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Zimbo's on the Zambezi

December 12, 2019

“Dad loved Paris in the spring; he loved Paris, the whole song. Something had happened to him there the year he left high school; love perhaps, or his first taste of freedom from the boiled-cabbage, gin-wrecked gloom of his British upbringing. After that, for the rest of his life, every time he came into extra money, which wasn’t often, he’d threaten to buy two tickets to Paris.” And so, Alexandra Fuller’s latest book Travel Light, Move Fast  begins, pulling me in as all her other books have done, with her fast-paced ability to fell you at the knees with universal truths whilst simultaneously making you laugh out loud at her stunningly accurate depictions of people, places, and personalities. No story is simply told, it is enacted. Zimbo’s always seem to make the very best story tellers. They tend to be blunt and don’t have to preface what they have to say with a whole lot of fluff.  That I understand her father’s passion for Paris is probably because France is where my Huguenot ancestors originated, before arriving in Africa in 1688. This may explain why I am also forever tempted to buy 2 tickets to Paris! Much like my love for Africa, which is best described as a deep, instinctual sense of belonging, Africa is in my bones and the longing to share it the way I know it and love it never leaves me, based as I am for part of the year in America.

Those Frogs know how it’s done. Start with champagne, end with absinthe, bring your dog to supper and no one gives a merde if you get off with the waiter,” said Tim Fuller. For him, Paris offered the kind of freedom that I am only able to find in Africa. During our time on the Zambezi with Alexandra, I was reminded once more of the incredible grace, hospitality, and warmth of the land and the people that raised us. We flew in to Victoria Falls staying for a night at the grand old Vic Falls Hotel, before heading onto Bumi Hills in Kariba, and then Chikwenya in Mana Pools. With seven luxury canvas tents and the most spectacular views out over the floodplain of the Zambezi River and the immutable Rift Valley escarpment in the distance, Mana Pools has proved to be the perfect place in which to rediscover yourself in nature. It’s also utterly remote, totally private, and small enough to offer the kind of intimacy that delivers, as Alexandra observed, “one breathless David Attenborough moment after the other.”

And so we settled into a state of extreme “bush mode”, regaling ourselves with tales of growing up in a place “where things that were supposed sting, stung”, where there were puffadders (venomous snakes) under the bed and it was perfectly normal to swim with crocodiles and have an orphaned lion cub for a pet. Alexandra and I attended the same private boarding school – it was a couple of years after the war, and we were all still pretty scarred from it. With the benefit of hindsight, we both agree that a lot of the learned racism of childhood was dismantled at that school, in that we were living together with young women who’d been in exile during the war, and with kids whose brothers and fathers had died – on both sides. That was the real education.  And so, we derived much joy on this journey in retracing our childhood steps and recognizing how they have led us to where we are today – whilst acknowledging the persistence of nostalgia and the uncertainty of our memories. Not to mention the privilege and dysfunction of Zimbabwe then.

Of course, it was a particular privilege for me to be with Alexandra in this very special place just months before the launch of her book. Although the book initially began as a tribute and memoir to her father, Tim Fuller, a man who “swallowed life whole”, it became a book about grief – for just two and a half years after Alexandra’s father died, her 21-year old son passed away suddenly and tragically. Heartbreakingly honest and unflinchingly vulnerable, her struggle to reconcile her personal grief with the inevitability of death was at times hard to read, and yet ensconced in the warmth of our homeland, we discovered an important truth – that to embrace grief is both a privilege and an inevitable part of the human experience.

I will never forget the first drive with Alexandra and Humphrey (our ROAR AFRICA specialist safari guide) at the wheel, the scenery so majestic and so inimitably “Mana” that we sunk into a silent reverie as we navigated the forests of mahogany, wild fig, and ebony. Within minutes Humph had spotted a leopard – a fact that was audibly supported by a variety of alarm calls from deep in the bush – which  put everything from impala, waterbuck, baboons, and even an “hours old” baby ellie, on high alert. And yet, each animal seemed to carry on purposeful, patient, and resigned to their role in the life of the bush.

Once back at the lodge, we reflected upon how we’ve both chosen different ways in which to express this connection. Alexandra’s ability to capture the state of flux that exists for those “who are born of Africa, yet live away from it”, does much to ease the flight of panic that I feel every time I board a plane back to America in that I know I am not alone. Alexandra’s transformation in our short week away renewed my resolve to do more to expose our guests to the life-changing effects that simply being in the wild can bring. On our last night, as we sat on a sandbank in the middle of the river watching the sun disappear amidst the din of cicada beetles, hippos, and a herd of elephant, Alexandra said,  “My father taught me to observe the wild; for there is no greater, more direct teacher. But more importantly, observe yourself in the wild; there’s no better way to notice your own smallness, i

ncompleteness, incompetence.  For we are a part, not apart from this world.” Leave it to Tim to have the last word.

If you’d like to join Alexandra Fuller, Humphrey Gumpo, and I in conversation about this trip, our childhoods, and travel in Zimbabwe, please save the date of March 5th in New York. Invitations to follow shortly. Also keep an eye out for the January issue of Travel & Leisure

 for Alexandra’s full story on the trip.

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