The uncooperative spider

11 05 2018

Nope, just not a good photo

The spiders are back in the nursery after a 2 year break. I’d noticed the decline for a few years prior to this and I’d put it down to erratic and decreasing rainfall over the past 5 years. So last year after an unusually heavy rainy season, I was expecting to see at least a few. Nothing. I was disappointed. In a normal year they festoon the nursery with their golden and incredibly sticky webs. I like to think that they catch all manner of pests that are eating the seedlings but I never really see much in their webs. They must eat something as they do grow. I don’t really mind what they do or don’t eat as I just like seeing them there; I guess I have to admit that I just like spiders. Maybe it’s an underdog thing – lots of people don’t like spiders but they can have my support.

Maybe it’s the same thing with snakes as I also quite like them. Friends at school kept harmless snakes and I admit they are fascinating creatures to handle – cool and silky to the touch. In the bush I am a bit wary of them. So long as we meet on my terms, i.e. I see them first and am not surprised by them, then we can be friends.

The first job I had back in Zimbabwe after I’d finished my backpacking travels was with a flower growing company in Lion’s Den, the other side of Chinhoyi from Harare about an hour and half north-west of the capital. It did not go well and after 2 years I threw the towel in and we parted best of enemies but I did get to live in the bush and that aspect I really enjoyed. On several occasions I saw a herd of kudu (a type of antelope) by the road, there were lots of birds on the local dams and lots of snakes to watch out for and they were not necessarily harmless.

One morning I walked out of my office in the flower pack-shed to use the toilet. I opened the door to see a lizard like head watching me from behind the water pipes. I paused as it moved and revealed itself as a snake. I couldn’t make out what type so moved a little closer. It opened it’s mouth and spat but nothing hit me and there was no typical cobra hood. I wasn’t going to take a chance so went back into the office to get some safety glasses kept for when using an angle grinder. Calling a foreman to bring a sack and a broom I went back to the toilet whilst the women packers vacated the pack-shed with shrieks of excitement. By now the snake had decided to make a break for the door but being a smooth cement floor it couldn’t get any traction and did not so much slither as writhe. It even made an effort to strike at me but I easily side stepped it. Brushing the snake into a clear area of the pack-shed, I trapped its head with the back of the broom and picked it up by the tail. In this part of the world the only snake that can climb back up its tail is a boomslang (tree snake) and this was most certainly not one of those. Snakes will try to lift their heads up from this position but all one needs to do is jerk it up by the tail and the head will drop down again (this is not the recommended way of handling snakes!).

Now I had to get the snake into the sack. The foreman was holding the sack at arm’s length and wouldn’t come close enough. I shouted at him for being daft whilst the rest of the labour force giggled nervously from the safety of the shed door. Finally he came close enough, I dropped the snake into the sack, grabbed the top and tied it off with some string. I could just see the snake waving around inside. Nobody could tell me what it was and I had no other means of identifying it – it was just a metre long, brownish snake. I did know it wasn’t a black mamba which were common in the area and certainly not a snake I’d have tried to pick up. They are also quite nondescript in colour but aggressive and highly venomous.

Later that day I showed it to a local farmer.

“Sounds like a cobra” he said. “Let’s have a look”.

“But it didn’t put it’s hood up” I countered.

“Maybe, but now it has” he said, pointing at the distinct silhouette of a cobra in the bag.

Despite several brushes with snakes in the area that included nearly standing on a puff adder walking out in the bush, one of my dogs being bitten by a puff adder (she survived and lived another 13 years) and getting repeatedly bitten by a mildly venomous grass snake that didn’t appreciate that I was trying to heal the cut on it’s back (it too survived and was released) I’ve never lost my appreciation for snakes. I won’t handle them like I did as I am not nearly as agile as I used to be but I’ll let them be and defend their right to exist if I can.

So where was I? Yes spiders, that’s what started all this. The golden orb spiders that weave their webs in the nursery are completely harmless to humans and have fascinating blue and yellow patterns on the base of their abdomen. I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of one for years so when I saw this one on an aloe in the nursery car park I thought I was in luck. The light was good and the spider was in a good position but all I had was my cellphone. The camera is not bad as cellphone cameras go but it’s not a patch on my SLR. So I snapped the photo at the start of this post and thought “I’ll be back to get you”.

So today I was back with SLR camera and tripod but would the spider cooperate. Oh no. It sat contentedly in the middle of its web and would not be coaxed back onto the aloe. The light was also wrong; I’d been distracted by my landlord and missed the 5 minute window of sun on the aloe leaf that I’d seen yesterday. This evening I checked up on it again. Its magnificent coloured abdomen was perfectly lit by the late afternoon sun and it was nowhere near the aloe but no matter. Just as I got up to grab my SLR the sun slipped behind a bank of cloud. I’ll be back.

Who’s a pretty girl then?





Penhalonga revisited

29 04 2018

I used to live in Penhalonga, a small gold mining village in eastern Zimbabwe, named apparently from the Portuguese for long rocky mountain. I grew up on Sheba Estate, a forestry plantation some 15km further to the north and moved to Penhalonga with my mother after my father was murdered on Sheba in 1979. Sheba Estate is part of the Border Timbers group of forest estates comprising Sheba, Imbeza, Charter and Tilbury scattered along the eastern border of Zimbabwe which total some 40,000 ha of mainly softwood pine trees.

Imbeza Estate is in the next valley to the south of Penhalonga and despite its proximity I never actually visited the estate except once in the Rhodesian army as an escort for an engineer who wanted to look at the source of an explosion in the minefield that the Rhodesian military laid along much of the eastern border to restrict the inflow of Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerillas from Mozambique where many of them were based.

The old guest house on Imbeza estate where we spent the weekend with Stewart and Nicole Goss. The trees in the background at right are on the border with Mozambique

This last weekend Stewart Goss and his wife Nicole invited us down to Imbeza for a weekend. I’ve known Stewart all his life from when his mother June, and father Gary, moved into the top end of the Penhalonga valley in 1980. They had a small farm there from which they were evicted in the early 2000s as part of Mugabe’s disastrous land reform policy which saw the majority of white commercial farmers evicted from their land countrywide and crashed the Zimbabwe economy. Now in a delightful twist of irony Stewart and Nicole are living on Imbeza and have been contracted to do much of the forestry silviculture (planting and management of trees), road maintenance and fire fighting for Border Timbers. Their house is the old guest house on Imbeza and has a commanding view of the valley and countryside to the north. The minefield has mostly been cleared in the proximity of the house which is very close to the Mozambican border though we drove past stretches of red and white tape that demarcate areas still to be cleared.

Looking north and east from a fire tower. The Mozambique border runs along the skyline at the centre. Parts of the minefield still have not been cleared of mines.

Morning view from the front garden. It was as peaceful as it looks.

Evening sky from the front garden. The road to Nyanga runs the other side of the hills in the distance.

The aloes were in full bloom and the sunbirds, (a Miombo double-collared in this case) were all over them.





Those were the days

26 04 2018

Those were the days of lots of zeros – my claim to multimillionaire status!

There is not much to do at work at the moment – business is very quiet – so I got down to bit of clearing out old accounts and invoices. I’m told that paper records only need to go back 7 years so this printout going back to 2008 was fair game for the rubbish bin. Look at all those zeros! In August 2008 the hyperinflation was really heating up but we still had another “resetting” of the zeros to go and another 12 to gain before we ditched the ludicrous Zimbabwe dollar in February 2009 and became what is now known as “dollarised” i.e. we adopted the US dollar as the main currency. One hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes are still sold as tourist souvenirs!

Given the dismal state of business I decided to get “proactive” (ghastly word) and go looking for business out of town. The small rural mining town of Bindura an hour to the north of Harare was the target. I’d been invited there by the manager of the agricultural showgrounds who’d met me a the ART Farm field day last month. He thought we might be interested in setting up a stand for August’s show and maybe selling seedlings from the grounds on a weekly basis. I was a bit sceptical but given that the town served a vast agricultural area thought there was merit in at least having a look. So I got hold of a former foreman that I’d employed some years ago, who’d decided to go farming on his own but was now looking for work, and we set out this past Tuesday.

The showgrounds were not in a great state. Although the location was reasonable the grounds were badly overgrown and the buildings dilapidated. I asked for a guided tour of the town. It was smaller than I remembered from my last visit in 2001 when I’d got into political trouble for lending a pickup truck to the opposition MDC in the general election (see this link Reflections on the First Half). We stopped at the offices of the local branch of Agritex – the government agricultural extension service responsible for the Mashonaland West province of Zimbabwe.

The man in charge came out to the car park to chat to me and upon hearing that I wanted to get a bit of exposure for my company suggested that I do the rounds of the field days in the province. I was surprised to hear that there was nearly one a day but it is a large area. He kindly wrote down the names and phone numbers of people who he thought would be most relevant for a seedling business and suggested I contact Mrs Hungwe on the route past Trojan Nickel Mine that would take us back on another road to Harare. He assured us that the road was fine.

Trojan mine appears to be doing much better than the rest of Bindura. There was certainly plenty of activity that we could see and the road was well maintained – until we got past the mine gate. For 3 km it was better to drive off the tarmac than on it. I did get quite passable after that.

Mrs Hungwe met us at the Bindura Rural District Council offices. Small and dynamic she is the chairman of the Muunganirwa-Chakona irrigation scheme some 40km from Harare. She was delighted that I was interested and invited us back today to their field day. So this morning we loaded some seedling samples to give away and headed back along the picturesque Domboshava road to the irrigation scheme.

Picturesque rural scene on the Domboshava road with a classic clear autumn sky. Yes, it really was that blue!

It turned out to be a longer day than I’d expected but the turnout was good with around 70 people of whom some 50 were members of the irrigation scheme. For once I felt that I was around the average age of the audience and commented as such to one of the officials. Like many developing countries the youth are not interested in farming and have largely departed for the cities. On the return trip I chatted to the young man in the foreground of the picture above – he spoke perfect English and was on his school holiday. I commented on his good English and he said he’d learnt it at junior school in Harare but was going to secondary school nearby. I suppose it was possible that his parents could no longer afford to send him into Harare. I asked him if he’d been working over his holiday. The predictable response was that there wasn’t any to be found.

The presentation

Whether the effort will pay off remains to be seen but the audience was attentive to my former employee’s presentation and the free seedlings were certainly appreciated.

This painfully thin old man appeared to be lost in his own world for the duration of the field day. He was unaccompanied but his clothes are clean and freshly pressed so someone must be caring for him.





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.





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.