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Donkin on Travel

1996, Zimbabwe

Cook Islands

It was quiet. Too quiet. First it was the flies, then the heat. Now it was the waiting. Suddenly the silence was disturbed by the slow, soft, rhythmic beat of hand on leather. The drums could mean only one thing: feeding time.

Beating the bongos is a daily ritual in safari lodges across Africa. Here at Detema lodge, on the fringe of the Hwange game reserve in western Zimbabwe , it proved the most effective way of attracting a shy but familiar visitor to the watering hole.

Slowly they began to emerge from the bush in their twos and threes. Some circled the pool warily, others edged boldly towards the steps of the lodge. Heads tilted towards a slight disturbance surrounding an older male who strode purposefully to the head of the group. He turned and said: "Anyone for a drink?"

To this call of the domesticated the responses were various: "It must be my turn", "No, you bought yesterday" or "I'd prefer to get my own".

I had come to Zimbabwe to see the wildlife but became immersed in the behaviour patterns and habits of a peculiarly robust branch of the hominid family - the English Middle Class.

Here, away from their natural habitat, they could be observed in relative safety. Those who have encountered them in restaurants or seen them cornered on commuter trains and city streets know that their impeccable manners and apparent sang-froid can betray a fierce and unpredictable behaviour.

No one had explained this to the management of the Harare Sheraton who mistakenly associated some light-hearted concerns about the power cut on the 15th floor with gentle acquiescence, and dispatched someone from room service with a few candles. He escaped with a severe mauling.

Every member of the group was a veteran of the exotic touring holiday. Hardly an inch of the globe appeared to have escaped their attention. As we entered a helicopter to view the Victoria falls, Gillian and Alan from Cambridge were recalling their flight in a single-engined aircraft to see the Nasca lines in Peru.

The Zambezi was quite something, Gillian admitted, but she was not sure that it bettered their "trip up the Orinoco with the Ilkestone Co-op".

One couple, Terry and Sheila from Nottingham, said they liked animals but admitted they had an aversion to large insects. Terry provided a graphic description of the invertebrates he had loved and killed on previous holidays. There was the large woodlouse-like beetle in Thailand that was a "magnificent specimen" but which had to be flushed down the toilet.

Even in the depths of the bush the typical concerns of the English middle classes were never far from the surface. On one of those special African evenings, as we watched the elephants silhouetted against the setting sun, its reflection flaming the waters of Lake Kariba as it slipped behind the mountains of the Matsadona National Park, I found myself discussing house prices in Eastbourne.

But for myself, the group would have been in the 50 to 70 age range. In pack formation they looked formidable, headed by their dominant male, the tour manager. As I succumbed to a tummy bug and the need for early nights, the grey panthers were eating, drinking and talking into the early hours.

Once in the four-wheel drive transport the group was overtaken by "game fever", which began to infect the drivers as they roamed farther into the bush in search of lions.

Suddenly we came across the unmistakable sign of a kill, not the smell of blood or circling vultures, but a group of black and white striped tour buses bristling with cameras and multicoloured headgear, packing every inch of the dirt road. A snarl-up to rival any in Piccadilly surrounded the fresh carcass of a giraffe.

The grey laurie, a member of the parrot family, sat on a tree-top perch, shrieking its familiar karr-way cry which has earned it the nickname of the Go Away Bird. When hunting, the bushmen used to shoot it first because it acted as a sentinel for their larger quarry. The bushmen have long since been removed from the Hwange reserve so the laurie shouts instead at the tourists. But they do not go away.

The thirst for seeing animals in the wild seemed unquenchable, so much so that our party successfully badgered one of the guides to take them into the bush on foot. Here the signs of the kill were more traditional - vultures queuing on the branches of a dead tree, a solitary hyena heading for some scrub. It turned and ran as it disturbed something in the thicket.

Our guide walked us slowly around the spot. "There are some places I do not take people and that's one of them," he said. He preferred, instead, to acquaint us with the more docile signs of nature such as paw prints and the deposits of animals.

If the group had seemed slightly subdued in the wilds of the bush its confidence was revived among the colonial splendour of the Victoria Falls hotel. The hotel is a monument to the spirit that once coloured half the world pink. All the animals we had been watching grazing in the game parks were arranged in their proper place, stuffed and mounted over the stairs.

Slowly I found myself accepted among the pack. I watched the dominant male and copied his style. I sympathised with those in the party whose suitcases had been slightly dinted by airport staff.

"Look at that dint," said Sheila pointing to the hollow in her plastic case which, even as she gestured, was regaining its proper shape. "Not good enough," I said.

As the sun set among the acacia trees I walked across the airport tarmac with the rest of the herd, no longer the loner. The migration home had begun.

© Financial Times

   
©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved