Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bush Pilots and Cell Phones over the Zambezi River

Flight over Zambia 

Linkuvasha Bush Airstrip
Zambezi River Paradise

It is June 27th as I write this entry, sitting at the edge of the Zambezi River in the remote luxury of Ruckomechi Camp.  This segment of our adventure began yesterday when after breakfast at Davidson Camp, we were transported an hour to the remote airstrip, Linkuvasha, for our flight here.

The morning’s temperature is 1 degree centigrade as we huddle around the fire circle, holding tin mugs of hot coffee, warming our extremities and waiting to depart Davison Camp. At 8:00 A.M. bundled warmly, we bump along the rutted dirt road to catch our plane. Upon arriving, Brian our guide races our vehicle along the grassy airstrip to clear the runway of a flock of ground hornbills in preparation for the incoming plane. We wait patiently, soaking in the morning sun and enjoying the solitude when our vehicle’s radio sputters to life.  Our plane has been delayed an hour, so in the interim, we hop back into the vehicle and Brian takes us on a short game drive.  Returning to the Linkuvasha airstrip we watch as a small silvery speck in the sky takes the shape of a tiny bush plane and lands on the grassy runway.  After brief farewells, we climb onboard the 4 seated air plane and are immediately bumping along the runway for takeoff.  We are the only passengers and we catch our breath as the small plane lifts off, shudders, banks, and stabilizes. The teak and acacia forest below becomes a melody of fall colors and as we gain altitude, I see the curly grey smoke from many forest fires clouding the horizon.  The landscape soon changes from sparse forest to a patchwork of monochromatic farm land and I am lulled by its monotony.  Initially, our pilot busies himself with control dials and radio, and I am beginning to relax until I realize that he has begun texting on his Nokia cell phone and is paying little attention to our flight path.  An hour and a half later, we land safely at the tiny airport of Kariba to refuel.  John and I enter the bleak terminal to use the facilities and John gazes longingly through the closed grill of the snack stand at several ancient and certainly stale packages of cookies.  The second leg of the trip takes just 30 minutes and the flight is spectacular. The ground below is sculpted by canyons and dry curving river beds and when we reach the Zambia River we fly low along the river, a maze of islands, lagoons and marshlands, studded with pods of hippos. 
Zambezi River Hippos

We touch down on another barren airstrip and are met by Champion, who offloads our baggage into a Wilderness Safari land cruiser to drive us to Camp.  He takes the scenic route and we are delayed by the Ruckomechi version of a traffic jam; two female elephants with their babies, foraging contentedly in the middle of the road.  We are delighted to wait and watch until they move off road to forage elsewhere. 

The camp is situated along the banks of the Zambezi River and when we pull in we are met by JuJu and Carl who hand us cool wet towels to wipe the dust from our faces and hands.  We have missed the official lunch but two places are set in the open dining area, at the far end of a long plank table and we enjoy a late lunch of cold cuts, salads and fresh fruit. The staff hovers over us, attending to our every need but mostly, I just wish to marvel and the hundreds of hippos, inhale the river view,  and refuel in peace.  After lunch we are briefed on the safety regulation and escorted to our room.  There are 10 tented rooms, 5 fanning out from either side of the center dining and lounge area. Ours is number 4 and we are escorted along a long raised boardwalk skirting the other bungalows to our palatial tent, overlooking a river clogged with hippopotamus.  Our screened and curtained bungalow is 15 feet by 35 feet across; the bedroom and bathroom partitioned by an iron meshed wall, filled with river pebbles. I give John the first shower and begin to settle in when I hear brush crackling and look up to see an elephant walking just a few feet from the screened side of our cabin; it turns and crosses along the front of our tent.  John exclaims his amazement from the shower, feeling perhaps a little more vulnerable than I do, in his state of nakedness. 

Kevin will be our guide for the duration of our stay here and we depart for our afternoon and evening game drive at 3:30 P.M.  Each open safari vehicle has three rows of tiered seats so that all guests have good visibility. Silvie and Frederick, French newly-weds are with us this afternoon. They are in their 40’s, delightful and funny; his English is perfect and hers is considerably better than my French. We spot the usual suspects; impala, water buck, eland, wart hogs, baboons and countless birds. 
Curious Impala 

Cape Buffalo

We have sightings of Cape buffalo from afar and enjoy “sundowners” at the edge of the Zambezi River. I surmise that the psychology of these safari camps is to keep the guests happy and warm, by moderately medicating us, even if the white Rhino remain elusive. We are well layered for warmth, but when night falls we wrap ourselves in the provided blankets, top it all with fleece lined canvas ponchos and are still chilled. Kevin is a patient and excellent guide and drives slowly, scanning the base of the tree line with an infra-red spot light. When we see a pair, or pairs of eyes shining back at us, he stops the vehicle and motions us to be quiet and perfectly still. He has perfected the sound of a wounded rodent and for minutes on end repeats this chirpy-squeal until a pair of eyes begins to move closer to investigate. A small spotted genet, a feliform and somewhat related to cats, moves warily towards the vehicle, obviously hoping to catch an easy dinner. Although it comes quite close to the vehicle, it is hard to see clearly, illuminated by the eerie red light. Tonight, the forest is full of eyes and we soon see an African civet, a much larger, spotted animal, crouching under a shelter of branches and at first, I mistake it for a leopard. Civets, genets and mongoose are all related and part of the viverridae family. Prior to tonight, I have never heard of a civet or genet and it is exciting to meet these nocturnal creatures for the first time.
Sunset over the Zamezi River
We get back to the camp at 7:30 P.M. to find that an extended family of 10, from Utah, have arrived during the afternoon. John and I dine with the family, at the end of the long table; they are friendly, but very autonomous, and we don’t find much common ground.  Silvie and Frederick have arranged for a romantic dinner for two and their table is set above on a rise, shining with candlelight and overlooking the Zambezi River.  

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