Friday: back into the wilderness as we said a sad goodbye to our luxury inn and set off for Hwange, famous for large herds of elephants and over 400 species of bird. We took a game drive with Moses, a black Zimbabwean guide, who was extremely knowledgeable. This park is bursting with elephants, zebra, wildebeest, springbok, kudu and giraffe; towards the end, as dusk was falling, we held our collective breath as a white rhino and an elephant came face to face – they both stopped dead in their tracks, eyed one another up and then the elephant turned around and disappeared back into the bush. Game over. A spring hare and a duiker were the last animals we saw before darkness fell. It was a lot cooler here and I sat around the fire talking to Moses about Zim politics until late into the night. He wasn’t convinced that the forthcoming election would bring any end to the misery of millions of people and told me that tourism had been particularly bad this year. Baz spent most of the night vomiting – dodgy chicken stew – and the Captain got very badly bitten by sand fleas. Fortunately they preferred her blood to mine, only my arms were attacked– must learn to sleep with them inside my sleeping bag.
Saturday: today we continued to the Matobo Hills, the site of the grave of Cecil John Rhodes. We stopped en route in Bulawayo, whose wide avenues were designed for ox-drawn wagons, to pick up stocks of water, beer etc. The shops were practically devoid of food, though had plenty of beer and vodka which we were glad to relieve them of. Driving through the pretty suburbs south of Bulawayo I noticed the houses didn’t have the razor wire fencing or alarmed response signs that were prolific in the Falls so maybe there is less crime here. Camped at Matobo Hills National Park whose granite domes are impressive and where there is one of the richest concentrations of rock art in southern Africa. The hills are a conservation area for both black and white rhino and have a shoot on sight policy for poachers. They kill or capture 25 poachers a year. In 1994 they decided to experiment with cutting rhino horn which causes no harm to the animal and as they no longer need the horn for defence it makes sense to harvest it this way and sell it to prevent poaching. The horn grows back similar to our nails.
On the game drive, Iain, whose family have lived here since 1862, told us all about the San who lived in the hills over 2,000 years ago and their medicinal use of various plants in the region and also had us tracking rhino on foot. Pointing out the trees we should climb up if one charged us I noticed that the lower limbs were at least 6 ft from the ground, so decided I’d make sure I was ahead of Charles, just in case. We did come across two white rhino in a clearing and after a quick peek at them, quietly and nervously backtracked to the vehicle. They are pretty large chaps when up close and personal. We also watched the antics of a very new baby hippo learning to swim. As youngsters cannot hold their breath under water for more than 30 seconds, it was constantly bobbing back up to the surface, eventually climbing onto its mother’s back for a rest, totally exhausted. This is our last game drive and I shall severely miss them. The Captain woke up during the night disturbed by a strange noise in our tent – we appeared to have a mole under the groundsheet which was munching away. I tapped it on the head and it disappeared only to pop up again further down the tent. In mild hysterics, we abandoned the tent and headed for the toilets. It seemed to have gone by the time we returned, but we were disturbed again at 5:30 by the reveille being played at sunrise – apparently there is an army training camp nearby!
Sunday: New Year’s Eve. The journey is almost at an end as too is the year. Awoke for the first time to grey skies, and rain, but as we drove back to Bulawayo and then onto Beitbridge it became hotter and hotter and increasingly humid. At the border it was back to being 40° again. We crossed the Limpopo and stopped at a Shell station in South Africa for lunch (and to drink in the New Year in Sydney) before heading to a private game reserve in the Northern Province where we were taken on a walk to view Bushmen’s paintings created around 2,000 years ago by the Khoikhoi people and the San. After dinner the drinking and dancing began though without the availability of shots we were a little more subdued than on Christmas Eve. Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” was a very popular choice! Dodging sand spiders and scorpions I vaguely remember seeing in the New Year three times – South African, European then UK after which we all collapsed into our tents before we ran down the truck battery completely. Randy. Can’t. Hold. Her. Drink.
Monday: up at six and already very hot. Not sure whether I prefer the hot, dry heat which sucks all the air out of you, or this intense humidity which constantly bathes you in sweat. Got a dodgy stomach too, same as Baz and Lizzie, which doesn’t help and the Captain is still covered in bites and daubed in calamine lotion. Packing up the tent for the very last time we discovered two black scorpions amongst its folds. Can’t say I’ll be sad to see the back of those creatures. We departed at 8:30 heading for Pretoria and Johannesburg and the end of our journey. Hit an intense rain storm 30 minutes later and the road was appalling with huge pot-holes and places where the entire road had been washed away so we were thrown around a bit as Attila swerved around the hazards. This apparently happened in heavy floods during the previous February, but the roads have yet to be repaired. That’s African time for you. Reaching the N1 was an improvement and we dozed until stopping for lunch at an Ultra station where we could get ‘Steers’ burgers! The finest flame-grilled burgers in South Africa.
Arrived for our last night in Joey at the inn in the northern suburbs, quite sad to say goodbye and although we all promised to keep in touch I wonder if in reality we will. After dinner Michael, Maia, Karin and I went off to find a pub with a pool table for one last match, but we were unsuccessful and being wary of walking in these suburbs in the dark we returned to the inn for a last Castle lager together.
Tuesday: it is 11:30 and I am sitting in the pretty garden writing up my last thoughts and memories of the trip whilst waiting for my lift. The sun is out, but there is a chilly wind coming from the south where apparently snow fell on the Drakensberg last night. This trip has been amazing, more so because I hadn’t realised the sheer volume of wildlife we would encounter. It’s also been exhausting: all those early starts and long drives even though I wasn’t actually doing the driving. My mission was to see the landscapes of those countries that bordered South Africa none of which I had ventured to during my time it was my home: I hadn’t given a thought to the animals which were an added bonus.
The Captain, Ben and Michael have gone into Randburg Waterfront – I lived in Randburg a decade or so ago and there was no waterfront then; it was created in 1994 around an artificial lake to mimic the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Randy has disappeared on the Soweto township tour and Henri has gone on the Gold Reef City tour. The Aussies are probably still in bed, recovering from all their ordeals. Ollie left us at Victoria Falls to continue on to Dar es Salaam, Charles has headed for the airport with plenty of more tall tales to tell I’m sure and the Dutch girls have picked up their hire car and set off eastwards for Hazyview. In 26 days of living in such proximity you get to know one another fairly well. I wonder what they all made of me? The middle-aged English woman who refused to be bullied by Attila into climbing up mountains and down canyons. Happy days. Hakuna Matata my friends. And a Happy New Year to all my blogging friends 🙂