Family, friends and elephants in Zimbabwe

Finally back in Zimbabwe! Arriving there I think we were both just very happy to be back, but also relieved everything had been going so well so far, that we had reached our goal (getting there in time for Christmas), excited to see family and friends over the next few weeks and also to get to drive around the country a bit.

The border, Chirundu, took quite a while since we unfortunately arrived just after a couple of bus loads of people. As we stepped out of the car we were straight away surrounded by some men, looking all official with id cards and what not, wanting to ”help us” make the process quicker. It was all a way of making money and we told them we didn’t want to pay any bribes. We managed to shake them off after a while, I went inside and went around doing the customs processes for the car, while Brian waited in line with our passports for immigration. Almost sleeping with boredom and frustration we eventually got our visas and stamps from a really funny guy behind the counter so we left with a smile on our faces after all. I wish all border officials were like him!

We were now well in time to meet up with the family for Christmas – we even had a few days to spend before they would get to the northern part of the country so we decided to go to Mana pools national park. After neglecting the safaris through eastern Africa we were now all stoked up, planning on spending several days in the park and just enjoy it. It would be the first time in Mana for both of us and all we knew about it was that it’s a fully open park where the animals sometimes roam through the campsite and where you can go fishing in the Zambezi. I was so excited, imagine getting to spend several days in there! But sadly the excitement was crushed quickly when we arrived and were informed of the prices. We managed to get them down quite a bit by Brian claiming to be Zimbabwean, but it still landed on 70 USD for entry, car fee and camping and would have been another 10 USD per person per day if we wanted to go fishing. Nothing hair-raising compared to east Africa but we realized it would add up to quite a lot if we were gonna stay there for almost a week. So once again we weighed our options and decided to go for the cheapest, easiest one. Quite disappointed we decided to only spend one night in Mana and then head straight for to Doma (where the family was gathering for Christmas) a few days early – where we would after all be able to relax, go fishing and possibly spot some wildlife – for free.

It still turned out to be a very eventful and fun almost 24 hours in Mana, although the famous Mana elephants were ever absent (only saw one in the bush as we left the park). We set up camp maybe 100 meters from the river and were the only ones there except for a a South African family with kids a bit further away. We cooked a coconut chicken stew for dinner and shared a bottle of wine. I had been jumping around screaming as I was stirring the pot on the tailgate since there was a rain spider (also known as Kalahari Ferrari because they move so fast – not actually a spider but a sort of a cricket that seems to want to attack you but all it’s doing is running for your shade to get out of the light of your head torch – do I need to tell you I don’t like them much?) that was running around my feet (once I freaked out and jumped and accidentally kicked my shoe off and it landed in Brian’s face – oops – but he’s so nice and considerate helping me treat this phobia by just sitting there watching me, hey?!) and I very much appreciated getting to finally sit down by the table, eat and relax. We had some lights on the back of the car but otherwise it was dark, except for the South African family’s fire burning. We stayed there for a long time, just sitting talking and enjoying the evening. And just as my pulse had reached its normal beat after the Kalahari Ferrari dance I saw something at the corner of my eye, just coming into the light. I looked over my shoulder to the left and there was a big hyena slowly walking past us, looking at us. Less than 10 metres away. I have heard about people who, when they get a fright, turn into jelly and can’t do anything, but I’ve never had that reaction myself – until now. I turned to Brian and said in a sleepy voice ”Brian… There is a really big hyena right there…” The lack of urgency in my voice meant it took a second before he realized what I had just said, but then he turned around, clapped his hands and shouted and scared the hyena away. It took off and ran into the dark. Watching it moving away, my state of shock released and I burst into tears at the same time as I was laughing.

I know it would have been way worse with an agitated elephant or a lion but a hyena looks much bigger less than 10 metres away than they do from a car at a distance, let me tell you!! The hyena lingered around our camp, its eyes shining in the dark, waiting for us all to go to bed so it could come out and search for leftovers. It had obviously smelled our cooking and was looking for some treats.

In the morning we would have some hours to drive around in the park before heading  for Doma and we both woke up, excited, before 06. A group of vervet monkeys were busy going through the South African family’s campsite as they were still asleep. A group of buffalos had spent the night about 50 meters away and now started getting back up on their feet and move away. We had breakfast and packed up camp and leaving the campsite area we met a staff vehicle and a guy told us there was a lioness with cubs about 3 km away. We followed his directions but didn’t find them, despite driving back and forth through the area a couple of times. As we later saw the vultures scoff on a small kill, we figured the lioness might have taken her kids for a hunting lesson, taking down one of the many baby impalas.

As we were heading onto a smaller slightly muddy road to go and see the Mana river mouth we slowed down as there was a tree growing across the road and we weren’t sure we could get under it with the roof tent. It was all thick bush on both sides, with a big puddle of water as well, so we had no choice but to slowly go under the tree. As we’re about to start Brian suddenly slams on the breaks. There’s a big hippo just left of us in the bush. We’re in between the hippo and the water, which is always a very bad idea. Hippos are very territorial and the worst reaction is usually caused by cutting off their path between their swimming pool and their grocery store. It’s unusual to see Brian as tense as he was now. He told me a friend of his had once had a hippo charging his car. Its sharp teeth had gone straight through the door, lifting the entire door off the car. We now had to either try the crawling in the mud under the low tree or try reverse out of there. The hippo was suddenly gone (how can such a massive animal hide behind some leaves?!) and we decided to try move forward. Problem was that if the hippo would then reappear, looking less happy, we would have to quickly maneuver our way back, reversing under the low tree. We just made it under the tree and the hippo had moved a bit further into the bush so we quickly drove away from there, wiping the sweat off our foreheads.

A bit later we stopped by a small tree just by the road where some beautiful stark looking birds were making an awful lot of noise – which usually means there is a snake around. Brian soon spotted it where it was lying underneath the tree. I saw a part of the body, then another part of the body, then the head a bit further away. How long was this snake?! It was dark grey and easily more than 2 metres long. Most likely a black mamba, the most poisonous snake in Africa. Brian tensed up again, and told me that I must just notify him if the snake would start moving towards the car. Some snakes are known for going up into the engine bay, who knows why – maybe the heat of the engine attracts them, or it’s just a good hideout. It’s really hard to find them in there and they can sometimes come into the car from there, and you don’t wanna have a black mamba looking at you as you step into your car! I stared at the snake, trying to figure it out as it started moving around. It would be on its way up the tree one second and on its way back down the next – it was so fast! Suddenly it went out onto the road and was coming straight for the car at a speed I’ve never seen a snake move before so I screamed and Brian reversed a few metres in the blink of an eye. The snake got spooked and turned around back into the grass and we quickly drove away from yet another pulse raising situation in Mana pools.

As we got to Doma, a safari lodge run by Brian’s second cousin Gordon, we were the only ones there and the family would only turn up a few days later so we spent some time fishing on the lake and going to town for some errands with Ephert, the manager. His name could just as well had been Effort because he is such a nice, devoted and hard working guy.

It was sooo nice to enjoy the comforts of the lodge after four months on the road. Having our laundry washed, food cooked and a room to ourselves. And I think what I appreciated the most was having constant access to a toilet and shower. Being able to use it whenever I liked, not having to keep a lookout for somewhere to stop for a wee or arriving at a campsite after a long and sweaty day just to find out there is only ice cold water – or the showers don’t work at all…

Soon the day came when it was time for the family to arrive and we were so excited. We hadn’t seen Brian’s folks and sister and her husband and their little daughter for just over a year and we hadn’t seen the rest of the family for over two years. It was so awesome to see them all again. Brian’s niece was only three weeks old when we last saw her and had now turned into the cutest little toddler. The youngest member of the family, Teign, was now three months old and the oldest member present was auntie Sheila, who’s around 80. Imagine what she has experienced and lived through in this country. And we’ll just have to wait and see what country Teign gets to grow up in.

So we spent a good two weeks together, celebrating Christmas, eating good food, playing games, fishing and relaxing (see photos in the last blog post). It was quite sad having to leave Doma again but at least we were gonna get to spend a little more time with Brian’s family. We all drove down in convoy to the southeastern part of the country, the lowveld, where the family used to live back in the day, to visit some other relatives who are still there.

We spent New Year’s at a lodge called Chilo. We were all staying at the self catering side of it and now we really got to show off our well eqipped cruiser. It turned out the self catering kitchen was lacking a lot of things, or it was things we had forgotten to bring. ”There are no chopping knives here” was the first one. ”But we have that” I said and went and got our knives from the car. ”We forgot to bring curry for the potjie!” ”Don’t worry, we have curry.” And then there was potatoe peeler, cutting board, chutney… I probably went to car ten times to get things we needed and everyone was laughing, joking about how we seemed to have everything you could possibly need,  but at least we didn’t have a microwave in there. The last day I suggested we’d make smoothies of all the leftover fruit. ”Well, don’t tell me you guys have a blender?!” someone said. ”Uhm, yeah… We do” I said and so we had smoothies.

We spent New Year’s Eve together with the guests, the managers and the staff of the lodge. Just as we had all sat down to enjoy dinner at this beautifully set table, the power went out. How typical. But nothing to get upset about in Zim, as it happens several times a day usually. Someone got the generator running and we could soon dig into the delicious food. After dinner we all drove down to the Save river bed, which was almost completely dry. A big bonfire kept any potential visitors, elephants, hippos and crocs, at bay and we had a very good time, sitting in the sand listening to music from our car radio.

There had been quite a drought in Zim lately but the new year started off in the best possible way. On New Year’s day’s evening a thunder storm rolled in and it started pouring down heavily. Luckily, the impala potjies that Brian’s great uncle Clive had been prepping for dinner had already been simmering on the fire for several hours and apart from some added rain water we could enjoy yet another nice dinner.

After New Year’s we had to say goodbye to Brian’s family, who was now heading back to Mocambique. It was a great feeling though, being able to say ”See you in Vilanculos soon!” rather than knowing we wouldn’t see them in another year or longer, as before.

Brian and I stayed with his second cousin Glen, his wife Judy and their two little gorgeous girls Jade and Rayne, who all live in the house where Brian and his family used to live, for a while longer. One evening we made a visit to beautiful Sunset rock. You drive up onto a rocky hill in the middle of the bush, make a fire and enjoy the sun setting over the vast landscape. I think everyone that goes that gets a little enchanted by that place.

We also went into Gonarezhou national park for a couple of days. It is one of Brian’s favourite places on earth and not too far from the Save valley conservancy where we were staying. Gonarezhou means Home of the elephant, and we did see quite a few, including having our first mock charge from a bull who thought we were a little too close to him – or maybe just wanted to play a prank on those stupid humans in their cars… We saw it coming but going move – we were just behind another car (a safari vehicle from Chilo lodge.) I watched the elephant as it turned and started spreading its ears and I went “Brian?” to have him confirm he was seeing the same thing. But he was just quiet so I went “Brian?! BRIAN??!!” and it was pretty much at the same time as the clients in the safari vehicle started squeeling and Thomas, the guide, drove off and we followed. Quickly I realized, crap – photos! Completely mesmerized by the performance of this massive bull elephant I had totally forgotten about that but managed to raise my camera and snap a few shots as he just decided to turn off to the side, after running straight towards us.

As we drove out of the park after two nights spent in ”Gonas” I disappointingly said to Brian ”Keep a lookout for animals still, because it might be a while before we get to see wildlife again!” Brian just looked at me with a smile and then I remembered. We were going back to Glen’s house, in the conservancy, two hours drive and we’d be back in wildlife territory. And then I was immediately in a better mood. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before I’m a proper nature and wildlife geek and I really enjoy asking Glen, who’s a professional hunter, all sorts of questions. Nobody knows the bush and its animals like a professional hunter. During our stay in the conservancy this year I was lucky enough to see giraffes, zebras and lots more – but I missed out on a pack of wild dogs drinking out of the water hole just outside the room early one morning… After that I made sure I was gonna be notified if anyone saw the dogs again, but with the rain coming in they moved further into the bush and were nowhere to be seen.

We now realized we had plenty more things we wanted to see and do in Zim but only 5-6 days left before our visas expired! Luckily we were able to have our visas extended, free of charge, for another month at the immigration office. Phew! So we then went on to visit old friends of Brian’s, Justin and Adiel. We chilled at their house and went into town and saw their families. It kept raining and the days passed and before we knew it we had been there for a week.

There wasn’t so much to do in the rainy weather but there was one thing we could do. During that week me and Adiel became somewhat regulars at the neighbour Theresa’s house. Theresa takes care of abandoned baby elephants. She’s been doing it for 20 years and has had many elephants during the years, most of them moving on to work for tourism companies and such. But these days she has four elephants and they aren’t going anywhere. It was a tremendous experience getting to meet these four girls, Chetora, Mungwiza, Kimba and Jinja. A little scary at first, due to their size and not really knowing what they’re going to do since I can’t read them like I’d read a dog or a cat… But Theresa spends a lot of time with them, getting them used to being around people and learning how to behave nicely. ”The more you train them, the more freedom you can give them” she said. ”The young are very much like kids, once they’ve started learning they’re eager to learn more. You can break them the way you’d break in a horse for example, but I prefer to teach them.”

It was inspiring and heart-warming to see Theresa’s obvious love and respect for these animals. “You have to know their next move” she said. “You have to read them. They read our minds, so we need to read theirs.” With Mungwiza’s trunk gently feeling my body there was no doubt in my mind they can read us in a second, sense our energies and what mood we’re in – and almost know what we’re thinking even. Suddenly she stopped and lifted her foot. She had a big thorn in her foot! I bent down to help her pull it out. “Don’t worry, she can do it herself” Theresa said. And Mungwiza slowly put her trunk to her foot and pulled the thorn out and then raised her trunk towards me to give me the thorn – as if to say “Look! I had a thorn in my foot but I pulled it out all by myself!”

And they were in fact very much like people with their very own individual character. The two younger ones were playful and sometimes needed to be told not to get pushy or too close. And there was talkative Mungwiza, who now and then would let out this monster rumble noise that you could almost feel more through your feet than actually hear it – elephants way of chatting to one another.

I got a little stressed by the fact that we were just lingering and not really doing much at all. Shouldn’t we be moving on? But as I started thinking about it, I realized it’s not often that you can go and stay with friends like this. Usually you have to make a plan long in advance and then you only have the weekend or so to hang out, before it’s back to work for everyone. But now we could come visit and stay as long as we were welcome to and just take every day as it came. I realized it was quite a privilege that I should rather just appreciate and enjoy.

From the lowveld we eventually packed up and started heading west, stopping at the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo. It was interesting seeing the ruins but not as cool as I had been hoping it would be. Since these ruins gave name to the independent country in 1980 it also felt like a lot of the information and the little nearby museum was quite political.

From there on we headed onto Bulawayo where we, once again, ended up staying much longer than we had first planned to. During just over a week we visited both family and friends, got to see some of the life of people in town and were very well taken care of.

We also visited the National Museum. A friend of the family we were staying with, who used to work at the museum, volunteered as our guide. But we had only been in there for maybe 10 minutes when the power went out! We kept walking through the massive building, trying to look at a few more exhibitions where there was enough daylight coming in through the windows but eventually we gave up. Brian and I made another visit a few days later though as there were quite a few interesting things to see there, the second largest mounted elephant in the world for example, reaching 3,5 m!

We obviously also made a visit to beautiful national park Matopas/Matobo hills, where you find extraordinary boulders piled on top of each other all over the place. Being a bit of a history geek I have always been very fascinated by rock paintings and there were some fantastic ones in the caves there. We also went up to look at the grave of Cecil J. Rhodes, from where we had a remarkable view of the landscape just before sunset. And in the game park we saw rhinos!

As we packed up our things in Bulawayo we knew this was the end of a luxurious break and we were now heading back out on the road. After being spoiled  for so long, it took us a few days just to get back into travelling mode. But as the day came we were quite excited to keep going and looking forward to moving onto Botswana, starting the second and last leg of our wayawaya trip!

But there was one thing still to do before leaving Zim. On the way between Bulawayo and the Botswana border is Plumtree, the boarding school where Brian spent five years of his life. He had not been there for 10 years and wanted to go and see it. I also wanted to see it, after hearing so many stories from that place. “Don’t go”, some people said, “it has deteriorated badly and it won’t be fun to see”. Brian knew this, but still wanted to have a look. “Back to school”, he said and we drove through the gate, both of us with some butterflies in our tummies I think. For me it was interesting to see the school but as I’ve never been there before, it wasn’t easy for me to see how much it has changed. For Brian it was a bit of a shock. We drove from area to area (the school premises is a massive area with classrooms, dorms, dining halls, workshops, sports areas etc) and he told me what it used to look like. He described it as well kept buildings and immaculate lawns but all we saw was broken glass in almost every window, overgrown lawns and sports fields, swimming pools covered in water lilies… It was very sad to see and Brian was clearly disturbed. I think he knew pretty much what it would look like but it’s always hard seeing it for real.

Still happy he went though, we both took a deep breath and headed for the Botswana border.

Ken Boaler - February 14, 2013 - 7:58 pm

Hey cool trip by the look of things.

I knew Brian at school, was wondering if you have any other pictures of Plumtree I would be interested to see them.


Anna - February 15, 2013 - 10:25 am

Hi Ken! Sure, we took quite a few photos of Plumtree. Will try edit some and put them on our facebook page, or we can email you some if you want but it might take a while, might have to finish the trip first..

Les Guys - February 19, 2013 - 11:23 am

Hey guys.

I enjoyed reading this post!!

Anna - March 18, 2013 - 4:49 pm

Great, happy to hear that!

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