Mike Unwin and his wife were flattened by the first storm of the rainy season in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. It was early November 2000. My wife and I were the last guests of the season at a well-known safari lodge in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park.
The day after we left, the lodge would begin the process of packing up for the rains, not to open again until April. By mid-morning on our final day, as we relaxed in our safari tent after the morning game drive, thunderheads were piling up in the sky to the west. Ours was the furthest tent from reception, perched on a bend of the Zambezi with a view upstream over a broad sweep of river. As I repacked my bag, ready for the next day’s departure, my wife remarked that the clouds seemed to be growing larger and darker. “I think there’s a storm coming,” she said, as a breeze riffled through the pages of my field guide. “Should we zip up the front?”
Too late. Kaboom! The wind hit us with the force of an explosion. We learned later that a mini tornado had run ahead of the storm, gathering pace across the water and funnelling directly to our doorstep through a gap in the riverbank trees. The impact was horribly sudden and violent; like a punch in the face. A heavy wooden dressing table flew up and backwards, knocking me onto the bed. The tent’s central supporting pole snapped and the roof tore off into the gale. Our possessions, along with stools, toiletries, oil lamps, carvings – all the contents of the tent – were flung in all directions.
I struggled to my feet, bleeding and confused, to find my wife valiantly cramming stuff into a bag. Daylight had disappeared, and now rain lashed us to the floor in virtual darkness. We shouted for help but our words disappeared into the roaring wind. Barefoot and only half-dressed, we grabbed what we could, clambered over the debris and broken glass, and scampered through the storm to the next tent. Finding it both unoccupied and still standing, we crawled inside and crouched down beside the bed.
Within half an hour the storm was over and the rain had stopped as abruptly as it started. The lodge staff, who had been busy battening down the hatches elsewhere, now appeared, looking anxious. We were OK – cut, battered and our feet full of thorns, but basically OK. We emerged into the sunshine to survey the wreckage. The camp as a whole was remarkably unscathed. It was our tent that had born the brunt of the initial impact. We set about retrieving our possessions. Passports and wallets, miraculously, had survived; cameras had not been so lucky.
But the drama was not over yet. No sooner had we started the clean-up operation than a large bull elephant strolled out of the bush, methodically hoovering up the bumper crop of fallen seed pods. We retreated to reception. Lost underwear could wait. A stiff gin and tonic was now a more pressing priority.