Thursday, November 15, 2012

Creature Comforts

Another deadline stares me in the face and since I cannot yet meet its eyes, my attention darts here and there. Let me put up this story of a river (and continent) I loved very much.


Creature Comforts

There is something about great rivers, and there is something particularly special about the Zambezi. Wide, life-giving, embracing but also ferocious, and imperious in that manner of sweeping all before it. It is impossible to know – or love – a river such as this too well. And certainly not on the basis of a two-day acquaintance. But then, as lovers everywhere know, it depends on the two days.

Oddly, what I found most impressive was the fact that Zambezi, which traverses a distance of 3,540 km, and crosses seven countries to empty into the Indian Ocean, is only the fourth-longest river in Africa. It duly takes its place after Nile, Zaire and Niger – a little comparative study that brought home to me, firsthand, the magnitude of this land. I had read of colonial travellers’ term for the vast swathes of this continent. MMBA, they had called it, in part awe, part rueful frustration – Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa. I could see it now.

Our headquarters in Livingstone, Zambia, was the Royal Livingstone, a hotel located at a particularly well appointed spot on the banks, with a view of the Zambezi just before it hurtles down a chasm to form the magnificent Victoria Falls. The hotel’s lobby is designed to make most of this vantage: you walk in and gaze not upon the room (which is tasteful) but through the other archway which frames the blue-grey expanse of the water. Everywhere, in the dining areas, the charming rooms with their open verandas, the architecture employs an intelligent, pitch-perfect permeability between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Our very first item on the sightseeing list was, naturally, the Victoria Falls, ‘the largest sheet of falling water’ on the planet. Actually we’d been seeing it for miles. On the flight in, the flight attendant’s plummy tones had directed us to look out of our windows to the mist rising off ‘Vic Falls.’ Then as we drove from the airport with the river a constant presence on our right, we pulled up to see a soaring froth in the distance and a brilliant rainbow caught in its snare. From the hotel’s deck, again, in the distance, the spray. It was, without question, the centrepiece.

We moved closer now and the sound of cascading water deafened us. Mosi-oa-tunya, the Makololo people call it: ‘the smoke that thunders’. It does indeed. As we approached the eastern cataract, Francis, our guide, pointed into the water. A black rotund sleekness surfaced slowly - a young hippo marooned by the swirling currents, not strong enough to wade to the other side, clinging to the less turbulent shallows by the reeds. He could be there for days, we were told.

We donned raingear, protected our cameras and lenses in plastic covers and started walking to the other side of the fissure. And around a corner, our first frontal view of the waterfall. Through shrubbery at first and then, as we picked our way along the edge of the gorge, getting wetter and wetter from the needle spray, the whole amazing expanse of it. It is a breathtaking sight, one neither our cameras nor our exclamations could do justice to. Let’s put it this way: it’s bigger than us.

We went the next morning on a quintessential African activity – a game drive. The Mosi-o-tunya National Park is a small one (66sq km) but it gave us a full morning’s sightings. How astonishing it is to set out to see fauna in Africa – there is no lurking, hiding; no strained glimpses through shaded shrubbery… there’re all out there, in the open, crossing your path with impunity. So we saw herds of Impala, Bushback antelope, Wildebeest, Zebra posing this way and that. A Southern Red-billed Hornbill honoured us with multiple sightings, a warthog ambled our way and we encountered a large troop of baboons. I brought my binoculars out to get a good look at a Saddle-billed stork and the strange Hamerkop bird. We came then to a completely denuded tree on which perched an appropriately sinister gathering: a venue of White-backed vultures. We pulled up again at another point – majestic elephants, a small herd of five, would have right of way. Of course.

We didn’t see any big cats but I was delighted enough with my first sighting of a giraffe. What a strange looking animal it is. Put together like an assortment of other creatures and that bizarre neck with a touch of fur all the way down! Our specimen nibbled placidly at the upper leaves, his marbled skin pattern catching the light beautifully. Just like they said in the nature documentaries.
Next, I had a choice of activities. The first, to go by boat to Livingstone Island, to the spot where the explorer David Livingstone first discovered the falls in 1855. I was tempted but I opted for the other item on offer: to jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge.

After the falls, the Zambezi gushes into this narrow scenic gorge which has this historic bridge across it – a no-man’s land that connects Zambia with Zimbabwe. I was excited about this bungee jump. My very first, and so pleasing to do such a celebrated one!  As we drew to the bridge, however, the anticipation turned into dry-mouthed dread. I looked down and saw… way, way down… the teal blue waters swirl and churn. Around me jumpers were getting into harness and taking off to plummet 111m towards the river. My turn came. I was having my feet bound with padding and the bungee cord, and was asked to move, hopping, to the edge… the very edge of the platform. I twitched nervously but with the jump master blocking my passage backwards, there was no way but forward – into thin air.

I didn’t… couldn’t… soar outwards like I was advised to. Instead I fell with a scream like dead weight. I went first, the body followed, the stomach joined us several minutes later. It was truly beautiful… suspended upside down, being tossed up and down in the ravine, twirling around to see a fully circular rainbow from the spray.

Yet another view of the falls was afforded me the next day, when I went up in a micro light. It’s a vehicle too flimsy to be taken seriously but miraculously, it worked. There I was, insulated like an astronaut against the morning chill, looking down this way and that. What seemed like grey boulders were strewn about abundantly – elephants! A vein of silver-blue picked out the Zambezi’s course and soon we were motoring –inevitably –towards the falls. The small plane tilted into the spray, which rises on average to about half a kilometre in the air. The cataracts sprawled across 1.7 km, thundering down over 100m. I saw the bridge I had leaped off the previous day and marvelled anew at my own daring.

It was a good way to say goodbye, and now South Africa beckoned. Rather, more specifically, Sun City. A three-hour, cramping drive from Johannesburg deposited us at the entrance of the Palace of the Lost City – which is an experience that is at once dazzling and bemusing. Opulence meets quirkiness in this wild Xanadu-like hotel – sweeping halls, tiled mosaic on the floor, ceiling… everywhere. Spires, domes, columns, sculptures, tapestries, genuine animal skin upholstery… everything at once.

Sun City is a huge hit with Indian travellers who have made their presence felt, one way or the other. And we very nearly added to it. Bart, a gametracker at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, was scheduled to meet us at 3.00 that afternoon. But we’d had a rough day, worsened by a small accident on the Segway and consequently, it was an hour later that we trooped to the game vehicle. Our guide was furious. After informing us that punctuality was a trait much prized in South Africa, he laid down the Indian-tourist-specific rules: “This vehicle stops when I want it to, moves when I decide. So don’t ‘chalo, chalo’ me. There is no ‘chalo, chalo.’” Oops!

But the afternoon improved. Sighting a lioness in the distance as we had only just entered the park set the seal: it was going to be a good day. The Pilanesberg reserve is set in the crater of a long extinct volcano: plains fringed by mountains. The habitat is a transition between the Kalahari and the Lowveld, and so benefits from an overlap of species. To the eye, it was a vivid, dramatic panorama that changed moods every twenty minutes as the afternoon went by.

In the distance, we spied a bulky grey figure snoozing. White rhinoceros. Two impressive horns, small flappy ears and over 3,500 kg of mostly muscle. Antelopes we saw an abundance of: the smallish Steenbok and the handsome Kudu. Bart thawed towards us – clearly, tourists as lucky as we appeared to be couldn’t be that bad.

The light had started to slant when suddenly he stepped on the brakes with an excited yelp and pointed.  A leopard high up in a tree, resting delicately and yet, quite comfortably on a mass of foliage. We found the spot with the best view and settled, willing to wait as long as the leopard did. The lone tree and the panther silhouetted against the gathering dusk – it was a moment of unbelievable rightness. A few minutes later, the cat tired of his perch and clambered down, carefully negotiating his way down, clasping the trunk as he backed onto the ground. And then with a last look at us, he leapt across a small stream and melted away into the tall grass.

Elated with our encounter, we headed back to the gates. And stopped again. A brown hyena minced along the side of the road, glassy eyes staring back at our searchlights. It crossed the road and we saw it gone before we set off again. A little further, a traffic jam. Game vehicles had stopped in the middle of the road and a hushed silence – one that indicates a sighting of no ordinary significance – prevailed. Soon the object of their attention became apparent to us. Quite by the road, three lionesses at play. Caught in a pool of cross-lighting from the various game vehicles, the sisters ambled, swiped, nuzzled and gambolled. After five minutes, or perhaps ten, they walked slowly away till the darkness enveloped them. Now it seemed indeed that a visit to Africa was complete.

This was published in Outlook Traveller, October 2012. The link is here

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