(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series by contributor John Riley recounting adventures from an African safari taken earlier this month with former Eagles greats Kevin Reilly and Frank LeMaster.)
–The greeting by Henry Stanley of David Livingstone on Nov. 10, 1871, as reported by The New York Herald Tribune.
We soon left behind the arid world of Ongava, where the Kalahari and Namib deserts meet, and began our trek to Zimbabwe via Johannesburg, South Africa. When our driver met us at the airport he proudly welcomed us to the “cradle of mankind” – a reference to the discovery announced the day before near Jo’burg where a new species of man had been discovered in a cave. And before we left the next day, this proud man of Zulu heritage would take a quick detour to show us the home where Nelson Mandela lived. But a little unsettling that day were local headlines warning of expected terrorist attacks on Americans in Johannesburg on 9/11 – the day we would be flying back to the U.S.
Although the main objective of our three-day visit to Zimbabwe was to see the spectacular Victoria Falls, we would soon learn there was more adventure to experience in the land of Robert Mugabe, the longtime corrupt president of this struggling country. It was evident from the moment we entered the airport terminal building that we had moved deeper into the “third world” Africa that makes it into our news at home, when and if Africa is noticed at all. After spending more than an hour in line to pay our “visitor fee,” we were a bit relieved to be met by a smiling local in his “Wilderness Safari” uniform who would drive us to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge – but not before we passed through one of the “impromptu” police checks our guide jokingly referred to as a “fundraiser.” Since we passed right through, the assumption was that he had already donated. That evening we sipped cocktails on the Zambezi River amongst the hippos who warned us with their eyes not to come any closer.
The next day began with our visit to the famous falls where the statue of Dr. Livingstone gazes over the midst. Our guide spoke approvingly of the man who as he said “enabled the rest of the world to learn of the beauty of Zimbabwe.” It was interesting that Livingstone’s statue remains in this former Southern Rhodesia, considering that all the white landholders had their properties confiscated in the post-colonial era and after years of war and sanctions by the U.S. and much of the rest of the world (the white population of Zimbabwe has dropped from over 275,000 in 1975 to less than 50,000 since Mugabe came to power). But Livingstone was also famous for his love of the people here and strong opposition to the Arab slave trade that flourished in his day.
In a timely article in the South Africa newspapers about Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, it was noted that his land and economic policies have been devastating to the country – once a major food exporter, agriculture production is down 66 percent, and today the 70 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the world. But in spite of the political and economic challenges faced by the populace, we found Zimbabwe to be a generally welcoming place for tourists.
On our last day we enjoyed one of the big surprises of the trip – the elephant-back safari. It seemed like a crazy idea when proposed a year ago by the tour planner, Premier Travel, but before I could ask a question about how safe it would be Frank LeMaster jumped in, “sure, that sounds like a great idea.” So there we were, high up on the backs of African elephants, crossing a stream while about 100 Cape Buffalo, considered one of Africa’s “Big 5” and a very large and aggressive animal, stared at us, perhaps wondering if we had lost our collective minds. But the elephants and their handlers seemed to know their business so we got through unscathed and with a newfound appreciation for the world’s largest land mammal.
Shortly into my trip on the back of Tendai the elephant, my guide from the Shona tribe whose name translated to “Happy” asked me how I was enjoying Africa and Zimbabwe. In addition to giving me an elephant orientation he expressed a deep appreciation of American tourists – he said that because of the many Americans who come to Zimbabwe he has a job in the land of 70 percent unemployment. “We love the Americans,” he said.
While you might go to Africa to see and experience the wildlife in a way you will never experience any place else, it seems that the people and personalities are what stay with you after you depart. Perhaps it is because so many people in the parts of Africa we visited are challenged in a way we are not – challenged by a hostile, drought-stricken land, harsh economic conditions and by the realistic possibility that they might be confronted at any time by the very wildlife that the tourists come to see. When we toured a local village the tribal chief casually explained how the circular design of their mud huts confused the black mamba snakes when they invaded and how they kept the hyenas at bay with their fires at night.
With only two flights to check in and board that morning at the Victorian Falls airport, one would think the process would be fairly simple – but after one hour the two ticket agents had cleared about 12 passengers. At the current pace we would complete check-in about 10 hours after our flight departed. To the rescue came one of the “Wilderness Safari” guides. He told Kevin Reilly to follow him and soon we were all through and on our way to the plane. In the confusion I accidentally handed the gate agent my ticket to the U.S. – he was not happy when I came back from the tarmac and struggled to exchange the tickets. I still don’t understand how the rest of the backlog of passengers managed to get through to board.
Later that evening as we prepared to board our South African airlines flight from Johannesburg on the infamous date of 9/11, they announced we would undergo one more security check – everyone was formed up in the main corridor and teams of security staff conducted thorough full-body pat-downs and opened all carry-on luggage. You were partly reassured by the effort but couldn’t help but wonder if there was a direct threat to our flight. Early the next morning as we worked our way through customs at JFK airport an agent asked what countries I had visited – when I mentioned Namibia and Zimbabwe he suddenly grew stern and told me to stay where I was as he walked away to talk to his supervisor. When he returned he asked if I had been to Liberia or Sierra Leone (where the Ebola outbreaks had occurred) – once he was reassured, he waived me through. Welcome home from Africa!
If you are interested in an African safari, I would highly recommend contacting Premier Tours in Philadelphia. The accommodations, food and most importantly our guides were all excellent and every connection went perfectly — in fact the hotel staff in Victoria Falls seemed confused when I went to double-check on the pick-up arrangements for the last morning. They said it was not necessary to call to confirm – they would be at the hotel at exactly 10:45 – and they were.