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
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
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
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.
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.