Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Alison Dunn
If you want to know what it’s like to drive for days without seeing another traveller, then you need to take the track from Kariba to Binga. As our Bush Editor discovered, this route offers a stiff off-road challenge and demands lots of patience.
While at Mana Pools some locals warned me that the people in the town of Kariba were a little… well, let’s just say ‘different’. Kariba is a lakeside town where there isn’t much to do except head out on the lake Plus, the place took a pounding when the economy nosedived – only the wealthy had money to go on a houseboat holiday. So after a week in the rain at Mana Pools it was with a little trepidation that we entered the hilly town of Kariba, where we’d overnight before heading west along the lakeshore road.
The last time I’d driven this road was in December ’03; back then we left Binga at sunrise and clocked in at Kariba just before sunset. In my notebook from that trip I wrote about “the sense of accomplishment one experiences when driving a route not often travelled by others”. Also on that nine-hour drive we saw three elephants about 50 km before Kariba. So there’s obviously wildlife in the area.
Road conditions can change a lot in seven years and so I needed to get some up-to-date information – my best bet for this was the locals. We stopped off at a place called Warthogs, where the locals come to relax on weekends. In the garden next to the bar was a jumping castle. There was an SUV parked on top of the castle. I would later find out that the castle was first deflated, and then the vehicle drove onto it, before they inflated it again.
It got better. There were two guys handcuffed to each other, taking turns to spit their drinks into each other’s faces. I quietly sat down and took advantage of the free Wi-Fi while I watched Liverpool play Manchester United on the big screen. I was trying my best to act like everything going on around me was normal and that I was comfortable here.
One of the more sober locals took it upon himself to come up to me and explain what was going on. “It was his birthday yesterday,” he said, while pointing at a kid who was barely knee height. Right – it made sense now.
I ask about the road we intended to drive along the lake. “I live here but can’t think of anyone who’s driven it,” my new nameless friend replies. Someone overhears him and shouts: “Don’t they still have landmines on that road?” Great, that was all we needed. We leave Warthogs none the wiser but thoroughly entertained. I now know why we’d been warned about the town of Kariba.
While shopping for some food I meet an old skipper who shows me which roads to take on a very detailed map. It actually looks pretty straightforward. Apparently some of the local bus companies use the road too. “Initially all you have to do is follow the pylons – it’s easy,” he says, pointing out the various villages I’ll have to drive through.
I decide to break up the journey and overnight at a place called Bumi Hills, which only recently reopened. Judging by how long it took us last time to get from Kariba to Binga, I’m confident that by lunchtime we’ll be sipping cocktails in the pool at Bumi Hills; this confidence stems from the fact that we’re starting our journey well before sunrise. If only I knew what lay ahead.
It’s about 300 kilometres to Bumi Hills and it takes us nine hours to complete the drive. The last 60 kilometres or so is a detour from the track to Binga; it’s also the worst stretch of road we’ll drive in the next two days. At one stage I think we might reach Bumi by lunch, but as the day wears on and my GPS shows we’re averaging between 20 and 30 km/h, I start hoping for a sunset arrival. Most Bumi Hills clients arrive by boat (from Kariba) or fly in.
I drove our Land Cruiser as hard as it could go; Honeydew Toyota had kindly fitted Ironman suspension before we left, which made the world of difference. It was a grey morning when we left Kariba; the rainy season was coming to an end, perfect for driving if on a good road. Orange, pink and purple flowers adorn the roadside. I didn‘t have much time to enjoy this colourful guard of honour as it was one of those tracks where you have to concentrate all the time, especially as we were going as fast as we could. Some parts consist of dried mud, with the occasional huge pothole thrown in, which forced us to slow to a crawl so that we could go around it. This chewed away at our precious time.
In the first seven hours of driving we encounter two Save the Children Land Cruisers, two donkey carts and, on the last 60 km stretch, a truck from the World Food Programme. They’re handing out massive bags of grain; locals put the bags on their heads, homeward bound. This food is critical for the starving people of the area; we’ve seen many kids with swollen tummies all day long.
I would’ve loved to have slowed down and camped wild somewhere alongthe way, but time’s limited. The road we’re on doesn’t hug the lakeshore but every so often it does offer you a teasing glimpse of the lake. We pass the turn-off to the Matusadona National Park, where one could spend a few days before moving on again. But be warned: the road into Matusadona is not in a very good condition and out here help is a very long way off.
Not far from Bumi we pass another donkey cart. They have a puncture but I don’t have a repair kit so I give them a few cold beers and the repair kit from my infl atable mattress and they’re happy. I believe in good karma. It’s been a long day and the road doesn’t seem to want to end. We climb pass after pass, slowly, as the vehicles that had been through here previously had churned up the track. Our average speed slows down even more. I start to wish that I worked for an aeroplane magazine.
Mealie fields now line the road; each has an elevated lookout tower with a little boy on duty in it. His job is simple – no, he does not watch the mealies grow, but keeps a lookout for baboons and elephants that could try to destroy the crop for the year. He then makes some noise, which alerts the villagers, who come out with clanging pots and pans and whatever else that can be used to scare away the animals.
Eventually we arrive at Bumi; it’s taken us the best part of a day to get here. Bumi is situated on a hilltop overlooking the splendid Lake Kariba; you won’t fi nd a better setting. You can relax in the pool while watching elephants and impala drink down below. I just want a beer and a neck massage right now. We only have one night in Bangkok, I mean Bumi, and so after our ice-cold beer I ask Andy Dalzell, the head guide, if he could take us out onto the lake for a spot of game-viewing and fishing.
The game-viewing vehicle we take to the boats has no doors, which is nice if you like to pat the elephants when they stand next to you. Even more intriguing is the massive branch attached to the bull-bar. This is for the Golden Orb Spiders which just love to thread their webs across the road – the branch acts as a buffer to prevent the spiders from raining down on the poor tourists sitting in the back.
We head out to a place called Starvation Island, so named because it was the last island cleared of animals when Lake Kariba came into being. We use worms as bait and within seconds we land our first bream; Ali proves to be a champion fisherlady and soon she and Andy have a little competition going as to who can catch the most bream. The bream are a little smaller than pan size and so we throw them back. I am relegated to photographing the action, which is fi ne with me as I suck at putting worms on hooks.
One can actually see the Matusadona Park from the water and the animals move freely from there towards the Bumi Hills area and the nearby hunting concession areas. But with animals moving out of national park areas, a few obvious problems arise. “In the last 18 months we have removed over 2 000 snares. This area has been heavily poached in the last 10 years, so the game-viewing is erratic. It’s the same in Matusadona I’m sad to say,” adds Andy.
From the sound of things the hunting has not been done in the wisest manner. “You don’t see sable here anymore. I’ve seen female but no male lions, while the males in the buffalo herd which normally comes down to the lake to drink are too young to breed,” explains Andy. This gives me something to ponder on when we make our way back towards the shore. The lake is as flat as a pancake – a rare thing, I’m told. It looks like glass and it seems like you could walk on it, just like a freshly polished floor. A lone elephant bull has been guarding our mooring area and makes off when we come alongside.
The next morning we’re back on that road again – the torrid stretch seems a little less torrid after a good night’s rest. Once again we underestimate the state of the road and our Binga arrival is delayed until the late afternoon. The 222 km trip takes us seven hours. We hit the lake, this time on Lady Jacqueline, a 60-foot, very comfortable boat. Stephen Litaba is our capable skipper and I’m much relieved to be cruising along with him at the helm, as that road broke me and in hindsight we should’ve had more stopovers at some of the national parks we passed, or maybe spent a second night at Bumi Hills.
Stephen moors the boat on a beach and we take one of the fishing boats in search of some tiger fish. We catch one small fish each. It’s the worst time of the year for tiger fish and with so much water in the lake the fish prove to be elusive. Still, sometimes fishing is more about just being out there and enjoying the surroundings. Due to the fact that we were behind schedule and someone else had chartered the boat for the next night we had to find alternative accommodation. I wasn’t ready to move on as the driving had taken its toll, so we stayed at the impressive Musumu River Lodge, which has to be the best accommodation option in Binga. They have a campsite but we stayed in one of the tidy chalets.
Binga is a lakeside village with fuel (althought none at the time of our visit), one or two basic shops and lots of places to stay at as a base from which to enjoy the lake. Get out there and make the most of the lake, is what I say. Oh and don’t forget the croc farm, which is definitely worth a visit.
From Binga the road is good compared to what we’d driven. Before you know it, you’re on the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls road. What an adventure the drive from Kariba to Binga and on towards the falls had been. Yes you could push like a madman and make it in two days, but that would just be wrong. Stop at one of the national parks for a few days or get on a houseboat. I’ve done several trips to Zimbabwe and this is one of the country’s legendary 4×4 drives.
You won’t see other tourists, just representatives from aid organisations. One of the previous drive-in guests at Bumi Hills took the kids along. When they arrived, the kid asked: “Can’t we just have a normal holiday?” Be warned: this track is anything but normal. But hey, that’s why we like it – and also why we own off-road vehicles.
WHERE WE STAYED
Warthogs Bush Camp, Kariba
They have a campsite and chalets. Meals and drinks are available at the bar. It’s a festive spot and a good place to meet interesting characters.
For more details see www.warthogs.co.zw or call them on +26 361 2515.
What a location! Rooms with a view, great chef and friendly staff. Far away from civilisation, so a good place to unwind. For more details see www.africaalbidatourism.com or (021) 683 6576.
Lady Jacqueline, Binga
Lake Kariba holidays don’t come better than this and the extremely professional crew will make sure you relax.
For more info and bookings see www. ameofafrica.co.za or call (031) 762 2425.
Binga, Musumu River Lodge
A top-quality resort with good food, shady campsite and informative hosts. Camping is R50 pppn while for R950 you can get dinner, bed and breakfast. Just to stay in one of the chalets (no meals) is R300 pppn. Lots of lake-based activities on offer.
To book call +26 396 6629.
FLAME OF AFRICA
Thanks to Brett McDonald of Flame of Africa who helped us with planning, logistics and bookings. Call them to make bookings for activities such as Chobe River sunset cruises or any of the Vic Falls activities – you’ll save yourself a couple of dollars. For more info and bookings see www. ameofafrica.co.za or call them on (031) 762 2425.
Fill up when leaving Kariba; the next place you’ll be able to do so is Binga (they ran dry during our visit). Some of the stations in Kariba ran dry during our stay but we were still able to nd some diesel.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
You’re really in the sticks on this route. One is able to buy meat and fresh provisions in Kariba but Binga has nothing more than the basics. As for everywhere in between, there’s nowhere to buy anything except for the odd store offering warm beer and biscuits.
You’re far away from help so take basic spares and a tyre repair kit. You won’t see much – if any – traffic on this route.
CONVOY OR SOLO
We comfortably did it solo as I’ve done the route before. The first time was without T4A and this did add a few km to my journey as I took a couple of wrong turns.
Not the greatest but easily negotiable in any 4×4. The going is very slow due to the bad condition of the road.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Have T4A and a good map of Zimbabwe if you can find one. We had a large 1 : 20 000 map which a local kindly gave to us.
A RAV could do this route but it just feels better in a Cruiser. Luckily it was dry during our drive; during continuous rain it could be a little different.
Everyone we passed gave us a smile and wanted to chat as not too many tourists come here. However we were warned by security experts that during the election time travel to these areas is not encouraged.