"Are you feeling a bit peckish?" Dave Christenson asks, as our canoes slip silently along the banks of the Zambezi River. "Or are you as scrawl as four dogs?" which in great white hunter means,"Or are you starving?"
In the early morning light the Zambezi is like a mirror. "We'll float around the next corner," he says. "This may be the closest we'll get to hippos." And there they are clustered sleepily a few yards away. Suddenly there's a roar and a mammoth head surges out of the water, its great jaws agape.
"Just letting us know he's here," Dave comments.
THE GUIDES OF ZIMBABWE
Dave Christenson is a professional guide in Zimbabwe. At 27 he has served a four year apprenticeship, passed rigorous written tests and one in the bush that included facing down a charging elephant. The ultimate final exam.
For three hours and more we thread hyacinth-choked channels or hug the banks skirting congregations of sausage-shaped behemoths with suitcase mouths. Then when we are well and truly as scrawl as four dogs, we beach the canoes, set canvas chairs in a semi-circle facing the slow moving water and start a fire for breakfast.
Three years later I'm back in Zimbabwe, talking about Dave Christenson with Emslie Law. Lee apprenticed with Dave, learning to lead canoe safaris as well as backing him up on the game walks which are a speciality of the guides of Zimbabwe.
"We were doing a walk in Mana," Lee says, "advancing on an elephant. It picked up the movement and charged. Dave shouted at him but it became clear it wasn't going to stop."
As Lee shepherded most of the clients out of danger, Dave followed more slowly with an elderly man. "I looked back," Lee says, "saw Dave spin around and shoot. When it fell the elephant's trunk hit his leg. Dave was fine until he got on his own. Then he was all shook up."
"I was waiting for someone to say, 'Too bad you had to shoot him,' Lee continues, "but nobody did. Maybe once every 2 or 3 years a guide has to kill an animal. Whenever he does he feels awful."
It's a sentiment I hear repeatedly from every guide I speak to. "I hate killing animals," Mike Rooney says. "Once I get my license I never want to do it again, except to save human life."
Mike is a young guide at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, whose luxurious chalets overlook the spreading waters of Lake Kariba. Having passed the two written tests which qualify him to lead game drives, all that remains is the tough proficiency exam for him to be taking guests on
walks in the bush. "Next year," he says. "I'll pass it first time."
From my porch at Bumi Hills I see dozens of animals far below on the flatlands that extend from the shore. In the early morning Mike drives us through a wasteland of trees uprooted by elephants. Suddenly we emerge from the woods and Lake Kariba sprawls before us, running to the horizon. Waterbuck grazing at the water's edge stop to stare. At their feet low-mown grass feathers the red sand. As we drive toward a herd of impala a female warthog comes trudging by, pauses and drops on her knees to snout up the earth for roots. Finally she decides to notice us and trots off. "There's the antenna," says Mike, as her tail reaches for the sky.
"Look at that mixing of animals," he says. Zebra, elephants, buffalo, impala, waterbucks, warthogs and a host of exotic birds share the shoreline. The animal kingdom before our eyes.
With tossing tusks and flapping ears, two young male elephants plow through a great herd of dusky water buffalo, routing the ones in their path. Knee deep in the lake another pulls up a reed, swishes it in the water to wash off the dirt and daintily places it in his mouth.
Now the herd ambles past the land rover, almost close enough to touch, stopping at a mud wallow. They dip in their trunks and splat their bellies. Two babies head for the fun and topple over on their sides, squirming with delight. The adults move away to give them room, exactly what the calves had in mind.
"A chum and I were sleeping out a while ago," Mike tells us. "Suddenly I heard him shout, 'Mike! Mike!' I woke up and saw him hopping away, his sleeping bag around his legs. I looked up and looming over me was a huge cow with her calf and I thought, 'This is my day.'"
"But she put her trunk around the calf, and almost apologetically backed away," Mike says. "She had come over to my friend and pulled at his leg. That's what woke him up. When it was over we were so excited we could hardly talk for a day."
Mike's immediate boss at Bumi Hills is 28 year old Andy Williamson. Over a Tusker beer he explains how he became a fully licensed guide "First you apprentice yourself to the guides," he says. "Then you take the learner guide license exam. If you pass you start taking clients out on game drives. That's when you find out if your cut out for it or not."
"At the end of the second year you take the full guides-hunters license," Andy says. The practical test is a five day safari with National Parks examiners and professional guides and hunters acting as clients. You take them for a walk in the bush, approaching dangerous animals and getting everyone away safely. The next day they'll put a different group with you. It's quite nerve-wracking."
The phrase, "Jungle Lane" is one I've often heard, but only now is it explained. "You have two examiners behind you," says Andy. "One will push you and shout, 'There's a buffalo charging you!' A target pops up and you have to shoot. If a guy is unfamiliar with his weapon it shows on the Jungle Lane."
"After that you do hunting. The examiners will try to get an elephant to charge you." Seeing the expression on my face Andy assures me, "People don't get hurt."
By your 30's you want to be managing," Andy says, "not just guiding. Otherwise it doesn't really pay, not enough for a family." Fraser Kanhema would probably disagree. A guide from the Shona tribe, Fraser supports his wife, five children and his parents. "I don't mind," he says. "Most Africans have extended families."
Fraser is one of a new generation of Zimbabwe guides. "It took time after independence to learn what we could do," he says. "I got employed as a simple driver. I read, went with the guides and slowly, slowly I got the experience. You have to know birds, animals, trees, fish, everything. It's a bit challenging. But when I passed, it meant I was challenging, too. Recently I went to Harare to take the written test for the professional license."
Fraser drives into the Kaburi Wilderness on a hot Sunday afternoon. Except for a flock of guinea hens, a couple of zebras and numerous red-billed hornbills, there is little to see. "No animals today," he says. "There're all in church." Until we pull out of the woods into the middle of an immense herd of cape buffalo on their way to drink at the lake. Startled, they stampede and thunder by, two, three, four hundred, plunging through a maelstrom of dust.
Masuwe Lodge is a small, luxury retreat near the bustle of Victoria Falls. At 7 P.M. it's pitch black on the porch that overhangs the forest. The stars are few tonight, but shine with an impossible brilliance. From a nearby tree comes the "listen-to-me, dammit!" scream of a dog-faced baboon. Seconds later a tree comes crashing to the ground, no longer in the way of an elephant. Just another night in Zimbabwe.
Simon Mawadzure is a Shona who works at the Hide, a luxurious tented safari lodge at the edge of Hwange National Park. "I did the plumbing here," he laughs. "I stayed and tried my hand at guiding. "That's how it started. But I grew up hearing stories about animals from my grandparents. The lion signified the gods. If an elephant raided your crops it was a sign of punishment. If you saw a python and it stayed still it meant good hunting."
"Each time I go out I see something different and exciting," Simon says. "The other day I took people on a drive and there was a pride of 11 lions that had pulled a kudu to the side of the road. Suddenly there was a roar and two enormous lions came rushing at us. I could feel the vehicle tilting to the far side and heard screams and curses. But there was no chance they would jump us. They just wanted to scare us. We obliged and drove off."
The "hide" at the Hide is an in-ground pillbox with a narrow slit opening on a waterhole a few yards away. Inside, I sit alone on a padded bench and wait. Out of the woods steps a magnificent sable, a royal black and white stag carrying two enormous back-curved horns. As the sable steps warily to the water, eight zebras follow close behind. Sensing the coast is clear, they dip their heads and drink. A spindly newborn nurses just feet away from where I am sitting.
I go to bed in a tent with two single beds, wicked chests and a separate bathroom and shower. In the dark of night I'm awakened. Propping myself on an elbow I see just outside a massive mother elephant and her calf. They wait patiently for another mother and baby to come from the waterhole, then all four slowly lumber off into the darkness.
Mark McAdam carries a 416 Winchester slung over his shoulder next morning for our walk in the bush. Mark is old for a guide, early 40's perhaps. He sports a ginger mustache, khaki shorts and shirt, is of ordinary height and build and, as we will soon discover, extraordinary courage.
At first Mark seems somewhat humorless. Then he attaches a small pouch to his finger. "Ground rhino horn," he says looking deep into the bush. "For good luck." He reads our faces, smiles and confesses. "It's an ash bag. To show the direction of the wind. A lot more use than a rifle."
We walk through a grove of acacia trees on sand blown in from the Kalahari Desert thousands of years ago. Clumps of elephant dung are strewn about like cannon balls. Mark kneels down and breaks one apart. "You can tell how recent they are," he says. "They stay warm for about 15 minutes. You just stick your finger in the middle. We don't get many takers.
Our path is on one of many perfectly formed elephant trails radiating through low-growing shrubs and widely spaced trees. Very soon we learn to avoid the bushes with pretty fern-like leaves and sharp hidden thorns. Mark leads us - two guests and one apprentice guide - for a half hour or so, stopping to point out interesting, but hardly exciting, local features. Just as I've resigned myself to a pleasant walk in the bush, we hear the elephants.
"Touch this," Mark says. I put my hand against a piece of green, moist dung. It's hot. Suddenly a trumpet blasts, loud, sharp and very close ahead. Immediately, too soon for me to collect my wits, another answers behind us. Mark stops us with a move of his hand. "Stay close," he whispers. "If we have to retreat, go slowly. Look around because there may be others behind you. Don't panic."
The plan is to position ourselves so we can see the animals without them seeing us. While Mark is speaking a grey-black ridge appears above a low tree, moving quickly to the left. For a moment it's gone, then, without warning, a head whips into the opening in front of us, ears flapping, and again the trumpet sounds. No question, it's the signal to retreat.
With an ear-shattering bellow the elephant lunges forward. We stumble backwards, eyes fixed on the huge head and long white tusks coming at us faster than anything that big has a right to. Suddenly the elephant stops. Mark has remained facing him. "Stay right there," he says - to the elephant, not to us. We regroup behind Mark but again the animal charges us and again we scatter, hearts pounding, breath coming in shallow gasps. Judging from the blood on my arms and legs, I've forgotten about pretty leaves and hidden thorns.
Once more the elephant stops but much closer than before. Then he screams and hurtles toward us. This time Mark raises his rifle. I hear the click of the safety being released and the bullet being placed in the chamber. Roaring with rage, the elephant crashes to within 10 yards of Mark, stops, wheels around, and before I know it is gone. We look around until we're reasonably certain we're safe. Only then can
we think about what's happened.
"It was a young bull," Mark says. I notice that he too is breathing hard. "About the age when the females chase them from the herd. He was trying to communicate with the others. Then he saw us."
"That was very serious," he says. "You've seen something hardly anyone ever experiences. He was obviously worked up and disturbed."
"That makes two of us," I think. "Could you have stopped him?"
"With this gun, yes," Mark says. "But it's the last thing I would want to do."
Much later, when nothing is left of the experience but a persistent reverberating terror, I ask several guides if courage is a necessary qualification for the job. To a man they avoid the question.
"It's a matter of training, experience," Lee says, "I think if you talked to Mark after the elephant incident you'd find he was in a mild state of shock. At the time he probably felt no fear at all."
"Bravery goes into it," Simon Mawadzure says. "But you have to be sensible. You need a mind that is always operating so as to be decisive in any situation."
So I'm left to my own conclusions. Would the elephant have stopped if Mark hadn't been there to face him down? I'll never know. Does a guide in Zimbabwe need steady nerves, coolness under pressure, quick reflexes and, most important of all, courage?
Yes to all the above.
Bumi Hills is an extremely comfortable safari lodge with separate large stone units whose porches have views of Lake Kariba and the game feeding by the shore. Tel. (263 4)736644.
The Hide is a luxury safari lodge with 8 individual tents overlooking a water hole in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's largest. Set in a private annex, it is its own uncrowded world. Tel. (263-4) 660554/5/6. E-mail: email@example.com.
Masuwe Lodge is a rustic small retreat with luxurious tented accomodations close to, but away from the bustle of Victoria Falls. It offers fine dining as do all the recommended safari lodges. Tel. (113) 4699/426512. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Touch the Wild owns 4 lodges in Hwange, also on private land. Tel (2639) 74589, 44566. E-mail: email@example.com.
Detema Safari Lodge Another fine lodge featuring luxury treehouse accomodations. Tel. (263 18) 256/7.
Hwange National Park Cottages: All the national parks in Zimbabwe provide comfortable accomodations at very reasonable prices. In Hwange a 4 bed cottage costs less than $20 per day. A very nice if plain lodge is less than $30. Off season - October, November, February and June are half price. A driving pass for 7 days costs about $10 and is good in all parks.
GAME DRIVES AND WALKS:
An integral part of all safari lodges. Licensed guides offer a variety of game experiences in vehicles, on foot, and on lake Kariba in boats.
HOW TO GET THERE:
British Airways, 800 247-9297, flies non-stop from many American cities to London. Air Zimbabwe flies from London to Harare, Zimbabwe's capitol city and between cities in the country. Tel. 800 932-3941 for Eastern states, 800 228-9485 for Midwest and Western states.
WHEN TO COME:
August and September are excellent months for game viewing with weather dry and comfortable. October has the best game viewing but can be very hot. During the rainy season - November to mid- March - game viewing is least good. May and June are the best canoeing months on the Zambezi River. They are also the coldest months. Seasons are reversed, summer being November to April.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Warm clothes are a requirement in winter. Heavy pyjamas are needed in unheated safari camps (even with hot water bottles.) Wear khaki or earth colored clothing on safari. White articles attract animals' attention. Take comfortable shoes for walking. Very casual clothing is acceptable everywhere.
Multiply estimated film requirements by two. If you think you'll need 10 rolls, bring 20. At airports ask to have film hand-examined. Try not to pass it through X-rays. Bring binoculars (very useful), a flashlight, sunscreen, hat with visor or cap, travel alarm clock. Tips of 10% are expected by taxi drivers, porters and in hotels and restaurants. Gratuities to guides are at your discretion. Larium is recommended for protection against malaria, starting one week prior to the trip. Check with your doctor. Tap water in Zimbabwe is safe to drink.
Lonely Planet Travel Survival Guide to Zimbabwe, Botswana & Namibia. The Rough Guide to Zimbabwe.
Some of the many tour operators with trips to Zimbabwe include African Portfolio, the only American tour operator with its own operations in Zimbabwe. Telephone 800 700-3677. Abercrombie & Kent, 800 323-7308. International Expeditions, 800 633-4734. Journeys, 313 665-4407. Mountain Travel Sobek, 800 227-2384. Wilderness Travel, 510 548-0420. Wildlife Safari, 800 221-8118. In Zimbabwe: Shearwater Safaris, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. UTC, e-mail: email@example.com.