The Zimbabwe trip got off to a bad start.
The first roadblock: I was developing my horse-riding muscles by squeezing a beach ball between my knees — a piece of advice I’d found on the Internet. After several days of doing this for hours at a time, my right knee suddenly felt the strain of an old ligament injury. I stopped squeezing the ball for several weeks after that, but the sense of there being a knot in my knee persisted.
The second bump in the road: A few days before I was due to leave, I had gone up to have a farewell drink at the pub with my parents. Heavy bushfire smoke had permeated the area of the Kalamunda hills, just as the sun set. The air was dry and rather caustic. Inside the pub, flames raged in the hearth. I was already tired. I went home that night with what seemed like a mild cold, which turned into one of the worst flus I’d had. Mike then came down with it.
We did not kiss each other good-bye at the airport. Instead, I walked as resolutely as I could manage, away from a miserable situation. Upon arrival in Harare, my ears were permanently blocked and I had trouble making out what the customs guy was saying to me. My cousin finally picked me up from there and for the next few days, I made desperate attempts to find the means to unblock my ears. The ‘flu settled in to my neck and shoulders, making them rigid. I was due to start the safari in the next few days.
I didn’t recover in time, but resolved not to think about my ears. The safari guide picked me up and were were on our way to the middle of nowhere at a blistering rate of knots in a 4-wheel drive. The wind coming through the window felt like it does when you are about to do a skydive and the pilot shouts “engines off”. The door of the plane is open and you’re leaning out and cannot hear anything. I wasn’t wearing a seat belt in the vehicle because I couldn’t get the seat belt fastener to work. This was Africa, all the same, where rules didn’t matter. I enjoyed the extra adrenaline that went through me, knowing I was on the edge of danger.
We arrived at the preliminary camp and everybody else went for their first ride on the horses, which took several hours. I slept, instead, resolving to get rid of a feeling that was now, most certainly, the ‘flu.
The next day, my aches and pains were about the same. We had a late breakfast and mounted our horses. Due to my lack of riding for over 20 years, I was given a very reliable horse, with a Western saddle. Her name was Bonus. So we began our eight day journey into the Mavuradhona wildness and back again. That day, I learned to be comfortable riding again. As I descended my mount, I realised that there was little I wanted more than a few hours’ sleep. I handed over my mount, luxuriating in the fact that someone else would take care of her for me. Then, I retreated to my hut to sleep. I missed dinner but that didn’t bother me. I was running a temperature and sleeping through the afternoon allowed me to sweat the fever out.
The next day, I began to settle into the rhythm of being on a horse. It’s a kind of meditation, where you let your mind move according to the horse’s gait and you provide as little resistance to moving along as possible. You become a zombie. You are at your horse’s mercy.
By employing the method of zombie consciousness, I was able to make it through another day. Since the fever had broken, my ears began to clear up. The absence of ear ache was replaced by pain in my knees and thighs. The knee pain was caused by going up and down ravines, which required considerable knee pressure to remain balanced on the horse. Fortunately, my yellow beach ball exercises assisted, along with my martial arts training, which compels us to maintain a bent kneed stance. The other issue was that I was hitting many thorn trees with my knees in passing, not yet having learned to anticipate their presence and push them aside.
That day, we rode for about five hours. I’m not sure. Each day, we rode for that amount of time, approximately. After either one or two days of this, we arrived at a new campsite. Here, I dismounted my horse only to discover that my right foot had swollen up (probably also a victim of collision with thorn trees) and both knees were so overworked that I could not walk up or down a gentle slope. These features of my existence struck my as grotesquely amusing. I am forever in the debt of powerful anti-inflammatory pills, which fixed me up overnight, entirely against the odds. (I could even walk up and down fairly steep slopes without feeling any exaggeratedly sharp pain.)
I had a drink of white wine that night — my first alcoholic beverage since arriving in the country. It immediately intoxicated me. I had a warm bucket shower behind three-quarter grass walls, temporarily lost my glasses somewhere on the thatched wall and was unable and unwilling to find them. It had begun raining heavily, even as I was taking my shower. I retreated to the tent and report on my loss when the safari guy announce that it was dinner time. He found the glasses for me, whereupon I managed to discard my airline pillow in the mud (due to the fact that I was barely conscious I was wearing it — a feature of the white wine entering an empty stomach). My South African companion became thoroughly concerned, upon finding this pillow on the way back from her meal, that witches on hyenas might have led to this. This kind of chaos was something I was personally accustomed to.
So, we went deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. We marched and marched and marched and marched up and down a thousand mile high ravines. These got steeper and steeper and more tiring to navigate. We were on our way to our destination: to sleep under an overhanging rock, overnight. We stopped around mid afternoon at a river with boulders around it. There, I lay on a rock in the middle of the stream with my riding hat over my face. I felt that there were river spirits speaking to me. A baboon threw a stick at one of us, but this I couldn’t see as I was half asleep.
The safari guide said we had a few more hours riding ahead of us. That was a lie. We went up a hill and then down the other side and the horses locked their legs in brake position. It was the same as when they’d seen zebras. Only this time, it was the pack pony, neighing out a greeting and waiting patiently for us.
So, we stayed under the rock that night and we noted all the speckles in the sky — so many stars that not one space of sky was not covered with a star. We slept on numnahs and hard rock and all the sand we slept upon got into everything. (When a tour assistant shook out my companion’s sleeping bag, they let out a laugh that she had been sleeping with some sizable stones.)
The day of the return back in the direction from whence we’d come was the hardest for me, since I had not slept so well. I drank coffee to keep me alert, but this enervated me. I knew that if I made an error of judgement in this steep and rocky terrain, many miles away from medical assistance, I would not be happy with the consequences. I did actually fall off my horse, all the same. It happened as I was gaining confidence in Bonus’s abilities to perform almost supernatural tricks involving the descent and ascent of many river banks. I had aimed her at a rise a little too steep, even though the guide called out to take her around the other way. I’d already committed to taking the steep rise. She pounced onto the rise on the opposite side, but the ground was muddy and she could not get her footing. She immediately tried again, two or three times — and I, resolving not to make things worse, delicately slipped off her side onto the muddy red earth to the right.
That was the worst situation that happened, but it was minor. We continued on our journey at a knee-breaking speed, which was a sprightly walking pace. It would not be too long before we’d made our way home.