The year that I turned eight we went to Victoria Falls for a week’s holiday. We flew from East London to Gabarone (Botswana) where we changed ‘planes for the rest of the journey. Our destination was a small camp site run by a white Rhodesian couple, the Franks, who my father had known during the war. Rhodesia is Zimbabwe now, of course, and has been for many years, but in my head it has remained Rhodesia.
The camp site was a selection of perhaps five permanent rondavels and up to ten tents and a communal kitchen that was efficiently run by a couple the Franks had employed since childhood. Almost all meat was antelope and was barbequed in one form or another, with pots of steamed rice and a lot of fruit – mostly pawpaw, avocado and oranges. Everybody sat at long benches either side of a narrow table, like in a school room, and the food was placed in the middle and we helped ourselves.
Monkeys were a terrible nuisance there because tourists (such as there were in those days) let them have food, which gave the monkeys the idea of coming back for more. One should never feed the wildlife. It upsets the natural balance. The monkeys hung around the edge of the compound, chattering and jumping, and waiting for an opportunity to steal. They were so clever. One would distract unsuspecting tourists while another would dive on to the plate of food and be gone in a matter of seconds. It was crucial the windows of the rondavels were kept shut for the same reason, even though there was mosquito netting. The monkeys soon learnt how to unzip the tents and had no trouble opening boxes and even fridge doors. They weren’t just interested in food either. Anything that caught their attention – sunglasses and hats were a favourite.
They really were a pest. Seasoned people like us knew to watch out for them, but despite that a monkey grabbed a big slice of chocolate cake virtually from John’s mouth. Signs went up asking people not to feed the monkeys, but it was too late and eventually the Franks got two large dogs who were adept at chasing them away.
The sound of Victoria Falls was constant. It was a huge background whoosh-booming sound that would have been difficult to identify had we not known what it was. Out of sight beyond the tall African trees, there was a path leading to it from the camp, and we followed this each day accompanied by a “guard” with a rifle, to picnic on the river banks. There, we set up our picnic on the sturdy grasses overlooking the burly waters of the Zambezi below. The guard settled himself under a tree and seemed to sleep, his rifle across his lap. On the opposite bank the shade of the trees reached as far as the water, making it look dark and worrying. The darkness beyond the trees was alive with strange noises echoed by the sounds of the Falls. There is a nefarious beauty to places like this and it is one of the spots in the world everybody should visit, though the little town of Victoria Falls is only just getting back on its feet after many years of hardship, and even terror, after independence.
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