Where the Wild Things Are
When Kate and I picked up Chris and Norma from the airport, it concluded a chapter of our trip. For the past 5 weeks, we’ve been on our own out at the farm, learning by doing and doing a lot. But now that they are back from the States, it has given us the opportunity to begin something new.
We arrived at the bus stop just after 7 on a Wednesday morning. The dirt lot was wet and muddy as we stepped out of Norma’s SUV. Trying not to slip, I began unloading our bags, which were quickly transferred under the bus by an eager bag boy. With a quick goodbye, Norma drove away and Kate and I soon became the only white faces around. We found two unoccupied seats in front of a man with a hat pulled down over his eyes, and attempted to get comfortable for the long journey ahead. Pushing past vendors peddling bananas, potatoes and ear buds, a man stopped at our seats carrying a clipboard. He inquired about our tickets and Kate presented two perfectly pressed tickets we had purchased 3 weeks prior. With a curious look the man said, “these are Bravo Bus tickets… this is the Xtra City Bus”… We are on the wrong bus - Kate jumps into action and quickly exits the Xtra City Bus in order to call the Bravo ticket office; I stay behind to watch our effects. Noticing some commotion, the sleeping man behind our seats, sits up and assures me that the Bravo is coming and should be here sometime soon. After her phone call, Kate returns with a similar story – the bus is coming.
In a matter of 10 minutes we see a bright red bus entering the lot, it has the words “Bravo Bus” plastered all over the side. It quickly became very clear what bus we were supposed to be on. Following a quick transfer and shuffle of luggage, we sat down in our new seats, on what seams to be a slightly more “modern” bus company, with the most current South African hip hop blaring over the speakers. After about 45 more minutes, and no less that 150 six packs of Castle Lager loaded in the luggage compartment, we were on our way.
For the next 3 hours, the ride was fairly uneventful. Every once in a while we would drop some people off and pick up a few more. New additions would squeeze down the aisle carrying their prized possession, and find an open seat to the rear. I was taken a back, but not at all surprised when a man passed us clutching a live chicken with both hands. No one seemed bothered by the situation, not even the chicken.
The Bravo came to a stop and Kate and I were the only passengers to exit. They dropped us on the main road to Hwange National Park, which is nothing more than a left turn on an otherwise long jungle road. The next challenge was to find our way to ‘Main Camp’, which is located within the park, 20km from where the bus had just dropped us. When we had purchased our tickets, the office had told us that the bus would not enter Hwange and because of the animals in the area, they said it would be in our best interest to find a ride from someone who was entering the park. So, we resorted to hitching.
After collecting our bags we found a good spot on the road and began to wait. I sat on top of my bag and chomped on an apple while Kate stood at attention with her backpack on, as if willing cars in our direction. There were fewer vehicles traveling on the road than we had anticipated, and after being passed over several times, the attitude in the air grew increasingly anxious. But after about 30 minutes, a white transport van was leaving the park, and he stopped. I told him we were looking for a ride to Main Camp and offered him $10 to take us. With a Golden Pilsner resting comfortably in the center console, he shot us a quiet smile and turned his van around. When our bags were loaded and we were well on our way, Kate turned to me; her previous anxiety flushed away and said, “Now I’m on vacation”. We got to Main Camp in 15 minutes, unloaded our packs, and waved goodbye to our chariot as it drove off $10 richer. We had finally arrived. After one wrong bus, one chicken in transit, and Kate’s first hitch hiking experience, we had made it to our destination. We sighed a deep sigh of relief and walked toward the safari truck that was waiting patiently for our arrival.
His name was Livingstone, and what he lacked in height, he made up for in broadness of shoulder. He grew up in Mutare, near Zimbabwe’s North Eastern border with Mozambique. He spoke 4 languages and for the next 3.5 days he was to be our guide on safari. Hwange National Park is home to the most wildlife in Zimbabwe, most notably known as the former home of Cecil the lion. The same size as Connecticut, Hwange is spectacular in both size and beauty. Kate and I were beyond excited to be there and to experience real African wilderness, the kind we all picture when we think of Africa.
After a short snack, Livingstone, Kate and I began a nearly 3-hour drive to our camp (Davison’s Camp). As we drove down rutted dirt roads, I looked to the right and Kate looked to the left, determined not to pass any animals unseen. But, as the rainy season continues to press on, the trees are thick and the grass is tall, making it tricky to see game even 10 feet from the road. 30 minutes passed, and having seen only trees and no wildlife I began to feel like the kid from Jurassic Park, wondering where all the dinosaurs were. But then, an impala, and then a warthog, and then a giraffe, and then 3 giraffes, the deeper we drove into the park, the more animals we saw. It was unlike any place I had ever been.
We rounded a large watering hole just before twilight and I could see the glow of oil lanterns in the distance. As we arrived, we were greeted by a full staff with warm towels and glasses of sherry. Hoping to make dinner on time, we were swiftly escorted by a now armed Livingstone, to our tent for a shower and quick wardrobe change. Upon our return, the camp manager, Shayne, got us acquainted with the available amenities and safety procedures during our arrival briefing. I should have been tired after the day we had just had, but I was utterly taken by everything unfolding in front of us. I’m not entirely sure what we had for dinner that night, but I do remember sitting by the fire and watching lightning strike the distant horizon and thinking, “now I’m on vacation”.
The next 3 days were magical. Two game-drives a day, and no internet or cell reception, our attention was taken only by each other and the wilderness we found ourselves surrounded by. As we prepared to leave on our last day, we had seen 3 of Africa’s “Big 5” (African Buffalo, Elephant, & Lion) along with a countless number of other animals and birds. I am in awe of this place. It has taken any expectation I may have had, and blown it out of the water. We load into the truck and it is raining. I am un-phased and still looking for more game. As we pass a family of impala under a tree and then a single bull elephant walking through the grass, all I can do is smile and shake my head. I wish more places like this were left in our world, I pray my kids will be able to see the kinds of things I have seen here, though with the current state of everything, who knows. Places like Hwange, however, give me hope that maybe, just maybe we might be on to something.