The drive to the Mavaronda Mountains begins in Harare. All along the
road people are walking or trying to catch a ride somewhere. There is a
severe fuel shortage, so hundreds of people are doing the best they can to
get to where they need to go. Whatever the distance they need to travel,
it is their feet that will likely carry them today. But for now, my guide
Nesbitt, the manager of Varden Safari’s, is guiding our four-wheel
drive vehicle out of Harare for my five-night excursion in the African
The highway is in good condition. We cruise along at 100 kilometers
passing hundreds of hopefuls along the road. Buses and mini transport
vehicles are over crowded with passengers, the roofs of the buses
overflowing with cargo.
The landscape extends flat to the horizon. Farms stand empty of crops,
the result of years of neglect and government policy. Here in a land
of plenty, most do without or with little. As we travel along, we could
be almost anywhere in the world. The landscape is familiar. The land
close to the roadside. The horizons within reach.
About an hour out of Harare Nesbitt informs me that we are leaving the
commercial farming district and entering the communal farming area.
The large farms have given way to smaller communities. Clusters of small
huts with thatched roofs and vegetable gardens. The landscape is changing.
The horizon quickly receding. The sky is getting larger. All around
distances are expanding in my field of vision. Up ahead a dog scampers across
the road ahead of our car. On closer inspection, it is not a dog but a
baboon. Across the road a family of baboons scampers down the
embankment shouting and calling to each other as they escape to the trees and
tall grass. I’ve arrived. I’m in Africa.
The black top narrows to one lane, passing communal villages. Cows
cross the road. Women are doing laundry along the banks of a stream. We turn
off the main highway and the road becomes clay. Dust kicks up behind
the car, trailing behind like a blanket of smoke.
Our first stop is the Varden home. A magnificent three story stone
structure in a plantation type setting. As I step from the car I
become aware of the overwhelming silence. The quiet. Just the chirping of
birds, the sun and the wind.
James Varden will be my guide. He is tall and trim, with bright red
hair and a personable demeanor. He makes me feel at home with tour of the
house and the grounds while lunch is readied in the garden. It’s
quiet. I’m in this lovely setting eating a delicious vegetable quiche and
salads under a bright blue African sky.
After lunch we head into the bush. An hours ride along a rough road to
the lodge. James describes the landscape as Nesbitt negotiates the
terrain. It is a complex mixture of granite and volcanic rock. There
is sparse vegetation on one side, and lush grass and trees on the other.
I’m traveling back in time. A place thousands of years in the past.
Upon arrival I’m shown to my cottage. A thatched roof hut with all the
comforts of home, minus electricity. The room is spacious. It has two
twin beds, with mosquito netting. A large bathroom with an open shower
made of rock. Hot water is provided from a wood-burning boiler just
outside the hut. There is a flush toilet and sink with hot and cold
It is a short walk to the lodge. The lodge is a stone and wood
structure, like a tree house in the African bush. It’s circular, affording a 360
degree view of the surrounding mountains and countryside. There is a
living room area with comfortable couches and chairs. A dining room
opposite and a double sided stone fireplace that rises from the
center of the structure. There are no windows. Thick shades made of grass are
used to keep out the wind and the rain and sun, Providing protection from
the elements. Here’s were we will gather for meals and conversation while
in camp. There is a library tucked away in a cozy nook. You find it off a
narrow stairway that leads to the roof. On the roof the sky is open to
you, the view of the surrounding area is unrestricted.
After I settle in, I make for the stables where James introduces me to
Tiqua, my companion and transportation for the next five days. We
mount up for a ride to get aquatinted with the area. Since learning to
ride, my riding experience has been at rental stables, for an hour at a time.
We ride for nearly two hours and I’m excited, looking forward to
We return to camp with the setting sun. After a welcome hot shower it
is off to the lodge for dinner. Burning lanterns light your way to the
lodge and the sky is alive with stars. Around the fireplace the
conversation is easy, drinks plentiful. All around lanterns and candles break the
darkness. I’m far away from the familiar sounds of civilization.
Instead, it’s the wind and the sounds of the African night that surround.
Dinner is a tasty beef curry, with salad rice and vegetables. A
wrought iron candelabra burns above you, and a warm fire crackles in the
After dinner we go up the narrow stairs to the roof, following the
beam of our flashlight. The sky is magnificent. The Milky Way is so bright
it appears as a line of clouds in the clear sky. The southern sky is lit
with stars, and a shooting star streaks the sky. It is only the
increasing cold and need for sleep that cause me to retire to bed.
Back in the hut a lantern is burning, my bed has been turned down, and
the mosquito netting is in place. July is the African winter, and
though I have prepared for mosquitoes, there have been none. As I crawl into
bed I feel something at my feet that causes me alarm. There is something
I become aware it is a hot water bottle, there to warm the cockles of
my heart, not eat them. As my heart rate returns to normal, I drift off
to sleep, in this soft warm bed, surrounded by darkness and the silence
of the African bush.
I am up with the dawn. Light creeps into the hut through the sides of
the thick reed screen that kept the cool night wind out of the hut. I
dress quickly and race to the lodge, up the narrow wooden stairway to the
roof. All around me the sky is lightening. The morning birdcalls are foreign
sounds to my ears as the sun clears the ridge. Morning begins in the
Breakfast is assorted cereals, yogurt, eggs sausages and toast.
Conversation drifts with the breeze and clouds glide past on the wind.
Soon it is time to mount up.
When riding it helps to pay attention and expect the unexpected.
Otherwise you can end up on your back looking up at your horse. Not an
hour into our ride, that is what I found myself doing. Apparently a
Clip Springer (a small animal that hides in the brush and darts out when
prey is near) came out of the tall grass behind James’s horse. It ran
straight for my horse, who quickly moved to the right while I stayed put,
gravity taking over. Next thing I knew I was on my back below Tiqua, my left
foot still in the stirrup. I quickly removed my foot from the stirrup, got
up and climbed back onto Tiqua. No harm, no foul. However, the pain my
back had me wondering where I might find the nearest jacuzzi. I admit, I
was spooked. The ride until lunch had me on edge. But after a lunch of
wonderful tasting meat pies, fruit and cake, I settled down on a rock
by the river and took a well-deserved nap. When I awoke, I was rested and
ready to go again.
After lunch we stopped at several spots to explore the rocks and
caves in the hills around us. Climbing these ridges gives me a new appreciation
for what our horse’s experience. The wild grasses are well over our
heads, and care needs to be taken to avoid the rocks and holes in our
path. We spot an python nearly eight feet long, and an African Rock
Scorpion. As we approach the caves I can see native paintings on the
sides of the caves. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, these
painting describe hunting scenes and celebrations centuries old. I
have to remind myself I am not in a museum. All this is part of the natural
environment. Untouched and unchanged with time.
The sun was setting as we rode into Bat Cave Camp. Here is where we
will spend the next two nights. Riding out from here in the morning,
returning at sundown.
I am shown to my new digs. This camp is much more rustic. My quarters
are a three sided, flat-roofed hut that opens to the bush with the river
beyond. There is a cot with a sleeping bag, a night stand with a
candle for illumination. The outhouse and shower are a few steps away. I gaze
out at a family of baboons who are objecting to my presence. I peer at
them through my binoculars where they seem so close I am a little
concerned they may come on up for a visit. But they are happy to stay
put, taunting me with their squawks and howls.
Water is brought to me for a shower. A five-gallon pail of hot water
is placed in the shower. A knob controls the flow of water, and for as
long as it lasts, in the gathering darkness, I revel in the sensation of
the hot water washing away the dust and soothing my aching back.
I change into my long johns, thermal top and put on my knit cap and
head up to the camp for dinner. Much to my chagrin, I have forgotten to
bring a change of socks. I know three days hence; these socks are going to
be standing on their own.
I am moving slowly, my calves, ankles and back are not what they were
this morning. I lumber up to a warm fire, and friendly people, where
dinner, drinks, and the ever-expanding night sky ease all the pain.
At Bat Cave Camp there is a complete kitchen. Everything that is
needed has been packed in on horse back from the lodge camp. The meals are
gourmet. We will dine in a separate high ceiling hut, lit by
candlelight and lanterns. There will be a marvelous chicken casserole one night.
Pork chops the next. All include salads and vegetables, potatoes and
After dinner we retire to the campfire. The moon is a thin sliver on
the horizon. There is quiet conversation, the stars, and the sounds of the
African bush settling in for the night.
Dawn at Bat Cave Camp. The light creeps into the surrounding darkness
and it is cold. I would like to stay put, warm in my sleeping bag, but
adventures await. I bundle up and head up to breakfast.
James and Nesbitt have a fire going and coffee ready. We stand in the
rays of the morning sun, absorbing its warmth and sipping coffee.
Civilization feels a million miles away. Baboons call to each other
and the sounds of birds are all around. Below us the river flows past.
After breakfast I get out of my long johns and thermal top. The air is
warming quickly. I change into my riding clothes. Under my pants I
wear padded bicycle shorts to cushion the ride.
The terrain is rugged. The horses strain up steep grades and we stand
in our saddles to ease the horse’s burden. Then down, leaning back. We
cross streams, ride through tall grass that grows above our heads, being
careful of holes dug by aardvark. It is mid-morning. It’s warming now,
the sky a deep blue dotted with fast moving clouds. We ride through
shadow and sun. Then up ahead the whispered call. Elephant.
We quickly dismount, tying off our horses. Douglas, one of the guides
stays with the horses, and were off. Quickly and quietly up the ridge,
scampering over rocks and tree stumps climbing ever higher and keeping
downwind. At four thousand feet my sea level lungs are complaining. I
push on, keeping up with my hosts. Finally we reach an area above the
valley, and there they are. One, two, no four elephants lumbering
slowly in our direction, perhaps 200 yards away.
The valley is huge. It angles down to a “V” shape, the mountains
visible hundreds of miles away. The sun is warm. Large cumulus clouds are
moving fast above us. All around is silence and the sounds of elephants
stripping the bark from trees.
Suddenly one of the elephants is moves right in the direction where we
are hiding. It closes to within fifty feet, its trunk testing the
air. It catches our scent, turns and retreats down the valley. The other
elephants sense this too and turn to go. Within moments these huge
creatures have moved hundreds of yards across the valley floor,
crossing the river to the mountain range beyond us. Through our binoculars, we
spend an hour just watching them and the landscape around us.
Morning, July 4th. Happy Birthday America.
After breakfast of porridge,(oatmeal) and eggs, we hike to the Bat
Cave. Climbing down takes some doing and I wonder how I am going to climb
out. The sound of rushing water flows under the rocks beneath our feet,
and we hear the bats before we see them. As if on cue hundreds of Egyptian
Fruit Bats converge and fly above us. These bird like mammals with mouse
like features leave this cave by the thousands at night, traveling for
miles in search of food.
Tonight we will be camp out in the bush. We ride out of camp, and
Douglas has the reigns of one of the horse that carries all the gear we will
need for tonight’s foray.
Across the valley, perhaps three hundred yards away on the slope of
the mountain is a herd of Sable. Their long horns curve backwards and we
spend time just watching them, taking in the view while staying on our
horses. At lunch we camp by the river and Nesbitt builds a fire to
cook a flavorful rice and vegetable dish. After a nap, were on our way
It has taken us nearly forty-five minutes to hike to this spot. On a
narrow ridge we have a 360-degree view of the African bush. This area
is nearly 600 square miles and it feels like you can see all of it from
this height. The wind is strong and gusting, but it is sunny and clear with
just a few clouds above. A brown snake eagle glides past us, his
dinner held firmly in his beak. We watch him until he disappears beyond our
vision. Two bull elephants graze a few hundred yards from our vantage
point, and we spend hours just being a part of this scene. Feeling the
wind and sun. Part of the landscape.
Across the valley a pair of crown eagles soar a thousand feet above
us. Riding the afternoon currents, they drop down only to catch the
currents and rise again. They continue to move away from us. Rising,
descending, then rising again. Dancing on the wind.
As the sun sets, it becomes clear that James is having trouble
getting to the place he wanted to camp. The terrain here is ever changing and he
can’t find a safe place to cross the river. His concern is for the
pack horse more than for us, so we cris-cross and back track trying to
find a safe place to cross the river. But the sun is gone now and he decides
camp on a clearing a distance from the river. That means a short hike
to get water. While Nesbitt and Douglas tend the horses and go off for
water, James and I gather fire wood in the surrounding darkness.
Delicious roasted nuts are passed around the campfire, which turns
out to be a very good thing, since dinner is an awful tasting packaged
chicken pasta curry, that requires a lot chili sauce to make it edible. But
the Milky Way gleams above us, and the sounds of the horses grazing
nearby, tied to long lines will lull us to sleep.
Dawn, and its overcast. Clouds moved in during the early morning hours
and its warmer this morning. It is the first morning I do not need my
thermal underwear. By mid-morning the clouds will give way to sunshine
and we will ride till early afternoon, returning to the lodge camp
for my last night in the African bush.
Once back at the lodge I am content to spend the rest of the afternoon
relaxing in a hammock, drink in hand, enjoying the quiet and the
fading light of this African day.
After breakfast on my last morning at Varden’s, we ride an hour to a
communal village. The ride through the bush opens into a valley and in
the distance the communal huts come into view. A large area that
supports several families. Large gardens grow needed fruits and vegetables that
provide food and cash crops that can be sold at market. I am greeted
by the family elder. He is a religious man with toothless grin. He, his
wife, and young daughter dress in white robes and pose for my camera.
Through an interpreter I ask him if he can have more than one wife. He
says the law allows it, but he chooses to have only one, pointing out
that the problem with AIDS in his country is great, and having one
wife is more prudent. He asks me about segregation in the United States. I
talk of the civil rights movement and we talk of Martin Luther King, a
name he knows. We discuss his life, and mine. Comparing what is
familiar, and what is foreign.
We ride one last time back though the bush, returning to Lodge Camp in
time for a wonderful brunch, before saying goodbyes, climbing back
into the 4 wheel drive, and the ride back to civilization.
I am hurting in places I didn’t know I had places. My backaches, my
knee is swollen, my calves and ankles are complaining, and it hurts to sit
down. I got stung by a wasp and fell off my horse. But my soul, my
soul has something to write home about.
The drive to the Mavaronda Mountains begins in Harare. All along the