A productive morning

26 03 2019

Life and business are difficult in Zimbabwe at the moment – fuel queues, shortages, excessive prices – so it’s nice to be productive even if it’s purely to satisfy oneself. I got up early this morning to take photos on ART Farm where we run the dogs. I’d seen some potential photos yesterday when the mist was down and there was dew on the fence and the spider webs were glistening jewels of water drops. I was lucky. Not only was the mist there again but the fence had insects on it and because of the cold they were still! Movement is the enemy of macro photography so I was really lucky.





Cruise control and other stories

1 03 2019

Just plain hot

My business is in trouble. Commercial seedlings are no longer a specialized business thanks to the Tobacco Research Board. Some years ago they imported a large, new machine to mold expanded polystyrene into seedling trays. This was mainly for the tobacco industry that had to wean itself off methyl bromide that was traditionally used to sterilize seedbeds for growing tobacco seedlings.

The deadline was 2015 after which methyl bromide could only be used for very specific purposes under the Montreal Protocol. The idea behind the trays was to grow the tobacco seedlings in a medium such as composted pine bark and float the trays on shallow ponds of water with fertilizer mixed in. This is not new technology – I was involved in a project of this nature in 2000 – 2001 in Malawi. It works well and results in a much more even crop than the traditional seedbeds which can also be cleaned of weeds with another volatile chemical, ethylene dibromide or EDB.

Unfortunately most tobacco farmers found the lesser performing traditional seedbeds easier to cope with and the large machine was churning out seedling trays that had only a small market. So the TRB started promoting growing vegetable seedlings in the trays and supplied all the know-how to boot. Now there are numerous small nurseries around Harare and the market has been saturated. The quality is likely poor but the prices are low and that’s all that seems to count around Zimbabwe at the moment.

Grafted avocado seedlings are being sold at a premium in South Africa at the moment and there’s growing interest in Zimbabwe in producing anything for export. Both macadamias and avocados fit the bill and are very profitable so I had the idea last year of growing, grafting, and selling avocado seedlings which I can hopefully sell for real US dollars. Seed was duly sourced and sown and took rather a long time to germinate, likely due to the long and unseasonably cold spring (as low as 11°C in mid October which is just about unheard of). By Valentine’s Day some 2000 seedlings were big enough to graft so I decided to take the trip myself to an estate just south of the small agricultural town of Chipinge in the south-east of the country to collect the graft (scion) wood.

I left on the Saturday just after midday and got onto an unusually quiet road to the eastern city of Mutare, and engaged the cruise control. Since I bought the vehicle just over 2 years ago I have only ever used it for curiosity purposes – Zimbabwe traffic is just too erratic normally but since a fuel increase of 165% the roads have become much quieter. On the entire 2¾ hour trip I probably passed no more than 20 other vehicles. It was positively boring.

The fuel price increase was followed by street violence and protests, the army shot and beat people at random, the world tut-tutted, called for restraint and after a few weeks calm returned as the government knew it would. Now about a month later fuel is still short, the government has finally admitted that the local currency is not equal to a US dollar and has pegged it at 2.5 to the US dollar. It still cannot be bought in the banks and the street rate is 4:1.

Monday morning and the road to Chipinge from Mutare where I’d been staying with Gary and June was also very quiet. Gary told me it was largely due to the appalling state of the road further south and the weight restriction on Birchenough Bridge over the Save River. Once again it was cruise control time.

I haven’t been to Chipinge for perhaps 20 years so I was keen to see how much I remembered. The region is fertile, frost free and normally quite wet. Horticulture was certainly in evidence with large plantations of macadamias, avocados and bananas in evidence. It was all very dry and by the time I got to the estate just south of the town (though maybe it was small enough for village status) the drought was very evident.

By the time I’d got the cuttings packed in the cooler boxes it was after midday and hot. I drove back into the Save Valley and watched the temperature gauge climb. A few times it peaked at 40°C but not for long enough to get a photo.

I remember the heat of the Save Valley well from my days in the Rhodesian army in the bush war in the late 1970s. Patrols became centred around when one could take another drink and how long the water in the bottles would last. For a while we were based at a small irrigation scheme at a place called Nyanyadzi. There’s nothing to mark the spot now – it was only ever a temporary camp but on the other side of the road some 2km distant is a small group of hills that I remember vividly for the second most unpleasant event of my military stint (the most unpleasant was getting shot). I stopped, opened the driver’s window to the oven-like heat and took a photo.

There’s a story in those hills

We walked out one evening under the cover of darkness, two “sticks” of four troops, lightly armed with rifles and two machine guns and climbed onto the hill in the right of the picture. We passed the day quietly and then again, after supper of tinned rations, moved out when it was dark. Our stick descended into the valley behind where the other stick set up an ambush on a path and we climbed the hill behind to set up an observation post (O.P. in military terminology) overlooking an inhabited area. We each found somewhere we could sleep, unpacked our sleeping bags and sat around talking quietly.  Fireflies started to appear and after a short while there the most anyone had seen.

Suddenly there was a muffled “kerchooonk” explosion.

“What’s that?” I hissed to the dark shapes around me.

“That’s a mortar!” replied Dos who’d been a soldier in the Mozambican army and knew exactly what a mortar sounded like from his service in the civil war there.

“Take cover” hissed corporal Nico rather unnecessarily.

There was no cover to take – the surface was hard and stony but still we tried, scraping away the best we could, hearts pounding and counting the 20 seconds or so before the mortar bomb exploded. Mortar bombs are bad news on hard surfaces  where a half sphere of shrapnel is created (they are not very effective on soft surfaces where the explosion is directed upward) and very bad news if they hit a tree branch. A sphere of shrapnel is created and is particularly lethal. We were in dense woodland.

The mortar bomb exploded in the vicinity of where we’d spent the day. Another came out the tube, and another. We counted the seconds after each launch and flattened ourselves into the ground as best we could, desperately hoping that the bombs would fall elsewhere. Finally after it became evident that we were no longer on the top of that hill the enemy put down searching fire to draw a response from us. At one point there was a huge explosion as a recoil-less rifle was fired and then a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. Then all was quiet. Some half an hour later we heard voices as the enemy walked along a path not far from where we lay. The next day, obviously compromised, we scoured the bush for souvenirs of the attack (on top of the hill to the left in the photo) and then walked back to base. It seemed likely that the guerillas had assembled their heavy weaponry to attack our base but then chanced on an easier target – us.

I rolled up the window, put the air-conditioning on high and continued back to Mutare. To this day I can never watch a firefly without remembering that terrifying hour on a nondescript cluster of hills in the Save Valley.

Note: It is standard practice in counter insurgency (COIN) warfare never to sleep near where you’ve had your last meal for just the reason described in the story above – you may have been spotted. You always move out after last light and settle elsewhere, often in a place which you may have seen earlier which can be in an ambush position on your own trail in case you are being followed.

 





The metaphor

2 02 2019

Looking back where we’ve been?

This photograph is perhaps a metaphor for the future of Zimbabwe, heading back into the darkness from the light. The future is dark – the light of the sunset is the hope we all felt when Mugabe was ousted in a popular coup in November 2016. That is fading and it will soon be dark, just a memory. The rain on the mirror are the tears of the nation, beaten into submission by the current regime for daring to vent its frustration at the deceit and disappointment and cursing its own gullibility.

Or is it just a pretty scene that I saw this evening in my rear view mirror, driving away from Komani Microlight Club where I go with a friend to fly model aircraft and get away from the stresses of living in a crumbling economy?

You choose.

 





Just gotta have fun

5 01 2019

The Husqvana Mud Run is an annual charity event held just down the road from my house on the old golf course of the Mt Pleasant Sports Club (now the Jam Tree). There are no prizes and for the entry fee, most of which goes to the KidzCan charity, you can do as many circuits of the assault course as you like. It’s more than a bit slippery due to the heavy clay soil, and more than a bit of added water, so nobody stays clean for long and the fun is infectious. Even as a non-participant I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy the morning. It certainly beats thinking about the current disaster that is the Zimbabwe economy.

I do wonder if this sort of event would be possible in the developed world. I saw very young children completely unsupervised just bumbling along enjoying life.





The Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary

30 12 2018

No animals are turned away from the Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary. Yesterday I rescued a battered malachite kingfisher from the garden. It was in its prime and beautiful but sadly was missing crucial primary wing feathers from a collision with our electric fence which is difficult to see (I didn’t photograph it – it went straight into a cardboard box to reduce the stress that so often proves fatal to small birds). Fortuitously we were already booked to go to the Twala Trust 40 km to the east of Harare so as it was still alive this morning we took it along. Colin the senior caretaker there greeted us and we passed the box over to him and he said they would do their best.

All manner of animals find refuge there; dogs, donkeys, horses, cats, birds and a variety of other animals. They do try and return animals to the wild where possible but some are hand reared and would not survive, others are permanently disabled and others have become too habituated to humans. It was an entertaining and fun visit and after a picnic we visited the kingfisher who’d already managed to eat (an excellent sing according to Colin) and made our way back to town.

This is a worthy charity for your support. You do need to book your visits. It’s a great educational opportunity for children with guided tours and there’s a swimming pool and reservoir to paddle around on. Take a picnic and enjoy the day.





Two nights at Hippo Pools

29 12 2018

The Hippo Pools wilderness area is in the Umfurudzi National Park some 140km north east of Harare. Located on the banks of the Mazowe River it is hot and humid in summer. That did not deter my brother and I and apparently enough other people to ensure the lodges and chalets were full (I would guess the camp site was one third full) so we managed to book a permanent tent and settled for “glamping”. It suited our purposes fine and we followed the standard practice of game drives in the early morning and evening and just dozing during the heat of the day.

The road from Harare is fine until the mining town of Shamva then has some very bad stretches until the turnoff into the park at Madziwa Mine which appears derelict. Then one has to slow down. It’s still passable to passenger cars but once in the wilderness area the roads preclude low clearance vehicle. For the energetic that’s not an issue as the area has no dangerous animals (apart from crocodiles and hippos) and walking and cycling is encouraged. At this time of year the horse flies are a problem to the extent that we had the windows up and air-conditioning on to keep them out but once we got out the blood-letting started. They were absent from the camp region.

We enjoyed our time there even though I feel certain areas could be improved. For the hard core game watcher there are better parks but they are further away from Harare so this one is convenient. Would I go back? Probably, but not in summer.

Glamping = glamorous camping

 





A trip to Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation park

25 12 2018

My brother, Duncan, is out from the UK for two weeks so we planned an overnight trip to Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation park an hour and three quarters from Harare to the the east. The road from Marondera was surprisingly good and we managed to get there on time for the 10 a.m. game drive. The park comprises 4,500 ha and has a thriving population of small game, elephants, a rhino breeding programme and a lion – conventional farming is also practiced. There are no leopard as far as anyone can ascertain. It was a great visit with excellent guides and food. Strongly recommended for a night though they cater for day visits too.