Travel Story Rhythm of life: a day by a waterhole in Zimbabwe

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

"To the left, there is a crashing sound. Everything has its time in this daily life of the waterhole, and this is the time that elephants come."

At first the waterhole is just an irregular spill of light on the dark land, water reflecting the before-dawn sky above.

The waterhole is quiet — just the gentle egrets wading, pushing their toes in delicately, like a child when it’s too cold. A great egret — this big-bodied white bird — reflected so there appear to be two, one upside down. The delicate little egret, fishing fussily. Then I notice a crocodile less than my height away from one of the egrets. It has struck me before that everything lives together here in Africa, until something is hungry.

I am at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which is set on a rise overlooking the vast landscape of Zimbabwe.

I am looking down on the waterhole, watching its day change with the moment and the heat.

To the left of it is a tree full of the nests of lesser masked weaver birds. Marvellous if slightly messy cocoons made of grass. I can hear them chattering from here, and occasionally a small party of them make a dash up the rise looking for long, soft materials to add to their structures.

The big guinea fowl hang out in big mobs, occasionally chasing one another, with the same skittish avoidance movements as girls playing netball. Another 30 come running down the hill, little legs under big round bodies, as if they have picked up their skirts and bustles to do so.

Thirty white-backed vultures sit off to the right. There’s a solitary hadeda ibis, with its sickle beak.

And then a roar, and I look to the right and see a gang scooting in fast. What are they? More roars and the obvious sounds of aggressions. The big gang of baboons comes tearing in, cantering on all-fours, to briefly sip, then jog on, as if to some important appointment. The leaders look bigger than me.

I am lost in it all — absorbed by the waterhole — when I hear another loud, hooting call, and spin to my left, to see another guest, also now briefly watching, blowing his nose. He smiles, nods and walks off.

Now the waterhole is fully lit. The sun has crept from the tree tops, down the red rise, across and right over the land — a massive, hot spotlight over the landscape.

And then the dark forms of 30 buffalo come sauntering in very slowly. They ambled down to the water’s edge, park with their front feet in and, one by one, lower their heads and take long, smooth draughts.

As the heat rises, the waterhole seems to shimmer.

By noon, hot wind pushes across the hazy plain, past the waterhole, up the rise, and under the big curves of thick, golden thatch that cover my high veranda. It swirls around me, its desiccating dryness smelling of Africa, as if someone has opened the door of a fan- assisted oven and earth is baking inside.

Through the hot hours of the day, the waterhole is dominated by warthogs and marabou storks — the unkind might call these the ugly hours. Marabou storks stand around like statesmen, all drape coats and pink skin. At one point there are 23, and when it gets really hot, they step forward and spread their wings, like hang- gliders going nowhere, in a great hunch that casts solid shadow over their bodies. They urinate on their legs to cool them, leaving them glistening white with uric acid crystals.

The gnarly and mannerless warthogs stay in big family groups, with plenty of youngsters capering about.

With the growing intensity of the heat, the vultures spread their wings, jog awkwardly to get their big bodies airborne, and start wheeling upwards on the thermals rising from the land.

At one point there are nearly a hundred in the air, wheeling above me against a sky bleached of blue. Their shadows, like massive confetti, circle all around me on the red earth. As they wheel above, and I look around me at these cycling shadows, I feel as if I’m miniaturised and standing in the middle of a red and grey kaleidoscope, which someone is turning around me. As if there’s some weird eclipse going on, and off, and on and off — which there is, in a fashion.

Later in the day, I see them flock down on a carcass, squabbling, marauding and stripping it clean, then leaving the land clean of bones as they flap off, reminding me not to be late again for the breakfast buffet.

Four, big southern crown hornbills fly towards me in a loose nose-to-tail formation. Smaller red-billed hornbills are in a tree nearby, their beaks flashing ruby in the intense light. And dodging around the tree, waxbills, many of which bring water to their chicks in their crops.

Shy grey duiker antelope sneak in singly and sip delicately. The young and female kudu are more confident.

And now the impala come, these delicate and ubiquitous antelope, their short, shiny coast and reddish saddles. The McDonald’s of the bush — everyone tries to eat them, and they even have a black M on their backsides. But they have a burst of speed. They can run in a zigzag at 60kmh, and they stick together. They are active through all 24 hours of the day, alternating grazing and resting. Drinking here at least once a day.

They are ubiquitous through the wooded savannah up this eastern side of the continent, from South Africa, up through Zimbabwe and up to Kenya.

This is my first time in Zimbabwe, my first day in Zimbabwe, but not my first time in Africa, a continent whose borders (those pesky lines on a map) have caused, and continue to cause, inexorable suffering, hardship and violence, and somehow always seem to me so pointless when I am here.

Africa is the one great, original canvas upon which land and animals was drawn, and upon which we human beings took our most defining decisions — to use tools, to eat meat (to both get a huge influx of protein and become mobile to unknown landscapes), to rise in ways above the species around us through technology.

Without a tool — a weapon — in our hand, we are just lunch.

The landscape transitions naturally from south to north, and with this gentle and natural shift comes the ebb and flow of humans upon it. Pushed this way, pulled that, moving originally before the pressure waves of drought and good seasons, and now of politics.

A bigger picture of the microcosm of politics around this waterhole.

And then, late in the afternoon, that hot wind stops. It doesn’t diminish, it just stops dead.

The evening is coming fast and it is instantly still and suddenly warmer, insects chirping and the birds shrinking their songs to the plaintive, wistful low calls of sunset.

And then, to the left, there is a crashing sound. Everything has its time in this daily life — this rhythm and routine — of the waterhole, and this is the time that elephants come.

And now a herd arrives. Not strolling in on the soft feet that I know them for but charging down the bank, kicking up dust, led by a big bull with pumped-out ears the size of car bonnets. The 12 of them, including some youngsters, look for all the world like a bunch of party-crashers out for trouble. But then they slam on the brakes, to let that dominant male go to the edge and drink first.

A younger male edges in front of him but when the older elephant freezes like a statue, clearly put out, it is enough to make the youngster skitter off to the other side to think things through. As he goes, the big male squirts water at his backside.

And then the real party-crashers arrive — a herd of six more elephants, announced by their male with a thunderous roll from deep within him.

Our first male turns his back, as if ignoring, but clearly signalling a warning.

There is a sense of him acknowledging their need to drink for survival, but a preparedness to share only as much as they need.

The smaller herd responds by moving cautiously around to the other side of the waterhole, drinking quickly and leaving.

Our big bull celebrates by wading in to the waterhole, roughing up the mud in the bottom with a front foot, and then throwing it into the air and on to his back with a trunk.

But then he obviously hears something disturbing behind him, leaves the pool and spends the next half hour, with those ears pumped out, keeping station and protecting his bathing herd from something off in the bush at the far side of the pool I might only guess at.

The light is dying into amber. The birdsong has transitioned again, into the playful last burst that comes before sunset, and the move into that other, darker orchestra of velveteen night. I am looking forward to that — to lying in my four-poster bed, up here on the rise, behind my nets, listening to the African night. I am looking forward to relishing it.

But then a mosquito rips past my ear; enough to remind me that this isn’t a good time for humans to be sitting around unguarded. For without our technologies, we are the prey of all sorts.

And then a sharp cough. I look to my left. It is the guest who sneezed earlier.

It is dark and I head up to another waterhole — the Victoria Falls Safari Lodges’ restaurant Makuwa-Kuwa, which is many storeys above the ground and open to the air, under a wide wave of golden thatched roof.

I see soft grey shapes moving around the rim of gentle light thrown by soft lights aimed on the waterhole.

Then they move down to the water. The elephants are back, now standing grey and motionless in the stationary night.

Stephen Scourfield was in Zimbabwe as a guest of Bench International.

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