On The Right Track?

IN the book Pole to Pole, describing his 1991 journey from the North to South Poles, Michael Palin described the train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo as keeping the past “assiduously preserved”.

Having made the same overnight journey across Zimbabwe, it appears the train has been “assiduously preserved” by doing absolutely nothing to it across the intervening 24 years. Not sure parts of it have been cleaned in that time.

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Looming Presence – Robert Mugabe

The National Railway of Zimbabwe – as with much in this fascinating, frustrating country with its somehow joyful, stoic population – has been through tough times since one of my travelling inspirations made the journey.

Plenty has changed since those relatively early days of independence (although the RR logo for Rhodesian Railways, picked out by Palin, still dots the carriages – along, seemingly, with the same paintwork and fittings, albeit in a less favourable state of repair) under the unbroken watch of Robert Mugabe.

The fact our pockets are stuffed full of US dollars says much about what the country has been through. Hyperinflation, mass unemployment and a Government programme of land grabs all but turned the country into an international pariah.

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“Assidiously Preserved” – Karla and me settle in for the night on the train

But Mugabe hung on and even well into his 90s, remains the dominant figure (his picture hangs in most public buildings and roads bearing his name sweep through the centre of towns) in a country eager to move on, but seemingly held back by one man’s vision of how things should be, not how it could be,

Yet people remain unmistakably proud of this beautiful country. Their first question is invariably “Are you enjoying Zimbabwe?” or “What do you think of Zimbabwe?” and on any journey you will get to chat to plenty of locals. They are friendly, eager to help, chat, hear about your trip and tell you about their country.

And then you begin to hear tales of the troubles which have beset the country and how, even with things improving since the days of needing large bags of money just to pop down the shops (when there was nothing to buy anyway), many are still struggling to eke out a life in a land rich in natural resources. Just not, it would seem, too many that benefit the vast majority of its inhabitants.

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On Track – Watching Zimbabwe roll past the window

Palin describes Victoria Falls station as “in immaculate condition… a low, elegant, Greek-revival gem with freshly-painted sky blue doors and matching detail, and on the platform an ornamental pond, palm trees, frangipani and striking red flamboyant trees.”

Immaculate is not the way to describe it now. Rather like the rest of the railway system, it has been allowed to decay. The pond has gone, some of the trees remain, but it needs some more fresh paint and the only visible addition since Palin’s arrival is a plaque commemorating a visit by Mugabe himself in 1998 for a visit of South Africa’s famed Blue Train.

There is no faulting the helpfulness when we – Karla and myself, escaping from the confines of the group to Bulawayo a couple of days early – rock up to confirm our booking an hour before the train is due to leave at 7pm.

The guy we have been told to ask for is the only person in the ticket booth, while an older gentleman does some running around on our behalf and the train manager appears to sort out our bookings by vacating in his carriage, allowing us to stay together.

As we sit and wait with our bags and supplies for the night – on the floor, there are no seats and the chances of any food and drink on the train are slim – our helper comes over for a chat (and a tip).

Having worked on the railways for 30 years, he has not been paid for 10 months. Yet he turns up everyday, “just in case” things change.

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Full Flow – Victoria Falls. Just a bit of it

He sends us off wishing us a good trip through Zimbabwe and ending a whistle-stop visit to Victoria Falls, which we rolled into after an early, relatively quick crossing from Botswana.

While many of the others raced to sign up to throw themselves off bridges and cliff edges on a variety of ropes and harnesses, my choice was a bit more sedate – a walk along the Zimbabwean section of the mighty falls (having confirmed the design for the trip T-shirts).

Not that that was without peril, especially for the relative novice flip-flop wearer as the spray thrown up by what the locals call Mosi-oa-Tunya  (The Smoke That Thunders) turns the path opposite into a shower, complete with slippery surface not that far from a huge drop over the edge and a whole host of rainbows.

And that’s before you remember your passport is still in the pocket of your shorts and needs to be kept dry ahead of being despatched back to London in the quest for Ethiopian visas.

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Over The Edge – And another bit

But despite limited vision and the need to stay out of the worst of the spray to avoid a total drenching, the walk is a staggering experience as the water just over the gorge pounds over the drop at a remarkable rate, creating an amazing experience. And noise.

Sorry Niagara, you are no longer my favourite waterfall.

Dried out and stocked up for the train, that was pretty much that for Victoria Falls as we settled into our carriage and rolled away, pretty much on time, towards Bulawayo.

It was a shame not to see more of the town, but for all that our group has meshed together remarkably well over the past six months (we hit that landmark when we were all reunited in Bulawayo), each of us needs some time away to clear our heads, get refreshed and prevent any minor irritations turning into anything more substantial.

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Raging Torrent – The first part of the falls you come across on the Zimbabwe side

Karla still had to put up with the irritation of my snoring whenever the train stopped and retreated to the dining car – completely devoid of food – and bar (selling local brews in plastic bottles to local people) for much of the night.

She could have slept undisturbed for one of our longer stops as a visit to the (limited) facilities ended with a lengthy chat with one of the staff who was clear who should take the blame for the decline of the railway and much of the country – the politicians.

Businessmen are needed, he was clear, but politics keeps them away.

Like several Zimbabweans we have met, he admitted it was not wise to criticise Mugabe (a subject we had been warned to avoid at all cost), but went ahead and did it anyway. Having, of course, asked how we were enjoying his country.

We rolled into “Friendly Bulawayo” – as the welcome sign still declares, as it did on Michael Palin’s arrival – at noon, only three hours late, which is something of a success for this particular train line.

With a Saturday afternoon to fill, a girl from New Zealand and a boy from Gloucester did what comes naturally and found (after much searching and debate among taxi drivers) a brand new bar showing rugby.

IMG_5120Ensconced early (first ones in) on stools which needed a bungee rope to get off as the evening wore on, we settled into an afternoon of televised sport and chatting to the locals, one of whom remarkably used to live just a few hundred yards from my old school, while another finally drove us home as the last ones out the door.

Sunday morning saw us checking out what Bulawayo has to offer, which seems to largely consist of pie shops. Along with fried chicken joints and pizza places. Very handy for late-night eats, not so good the following morning when everything else is shut.

Actually that’s a bit cruel. It seems a pleasant enough place. A lick of paint here and there would do wonders and, like much of Zimbabwe, it leaves you wondering what it could be with the proper direction.

Refreshed and reinvigorated by a pie and a nap, we headed out again and found ourselves minor celebrities in a bar round the corner from our hotel, photographed by the management for their Facebook page and introduced to the director and several of the clientele.

One was determined to have his picture taken with us, despite not having a camera on him, and equally keen to get hold of the ones we took for him, while another regaled me with his string of grievances at the government which, with a guy claiming to be an officer in the army at the adjacent table, was slightly unnerving and the onset of a, thankfully, brief bout of sickness was a good excuse to head back to bed.

It has been a feature of this week, hearing about the problems of a country which people love but are very cagey about criticising in public, then reading about the British election online with people attacking all sides and the country as a whole.

“Britain is broken” wrote Armando Iannucci in a very good article in the run-up to the vote (a phrase which then seemed to appear countless times in other items with no credit). Zimbabwe is broken and has been for some time, but nobody is writing that or saying it. Because they cannot.

Perhaps those who will be moaning about another Conservative election win – confirmed by an alert on my phone a few minutes ago – might remember that whoever won, most people in Zimbabwe would love to live in a country as “broken” as the UK. And would love to be able to complain about it as openly.

But let’s not, as we rejoined the rest of the group camping at a very pleasant site just outside town and playing with the owners’ young black Labrador, leave this on a negative.

Zimbabwe, at least what we have seen of it so far, is a wonderful country filled with almost universally friendly people, eager to help and even more eager for you to enjoy your time here.

And whatever problems they may still have, you’ll find no complaints from here on that ground.

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Don’t Forget The Elephants

“If you go to the loo in the middle of the night, before you get out of your tent, just shine your torch around to make sure there are no elephants between you and the toilets.”

WE have become accustomed to what, in normal circumstances, could be considered quite unusual camp sites over the past six months.

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Off For A Drink – One of the locals wanders through camp

We have slept in the shadow of a sand dune, a self-made clearing in the Gabon rainforest, a spectacular opening amid the rocks at Brandberg Mountains, under a massive statue of Christ, dried-up river beds, forest tracks and the hard shoulder just shy of the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

And we have got used to some issues to deal with – snorers (so the others tell me), attempting to keep our tents dry in the rain and even stuck to the ground when the wind blew, any number of buzzy, bitey insects and replacing any toilet facilities with a shovel and a hole in the ground.

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Close Enough – Not getting much nearer. One of them did

Not to mention people forgetting those of us in see-through mosquito tents have a pretty good view of them if they choose a few yards behind us to start digging. Even at night.

But even after all that, being told to watch out for elephants before venturing out of your tent at night gets your attention.

Especially when we were able to spend much of the afternoon sat at the bar of our home for the night, watching a string of elephants trot just the other side of the toilets nearest to our tents and drink at their leisure at the watering hole around which all of the Elephant Sands site is built.

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Passing Traffic – A couple more elephants wander past our tents (mine is the see-through one to the right)

No fences, no visible lookouts and, for the large part, no real issue as the elephants have got used to sharing their drinking spot with captivated onlookers, many of whom may not be exactly silent after a few hours in their drinking spot.

That is until one male decided asserting dominance over the two others who were already at the watering hole when he arrived was not enough for him. He wanted to make it perfectly clear to us as well.

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Helping Himself – The annoyed elephant drinks from the toilet block

The other two elephants saw what was coming and as their angry cousin started to turn towards us, they quietly slipped away (if an elephant can slip away quietly) around the other side of the watering hole and out of sight.

And for those of us who had been marvelling at just how close we were to these magnificent animals, we were able to marvel a bit more (although that was maybe not the over-riding feeling) as he came a whole lot closer.

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Towering Presence – He looked even bigger charging the bar

A couple of charges towards the bar’s viewing terrace saw his front feet up over the dividing wall, sending most of the watching onlookers running for cover (if there is any from a rampaging elephant).

Still in something of a huff, after a couple more charges of varying intensity, he headed back up the path, stopping at the toilet block (still showing the signs of repair after the elephants ripped out the pipes in search of water during the dry season) to grab a drink by sticking his trunk over the wall and emptying the cistern.

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Fair Warning – Can’t say they don’t tell you

All a bit more excitement than we were expecting on a day dominated by sitting back and watching these wonderful creatures come down in ones, twos and bigger groups – capped off in the evening by a larger family group which ranged from a real giant to a tiny baby (largely hidden in the middle of the group) who probably did not reach up to the top of the wall separating us from them.

Wonderful moments to add to a string of them across Botswana where the wildlife (and the odd cold beer) continued to dominate proceedings.

Our previous stop in Maun had seen half the group head off into the Okavango Delta, leaving the rest of us chilling out by the pool and bar, in my case making good use of the wi-fi to sort out an intrusion from the real world.

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Tight Confines – View from the back of our flight over the Okavango Delta

My reward, courtesy of a far more realistic quote for work on my house back home, was a flight out over the Delta.

Seven of us crammed into a small aircraft which never felt entirely stable and grew increasingly stuffy (more than one of us was nodding off as we came into a rather fast-paced landing), for a 50-minute flight we had been told would give us a perfect view over this unique natural habitat and the creatures who call it home – at least the big ones you can see from that far up.

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Bird’s Eye – Mind you, cramming in was worth the effort

And we were not disappointed as we were treated to some amazing views and countless sighting of elephants and, for the first time out of water, hippos (see, some animals are easier to spot from up there).

But after all that and the events at Elephant Sands, there was still more to come in terms of wildlife as we hit Kasane in Botswana. Much more – certainly enough to knock any feelings of complacency out of anyone after the previous week or so of natural treats.

IMG_0282Having watched animals from the air, the back of the truck, even a rickety canoe (although we only saw the top of some hippos’ heads), it was time to view what we could track down from a boat cruising around the wildlife mecca of the Chobe River – once we had managed to carry on an eskie filled with ice and enough drinks that people thought would last them for three hours. Quite a lot it would seem, almost at the cost of my cheetah-chewed flip-flop to the watery depths.

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Close Up – AFter the air, the view from a boat on the Chobe River

And it is difficult to tell which flowed more freely as we moved from the heat of a sun-baked afternoon to a dazzling sunset – the beer or the wildlife – as we spent a thoroughly remarkable few hours.

There were elephants (lots of them, topped by a couple of young ones play fighting alongside the boat), crocodiles (obligingly coming up to surface around the boat), kudus, lizards, giraffes, buffalo and a range of birds, but they all played second fiddle to the hippos.

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Prize Sighting – A hippo pops out of the water for a snack. Right in front of us, while a few of his pals come together, below

Our first encounter put us alongside three large specimens, one of whom had the decency to clamber out of the water for a snack on the long grass in easy viewing of our cameras, before marking his territory with a nifty little trick of using his tail to spray his dung around.

After marvelling at that and a few other solitary types, we hit the jackpot with a group of almost 20 hippos lounging half in and half out of the water, ranging from the very big to the very small. With more distinct territory marking to try to capture on film.

IMG_0376More followed as we began the trip back to base, our final sighting rounding off things perfectly as one ran along the bank alongside us before diving into the water and under the boat.

Not a bad end to a spectacular few days amid the African wildlife.

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Not A Booze Cruise – Well, not really. Group shot on the Chobe River cruise
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A Cheetah Ate My Flip-Flop

IT took a long time for me to bow to perceived wisdom surrounding footwear on the truck and take the plunge into flip-flops.

Childhood memories of uncomfortable plastic versions, stumbling up cliff faces and over rocks on family holidays had ruled them out as a viable option.

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Better View – One of the cheetahs opts to hunt for flip flops from on high

And so, while the majority of my fellow passengers slipped their feet into them as soon the truck rolled to a halt, my feet were being surrounded by a pair of sandals that had already done plenty of duty at home and on my last few trips to the USA.

Called upon to do plenty of work once my other pair of sturdier shoes had been given an outer casing of Moroccan mud and confined to a lengthy spell at the foot of our locker, the sandals gave sterling service down the west coast of Africa – even if a tendency to rub meant the top strap was never done up and provided a tell-tale slapping noise which rather foretold my arrival.

But, having already come unstitched at the front, the right sandal suffered terminal damage when pretty much all of one side separated itself from the base, creating an awkward shamble home through the streets of Swakopmund.

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Nice Kitty – Keeping the flip flops well out of danger

With my sandals consigned to the bin – to prevent any temptation to soldier on with them patched up – it was out to the shops of Swakopmund and Windhoek in search of a replacement pair.

Instead, all that was found was that Namibians appear to have pretty small feet.

That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the complete absence of size 12 (and even size 11) sandals without the need to spend a ridiculous amount of money and explains why my last resort was a sports shop that actually stocked a couple of flip-flops for the larger-footed gentleman.

Not just any flip-flops. These were, unnecessarily garish, Havaianas*. The flip-flop of the connoisseur (or so we are informed by veteran wearers of thongs, jandals or whatever other Antipodean crime against the English language they use to describe them).

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Not Alone – Ale and I show off the damage to our footwear

And very comfortable they have become, once a couple of early blisters had died down and the art of walking any distance (particularly downhill, still a bit of a problem) had been mastered.

My feet were even beginning to mould themselves into the base – right up to the point when a cheetah ate one of them.

In fairness, we had been warned the cheetah liked flip-flops. But when you are about to go through a gate into an enclosure housing three fully-grown cheetahs, you tend to hear the bits about them scratching you and what to do when one of them decides to lick your feet than worrying about the fate of your footwear.

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Bit Tastier – A better snack than a flip flop

But just as the video function on my new camera was being put to the test, the subject of the lens wandered out of shot and reappeared right on my foot.

Getting your foot licked by a cheetah is one thing – they have quite rough tongues to go with pretty coarse fur – getting told to remove your foot (not that easy when a cheetah’s paw is on it) from your flip-flop so it can chew it is another.

Retrieved from its mouth, it remains wearable and, if anyone asks why there is a sizeable chunk out of my flip-flop just below my right little toe, think being chewed by a big cat is infinitely cooler than some of the other footwear-based calamities which have beset the group.

So my newly-customised Havaianas have still been propelling my feet through northern Namibia and into Botswana, where the wildlife has taken centre stage (right up to our current pitstop in Maun, where beer on tap and sitting round the pool has rather claimed top billing for those of us who did not head into the Okavango Delta**).

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Compare The Kiwi – Karla and a meerkat at Spitzkoppe. Simples

A couple of friendly meerkats at the entrance to our scenic camp for the night amid the rock formations of Spitzkoppe (in newly-mended mosquito tent) set the trend, although they were the last ones we could actually pick up ahead of some much bigger creatures in the days ahead.

Picking up was certainly out of the question as we got up close to my furry foot fetish friend and two other females who live in the grounds of the owners’ house at the Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Camp.

Any reluctance we may have had in approaching the three animals as they purred away – mixed with a surprising bird-like chirping – was soon overcome as they came to us, played with the family dogs or simply led down and let us stroke them for the obligatory pictures.

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Rock n Roll – The backdrop to our camp at Spitzkoppe

If they got bored – we certainly did not – they simply got up and walked away or headed up a tree to await their reward of a great hunk of meat each, devoured in the full glare of our cameras.

Also waiting for their food were the rather less friendly cheetahs who live behind some fairly secure fences – at least, that’s what we liked to believe, considering how close to them we were camping – and peering down from the back of a truck was about close enough for us as we watched them fight over the spoils as it was thrown out.

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No Forgetting – Just some of the animals which wandered near the truck at Etosha

We were back on familiar ground for our next wildlife encounter as our journey northwards out of Namibia carried us back into Etosha National Park.

Our first afternoon game drive was relatively quiet (countless springboks and more zebra barely register a second look now), while a late arrival at the campsite watering hole after cook duty coincided with a lion’s departure and was more notable for me walking through a thorn bush (creating scratches which may or may not be attributed to a cheetah) and the watching masses searching for new ways to scare off any animals IMG_4857considering a quick drink, although one rhino seemed totally unfazed by it all.

But we had plenty of wow moments in our lengthy drive to the park exit the next day, single rhinos and elephants being totally overshadowed by two male lions walking alongside and in front of the truck, followed (not literally) by a herd of nine elephants that included three little ones – right as my new camera revealed exactly how long it takes to go from three bars of power to flat.

IMG_4853We even got a honey badger, although the person who spotted it dismissed it as just a skunk.

And so, our truly memorable stays in Namibia – sandwiched either side of our trip to South Africa – reached a spectacular climax as we headed to the Botswana border.

It’s been grand, but there is a feeling of wanting to press on north and really get moving again.

IMG_4950Right after we have taken advantage of not moving too far from the bar and pool…

* Think that’s the first time had to look down at my feet to check a spelling.
** Sadly, the need to stay in communication with the real world for a couple of days ruled out my trip, but the move has paid off and will be rewarded with a flight over the Delta tomorrow.

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