Since this is my second trip to Zimbabwe, I had minimal anxiety other than concerns about whether I’d packed enough reading material. We arrived in Harare at night, I got my visa after a short wait, we were greeted by Z’s mother and brother, our suitcases were all accounted for, and because people who were apparently going to be doing big game hunting were in front of us at customs with all of their equipment, we easily breezed through the line and didn’t have to justify the various dog treats we’d brought Skampy that may or may not have been made of meat by-products (a customs no-no, apparently). For two days, I was pleased with myself and my adaptability, and how genuinely happy I was to be with Z’s people and staying in his boyhood home. Yay me.
Back when I was in love with Z and he thought we were just friends, he’d told me a lot about trips to Lake Kariba, the massive human-made lake and reservoir on the border with Zambia. It’s a favorite spot of his family’s, and given the lack of power cuts since my arrival, I’m grateful for the hydro-electric power it provides too. This morning when we loaded the truck and headed northwest, meeting Z’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew on the road and driving towards a five day holiday there, three of which would be spent on a houseboat, I was excited.
The drive up was a long six hours. The main roads are “good” and by “good” you should imagine an American country road in terms of narrowness and random potholes, and this one is heavily trafficked by long-haul trucks moving goods from Zambia to Zimbabwe and South Africa and back. (This was nothing compared to the bush road we took into Kariba National Park once we arrived, which I do not recommend with a full bladder.) The last time I was in Zimbabwe it was summer, and though Z-ma had warned me before I arrived that the country is very brown now, I wasn’t really prepared for how dead everything looked on the drive to Kariba, particularly the burned up stretches of land where there had been veldt fires. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” that was on a continuous loop when I was in college started playing in my head and threatened to put a damper on the adventure buzz. Zimbabwe was beginning to feel hostile towards human habitation.
What helped, however, was arriving at the holiday home where we’d be for the first and last nights at Wild Heritage. It was a beautiful, two-story house with a huge second story thatched verandah off of our Africhilled bedroom that overlooked the lake and the lush flood plane. When we arrived, there were about fifteen hippo grazing peacefully in the grassy expanse. Because I’d been told that more people are killed by hippo than any other animal in Africa (not counting mosquitos), I was surprised to see people walking in what seemed to be close proximity. It was very serene, though one baby hippo chased away four zebra that he thought got too close to his patch of grass. It was like something Disney had imagineered just for its guests in terms of how amazing it was to see so many animals all at once: hippo, zebra, buffalo, monkeys, baboons, crocodile.
My new favorite sound: hippo voices. Google it. I can’t even describe it. I was more than a little annoyed when some folks who wanted to fish there shouted voetsak (“buzz off”) and the whole group of hippo went scattering.
Seeing elephants was my primary goal for the trip, and Z-ma had had her prayer group on the case, asking God for an elephant sighting for her American daughter-in-law. We hadn’t been there an hour before I saw my first elephant. I was quite pleased to have been the first to have seen it and to have seen it without binoculars. This probably seems like a no brainer—elephants should be the easiest things to spot on the landscape because of their size, right? Well, you’d be surprised. They move so gracefully and with undetected speed, that one minute there is nothing, and then suddenly, this grey mass appears, flapping its ears and noshing on leaves. Just as quickly, it disappears.
Not long after the first sighting, my brother-in-law came and got me because there was an elephant going through the dustbin of the house next door. He is kind of like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Indiana Jones (my brother-in-law, not the elephant), which I mean as compliment, though how could that ever be anything but a compliment? That is: if you find yourself standing fifteen feet away from a wild animal the size of an elephant, you want someone like him there, telling you confidently that it’s fine, the elephant won’t be charging you, and even if it did, you’d be safe because elephants have horrible eyesight and your white shirt blends in nicely with the truck you’re standing next to. Plus, he has this really low, soothing, animal-talking voice. The elephant soon grew bored with the dustbin and moved on to a decorative tree before sauntering off towards the water, as if it were perfectly normal to be hanging out in a holiday home community with humans. Here’s hoping someone encourages the elephant that such behavior is not in its best interest. (We won’t speak of what happened to the last Dustbin, who got too friendly with the humans.)
After the sun went down, something ugly happened in my brain, and I got anxious thinking about the next day’s adventure on the houseboat. My fears included but were not limited to: will eight people (six of us and two crew) want to kill each other when staying on a houseboat? will a roving gang of hippos capsize our boat? will a crocodile come aboard and gobble one of us up? will I have a heat stroke? will I get bitten by a malaria-infested mosquito, whose strain of malaria won’t be contained by the anti-malarial drugs I’m taking?
Most importantly, I worried that Z would look at me and realize what a terrible mistake he made three and a half years ago, hitching his wagon to my big, pasty creature-comfort-loving American star.
On the drive up, Z-ma had regaled me with the myth of Nyaminyami, the Zambezi river god who was none too happy when the dam was built and separated him from his other half and thus wreaked havoc while the dam was being built and, it is said, will eventually destroy the dam. And also, why exactly did my brother-in-law think it was a good idea to pack that giant machete and big cudgel? Who or what was he planning to need these things for?
Z assured me that I didn’t need to worry about any of these things, but Z is an optimist and while he is safety conscious, he has more faith in the goodwill of other people and nature than I do. So I took a Xanax and then, before it took affect, worried that there’d be some emergency in the middle of the night and I wouldn’t be able to protect myself against the elephant stampede or hippo invasion. The voices in my head kept saying, I don’t belong here. I can’t ever come back to Kariba. Then it cooled down and eventually the voices quieted. We spent the evening playing Tenzi on the verandah, and I didn’t really want to be any other place on the planet.
Basically, what I’m trying to establish here is that I have very bi-polar reactions to Zimbabwe. One minute I distrust it and can’t understand why God even bothered with Africa at all because it seems broken beyond repair and has caused strife for people I love, and then the next minute we’re bouncing down the road and my hair is flapping in the wind and Z’s hands are firmly on the steering wheel and I think, Hell yeah, this is my life and it’s so good. How lucky am I? and then, Oh, a monkey not in a cage—look at that! I’m still trying to operate under the assumption that one day Zimbabwe’s wonderfulness will stick with me without the mood swings. Why else would God have put all the most amazingly unique animals on the planet right here in this one spot? There’s nothing on any other continent that compares to an elephant or a giraffe or a hippo. (Well, I suppose the Indian subcontinent has elephants, but it’s just a subcontinent and those elephants are smaller and more subservient. Not that it’s a contest).