Vic Falls is a town set in the wild, we all know that, but I have to say things have escalated a little lately.
Usually it’s just elephants demolishing trees outside our wall, and hyenas calling in the night.
But recently we had a leopard coming into town for TFC (tame, fresh chicken). It started on the road just around the corner from us.
In fact, some pictures were sent around on WhatsApp (I’m not sure who took them, so photo credit goes to An Awesome Vic Falls Resident).
Next minute, a dog went missing- this time a little closer.
Soon, coffee conversation among friends turned to concern over the safety of their own dogs, and where to lock them up at night.
I thought this was brilliant. After all, water cooler conversations never got this exciting in New Zealand.
But then one night we heard our own dogs going crazy. Despite Will’s efforts to shut them up. They persisted, and we spent a relatively sleepless night cursing our dogs and wondering whether they, or newborns, were worse.
The next day, when Will got home, he looked at me – guilt written all over his face.
‘The leopard was out again last night. It walked right past us.’
That night our dogs, mongrel breeds though they be, slept inside too.
And it’s not just the leopard roaming outside our wall. About a month ago we were farewelling some guests, standing in the garden, when we heard a faint bellowing.
“Lion!” I whisper-yelled.
We all went silent. Stars cut through the clear night above us. Moonlight landed softly on our lush, green garden. The most beautiful evening breeze washed over our warm skin, and we held our breath to listen to mighty roar-bellow of the most famous beast in Africa.
And every night, for about a month, we were serenaded by that wonderful creature- sometimes in the evening, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes upon waking in the morning.
Without fail, we stopped to listen.
The lion came as close as the edge of town, about a kilometer from us, and the lucky ones got to see them (from the safety of their cars).
We didn’t, but even the soundtrack was enough for me.
Then, a couple of days ago we got a message from a friend. About 300m from their house they had found the reason for all the fuss from the lions:
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Life honestly doesn’t get cooler than living amidst all this.
“Unless you’re the Zebra or the Buffalo I suppose.”
When I first arrived in Vic Falls, one of the locals told me a story about a lady who took her dogs out walking on the Elephant Hills Golf Course one morning.
Apparently, they had all come across a leopard.
It was quite a different story about going for a walk than what a person would ever tell in New Zealand. There, a dog would bark at other dogs or chase a bird.
Here they come across leopards, or birds chase dogs, but more on that soon.
It took me a while to actually want to head to the golf course after hearing the leopard story. In the end I caved because it seemed a slightly safer option than the bush.
So far I have no regrets, but I have had some awesome experiences.
Every walk involves the slightly surreal game of spot-the-wild-animal-on-the-fairway. It might be a noble waterbuck to which you tip your head, or elegant impala easing away from you, or monkeys scrambling up trees, or a family of warthog around which you warily move.
On my first bike ride alone I nearly ran into a herd of impala browsing across one of the walkways. After about 20 mins of wondering whether they were more scared of me, or I was more scared of them (they had a distinct numbers advantage, in my defense…), I SLOWLY edged forward through a parting curtain of living creatures. It was surreal, and a touch divine.
But the event that firmly cemented the golf course as one of my favourite local hang outs happened just after we got back from Nee Zealand last year.
Some friends invited us to go for a walk on the golf course. I figured a bit of fresh air would be great for the jet lag, so off we went.
All was going remarkably uneventfully, given the number of kids involved, when we noticed a large bird above us in the sky. We all stopped to admire as you do here (for good reason), then carried on walking.
Soon the bird swooped by again, and was identified as a Yellow-billed kite.
We walked on, only to realized the bird was still above us, and much lower than before.
“Is it eyeing up Bella?” asked my friend.
As the innocent miniature daschund ran merrily around us, her owner answered in the affirmative.
“Babe, keep an eye on Zoe,” friend added.
I looked in surprise at the toddler who apparently might also be a target.
The bird circled lower. We walked on, keeping a wary eye on Bella. Then it happened.
Our group had split slightly with the men in the lead helping kids on bikes, while the ladies lagged behind with babies. Bella made the mistake of hovering in no man’s land; the Kite was ready and waiting.
Just as it began to swoop for Bella, one of the guys spotted it and ran towards the dog yelling and waving his arms.
The Kite pulled up out of its dive about two meters from the happy little target…and Bella was put back on her leash without delay, thus living to walk another day.
When we got back home from the Golf Course, Will asked me how it had gone.
I told him that a dog nearly got eaten by a bird.
“It was kinda awesome to watch a Kite in action,” I confessed, feeling guilty as I thought of my friend.
Then the secret behind walks on the golf course hit me.
“It was a little bit like being in a David Attenborough documentary. But this is just our lives.”
I REALLY didn’t want to be one. My best friend in New Zealand is a teacher, so I’ve had ample time to ponder over working with kids, and truely my heart has never felt called to wee ones.
I mean, I love my own children, and I do get to loving my friends’ kids as well once I know them, but I’m not and never was one of those women who just adored babies and wanted to cuddle every child I saw.
So when the usual turnout for kids at our church hit ten, and a Sunday School was mentioned, I pointed out I was still breastfeeding a baby.
She would probably need me.
So someone else picked up the slack, and I thought I’d snuck out of that one.
But then we needed Sunday School the next week…and the volunteer wasn’t there.
Before I knew it, not only had I been roped into teaching, but I was also the head organizer of The Falls Church Sunday School, by virtue of the fact that a) we are a small church and there was no one else to do it.
So I began the task of finding a curriculum, getting my head around the curriculum, and putting together a team of volunteers, training them in the curriculum, buying resources, and making a roster (the last part was my favourite).
But first I had to take my inaugural class.
And it was an utter disaster. I had a book and some balloons. The kids weren’t interested. Our classroom was set on a vast, sprawling network of trenches in a back yard where foundations were being dug for a cottage.
While I tried to shout out the book, the kids secretly tried to throw handfuls of sand at each other, or climb in the trenches.
Eventually a friend took over, while I tried to calm a crying Elodie down. She pointed out the book was a bit rubbish, so we gave up, blew up the balloons, and watched the kids play in the trenches, or swing off branches into the piles of sand.
If they learned anything, it was survival skills for the apocalypse.
The next attempt wasn’t much better. We met by an old settling pond, while I tried to keep the kids in order (again), and they ran, screaming, when a family of warthog meandered by. At one point I had to chase off a baboon…if they learned anything, it was how to judge the threat levels of wild animals based on proximity.
Fortunately, when we next met we had a location- an old dorm room, complete with sink, and toilet, which actually suited us quite well.
By now, I had worked out just how many games it takes to fill half an hour, how long little people will sit and listen, how many times you have to hammer home a point, and how much kids love dancing and singing.
If I do say so myself, I nailed it.
But to my very great surprise, I have to confess (and I feel uncomfortable about this) that I quite enjoyed it. Kids can be hilarious, and it’s great fun to sing at the top of your lungs without anyone caring that you’re off-tune.
In fact, when I thought about how our little church was growing, and how there might be a new Head of Sunday School for The Falls Church among them, I felt a little…protective. Like I would need to check that person out and make sure they were fun, and awesome enough. Like I might just need to sneak out of the services once in a while and make sure everything is ok- you know, just to check on MY kids.
And that’s how I got converted into a Sunday school teacher.
It was meant to be a surprise night out at a cinema under the stars.
Me and a friend had come up with the scheme when we decided it was high time to watch the Downton Abbey movie.
Since there is no cinema in town, we borrowed a projector, hooked up some speakers, and got the movie.
It was also another friend’s birthday, we decided to splash out with some nibbles, decor (fairy lights anyone? 😍), and bubbles.
By the time we had finished, our little home-made cinema was quite impressive, if I do say so myself.
The nibbles were laid out on heritage Blue Willow China, the bubbles were chilling in a silver ice bucket, the projector was set up and the white wall that would feature as our screen was edged with red curtains.
Fairy lights dangled above us and laterns, candles and sofas set the scene for a rather spectacular cinematic experience.
Birthday friend arrived, and was suitably delighted, so the movie experience began.
But, alas, about halfway through the movie my littlest love starting crying for a feed. So off I went to sort that out, while the others carried on watching.
When I got back outside, our little cinema was empty. Only Simba, our dog, was there, licking the last of the deviled eggs off the Blue Willow platters.
I looked around, baffled, when I heard voices drifting back from across the garden.
Friends meandered slowly over, as if nothing were amiss, but the movie definitely seemed quite forgotten.
Thanks to my ever-present weak character, I confess to feeling slightly annoyed that the deviled eggs had been abandoned to Simba, and asked what was up.
“There’s an elephant just over your wall,” came the reply.
As if on cue I heard the now-familiar sound of branches cracking and foliage being dragged into a large mouth.
My own mouth dropped open as I stared at the others, discovering that the movie, and even the deviled eggs, were now quite forgotten by my mind too.
“Go look,” said Claire, who could apparently see that I was torn between duty and the elephant.
The elephant won, and I scrambled over to our log viewing point to watch the gigantic black mass outside our wall rip branches off trees like they were twigs, and drag foliage slowly into that huge mouth.
Somehow, it never gets old.
We did eventually resume the movie and enjoy the rest of the evening. But in truth, the ele won in the surprise stakes.
And that is the story of how we ended up with an elephant at the cinema.
I can confidently say, after two years of living here, that Vic Falls is missing an awful lot of things.
There is no decent playground for kids. There are no public spaces where you can hang out for free. There is no well-resourced, slick, modern hospital. There is no chain store selling all the standard baby and kid goodies (like cloth nappies, toys, bottles… the list goes on…and on…and on).
Sometimes, there isn’t even power or water.
But Vic Falls has something which makes all of that seem irrelevant, and the COVID crisis has brought it into very sharp focus.
By now town has been almost dead for almost six months. Most lodges and tourism business are still closed. Some companies have just reached the point of complete layoffs. Others are retrenching another round. A few are barely clinging on to all their staff, although with drastic pay cuts.
Given that Zimbabwe already struggles with terrible unemployment and a non-functioning welfare system, one job often provides for an entire extended family.
The situation, for many of these families, is now desperate.
But the locals haven’t sat back and waited for someone to solve the problem. Teams of volunteers, led by Foundations or Trusts, have been working away to stockpile food for such a time as this.
International donors have played a big part in providing funds for this food.
One of the more incredible initiatives has seen 160 volunteers across seven sites feed over 150,000 meals in the past 37 days to our vulnerable children.
(You can catch a glimpse of the work in the video below, where the kids, and the volunteers, take on the Jerusalema Dance challenge, and NAIL IT if I may say so).
There is, of course, still a LONG way to go, since none of us know when we’ll be able to welcome tourists again. Bear in mind, too, that many of the volunteers involved are dealing with job losses, business closures and very uncertain futures themselves.
It all shows something that I’ve come to love about this little town, lacking in so many things: A truly amazing, sacrificial, sense of community.
At the end of the day, I think Vic Falls has what matters most.
Please do consider donating at the below link to help out with the Jafuta Foundation feeding programmes. For roughly the price of a cup of coffee, these guys can provide 12 meals.
I’ve always thought of going to church as a rebellious act.
So starting one, which we’ve sort of accidentally gotten wrapped up in (we got caught up in the wrong crowd) seems altogether off the rails.
Perhaps the feeling of rebellion comes because excessive drinking, drugs and sex are so stock standard for my generation that they seem quite conventional. But I suspect there is more to it.
After all, signing up to a community that requires commitment and self-sacrifice seems audacious in an age of individualism.
Saying to a world that tells us above all else to follow our hearts: “the heart is deceitful above all things” is outright anarchy.
And believing the truth is a person with His own voice, instead of a social construct we all make up, feels rather subversive.
It’s all very exciting.
Anyways, back to Victoria Falls. When we first moved here we nobly and generously decided to tell the Good Lord ‘mi casa, su casa’. In particular, we informed Him, our cottage was at His disposal.
We went on our merry way, expecting nothing to happen.
Then the guests started arriving. Week after week we were asked whether some person or other couldn’t stay with us for a few nights as they were passing through the Falls. In the end, we had guests for about 40 of the 52 weeks in last year.
Given that we live two kilometers from one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, that may not seem surprising. What was, however, was the theme that began to emerge in our guests. Rather a large number of them were Christian folk, from all over Zimbabwe and South Africa who, unknown to each other all told us the same thing: They were certain God was up to something in Victoria Falls to do with establishing a church, and they felt called to come and pray/encourage/the local Christians.
Our property, and especially the cottage, had unwittingly become the headquarters for the local rebellion.
Eventually, a couple from Bulawayo began to turn up quite regularly, and asked if they could host a Bible study at our house. We had told the Good Lord it was His property so literally for better or for worse, while richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, we opened the doors.
I confess to being a weak enough character that many times I resented just how seriously the Good Lord had taken our noble (but on my part apparently empty) words.
The dining room was bulb-less, so meals were shared by the light of candles rammed into empty bottles of spirits (not all ours) whether there were power cuts or not.
There was no lounge to speak of- a couple of cushion-less weave couches that didn’t fit together, our ‘office’ desk and a large chest. But we threw in some chairs and we were away.
Anywhere from two, to 10 people turned up on the night.
Once, with the full consent of the local fellowship leader, a church service was added in. Our garden was the cathedral, we sang a few songs, and someone spoke.
Then, just when our lounge got too small and we decided to formally find a building and call our group a ‘church’, COVID hit.
So, our studies were held on WhatsApp, which worked for most people because the internet was too dodgy for Zoom.
By the time we could hold services again, our group had grown to about 40, and we had found a mothballed bar and restaurant in which to hold services.
Ten noisy, loud children ran riot, up from one (Kepler) church kid over the past two years.
And so, here we are, a motley crew of wonderful people all singing away every three weeks to the sound of the Falls, and a guitar, with coffee and tea served from a bar counter after a sermon given with no powerpoint presentation but with a view of the rising mist from that World Wonder waterfall.
The Falls Church has been founded, and the joyful rebellion is on its way.
So I’ve had a few requests from my Kiwi fan (thanks for reading Jess) about what it’s like to live lockdown life in Zimbabwe.
Like most countries, it has been COMPLETELY different for everyone…so all I can offer is a glimpse of what our lives have been like.
COVID first crept into my consciousness in New Zealand sometime around the New Year. It was all the way over in China so I didn’t think too much of it.
By the time we were traveling with Elodie Joy/Soy back to Zim, the airports were full of people wearing masks. It was unnerving. Within a month I had realised COVID was going to hit our lodge and hit it hard. My eternally optimist husband was still convinced it would all blow over by April, but for my sake he started prepping the lodge for the worst.
Then the WHO declared a pandemic, our world changed overnight, and we went into a two week lockdown that was soon extended for another two, the worst bit of which included the closure of National Parks.
Will’s days became an endless parade of heated cancellation emails, wrangling over refunds, and endless fiddling to figure out how we could keep paying staff something, ANYTHING, until December. Why? Because Will’s eternally pessimistic wife was badgering him to have a worst case scenario plan in place JUST INCASE.
It was the first time I felt proud of being a pessimist.
Town suddenly went ghostly quiet, kids started dropping out of school, leaving eerily empty classrooms of two or three (Kepler among them), and conversations ran in circles about how bad this was, how bad it might get, how it was easily worse than the worst this town had ever seen.
All soul-cheering stuff to hear when you have a six month old business.
By law, we were no longer allowed to leave our properties, even to exercise. Grocery shopping and medical needs were the exceptions. Police loitered around to capture cars containing more than two people, and WhatsApp warnings were sent out saying we must stop being rubber-Neckers, and must start respecting the law.
That’s harder than it sounds in a country where so many of the law are immoral that you get into the habit of breaking them. The queues outside the supermarkets, for example, involved people almost standing on top of one another to make sure they got their government-subsidized maize meal before it, or their wages, ran out. After all, there is no real welfare system to speak of.
We, meanwhile, were stuck on our (comparative to NZ) vast, sprawling property, with winter closing in and a hospital desperately short of PPE and isolation units (we had none), and precious little accurate communication since the President hardly ever turned up for his own speeches on time.
Our domestic staff had been offered the option of staying on the property full time and working, or heading home full time but still being paid.
Thank HEAVENS they chose to stay. The washing, cleaning, gardening, and even our dinners were all done each day. Kepler had three adults to chose from, and I had extra support for when Ella went through one of those delightful developmental patches all parents know and love.
So the next few weeks involved being at home with my children, Whatsapp dates with friends or family, home workouts to stay sane, and very little worry about the actual disease most of the time.
A couple of us also did challenges to stay positive. Somehow, despite my obvious giftings and talents, I never won a single one. We peaked at our famous painting challenge, taken out by team Holshausen and their potato patch.
Slowly, in bits and pieces, we were given small morsels of freedom. We could exercise, for example, or go back to church in groups of under 50. But there was and is always a kick to these.
The day we were finally allowed out of our properties again, for example, we were also required to wear masks. There were no masks to be found anywhere, of course.
So I, like most of Zimbabwe, got sewing.
By May the schools had realised they needed to make a plan, and so we began online learning. Kepler LOVED it, and still does, mostly because he gets all my attention for an hour each morning. Three months later, and I THINK I’m getting a handle on being a home schooling mum.
And then, just when local tourism had opened up a bit, and money was starting to trickle (slowly) into town again, we were slammed back into lockdown.
Strangely, this happened just when some major political protests were planned.
But it’s probably a coincidence.
So here we are 160 days into our 14-day lockdown, with enough guests turning up, for various reasons, to keep the lodge ticking over, and enough time in lockdown under our belts to have well and truly settled into our new normal.
Winter is passed, summer has come, and life is ticking along with the usual joys and frustrations of living in a developing country.
Best of all, the National Parks opened again last month. So to celebrate, Will and I snuck off to see the roaring Falls, which have been lulling us to sleep from two kilometers away each night.
Despite having missed them at record flow, it was well worth the wait, and enough soul food to feed us for whatever the next few weeks may bring.
It’s nearly two years since Will and I hit the ground running in Vic Falls.
Now, I love a good run, but I have to say two years of it is hectic.
Which is why the DRAMATICALLY slower pace COVID has foisted upon us all hasn’t all been bad for us.
Last year felt insane. It was exhilarating, chaotic, difficult, fun, brutal and nowhere close to boring.
The year before was, for me, almost emotionally traumatic. It involved months of dreading goodbyes, which got more and more unavoidable with every passing day, and so more and more painful. I still hate even thinking about those final few weeks in New Zealand.
But, when I was pondering what this year would look like at the end of 2019, the words ‘make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’ kept rolling through my brain. I knew, after two years of rollercoasters, it was time to get off the ride and stand on the sidelines for a bit.
Given that I was also mega pregga, it seemed like a good idea anyways.
Now, that may sound easy, but it turns out that when you have been living on adrenaline for so long, winding life back (even with a baby) is actually quite hard. You feel a bit edgy, skittish, jumpy- mad basically. Throw in a my people-focused personality and saying no to social occasions is virtually impossible.
So COVID did the job for me.
Months of lockdown, a slower pace, and seclusion on our beautiful property have had me feeling all soul sedimenty. Like my life was a jar full of water and soil being shaken violently by a crazy man, which had suddenly been set down. Everything is settling into place. Rythym, routine, friendships, sights, sounds, smells are all familiar now.
It’s quieter, for sure. Some might even say boring. But it is, I know deep down, very necessary.
There is a bit of a downside to all this settling for me; I have been feeling WAY more homesick. It seems strange to feel it hit in year two, but I just don’t think I’ve had a chance to notice until now.
For the first time since I moved I’ve had days staring at the door wishing my mum would walk through it, or moments staring at the Zambezi River with the Waikato River rushing through my mind.
I suppose there always will be two worlds in my mind and heart. That’s just part of moving, especially if you come to love your new home, too.
So for now I’ll take the slower pace, even if it does mean a bit of homesickness- it’s just so nice to be settling.
One of the COOLEST things about living in Victoria Falls is the wildlife.
From the warthog family wandering our road most days checking out shrubs, to the mongeese (mongooses?) outside the post office, to the BEHEMOTH pregnant ele and her two calves who destroyed the tree opposite our gate or the chameleon living in our garden, there is always an awesome creature nearby.
Since town has quietened down a tad (ha!) the animal residents of the region have been a little more comfortable meandering around, and IT’S AMAZING!!!
On our property is Callum the chameleon, who features in the video below chowing an unfortunate grasshopper.
Occasionally on the road outside is an ele who pops by of an evening…or 1am, to snack on a certain tree she quite likes just outside our gate.
Below you can see her legs, just, thanks to the light cast by a surprised car trying to get along our road. You can also see her teenager and bubba swinging it’s trunk.
Sneakily climbing our fence and watching the incredible creatures wreak havoc on our road about 2 meters away was, funnily enough, one our most romantic dates ever. In the morning, the results were left sprawled all over the road.
The local warthog leads a family of nine, including his wife, mother and six kids (at least that’s what it looks like to my uneducated eye).
The mongoose family are too numerous to name, but seem to enjoy playing hide and seek in the drain outside the post office on pleasant days- which is almost every day because it only rains between November and January.
I did also have an argument with a hairy caterpillar, which sent waves of dizziness spinning through my brain and unbearable itching through my whole body until a red, raw, bumpy rash solidified across my knees. For four nights I had ice packs tied to my legs trying to stop the burning.
The photographs in no way do the furious, abundant red justice.
I concede the caterpillar won that round, and I don’t intend to find out if it would win another.
The sound track for this life is magnificent too. Apart from the roaring of the Falls- which would be enough to listen to each night in itself- there is the roaring of lions, and the booming call of the hyena at night. The bullfrogs are obnoxiously loud, the cicadas a dainty addition to our evenings, and the day is enclosed with the song of the Heughlin’s Robin (recently renamed something else, which I can never remember), amongst many other birds (we have a resident Barn Owl, the Trumpeter Hornbills Donald and Melania, and some Paradise Flycatchers…even the odd Kingfisher drops by).
There is, obviously, also the chance of snakes which I don’t love. Rather a few too many Puff adders have been around lately, and you don’t have to live in Africa too long to learn they are the ones to be scared of. They aren’t the most poisonous- but they are the most lazy. They just don’t move until you step on them…and then it is to complain with a poisonous bite that can be survived, but must be treated quickly.
Centipedes, spiders and other creepy crawlies are also not on my favorites list, but must be endured if the rest are to be enjoyed.
And having lived here for two years now, I can testify that the balance falls well and truly on the side of enjoyment.
Last month I published a blog about what happens when COVID hits a developing country.
The thrust of it was that the actual health threat posed by COVID was and remains nothing in comparison to the famine crisis the global economic shutdown has kicked off for countries like ours.
The latest figures from worldometre show that 12 people have died of starvation this year for every person who has died from Coronavirus. That gap is likely to get much worse in coming months.
A number of you responded asking how to help, so we pointed people in two directions: Jafuta Foundation and Greenline Africa Trust.
A MASSIVE thank you to those of you who donated.
Jamie (or Will, for anyone outside of Zimbabwe 🙄) managed to get out with Greenline Africa a couple of weeks ago to see where that money went.
Below is the video we put together. We will keep you all updated over the coming months, and I’ll try to get back into a bit more blogging now that Elodie has started sleeping more than half an hour during the day!