickly green (a lot of buildings in Zim were back then; we surmised it was a good deal on Soviet paint). Now it is absolutely fabulous! Completely redone; the historic drawing rooms have been restored, and the Livingstone Library is nearly completely back. If you can afford it, and you go to Vic Falls, stay there.
We were happy at Lokathula, though. Huge thatched roof duplexes strung along a deep ravine that animals move down to get to an artificial water hole below the large central lodge. We braaied each night (that's bbq, folks) and had just wonderful lively discussions of politics and the country's future. A friend from South Africa drove all the way up with two of her children, and her husband came down from Zambia, where he had been grading cattle (he owns ranches in Zim and South Africa). Another friend, scion of one of the great white Zimbabwean families, recently moved to Vic Falls to start a volunteerism tourism company, and he and his fiance came for a couple of evenings.
While all this was happening, wildlife was running around the grounds. A family of warthogs came by each day to try to snuffle their way into our things. They reminded me of the mountain goats in the Enchantments. One morning, we were sitting outside having coffee when three mongoose came walking by. I grabbed my camera off the chair, but its strap caught on the chair arm and yanked it out of my hand. I watched in horror as it flew through the air and landed right on the sharp edge of the concrete stoop, then bounced into the dirt. The lens separated from the body, and I had that horrible sinking feeling one has when something really precious is gone. The plastic mount flanges on the kit 18-55 lens had broken off at two points. There was a dent in the body's magnesium frame near the battery compartment. And the glass covering over the LCD readout on the top had a star crack. But when I put on another lens, the body fired up and showed no ill signs. All the photos of Vic Falls, the hotel and Hwange National Park were taken after that accident. (In fact, the pix of the Victoria Falls Hotel were taken with the broken lens HELD ONTO the body.) But the worst thing: No pictures of mongoose.
Anyway, on the day before departure, we had quite an adventure planned: Whitewater rafting down the Zambezi below Vic Falls, then zip lining and gorge swings into the same gorge! My nephew Nick had done a bungee jump off the bridge over the Zambezi between Zim and Zambia, and now we were going to one-up him. The whole crew was going, save for my wife, Lins, and her brother Graeme (the younger Graeme, our son, might have thought about skipping this, had he known what was in store for him, as we shall see). Lins and I had rafted the Zambezi 17 years ago, but now the half-day trip is a much different beast. It now starts from nearly under the falls, running through Rapids Nos. 1-10. There's nothing under Class 3, and there are three rapids at Class 5. Commercial rafts carry around No. 9; it's a Class 6 and nicknamed "Commercial Suicide."
Those of you with no fear of heights would like the descent into the gorge to the starting point. Remember that video of the guys walking along that spidery iron walkway along cliffs, somewhere in Spain, I think? Well, Victoria Falls now has a stairway built in 2003 that goes down into the gorge right near the starting point below the falls. And boy it's in GREAT shape -- the handrail is already nearly ripped away, which means that you are climbing down an incredibly steep iron stair, essentially a ladder, carrying life jacket and paddle, over a drop of a couple hundred feet with no hand rail. And there are 20 people above you, any one of whom could stumble and fall and take everyone else down with them. Now THAT'S what I call fun.
Anyway, it was time to divvy up rafts. It was me, my sister-in-law Juliet, our friend Jennie, Juliet's children Alexandra (20) and Nick (16), Jennie's children Connor (10) and Hannah (13), my children Graeme (15) and Leah (13), and our South African friends' daughter Emily (14). Juliet, Jennie and Connor went on the rowed raft. Nick, Hannah, Graeme, Leah, Emily and I went with another guy (Rod from Toronto) on a paddled raft. Alex and her friend went on another paddled raft. Well, the first six rapids went great -- except the rowed raft flipped in a Class 3! So they got their dunking. Then we came to No. 7, Gulliver's Travels, the longest, most technical Class 5 on the first stretch of river. Our guide, a wirey ex-Zim Army captain, told us that we didn't want to flip in this one.
Well. We were the first boat in, and the first wave we hit, we flipped. I hit something hard face-first underwater, came up dazed, but under the overturned raft. Tried to get out, came up underneath somebody, went down again, came up again under the raft again, went down again, and finally popped up free away from the raft. I got a breath of air -- and then was dragged down into a whirlpool. Down and down and down. I thought, well this is it, I'm dead. I relaxed and pulled my legs and arms in to reduce surface area, and just when my lungs felt like they were about to explode, I could feel myself spit out and pushed up to the surface. Finally popped up -- never had air been so sweet. This rapid is 700 meters long, and at that point we were halfway through. My first thought was, WHERE ARE MY KIDS!!!! I could see several people clinging to the overturned raft 20 meters downstream from me, and I could see heads in the water, but not enough heads. I couldn't swim against the force -- this is big water -- so I got my feet turned downstream to try to ride it out. Another raft passed by, but I couldn't reach it. I rode that rapid all the way through, and it was absolute torture not knowing where my children were or our friends' children.
Finally, we entered a big bend before the next rapid, and Alex's boat came by and they grabbed me. So here's what had happened. The guide, Rod from Toronto, Leah and Nick had managed to hold onto the raft. The guide righted the raft, then pulled the others on board. That left Hannah, Emily, Graeme and I in the drink. Another raft grabbed Hannah. One of the safety sweeper kayaks grabbed Emily, and they had tried to grab Graeme, but missed him. So now we were all back in the raft, except my Graeme. Minutes passed and I was getting frantic, with the guide trying to reassure me that he was sure that someone had picked him up. Ten minutes later, a raft full of Czechs came by, and there, in a heap in the bottom, was Graeme. Boy, talk about bedraggled. He had been tossed into an eddy and swept up against the rocks, where he watched the whole flotilla disappear down river. The kayaker with Emily in tow had passed by but couldn't reach him. So he clung there until the Czechs arrived. A thousand thanks, Czech Republic!!!
Now we were cold, despite the bright sunshine. Graeme, who was pretty shaken, and Leah transferred to the rower raft for the next rapid, But the rest of us stayed on board for No. 8. Well. We flipped again, but this time everybody held on and we soon righted the raft and pulled everybody on board well before No. 9, thank god, because No. 9 is really unbelievable. The commercial rafting companies walk their clients around it because it's so big. It was really impressive watching each guide take his raft through it to where we could meet up. Hats off to you blokes! Anyway, after that, Class 4 No. 10 was a bit of an anticlimax. (Even though I got tossed out again! I was in the bow, we hit a big wave, and it was if I had been flipped by a giant spatula, went flying across the boat and into the river. Rod from Toronto said later that he had thought about grabbing my foot as I went past his face, but decided the physics involved didn't favor him.)
Then it was time for lunch on the river bank and the long slog up the gorge wall and back to the trucks for the ride back to the hotel. I wound up carrying Juliet's gear, too, and I was starting to get woozy, severe headache. I was glad that we'd been wearing helmets. Anyway, we were soon back at the hotel.
The great thing, is that the whole trip was filmed. Can't figure out how to put clips up, but here's a sampling of someone else's trip:
Anyway, I survived with a very bruised face and a mild concussion. When we spoke to the guides later that night, turns out that at No. 7, they had been wondering if I would ever pop up ...
So after an adventure like that in the morning, the obvious thing to do in the afternoon is ...
1. Take a nap
2. Get counseling
3. Attach yourself to a 200-foot-long rope stretched out over the gorge, then jump off the edge and free fall 150 feet until you hit the radius of the rope and go swinging out across the Zambezi.
Now, I would choose 1 or 2, possibly both. Everybody else -- even Jennie, who up until that point I thought had possessed better sense -- chose 3. So back we went to the gorge. The event consisted of three parts: Flying Fox, in which you're attached by harness to a mild zip line that takes you 120 meters over a side canyon; the Foofie Slide zip line, which extends 425 meters over the gorge; and the Gorge Swing itself. I cringed when I saw my daughter step up to be the first to do the Flying Fox. But then my sister-in-law Juliet, daughter of a staunchly Conservative British family and someone who REALLY should have better sense, did it. Followed by Jennie and all the rest of the children.
That should have prepared me. But, really, when one watches one's children attached to the slimmest of tethers flying across/down/over a river gorge in Africa, the water of which is filled with man-eating crocodiles, can one ever be truly prepared?
And my son did it twice. And my 13-year-old daughter did it tandem with her friend Hannah. They say the next time they're going sky diving.
So on to the next adventure.
The next day we flew the planes from Vic Falls down to Hwange National Park, a huge tract of bush that's absolutely full of elephant and other critters. We arrived at the airport to a very surreal scene. First, you buzz the runway to get the critters off it. Then you land on that runway, one of the longest in Africa, nearly five kilometers long. Yes, that's right, nearly 5,000 meters. You could land an An-225 there no prob. And take off again. Then you taxi over to the well-kept terminal -- which hasn't seen a commercial flight in more than six years. Then you look at the lawn chairs carefully arranged out in front of the terminal, just as they had been 20 years ago, except no one has sat in them in this century. Then you're greeted by the manager of the lodge where you're staying, and he tells you this is the first time he's come to the airport to pick someone up ... in years.
Now, 20 years ago, Hwange was a happening place. The airport had multiple flights in each day (we arrived back then on one of the old Air Zim Viscounts). You had to book the chalets at the main government camp in the national park a year in advance. Now, there's nobody there -- one couple when we drove by. And the animals are LOVING it. We drove to our lodge outside the park, stashed our stuff, then piled back into the open Land Rover to drive the 20Ks into the park at sunset.
Well. We saw a few animals as we drove toward the main water hole (Hwange has no natural water source in winter; water is pumped up in several places year-round), but nothing too spectacular.
Then we arrived at the water hole. And elephants began arriving. And more elephants, and more. At one point, I counted up to 100 and stopped. It was an unbelievable spectacle, and even our digitally hardened children were impressed. Just sitting quietly and listening to all those elephants walk, drink, snort, snuffle ... Then, some sort of magic signal was given, and within just a few minutes, all those great beasts disappeared back into the bush.
The driver was a wizened fellow from the low veldt who spoke impeccable English with a very pronounced Boer roll of his 'r's. He knew an awful lot about the animals, stuff that really enhanced the experience. It made for an enchanting evening. Then as the sun set, we headed back to the lodge, through the freezing winter night, wrapped up in thick blankets in the open back of the Rover as the stars came out. Magical.
We sat around the fire and talked to the tour operator who had arranged our stay at that particular lodge. I told him that I felt guilty as a tourist -- here I was having this absolutely amazing vacation, in a country where people were starving. He said you have to look at it like this: Sure, some of the money a tourist spends gets skimmed off by crooked officials, and management takes the lion's share of what's left. But, he said, every tourist who comes in ensures that some poor black fellow keeps his job in a country that has damned few. Obviously, he was going to boost tourism -- that's his business. But the more I thought about it, the more I think he's right. The solution isn't just to NOT go to places like Zimbabwe. The solution is to go, but make sure your dollar gets maximized for the average person.
That said, Zim is a hard place for the average tourist to travel in. Getting a vehicle is difficult. Then you can't get fuel. Then you can't get food, unless you eat at main hotels. Then throw in police roadblocks, bribes, robbery, theft ... It's tough. We had an absolutely fabulous vacation because we have great connections. Without the trailer-full of food shipped up from South Africa, without the access to fuel through their business that my brothers-in-law have, without the aircraft -- well, it would have been a far different trip.
But soon we were back in Harare. The night before the flight back to Johannesburg and the long trek home, a friend hosted a cocktail party where we caught up with more folks that I haven't seen in a long, long time (my wife and kids have come back often, but I never could break away). What impressed me most, whether talking to rich white Zimbabweans at that party or poor black security guards on the night shift, was the belief that while things are bad now, if the reins were ever loosened, the country could come roaring back. There's a huge amount of fertile land sitting unused, waiting. There are huge runways in remote national parks sitting unused, waiting. There is a huge population of willing workers, just desperate for a chance, waiting.
There are extraordinary rivers to raft, extraordinary mountain ranges to trek through, extraordinary wildlife to be viewed. And there are very few tourists there to see all that.
Oh my gosh! I am stunned by the beauty and excitement and terror of it all. I am so glad you (all of you!) made it home, with an amazing story to tell. And your photos are just wonderful... Thank you so much for sharing.
I nominate this for trip report of the year!
-------------- "May I always be the kind of person my dog thinks I am"
So WHY were the kids instructed not to reveal your profession?
Did you get shots, or were there other medical considerations before and during your trip? You mentioned a concussion... Did you go to a local hospital? Or self treat?
Can you swim in Lake Kariba?
Ree: Zim government doesn't like journalists -- the chances of being thrown out if the authorities find out what you do for a living is high. No shots, just anti-malaria tablets is the usual drill, but we were there during winter, so we skipped even that. Self-treat. And there are too many crocodiles in the lake to swim. It used to be that people would swim off houseboats out in the middle of the lake; don't know if they still do that, but I've heard that crocs learned to follow houseboats for table scraps, fish carcasses, etc.
What impressed me most, whether talking to rich white Zimbabweans at that party or poor black security guards on the night shift, was the belief that while things are bad now, if the reins were ever loosened, the country could come roaring back. There's a huge amount of fertile land sitting unused, waiting. There are huge runways in remote national parks sitting unused, waiting. There is a huge population of willing workers, just desperate for a chance, waiting.
Governments can screw things up so badly. My daughter spent three weeks in Zimbabwe, 25 years ago, doing some kind of medical internship. At recently as that, Zimbabwe was one of the most progressive countries on the continent.
She was working at some rural medical clinic, I don't know if I ever heard the name. Anyway, while she was there she borrowed a car and drove 200 miles across central Africa, by herself, in order to see Victoria Falls.
Contrast that with the caravans that your party was forced to take, the fortified compounds that made your "vacation" possible. ........ But you know. It seems very likely that your wife was growing up there when Ashleigh was there. .......... It's so sad. So infuriating.
Thanks for the fascinating TR, Gil. Your ....... shhh ....... profession may account for the quality, but your interest in sharing it with nwhikers is special.
-------------- Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you....... Go and find it. Go!
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