Jun 262014
 

Shock, Horror – David Livingstone did not discover the Victoria Falls.

In breaking news it has been learned that famous explorer, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone did not in fact discover the famous waterfall on the Middle Zambezi River he named, in 1855, after British Queen Victoria

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Reports have recently reached the foreign desk which suggest he might not have been even the first European to have seen them. The strongest of several claimants to the honour is the Portuguese ivory trader A da Silva Porto who had been travelling in the area since 1848. When in 1851/2 Livingstone came in sight of the Falls’ famous spray plume (mosi-o-tunya, the smoke that thunders), but for reasons unknown decided not to press on the extra few miles to the Falls themselves, da Silva Porto visited his camp and gave him a gift of preserved fruit, fresh bread and cabbages and two Dutch cheeses.

It might well have been this outward display of extravagance that offended the parsimonious Scotsman, who often denied his own expedition members such “luxuries” as tea, sugar, jam or spirits. And yet he refers to the (by all other accounts) friendly trader only as a Portuguese half-caste, and then only in passing. Luckily for Livingstone da Silva Porto’s documents were destroyed in a fire so they never could dispute the Scotsman’s claims.

Next is the Hungarian explorer Lázsló Magyar who waited around the Falls for a week hoping for the invitation to visit Livingstone’s upstream camp, but in vain. It hardly seems likely the Hungarian would walk halfway across Africa and, while in the area, not pop over to see the Falls the spray of which is visible for many miles. After that non-encounter Magyar kept on walking, across Angola, then the Congo and eventually to West Africa where he married a local woman. But unlike Livingstone he was no writer, or diarist, or public speaker, so we know few details of his exploits.

Zambezi River, up stream from the Falls

Zambezi River, up stream from the Falls

The family of hunter Henry Hartley claimed their man had seen the Falls back in ’48. This was deduced from a story told by one of his bearers, Cresjan, who recalled a cataract with rainbows and drenching spray. Who knows?

But what is so special about Europeans, we have to ask. The Batoka, or Tonga people, who have lived in the Zambezi valley for many centuries must surely have noticed a great chasm in the biggest river in their midsts, as well as the billowing plume of spray that made them often live within its mists.

David Livingstone was the most famous man in Britain in his day, and also the greatest PR man of his day. Not wanting to belittle his achievements, for he was a remarkable man, but was as much despised by his fellow European travellers as he was revered by the black Africans who had dealings with him, maybe it was just his Scottish background.

The only time he named anything on his explorer’s maps anything other than the local native name was when mosi-o-tunya became Victoria Falls. It is likely that when he finally peered down into that frightening chasm he saw greatness, maybe even a little “Sir” affixed to his name. Whatever or whoever he was, it is his name that we remember as the father other Falls.

But one does have to wonder what the angels in their flight who, apparently, look down on the scene, have to say about the ring of commercialisation that now squeezes the soul of this magnificent site.

When you look at the outbreak of hotels cluttering the sides of the river you have to sympathise with Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of empire builder Cecil John. It was on the orders of the latter that the iron railway bridge was built across the second cataract of Batoka Gorge in 1905 so that the carriages would be bathed by the spray. “I have done all I can to prevent the bridge being built there,” reported Frank, “but there it is and nothing is now left for me to do but to pray for an earthquake.

Railway Bridge, Victoria Falls

Railway Bridge, Victoria Falls

Current darling among the hotels is the Royal Livingstone, by all accounts a fine inn on the Zambian side, and about as close to the cataract as you can get without going over the edge. It is an environmental travesty that should not have been allowed to be built where it is, in the heart of a World Heritage Site.

The stand-out on the Zimbabwean side for aesthetic abomination is Elephant Hills hotel. The developers and architects deserve to be lined up against one of Elephant Hills’ bare concrete walls and machine-gunned with hippo dung.

So thank heavens for Tongabezi, where we are staying; built with a sense of modesty and passion for the place, on the Zambian bank about 17 km upstream of Batoka Gorge in subtle safari-lodge style. It was the most characterful and environmentally appropriate place built in the region in its day, around two decades ago, and it remains – in our opinion – the very best address at The Falls.

David Bristow

Tongabezi Safari Lodge

Tongabezi Safari Lodge

Jun 162014
 

On Ibo Island the dark art of silver smithing, mixing a history of voodoo (or rumours of it), with slave trading, alchemy and metallurgy – and not a little chicanery it is said, coalesce. The smiths are a tight guild who are virtually the island mafia, controlling things through the mysterious knowledge and economic links.

Ibo Island Silversmith

Ibo Island Silversmith

Since the fall of the Portuguese empire they have set up shop in the old fort, Forteleza de São Baptista. The fort was built in the mid-1700s for the newly arrived Portuguese masters to suppress the wealthy Arab, Indian and French traders who had set up shop on Ibo. The smiths’ bullion comes in the form of old coins, which they melt into silver wire and then tease that into filigree.

Watching the silversmiths at work is a window into the past. However the supply of genuine silver coins has long since been spent and today you are as likely to find an 1889 Chinese or Portuguese coin as a 1968 South African 20 cent piece among the raw materials. But the fine quality of the work is beyond doubting, or the value of the precious jewelry they conjure.

Ibo Island Fort

Ibo Island Fort

David Bristow

Jun 132014
 

Ibo Island

On a road trip through Mozambique some years ago we were warned, “don’t go there”. There was a voodoo thing going down on Ibo Island they said, among the Quirimbas archipelago of northern Mozambique and the mainlanders avoided the place like the plague. One slogan from the past apparently welcomed you: you arrive alive but you leave dead. That past is a mostly sad narrative including slave trading, colonial oppression and civil war atrocities where myth, legend and collective memory intertwine.

Ibo Island, the dock

Ibo Island, the dock

So it was that we arrived on the island as the guests of Kevin and Fiona Record apprehensive of what we might find – two people gone native and like Kurtz, living out their own tropical island nightmare. Or some uptight ex-colonials who make us dress up for dinner and watch our Ps and Qs.

What we did find was something you dream of when you close your eyes and imagine the perfect tropical island getaway. It might not be exactly paradise – that would be too extreme an exaggeration. But it is as close to my dream of island perfection as anything I have seen in 40 years of travelling this continent.

Ibo Island, paradise view

Ibo Island, paradise view

“How the hell am I going to capture all this, bugger,” were Roger’s words to me when we climbed out of the very characterful transfer vehicle (that’s another story, there are lots of stories, and I do wonder how I am going to be able to tell them all in just 1,200 words in the book).

I don’t know why he calls me that, but I told him that if he didn’t do the place justice, I would fire him. Words ensued.

Ibo is real enough to make you feel like a genuine traveller, but stylish enough to make you want to return with someone special. The lodge is really a villa hotel, where three dilapidated buildings on the Avenue Bella Vista (and it is!) have been renovated with taste and a keen appreciation for the cultural environment.

Unlike most other islands of the Afri-Shirazi coast, which show a mostly Arabian influence, Ibo was more closely connected to India. So when the Records went shopping to furnish the place it was to Jaipur and Mumbai they went clutching.

The renovations are authentic, down to using coral rag blocks and lime mortar, and using the local islanders for most the skilled and all the unskilled work. That opportunity was used to introduce adult education as well as generally upskill the workforce, and most of them now work for the lodge.

“They could have gone Bali on the place,” observed Pat. I picked up that was not a good thing. Or they could have gone native, I observed. What they have done instead is recreated the look and feel of the colonial past, but with the soul of the present and looking after the island’s future. You feel the eye of Fiona has been the driving force for the small beach hotel’s ambiance. As John Steinbeck once put it: it takes a man to make a camp, but it takes a woman to make a home. I’m afraid to imply that Kevin is the “brawn” because he is substantially bigger than I.

Ibo Island, stylish

Ibo Island, stylish enough to make you want to return with someone special

The place appears really super casual and the clientele is markedly younger than you meet at most game lodges, but you know it has been achieved only through very hard work and not a small investment. You also feel, however, that everything has been done with heart, and on good faith.  Like the way Kevin had two dhows built on Zanzibar on a handshake and a hefty deposit.

Fiona probably went ballistic on him, but Kevin said it felt so right. Three months later he had two spanking new, beautiful dhows. They use them for dhow safaris through the Quirimbas islands, which are extremely popular and they run up to 50 a year.

Now I cannot wait to explore the historic sites, including the legendary silver smiths of Ibo, the old fort, go snorkeling with dolphins (hump-backed and bottle-nose), sea kayaking through the mangrove channels, scuba diving (apparently the sites are as legendary as the tales of voodoo) and dhow sailing to a sand bar at low tide for a picnic. After that maybe I’ll just sit on the dock of the bay and watch the tide come in, and then go out.

I’ll put up a mental sign “gone fishing” and dream of owning my own island hideaway one day.

“Life here is not all a carnival,” Fiona might tell you. But right now it certainly feels like it is.

David Bristow

Ibo island, the old

Ibo island, the old

Jun 082014
 

Our experience at Jock Lodge in the Kruger Park seems to be all about dogs. Jock was the legendary companion and hunting dog of the young Percy (later Sir) Fitzpatrick during his years as a wagon driver.

It was the 1880s and the Transvaal Republic was all hopping with new gold finds.  At the time the Lydenburg and Pilgrim’s Rest diggings were the most lucrative in the world, the Rand deposits still a future reality. The diggers threw up small, primitive towns but the money flowed like a flood. They needed food, clothing, materials for housing, mining equipment, dynamite, liquor and lots of it, among their many needs.

At the waterhole

At a water hole on the Biyamiti River, near the crossing of the old Voortrekker Road wagon route between the Transvaal gold diggings and Delagoa Bay. It is close to where Jock was born and the lodge now stands.

It all had to come up from Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa, today’s Maputo in Mozambique, in ox wagons. The wagons had to cross the tropical coastal plain awash with swamps and malaria, then through the Lowveld (today’s Kruger Park) with its many wild beasts, then up the precipitous Drakensberg Escarpment, before reaching the gold diggings on the crumbled Highveld.

Having fled a junior banking job in the Cape to seek adventure and his fortune, Fitzpatrick spent a few seasons as a young and green wagoner on the Voortrekker Trail. First he saved Jock, the runt of a litter born very close to where Jock Lodge now stands on a bank of the Biyamiti River, and many times Jock returned the favour.

Jim Makokel

Jim Makokel’ was the irrepressable wagon driver who worked for the young and green Percy Fitzpatrick. He lived hard, worked hard, drank hard and fought hard. He and Jock were best buddies and allies in a world of lesser men and animals.

On our first evening game drive we spent more than half an hour with a small pack of six adult wild dogs, as they roused from their afternoon snooze and then set off on an evening hunt. Left behind were three pups safe in a rocky hideout on one of the many granite koppies that dot the southern park. This morning, with a biting snow-on-the-berg wind, wrapped up in every warm thing we could find, we set off an hour before sunrise to be at the den before the dogs moved off for the day’s first hunt.

It was dark when they ran off into the purple veld, but we spent the next hour photographing the magnificent surrounding Lowveld in the growing light. I’m sure one of those images – or a stitch of several of them – will be one of the double-page spreads in our book. It might include some wild dogs in silhouette.

Wild Dog Hunt

Wild Dog Hunt

David Bristow

 

Jun 082014
 

Like most English speaking white South Africans of the age, I was brought up to the be epitome of what Afrikaners called a, “soutpiel” – one foot in South Africa and one in England, it’s true. The earliest stories I can recall were about Noddy, Christopher Robin and the Famous Five.

Then our father, a colonial in sentiment, read Jock of the Bushveld to my two brothers, and me and ruined us forever. Suddenly I, and they, found our true identities: we were children of the veld, hunters, explorers, the red dust in our veins and acacia and devil thorns in our feet as we ran like wild animals across the Highveld that was still wide open.

Jock Safari Lodge Kruger Park

Kruger Park, wide open spaces

We were African children, part feral, part civilized. We were sunburned and barefooted. We were not soft skinned, red-necked English children after all. What a relief, like coming out of a cultural and environmental closet. Never again would I feel the tug of another country or culture; I was exactly where I belonged. Our very urban and urbane father took us to the Kruger Park when I was maybe eight or nine. I expected Jock to run out from just about every tree.

While preparing to visit Jock Lodge in the Kruger Park I bought an old copy of ‘Jock of the Bushveld’ and started reading it on the plane from Cape Town to Skukuza. Memories came flooding back. So much of my own life’s mythology, I realised, was tied up in that book. Arriving at Jock Lodge was a big case of déjà vu.

Jock Safari Lodge

Kruger Park

Of course I have visited the Kruger Park many times since my childhood. And each time I have felt an intangible magic about the place. Now I realise it is the story of Jock, seared into my imagination that weaves the spell. Our five days here are going to be a dream.

Already we have seen wild dogs out hunting and at their den among the many wild creatures. But for me it is the landscapes that are the essence of the place. The smell of potato bush around sundown, and the sight of massive jackalberry, leadwood and marula trees, baboons getting hysterical in their roosts as the sun sets. Therein lies the magic.

Kruger National Park Photograph

Jock Safari Lodge

Jock lodge was originally built by the family of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick who wrote “Jock” and the camp preserves the memory in every turn: old wagons, reproductions, maps, art works among the mementos of a time and place I cherish, one that made me what I am.

David Bristow