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Hiking Zimbabwe-Style

By Brad Zembic

Hwange GiraffeHwange Giraffe © Brad Zembic

Serena gratefully lifted her cup of instant cream-of-asparagus soup to her weathered lips. “Smells good,” she offered as she whiffed its curling steam.“Did you have to walk far for water?”

After having hiked ten kilometres in the African heat, the idea of covering any more ground was daunting. The only water nearby was a series of springs that helped feed the seasonally flowing Deka River. Our Zimbabwean guide Chuma and I were only able to fill the water bottles after a dozen elephants left the springs to forage for food in the surrounding forest, leaving the pools of otherwise pristine water dung-filled and murky. After boiling the water for safety, I added the pouches of dried soup, wondering how my stomach would react to the concoction. “Bon appetite,” Serena said before downing the creamy mixture and refilling her cup. “Aren't you having any? I smiled weakly as I reached into my pack for a rusk, claiming lactose intolerance.

Mealtime deep in the African bush was only one of a number of adventures that we experienced during our two-day walking trail through Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Although walking was an unorthodox way of seeing the countryside, I had previously travelled through African game parks in vehicles and felt, being secure in my mobile fortress, that I was missing something significant and entirely essential. Travelling by foot through the backcountry, I decided, was the only way to get a true feel for the fast-vanishing African wilderness.

We began our walking safari at Hwange's most westerly port of entry, Robins Camp. Nearly a kilometre from Robins's well-maintained cluster of olive-coloured chalets, administrative buildings and campsites, the air was still bustling with the sounds of human activity. Gradually, however, the bongo rhythm of African voices and the groaning of diesel engines were replaced by the shrill vibrations of cicadas, and I had a blunt feeling of having entered a realm where safety was as illusory as human dominion.

Established as a national park in 1949, Hwange consists of nearly 15,000 km2 of grassland, sandveld and teak and mopani forests that give refuge to one of the greatest densities of wildlife on the planet. The area was once the exclusive royal hunting ground of Kings Mzilikazi and Lobengula of the Ndebele nation. During the late 1800s, it was annexed for the British Empire by Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company and was nearly stripped of wildlife by Europeans who turned much of the land into cattle ranches. It was largely through the conservation efforts of landowner Herbert Robins – whose house still stands as a ranger station in the camp that bears his name – that the new colonial government realized the region's rich potential. After trading a new house and water system for some of Robins's property in the 1920s, the authorities began in earnest to claim additional land and lure back animals as a legacy to all Zimbabweans.

We hiked our first day along meandering game trails that led us through dried realized kloofs, or ravines, that revealed highways of animal spoor in the sand, and through areas thick with golden grass that reached over two metres in height. The lookout tower at Robins stood behind us like a periscope above a canopy of trees and sank slowly below the horizon with each step we took. After walking for several hours through flat savanna, we broke for lunch in a grove of scraggy acacia trees, denuded of foliage by the dryness of Zimbabwe's winter. We huddled into their vein-like shadows to avoid the sun and watched a pair of Burchell's zebras trot across the parched terrain.

Further into the bush, we crossed several dormant rivers and streams that in winter act as roadways for wildlife in search of food and water. The sandy watercourses are fed by the summer rains, which normally fall in November and December, before flowing northward to join the great chief of rivers, the Zambezi, on its trek to the Indian Ocean. While climbing from a dried streambed, we noticed a small herd of elephants with cute Dumbo calves casually ripping bark and foraging for leaves. “Move slowly back toward those trees,” Chuma whispered excitedly, pointing to a stand of mopani trees and cocking his high-powered rifle. “Elephants are aggressive when they have babies. ”

We backed away, careful to avoid detection, only to realize we had manoeuvred ourselves into a closing circle of the mammoth creatures. Being upwind from a second group, our presence was soon echoed in a jazz festival of trumpeting and ear flapping that alerted a big-tusked and protective matriarch. The earth below us seemed to tremble, either from the weight of her charge, or the shaking of our knees. Chuma ordered us to stay put and, after firing his rifle into the air, our attacker stopped, and then gave a final snort and head swing before retreating with the herd.

zimbabwe ElephantZimbabwean Elephant © Brad Zembic

We trudged on for another five kilometres, skirting a rogue Cape buffalo and lone elephants along the way. Hwange's elephant population numbers over twenty thousand in the dry season when the animals travel from other parts of Southern Africa to congregate at the park's permanent waterholes. In summer, however, when water is plentiful, many migrate beyond Hwange's borders to areas as far as the Okavango Delta in Botswana, allowing the park's fragile ecosystem to partially recover from their destructive appetites.

“We will sleep here,” Chuma finally announced after nearly fifteen kilometres of hiking. ”These fallen trees will serve as a boma. They will keep the animals away.” My jaw dropped at the thin network of branches meant to protect us from being dragged away in the night by hungry predators, and I began questioning the wisdom of not carrying a tent. As Serena unpacked her rucksack, Chuma and I scavenged for wood for an all-night fire.

Darkness falls quickly in Africa and, after a meal of sadza—maize-meal cooked into a porridge-like consistency—with a chicken soup topping, we settled into our little enclosure and watched the fire while enjoying the sounds of the African night. We heard the ghostly hoot of a pearl-spotted owl, and somewhere a lone jackal stabbed the air with its piercing yap. The sky was brilliant, as if the spirits of a million fallen Matabele warriors had built their own tiny campfires to fend off the night. Gazing around me, I couldn't help but feel a strong connection with something primeval and long forgotten.

The wood smoke swirled around us like incense, and we were soon lulled to sleep. I was awakened, however, by the sound of loud grunts and racing feet from somewhere in the bush. “There's something coming,” I whispered loudly to a snoring Chuma. In the flash of a second, he was lying poised with his rifle cocked, ready to confront the danger. The animal galloped past our camp just outside the circle of firelight, snorting and snuffling as it made its way deeper into the forest.

“Hyena,” Chuma reported casually. “It is being chased by a lion.” The faint snarl of a big cat confirmed Chuma's evaluation. “It is afraid of the fire,” he continued, anticipating my question. He then rolled himself tightly in his sleeping bag and resumed his gentle snore. I turned to Serena, who appeared to have slept through the entire event, and then got up to search for the biggest log I could find to add to the fire.

On our second day in Hwange, we travelled along game trails through dry grassland and mopani woodlands, frightening small herds of graceful impalas along the way. A pair of bat-eared foxes pranced into the forest, and we startled a group of giraffes as they browsed the higher branches for leaves. A grey lourie perched itself on the top of an acacia uttering its characteristic “g'way,” a call that has caused locals to nickname it the “go-away bird,” and we came across a massive communal nest of the social weaver that covered almost an entire tree. Over four hundred species of birdlife inhabit the region during the humid summer months. Colourful birds such as the lilac-breasted roller, carmine bee-eater and blue waxbill make Hwange a birding paradise that attracts enthusiasts from all over the world.

That night we camped safely within the walls of a game-viewing hide next to the Masuma Dam. On previous trips to Hwange the reservoir had been full and teaming with wildlife. Crocodiles lay in waiting, their bulbous eyes protruding like stones above the water's still surface; screeching baboons chased each other; and enormous elephants bathed themselves, while herds of zebras, kudus and impalas frolicked and sipped at the water's edge. This time, however, the reservoir was empty. “The pipes that bring the water from the pump are broken,” Chuma explained. “There is no money to fix them.”

Water any time of year can be a problem in Hwange, whose sandy terrain is an eastern extension of the Kalahari Desert. As a result, Ted Davidson, the park's founding warden, devised a plan that included building a series of boreholes to ensure a year-round supply. Zimbabwe has fallen on hard times, however, and although the pipes have since been repaired, the high cost of maintaining the pumps threatens these artificial watering holes, a necessity for wildlife in times of drought.

zimbabwe stormStorm Brewing in Hwange © Brad Zembic

Despite being surrounded by a one-metre-high stone wall, our last night in the bush was our most sleepless. The Robins area is renowned for its high concentration of predators, of which Hwange boasts over twenty-five different types, and soon after we bedded down, the roars of a lion pride began to thunder across the veld. Our senses remained alert as the roaming felines moaned and grunted to each other in the darkness while scouring the bush for prey. The air seemed to tremble with the electricity of what South African writer Laurens van der Post called “the most miraculous of sounds.” Their booming voices filled me simultaneously with dread and joy, and I lay awake for hours listening to their conversations.

We were greeted the next morning by the gentle coo cooing of doves and the excited cackle of guinea fowls as they scurried about the dried pan. The sky was layered with soft bands of rose and peach hues, and trees were set ablaze as a blood-coloured sun climbed slowly above the horizon. A Landover arrived to take us back to civilization. Its grinding diesel engine spewed black exhaust and suffocated the sounds of nature. As we packed our gear into the vehicle, Chuma showed us the spoor of a large lion that had passed by in the early hours of the morning. I felt oddly comforted by the lion's closeness. Remembering conservationist Ian Player's idea that “we feel the soul of Africa through the soles of our feet,” I placed my own foot onto one of its paw prints and realized that walking in Hwange had put me in touch with something significant and entirely essential.

Former Winnipeg boy Brad Zembic just can't seem to sit still, which is probably why he calls so much of the world home. While nourishing his obsession for travel, his forays to places off the tourist trail have given him insight and appreciation of our planet's extraordinary people and places.

Images edited by Kamer Guzel