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!

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The little escape

13 05 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Matopos hills south east of Bulawayo. 10 years to be precise. In 2007 the Zimbabwe dollar was in free fall but not yet terminally ill and my brother and his family took delight in parting with large bundles of nearly useless money. This time around we are using US dollars, cost of living is much higher and we now also have bond notes that are a sort of hybrid between the old Zim dollars and US dollars but are in short supply and useless outside the country. The absurdity continues but the countryside and the wildlife is still stunning.

We stayed in the Big Cave Camp on the edge of the Matopos National Park and thoroughly enjoyed the good company and atmosphere. The structures are wonderfully blended into the rocks and the view is great.

Hwange National Park some 4 hrs to the north-west was showing the results of a great rainy season – the bush was lush and all the animals were in great condition. We were exceptionally lucky and saw a lot of game, the highlight being a pack of painted dog (endangered) that had returned from a foraging expedition and must have found an old carcass and stank! One had been injured so we reported it to the research station on the way out and were pleased to note that it has already been treated (see the Painted Dog Conservation page on FB).

Lions had made a kill almost on a side road and stayed for some 36 hours allowing for fantastic viewing VERY close to the vehicle.

The Main Camp lodge we stayed in was clean and functional in true National Parks style. Roads were OK given the amount of rain that had fallen but there were few tourists around as could be seen by the nearly empty roads – this is not the Kruger National Park in South Africa which features bumper to bumper traffic.

The only sour note was the bully-boy behavior of the police at a road block on the way home. They fabricated problems with my old Land Cruiser, got stupidly creative with fines and then gave up after half an hour when they realised we were not going to be intimidated.





A tree of many uses

11 02 2016
new seed

Natal Mahogany – Trichilia emetica

Pleased to see you Mr Roberts he said. Of course he was pleased to see me; the car park only had one car in it and it was theirs. Yes, I was making an order for more advertising banners but it was only a small one but these days you cannot be fussy – it’s money or nothing!

More of interest to me was the tree I’d parked under – a Natal Mahogany or Trichilia emetica to use its botanical name. It was in full fruit and there were a myriad of old seeds on the tarmac, squashed mostly, the evidence of their high oil content smeared around. The oil is valuable and used in cosmetics and is also edible but the seeds are notoriously difficult to germinate, especially when not fresh, so here was a challenge the horticulturist in me could not refuse. They are beautiful indigenous tress of medium size with dark green evergreen foliage and I always know when the one next door is in fruit – there’s a constant stream of hornbills flapping in to feast on the fruit!

scale

Fruit to scale

The seeds really are this intense red as in the photos. I have no idea if the black mark serves a purpose – it is not visible in the seed shell. Despite the literature saying the seeds are edible I am not tempted; one of the myriad of uses in traditional medicine is to make an emetic (it induces vomiting) from the bark!

Looks like an alien?

Looks like an alien?





The bees are back

10 05 2015

Actually the bees have never left. They have been around almost continuously ever since my first post “Rats, bees & barn owls” some 9 years ago. We have pretty much tolerated each other since then but I had to do something when, a couple of months ago, they attacked the gardener and harassed the dogs and I one afternoon. Mike the bee man was called in and after two attempts the swarm in the chimney was killed. Alas it was not long before another swarm was scouting the chimney, attracted by the smell of the defunct hive. They took refuge in a nearby tree whilst making a decision. I called Mike again and he arrived with his bee handler.

The swarm -  medium sized

The swarm – medium sized

 

Swarming bees are not aggressive; they have nothing to protect and that’s important as stinging for them is fatal. The ultimate sacrifice. African bees have a fearsome reputation for defending their hives when they have brood or honey. In extreme cases the whole swarm will go into a stinging frenzy and can kill humans and livestock.

Preparing for action

Preparing for action

Somewhere I have a photo of my father as a young man holding a swarm of bees on a branch and not wearing any protective gear at all. Mike’s bee handler was not taking any chances though I noticed he was not as heavily kitted out as he would have been during the day when working with and established hive (I used to keep bees in a small way.

Smoking the bees to calm them

Smoking the bees to calm them

A few puffs of smoke and the bees were bumped into an open cardboard box and brought down to the ground. Mike and I (we were both unprotected) watched from a respectful distance. The bees buzzed a bit in the box and Mike said they would soon calm down when the queen released her pheromones. No point in wasting good workers! They soon did and the box was picked up and they were on their way.

In the box and ready to go

In the box and ready to go

The next day there was a small cluster of bees on the ground nearby so I collected a catchbox (a small hive prepared with attractive prop0lis) and they duly moved in. A few days later there were MORE bees around the chimney and as I was about to go on holiday thought it would be a good idea to get another two catch boxes to try and attract them away. They day before I left the swarm moved into one of the boxes.

For the moment all is peaceful on the bee front and Mike will come and take the swarms away and put them to work in his commercial bee keeping practice. The next swarming season is in August and I will have to be prepared again.





Orchids, orchids

16 04 2014

The Zimbabwe Orchid Society had their autumn show on the weekend. As usual it was a profusion of colour and fascinating flowers. I was told that a lot of what was on display was not of competition quality but was there for the show. Still, it was quite a show. This is quite a small selection of what was there.





The long view

2 10 2013
Burnt to the horizon and beyond

Burnt to the horizon and beyond

 

It is not often I get a view like this at the beginning of October. Just 2 days prior to this there was so much smoke in the atmosphere that the sun effectively set at 5 p.m. – a good hour before it would have dipped below the horizon if one was visible. The day before THAT the thermometer hit a record 35 degrees C – the hottest September day on record. By this morning it had plunged to 14 degrees, definitely cold for October. So yes, it is great to be cool and clear. But there is a catch.

As far as the eye can see (about 60km in this case) the bush has been burnt. It will continue to burn until the rains arrive, hopefully in mid-November. What this costs the country , and indeed the sub-continent, in lost soil fertility can only be guessed at. If the world has to increase its food production for a burgeoning population we could well do our bit by controlling the bush burning – after all, Africa will be where most of the population growth will occur.

And that black shape in the sky top right, that’s a bit of good news. It’s a bird. Take a photo in this part of the world of the sky and there is invariably a bird in it. But will this abundance always be there if the environmental degradation continues apace?





Grapes of wrath

5 09 2013

“2 million face hunger” the newspaper billboard blared.  It didn’t say where but I assumed it had to be in Zimbabwe. It was certainly nothing new and the newspaper headlines here are notorious for being misleading.

Topping up on supplies in the supermarket a bit further along the road I noticed some grapes. “Produce of Egypt” it said on the side of the box.

gyppo grapesWell things couldn’t be too bad if we can still import Egyptian grapes I thought. So I bought some. They tasted good for “grapes of wrath”. The skins were a bit tough but tasty, yes. I guess the producers were not concerned where their grapes went – just so long as they still have a market.

The hawk moth I found outside the bank. I had no interest in finding out how tasty it was but given the rather contrasting background I wouldn’t be surprised if a more natural predator had a go.

hawk moth