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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Travel

Nov 24, 2018

Zimbabwe Revisited: A Return to Hwange National Park, 30 Years Later

Sarah Kingdom retraces her steps, and returns to the first place that she experienced a safari with her parents, this time she takes her two teenage sons.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

Thirty odd years ago, as a gawky, gangly girl in my early teens, complete with orthodontic braces and a tomboy haircut, I had come from Australia, with my family, on my first African safari. This trip was the start of a love affair with the continent that would ultimately become my home. Now, years later, and with my own two teenage sons in tow, I had decided to retrace my steps with a Zimbabwean family expedition of my own.

Photo: Sarah Kingdom

over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 species of bird

Starting off from the Victoria Falls we were bound for Hwange National Park, 100km away. At more than 1,460,000 hectares Hwange, named after a local Nhanzwa chief, is the largest park in Zimbabwe and has more animals and a greater variety of species (over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 species of bird recorded) than any other park in the country. In the nineteenth century the land was the royal hunting reserve of Mzilikazi, the Southern African king who founded the Matabele Kingdom (Matabeleland), and later his successor Lobengula. It was set aside as a National Park in 1929.

Photo: Sarah Kingdom

Our ‘home’ in Hwange would be African Bush Camps’ Somalisa Expeditions, about an hour and a half’s drive from the park’s main gate and a short drive from ABC’s main Somalisa Camp. We had driven the 100km from Victoria Falls and were rushing slightly, as we were running a little late for lunch… holidays with teenager boys tend to be governed somewhat by keeping stomachs full. We headed from the main gate through the park. Passing a group of eight giraffe and a large herd of wildebeest, we reached the ‘Bohemian luxury’ that is Somalisa Expeditions’ camp. Alas we were indeed too late for lunch, but after a wash and some afternoon tea we were off on a game drive with our guide David.

One of our first viewings was a pair of lions snoozing after the rigors of mating. While we waited and watched, David filled us in on a little of the history of these lion’s pride. Many will remember the outrage, widespread social media coverage and petition calling for the end of big game hunting in Zimbabwe, that followed the 2015 controversial hunting death of Cecil, a lion who had lived in Hwange National Park for 13 years, and the subsequent killing of his son Xanda two years later. The female of the pair we were looking at, was a member of ‘Cecil’s Pride’ and the young male was a new male who had come in, with his elder brother, to fill the void left by Cecil’s death.

Read Next: Inside the Mind of a Lion Murderer

Sundowners were spent atop a large termite mound, with a clear view of the lions and a parade of elephants crossing the open plain. Driving back to the camp we stopped to admire the brilliant stars overhead. Considering my star knowledge is pretty much limited to the Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way, and the two other passengers on our drive were from the Northern Hemisphere where all the constellations are the ‘other way up’ it was fortunate that David had a laser pointer to help him ‘highlight’ and explain the night sky above.

Photo: Sarah Kingdom

Although winter days in Hwange are warm with bright blue skies, the evenings can, and do, get extremely cold and overnight temperatures below freezing are not uncommon. The next morning from the comfort of our beds next door, we could hear our boys getting their ‘wake up knock’ before our game drive. Getting teenagers out of bed in the morning is not easy at the best of times, and we could hear the friendly knocking carry on for several minutes, before eventually a sleepy, muffled grunt was heard from one of the boys.

My lasting memory of game drives in Hwange, thirty odd years ago, was of being unbelievably cold. Being ‘Africa novices’, my parents had decided that Africa was ‘hot’ and, despite the fact that it was winter, had decided to leave all our warm clothes in a suitcase in Harare, while we ventured off on safari, with just a few shorts and t-shirts on hand. I had never felt so cold in my life. I still have vivid memories of shivering in the back of our open top safari vehicle at 6am, and not even my ‘teenage crush’ on our safari guide, Zack, could distract me from shivering. Fortunately, this time, I had come prepared with layers of warm clothing for the entire family. Luckily the whole safari business has also got a lot more sophisticated in the interim years, and we were furnished with fleece ponchos and hot water bottles as we boarded the vehicle making the experience a whole lot more enjoyable!

Photo: Sarah Kingdom

The highlight of the morning was coming across a lone hyena chewing on a month old elephant carcass. Skittish, but clearly hungry, she jumped at every sound and rustle in the undergrowth before eventually settling down. A side striped jackal appeared. Not quite brave enough to challenge the hyena, it settled down to watch, letting out the occasional high pitched call.

The air was alive with birdsong and we saw an abundance of birds on our drives. The most prominent were, without a doubt, the hornbills, and we saw them absolutely everywhere. The African Grey, Southern Yellow-billed and Bradfield’s hornbills all swooped, soared and chattered incessantly. Southern Ground Hornbills strode through the landscape with their trademark drum beating sound effect. Racquet Tailed and Lilac Breasted Rollers flitted from bush to bush. Teals ducked and bobbed in the waterholes while Egyptian Geese shouted from the banks. White-backed Vultures, Marshall Eagles and Bateleurs soared overhead.

Without a doubt our most special sighting in Hwange was as we were leaving Somalisa and driving out of the park. Having gone to sleep with the sound of wild dogs and we had woken to lion footprints throughout the camp, now, not long after setting off we rounded a corner and found three cheetahs relaxing in the middle of the dirt road. Switching off the engine, I groped for my camera, hardly daring to take my eyes off them. A female and two young males. I needn’t have panicked, they were not rushing anywhere. The female relaxed in the sand and the two youngsters gambolled and played, while we watched, entranced until they eventually tired of us and disappeared into bush.

We left the Somalisa and Hwange behind, but carried with us a whole new set of family memories.

You can find out more about African Bushcamps here.

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How-To

Sep 09, 2019

How To Choose A Safe Whitewater Rafting Company

Whitewater rafting is a unique experience in nature, filled with adrenaline and excitement. Recently though, we have been reminded of the real risks involved.

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WRITTEN BY

Benjamin Baber

Last year, headlines from around the world were plagued with tragic river accidents. Four Americans passed away on a rafting trip in Costa Rica. Two Australians passed away in separate kayaking incidents in Nepal. The southeast U.S. alone had four separate whitewater kayaking deaths. And these examples are only a small sample of the river tragedies that occurred in 2018.

While some accidents are unfortunately inevitable, there are many situations where an accident can easily be avoided. Unfortunately, most countries lack standardized rules that you might expect from within the whitewater industry. This is more common in less economically developed countries. However, it’s important to stress this doesn’t mean that all companies in less economically developed countries are unsafe. You just have to set a few basic standards, and know how to pick the best one! No matter where you are in the world, there are a few basic things to look for in a rafting company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable whitewater experience.

Rafting in Morocco. Photo: Ben Baber

Leader to Participant Ratios

The whitewater industry has general safety standards for guide-to-participant ratios on commercial rafting and kayaking trips.  

A safe industry standard on a fourteen-foot raft is one guide to every six participants. Most companies won’t live up to this standard, but if you want the safest experience – this is it! Ask your company what their leader to participant ratio is! 

It all boils down to this – any raft can flip. When that happens, one guide is expected to rescue the raft, re-flip the raft, then save each participant. If you are one of those participants, do you want to be the sixth person to be rescued or the ninth? The better companies will reduce the number of people in the raft to keep the weight balanced, the trip safe, and to maximize the rafting experience.

Kayaking carries greater risk than rafting simply due to the fact that the participants are in control of their own boat, rather than a trained guide. Instead, the guide is usually in their own kayak telling you how to manoeuvre from a separate craft. Industry standards recommend a ratio of one guide to every four participants for kayaking and canoeing. However, this ratio may decrease and become 1:3 or even 1:2 as the whitewater gets more challenging and consequential.

Read next on TOJ: A veteran river runner turns 70, and heads off into the Peruvian wilderness to raft the Rio Marañón, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Safety Boats

Safety boats are your best friend on the river. If a participant falls from a raft, they run the risk of being swept away by the current. This is when the safety boat shines. It will pluck you out of the water and give you a safe ride back to your raft or shore. It is a recognized industry standard to never have a single-boat trip. If there are only enough customers to fill one boat, then there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft along with the participant-filled raft.

With multiple rafts on the river, there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft to support the trip. This may pose an extra financial burden for the rafting company, but it is a small price to pay to increase participant safety. Problems sometimes arise when companies try to cut corners, perhaps deciding to take a guide off the water and undercut the competition by 5 dollars. If your company doesn’t have a safety craft, find out why.

In some locations, it has become standard for single or half-day trips to not have a safety boat when they have 2 or more full rafts. The theory here is that the other boats on the river will provide safety for one other. This is a debatable standard, but in some locations, you might not be able to find a company that uses safety boats for shorter trips. Certainly for multi-day trips, no matter how many rafts, there should be a safety boat.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Cut-Off Levels

Every river rises and falls according to snowmelt, rainfall, or changes in upstream dam release. It can happen with the changing of the seasons, or it can happen in ten minutes with changing weather patterns. Companies should have a set cut-off limit for each river they operate on. This cut-off level should be based on their own expert knowledge of that river.

One good way to double-check a company is to find out the cut-off levels for several other companies running that river. Call them up, send them an email, check their website – whatever you need to do to find out. If your company’s level is much higher than the competition’s, ask why! Is it because they have more experienced guides and provide more safety kayakers or rafts? If not, it may be a money-motivated decision that could translate to a dangerous experience for customers.

Equipment

Properly maintained and up-to-date equipment is a vital part of whitewater safety. All participants should wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), closed-toed shoes, and a helmet. If the guide hasn’t checked that your equipment is fitted correctly, don’t get on the water.

The shelf-life of most outdoor gear is around 10 years. You can use this as a guideline when deciding which equipment will keep you afloat and keep your head intact.

All PFDs from the United States must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. They will be marked to show they have been through a standardized testing process. You will see this written as “USCG Type V.” Any product from Europe must have a certification “EN ISO 12402-5 / 12402-6.”

Find out more information on IOS standards relating to PFDs here.

For Helmets, look for the CE standard CE EN 1385. This ensures your helmets is suitable for whitewater and has been tested accordingly.

Further reading:

Buying a canoeing & kayaking helmet – what does the CE mark really mean, and Sweet Protections guide to Helmet testing.

Whitewater Kayaking in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Alcohol

It is forbidden for guides and participants to consume alcohol on the river. Intoxicated participants can pose as much of a threat to the safety of the trip as an intoxicated guide. Take note of the company’s alcohol policy, and if you have any concerns that your guide or another participant may be intoxicated, make sure to raise those concerns.

Qualifications

There are various different qualifications for whitewater guides. From the British Canoe Union, to the American Canoe Association, to Rescue 3 International. The trouble is that certifications cover different skills according to the river and country in which the certification process took place. However, no matter how much the certifications vary, every guide should have a minimum of a swiftwater rescue certificate, a First Aid/CPR certification, as well as some sort of whitewater guide certification and/or in-house whitewater training.  

Conclusion

Whitewater activities are risky. There is no way around it. However, with proper training, skill, equipment, and experience, this risk can be mitigated. Take the time to research the company you go with, and make it a lasting memory for the right reasons.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

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