for the J C
by Nadia Marks

The earth is a deep red as if life’s own blood runs through the veins of the African soil, and nature is at it’s most intense. This is the initial thing that strikes me as I gaze for the first time on the southern African landscape.

An adventurous long week-end in Zambia and Botswana sounded like a fabulously exciting trip to make. Three or four days going on safari travelling down the Zambezi river, visiting the Victoria Falls, relaxing in some luxurious hotels seemed great!  Even though the flight is a long 12 hours it’s only two hours ahead of UK time, so after a nights sleep on the plane you arrive the next morning jet-lag free, fresh and ready for adventure. However, nothing prepared me for the intensity of emotions and sense of awe this continent evoked in me once I started seeing it for real. This is no safari or game park, this is the land where the elephants and lions rule supreme and danger lurks around every corner.

Our first destination where we were to stay over night was Chobe Chilwero Lodge, meaning “the place with the high view”, and, true to it’s name, it had the most breathtaking views of the Chobe river and the neighbouring country of Namibia. The lodge, incongruously luxurious in the middle of the African wilderness, is an oasis of creature comforts with air-conditioned thatched cottages, sunken handcrafted baths, indoor and outdoor showers, private gardens and terraces overlooking the magnificent Chobe river, and Chobe National Park, the domain and natural home of the southern-African wild-life.

Staying in the middle of this wild territory, it’s not unusual to be occasionally visited by a passing animal that’s lost it’s way, as it happened on the night we stayed at Chobe Chilwero Lodge. An electric storm raged all night, but luckily I slept oblivious and unaware in my queen-size bed under a huge mosquito net, while outside a Leopard was apparently roaming the grounds.

My first introduction to the bush is via the still waters of the Chobe River which has wild water lilies scattered on it like precious jewels. As we glide along talking in hushed tones in a small boat under the late afternoon sun, it’s hard to believe that what I’m seeing is indeed reality and not a fabrication of my imagination. A baby crocodile is basking on the river bank, and then we see a huge fully grown one lying very still on a little island gauging the temperature with it’s open mouth. Hippopotamuses, I’m told, are very private but curious creatures; they like to lie low and just bop their heads up to check us out, and then disappear again, with an air of disapproval. Our hosts from the Lodge, who organised our boat trip, share their wealth of knowledge about the animals and their terrain.

Suddenly, we turn a bend and I see a sight that takes my breath away. A family of eight or nine elephants of all sizes and ages are drinking in the bank of the river and washing themselves. They stop what they’re doing and stare at us. Once again I’m acutely aware that this is no zoo but the home of these magnificent creatures and I feel embarrassed to be intruding, yet grateful to see them just feet away from our boat.

As the evening draws on and the sun begins to lower, we stop the boat to watch the famous Chobe River sunset while our hosts offer us a glass of chilled wine from the cool-box. Enveloped in total tranquillity I watch the sun slowly plunge into the water, setting the river on fire and turning the sky red, making it one with the African earth.

Before sunrise the next morning we set off in search of wildlife, this time by Land-Rover into the interior of the bush. “This morning we will look for cats,” announces Chika, our African driver and guide, with a big wide smile.

The atmosphere is damp from last night’s storm and the sky a hazy grey. There is a chill in the air and I’m grateful I have my sarong to wrap around me as we follow the sandy banks of the. The vegetation is dense and lush and the Kalahari desert sand which lines the edge of the river gives way to a thick soft grassy bank.  Trees and bushes predominately teak, acacia boabab and fever berry make up the bulk of the vegetation which comes alive with the early morning flutter of exotic birds. The sky-line is also characteristically punctuated with the black silhouettes of dead trees whose bare branches make black sculptural shapes against the sky. Chika explains that these trees are dead because the elephants eat their bark which kills them and on our next turn we see one of them ominously ladened with vultures.

“Oh!” Chika exclaims excitedly, “there must be a kill near by! Lets see…” On the next turn, by the river’s edge, laid the remains of a buffalo, stripped down to it’s rib cadge and with some two dozen vultures taking their turn in cleaning up what little flesh was still left on the carcass. The smell of decaying flesh hovered in the air.  “That means the lions are near,” says Chika, sending a chill up my spine. “They must have killed it in last night’s storm and will now be sleeping it off.”

A few minutes later, up the cool grassy bank under a huge fever berry tree, stomachs ready to burst, and oblivious to the world we see about five or six sleeping lions. Just feet away from the Land Rover we sit and watch these beautiful, gorgeous animals sleeping like domestic cats.

Our next destination was Zambia’s Royal Livingston Hotel on the edge of the Zambezi river overlooking Victoria Falls one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the place we would visit the following morning. If the Chobe Chilwero Lodge was a mixture of the rustic and the luxurious then the Royal Livingston was just totally unadulterated luxury. With a touch of the colonial feel about it, the hotel’s terraces, gardens and restaurants all overlook the river and you hear the constant roar of the mighty Victoria Falls.

Once again I feel the beauty of Africa as I sit on the hotels terrace sipping a pre-dinner cocktail in the balmy heat of the night.  On the garden lawn, a sumptuous table was laid for our dinner, lit up by a circle of flaming torches and candles. Dinner was the most delicious banquet of exotic ostrich steaks and exquisite south African wines. In front of me the river lights up with flashes of sheet lighting from a far away storm, while the Falls froth up and steam furiously in the distance.

The sound of the Falls is mighty and you can hear it from far away, but the sight of it is totally overwhelming and nothing I have ever seen before prepared me for it.  First there is the sheer volume of water, around 546 million cubic metres a minute spilling with such force, speed and power that it knocks you back and makes you stumble in disbelief. Then there is the ‘spray that rises’ which can be seen from up to thirty kilometres away and close up makes the atmosphere more water than air. And then there are the complete rainbows that constantly form through the mist and sun-rays.

The power of the place touches me deeply and I feel sure that this must have been a place of worship for the people who first set eyes on it. The gorge that the water falls into is massively deep and the width of the Falls enormous. For those who feel extremely brave and crave the thrill of danger, the hotel can organise for you to do a gorge swing, which means that while securely attached to a rope, you voluntarily jump into oblivion and swing for what seems like hours back and forth in the gorge.

This is only one of the numerous activities that can be arranged for you, like white water rafting,  cannoning or elephant riding; for me walking along the length of the Falls and the mere sight of it was adventure enough. A path has been cut on the opposite side of the Falls to run parallel with it, so we follow it. The spray from the water is intense and comes down like heavy rain, but since the temperature is hot I feel happy to be drenched in the water and not only see and hear the Falls, but feel it too. Continuing our trail, no shoes on our feet, we come across a place where the earth had shifted and a narrow ravine had formed, so we go across via a small bridge.

Completely wet by now, I stand barefoot in the warm water, on the small bridge and look away from the falls onto the small gorge that lies below. A scene of such intensity and beauty unfolds in front of me, I thought I must surely be in paradise – a magical,  mythical place of lush rainforest vegetation laid below – exotic birds and butterflies and the most perfect bright rainbow I have ever seen in my life, like a child had painted it.

The roar of falling water seemed to muffle all other noise around so it became an odd, overpowering form of silence. All I could do was to hang on to the railings, and be thankful I had eyes with which I could feast upon this piece of African beauty, and experience nature at it’s absolute best, and most powerful.

© Nadia Marks