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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This is George

3 08 2015
George the paragliding giraffe

George the paragliding giraffe

This is George; possibly the most well flown paragliding giraffe in the world. He’s been cold in the Owens Valley in California where he survived without oxygen at 4800m ASL and descended under a reserve parachute there too (without complaining or injury). He’s been hot in Porterville South Africa and didn’t need a drink even in +40ºC heat. He’s charmed his way through customs in the USA whilst I was failing to do so and got compliments in broken English on the takeoffs at Annecy, the paragliding Mecca, in France. The weekend of Africa Day he finally got his paragliding fix at World’s View, Nyanga, after a break of almost 2 years. It’s been a long time.

The state of paragliding in Zimbabwe strongly reflects the state of the economy. Flat in a word. There were all of 2 of us pilots on the takeoff that weekend up at World’s View. In the heyday of paragliding there would have been at least half a dozen and we’d think nothing of leaving early on a Saturday, flying hopefully that afternoon and then on Sunday and driving back on Sunday night. Wouldn’t do that now; the fuel is too expensive and the roads far too dangerous to drive at night. The main road going east from Harare to Mutare and the Mozambique border is actually not too bad. I’m talking of the surface not what drives on it. Most of last year it was being resurfaced by a South African company (I know that because the traffic control at the various detours was far too organised for a Zimbabwean company). How it was paid for I have no idea as the government was only slightly less broke then than it is now. There was talk in the papers last week of lots of civil servants being retrenched. Actually the headline said “Fired” which implies there will be no retrenchment package.

The road from Troutbeck Hotel up to World’s View was also being resurfaced when we were up there. No small deal that either as a LARGE and very new looking bulldozer was moving substantial quantities of boulders and earth and a grader was tidying up after it. Now I’ve been going up that road irregularly for the last 50 years that I can remember and it has never looked so grand! Almost 3 lanes in places. Again, who is paying for it? Nobody I’ve spoken to seems to know the answer which makes me a bit suspicious. This usually means a Fat Cat has told someone to get on with it as he (or she, but usually it’s a he) has designs on some property in the vicinity and wants easy access.

Africa Day, for the ill informed, celebrates the formation of the African Union as one of the children on the landing field informed us. Our esteemed president, Robert Mugabe, is the current chairman of the AU. I’m not really sure what the AU actually does. Once upon a time the late Colonel Gaddafi proposed forming a United States of Africa. As delusional as it is grand i.e. very. The week of Africa Day there was a summit in South Africa which the rather odious president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir attended. He is wanted to answer to charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Amnesty International wasted no time in filing for his arrest. The South African judiciary deliberated and deliberated and by the time a ruling announcing that the said president of Sudan could be arrested he’d been flown out of the country. How convenient for all involved. The judiciary upheld South Africa’s law abiding image and the AU got to give the finger to the West.

I’ve had another trip to the Nyanga area a month ago. The top photo of George was taken at the edge of the Honde Valley where we once had a great takeoff. You might imagine that George is looking a bit glum as the takeoff behind him is submerged in over a meter of grass and is therefore not useable. This was where we used to be based for the annual Zimbabwe Paragliding Open competition. One year we had over 35 competitors. This year there were 3 of us.

We did fly the following day from World’s View which was convenient given that we’d rented a cottage 500m away. It was not great flying by World’s View standards (usually it’s relatively easy to get 500m above takeoff) as it was heavily inverted and so we were limited to about 150m above takeoff. But it was hard work and good practice and George enjoyed it as you can see by the gilt in his eye.

A happy giraffe!

A happy giraffe!





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.