The town of Zumbu was like something out of a Wilbur Smith East Africa novel. Although, there was some notable departure from the genuine rurality of northern Zim we’d seen the week before. We found a makeshift marketplace up and down what we could only assume to have been a road. With some interesting music being played over the speakers from the stall behind us, the whole group was spontaneously possessed to begin the most extraordinary of dancing showcases. We first watched as Zandré began his best Beyoncé impression and before long we were all back at making fools of ourselves in front the massive crowd which had by now assembled. My personal highlight from this experience was watching Dean reduce one of the onlookers, a child who couldn’t have been older than 2, to tears by trying to hold hands and entice him to join the dance.
After eventually giving up hope of starting a Zumbu community street flash-mob (not even one person joined us) we tracked down one of the more reliable features of these small rural towns – the shebeen – and made sure we had enough cold water for the long journey back to Harare.
We relished the reintroduction of air-conditioning back into our lives and the return trip went by much faster than the approach had. Harare also signified the brief reinstatement of reliable Wi-Fi into our lives, although we had by now become very comfortable with its absence. We stopped by at Emerald Hill children’s home again for the second instalment of lessons there.
Thanks again to the hospitality of Anesh, Ange and Codi Campbell who hosted us during our 2 nights there. After events in Harare transpired in the manner that they transpired, we made our way off to my most personally anticipated destination of the trip. The legendary Gonarezhou. Place of elephants and described by many as one of the last truly wild places in Africa.
The drive down was upbeat and expectant. The road itself, riddled with potholes, but that only made it all the more memorable. We watched as Lienkie’s energy steadily rose as she guided us through the familiar route through the countryside back to the place she was lucky enough to call home. Once there Lienkie’s parents, Hugo and Elsabé, warmly welcomed us and set us up at the researcher’s camp near the staff quarters. Gonarezhou is unique in that there are very few actual built camps for guests. Gonarezhou’s guests are made just as wild as the park itself. Sleeping in tents (or sometimes without) in the middle of the genuine African wilderness.
We watched the sunset from the van der Westhuizen’s residence. Overlooking the width of the Runde river that seemed to permanently showcase a plethora of elephant, hippo, waterbuck as well as a diverse array of aquatic fowl who had now all come out to celebrate our arrival with us.
One of the first things we noticed about their house was that the master bedroom wasn’t actually in it. They had constructed a small, mostly open room at the extreme of the property that was home exclusively to their bed, at the mercy of the rising sun. Needless to say, we had to be up before 5 the next day to join in on the morning activities with them. Half of us went bird watching with Elsabé, amassing 82 species before breakfast. The other half were generously treated to a flying excursion with Hugo in his agile, 2-seater Husky aircraft. It was an unbelievable experience, especially for me having an affinity with high places and adrenaline. I relished the opportunity to see this most wild of places from such a special vantage point.
We couldn’t have been airborne for more than 60 seconds before Hugo spotted the bird watching crew. He mumbled something about holding on before swooping down to within what seemed like an arm’s length of their cruiser, flipping my tummy around in the process so that I couldn’t do anything to hold back the giggles.
A sea of bushveld flooded view as far as you could see and beyond. Gonarezhou was bigger than I thought, and all things considered, no more than a handful of permanent structures giving company to the 12000 odd elephants and probably similar quantities of baobabs that called this their home. We were lucky enough to see wild dogs and a lioness with 3 cubs in amongst the other game as we flew. There was something distinctly surreal about it and I swore to myself then that this wouldn’t be the last time I did something like this.
As noon approached, we packed the cruiser with the necessary overnight equipment and lots of water and had Lienkie drive us out in the direction of the Chilojo Cliffs. We stopped at our campsite first and realised it looked unsettlingly like just a marginally less dense patch of bush amongst the normally dense bush. After the herds of buffalo had moved out of the way, we set up camp – 9 stretchers, quickest camp set up of my life. Once that was done, we ventured back in the direction we had come, across the sandy riverbed, to where we could get a better vantage of the magnificence of the sheer cliffs that rose out of the ground in front of us. They stood proud from the ground and towered overhead, displaying brightly coloured horizontal strata in earthy shades of red and brown that was a window into the millennia of geological formation.
I went to bed that night worrying an awful lot about the potential attentions of unwanted guests that might have some interest in the exposed feet hanging off the ends of our stretchers. Thankfully, I think we managed to avoid any visitation by animals, successfully waking the next morning still with all our toes, but what we were visited by was some intermittent drizzle. It was mild hilarity at the consideration at 1 am, rain gently falling on our foreheads, of our utter helplessness. We had not brought along with us even a single tent thinking there was no way it would actually rain, and there was absolutely nowhere to hide. Rest assured there was a lot of gratitude when our alarms woke us at 4 the next morning with only mild dampness on the outside of our sleeping bags to show for the night’s concerns, setting the tone nicely for a fantastic day in the park with an exceptionally close encounter with a large elephant bull.
Soon the weekend came to an end and we began preparation for the ensuing lessons. We met with Mr Ezikia Chauki, a representative from the Gonarezhou conservation team who had put together a conservation club at the local primary school.
Since it was school holidays this time of year, we had the school premises to ourselves. Wilfred, one of the teachers, gave us the scope of the place. He had a gentle way about him for such a big man, standing easily clear my 6’2, and he really had a good relationship with the kids. As we looked around the school with him, we couldn’t fathom that this meagre infrastructure could possibly be sufficient to house the 1500 grade 0 to 7 learners that attended. He explained that the kids frequently rotate for classroom space, those in excess forced to shelter under the meagre shade of the thin mopani for cover during class.
The kids we were working with this time were a lot younger than our previous group, most from grade 5 and 6. Their English was a lot better, however, which meant proceedings moved a lot quicker without the need for constant translation. The kids were also very shy, which did prove to be somewhat of a stumbling block because although they were generally very well informed, they seemed reluctant to engage with questions in front of the class. Eugene would be taking the lead on the lessons this week, but Megan and Lienkie had been assigned the duty of the Big 5 lesson for today.
Highlights for the day included some ace group dancing led by our very own ‘Megsimoo,’ who eventually coaxed the shy girls into teaching her their dance routines. We were surprised to learn that the conservation club included a young boy named Philemon, who despite being blind, still made every effort to learn. He introduced himself with a lovely poem about conservation, which was impressively complex, and all recited out of memory.
We watched him come alive as he spoke, leaving us moved and feeling as though, once again, things were just being put into perspective for us.
The girls immediately fell for him and Lienkie took to keeping him company for the rest of the time we spent with the group.
We covered the first 2 lessons by lunchtime, leaving us the afternoon to rest off some of the sunburns we had collected over the previous few days. When 5 o’clock arrived Dean assembled the gang because we had somehow managed to agree to challenge the anti-poaching unit to a game of volleyball! After being thoroughly demolished in the first game, it was to everyone’s surprise (ourselves included) that what turned out to be a tightly contested affair actually ended in victory for the LiC team.
The following day saw us through the last 3 of the formal lessons we would be giving at Chiibwedziva Primary School. Eugene once again at the helm with occasional interjections from Dean keeping the atmosphere dynamic. Xander and Zandré transitioned seamlessly from vets to teachers and also delivered their first lesson “River Systems” with superb quality.
Highlights included finding the ‘hippo’ of the class – the person in the class who could hold their breath for the longest. Watching Philemon in the car, feeling-to-see, he held at absolutely everything he could get his hands on, but he did so with the most tender of touches.
Another of the highlights was the now-famous caterpillar exercise where one lucky participant gets to be wrapped up in wrapping paper and then break out of his cocoon, now wearing our crazy-store-grade butterfly wings, exemplifying metamorphosis. Then Dean, in a moment of inspiration, concocted a sort of hip-hop freestyle which was essentially just the repetition of the word ‘metamorphosis’ on a slightly wobbly rhythm. The kids absolutely loved it and, unfortunately, the rest of us were doomed to have this unwelcome tune stuck in our heads for the rest of the day.
The next day was time for a game drive excursion. We welcomed the kids into Gonarezhou with coffee and biscuits and one of the senior scouts showed them around the barracks, explaining some of the employment opportunities in conservation.
The kids took great fascination with the baobabs and the recently built bridge, which was as big a structure as they had ever seen in their young lives. It was also the first time for most of them seeing an elephant and for some, even impala. During the game drive, Wilfred looked over and thanked us for putting smiles on the faces of the kids during difficult times. That hit a soft spot, we couldn’t imagine many more meaningful comments you could receive in this line of work.
After the excursion had run its course, the reality that our time in Gonarezhou was coming to an end began to set in. It had been a very different dynamic to the week at Chawalo. There had been some discussions amongst the LiC team about facilitating the construction of further classrooms for the school, which we believed would be a massive help to the teachers who were inspirational in the work and dedication they put into their jobs.
We spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to catch ourselves dinner, which was dismally unsuccessful. As the sun dissolved behind the overcast sky, and the void created was replaced by the most ferociously full of moons. We looked up exactly as we had some 14 days ago at Chawalo, only now, instead of the tiniest of silver wisps, the moon was at the zenith of its lunar cycle. A gleaming saucepan in the night sky, light radiating out in concentric circles as it lit up the world around us. We wouldn’t be needing torches tonight. The mottled clouds like clumping sheared wool that converged over the moon but did almost nothing to drown out its brilliance.
There was something distinctly profound about the poetry of it all. Between moons new and full, 2 countries, 69 children and 14 days that felt like a lifetime’s worth of experience and we weren’t done yet. Next, our attention moved to Swaziland. And for Swaziland we held a very special place in our hearts. The scene of our inaugural beyond borders trip, we couldn’t wait to get back for the second instalment of what could now officially be called an annual Swazi trip.