Through post-colonialZimbabwe and Botswana in a takeaway tent

2014-07-02 00:00

MY wife and I have just returned from a trip through Zimbabwe and Botswana that covered 5 500 kilometres and seven game parks, including the Matopos, Hwange, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Chobe, the Okavango, Moremi, and Central Kalahari in Botswana. We travelled in an SUV (dubbed sometimes as Stupid Useless Vehicle, although ours served us well) for a month and pitched our little tent a total of 12 times in some of the most remote parts of these countries, accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. The trip was not carefully planned and we were not sure where each day would take us. We mostly followed the advice of people we met along the way who had come from the places in whose general direction we were headed.

Experiencing wild Africa

Among other things, we trekked six hours into the Matopos to a cave that had some of the most stunning rock art the continent can display; poled through the Okavango swamps in a mokoro and slept on an island. We camped next to a dam in Hwange where in the space of three hours in the late afternoon, we were visited by about 100 elephants, a wide range of antelope as well as giraffe, and where we heard the sounds in the middle of the night of a hippo cow desperately trying to protect its calf from being killed by a hippo bull. While walking through the bush on an island in the Okavango delta, we came upon the remains of a zebra that had just been killed and consumed by lions and vultures; nearly ran over a cheetah and her adult cub running across the road in front of us in Chobe, and stopped to watch a leopard and her cub cavorting in the warmth of the road in the dying rays of the sun in the Matopos. We stopped to watch a lioness and her grown cubs lounging in the road just in front of us in Central Kalahari; were visited by hyena in our campsite most nights in Moremi where we also spent a precious half hour in the presence of an elephant towering above us barely two metres away, feeding on the pods of the tree under which we were camping. And each night we did what I especially had been yearning to do, once again, for years, simply lie in our tent and listen to the sounds of the night — lion, hyena, leopard, elephant, jackal, zebra, Barn Owl, Eagle Owl, and Scops Owl. Primal sounds that resonated within me from a distant childhood spent in central Africa.

Why do we do ‘this’?

So, I have to ask myself, what makes us want to do this? By “us” I mean a particular sub species of homo sapiens that is white, Western and middle class. (My wife and I decided that the rarist species, not seen at all in fact, was our black equivalent). By “this” I mean pay big bucks, deprive oneself of all the usual comforts, including a decent bed, running water and a toilet that you sit on, live out of tins and whatever fresh produce you can buy from the locals, sleep in a tent out of which you could be dragged by wild animals (thus the name “takeaway tent”), and out of which you have to crawl in the middle of the night to relieve yourself in the bush at the peril of being attacked by the same.

Why would we drive on roads that are especially designed to destroy your vehicle, get you stuck and choke you to death with dust? Why would we put up with being accosted by locals who, trying to survive severe economic hardships, will do just about anything to relieve you of your cash, and, worst of all, subject yourself to the idle whims of customs officials and traffic police who seem to take pleasure in ignoring you when you most need their attention and harassing you when you least need it?

These questions were made all the more relevant for me because during the trip I was reading Tim Jeal’s award-winning biography of Henry Morton Stanley, whom the author calls the “greatest explorer of all time”. Here was a man who was driven by the gargantuan need to be accepted by upper-class Victorian society (Stanley was the illegitimate son of a working-class woman who had several children by different men) where social acceptability seemed to be the beginning and end of all things, and where the need to conquer and control the world apparently exceeded all other needs. Stanley (and his comrade David Livingstone) subjected themselves to the most unbelievable hardship and deprivation, constantly facing the possibility of death, ostensibly to bring “civilisation” to Africa. Clearly, this was one of the least of their dubious goals, the most important being the promethean need to conquer and control, and, equally important for them, being the first to do this. Ironic, indeed, because our trip into Africa was clearly not to bring civilisation but to escape it (and no, I am not stupid enough to believe that this was completely possible or desirable), and not to control nature but to experience our own vulnerability in it, a vulnerability that modern life constantly deludes us into ignoring. Consciousness of vulnerability is obviously not a prerequisite for life, but it does enable the possibility of a completely different way of viewing life. The rock paintings we saw in the Matopos depicted a view of the environment that clearly was not interested in dominating other beings, but living with and among them, as people and not objects.

Cultural anomalies of

postcolonial travel in Africa

There are indeed many ironies that follow the postcolonial traffic into Africa by white Westerners doing what we were doing. (And we came across enough of them, believe me.) For example, the fact that Africans have the things that Westerners want and Westerners have the things that Africans want. There must surely be some level of mystification on the behalf of the African owners of the game parks; that Europeans pay so much money to leave behind the comforts they themselves would really like to have, and embrace hardship just to be in the wild. At Ihaha camp on the Chobe, I asked the parks official taking our money whether he thought we were stupid doing the things we were doing. He did not sound at all convinced when he answered in the negative. The young woman behind the counter at Savuti camp in Chobe knew that we would like the idea that elephants feed off the pods of the tree in our campsite, so enthusiastically warned us not to camp under it. And when I jokingly suggested that we take her position for six months and she takes our car back to live in our home, she responded with enthusiasm.

Such are the cultural anomalies of postcolonial travel in Africa.

Africa’s in the blood

If this kind of thing is done mainly, if not exclusively, by white Westerners then let me be the first to confess ownership of my Western culture. But it is more than this. I am a Westerner but I spent the best part of my childhood in central Africa, in a place that used to be called Northern Rhodesia. And I have no desire whatsoever even to visit the continent of my European ancestors but could easily spend the rest of my days in the country of my childhood. Africa is in my blood and I must confess to being willing to undergo considerable discomfort as long as I can put body onto its soil, into its rivers, among its people, and through its forests. I confess also that this sounds extraordinarily selfish, as though Africa is there for me.

But I am prepared also to face that accusation. When I stood in front of Livingstone’s statue overlooking the devil’s cataract on the Victoria Falls just a few weeks ago, I tried looking hard into his eyes above that determined jaw of his and those striding legs. I wanted to ask him who he thought he was and what right he has to be standing there claiming that he had “discovered” that extraordinary phenomenon on the Zambezi River. What made him think he was any more civilised than the people he found there and why he thought that it would be a good idea to impose on them his ideas. But I kind of felt uncomfortable doing this because I guess he could have asked some questions of me. Like — would you be here if I wasn’t here?

So I decided not to ask any more questions and simply enjoy the moment, a moment that lasted about a month, in the heart of Africa, with the stunningly beautiful sounds and images of wild animals in their natural habitat, the gentle presence of Godfrey, the parks-board ranger who had taken up knitting to while away the time in the months he spent cut off from his family looking after that dam with the elephants in the middle of nowhere; the irrepressible exuberance of Lesedi, our mokoro poler who did not have enough money to buy decent shoes that he could take us walking in; and the sunsets, day after dying day, introducing nights that we could not wait to arrive.

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