We enjoyed our time in Zimbabwe, a beautiful country surrounded by Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa. Our time here was spent marveling at the spectacular vistas of Victoria Falls, chilling in laid back Bulawayo where we trekked after rhinos at Matopos National Park, visiting the Great Zimbabwe Ruins which are sub Saharan Africa’s most prominent archeological ruins, cuddling, petting and walking with lions at Antelope Park in Gweru, and finally, hanging in Harare where we escaped the capital city for the suburbs of Lake Chivero, base of the lovely Kuimba Shiri Bird Park which is home to hundreds of indigenous and exotic birds. Overall, Zimbabwe rocks!
9 May: After breakfast, we departed Chobe and drove only 10 minutes to hit the Zimbabwean Kazungula Road border post. It was a time-consuming border crossing as the queue was long and slow moving. We opted to purchase double entry Zimbabwe visas ($45 USD for Americans), and after our entire group had been proceed through, we drove a further 90 minutes to reach Victoria Falls, arriving just before lunch. With Nancy disappearing to organize a video showcasing all the highlights on offer at Victoria Falls, Chris showed us where to erect our tents at the Rest Camp site (opposite the Backpackers Bazaar) in the same compound as the In-Da-Belly restaurant. Nancy returned from her mission and we had a few minutes to spare before marching over to the nearby Backpackers Bazaar where we got a briefing from Joy who explained everything on offer here at the adrenaline junkies wonderland. After hearing about all the available activities, we signed up for the bungee jump, adrenaline day, and microlight, opting to pay for all three activities with credit card. After being reassured that it would be no problem, we headed over to the nearby Pizza/Chicken/Cream inn for lunch, scoring a mega pepperoni/olive pizza for $12. On the way to the restaurant, Robby was accosted by a guy offering Zimbabwe notes, and he got rid of his 10 Pula coin to buy two 50,000,000,000 notes. Despite our best efforts, we only managed to eat half of our pizza, and saved the second half for a late afternoon snack. We briefly debated relaxing around the campsite but after careful consideration, decided that we should visit Victoria Falls from the Zim side before dinner. It was a short walk from our campsite to the entrance, and on our way there, souvenir vendors strong urged that we purchase rain parkas from them as they warned we would get completely soaked. Not believing that the spray from the falls would be that strong, we ignored their recommendation and later laughed as we regretted it. The entrance fee was a whopping USD $30 and we started off at the Livingstone statue and Devil’s Cataract. The view was phenomenal and the misty spray wasn’t too strong. However, that was soon to change as we walked onward to the main falls. We got progressively wetter and wetter, and despite Becky’s urging that our gear be placed in the dry bag, Robby thought for an insane minute that he could outlast the down pouring. A few minutes of nonstop torrential spraying later, Robby threw in the towel and begged for the dry bag to secure his camera gear in. It was already a bit too late as every single part of us was dripping with water but better late than never. With our gear only moderately soaked, we continued the walk along the main falls and couldn’t see a damn thing due to the insane amount of spray soaking us from above, below and all angles horizontally. It was akin to standing in a full blast shower as the flow of water was relentless. Eventually we made our way to the other end of the falls (on the Zim side), where a path led to a section where we could spy on the bungee jumpers leaping from the bridge. There, we linked up with Naomi, Lucky and Luke and they had faced the water gauntlet as we did and survived to tell the tale. It was funny hearing everyone’s recollections of walking through Vic Falls. None of us will ever underestimate the power of the falls again! Even though Joy had advised that we set aside a minimum of 3 hours for the Zim side of the waterfalls, we were ready to go after just over an hour. Instead of heading directly for the campsite, we decided to take a detour to the ritzy looking “The Kingdom”, which boasted a casino, restaurants, shopping arcades and a hotel. Afterwards, we split from Naomi and Luke who headed back to the campsite, while we opted to hike out to Boma Restaurant to see this Victoria Falls institution for ourselves. It took us about 30 minutes to hike out there, and at the very end we were picked up for a free shuttle from the nearby Safari Lodge. The staff at the Boma was super friendly, patiently showing us the restaurant, the menu, and the entertainment on offer. However, it was the price tag that kept putting us off. At $40 USD a person, it seemed a bit too much to justify for a night out. In the end, we thanked our guide for explaining everything to us and decided that we would forego the all you can eat bush meat extravaganza with the group. Lucky was still in but he was convinced because of the ample desert bar! Back at the impeccable Safari Lodge, we admired the view over a nearby watering hole and waited for a return shuttle back into town. Our driver was the same guy that picked us up the first time and he was a friendly person to chat with about life in Zim. Door to door service, and for free! Who could complain? We thanked our shuttle driver and headed back into camp to relax and unwind for the day while Dowelly’s cook group (Dowelly, Lisa and Sara) made chakalaka mince with pasta and salad. After dinner, we did a quick load of hand wash laundry before calling it a night. Tomorrow was to be an early day and we needed all the sleep we could get.
Note: We visited Zambia for part of the day on 10 May. Here is the rest of our journal once we returned back into Zimbabwe later that day.
10 May: On our walk back, we befriended a tout named “Funny Boy” and ended up buying 4 wooden carvings from him with our leftover Pula (70 Pula). Since he was keen on swapping some items for clothes, we asked him to bring a hippo for us the next day and told him we’d gather some shirts for a trade. At the rest camp, we relaxed with hot water showers and hung out until dinner of chicken curry. Since today had been a hot, sweaty and exciting day, we took advantage of the hot water and did a bit of laundry before calling it a night. Poor Becky didn’t sleep well in anticipation of tomorrow’s leap from the bridge over Victoria Falls.
11 May: We had a bit of a sleep in this morning as the only thing on our agenda today was to have Becky complete her first bungee! Robby downloaded photos from yesterday’s fantastic Adrenaline Day and was able to give several people copies of their photos. After a simple breakfast of peanut butter and honey on toast and tea, we were ready to leave at 10 am for the area of no man’s land (in between Zambia and Zimbabwe). With passports in hand and Lucky accompanying us, we headed towards the border control and informed immigration that we were heading for the bungee jump, to prevent our passports from being stamped out of Zimbabwe. There were two extremely nervous jumpers preparing for their jump off the bridge but we were told to head over to the bungee reception hut to get processed in. Our initial plan was for both of us to jump but unfortunately, contrary to what Joy at Backpackers Bazaar told us, the Bungee folks would not accept credit card payments and wanted cash only, $120 each. Of course we didn’t have enough money for two jumps, but we did have enough cash for Becky to leap off. After she got weighed in at 69 KG, Lucky and Robby figured out a plan for taking photos and with Lucky at the lookout point/bar, Robby escorted a slightly nauseous Becky back over to the jump zone. She kept commenting that it felt like she was walking a plank to her death, and was second guessing her decision to jump. However, the guys at Big Air Adrenaline were great, working to calm her nerves while simultaneously getting her suited up for the jump. It was a whirlwind process, with the harness fastened in mere seconds, followed by the towel wrapping at her ankles and before she knew it, the official videographer was asking Becky if she had any last words. The end result was quite hilarious, but it wasn’t until after she jumped (and loved it by the way) and was watching the entire video on the big screen that it became apparent how unwilling of a jumper Becky was. When the jump master assured her that he had a hand on her harness while pushing her towards the edge of the platform, she actually did a reach around behind her back to ensure that he wasn’t lying. When he pointed to the faraway hotel in the distance on the horizon, she inadvertently tried to elbow his arm away and when he told her to jump, he actually had to pry her right arm not once but twice from her death grip on the railing. Oh, and a little nudge from the jump master and it was all over, a free fall lasting 3 seconds followed by the most amazing rush! Totally worth $120 and in one of the most spectacular settings. Becky kept commenting how beautiful the gorge looked from an upside down angle and she said she wasn’t ready to be lifted back up yet when the guide came down to assist her back to the bridge. The photos/DVD were an expensive $45 but after watching them several times on the big screen, we figured a onetime splurge would be worth it. On our walk back into town, we linked back up with Funny Boy from the day before and sure enough, he was patiently standing by with a carved wooden hippo in hand. We traded 2 shirts, a hat, shot glass and neck lanyard for the hippo and Funny Boy had a huge grin from ear to ear. Becky scored a whole stack of obsolete Zimbabwean and Zambian currency for a t-shirt, and armed with our souvenirs, we headed over to the craft market where Lucky had gone ahead to escape our touts. However, it was impossible to find him and the touts were even more aggressive at the craft market, spotting us from a mile away. After fruitlessly searching for him, we headed over to the Chicken Inn for lunch and sure enough, Lucky sauntered in a few minutes later feeling a bit flustered at the overwhelming attention he received at the craft market. It was so aggressive that it turned him off from shopping and he had a shopping list in mind! Back at the Rest Camp, Ally was kind enough to let us use her computer to copy the content on the DVDs to our hard drive and we were able to laugh while watching Becky’s video yet again. We spent the afternoon working on backing up our photos and website content, and then headed over to a nearby internet café for a bit of uploading. It was reasonably priced at 90 min for 2 US$ but was sluggish at times. Luckily for us, we discovered that it is a 24 hour joint, so armed with that information, we decided to return during an off time so that we wouldn’t have so many other customers to contend with. It was 8 pm by the time we were done uploading South Africa content to the website and we were ravenous, so we went directly to dinner at African Hide. It was a bit worrisome to discover that we were literally the only clientele at the restaurant, but the menu looked decent and our waiter was top notch. Since we were keen on trying game meat, we ordered crocodile bites for an appetizer as well as Robby’s more daring choice of fish ‘n worms (it was indeed a dish of huge, juicy worms that Robby said he’d probably skip ordering next time), along with our mains of ostrich and eland steak. Dinner was great, and midway through our appetizers, a group of six performers serenaded us for the better part of an hour. Working tirelessly to entertain us with their songs and dance, we enjoyed the show. By 10 pm, we were ready to call it a night and we both commented how nice it was to get away from the rest of the group and enjoy a bit of one on one time. We briefly debated whether we should return to the internet café tonight or in the morning and early morning won out. The group from Boma restaurant returned around 11 pm and were rather boisterous and happy…it sounded like they all enjoyed their night out in the town.
12 May: We got up early to do a bit of internet work since the internet café was a 24 hour operation. However, when we walked up at 5:30 am, the lights were shut off and we thought we were out of luck. Thankfully, as Robby attempted to open the door, he woke up a security guard who let us in with no questions asked. Since we had the entire café to ourselves, internet was screaming and we were able to take care of all our online needs. By 8:30 am, we were back at the Rest Camp and not a creature was stirring (except for Lucky). Robby helped get breakfast going and afterwards, we did a bit of laundry and took cold water showers as the electricity at the camp had shut down. Our plan was to hit the internet joint again before lunch but fortunately for us, Lucky and Naomi came down the street and told us not to waste our time as the speed was dismal, so we ditched our original plans and figured we had a bit of time to kill and clothes to trade for souvenirs. Becky scored a wooden bowl for Robby’s camouflage shirt (Africans LOVE that shirt and it was the cause of a fight yesterday as two vendors fought each other in an effort to get it) and Robby got a stone statue with the remainder of our old t-shirts and a floppy hat. Since we had success at withdrawing US$ from the ATM machine yesterday, we headed back to Barclay’s and were able to get another $500 out to give us a bit of extra spending money. Lunch was take-away Peri-Peri chicken pizza which was quite tasty. By 2 pm, our gear was packed away and on the truck and we pulled out of Vic Falls for our next destination, the lovely city of Bulawayo. Our afternoon truck drive was interrupted by one pee stop at a “caution, yield to elephant” sign, where we took our obligatory photos and hastily peed in the bushes before driving onward. By 5:30 pm, Chris had found a suitable bush camp site, and we leisurely set up our tents in the fading sunlight before waiting for dinner of chili con carne (prepared by Lucky, Fi and Mel). After a late night last night, everyone was fairly subdued today so it was an early night in the tents.
13 May: Happy Birthday Kathryn! It was a freezing cold morning as everyone huddled near the fire to keep warm. Brrrr, who would imagine that it could get this cold in Africa? After breakfast, Chris sawed up a bit of wood that we stacked for future use and then we were on our way to Bulawayo, with half the truck bundled up in cold weather gear and sleeping bags to stay warm. There were some “Painted Dogs” caution signs along the roadside but we were zooming too fast to get a photo of them. Just before noon, we pulled into Bulawayo where we were given four hours to roam around town. Robby’s group had to do cook group shopping at the nearby Shoprite which had a dismal selection of items at high prices. With a budget of $20 for dinner for 26 people, his group struggled to make ends meet but eventually enough food was purchased. For lunch, we wandered around town and got a beef pastry for $1.40 each. The buildings in Bulawayo were quite pretty, with many of them retaining an old, colonial feel. Everyone we met in the town was super friendly and surprisingly, there was no hassle from anyone on the streets. We tried to do a bit of interneting ($1 for 1.5 hours) but it was dismally slow so in the end, we walked out after being told that the ISP was checking out why the connectivity was so slow. Our consolation prize was to link up with everyone else at Walker’s Pub where we drank a quick beer before heading back to the truck to pull guard duty. By 3:50 pm, we were all back on the truck and headed to our campsite at Burke’s Paradise Lodge in Burnside (about 4 KM from Bulawayo). There, we were met by our gracious hostess, Christine, who showed us around the area. A large, boisterous dog, Pedro, was the hit of the day, playing and jumping on everyone. Our tents were set up around the swimming pool and we were told that we had a two night stay here. Cook group (Sean, Laura and Lydia) made spaghetti bolognese which was quite tasty as usual.
14 May: Our rhino tour today with Black Rhino Tours (operated by Norman, Christine’s husband, who is a part time electrician/security assistant for banks) was scheduled to kick off at 8:50 am so we had time to do a quick workout before breakfast. Our workout consisted of a twenty minute run followed by twenty minutes of abs and pushups. Our group was split into two trucks and we ended up on the smaller truck. Unfortunately, we didn’t get Norman as our guide and later realized that we would have lucked out if we had scored him as he was a super knowledgeable guide who patiently explained everything in the field. As it was, our guide was decent but he spent the majority of the time talking to Sean about life as a white Zimbabwean, which was interesting but as we were sitting in the back, we had an extremely hard time hearing his comments and thoughts. Our path to get to Rhodes Matopos National Park was via a rough, dusty road and by the time we pulled up to the main entrance, all of us were covered in dust from head to toe. After a brief bathroom break, Norman’s truck picked up a tracker (a park ranger who tracks the rhinos daily, and is armed with “shoot to kill” instructions for any suspected poachers). Our ranger stopped at a few places where he suspected there might be rhinos but the first few stops were futile. We learned from Norman that there used to be more than 80 rhinos in this private park. However, in the past year alone, a huge surge in poaching had reduced the numbers of rhinos to the following dismal figure: 11 white rhinos and 17 black rhinos. While the white rhinos are more common and plentiful than their black rhino counterparts, in this park that percentage was skewed as the white rhinos are particularly easy to track and poach, and the poachers have decimated them in number. We learned that the only difference between white and black rhinos is NOT their color but due to the fact that white rhinos are substantially larger than their black counterparts, and have a wide, square stocky jaw. The female white rhinos tend to stay in a geographic area waiting to be serviced by a male white rhino, hence they are easy prey for poachers who simply sit in one place and will come across the rhino with a day or two. With such depressing figures and facts, we started becoming skeptical that we would ever spot a rhino, but our tracker was amazing. By following tell tale footprints, dung droppings, and recently chewed vegetation, he was able to pinpoint exactly where he suspected several rhinos to be. Sure enough, we spotted four massive white rhinos in the distance, and started making our way towards them. Unfortunately for all of us, our group today was way too large, with over 24 eager rhino stalkers trumpeting their way through the forest. As a result of the rhinos being recently dehorned, they were all a bit spooked by humans and as a result, skittishly ran away when we noisily approached. Some members of our group even started chasing them through the bush which terrified the poor rhinos even more and as a result, it was an extremely frustrating and pitiful experience. We hated the large group, disliked how we were actively chasing the rhinos while obviously disturbing them, and felt that it was an unmanageable group size. Thankfully, Norman soon put an end to the rhino chasing by calling it off and suggesting a midday break for lunch. We were so grateful to our tracker for finding the rhinos (4 out of the park’s 11 rhinos is a phenomenal feat) and realized that he put his life on the line every day protecting these rhinos as the poachers will kill him if he gets in their way. What an amazing man. Our lunch break was in a nice shady area and we enjoyed a buffet lunch, followed by a lecture from Chris on some members of our group not being considerate to other members (i.e. taking too much food when it is obvious that there is not enough to go around). After lunch, we drove onward to see some cave painting that the bushmen had painted thousands of years ago. However, the first cave system we intended on visiting was full of school kids and Norman decided to take us elsewhere in the park. We drove onward to another section of Matopos where yawning hippos were wallowing in a small lake. After checking them out for a few minutes, we continued driving around until we came to an area where two rhino skeletons were visible. One was a female black rhino, aged 43, that had died of natural causes (her exact age was calculated because she had been tagged years ago), while the other was a young, juvenile male white rhino which had been killed by a poacher. Examining the skeletons, it was obvious that the white rhino, aged only 6 years old, was larger than the 43 year old black rhino. Also, it was sad to see the bullet hole in the white rhino’s skull where he had been struck and killed. It was late afternoon when Norman decided to take us to another cave system complex to see some cave paintings. Dated 2000-3000 years old, the paintings were in remarkable shape and we learned so much about the bushmen from Norman’s detailed dialogue (i.e. they are colorblind and view the world in black, white and grey, hence they are some of the world’s best trackers). Our Black Rhine tour was culminated by high tea, where lemon cookies and hot tea was served up on the back of the trucks. Our return ride to Paradise Lodge was a freezing one, as our tarps weren’t down and the wind was bitterly cold. After thanking our guides for a great day, we ate a wonderful meal prepared by Nancy consisting of a delicious beef sauce served over couscous…yum! Thankfully, the power outage was over so we had a bit of power to charge up our dead batteries and laptops. It was a late night as we stayed up organizing photos and trying to get a bit of journaling done.
15 May: After packing up and bidding Pedro goodbye (he was looking mighty dejected as his new play buddy, Robby, was patting him for the last time), we were on our wear towards the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, mentioned as a highlight in our circa 2001 guidebook. Famous for being sub-Saharan Africa’s most impressive archaeological site, Nancy urged that any of us interested in ruins or culture should absolutely spend a few hours here exploring the ruins. We pulled in just before lunch, and after a quick bite, went to the entrance hut to purchase our entrance tickets (US $15 plus $3 for a guide). Of course, the official in the hut had no change, so everyone had to have exactly $18 each to obtain their ticket. It was quite an amusing couple of minutes as we had to scramble amongst ourselves to sort our change or borrow funds from others to make ends meet. Welcome to Zimbabwe and their constant lack of small bills for change! We had quite a large group keen on exploring the ruins (perhaps motivated by the fact that whoever remained behind had to help Nancy out with the preparation of dinner!), and our guide was a slight female who patiently explained the history of the ruins, informing us that in 1980, the country was renamed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, earning its new title because of the famous ruins here. The complex is broken up into three distinct sections, the hill complex, the great enclosure, and the valley enclosures. Our guide explained that the area served as a religious capital, with a population of 25,000 people and influence over what is modern day Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. The site was ruled by one king (who conveniently had over 200 wives and sired thousands of children), and the first location we visited was his residence up on the Hill Complex. Today, there are two paths to reach the summit of the complex and we traversed the ancient pass on the way up (and the modern pass on the route down). From the summit of the Hill Complex, we could see the “acropolis” where meals were prepared and the king’s bedroom was located. From there, we hiked around to see his cave where he could bellow communications to his wives housed in the valley enclosure down below (the echo effect is really effective as several members of our group demonstrated), and we culminated our visit to the hill complex by hiking up to the king’s throne and slithering back down a rocky maze to reach the modern pass for our walk back down. Our next visit was to the valley enclosures, where we were informed that over 50 families resided together within the hut enclosures. The entire site was dominated by massive aloe trees (we always thought aloe was a bush, not a tree!), and the most impressive of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins was saved for last. The Great Enclosure has magnificent dimensions of 11 meters tall by 4 meters thick and a 200 meter circumference. We were briefed that the King’s first wife, the Queen, resided within the enclosure, and after checking out the King’s quarters, determined that the Queen had a much better deal going on! The walls are all built without the aid of mortar, and the most intriguing part of the enclosure is a 10 meter tall conical tower, which our guide explained was a phallic symbol with no discernible function. Our tour ended in the museum, which summarized the three sections we had visited and rehashed a lot of the same information that our guide had already given us. To our surprise, we found that the visit to the ruins was better than expected, and despite Robby’s initial misgivings at paying $18 to visit some rocks, he was glad that he did check them out. We were running a bit behind schedule as it was almost 4 pm by the time we walked back to our truck. We still had a 3.5 hour drive to reach Antelope Park, which was to be our next destination for the upcoming few days. This was where it was evident that Nancy’s foresight paid off, as it was already cold and dark by the time we pulled into camp at close to 8 pm. A group of drummers greeted our arrival, welcoming us to the park and it made a positive first impression of Antelope Park. Nancy wasted no time, and she immediately got a fire going and reheated a pot of beef stew (she had made dinner for us earlier after our lunch break today) and we got to cook up a bit of beer bread to accompany our meal. It was great having a warm meal so quickly after setting up our tents, and we were advised that the Antelope Park DVD viewing and briefing would be given to us tomorrow morning. With the rest of the night free, we tried to take advantage of power, but the Antelope Park is located in the Gweru region, (the midlands of Zimbabwe) and it is one of the coldest sections of the country. Thus, we were literally freezing in the night and had to huddle beneath layers of our sleeping gear in an effort to stay warm. Any thought of staying near the power point (located outside in the freezing cold) was abandoned as we scattered to our tent to stay warm.
16 May: Since our first briefing of the day wasn’t until 9 am, we had plenty of time to do a quick morning workout, followed by a hot shower. After a quick breakfast and some complimentary hot tea (thanks Antelope Park!), we were suddenly told that at 8:30 am, we had to be ready for a guided tour of the campsite. After rushing around to be ready, the tour lasted a mere 10 minutes and we felt it was silly to have forced everyone to attend as the information put out wasn’t particularly helpful nor necessary. However, our 9 am briefing was quite informative, and we learned a lot about Antelope Park and its mission. After getting a run down on the various programs on offer at the park, we ended up signing up for four activities (one lion walk priced at $75, one cub viewing priced at $25, one lion feeding priced at $25, and one Phase II viewing priced at $40). While many of the prices were quite high, we felt fairly confident that our money was going to a good cause and felt comfortable contributing to Antelope Park. After lounging around the campsite, we were surprised to hear that our first activity, the cub viewing, was to occur at 11:30 am. Thankfully we had no other plans in mind but the organization of the various activities felt poor as information was not being put out in a timely manner. The cub viewing was amazing, as the 2 to 3 month old cubs were every bit as adorable as you would imagine. They were a bit sleepy though as they had just consumed a large breakfast of milk and minced meat, and they were starting to get irritable as they wanted nap time. Robby broke the cardinal rule of not appearing at eye level with the lions, and the cubs immediately started acting dominant when Robby laid down to be eye level with them. Our group was small and manageable (7 max) so all of us had a chance to take photos and get to play with the cubs. It was great as the cubs were quite used to humans and had no problems interacting with us. Our 15 minute session was over all too soon, and we immediately turned around to participate in our second activity of the day, the noon lion feeding. Unfortunately, there was a screw up in the number count, and poor Scott and Ichiyo were left behind. Since the male lions only get fed every 3 to 4 days, they missed their opportunity to see adult male lions springing furiously at full speed to be fed. It was truly an exercise in “survival of the fittest” as the fastest, biggest and meanest lion rushed to the food and spread himself out over as much of the food as possible, preventing any competitors from getting near the meat. Robby was able to get a video of the mad rush to the food but Becky was so shocked at the ferociousness of the lions that she could only watch in horror and awe, forgetting to take any photos as she wondered whether the chain link fence would hold up in case the lions came crashing through. The mad frenzy was over in mere seconds, after which the most dominant lion had spread eagled over the biggest pile of meat, aggressively guarding it against all other competitors. The less brave lions were left with scrambling for scraps, often receiving a vicious lash from the larger lions in the process. Our guides explained that this was a very effective way to research which lion to select for breeding as only the most aggressive, fastest and biggest lions would make the final cut. It was amazing to watch how aggressive lions are and hear how loud they growl at each other…the smell of rotting meat baking in the sun was nauseating, but watching the entire feeding process was thrilling nevertheless. After the lion feeding program, it was time for us to eat so Nancy dug out some ramen noodles that we could have for lunch. Our afternoon walk wasn’t until 4:15 pm, so we had a few hours to relax and organize our gear before heading back out again. Our guide for the afternoon lion walk gave us the rules and guidelines for walking with the lions (don’t ever run, approach from behind, stroke only their neck and body in a hard manner…if it’s a soft stroke they will mistake you for a fly and be annoyed, stop stroking them if the lions start wagging their tail, and carry a stick to protect yourself by pointing and loudly exclaiming “NO” if they start misbehaving). Our group consisted of Scott, Ichiyo, Fi, Chris, Lisa, Marie, Ally, and us and it was an awesome group as everyone was really respectful of each other and our desires to capture our lion walk on camera. Our female walking companions were 18 months old (they “retire” the lions at about 1 ½ years old so our lions were to be retired in June) and were named Meeka (the friendly lion) and Kylie (the more aggressive lion). They were so much fun to walk with, as we were able to hold their tail and walk behind them, as if leading them on a leash! There were some guinea fowl in the distance, and it was cool to see how the lions worked as a team to stalk their prey (they didn’t have a chance as the birds took to flight as soon as they sensed danger). We had plenty of photo opportunities and it was a great experience which seemed to be enjoyed by all. The sun was setting by the time our walk wrapped up, and we stumbled upon four elephants getting prepared for tonight’s lunar walk (Damien and Anna had signed up for it). What an awesome day! We had a great time at Antelope Park and felt that all the lion activities were well worth it despite the prohibitively high costs. In the end, we were glad our money went to a good cause and it was a thrill to get that up close and personal with lions. Robby’s cook group (minus Damien on the elephant ride) made dinner of five spice chicken and rice. The temperature had already plummeted as soon as the sun set, and we were shocked at how cold Zimbabwe can get. As soon as dinner was over, Becky bundled in long johns, fleece bottoms, three tops and rolled up in her silk liner, fleece liner and sleeping bag in an effort to stay warm. It was a cold night.
17 May: Our alarm sounded way too early for our 6 am “stage 2” excursion with Ray. After bundling up and dressing warmly, we trudged over to the restaurant where luckily for us, hot tea was waiting. Ray was a bit late picking us up, but by 6:15 we were on the road to where the pride of 7 lionesses, 1 lion (Milo), and 1 three month old cub (Wakalaka) were awaiting us. Wakalaka’s mom, Athena, had given birth to three cubs originally but one was killed by one of the other lionesses in the pride, and Ray found the carcass of another after it went missing for a few days. Thus, Wakalaka is the only cub remaining in the wild to have been born of captive parents. Very cool! We spent some time watching the pride as a fresh kill had been deposited the night before and the pride was currently devouring it. Well, actually only Milo was devouring it as he became super aggressive when the lionesses attempted to eat some of the bountiful meat. Playful Wakalaka was absolutely adorable, growling at her mom when she wanted some milk. However, Athena was having none of it until she had her fill of meat (which surprisingly Milo allowed). We watched as a pregnant female, Ashanti, sauntered up and tried to eat some meat (she is due this week), but was chased off by Milo. We applauded her bravery when she meekly crouched down and stood her ground, eventually scoring a bit of meat for her efforts despite all of Milo’s bluster. We watched the lion pride for about two hours, and by 8:15 am were back at camp. Robby’s cook group was making pancakes for breakfast (yum) which made for a nice treat. Becky swapped photos with Marie, Lisa, Ally and Scott while Robby did a bit of laundry. By noon, we had to meet back up with Nancy to fill out our Ethiopian Visa forms for submission in Harare ($70 for Americans for a multi entry visa), and lunch of tuna and crackers followed. The afternoon was a lazy one, spent by the pool and soaking up the sun. Cook group 6 (Luke, Ally, and Lars) made a tasty vegetarian curry on rice. Well, actually Ally made it along with a bit of help from Marie and Robby, as Lars and Luke both went on the night safari, for a chance to see lions hunt and bring down some prey. Apparently, visitors to Africa have a one in ten million chance of seeing a successful lion live stalk, but here at Antelope Park, visitors have a one in three chance of seeing it. Thus, wanting to improve their odds, Lucky, Lisa, Dowelly, Lars, Luke, Anna and Damien decided to roll the dice and take a chance on the night encounter. Unfortunately, it was a full moon and prey was scarce, so the lions ended up going hungry tonight. All of us were reminded to take care of our outstanding bills tonight (payable in cash only) as we were leaving early tomorrow morning. Several folks bought souvenir shirts from Antelope Park that had a picture of a lion by the sunset, along with the slogan “Where else in the world?”
18 May: We woke up to a beautiful sight as the moon was setting over a misty lake. Just spectacular. It was another cold morning as we huddled by the camp fire to stay warm. After a quick breakfast, we were packed up and on the road by 7:30 am, driving directly to Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare. It was a cold morning drive but as the sun came out, we gradually stripped out of our snivel gear. By lunch time, we were in the Avondale district of Harare, where we stopped for a quick truck lunch before cook group shopping. Robby had spotted two Chinese restaurants offering takeaway service, so we decided to check them out and scored a $10 lunch special consisting of noodles, rice, chicken, beef and stir fry, and a $1 bag of prawn crackers. Yum! Our takeaway box was filled to the brim and we ended up getting two meals out of it. Becky’s cook group had to go shopping for burgers for dinner tonight, but for some weird reason, all the local butcheries in town were closed on a Wednesday! Go figure. So, the handy TM and Spar Express came to the rescue and by stretching the cook group budget, they were able to pick up 2.5 KG of mince meat, onions, carrots, buns, and breakfast bread. Meanwhile, Nancy was at the Ethiopian Embassy dropping off our visa requests, and she had advised that we all meet back at the truck by 3:30 pm to see if she had returned yet. By mid afternoon, we were on our way to our Harare campsite, which actually wasn’t anywhere in Harare but about 30 KM away near a town called Norten. Our lodgings for the next three nights was the immaculate Kuimba Shiri Bird Park (www.kuimbashiri.co.zw), situated on Lake Chivero Recreational Park, where we were greeted by grazing horses, zebras and a crocodile that slithered into the nearby lake as it sensed our arrival! How crazy is that? The owner, Gary, confided that the last man eating crocodile had been recently hunted and killed, and not to worry as no tourists had ever been targeted, only the local fish poachers. Not very reassuring! Our guidebook informed us that Lake Chivero (formerly known as Lake McIllwaine) is popular with Harare day trippers, and it is surrounded by a 5500 hectare park. The lake is actually a reservoir created by the damming of the Manyame/Hunyani River. By 5 pm, we were gathered around the Bird Park bar for a briefing on all the optional activities on offer here and were entertained by Gary’s stories of life in Zimbabwe and the history of how his resort came to be. Apparently, as recently as last November (a mere 6 months ago), his property had come under the scrutiny of the Zimbabwean war veterans, and they attempted to take over his property. It was only due to his guest book and past clients that saved the resort from being overrun as the BBC got involved as well as a deluge of past client’s testimonials saved the day. We also were amazed to hear how the financial situation in Zimbabwe had become so ridiculous in the past that the restaurant menu had to be modified up to three times in one day, just to keep up with inflation! We were briefed about activities such as taking a boat ride out to see wildlife on the other side of the lake (an option to see rhino), or a hike out to see what was the largest earth made dam in 1960, or the free “bird walk” through the campsite’s refuge for injured or endangered birds, horse riding, tube riding, canoeing, or fishing. Lots of activities to keep us entertained! As the meeting came to a close, most folks opted to sit around drinking with the owners while Becky’s cook group made a tasty burger meal for dinner, serving up fat and juicy burgers to an appreciative audience. The staff from another Oasis truck was in town, so a few folks stayed up late drinking and socializing by the bar. We joined everyone for a few drinks at the bar but were in bed by 11 pm. The late night partiers got invited to do free shots and join one of the owner’s sons, Josh, at his house for a late night/early morning party. It was well past 4:30 am when they finally called it a night, having kept the rest of the campsite up with their loud antics. Lucky had been so annoyed that he stormed out of his tent twice clad only in his boxers to complain and tell them to quiet down a bit, but as drunk people go, the late nighters hadn’t realized how loud they were being. Lars had been explaining how the Velcro on our tent doors was crocodile proof and everyone got the hysterics from that comment so a lot of giggles ensued. We drifted in and out of sleep as the noise seemed to ebb and flow.
19 May: Revenge on the partiers was sought at around 5 am when other campsite guests, participants in a political torture conference, started talking, singing and dancing in a circle near our camping area. Apparently since some of our group kept them up all night, they were going to wake us up early this morning! Breakfast was served up at 7:30 am and quite a few of the partiers didn’t make it out of their tents. Nancy and Chris had business in Harare to conduct, so at 8:30 am, a few of us caught a ride into the city center for a free day to explore on our own. We separated from the rest of the group (Lucky, Fi, Marie, Lars, Itchiyo, and Mel) and headed towards the Harare Gardens, a manicured garden in the city center. It was nice to see that the garden is quite functional, with local residents using the grounds to relax, sleep, read in, and just laze the day away. We didn’t feel hassled or stared at in any way, and it was a pleasant experience just to wander around the city. Our quest after a bit of sightseeing was to find a decent internet café, and tucked into a corner on Nelson Mandela and First Street was Lucky’s Café, where we paid $1 for 40 minutes of surf time. After spending several hours uploading content to our website (Namibia, Botswana and Zambia), we were amazed to see that it was already mid afternoon, and we only had two more hours to explore Harare. Thankfully, there was a nearby Barclays bank ATM machine that dispensed US dollars, so we were able to withdraw a bit more cash for the remainder of our trip. For a late lunch snack, we stopped by Chicken Inn and ordered their spicy chicken wings but were really disappointed in the midget sized wings. Not good value! Some observations these past few days in Zimbabwe: we have found that no one in Harare seems to have change at all, and the various establishments will typically offer candy or something to make up for what they owe you back in change! Also there seems to be a lot of US $2 bills in circulation. We have already received 3 in the past 3 days, while we can go years without happening upon one in the USA. While wandering up and down the streets of Harare, Becky was blissfully ignorant in snapping away (apparently walking around Harare with a camera in hand is a risky venture as we would later find out) but when we came to the street filled with historical government buildings, she asked a security guard if she could take a photo of Livingstone and was told that photography was not allowed. On a side note, the other thing we found out was strongly frowned upon is the wearing of anything camouflage, as you can be arrested, hassled, or yelled at for wearing such items of clothing. While walking back to the meeting point for our afternoon pickup, we stopped by a bottle shop to grab some alcohol and saw a couple of street scenes that caught our eye. As Becky snapped away, a helpful local warned us that she should put the camera away as the security guards were over vigilant and might confiscate her camera for such an innocuous photo as the Zimbabwean police and other officials are particularly sensitive about photos. Unbeknownst to us, most of the photos taken today were prohibited, and Becky was darn lucky to have gotten away with it. Sure enough, just a few seconds after the camera was tucked away and out of sight, two armed soldiers sauntered down the street looking for anything amiss, and we breathed a sigh of relief when they passed us by. Scott, Ichiyo, Lars and Marie walked up a few minutes later and at 4:55 pm, Chris and Nancy were a welcome sight as they pulled over to pick us back up. It was a cold and long ride back to our campsite and we were ready to dress in some warmer gear once we reached our campground. Amazingly, despite our super productive day, most of the late night crew was just waking up and recovering from their hangovers from the night before! In fact, most of them had just awoken an hour ago, and they were still feeling a bit leery of consuming much alcohol. Several of us sat at the bar and chatted with James, one of the bird park’s caretakers until dinner. Cook group 8 (Scott, Katherine and Gin) made sausage and vegetables in sauce with mashed potatoes, which made for a tasty meal. For post-dinner games, a group of partiers consisting of Robby, Mel, Scott, Laura and Lydia hung out at the bar and played Ring of Fire. Laura and Lydia both got pretty hammered and headed to bed about a half hour before the rest of us were done playing.
20 May: It was another long day without access to the truck as once again, Chris and Nancy had to go into Harare on business. We had breakfast at 7:30 am, and sorted out the library, getting rid of the books that no one wants to read as Nancy mentioned she could swap them for more desirable books in Harare. Since we had a full day’s worth of adventures in Harare yesterday, we opted for a leisurely day of hanging out at the Bird Park campsite, and had to get all of our necessary gear for the day off the truck (vital stuff like our blender for banana milkshakes, bathing suits, workout clothes, etc). Almost everyone who didn’t venture into the city yesterday opted to go in today with the exception of Laura and Lydia, who both weren’t feeling up to it after last night’s activities. We were joined by Luke in a morning session of butt blaster followed by ab ripper X. By 9 am, we were done and took cold water showers as there didn’t seem to be any hot water at the campsite. A midmorning protein snack of banana milkshakes went down well, and we took advantage of the electricity to get caught up on the trip journal and sort through some photos. Robby played a couple of games of boules with Luke and Melissa before challenging Luke to a game of chess. Becky gave the bird park one last whirl but the caretakers shut the park a bit early so she wasn’t able to revisit her favorite birds. At 4:30 pm, some of the birds were flown for their daily exercise and feeding regimen, giving us the opportunity to see first-hand how these magnificent birds flew and ate. They responded well to their handlers and James informed us that falconry has been going on for thousands of years. He also explained that in the wild, most birds of prey will only hunt about 15 minutes a day, relying on thermals to glide and save energy whilst they spot potential prey from up high. As a result, the bird park replicates this experience in the park, only flying the birds for several minutes each day. It was dark when Nancy and Chris returned and Nancy immediately called a truck meeting. It sounded ominous and we figured there must have been problems with obtaining our Ethiopian visas. Sure enough, Nancy explained that overland Ethiopian visas had to be obtained from a traveler’s home country of record beforehand. While this had been the official policy for years, the embassy in Harare had overlooked that rule in the past. However, while processing our visas, they were adamant that unless we were residents of Zimbabwe, we could not apply for visas here. So Nancy had met with the ambassador of the country and begged, pleaded, and cajoled the officials to make an exception. She even obtained temporary Zimbabwe resident stamps in our passports but no dice. The embassy was adamant that it could not help us and refused to issue our visas. The only good news was that Chris had two passports (Australian and British) and he could send one of them back to the UK to obtain a visa to enable him to drive the truck onward. However, the rest of us would have to pay for a flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa and would be able to obtain a visa upon arrival at the airport. Fortunately, we wouldn’t miss any highlight sights (they were in the north of Ethiopia), but it was pretty somber news all around, with everyone trying to get their minds wrapped around the latest news. For dinner, Naomi, Kendra and Anna made cottage pie for dinner, which was delicious. Unluckily for them, it started pouring down with rain, so it was a bit tough to keep the fire going. Becky made the call of putting the fly on the tent which ended up being a brilliant move as the rain poured down heavy until the early morning, and we stayed nice and dry.
21 May: With a 7 am breakfast and 8 am departure, it was early morning when we found out that there was absolutely no water in the campsite despite last night’s deluge. Toilets wouldn’t flush and we couldn’t refill our jerry cans, and no one could take a shower. Sigh, sometimes we miss our bush camps where life is much easier! Other than the water issues, everyone enjoyed the Kuimba Shiri Bird Park campsite, as the family was super friendly and fascinating to talk to. However, by 8 am, we were ready to go. As soon as we hit the dirt path, we broke down and Chris realized that we had a problem with the seal on the oil filter and a brief stop for truck maintenance ensued. We had to make a quick stop in Harare to get materials for the truck, and Nancy strongly urged everyone to stock up on snacks as we had a long drive to the border with Mozambique, and we wouldn’t be stopping for lunch until after we hit the Chuchamano border.
Note: Becky highly recommends reading “The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe” by Douglas Rogers before visiting this dynamic country. The tale of a white family struggling to keep their land is mind-blowing and its an excellent read.