Reportage

Into the African Heartland

Downtown Lusaka, O-Eight-Hundred Hours:

I anxiously scanned the empty lobby, wondering where everyone was. I checked the clock on the wall again. I was on time, unless Zambia was on a different daylight savings schedule than the rest of the world. A portly young man from Belgium appeared at last, along with a young guide from South Africa and his Czech girlfriend. This was to be our team: smaller than expected but ready for adventure.

We dragged our bags into a huge truck-jeep hybrid, prepared to embark on our two-week long safari through the wilds of Zambia and Botswana. After a half-hour of winding through bustling city streets, we were free! We bumped up and down for hours on an endless dirt road. Mud-brick huts lay in the shadows of tall savannah grass. Our red and yellow truck stood out starkly against the dusty backdrop. Bright colors warned the villagers of our imminent approach. They wearily acknowledged our interruption as we waved to them from the roof of our truck.

Children began running alongside the truck as our guide threw marshmallows out of the window. They pushed each other aside to grab for these dust-coated curiosities. Having obtained one of these coveted objects, each child would hold it up in triumph, not knowing quite what to do with it. We stopped the truck to demonstrate, putting marshmallows pointedly into our mouths and moaning with exaggerated pleasure. The children merely stared at us and laughed, kneading the marshmallows in their palms. We soon gave up and drove on, waving a cheerful goodbye.

Banks of the Zambezi River, Sunset:

Setting up a tent was harder than I had imagined. I collapsed next to the fire, exhausted. Our guide however, was a bundle of energy. Whilst cooking stir-fry, he began his customary lecture on the dangers of riverside camping.

“Be careful not to leave your tent flap ajar,” he warned.  “The woman who did that was attacked by a crocodile. Her fiancé barely managed to save her life by pounding it on the head with a shoe as it dragged her out by the leg. If you need to take a leak in the middle of the night, do it quickly next to your tent- keep an eye out for the lions. If you see a hippo, run inland. They’re more dangerous than they look. Any questions?”

The only response he received was a collective shudder.

The days were long and hot. Good game was scarce; hours passed bringing nothing but impala and warthogs. We swatted tsetse flies and whined about the lack of animals. After trekking around in the mud and dust all day, I took one whiff of my Tevas and tossed them outside my tent. I tried to journal but exhaustion soon took hold. I heard faint growls in the middle of the night, but forced myself to ignore them and go back to sleep. There was going to be a long day ahead and I would need as much rest as I could get.

The next morning, I opened up my tent flap with a yawn. Reaching outside for my Tevas, I groped only one sandal. I found the other a few feet left of my tent. Something had bitten off a chunk of it. The guide wandered over.

“Ah, I see the hyenas got to it,” he said nonchalantly, pointing to my devoured sandal. “Usually they leave shoes alone but you must have fragrant feet,” he grinned widely.

I gave him an exaggerated smirk, reluctantly slipping on the sandals. They were the only pair of footwear I had.

Victoria Falls [i], Dawn:

At the elephant orphanage, I got more than I bargained for. Not only did I get to ride Bob, I also got to feed him and give him commands. As Bob nuzzled me with his trunk, our guide began explaining the story of an elephant’s life.

“An elephant gets six sets of teeth. It chews on the brambles of acacia trees. The brambles are tough and hard on their teeth. When their last set of teeth starts wearing out, the elephants can only eat mushy food, so they go to the banks of the river. They slowly starve to death. That is where the name “elephant’s graveyard” comes from.”

We stared soberly into our guide’s eyes, contemplating the horror of what every elephant must go through. Bob snorts and looks toward the river as if he knows what is to come.

After my sobering experience with Bob, I looked forward to a relaxing whitewater rafting trip down the Zambezi. Instead, I was in for the toughest workout of my life. At the end of an exhausting day of paddling and hiking, I found mysel

f scaling a cliff, carrying my paddle, helmet, and vest. As I struggled, panting heavily, several skinny Zambian men carrying our inflatable rafts jogged past me without even breaking a sweat. Every step I took sent a shock to my nerves. A narrow trail of logs led to the top. As my half-eaten sandal balanced precariously one of the few logs that were not broken in half, I envisioned the long forgotten bodies of spry young tourists like myself piled under the swirling waters below. When I reached the top, I guzzled down as many bottles of Mosi as I could hold[ii].

River Crossing into Botswana, Noon:

We were last in a long line of trucks waiting to cross the river on a ferry that appeared to be a half-sunk plank held up by two cables. One man pulled on a giant crank and the other pushed.

“It’s going to be slow today,” our guide informed us. “They’re only allowing one vehicle at a time. About a month ago, the ferry sank, killing twenty people.”

Many hours later, delirious from sunstroke but grateful to be alive, we reached the Botswanan border. At the front of the unmoving line, a family was being detained. To our surprise, they broke free. We later found out that they had decided to float down the crocodile-infested river[iii]. They escaped, the authorities assumed, as their bodies were not found.

We nervously approached the front of the line, praying that we would not be detained. Our fears were confirmed.

Despite our guide’s efforts to persuade and even to bribe the staunch Botswanan border guard, he refused let his girlfriend pass: “You ok. The Czech, she need visa. The man who does visa, he is gone to Zambia. Wait there until he is back,” he waved to the door impatiently. We had no choice but to leave her at the border. It was getting dark, and we needed to set up camp.

“We’ll be back to get you soon,” our guide promised his despondent girlfriend.

Chobe, Pre-Dawn:

We saw a lion! I was afraid it would hear my heart pounding and run away. Our guide later told us that on one of his tours, they had spent all morning looking for lions in the park, and glimpsed only a bird or two. On the way back to the airport, they were ecstatic to find a pride of lions sunning themselves in the middle of the road, oblivious to the surrounding chorus of honks. It was all luck of the draw, and we had finally won out.

We stayed in a safari lodge, which was a welcome change after almost two weeks of camping. I was a little suspicious when they made us sign an indemnity form as soon as we arrived, but the lodge master assured us that it was necessary. Most of their guests were high net worth clients who were liable to sue for damage.

As he showed me the suite where I was to stay, the lodge master pointed out the elephant footprints on my front porch. “They roam around here all the time,” he remarked without a hint of worry. “Just stay inside your suite. Give us a call if you need to go somewhere, and we will escort you.”

We gathered around the fire, listening to the lodge master strum his guitar. As I gazed up at the winking sky and heard the rumble of man and animal, my seat, my soul, and my toes, sank blissfully into rich African soil.


[i] The Zambian name for Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning “smoke that thunders”.

[ii] Mosi is the name of the local beer.

[iii] Most Zambians cannot swim.

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About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.

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