Notes from The Edge 18 – Africa 10

For the massive majority of us it happens every day and yet still the sunset is the most photographed thing in the world. We take the photo and when we get back to the normal we show our friends that we captured a bit of this place or that place at a moment of magic. We forget that it’s the exact same ball of fire that hangs over us back at home and lurks behind the clouds. How often do we take the time to watch it rise from our homes? How often do we stop to see it sink at the end of each ordinary day?  

It is the most predictable, reliable and necessary phenomenon and yet it’s only when we’re away that we take any notice. It’s only when we see it over the sea across the beach or through mountain mist that it becomes magical. What’s incredible, too, is that it’s one of those things that can be seen from inside the bubble and might just serve as enough of a reminder that there’s a lot more out there than there is in here. 

In Zambia, such was the regularity of the days and the weather this close to the equator, each morning was a festival of light as the sun rose in the West and equally breath-taking as it quickly slipped away in the evening. Predictable, steady, constant. 

Perhaps it is the dust of this place that colours it like it does and makes such a display. I never tired of it. Every single night I called out the group for them to watch though I know they were humouring me. “We saw it yesterday” they said. But they didn’t. We never see the same sunset twice. 

10. The Batoka Gorge

We weren’t here as tourists, though a few days of sightseeing did break up the expedition a little and help move us between the phases of the trip. Moving south meant that we had been able to take in the wilderness of the game reserves in the north, the noise and confusion of Lusaka in the middle and now the much more welcoming and softer city of Livingstone. 

Livingstone relies heavily on the tourist trade; most visitors coming to see the Falls or the Rhino park and as such, the town has to give the people what they want. Unlike Lusaka, that meant paved roads with traffic controls and raised footpaths; cafés that serve lattés and scrambled eggs on toast; Pizza Hut; burger bars and gated malls. 

Thankfully beyond this there’s the real Zambia – the one that I had fallen in love with and wanted to see more of. I wanted to be painted to the knee with dust and cajoled by children on the little backstreets; I wanted to be smiled at and waved to by the locals: I knew that soon enough I’d be back on my own paved roads and traffic jams and all of this would fade to memory. 

Our next destination was Taita Falcon Lodge, an hour’s bumpy ride out of town and into a different kind of wilderness than we had been used to. The dust here was a deeper red and the ground stubbly with volcanic rock that bent our tent pegs out of shape and made for stiff nights of fidgety sleep. It was a place of scorpions and wild dogs: a place so far out of civilisation that the stars cast their own shadows and hung like a blanket above the treetops. 

We were a few miles down-river from The Fall and high above the Zambezi that twisted through the gorge below and swirled through a succession of rapids. The Lodge is perched on the edge of this precipice and, dressed in colonial splendour took us back a hundred years to the days of Rhodesia and British rule. Carved figures adorn the bar and tables with stark white cloth bedecked with cutlery and glasses; a dozen staff are at hand to serve us but all we want to do is sit at the edge and breathe in this remarkable sight. On the far side is Zimbabwe and mile after mile of scrubland. From time to time a fish eagle – the national bird of Zambi – swoops below us and disappears in the spray. White canvas flaps in the warm breeze and again I am loath to leave this place. In my mind a story is forming; a love story that I will link to the Welsh mountains to capture the contrast. Amongst all the harshness of the climate and the rocks and the jagged plants, not to mention the things that crawl beneath our tents or make funnel webs in the tree roots, we sit in an oasis of opulent calm. 

But it is not our destiny to stay here long: our near future lies down there in the gorge; along the thin strip of sand and rock that we can make out alongside the river in the distance.   

Notes from The Edge 17 – Africa 9

It’s the days when you don’t have to that are the toughest; the days when there’s no rush, or even need, to get out of bed at the crack of dawn that take the most resolve. The radio comes on lulls you into the security of the regular rhythms of the morning; hypnotises with the soothing voices of presenters. The bed is warm and hill behind the house steep and open and it would be so much easier to… 

Those are the days to not think too much. To simply do. To tiptoe downstairs quietly pull on the kit that you’ve left ready: It’s simple, remember: shorts, t-shirt, a decent pair of boots. Grab the hat and pole, close the door quietly and that’s it: before you know it, you’ve ducked out of the world where so much seems to matter and are breathing the fresher air of another one. 

I didn’t need to get out of bed this morning; I didn’t have any urgent agenda and expected to see nothing more than a couple of dozen rabbits, maybe a deer. I’d hear the cries of birds that I couldn’t identify and feel the fain suggestion of autumn on the breeze. It was enough: it’s always enough. There is no such thing as ordinary if you look closely enough. 

Next week I will be writing from the mountains of Wales. I will take you there if you care to follow. At this time of year it’s usually the sweaty morning streets of some Mediterranean island that I capture in my walks, but this year is different. You know what I mean. It will be spectacular, though, because I will be there to see it. 

This time last year it was on a whole different continent that I was walking… 

9. Victoria Falls

I love the way that they credit David Livingstone with discovering Victoria Falls. It’s like the locals, who had lived there for millennia hadn’t noticed they were there. It’s such a comical image that I have in my head that makes a mockery of such a depressing story of colonial power and the taming of the savage. The white man turns up and points out this natural wonder and all the locals are “Well shit. I never noticed that before. Guys, did you ever see that before?”  

I get it. But it needs a sub-note because it’s just rude. They even named the town after him and the falls took the name of the head of the empire. 

By all accounts there were men a lot worse than Dr Livingstone and the point of crediting him with the falls was that he brought them to the attention of the white man back in the emerging Western World. It was all about the bragging rights – just like the space-race and even the hunt for a Corona Vaccine has become today. Australia was originally New Holland, but then it wasn’t originally that at all – it had multiple names that the indigenous people, who had no cares for such land-grabbing or obsessions for planting flags and claiming territory. Victoria Falls, before it was owned by the empire, was Mosi-oa-Tunya: ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. There’s something a little more honest in that. 

Even in the dry season it thunders and spray rises like smoke from the depths of the gorge that the ceaseless pounding of water has carved out over the years. Unlike the motorway near home but much like the elephants that ran through the campsite a few days before, it was a welcome trembling of the earth that we could feel through our feet long before we wound through the paths that led through the trees to the edge of the ravine. 

For reasons that we were later to discover, the area surrounding the falls was teeming with human activity. Police, army, security, suited men and glamorous women, flash cars and groups of men hanging off the back of pick-up trucks. A helicopter circled and there was evidently more wealth and influence centred here in this tiny corner of the country than we had seen during the entirety of the trip so far. Except for road-side checks on our travels we hadn’t seen a single police car – and even these were mostly just local men in hi-viz vests and Police scrawled crookedly on the back. In the mayhem of rush-hour Lusaka there had been no police presence. We knew why: they were all here. 

A surreal scene greeted us as we pulled up. The group had travelled in two taxi-buses, ours behind, so that as we stopped the other group was milling about by the roadside. It all happened so quickly that afterwards I could not be sure that it was as I remembered it, but we all saw it the saw it the same. We saw one of our group standing and adjusting the lens of her camera, she was approached by a muscled, hulking neanderthal of a man; the teeth yellow fangs, the snout drawn back and knuckles dragging almost along the dust. Only, it wasn’t this at all but a baboon, upright and in search of food. It happened like this: it walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, then made a grab for the camera. We saw all this slow and had no time to react, but for the girl it must have been a shock to think that your mugger was a mere human, then to look straight into the eyes of this most ugly and fearsome of primates. She screamed, the baboon screamed, we all held our breath. She pulled the camera back instinctively, the baboon pulled harder. Then from out of the crowds of people at the gates a soldier in full uniform brandishing an automatic machine gun ran towards the girl, the baboon, the confrontation. 

“Oh my god.” I was thinking “He’s going to shoot the baboon right here in the street.” 

We had been told that food of any description was banned at the falls; that the monkeys were aggressive and very dangerous. We had complied but hadn’t thought that they were dangerous enough to warrant armed guards. As it turned out, the guard was there for the same reason as all the rest of the cavalcade and just happened to see what was going on. It turned out that this baboon knew what a machine gun was and soon scarpered. Through it all a zebra munched the grass by the side of our bus and urinated as we disembarked to join the rest of the group. 

The Zambian president was due to visit the falls with his counterpart from Kenya; that was what all the fuss and fanfare were about and no sooner had we joined the rest of the group and checked that the girls was ok that even more police turned up, even more pick-up trucks and this time with the men on the bed hooting and firing pistols. We presumed in support: Edgar Lungu is a popular figure here and in my experience locals tend to want to make a good impression. 

Once the two men had walked down to the falls and signed the visitors’ book, then gone on the customary walkabout of the marketplace and craft stalls, the entourage reloaded the many, many vehicles and departed, it was our turn to pass through the gates. To pass by the famous statue of Dr Livingstone surveying his find and through the trees to the cliff-edge and to look across the abyss carved by the endless pounding of water and seemingly endless Victoria Falls. 

It is rare that a sight actually takes the breath, but standing there in the presence of this I was speechless. My mouth was filled with the cool blast and my clothes immediately damp from the spray. My heart, I think, paused briefly to let it all sink in. This was the dry season and rain had been lacking for the past two winters. I wondered at the power that must tumble over those falls after a month of rain. I didn’t want to leave. I regret still that I didn’t plant myself there and refuse ever to move. I understood in an instant why Dr Livingstone had been so keen to claim this place as his own.  

The monkeys and baboons do so well, I supposed, because the people simply stand and gape and make easy pickings. We had no food but almost lost an ipod and two bottles of water as we stood there, awestruck. 

Notes From the Edge 13 – Africa 8

It will be the first time in a while that we haven’t been abroad for a summer holiday in the sun. This would usually be the time for shopping, checking suitcases, thinking about suncream and what to do with the dog. A busy time, not unlike the stresses of Christmas. I won’t miss it for a year. I won’t miss the airport and the midnight transfer at the other end.    

We’ll take a drive up to Wales, stop by at Cracker Ridge on the way to the sea and land ourselves softly in a cottage that’s a world removed from the all inclusive by the pool, but will in itself provide the adventures that a break from the routine of work needs to provide. 

I, for one, am immensely looking forward to being back in that part of the world. There’s some weird sort of calling that I get which pulls me back there regularly and it shows no sign of diminishing. Wherever I am in the world, it is always to here that I am drawn first in my mind. The fields of home; the familiar streets of the town are secondary to the big sky and craggy walls of mountain. Even the clouds that loom like a frown over the peaks are inspiring in their ominousness and I breathe in the bigger power when I’m there. 

My Autumn notes will cover the details of the early years down at the bay and in the mountains. It is worth looking out for as the nights draw in because it tells a story from a different side of the life that a youth of the city is meant to lead. The coin tipped up and I slip off. Found myself groping for a foothold and somehow ended up here. It’s about the journey, of course: it’s always about the journey. 

Today, as I prepare for a trip to the edges, I return to Africa and this day a twelvemonth back: I was in Livingstone, Zambia. 

Livingstone

From time to time there were thick, full branches laid on the side of the road at intervals of a hundred or so yards. They served as the warning triangles that we had back home and there was, invariably, further up the road a broken-down antique of a truck or a spillage of some sort. These roads didn’t have the polished fancy signs and flashing lights of back home, but they had their signs and codes. They weren’t written in any book or sanctioned by government departments but were as important to know as the functions of the pedals and the gear stick. 

Rush hour in Lusaka a couple of days before was little more than a battle of wills and a war of attrition: a masterclass in avoiding eye-contact and leaning on the horn. It was nothing personal and no-one was angry, but for twenty or thirty minutes we were in the centre of an improbable tangle of cars and pickups and lorries and minibus taxis at a junction that had no lines or lights or right of way. Millimetre by millimetre we nudged forward in the stinking heat of the city, each of us scraping through the melee somehow without touching, most of the vehicles crammed with people, most of the people leaning out of the windows and offering advice. At one point two men appeared and commenced directing the traffic, as though had grown bored watching the mess, but they were largely ignored and merely oversaw the inevitable unknotting of the tangle. 

It was what we were heading back to. Four days on safari; four sunsets from the deck over the river at Croc Valley; four days without the noise and smoke of the city. Another eleven hours on the bus lay ahead of us; another night on the edge of the city and then eight hours west to Livingstone. 

I looked less at the road on the journey from Kakumbi to Lusaka. I let my eyes wander further, across the little villages and the herds of goats that might have been wild but were probably just very free-range, and to the wild plains and brush that lay beyond. There are no decent maps of Zambia and life gathers around the roads. Areas the size of England were left wild and only the imagination could tell what might have lurked there, what went on, how I would fare if I was dropped there. From time to time black hills rose out of the brush and were crowned with white cloud, and sometimes the hills looked perfectly formed, like pyramids from a forgotten civilisation. 

At Lusaka the kids sated their craving for tiled floors and neon lights. We ate Pizza and drank lemonade and at the campsite played pool in a thatched club house and camped in a field of elk. 

And then a different road. This was the road to Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. It was a well-used road but no better serviced for that. Trucks loaded with Zambian copper headed to the border, heavy with the precious metal that never stayed long in the country but was bound, apparently, for China. Zambia was rich in natural resources, I was told. I wondered if the people on George Compound knew this. 

We were heading for Livingstone, the country’s second city named after the British explorer made famous for his discovery of Victoria Falls and his rejection of the attitudes of his time towards the African people. He lived with and loved these people and many times depended upon them for his very survival. I wonder how many of the white supremacists did actually come out to places like this and meet the people; speak to them and hear their stories. It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanise a people that is nothing more than a commodity or obstacle. 

I was much more of a fan of Livingtone that I was of Lusaka. This town (its population was a little less than Hereford) was geared to the outside world and, unlike Lusaka offered a whole different welcome to the visitor – like pavements and hanging baskets and little piazzas with coffee shops and bookstalls. A white woman walked alone along the main road into the city and and no one crowded the bus when we paused in traffic. An armed policeman patrolled the toilets and hawkers were banned from the shopping centre carpark. 

As the group piled into Shoprite for supplies I was drawn to the edge of the carpark by a man about my age who, like they all do, wanted to be my best friend, wanted to know my name and where I was from.  

“I have some magic” he said, looking round furtively for the guard. “I have magic for you, but we have to step out of the mall.” It was the sort of scenario we had been warned about and lectured the kids on endlessly. I would be lured down the road, stabbed in the chest in the middle of the day and robbed of by dollars and Stirling. And yet I followed. We all like to be beckoned, don’t we? Just like we like magic… Drugs? I thought. Some special mushroom? Phone credit? 

At the edge of the carpark, just outside the gates and opposite the Fawlty Towers bunk house he opened his jacket and took out a fistful of pendants: shaped and polished stones on leather cord. The same sort of trinket that we had seen on every street corner of every town that we had passed through. I had walked this far so asked him what it was. If I was going to give him some of my money I wanted him to work for it. 

Nyami Nyami,” he said. “Spirit of the river.” The story was of a giant snake-like creature that lived in the Zambezi river and from time to time dragged people into the depths and devoured them. The Nyami Nyami was a river spirit that protected the wearer from this creature and (though I doubted this) everybody wears one. “Ten dollars. Good price.” I took two for $5 and slipped one over my neck, just in case. The river was only a mile away… 

The ground didn’t feel so hard beneath our sleeping bags here in Livingstone and the dust a little more under control. On the outside the town gave off a sense of its own identity and a feeling of control. The shops had windows and the café had wi-fi and lattes. But on the edge of the town the roads returned to dust and the markets huddled together in between the single-storey houses. Here, unlike in the town centre, where the locals didn’t drink in the café or shop in the jeweller’s, the people stared, no doubt wondering why we had chosen to visit this part of town. 

We were on our way to the town’s orphanage, to see where kids were taken off the streets and given a chance of an education and a future. It was simple opportunity and a little bit of love – that’s all they needed and my heart broke as we peered into their bedrooms and saw the Disney bedsheets and the little Pixar backpacks: the same dreams… We played football and I donned the Zambia shirt that I had bought at the market. The home team won and the children laughed. I smiled and I don’t think I have really stopped smiling since.