Zambezi come Zambezi go: a journey along southern Africa's mythical river
Had a visitor in 1958 stood on the crest of Bumi Hills and peered out through a pair of binoculars, they might have been distracted by the sight of a bare-chested man in a floppy hat attempting to strap an elephant to a wooden raft. Rupert Fothergill was chief game ranger of what was then Rhodesia, now northern Zimbabwe, and charged with relocating wildlife stranded by the rising waters of the newly created Lake Kariba.
Grainy footage of the time shows him contending with a number of irregular predicaments: shoulder-deep in water and clutching a wriggling, rabbit-like hyrax in his arms; casually attempting to shoo away a rhino with a wave or two of his hat; and hoisting a bedraggled baboon into a boat by its shoulders. By the time ‘Operation Noah’ was wound down in 1964, Fothergill and his team had saved over 6000 animals.
Today, from the vantage point of Bumi, Kariba looks more sea than lake. On the shore, small herds of elephant, buffalo and hippo graze on the jewel-bright grass. Straight ahead, the crumpled, grey hills of Zambia are just visible, but there’s nothing but water to the horizon left and right; the weekly car ferry that traces a steady line through the waves east to west will take a full 24-hours to complete its journey. Over 50 years since it was created, Kariba remains the world’s largest artificial lake by volume. And yet it is seen by some as a temporary blip, one likely to disappear before too long.
In the mythology of the region’s Tonga people, the Zambezi is home to the river god Nyami Nyami. A giant dragon, with the body of a serpent and the head of a fish, Nyami Nyami provides for the Tonga when times are hard. In 1957 and 1958, Zimbabwe suffered the worst floods it had seen in recorded history, twice sweeping away the wall being built to create Lake Kariba. Nyami Nyami is angry, said the Tonga, he does not want the dam. Sightings of a 200-metre-long beast weaving through the lake are still reported in the local papers, and the region’s earthquakes are attributed to the monster crashing against the dam, attempting to reach his wife stranded on the other side.
Local guide Student Muroyiwa grew up with these stories. In clothes with which Fothergill would be well familiar (crisply ironed safari shorts and shirt), he steers his boat among the treetops. Their blackened branches poking out of the water like macabre fingers, the trees are all that remain of a mopane forest that once carpeted the Kariba gorge, lost when the Zambezi was dammed. Cormorants settle on their branches, taking to the air only to dip suddenly beneath the surface, while swallows fresh from their summer breaks in Europe hoover up insects above it.
Student points to an island named after the last human to leave the valley as the waters rose around him. ‘Mola believed in Nyami Nyami and he knew he didn’t want the dam. “There’s no way the water will get to my doorstep,” said Mola. But the water started coming and coming and it came right into his house,’ explains Student. ‘In the end, he just got into his canoe and paddled away.’
Student’s mother Unarie was another who left when the lake was formed, walking 12 miles inland to the resettlement village that was to be the Tongas’ new home. She sits in the shade of her mud-brick house, its roof thatched with bluegrass, tin pots drying in the sun outside. Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, okra and maize grow in the small plots tended by her family.
At the edge of their cluster of huts, a look-out tower stands empty; as soon as night falls, one of her grandchildren will climb up and keep watch for marauding lions, hyenas and elephants. ‘I am too old to go to the lake now,’ says Unarie, ‘but my life in the old village was perfect. I never saw Nyami Nyami but I would be more than happy if he wanted to break the wall.’
Until that day comes, all must adapt to the damming of the Zambezi. A hundred miles downsteam from Kariba, the river continues its journey to the Indian Ocean in a thick languid swirl. From the floodplain spring groves of broad, oak-like Faidherbia albida trees, giving the region a puzzlingly familiar look: were it not for the zebra snuffling beneath the branches, one might imagine oneself to be in Richmond Park on a golden summer’s day.
Cloud Magondo started his training as a wildlife guide in Bumi Hills before moving here, to Mana Pools National Park. Fixing his ‘I ♥ Jesus’ baseball cap to his head, he climbs into a canoe and slides off from the bank. A blacksmith lapwing rises from its nest in the water hyacinth and makes its hostility known in a frenzy of furious twittering. The eyes and ears of a hippopotamus surface. Cloud whacks the side of the canoe with his paddle. ‘You don’t want to give a three-tonne animal a surprise,’ he says. ‘If he runs at you, you won’t outrun him. All that is left is fragments.’ The hippo rises and starts to power through the narrow channel towards us, a crest of water surging in front of him. A few nervous seconds pass, waiting for him to plunge beneath the boat and launch us skywards to join the lapwing – but the hippo runs straight past. ‘Now we just need to worry about the crocodiles,’ says Cloud, with the smile of a man who greatly enjoys winding up those less accustomed to African wildlife than he.
The boat is abandoned in the hunt for Mana Pools’ most famous resident. Cloud creeps through the undergrowth, stepping over bright red flowers fallen from sausage trees, and stopping to admire a green-spotted bush snake curled around a branch. Impala look up from their grazing, and buck away in alarm.
A muscular eland bull stands his ground for longer, then stalks haughtily into the bushes. ‘We have found him,’ says Cloud, crouching down. ‘Look, there is Boswell.’ Ahead, an elephant as old as Lake Kariba, his tusks stretching far beyond his giant skull, stands beneath a Faidherbia, gently swaying. His trunk reaches for the seed pods hanging in the canopy above him, his back arches, and he hoists himself into the air. For six seconds he balances on his back two legs, like a dog begging, and pulls down the branches.
Boswell, and a few others like him in the area, are thought to be the only elephants in the world to stand like this, and have only been observed doing so in the last 30 years. One theory is that Faidherbia trees have been in decline since the damming of the Zambezi upset the park’s ecosystem, and competition for their pods is fierce. ‘Boswell is smart,’ whispers Cloud as the animal scoops the coiled red pods into his mouth with his trunk. ‘He realised to survive, you have to be the elephant that can reach higher than anyone else.’
Boswell is not the only elephant to have changed its behaviour in recent years. In the western stretches of Zimbabwe, far from the banks of the Zambezi, lies Hwange National Park. There’s no mistaking the landscape for an English park here; in the thick of dry season, little vegetation sprouts from the scraggly thorn bushes anchored in soil blown in from the Kalahari Desert. There is no river god to come to the rescue in times of need – but Hwange has not been abandoned. The spirit of Fothergill lives on. ‘Do you hear that?’ asks Adam Jones, an apprentice guide, bringing our Jeep to a stop. The steady put-put-put of a water pump beats through the still air. ‘You’re listening to the heartbeat of the park.’
Hwange’s first boreholes were sunk back in 1929, keeping the region’s pools artificially topped up when the rains fail. The park’s animals now associate the sound of the pumps with the promise of water. A short drive along a bumpy track reveals a plain dotted with grey lumps. They are on the move. From all over the plains, elephants come – bustling over the dusty ground in a giddy trot, trunks flailing wildly. At the waterhole, they drink, splash in the shallows, roll in the mud and chase crocodiles, baboons and each other, tooting happily.
The routes that lead to the waterholes are ones that have been used by elephants for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They form distinctive paths through the bush, as clear as if laid down in tarmac. Humans follow them now too, many behind the reassuring figure of Julian Brookstein, rifle slung over his shoulder, mirror shades pushed back on his head. ‘If you’re ever lost out here,’ he says, ‘follow the elephant trails. They’ll always lead to water.’ We are not the only ones to pass this way: fresh cheetah, hyena and porcupine tracks keep us company on the path, and tiny klipspringer antelope dart from the granite hills poking out of the dusty soil. We pass the full skeleton of an old bull elephant, its long tusks lying in the muddle of bones. ‘Where an elephant dies, so lies his ivory,’ says Julian, pausing to examine the remains. ‘It’s a romantic idea now, sadly.’
Julian has had plenty of encounters with live elephants, and most other wildlife, in the six years he’s been a professional walking guide. He has yet to fire a shot from his rifle in defence. ‘Ninety percent of an encounter is how you act,’ he explains. ‘These animals are used to things running away from them; they’re programmed to chase. They back away if you walk towards them.’ It may be the least instinctive thing to do when confronted with a seven-tonne mass of muscle and bone, but Julian’s point is soon proved.
A 50-year-bull-old elephant, unfathomably large from ground level, takes exception to our presence and charges at us, huge ears flapping as he gathers speed. Julian keeps walking towards him, shouting, waving his arms and kicking up dust. The elephant gets within a few metres, stops, looks a little unsure, and finally turns tail, departing with an indignant snort. ‘A lion is a little different to an elephant,’ says Julian, as we clamber back into the Jeep. ‘He’ll growl to let you know you’ve come close enough, as if to say, “Stay where you are and we’ll stay friends.”’
It’s good to know, for Hwange is an area rich in lions. Their deep, bass calls reverberate through the canvas walls of our tents at night, and they are an ever-present decoration around the camp. At any time of the day, they can be found resting by a nearby waterhole, watching with indifference as giraffes cautiously make their way down to drink; keeping an eye on young cubs that tumble over one another and leap on their parents; and flopped in the little shade offered by a termite mound. There is a new addition too – a young male recently arrived, who’s wise enough to keep well out of the way of the local pride. He has found himself a spot to hide and keep out of trouble, his yellow eyes constantly scanning his surroundings for danger. ‘He’s well aware he’s in another lion’s territory,’ says Adam. ‘He would have heard the others roaring all night. He must be scared.
’Perhaps the young lion will pluck up the courage to stay and fight the dominant male for his patch. Given his nervous deposition, it seems more likely he’ll move on, padding slowly across the bush, past the waterholes with their constant stuttering soundtrack, and beyond, looking for a territory in which to start a pride of his own. One lion from Hwange was recently tracked by researchers all the way to Victoria Falls, some 120 miles away.
It is difficult to imagine a landscape less like that of Hwange. The falls make their presence known from far across the bush. First comes a faint rumbling, like rush-hour traffic on a distant motorway, audible from miles away; then, a low grey cloud comes into view, squatting on the horizon. The full force of Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’), to give the falls their rather more apt indigenous name, becomes apparent when the plains suddenly fall away. From the rim, the Zambezi plunges 100 metres, hitting the ground so hard it creates a mist that rises a quarter of a mile through the air, like rain that has decided to fall upwards. The visitors who wind their way along the paths that skirt the falls are soon drenched by spray. Others sit in pools right at the cataracts’ edge or fling themselves off the Victoria Falls Bridge with a length of bungee rope tied to their feet, in foolhardy defiance of all accepted rules of self-preservation.
Peering into the gorge ripped through the Earth, there is no sign of the bottom, just a boiling whirl of clouds, speared by a series of rainbows. If Nyami Nyami were to choose a lair from which to plot a final attack on Kariba Dam, it would be here, coiled in the chasm. One day, he will rise, and reclaim his river. It is only a matter of time before he breaks through.