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Dial back in Zimbabwe

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Back in Johannesburg, it feels odd to look out from the window over a bustling carport of busy people with fancy cars. There’s a selection of sushi revolving in front of me, yet my boots are still freshly covered with the dust from Mana Pools.

Just two days ago, we were observing one of many herds of elephants wandering curiously around our campsite at Mana Pools, and later sitting around the hypnotising campfire listening to the hysterical ‘whoop’ calls of hyena in the background.

BEFORE YOU GO

Note that news from Zimbabwe has not all been positive, and at the time of going to print there remain concerns for travellers to that country. There have been reports of fuel and food shortages and instability in the major centres. However, the more remote tourist areas – including Mana Pools and Kariba – do not appear to have been affected by protest action. Get accurate, updated information where possible from the most recent reports and from the places where you intend to stay when making travel plans.

And then, there was the long, dreadful and often-infuriating drive back to Joburg, during which an encounter with a corrupt policeman almost landed me in a Zimbabwe jail.

I could describe our camping holiday to Lake Kariba and Mana Pools as an adventure-packed, but eye-opening adventure. Mentioning the camping trip to Zimbabwe still raises a few eyebrows, and the questions soon follow: ‘Is it safe? Is it worthwhile? What is still left there?’

We went with an open mind. The travel group consisted of my husband Johan and I, and family-members Bernard and Debbie with their two young girls. We travelled in two cars: a Land Cruiser V8 station wagon and a Toyota Hilux, both with trailers.

The Hwange back road

When stopping for breakfast en-route to the Pandamatenga border crossing, Johan started chatting to a passing tour guide. Johan mentioned our intended back-road route to Kariba via Binga, to which the guide replied ‘Good luck!’ with an amused smile, although we detected a slight flavour of disapproval. We should have seen that as a warning sign of the surprises to come.

During the lengthy border crossing at Pandamatenga, we were asked why we were taking so much extra fuel with us. Fortunately, we were allowed to keep our fuel, which proved to be our saving later. While travelling to Hwange National Park, we unknowingly passed the area in which Cecil the lion had been controversially shot on that very same day − luckily we didn’t know this at the time.

After the long and dusty drive, we arrived at Hwange and set up our camping paraphernalia at the Sinamatella rest camp. The trip had been relatively smooth and good up to then, except for few small things that had had to be fixed on Bernard’s trailer.

Sinamatella was quiet; we were the only visitors at the campsite. The camp itself clearly lacked any evidence of tender loving care in maintenance and upkeep, but this was made up for by a very friendly and attentive staff, and a spectacular vista over the valley below.

Toughing it to Tiger Bay

The next morning, we hit the dust at the crack of dawn, over-ambitious in our hope to drive from Hwange to our destination – a lodge at Tiger Bay in a remote area on the shores of Lake Kariba. Despite finding numerous potholes on the tar road to Binga, reaching our destination before sunset still seemed likely.

After Binga, we realised that we were trying to bite off more than we could chew. The road changed from bad, to very bad, and then to a 4×4 obstacle course. Inevitably there were some problems on the way, including a flat tyre and a rattling roof rack. However…

At this point, I need to give some background about my husband’s camping rules:

  1. One fridge, in the car that is closest to reach, is strictly ONLY for drinks and ice.
  2. The OTHER fridge, tucked away in the trailer, is for food, into which I have to fit ALL the food, no matter the quantity.
  3. One must NEVER mix the contents of the two fridges.

Admittedly, these are very practical rules for good reasons. (That is, if you are a man).

But, back to the story. On that morning, before leaving Sinamatella camp, I had run out of space in ‘my’ food fridge and had sneaked a chicken pie into ‘his’ drinks fridge in the back of the car. I’d placed it gently on top of the drinks so that when we arrived at our destination, it could be quietly returned to ‘my’ fridge.

Now, while driving on the roller-coaster road, filled with rattling sounds from the back of the car, my thoughts kept drifting to the chicken pie. Then, tired and thirsty, we stopped for a quick comfort break on the road to refuel with snacks and cold drinks. When I opened the drinks fridge, I did not know whether to cry or laugh. There it was, my fears materialised: the wine bottle neck had pierced the chicken pie, perfectly in the middle. We had a big ‘chicken pie doughnut’, to be precise!

I was dreading Johan’s reaction, but he simply rescued the chicken pie from the wine bottle, or as he saw it, saved the bottle from the ‘doughnut’. Luckily, the pie appeared otherwise intact and sealed. However, we had lost considerable time in the process and had to hurry to continue our journey.

As the flaming sun disappeared behind the horizon, the road seemed to become never-ending, twisting between trees and dongas, and eventually tracking through a maze of reeds. Just as the sun set, our trailer developed a flat tyre. Changing a tyre in the dark isn’t much fun either. Luckily, a very friendly and helpful local guy wearing a snow-white T-shirt was walking on the same road. He confirmed that we were going in the right direction and generously offered to help us with the tyre. We thanked him for his assistance, not that he was expecting thanks at all, and after wishing us farewell with a big smile, off he went, now sporting a very dusty-grey T-shirt.

Tired, and admittedly a bit grumpy because of rumbling stomachs, we all started envisioning ourselves enjoying the comforts that our destination could offer. After another hour or two of twists and turns, the GPS eventually announced, “You have arrived at your destination”.

It was pitch dark, and rather oddly quiet around us. We went to investigate with torches, and discovered a ghost town. The lodge had evidently been abandoned. Facing us was a building with clumps of thatch falling from the roof, a sizeable swimming pool was filled with rubble and dried leaves instead of water, and thick layers of dust and cobwebs were decorating the chalets.

It was the only place where we had not been able to confirm our booking. Looking at this sad sight, I understood why I had not received a reply to my email. In my defence, the lodge had come with a recommendation from another publication, and when I had not received a reply, I assumed that being in a remote place, their connection was bad. I had also assumed that we could just rock up unannounced, as it was unlikely that they’d be fully booked. Our itinerary included a stay there for four nights, but we clearly had to change our travel plans urgently.

However, that was to be the next day’s problem as it was late, dark, and we were in desperate need of the basics: ablutions, food and bed. We erected our tents where we had parked. Then Johan took charge of dinner preparation and the Chicken Pie Doughnut miraculously became Chicken a’ la King. It actually turned out to be surprisingly scrumptious thanks to Johan’s culinary inspiration to sauce it up with a white wine and cream sauce complemented by the ‘offending’ bottle of chilled chardonnay.

View over Lake Kariba.

 

For the rest of this epic travel story, get your hands on the March issue of SA4x4 Magazine.
By Annica van Rensburg

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