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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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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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