A punk spider and a cyclone called Idai

24 03 2019

This spider was tiny, about 5mm across, but what a radical punk shape!

The first golden orb spiders appeared at the beginning of this month – well that’s when I first noticed them. I have no idea what type of spider this is in the photo (it’s nothing like a golden orb spider). It was tiny and all I had was my cellphone so it had to do. I have not seen it again.

I am always pleased to see spiders as it usually means we’ve had decent rains and there are enough insects around to feed them, but this season has been distinctly unusual. It has been typically erratic as el Niño seasons are. It started well enough a week later than usual but February, instead of being the wettest month of the season, turned out dry. That was for Harare which has been better off than most of the country which has been very dry indeed. Then two weeks ago a low pressure system developed over Malawi and caused substantial flooding. It moved off into the Mozambique channel between Mozambique and Madagascar and became a full-blown cyclone and was named Idai. Moving off it brushed the big island, turned around and headed towards the Mozambican city of Beira.

Red areas indicate flooding

It made landfall last Thursday with winds of 170km/h and hammered the city (it was estimated that 90% of buildings sustained damage). American weather forecasters predicted rainfall of around 600mm which turned out to be an under-estimate.   Photographs estimate that 3000ha just inland from the city has been flooded. A friend sent me this audio recording from someone she knows in Mozambique in the town of Chimoio (WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE) By Friday it had started to rain in the eastern Zimbabwe town of Chimanimani. Over the next 48 hrs they received 850mm of rain – pretty much their annual rainfall. Hillsides moved, houses were washed away and bridges disappeared under the onslaught. Power lines collapsed. The death toll is still climbing and people are unaccounted for. Further south the town of Chipinge was hit by high winds. It’s a horticulture area and damage to macadamia and avocado orchards has been extensive.

The response of ordinary Zimbabweans has been amazing. Collection centres have been set up in Harare and food, blankets, utensils, water and containers have been donated. Animal welfare organizations have also donated food and international organizations have helped out. The air force sent a helicopter which promptly broke down. Engineering companies donated equipment and expertise. Private individuals have used their helicopters, motorbike enthusiasts have gone to help find alternative routes into the cut-off areas. A photo has been circulating of an old woman who walked from her home the other side of Harare to donated cooking pots – she didn’t have enough money for the bus. For once people have been queuing to donate items instead of queuing to buy them.

Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on the port of Beira for imports and exports. It’s not clear what the damage to the port is but the ramifications are going to be extensive. It was reported that the pipeline that Zimbabwe uses to import most of its fuel had been damaged. However I know someone in the fuel business and he assures me that the pipeline is not damaged but the control station for the pumps in Beira has been devastated. Fortunately it’s run by an international company that is feverishly repairing it but the word is out that we might run out of fuel and the queues at the filling stations in Harare are long and chaotic.

Two days ago some youngsters who run a vermiculite exfoliating plant came to see me. We use the vermiculite at the nursery to dilute and stretch the supply of coir pith that we use as a medium for the seedlings. There are other locally produced media, one being composted pine bark, which is collected from sawmills where it is stripped off the logs before they are sawed so the saws don’t clog. The main source is in Chimanimani and is run by the Tobacco Research Board (TRB), mainly for use in the production of tobacco seedlings. The vermiculite company had been notified by the TRB, whom it also supplies with vermiculite, that its supplies had been badly damaged and that it would not be needing much vermiculite for this season’s crop which will be sown in June. This is very bad news for the tobacco farmers who use the pine bark/vermiculite medium to grow their seedlings (most seedlings are still grown in the traditional seedbed method). Quick to spot an opportunity they were wondering if the imported coir pith (called cocopeat by the trade) that I use would be suitable for growing tobacco and could it be blended with the expanded vermiculite that they produce. Yes, it can and I have used it successfully but we are fast running out of time. It is also cheaper to use coir pith imported from India than composted pine bark from South Africa (another option). We will see what transpires. Tobacco is a big foreign currency earner for Zimbabwe and thus is considered a strategic crop.

There was plenty of warning when and were the cyclone was going to hit. It was accurate information too. Weather forecasting has come a long wMozambique Major Hurricane Historyay since cyclone Eline hit Zimbabwe back in February 2000. Cyclones, as hurricanes are known in the southern hemisphere, rapidly lose power over the land as they need water as their power source (the water is sucked up as vapour, condenses releasing latent heat of condensation which draws up more water vapour) so they rarely get as far as Zimbabwe though they can cause significant rain as far inland as Harare. There was plenty of time for an evacuation to safer ground and when asked why the government did not effect this the reply was that the opposition MDC would have used the opportunity to accuse the army and police of using force and rape to make people move.

The opposition to the government used fake news to smear. A picture was posted of a sofa being offloaded from a helicopter claiming it was for the President to sit on when making the obligatory visit. It was an unrelated photo from Malawi (I did notice the registration on the helicopter was not from Zimbabwe, South Africa or Mozambique). The President did of course make a visit and all aerial activity had to stop whilst he was there.

The Department of Civil Protection (DCP) is the government arm tasked with disaster management. Its 2019 budget is $2.36 million (local dollars) which is less than the budget for state residence staff ($3 million). Its capital expenditure budget is all of $100,000 which might just buy a 4×4 pickup. There is a $3.4 m budget allocation for a loan scheme for chiefs to buy vehicles. Not surprising where this government’s priorities lie – politics is way ahead of looking after the people.

In a way it’s quite sad that the general public, who are only too well aware of the lack of interest for the welfare of the people, stepped up to the occasion is such spectacular fashion. It effectively lets the government off the hook and they will continue to spend money on themselves. That is not to say that they will miss an opportunity to gain political capital by handing out support to favoured sectors of the affected community. This tactic has been extensively employed in the past, especially when drought relief has been necessary, which in the grandest of ironies is going to be necessary again this year.

Here in Harare we’ve had about half the rainfall we’d expect in a normal year but elsewhere it’s been far less. There’s been widespread crop failure and the WFP estimates that about 5.3 million people are at risk this year. Droughts, erratic rains and cyclones are nothing new to us in southern Africa and can be dealt with by decent planning – something that is spectacularly absent in the current government. Just a week before cyclone Idai hit a video was widely shared on the social media of a pediatrician at a big local teaching hospital in tears because even the most basic medical supplies had run out – for want of syringes chemo-therapies had to be halted. Yet still the President, E.D. Mnangagwa, took himself and an entourage off to Dubai on business and then hired a jet to fly him back after the cyclone hit. At an estimated cost of US$200,000 it could have bought a lot of syringes. Bad as the Mugabe regime was it did not have this attitude to profligate spending. No, we don’t want the Mugabe regime back but good governance would be nice. Sadly that is a quality that is rare in African politics.

 

 

 

 

 





It’s all in the picture

15 01 2019

Sniffing around after the rain – there’s a longer story hiding here though.

This picture is not as boring as it might seem at first. There’s a lot of good intelligence to be gleaned from it.

The swimming pool

It’s overflowing – the result of at least 56mm of rain over lunchtime today and a failure to take the overflow pipes off the gutters that feed the rain from the roof into the pool. We need to collect the water off the roof as the borehole is not fantastically prolific – it has been tested at 900 litres/hr which is OK for domestic purposes but not enough to keep a garden attractive and a pool topped up. So the lawn, such as it is, is seasonal and only really gets growing in the rains.

The pool was most certainly not a priority when we were looking for a house to buy just over two years ago. Harare has a mellow climate; not too hot and never really cold though European friends do find the Zimbabwe winter cold as the houses are not geared for heating. The winter only lasts about two months so what’s the point? Winter is also our dry season and the skies are usually clear so it’s easy and pleasant to sit in the sun. Summers are also not very hot. This November it only got to 33° C on a few occasions and while it can be humid it’s seldom humid and hot. Pools are also expensive to maintain especially as all the chemicals are imported and Zimbabweans are famous for price gouging – but more of that later.

So we got a pool with the house, like it or not. I like it – I used to be a good swimmer until the medical fraternity botched two neck operations and I lost a lot of shoulder strength as a result. I still get in the pool when I can but serious swimming is in the past now. I’ve read that getting old is about giving up the things one likes doing – I guess it comes to us all at some stage. The pool also leaks so needs topping up often and being in the agricultural business I could buy the piping through the company, a perk of the work. Yes, I have tried to find the leak and the entire pool piping system has been dug up on several occasions to little avail. The pool is old, built (or should that be dug?) in the 1960s, when the preferred method was to dig a hole and line it with 20cm of reinforced concrete. No doubt there is a tiny crack somewhere which is nearly impossible to find. It also needs painting but that would require complete draining and a lot of confidence in the weather forecasters getting their predictions right for a good rainy season as the borehole won’t handle that volume of water – about 70m³ which is big for a domestic pool. I know the age of the pool because a friend used to come swimming here as a youngster and he tells me that his father and uncle built the house.

The rains this season (it runs from mid-November to mid-April or so) have been erratic and very patchy. That’s fairly typical for an el Niño year which this is. The first rains in this area were about a week late which is significant if you are planting a rain-dependent maize crop. There have been week-long dry spells since and what rain that has fallen has been very localized so this storm was welcome though the pool filter was not in danger of sucking air. We also collect the waste water from the back-washing of the filter and the domestic washing machine and that is used on the garden.

When we moved into the house I bought a small well pump for the purpose but 10 days ago it just stopped working for no apparent reason. It’s been left at the supplier’s workshop where I was told “It’s not expensive so it might not be worth fixing”. They didn’t have that model in stock so I inquired the price of a slightly smaller one and was told $640 (local currency) or US140 cash. Cleaning up my desk on the weekend I found the original invoice from two years ago when all we were using was US dollars – $96. Thanks for the profiteering DripTech.

The grass

Yes it hasn’t been cut for some time. The lawnmower has been making a LOT of noise recently on being started so rather than deal with a permanently dead (I know it’s a split infinitive) mower it was shipped off to the local repair shop to join the queue. Yes, we queue for everything these days. The message came back this past Friday that yes, it is repairable and would be $200 local. We gulped and then decided that it was a lot cheaper than a new mower (around $1,000 at the local hardware store) so gave the go-ahead. This morning Maianne phoned the workshop to be told that they couldn’t source the spares as it was too risky to venture into town with the current disturbances.

At midnight on Sunday fuel prices more than doubled and the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, flew out to Russia and the far east with begging bowl in hand.  The trade union movement, ZCTU, and opposition politicians immediately called for a shutdown for three days this week to protest the nearly impossible cost of people getting to work and violent protest has ensued. Social media has reported numerous incidents of shops being looted, vehicles burnt and an unconfirmed video of a police station in flames. Mainstream media has reported that people have been shot but numbers have not been confirmed.  My foreman tells me that he’s heard of police and army personnel also threatening shops that were open and forcing them to close. Messages have been doing the rounds of WhatsApp strongly suggesting that all businesses, public transport and schools close for the time being. The language suggests that they are coming from the ZCTU but no-one is claiming ownership at this stage (it’s Tuesday as I write this). Mnangagwa has been seen getting off a privately chartered jet in Moscow which cost some US$60,000 per hour. We are talking real money here.

WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have been blocked but are easily circumvented with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Curiously, while watching YouTube late last night, I received two automated phone calls – one from a private number and the other from a number I didn’t recognise – telling me that my access code to Twitter was a given six digit number. At the time I thought it was a hack and quickly put my phone onto flight mode. Maybe it was a way of bypassing the block. I’m not sure I’ll ever know now but I do know the grass is going to be uncut for a while longer.

Twitter block in place

 





Searching for Grandpa Lionel

28 07 2018

We finally found grandpa Lionel’s grave where the documentation said it would be; Extension 2, row I.C. grave 11.

Lionel Roberts’ grave

We’d been discussing our ancestry with cousin Pat in June 2015 when in the UK for a family reunion and holiday. She’d mentioned that grandfather Lionel had died in the Somme area in May 2018 so I’d suggested we should have another family reunion on the 100th anniversary of his death at his graveside.

On May 24th Marianne and I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines jet in Harare and flew to the UK to start the pilgrimage. It was a long flight made longer by a 5 hour stop over in Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. Compared with the quality of the aircraft and aircrew service the airport was more than a bit drab. Heathrow airport is vast and by the time we’d got to the coach station to catch the bus to cousin Pat in Harlow it was a good hour and a half after landing. Three very tedious hours later we arrived in Harlow and vowed the next time to take the train no matter how much it cost!

My brother Duncan arrived from Shropshire the next day and we set off to France. The weather was bright and sunny and after a roadside lunch in a nearly deserted picnic area it was time to turn on the Google Maps navigator for the next leg into Amiens where Duncan had booked rooms in a utilitarian hotel of the sort favoured by traveling salesmen. I was a bit disconcerted when the app told me that I would be arriving at our destination in 15 minutes and also had our booking details even though I’d had nothing to do with it. I can only presume that it had searched my phone and found that Duncan was my brother and then done a search to see what bookings he’d made for the area we were in. Not sure I like that but I guess it’s something we’ll just have to get used to.

The next day we headed some 50km north to the small town of Doullens to find Lionel’s grave. It took longer than it should have. After and hour scouring what we thought was Extension 2 of Doullens Communal Cemetery and wondering why there were no graves newer than 2017 Pat made the discovery in the registry at the gate that we were in Extension 1. A quick search on Google Earth revealed that Extension 2 was much nearer where we’d parked the car and so we quickly found Lionel’s grave right where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) information said it would be.

Doullens Communal Cemetery 2. Beautifully maintained by the CWGC

The cemetery is small by First World War standards and beautifully maintained by the CWGC. At some fairly recent time all the gravestones have been renewed. Some have been personalized in the form of granite, presumably by family members.

Pat laid a card from cousin Malcom on the grave together with a sprig of myrtle for Lionel’s wife Myrtle whose ashes are scattered on the grave. We sat in the cool shade of some trees, signed the register and discussed family ties.

Lionel is not our grandfather at all. My sister Diana noticed this back in 1992 when looking after my mother in the final stages of her terminal illness. Going through various documents she noticed that my father’s father’s name was not on his birth certificate. At that stage we had never met Pat and didn’t know about Lionel, who really is her grandfather, and that he’d died seven years before my father was born. My mother clammed up and that was the end of that particular conversation. My brother, sister and I were intrigued by a scandal in the family but in my mother’s era it was terribly shameful to be born out of wedlock – oh how times have changed! Pat has a friend who pastime is tracing family trees and she asked her to see if she could find out whom our real grandfather is but the trail has gone cold as anyone who would have known is now dead and Pat said she never heard the subject being discussed by her parents.

We’d known for sometime that the family name has not always been Roberts. The Roberts name used to be Metz which is of course of German origin. Lyon William Metz applied to change his name on 21st September 1917 to Lionel William Roberts, presumably as Metz would have been associated with the enemy. It was approved on 7th January 2018 and then on the 27th of May in that year Lionel was killed by his former countrymen. He died from abdominal wounds – I hope he had sufficient morphine. Three days later the hospital where Lionel spent his final hours was bombed.

 

<i>No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens</i>

No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens

I also have combat experience but in a very different war. In August 1987 when I cycled across northern France on a round trip to Zurich and Germany, I had a stark reminder of just how different. After a long day of 143 km I collapsed in a delightful campsite near Verdun, site of one of the major campaigns of the First World War. I got chatting to a Dutch man whose holiday hobby was going through the old battlefields with a metal detector. He assured me that he still had to be careful what he unearthed as there was still live ordinance buried. He showed me a clip of .303 ammunition which he said would likely still work. What he was really looking for was the double eagle cap badges the Germans had on their helmets. The next day as I tried to pull up my tent pegs I was amazed by the suction of the soil which wasn’t even very wet. I could only imagine the appalling conditions of trying to fight in really wet weather. At the battle of Passchendaele soldiers drowned in the mud. By contrast the war in which I was involved was primarily counter-insurgency warfare where “contacts” with the enemy were usually fleeting and very close range – around 30m or so. Rain was very rarely a contributing factor to the action and we were fighting in our own country.

Cap badge of the Artists’ Rifles

The regiment in which Lionel served was the Artists’ Rifles. None of us had heard of it but a little internet research turns up that it was a highly popular regiment and supplied many officers to other regiments. Established in 1859 it really was intended for artists, musicians and other creative types. Whilst it was a fighting regiment in WW1, in WW2 it was an officer training regiment and was disbanded after WW2 before being resurrected in 1947 and incorporated into the SAS as 21 SAS.

Before visiting Lionel’s grave I did wonder if I would feel any emotion, a connection perhaps with the man whose name I inherited. As a former soldier I have also experienced the terror of combat and was wounded 39 years ago and I will carry the consequences for the rest of my life.  I had to reflect as we walked back to the car that the death a 100 years ago of a man to whom I’m not related was too distant to feel emotionally connected.

We were there. A salute to all those brave men who paid the ultimate price.

 

 

 

 

 





Autumn

19 04 2018

A misty autumn morning

It’s been a strange rainy season. The rain has finally petered out and the mornings are crisp (9 degrees in the photo) but the clear April skies have yet to appear. Of course, here in Zimbabwe, we don’t get the autumn colours of the higher latitudes – we have a sub-tropical climate and what colours there are appear with the new leaves in spring.

The rains arrived pretty much on time in the middle of November and then we had 2 very dry months in December and January. The maize in the foreground of the photo above was starting to look stressed and the general manager of ART Farm where the photo was taken was getting distinctly stressed about the state of the soy beans. Then in February the rains came back with a vengeance and by the end we’d had an almost normal quantity. Distribution is important too and because of the prolonged dry spell yields will not be fantastic. Some parts of the country got excessive rain and others did not plant maize at all.

The economy continues to stagnate. This is not that surprising as it is after all broken and broken economies are not quickly fixed. In the case of Zimbabwe we, and presumably potential investors, are waiting for the general elections the date of which still has to be determined. If the elections are deemed to be free and fair then the money will come. We hope.

The elections have to happen before September. I don’t watch television much and local television not at all but even I have noticed a dearth of campaigning by the parties concerned. The opposition MDC alliance (the original MDC became hopelessly divided  but they seemed to have cobbled together an agreement to stand as a single party) have been holding rallies which apparently have been well attended but the governing ZANU-PF don’t seem to be doing anything. This has made people very suspicious. Either they are super confident that they don’t need to campaign or they are “up to something”. Their track record favors the latter. Newspapers have reported that the military have been dispersed to the rural areas to do the campaigning but nobody actually seems to have evidence of this.

Mary Chiwenga, the wife of the ex-general and now vice president who was key in deposing Robert Mugabe last November, has been reported as helping herself to a government owned farm recently. This seems at odds with the “new dispensation” of president Emmerson Mnangagwa who has promised compensation to commercial farmers evicted under the Mugabe regime and has appealed for the self-same farmers to come back and help rebuild the economy. This may not sit well with prospective investors who shied away for just this reason; a lack of property rights. The story has faded quickly from the local papers who have a notoriously short attention span. When I told my foreman of this latest land grab he commented that this was a “problem with older men who take younger wives that they cannot control” – a clear reference to the profligate land grabbing antics of former president Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Yesterday was a public holiday – the holiest of holy – Independence Day. In the past crowds would be bussed, sometimes under duress, into the National Sports Stadium to hear then president Robert Mugabe drone on about perceived injustices the rest of the world was inflicting on us. Sanctions was a favorite culprit for the economic mayhem he’d wreaked even though everyone knew they were targeted sanctions against ruling party (mainly) individuals. The crowd had mainly come for the high profile soccer match afterwards.

Sometimes there was a military display and fly-past by the air force. The jets used to practice their run over my workplace but this year they were absent and I’m not even sure there was any sort of celebration at the National Stadium. This did not stop the local branch of ZANU-PF asking me for a donation for their regional party. In the past there had always been an implicit threat that if I didn’t cough up there might be a consequence – farmers have long been a soft target. It says a bit for the changing political atmosphere that this year I turned them down when phoned with “not this year, I have too many financial problems to deal with”. True enough if a bit overstated; it’s been the worst first 3 months of a year for business since we adopted the US dollar as our currency back in February 2009.

We are so used to hearing about the dire state of our economy that I am often mildly surprised to hear about agricultural enterprises that are doing well. Avocados and macadamias are riding their healthy food status wave and those who can are exporting to a near insatiable Chinese market to the extent that macadamia nuts are nearly impossible to find locally. Another horticultural company that I’ve dealt with in the past exports canned cherry peppers in bulk containers and I know an export agent who is concerned about the vast area of blueberries that will come online in 5 years or so – he told me that we lack the infrastructure to export them!

Export markets are highly sort after as the foreign currency earned can be used to import goods. Unless one has a priority requirement such as medical, seed or some other “essential” service it is nearly impossible to import using local currency. A way around this is to purchase the US dollars cash on the market, take it to the bank who will then effect the importation. This is what I did last year to import the coir pith we use in the nursery as a growing medium. I paid a 40% premium at the time – apparently it is now 50%  – and landed the product cheaper from India than I can buy the local equivalent the quality of which I don’t trust.

Medical cannabis is also being grown but is very much a closed market. An email call to someone in the know got me a curt “I’ll contact you when the way forward is clear” reply. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

 

 





Bob’s Day

1 03 2018

Last Wednesday was officially a public holiday; The Robert Mugabe Youth Day. Up until the soft coup last year that saw Mugabe forced to resign as Zimbabwe’s president it was his official birthday but not actually a holiday. There was inevitably an extravagant bash somewhere in the country and business’s were browbeaten/intimidated into donating cash or kind (i.e. cattle) for the party. One year there was a particularly tasteless version where a sycophant donated elephant meat. This year I got a letter from the local branch of ZANU-PF on my desk asking for cash or kind for a party for the ZANU-PF Youth Wing. It went straight into the bin. I should have kept it as in a delightful twist of irony it was addressed to “Comrade Robert” and it would have enhanced this blog.  Last week I got a phone call from the author following up on why she hadn’t heard from me or received anything. I rather brusquely told her I didn’t support ZANU-PF.

In the past I might not have been so quick to dismiss her or at least been a little more polite. As a white commercial farmer I have always been a bit of a soft target for such requests – they know we feel vulnerable and easy to squeeze for cash. I rather doubt that it would have made the slightest difference – if they’d decided to evict me then they’d have just gone ahead and done so whether or not I’d supported their celebrations. Independence Day I did usually give something, the logic being that it was a national celebration. The money was still going to a function organized by ZANU-PF and quite possibly into someone’s pocket rather than the intended purpose. I was always assured that a receipt would be given though of course there are official receipts and others and who was I to know the difference. Quite frequently there were thank you letters which did rather surprise me.

I have just been watching a clip of Trevor Noah, the South African comedian, mocking the fall of Jacob Zuma – the disgraced South African president. The fall of Zuma was in no small way a result of a fiercely independent and critical press, a robust constitution and independent judiciary. We have seen a lot more of the critical press in Zimbabwe since Emmerson Mnangagwa took power in the aforementioned soft coup in November. Whilst they have not been directly critical of him there is most certainly an atmosphere of “we can say what we want” and other politicians have been heavily criticized. When Mugabe was in power this was not the case. People were jailed for criticising or mocking him even though a decision by the Constitutional Court, the highest in the land, stated that it was not illegal. Mugabe was the law. Zimbabwe has a strong constitution though it is not always followed; the soft coup being a good example!

The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is scheduled for the last week of May. In the past they have had artistes expelled from the country for mocking the government. The South African rock group Freshly Ground didn’t even make it into the airport for making video to the song “Chicken for Change” that featured a puppet version of Mugabe. I do wonder if this year we will see acts that lampoon Mugabe as Trevor Noah was doing to Jacob Zuma. Despite his destruction of the economy, a culture of kleptocracy and non-accountability he has the national airport named after him and a national holiday. What does it take to become fully disgraced?

The official portrait of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. I think they could have done better.

In the days of the Mugabe regime it was common for offices and shops to have the official portrait of the president in plain view. It was never obligatory and there was never one in the office at my nursery and no-one, not even the politically connected, ever commented. I was rather hoping someone would complain so that I could pick an argument but alas, I was disappointed. Not surprisingly these pictures were pulled down the day after Mugabe was forced to resign; often with YouTube video clips as evidence . It hasn’t taken long for a replacement poster of Mnangagwa to appear around town. The photo of the president is not bad but it seems someone forgot the national flag in the background and a very bad Photoshop version was added. I still don’t think I will be buying one.

 





Chilo Gorge

6 02 2018

Chivilila Falls on the Save River

It’s been nearly a month since we took 4 nights off and headed down to the south-east lowveld of Zimbabwe to Chilo Gorge, an up-market lodge, set above the banks of the Save River which is the biggest river inside the country.  Normally it’s well out of our price range but they had a special on for Zimbabweans so when June and Gary Goss suggested we head down there for a couple of nights we decided to give it a try.

Picking up Gary and June in the eastern city of Mutare where I went to school we headed south into the lowveld of Zimbabwe. The road was fine for the first 140km or so and then got bad, really bad. My old Land Cruiser is tough but not the most comfortable of vehicles so at times we were down to second gear – on the main tar road (or rather what was left of it) past the sugar cane growing area of Middle Save. The alluvial soils of the Save River that flows through the area are fertile and in years gone by multiple crops were grown; cotton, wheat, maize and a variety of horticultural crops. After Robert Mugabe’s eviction of mainly white commercial farmers the area was under-utilized for a while but is now a major sugar cane growing area for an ethanol plant nearby. Fortunately Gary has worked in the area a lot, speaks the local language, and managed to persuade the security guards on the estate to let us use the good gravel road that bypasses a lot of the poor tar road.

Any time is dance time!

January is not a popular time to go to the lowveld of Zimbabwe. It’s hot and humid and the Chilo Gorge lodge is close to the lowest point in the country (162m) just downstream where the Save meets the Runde River, so it’s exceptionally hot. It was scorching  by the time we turned of the tar road and headed along a gravel road to the lodge. Not far from the lodge was a maroon Mazda pickup truck stopped with the bonnet up. We stopped to see if we could help though as the pickup had a South African registration Gary was suspicious; “Nah, he’s come here to smuggle gold and diamonds”. Despite a rather strong South African accent he was a local man come to visit his family and had run out of diesel. A short drive to a nearby cluster of huts sourced a pipe and we gave him 5 litres of diesel (not difficult to get out of an old Land Cruiser). A small crowd of children soon gathered and entertained us with impromptu dancing to our rather good sound system though Madonna was the best I could find and not really what they’d be used to hearing!

It had just rained a few days before we arrived so the river was flowing and not cross-able except by boat so we had to use the lodge’s guided tour. It wasn’t free but well, we hadn’t come all this way to sit around and I was curious to see how Gonarezhou National Park on the other side of the Save River had fared since I’d last been here in the 1990’s. In that time the Zimbabwe National Parks has teamed up with the Frankfurt Zoological Society to form a trust to run the park.

The game guide, Lionel, was young, knowledgeable and entertaining and he took us very close to elephants and the Ghonarezhou elephants are known to be intimidating. As Lionel explained, they have been poached and don’t much care for humans. Fortunately he knew how to read their mood and there were no issues, just a few tense moments.

Getting rather close!

The first heard of elephants we encountered were making a determined walk for the Save River and were heading into the CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) area across the river for the night’s browsing. There are simply too many elephants for the Park to sustain so they have to find food outside its boundaries. Whilst the CAMPFIRE area benefits from the presence of game conflicts will certainly arise elsewhere. Lionel told us that the Great Elephant Census estimated the Park’s elephant population at around 11,000 in an area of 5,000 square km. The Park can sustain about 2,500 which leaves the dilemma of what to do with the excess.

In years gone by elephant populations were kept in check by culling but that is very unlikely to happen now. It is nasty, dirty and dangerous and certainly no professional hunter would take part; witness the firestorm of popular anger on the social media after the shooting of Cecil the lion. No hunter would risk his reputation. National Parks lack the staff with the necessary experience.

Contraception of elephant cows has been successfully practised in the smaller South African parks but remains controversial in the likes of the Kruger National Park which is vast and unfeasible due to cost. Elephant population is apparently stable in the Kruger; fences have been removed, artificial water holes dismantled and the elephants made to move more and natural selection pressures allowed to take their toll.

We noticed that a number of baobab trees in the Park had wire mesh tightly wrapped and nailed to their trunks. I asked Clive Stockil, owner of the Chilo Gorge lodge and lifetime resident in the area, for more details. He explained it was to keep the elephants from destroying the trees. When I asked him why there were no younger trees growing up he responded; “Because everything from warthogs, baboons, buck, mongooses to elephants and in between eats them. They have a root like a big, white, tasty carrot – I ate plenty as a child. By protecting the existing trees we are buying time until a solution can be found to get the seedlings to maturity. Otherwise the mature trees will go extinct in the Park”. Baobabs can be “adopted” for protection here.

Looking for a sponsor – an unprotected baobab. Some damage to the trunk can be seen on the left.

The following day we took a short trip upstream from Chilo Gorge to the Chivilila Falls. Whilst not in full spate (the river was already dropping) it was worthwhile imagining it in flood – I commented to Marianne that it was not unlike listening to the surf pounding on coast.

The weather had cooled down considerably by now after a cold front had moved in and while not great for photography it was comfortable to be out and about so in the afternoon we opted to go and find a particularly large baobab in the conservancy area around Chilo Gorge lodge. It is part of the CAMPFIRE Organisation that Clive Stockil was instrumental in starting and promotes sustainable utilisation of natural resources for local communities. In return for assistance in policing wildlife areas communities also receive funding from safari and hunting companies and are preferentially employed – Chilo Gorge lodge sources a lot of its staff from the local community.

Passing time pleasantly; on the deck at Chilo Gorge lodge.

Our little expedition was cut short after Gary drove over a mopani tree stump which punctured a tyre. Lionel and a colleague happened to pass by and made us feel old by changing the wheel in a few minutes. Mildly chastened we retired to the deck overlooking the Save River and admired the wildlife on the far bank whilst sipping sun-downers. The highlight was a very young hippo calf – it still had shiny skin – that Clive estimated to be about 2 weeks old. It slept blissfully whilst its mother grazed on the river bank. A number of nyala came down to drink but were too nervous of crocodiles and went off elsewhere to find water from the recent rains.

Brothers; a group of very shy kudu bulls.

The following morning we went off on another game drive with Lionel once again the guide. Lots of elephant were seen, giraffe for those with good binoculars, kudu, zebra, eland, impala, two bachelor buffalo, numerous birds and of course some crocodiles.

After lunch it was time to say goodbye and head back north to Mutare to stay with June and Gary before heading home to Harare. For those thinking of making the trip from Harare; the road through Zaka is apparently much better!





The coup d’ètat that isn’t a coup

18 11 2017

The power plug has been pulled – one of many jokes doing the rounds

The military have been emphatic; it’s most certainly NOT a military coup. Just a reorganising of the ruling party (ZANU-PF) ranks. To be specific they are going after the “criminals” surrounding the president, Robert Mugabe. One could be forgiven for thinking – which criminals? Good heavens, there must be so many. Actually they mean a rival faction called G40 headed up  by the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, sometimes known as Gucci Grace for her prolific shopping capacity. Grace who had aspired to the top post of president when her nonagenarian hsuband dies made the mistake of persuading her husband to fire her competitor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of the vice presidents (we have two, just in case). She’d just been booed by the crowd at a rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city in the south-west of the country, and was spitting-mad. She’s quite impetuous so might have forgotten that Mnangagwa is a veteran of the bush war against the former Ian Smith regime and has a lot of mates high up in the military.

So on Wednesday morning we woke to the news of a coup that wasn’t. All the signs were that it was; a man in military uniform reading a statement that it was not a coup, the house arrest of President Mugabe and his family (including Grace) and the arrest of members of the G40 faction. The only sign that anything was impending was the sighting the previous evening of military “tanks” (they were amoured personnel carriers) moving into town to take up strategic positions. Gunshots and explosions were reportedly heard in the night but never verified. This was not however a spur-of-the-moment affair, it was meticulously organised.

We now know that General Chiwenga, chief of the armed forces and front man for the non-coup plotters , and Emmerson Mnangagwa met in South Africa with senior political figures after the latter fled the country having been fired. South Africa said it would not interfere so long as an effort was made to evict Mugabe under terms of the constitution.

On his return from visiting China, Gen. Chiwenga organised for a number of troops to meet him at the airport to foil the attempt by chief of police Augustine Chihuri to have him arrested.  Why did he have to let the Chinese know what was up? Perhaps because we owe them a lot of money. Curiously one of the first statements read on the radio included the line “…and thank you to our friends the British and Americans for their assistance”. How interesting. What did they know and when did they know it?

Yesterday on our early morning excursion to exercise the dogs we passed a troop of soldiers from the local barracks out on a run. They were all to a person dressed in civilian clothing presumably to not worry the inhabitants of the suburb. It is not unusual to see them in this area but they are inevitably wearing some camouflage clothing. This was attention to detail.

On going past the barracks gate a few km down the road I noticed 3 soldiers being inspected by another. I have NEVER seen that in all the years that I’ve been going past. Later in the day a soldier was standing by the side of the road in full uniform with and AK47 and highly polished boots. Dressed to impress I think.

The BBC has been openly quoting “our reporter in Harare” – it’s been a long time since that happened. Clearly the organisers are wanting to project an open image to the world. Foreign reporters have generally been unwelcome in Zimbabwe for the past 10 years or so and are not usually invited to coup events.

Social media has been completely unfettered unlike last year’s disturbance behind the #ThisFlag movement when we were introduced to the VPN concept. Clever; it says look, we are allowing everyone to have a voice.

Police roadblocks have been conspicuously absent since Wednesday morning. There are a few military roadblocks on the way to the airport but they don’t extort money from hapless motorists like the police do and by all accounts they are civil. Somebody went to the effort of choosing the best troops to avoid antagonising the public and to getting the police out of the way as they would have been potential flash points.

Negotiations are ongoing to get Robert Mugabe to step down as president. He has dug his heels in and refuses to go. Photographs show a smiling Gen. Chiwenga and a relaxed looking Mugabe. Just old mates meeting up for a chat, or so it seems. One hopes that the military and their team of advisors anticipated this move because if they back down their heads will be on sticks – literally.

On the way back from town this morning I stopped by a local branch of TransServ, an automotive spares and consumables outlet, to buy some 2 stroke oil for hedge cutters we use. I decided to test the local mood.

“Good morning sir, how are you?” greeted the salesman, recognising me.

“Fine” I replied, “how are you?”.

“I am fine, and what can I do for you?” he responded.

“You can tell Robert Mugabe to go”.

The salesman laughed nervously and  put his finger over his lips in the universal “shush” sign.

“OK”, I responded, “I need some 2 stroke oil”.

Once we’d finished the transaction he asked if there was anything else.

“Yes, you can get rid of Mugabe” I persisted.

Lots more nervous laughter. So I pushed again and pointing to one of the ubiquitous portraits of Mugabe that are found all over the place I added “And you can take that down”. Even more nervous laughter followed.

“So, on Monday I want to see a picture of a crocodile up there” I said on parting. The crocodile is the symbol of Mnangagwa’s faction of ZANU-PF, sometimes known as the Lacoste faction (get it?). The laughter that followed might have been slightly less forced.

In the afternoon Mugabe was let out of house arrest (perhaps the military indicating that he was alive and well) to go and present degrees at Zimbabwe Open University. He arrived with just 3 cars and no security escort. In an irony that could not have been scripted he capped the wife of Gen. Chiwenga and was then pictured asleep.

Saturday. As I write this there is a march taking place in the centre of Harare. It’s been organised by the War Veterans Association, once staunch backers of the Mugabe regime but who have become increasingly critical over the past few weeks, and it’s completely legitimate (something that never would have happened under Mugabe). The military are being cheered and BBC has said there are 10s of thousands there and social media images show a LOT of people in town. Yet another smart move by the organisers of the coup that isn’t. It says “look how popular we are”.

I have to admire the non-coup organisers whoever they are – this has been meticulously planned. Chiwenga apparently has a genuine PhD in sociology (I have seen the title page of his thesis on Twitter) and Mnangagwa is a lawyer but I have to think there is a team behind them and boy are they clever.

So whither the Mugabes? David Cotlart proposed earlier this week that the president would have to be impeached and that does seem to be the course that’s being taken. The Herald, the government newspaper that was much ridiculed in the past for it’s sycophantic approach to Mugabe, has reported that ZANU-PF has voted for Mugabe to resign and failing that they are likely to move for impeachment. The provincial branches of the ruling party have voted en masse for him to go so it seems likely that the support is there. What will they do with Grace? She’s not welcome in South Africa and as a joke doing the rounds stated; “President Mugabe will step down on the condition that his successor takes over his wife. Suddenly nobody wants the job”.

And the future? Here’s my guess. Mnangagwa will arrive back to a hero’s welcome and be instated as head of ZANU-PF. He might even be made interim president until elections next year which he will try and win free and fair on the back of the current euphoria – being seen as the saviour of the country. He might well succeed as the opposition is weak and fractured. ZANU-PF will reinvent itself and be in power for another 5 years. Investors will be seduced and likely ignore the less than perfect situation. How Mnangagwa and Chiwenga will deal with their dirty pasts remains to be seen. It’s exciting times!