In 1999 Russell had a full season of mobile of safaris booked in Hwange National Park, so we loaded up the Land Rover and set off at dawn to drive the corrugated road that wound from Magungi through the Zambezi escarpment to Lubimbi Hot Springs in the Gwayi Valley. It was fire season and the distant hills were tinged in grey and the air thick with the peppery smell of wood-smoke. With my bare feet up on the dashboard to avoid the heat of the engine and the window open , I watched as a documentary of rural life unfolded around me. Neatly swept clusters of African villages sheltered beneath ancient Baobab’s that seemed routed in the pale blue sky. Happy barefooted children raced alongside the road laughing and waving as we rolled down the dusty road. Slender women appeared wrapped in colorful Chitenges, effortlessly balancing 20 litre containers on their heads , on their way to fetch water. Occasionally we passed a trading store where a gathering of older woman were sitting under a shady tree without a care in the world sharing a communal marijuana pipe as is the custom of their tribe. It was a day of reflection on my life so far and I wondered how different cultures around the world might view this remote and wild place
Our house at Aloe Ridge was tucked away in a shady glen of giant Teak Trees . The dawn chorus always began with the raucous call of the Francolin while the ever present Turtle Doves incessantly called for us to “Work Harder” or “Drink Larger” depending on your preference. A pair of comical Yellow Horn bill’s took up residence in a Mukwa Tree near the lodge and each year the male would seal off his trusting mate in a cavity, where she molted using her feathers as a nest for her young. He worked tirelessly to bring her food, which he posted through a tiny hole in the clay seal. Once her feathers regrew she would emerge to help him keep up with feeding their demanding brood. In the evenings our half tame Wild Cat Hobbs would take me for a walk down to the nearby horse paddock, shooting off up trees and pouncing on any thing that moved in his kingdom. The horses would rest their velvet noses against my stomach, quietly sharing my happiness as they seemed to instinctively understand I was entering into a new season of my life and was soon to become a Mother.
We arrived home in time to see the Mopane shedding their leaves which pirouetted and drifted silently to the parched earth that was covered in a carpet of bronze as far as the eye could see. Masses of wild Aloes were in bloom, their bright orange flowers alive with buzzing bees and gaily colored sun birds. Karna Block was now part of The Gwayi Valley Conservancy on the fringes on Hwange National Park, an area of 800 square miles where most of the internal fencing had been removed allowing the wildlife to move freely between the National Park and the Conservancy. We often had visiting Lion, which would upset the horses making them go on strike while the Leopard along the Shangani were now regularly sighted on outrides. Sitting around the fire at night in the Mzola Trails camps you were sure to hear their rasping coughs at night. Large herds of Buffalo , Sable and Zebra roamed free along the valley floor while Kudu Water Buck , Reed Buck , and Bush Buck were sure to be sighted along the Shangani and Karna Rivers. Cheetah, and Wild Dog were often encountered as they moved through the area hunting. Aloe Ridge was built with the view in mind with sweeping vistas out both sides of the main building across the Shangani Valley and was perfect location for the combination of Riding and Walking trails that we offered.
On a drive home from Kwa Nemba, the main homestead, we came across the orphan elephants that Pierre had rescued from the cull in Hwange. They had returned as they did every year and were hiding out in a thicket of Dichrostachys and it was the first time I had seen them in over 10 years. Russell cut the engine and we eased forward slowly down the hill to a standstill as they raised their trunks above the thorn scrub to sample the breeze. Nduna was the first to appear out of the bush rumbling in recognition , soon he was joined by Landela and Msintu and they all paused downwind of us raising their trunks towards Tana and our most recent addition Ross. I sat holding my breath as these gentle giants loomed over us taking everything in through tawny eyes, before setting off at a leisurely pace in the direction of the river where they faded from sight. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the last time I ever saw them.
Zimbabwe had become embroiled in a war in the Congo that eventually sucked in many other African nations and while murky deals were struck for timber and mining concessions our economy buckled under the cost of this ill advised adventure. By 2000 the spiraling inflation had cost the Government dearly and for the first time in 20 years they were facing defeated at the polls by the charismatic Labor Union leader Morgan Tsvangerai. Unable to stomach defeat the Government embarked on a haphazard land reform program which was basically a thinly veiled nationalization of all agricultural land in the country. It was a turbulent time since the Government had not taken into account the effect their policies would have on tax revenues, economic stability and food security and this would send the country into a tail spin from which it is still yet to recover.
One the few lighthearted moments in these trying times came from Tana who was just learning to speak , one of the first signs of the impending economic meltdown was that the delivery of fuel became erratic. Tana loved to accompany Russell on the weekly supply runs usually lulled to sleep in her car seat only to awake once he arrived at his destination Halfway House Hotel. He would always pull into the fuel station first in the hope that there had been a delivery and wind down his window to ask the fuel attendant, “Any diesel?” and would invariably get the mournful reply “No diesel” On one of our trips to Bulawayo , Tana awoke as we pulled into Half Way House Hotel and recognizing where she was, she blurted out in her excitement ” No Diesel!” She had decided that a service station should be called and it seemed about right!
On Zimbabwe Independence day, the 19th April 2000 we were hosted our last riding safari guests at Aloe Ridge when the farm invasions swung into top gear with the brutal murder of Martin Olds, a respected Matabeleland farmer. After a sleepless night , we packed our bags and moved up the road to Hwange Safari Lodge with our clients where it felt like we had stepped into a completely different world. International tourists sat sipping Gin and Tonics at the waterhole bar discussing their sightings from that mornings Game Drive while just 50 miles down the road the rest of our Gwayi Valley farming community were living in fear of their lives and evacuating all the women and children to Bulawayo in convoy for their safety. We dropped our clients at Hwange Aerodrome and watched as the Air Zimbabwe flight jetted of down the runway to Harare – driving home to Karna we contemplated an uncertain future.