I often look back on that night at Table Bay Hotel and wonder to myself if, perhaps, something were off with the lobster, and that I had slipped into a coma from which I have still not awoken – and that everything following from that fateful night was just a dream. What was to follow still seems beyond the possible. Though it certainly didn’t start out so pleasant. “Up at sparrows” doesn’t quite cover a 3am start to get you to the airport, as the sparrows were very much still snuggled up in their nests whilst we were stood queuing at Cape Town Airport, having said goodbye to Jeff and George, waiting to check in.
After a short 1hr40 flight, we landed at Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe, queued for nearly two hours to get our visas ($55 on entry), then stepped outside into roasting heat. A troupe of traditional dancers were singing African accappela as we exited the airport and met our new driver, Solomon, and Stuart – the African Buyer from Saga, who was to be our guide and companion for the next few days.
Our first stop was outside of town, at a disused railway depot. We were met by two men who gave us a quick tour of their train, which was essentially older Rovos Rail stock that they used as a mobile venue and catering service on the Victoria Falls bridge. We didn’t stop for long and, in honesty, I remember very little of the meeting. My brain was shot away from sleep deprivation, and slowly boiling in my skull.
After a short drive through Victoria Falls town (which I could never have guessed would ever become such a big part of my life) we came to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, where we pulled up alongside a family of monkeys basking in the sunshine and preening each other. We met Jono Hudson, one of the General Managers of African Albida Tourism, who took us back to our rooms to freshen up.
The rooms were surprisingly modern and comfortable, well furnished with beautiful showers. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had expected of Zimbabwe, as a westerner with preconceived notions of third world countries, but my expectations certainly hadn’t been so clean and well presented. The room was a cool, welcome relief from the heat. I dumped my bag and leapt into a much-needed shower.
The lodge overlooks it’s own watering hole, and as I passed the time before we were to meet back at the main lodge, I watched various antelope move through the bushes, and raptors soar overhead. Eventually the time came to meet back at the lodge for our first excursion, a Sundowner Cruise on the Zambezi.
The boat we were to take was a small jet propelled vehicle that, lacking a propeller, could get closer to the top of the falls than any of the other vessels that otherwise would risk their propellers snagging. Where as most vessels stop at 1200m or so from the top of the falls, ours could get within 800m, getting close to the rainbow laced smoke that gives the falls their original name, Mosi oa Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”.
As we drifted in the water, our captain deftly steering us between islands, we stopped as our guide spotted something on the distant side of a small island, a hippo. We edged closer, watching in awe as the creature bobbed up and down in the water. Getting the photo above alone was nigh impossible. Every time the camera focused on the spot the hippo was in, it’d submerge mockingly, only to resurface a few feet away, beginning the whole infuriating process again. Eventually I snapped a shot I was happy with, and sat down again making a mental note to get a better camera if I were ever trying to photo hippopotamus again.
As we meandered around the islets and closer to the banks, we spotted flocks of ibis dancing in the evening breeze, and then upon the banks, crocodiles lazing, utterly unperturbed by our presence mere metres from them. As a reptile enthusiast, to be so close to these magnificent creatures was awe inspiring, but we couldn’t stop long. The sun was beginning to set and so we moved back upriver, away from the islands to where the river was wider, to watch our grand finale.
The entire beautiful spectacle of the sunset took mere moments. Hanging low in the sky, the sun moving closer to the horizon was acutely visible. The thing that astonished me most, I remember, was how swiftly the temperature dropped as soon as the sun was gone. Within mere moments, I had gone from roasting and worrying about getting sunburned, to wishing I had brought a jacket with me. We quickly came ashore, disembarked the boat and rejoined Solomon for our transfer back to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
After another quick freshen up, we met Jono back at the main lodge. En route I passed a trio of warthog crossing the path, not even six feet in front of me. At first I thought that they hadn’t noticed me, but when one gave an indignant snort, I realised they just didn’t care. We chatted briefly in the main lodge whilst we waited for our transfer to The Boma, a large tented restaurant with traditional music and entertainment, for dinner. On arrival, we were dressed in traditional toga-like wraps and taken to our seat.
After an opener of a foul tasting local “beer” (made from butternut squash amongst other things, if I recall correctly), we were presented with a plate of exotic (locally traditional) meat as starters. The crocodile tail I very much enjoyed (I’d liken it to dried smoked chicken), but didn’t go too much on the small curls of impala (a small African antelope) which were a bit too chewy for my liking. The entertainment got everyone involved drumming and singing, before letting us move to our main course. I tried warthog steak and eland (a much larger antelope) meatballs which I very much enjoyed. Then I took on the real challenge.
The mopani worm is a local delicacy, the grub of a moth found in and on the local mopani trees. They are collected, stripped of their spines and dried. Sometimes they are then marinated in a sticky sauce. I was challenged by Jono to try some. I did. I decided that the most difficult part of eating a mopani worm was getting past the first-world-country taboo of eating insects – around two billion people worldwide eat insects as part of their diet. They can’t all be wrong, right? Right. Eating a mopani worm is a strange experience. The first bite is through a crunchy outer shell, followed by a sandy texture as that shell breaks up. The meat inside is quite chewy and requires a few moments to properly masticate, but the flavour is surprisingly pleasant. Gram for gram they’re also three times richer in protein than beef. I decided the plain dried worms were tastier than the marinated ones. I ate several and I have the certificate, signed by the chef, to prove it.
A local came by our table, selling a mix cocktail of honey, cinnamon, lemon, vodka and some other ingredients. I paid $5 to try it and was pleasantly surprised, especially in contrast to the local “beer” that I had previously imbibed. I sat talking with Jono, hearing stories of life in Zimbabwe, listening to the lives his children had had growing up here in the bush, with envy. I knew then that I wanted this life, as best as I could have it, and I wanted my children to have the same childhood memories.
As the evening drew to a close, a face painter came to our table to decorate us. For me, he chose to mark on a painted dog lurking in the “long grass”of my beard. With a smile on my face and a belly full of mopani worms, we made our way back to the lodge for an amarula nightcap, before turning in for a peaceful night’s sleep, drifting off to the woo-yip of hyena in the distance.