When? August 1980
How? Local plane,car
Who? Visiting relatives at Karoi
Rob made camp and then saw a lion make its kill on a rocky outcrop, so he decided to claim this land, and set up his farm there. Rhodesia after the war was a beautiful country, rich in minerals and agricultural possibilities. He enclosed and settled a large area and, as was the colonial custom, used the local people as labourers. They had their own village of mud huts, and enough to eat, but they were pitifully poor. They helped Rob build his farmhouse and outbuildings and the acreage of maize grew year by year. Later he experimented with coffee. It grows well on the plateau. Other farmers were successful with tobacco but Rob left it alone. Too labour intensive.
There were few women out in the wilderness of the bush, a harsh life. So Rob wrote to England for a pen pal and was put in touch with Mary. They corresponded for a year or so and then Rob proposed. She accepted and went out and married him. They had three children. Rhodesian politics were still turbulent. UDI was declared and Rob and his elder son were at war. Then Mugabe took over.
Mary was my husband Don’s aunt and we visited just after UDI was revoked, Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe and the capital, Salisbury, became Harare. The Karoi area was rich with coppery blue lakes and waving maize in every direction. We stayed in Rob Junior’s little house, tiptoeing over the compound every night to bed avoiding waking the geese and wary of dozing puff adders. It was a true pioneer’s cottage. Rob had a gnome’s waving beard and spent every evening seeing how many bottles of beer he could put away. He would knock them back with his feet up on a stool and lob the empties into the fireplace when he was done. He had two identical black labs called White and Red. Their names corresponded with the dabs of paint on their rumps. Mary had a spoilt dachshund and a Weimaraner puppy that bit everyone. Mary hated the two labs and would shoo them out of the front door. They knew the drill. They ran round the side of the house to the sitting room window which Rob would open so that they could jump back in. They’d be sitting in front of the fire again by the time she got back to the living room.
We travelled around the country. For some bizarre reason Rob and Mary decided to pay for just one of us to go on a trip to Victoria Falls and the game park Wankie. They said they would loan us the money for the other person. We had been led to believe it was a pre-paid trip. You weren’t allowed to take much money out of the UK in those days. Not that we had any; it had taken all our cash to pay for the flight. They later felt guilty and commissioned Don to design an irrigation dam for them. The fee covered our expenses. All the same, it was a wonderful few days. When we came in to land at Wankie they had to clear the impala off the landing strip. Victoria Falls was deserted and stunning. There was a fresh lion’s paw print in the muddy path running along the top of the Falls. The stark grey branches protruding out of the blue of Lake Kariba were also awesome.
Later, Rob took us camping on the banks of the Zambezi. Our tent was so small that we couldn’t decide if we should allow the hyenas to nip our heads or crunch off our toes. Rob had a much bigger tent and a mattress. ‘Why didn’t you bring one too?’ he asked. Knowing they existed would have been a helpful start.He set out to make the experience as terrifying as possible. We fished for vundu (ugly whiskery catfish) and fearsome tiger fish with soap bait on the river and watched the hippos scuttle around us. Rob told us how fearsome and territorial they were. One stuck its head up in front of us, just as our little speed boat was zooming along. We shot straight up and over its back. There were plenty of crocodiles around too. Rob insisted on using his dinner steak for bait, on a long thick steel line. Don did the same, all strictly illegal. And the crocs weren’t stupid. They took the meat and avoided the hook every time. I refused to let the men have any of my steak, come supper time. Rob and his son terrified me with stories about the savage sting of the tsetse flies, so it was poetic justice when Junior got stung on the way home, travelling in the back of the trailer. Rob blasted over the dusty tracks and shot through the maize on the look-out for leopards and springbuck. The latter, of course, were legitimate game and made good biltong. The drying shed was decorated with tender strips, much nicer than the tourist variety. There was also a collection of python skins from snakes killed in the river. But they ate them as well as the buck.
The trail though the maize was literally blazed at times. Itinerants or political protesters were setting fires often enough to be a genuine threat to their livelihood. Rob would go out on the tractor, harrowing the ground to put out the flames. Once he took us with him. This was rather too much excitement for me and I was naive enough to think that he knew what he was doing and that the fuel was unlikely to ignite. We were lucky.
A year later Don’s parents did a similar trip and Rob and Don’s father went firefighting. But they weren’t quick enough to extinguish the blaze and were encircled by the flames. They were both rescued and recuperated in hospital. Don’s father seemed to regain his full health, but Rob’s lungs were damaged; he was a really heavy smoker anyway. He died a year later.
When? December 2002, first leg of Southern Africa Trip
How? Bus, helicopter
Who? Group Tour
Arrive at Victoria Falls airport to be charged twice as much as anyone else for our visas. Mugabe doesn’t like the English much. The Falls were almost re-named Mosi-oa-Tunya (Smoke that Thunders) and are majestically beautiful, but there isn’t nearly as much water flowing over the spectacular gorges as on my last visit. I compensate by flying over in a helicopter where the pilot kindly performs a variety of acrobatics, swooping in really close. When I’m not too terrified or green I try and wield my camera. The two kilometre wide curtain literally does thunder, pouring into a boiling pot of a chasm over a hundred metres deep. I get to fly over Zambia as well. Does this count as a visit or not? The famous hotel still has a monopoly on location and views, though no paw prints this time. There aren’t many visitors either-perhaps they are too uncertain of their welcome to the country. I have dinner with a Zimbabwean who promptly gets rather too inebriated for my liking, so I decamp early.
I’m on a truck travelling from Victoria Falls to Cape Town this time. There are twelve passengers, two of whom are couples. I swore I was never camping again, but the trip dossier says that the drivers put our tents up for us…..