After recovering from the thought of a male leopard sleeping under my room, I joined the rest of the group in clambering back into the Land Rover. In the predawn light, the air was chill and we all donned ponchos and blankets as we drove out of Nehimbe, south and deeper into the park. For a while the drive was uneventful as we shivered beneath our blankets, then the sun began to rise in a sunrise as visually spectacular across the endless horizon as it was suddenly warming.
A few moments after dawn we came upon a small seep, a watering hole not fed by any stream or spring but by water oozing slowly from the ground. There, three elephant stood drinking, with a fourth watching cautiously from the bushes beyond. With Butch at the front with his rifle, we crept through the undergrowth for a perfect opportunity with the elephants behind us. All it took was one misstep on a broken branch to send the pack of giants retreating into the distance.
We found fragments of broken tusk and bones from an old carcass. Butch showed us a termite mound and explained how these marvelous creatures build them. As he was talking, he would rest the butt of his rifle against the ground near his feet, propping the barrel by his belly. As Butch moved to lead us back to the Rover, Stuart leant across and whispered “Every time he does that I’m so worried about it going off.”
“Don’t worry”, I said, “It’s probably not loaded or cocked.”
I said it confidently but as he showed us trees that the elephants had broken, he rested it in the same manner, and as Stuart gave me a glance, all I could imagine was it going off and blasting him right through the gut. It’s fine, I told myself, it’s not cocked. When we arrived back at the vehicle, Butch held up his rifle, and uncocked it.
From there we found elephant tracks and dung (“Warm; still fresh. Less than half an hour ahead.”), and then male lion footprints on top of the elephant tracks. We were close. Very close. Sadly, the tracks led off into thick bush and Butch decided that it wasn’t a good idea to go lion hunting in such dense terrain; so we turned around and made our way back to Nehimbe Camp, passing a beautiful harem of zebra that stopped and posed wonderfully for a few photos before we drove on and left them to graze.
Back at Nehimbe, I took a shower in the outside cubicle to freshen up whilst they packed up the truck with our cases. Mike was swapping duty with Forest to follow us as we began the long drive back through the park towards Victoria Falls. We took a different route back and the terrain became exceptionally rough as we made our way through rocky dried up river beds. “God bless British engineering” Butch commented as the land rover found purchase climbing a rocky bank I’d have struggled with on foot.
We passed kudu, giraffe, buffalo, and herds of impala and warthog. At one moment Butch brought the land rover to a sudden halt, jerking us in our seats. Eagle eyed, hed spotted a herd of cows and calves, elephants, headed for the road ahead. Not even ten meters from the car a whole heard of maybe two dozen elephant crossed, young and old, whilst one of the matriarchs watched on at us as if thanking us for our patience.
From Hwange National Park we made our way back north-west past Victoria Falls Town and then off the tar road to Gorges Lodge, another of Imvelo’s lodges, set right on the edge of the Batoka Gorge just down-water from the main falls. Tired from a long day on the road, I had slept on the transfer coach from Hwange to Gorges as there was little to see.
Half asleep and groggy, eyes slowly adjusting to the bright afternoon sun, I slopped wearily from the bus and suddenly my life exploded. There before me stood the most magnificent sight I had seen in all of Zimbabwe. Butch had briefed us that the views at Gorges Lodge were jaw-droppingly beautiful – I had assumed he meant the views across the Batoka Gorge, but nothing had braced me for what I was looking at.
Golden hair cascading in a splendid plait; turquoise eyes that shimmered in the evening light, and the most heart-achingly warming smile.
I had no idea who this girl was. I was introduced to Debbie and the staff at Gorges Lodge and Debbie, and this girl, took us to look at some of the rooms. There, as Debbie showed the girls in the group the showers, I stood next to this girl, desperately thinking of something to say to start a conversation.
“Thats a really nice door.”
Congratulations, brain, on a job well done. In my defence, it was a beautiful hand carved wooden door.
“Yeah,” She replied, much to my surprise, “I wanted elephants but…”
Somehow, it had worked. We began to talk, but one of the other guests grabbed her attention to ask some questions. I was adamant to not let it be the end of the conversation there. Something about her had captivated me utterly.
We got to Dibu-dibu, Little Gorges, five tented accommodations right on the edge of the Batoka gorge (where I would be staying) and a platter had been put out. I was so distracted looking for her, that when I was asked for my drink order, I waved it away saying I already had one. It was only when Liz interrupted that no we didnt, that I absent-mindedly ordered a roibos and waited.
Eventually she returned and came over, sat on the bench there and began asking about what we’d seen so far and how our time in Zimbabwe had been. I told her what we’d seen but that I was secretly keeping my eyes low for snakes and spiders. She offered to take me spider hunting later, which surprised me (to find a girl not terrified by spiders was alone surprising) and we began talking. We got onto the subject of me collecting tea, and her collecting knives and caps (which I still argue is the cooler collection) and I got her name, Karry.
We sat and talked until Chris turned up to give a talk on the Black Eagles that made their home in the gorge, and then I went back to my room – still adamant that I needed to know more about Karry. I was smitten. In that five minute conversation, I felt like there had just been a click, like, “Oh, there you are.”
I got undressed and tried to shower, fighting to keep the shower a comfortable temperature as it swung wildly between surface of the sun hot, and Cape Town ocean water in June freezing (remember that ice-bucket challenge?) and eventually just opted to brave the Arctic temperatures quickly, rather than give myself third degree burns.
I spent the next half an hour deciding which of my horrifically crumpled shirts looked smartest, whilst giving myself a pep talk in the mirror.
“What are you doing? She’s just being polite with you as you’re one of the guests…”
“But you’ll never know if you don’t try, and then you’ll hate yourself for not trying”
Eventually the second voice won through, I threw on the winning candidate for “least horrific shirt” and made my way back to the main bar area where I got talking to a surprisingly racist Australian guest (hardly fighting the stereotype there, sir) slightly crestfallen that Karry wasn’t there. I guessed she’d gone home.
Then she arrived, I excused myself (probably quite rudely but I was done with the Australian) and began talking. The two of us slunk outside for a cheeky smoke away from the guests and continued talking until she had to disappear and our group seated ourselves on a long table ready for an exceptional dinner of steak, sadza, zukini and salad. The size of the steak was impressive and left me wondering how big the animal it had come from was.
“Looks like they’re catering for the Americans!” Stuart whispered to me.
“Nope,” came the twang from the guy next to us, “This is big even for us…!”
We ate, hungrily, with my eyes forever wandering around and glancing at Karry eating further up the table. She was gone again and this time I was certain that she’d gone to speak to her boyfriend or something. Liz began to give me a pep talk too – apparently it was blatantly obvious that I liked Karry and Liz seemed to think the feeling was mutual. I still chalked it up to being polite with the guests.
Once everyone had finished eating and the group melted back to the bar, I sat there for another smoke, sipping my Cuban (still adamant to teach all the bat staff in Africa how to make one) when Karry reappeared, leaning up against the palm tree next to us and asked how dinner was. Liz slipped away with a sly wink and left Karry and I to talk.
As we talked and joked about everything from life in Zim and the UK, I made a comment about the cold shower, we talked about the stars (being able to actually see the Milky Way for the first time in my life, even if the rest of their stars are upside down) then eventually moved inside to the warmth for a few more drinks, first at the bar, then sat on the floor in the lounge in front of a log fire.
She showed me photos and videos of her motorbike and truck, Halloween costumes, and we laughed and talked. Then it finally hit me, that little voice piped up “Try it. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Then she let her hair down and sat on her knees. That voice started going crazy and I couldn’t fight it anymore. I leant over and kissed her. It sounds cliché but time froze, and it only started again when I realised that she was kissing me back, and not pulling away in shock and horror. We laughed and kissed again, joking at how bloody long it had taken me.
We got into her truck and took a drive down the road to a nearby field as she wanted to show me her sound system, and I ended up singing and screaming along to Down With The Sickness as it blared from her speakers. We kissed again and then she took me back to my room.
We had a drink and we stayed up talking until the early hours of the morning until she had to go. It was heartbreaking knowing that I had found someone so special, so far away. I had no idea where to go from there. I gave her the pendant I was wearing as something to remember me by. Something so small and stupid that I expected it to sit in a box in her house. She eventually got a chain for it and has never taken it off. She gave me two 25 cent coins which I kept with me always until I made a necklace from them a few weeks later – they’ve never left my side.
I fell asleep that night conflicted. I was in love, as much as I wanted to deny it. I was in love with a girl who lived 12000km away from me.