Monday, June 9, 2008

Zimbabwe: Kariba, Bulawayo

The next day we left Harare and took a short flight to Kariba, where we were met and transported to the Bumi Hills airstrip. We flew in a four seater aircraft, quite the smallest I have been in so far. There was the pilot, our game driver and us. We flew low over Kariba Lake and had a great view of the many islands; I saw a lone elephant on one of them. Before you land at the dirt airstrip the Land Rover on the ground has to chase any wildlife off the airstrip. If the Land Rover is parked in a certain position it is clear to land. We landed and were transported to Katete Lodge.

As soon as we had got organised and unpacked we went out for our first game drive, with Michael. We went down to the lake shore and had a feast of elephants. We found a group of eleven. Michael parked the Land Rover beyond the elephants and they slowly walked towards us and past us, quite unconcerned. They were so close that I had a job to photograph them.

The sunset over Lake Kariba, with the elephants in the foreground, and hippo's snorting in the lake, was just magical.

Lake Kariba itself was born in 1958, but it was not for another five years that the lake assumed its full size. Covering more than 1,930 square miles, this lake is 174 miles long and at its widest point more than 25 miles across.

Michael told us an interesting story. There was a problem with a small number of elephants in Zimbabwe whose trunks were partially or wholly paralysed. A group that was being studied had this problem in one of the bulls. This elephant disappeared for six months and it was thought he had died. But he reappeared a short while back with his trunk in perfect working order. Nobody knows where he had been for the past six months but wherever it was, he had cured himself.

The older elephants here still migrate regularly between the mainland and the islands and on into Zambia. It has been recorded that two elephants once travelled 25 miles across the lake from Zimbabwe to Zambia, virtually submerged all the way with their trunks serving as snorkels, on a swim that lasted 23 hours. Amazing animals.

The following morning we were out before it was light on an early game drive. We saw a zebra with a young foal. There was a large group of buffalo on the lake shore. The dominant bull was huge, and there was an oxpecker on his head. We saw lots of birds, with some super lilac rollers.

After lunch we had time for a swim in the pool before going out on the lake in a boat. We saw some baby crocodiles, elephant, kudu, buffalo, impala who were coming down to the lake to drink. The sunset over the lake was spectacular. Driving back to the lodge it was dark and our path at one time was blocked by elephants, our driver slowly went past, the largest elephant flared his ears wide but backed off; an interesting moment in the dark.

Two game drives the next day. Saw lots of animals and birds. The ground hornbill, of which we saw many, is a large bird with red around its eyes and wattle. Also the saddle billed stork looking for fish in the shallows; a very flashy individual, with a long beak with a red band on it and red banded legs.

We were invited to go on a night drive and we leapt at the chance. We saw a lot of game in the powerful spotlights mounted on the Land Rover. We saw Zebra, impala, water buck, buffalo and a hippo feeding on the shore. We saw a scrub hare, some duiker and a grysbok, two breeds of antelope that we hadn't seen before. The grysbok is like a dik dik, very small. We saw elephant too. As we got near the lodge a lone bull elephant approached us. Quinn, our driver, had stopped the engine and was shining the spotlight on him. He kept on coming towards us, raising his trunk to try and scent us. He came nearer and nearer. Our driver turned off the light. He kept coming. "That's far enough" said Quinn, in a loud voice. He still kept coming. Quinn then revved the engine and he backed off. He was not out to harm us, he was just curious to know what we were. Interesting moment though. We left Ketete Lodge and drive to the airstrip. The zebra had already been cleared off the strip. We are flying in a Trislander. As it came in to land it had to abort its landing as there were vultures on the runway.

We land at Kariba. We are catching another plane to Bulawayo.

The name Bulawayo means 'Place of Slaughter', a reference, it is thought to the fierce battles that took place in the late nineteenth century. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second largest city. It has wide tree-lined streets and avenues. As with other Colonial African cities, the streets are very wide. In fact, as in Harare, they are broad enough to allow a full team of oxen, twenty-four pairs, to make a 180 degree turn. So there is a feeling of space.

We were staying the night at the Churchill Hotel which is on the outskirts of the city. This hotel is OK for an overnight stay but if we had been staying longer I would not have been delighted.

In the afternoon we visited the Railway Museum. The museum lies at the back of Bulawayo station. This museum was opened to the public on 4th November 1972, exactly seventy-five years after the arrival in Bulawayo of the first train. Bulawayo has remained the railway centre of Zimbabwe ever since those early days.

Cecil Rhodes realized from the beginning the importance of rail communication for the settlement and development of the vast territories in Central Africa. For Zimbabwe particularly, he envisaged two outlets to the sea, and his vision was for a line from the Cape to Cairo. Line construction began from Fontesvilla (35 miles from Beira) to Mutare in September 1892 and from Vryburg to Bulawayo May 1893. The first train arrived in Bulawayo Station in October 1897. The link up between Harare and Bulawayo took place in October 1902 after initial construction was brought to a halt by the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war in October 1899, when materials had to be supplied via the Beira line.

The next stage was the line northward, which eventually reached the Zaire border in December 1909. Up to 1927 the whole system was operated by the Mashonaland Railway Co. From October 1936, Rhodesia Railways Ltd. became the owners of the whole railway system in Rhodesia and Zambia, and the Vryburg-Bulawayo section. On April 1, 1947, the Rhodesian Government acquired the assets of Rhodesia Railways Ltd. and on November 1, 1949, the Railway undertaking became a statutory body known as Rhodesia Railways. Finally on May 1, 1980, the title was altered to the National Railways of Zimbabwe.

One of the exhibits is Cecil Rhodes's beautifully preserved private Pullman coach. After his death in 1902, the coach carried Rhodes's body from the Cape to Bulawayo. Other exhibits include menus and table settings from the British Royal Train of 1953. But the engines we have really come to see are the mighty Garratts.

Zimbabwe's fleet of ninety-five steam locomotives were to have been phased out by the end of the 1970's. But during Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the high cost of spare parts for diesel engines, and sanctions on oil imports, together with the country's plentiful supplies of coal, ensured that many of them remained in use. In fact, Rhodesia re-established her steam locomotive workshops, to bring many of the derelict Garratts back into working condition. Now, in the 1990s, steam is in decline again, though during our last visit (1995), quite a number were still working, mostly for hauling freight in and around the station yards, but also to haul passenger "specials."

We were catching the private steam train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. As we steamed out of Bulawayo we ate a hearty breakfast.

As we rolled along through savannah countryside lots of children came to the side of the railway tracks to see the train. They were calling and waving to us. The train stops at some of the smaller stations and we handed out sweets to the children. It was lovely sitting in the lounge car watching Africa roll by and keeping an eye open for wildlife.

In the afternoon we entered Hwange National Park. On the right side of the train we would see very few animals, as on that side hunters are allowed to shoot the game if they have the necessary licence. On the left of the track is the National Park proper, and we should, we were told, see some wildlife.

We arrived at Dete station about 4pm. Dete means: a swampy place with an abundance of reeds. From here we were taken into Hwange National Park on a game drive. We saw lots of elephant, ostrich, impala, zebra, steinbok, giraffe, black backed jackal, banded mongoose, wart hog, wildebeest, ground hornbills and glossy starlings.

While we were out on the game drive, the stewards had made up our beds. After our dinner we were informed that there had been a derailment further up the line towards Victoria Falls, so in the morning we would steam to Thomson Junction and there we would be taken by road for the last part of the journey. We were pretty disappointed as the last part of the journey is the most interesting and scenic. We had particularly been looking forward to crossing the bridge over the Victoria Falls Gorge.

We set off up the line early in the morning. We had to make several stops to allow goods trains loaded with coal from the mines at Hwange to pass on up the line.

When we got to Thompson Junction we had a chance to photograph the engine. This was a class 15 Garratt locomotive, number 416, and its name was 'Inuncu' which means Porcupine in the Ndebele language. It was in 1993 that the last steam locomotives were withdrawn from regular service on the railway between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls.

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