Pinch of Salt: Carry on up the Zambezi

By Pete Goffe-Wood.

I sit on the stoep of my room, miles from civilization, surrounded by dense green bush, the Zambezi River rumbling below me. My only companions are a thousand and one insects and an ice cold beer. Even the generators have gone to bed, so the whirring ceiling fan has spluttered its last breath and total darkness has descended. The humidity clings like a wet blanket and somewhere in the distance I hear the grunt of a hippo.

I’ve been in the bush for two weeks now, on Impalila Island in Namibia, at the point of the Caprivi Strip where Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge.

I’m working and staying on two adjoining islands in the Zambezi rapids. The only thing connecting these two outcrops is a six minute boat ride which during the day is breath-taking in its beauty: the sheer size of the sky at sunset, the birds, the hippos, the crocs and the elephants loitering at the water’s edge. It’s why Africa is still such an untapped resource.

My first six minute sojourn from the lodge where I’m stationed back to the sister Kaza lodge, in the dead of night, was another story altogether: on that first trip I can honesty say that my heart was in my mouth, and I could hear my own pulse throbbing in my ears. There is a feeling of total surrender when you put your life, literally, in someone else’s hands, but in that moment comes clarity and serenity.

It has now become my zen time and I wish the trip were longer. Both of the guides that navigate these treacherous waterways say that torches or spot lights only serve as a distraction, so the run is best done in complete darkness, and in the bush complete darkness is an absolute. But on a clear night the sky comes alive, like someone has thrown a handful of glitter against a black board and for six brief measurements of time you are a living, beating connection to all that is or has ever been.

I’m here at the behest of an old friend, Brett McDonald, and we are opening his new lodge, Cascades. I first worked with him on the now legendary Zambezi Queen – a 14 suite, floating hotel on the Chobe River that 10 years later still has a year-round occupancy of 90%. That opening alone is worth an entire evening around the fire’s worth of stories.

When Brett calls you know it’s going to be hard, challenging work but that’s what I like about his calls. He is that rare paradox – a dreamer and a doer, but there are no half measures, no shortcuts. First World hospitality in dramatically pressurised Third World conditions.

An example of the kind of logistical difficulties encountered in establishing this calibre of operation in such a remote area is installing the kitchen. The planning phase is standard: I get my head around the type of food required, the variety of set menus, the type of clients expected, and plan a kitchen with the suppliers on  software that allows me to move pieces effortlessly around the kitchen like on a chess board. We agree on a final design and cost and place an order and then have the various bits of equipment built. Thus far it’s the same as any other kitchen design.

The trouble begins when you have to move that equipment 1500km by road from Cape Town to the Botswana border near Gaborone – a border post infamous for its knack of simply turning trucks away on a whim. There is then a further 900km drive, which can only be made during daylight hours because game crossing the roads at night make it too dangerous to negotiate.

So after five days on the road the truck arrives in Kasane on the Botswana/Namibian border, on the Chobe River. The equipment has to be loaded onto a barge and taken cross  river about 1km to the first island. Here it’s then all unloaded and packed onto the back of a bakkie and trailer and carried at a snail’s pace across the island, approximately 4km, then loaded onto another boat. It finally arrives on our island where it is then carried across the island by hand to the kitchen.

(Did I mention that both rivers are filled with crocodiles and hippos, and that customs and immigration have to be navigated on both sides of the river?)

The kitchen only arrived the day before the guests, and it is at this point that we realise that although the generators are capable of generating the all important 3-phase power needed for the bigger ovens and extraction system, there are no cables capable of carrying the required current. They have to be fetched from an electrician’s home base some 500km away and are going to take a week to fetch. So we contemplate the opening week with no ovens and more importantly no extraction. We can make a plan with the ovens that involves the sister lodge on the neighbouring island and bread and other baked goods being ferried every morning by boat – not ideal, but not impossible.

Extraction on the other hand is an issue for which there is no plan – the extraction system draws all of the smoke and heat out of the kitchen so that conditions are bearable. We are effectively in tropical jungle conditions, where it’s 38C and 90% humidity, so by the time you get the grill going plus the rest of the gas burners it feels like you are cooking inside an actual oven (the 6 litres of water consumed a day are fabulous for the complexion but would be better if they were colder, but there is no ice machine without the 3-phase power, so what ice there is, is at a premium). After all of the drama we eventually manage to gain access to our kitchen three hours before dinner and cook a fabulous meal for our guests, all of whom are on their maiden trip to Africa.

Most visitors to the bush, in other words, are totally oblivious to the Herculean efforts that it takes to bring five-star hospitality services to these remote areas.

The kitchen is just one facet of the operation – rooms have been built from scratch, suspended walk-ways crafted, individual swimming pools overlooking the river, plumbed and constructed. Water pumps and purifiers installed. Curtains hung and carpets laid. Laundries and other back-of-house services expertly hidden from the client’s eye by beautifully landscaped surroundings. And that’s just the infrastructure – there is also the all-important human element. Staff are drawn from the surrounding villages, and while their natural gregarious nature and generosity of spirit make them an absolute pleasure to work with, the rigours and rules of top notch service delivery are not learnt overnight.

The whole affair – the building, the planning, the constructing, the training and ultimately the delivery is a labour of love. On completion, literally as the first guests set foot on the island, there is an immense sense of gratification – that you have been a part of something significant. You have built something, something of value, something that will be enjoyed and treasured, something that only a handful of people will get to see. But it will change their lives as it has changed mine.

I’m back in Cape Town, back in “civilization”, sitting on my stoep surrounded by suburbia, house music pumping from the settlement below. My only companion is a thousand and one street lights and an ice cold beer. The party-goers never sleep and the incessant “doof doof” will continue long into the night. The foul smell from the harbour hangs in the air and somewhere in the vicinity I hear a gun shot…