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Monday, 01 March 2021

Catching Some Z's: Zambia & Zimbabwe

Written by Richard Taylor
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At some point, between the cataracts and grunting hippos, one starts to grapple with the basics, the real mysteries of life.

For instance, the letter Z.

With Zambia on the left bank, Zimbabwe on the right and my sunset cruiseferrying me down the Zambezi, the riddle of ‘Z’ inevitably crops up. As for the Zambezi itself, I loved it from the first. Loved the name. Africas more famous waterways, the Nile, the Congo, might have their pyramids and gorillas, but if ever a moniker conjured up unscrupulous ivory hunters and Edgar Rice Burroughs, surely it would be the Zambezi.

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Two days prior, the Zimbabwe officials had sold me a dual visa for fifty dollars and I snagged a ride with a South African troupe over No Mans Land (catching a tantalizing glimpse of lofty cliffs and mists and pounding waters), arriving at the Zambian frontier and its town of Livingstone. Tourists crisscross the border frequently; for the falls, for shopping, for helicopter tours, and the Zim/Zam visa quickly pays for itself.

My hotel, on the other hand, was way above my pay grade and protected by electrified fence but one couldnt fault the amenities. Outside the fence, a long tree-lined road curved into Livingston’s tight center with the requisite shops and rental offices, including bungee jump excursions off the Queen Victoria Bridge. Saner folk could book passage on the vintage locomotive that carried passengers daily from one border town to the other. For the moment the train was at rest in a well tended parkette and I pushed my camera through the surrounding fence to take its picture.

The fence zapped me. The current flowed here too.

I nursed my wounded electrified hand over a fine limone and coffee sherbet. Behind the ice cream kiosk was a pub and chalkboard menu. I looked it over.

What’s tshima?I asked.

Its the maize porridge,said the bartender.

Like pap?”

Yes.

I’d taken the pap test back in Namibia. It was a staple across southern Africa, very filling, very adaptable and very boring, like most porridge, but this evening they served it up with goat stew and sweet potato leaves and it was fine.

There were shouts and cheers from the bar next door, a televised soccer game from the sound of it. A much different skirmish was playing out in the street two dogs were mixing it up with a baboon and given the latter’s nasty fangs, I was surprised that a pair of savvy town mutts wouldn’t show more sense.

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On the Zimbabwe side there are fewer baboons, but warthogs have the run of the place, nibbling the manicured hotel lawns.

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As for historic trains engines, they’re parked on unused track and can be photographed zap-free.

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The town is a little more compact than Livingstone and to my eye, more attractive, although it swarms with touts and hustlers, selling art and commemorative trillion dollar bills from the high inflation years. The touts are a persistent lot, and named for the virtues:

Come to my shop Sir! My name is Excellence!

Remember me Sir! My name is Honesty!

See me later Sir! My name is Knowledge!

The next morning, after Id purchased a ticket for Zambia’s major attraction, the hotel driver drove me through the surrounding kiosks and introduced me to Thomas, who ran his own little tent. We shook hands.

When you are ready, Thomas will call the hotel and we will come for you.

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They were renting ponchos near the statue of David Livingstone but I welcomed a cool jungle mist and declined them…failing to consider my poor cameras. For the next hour, I was wiping lenses with a sodden shirt, wiping them incessantly. And for good reason.

Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Doctor Livingstone’s particular reverie. He was right. Almost seventeen hundred meters wide and a hundred high, braced by two nations, separating the Upper and Lower Zambezi rivers, Victoria Falls is one of the great sights of nature, those angelic private screenings now shared by thousands of tourists in ponchosand the silly few who spurn them.

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And that double rainbow is killer. Virtually a permanent feature, it blooms as triplets when the sun and seasons are right and even pops in for an occasional night show, thrilling the Full Moon tours come to scope the ‘lunar rainbow.’

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Locally, the falls have borne many names. The Toka leya people called it Shongwe; in Ndebele tongue it was aManza Thunqayo. But locally, the one that stuck, came from the Makololo.

Mosi Oa Tunya they called it. ‘Smoke that Thunders.’

Certainly, the volume in every sense is formidable. Five hundred and fifty million liters of the Upper Zambezi thunder down every minute, even higher at peak season. Indeed, coming here in May so soon after the rains, I feared thered be nothing but mist.

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The rains have been poor this year,they told me at the hotel. So the water level was not as high. By dry seasons end, the falls would be reduced to a relative trickle, referred to wryly, as The Victoria Cliffs.

I gave my cameras a last wipe and returned to the statue of Dr. Livingstone.

Thats it I guess, is it?I asked one of the security people.

Have you done Boiling Pot, Sir?

The Boiling Pottrail was a flagstone path descending through lush jungle fronds and massive spider webs, terminating by the rocky banks of the Lower Zambezi. Here, the mists couldnt penetrate, no ponchos were required and the only caution signs concerned baboons and why I shouldnt feed them. At the river’s edge was a fine prospect of the Queen Victoria Bridge and the tiny figures of bungee folk leaping off its span.

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Two hour later, Thomas called the hotel for my ride. In the interim, he sold me a necklace and a black rhino carving.

They are made in my village,he said, explicating on the local customs and the lineage of chiefs - the father of one family would be succeeded by the son of a different clan. I assumed there would be an occasional hitch in this affair, clumsy heirs toppling into Mosi Oa Tunya for instance, but I didnt pursue the matter and our talk turned to pap, or tshima as they called it.

Its tshima in the Nyaja language,said Thomas. The Tonga call it sima. There are seventy-two languages in Zambia.

An interpreter’s dream.

Back at the hotel, I laid the cameras out to dry on the dresser and after an hour of screams and flashing lights, they seemed none the worse for it. While they recovered, I chatted with Mapoma, the hotel tour director, about possible excursions to Kafue National Park. I was not optimistic. Except for the Intercape line, public transit was limited and private drivers, however amiable and efficient they might be, had cost me dear.

Why do you want to go to Kafue?asked Mapoma. We have Mosi Oa Tunya National Park right here. We have the white rhinos. We have everything but the cats.

He booked me for a three-hour tour that afternoon.


Your drivers name is Gift. He has packed a picnic meal for you.

The park offered a pleasant diversion the early highlight being the mopani or ‘butterfly’ tree. As for the fauna, they arrived stag for the most part: one warthog, one wildebeest, one impala, one zebra (another Zee!) and several baboons. Except for a single bleached skull and great piles of dung, there were no signs of elephant.

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Their digestion is not efficient,said Gift, pointing to a blue plastic bag amid the droppings.

With less than an hours light left, Gift stopped along a forest trail and introduced me to the guards who would oversee the walking tour. They carried guns and wore khaki and camouflage, like a team of rebel guerrillas.

We must walk single file, Sir,they told me.

Okay.”

This way we look bigger.

I felt an imposter, crunching through the bramble with these big men and their rifles, but they obviously knew their business. After ten minutes they stopped and the leader motioned to me.

There, Sir,he whispered.

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Three white rhinos were grazing nearby.

They were a solid slate grey and took no notice of us (their eyesight is notoriously poor, hence the single filegambit) but they were massive creatures and the guides insisted I keep my movements slow and deliberate.

Okay,” I asked the head guide,Why are they called white rhinos when theyre obviously pink?

Its the mouth,he said. It’s wide. The colonists that were here, the English and Dutchwhen the Dutch were describing it, the English thought they were saying white. The black rhino has a different mouth.

I thanked the guards for their time and their protection. We drove off. The sun was dropping rapidly now and the larger denizens were fashionably late: a giraffe lapping at the treetops, a trio of cape buffalo, and a single bull elephant, stripping the branches clean. From the amount of dung along the trail, he was either working overtime, or the rest of the herd had moved to greener pastures.

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Gift turned the jeep through an abandoned camp of peeling walls and broken plaster and I learned how the tuskers had made their presence felt.

The game wardens used to live here,said Gift. But a lot of them were killed by elephants. So they moved to another place.

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We parked by the banks of the Zambezi, and while Gift unpacked the cooler, I listened to the loud grunting among the bulrushes.

“Hippos,” said Gift.

And now two days later on my river cruise, the hippos were rolling and splashing and grunting still, egrets poked about the bulrushes for dinner and crocodiles lay on the riverbanks catching the last rays of a glorious sunset. And some were Zambian crocs and some were from Zimbabwe. And some were dual citizens no doubt, traversing the Zambezi.

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And I was happy to be here and ponder the Zs.

  

©Richard Taylor

Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021