We flew from Nairobi into a shiny new Chinese-built empty airport at Victoria Falls. A clean comfortable air conditioned minibus whisked us off to our safari lodge about an hour away in the town of Victoria Falls. The town’s main street could have belonged to an American tourist town – lined tastefully with souvinier shops, restaurants, a supermarket, lodges, and a steam locomotive drawn train that ran sunset and dinner rides. Our lodge was about 10 minutes out of town and had a multi-tiered main building with a pool and restaurants, bars and observation decks overlooking a watering hole that was floodlit during dinner so you could see the visitors who came for a drink of water.
We went down to see the “vulture cutlure” event. Moses told an audience of about 25 people a bit about vultures and how they are endangered – mostly because of poachers. When they kill elephants or rhino, the circling vutlures give the position of the poachers away to the anti-poaching military units. So the poachers poison the kill which has resulted in hugely decreased vulture populations. Moses brought out a cooler filled with raw meat from the lodge’s kitchens and emptied the contents out on the dirt. The vultures know this happens every afternoon at 13:00 and they were circling like, well – vultures. In about a minute what looked like over a hundred vultures of several species and the gangly balding dare I say ugly marabu storks were on the ground pecking and fighting for the meat. Science lesson of the day for Vivian and Evan.
Victoria Falls, the actual waterfall, is the reason for the season. The real name of the falls is Mosi-Oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. But except by locals it is called by the name of its dead colonizer empress. Falls are measured by their height, width, and volume of water. Victoria Falls isn’t the tallest, widest, or greatest by volume. But when all three are considered together, according to their publicity department, it comes in first. Iguasu and Niagra are second and third respectively. The Zambazi river tumbles about 100 m down one side of a deep steep narrow cravase caused by a volcanic lava flow a couple of million years ago. To observe the falls you walk along one or the other side of the gorge. The dry side facing the river is in Zimbabwe. The international border is down in the middle of the gorge. The river side is in Zambia. We were on the Zimbabwe side. Just a bit up-river there is a point where four countries meet. In addition to Zambia and Zimbabwe, there’s Namibia and Botswana. Not countries I would be able to say much about.
When the river is full during the rainy season, water flows over the entire length of the gorge. This was the driest our guide has ever seen the river in his 30-something year old life. Only parts of the gorge had water flowing over. Entire islands had arisen out of the river on the edge of the falls. But it was still pretty darn impressive. On the Zambia side, dare devels can take a trip to Devil’s Pool – a natural pool of water on the very edge of the falls (if you look carefully to the right of Jo’s head in the photo below, you’ll see Devil’s Pool with a few people). Vivian expressed interest in going there. Evan held Jo or my hand every time we got close to the edge of the gorge (most overlook spots didn’t have guard rails or obstacles of any sort). Same family, raised the same way, very different risk appetites.
One morning we went across the land border to Botswana to spend the day at Chobe National Park. On the Botswana side of a small town called Kazungula, we saw a lot of trucks. A bridge is being built across the Zambazi to connect Botswana to Zambia. Meanwhile, trucks are ferried one at a time across the river. The line of trucks is 20 km long. Trucks wait a month to cross.
Chobe is considered one of Botswana’s leading parks. Our guide must have had a set path – we went on a loop along the river and then back up through the interior of the park. Compared to what we had gotten used to in Tanzania and Kenya, Chobe (or perhaps it’s just our guide/tour company) needs work.
Botswana has the largest population of elephants in Africa and is recognized as a leader in conservation efforts. We got to see the elephants close up. Hidden in the brush, we saw a calf that our guide estimated was a week or two old. As soon as the mother saw our 4×4, she protectively rushed towards her baby.
A little bit later we saw similar behavior from a herd. As we approached them, we could see two young calfs. By the time they were closer, they had protectively surrounded the kids. Look at the two photos below taken within seconds of one another and see how the babies have been protected in the second photo. We now call this the elephant formation and when we are in dodgy places like Cape Town and we need a little more security, I mutter “elephant” and Evan and Vivian get in between Jo and me.
There’s one more thing I’l like to point out in these three photos. Elephant boobs. We’ve noticed calves suckling on mother elephants before but I had no idea what they were reaching for. If you don’t have as sharp an eye for elephant boobs as I do, look at the elephant on the right in the first photo and look between her font legs at her – well – breast. And in the next photo look behind her front leg. I have added a third photo if you still need help.
Elephants pay attention to their skin. Here’s a video of an elephant kicking up some mud and them giving himself a mud bath. Whole herds do this often. While it’s great for their skin, the area around waterholes and rivers look like craters on the moon. Animals besides humans also change their physical surroundings, though not as dractically.
After a hot morning at Chobe (this is the first time I’ve been uncomfortably hot in Africa – though it is still cooler than in Texas), we took an afternoon boat safari on the Chobe river along the islands bordering the park. We got close to wildlife like crocodiles, elephants, buffalo, hippo, and a lot of birds. That made up for a guide who didn’t say much. Vivian couldn’t give a shit and she mostly slept.
Another thing about elephants is that they are fastidious eaters. An elephant can eat up to 300 kg of food every day and drink 200 liters of water. But the food’s got to be clean. This elephant is carefully washing the dirt and grit off a clump of grass before eating it – to take care of its teeth. If its teeth don’t make it, the elephant can’t eat all that food that it needs, and then it dies.
Speaking of dying, Mugabe died in Singapore earlier today. On the drive back from Chobe in Botswana to our lodge in Zimbabwe, our driver who is Zimbabwian spoke about life under Mugabe. Our driver, who I won’t name, is an atriculate speaker – even Vivian and Evan sat up and listened. He told us what it felt like when a lifetime of savings vanishes overnight due to hyper inflation. At it’s worst, one USD was worth more than 80 billion Zimbabwain dollars, and then the government just killed it’s own currency with no warning, leaving it’s citizens peniless. Much of the economic collapse of the country started with Mugabe’s land reforms which took profitable working farms away from white Zimbabwains and redistributed them to black Zimbabwians with no farming experience, he said. And he bitterly added that Mugabe’s friends and family got the best land. Unemployment is over 80% and the few working people support their families, parents (who lost their pensions), and their communities. After using a collection of foreign currencies for the last decade (our restaurant bill lists the total in multiple currencies), Zimbabwe recently floated a new currency again. But banks and ATMs don’t have any cash. People get paid by direct deposit into banks. And then they use barter or debit cards to buy stuff. Which is fine, except that everyone still remembers the last time the banks and the government screwed them over, so let’s say there is some PTSD. I asked our driver if he expects his children will see a better tomorrow. He wasn’t hopeful. He mentioned how the new president had ordered the army to open fire on civilians during demonstrations earlier this year. Currently protests are banned in Zimbabwe. Some Zimbabwians are thinking fondly back to the Mugabe days. Social studies lesson of the day for Vivian and Evan.