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!





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.





Health and safety Zimbabwe style (tree felling)

9 03 2017

We had some big trees cut down over the past 2 days – it was entertaining though Marianne decided she couldn’t watch. The climber in the photos was around 30m up and he survived just fine.





A good season (for rain)

16 02 2017

It’s been a good rainy season and nowhere more so than Nyanga in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

worldsview

Pretty view but no flying

Home to Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain, it is a magnet for rain. In the season of 1980 I was a patient at Tsanga Lodge military rehabilitation centre and there was much delight when the season’s total topped 2000mm. I have no idea what it has been this season but it was certainly too wet over the past 3 days to try any paragliding. We did manage to get around a bit and there were flowers out and cattle that got a bit close for Zak’s liking.

zakandjune

Zak snuggles up

 

 

zaktop

Hmm, do those cattle need chasing?

pinkflower

Pink flower

Blue flower

Blue flower





Urban wildlife

23 09 2016

wildlife-urbanWhile out running the dogs this morning we spotted these two reed buck (a type of antelope). While there are only two in this picture another three were lying nearby, apparently unconcerned about our presence. And yes, that’s the outskirts of Harare in the background – to the south.

When I first moved onto this farm 12 years ago there were an estimated 70 reed buck on the property. We saw a total of eight this morning. Of course there will be others but certainly not close to the 70 of not so long ago. The rest? They’ve been poached.

The fence around the farm, once electrified, is now rather porous. Depending on the route we take we bump into a school boy off to school on his bicycle. Where exactly the school is I don’t know but he gets to the fence, climbs through, and then pulls his bicycle after him. Nope, it’s certainly not electrified now!

On the right of the photo are some houses which now extend all up the western boundary of ART Farm. A lot are incomplete but nevertheless they have inhabitants and they’d be unlikely to pass up an opportunity for a bit of fresh meat. On the eastern boundary is another farm once inhabited by a good customer of mine. He was kicked off by a Connected Person (about as connected as one can get in this country) some four or five years ago. At the time his farm was replete with duiker (another smaller antelope than the one pictured) to the extent he was getting fed up with them eating his cabbages. Well, that’s what he said but I could tell he was also rather fond of them. At the time his electric fence worked well so the duiker had a great excuse not to go anywhere else and so they proliferated. The fence most likely doesn’t work now and I haven’t seen a duiker for a long time (though they’re mostly nocturnal I did see them occasionally during the day).

So the reed buck can only go north now. That’s a problem because there are a lot of mesh fences to the north which are supposed to protect the research section of ART (that’s Agricultural Research Trust), and while certainly not impenetrable, they are a definite obstacle. From the food aspect they don’t need to go anywhere for the moment. There are a number of cattle on the farm and they have plenty to eat so by extension so do the buck but the encroachment of Harare, pretty much stalled as a result of the appalling economic environment, is inevitable and then their future will be questionable.

A bit more flexible are the two jackal we occasionally see. They are usually on the boundary of the grassy vlei (wetland) area where they most likely have a den. Zak likes to chase them but they see him coming a long way off and are much more nimble and cunning – the fox of Africa. They are hugely adaptable. There is one that has lived on a nearby golf course for some time now. Again it is conveniently trapped by an electric fence but the course is bounded by a rubbish tip so there is no shortage of rats and other vermin for it to eat. The club gate is just a boom gate so it could, if it wanted to, get out.

rubbishThe rubbish tip is itself a supporter of wildlife. Apart from the obvious rats there are crows, egrets and maribou storks. The latter can often be spotted in huge wheeling flocks soaring majestically amidst plastic bags lifted in the thermals generated by the rotting garbage. I don’t suspect they mind to much but to me the tip is a hideous eyesore that I pass everyday. And that’s before it rains and the whole area smells like vomit.

The maribous are scavengers and attracted to whatever they can find – there was once a sack of offal spilt at the traffic lights on Harare drive and Alpes Road on the way to the tip, so I guess there’s plenty of other pickings to attract them.

And where there’s vermin there are predators. Snakes, long-crested eagles and others. I know the incidents of cobra bites on dogs has gone way up over the past years as uncollected garbage in the suburbs attracts all manner of opportunists.

Zak sees off the local maribou storks

Zak sees off the local maribou storks

I have to admit the maribou stork is not the prettiest bird around but they are master pilots and I love to stop and watch them soar. So, in a way, rubbish can be a benefit but I do wish they’d move the tip somewhere else!

 





Ballet

2 08 2016

There are consequences of an economy in a tailspin. One of the first sectors to feel the pinch is the arts and dance is no exception.

bb8

Symmetry

As a trustee of the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe I am all too aware of the impact of the imploding economy on our ability to remain viable. Two weeks ago at a board meeting I expressed concern that I had bought 10% of the tickets (8) for the gala performance of the upcoming Ballet Bouquet dance show.

Synchronicity

Synchronicity

The Ballet Bouquet is the idea of Cape Town City Ballet choreographer Robin van Wyk. In the CTCB off-season (winter) he stages ballets in the smaller cities in the sub-region using dancers of all ages and capabilities. Senior dancers from the CTCB help bring a bit of glamour!

The fairy princess from the Nutcracker

The fairy princess from the Nutcracker

Robin came up to Harare to choreograph the pieces and then local teachers rehearsed the dancers until last week when Robin returned with the senior dancers and saw to it that the locals were up to his demanding standard.

The show consisted of a 45 minute adaptation of the Nutcracker and then after the interval there were several pieces from other well-known ballets. Yes, the Nutcracker is traditionally a Christmas ballet but in this case the theme was “Christmas in July” and the 450 orphans and disadvantaged children who attended the dress rehearsal each received a small gift.

Principal CTCB ballerina Angela Hanford shows how it's done!

Principal CTCB ballerina Angela Hanford shows how it’s done!

Six shows were staged over 4 days and with full houses for 4 shows and some 80% capacity for the other two the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe can survive for a little longer.





VAWZ scruffs show 2016

12 06 2016

It’s that time of year when for just a morning we can forget all the nonsense of living in Zimbabwe, the impending disaster of the bond notes, the pantomime that is politics and just be normal. It’s the annual VAWZ, fundraising, scruffs dog show. All dogs are welcome, breeds and otherwise. There were demonstrations by the Harare Kennel Club including a nearly blind Labarador that insisted on completing the agility course. Tomorrow, well, that’s another day.