Campfire – Zimbabwe’s ‘eco hunting‘ project – May 2001

CAMPFIRE - Mavuradonha campsiteThe wealthy, environmentally aware, first world traveller views African game as an endangered commodity that should be protected for future generations. Until recently, Zimbabwe’s rural poor found this concept difficult to sympathise with, as their livelihoods seemed to be in direct competition with those of the animals. However, project CAMPFIRE has started to change these ideas.

During the colonial era, the fate of Africa’s wildlife often depended on the European perspective of the moment. The original euphoria with hunting was later viewed with disdain when individuals concerned by the animal annihilation initiated conservation techniques, which resulted in the creation of the National Parks that today occupy 12% of Zimbabwe’s land.

Prior to the creation of National Parks, indigenous people and wildlife happily coexisted and animals were only being killed when the need for food or skins arose. However, after the introduction of National Parks, the killing of game became illegal. This affected the 42% of rural Zimbabweans living on impoverished communal land, the majority of which bordered the new conservation areas. As the human population expanded more land was required for farming. with their crops being raided by elephants and their domesticated stock frequently attacked by predators, the villagers’ started viewing game as the enemy, killing animals in the name of expansion.

Recognising this problem, a group of concerned Zimbabweans started up the ‘Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources’ or ‘CAMPFIRE’ for short. It aims to involve rural communities in conservation and development programmes, focusing mainly on wildlife management and land. CAMPFIRE believes that “Wildlife, in fact, is the most economically and ecologically sound land use in much of Zimbabwe”. The project actually works with the communities and allows limited hunting to keep wildlife numbers to a sustainable level and generate income. The villagers are directly involved with decisions made about the appropriate stocks of game in each area.

Although controversial, hunting actually accounts for 95% of CAMPFIRE revenue. It requires minimal infrastructure and can operate in areas unsuitable for photographic safaris. Other projects include cultural tourism, photographic safaris, the harvest of natural products and live animal sales. With 80% of revenue being returned to the project communities, rural people are beginning to appreciate the value of their wildlife. Such is the popularity of the CAMPFIRE project that in 1989, 256,096 people were already involved with community wildlife management. The future peaceful coexistence of African communities and wildlife is looking brighter thanks to CAMPFIRE and the foresight of a few individuals.

Canoe safari in the Lower Zambezi Gorge – April 2001

Canoe safariMost travellers, armchair or otherwise, have heard about Lower Zambezi canoe safaris. Days spent travelling along the mighty river dodging pods of hippos and crocs, camping under the stars or in upmarket lodges. Most trips last for four, seven or ten days and unless you are going for the basic (some say authentic) ‘camp under the stars, peel your own spuds’ type trip, they’re rather pricey.

If you’ve got limited time or funds there’s a new shorter option, which lasts a day and night. The Safari begins in Zambia, 75m below the Kariba Dam Wall. It passes through 18km of steep basalt gorge, whose cliffs provide secluded habitats for many bird, mammal and flora species. Rock hyrax, baboons, monkeys, small antelopes and the elusive leopard live on the land, whereas the river is home to flat dogs (crocodiles), hippos and the famous tiger fish. Bird life is prolific and, if you are lucky, you may spot the trip‘s namesake, the rare Taita Falcon. There are at least five known nesting sites in the gorge and you could get a rare glimpse of the speedster in flight as it stoops down on an unsuspecting swift or swallow.

The trip is certainly no marathon and there’s plenty of time to drift, fish, explore or indulge in the moment with an ice cold beer. During and after the wet season, when the waterfalls are in full force, it’s great to cool off with a natural shower, explore hidden stream tributaries and elephant and hippo trails. The night is spent at Tamarind camp, which is discreetly hidden in amongst Zambia’s indigenous trees on the banks of the river. The bar and restaurant have an awesome view across the Zambezi flood plain. Eating dinner whilst listening to hippo’s chortling is a perfect way to end the day. After a full on English breakfast it’s just a 27km trip back to Siavonga or 37km to Kariba.

Faltering wildlife in Kabila’s Congo – April 2001

Zaire wildlifeAfrica’s fourth largest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has immense mineral wealth, stunning tropical rainforests and a vast diversity of wildlife. Elephants, lions and plains game live on the savannah, whilst the rain forests are home to various primates, including the rare mountain and lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and red Colobus monkeys.

Unfortunately the DRC, or Zaire as it was formally known, has also had a succession of kleptomaniacs as presidents, whose desires to accumulate vast amounts of cash or power far exceeded any environmental or population considerations. When the world voiced its objections over the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, the international logging companies moved continents. Zaire’s then president Mobutu welcomed them with open arms.

That the companies had to destroy the whole forest to reach the usable hardwood trees didn’t seem to be a problem, as it was a financially viable exercise. Zaire may temporarily have benefited from a slight improvement of the roads, but the animals and birds suffered drastically as their environments were destroyed in the name of finance.

In 1997, Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu Seso Seko, Zaire‘s despot dictator. Zairians celebrated the start of a new era, aid money poured in and there were high hopes worldwide that Kabila would turn the country around. It didn’t take long for the idealistic rebel leader’s greed to surface. As more money was funnelled into his bank accounts his country continued declining. Poverty and hunger goes hand in hand with poaching and there has been a dramatic increase in the trade of endangered species in recent years. The methods used to catch live animals are often cruel, but once captured they bring much needed revenue to starving villagers.

After Kabila’s death, will his son Joseph – the new younger president of the DRC – orchestrate the changes that the country so desperately needs. Unfortunately for the wildlife only time will tell.

Unbelievably, despite deforestation and encroachment of natural environments by the ever increasing numbers of people and refugees, there is still some positive wildlife news in the DRC. It originates in the Virunga volcano range, which straddles the DRC, Ugandan and Rwanda. Here, contrary to the reports issued in 2000 that gorillas were within 20 years of extinction, the number of mountain gorillas has actually increased from 320 in 1989 to approximately 355 today, an amazing 10% growth.

For information on Africa’s great apes try: http://www.greatapeproject.com

Overlanding – Inside Out – July 2001

OverlandingIt’s the last day of the tour. The sun setting over the Zambezi River drenches it in an array of orange hues, one of which strongly resembles the colour of the ice-cool beer in my hand. The slightly inebriated passengers are happily devouring various alcoholic beverages, just like they have been doing all tour. Its been a successful trip, there has been none of those ‘trying’ incidences that are sent to test us, like breakdowns, illness, personalty clashes or attempted suicides. Pretty soon someone is going to turn around and say something like ‘I wish I had your job‘, or ‘This is such a cool way to earn a living’.

Unless I’ve been extremely lucky I take this as a compliment. It normally takes a lot of work (away from prying eyes) to organise yourself and the trip adequately enough for people to think that you actually do bugger all. Experience helps, but so does making bookings in advance. Other assets include the ability to appear calm when really you desperately want to scream obscenities to the arrogant and obnoxious border guard.

It’s also definitely a bonus to know where you‘re going. Although this may seem an obvious requisite it’s not always the case. Crews are frequently relocated, often between continents with just a set of route notes to advise them of their destinations. Admittedly its easier to appear confident when you know the trip, where you will be spending the night and the vicinity of the nearest ice cream shop, but experienced crew become ingenious white liars. It doesn‘t matter how many butterflies are ‘making out‘ in your stomach, as long as you appear confident no one will know or guess your inner fears.

Appearing to know more than your passengers is a plus. It’s a well known fact among crew that if you’ve got no idea what is going on – lie, but do it confidently. More importantly always be ready to ‘make a plan‘, and if it’s really going horribly pear shaped, make sure the fridge is full of beer.

We once picked up two passengers who had just finished a ‘discovery’ type London to Harare overland. Closed borders, non-existent bridges and sickness meant that they never actually got around to seeing some of the major highlights like the gorillas, Serengeti, Masai Mara, Zanzibar or Victoria Fails. Was it a complete disaster? Even though they had missed some of Africa‘s most famous places they vowed they wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

Occasionally things don’t always go according to plan such as: trucks falling of cranes into rivers, or off bridges to sit in mud for a week. Mechanical breakdowns often occur in obscure places and the initial fun of getting stuck in a bog hole looses its appeal after the first couple of days of bailing out water. Add these to drivers being bed ridden with malaria and borders closing due to currency changes and the list of possible disasters becomes endless.

When things go sighting askew there is often some amazing group bonding and people take on whole new persona’s. Pit toilets are dug, a list of 10 different meals involving cabbage, onions and tins are designed, and more games of cards emerge than are available in all the casinos in the world. The true adventure spirit emerges and it‘s great. Well it is for the passengers, the crew often think otherwise, but never of course show it.

So as I sit sipping my Zambezi beer, watching the sunset ever the mighty Zambezi I thank someone for ‘another bloody day in paradise’ and I push to the back of my mind yesterday’s mouth to mouth resuscitation episode. Why didn’t my passenger remember to take her medication?!

See Africa the ‘long‘ way – July 2001

see Africa the long wayEverybody, at some time in their lives, (e.g. after leaving school, graduating or being made redundant) has the world at their fingertips. Initially the future may appear scary and daunting, but once you‘ve got over the initial fear of loosing your ‘security blanket’ lifestyle you‘ll start to realise that there is so much to do and see in this world that you might just run out of time.

For me, it happened after graduation. It was a beautiful sunny July day when I visited the Student Travel shop. Amongst the glossy brochures there was a plain white one with the following words emblazoned across the front, “One day you you’ll have a nice sensible job, a nice sensible family and a nice sensible house, one day”. I remember thinking that that scenario was a very scary one.

One week later I booked myself onto a six month African overland trip from London to Zimbabwe. Todays adventure traveller does slightly more research than I did, as after all there are a lot more companies and trips on offer. Some appear somewhat dubious, others seem exceedingly expensive but the golden rules still stands. Firstly ‘You pay for what you get’ and ‘You only get out of life what you out into it’.

There are many reasons, and indeed ways to travel. For some the mere thought of spending six months in close proximity to 29 complete strangers, experiencing the more ‘down to earth‘ aspects of third world travel is enough to induce a severe panic attack. For others it is the perfect way to experience the world ‘up close’. Stunning scenery, diverse cultures, awesome wildlife and new adventure activities are just some of the reasons why people leave home.

It snowed in the Sahara, which I wasn’t quite expecting, although it was preferable to the golf ball size hailstones that had proceeded it. I should have known then that the trip was going to radically change my life. OK, this is a cliché but 12 years on I know it did.

The space and solitude of the Sahara, West Africa’s exquisite beaches, trees the size of office blocks and markets full of bizarre produce. Adventure, freedom and space. Brightly clothed people singing foreign melodies. Sitting feet away from a silver-back gorilla. Watching lions fornicate. Seeing a zebra give birth and a baby elephant suckling.

Next time you are at one of lives crossroads, don‘t just carry on, turn right and see what else is out there in the world?

There’s life Jim, but not as we knew it – July 2001

Theres life JimDid this immortal Star Trek saying materialise because the crew had returned to earth to wonder how it’s fertile plains had become deserts? More than likely not, but as mere mortals we should take heed of our encroaching into the desert, as its wildlife is definitely on the way out. Africa‘s biggest desert, the Sahara, and its oldest, the Namib, once teemed with wildlife. Rock paintings and engravings found in both these areas depict animals whose habitats are far removed from the shifting sand seas that the deserts boast. Although Namibia is famous for its small numbers of elusive desert elephant and rhino, the Sahara’s population of these animals, along with its buffalo, giraffe, hippos and crocodiles became extinct years ago. Generally speaking, Namibia‘s desert wildlife has stood the test of time much better than that of its Saharan counterparts – but the largest desert in the world still has a few surprises up its sleeve. In Southern Algeria, the 80,000sqkm Tassilli National Park is a land of shifting sand dunes, vast gravel plains and mountains. in such inhospitable conditions the sight of a small family of dorcas gazelles is about as surreal as some of Captain Kirk‘s aliens. The Sahara‘s inhabitants also include the evasive scimitar horned oryx, ostrich, cheetah, fennel foxes and rock hyrax. If you fancy seeing a greater diversity of desert game then head for the amazing Namib Naukluft National Park in Namibia. Not only is Africa’s southern desert much more accessible, the parks 23,000sqkm is home to hyena, leopard, jackals, zebra, springbok, gemsbok ostrich and over a hundred species of water birds (the park is bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean) . Whether you go self-drive or join an organised tour it’s amazing to see the way that Africa’s wildlife has adapted to the harsh conditions of its unforgiving and stunning deserts.


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