The Magic of April/May in Zimbabwe

The months of April and May in this country are what I call champagne months. We still have some greenery - the days are dry (zero humidity) and clear with skies so blue they look unreal, nights so ablaze with stars that you can walk by starlight. Temperatures are a comfortable 25 c at noon and a slight chill in the evening, getting quite cold in the early morning.

Last week I took my grandson, Keith, to the Zambezi valley for four days of fishing in the Chewore area just below Mana Pools National Park. His parents came with as did Grandma - but the trip was for Keith and I and we were hosted by Terry and Di Kelly who own a camp on the banks of the river. We had a great time and although it was cool and dry and the game was very disbursed because there was ample water in the rivers and pans inland, we still saw Elephant, Eland, Kudu, Impala, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Zebra and heard lion every night and hyena one night.

We recognized some 70 species of birds including flocks of Open Billed Storks, two species of Vulture, hordes of baboons and monkeys and hundreds of hippo and crocs - some very large specimens. In the dry months the concentration of game must be amazing. We had elephant and hippo in the camp and the nearby baboons were disturbed by the lions one night. We also heard leopard.

On the river we all caught something - Chessa, Bream (three varieties), Tiger and Catfish of different kinds. The largest specimen was a Barbel of 15 pounds and a Tiger of 13 pounds, both caught by Keith who was barely able to get them to the boat and could not pick them up when they were landed. I caught several Tiger fish - the largest of which was just over 10 pounds - a very nice fish which gave me a great fight. Keith's mother caught a 12 pound Tiger on the first day and several other decent fish.

The lodges were very comfortable and well fitted out and the staff terrific - they served us meals three times a day although on two days we went out early and came back for brunch after several hours on the river. One evening they set up a table and chairs on a sandbank on the river where we enjoyed a beautiful, unforgettable sunset and sundowners with wine, beer and cold drinks. Not a breath of wind and not a cloud in the sky with a half moon and wonderful view of the evening star.

This was Africa at its best - not even any bugs and very few mosquitoes. A world class bush experience with some of the best game fishing you can find anywhere. We used Chessa for bait and fished with quite light rods and line, casting out onto the river and allowing the bait to drift with the current which is about 7 kilometers per hour. The river was between 3 kilometers and 150 metres wide and up to 30 metres deep in places. If we had really tried and the weather had been a bit warmer I am sure that Vundu up to 150 pounds and Tiger up to 20 pounds would have been possible.

When the bait was taken - at first slowly and then with a rush, followed by a spectacular leap out of the water perhaps 100 metres from the boat, it was always a thrilling sight. The fight to keep the fish on the hook and to avoid obstacles that might impede recovery, the first sight of the fish in the water before you lift it out in a landing net and remove the hook. This was followed by a photo and weighing and then return to the water - we released all our fish except some bream and the Chessa used as bait. I think the smaller Tiger fish were even more fun than the larger specimens.

The camp is some 440 kilometers from Harare and of that about 140 kilometers is gravel road - rough in places. It took us 6 hours of driving to get there. You can fly in as there is a decent airstrip just inland and this was fairly well used. I enjoyed the drive in the bush - its attractive country with mature Mopani veld and quite a lot of Jesse bush - still green and thick with numerous pans still holding water.

The Zambezi is an amazing river. It runs about 2700 kilometers, rises on the Congo/Zambian border and draws most of its water (85%) from Angola, the Congo and northeastern Zambia. It is projected that this catchment will be wetter in the future and the river therefore is probably a secure source of water for the region. Some six countries share the river and it already has three hydro electricity dams on it - the Kafue in Zambia, the Kariba dam shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe and Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. These dams produce about 6000 megawatts of electrical energy and planned expansion will take this to about 6500 megawatts with another three dams being planned - another on the Kafue, two on the Zambezi above Kariba and possibly a fourth on the lower Zambezi in Mozambique.

What also sets the river aside in a special category is the fact that it is so clean. In its catchment we have some of the largest wetlands in the world - the Bamangwato flood plains, the flood plains in Angola and Namibia (Caprivi strip) and these serve as a huge surge chamber for seasonal flooding and allows peak flows in May rather than January/February when the rains are heaviest. What is not generally recognized is the importance of hippo to maintain the drainage channels in these vast flood plains. Silt is retained in the wetlands and the water going into the river is clean and clear.

Then there is the wildlife and a system of contiguous conservation areas and parks stretching from Angola, through Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, to Mozambique. It is the largest conservation system in the world and covers millions of hectares and contains about 70 per cent of all the wildlife in Africa. The Zambezi is its lifeblood and runs right through the heart of the whole system.

In my view this constitutes one of the greatest potential tourist areas in the world. It offers the Victoria Falls, surely one of the wonders of nature, spectacular fishing, game viewing, hunting, birding (some friends recorded 200 species recently in one weekend at Chirundu on the river), photo safaris and just plain relaxation in a great environment.

Because of our political difficulties, Zimbabwe receives a tiny number of foreign tourists a year (less than a thousand a day), while Botswana received 2,1 million visitors last year and South Africa tops a million a month. When finally sanity returns to our politics and economics, there is going to be a boom in tourism in this country and in the region as a whole which is going to be difficult to manage. Already Zimbabwe controls the majority of professional hunting in the Central and Southern Regions of Africa - from Cameroon to South Africa. It is my personal belief that the mining and tourist industries will drive the Zimbabwean economy to the point where we will have the fastest growing economy in Africa, if not the world. In the meantime, we have all of this to ourselves and most of you will just have to eat your hearts out.

Eddie Cross
Harare, 1st May 2012