Somewhere close the end of August 2011 (if memory serves correctly), I boarded a plane on the way to Zimbabwe for a week of client-consultant-contractor networking. Our destination, a private hunting camp on a stretch of the Zambezi between Lake Kariba and Lake Cahora Bassa, which separates north-western Zimbabwe from Zambia. Two members of our party had purchased hunting concessions for a lioness and leopard. Secretly I hoped that the guy who had ‘bought’ the leopard would be unsuccessful, since they are one of my favourite animals; a real treat to see in the wild.
The rest of us were left to choose between accompanying a hunt, relaxing in the camp and Tiger fishing. I opted for the latter as I didn’t see myself waking up at 4am in the mornings to spend the entire day in the bush stalking big game on foot. The Zambezi scenery would no doubt be spectacular and something I’d kick myself if I missed.
Although I was excited about the experience having never visited the country before, I was also slightly hesitant due to the fact that I would essentially be landing in Robert Mugabe’s back yard. He is not the fondest supporter of whites and the British at the best of times, having passed land-acquisition laws against white farmers and dabbled in many other non-ethical practices, contributing to the imposed sanctions on the country by foreign powers. Some screws needed tightening somewhere. Travelling on a UK passport to Zimbabwe would be a little like sticking my middle finger up at the immigration officials as I passed through Harare airport (or so I thought).
We landed at Harare and I was a little surprised by the condition of the airport. Having expected a very dilapidated terminal building, it was contrastingly brand new with air-bridges which worked no less! Very unlike my other experiences in deepest, darkest Africa. We passed through the terminal where I stood in the immigration queue to purchase my US$50 visa behind a large group of British citizens – nothing like a bit of reassurance! Since the very public announcement of the country’s economic collapse, Zimbabwe has adopted Greenback as its non-official currency. Interesting considering that it was America who back in 2005 labelled Zimbabwe as one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny”. I would have personally selected a more neutral currency such as the Yen.
Once escaping the chaotic streets of Harare, we started out on our 350km trek northwards towards the hunting camp. Harare as a city was weathered and beaten, however evidence of its colonial history was still apparent in both its street names and some of the older housing architectures. A serious cash injection was needed to improve the city’s infrastructure and introduce a few working traffic lights; four-way junctions were a total free-for-all.
Out of town, our progress on the highway was slow due to the lack of road maintenance. We passed huge farms with expanses of dead crops left unharvested; reminders of the past land seizures. Subsistence farming was evident in places, but this was just that – subsistence farming. Benefitting few and not the country as a whole. Sad.
As night closed in, the road became a sure-fire death trap if you possessed a need for speed. Luckily we were travelling by mini-bus and our drivers knew the road, making it quite easy to stretch out and relax and grab a few Z’s once all the biltong and conversation had dried up. Every so often we had to pull over to pay ‘toll-fees’. I’d wager, judging the condition of the road, that the Collectors were chancers attempting to make a quick buck.
We arrived late at the camp; our hosts had saved us some buffalo tail potjie (pronounced poy-kee) to eat before we retired to bed – delicious! The toilet facility was a good 50m from my tent and our ‘camp’ did not have fences to separate it from the neighbouring bush, I decided that it would be wise to go to sleep on a completely empty tank. The ablution facilities were screened-off open-air showers and toilets, which had chains to string across the doorways to indicate their occupied/vacant status (although I’m not sure a lion would pay much attention to this).
The tented accommodation was basic however more than sufficient, with two camp beds and zipped storage closets to stow belongings. After lights-out and the camp generators had been silenced, the bush was noticeably more alive. Lying in bed separated from nature by only a thin canvas wall, I could hear lions and hyenas, hippos from the riverbank and later, in the early hours of the morning, an elephant tiptoeing between the tents. I later learned that elephants frequented the camp after dark to gather and eat the fruit from the trees – something akin to marula fruit.
Come light, elephant tracks were noticeable everywhere. There had been serious activity which I’d missed! I made use of the ablutions, with their hot water and headed off to the breakfast lapa. Lined up on the riverbank were three speedboats, complete with guides to chauffeur us around for the day. The camp’s position on the river, which I didn’t appreciate when we arrived the night before, was fantastic and I was looking forward to a day of fishing.
We paired up and headed off to a spot on the river where our guide thought there would be Tigers. It reminded me a bit of hide and seek as a kid – no one runs to the same place at first, believing their ‘spot’ is the best, until fortune favours. After a fairly quiet morning, where I had more luck photographing hippo, and following a lunch break back at camp, the fish started biting. This apparently was normal and by the end of the day I’d landed my first – all 12 pounds of it. Small by Tiger standards but still noteworthy and a good fight. A cumulative total weight of fish caught stood against your name back in the camp; if you failed to land anything in a day, there would be drinking penalties enforced by the PH (professional hunter); other ‘crimes’ were noted and dealt with in similar fashion.
And so this was our daily ‘routine’ for the remainder of our stay. Wake up; eat; fish; eat; fish; fish some more with a ‘government transport’ in-hand; eat and sleep. Life was tough! My largest fish was a 16 pounder, however the prize for the week went to a colleague who managed to land a Barbel (catfish) weighing in at 90 pounds. It was so big that it would have likely capsized the boat if they’d tried to haul it straight out the water. Either that or someone would have ended up overboard in hippo and croc-infested water. In the end they beached the boat and dragged the Barbel out of the water for photos.
All in all a good week. Highlights included the obvious tiger fishing, speeding down the river in our boats, hippo and crocodile watching, elephants crossing the river and JJ having a Fish Eagle swoop-in and snatch his fish whilst he was busy trying to land it (the look on his face was legend!) Lowlights – the guy managed to shoot his leopard. Enough said.
(Read another ‘fond’ recollection of a hunting trip here). Otherwise, stay tuned for more photos taken whilst on Tiger fishing week.