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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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





Global Warming

6 11 2010

Early season storms in Zimbabwe can be ferocious; lots of lightening, wind and often hail without a lot of rain. This season’s storms have been unusually savage. Last night I was sitting on the verandah and I could hear the gust front approaching. It was not long before the power went off, came back on and then went off until around midday today.

The various global warming models have predicted that weather will become more extreme. Whether the ferocity of the recently experienced storms is anything to do with this would be very difficult to say but I cannot help but think that the appalling bush fires of the dry season are not helping the situation. Burnt veld of course is darker than grassed veld and therefore heats up a lot more.

In Zimbabwe dollar days we actually paid a carbon tax based on the size of the car engine of the vehicle we used. It had nothing to do with CO2 emissions or any sort of remedial action on the pollution – it was just another tax. It may even still exist for foreigners bringing their cars into the country but we found that the disc that had to be displayed on the windscreen as proof of payment was easily forged with a scanner and a bit of image processing so it did not last long. Maybe the Greeks could learn a thing or two about tax evasion from us!

Last weekend I took the Landcruiser up to Nyanga to get away from the heat and work. I did not give a lot of thought to the CO2 footprint I was generating. Paragliding was off the cards due to the storms around but I still managed to get a few good photos of flowers, this being the flower season. On the way back I went through the tail end of a storm near Juliasdale that had dumped a sizeable amount of hail on shade cloth covering a Hypericum crop and another near Ruwa that slowed traffic considerably.





Hiatus

20 08 2010

I have been uninspired since Jenni’s death. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, on the contrary, I filled 21 pages of my diary with my memories of her, but it’s private stuff that I won’t be posting here. I just can’t seem to find much to write about.

We actually managed to get a group of pilots together for the long weekend this month and head up to Nyanga. It was to be my first flying since the neck op in March and I was not at all sure that my right arm would cope as it is so much weaker than before. The Sunday we all went off to the Honde site (east facing) which is spectacular enough, overlooking the Honde Valley into Mozambique. I was too nervous to fly at midday but by the afternoon when I’d plucked up courage the wind had dropped to nearly nothing and it wasn’t worth the effort. Still, it was nice to chill with flying buddies in the evening and drink a beer and talk the usual pilot talk.

It was westerly on Monday and we waited around at World’s View. Pete and Manu offered to get me off the hill and after more than a bit of dithering on my part I got a clean, easy launch and headed out to find a thermal. The previous inexperienced pilot had missed all available thermals and sunk out to the “turkey patch” without ever getting above take off. I headed away from the takeoff and soon picked up a nice thermal that took me nearly 1000m above take off and the flight was on. It was quite emotional for me; Jenni should have been with me and a good friend, Trevor Ambrose had died suddenly early on Sunday morning in Harare. But I settled into the flight and enjoyed the smooth relatively strong climbs and landed 1.5hrs later at the National Parks grid into the park. A very slow flight but enjoyable..

Last week I had to go to Jo’burg for a follow up consultation with the surgeon who did my neck op. Setting the alarm at 04h15 I got to the airport by 05h30 only to find I was the first in the queue. I still managed to be last onto the plane which was fully booked.

I’d plenty of time to do my own thing so after sorting out a bit of business I looked up Cheryl whom I’d contacted about getting another Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. She’s a breeder in Edenvale and invited me around the next day to see a bitch she was thinking of rehoming due to some breeding difficulties with her – she was also being bullied by the other dogs. I knew I was being assessed but had taken the precaution of directing her to Jenni’s album on my Facebook page. We got on well and she introduced me to Kharma, a young, very gentle bitch who is a quite different build from Jenni but a similar temperament. It took a while but Cheryl eventually agreed that I could have Kharma (I’d pay for her to fly up to Harare – a road trip would be too risky).

I saw the doctor that afternoon and he pronounced himself satisfied with the result. I didn’t point out that the right arm was still not up to the functionality it had before the op.

On Tuesday I went past the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services to see if I could get an import licence for Kharma. I’d been alerted that there was a ban on all animal and animal products into Zimbabwe from South Africa but an internet search revealed it was all about protecting local industry rather than preventing Rift Valley Fever getting in. There was a poster up on the wall informing all that there was a total ban on the import of animals and animal products from South Africa. But I asked anyway. No, there was no ban, it had been lifted. Yes! I was too elated to bother pointing the poster out.

I should have picked the permit up today but did not go that way. So it will have to be Monday. There is no rush, Kharma only flies up in 2 weeks – I think Cheryl is getting a bit possessive! That’s a good sign.





Els

5 04 2010

Now in her 74th year, Els is still a strikingly good looking woman. By her own admission she likes to talk but I suspected that she was also lonely and she’d certainly had an interesting life so I just sat back and listened. I’d taken a small present of a digital camera and a wind-up torch that Sybille had left over to her riding school on Saturday and I’d nothing else to do.

In the early 1970s she came out from Holland to what was then Rhodesia to stay with a friend in the Nyanga area and at a function met her future husband. Two months later they were married and moved onto his remote farm in Nyanga North, some 35km north of the village of the same name. A thoroughly resourceful woman she set about fixing up the run down homestead and raising a family in what she described as the happiest time of her life – her children had free range of the farm and she felt very comfortable out in the bush (“…the silence, oh the silence was marvellous!”).

My father and mother met in the same area also having come out from Europe (though some 20 years previously) so we enjoyed chatting about some of the characters in the area though they were a generation earlier than me. There was Major Mac (McIllwaine) who could always be found by the fire in the reception area of Troutbeck Hotel. Legend has it that the fire has never gone out and Els remembered that he could never remember her name either. There were also the Wyrley-Birches, one of the white pioneer families of the area in whose first house running water meant the stream through the middle of the house. My father (who’d known them well) once told me that when a favourite dog died Colonel Wyrley (as he was known) would have the dog skinned and the skin put on the back of  a chair in the lounge. I didn’t believe him, my father loved to tease, but I remember a particular visit as a teenager to their house below Mt Inyangani and sure enough, there was a retriever type skin on the back of a sofa!

As the war in Rhodesia escalated Els and her family had to move off their farm and her husband got a job at the Clairmont Estate near Juliasdale, south of Nyanga village. It all went tragically wrong one afternoon and he was murdered whilst checking up on a potato spraying operation in 1979. Ignoring family pleas to move back to Holland, Els moved to Harare where she established her riding school (she’d worked  and qualified at a riding school in Holland where she’d taught the current Queen Beatrix and has a photo of the young queen on a horse) and where she still is today. She mentioned to me that her eldest son, married with children and working in Holland, was coming back to Zimbabwe as Holland was in his opinion no place to raise children – he missed the space in Zimbabwe. Els grew up in a house which had no garden and she was not allowed to keep pets. We sat on her verandah and admired the tortoise lumbering across the lawn and the 80 m or so of garden to the gate that was out of site.

Yes, despite all it’s problems Zimbabwe can still be a great place to live – if you have a reliable income! Harare probably has one of the best climates of a capital city anywhere – it is seldom more than 35 degrees C and rarely goes below 10 and then only at night. Crime by South African standards is very low, most people are very friendly and there are still fascinating people like Els to talk to!





Nyanga Odyssey

26 10 2009

I am sitting typing this at 2200m in what is possibly the highest holiday cottage in Zimbabwe. It belongs to a mate who is only too happy to get people to use it. I am in the guest “house” which sits on a very steep edge of the World’s View escarpment and when the air is clear it is possible to see 100km quite easily. It was clear this morning but now it is very hazy again.

It is always cool up here, sometimes very cold, but that’s in winter. Now it’s the end of October, sometimes called the “suicide month” because of the oppressive heat at lower altitudes so it’s a relief to get up here. I left Harare and took a leisurely drive up, stopping to photograph some wild flowers by Headlands. It was an easy trip, the Landcruiser performed flawlessly with its “new” turbo charged engine – this was after all an excuse to test it within the warranty period. In Rusape I was stopped at a police roadblock and after the usual greetings the older policeman said “Have you just come from Salisbury?” grinning hugely (there was a momentary pause before “Salisbury” as he sought the long disused name). “No” I said, “I have come from Harare, it has not been Salisbury for some 30 years!”. For some reason this was a huge joke and I was bid safe travels.

Jenni on the World's View escarpment

Jenni on the World's View escarpment

Taking Jenni for a run yesterday evening she revelled in the cool air and spent a fair bit of time looking over her shoulder wondering why I was being so slow (a very bad road). The wind picked up and soon it was rather cold and last night was spent listening to the wind moan about the roof.

Behind the house to the south is a massive granite rock slope that drops off to the Nyanga village some 700m lower. It’s just begging for photos with boulders, lichen, aloes and at other times of year, flowers. I spent a happy hour or more this morning while the sun was still low, taking photos and daydreaming. Some company would have been nice (Jenni is an uncooperative model and let’s face it; a doggy expression is a doggy expression!).

Looking south towards Nyanga village

Looking south towards Nyanga village

The only property I own is a half share in a 10ha plot on the northern flank of Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain. My mother bought is for some 600 pounds in 1960 (way over priced) with the intention of using it as a retirement property (she apparently had more money than my father!). It became obvious that it was just too far out of the way to be practical and what with the deteriorating security situation the only investment they made was to plant a few thousand eucalypt trees of varying species.  I had not been there for several years so this morning I set off. It took and hour of appalling roads that have had no pretence of maintenance for the time I have been away. I was surprised to find the km long track down to the property quite passable for a high clearance vehicle. On the way I stopped to chat to a personable black man who has set himself up on the southern boundary. Cephas claims to have known my father and also remembered my mother visiting in her small white sedan. Thinking it good sense to have a good neighbour I bought 2 litres of honey off him – it smelt really good but I think I’ll resieve it when I get home to get the bee parts out!

The plot is now almost entirely covered by trees. Most are still the original and are now giants of some 50m or more. They are too big to harvest safely and even then the transport costs will eat up any profit margin for the timber. We scattered some of my parents ashes at the place where we used to picnic as a family so I was a bit emotional as I reflected on two lives that ended way too prematurely; my father murdered in 1978 and my mother from misdiagnosed melanoma in 1992. I have no idea what I will do with the property. The other partner lives in Europe, I have no progeny and I don’t see any chance of developing it any time soon; it will still be out on a limb no matter what the political situation of Zimbabwe.

Butterfly on Helichrysum ("Everlasting")

Butterfly on Helichrysum ("Everlasting")

Part of the property where I am staying burned down last year. Derelict buildings are just loaded with photo opportunities and I have been watching the sun move down a rather photogenic wall while I type this. I must go and check it out.





Getting Away

26 05 2009

It’s been nearly two years since I logged a flight so I was rather nervous on takeoff. Still, the Honde is a forgiving site and with a bit of help I was soon airborne and able to enjoy the amazing vistas of the valley to the east and the Mozambique plains. It was even more important to get away to a stunning part of the country that I’d negelected for too long and enjoy the company of a group of great like-minded friends.