Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I came across a path the other day. There should be nothing unusual about this. But in a way this was. Here I was in a small, neat and tidy little village a few miles outside Munich walking back to where I was staying. The sidewalk was wide and spotlessly clean; the perfect stereotype of a German habitat. And there it was: this eyesore, a blot on the landscape. It was not a very long path, maybe 8 paces. It connected the pavement to a shopping mall car park; cutting a compressed mud swathe through the neatly trimmed hedges. I, like many before me, walked this route rather than follow the road, thus saving me perhaps two minutes.

A path according to the dictionary; is a way which people pass on foot; line along which a person or thing moves, and also, a course of action. I like to think of it as method of getting from A to B by the shortest and most undisruptive quickest way. When I lived in Africa, paths were everywhere. In the suburbs no decent vacant corner plot would be normal without its obligatory short cut. In the bush they connected the various villages.

That leads me to tell you about one of the most amazing paths ever created; the 40 miles from Makuti, altitude 3730 feet, then down the Zambezi escarpment to Kariba, 1300 feet in now modern day Zimbabwe. In the early 1950’s the British colonial lands of Rhodesia and Nyasaland needed power for their rapidly growing industries; so the river that crashed over the magnificent Victoria Falls would be dammed at its narrowest point. This would create at the time the largest man made lake in the world. This tsetse fly and malarial infested humid white mans grave would be transferred into a major tourist resort with commercial fishing industry; along with the electricity its giant turbines would generate. Building the dam was not the first problem. Getting materials there was, for there were no roads at all.

The finest ordinance surveyors from Great Britain were flown in and poured over aerial photographs and maps, following contours through this rugged terrain to come up with a plan. They presented the Southern Rhodesian government with a proposal of £xxx millions and a completion time of xx months. It was greeted with ridicule by the Minister of Roads who swore he could build the road at half the price, in half the time and without having to look at a single picture or map. And he did. (Okay, he and the lads might have crossed checked now and then.)

I have been up and down that road many times. It is always exhilarating, especially the first glimpse of the majestic lake flashing like a blue jewel in the heart of Africa under its relentless sun. The wildlife is prolific; with herds of buffalos, prides of lions; if you are very lucky, perhaps a leopard. But what you always see is elephants. They would leave their huge piles of dung on the road for the giant beetles to gather and roll into balls to push home; the wrinkly leathered grey shapes would reluctantly wander off the tar road when a car approached, to disappear almost like magic into the dense foliage of the hills.

Thousands of generations of elephants had wandered this land, up to the cooler heights in summer and down again for winter, always moving for perhaps reasons as simple as a change in diet. All man had to do was widen and tar a path that was proven to be the quickest and easiest way. The stripped bark of the huge Baobab trees stood out like mileage markers along the route through those complex twists and turns.

The path for man of course deviated across a dam wall and onto now days Zambia. But what of the original path to the valley floor, trodden by beasts before Moses asked God to open one across the Red Sea. It is still there, under water now, but the lakes waters created many large islands which still to this day are visited by the elephants. They follow that path with incredible inner sense. They cannot walk it anymore so they swim. If they get tired they would take turns having a quick breather by standing on a travelling partner, whose feet would be on the path!

Rangers in boats once followed a pair for over 4o miles. It took them 24 hours before they struggled out onto the banks, close to death from exhaustion. I have been lucky to witness the swimming elephants of the Zambezi returning to their old haunts that even modern man cannot obliterate from times unknown out of the hidden conscience of these wonderful animals.

My little path in Germany connecting the sidewalk to the supermarket cannot be seen from space. Even if you could – who cares? The walk of the elephants can be seen though, and let me be your guide. Open up your Google Earth. The easy way is to enter, Kariba Zimbabwe, into the search bar or find Africa, that shouldn’t be too hard. Next find Zimbabwe, for those a little confused, it is due north of South Africa.
There you will see a huge lake. The dam wall is at these coordinates; 16 degrees 13’ 19,29” South by 28 degrees 45’44.17” East. It is easily visible. This is your starting point. In summer the road on this wall once set a world record of 53 degrees Celsius in the shade. Now follow the road east through Kariba town. There are some small roads branching off, one goes to Kariba Breezes hotel where a pal of mine, Pete, was killed in the nineties when returning drunk from the hotel bar he took a short cut home and promptly walked into a herd of elephants. He was using their path. Follow the main road north by north east till finally it meets the main Harare-Lusaka highway at 16 degrees 18’43,06” South by 29 degrees 14’44,31 East. What will really hit you is the amazing ruggedness of the terrain.

So next time you take a path, remember that yours could also have a mystery behind it, but never one as mysterious as the path of the elephants.

Post note: I couldn’t find the exact figures for the road’s cost or construction time. Although I most certainly have read them before. What I did come across amongst the massive amounts of data available about Kariba, including stunning pictures, is that it could be on the verge of collapse. Zimbabwe is now a bankrupt and failed state and no maintenance has been done on the wall for at least four years and the government doesn’t care. Experts have predicted a scenario that would make the Asian Tsunami of recent memory seem like a small wave. You can see on the map that its collapse would also destroy the next dam wall down stream holding back an almost as large a bed of water; Lake Caborra Bassa in neighbouring Mozambique.

The combined water mass would cut that land in half, engulf Madagascar and a thirty foot wave would hit Perth in Australia.


Bill Scott, Sr. said...


Anonymous said...

I think I'd check the 30 foot wall of water hitting Perth. Large though Kariba and Caborra Bassa may be, they are but a fart in a force eight compared to the water in the Indian Ocean

Mel Deacon said...

This is by far the best writing on your blog - You may wish to consider, perhaps, the outrageous suggestion that your 'voice' could well turn out to be a tad quieter and more reflective than the joint-and-carling wielding-dj-to-the-cockle-warring-lager louts ;)