The coup d’ètat that isn’t a coup

18 11 2017

The power plug has been pulled – one of many jokes doing the rounds

The military have been emphatic; it’s most certainly NOT a military coup. Just a reorganising of the ruling party (ZANU-PF) ranks. To be specific they are going after the “criminals” surrounding the president, Robert Mugabe. One could be forgiven for thinking – which criminals? Good heavens, there must be so many. Actually they mean a rival faction called G40 headed up  by the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, sometimes known as Gucci Grace for her prolific shopping capacity. Grace who had aspired to the top post of president when her nonagenarian hsuband dies made the mistake of persuading her husband to fire her competitor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of the vice presidents (we have two, just in case). She’d just been booed by the crowd at a rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city in the south-west of the country, and was spitting-mad. She’s quite impetuous so might have forgotten that Mnangagwa is a veteran of the bush war against the former Ian Smith regime and has a lot of mates high up in the military.

So on Wednesday morning we woke to the news of a coup that wasn’t. All the signs were that it was; a man in military uniform reading a statement that it was not a coup, the house arrest of President Mugabe and his family (including Grace) and the arrest of members of the G40 faction. The only sign that anything was impending was the sighting the previous evening of military “tanks” (they were amoured personnel carriers) moving into town to take up strategic positions. Gunshots and explosions were reportedly heard in the night but never verified. This was not however a spur-of-the-moment affair, it was meticulously organised.

We now know that General Chiwenga, chief of the armed forces and front man for the non-coup plotters , and Emmerson Mnangagwa met in South Africa with senior political figures after the latter fled the country having been fired. South Africa said it would not interfere so long as an effort was made to evict Mugabe under terms of the constitution.

On his return from visiting China, Gen. Chiwenga organised for a number of troops to meet him at the airport to foil the attempt by chief of police Augustine Chihuri to have him arrested.  Why did he have to let the Chinese know what was up? Perhaps because we owe them a lot of money. Curiously one of the first statements read on the radio included the line “…and thank you to our friends the British and Americans for their assistance”. How interesting. What did they know and when did they know it?

Yesterday on our early morning excursion to exercise the dogs we passed a troop of soldiers from the local barracks out on a run. They were all to a person dressed in civilian clothing presumably to not worry the inhabitants of the suburb. It is not unusual to see them in this area but they are inevitably wearing some camouflage clothing. This was attention to detail.

On going past the barracks gate a few km down the road I noticed 3 soldiers being inspected by another. I have NEVER seen that in all the years that I’ve been going past. Later in the day a soldier was standing by the side of the road in full uniform with and AK47 and highly polished boots. Dressed to impress I think.

The BBC has been openly quoting “our reporter in Harare” – it’s been a long time since that happened. Clearly the organisers are wanting to project an open image to the world. Foreign reporters have generally been unwelcome in Zimbabwe for the past 10 years or so and are not usually invited to coup events.

Social media has been completely unfettered unlike last year’s disturbance behind the #ThisFlag movement when we were introduced to the VPN concept. Clever; it says look, we are allowing everyone to have a voice.

Police roadblocks have been conspicuously absent since Wednesday morning. There are a few military roadblocks on the way to the airport but they don’t extort money from hapless motorists like the police do and by all accounts they are civil. Somebody went to the effort of choosing the best troops to avoid antagonising the public and to getting the police out of the way as they would have been potential flash points.

Negotiations are ongoing to get Robert Mugabe to step down as president. He has dug his heels in and refuses to go. Photographs show a smiling Gen. Chiwenga and a relaxed looking Mugabe. Just old mates meeting up for a chat, or so it seems. One hopes that the military and their team of advisors anticipated this move because if they back down their heads will be on sticks – literally.

On the way back from town this morning I stopped by a local branch of TransServ, an automotive spares and consumables outlet, to buy some 2 stroke oil for hedge cutters we use. I decided to test the local mood.

“Good morning sir, how are you?” greeted the salesman, recognising me.

“Fine” I replied, “how are you?”.

“I am fine, and what can I do for you?” he responded.

“You can tell Robert Mugabe to go”.

The salesman laughed nervously and  put his finger over his lips in the universal “shush” sign.

“OK”, I responded, “I need some 2 stroke oil”.

Once we’d finished the transaction he asked if there was anything else.

“Yes, you can get rid of Mugabe” I persisted.

Lots more nervous laughter. So I pushed again and pointing to one of the ubiquitous portraits of Mugabe that are found all over the place I added “And you can take that down”. Even more nervous laughter followed.

“So, on Monday I want to see a picture of a crocodile up there” I said on parting. The crocodile is the symbol of Mnangagwa’s faction of ZANU-PF, sometimes known as the Lacoste faction (get it?). The laughter that followed might have been slightly less forced.

In the afternoon Mugabe was let out of house arrest (perhaps the military indicating that he was alive and well) to go and present degrees at Zimbabwe Open University. He arrived with just 3 cars and no security escort. In an irony that could not have been scripted he capped the wife of Gen. Chiwenga and was then pictured asleep.

Saturday. As I write this there is a march taking place in the centre of Harare. It’s been organised by the War Veterans Association, once staunch backers of the Mugabe regime but who have become increasingly critical over the past few weeks, and it’s completely legitimate (something that never would have happened under Mugabe). The military are being cheered and BBC has said there are 10s of thousands there and social media images show a LOT of people in town. Yet another smart move by the organisers of the coup that isn’t. It says “look how popular we are”.

I have to admire the non-coup organisers whoever they are – this has been meticulously planned. Chiwenga apparently has a genuine PhD in sociology (I have seen the title page of his thesis on Twitter) and Mnangagwa is a lawyer but I have to think there is a team behind them and boy are they clever.

So whither the Mugabes? David Cotlart proposed earlier this week that the president would have to be impeached and that does seem to be the course that’s being taken. The Herald, the government newspaper that was much ridiculed in the past for it’s sycophantic approach to Mugabe, has reported that ZANU-PF has voted for Mugabe to resign and failing that they are likely to move for impeachment. The provincial branches of the ruling party have voted en masse for him to go so it seems likely that the support is there. What will they do with Grace? She’s not welcome in South Africa and as a joke doing the rounds stated; “President Mugabe will step down on the condition that his successor takes over his wife. Suddenly nobody wants the job”.

And the future? Here’s my guess. Mnangagwa will arrive back to a hero’s welcome and be instated as head of ZANU-PF. He might even be made interim president until elections next year which he will try and win free and fair on the back of the current euphoria – being seen as the saviour of the country. He might well succeed as the opposition is weak and fractured. ZANU-PF will reinvent itself and be in power for another 5 years. Investors will be seduced and likely ignore the less than perfect situation. How Mnangagwa and Chiwenga will deal with their dirty pasts remains to be seen. It’s exciting times!

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Entitled to vote

15 11 2017

Barcoded!

 

Well, this is me. I am all there in that bar code. 9 fingerprints and a photograph. The right little finger refused to be recorded despite numerous attempts involving wiping it against my nose to get more grease on it. Seriously! Anyway, now I am legit to vote in next year’s general election the date of which is to be decided.

I am not at all convinced that I am going to vote given the farcical state of politics at the moment but I want to be able to just in case so I’ve done the biometric registering.

Oh, how prophetic that last paragraph though I must admit farcical might be the wrong word. You see, it’s 6 days later and we have just had a military coup d’etat or maybe we haven’t if one chooses to believe the now co-opted national radio station. Yesterday there were reports of “tanks” on the Kariba road heading into Harare. Dash-cam footage showed them to actually be APCs (armoured personnel carriers) and one was reported to have lost a track en route – not a good start. They apparently took up strategic positions in the city, blocking access to the Houses of Parliament, though curiously the troops seemed pretty relaxed and weren’t actually carrying firearms (they were probably in the vehicle).

In any coup attempt the radio stations are targeted and indeed by this morning the normally verbose ZBC was playing continuous, bland music. On the way back from a failed attempt to walk the dogs (too muddy due to heavy recent rains) we listened to the first statement read by one General Moyo. Rambling and more than a bit confusing, it basically stated that a coup had not happened but the intervention was because certain elements in the government were trying to recolonise the country and they weren’t going to let that happen. It did not say whom was behind the colonisation attempt or how it fitted the scenario. By the time I drove to work the statement had become much more lucid and better spoken. It was reiterated that this was most certainly NOT a coup and calm, peace, goodwill and normalcy (sic) should prevail – they were just after the criminal elements in the ruling ZANU-PF party. It sounded suspiciously like the statement the fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa released a few weeks ago when he arrived in South Africa promising to be back, in 2 weeks, to fix up the mess that is Zimbabwe. Very MacArthuresque – it sounded to me like the same person had written both scripts.

It comes as no surprise that the “criminal elements” in ZANU-PF are members of the G40 faction led by Grace Mugabe who has aspirations to the top post of president when her husband, Robert Mugabe, dies. It has since emerged that a number of the G40 have been arrested including the finance minister Ignatius Chiombo whose security guard was foolish enough to resist the army detail sent to arrest him – he was shot. Pictures emerged on Twitter of his flattened security gate with an APC now parked inside. Pictures have also emerged on Facebook of  water tanks with the comment “more tanks seen in Harare”. A sense of bad humour is alive and well. So far the social media has remained unfettered as it serves the purpose of the various factions.

The whereabouts of Grace Mugabe has not been confirmed though rumours have it that she fled the country in the early hours of the morning to Namibia whilst others speculate the entire first family is under house arrest. There are certainly military roadblocks on the way to the airport (renamed the Robert Gabriel Mugabe airport last week at the trifling cost of $500,000 – I wonder how long that name will last?) and the troops manning them are reported to be civil.

A visit to the local bank was fruitless – closed apparently because the tellers hadn’t arrived though our domestic servant arrived this morning from the other side of the city and didn’t encounter problems. The local pharmacy was also closed (no explanation given) but the Borrowdale shopping centre across the road was buzzing as usual. I noticed an 81CD (US Embassy) car whose owner had taken advantage of the Embassy call not to come to work but was ignoring the advice to stay at home and was enjoying a meal at a restaurant! Not just Zimbabweans were heeding the call for normality.

Twitter is of course kicking up a cacophony of tweets speculating, guessing and maybe informing of developments. Perhaps the most reliable opinion is from Bulawayo-based David Coltart, a onetime Minister of Education, who despite previous misgivings seems to think that this is not a full blown coup but rather a bit of ruling party house cleaning by the old guard, often ex and current military types represented by Mnangagwa’s “Lacoste” faction, on the G40 faction (Alex Magaisa thinks differently https://www.bigsr.co.uk/single-post/2017/11/15/BSR-Special-The-end-of-an-era) So far there is no certainty that Mnangagwa, a veteran of the bush war and once Mugabe’s right had man, is actually back in the country. Whether he will return to lead the country to greatness is also unknown but if he can will Zimbabweans be prepared to forgive his Gukuruhundi involvement where thousands of Ndebele people were massacred in the mid to late 1980s? Time will tell. Maybe, just maybe I’ll get to use my voter registration next year but until it actually happens I will remain sceptical.





Following in the footsteps

22 10 2017

There I times when I admit that I’m a bit shaken just how like my parents I’ve become. I mean all those years of finding my own way, my own identity, what’s become of them? I catch myself dawdling along farm roads looking at the crops to discern whether they are good or bad and why. Other vehicles rush past and I shout at them to slow down. Just like my father.

He wouldn’t of course have used the language that I use and he’d have been dawdling along the road to the sailing club on a Sunday morning, assessing the trees in the forestry estate where we grew up. My sister and I would have been agitating him to hurry up; the race starts in half an hour! He would have studiously ignored us.

My parents’ big passion was their garden. Roses were fussed over and liquid manure was gathered from the stables. It was even debated, briefly, whether the duiker that ate the rose buds should be dispatched (it was not). The sweet peas were pampered into a magnificent display that guests had to walk past and admire and even then I could appreciate what work went into the garden. Citrus trees were watered with precision and we would see if we could help ourselves to a sweet, juicy Washington navel without the dogs noticing. If they did, which was usually the case, they’d sit and drool until we gave them a segment or two.

Now that we have a garden of our own in Harare the roses are fussed over and admired. The fuchsias (also a favorite of my parents) are pampered and we have planted 13 trees of which 10 are indigenous – the previous owners had no interest in gardening. Sadly we don’t have the water resources of where we grew up but it is intensely satisfying to wander around the garden and check out the new growth and flowers of spring or pick a fresh strawberry and relax from the highly stressful existence that we endure in Zimbabwe today.





Waiting for the hammer to fall

24 09 2017

A very expensive hammer – or is it?

Just a pretty average ball pein hammer with an expensive price tag. I’ve just looked on Amazon and one can get a set of three for about £10 and the most expensive one in this style, also with a genuine hickory handle, is £15. Of course we expect to pay more but nearly double? Well that’s the way of Zimbabwe at the moment, that’s right folks, inflation is back!

Zimbabwe produces little these days and imports a lot. Along with a bloated civil service whose wage bill gobbles 80% of the budget and rampant corruption we are in deep trouble. We have a three tier monetary system which in theory is all US dollars but in practice has three different values; money in the bank which is labelled US dollars but will buy the money version, referred to as “cash” at a rate of 1.6 to 1. Then there are bond notes, a local substitute for “cash” which are pegged at the same value as the “cash” but trade at around 1.2 to the dollar. These bond notes are in theory backed by a bond from the Cairo based Afrexim Bank but it was recently revealed that the bond never existed so they are valueless but preferable to having money in the bank. A case of a bird in the hand being worth more than what’s in the bank.

Most outlets have a 3 tier pricing system to reflect the various value rates. For the moment my business doesn’t but that will change tomorrow. In the time that I’ve been writing this blog (about 4 days) Harare fuel pumps have run dry. It’s not surprising as the price for diesel has been hovering around $1.20 per litre for quite a few months now – completely unrealistic considering that they have had to buy the real US$ at a premium of 1.2 during most of that time. Yes, I guess the price is controlled somewhere along the line.

I was, by chance, chatting to a farmer at an agricultural supplies outlet on Friday. He asked if I could grow him some paprika as he was looking for an export crop to stay viable. He mentioned that he’d been pricing steel that morning and by the time he’d gone back to place the order 2 hours later the price had gone up 15%. We are talking a bank transfer price of course. That evening I went to a talk on Bitcoins and how to use them and what the investment opportunities and pitfalls are. The speaker referred to the day as Black Friday in reference to the galloping exchange rate.

A while ago I called my local service manager at the bank. On asking if I could pay for an import of the coir pith we use to propagate seedlings he asked me if we exported anything. No, I replied. Had I deposited any US$ cash recently? No of course I hadn’t – was this really a serious question? Well then, he said, bring in the cash and we can do the transfer. Guaranteed? Yes, guaranteed. This raised the obvious question of how far to trust the banking system. All external payments have to go through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the very instrument who in no small way has landed us in this mess. To be fair there has been a lot of greed and incompetence driven political pressure on them to just add zeroes to the value of the currency though, with the exception of the governor, a lot of the senior staff were there for the meltdown of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008 – 9 and one must wonder what their influence is.

It should be evident by now that the USD price tag on the handle of the hammer is not United States Dollars at all but a proxy currency probably better named (nearly) Useless Substitute Dollars and the price of 39.00 is probably quite cheap. The Zimbabwe dollar is back under another name as a lot of people feared when the bond notes were first introduced.

When I started this post on Thursday I thought the title was appropriate. After reading a WhatsApp message this morning from a friend (the full text by Matt Matigari can be read here http://source.co.zw/2017/09/opinion-currency-crisis-art-deception/) I realized that it had been looking decidedly unstable as far back as 2013. The hammer most definitely has already fallen and we have only now heard the sound of the impact.

There are going to be casualties during the course of this next meltdown. An old friend has already lost his job and has no alternative income. He and his wifer may well end up renting our cottage and hopefully renting out their house. We have advised them most definitely NOT to sell as they will likely lose a lot of money in the time it would take to find a smaller property. They have several dogs most of which will have to be euthanized. Those who can will emigrate. Those who cannot will once again be destitute. Companies that depend on imports will likely fold. Money changers will prosper and just maybe, we will pay off the bond on our house for the equivalent of a few dollars – cash. Tighten your seat-belts folks, there’s rough weather ahead.

 





Déjà-vu – and it’s not good

9 08 2017

NEVER throw away what might be useful

We have a habit in this country of not throwing things away “just in case they might be useful one day”. It’s not without good reason but it can be taken to extremes.

In the days when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and the country was under blanket sanctions for it’s persistent colonial ways ingenuity ruled. Getting fuel was difficult and just about everything else close to impossible. Car spares were horded and years after we got rid of an old car I still found spares squirreled away “just in case”.

Now that Rhodesia is Zimbabwe and we still have sanctions (but this time targeted against certain odious individuals) spares are once again becoming difficult.  In this case it’s spares for a Husqvarna hedge trimmer we use to trim tobacco and gum tree seedlings – so of course I feel somewhat smug that I kept the remains of a previous hedge trimmer. Just in case.

The shortages this time around are nothing to do with the sanctions but gross incompetence and greed by the ruling regime; the nation has simply run out of money. The bond notes alluded to in other posts are proving to be exactly what everyone feared them to be – a return to the defunct Zimbabwe dollar under another guise. There was never a bond/loan backing them (the Reserve Bank governor simply lied) and now the government has announced that it wants to release another 300m of  them backed by precisely nothing.

Inflation has also made a return. I priced a gum wooden door last week that has increased 50% over the last 4 months despite being made entirely of local products. It is priced in US$ but I’m almost certain that if I asked I could get a discount for “cash” i.e. real US$ notes of around 20% (most people use debit cards or similar devices to pay for items). A potential customer asked me if he could get a discount for bond notes and was told most definitely no. He did not ask if he could get a discount for real cash – US dollars.

So tomorrow I will start making a plan (something else for which Zimbabweans are notorious) and see if I can assemble the 1½ hedge trimmers in the picture into one functioning one. After all adversity is the mother of invention and we’ve been here before. Once as Rhodesia and again in the years when the Zimbabwe dollar was real if completely useless.  It’s a sense of déjà-vu and I don’t like it one bit.

There is one positive aspect to this. In the carnage of the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008/9 when inflation was running in six figures per month, people who’d taken out housing mortgages paid them off with one note or less. Yes, that happens when the largest note is 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars.  Now if the government floods the country with bond notes we should be able to pick them up cheaply enough by paying in real dollars to pay off our mortgage really cheaply. There will of course be collateral damage as they say – territory we visited back in 2008/9. I don’t think I want to go there at any price.

P.S. (a day later). I was called this morning by a company that sells irrigation equipment – a part that I’d ordered had arrived. On asking the cost I was told $78 “… but we are offering a discount of 25% for US$ cash or 10% for bond notes.” So apparently the bond notes, based on nothing, are actually in demand.

 





A thin line

12 07 2017

Mike is multi-talented. He’s been working on the electrics of the cottage so that we can get it functional for renting out, but he can fix computers too and turn his hand to just about anything else; painting, welding you name it. But he’s struggling for work and even had to borrow some diesel off me the other day as he was running out and didn’t have any cash to put fuel in his car.

Smart has been doing tiling and minor building work for us. He’s pleasant, hard-working and also broke. Unlike a lot of builders here he does ALL the work himself; mixing cement, carrying the bricks and of course the building.

Nearly everyone is struggling to get by in Zimbabwe none more so than the artists. So this Sunday I went along to the art fair and expo at the Mukuvisi Woodlands – a nature reserve within the confines of the city which has a selection of non-dangerous game, horse rides, walks and is a great place to go and relax watch the birds and enjoy the animals. Not surprisingly they are also struggling, so it was a good opportunity to go along and lend support.

Works by Daryl Nero, Arthur Azvedo, Helen Leiros and Lyn Barrie were on display (main boards L to R)

It was not a big event but a lot of my favorite artists were on display. I cannot think a lot of money was made but a few paintings had been sold and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most works were well beyond my budget but I did pick up a couple of small pieces by Roseanne Tunmer that my wife could appreciate (she doesn’t share my taste in art). I heard Roseanne quip as I was paying that she’d be very pleased if someone stole some of her work!

A lion face in progress by Kelli Barker

Heron and tortoise by Roseanne Tunmer, pods by Wayne Stutchbury

Of course not everyone in Zimbabwe is struggling. The kleptocrats who rule the country are very well off thank you and seem quite unconcerned that their shenanigans are widely reported in the independent press. Those who can are helping themselves whilst the rest of us get by – or not.

Some, such as Grace Mugabe – the president’s wife, have millions but don’t use them. She has recently laid claim to the Mazowe dam (reservoir) denying all-comers access to a livelihood or recreation. Local water authority engineers who came to inspect a leak in the nearly 100 year-old wall were chased off in favor of Chinese engineers.

The much vaunted command agriculture scheme has been shown to be a massive money loser . For the uninitiated it is a scheme whereby funding has been acquired (some $500m) to allow mostly resettled farmers who have no access to funds (they have no title for the land they are on and therefore no collateral) the ability to grow maize and solve the nation’s chronic food shortage. The government supplies the inputs in the form of seed, fertilizers and chemicals and then buys back the harvest – at a loss!  400,000 ha were to be identified and a figure of 2m tonnes of maize harvested. At 5 tonnes/ha it is quite doable for less than highly skilled farmers. However only some 160,000 ha were subscribed to the scheme (or 17200 ha according to the government mouthpiece The Herald – I think a zero is missing). This amounts to about 800,000 tonnes at 5 t/ha or an average yield of 12.5 t/ha to achieve the 2m tonnes that has been much quoted, which is wishful thinking of a high order. ART farm where I used to live gets this sort of yield in a good year (which this last season was) and they farm to research standards. The farmers who this scheme targets have, at best, very ordinary farming skills. Even I, and I have basic maths skills, can see that something is badly wrong here.

Trawling the web yields some other interesting figures too. According to the Newsday site farmers started to deliver maize on the 1st April this year. Chatting to the ART farm manager yesterday he told me their maize was still at 14% moisture so hadn’t been harvested (it needs to be 12% or less to avoid storage problems) so I do wonder how this is possible. Is the government going to dry what must be wet maize?

I am struggling to summarize this debacle which even the most basic mathematics can reveal. Perhaps I should close with a quote from an issue of The Financial Gazette; “If figures do not lie, can anyone really give the US$500 million command agriculture initiative much of a chance given this compelling evidence of a nation that has squandered every opportunity at its disposal?”  Dated September 29 2016 it is prescient. Even the ultimate slime-ball of a politician, Jonathan Moyo, has labelled it “command ugly-culture”.

 





The river of my youth

13 06 2017

That’s my brother Duncan over from the UK having recently taken voluntary retrenchment. He is 4 years older than me but still has not grown up. He is trying to entice Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, into the frigid but clear Gairezi (or Kairezi) River in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.

The Gairezi has always been cold and clear and my association with it goes back further than I can remember. It’s situated in the Nyanga area of eastern Zimbabwe where my father as a young man of 25 arrived fresh from war-torn Europe in 1948 looking for a life more promising than the one he’d left behind. As a young ex-serviceman from England he’d been overlooked for a place at university in favor of older ex-servicemen. Fed-up he shipped out to Southern Rhodesia as it was then. He had a diploma in forestry so ended up in Nyanga working for a local land owner. Having met my mother and married her in 1954 I was the 3rd-born in 1959 by which time they’d moved away from the wattle-pole cottage he’d built not far from where this photo was taken.

In my childhood it took us some 1.5 hrs over dusty, rutted and car sickness inducing roads to get back to the plot my mother had bought in 1960 near the valley edge of the Gairezi. The road is still bad – probably worse than those days. We averaged some 8 km/h from the tar road that goes past Troutbeck Hotel.

The Gairezi rises on the slopes of Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain. At 2592m ASL it’s not particularly high by world standards but plenty high enough to supply cold, clear water year round. We used to visit the river regularly in school holidays, picnic on the rock in the background and dive into the water. Local legend had it that it was impossible to touch the bottom of the pool below the rock. It was wrong. The last time I dived off it, many years ago, I hit rocks. Not hard but hard enough to get a fright. I didn’t swim this time but that’s because it was winter and not a warm day. Duncan of course did swim but he is English and by his standards it was “not bad once you get used to it”.

In my youth the river and its surrounds were undeveloped save for a fishing cottage in the upper reaches. It is now a bit more developed and there are two cottages available for hire and the proceeds go to the local community in an effort to keep the area pristine. There was no-one else around when we checked in and the cottages and campsite were looking a bit neglected. The appalling state of the road was certainly part of the problem, but Zimbabwe’s dismal economy and matching world image were likely a bigger contributor.

Zak, not that interested in the view.

The next day saw us mount an expedition on Rukotso, a high point on the World’s View escarpment – well off the beaten track even in good times. The road was so bad even a moderately fit person could have walked it quicker than we drove it but the view was well worth the bone-numbing drive. I’m not sure if Zak (pictured) appreciated the view but he was certainly keen to investigate the skeleton of a cow that had somehow managed to lodge itself very close to the precipitous edge. I have flown over this feature a number of times on my paraglider, usually in competitions that we held regularly in the early 2000s. Those are now just fond memories as we lost our membership to the international regulatory body because of non-payment of our subscription. We just couldn’t afford it any longer. South African pilots were no longer interested in competitions that didn’t help their international ranking and the local pilots have dispersed.

Looking north from Rukotso to Nyangui on the skyline

Who can remember using one of these?

I guess a few readers of this blog might recognise this old style phone in the cottage we rented. Very few will know just how it worked. It was on what was called a party line; several households shared the same line but only two parties could talk at any one time. This could be especially irritating if there were chatterboxes on the line and one had urgent business. Pressing the white button to check if the line was free would elicit an engaged tone. We had one like this on the forest estate where I grew up but it was only years later that I was shown how to break into a conversation by opening the base of the phone and pressing a solenoid switch. I only ever saw them in rural areas. This one didn’t work – there was a cellphone tower about 1km away.

One evening we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the nearby Troutbeck hotel. It wasn’t a problem getting a table even though there was a conference on at the time. The meal was not good. It must be difficult to remain inspired with a lack of customers – 2 other hotels in the area have closed recently. The Inn on the Rupurara has recently closed and its sister hotel, Pine Tree Inn, is in the process of closing. No, the tourist trade is not looking good.

View south from the Vumba cottage. Tsetsera mountains on the right, Chimanimani mountains centre horizon. Mozambique on the left.

The following week we were south of Nyanga in the Vumba mountains. Despite going to school in the nearby town of Mutare I spent little time in this area despite it being just as scenic in its own way. With my sister-in-law and youngest nephew in tow we rented a cottage near to the majestic but very quiet Leopard Rock Hotel. Unlike Troutbeck Hotel the food was so good we went back for a second supper and were the sole guests on both occasions. The staff were charming and told us that a lot of the grounds and golf course staff have been laid off. Several staff we spoke to had quite respectable golf handicaps – they are allowed to play free as time allows which seems to be quite often.

The Milky Way in the direction of Scorpius

The night skies were clear before the start of the dry season fires so I had a chance to try a bit of star photography.

The 18 hole, world quality, golf course at Leopard Rock was deserted.

We also took a day to visit the house where we grew up on the forest estate north of Penhalonga. It wasn’t how either of us remembered it but that’s often the case when one has fond memories of a privileged childhood. The house was little changed and the huge fig tree we scrambled around in was still huge but the garden was not the labour of love my parents made it.

Back in Harare we managed to squeeze in an afternoon visit to the Wild is Life wildlife refuge near the Harare airport. They have a policy of reintroducing back to the wild as much of the game that comes their way as possible.

Harry the hyena, yes genuinely cute and very curious!

Some, such as Harry the hyena, will be forever captive.

Few people will ever see a pangolin in the wild. A wildlife guide I know who has been in the business for over 30 years has only seen 3 so I was fascinated to see one up close. Gentle creatures, they have only us to fear and like the rhinoceros’ horn their scales which make them so attractive to traders are made of keratin. So for the sake of the same material of which our fingernails are made they may well go extinct.

So take the time off to visit Wild is Life, it really is worth a visit and a little corner of hope in this sad country that I call home.

The pangolin. The world’s most trafficked mammal.

Bliss is – your own 2 litres of milk!