“HANG ON, WE’RE GO1N0 TO HAVE to buzz off the warthogs.” As he eight-seal King Air approaehed the landing strip, our pilot Brian flipped up the mouthpiece of his headset and shouted back to us over the roar of the engines.
Not your everyday flight experience, but then again we were as far away from our everyday experiences as we could get-on the banks of the Zambezi River deep in the pristine wilderness of Northeastern Zimbabwe. I had just traveled halfway around the world with my friend and guide, Tom Stephenson, and bis cantankerous attorney. Roger, on the inaugural excursion of Tom’s latest adventure tour program. The longtime Dallas hunting and fishing man about town, and former Missouri great running back, recently signed on with the internationally renowned Big Five Safaris as agent for U.S. operations. Tom regularly takes groups hunting for exotic game and birds in Central Texas or fishing for salmon in Alaska. Now. he customizes fishing, hunting, and photo safaris in Zimbabwe.
Big Five operates from ils private-ly-owned Chewore North camp, which encompasses 45 miles of Zambezi riverfront, including the spectacular Mupata Gorge, and ranges inland over 1,500 square miles. The concession is not part of the African National Park system, so the rules that apply to park tourists, like having to remain in vehicles all day, don’t apply here. Once you’re in camp (total capacity is limited to 16), all that space is yours to explore by-foot, vehicle, or boat.
We. or shall 1 say Tom and Roger, I were here to fish for the elusive saber-toothed tiger fish-a silvery game fish with black ! stripes and flashes of bright orange on its fins. I One of the most challenging fish in the world, tiger fish practically tear the rod from your hands once they strike. And they fight madly-surging, backtracking, and leaping out of the water-even tail-walking across the water to throw your hook. The majestic Zambezi is one of a handful of places in the world to find them.
Naturally, I was intimidated. My las! fishing experience involved a strip of bacon and a cane pole, so I invested 5500 in a pair of binoculars and a Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa and prepared to chart from the 400 species of birds found along the shores.
Our plane was met by our Big Five Safari hosts for the week. David Winhall and Elsbeth Baillie. who piled our luggage into roofless Land Cruisers and delivered us to the camp’s main hall-a large thatched-roof, open-sided living room with dark wooden floors, overstuffed chairs, a reference library, two large dining tables, and a long fully stocked bar that Roger immediately helped himself to. At the far end, can-tilevered over the banks of the river, was a patio with a river stone tire pit circled with dark green director’s chairs. To the right we could see a line of staggered A-frame thatched-roof huts where we would sleep the next seven nights.
Like kids on Christmas morning, we rushed to our luxury-laden chalet-each lacing the river, mesh wire windows covered with African batik shades, running water. flushing toilets, and tiled showers. Mosquito nets covered the beds and a fresh thermos of ice water waited on die dressing table. Where’s Robert Redford?
Over a light lunch of grilled antelope and salad of greens and vegetables just picked from their garden, David and Elsbeth outlined the upcoming week simply: There were no prearranged daily itineraries and the choice to fish, hike, bird watch, or drive for game was ours to plan.
Eager to meet the river, we headed to the dock and boarded 18-foot pontoons. Elsbeth arrived with “cool boxes” full of soft drinks, wine, and the soon-to-become ubiquitous Zambezi beer. Tom was already in deep “guy” talk with our local guide Farrison, discussing the details of lures, rod tips, and gauges. Roger, our resident factoid buff, pontificated obscurities like “hippos can stay underwater for six minutes” and “the average elephant penis weighs 14 pounds”-the kind of geeky stuff that makes you a loser at cocktail parties and a winner on Jeopardy.
We puttered upstream, taking in the lush forests filled with ebony, acacia, chestnut, and baobab trees (those bulbous trees that the Keebler elves live in). Sixteen-foot crocodiles rested on the sandy banks with mouths, flashing gnarly teeth, open to the sun. At the sound of our motor, their jaws clamped shut, and they slithered into the coffee-colored water. Impala stood on the shore with frozen stares, their tails whipping suspiciously as we passed. A white-hooded fish eagle cruised downstream a foot above the surface with talons stretched, skimming the river for dinner. Hundreds of hippos grunted and snorted, their large round eyes and twitching pink ears just above water. When we closed in, they growled and ducked. After we passed, they emerged noisily puffing, grumping, and snickering like teenagers who had been telling dirty jokes underwater and came up to share a laugh.
Far upriver, Farrison cut the engine, and we began our slow drift home hearing only the sounds of calling birds, spewing hippos. and spinning fish line. Speaking softly with a heavy Shona accent, Farrison detailed the habits of the tiger fish and demonstrated how to cast and drift, set the drag, and reminded us always to “cast toward the hippos.” As the current carried us back, I spastically swung my rod, eventually hooking Roger’s shorts, forcing Tom and Farrison to the back of the boat. A pair of Cape buffalo on the shore homed their backs in disgust. Tourists.
Around the fire pit for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, we plotted a rough schedule for me next few days. Eventually, Elsbeth’s proper English accent called us to dinner. The mahogany tables had been transformed into a scene from the movie Out of Africa-linen, crystal, and china backlit by a fuchsia and purple sky. The cordon bleu-trained chefs served traditional African fare-sadza. a cornmeal paste you roll into a ball in the palm of your hand and indent with your thumb to scoop up a rich Cape buffalo stew that was served with rice and sweet potatoes.
Once we finished our chocolate apricot sponge cake, we filled crystal glasses with cognac and retired to the burning thorn wood fire for traditional African post-dinner enter-tainment-conversation. After a day of exploring the primal world of Africa, relaxation and laughter come easy. Sitting so tar from civilization on an ancient uninhabited river, we couldn’t help being stimulated by the “dawn of creation” atmosphere, and every night we spent long hours arguing racial polities, telling life stories, and laughing deep from our bellies.
Most days were spent fishing with Tom (looking like a forest ranger in full Beretta safari gear) doing most of the hooking and catching. I busied myself recording white-fronted plovers, red-billed oxpeckers, Egyptian geese, and yellow-bellied boubou and developing my “vegetarian fishing” skills by hauling in huge clumps of submerged water lilies (my record was eight pounds). Once Farrison cast lor him. Roger put down his copy of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s biography long enough to haul in a 13-pounder. “Ranger” Tom eventually snagged a 9, 11. 12, 14- and the trip record 17-pounder. Must have been the outfit.
We passed herds of elephant, waterbuck, and gazelles. Bat the highlight came late one afternoon as we rounded a corner to discover a pack of wild spotted dogs in a clearing. The beautiful long-legged honey, white, and black-mottled creatures are nearly extinct, and our sighting of 10 was a big deal even for our seasoned guides. Their stomachs full from a recent kill, they paid no attention to us and continued to romp and playfully chase each other no differently than my domesticated dogs at home.
Visitors to national parks in Africa aren’t allowed Do leave the vehicles, and we took advantage of Big Five’s private status to hike along a dry riverbed. Accompanied by David, a hunting guide for 20 years, a professional tracker, and a game scout armed with an AK 47, we followed trails made by lion, leopard, and elephant and learned how to read prints in the sandy soil. Walking in silence, David identified every bird, bug, and honey badger that crossed our paths. We assumed he was Dr. Livingston.
One evening we returned to find our pilots Brian and Peter “just happened to be in the neighborhood” and had stopped by for a drink. After five rounds we had talked them into flying us to Victoria Falls the following morning. Sometimes it helps to have a persuasive attorney around the campfire.
Back on the King Air, we flew down the path of the Zambezi to the point where Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe meet. Over the years I have photographed the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, scaled the Virunga Mountains of Zaire for silver-back gorillas, and camped on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, but the panoramic curtain of falling water at Victoria Falls took my breath away.
“Vic Falls” is where the mile-wide Zambezi suddenly plunges more than 30 stories through a series of narrow gorges-the force of the falling water shooting up a 500-foot cloud of mist. Known locally as mosi-oa-tunya (smoke thai thunders)–the roaring falls are surrounded by a dense rainforest with footpaths winding through the lianas, orchids, and tangled vines, making it easy to view the falls from different angles. At every turn we were hypnotized by the artistic swirls of water tumbling and dancing to the canyon below.
Unfortunately, our edenic moment was jarred back to reality when we approached the wooden bridge for an overall observation and found a thriving bungee-jumping business.
The town of Victoria Falls isn’t much, unless you’re in the market for cheap wooden carvings of giraffes. But we found it bit of British colonial splendor at The Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, the elegant hotel takes you back to the white-gloved, parasol, and pink gin feel of the turn of the century. We had a long, lazy lunch on the verandah surrounded by landscaped gardens and giant mango trees filled with chattering monkeys.
As our plane approached camp, the warthogs were nowhere in sight, but this time our landing was hampered by a seriously competitive employee soccer game. The “shirts” were rushing downfield barefoot in a cloud of red dust. Peter politely circled the field, allowing them time to finish the play. He shot, he scored, we landed. We were all so caught up in the match, we grabbed a couple of beers and stood on the sidelines cheering madly for both sides until there was no sunlight left, the hyenas mocking us in the distance.