Africa: Rafting Farewells

While we were waiting for the helicopter to arrive we got our final instructions fromCam.  We got assigned an order for which we had to approach the chopper, so we could get in and settled with as little fuss as possible.  We only had with us our grey pelicases with our valuables (basically just cameras, sunscreen and painkillers), as the rest of our gear was left in the raft with Trevor and Illiam.  They had two options of getting back to the start of the river, one slightly more dangerous, and much longer, than the other.  The first, and preferable option, was to meet a driver on the Zimbabwean side of the river and get themselves and all the gear transported back to the start of the river, a trip lasting approximately four hours.  The second option would not be by choice, but would occur if the truck driver did not turn up for any number of reasons, the most basic being that he forgot!  In that case, a boat would have to be arranged from somewhere, in order to tow the two rafts across a huge lake at nightfall, and exit the river at a safe point further downstream.  This trip took approximately eight hours, and was far riskier.  And if that option was employed, we were not guaranteed of getting our personal belongings back before we departed the country, unless we were staying on for a few extra days!  Further to that, neither Trev nor Illiam had any identification with them, as we’d left all our passports at the lodge we stayed at on the first night.  So if they were pulled up at any stage there would be questions to answer, permits to produce or procure, and possible fines or payments to be made.  This was my first introduction to the ‘unruly’AfricaI’d imagined, and it was quite confronting when the realities were laid bare.  The guides would alternate who completed the exit strategy, and this trip was Trev’s turn. Camgot to ride in the chopper with us.

We were all dozing in the warm afternoon sun waiting for the truck and the chopper.  Both were late which was not a good sign.  I didn’t worry too much untilCamstarted looking at his watch with more frequency.  Being that this wasAfrica, and all the locals ran on African time (it’ll be done when it gets done, what’s the rush?!), there was also a very real possibility that our chopper wouldn’t arrive and we’d have to arrange alternative transport too.  Oh boy.  I didn’t want our week to end on a stressful note like this.  As I began to consider myself lucky that I had another five days before I flew out, we spotted the truck arrive on the other side of the river.  Trev and Illiam said goodbye and rafted over to the opposite bank to unload the rafts and load up the truck.  Suddenly there was a mass of local boys, ‘porters’, to help with moving the gear – for a fee of course.  I was marveling at the unperturbed manner and pace in which everything was done inAfrica, when I heard the chopper approaching.  What a relief!  We were going to have a bird’s eye view of the 120 kilometers of river that we’d rafted over the last seven days.  How exciting.

I jumped into the front of the chopper with Rhys and the pilot, as we were the smallest (well, I’d say both Rhys and I were bigger than Ian, butCamhad the good sense not to put him near me), and the others squished into the back seat.  We had a set of headphones each, and could hear the pilot commentate the flight, while making the surrounding noise more bearable.  Rhys was super excited, and I have to admit, it was pretty cool.  I can’t recall ever having been in a helicopter before, and as was the African tradition, we were given complimentary bottles of soft drink to enjoy.  These bottles were made of glass, and would be collected at the end of the flight, to be recycled; washed, re-filled and re-deployed.  Even the beer bottles were recycled in this manner; it was just the way it was done!  It definitely saved on rubbish – I just hoped they had a good sterilization process!

We flew back up over the river, and seeing the river and the rapids from this perspective was an eye opener.  You saw the enormity of the white water and gained a new appreciation for the guides and the amazing job they did.  Not only did they safely navigate us through each rapid and portage site, they were so well versed they read the river and its ever changing patterns with relative ease, and it gave new meaning to the phrase I’d heard so often in the past week “That line has changed again since last time”.  Constant re-adjustment and re-assessment, and flexibility to accommodate all the changes they came across.  All qualities I admire and embody.

The week long rafting trip had begun at the base of theVictoria Falls, and we flew over this magnificent beauty in the helicopter.  The falls create a natural border betweenZambiaandZimbabwe, and look as if the two countries have simply been torn apart, the flat landscape giving way to a jagged crevice almost 1.5 kilometers wide.  Known locally as “The smoke that thunders”, the falls really do live up to their name.  The water weaves its way amongst the trees and rivulets before plummeting 100 meters over the edge.  The spray from the water rises high above the top of the falls, creating a smoky haze.  A rainbow appeared as we flew above the mist, giving off a sublime aura to the whole scene.  We could see the bridge where people bungy jump at the base of the falls, which was the same spot where we began this journey that was soon to end.

I glimpsed an elephant, the first sighting on this amazing trip, on the plains below us.  Cam and I were heading off to theChobeNational ParkinBotswanathe next day, where we were guaranteed to see many more of these grand animals, however the first of anything is always exciting, and this sighting was no exception.  Our flight ended soon after, and as soon as we touched down I was in search of a toilet.  I was suddenly busting for the loo!  Fortunately for everyone, there was one nearby, and I made a very sudden dash for the blessed location.  Ahh, the relief!  This was the first time in seven days where I could relax while on the toilet, use as much toilet paper as I wanted, and flush!  I admired the elephant carvings on the inside of the little hut, and the door that locked!  I’d had an experience at one of the campsites where I was on the loo and a helicopter had flown overhead – and then made a quick turn in the sky and flown over again – oh, the embarrassment!  There is something very sacred about your private time, and I’d been exposed to the occupants of the chopper.  What made it worse was when I returned to the camp, the boys realised what had occurred and found it hysterical, as they’d been wondering why the helicopter had flown over twice, and now it was clear!  Here I could relax as there was no chance of any inadvertent sightings.  I’d obviously been lost in my musings for longer than I realised, for when I exited my little haven everyone was waiting for me.  I got told to hurry up, and was asked what I’d been doing.  Now really, does anyone actually want a description?  Come on, boys, I’d been having a party, what do you think I’d been doing?!!!

We were driven to the lodge we’d stayed at on the first night to collect the rest of our belongings and our passports, and then driven to Songwe Point for our final night of ‘luxury’.  We passed through a little village on the way to the lodge, and I had a taste of ‘true’Africa, as I’d always imagined it to be.  The air was hot and dry; the ground was brown and dusty and scattered with rocks of all sizes, and a few green trees.  The leafless trees were over populated with hundreds of bird nests all in close proximity to the each other – I counted about 30 nests in one tree alone!  It was as if these birds were imitating the over crowding they witnessed in the huts below, and I was fascinated by it all.  The round family huts were made purely from thatch and twine, as were the dilapidated fences arranged in a haphazard manner throughout the village.  The important buildings, the church and school, were constructed of bricks and concrete, yet had the same open door formation as the huts.

Nothing was closed off in this village, all buildings and areas were open and accessible to everyone who was part of that community.  There was an array of skinny dogs, almost featherless chooks, and little hairy pigs running loose through the area, and the children we saw were barefoot but happy.  They all smiled and waved hello, while the younger ones would hide themselves in their mother’s colourful skirts before peeking around to see if we were still there.  The only colours breaking the monotony of browns in the village were the clothes – red, blue, green, yellow, pink, orange, purple, white and black, in an array of patterns and designs, in every shape and size, hanging on the clotheslines attached to the fences, or worn proudly by these friendly, welcoming people.  We were told that medical care was provided free to children until the age of two years old, after which their families had to pay.  Considering many could barely afford to eat, it was not surprising that most children suffered ailments and diseases without any appropriate care provided.  Yet, every person I saw was smiling.  It certainly nudged at my consciousness and bought tears of admiration to my eyes.

After a long bumpy ride along the dirt road we arrived at the lodge, and in comparison to the village we’d just been through, the lodge was a little kingdom of colour and manicured garden beds and the finest attention to details.  Our huts were replica shapes of those in the village; however the round base was constructed of solid material akin to a concrete paper mache, with the conical roofs made of thick thatch.  I was allocated a hut with a blue door, which locked, however there was a gap of approximately one foot between the wall and the roof, so mozzie nets and insect spray were in abundant supply.  The bedroom and bathroom were in the one circular room with a wall two thirds the diameter of the room dividing the two sections.  The attention to detail in these huts was immaculate.  The beds were essentially four poster beds to hold the mozzie nets at a good distance away from you whilst you slept, and they were comfortable beds – no coil springs poking you in the ribs when you lay down.  There were brightly coloured African patterned dressing gowns placed neatly on the beds, and animal skins on the colourfully painted concrete floor.  There were umbrellas hanging on the wall for the rainy season, and a mirror with a painted leopard print boarder in the bathroom.

Having worked in housekeeping onHaymanIslandI pay particular attention to the bathroom and amenities sections of places I stay, and I can say that this lodge won hands down in comparison to any other accommodation I’ve ever paid for.  The shower consisted of two full walls and one half wall so you could look out over theZambeziRiverwhile you washed.  It was an amazing view; however the wind would whip right through from outside the hut to inside, blowing the water onto the floor of the hut and freezing whatever part of you that was not under the water at that time.  It was still fun though.  Next to the shower was the sink, which was open from waist height, and also looked out over the river.  The sink was a bench with a tin bowl into which the tap water ran, and you emptied the bowl into a drainage hole in the top of the bench.  There was a tin mug on a tray with little soaps with elephant carvings on them, arranged on top of big aloe vera leaves.  Next to the sink was a wooden shelf and towel rail, with more soap, a candle holder in the shape of an elephant (which had been made from an old Vaseline tin), and toilet rolls that were individually wrapped with a dry grass reed and a leaf.  Everything was simple yet elegant and I loved it.  I spent some time looking around the rest of the lodge, and found a sunset bath and on the opposite side of the site, a sunrise bath.  These baths were in small huts on the very edge of the cliff, and you could book a bath, and relax while having a drink and watch the sun rise or set, depending on which you chose.  I thought it was an awesome idea, I mean, what do we have at home that is so conducive to relaxation and enjoyment of the beauty of this world?  Nothing that immediately comes to my mind.  Dave booked the sunrise bath and said it was just spectacular!

We all got a drink and sat on the cliff top to watch the sun set for one last time together.  I’ve discovered a sunset or sunrise tends to induce a stillness and contemplative mood, and this was true for us all on that night.  I was reflecting on the week I’d shared with these guys, the new friendships I’d made, and the time I’d had to get to knowCambetter.  Dave and I had laughed so much that week, andCamand I still hadn’t run out of things to talk about, and I was beginning to get sad that it was coming to an end.  However, as was his style, Dave soon made me laugh again as he emerged from his hut wearing his bright red, white and yellow African dressing gown, followed shortly by Rhys in his red, green and yellow gown.  The boys proceeded to wear their dressing gowns during dinner, creating no end of amusement for the rest of us, especially as they bent down to serve themselves dinner from the pots on the coals in the centre of the floor.

After dinner we all retired for the night, and I had an awesome sleep on the first mattress I’d seen in a week.  I still found sand in all my stuff, just because we’d left the river I don’t think the sand was going to go away that quickly!  We were driven back into town the next morning, and had to say our goodbyes.  We’d all exchanged details the night before, so with the formalities out the way, all we had to do was hug, tear up and wave goodbye.  I was lucky as Cam and I were heading off toBotswanaimmediately after saying goodbye to the others, but Dave was spending another night inZambiabefore flying out the next day.  I think he said to me “Don’t say goodbye too much or I’ll cry” and as I was already a little teary I took his advice.  We promised to meet up again, maybe next year inCanadafor another rafting trip, and then the year after when I get over toEurope.  I gave Dave another hug, shook hands with John, Rhys and Trev, said a general goodbye, and jumped in the car waiting to take us toBotswana.  We were off on the next part of my adventure.

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