Tuesday, May 17, 2016

My Return from Hiatus

Helloooo?? Is anybody out there??? 

Wow. Is it really 2016? … and did I really not publish one blog in 2015? I may be all the way over here in Africa, but I promise I haven’t fallen off the planet.

I do have one excuse I suppose. Your girl got a real official J-O-B! This new venture required a lot of time on the computer and quite a bit of my creative brain at the beginning, so when it came to my personal writing endeavours, I just ran out of energy - I didn’t have any words left to write! Okay that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean. 

Now that its been almost 2 years that I’ve been employed by Stead Safaris (more info on that in another post..) I feel like I have learned to manage my time to allow me to share some more adventures. I have not however learned how to summarize very well.. so sit back and relax yet again for the ramblings of an American Zimmigrant…

It would be easy to just do a general recap of 2015 so that I’m all caught up and can start fresh. But there was just TOO MANY amazing things that happened last year there is no way I can abridge the stories.

I will however, skip past a few of my adventures in order to focus on the ones that meant the absolute most to me last year. 

I only really thought I would be saying this with the prefix “I hope..” or “One day..” but it is official:  my PARENTS David and Diane Hudson AND my BEST FRIEND Haley Nix and her boyfriend flew in a real live plane to ZIMBABWE to visit me - all within 2 weeks of each other! What a lucky girl I am! 

Lets start chronologically shall we? Haley Nix for those of you who don’t know was my roommate at LSU for 4 years (in 4 different apartments by the way.. what were we thinking??) and is still my bestie to this day. She had been throwing around the idea of coming to visit, but like so many people who said that, I would just nod my head and agree that she should, without really believing it would come to fruition. She was crazy involved in studying to become a big-shot lawyer that I never thought that she would be able to do it. Well lo-and-behold, I got a message from her with a photo of her (nearly) booked ticket to AFRICA! Could. Not. Believe It. 

Haley managed to squeeze in a little trip to Zimbabwe between taking the Bar exam and beginning her career as a lawyer in New Orleans. Before her and her boyfriend Jordan came out, Cuan and I worked out a little plan, but left some room to be spontaneous. We narrowed down the list of destinations to our top 4: Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park, Bulawayo (“home”) & the Zambezi River. Given more time we would have taken them to some of our other favorite little gems.. maybe next time. 

So after what I’m sure was a long trip out (been there once or twice..) Haley and Jordan finally landed in Victoria Falls! I waited and waited at that gate for what seemed ages before I saw that familiar face. I can’t remember how long it had been since Haley and I had seen each other, but it was as if no time had passed. We hopped in the back of the truck and headed into town to check in to the lodge. 

After getting settled, Cuan had an idea to go on a quick game drive in a section of The Victoria Falls National Park. I have never really had much success viewing wildlife in this particular Park, so wasn’t expecting to see much, but agreed as it was a nice opportunity for our friends to get out and have a chance at spotting some animals. 

Cruising along on the bench Cuan set up on the back of the truck we did see some game.. a heard of zebra kicking up some dust gave way to some nice photos.

As we were driving, Haley and I still on the back, exposed to all the elements and mostly likely distracted in catch-up conversation.. I saw a rustle in the bushes RIGHT NEXT to the truck and a tan-looking animal jump away from the car. With further observation before she disappeared into the overgrown forest, we realized that “she” was in fact a lioness that was lounging in the tall grass directly next to the road, and subsequently directly next to us! If that doesn’t wake you up I don't know what will. This clever creature was too quick for our cameras, but Haley and I did get a glimpse. Definitely not anything I expected to see on this drive. 

Further along we saw one lone Elephant wandering off into the bush. This was Haley’s first time ever to see this magnificent creature and I believe a very special moment for her. 

As the sun started to set and the temperature began to drop we jumped inside the car and made our way towards the exit on a long, narrow, straight, sandy road. Then all of the sudden Cuan (our trusty driver) slammed on breaks and stopped dead still in the road. 

It took me a few seconds to figure out why he stopped so suddenly. Then I saw them. Two lionesses and a young male lion crouched in the middle of the road about 40 yards ahead of us. The car was silent as we watched these beautiful beings saunter closer and closer. They were just as curious about our vehicle as we were about them. We sat there for a good 20 minutes watching them slowly approach the truck. They would take a few steps, then lie down, take a few steps, then lie down. This carried on until they were mere inches from the car. Undisturbed by our presence however, the cats simply walked around us and continued down the road towards what we assumed was the waterhole behind us. 

We all sat there stunned at what we had just seen. Less than 4 hours after landing in Zimbabwe, Haley and Jordan witnessed one of the most amazing lion sightings I have ever seen! 

I did try to warn them before they came, that this is real Africa and the real bush, so animal sightings are not guaranteed, but very likely given the time of the year. I think most people who come to Africa for the first time have this image of the Serengeti from a National Geographic show with wide open rolling plains and animals as far as you can see. If you want to see the "Big 5" in a day then go to a zoo. Don't get me wrong, we do have those areas here in Zimbabwe, but the landscape also ranges from thick forestry areas to desert to mountains, rivers, etc..  and some of the game can be very elusive, especially cats. But I was even surprising myself with what we had already observed. 

One of my favorite things of living in this part of Africa is the remoteness and amount of untouched wilderness there is here. In more popular safari destinations, at a lion sighting like that, there would be at least 4 or 5 other game drive vehicles full of other tourists snapping photos. But for this little stretch of National Park in Victoria Falls, it was just us and them. 

The next day was Cuan’s 30th Birthday! So we headed to a lovely little breakfast spot that serves a delicious baked egg dish that Cuan loves, before making our way to THE Victoria Falls. 

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but no matter how many times I have seen this Natural Wonder of the World, it never ceases to amaze me: the unbelievable cliff cutting across the Zambezi River, the deafening sounds, the thick green rainforest surrounding the Falls, full of vervet monkeys and birdlife. This was a particularly good time of the year to view the Falls. The water is just low enough that the smokey mist, created from the thousands of tons of water crashing at the bottom of the crevasse, doesn’t rise high enough to completely obscure your view of the actual waterfalls. 


After a few hours of visiting the different viewpoints of the Falls, we headed across the road to a nice little cafe positioned over the Gorge just around a bend from the waterfalls. Also located here are a few of the most intense adrenaline activities on offer in Victoria Falls ("The Adventure Capital of Africa"). You’ll see from the photos just how deep and vast this gorge is. Wild Horizons, a popular operator in the Falls has taken advantage of this setting and set up a few high wire activities. One of which being the Gorge Swing.

Cuan and I built this up with Haley and Jordan the day before saying they had to try the Gorge Swing. This is basically exactly how it sounds —  a GIANT swing that goes across the entire gorge, after around a 70 meter (230 foot) free-fall drop before the swing catches. 

After a bit of hesitation (and a few beers) they decided to go for it! You can go in tandem so at least Hay had that support from her other half..

I personally haven’t done this one, but I believe its on par with the bungee jump if not a bit more terrifying, so very proud of Hay for committing! Needless to say they survived without having a heart attack. 

That afternoon we did a bit of shopping and chilled by the pool overlooking a private waterhole and some thirsty ele’s. Then onto the sunset cruise on the Zambezi Explorer. Seeing as it was Cuan’s birthday and all, I decided to splurge on the Signature (top) Deck of this amazing cruise vessel. The Zambezi Explorer company has the best sunset cruise boat in Victoria Falls, I go almost every time I’m up there. It just such a nice way to wind down the evening on the river, watching as the sun dips down below the water’s edge on the horizon. The free hors d’oeuvres and cocktails don't hurt either.. They even sang "Happy Birthday" to Cu! :) 

All of that and I’m only on Day 3! 

Got up stupid early the next day to make our way to the entrance of Hwange National Park. Our plan was to drive through the park and end up at Ivory Lodge, one of the properties owned by my employer. We would have liked to spend more time in Hwange, but Cuan and I both needed to get back to our day-job so could only spend the one night there. Ideally 3 nights in Hwange is what I recommend to get the most opportunities at seeing game. But of course I didn’t expect to see 3-day’s worth of game in one drive! 

As we entered the Park, Cuan begins speaking Shona (local language) to the Parks Authority, just making small talk. In my 3 years here I have picked up on some key words.. still wouldn’t be able to have a conversation, but I could get by. So I start hearing the word “shumba” being thrown around in the conversation. Shumba of course means “lion” in the Shona language, and I’m thinking no way are we about to have THIRD lion sighting in 3 days. 

Well sure enough, not 50 feet into the park, we see one vehicle stopped looking at something just off the road. This was a particularly dense area of trees so we could barely see through he foliage, but there they were.. a few lion surrounding what looked like a buffalo kill. Seriously?! Just so amazing. I hope Haley and Jordan appreciated what they were seeing as this is not a normal occurrence. 

Even after such an eventful start to our day, the rest of our drive in the park did not disappoint. One major highlight was the scene we witnessed at Masuma Dam. 
*Hwange education pause: Hwange National Park does not have any natural water sources, so when its the dry season, Hwange is VERY dry. Any water pan that is not pumped year-round dries up to a dust bowl closely resembling the surface of Mars. There are a few pans that keep water throughout the year, which in July-October times is a Hwange resident’s refuge and life-saver. 

We got to Masuma Dam around lunchtime so unpacked our picnic and settled in under the shaded viewing area overlooking the water hole. There were a few animals there waiting for us: hippo, kudu, zebra, impala, crocodiles… Then as if on que the elephant’s started coming in, by the 10s, 20s, 30s, and before we knew it there were probably at least 60 elephants around the pan! Big ones, tall ones, fat ones.. and mine and Haley’s favorites — baby ones. 

We could have stayed there all afternoon, but still had a few hours of driving ahead of us. Reluctantly we headed back to the truck for our final drive towards Ivory Lodge. 

Made it just in time for sundowners at the lodge and had a lovely evening chatting around the fire. 

The next morning we headed to Bulawayo so I could show Haley and Jordan our little home! 

Cu and I had a bit of work to catch up on, so we left Hay and Jordan to their own devises for a few days, before heading off again on another adventure! I’m sure that we did something while we were in Bulawayo, but that was 8 months ago and I’m honestly pretty shocked I’m remembering all that I have already..

So a few days later was the beginning of a long weekend. The first weekend in August marks what is called Hero’s Weekend. I’m afraid I don’t really know what its about.. but its a great excuse to get away! We took advantage of that and the fact that its was Cuan’s 30th Birthday to go back to Masau for some fun, fishin’ and sun. 

If you haven’t seen my other post about this little gem of a fishing camp, you can check it out here. Just to recap, Masau is located on the banks of the Zambezi River. Looking out from the pool you can see the mighty Zambezi, Zambia just across the river, and the Mozambique mountains off in the East. It is such a special place. 

If you have read the previous post about this place, then you are aware of how difficult it is to get there.. from Harare is takes about 6 hours, 2 on nice paved roads and the other 4 on dirt roads through remote villages. Its always a great trip on the way in.. and a pretty miserable one on the way out as its so sad to be leaving. 

So as per tradition we cracked open the first beer at the top of the escarpment (just before the paved road ends) and began our exciting journey through the bush! All 11 of us. Me, Cuan, Haley, Jordan, Lauren, Forey, Gaylo, Steve, Sarah, Hunter and (other) Lauren! Steve and Sarah were the crazy ones who decided to go on a motorcycle, and Hunter and Lauren met us from across the river in Zambia.. PLUS Cu’s dad (Squirrel) and his buddy decided they would come join in on the debauchery. 

Had a lovely and fairly uneventful drive in. I am just in awe at what goes on in such rural areas. In these little unassuming villages, you will see gentlemen wearing suits and ties riding their bicycles down the road.. going to where? I don’t know. Why in a suit? No earthly idea, especially considering in the Zambezi Valley temperatures can reach unbearable levels. Then the ladies carrying huge jugs of water on their heads, kids playing with a “soccer ball” made from old grocery bags, goats wandering around, blending in as part of the community. These people, so removed from society, function as if they are the only ones on earth. Its actually a bit humbling see the way they live their life, so simply and no doubt struggling, but doing it all with a smile on their face. 

The next few days was a whirlwind of fishing competitions, games, laughter, stories, and a few wildlife sightings. Was such a good happy crowd of people and so glad that Haley got to spend some time with my Zim friends! I think she approved of my choices in friends..

The men had quite an interesting few days on “their” boat. We split up the ladies from the boys for a few days, and when we met up with them at lunchtime on one of the days, there was something quite peculiar wrong with their boat.. It wasn’t steering or moving very much at all for that matter. Everyone of course had their theories of what exactly was wrong but it wasn’t until Cuan jokingly said, “Have we checked that we still have a prop?” did the boys figure out they in fact, didn’t have a propellor. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about boats, but I do believe that particular item is quite important to, you know, propel the boat! Baffled at how exactly that lost this all to crucial part, the boys were stuck tethered to the ladies and/or paddling down stream for the rest of the trip! DEFINITE fine for them. 

Inevitably there are challenges on the river for who can catch the most fish, the biggest fish, the ugliest fish, etc. I think its safe to say that the Americans dominated this trip. Haley and I caught more fish than any of the Zim girls.. and Jordan, after about a 20 minute struggle, managed to wrangle in a massive Vundu (catfish) - which is definitely the ugliest.. Go Team USA! 

Haley and I could not have done it without the patience and passion of the great “Stormin’ Norman!” He has been on the staff at Masau for ages and has dealt with clients of all angling experience. But being put on a boat full of all females I’m sure was quite the test of his sanity.. but he did it all with a big smile on his face. 

The “fines” session took place on the last evening and despite our accomplishments over the weekend, I think everyone received a fine or two.. 

This particular drive out of camp was even more dismal than normal, because it marked the end of Haley and Jordan’s African adventure!  10 days it just not long enough, but I do believe that we made the absolute most of their time here. 

We bid our friends farewell and set off back to the “real” world in Bulawayo. But only for two weeks before the epic trip with Diane and David Hudson!! I was going to talk about their trip in this post as well, but I figure I’ll give your eye balls a rest for a few days.. but its on the way!! 

Hayhay and Jordan: I cannot thank you enough for the effort you made to come out to deep dark Africa and visit little ole me. It means more than you know! And I can’t wait for you to come back! ;)