Stage 1: Vic Falls to Binga
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After numerous delays, we finally left Victoria Falls on July 21st. As it happened, our departure was somewhat uninspiring, given that we left from the goods train station and followed the railway line from town. No motivational sights of mighty Mosi-oa-tunya for Jephita and I – it was simply tea and bread beside a pile of coal in a grimy train-yard for us. We had visited the Falls a couple of days before, and we could obviously hear its roar and see its spray from the train-yard, but in all honesty the famed waterfall was far from our minds that morning.
What dominated our thoughts wholly were the three thousand + kilometers which lay ahead, with the first ten or so being of particular concern. We knew the going was going to be trying from the word go and this knowledge had been forcefully compounded a few days prior to D-day, when we had set off from the Falls proper on a reconnaissance patrol, sticking as close to the river as possible.
We achieved six or seven kilometers that day and covered some truly daunting terrain before heading back to town. The result of that excursion was the shucking of much suddenly superfluous equipment, clothing and food, and a strategy rethink – it was decided we would follow the railway line from town and cut across the bush to the river through more manageable country. Alas, we naïve fellows did not realize that it would be many a mile before we came across anything remotely close to manageable country flanking the Zambezi River.
Our plan of angling our way onto the Zambezi soon came unstuck and we found ourselves totally flummoxed by mighty gorges, as we had during the trial run. The only path open to us was away from the river, and that just wasn’t supposed to be the plan! Around and about we bumbled and stumbled, over hard, rock-strewn ground, circumventing impassable ravines and then trying to work our way to the river, only to be bounced off it almost immediately, if we even got there.
By late-morning, a degree of frustration was beginning to set in.
Already? On the first morning? Yep. Garmin informed us that we were about five kilometers from the Falls, and it had taken us the entire morning to get there. And there was we knew not where, Garmin or no Garmin. The frustration only intensified when, after some more zigzagging about, we came to a game fence. Game fence? Now this was bewildering – we were under the impression we would be walking directly into Hwange communal land from Victoria Falls town. Walking north-east along the game fence soon brought us to a lofty cliff-top overlooking the Zambezi a hundred meters below, and so we had no option but to follow it south, away from the river, towards the main Victoria Falls road. God, this really wasn’t the plan!
The last thing I wanted was to set off on the Borderline walk along the main road. I never realized at that stage how much certain plans and perceptions would change in the weeks to come. I wonder how much they will change in the weeks and months ahead.
We trudged along the game fence for an hour or so, through gullies and over rocky rises, and then we encountered a gamescout patrol, walking the far side of the fence. A conversation ensued and we told them who we were, what we were doing and why we were perplexed. The scouts worked for the game-fenced wilderness area and were friendly and helpful. They told us that the area used to be a minefield during the war and had been rehabilitated to wildlife since. After taking a look at our permit from the director general of National Parks, the senior scout raised his boss, Mr Roger Parry, on the radio.
Roger said he was not far off and would be with us shortly, which he was. After a brief delay during which I explained our situation and Roger asked a few questions, we were on our way again, given the go ahead to walk through the wilderness area. Roger and his scouts were most accommodating, unlocking a nearby gate for us to enter the area and filling us in on the way forward. One of the scouts accompanied us for a few kilometers, leaving us somewhere on the banks of the Masuwe River, about five kilometers from its incorporation into the Zambezi.
A couple of fairly ominous occurrences took place as we worked our way down the Masuwe. Although I am not overly keen to record them, I understand that it is my duty. We were walking through a small mopani forest when Jephita hissed something which I heard as ‘nzou’ (elephant). The fact that I had been lecturing Jeph about keeping his eyes open for elephants only minutes before (when am I not?) may have been why I ‘misheard’, but in any case I side-stepped left, looking to the right for the ‘elephant’ in the same motion, tripped over a stump and went down heavily. As I neared earth, I saw the blurry shape of a buffalo bull blundering off through the scrub, and then thud, oooomph! My word, but this backpack is heavy!
Fortunately it was an old ‘dagga boy’ and not an elephant cow with calf at heel, or the Borderline Walk may well have come to an inglorious end right there! With Jephita trying his utmost not to openly smirk, we continued on our way down the wending course of the Masuwe.
The next incident took place at lunch-time. As I sat cross-legged in the shade of a leafy tree, gnawing on some bread and slurping hot tea, a bug somehow found its way into my shorts and into the danger zone. Bland lunch over, we were soon up and away, though I did not make it far, as the most excruciating pain began emanating from the area between my legs. My rucksack hit the deck in a flash – satellite phone, laptop, GPS, etc with it – and I began leaping around like a mad person. Leaping around and clutching crotch.
Jephita just stood there, dumbstruck. Somehow I managed to get to a water bottle, and then I leapt around like a mad man who had wet himself. After a few minutes of intense pain, the burning eased to dull throbbing. At that point, I espied on the ground the bug I am certain was responsible. It looked exactly like a common ladybug but was entirely grey. I did not kill it, not knowing for certain whether it was guilty or not. I wouldn’t have anyway… Honestly… With Jephita now putting a more concerted effort into not openly smirking, we set off down the Masuwe again.
We knew we were getting close to the river when we saw the gorges. Gorges, gorges everywhere and no plan to get to the river. Whilst we stood there gaping at the terrain before us, from relatively flat and elevated ground a few hundred meters off, we saw a gamescout patrol approaching from the direction of the Zambezi. They had been informed about us and offered to act as guides, pointing out that where we were headed there was nowhere to go but back. We accepted their offer with alacrity and were soon headed on a course that shifted us gradually from the river, before cutting back towards it a few kilometers beyond. After an hour or so, progressing steadily over fairly undemanding ground, we came to gorge 11.
Into the abyss
Gorge 11 is a terrifying spectacle for the overloaded, inexperienced, overweight and unfit backpacker. By the look on Jephita’s dial, it was obvious that it is also fairly intimidating to backpackers who are encumbered by only inexperience and load. I argued with the gamescouts about there being a path there, and they laughed, assuring me that there was indeed a path and that they would help me down it. As I was saying about changing perceptions – I have long had visions of carrying my load around this country completely unassisted, but that notion was dismissed on the afternoon of the first day.
As totally petrified as I was of descending that almost sheer incline which terminated in jagged rock below, I fast agreed to assistance and held a gamescout’s wrist in a vice-like grip the whole way down. I don’t know how we got down because I never looked there, but we did eventually, with me slipping and sliding most of the way and using my backpack as a buffer. Yes, with the laptop, sat-phone, GPS, etc….
That descent was terrifying – with each step, slip or slide, I felt I would lose my footing and plunge to my death. We crossed the gorge no further than three hundred meters from the Zambezi River, and anyone who has been to this spot (directly opposite the whitewater rafters’ drop-off point for gorge 11) will understand what I am on about. Although climbing the opposite bank was also no simple undertaking, it is that crazy descent I will remember.
It is debatable whether I would have tackled that obstacle without a backpack before the start of the Borderline Walk. The results of crossing gorge 11 were that it did nothing to help allay my extreme fear of heights, and I decided my backpack was still far too heavy, giving the kindly gamescouts some of my kit.
We slept that night on hard ground at the whitewater rafters’ drop off point for gorge 11, close to the brink of that impressive spectacle. Dinner and accommodation were a far cry from the comfort of Russell Caldecott’s Utimate Lodge in Victoria Falls, but that thought only registered for a moment and then consciousness was erased by absolute exhaustion.
The first day of the Borderline Walk drained me to an extent I have not experienced in many years, and for the first time in many years I did not dream about anything at all. I know that if I had dreamt that night, I would have dreamt of colossal gorges which threatened to engulf me in an instant, as I stood tiny and insignificant on the edge of their might.
Shortly after dawn the following morning, whilst we were packing up camp and getting ready to move out, a truck came revving up a road I didn’t realize was there. The truck belonged to a rafting company and was carrying guides and rafting kit. The guides informed us that the gorges got no less and no less intimidating for many miles, and that they didn’t think we would be able to walk on the river much before the Matetsi River, about seventy kilometers downstream. I silently scoffed and would remember that scoffing in days to come. The guides advised us to follow the road they came in on, and a few kilometers up the drag we would come to the wilderness area’s eastern boundary. They said we should follow the fence north (back towards the river), and in time we would come across a bush track that would lead us to Chisuma, a village situated almost on the banks of the Zambezi. We thanked the guides, departed and took most of their advice.
What we didn’t do was follow the road to the game fence – we cut through the bush and came to the fence after about five kilometers. Walking south and then north again just didn’t make sense, and Jephita (the two-legged GPS) kept us on an unwavering easterly route until we got to the fence and subsequently the track to Chisuma. We were close to the river throughout – between one and two kilometers – and several times we walked down to it. Each time we were confronted by menacing gorges.
We covered twenty odd kilometers on the second day and camped in a most spectacular spot, overlooking yet another immense gorge, about a kilometer from the village of Chisuma. Whilst we were setting up camp, a small group of kids arrived and began cavorting about on the very edge of the abyss. Their leaping from rock to rock so close to certain death caused me more than mere consternation, but when I voiced my concern they giggled at the foolish white man, informing me that they played there daily. As a result of both their dangerous tomfoolery and my lethargy, I offered them biscuits in return for collecting wood and water. That did the trick, but only until the chores were done and the biscuits had changed hands, then they went straight back to the brink!
My nerves couldn’t stand it for long and at sunset I sent them packing. I wonder how long they would have gone on for. Probably all night!
At the village of Chisuma, we were informed that the police support unit was currently very active in the area, combating armed Zambian stock-thieves and poachers. We were advised to report our presence at their base at Kasakili, a village about thirty kilometers away, close to Batoka Gorge. This information, coupled with the knowledge that the river was just a continuous series of gorges for many a mile to come, brought about the decision to follow the road to Kasakili. Our intention was to inform the police of our presence, get their permission to go down to Batoka, and then find a route closer to the river from there. Wishful thinking, but we had no clue at that stage.
I will always associate that slog to Kasakili with extreme agony, as it was early on in the day when my feet began breaking out in blisters. On and on I hobbled as the blisters multiplied and the pain intensified, and it seemed to me that we would never reach our destination.
What a relief it was whenever we took a break! One of those breaks came about when we met some fellows who wanted to sell us a pot, which we needed. Theirs was a second-hand pot and the starting price was US$35! Jephita knocked them down to US$6, but we ended up not concluding the deal as nobody had any change. Scoundrels, but likeable ones and we had a laugh with them on the roadside. When I asked how they could have tried to sell us the pot for $35 and eventually agree to $6, they said I could hardly blame them for trying!
We eventually got to the Kasakili/Batoka Gorge turn-off late that evening. By then I was in a terrible state. Jephita patiently led me in as I shuffled along at a snail’s pace. As the sun set and we crossed a small rivulet, we saw some elephants through the scrub, on a ridge to our left. Jephita suggested we hurry it along a little as the elephants were coming down to drink. I will not write what I said but it was said at volume ten!
We stayed at the Kasakili support unit base for three nights and two days (as I gave my burning feet a rest), and were treated cordially by both the policemen and the locals. Two youths arrived at the base the morning after our arrival, bearing milk and vegetables and refusing payment. I argued but they were insistent, saying they were well pleased we were visiting their village and that they had never sold a drop of milk in their lives so didn’t know the price! During the late afternoon of the second day at Kasakili, I left my shoes at camp and did a little scouting about the village, speaking to some of the locals and taking pictures.
Kasakili is a scenic little place populated by fine folk and we were made to feel most welcome there.
Although my blisters were far from healed, I decided my feet were in good enough shape to make it to Batoka Gorge on day six. The plan was to make our way to Batoka and then cut a trail from there as close to the river as possible. Bad idea, as we were to discover – the terrain below Batoka is as intimidating as that below the Falls. Once we finally reached Batoka at midday and did a little scouting about, we realized that we had no option but to retrace our steps back to tamer terrain. We camped somewhere in the bush that night, east of Kasakili, between the river and the border road, and were up and away early the following morning. Our intention was to maintain a north-easterly direction and cut the border road at some point close to the Matetsi/Zambezi junction, although our route actually brought us to the road twenty kilometers shy of the Matetsi, at a village called Lombora. Here we were hosted by first-rate people – the Siziba Family – who shared their fire with us and allowed us to pitch our tent in their yard.
We made an early start on day eight and arrived at the Matetsi River in the afternoon, camping not far from its union with the Zambezi. We managed to have a good scrub in the Matetsi and it felt fine to go to bed clean – our last effective wash had been at Kasakili police base. The next day we walked down to the Zambezi River through the hills and were at Deka Drum by Midday. Deka Drum is so named because at one time a mystery drummer perplexed the community by beating his drums throughout the night from a nearby island. Nobody ever discovered the identity of the drummer, but he no longer beats his drums. Maybe he has moved on, to another area or another world. Truth told, Deka Drum is looking tired, and this was made even more apparent a couple of days later, when we arrived at the Msuna Fishing camp, twenty kilometers downstream.
Msuma Fishing Camp
It is like chalk and cheese – whilst Deka is looking tired, Msuna is fresh, like an oasis. We arrived at Msuna in the evening and asked permission to pitch our tent. Lo and behold, we were offered a free chalet and all kinds of help and advice. Our clothes were washed, we managed to charge our camera, sat phone, etc, and we were given free fish and vegetables. I certainly didn’t mind being back in the lap of luxury! How fabulous it felt to sleep on a mattress once more! We were hosted by the chairman of Msuna, Larry Cumming, and his wife Judy, and Dean and Sonja Todd – splendid folk and gracious hosts who are blessed to stay in such a serene place.
Msuna was way too comfortable to spend less than two days there, and so we did just that. Having made an arrangement with Larry to get us across the river Gwaii on his speedboat, we set off at lunchtime on day thirteen to rendezvous with him later that afternoon. It is about seven or eight kilometers to the Gwaii from Msuna and we arrived in plenty of time, even managing to have a quick brew up before our lift arrived. Larry and co dropped us on a hillside on the east bank of the Gwaii about an hour before sundown, and before pitching tent we got a taster of what to expect the following day. The country surrounding the river Gwaii is extremely rugged and if one is not going up then they are going down, over hard rock and through tearing thorn.
We struck camp at dawn the next day, having an idea of what was in store and wanting to cover as much ground as possible as early as possible. I cannot remember exactly how many ranges and valleys we crossed over and through that day, but it must have been about seven or eight of each. We walked parallel to the Zambezi, about two kilometers from it for the most part, though at times we inadvertently veered into it. I am glad we did veer into it, because the views the river provides along this stretch (the lower end of Devil’s Gorge) are magnificent. We bedded down that evening a few kilometers from where the Zambezi enters Kariba Dam. Absolutely drained, we fell into deep slumber.
The Kariba Lake
Two weeks after leaving Victoria Falls, we arrived at the furthest point on Kariba from the dam wall, after cutting across forestry land from our last camp on the upper Zambezi. Although we did observe some stale spoor in that area – buffalo, elephant, kudu – we lifted a number of snares and saw no game. Materializing from the bush and obviously looking a little wild, we surprised two fishermen in a boat setting their nets in a secluded little bay. Once we assured them we were not Zambian poachers and after a little negotiating, they agreed to ferry us across the Mlibizi River mouth in exchange for a packet of fishing hooks. The fishermen said we should meet them in a couple of hours at a point closer to the river mouth as they still had work to do. Thanking them, we made off, rounding the bay and walking the shoreline. Not fifteen minutes later, we came upon a bushbuck ram caught in a snare.
The ram had not been ensnared for too long, as it still had a fair amount of energy and went into frenzy as we approached, battering and suffocating itself in the process. Knowing full well the reputation of injured/cornered bushbuck, I approached cautiously, chose the moment and seized it by the horns. Once I had loosened the wire, I felt the animal relax a little and it wasn’t long before I had the snare off. Pulling the buck from the thicket in which it had been trapped, I pushed it from me to set it on its way. But the bushbuck had another plan and it turned about and leapt into the dam, entangling itself in weed and struggling to keep its head above the surface. There was nothing for it but to initiate phase two of operation bushbuck, and so into the dam I went and again took hold of the ram’s horns, all the while hoping that the croc would go for the animal and not the human!
Soon I had the buck on dry land and on its feet. Trying the same method as before, I pushed it away from me towards the bush, this time instructing it to ‘go bushbuck, you are free.’ Once again, the bushbuck had a different plan and it turned on me, dropping its horns and charging from close range. Fortunately, I turned my back at the last instant and received only a minor flesh wound in the well-padded area where my left buttock meets my left thigh. The outcome could have been very different, however, had the bushbuck not been so exhausted and had it been a full frontal. Jephita eventually managed to convince the bushbuck that it was indeed free, and it walked off slowly into the bush. I hope it survives in that area but I doubt it. The fishermen rowed us across the Mlibizi mouth late that afternoon and we spent the next two nights in Mlibizi itself, as guests of the National Parks personal based there.
From Mlibizi we walked through an area known as Mangane, camped somewhere close to the Kariba shoreline and reached the Sebungwe River mouth just before noon the following day. The Sebungwe mouth is a most impressive spectacle and I was disappointed that the midday photos I took were so poor, as was the case with the Batoka Gorge shots, Oh well, I guess one can’t be everywhere at the right time. What surprises me about both Batoka and the Sebungwe mouth is that there is nothing at either place but poor rural communities. The Sebungwe, specifically, could be the most amazing holiday/fishing destination, if somebody had the wherewithal to set it up.
We crossed the Sebungwe mouth in a sound but overloaded little boat that took in some water due to wind and wave. It was actually a little hair-raising at times and I prayed we wouldn’t end up in the drink, our equipment foremost in my mind. I have been terrified about something happening to our equipment from the onset – I know that that would mean an indefinite delay to the journey. Anyway, it probably wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be, and we did cross the Sebungwe without mishap, camping in a mopani glade close to Sebungwe village that night. After supper and tea, as we were fading off into oblivion, I told Jephita that we would be in Binga the following day. The grunted response suggested doubt – a hard haul separates the Sebungwe River from Binga.
We maintained a decent pace over easygoing terrain the next day, covering the twenty kilometers to Lokola village by lunchtime. The entire village turned out to meet us and a prolonged photo session took place. We were introduced to the village headman, Makson, and he was most interested to hear about our journey and what we hoped to achieve by completing it. After chatting for a time, Makson invited us for lunch at his home on Lokola Island. He said that his sons could row us across the Lokola after we had eaten, and would drop us at a point about ten kilometers from Binga. We accepted his kind offers with thanks and were soon on our way across the Lokola to the island, in a much sturdier vessel than that we had used to cross the Sebungwe.
On Lokola Island we got to meet Makson’s very extended family (his brother has six wives and thirty children), and enjoyed one of the finest meals I have ever had – fresh bream split in half, liberally salted and grilled for a few minutes either side on hot coals, with sorghum sadza. How we ate that day! Over lunch, Makson told me a little about the Tonga people and culture which I found interesting. The Zimbabwean Tonga do not consider themselves Zimbabweans at all, but Zambian, and they do not consider the Zimbabwean side of the river to be in Zimbabwe, but in Zambia.
The reason for this is that all of the Tonga tribe’s ancestors are buried on the Zambian side, and the damming of the river has torn the tribe in two. There may as well be no boundary between the two countries in the Sebungwe/Lokola/Binga areas, because people cross over freely all the time, visiting relatives and visiting their ancestral homes. There are even married couples who live on opposite sides of the river! And that was another thing Makson told me – the Tonga never, ever refer to Kariba as a dam or lake or even Kariba, it is always the river. It always has been the river and it always will be the river.
Observing how we dipped our sadza into the gravy before popping it into our mouths, Makson declared that we were doing it all wrong and that we should kuvwisisya musinzu – understand the soup.He then went on to show us how one understands the soup, balling a lump of sadza and creating a small indentation by pressing his thumb into it, then dipping it into the gravy with a scooping motion, filling the indentation and popping the morsel into his mouth. That, Makson explained, was how one understands the soup. I have been understanding all the ‘soup’ I have come across since and will continue to do so. Somehow, when one understands the soup, it tastes so much better.
Two of Makson’s energetic sons rowed us across the Lokola later that afternoon, dropping us on the far bank at sundown.
We walked into Binga after 10 p.m. that night, and after announcing our arrival to the drowsy duty officer, pitched our tent in the grounds of the Binga police station. We had been on the road for nineteen days and had been walking for fifteen of those.
I am putting the finishing touches to this article at Tashinga Parks post in Matusadona National Park, about twenty days from Binga and not too far from Kariba town now. After a pointless and frustrating delay in Binga (bumbling bureaucracy), we finally got on the road (shoreline) again on August 23rd.
Then there was Sijarira forest land, Chete safari area, Sinamwenda, Sengwa, the Omay, Sibilobilo, Chalala, Bumi Hills and Matusadona National Park. We have seen more wildlife in the fifteen kilometers separating Chalala and Matusadona than we did in the hundreds of kilometers between Victoria Falls and Chalala, and it makes a pleasant change. The Borderline Walk has already been the experience of a lifetime and we have only completed about 10% of the journey – I know that there is so much more to come.
We have met many fine people, made heaps of new friends and seen some spectacular sights. Quite simply, we are having a blast. The adventure continues in the next issue of the African Expedition magazine in which I will be reporting on the Binga/Kariba stage.
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