The Sijirira shoreline is certainly something to behold – harshly stunning with miles and miles of beach compressed tightly between a seemingly infinite expanse of water on one side, and imposing hills on the other. We had two choices walking through Sijirira – tackling the beach sand, or tackling the rock-strewn hills. For the most part we chose the former, but did occasionally find ourselves blundering about the hillsides. No, I can’t really say which is easier – sand and rock test a hiker in different ways but are equally as demanding, in my opinion. Although the going was tough, the scenery made up for the slog and I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Particularly the lunch break under a shady tree overlooking the water! The only downside to the walk through Sijirira was the lack of game seen, but we were well used to that state of affairs by then. We did catch a fleeting glimpse of a bushbuck early in the day, and we did see a couple of elephants and a few klipspringers and hear a kudu bull bark, but the overall picture was somewhat bleak.
We eventually ran out of beachfront and had no choice but to tackle the hills for a couple of hours, arriving on the Sengwe slightly above the mouth at about 3 p.m. And then we hummed and hawed as we pondered the obstacle that was the Sengwe River. We had been told by someone who thought he was in the know that there was an old low-level bridge not too far from the mouth where we would be able to cross. Taking one look at the water level told me that no low-level bridge that ever was would still be around, and that our informant had obviously brought to mind a bygone era, when the Sengwe was a low-level river….Could it have ever been in such a state? Hard to believe, when one beholds it now. In any case, there was nothing for it but to contemplate making our way upstream, until we reached a crossable point. The land immediately flanking the Sengwe did not fill us with enthusiasm, and we decided we would have to camp somewhere close by, move away from the river the following morning and seek less problematic terrain, if such terrain could actually be found, which I doubted.
In that area (Sijarira/Chete), it appears there is no such thing as flat ground, just hills, hills and more hills, as far as the eye can see, range after rocky range, beginning on the shoreline and extending God knows how far from it.
Spent by the day’s extreme hike, we began bumbling and stumbling over the rocks along the Sengwe shoreline, headed upstream, away from the borderline. This goes against all our instincts but has to be done occasionally. By that time, I was almost incapable of thought, but I did manage a little fragmented cogitation. I thought how we would probably have to trek some distance up the Sengwe before we found a crossing point, possibly as far as the high level bridge on the ‘main’ (secondary) road. I also thought that we, as well as God, may, within the next day or two, know exactly how far the hills extend from the shoreline. And then my thoughts were shattered by the sound of a speedboat engine and all fatigue instantly evaporated.
We were making our way through stunted mopani over yet another testing prominence, about one hundred meters from and twenty meters above the river, when we heard the speedboat. It sounded so alien in that place. Within seconds it came into view, streaking around a bend a few hundred meters downstream and approaching at pace. I shed my backpack and ran for the water, as did Jephita. I guess we realized we wouldn’t make it even before we were out of the straps, but we had to try. It was all just too little too late – our legs had to do a third of the work the boat motor had to, in the same time and over a much more challenging surface. 0.1 horsepower versus 60 odd was never going to be enough. As it was, we made a fine effort. Stumbling over rocks and breaking from the mopani with arms wind-milling frantically, we were just in time to see the speedboat draw level with our position and then flick past. It was about a hundred meters out and its occupants never even looked in our direction. What made it all the more frustrating was that we recognized the boat to be a Parks vessel, and they would definitely have stopped had they spotted us. Jephita and I looked at each other sadly, spent a minute appraising the immediate surrounds even more sadly, and then began trudging back towards our hastily abandoned backpacks. The day was fast drawing to close and we needed to find a campsite pronto.
We had soon located a suitable campsite on a low bluff overlooking the river, and were making our way wearily to the water’s edge, to fill our containers. And then suddenly, miracle of miracles, another boat came up the river! And this one was chugging, not streaking. Bobbing my head about and getting glimpses of the boat through the trees, I saw that it was a pontoon type vessel with about eight white people on board. Telling Jephita to lay low – folk are decidedly edgy about armed Zambian poachers in those parts – I walked from the trees as the boat drew closer and raised my hand in greeting. The people on the boat spotted me immediately and there was brief, muted dialogue, before the driver swung the boat towards the bank. I waved again and called out ‘hello’, and conversation ensued.
Before the boat reached land, the ice was broken and everyone had been fairly well briefed as to what the Borderline Walk was all about. As can be imagined, I never tire of filling people in, especially when chancing upon them in the most unlikely places one would expect to find a man on foot. Nor do I ever tire of witnessing their reactions. Some are disbelieving, some are impressed and some are indifferent.Most are interested and fire away with the questions, and the people on the pontoon were no different. Soon, the inevitable questions came up, ‘What about animals? Do you have a gun?’ I replied that we did – a tazer gun. The ice was definitely broken then, and soon Jephita and I were being transported across the Sengwe in fine style. We have been transported across a number of rivers in style – it is just the blundering about between rivers which is not so stylish!
The fording of the Sengwe was a major weight off my shoulders. I had been worrying about the Sengwe since our stay in Binga – it is a large river, pushing back a considerable distance through punishing country. I knew that twenty kilometers up the Sengwe and then twenty kilometers back down, to basically cover a few hundred meters, would be bad for team moral. Not to mention how it would affect my already beaten-up chassis! We had received two pieces of information regarding the Sengwe – the one about the low-level bridge from a well-informed source, and the one about how it was highly unlikely we would chance upon a boat there, from a number of well-informed sources. The Sengwe was one of those instances when I should have gone with instinct – of course we would come across a boat on the Sengwe, why would we not? There are a great number of fishermen spaced out along the Kariba shoreline, and obviously some of them work the waters around the Sengwe. I still don’t know how I could have swallowed that one.
We set up camp and began preparing dinner well after dark that night, on a flat bit of ground halfway up a kopje, overlooking the river. It was one of the few times we have used our bush-shower – I must confess that we most often just leap into the river at a spot we deem to be safe! The bush-shower emits only a feeble trickle, but at times that trickle is most welcome, as it was that night on the Sengwe. After washing and eating, Jephita and I fell into a deep sleep. Our haul through Sijarira had been tough indeed, but neither of us had any idea what the morrow would bring.
The morrow brought about what was arguably the most grueling day of the Borderline Walk thus far. Bearing in mind that, as I write, we are about to leave Kariba and tackle the lower valley. In a physical sense, our first day in Chete could be favorably compared to the day after we crossed the river Gwaii. I say Chete was worse than the Gwaii, though Jephita maintains that both areas were similarly taxing. I reckon we have covered four areas that are in contention for top sweat-shedding slot: the thirty kilometer stretch along the river directly below Victoria Falls, the country surrounding Batoka Gorge, the area flanking the Zambezi/Gwaii junction, and the first day in Chete.
We were up and away at dawn and immediately into the hills. We would remain in the hills throughout the day. At first we tried working hillcrests, valleys and passes, a couple of kilometers from the water, and for a while it worked, but the terrain became increasingly hostile and we found ourselves zigzagging about, sweating buckets but not making much headway. By midmorning we had had enough of plan A and made our way down a gully to the lakeshore.
We needed to do this anyway, as the morning’s activity had drained our water bottles. En route to the shoreline, three kudu bulls crashed off through the scrub to our right. I managed to pick out only two, but Jephita spotted all three. Both of us saw the last one in line, and both of us agreed that it was a massive bull – insofar as horn length is concerned, that is. Jephita said that both the other bulls were majongos (immature specimens).
Once we had filled our bellies and bottles, we set to once more, but this time we attempted negotiating the shoreline itself, praying for the break a little flat country would provide. No such good fortune came our way, however, and we tramped away throughout the day, range after punishing range. Up and then down, and then immediately up again, or so it seemed. And no, I don’t believe it is true that up is easier than down. Down is more dangerous, but it is not more difficult, specifically in relation to calf muscle usage. Yes, I have some now – calf muscles that is. They reappeared after Chete, after many years absence.
As was the case in Sijarira, we saw little game in the south-western half of Chete – a few kudu, a few klipspringers, the odd croc and hippo and nothing much else but birds. We did come across the extremely fresh trail of a lone dagga boy, but besides that there was no recent sign of big game. At the time, I put it down to the extreme terrain and lack of vegetation, but I was to change my tune in the days to come, when we passed through country that should definitely be populated by wildlife and was not.
As evening approached and the land showed no signs of mercy, we realized we were not going to make it to the Chete hunting camp, which had been our target that day. We knew that the hunting camp was on the mainland adjacent to Chete Island, and the GPS showed that Chete Island was still about ten kilometers away. And so we decided to set up camp somewhere close to a large bay, which we espied from an elevated position a few hundred meters off. Lo and behold, once we reached the bay, we came across a hunting road leading from it. We were far too exhausted and it was way too late to think of following the road that day, and so we located a suitable campsite a couple hundred meters from the water and flopped down, totally exhausted.
We followed the hunting road to HHK safari’s Chete hunting camp the following morning and were there by 10 a.m. The hunters were obviously out, and so we settled down to await their return, striking up a rapport with the camp staff at the same time. Because we are naturally sociable fellows and because it is in our own best interests, Jephita and I put effort into gaining favor with those we meet as soon as possible.
More effort is put into winning particular people over, as is the case with safari camp chefs, for example. At Chete camp we struck pay-dirt fast and were soon chewing on hunks of fresh bread and butter, and sipping hot, sweet tea, whilst reclining on the lawn beneath a shady tree.
We ended up staying two nights at Chete hunting camp; ostensibly so that I could do some writing, but actually to recover from the pounding our bodies had received the previous two days. Our hosts at Chete were professional hunters Derek Adams, Richard Schultz and Gareth Stockil. It was with mutual astonishment that Gareth and I discovered, after hours of conversation, that we are actually second cousins! Another pleasant surprise for Jephita and me was that our good friend from the lowveld, Clever Chauke, was in camp, tracking for Richard Schultz. It is amazing who we bump into on the Borderline Walk.
Derek ‘Gomez’ Adams is a highly experienced professional hunter with many years of dangerous game hunting under his belt. Although I had never met him before we arrived at Chete, I had heard countless tales of his exploits, both in-field and out. Meeting the man in person and spending a couple of evenings listening to his fascinating campfire stories was both entertaining and a privilege. Gomez is an old Parks hand who spent time as a ranger working under the legendary warden Clem Coetsee, in Hwange National Park. I knew Clem personally and so Gomez’s stories were close to home.
I have never doubted the massive contribution Clem Coetsee made to this country, and what Gomez told me only served to compound my belief that Clem did more for Zimbabwean wildlife than anyone who ever lived. May that honorable man rest in peace.
We left Chete hunting camp early in the morning on August 28th, but because we spent some time at the Chete Parks post were only en route by mid-morning. Our destination for that day was Siantula Parks post, on the Luizinkulu River. Although the Luizinkulu is a full day’s march from Chete Island, the country is much tamer than in Chete south and we were confident of reaching there by nightfall. Unfortunately, we took a wrong turning at a hunting road intersection late in the day, and as evening loomed found ourselves on the lakeshore at a point we had hoped the Siantula post would be, but was not.
As it slowly dawned on us that we had blundered, we heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. The occupants of the vehicle were none other than Gomez Adams, his clients and hunting crew. Gomez wasted no time informing us that we were way off track, and then offered us a ride back to where we had made the wrong turn. We accepted gratefully and, a short time later, were on the correct road to Siantula, eventually arriving there well after sundown. Just before dark, we were a tad surprised to see a small herd of buffalo crossing the road in front of us. Other than one dagga boy close to Victoria Falls, they were the first buffalo we had encountered the entire journey.
Needless to say, the buffalo broke into headlong flight as soon as they sensed us, crashing through the mopani hectically and putting as much distance as possible between them and what they fully understood to be their deadliest enemy.
At Siantula, we met the most wonderful character. Charles ‘Big’ Ncube is his name and he has been the resident ranger at Luizinkulu since 1980! Although we were spent when we arrived (when are we not?), we sat up late with ‘Big’, absorbed by his tales and enjoying his keen sense of humor. ‘Big’ Ncube has very interesting opinions about this country, the system and life in general. His is an illuminating outlook which I wholeheartedly relate to, and I took to the man from the word go.
When I brought up the subject of the lack of game in the area, ‘Big’ sighed deeply – painfully, it seemed. His explanation came as no surprise – lack of resources and lack of personnel had led to a not so gradual loss of control and a massive upsurge in poaching. One hears the same story in almost every Zimbabwean wildlife area these days. When I suggested that inflated hunting quotas were also part of the problem, ‘Big’ was in total agreement. It all boils down to chasing the buck, doesn’t it? It always strikes me as madness when I hear that a particular hunting quota has been upped in a particular area. How can the authorities and hunting operators justify such an action at this moment in time? Zimbabwean wildlife is staring down the barrel in every sense imaginable right now, and there are simply not enough people in its corner.
‘Big’ Ncube paddled us across the Luizinkulu mouth the following morning in his canoe, but we made a late start once again, waiting for wind and wave to die down before launching. I was sorry we had to leave so soon as I would liked to have spent more time speaking with ranger Ncube and tapping his mind. I have that good man’s contact details and will be sure to call on him one day soon.
Although the wildlife situation in Chete south was grim, nothing could have prepared us for the northern part, between the Luizinkulu and Sinamwenda rivers. What a shame it was to behold – we saw not one living mammal the entire day, not even a duiker or a rabbit. It is obvious that nobody hunts or patrols this block of land, and that it has simply been left to its fate. As the day wore on and we drew closer to the Sinamwenda River, we began coming upon the spoor and snares of poachers. These poachers obviously operate from fishing villages on the northern bank of the Sinamwenda, and they obviously have free rein in Chete north. We lifted far too many snares to carry and so we began dumping them in places we thought no-one would find them – down old antbear holes, etc. Towards the end of the day, as we were nearing the Sinamwenda mouth, we came across an elephant killed by poachers. How do we know it was killed by poachers? Aside from having its face hacked into and tusks removed, the carcass was completely intact. Hunters do not hack tusks out – they most often take the entire skull. Furthermore, hunters recover skin panels and meat – the whole elephant, if possible. I took a couple of morbid pictures of the elephant carcass and then we trudged down to the water as the light faded.Although the walking had been easier than what we were accustomed to and we had made significant headway, the day had been a bleak one indeed.
Since we knew there were fishing villages on the northern bank of the Sinamwenda, we were not too concerned about crossing. I was certainly far less concerned than I had been about the Sengwe. As it transpired, crossing the Sinamwenda was more problematic than we imagined.
We broke camp at dawn on August 30th, and clambered over a couple of kopjes to the Sinamwenda mouth, fully expecting to see fishing camps and people on the far bank. Alas, no sign of habitation was evident.
Unbeknown to us, the one fishing camp that is actually situated on the bank was hidden from view by a promontory. Up and down the Sinamwenda we trudged that day, hoping to chance upon someone who could help us cross, but to no avail. As is the case with the vast majority of the Zambezi tributaries we have come upon, the terrain immediately flanking the Sinamwenda is harsh and draining.
And so there we were, re-enacting a process we are now so familiar with – up and then down, and then up again…. Around and about, stumbling and grumbling, with no plan but to eat noodles and drink tea when the going got too tough! The situation was actually fairly dire as we were running very low on stocks. In fact, we had almost no food at all – enough for two more bland meals. We desperately needed to cross the Sinamwenda.
Eventually, at about 3 p.m., we spotted a lone figure at the water’s edge on the far bank, about a kilometer from the mouth itself. Jephita picked the man out from a hilltop some distance upstream, and we descended into the valley as fast as possible. Shortly afterwards, we broke from the bush onto the shoreline, almost opposite the man, who was still in the same place. And then we began hollering. The river is several hundred meters wide at that point, and it took a great deal of high decibel yelling to get the message across, but eventually the man seemed to copy. He shouted for us to wait, whilst he went to talk to with boss, and then he disappeared into the tree-line. Having absolutely no choice, we waited. Thirty minutes later, the man returned and called out, asking us if we weren’t perhaps poachers! I knew then that we had failed and that further yelling would be pointless. Without a word, Jephita and I walked back into the bush. That night we slept like the dead, on a rock-strewn hillside overlooking the Sinamwenda. We had covered about fifteen kilometers stumbling about the hills that day, but were bedded down only a couple of kilometers from where we had camped the previous night.
There was no messing about come dawn the next day. We knew we had no option but to follow the Sinamwenda upstream to where we could cross. There was no point in wasting more time walking up and down the river, hoping to hitch a ride that may or not materialize, especially since we were so low on supplies. The only issue of concern was how far the Sinamwenda pushed back – it appeared a fairly large river at the mouth, and with the water level so high it could push back quite a distance. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter how far it pushed back because we had no choice. The guys across the river thought we were poachers!
Thankfully, the Sinamwenda did not push back far at all – about ten kilometers from the mouth, I would say. But the ten kilometers up and the ten back down were arduous, and it took us the entire day to reach a position three hundred meters from where we had started. At one stage, we were walking a hillside on what may be best described as a klipspringer trail – half a meter wide with a sheer drop of thirty meters on one side, and a vertical wall of rock on the other. I am terrified of heights and forced myself to look straight ahead as I shuffled along the ledge cautiously. I did inadvertently glance down a couple of times, and the jagged rocks below caused my head to spin.
We arrived at the Mwenda fishing camp (1) just before sunset, and a number of guilty looking fellows started making apologies for not coming to our assistance the previous day. We told them that it was no sweat – it was not their job to help us, and it was understandable that they mistook us for poachers. Ja right – one white and one black poacher with fancy backpacks calling for a ride across the Sinamwenda in the middle of the day? The poachers in Chete are obviously brazen, but surely not as brazen as that! Anyway, all was completely forgiven when we were informed that there was a tuckshop at the fishing camp, and that it was well stocked with biscuits, coke and cigarettes. Biscuits and coke for Jephita, and biscuits, coke and cigarettes for David!
We covered one kilometer the next day, and I kid you not! This was because one kilometer from Mwenda fishing camp we were welcomed warmly by the management team of Edward and Heidi Coleman, and Brian Phillips. We stopped at Mwenda on the off-chance that we may be able to charge our camera and sat-phone batteries, and it was a good thing we did. That day and the next were spent relaxing at Mwenda, recharging the batteries of both appliances and humans, getting our washing done, downloading photos, and simply enjoying the fine company of the Colemans, Brian, their neighbor Mike Sutherland, and Mike’s energetic young son Carl. On the second night, we gathered at Mike’s place for a braai and a festive time was had by all. I got talking to Mike and learned that he used to work as a fishing guide for my friend, Russell Caldecott, in Victoria Falls. Mike then went on to tell me about a terrible experience he and his clients had had with a hippo the previous year. The hippo had attacked without warning and literally chomped the boat in two. Russell Caldecott had actually shown me the boat before we left the Falls, and it was a wreck, to be sure. The story Mike told me made my hair stand on end – he and the other guys in the boat had escaped death by a whisker. One of the hippo’s tusks had actually grazed Mike’s calf and he has the scar to prove it. Frightening stuff.
Bidding our new found friends farewell, we set off from Mwenda just after dawn on September 3rd, our target for that day being the Sengwa mouth. Now this was a piece of cake – a decent road following the lakeshore all the way to Mujere fishing village, about a dozen kilometers shy of the Sengwa River. Jephita and I strode that road at pace, overtaking a few slower moving travelers along the way. A white guy overtaking black guys in rural Africa? And carrying twenty-five kilograms to boot? Just doesn’t happen does it? Yes it does, I assure you. Especially if said white guy has just done one week plus walking through Chete/Sijirira!
We enjoyed a fish/sadza lunch with the locals at Mujere village, and a few youths volunteered to paddle us across the Masakili River and drop us on the Sengwa floodplain. By this time I was somewhat excited – I used to work at Sengwa in the early 90s and was eager to see it again. Although the areas we had passed through had been a huge disappointment as far as game was concerned, I firmly believed that Sengwa would deliver. After all, it was nothing short of a wildlife paradise in the 90s, the plain teeming with buffalo, impala, waterbuck etc.
After a short boat ride across the Masakili (uneventful but for the few times I had to berate the young paddlers for tomfoolery), we were deposited on the Sengwa floodplain. Actually, we were deposited in a few feet of water about fifty meters from firm ground, but the boat could not progress further because of weed. Wading to shore, I looked over land I had not set eyes on for many a year. Everything seemed the same, as I left it, but for the animals. The floodplain was absolutely devoid of animals, and save a small group of warthogs, it remained that way for ten kilometers, as we walked over it towards the Sengwa mouth. Sijarira and Chete were disappointing, but what has been done to the Sengwa mouth is disgusting, and I am able to speak with authority in this instance, because I knew it before it was destroyed. The birds are still there, of course, in their multitudes and in all their varying colors, shapes and sizes, but the animals have all been slaughtered. Those responsible should hang their heads in shame right now and never lift them again.
The one positive aspect pertaining to our walk over the Sengwa floodplain was that we visited the spot where I built a safari camp seventeen years ago. The camp has long since been abandoned and the bush has taken over once more. That seemed fitting and it made me happy – at least the money grabbing trash will never get rid of the bush. I’m sure they’d find a way if they could make a few dollars from it.
We arrived at the Sengwa mouth after dark, and a security guard rowed me across a lagoon to speak with Mr Mark Fourie, the manager of the van der Riet family’s interests at Sengwa. These interests have been downscaled drastically since I was last there. The van der Riet family used to have a massive crocodile setup at Sengwa, but as I was to discover, all the breeding stock has been moved to their Chirundu base. They still have hatchling ponds at Sengwa, but no large crocodiles. The van der Riet’s also used to control the hunting in Sengwa/Siabuwa and adjoining areas, for many years, up until the time I began working there in 1992, as a matter of fact. It is a great pity that the van der Riet’s do not still control the hunting, because it was obvious in 1992 that they had managed the area well. The bare plains of Sengwa bear testament to what has happened since.
Mark Fourie kindly granted us permission to pitch tent at the workshop/boat-sheds, and Jephita and I enjoyed a pleasant evening around the campfire, listening to hippos grunting and telling tales. Naturally, I did most of the tale telling, and most of the tales were, of course, from Sengwa: way back when, seventeen years before, when I was a fresh-faced young lad. I told Jephita about the time I was bitten by a stiletto snake, at the very spot we had visited that afternoon, where the Sengwa camp used to be. I told him about the biting, but my Shona is not good enough to have effectively described the results of the bite – my English is not good enough to effectively describe the results of that bite!
I told Jephita about how the empty plains we had crossed that afternoon used to teem with game – black with buffalo, as far as the eye could see, hundreds upon hundreds, thousands….Elephants walking through camp in the evening, lions on the shoreline intimidating our contract reed cutters….How much game there used to be at Sengwa. And then the storytelling changed location as I spoke of being sent into the escarpment with a land-cruiser, a few guys, tools, food and instructions to build a fly camp, open roads, conduct anti-poaching patrols, etc. How carefree, uncomplicated and adventurous life was then, and how nostalgic I became that night. Nostalgic for the good old days, when the system did work at times and the Sengwa plains were teeming with wildlife… This land has been brutalized in recent times, but contrary to what the skeptics and defeatists would have one believe, the damage is far from irreparable. The land and the bush are still there, and it is the duty of all Zimbabweans to actively assist in returning the game to the Sengwa floodplain.
Mark Fourie kindly offered us the use of a speedboat and driver the following morning, to cross the vast Sengwa mouth. Before leaving, I enjoyed a cup of tea and a short chat with Mark, catching up on news about my old school friend Carl van der Riet and life at Sengwa. It was with sorrow that I learnt from Mark about the passing of Mr Rupert van der Riet. Rupert van der Riet was a giant in Zimbabwean hunting circles, and those in the industry will remember him with only admiration.
The Sengwa mouth is certainly ranked as one of the most expansive ‘mouths’ we have crossed thus far. Yes, bearing in mind that we are now in Kariba and about to tackle the lower valley, and that we have crossed fifteen significant rivers since leaving Victoria Falls. Even though we sped across the water, propelled by a powerful motor, it took some twenty minutes to reach the northern bank and alight onto the soil of Omay communal land. Then it was another long hike along the shoreline, the destination for that day being the Sibilobilo River and fishing village. Past Mackenzie point we marched, and past several other fishing villages, tails up, heads down and purposeful. We saw as much wildlife in the Omay as we had in the other areas we passed through – next to nothing, a few impala, a duiker and a rabbit. As has been the case on a number of occasions, all went well for most of the day and we made good headway, but then we took a wrong turning in the afternoon, finding ourselves on the Sibilobilo but some distance from where we were supposed to be, with only a couple of daylight hours remaining.
The Sibilobilo is one of those Zambezi/Kariba tributaries which is something of a vast lake at the mouth, stretching for many kilometers parallel to the Kariba shoreline. We were at one end of this ‘lake’, and the fishing village was at the other, about twelve kilometers off. And so the late afternoon was spent tiredly tramping the broken ground flanking the Sibilobilo, working our way closer to the village and a boat ride to the northern bank.
Nightfall found us still a few kilometers shy of the fishing village, and so we set up camp, cooked our grub and settled down for the night. And then we heard voices, from down at the water. Voices and the sound of paddles slapping the water – fishermen driving fish towards their nets. Jephita went to investigate and returned shortly afterwards with a big beam on his dial. He had invited the fishermen for supper and they had in turn offered us a boat ride to their village. I was a little nervous about boating the Sibilobilo mouth at night, but there was a bright moon, the boat seemed sound and it would assure us an early start the following morning.
The fishermen paddled us into Sibilobilo harbor at 10 p.m. that night, and we were welcomed warmly by their boss, Mr Jacob Mangane, who roused his wife from slumber and instructed her to prepare tea and vetkoek for us. This was not a sexist action – this is Africa. That night we slept deeply, as usual, but maybe a little deeper than on most days. Sengwa to Sibilobilo was one of the greatest distances we have covered in a day – thirty kilometers plus.
The following morning, after tea and vetkoek, Jacob and his friend ferried us over to the north bank, dropping us at one of several ‘elephant points’ we have come across on our journey. We then hiked to Chalala fishing village where we were just in time for lunch. After filling our bellies, we were presented with the visitor’s book to sign (with much pomp and ceremony), before being assigned two men to paddle us across the Chalala, where we were just in time to enjoy an early tea with the well known Zimbabwean author Bill Taylor, in the ascetic surrounds of his Chalala residence. We were the guests of Mr and Mrs Bill Taylor for two nights, and a most entertaining and educational time it was. Another stalwart of the hunting industry, Dudley Rogers, was also visiting the Taylor’s at the time with his wife, and I enjoyed the collective company tremendously. How illuminating it was to converse with the Taylors and Rogers regarding the overall situation in Zimbabwe, and the wildlife situation in particular.
On our second day at Chalala, we all went fishing off Starvation Island, and miracle of miracles, we saw wildlife! And it didn’t tear off in panic either. Dozens of waterbuck and impala populate Starvation Island and it was so fine to observe them calmly feeding from close range. Starvation Island is thus named because during the famed ‘Operation Noah’, when the dam was filling in the early 60s, many animals died of starvation there, trapped by the rising water and too distant for rescuers to come to their aid in time.
Chalala to Bumi Hills was only ten kilometers over undemanding ground, and we were there by 10 a.m. on September 7th. More miracles awaited us at Bumi, in the form of healthy elephant, buffalo and impala herds which did not speed off over the horizon as we approached. We saw more game in the couple hundred acres immediately surrounding Bumi Hills lodge than we had seen the entire journey, and I managed to take the first decent wildlife photos of the expedition.
At Bumi we were greeted by an old friend of mine, professional guide Andy Dalzel, who kindly offered to get us across the Umi River mouth the following day, and arranged for us to camp at what used to be a traditional craft center, close to the Bumi Hills lodge. That evening, Jephita hitched a ride back to Chalala with a Bumi Hills vehicle, to buy us a few items we had forgotten to get earlier and desperately needed – biscuits, for example. When he returned at about 8 p.m., Jephita told me they had seen eight or nine lions on the road, not far from where we were camped. I shivered inwardly, said ‘oh, that’s nice’ outwardly, and because we hadn’t walked too far that day, slept more lightly than usual that night.
True to his word as he has always been, Andy Dalzel lifted us across the Umi the next day in a speedboat, depositing us at the Tashinga Parks station in Matusadona National Park. I had been eagerly anticipating our stint in Matusadona and those who have been there will know exactly why. Not that I had been there before, but the area’s reputation precedes it. I was not disappointed, Matusadona being everything I expected it to be and more. Matusadona is the epitome of what all our wildlife areas should and could be like. Fact is, I felt we had landed on a different planet when we arrived at Tashinga – not only was everything and everyone functioning, but they were doing so in orderly fashion! Rangers and senior officers were smartly turned out in full uniform, the grounds, offices and living quarters were neat and tidy, and there was fresh black rhino spoor on the road behind the office block! Yes, it’s true – the only place in the valley where they still occur.
The efforts of the Matusadona National Park staff are greatly assisted by the Tashinga Initiative – a volunteer organization spearheaded by Mrs Lynne Taylor and committed to the advancement of the Park. What Mrs Taylor and her Initiative have achieved is remarkable, praiseworthy. And yes, I do have an idea what it was like before, because the Tashinga personnel filled me in, as they pointed out all the improvements the Initiative had brought about. Most impressive amongst these improvements is a solar system which powers a water pumping and filtration system, lights, computers, broadband internet….Broadband internet! As soon as I was made aware of that, I knew we’d be spending a few days at Tashinga. One can’t make a living as a writer if one doesn’t submit articles eh? Actually, I don’t think one can make a living as a writer anyway.
The acting warden of Matusadona, warden Timothy Mandi, was away at the time, but we were well looked after at Tashinga by ecologist Paul Chikombe and senior ranger Munyaradzi Tapesa, as well as every other man there. We were given the go ahead to camp wherever we liked, and I was allocated an office in which to get on with my writing and photo sorting/posting. Most comfortable and content we were at Tashinga. On the first day, that is.
Dawn on September 9th promised a fine day and I was up at the crack of it, determined to get the Borderline stage one article completed and post updates and photos on the internet.I was not doing too badly at 9 a.m., when Jephita came in to have a chat. He said that some rangers who had just come in from patrol were about to cross the Umi in a speedboat to do some shopping at the Umi crocodile farm store, and that he thought he should go with them, to buy some supplies that we desperately needed, like biscuits for example. I said that was a very good idea and walked out to the car-park with Jephita, to meet the rangers he would be accompanying. There were six of them in total and they were a jovial, pleasant bunch, as Zimbabweans tend to be. The rangers told us stories about some of their most recent skirmishes with poachers, and I handed out cigarettes. For a moment, I was tempted to join them on their sojourn across the Umi, but quickly banished the thought – I had a great deal of work to get through. Today, I wish I had been irresponsible and boarded that boat. A short time later, Jephita and the rangers bade me farewell and I returned to ‘my’ office, soon wholly absorbed by work.
The day passed in a blur, and it was only as evening approached that I began to get a little concerned about Jephita and the rangers, wondering why they were taking so long. They should have been back hours before, but delays are common in Zimbabwe and I reasoned that they must be on their way. As more time passed and the night descended, however, my concern grew. Eventually, at about 8 p.m., the Tashinga unimog growled up to the office block and I walked out to the car-park. I saw that the truck was packed with Parks personnel, and I knew immediately that there was a problem. It was with great relief that I saw Jephita alighting from the vehicle, but as he approached it was evident that he was extremely disturbed. Jephita had a terrible tale to tell.
The Parks guys had concluded their business at the croc farm by 3 p.m., and were heading back across the Umi shortly afterwards. On board the boat were six rangers and Jephita. For reasons still not quite clear, the front of the boat nosedived several hundred meters from shore, and all its occupants were tipped into the river. Of the seven guys on board, only five made it. Four of the five survivors were rescued by local fishermen, but no boat came for Jephita and he was forced to swim three hundred meters to shore. It was a terrible ordeal for my young friend – he is not a powerful swimmer, and everybody knows that the Umi is full of large crocodiles. He told me that as he hit the water, he brought to mind the lecture I have so often given him regarding what to do in such a situation – keep calm, don’t splash about (crocs), don’t attempt to help anyone else, swim breaststroke slowly (conserve energy), and when tired turn over and float. By keeping cool and doing what he should, and with the help of an unidentified woman who shouted encouragement from the bank, Jephita survived the Umi boat disaster. I am so relieved, so thankful and so very proud of him.
The search for the missing men began that night and lasted for two and a half days, until their bodies were recovered. And then all at Tashinga mourned the loss of Jonathan Muchuchuti and Alison Mariseni – fine men and excellent rangers. There was not a breath of wind at Tashinga on the day the bodies were found, and the flags outside the office block hung limply, both that of the National Parks authority and that of the nation. What played over and over in my mind that day, and still continues to do so now, was the chat I had had with the rangers in the car-park, just before they set off across the Umi.
The big joke had been the fact that Jephita comes from Chiredzi, and since everybody knows there is no water in Chiredzi, could not possibly know how to swim. I will always remember the joking and laughter as they walked off – ‘Chokwadi, Jephita, uno gona ku dida here?’ (‘Is it true Jephita, do you really know how to swim?’). ‘Ha, ha, ha, let’s hope you can really swim young man, there is big water out there – big, big water.’