Victoria Falls and Wankie Safari
- a journey of youth and love at the end of colonialism in Zimbabwe in 1983
capturing the spirit of adventure and teenage unrequited love in Africa as well as giving travel information.
My father's gift of an old Rhodesian map of Zimbabwe still showing the capital as Salisbury and not Harare.
The story was written in the period of conflict immediately after the gaining of independence of Zimbabwe, where blacks fought blacks and touches upon the conflict in the heart of a 19 year old Australian traveling by himself for the first time while visiting his relations, who became infatuated with a girl on a journey to Victoria Falls. The story of youth's desire for adventure and for teenage unrequited love.
The story came from my diary and most of the photography was taken with an instamatic 13mm film Hanimax 110 pocket camera in December 1983 so please excuse the poor quality. Some names have been changed and their may be factual errors or bias as occurs with remembering any event. Written by James W.H. Travers-Murison.
My passport, stamps, travellers cheques cashed, casino entry, and camera manual
I went to sleep thinking of her.. Those hazel green eyes and that slim perfectly proportioned body. I almost felt sick such was my desire. The train gently rocked me to sleep and somehow I knew she just didn't care. And nothing would happen. All that expectation knowing that she would be joining us. My uncle's ribald remark that I would fall in love with her. The train dragged into the Matabeleland station at the coal city of Hwange at four in the morning and I was knocked awake.
For an instant I thought it was a terrorist attack, a glance out the window showed the slow movements, Bantu cries of the African workers, of porters shifting luggage. I stared out that window and the heat of the semi tropics made the compartment stifling. Someone pulled down the window and we got a breath of cool air. Now the noise was too loud to sleep. So I lay and waited in my sleepingbag thinking of her.
Breakfast was in the dining car, the seats and tables were battered and barely clean. The menu was cheap, the food fairly good, they offered that delicious African rough flat bread with marmalade and eggs. The girls, both sisters, laughing were avoiding us. I'd given up trying to make conversation, they were too much in their own territory. And I was in love with the younger one, who was all of 16. Dark, sexual, exotic and an infectiously mischievous smile.
Rick finally arrived hair ruffled from sleep and I saw the young sister stare up at him with languid desire, which he brushed off with careless abandon. Rick was an university friend of Tom's from England. He had black hair and an almost unscrupulous Spanish look about him. Almost six foot he managed to carry an air of dishevelment that followed him round like an intelligent cat. And there was another girl with a chubby plain face about their age from their university who was stocky, brash and boistrous, a bit of a slut and slightly lower class who was all over the lads and fond of letting her opinion be known as she thrust her large boobs about. Tom Rudd was the leader of our group, a boyishly handsome white Zimbabwean serving as a young officer in the British army. He was on holidays visiting his family after being thrown out of a Scottish University after partying a little too hard and was repenting his sins - supposedly on the wagon doing volunteer mission work. His browny-blonde hair was cut short and he had a distinctly dimpled chin. He had invited a young missionary along as well, a coy man and as Tom said here in darkest Africa one had to drop the barriers and make friends with all. The religious guy was clearly nervous about his companions. Tom sang beautiful folk songs with a voice from the Eaton choir that impressed us all, told us about poaching in Hwange Safari park, how Nkomo's rebel guerillas were still there and supplementing their robberies with sales of ivory and lions skins. With Russian made AK-47s they would machine-gun down a herd of elephants, rip out their tusks and teeth and leave them to rot.
http://www.sitatours.com courtesy SITA World Travel
A Fokker Friendship that had been shot down by a SAM missile on its way to Victoria Falls he mentioned. Miraculously the plane managed to avoid destruction and crash-landed in bushland. Half the crew and passengers survived, but there began the agony. Before a rescue party could reach them Nkomo's guerillas arrived. There were no survivors. He told us of the large hotels that had seen many colonials on honeymoon this century and were now closed-down. Victoria Falls suffered during that war. The girls were not listening and I tried to catch her eyes, which were the colour of brown amber tinted with jade. That caught the light and reflected it back to the observer with an intensity that seared into the inner being.
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The steam locomotive rolled into the station and we grabbed our packs and jumped from the train. A large colonial hotel in white lay opposite the station. We headed into it, right through the bowels of that living old relic lined with lions heads, Cape buffalo heads and a stuffed elephant. We went straight to the swimming pool and the immaculate garden on the other side. The girls and Tom jumped in. Clive, my youngest cousin and who was the reason I had come to Africa and I lay on towels and watched Rick's funny faces as he pretended to fall into the pool.
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The African waiters with perfect posture stared at us with haughty contempt. They all had perfect manicured faces. And wore white dinner jackets with black trousers. I watched her glide through the water in that skin tight bathing costume that was the latest fashion in 1983. She had that lithe athletic slender sexual body almost of a boy, wasn't that tall, and had not thought much of anything but the joy of white African life in a backwater city, Bulawayo, as the daughter of a professor of botany. A pretty vivacious face that seemed more akin to an Arabic princess than a Brit, unlike her sister who was plainly English looking.
We hired a van. They wanted the driver to be over 25, which none of us were. Tom was dealing with the matter and he shuffled through his papers, showed them to the overbearing Matabele warrior who was the Avis Rent-a-car manager. The warrior had a rather sour face, but with these papers and a wad of Zimbabwean dollars he handed over the keys. We drove a couple of kilometers outside of the town and then Tom pulled the car off the road and lent under the dash.
Rick and he located and pulled something out under the steering wheel. I asked him what he was doing and he brushed me aside, but I noticed after that the speedometer did not work. She seemed oblivious to all this and gazed out the dusty window and across the veldt. The dusty, barely sealed road led to a turn-off and along a windy track we came to a group of bungalows hidden amongst the thick foliage by the Zambezi. A couple of very excited black boys rushed up to our van and dragged us into the bungalow. Within the rooms were clean but spartan. They had food prepared. The grand imperialism of the colonial Victoria Falls Hotel it was not, but an earthy homely warmth exuded this place tucked into the banks of the Zambezi.
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The river's edge was where the long bending reeds as tall as a man swayed in the breeze that rode like the river heading west towards the falls. I watched her, and in the distance following the direction Tom pointed was the beginning of the rapids. She tried to spot hippopotamus and crocodiles, but there were no binoculars, so we tried to guess whether the grey swirl over the rocks were alive or not. That evening the African boys lit a large fire and huge Zimbabwean steaks were thrown on a charred-grill. Tom and Rick took over the operation and I sat with my quiet cousin, Clive, who was 14, but huge for his age and quite mature, on the verandah. We were probably both in love with her. Our eyes met as if we both knew and neither was going to admit it.
The girls were in their room, discussing us and what we would do the next day. When we had almost finished the meal and had opened up some bottles of Zimbabwean Stein Lager beers, Rick heard a noise in the bushes to the right. He was so convinced of it he went off with Tom to investigate.
'There's water buffalo here!' he cried.
We all rushed to join him. In the bushes, perhaps 20 meters from us slow ambling grinding movement of huge beasts could be heard and in full moonlight the glint of red eyes could be seen through the thickness of the bush. Slowly they headed towards us and the fire. Tom called us all back. I was the last to leave. I stood there, by the fire as one of the beasts came within 20 feet of me. The young sister was staring at me on the verandah.
Tawny wet grey black weathered skin covered the beast and those huge flaring nostrils with heavy rasping breath. It drooled. I could see the huge long sharp curving horns that perched as if they were barely joined, but instead resting above the skull of the beast. Those red glowing eyes looked at me with disinterested curiosity and it ambled a few paces closer. I did not feel afraid for it was like a large ox. But she knew and she stood there heart beating fast, anticipating...
Tom yelled anger in his voice. 'Get back here. And I mean it!'
I slowly walked back and up the verandah steps to where they all were clustered. Tom began a long lecture. She was watching me and Tom to see who was the man. He was all of 21 and her sister was in love with him and she in adoration for this charming yet slightly unscrupulous hero warrior they had all grown up with. But the other woman in the party was after Tom from his university. Coarse and demanding and not particularly pretty, and he was flirting with her.
'Are you crazy?' It was Sally, the older sister who spoke and concern was in her voice.
'It could have charged you. Not many people survive when a water buffalo charges them.' Tom looked at me with a seriousness I had not seen before. I looked at him and thought is he scared. And he saw my doubt.
'If you don't believe me ask some other people! Good rangers have died in the bush from wounds inflicted by water buffalo!' He stared at me. 'Rangers fear these creatures more than they do lions and elephants. When a water buffalo charges it skewers its prey with those long horns. They're temperamental!'
My face began to redden. The rest of the party looked on from the verandah now regarding me as a fool and the young sister laughed. That night I slept in the room protected from the few mosquitoes by the net. Clive was in a bed next to mine. I dreamed of water buffalo and her.
It rose in a majestic yellow haze that seemed to almost float above the heavy mist that came from the tumbling falls in the dawn. Tom told us we were lucky, in full flow the spray from the Zambezi usually prevents you from even being able to see the falls, but the rivers was so low this summer that now you could see it clearly. She ran ahead of Clive and me now deliberately ignoring me after the buffalo encounter and my humiliating back down. Tom and Rick definitely considered themeselves a cut above me and Clive, kind of heading off without us, making patronising comments and playing on their older age. I began to explore the area by myself kind of sick of their antics only to be joined by Clive and then the missionary who Tom had already cynically disparaged his faith with opportune wit whilst giving a pupported deferential respect to a person's religious beliefs - all cunningly timed to amuse the girls. We were on the opposite cliff face to the rift where the falls gushed over. A large volcanic rockface lead to a drop falling three hundred and fifty feet and then the swirling torrent of the Zambezi crushed into that narrow valley, that crack in the earth, the ancient fault line.
Thirty three thousand cubic feet per second of it. The young sister walked straight to the edge of the cliff with the others, where the rocks were slippery from spray and I felt sick as I watched her, not particularly caring about whether Tom toppled over the edge as he posed fearlessly jumping from boulder to rock. The Falls themselves were over a mile wide and the water appeared murky brown before it began its slow white tumble into thin air. It was not possible to see where it hit the river, because on its impact the clouds of spray shot up at least 50-100 feet.
A sort of fine moss covered a quite delicate tropical rainforest grew in this mist. High in the distance one could just see the cut up flow of the rapids of the river itself before it overflowed down the falls. Hippopotamus or crocodiles that meandered too far down the river would never survive that swift dragging current.
I took a flight in one of those small light planes, a Cessna, that so often are found near these tourist attractions. The others could not afford or were not willing to take the ride. She watched as the plane bumped over the grassy strip and finally lumbered into the air. So I flew alone apart from some tourists with their large cameras and zoom lenses. In a circle over the falls. From the air one could see the full extent of the zig zagging fault line that stretched away to the East in small canyons.
One and three quarter kilometers wide, twice the size and depth of Niagara, the Kololo-Lozi people called it "the Smoke that Thunders ; Mosi-ao-tunya" . And to the west and north the wide languid flow of the slow Zambezi as it pushed its way in gentle curves through land that was not quite bush and not quite jungle. I could hear her laughter and thought why had I not asked her to join me. The pilot circled the plane a few times in the 20 minutes or was it only ten. He was a middle aged Rhodesian who was just trying to make a buck, he had seen a few years in the war and now just wanted peace of mind.
The next day we drove to the Safari Park. She sat in the back talking to Sally as if she had not a care in the world. I turned behind to try and smile at her, but she ignored me. The road was long, well kept and sealed and it took us about an hour and a half to get to the gates of the Hwange (Wankie) Safari Park. I inquired further about the broken speedometer and was very quietly informed by Sally that as we were being charged for each kilometer it was better that it stayed broken. The safari park itself could only be explored following dirt roads.
5,600 square miles of park stretching to the Botswanan border and the infamous Kalahari desert. For the first hour we wandered in the van along various tracks that Tom seemed to know or was just guessing as to their destination. Through the hardwood Zimbabwean teak, muleua trees and wild thorn bushes we slowly drove trying to spot wildebeest, gazelles, impala and giraffe. Then suddenly out of the car window we spotted the preposterously long necked giraffe right next to some zebra.
But the old African lion and the huge wild elephants we never saw. As much as I wished we saw these magnificent yet fairly sleepy beasts, these shots are from the Harare Zoo of lions and were taken a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately because of the war and the chaos of the current government they were still being poached. And I sat in the back of the car and tried to not feel anguish as I sensed her feline presence behind me.
She thought she spotted a herd of zebra and we jumped out of the van to try and get a look, but they were too far in the distance to tell. But later they came up to the car and grazed with birds on their backs.
http://www.sitatours.com courtesy SITA World Travel
We drove on and a large herd of small timid deer popped into sight as we rolled round a corner. They bounded off with languid grace, sticking their heads round every now and then as if to confirm that they were still meritable enough to be chased. We found out later they were probably koodoo, large white stripped spiral horned antelope. I tried to talk to her, but she moved away. Her short white neat dress pressing against her small pert breasts in the breeze. And I had this sinking feeling of nerves in my stomach that time was running out and I had lost my opportunity and there was nothing I could do to change that. I felt isolated from the group as if my presence was spoiling their fun; I wasn't as smart witted and cynical to be able to entertain them and I got the feeling that some of them were deliberately disparaging my comments to boost their own egos - sensing the girls' attention was at stake. The young missionary came over seeming to sense my pain and empathise and made light talk, but that too annoyed me. Anger was boiling up in me and I suppressed it. Jealousy every time she talked to the older guys who she tried to flirt with. The dynamic was strange as the older girls pushed her away from the guys. She didn't want me, so ironically she too was a little frustrated. Clive watched me fascinated by it all yet also carefully observing her perhaps to see if he too had a chance. On top of this I felt Sally was in love with Tom and he wasn't interested, so there was the same air of sadness coming from her as the English girl flirted with him. I couldn't help but feel beneath all the civilisation were a pack of young bulls eying up the cows. We ended up having a picnic lunch at the huge old American '60s style ranch and safari hotel that was now deserted and decaying in amongst the acacias and enormous twisted stems of the baobab trees. All trying to smile and make polite conversation, as seduction as thick as the African veldt tensed the air, each of us in our own way frustrated in a dynamic of unrequited infatuation with a person who wanted another or was out of bounds. All of us part of the lost colonial empire, the white youth of it that like the lodge was falling apart into a darker corruption and a new modern world where old values were diminishing fast.
Back in the van and out of the blue a bunch of ostriches peered in, then flapped their wild dresses of black and white feathers and huffed off. No, I tell a lie, these snaps were taken at the Harare Zoo as well. We stopped for a break next to some jungle growth and flowers. She leaned against the rich red earth and breathed in long heavy breaths of the pungent aroma from the greeny-white, black speckled stems that became the stiff white and bright pink petals of the tube like flower of orchadis zimbabwe africanus as I named it on the spur of the moment. The white Zimbabwean. Not bothered whether terrorists wandering this safari park would meet us, she was too full of youthful exhilaration. And in that respect the flower was like her, beautiful young and white yet untouchable - that can be viewed with desire and awe but never picked. I sat silently in the car letting them run the show thinking of her and all that I wanted to be. Rick drove the car back in a wild manner too fast. That night we went to the Zimbabwe Sun Casino and Rick seemed in a game with Tom, each trying to out do the other in wit and charm - cynical one up manship as they blatantly showed off to the adoring girls - posing in exaggerated postures with their sunglasses like Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart and doing voice impersonations of them which even made shy me laugh. They were truly off the wagon downing lagers. Rick proposed a sure fire winning method to gamble and quickly lost a hundred dollars trying his method of doubling the stakes on one colour in Roulette. The next day a hung over group left by the same steam train. We looked at the steel suspension bridge that led other trains and a road across the Zambezi's canyon to the wilder lands of Zambia, where rumours of atrocity were prevalent.
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Back in Bulawayo we were met by families and in the car my uncle looked at me. "Did you get her?" And I thought of the white Zimbabwean, the most rare and untouchable, the unrequited love of the orchadis zimbabwe africanus or Brachycorythis Lasti.
Clive and me back in 1983 with my aunt's dogs
After Smith and his Rhodesian government made peace, a civil war broke out between the elected black government of Mugabe (ZANU) and Nokomo's liberation front (ZAPU) in Bulawayo, Matabeleland, of which I was there during the tail end. Peace prevailed for over a decade, but then Magabe went a bit mad. Now, 33 years on, Zimbabwe is not free from all conflict due to the repression of the dictator Magabe, the white population has largely been driven from the country including all my relatives, farmers and police, which from being rich is now impoverished, however it is safe to travel in this tourist region. You can fly to Harare from Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, approx. A$1800-2400 return. Local connections can be arranged to reach Victoria Falls, or Bulawayo if you wish to enjoy a spectacular overnight steam train ride to the Falls. Exploring the famous Hwange/Wankie Safari Park bordering Botswana is also possible being only two hours drive away. The Victoria Falls Hotel we visited is now a mere A$862 for a two night standard package for one person alone, riverside bungalows A$45 a night.
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