60 and the bottle of wine

15 12 2019

A fine red wine blend

Marianne bought the bottle of South African Saronsberg Seismic 2009 red wine about 3 years ago; she had fond memories of it and thought it would be a good wine to put aside for a major celebration. The first occasion we earmarked was Mugabe’s death but when it came it seemed a bit of an anti-climax. He’d become irrelevant and it certainly didn’t create a beacon of hope. The current Zimbabwean president, ED Mnangagwa has seen to extinguishing that one before it could get going. So we moved the goalposts to the day when we would have paid off the bond on the house.

We decided to buy a house in 2016. Like anyone who’s ever rented a house long term you soon realize that you are just putting a lot of money into someone else’s pocket. There were other reasons to invest in a house. In Zimbabwe there is little if any sense in putting money into a savings account. If the government doesn’t steal it, inflation will make it worthless. Banking on the local currency crashing yet again, we decided to pool our hard-earned foreign currency savings,  borrow as much as we possibly could, and buy a house. After 6 months of despondent searching we settled with a house with “potential” (a real estate euphemism for needing a lot of work) and moved into town from the farm where I’d been renting.

The asking price was US$225,000 which we considered fair as the house was filthy and needed a lot of work but had a decent 2 bed-roomed cottage on the property that we reckoned we could easily rent out and help pay off the bond. We could also move into it when a bit older and rent out the main house for retirement income. We could only get a bond for $75,000 of the asking price as both of us were over 50 and we had to pay it off over 10 years. It sounds like a lot but I was banking on the currency losing it’s value as it had in 2008 when people had paid off multi-thousand dollar bonds for the equivalent of a few US cents. I was determined not to lose out again as prior to the 2008 currency crash I’d dithered about buying a house and lost out on a bargain.

Luckily the loan contract stated that the money was valued as US dollars or the dominant local currency of the day. At the time there were a number of legal currencies in Zimbabwe including the US dollar, South African rand, British pound and the local currency called the RTGS dollar if it was in electronic format or the Bond dollar if in cash notes. The latter were officially valued at 1:1 with the US dollar but very quickly started to trade at much less on the black market. Although the bank accounts were officially valued in US dollars it was soon evident that they were valued in local dollars (the reserve bank had made off with the US dollars) and nowhere near 1:1. From the point of view of paying off the house, that suited us just fine and in September I borrowed $14,000 of local money off my own company (it was about US$1,000 at the time) and paid off the bond. Somehow it didn’t feel sufficient enough of an achievement to open the bottle of wine. So we set the new goal as my 60th birthday.

I wouldn’t say that the 10 years since I posted Reflections on the first half have passed quickly but they have been eventful. In December 2016 I married Marianne, whom I met through friends who boarded my dogs whilst I was undergoing neck surgery to stop the rot caused by 2 previous surgeries that had gone badly. We moved in together some time later and I bought her a dog to help with the bonding process. It must have worked as we celebrated our third anniversary recently.

I also bought a new pickup. That’s probably not a big deal to many people who read this but it is the first new car I have ever bought and it was a necessity. My disability had been deteriorating noticeably and on at least 2 occasions I’d missed the brake in my old Mazda pickup. I’d recovered the situation without more than damaged nerves but at some stage there were going to be tears and dents. As a physically disabled person I can import a vehicle duty free with the proviso that it is automatic and of course I had to get a letter from a medical specialist stating the nature of my disability and that I needed an automatic vehicle (some vehicles are assembled in Zimbabwe but they are all manual). I chose to go through a private importer (rather than an official Ford dealer) as they were familiar with the system. Money was paid and after a considerable delay the vehicle arrived, complete with a hand-operated foot brake to ease the drama of stopping. It certainly is a pleasure to drive though not hugely economic on fuel use.

My brother, Duncan, came out from the UK to help celebrate my 60th birthday in the middle of November. Unfortunately my sister, who lives in the north-western USA, couldn’t make it but gave me a present of 3 nights in a cottage in Nyanga in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. We gathered some friends, filled up some containers with diesel (it’s still critically short) and headed off for the 4 hour drive. Whilst stopped at a traffic light in the dormitory town of Ruwa some 20km out of Harare we were enveloped by a cloud of blue smoke. By the time Duncan got out to check it had dispersed but it was definitely ours. The truck computer didn’t indicate any faults but we stopped at the next town and changed the fuel filter, which was dirty. The power loss didn’t improve so in the absence of any warning lights on the dashboard we continued to Nyanga.

The cottage, named Rocky Glen, was at the end of a road in a tree plantation. It was very comfortably furnished and the staff ensured that the log fire burned all day and most of the night which irked a bit as it was not remotely cold. It did add atmosphere for the Saronsberg wine which was very good. Nope, there’s no more 2009 vintage – I have checked their website!

In good Nyanga form it rained, though not so heavily that we couldn’t get out and do things which can be an issue in the rainy season. The road to the Gairezi River was surprisingly good, not least because it has been very dry in that part of the country too. The river was low and dirty from the overnight rain but Duncan was not put off and had a ritual swim. The rest of us watched as the clouds closed in and the rain started.

World’s View. L to R: Marianne, Maria Wilson, Duncan, self, Zak

The next day it was time to leave the quiet and solitude of the Nyanga mountains and head back to Harare and stress. First stop was the turbocharger repair workshop.

The news wasn’t good; a new turbocharger was required from South Africa and the currency was US dollars cash, and no paper trail. Whilst such deals are illegal in Zimbabwe one has to accept that for fully imported one-off items foreign currency will be required. I didn’t really have a choice as it was not a good idea to drive the vehicle and I cannot safely drive manual vehicles. A deposit was paid with precious dollars and in due course the vehicle was fixed after parting with yet more. As of writing this it hasn’t been ascertained what caused the turbocharger to fail but this particular engine is prone to having the turbo fail. Thanks Ford.

Fortunately there had been some rain whilst we were away so the swimming pool (also a makeshift reservoir for rain water collected off the roof) had risen a bit. The borehole has been failing since October and finally became useful only for drinking water in early November so the pool has been tapped for non-drinking water. Finally last Friday we had to buy in water as the pool was very low and the remaining water was more than somewhat dirty. Then the following day the rains returned and we’ve had a good week of some 140mm. The pool is back to two thirds full (about 40,000 litres) and we have 2 rain tanks totaling another 10,000 litres. We are self-sufficient for a while. Municipal water supply is erratic in Harare. We have not had municipal water since we moved in and those that do have it say it’s unusable for anything but watering plants. Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water source, is heavily polluted and the municipality has no money for water purification chemicals.

The Zimbabwe government doesn’t have much money for anything which is not surprising considering they stuff their pockets with whatever money they can lay their hands on. There has been a long running junior doctors strike that culminated in more than 400 being fired. They complained that they didn’t even get paid enough money to get to work and when they did get to work there was little if anything to work with. Those that can have left for other countries and the government has backed down and offered to reinstate the dismissed doctors no questions asked.  A very wealthy Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa has offered to top up the doctors’ salaries with the local equivalent of US$310 per month but it’s not clear how many takers there have been.

It’s not just the healthcare system in a shambles. Air traffic controllers have also been on strike over poor pay conditions and unsafe equipment. Power supplies are still heavily restricted countrywide. The latter has got to the stage where the government is reportedly considering the nuclear power option.  That they are extremely complex to run doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest – much more challenging than supplying a country with fuel at which they have proved themselves utterly incompetent. Hopefully the cost will keep an African Chernobyl at bay. In the meantime the national supply authority, ZESA, has hedged it’s bets and installed a solar power system in its head office building. Oh the irony.

So what’s it like being 60? Much the same as 59. I did get a set of hearing aids from my brother, courtesy of the National Health Service in the UK. His hearing profile is much the same as mine, though mine is a bit worse thanks to a more extended military service. He just has to pay £50 a piece to replace his “lost” ones. Do they work? Yes. I can now hear the workings of my electric toothbrush but they haven’t cured the persistent tinnitus as I hoped they might. I might be able to get them reprogrammed here but otherwise they will just have to do.

Bette Davis is credited with saying “Getting old is not for sissies”. I know 60 is the new 40 and all that but I think we need a different standard for Zimbabwe. Life here is just difficult regardless of age and of course makes one feel older. Some days I feel like I’m well into my eighth decade (I don’t like to think I’m already into my 7th). Partly it’s a structural issue – an artificial knee is giving a lot of trouble these days and it’s not helped by less than successful neck surgery in 2010 that has exacerbated my disability. Mostly it’s the dismal state of the economy which even our government has said will shrink by around 6% in 2020. The Economist, in its annual predicting the coming year supplement, has predicted it will shrink by around 23%. How can one make any plans in this sort of environment?

I asked Marianne recently if she would opt to stay in this country if we were financially secure. She said probably. I said I would seriously at moving to where I could do the things I really want to namely paragliding. I am now dependent on other people to take off – a critical part of the sport – and there’s only a few people I’d trust to do that. In fact there are about 2 and neither of them are available. One has stopped flying and the other is not interested in helping out – I am seen as baggage. Quite often there is just nobody around interested in going flying anyway – such is the dire state of the sport. France would be good, paragliding is big there and there would always be people around to help and yes, I can get by with the language. Dreams.

Most people at 60 have a retirement plan laid out. No chance of that in Zimbabwe for most people.   There is a national pension scheme but the pensions don’t remotely keep pace with inflation so we are putting as much money as we can into improving the property in the hope that one day we can sell it for real money. So here we stay.

 

 

 





This is George

3 08 2015
George the paragliding giraffe

George the paragliding giraffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

A happy giraffe!

A happy giraffe!





Bee season

13 08 2013

I got in late last night from a successful day’s flying in the Zambezi Valley. 7.5 hours driving 1h40 flying, 1100m height gains but no big distance. That is a successful day for a paraglider pilot, especially one who doesn’t get much opportunity to fly these days.

landed

It’s easy to be a celebrity in the Zambezi Valley (near Muzarabani)

day end

Day’s end – the crowd moves off one by one

 

Richard and Craig offloaded the wings, commented on the bees in the dining room and left. I didn’t bother investigating further; there are often bees swarming in my chimney, especially at this time of year and they get trapped inside the lounge. No big deal, I’d get the vacuum cleaner out in the morning and suck them up.

This morning I walked into the lounge and discovered a swarm of bees had moved in during the day. There’s not a lot I can do at this stage except leave the windows open and hope they move off to a better location. In the meantime I think I’ll go somewhere else while they make up their mind!

Not a pretty sight early in the morning!

Not a pretty sight early in the morning!





The election part 1 – all calm

31 07 2013
All is calm above World's View in Nyanga

All is calm above World’s View in Nyanga

I resolved as I climbed the steps into the Nyanga Police Station not to ask if we could paraglide but simply to state that that’s what we’d come to do.

The female constable was clearly uncertain about this paragliding thing even after I’d shown her a photo on my cellphone. “I have to call my boss” she replied. Her boss, the duty sergeant, was completely uninterested. Clearly, with an impending general election, he had more important things on his mind. Anyway, he knew about paragliding and that we’d been coming to this premier site at World’s View for as long as he’d been at Nyanga.

The flight was uneventful, and not the best conditions that this area can deliver, but after a long break from thermic flying I wasn’t complaining and I got in a nice hour in punchy, small thermals that still managed to lift me 400m above takeoff before high cloud stopped play.

I got chatting to a couple of well-spoken youngsters on the landing field.

“Where is your Robert cap” I asked one, referring to the profusion of the yellow caps in the area with a picture of Robert Mugabe on them.

“In my house” he waved vaguely in a northerly direction. “Anyway, you don’t have to wear them”.

“Are you going to vote?” his friend asked me.

“Of course, but it’s my secret who for”.

“That is obvious” he countered.

“No it’s not, I might decide Robert is my friend”.

They found this hugely funny.

We’d been in the area a few days and I’d been concerned about a paragliding trip this close to the election on the 31st July. The last election in 2008 had been marked by a lot of violence but this time around all seemed quiet. I’d seen a number of ZANU-PF (Mugabe’s party) vehicles giving out caps and T-shirts and putting up posters and even a few vehicles from the opposition MDC (Move for Democratic Change). The visit to the police station was merely a courtesy to cover ourselves just in case someone accused us of spying (seriously!). In the past they did ask us not to fly over the police station and of course I ended up in a thermal for some 10 minutes directly over it but high enough to escape notice.

Today was voting day. I was in no rush as I rather thought I’d avoid those who thought that it would be necessary to get to the polling stations early. Leaving the house just after 11 I visited the first polling station in my area only to find that I was registered for another ward. There wasn’t even a queue. At the correct polling station there were 2 queues of some 30 people each. Policemen and observers lounged in the sun and one waved me to the front of the queue. 5 minutes later I was out my duty done and I was back home by 12.

Duty done!

Duty done!

So whom did I vote for? Well, that’s my secret but as I was at school for one of the councillors, it wasn’t just a vote for president, he got my X. Now it’s time to get on with this day off and hang out the washing and start pruning the roses.





Brothers in the sun

10 07 2012

“Do you have a letter?” the tax official at ZIMRA (Zimbabwe Revenue Authority) asked.

“What letter?” I replied.

“There’s a notice on the door” he waved vaguely in the direction of the entrance. “You need a letter from your company authorizing you to collect the ITF263” he continued.

“But I am the director!” I exclaimed.

“Well in that case we need to see your CR14 and your ID”.

I got up more than a little perplexed. I’d been to Kurima House in Harare to get an ITF263 (tax clearance form) and never been asked for company documents (the CR14 lists the names and addresses of a company’s directors) but I’d never won an argument with a tax official so there was not a lot to do except go and get it back at my house. I checked on the door on the way out and there was indeed a notice listing the requirement for a letter for a non-company official to collect the ITF263 but nothing else.

Arriving back at the tax office this afternoon the tax official banged on the office window as a walked past and told me to come directly inside ahead of the queue. Given the length of the queue I didn’t think that was a bad idea. I went to the next free desk and nobody there was interested in my CR14!  Just less than an hour later, with just 5 minutes left on the parking ticket that I’d bought, I was back at my truck with the precious green document and feeling more than a little pleased with myself. All the tax payments had been in order and though I had to visit a few other offices in the interim I was now clear to import raw materials for the next 6 months.

I was waiting for the traffic to move behind me so that I could reverse when the man with albinism appeared at my window. Blacks with albinism are easily spotted in this country of a black majority and while once they were shunned they have become much more accepted in the last 10 years or so. He held up a container of sunblock and said “Can you help me please sir, I need some money to buy some more of this?”

I paused a moment and then reached down into the foot well of the passenger seat and retrieved the ¾ full bottle of factor 30 sunblock that I keep in the pickup and handed to him. Fully expecting him to be disappointed at not getting cash to spend as he liked I was pleasantly taken aback at his obvious delight. I gently remonstrated him for not wearing a hat but he explained that he’d washed it that morning and it was still wet.  I’d once given my cap to an albinistic girl in the Zambezi Valley when paragliding there but unlike her this man did seem to be looking after his skin. The poor girl whom I gave my cap to was pathologically shy and was obviously taking the brunt of the teasing of the other kids.

I thought it a smart move approaching a white man who’d very likely be sympathetic and know what sunblock was. Blacks do of course get sunburnt but nothing like the extent that we whites do in this tropical climate. What the man who’d approached did not know was that I was a soft target on another front – my mother died of malignant melanoma in 1992, a high price for living in the tropics.





A fine weekend

2 07 2012

I took the weekend “off” and went to stay with Gary and June and some of their friends at Tsoka re denga on the very edge of the Honde Valley in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. It’s not a place for small children as they could easily wander over the edge which would be fatal but we are all past that age and had a great time. The weather was warm for winter and we also got in some long overdue paragliding at our Samanga takeoff (not pictured). One the way back from Mutare today I indulged myself in a slower trip and time for some photos. Such are the perks of owning one’s own business!





Hiatus

20 08 2010

I have been uninspired since Jenni’s death. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, on the contrary, I filled 21 pages of my diary with my memories of her, but it’s private stuff that I won’t be posting here. I just can’t seem to find much to write about.

We actually managed to get a group of pilots together for the long weekend this month and head up to Nyanga. It was to be my first flying since the neck op in March and I was not at all sure that my right arm would cope as it is so much weaker than before. The Sunday we all went off to the Honde site (east facing) which is spectacular enough, overlooking the Honde Valley into Mozambique. I was too nervous to fly at midday but by the afternoon when I’d plucked up courage the wind had dropped to nearly nothing and it wasn’t worth the effort. Still, it was nice to chill with flying buddies in the evening and drink a beer and talk the usual pilot talk.

It was westerly on Monday and we waited around at World’s View. Pete and Manu offered to get me off the hill and after more than a bit of dithering on my part I got a clean, easy launch and headed out to find a thermal. The previous inexperienced pilot had missed all available thermals and sunk out to the “turkey patch” without ever getting above take off. I headed away from the takeoff and soon picked up a nice thermal that took me nearly 1000m above take off and the flight was on. It was quite emotional for me; Jenni should have been with me and a good friend, Trevor Ambrose had died suddenly early on Sunday morning in Harare. But I settled into the flight and enjoyed the smooth relatively strong climbs and landed 1.5hrs later at the National Parks grid into the park. A very slow flight but enjoyable..

Last week I had to go to Jo’burg for a follow up consultation with the surgeon who did my neck op. Setting the alarm at 04h15 I got to the airport by 05h30 only to find I was the first in the queue. I still managed to be last onto the plane which was fully booked.

I’d plenty of time to do my own thing so after sorting out a bit of business I looked up Cheryl whom I’d contacted about getting another Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. She’s a breeder in Edenvale and invited me around the next day to see a bitch she was thinking of rehoming due to some breeding difficulties with her – she was also being bullied by the other dogs. I knew I was being assessed but had taken the precaution of directing her to Jenni’s album on my Facebook page. We got on well and she introduced me to Kharma, a young, very gentle bitch who is a quite different build from Jenni but a similar temperament. It took a while but Cheryl eventually agreed that I could have Kharma (I’d pay for her to fly up to Harare – a road trip would be too risky).

I saw the doctor that afternoon and he pronounced himself satisfied with the result. I didn’t point out that the right arm was still not up to the functionality it had before the op.

On Tuesday I went past the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services to see if I could get an import licence for Kharma. I’d been alerted that there was a ban on all animal and animal products into Zimbabwe from South Africa but an internet search revealed it was all about protecting local industry rather than preventing Rift Valley Fever getting in. There was a poster up on the wall informing all that there was a total ban on the import of animals and animal products from South Africa. But I asked anyway. No, there was no ban, it had been lifted. Yes! I was too elated to bother pointing the poster out.

I should have picked the permit up today but did not go that way. So it will have to be Monday. There is no rush, Kharma only flies up in 2 weeks – I think Cheryl is getting a bit possessive! That’s a good sign.