Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Year 5 residential trip

One Zambian school kid successfully taking on five of ours! Actually they let us win all the games we played!

A scout showing the kids how to make bread on a camp fire.

Our walk to the local waterfalls (generously named). Rather a tense experience as kept imaging
children slipping in to the croc infested waters - health and safety field day!

Paul and I in the hide looking for sitatunga.

About three weeks ago now we took 32 10yr olds to Kasanka National Park for a week long camping trip - a rather daunting prospect! As the three other Zambian teachers that came with us were useless in varying degrees we were basically responsible for the lot of them, 24/7, exhausting work. We had to drive up there in mini-buses for 7hours, something I doubt British kids could do, and unfortunately as we left very late on the first day (due to the school cocking up over trailor hiring issues) we arrived once it had got dark. It was like an environmental education centre that we were staying in and so we did activities like making campfires, making up plays about anti-poaching, game drives and bush walking, where we got a little too close to a hippo for my liking! Unfortunately these kids do not shut up so we didn't see many animals - the area is famous for a water loving antelope called sitatunga but they're quite shy so we had no chance of seeing them! We got back Friday afternoon and we were in bed by 8pm! I could never be a teacher, it's official.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Unexpected pleasures

Living in unexpected places (I wouldn’t like to say quite how little I knew of Zambia before turning up here eight months ago) can have its unexpected pleasures.

Yesterday, someone at school happened to mention in passing that David Shepherd would be giving a talk at one of the other international schools in Lusaka the following evening. Zambia’s capital, I think I might have mentioned before, is somewhat culturally deprived, so to have an event that I would happily pay to attend in the UK was, as I said, an unexpected pleasure.

With the end of April supposedly comes the end of the rains. We could now expect temperatures to fall steadily until July, a winter of sorts (the African sort, with temperatures perhaps even dropping below twenty degrees), before rising until the rains begin again in late October. Except things are not going quite as expected; it has rained twice in the last week. And then, shortly after five this afternoon, our house was battered with hailstones the size of golf balls and the pools that surround our house whenever it rains rose to heights we have never previously seen. Into this we ventured out, determined not to miss such a rare opportunity to spend Friday night doing something other than playing cards. We waded to the car (literally - I had to take my shoes off) and forded the roads that had become silt-laden rivers.

David Shepherd was welcoming people at the door when we arrived. I remarked that he was somewhat responsible for my living in Africa, to which he replied: ‘I’m very pleased to hear it. How’s that?’ I explained that I had grown up in house with pictures of his of African wildlife on the walls and that these had rooted in me a desire to see such things for myself. He took it is a great compliment, which I suppose it was, though I had not realised that when I said it, and we talked briefly about what I was doing in Zambia and how he had first arrived in such an unexpected place. It seems that forty years ago, shortly after Zambia had gained independence from Britain, he was commissioned by the Zambian government to paint a dozen pictures that would be the founding pieces in a national art collection. These paintings are now on display in the National Museum in Lusaka, which we have thus far avoided visiting but will now make an effort to explore.

His talk was a mix of dark, unhappy truths - poisoned waterholes killing over 250 zebra - and humorous anecdotes - cheetah’s tails being used to clean Land Rover windscreens while they use the bonnet as a look-out. His stories revealed that fearlessness that seems to be possessed by many born between the wars, and generally lacking in those born since. It is not reckless valour but that courage that comes from strength of conviction and commonsense, neither of which are quite as abundant as it seems they once were.

All in all it was a thoroughly agreeable way to pass an evening, wherever in the world one might be.

Rachel turns 25

Yikes, I am now closer to 30 than my teens, oh dear. Well, on my birthday it rained (!?!) - it's supposed to be the dry season now. So it was birthday tea and cake sheltering in the back of the car after we'd been out for a little walk around our friend's plot. Paul then cooked me a very lovely dinner - we treated ourselves to some of those hideously expensive things we had seen in the supermarket but never dared buy before like sundried tomatoes! (Dad take note - nice new top!)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Encounters with elephants

We crossed into Botswana at Kazangula, taking a ferry, of sorts, across the Zambezi and trying not to think too much about what would happen if the ferry’s spluttering diesel engine decided it had had enough (a swift journey downstream before an even swifter plummet over the Victoria Falls). Proving that the colonial powers were not always acting in an entirely arbitrary manner when carving up Africa (a great many of the continent’s borders do seem to have been pencilled in by someone overly fond of rulers and right-angles), Botswana was immediately at odds with Zambia: dryer, dustier and wealthier.

At US$10,500, Botswana’s GDP per capita is higher than any other country in Africa, and the place certainly seemed more affluent than Zambia. Kasane, the first significant settlement we reached, looked like a neglected frontier-town in the American West, or perhaps a forlorn outpost in the Australian bush. Though such towns have faded away elsewhere, their echoes seemed to offer a future for Botswana: a small town serving a farming community (almost fifty per cent of Botswana’s land is permanent pasture) or serving the tourist industry seemed a fitting model for the country.

But I am getting ahead of myself; we have only been in the country a minute or two and already I am proposing how Botswana should organise itself to ensure its continued prosperity.

Jason, Laura, Rachel and I were to spend our first few nights in Botswana in Kasane, from where we would explore Chobe National Park. Our adventures in Chobe were to be dominated by encounters with elephants. On our first evening in Botswana, we watched - enchanted - from a boat as they drank and played along the banks of the Chobe River. The pictures say more than my descriptions ever could.

Being a happy band of carefree adventurers, we decided to drive ourselves through Chobe the following day. The guidebook suggested it might be an idea to keep a safe distance from elephants and we thought this seemed a very sound proposal and so decided to go along with it. The plan though, as it turned out, was somewhat flawed, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, no-one, not even the guidebook as far as we could make out, was quite sure what a safe distance actually was; and secondly, such a plan does not appropriately prepare you for what to do when you round a corner and find an elephant rather closer than anyone’s idea of a safe distance. My first thought, if I can correctly recall, was something like: ‘gosh, aren’t elephants big.’ You might think this obvious, they after all the largest land mammal roaming this planet. But, the thing is, they’re not big; they’re huge. My car/truck is big, but if an elephant had wanted to sit down to tea on its roof it could have done so quite easily and that would have been the end of Arthur (the car, if you recall) and everyone inside of him. Worse, an elephant could have decided it wanted something to sharpen its tusks on and used, well, whichever bit of Arthur, or again his contents, it thought would work best (probably, as I envisioned at the time, the engine to get them nice and pointy and then the upholstery to buff them up a bit afterwards).

We crept through the herd, making sure we did not get between any mothers and their offspring. Just as the road ahead of us cleared, a young male elephant, showing-off to his friends no doubt, thought he would trot after us. In case, I suppose, my attention had been diverted by a particularly interesting bush, Rachel kindly pointed out there was an elephant running after us and that it might be an idea if we were to see what other delights Chobe had to offer and I obligingly hurtled down the track as quickly as I could.

The next day we set off early, heading for one of the lodges where we were hoping to find someone else to drive us around the park (a plan we had formulated shortly after being chased around by the swaggering young pachyderm). Somewhat blurry eyed, I slalomed along Botswana’s pot-holed roads, focusing on the pitted tarmac just in front of the bonnet. What I was not focusing on, and perhaps should have been, was the herd of elephants in the road. In my defence, elephants are quite grey and just before dawn the world is quite grey too, so it might be argued that an animal the size of a bus is not that easy to see before the sun has illuminated their vast form. By steady, some might say heavy, application of the brakes, we managed to stop far enough away to watch them lumber across the road with only slightly elevated heart rates (our rates were slightly elevated that is, I cannot speak for the elephants).

(We did manage to find some animals other than elephants.)

We had opted to be driven around in the hope that someone with a little more expertise might be able to find us a lion or two. After a while chasing tracks that seemed to head in all directions at once, we gave up on the pursuit and instead spent a curiously long amount of time watching an eagle instead.

Visitors and holidays

So we have just come to the end of a month full of family visits and trips away and now it’s back to the mundaneness of day to day life.

My mum and sister were our first visitors at the end of March. Paul was unfortunately still at school during their stay so we could only go away at the weekends but we still managed to pack in as much as pos. We went away the first weekend to Kafue National Park which is about a 5 hour drive west of Lusaka. We stayed at a camp called Mayukuyuku right on the banks of the Kafue River which was a stunning spot.

In fact it’s so directly next to the river that the actual campsite was flooded but this was fine cos Paul and I could pitch our tent right next to the safari tent Grace and Mum were staying in and then use their nice bathroom and veranda! We could hear hippos in the river from our camp and actually Paul and I had a rather close encounter with one of them – we were taking stuff back to the car at night and I noticed some eyes light up in my torch beam and then made out the rather large animal they were attached to (and these animals really are large – about the size of our car!). Remembering some advice we’d been given about hippos – don’t shine your torch directly at them, don’t come between them and the river – we quickly skirted as far round the back of it as possible, dumped the stuff in the car and ran back to the tent, all the time trying not to shine our lights at him but at the same time trying to keep an eye on where he was so we didn’t run into him! Much prefer hippos in rivers I’ve decided. While we were at Kafue we did a lovely sunset cruise on the river where we watched the sun go down from the middle of the river, and then a few drives around the park looking for animals. We watched some nice elephants just from the side of the road and saw lots of different types of antelope: puku, impala, hartebeest, red lechwe, waterbuck, kudu, zebra, but unfortunately no predators.

Our second trip was down to Livingstone to see the Victoria Falls, a slightly longer drive of about 7 hours south of Lusaka, over some interesting pot-holed roads at the end. We stayed at Maramba River Lodge just outside of Livingstone, close enough to the falls that we could hear them at night! It was a lovely camp, nice and quiet cos we’re out of season, with a lovely little pool and a great decking area by the bar looking out over the Maramba river where you could see crocs gliding past and hear hippos and a great chorus of tinkling frogs at night. The falls are in full flow this time of year, being just after the rains, so we got pretty wet going to see them! They give you raincoats at the start of the trail but really they don’t stand much chance against the spray – it’s like standing under a power shower in a waterproof and hoping to come out dry! It’s pretty magical though, there’s this great wall of white spray which just occasionally parts long enough for you to catch a glimpse of the immense wall of water tumbling over the edge behind it. After having had our shower we took a walk upstream in the sun to dry off. You can get right next to where the river plummets over the edge of the gorge – the health and safety regulations here are really rather lax!

We also went down into the gorge (armed with big sticks to scare off the baboons!) to what is called the boiling pot which is where the river makes a 90 degree turn before flowing on into Zimbabwe. It was lovely down there, it’s like a mini rainforest due to the amount of spray the area gets, we were wading through streams most of the way down! We also treated ourselves to ‘high tea’ at Livingstone’s poshest hotel the Royal Livingstone. It was quite the ridiculously gluttonous affair! You are presented with two tables piled with as many different types of scone, cake, muffin, tartlet you can imagine and then told to fill you plate with as many as it can take! Needless to say we were actually quite grateful to the cheeky vervet monkey that decided to come and relieve us of some of our treats by helping himself to a cake straight from our table! The hotel is beautifully situated, right on the banks of the river and you can see the spray from the falls from their lawns!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A weekend away

So yes, as Paul said we finally managed to get away for a weekend. We stayed at a little lodge on the shores of a lake in the middle of nowhere (though still with the sound of screaming children, it seems you can never get away from that no matter how far you travel) called Village Point. We were welcomed by the guy who owns it, an English guy called Jamie who was the most friendly easy going bloke I think I’ve ever met. Nothing was too much trouble to him and he went out of his way the whole weekend to make sure our time away was exactly how we wanted it ( I mean I know that’s his job as a host to paying guests but he just so genuinely wanted us to have a lovely time).

Our chalet was a two storey building with the open fronted bedroom on the first floor overlooking the lake and distant hills, twas lovely to lie in bed at night and look out at the night sky. Downstairs there was a lovely open air bathroom, walled on all sides but with no ceiling. The shower was all built of local stone, heated by a wood burning stove, and was a little pipe that poured the water onto a series of stones to make a waterfall to shower under! At the front outside we had a little veranda and an outdoor bath which unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to use apart from dangling our feet in.

We had the entire place to ourselves Saturday afternoon and so spent the whole time in the wonderful pool and relaxing on the deck with a beer. In the evening they set us up our own private romantic dining area (being valentine’s day and all) and after some entertainment in the form of music and dancing from a local band we had a lovely dinner, all freshly home made, before heading to bed accompanied by the sound of grazing hippos. Was lovely to get away and have the luxury of being waited upon in such a peaceful spot – and al for the price of an ordinary UK B&B!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The size of things

We managed to get away for the weekend a little while ago, just for one night, to Lake Kariba, a country-sized (Switzerland-sized to be precise) reservoir in the Zambezi valley. To get there we drove for four hours, two and a half on pencil straight roads obviously conceived and constructed when natural barriers posed little problem for mans’ technological might, and the final hour and a half on rougher stuff, dirt tracks that weaved through villages of mud and thatch.

Our journey, monotonous and perilous in more or less equal measure, took almost as long as it would take to drive to the Lake District from Cambridge. And yet it was not until we returned that we even considered that we had spent rather a long time staring through a windscreen for just one night away. Perhaps having gone the equivalent of London to Istanbul and back by public transport at Christmas we are accustomed to the idea that there is just a little more space over here, that you have to go a little bit farther if you want to get anywhere.

It’s not just the distances that are baffling (to someone from a rather crowded little island at least). Lake Kariba, on whose shores we sought refuge for twenty-four hours from the din and dirt of Lusaka (I’ll leave Rachel to fill you in on the details of where we stayed and the like), was created by the construction of what was at the time the largest dam in the world (the time being the late 1950s). I could share with you lots of numbers that do something to convey the size of the dam - how high, how wide, how thick, how much it cost, how many kilowatts of power the hydro-electric generators produce - but I think the following is the most indicative statistic of the scale of the thing: eighty-six workers died during its construction, eighteen of whom are entombed within the dam’s million cubic metres of cement. Or maybe that says more about health and safety in Africa.