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Part 1 – Zimbabwe April/May 2016
Living in Houston and spending quite a bit of time in Africa every year is not exactly a hardship and we look forward to and enjoy our regular visits there. Even so, having to cross multiple time zones several times per year makes you think long and hard about getting there and back. We’ve done it every which way: non-stop on South African Airways from JFK to JNB; via Dulles near Washington D.C. with a refueling stop in Dakar or Accra; via Atlanta on Delta non-stop to JNB; via London, via Paris. And via Dubai on Emirates. You can watch 7 movies back to back on a 16-hr flight (did it), almost finish reading Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (done that too) or complete much of your trip report (ditto on that). Or you can simply fritter away the equivalent of two working days sitting idly in a window seat dozing off intermittently, eating mediocre food from tiny boxes and re-watching Pulp Fiction for the umpteenth time. Which is all very well until you realize that inane trivia is starting to stick. Why do I even want to remember that Tony Rockamora – aka Tony ‘Rocky Horror’ – was thrown from the 4th floor of a building for allegedly giving Mia Wallace a foot massage? Really.
This time around I experienced not too bad a flight back to Houston having spent a night in Amsterdam on the way. The plan being to spend half a day there and to break up the long flight back. It definitely seemed like a good idea at the time. The Africa trip ended in Cape Town where I had attended the excellent ‘We Are Africa’ trade show, so it made sense to take the overnight CPT to AMS flight on KLM, leaving Cape Town at around 1100P and getting into Amsterdam at 1000A the next morning. Same time zone, should be a breeze, or so I thought. I had all kinds of things lined up for what would be my first real visit to Amsterdam.
Somehow, I forgot that it is not a good idea to make plans for anything – except maybe a nap – at the end of an 11-hour flight. Duh! So predictably I ended up doing absolutely nothing in Amsterdam: no gawking with other tourists in the red light district, no Rijks Museum, no Anne Frank House, no coffee shops… My travel batteries were totally flat. The bar at the new Airport Hilton hotel had 70 kinds of gin so I tried a couple while waiting another almost 3 hours for my room to become available. I have to admit that that was the extent of my exploration of Dutch culture. What little I saw of Amsterdam – well actually Schiphol – was what I could see along the flat, manicured bike path along the edge of the airport, where I went for an 8K run – after a nap. I will have to return there with Kathy some day in the future for a proper visit.
As for the trip itself, I had one near disaster hit me when I lost all my notes (little black book) on a game drive on the shore of Lake Kariba. But would you believe a guide from another camp found the notebook last week and they are sending it to me by DHL; arriving here today (Tuesday). So the trip report(s) will run a few days late.
In short, the trip was great. I am a big Zimbabwe fan and it certainly lived up to my expectations, again. Northern Hwange (Nehimba and Camp Hwange) was new to me; what stood out was the massive bull elephants which came to the waterhole at Nehimba Camp at night. Amazing to see these fascinating animals so close up at night; veritable ‘great grey ghosts’ and so quiet, unbelievable.
I did get a few nice pics – particularly of some elephants on the Lake Kariba shoreline, the boulders in the Matobos at sunset and Sable Antelope in Hwange. My ‘jumping impala’ shots were not perfect but we are getting there. For the first time I managed to capture several images of these sleek, hugely under-appreciated antelope doing what they do best.
I discovered what the real ‘Mana Pools experience’ is like and saw the actual Mana pools for the first time. Walking there with my guide Henry from Vundu Camp was fantastic. This is what one should do in Mana Pools. See something, get out of the vehicle and approach on foot. Even though the camp itself was not up at the time I could easily see myself spending a couple of nights in a tent at Vundu Point. What a setting! A small group trip including a Ruwesi Canoe Trail is on the horizon.
The best two places this time around were the Matobos (rhino, beautiful scenery & some interesting San rock art) and Matusadona on Lake Kariba. The elephants there are peculiar to the area – a bit smaller than some but with good tusks and very confiding. Matusadona also has plenty of zebra which are a favorite subject of mine, and several large groups of impala which were noticeably jumpy, much to the photographers’ delight. We had one or two good lion sightings on the trip as well – in Hwange. Unfortunately no leopard (the car just behind us saw two in Hwange); cheetah or African Painted Dogs. We missed the Painted Dogs in Mana Pools (Vundu Point) by just a day. Of course this is what happens when a trip is too rushed. That being the idea with an inspection trip. It is ‘go go go’ to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.
As a country Zimbabwe can hardly be more beaten down and it is gasping for breath in what is hopefully the last round of a long, exhausting battle. The people whom I spoke to were almost resigned to the realities of bad leadership, incompetent governance, widespread corruption and bureaucratic impediments inhibiting progress and development. There seemed to be a consensus that things will change for the better when a new government comes into power in a couple of years’ time. Unemployment is exceedingly high, the country is running short on cash reserves and there may even be a food shortage in some parts of the country later this year. Fortunately widespread late rains averted what might have been a disastrous drought.
There is one very bright prospect for Zimbabwe and that is tourism. Zimbabwe has it all: abundant wildlife, friendly people, scenic beauty and good infrastructure. Plus unequivocally the best safari guiding corps of any country in Africa. And soon it will have a new international airport at Victoria Falls which will make it even easier to come here and to bypass Johannesburg if one wanted to. Based on what we have seen and experienced on this trip and previous ones we will continue to urge our clients to spend some or all of their time in the rich slice of Africa called Zimbabwe. Don’t visit Zimbabwe because you want to help its people overcome years of neglect – although that would be admirable. Visit Zimbabwe because it is a great safari destination – one of the best in Africa. A friendly, hospitable place where you will see lots of wildlife in a rugged, wild environment with few other visitors around and at an affordable price, offering exceptionally good value.
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