Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)





The odd couple

22 12 2019

One I recognized immediately – it was a crowned crane. I’ve never seen one in this area so was more than a bit taken aback but they are very distinctive birds. Quite tall, elegant as cranes always are and the distinctive yellow gold crown of feathers on the head adding a touch of glamour. It did a little bow to its companion, an attempt at a courtship ritual perhaps, but the companion was certainly not a crowned crane! “Stupid bird” I thought, “she’s not even one of yours”. I passed the binoculars over to Marianne and pointed out the characteristic “crown” of the crowned crane. “And the other one’s a white stork” I added. But there was a niggling thought that there was something not right about its colouring. There was too much black on it for a start and I didn’t often see white storks up close through binoculars. Anyway, we needed to press on – the dogs were getting bored and I didn’t want them to get the idea of chasing the birds.

I was still bothered by the bird I’d identified as a white stork when we got home so I got out the oracle, actually an app on my iPad for Roberts Birds, when I got home. There, on the same page as the crowned crane, was a bird that looked remarkably like the one I’d identified as a white stork – except it was a wattled crane. I was intrigued and more than a bit excited. I hadn’t seen one of these since I was a teenager growing up in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

I decided to be cautious; rather than announce to the electronic world that I’d seen a rare bird (they are listed as critically endangered in southern Africa), I’d go back and try and get photos with a good camera and telephoto lens. I was certain about the crowned crane so decided to ask Ant Fynn, who knows about birds, if they were common around Harare. He said no, not at all, since we’d lost a lot of wetland around the city. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by mentioning the wattled crane as I’m no expert and haven’t seen one for 40 years. So after a brief executive meeting with the managing director of my company, me, we decided that decisive photographic evidence of these birds was far more important than work and I headed out with my trusty Nikon and not-so-big telephoto lens.

Crowned crane on the left, wattled on the right. Despite the size and species difference they did appear to be a pair.

I found them easily enough on a small stock dam some 600m from the morning’s sighting. It didn’t take a moment to positively identify the wattled crane. This time I contacted Ken who is a semi-professional birder and he was as excited as I was. I got the photographic proof, which showed the limitations of my telephoto lens at its limits (I did know that it’s not the best on the market but didn’t realize it was THAT limited), and had to be satisfied with that as the cranes would just not let me close. Curiously they appeared to be behaving as a couple.

Ken was as pleased as I was though he thought they would soon be moving on. The pairs of wattled cranes that bred on the dams of my youth returned for many years to the same site and often used the same nest. They were not often successful; I can still remember the excitement of my parents when a chick hatched and the disappointment when it disappeared prematurely. I think that often otters were responsible for raiding the eggs and any number of other predators could have got to the chicks.

Several of the birding community contacted me over the following days wanting to get the wattled crane on their check list. Asher was particularly pleased as he’d not seen one either since he was a youngster and also commented on their pair-like behaviour as did some others. Was it choice or happenstance? We’ll never know. We didn’t seem them again on Friday’s dog exercising so I guess they have moved on now.

Majestic in flight too. They have moved on. Wattled cranes need around 300ha of suitable foraging area to breed successfully.





Mana Pools National Park – taking a break

30 07 2019

We were fortunate recently to be invited to Stretch Ferreira Safaris by the owner himself. I know him from school and he’d extended the kind invitation a while ago and it turned out they had a slack 3 nights at the end of July and could fit us in. The camp is in a prime spot on the edge of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park in the far north-west of Zimbabwe.

It’s certainly Zimbabwe’s glamour national park and not without good reason. The trees are massive, the game is plentiful (usually) and one can camp right on the banks of the big river. Hippos grunt and splash the night away and sunbathe in the day. In summer it’s oppressively hot but winter is cold at night and warm during the day and dry, which is discouraging for the tsetse flies and mosquitoes.

This last season the park had received very poor rains so there was no grass close to the river and a lot of animals had moved off to find better grazing (the browsers were less affected but a lot of tree leaves were out of reach so they’d also moved off). Still, it was a great break from the stresses of Zimbabwean life, absolutely no cellphone reception and we had a great time. Stretch (real name Andrew) promises to get his clients up close and personal with the elephants that he’s known for many years and he didn’t disappoint. Most of the bigger males have names; JB who’s very chilled, The Donald (Trump) who’s bad tempered and Boris (Johnson) who’s a bit of a clown.





The benighted country

9 06 2019

The benighted country under the Milky Way. Half the time there will be little or no lights at this time of night. That’s Jupiter middle top-left and the lights of the Troutbeck Hotel below the horizon.

There are now 8 hour power cuts every day. They usually alternate mornings and afternoon/evenings. The latter are more tedious for domestic issues, the former for work when we are doing most of the watering of the seedlings at the nursery. Power requirements are met with a diesel generator which is big enough to run pumps and office equipment but not the borehole motors which are some 450m away. Those have to wait for the mains power to come back on and run all night if necessary. So far there is enough “on time” from the mains for the boreholes to fill the main 125,000 litre reserve tank but that may not always be the case.

Diesel for the generator comes from a bulk tank that I filled a year ago but that is not going to last forever. Queues at the filling stations have been long and ubiquitous for those paying with the local currency. Got US dollars? No queuing necessary; just drive up to the pump. It’s not cheap at $1.36 per litre but my contact in the fuel industry says he can sell me bulk diesel for 89c per litre with a minimum delivery of 2,500 litres. Given that the unofficial exchange rate is 8.1 of the local dollars to one USD it makes sense to sit in a queue and pay with local money (it’s the equivalent of US60c a litre) if you have the time but one can queue for several hours with no guarantee that the fuel won’t run out.

Last weekend we decided to get out of the stress mire that is Harare and spend a few days in the cold mountain air of the Nyanga mountains in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe with some friends from Mutare, also in the east. Some phone calls and social media research ascertained that the likelihood of fuel being available in the area was good, but not certain, so in the interests of sanity we dug into our reserves of real money, bypassed the queues at the local fuel station and filled up the pickup and a Jerry-can with diesel. It was worth it to get away. Ever hopeful, I packed a paraglider but the wind was not suitable so we spent the weekend sitting in the sunshine and just chilling out. It turned out to be a literal chilling out with a very sharp frost on the first morning we were there but the company was good and the log fire warm. Yes, the power cuts reached us but it did not matter too much and it turned out there was plenty of diesel available, for US dollars only, at the Troutbeck fuel station. Tourists were in short supply though the hotel seemed to be getting by on conferences. Marianne commented that it must be soul-destroying for the staff to spend the week waiting for weekend tourists who don’t arrive.

Mt Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest mountain, dominates the horizon. This was taken from the same spot as the starscape but facing further south. The weather was not as warm as it looks.

On Tuesday I was at the local bank to get my online banking password changed (I’d been locked out for too many wrong login attempts) and the bank official asked me how business was going. I replied that it was OK, my business was still afloat which was better than I’d expected at the beginning of the year but the outlook was still bleak with no promise of a rescue by a US dollar in the wings as had happened in 2009. She agreed with me. Any light that was in the tunnel is fading and it is unrealistic to expect any economic recovery with power cuts for 8 hours in 24. The night is indeed looking dark.

 





VAWZ and Gerry the cat

1 05 2019

Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ) is one of the more active animal welfare organizations based in Harare. They take animal welfare to the rural areas in the form of education, neutering and general clinics and like a lot of welfare organizations in Zimbabwe at the moment are having a hard time raising cash. It’s not surprising, the much vaunted slogan of the President, E D Mnangagwa, “Zimbabwe is open for business” has turned out to be empty of any meaning. He continues to squander hard cash on hiring a private jet for business whilst the economy tanks and the local currency dives in value. Hyper-inflation looms once again.

The Rescue & Release fund raiser was held at a local pub recently. Volunteers (with a bit of coercion) were face-painted and dressed up to represent various animals and “locked up” in a cage and were only allowed out once they’d raised there release/ransom fee of $10,000 (that’s local currency). Some of the more socially connected had raised the money even before being locked up. The evening went well with some $45,000 raised.

 

This last Sunday there was another VAWZ fundraiser in the form of the annual Scruffs Dog Show. Open to all and sundry it was a fun morning with lots of categories to suit all breeds and sizes of dogs. Sadly it was not as well supported as in the past though the sponsors certainly stepped up to the plate. Please support VAWZ if you can – they do such good work.





Easter break on the Turgwe River

23 04 2019

It’s not often that we both manage to get away together over Easter but this year we were lucky. Despite the kennels that we trust being full we managed to find someone to come and house-and-dogsit over the weekend. We have  been to the Humani Ranch camp on the Turgwe River before in December 2014 but this time we had downgraded from the rather expensive chalets to the glamping section with a group of friends from Mutare on the eastern border. It was comfortable enough.

It was a long 6 hour driver to the camp in the south-east of Zimbabwe but there had been recent rain and the countryside was greener than it had been a few months earlier. The recent cyclone Idai had expended most of it’s force before getting to this part of the countryside so a few bridges had experience damage but had already been fixed. The bush was thick and water plentiful so we didn’t see much game and that we did was very skittish. The Savé Valley Conservancy, of which the ranch is a part, is also a hunting area and most game did not wait to see if we were friendly or not. Still, it was good to get out of Harare for a while and enjoy the bush.

 





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.