28 September 2012

Zimbabwe: In the Belly of the Beast

FROM the edge of the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia, we saw massive waters plunge violently into the Victoria Falls, mercilessly swamping the giant pools 95 metres below, before swinging back into the hot saturated air and defiantly rolling past a series of U-shaped valleys sandwiched by arid flood plains.

The mighty Zambezi, Africa's fourth longest river, offers a buffet of contrasting mysteries.

In sharp contrast to the sun baked flood plains, the crocodile infested river channel was lush green, bustling with a diverse range of creeping shrubs and countless varieties of aqua-culture that has mesmerised visiting nature lovers for decades.

Basalt rocks, swept clean by the corrosive attrition of continuously flowing waters formed the frame that has bound the deep meandering valley since centuries before European explorer; David Livingstone claimed he had discovered the attraction in 1855.

From a bird's eye view of the giant water repository, it would later be clear that the Zambezi is a citadel of plenty in a sea of poverty.

On both sides, large swaths of dry forests blossomed over extremely thirsty mountain ranges, colonies of animals desperately taking sanctuary under the leafless twigs to escape the hostile savannah heat.

About 15 kilometres upstream the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi braches into several tributaries, regrouping about 3,4 kilometres from the water fall to form a powerful mass of water eventually pushed down a series resistant rocks that galvanises the pools, producing a terrifying sound.

The water rebels and bounces back into the dump hot air, its mist sprinkling the evergreen rainforest downstream.

A South African tourist on the flight of Angels sobbed as she marvelled over the magnificent scenery 1 000 metres below, an epitome of God's unequalled creativity.

Back to the bridge, a thin dose of cool saturated air from the rain forest confronted us, giving a refreshing weather on a day when temperatures climbed past 36 degrees Celsius.

We were feasting on the breathtaking, authoritative, waters below the massive steel and concrete bridge.

My group had just begun the second leg of a fun-filled day with the nerve-wracking tour underneath the beam and pier transnational bridge shortly after spending a memorable early morning elephant ride adventure at the Elephant Experience.

We were on a facility tour of the Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG's) operations in Victoria Falls a few months ago.

Walter Muchinguri, assistant business editor of The Herald, RTG corporate communications manager, Eltah Nengomasha and Paul Nyakazeya, former chief business reporter at The Zimbabwe Independent, comprised the explorers.

Tied to metal beams lining up the viewing platform under the bridge, we were under strict instructions to follow our Zambian tour guides' commands to prevent the risk of falling 100 metres into the revolting waters.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime tour that gave me limitless insight into the history of one of Africa's best tourism destinations attracting more than 600 000 tourists per annum.

The highlight of the bridge tour was when the guard explained how engineers woke up one morning to find the steel beams they set out to join that morning had expanded overnight, overshooting the carefully designed lengths by a few inches, making it impossible to fit them in.

They had to wait until temperatures dropped to accomplish the task. Otherwise they would start all over again as all designs and specifications were made in Europe and shipped to the site.

The bridge tour was a precursor to the big ones - the bungie, the slide and the swing.

We enjoyed delicious bush lunches at an ethnic restaurant overlooking the Bungie on the Livingstone banks of the Zambezi as we pondered our fate, watching tourists occasionally taking a steep dive, and a scream, before emerging shell shocked from the deep valley.

I chose a combination of fried chicken and fish with a jumbo size pack of fresh chips, served with salads and a string of colourful traditional spices. They offered me a very cold coke. Enjoying the sharp screams that pierced through the dry hostile air each time a tourist braved down at whirlwind speed, we ululated and cheered.

In the horizons yonder, herds of elephants snaked through the rough undulating terrain, past large swaths of wilting trees, and barren soils, to take a bath in the Zambezi River after an early morning browsing safari.

The giant creatures complimented the perfect mixture of attractions for multicultural tourists that anxiously waited to view them up close.

In this part of Africa visitors converge to experience a complete package of attractions - the imposing Victoria Falls itself, a mixture of wild animals, birds, trees, cultural dances, the man-made bridge that is a hallmark of Cecil John Rhodes' ambitious Cape to Cairo dream, and the unconditional hospitality offered by their Zambian and Zimbabwean hosts.

It is a perfect holiday.

However, unless tourists assign destination management firms to organise these vacations they will continue to think that staying in hotels and enjoying sumptuous lunches is the only facet of holidaying.

Time moved fast.

Suddenly, it was our turn to take the dreaded plunge into the yawning valley.

I opted for the slide.

You are tightly tied onto a big rope stretching 111 metres from Livingstone, Zambia to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe as you embark on the adrenaline pumping 15-second flight across the river.

Fifteen seconds turned into an eternity.

For a moment, I felt like unhooking myself and running on the rope because to my mind, the devices were too slow.

I closed my eyes as the devices rolled over the still waters, which then proudly held the 100 percent safety record.

Paul, Eltah and Walter had chosen the Slide and the Bungie.

Back to the vintage, I saw Eltah bravely dive headlong into the mist-filled valley beyond as if she would instantly hit the waters never to emerge again.

Her sharp scream shot through the empty air, echoes reverberating around the vertical basalt walls marshalling the river.

The giant ropes wickedly pulled her up before swiftly releasing her down the Zambezi-again, and again-with the agility of a fish eagle.

"The moment you dive, evil spirits take a flight from you," she told me afterwards.

Paul created a scene.

He left the bridge guides astounded as he suddenly pushed everyone backwards after they attempted to lead him to the plunging platform.

"I thought of my wife and child and decided to retreat," he told me later.

We had attracted considerable attention from other tourists at the restaurant once they realised we were newsmen. They laughed their lungs out as Paul revolted on the Bungie, effectively declaring a Third World War on the bridge.

Everyone stood up to welcome him back to the restaurant, tears streaming on their sweaty cheeks as they continued to laugh.

The facility tour was later to take us to the magnificent Matetsi River Lodge 40 kilometres upstream where an angry mother elephant took a vicious charge at us, to a sunset cruise and to the Boma restaurant at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, the home of African traditional cuisines.

We had begun our tour with the elephant ride that morning.

A chilling shock swept through my body as Temba, the 19-year old bull that I chose for the jumbo experience somehow decided to behave strangely.

When he was commanded to walk, he defiantly retreated, gently brandishing his mud-soaked rough trunk as if in revolt against my presence on his massive back.

I tightly held my tour guide's waist, hopelessly gazing into the clear blue sky, regretting risking my life on an adventure that even my hunting ancestors never dared.

After a mild lashing, the stubborn bull, which can respond to 36 commands boastfully, joined other jumbos for an extraordinary and exhilarating journey into the wild.

Their movement methodical, and their imposing figures zigzagging through large swaths of the leafless jungles deep into the heart of breathtaking landscapes, the elephants took us on a memorable but intimidating game viewing escapade, a perfect breakfast on the back of Africa's real king of the jungle.

As we lethargically explored the wild and at times being sporadically jolted by the rugged terrain as the jumbo effortlessly weaved up and down dusty gullies, my guide looked comfortable, explaining everything.

My anxiety had shifted from Temba's behaviour to 40 year old Robert, the biggest and most fearsome looking of the seven jumbos.

You wouldn't want him within a spitting distance of your vicinity.

But there he was, right behind me, uprooting branches, sometimes raising his trunk close to my head scaring the hell out of me with his deep breath.

I was in the belly of the beast.

From our strategic heights of about two me-tres, we had a rare cha-nce to watch a plethora of animals at close range.

The intelligence that nature has bestowed on its creatures is astounding.

The White-Browed Spar-row-Weaver, a dominant bird in the national park, has an impressive and exciting life style.

Year round, groups of the White-Browed Sparrow-Weavers are ac-tive and nest-building. Clusters of 10 to 60 of their inverted-U-shaped nests of dry grass app-eared in the outside limbs of trees as we moved further into the forest.

Only several are used for breeding. While bree-ding nests have only one entrance, roosting nests have an entrance located at each of the two nest extremities. Research has shown that, throughout the reg-ion, their nests are located at the windward side, in most cases to the west. This preserves a grea-ter number of intact nests from being blown by strong winds.

But most exciting was that prehistoric Zambezi valley inhabitants had observed the birds' wea-ving trends and they used the location of the nests to determine directions if ever they were stranded in the expansive forests.

A short distance ahe-ad, vultures were feasting on yet another dead carcass, a dinner that could last days. It is survival of the fittest.

The trip starts with an educational and safety talk before tourists are introduced to the elephants. Getting onto the elephant involves climbing an elephant-height fra-me and hopping onto its back behind the guide.

The elephants amble through the bush for 45 minutes to one hour.

It is a great way to watch other wildlife thro-ugh the eyes of the jum-bo, and view the mammal's unpredictable beh-aviour at very close quarters as you take a once-in-a-lifetime insight into these gentle giants.

"It is amazing how elephant rides have become popular," said Steve Die-dericks, general manager at The Elephant Experi-ence.

"They are extremely intelligent animals. They mourn their dead," he said.

Interestingly, I had another brash with an elephant two weeks ago.

I was part of African business journalists on a tour of Pumba Game Reserve in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, where I enjoyed the rare opportunity to see lions feeding on a fresh kill, before a young bull elephant raced towards our 4x4, causing a steer among the scribes.

Our South African guide calmed us, hinting we were not in danger.

But he emphasised; "We may says lions are the kings of the jungle, but I am convinced the real kings of the jungle are elephants".

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