My Summer Workaway Adventures, Part I

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It is hard to believe that I have just come back from a four month Workaway experience on the continent. It seemed like I departed a year ago at least so rich and varied has the experience been for me. After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking from Cape Town to the shores of Lake Tanganyika I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking … I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

I selected a varied number of projects on the site, Workaway.info, based on things I’d knew I’d probably enjoy and a few I wasn’t so sure about but which looked interesting. Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

The two parties enter into a non-binding contract whereby the host provides board and lodging and the volunteer provides whatever service is required of them (as per the host requirements on the website). Central to it is that the agreement between host and workaway is a purely social contract i.e. no money change hands.

Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

I made the decision to avoid flying, or at least to keep it to a minimum. I set off from my uncle’s house in Poole in early August on a cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg. I had set myself a conservative budget of about maybe 1200 pounds, the idea being that I was only going to pay travel costs and entertainment. If I was frugal I should spend even less.

My spirits had been flagging a little, due in some part to the uncertainty of setting out into the unknown, alone. It didn’t help that my arrival in Cherbourg coincided with a spell of rainy weather. The historic harbour – the 2nd largest artificial harbour in the world – was a strange, place-out-of-time experience. Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea and attendant fortifications, long obsolete. It was quite eerie.

Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea…

I struggled for the next few hours to find my way to a campsite on the edge of town. When I got there I found myself walking in the wrong direction, hopelessly lost. A chill wind was blowing hard off the sea. My first stroke of good fortune came in the shape of a Frenchman, Roland, grey-haired and lost in thought. I politely approached him and asked for directions. He steered me back to the camping/caravan site and before long I had a spot allocated me and my one-man tent.

He looked a little concerned considering the weather but the next day he picked me up and showed me some highlights of the district. An interesting and thoughtful man he also introduced me to his other half at the local market as well as his youngest son and Thai wife, selling SE Asian cuisine from a mobile caravan.

After two damp nights at the campsite I jumped on a train and headed to Bayeux, arguably the highlight of my trip through Normandy. What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art. Absolutely fascinating, accompanied by a charming audio commentary. Very much recommended.

What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art.

From Bayeux I continued to Caen and it’s chic riverside shopping malls and apartments. That said the charm soon wore off as I found myself walking for an absolute age looking for my hostel, or as they call them there, l’auberge de jeunesse.

As with other youth hostels I stayed in whilst in France I found it to be fairly utilitarian: clean and functional but without much charm. All the same I got my head down soon after arriving and was up early and refreshed. As I write I was trying hard to recall the exact route I took from there. I recall that it was a longer train journey this time to either le Man or Tours whereupon I had to change to another train to Poitiers.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles. He put me in mind of an old photograph of my great grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He had a ready smile but his English was non-existent. Thus with some difficulty, initially at least, I was forced to use my schoolboy boy French. It was good experience and a necessary one dare I say.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles.

Despite the transient difficulties I had a wonderful time at le Jardin de Verrines, a smallholding on which Gerard grew vegetables and created all manner of articles from his barn-cum-workshop. We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Everything was done in the spirit of permaculture. No artificial pesticide or fertilisers were used and boy did it taste good. “Tres bon” as I found myself saying time and time again. No superlatives could do justice to the cherry tomatoes! I dare say I could have gorged myself on those alone for the several weeks I was there.

We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

From Verrines I turned back north and caught a train to the historic city of Orleans where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) rose to prominence in the early 15th century. There were references to her everywhere, at least one statue, a museum and a house where she had allegedly lived, now a national heritage site. I wasn’t there to see the maid of Orleans, however, but rather as an entry point into the much acclaimed Loire Valley along which many 100’s of kilometres of cycle lanes have been purposely built under a scheme called Loire à Vélo.

I hired a bicycle for several days (I had to extend it slightly) and set out from my hostel in the south of the city in a westerly direction. It was a truly memorable few days cycling in what was still late summer: long, warm days followed by cool, 8 hour nights.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux. The latter are a big attraction and draw in much of the tourism alongside the wine tours; campers, caravaners and cyclists like myself; visitors to the towns and villagers; etc. The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river, periodically reading the information boards and all the while taking in the subtle changes in colour, character and landscape.

The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river

The birdlife was good and ensured that my binoculars were always close at hand. From time to time I could even see the fat, dark forms of fish lazily holding their position mid-stream. The occasional fisherman sat on the bank or stood waist-deep in the water, a study in patience, oblivious to the modern world and the buzz of its motorways, aeroplanes and passing traffic, me included.

I didn’t go quite as far as Tours but instead turned back towards Orleans at chateau Chenonceau. From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose due to the prevalence of pink-coloured stone used to construct many of its buildings. There I stayed with a friend, Rui, whom I’d been at school with in Zimbabwe. I had lived with him for some months in the the town of Luton in the UK where he worked in the aviation industry.

From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose…

It was no coincidence that he was in Toulouse, the heart of the aviation industry in Europe. As in the UK he worked long hours and I didn’t see that much of him. Consequently I had a good deal of time in the several days I spent with him to explore the city and enjoy the buzz of its many parks, cafes and squares.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand (purchased from a 24 hr store near he apartment), accompanied by a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette. Guilty pleasures.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand … a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette

Sitting there, watching the sun set behind the dome of the chapel of the Hôpital Saint-Joseph de la Grave alongside many other like-minded individuals, many of them students, gave me a sense of bonhomie and good will even though I knew none of them individually.

After a weekend in Toulouse I met my next hosts near St Cyprienne Metro station. Anne and Hector used to live in the city but now resided in a small town about an hour or so to the south. It nestled near the confluence of the Garonne and the Salat.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof. The barn itself he had partitioned into an upstairs and downstairs area. The area beneath was living space and the upper floor was to be a large music room replete with stage and lighting.

The job itself was instructional but not particularly exciting. More of interest to me was being in a position to explore the surrounding area. One weekend I took Hector’s town bike, slung a sleeping bag, tent and some provisions on the back, and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south. I cycled from Montréjeau to Luchon and took in a wealth of sites in-between: old monasteries; orchards; medieval towns and sweeping vistas.

One weekend I took Hector’s town bike … and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south.

That night I camped up near a village calleed Sost, renowned for it’s cheese, and the next day cycled all the way up to Lac d’Oô, an artificial lake fronting some jagged, snow-capped peaks. There were signs saying beware of avalanches but the meadows and hillslopes were still green and cheerful. It was a magical weekend and will live on in my memory for many years to come.

My Workaway experience may have ended here as plans for the next stopover in Italy fell by the wayside. I had intended to make my way across Italy and the Balkans towards Greece but decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to fly back to Istanbul.

I’d been in Turkey earlier in the year teaching English at a language school near the capital and sharing an apartment with my old friend Sofian. If you have read any of my other travelogue you might recall him from an earlier Turkish chapter, a summer language camp in the provincial town of Merzifon. I had also visited him in his home-country, Algeria.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one. Menacing grey clouds blanketed the landscape below and on the ground the city was inundated after days of incessant rain. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of it pushing down on me.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one.

I headed out of the city towards Izmit, really just a satellite of Istanbul, to where I’d taught earlier in the year. I checked into a hotel in the meantime. Much of the novelty had worn off and now what impressed me most was the seemingly endless extent of concrete buildings, factories and apartment blocks for the 70 or so kilometres en route.

To get to the point I was offered a teaching place at a new language centre in a neighbouring town, Sakarya, but without the assurance of a place to stay nor a negotiated salary. I asked for a few days to think about it and returned to Istanbul. It was there that I realised that my journey was only half complete. I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I returned to Izmit and declined the offer in person and immediately felt a sense of lightness and relief. At last I felt the urge to meet up with several friends and students I had engaged with earlier in the year and the return trip seemed to have a purpose after all.

As an aside it is worth pointing out that elections were imminent after the failure to form a coalition government after a prior general election earlier in the year. This may have contributed to some of the tension I felt in the air. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict seemed to have intensified, as had the involvement of other powerful nations. The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties although I couldn’t understand any of the attendant commentary.

The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties…

On my way back to Istanbul prior to my outgoing flight out to Athens I took the intercity train for the first time. It didn’t go all the way into the heart of the city and I had to find a way to get across to one of the metro stations for that purpose. I was helped in that respect by a polite, somewhat reserved young man from Ankara University.

We conversed a little and he told me in halting English that he was studying medicine. He was on his way back to Istanbul to visit his parents for the weekend. That was a Thursday evening. On the weekend a terrorist bombing blamed on Islamist radicals in Syria would kill dozens of his co-students who were participating in a peace rally in the capital. It was a small consolation to know that he wasn’t amongst them.

That Friday morning I was greeted by clear skies, a good omen. An indirect flight, I had to catch a connecting plane in Izmir, a popular tourist spot on the Aegean coast. As I flew on to Athens, the Med sparkling beneath, islands dotted here and there, it seemed inconceivable that there was a tide of refugees attempting to cross those same waters to Europe. But more of that in the next chapter. The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The Marmaris Straights

You can read more on my French Workaway experience on my sister blog which include a few funny anectdotes at the end.

The GNP, Then and Now (And the Futility of it All)

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The following extract is from my childhood memoirs (unpublished except for chapter one, posted here) with reference to a particular place where I spent much of my adolescence. What photos are included are scanned prints taken by myself. Following this are some photos (mobile phone camera) and an account of my most recent visit to the GNP only a week or so ago on a return visit to Zimbabwe.

It was relatively early on in my high school career that I had met Mr. Rob Burrett properly, when my mother and I were walking in the green belt near our property one afternoon. Until this point in time it had been a neglected strip of seven or so hectares which was impenetrable in parts due to the proliferation of vegetation. The local gardeners and maids fished in the old farm dam up top, but the catch was usually small, as were the fish. However, a local initiative had recently commenced to spruce the place up, transforming it into a recreational area whilst trying to return it to a semblance of what it may have been like prior to the effects of urbanisation. Rob had been a master of sorts at Highlands Junior School, but I hadn’t known him then. Later on he had come to teach Geography at St. Georges.

He was a charismatic teacher with a sharp mind and an ability to bring out the best in his students, although he had a fierce temper when the marks were not what he expected them to be (they seldom were). I attribute Mr. Burrett’s teaching in large part to my later attaining an ‘A’ at A-Level Geography. It was a voluminous syllabus which he never quite managed to cover entirely, but nevertheless in sufficient detail to get me the grade. I stress emphatically that there were no favours on his part done to me. If anything he was harsher, and I very seldom got over fifty percent for any of the assignments he set us.

I never managed to figure out exactly how Rob, as I came to know him outside of school, had come to be involved with the Greystone Nature Preserve. He was more than happy to explain to me the aims and objectives of the GNP Association, which were to try and eradicate the invasive and exotic plants and re-establish the native flora and fauna. It resonated strongly with my own environmental inclinations and before long I was spending as much of my free time as I could hacking paths through the thickets of Lantana camara and prickly bramble. Best of all I was given permission to use fire to incinerate impenetrable clumps of shrubs and weeds. Perhaps I wasn’t given permission per se but I had observed a series of controlled burns around the dam and had managed to convince my parents that this other burning was equally within the mandate of the GNPA.

Perhaps none of the primal elements can invoke as much awe and wonder as fire. Retrospectively I have to admit to being something of a pyromaniac, but fire was an important part of the ecosystem there, something not always appreciated. A few weeks after a blaze, from the scorched earth would arise a multitude of shoots from perennial plants and shrubs whose roots and tubers housed the water and starch they needed to survive until the rains arrived late in the year. By incinerating the old plant and grass matter above ground, fire would provide a stimulus to the living plant below to send up shoots, and perhaps even germinate their seeds.

The analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes could not be more appropriate. I remember Robbie Taylor being severely berated for having started a fire in the field or vlei nearest their house in an adjacent neighbourhood. “He’s such an unruly child” my aunt Nick had said at the time, “Lyn is very worried about him.” (Lyn was his mother). She must have been aware of my activities in this arena and maybe she spoke to my mum or others about me – I don’t know. But even if other people had voiced disapproval it wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, I was sanctioned by the GNPA who had an extensive lease on the area. It didn’t extend as far as Robbie’s house so Robbie was labelled a pyromaniac and further actions forbidden.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

The other thing I was permitted to do was to spray herbicide on the undesirable plants; the noxious weeds perceived to threaten the natural order. This was initially restricted to Lantana camara, attractive when flowering but possessing acrid-smelling leaves as well as thorns that had a tendency to form thickets. It was poisonous to cattle where it had spread to grazing pasture in the countryside.

In time we came to use herbicide, Rob and I, on a selection of exotics. The flowering cherries whose blossom was so admired in suburban gardens, for instance, was a proliferating nuisance in the GNP where the birds would spread the seeds far and wide. The coppiced growth that arose after felling them proved to be very susceptible to the effects of Roundup, the herbicide of choice. Other plants were more resilient like a leguminous pasture shrub called silver leaf, introduced for cattle fodder was a problematic invasive and could survive the Roundup treatment.

The GNP became my own personal project, a garden where I was the gardener and the evolution of the space within of my determination. Perhaps it was an outlet for my frustrated soul yet I never thought that at the time; I simply loved being there. Like most habitats in the country that had not yet been overwhelmed by man’s activities, this area had a wealth of diversity, most noticeable in spring just prior to the rains and during the early part of the rainy season, before everything became swamped by the more vigorous plants like silver leaf and morning glory.

My favourite time was the weeks after fire had swept across the grassland; seeing the emergence of the red-winged pods of the shrubby ground Combretum and the delicate flowering stalks of the Gladiolus species particularly prominent amidst the various other herbs and shrubs. A local botanist, Mark Hyde, had remarked on the enormous diversity of the grassland flora and urged the Association to protect it. He lamented that the grassland habitats around the city had come under increasing pressure due to agriculture and land clearance.

I was never really lonely, except perhaps on a deeper level, but generally liked to be left alone and avoided contact with people walking there. In the evenings the older, middle-aged inhabitants of the neighbourhood would come out walking with their dogs. They were generally predictable in their routine so I could avoid them when necessary.

Other visitors included the inevitable young lovers, fingers interlocked, sitting together for long periods on the benches and sometimes wandering into the undergrowth for secret trysts. They were mainly black teenagers but white teens were present too, although they seemed to spend more time at the dam, especially with a few bottles of liquor on a Friday evening.

The dark profile of the 'praying tree', a little sinister-looking here perhaps but venerated by the individual I refer to.

The dark profile of the ‘praying tree’, a little sinister-looking here perhaps, but a sacred place to the individual I refer to.

Another regular was the Shona man who came regularly to pray beneath a particularly large musasa tree that grew not far from our house. He prayed loudly and imploringly, perhaps to God or perhaps to an ancestor and although I couldn’t understand much of what he said he imagined that he was praying for what most people prayed for: assistance in the rigours of daily life, good health and prosperity.

I can also recall the old medicine man or N’anga who would occasionally arrive to dig up the bulbs of plants, or collect aromatic leaves from particular trees and shrubs. He was old and stooped with matted hair and a lined and weathered face. He carried with him a plain, hessian sack in which he would collect the various articles. Once he even raided a hive of African honeybees with nothing more than a smoking roll of newspaper, extracting combs of rich, succulent natural honey as the angry bees swarmed about him. He remained undeterred.

I started the process of trying to ‘move on’ from the GNP when it became clear that I would be expected to go to university directly after finishing my A-Level studies. The thought of leaving home and my piece of Africa made me sad. I always felt I could identify with the Zimbabwean bush but I also felt an intense solitude at times when in the GNP akin to the one that Terry Waite experienced (see this extract). The closest I can come to rationalising it is to say that I knew there were some deep-seated problems in my life rooted in relationship dynamics (things that would come to light in the next couple of years actually).

I have written about the general facts and dates of my tertiary education in my biographical notes (unpublished). There was a 2 year stint at Rhodes University in SA which was quite excruciatingly difficult at times – socially and emotionally-speaking that is. In that time my mother decided, finally, to act on her suspicions regarding my father’s fidelity. She discovered that he was indeed being unfaithful (no surprise in retrospect) and after some negotiations divorced him. I was informed of much of this remotely so that, after dropping out after 2 years at RU, it was pretty much a fait accompli.

I did manage to vent a little of my considerable vault of anger at my father but he was in a state of self-denial which made it difficult to understand how much guilt he really felt. My mother sent me off to a psychologist, ironically enough, although it did help to have someone impartial to talk to. My one regret was that this particular bloke, John, obviously had his own issues, as we all do I suppose. I sometimes think he helped, at other times I’m not so sure.

Anyway, I digress – back to the GNP. It was at this juncture that I made the decision to get involved once again in the GNPA (A for Association), the body that ran the GNP. It consisted of a committee which met on a monthly basis to discuss things which needed to be done: the wages for permanent and casual labour; outreach programs; fencing issues; maintaining working relationships with various other members of the community and so on and so forth. I think I stood as a member without portfolio for one season and as VC for another. It was comprised entirely of Europeans sadly, but in theory anyone was eligible for nomination. I have no idea of the real demographics of the neighbourhood (except that it was mixed) and why no other ethnicities came forward for nomination.

As the youngest member of the committee I found some of the monthly agenda wearisome. There were a few personalities who always had to have their say and sometimes they laboured whatever point they sought to make. Another lady, Sarah, probably a good 8 or 9 years my senior, said how refreshing it was to have some other young blood to relieve the tedium of the ‘old farts’! To be fair there was also James, the son of our family GP, also in his late 20s or early 30s. He was also someone who liked to get to the point in a determined fashion. What I tried to do in my time on the committee was to inject some of the passion I had felt as a teenager. I wanted recognition and I more than anything I wanted to see my dream realised of turning it into something akin to modern-day Eden.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

I energetically sketched drawings of bridges and pathways, mist-spray schemes to feed arboreal orchids, lists of trees to be planted and so forth. I constructed an enormous scale map of the entire area on a number of A4 sheets taped together, noting every prominent tree and all the various paths and habitats. When I presented my ideas to the committee it was met with a mixed response. One old chap thought it was a great idea but he was at the end of his tenure and about to go off and retire to another part of the country.

Roger, probably the most influential member on the committee, it’s founding father so to speak, gave a lukewarm response. The idea of an Education Centre had been mooted some years before but nothing had ever been done. I was keen to realise this goal but without Roger’s backing it never got off the ground. His was basically a hand’s-off approach. Essentially he just wanted the place to remain undisturbed so that he could walk his dog/s with his two boys. I respected that but it hurt nonetheless.

And so it was that my own enthusiasm slowly diminished until I realised that it was all a bit of pie-dream really. The country was going downhill rapidly as the government seized private commercial farms as part of its badly-executed land redistribution programme. Besides the exodus of people and skills from within there was a huge devaluation in the Zim dollar and a corresponding squeeze on people’s income. Everywhere in and around Harare the native inhabitants seized their hoes and picks and fell upon the land in a desperate attempt to cultivate crops to subsidise their meagre wages and diets. In the main this was maize, the staple, but I also saw squash, tomatoes and a local variety of spinach called rape planted as well.

As a result a number of other initiatives which sought to emulate the GNP ‘experiment’ – it was unique to the best of my knowledge in that it was leased from the municipality for the purposes of conservation – came to a grinding halt. The local councils actually did try for a time to crack down on the illegal cultivation, but the perpetrators were just too many and too desperate. If it weren’t for the perimeter fence around the grassland surrounding the dam and at the opposite end on Warwick Rd (where our house was built) I have little doubt that the GNP would itself have become victim to the illegal cultivation phenomenon. It was something of a miracle that it never did (even to this day).

What I managed to do was to divert some of my energies to other projects like planting an aloe and succulent rockery garden on our property and building the bridge shown in the previous gallery with help of the resident labourer, John. There were moments of satisfaction and I did love my rockery garden, but when I look back I can’t help but consider the toll all of it was taking on my mental health. I was estranged from my father, my mother had just died from cancer (November 2001) and I was soldiering on with a degree in geology for which I felt increasingly at odds with. I had only started it because I felt bad about what had happened to Wolf and because I was made to feel as though any other sort of job connected to ‘the land’ was beneath me and the family’s aspirations. It wasn’t as though I had much support for my bachelors degree anyway.

But continue I did, back to South Africa and the University of Pretoria this time. This was undoubtedly the most profound year of my life. The studies were incidental. Day and night I felt the heartache of separation from my father, family and the home I had once known. This was life interrupted. I found myself redirected on a course which I’m still travelling to this day. Sometimes I flounder and come close to giving up on this reality. Today is one of those days but I’ll feel better tomorrow.

My father too passed away in early 2006. It was meant to be, of that I have little doubt, but it has not made it any easier. Perhaps I focus too much on the man’s death and not enough on his life; as I do for my dear mother. Both of them were vital individuals, despite their flaws. Life shone from their eyes when I recall those same people, the parents of my childhood and adolescence. When I started this article I had it in mind to highlight the futility of my life in Africa but I feel that it is somehow a perversion of a complex truth and one that I have yet to fully grasp.

Over the years I have returned to the house in Greystone Park episodically and the GNP as well. Every time I go back it seems to be wilder than before and the weeds that we formerly sought to suppress, grow taller and taller still! How futile it was to try and create something pure and exact in this mad hybrid-nation that is modern-day Zimbabwe. I can see all sorts of metaphors in the tumultuous riot of native and exotic pants which choke the wetland areas:- poplar, syringa and Ipomoea competing alongside bush-willows and waxberries. It’s unclear who has the upper hand. It seems impossible for either side to win out completely and eliminate the other. Perhaps, if left alone long enough, an equilibrium will be reached.

This time around I walked slowly around the dam marvelling at how the trees and shrubs had encroached upon the grassland there. It was thick and green in parts but also quite moist, in contrast to the dam itself which was largely empty.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

This dam bore many memories: fishing it periodically as a youngster, meeting new friends like big Ralph Heron, bird watching (literally and figuratively speaking), even drinking beer and braaing (barbecuing) on its banks. I greeted and introduced myself to a man and his young son, Tafadzwa, a common Shona name. He told me how the dam, now unseasonably low, had been plundered of its fish by unscrupulous netting, although I still noticed a lone fisherman casting several lines in from the bank. Whilst I watched he caught what appeared to be a bream of average size which surprised me. What usually came out of there was rather smaller. One season, however, there had been a huge harvest of catfish (locally known as maramba) and word had it people had been wading in and depositing them in sacks.

I continued around the dam and reached the other side of the wall where I could see someone sitting on a bench overlooking the dam. To my right was the spillway and behind me to the left a house that someone had started to build many years before but which remained unfinished. The wetland area below the wall was the usual riot of green.

As I walked below the main wall alongside the flanking property with its unfinished mansion I encountered an enormous stone wall, something to rival one of the perimeter walls at Great Zimbabwe. It was ridiculously large. Was it meant to convey power and superiority? Was it simply meant to prevent outsiders from looking in? Security perhaps? I didn’t know and the empty house stood in contradiction to all these possibilities.

A little further down I heard voices and peering through the vegetation flanking the stream I spied a pair of teenagers chatting on one of the stone benches the GNPA had built years earlier. He was black, she white. In itself this meant nothing except perhaps a reinforcement of the previous metaphor. At least this relationship appeared to be friendly. Whether it was anything more I couldn’t tell.

At the bottom end of the GNP I came upon my old property. I stopped a few minutes to take in the trees and the garden I had once known so well.

Intro

The thing that struck me was that, with the exception of the few plants that I had transplanted and which had survived, most of what grew here now had grown here before my intervention and would still be growing here well after it had ceased altogether. All the same I am glad that in some small way I did manage to leave a mark – not in what I sought to destroy but rather in what I created. In transplanting a few saplings in the right conditions I have endowed a legacy of sorts to the GNP. Perhaps they will survive this present period of turmoil and uncertainty and live to see the next era? God-willing an era of peace and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

Lake Kariba, Past and Present.

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I have some great memories from my teenage years which originate on the enormous body of water known as Lake Kariba. It lies on the north-western margin of the country. Not many people know it but Lake Kariba is the world’s largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume with an enormous storage capacity of 185 cubic kilometers (44.4 cu mi). The enormous mass of water (approximately 180 billion tons) is believed to have induced seismicity in the faulted basin, an extension of the active East Africa rift system, including over 20 earthquakes of greater than 5 magnitude on the Richter scale (wikipedia).

Although the mean depth is only 29m it extends over an area of 5,580 square kms. I traveled the length of the lake by ferry with my family back in the early 1990’s.

Map of Zimbabwe showing location of Lk Kariba

plan map of Lk Kariba, adjacent National Parks, towns, roads and national borders.

The building of the Lake Kariba was a huge undertaking over the half-decade 1955 to 1959 at a cost of USD 480 million – goodness only knows how much that would be in today’s monetary terms. As a comparison, expansion of Kariba South (Kariba South Extension), which will add an additional 300 MW capacity, is expected to cost between USD400 and USD533 million. This is in large part being financed by China Export and Import Bank (China Eximbank) who are providing a loan of USD320 million (allAfrica.com, victoriafalls24.com).

A perusal of material on the popular public domain video-streaming website Youtube has a few snippets of footage from the construction and the various challenges that arose as a consequence of the damming effort, including the controversial resettlement of a significant population of BaTonga tribespeople.

A brief synopsis of this policy is reviewed in the video below by Rudo Sanyanga of the organisation International Rivers. In it she makes repeated reference to the men without knees, with apparent reference to those Europeans involved in the Kariba dam project. If you are reading this and have some insight I would be curious to know the origin of this unusual metaphor.

A clip from Operation Noah, co-ordinated by Rupert Fotherghill, from the archives of British Pathe:

Whatever the controversy and cost of building the dam, once it was realised, there were economic derivatives, namely:

*Hydroelectricity: The dam was built first and foremost as a means to generate power by harnessing the energy of a controlled flow of water passing through turbines beneath the dam wall. Consequently the two hydroelectric stations in this vicinity (the north and south stations respectively) are vital power sources for Zambia and Zimbabwe.The Zimbabwean hydropower station (south station) is currently being upgraded as detailed above.

*Fisheries: The introduction of several commercial species including the Tanganyika Sardine or kapenta, actually a small, planktivorous, pelagic, freshwater clupeid originating from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa (wikipedia). It is an important source of protein for many people in the region. It is usually salted and dried in the baking hot sun of the Zambezi Valley. I have eaten the refrigerated kapenta (a little more expensive than the dried variety if bought from a retailer) and it’s really quite palatable. It is best prepared by a cook on one of the houseboats which ply the waters of the lake (see below).

Other commercial species include fresh-water crayfish and introduced Tilapia sp. which are farmed in large, submerged cages. The latter is a 15,000-ton yield per annum industry (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

*Tourism: Lake Kariba is flanked by a number of National Parks and safari areas e.g Matusadona NP, Chete and Charara Safari Areas; as well as sparsely-populated communities of people, some resettled from that area of the valley flooded by the lake today. The consequence of this is a shoreline populated with abundant wildlife. The populations of most are directly influenced by hunting and poaching pressures e.g. elephant and large antelope. Other species like buffalo have proven susceptible to the rise and fall of the water level of the lake and the influence that the lake level has on the amount of and quality of the grass for grazing (torpedo grass, Panicum repens).

There are safari lodges, hotels and camps in the proximity of the lake which give access to the local wildlife (National Park site) although many tourists, domestic especially, chose to enjoy the luxury of a houseboat from which almost any spot on the lake edge is accessible.

It is this mode of tourism that I remember best. What follows is a gallery of photos from various trips there over the years and an extract from a chapter I wrote on my childhood in Zimbabwe (unpublished):

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The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

It was the ultimate leisure activity in Zimbabwe, and probably still is, to float around on Lake Kariba with a hold full of larger and soft drinks and plenty to eat, and to fish for the multitude of species which frequented the waters of the huge artificial reservoir, 280 kilometers long, constructed in the mid to late 1950s. Prized amongst the fish was the razor-toothed Tiger Fish which predates on many of the smaller species, especially the sardine that had been introduced from Lake Tanganyika, known locally as Kapenta. Only when my father’s law firm had acquired shares in one of the houseboats, the Driftwood, moored in one of the marinas in Kariba township, did we start spending holidays there as well.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

It really was a magical place where one could see a variety of wildlife: enormous herds of buffalo, some of the largest in Africa, but prone to fluctuate in step with the variation in the water level; numerous elephant which would amble slowly along the shoreline and were visible from miles away; pods of hippopotamus in the quieter bays, lagoons and river mouths; herds of impala antelope; groups of waterbuck and birds too numerous to mention.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

As a reminder of its recent past as a river ecosystem and not a lacustrine one, the perimeter of the lake was dotted with the numerous skeletal remnants of trees drowned when the river was dammed, except in the few bays where they had been cleared or where the ground was too steep. The ironwoods were most prominent because, as their name suggests, they are the most resilient of the natural timbers.

The old  lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It's their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The old lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It’s their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The pilots of the boats knew the waterways intimately, which never ceased to amaze me, considering the extent of the shoreline and how the appearance of these dead and sometimes treacherous trees would change as the water level fluctuated. We had hit the occasional stump lying just beneath the waterline whilst chugging along separately in the fishing tender boats which were towed along behind the main houseboat to the mooring spots; fortunately we never capsized although one or other of the tenders had been stuck for a while on one I seem to remember.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot. From left to right: Ivan, me, Dan, my father.

A few exceptional memories stick out in my mind: the first is of a lion kill we witnessed first-hand on the banks of the Sanyati Bay where the victim was one of the multitude of buffalo. After a slight commotion the rest of the herd had continued grazing nearby as if nothing were amiss whilst the lionesses pinned their prey to the ground and slowly suffocated it. The old male of the pride had been in no great hurry to get there, giving an occasional roar as he sauntered over to the kill whereupon his bevy of females had moved to one side; truly ‘the king of the jungle.’

This had been before the buffalo population had crashed, in part due to a deadly outbreak of anthrax but of greater severity to them, the rising of the waters after record rainfall in the upper catchment leading to the loss of the torpedo grass habitat on which they so depended for grazing. It was recognised as a boom and bust cycle and today the population is rapidly increasing once again.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

Another memory is of seeing a cheetah, released from a boma at Tashinga National Parks camp. This was a rare sighting, because cheetahs are Africa’s most fragile big cat species. I had never seen one in the wild before so this was exciting. Whilst my brothers, my father and I were out fishing, my mother, who was sitting on the deck of the boat, had witnessed something very unusual: one of the cheetahs making a kill. The prey this time had been an impala antelope and it had been killed right at the water’s edge she told them on their return. What had happened next was, in some ways, as remarkable.

The pilot of the boat and the cook had quietly disembarked the tethered vessel and alighted on the shore. Before my mother had realised their intentions they had shooed the poor cheetah, still not fully adult, off the kill and proceeded to lop off a hind quarter from the impala with a machete. By the time we returned it was dusk and the cheetah may not have come back to claim the kill before the other scavengers arrived: the jackals and hyenas.

The other memory that is seared into my mind was on another occasion when we had been accompanied by friends from the UK, Meg and Guy Applebeck and their daughter Mia. Us boys, our father and Guy were on the fishing tenders near the holiday lodge known as Tiger Bay which lay slightly inland of the Lake on the Ume River, accessible to houseboats for some distance. Not only was the river renowned for excellent fishing but there was good wildlife along its banks too.

On that particular afternoon we had been fishing peacefully in a small inlet not a stone’s throw from Tiger Bay when a large male waterbuck had come down to the water to drink. The serenity of the scene was shattered by an enormous explosion in the vicinity of the waterbuck as a mighty Nile Crocodile burst out of the shallows and clamped his sizeable jaws onto the upper leg of the antelope. He must have been a very big croc, because the end of his tail was a good ten feet away from his snout. The waterbuck did his best to resist but the leviathan slowly but surely started dragging him through the shallows towards deeper water.

A later fishing trip with my mother's sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and  Philemon, a young lad from Harare.

A later fishing trip with my mother’s sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and Philemon, a young lad from Harare. It was a spot just like this from which we witnessed the attack on the waterbuck with Guy.

We had all been too amazed and overawed by the spectacle to do anything at that point, but suddenly Guy became animated: “Quick, quick, we must save it” he had shouted. It was widely held and indeed decreed that people should not interfere with the acts of nature, no matter how distressing events may be, but it was too awful for us to contemplate doing nothing to help the afflicted waterbuck.

We fired up the engine and approached cautiously. Had we not interfered the croc probably would have had his way and drowned the animal but our encroachment caused it to act hastily and it had rolled over and torn the entire hind leg off the buck before retreating silently into the depths from which he had come. The waterbuck, never uttering so much as a cry, had staggered out of the water on three legs, standing proudly on the bank, its nose quivering, but unable to go much further.

The wound had to be mortal considering how much flesh had been rent from its body exposing the delicate entrails to infection, if it did not succumb to blood loss or predation by other beasts before that happened. We had approached the proprietor of Tiger Bay and implored him to go and put the animal out of its misery but he pointed out that it was a National Parks area and shooting an animal, even a fatally wounded one, was not permitted.

We returned to the houseboat solemnly. I remember Guy muttering darkly about the vileness and under-handedness of the crocodile, but that was what they had done for countless millennia; who were we to pass judgement? Both crocodilian and mammalian had lived side by side well before man had inhabited that environment. Most likely the antelope had become a meal for other meat-eating animals, whether lions or dedicated scavengers like the hyena, we would never know. This was way of the wild and it was harsh and unforgiving.

The houseboat years were some of the best I can remember from my time as an adolescent. There were trips to the Eastern Highlands and elsewhere but Lake Kariba was where we had best enjoyed time as a family.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

 

Sprucing Things up with Some Multimedia…

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So I’ve been using WP.com for a while now but my advancement has been a gradual evolution interspersed with sudden progressive bursts where I’ve actually taken the time to read a tutorial or try a different theme. I like to think that I now have a semi-respectable blog but truth be told I haven’t really stretched myself as regards embedding multimedia. Only recently did I actually dare to try embed a gallery. It worked! I see one can tweak the appearance in a number of ways and I am very keen to do that. First, however, I would really like to successfully embed a video! Not any old video but one of my charming, albeit, amateur efforts.

The succeeding three videos contain footage from a road trip I did about 5 years back, in Africa. In my quest to try discover if I might not actually want to emigrate to the UK after all (I did) I thought I should at least investigate all of my options. I was long intrigued by the fact that there were other European communities out to the west of Zimbabwe (my turf). I had been to South Africa many times but never to any of the neighbouring nations. Therefore, in March or April ’09 I set out on my own, first to Botswana and from there to Namibia. In Windhoek I discovered an attractive little city populated by Europeans, black and mixed-race people alike. I stayed with a couple, he German, she Afrikaans, who had been living in the country for many, many years. After a couple of weeks in the city looking at the possibility of working (difficult) or studying (possible but also difficult) I headed back to Zimbabwe via another route on another mode of transport (a coach and then a plane) taking in the Caprivi and the Victoria Falls on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the bridge over the gorge. It was by no means a safari but there were some memorable moments and people along the way.

I have a written account to augment the videos which I will post as well. I think some of it should make good reading anyway.

Childhood Memories

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Index
My Early Years
The House in Harare
Cousins & Neighbourhood Friends
Early Holidays
Visiting Family in Durban, South Africa
The Cub Scouts
Highlands Junior
The Family Home in Marondera

A little over three years ago I went through a retrospective phase and managed to sit down for several months and dedicate myself to writing about my life and experiences from childhood to the present day. Yes, it was therapeutic to a certain degree, but also a testament to things that have come and gone, things worth remembering. It is easy to grow nostalgic and sentimental looking back at the innocence of childhood, which can distort the objective recollection of the reality of the time, but this is not meant to be a historical piece.

Fortunately my mum was a quite an avid amateur photographer. I recall her brandishing a fairly basic but decent Minolta film camera at birthday parties, festive occasions, early family vacations: basically whenever she deemed it an appropriate moment to capture the moment for posterity. This foresight has been an obvious boon to me now because these undoctored pictures are objective snapshots of the past. They capture smiles and moments of shared joy long forgotten and the details of scenes and places only sketchily remembered. My mum is some years departed now but I have spent many hours pouring over this collection of prints, negatives and early slides. I have inserted many of these into the text.

I have written further chapters, some of which I may post, others probably not. If there is a school of thought whose belief is that one should only write about the past whilst keeping in the mind its implications for the future, then I would subscribe to it. Only someone approaching the very end of their days can really be forgiven indulging in nostalgia for its own sake.

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

I was born in the UK , I would tell people with a certain satisfaction; Hammersmith Hospital, London to be precise. I have no recollection of the place however, since my parents had returned to Harare shortly thereafter and registered my birth again. Fortunately, my mother retained my original birth certificate, the one which stated that my parent’s ‘usual address’ at the time had been ‘48 Kenilworth Road, Ealing’. Thus I was able to claim British nationality at a later date when I felt sure I would want to travel back to my country of birth. That was many years later, however.

My early childhood had been a happy one; we would all look back on those days nostalgically. The burden of the civil war between the ‘whites’ and the ‘blacks’ the decade before, in the 1970s, had ended after the Lancaster House negotiations. Multi-party elections had been held for the first time and a black political party had taken office in the new state of Zimbabwe.

Like my childhood peers I was born on the cusp of the transition between Smith’s ‘independent’ Rhodesia and Robert Mugabe’s ‘independent’ Zimbabwe. I have no memory of the times before, nor the changing of the guard. My earliest memories involve our original house at 44 Warwick Rd, Greystone Park, Harare, a relatively recent development (at the time) in the low density, north-eastern suburban fringe of the capital.

In my mind’s eye I can see my mother’s white bedroom dresser with its oval-shaped mirror; the pink lace curtains in the bedroom; the pied mongrel Trixie, a family pet, its tongue lolling to one side; the gravel driveway out front and my folk’s old Datsun 120Y station-wagon parked near where the front door once stood. I can also clearly remember my neighbours from across the road, the Turners; well, not Mr. Turner because he had died of appendicitis whilst I was very young, but his wife Mona and her old Afrikaans parents. The old man’s name was Tom, Tom van Graan to be precise. I don’t know why but his name has stuck firmly in my memory.

Old man van Graan was probably already into his eighties at the time which would mean he was born somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. I recall him sitting there in his chair facing the glass doors to the patio and the tree-covered hills of Greystone Park that lay beyond. His face was lined and mottled in the way that some old person’s skin will become blotchy with age. His milky blue eyes would look out on a landscape that very few would then remember. He talked of hunting buffalo in that very valley, something that had impressed the young boy enormously.

Even then in the early 1980s it was a fairly undisturbed urban fringe; the hill slopes were too steep and rocky to farm and the soils in that part of the valley were either dark and prone to being waterlogged, or stony and difficult to work. I remember seeing the occasional small duiker antelope on an early morning walk and there was all manner of snakes and small mammals that inhabited those parts.

Only some twenty years later would the hungry urban masses tax the natural resources of the city more heavily than ever before through urban cultivation and wood-cutting especially. Back then and for many years after that, the valley and its surrounds held a special place in my heart. Later I would dream of extending our urban nature sanctuary to encompass the entire area.

It was certainly considered highly desirable real estate and many of the nouveau riche had built their houses and mansions on the surrounding hills with superb views out over acres of farmland on the one side and attractive natural woodland on the other. Years later I would become friends with a girl, Michelle, whose father kept a small herd of impala antelope on their property on the flank of that very range of hills. Old Tom would have been pleased.

I have a vague recollection of the garden whilst a new glitter-stone swimming pool was constructed. Glitter-stone is a type of metamorphic slate-like rock with a high percentage of mica which gives it the ‘glitter’ in its popular name. It was mined in terrain near the Zambezi Valley, not far from the northern limit of Lake Kariba and was prized as a material for surfacing swimming pools and patios.

Digging the pool had proved to be quite an undertaking since Greystone Park was so named for the prevalence of hard, grey dolerite, an igneous rock that originated from molten material injected as dykes and sills between the older greenstone-type rocks.

The builders had to build fires on the raw, grey stone and then hose it down with cold water; the rapid thermal changes would fracture the rock and make it easier to cleave open with picks and chisels; it must have been intensely physical work. The rock was never wasted however, providing the building blocks for stone walls and rockeries. Dolerite and similar greenstone rock types are iron-rich and weather to give red, loamy soils, which are agriculturally productive and on which many of the country’s commercial farms were previously situated.

The other thing I remember about the property from a young age were the trees. The previous owner had planted a variety of exotic specimens: silver oaks out front; pine trees along the fence line at the bottom of the property and also close to where the swimming pool was constructed; a purple-flowering Jacaranda tree outside my brother’s bedroom; a large spreading syringa with yellow berries next to it which had proved very difficult to remove entirely; and an enormous Kenya coffee tree on the road-side of the property which my father cursed for all the debris it shed into the swimming pool. Far older than any of these recent introductions was an ancient Acacia sieberiana, below the level of the swimming pool.

It was a magnificent old tree with twisted limbs as thick as an average tree even at a height of ten metres or more and a huge fissured trunk which hosted a hive of bees for most of my childhood, despite the repeated efforts made by my parents to be rid of them. The crumbly, flaky bark was always covered in lichen and it flowered once a year in summer; numerous scented, yellow balls constituting the clumps of minute flowers. Later the tree would be covered by irregular, flat woody pods with loosely embedded pale green seeds which would rattle musically when shaken.

Numerous birds would forage in the canopy of that tree and various goshawks and other raptors would alight there from time to time. There was also a line of Eucalyptus gum trees set a little further back in the greenbelt area which had originally been preserved as a bridal path through the northern suburbs. Only many years later would they be felled in the interests of preserving the adjacent wetland area. They were a common plantation species grown throughout the Highveld area of the country for timber.

My childhood years were spent romping around the garden with my brothers Dan and Ivan and neighbourhood friends: Robbie Taylor from Coventry Road a few hundred metres ‘down the hill’; Rob Standsfield a few houses ‘up the hill’ and Ben Murray half a mile or so away in the latter direction. Ben was my earliest friend and the one I would be at school with all the way from infants through to when we finished sixth form prior to university. His aptitude was for gadgets and devices from a young age but he was academically talented in just about everything he put his mind to.

Rob Standsfield was not one for books or learning but he was lean and muscled from a young age and always seemed to have the best selection of BMX bikes. Me and the others found it easy to wind Rob up and unleash his explosive temper, which of course was the whole objective. He lost his mum to cancer at a young age and he had some very verbal altercation with his father on occasion.

I remember going through a face-painting stage which explains our unhealthy pallor.  All of us except Robbie Taylor pictured here holding our young Fox Terrier, Foxie.

I remember going through a face-painting stage which explains our unhealthy pallor. All of us that is except Robbie Taylor pictured here holding Foxie, our fox terrier.

Robbie from ‘down the hill’ was the naughtiest of them all, driving all the mothers mad with his tricks and antics. With Robbie we would raid neighbouring vegetable gardens or take a ‘skinny dip’ in Geoff Reilly’s pool at the top of his road.

“I know Mr. Reilly and he wouldn’t mind” a grinning Robbie would claim if any doubt was expressed. I have a clear recollection of Dan and Robbie playing squash naked on his custom-fitted squash court after a dip in his pool, leaving wet footprints on the expensive laminate floorboards. I’m not sure if Geoff would have been so happy with that had he arrived back home unexpectedly.

Geoff had made a lot of money as an earthmoving contractor in the region and was one of the first in the neighbourhood to get a satellite dish. I remember my dad once getting up in the early hours of the morning to go and watch a heavyweight boxing match at Geoff’s place, along with a few other gents, beamed live from Madison Square Gardens in New York. That was before satellite dishes and digital decoders were to become commonplace in the mid to late 90s.

My brothers and I also spent a lot of time in the company of our cousins from nearby Ballantyne Park, especially Dominic (born in the same year as me) and Justin (Ivan’s contemporary). Michael, the eldest, seemed to grow up faster than the rest of us. He was an academic high flyer who, after four years of senior boarding school, left to Canada on a scholarship and thereafter a degree at Harvard University no less.

I remember collaborating with Mike once on drawing a magnificently illustrated eagle in a ‘Birds of the World’ type book for a children’s drawing competition. To my mind the results were never made public if the pictures were judged at all and both of us were gutted.

I didn’t think of Michael as a competitor as he was a year and a half older, but I clearly remember my cousin faulting me for having too many interests. “You have to concentrate on one thing and become good at it” he had said as a youngster. Perhaps he had been right, thinking back. I loved collecting things, whether it were bird feathers, cards, stamps, rocks and pebbles, curiosities or Airfix model airplanes. Maybe it was this propensity for collecting all these things which had drawn criticism from my cousin.

My mother was very arts and crafts oriented. She had hosted a play-group in our family garage when we were toddlers; happy days filled with paint and music and toys and all sorts of innocent nonsense. So too was Ben’s mother, Barbie. When at Ben’s house we never wanted for paper or paint or crayons or tubes of cardboard from which we could build aeroplanes or objects of our imagination. Likewise there were buckets of Lego and building blocks and marbles.

Ben was an only child and after his parents split up and his father had moved to the UK he always had the best selection of toys. Both his parents had struck me, even then, as being rather arty and non-conformist. His father, an architect, had built the most unusual house consisting of a series of interconnected domed rooms with interesting acoustics and their garden was almost completely wild. It was a great place to play games of all kinds and Ben had hosted a memorable birthday party where he and his classmates had battled the length and breadth of the garden for military supremacy.

It was also occupied by numerous unusual rusty metal sculptures his father had welded together from pieces of scrap metal. I remember Keith at those early birthday parties watching proceedings amiably through bespectacled eyes. It was he who had taken Ben and me on our first trout-fishing expedition to the Nyanga National Park, something that would become a favourite holiday past-time growing up. After he and Barbie had split up he had emigrated and it would be another fifteen years or so before I would see him again.

Myself, Dan and Ben, probably in Lk McIlwaine Recreational Park near Harare

Myself, Dan and Ben, probably in Lk McIlwaine Recreational Park near Harare

Barbie had continued raising Ben as a single mother with her sometime boyfriend Rob Thompson, another architect, later accompanying us on the trips to Nyanga. In fact Rob had been the architect responsible for designing the extensions to my parent’s house at 44 Warwick Road.

My best memories of Ben’s house on Rye Hill road were of the arts and crafts and playing in the garden that had been left wild. Our best achievement in the creative department had been the construction of a four-foot Iguanodon dinosaur out of cardboard boxes and egg cartons and painted green, for a school project. There is a picture of Ben and me standing proudly next to the finished article in one of my photograph albums somewhere.

Like all children I had loved dinosaurs and loved sketching them as much as I loved sketching birds; an interesting correlation considering the undisputed evolutionary link now established between the two groups.

Two families stick in my mind as being particularly closely associated with mine: the Hickman’s and the Davison’s. We had gone on a number of holidays together, one year to Mana Pools, a popular and scenic spot along the Zambezi River in the Zambezi Valley, often referred to simply as ‘the Valley’.

I’d been sick on that excursion and whilst the others were out fishing or on a game drive I was confined to a camp bed in one of the tents. A troop of vervet monkeys had arrived on a foraging expedition and one had given me a tremendous fright when it had strolled casually up to my camp bed and jumped up onto the end of it out of curiosity.

It was one of the few National Parks where one was able to camp in an area in the vicinity of big game that included lion, buffalo and elephant, but like many campsites around the country it was the scavengers who proved to be the real nuisance: monkeys, baboons and hyenas. It was not unusual for a hyena to chomp its way through a cooler box if it thought there was some tasty morsel inside.

On that trip one had made a significant dent in a metal food box my parents had borrowed from friends back in Harare in which they had kept some pieces of fresh meat. Although it had not managed to penetrate the sturdy metal shell, the animal had shredded the outer leather padding, which had required replacing back in town, as well as deep scratches inflicted by its bone-crushing jaws in the metal casing itself.

Another trip with the Davison and Hickman families had been to the other side of the country to Gonarezhou National Park. Gonarezhou translates as ‘Place of the Elephants’ in the local dialect. I don’t remember much from that trip but one photograph showed us boys (there would have been seven of us between the three families, no girls) and several of the parents in front of the famed Chilotjo Cliffs: stratified, red and yellow sandstone cliffs along the banks of the Runde River. There were also a number of photographs from the Zimbabwe Ruins near Masvingo which we probably visited on the outgoing journey to Gonarezhou or on the return leg.

With Ben and Barbie I spent many a holiday at Rhodes Nyanga National Park and countless hours fishing for the plentiful rainbow trout in the Park’s dams, and occasionally the rivers too. There were occasions when I went with my own family and Dan had come along fishing as well, but it was with Ben and his mum that I went most regularly.

The time that sticks out most vividly was when I got a fly hook embedded in my right index finger after trying to haul a fish onto one of the little wooden Parks rowing boats without a landing net. We had to return to Harare to have it removed by Dr. Pringle. Years later my mum had extracted the multicoloured fly, a Little Rainbow, from a compartment in her wallet. “Remember this?” she said with a smile and a flourish. I blanched: Could I ever forget?

On a break at the Lake McIlwaine Recreational Park adjoining Lake Chivero (new name) with my older South African cousins, Grant and Brett.

On a break at the Lake McIlwaine Recreational Park adjoining Lake Chivero (new name) with my older South African cousins, Grant and Brett.

I don’t have much of a recollection of exclusive family holidays but there were a few occasions I recall when that had been the case; holiday outings to the chalets at Lake McIlwaine National Park just outside the capital amongst the best remembered.

We’d gone on holiday there with my mum’s parents (my grandparents) and my Aunt Liz’s two boys, Grant and Brett. For Grant and Brett, raised in the city of Durban, it had been an eye-popping experience: feeding squirrels and rock dassies by hand and walking amongst impala, zebra, kudu and even the few white rhinoceros. The two older boys had loved it and would talk fondly about it years later.

McIlwaine was a Recreational Park so, unlike Mana Pools, there were no lion, elephant or buffalo and one was free to walk anywhere within the Park. Only the white rhino could potentially maim or even kill. They could make short work of someone if so inclined but it was the black rhinoceros, native to the Zambezi Valley that was by far the more dangerous of the two species.

My Uncle Paul (my mum's brother) who spent his last few years in Zimbabwe just outside Harare at a place called Resthaven.

My Uncle Paul (my mum’s brother) who spent his last few years in Zimbabwe just outside Harare at a place called Resthaven. Here he is outside his little bungalow.

In later years my uncle Paul, who had served with the Rhodesian Security Forces loyal to Ian Smith’s regime during the ‘Bush War’, would tell me of the many times he was chased by chipembere (the name for black rhinos in the indigenous tongue) whilst on patrol in the Valley. One would have no option but to scramble up the nearest tree which usually proved to be covered in thorns, in order to evade the irritable creatures who would stomp around the base snorting and puffing until satisfied that the invader had been repelled. He had even had the head of a black rhinoceros tattooed on his shoulder in green ink in memory of those days. I saw it whilst staying with him in his little council flat in Plymouth, Devon, a few years back.

We had also taken annual pilgrimages to the coastal city of Durban in South Africa. That stretch of coast was referred to as the East Coast, a stretch between Durban in the north to the vicinity of Port Shepstone in the south. Further south of that one would be in the Transkei, a largely undeveloped former homeland area of the country. Mostly we had stayed with my maternal grandparents in Durban itself, but on occasion we would spend time in holiday homes in coastal towns south of the city: a few days in Uvongo near Margate, another couple in a holiday home in Scottburgh.

I can recall how much of an affinity I felt for the sea and the coast then, walking for miles along the yellow, sandy beaches where one could find shells, mostly scallops, and broken fragments of conch shells, incomplete but amazing to my young eyes nonetheless. Occasionally one would come across cuttle-fish shells, not really shells at all but their pithy, chalky, calcareous skeletons shaped like flint axe-heads.

I had a particular love for birds from an early age and would sit for hours copying the pictures of familiar species from the field guides and books I had been given as birthday and Christmas presents. Inspired by birds seen in the vicinity of our home in Harare I had drawn a spotted eagle owl, woodland kingfisher and Senegal coucal. I can still remember the pleasure derived from copying the illustration of the owl from my old grey edition of the ‘Birds of Central Africa’ (in two parts), a musty smelling bird guide written decades before.

Unlike the other bird books I had like Newman’s Field Guide and Roberts Birds of Southern Africa this guide included birds one could find further north in Zambia, Malawi and even the Congo; mysterious birds like Bannerman’s Turaco and flycatchers endemic to a particular forest in Mozambique. In Durban I copied a picture of the hadeda ibis, a distinctive and noisy bird and whilst in Scottburgh I drew a crested barbet, although it was the related black-collared barbet that was more numerous in those parts. I would come to view the barbet family with particular affection; quirky, intelligent birds with distinct calls and a sense of curiosity and boldness.

We spent many a Christmas in Durban and many hours in the company of our cousins Ellysa and Matthew, who lived fairly close to our grandparents. They were my Aunt Liz’s children from her second marriage; her other two, Grant and Brett, were a few years older than me and from a previous marriage. Being a practising Catholic it had not been easy to get the marriage annulled, but her first husband had been an unsavoury character from what I heard and read, and she had eventually succeeded.

I remember going to watch my cousin Brett playing in a rugby match on one occasion; he had been stretchered off with an injury, but had nevertheless derided the opposition and cheered his own teammates from the sideline.

Back in Harare I was a member of Borrowdale 2nds, a cub-scout troop. I really had enjoyed being a cub-scout, tearing around the yard outside the hall playing games of ‘hunter and the animal’ or in the hall itself where we had friendly competitions for which we were awarded beans (which accrued throughout the term) and had talks on aspects of bush craft and that sort of thing. There was also an annual jamboree held out at Ruwa Park where troops from all over the Mashonaland District would gather to compete in a plethora of competitions from knot-tying to seeing which troop could recite the Scout’s Motto with the most gusto.

Ironically, it was the Highlands scout group that inevitably seemed to scoop the top prizes on offer. There leader (or Arkela) by a disciplinarian woman, Mrs Wilmot, who would later become my high school biology teacher. On the last evening we had all joined together for a huge game of ‘Jack, Jack shine your light’ where one of the scout leaders slunk off into the dark with a torch and the rest of us set off in hot pursuit as he or she flashed their torch when us boys shouted out the obvious phrase; a sort of optical equivalent of the swimming pool game Marco Polo.

The highlight of my cub-scout career was being given an award by none other than Gerald Durrell, the famous English conservationist, who was visiting the country at the time and who was asked to preside over an awards ceremony at Christ Church, an Anglican establishment not far away from my house in Greystone Park. I had read many of Mr. Durrell’s books about his adventures growing up in Corfu in the Greek Mediterranean, so it was a real honour to shake hands with the man himself. In my enthusiasm I had hoisted myself straight onto the presentations stage directly in front of me, instead of walking sedately up the stage-side stairs like everyone else.

I remember Mr. Durrell as a large, white-bearded, smiling man with a firm handshake. As a prize I had received the Mobil Colouring Book of Indigenous Plants, signed by both Gerald and Lee Durrell, which I never deigned to touch lest I spoil it. It resides in a box or trunk in Harare to this day. The church in question was later to become under the guidance of an Anglican Priest, David Bertram, whose three children had also attended Highlands Junior School. His son Matthew would become a good friend of mine after we had finished school.

Richard, Dan and I are engaged by one of the Rhino Girls on the evening we were awarded our World Conservation badges.

Richard, Dan and I are engaged by one of the Rhino Girls on the evening we were awarded our World Conservation badges.

With my Brother Dan and Richard Davison, Celia’s eldest son, I set off to attain the World Conservation Badge, the cherry on the cake in so far as cub-scout achievement went.

As with all my projects my mother was very involved and supportive. It was probably the efforts in trying to achieve this award that had nurtured my early conservationist spirit more than anything else: there had been indigenous trees to plant in our backyard and monitor closely; posters to draw and illustrate; articles to research and more besides. In line with one of the requirements, we had decided to try and draw attention to the plight of the rhinoceros’, both black and white, but especially the former whose population was decimated by years of poaching in the low-lying Zambezi Valley.

The project was given an extra boost by a pair of campaigning women, known as the Rhino Girls, who had been cycling all the way from the UK, some 22 000 kilometres, to raise awareness as to the plight of the continent’s rhinoceros and funding for anti-poaching operations. They were there at the scout hall after completing their epic trans-continental cycle to present us our World Conservation badges. Some of the pictures which record our flattered and slightly embarrassed young faces had even made the inside pages of one of the national newspapers.

From school I recall happy times amongst children of various colours and creeds. My parents sent my brothers and I to a local government school in a decent, middle class suburb of the city. Unlike other government schools which exclusively catered for the newly enabled black, working classes, Highlands Junior maintained an unusual mix of ethnicities, bolstered in part by the attendance of a number of children whose parents were diplomats or members of foreign businesses, aid agencies or the representatives of collaborative projects between well-meaning foreign donors and the new government.

All of my friends would remember our days at the school fondly. Ben had gone on to take many of the academic prizes including the prestigious Dux Award for all-round academic prowess in their last year, Grade 7. Rivalries were generally friendly, certainly less intense than they would become at high school. Prize giving evenings were held as much for the benefit of the parents as for their blushing children.

I remember playing in the school orchestra conducted by Mrs Di Wright, who, to the best of my knowledge, is still conducting school orchestras in Harare; learning the recorder from the kindly Mrs Bruce who had also been my very first class teacher at the Infants School; and singing in the school choir conducted by Mrs Reynolds, whose daughter Jessica was a pretty and popular girl later destined to become Mrs Highlands. I had been voted her male counterpart.

The memory still elicits feelings of embarrassment, but it had all been fairly innocent and popularity was measured by a different yardstick at that age. Boys voted for boys and girls for girls and most classes would get together and agree to vote for someone in that class. It was common knowledge that I had only just held off Ross Brans who was the most popular boy in the second stream class which my Aunt Nick had taught.

The school plays had been a lot of fun. We had performed Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in my final year. I had a crush on a brown-haired Finnish girl also in the play but remember that her affections were only for the star athlete of the year, a boy I simply remember as Tigere. I made the mistake of telling the class fog-horn, a girl called Nomusa Mbanga, of this crush. She had promptly broadcast it to the whole school. It made the last few weeks rather awkward because I was to learn, and not for the first time, that having a secret infatuation does not necessarily translate into a workable relationship.

At our Leavers Dance evening I had selected Suzanna to partner me for the first dance, as was my entitlement as ‘Mr Popular’ of the year group, but the dance had felt awkward and embarrassing, my limbs wooden and clumsy. I do remember the two class jesters, Tom Newman and Ant Kashula, going to great lengths to try and impress the young Jess Reynolds. They had brought her bunches of flowers, professed their undying love and done a dozen other things to try and win her affections. It went to neither of them.

I remember Tom inviting Carrie Sudlow instead, a tough-talking ‘mate’ from our class, who was quite pretty in her own way I suppose, but not really the sort you showered with roses. Carrie had managed to have me thrown into the lake at Geoff Cox Adventure Camp by one of the instructors, Heath, alleging that I had said something nasty to her. I remember her delight at the soggy results of her machinations. Tom emigrated to New Zealand after school but Ant still lives in Zimbabwe, running walking safaris in the Lowveld region. He always loved the bush and he and his father were forever going down to Lake Kariba on weekend fishing trips, something the rest of us boys were incredibly envious of.

My clique back then consisted essentially of five or six of us boys: Ben who has already been introduced; Mike Alcock, son of an Anglican deacon; Brett Mead, bigger than the rest of us and a bit of a thug; Chris McManus, son of a farmer; Rohan Bruce, son of Mrs. Bruce the recorder teacher; Rowan Donahue, an Australian; and myself. Others like Tom, Ant, Ian Ullyett and Rob Brine would drift in and out of the loose circle of friends. There were occasional rifts like when I fell-out with Rowan about the money he was stealing off his mum to buy vast amounts of tuck which he literally used to buy his friendship with other members of the group.

My relations with the girls of the class were amicable, except perhaps for Nassim Madjzoub, a pretty dark-haired girl whose parents were Persian I seem to remember. She sat next to me in class and had ensured that Mrs. Cockburn, our class teacher, knew my every misdemeanour. We played on the fields before and after school and during break times. A game called window was a favourite, whereby a tennis ball was kicked around until it went between someone’s legs. At this point it was a free-for-all for all those present and often a few spectators too, as the windowed individual dashed to touch some designated object like a tree or classroom door.

I seem to remember Rob Brine having his arm broken one morning when a game got a little out of hand and Rohan Bruce was almost always on the receiving end during the games the group of us would play at break-time. It was usually Brett mead who would go in with a flying tackle at the crucial moment Rohan was in touching distance of the tree. There were tears and bruises and grass-burns, but Rohan’s desire to be one of the gang kept him coming back time and again. Ultimately it was too much and he had said something to his mum, we had all been called up before Mrs Cockburn and the game was banned outright.

Years later, when I met Rohan after high school in Harare, he reminded me what ‘bastards’ we had all been and I had felt some measure of guilt. Still, Rohan seemed forgiving and we had laughed and reminisced about happier memories over a few beers that evening. I understand that he is a psychologist now, probably with a great degree more insight into the tortured mind of the pre-adolescent boy I imagine.

There were athletics and cross-country days and swimming galas, which were well attended by the parents of the children. I was never a particularly good swimmer, except for the breast-stroke which I won narrowly from my cousin Dominic in my last year, although Dominic took the Victor Ludorum trophy as the best all-round swimmer.

I remember that Mrs. Coventry, mother of Kirsty a few years below him, had expressed some faith that they could make a ‘decent swimmer of him yet’. She had been one of the assistant coaches and all Highlands pupils from that time, indeed Zimbabweans in general, would be proud of the achievements of her daughter Kirsty in the swimming pool in later years: two Olympic golds, four silvers and a bronze medal, undisputedly the country’s most successful Olympian ever.

I did well at cross-country, with the encouragement of my dad who loved the sport and the training derived from the pre-class morning running sessions of Mrs Harnden, my Grade three teacher. Her son Kenny would go on and represent the country on the athletics track as a 400 metre hurdler.

The other thing I remember well is the very strong sense of community fostered at the school. The various sports days aside, the school had regular family braais or barbeques which were sometimes augmented by a live band. A South African trio, the Blarney Brothers (of Irish stock, allegedly), made a couple of appearances on a makeshift stage set at the top of the school fields.

Rows of sectioned fifty-five gallon drums filled with hot charcoal and overlaid with mesh grills were at hand for people to cook whatever meat they had brought along with them and drinks were served from tented stalls set up at various locations. Jumping Castles had arrived on the scene and these also became ubiquitous at such events.

There was the opportunity to socialise and most of the boys and fathers engaged in informal games of rugby, football and garden cricket whilst daylight remained. Sometimes there would be a firework display organised for the children after dark and perhaps some music in the school hall.

I remember sneaking over the fence surrounding the school pool and having an illicit ‘midnight swim’ with Dominic, Dan, and one or two others. We were careful not to splash around much and it was more about risking punishment and getting away with it than actually swimming. It would become something of a ritual I remember doing even after having left Highlands, when returning for family braai evenings because one or other of my brothers was still there at the junior school. Dominic was usually the one instrumental ensuring that the tradition continued. He kept his hair cropped short so with a few shakes of his head it was usually dry, unlike my own lank hair which would remain damp. I worried about being questioned by a suspicious teacher or parent but that never happened.

When ‘The Cousins’, as we collectively called ourselves, met off the school grounds, it was to muck around the neighbourhood on our bikes ringing gate bells and causing minor mischief here and there. On other occasions we would light fireworks and hurl them onto the usually quiet suburban road outside, panicking pedestrians and causing the occasional car to come to a standstill.

The best recollections of time spent together were of family Sunday lunches at the Marondera house with our Yia-Yia (grandmother in Greek). We usually drove out after 8 o’clock Sunday Mass, our cousins proceeding separately. Sometimes my father would grumble about having to go out there, citing better things he could do with his day-off, although once out there he seemed to enjoy himself.

This was the house where my father Ray and his brother Tony had grown up. They were fraternal twins and they had three older siblings: Nadia, Monica and Byron. When we Cousins were little boys our great-grandmother had been alive (old Yia-Yia). She couldn’t speak a word of English having come out to Africa from Cyprus with her daughter after the latter married our Papou (grandfather) in the 1950s. Our Papou had been born in settler Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, sometime in the 1920s but had gone back to Cyprus to find a wife.

The old Yia-Yia had a kindly smile which showed her missing several teeth. I remember well her walnut-tanned skin, slight stoop, thin white hair neatly brushed back and her blue-veined hands. She would give us boys twenty and fifty cent pieces when the ice-cream man came cycling past the property in the afternoon, waving good-naturedly for us to make haste outside before he departed.

The house itself had apparently been built by my grandfather, obviously with the assistance of hired help. Marondera was granite country and the soil was very sandy, unlike the red loamy soils of Greystone Park. The front drive we used as a soccer and cricket pitch and our own version of baseball when we were given an aluminium bat by one or other of our South African cousins. To the left of the sandy driveway, as one faced the front gate, were two concrete flamingos on rusty iron legs, one of which was stooped as if feeding from a pan or lake.

Further back against the fence stood a mini-acropolis constructed of precast concrete pillars, deliberately etched and broken in an effort to imitate the original. The property was quite extensive and had some lovely trees I remember, especially the spreading wild Mobola Plum out front, which someone had dubbed ‘the lavatory tree’ because of the sickly sweet scent of the flowers, reminiscent of a lavatory air-freshener.

In the garden we were able to extract camel worms, a sort of hairy caterpillar with two humps on its back, from their vertical holes with pieces of moistened grass. In the adjacent park area, if we were lucky, we would be able to dig up the occasional large, brown, hairy scorpion. I never saw one above surface but they probably came out of their burrows when it was cooler.

Our Yia-Yia was an unapologetic horder of commodities, perhaps because of the tough war years she would have spent in occupied Cyprus. In her pantry could be found all manner of items, some decades old and probably a hazard to one’s health. Occasionally Ray or Tony would dig these items out and berate their mother light-heartedly (before discretely disposing of them). The house was always full of laughter and activity whilst we were visiting.

The kitchen would become a focal point as the food was prepared by the bustling old lady on her old gas stove and old worn countertop which must have seen the preparation of countless meals over the years. The lunch itself was always something to look forward to. It usually started with a bowl of Avgolemono soup; pale with lemon juice, chicken bits and grains of rice, followed by the main course: moussaka, dolmades (small packets of mince wrapped in spinach or grape-leaves), pasta rice, very well oven-cooked lamb served with baked potatoes, and batter-fried salted cod.

My grandfather, a life-long heavy smoker, had died of heart failure when I was only seven, so most of my memories of the house only involve my Yia-Yia (the older Yia-Yia had died around the same time). The house was always very neat and clean; there was leather furniture in the lounge-dining area and on the walls were two bugles and a bayonet, both relics of World War II, in which my grandfather had fought. Adjoining that room was a smaller area with another table on which the children would eat when the main table was full (it usually was).

On the side of the white enamel cupboard nearby the heights of all the family, especially the kids, were recorded over subsequent years. There was also a splendid formal dining room joined to an entertainment room that was seldom, if ever, occupied. It housed an old piano. The furniture too was old and well-polished and made of a handsome dark hardwood of some sort and on the quarry-tiled floor was a Persian carpet. I remembered hearing my Aunt Monica playing that piano once and my cousin Sera playing a Polonaise; otherwise it was more ornamental than functional.

Round the back of the house were the sheds and workshop where an assortment of bric-à-brac had accumulated over the years, which provided us boys with all sorts of curiosities from rusty hose-pipe fittings to old Anchovette bottles with the labels still intact. There were also kennels housing several large Rottweiler dogs, the largest and meanest of which was Shadow. My grandmother unleashed them in the evenings either there or at their leather factory nearby as a very successful deterrent to any prospective thieves.

There was also a gate leading out to a communal area and an expanse of bare granite rock where our fathers had themselves played years earlier. They called it Pirate’s Rock, so we did too. It wasn’t much to behold but it was exciting to think that our dads had once been at the age that we were then and played the same games at the very spot on which we then stood.

Despite what would later transpire to mar my relationship with my father, I remember him as a good storyteller when I was a youngster. He would spin a yarn about a mysterious and deadly character, the Black-Widow Lady, who had inhabited town and countryside, cocooning little boys like us in a spider-like thread that she spun before devouring them at leisure.

These tales had held us rapt and begging for more after each instalment. My father had fostered a legend about a penknife he possessed which was the only known item capable of cutting the silk thread of the cocoons; this fabled knife was now lost but we spent hours and hours searching every nook and cranny of the house and garden in search of the mythical item.

Our Yia-Yia had finally passed away shortly after my own mother had in the early part of the last decade. Until the final week or so of her life, when she needed full-time attention by my Aunt Nick, she had resided in that house where all her family memories from the last half-century had accumulated. It was her express wish that the family continue to use the house as a family holiday home, improbable as that may have been. Ray and Tony had consulted with Sera, then living in South Africa, who had inherited the property and decided to put it on the market. They rented it for a year or two and then sold to a black family.

Looking back I can understand my Yia-Yia’s sentiments entirely and why so loathe to sell the home where I grew up. All the same, it’s best remember the place for what it was and not hanker for a past that’s irredeemable. It is enough to appreciate that places hold memories and memories bring a sense of continuity and belonging. Tony and Nick, Dan and his family all live in Harare now, but our ancestral home was that house in Marondera.

From R to L: My mum's parents, My Yia-Yia and my father. Taken outside Goksel leather factory, Marondera.

From R to L: My mum’s parents, My Yia-Yia and my father. Taken outside Goksel leather factory, Marondera.

TOUR OF ZIMBABWE (AUGUST 1992) PART I

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This post is a verbatim transcription of a diary I wrote during a family excursion to a number of landmarks around Zimbabwe. This, the first of two, records our trip to the southwest of the country taking in the Matopos, the Gwaai River and Hwange. I was 13 at the time, in my first year of high school in Harare. The other individuals present on the trip were my parents, Lou and Ray; my grandparents, Mutty (pronounced Moo-tee) and Raph; my brothers Daniel (11) and Ivan (8); and a family friend, Pat.

My mother photocopied the diary (I’m not sure where the original is) and inserted the copied pages along with photographs from the trip into two albums. I have scanned and inserted most of these pictures. I have transcribed the text faithfully except to correct a few punctuation errors. Original spellings are used. 

STOP 1: MATOPOS NATIONAL PARK (10th – 14th)

DAY 1:
Set off at 8:10, what a squeeze! We packed too much food! First stop to release tortoise into the wild just before Kadoma. At Kadoma stopped to have tea at the Ranch House. Went on through Kwe Kwe and Gweru – saw military aircraft and tanks at museum in Gweru. After a brief (late) lunch of coke and chips arrived in Bulawayo. Greeted Mutty and Raph (and Pat!) before setting off for Matopos. On the way saw incredible 15 grey louries! (birds listed in other book).

Looking out over the jumbled granite boulders of the Matopos Hills.

Looking out over the jumbled granite boulders of the Matopos Hills.

Settled in chalets (1,3,4) but I had to sleep in Pat’s because of lack of room. At least I had the whole bedroom to myself. Also had an attendant called Buke who seemed a friendly chap and looked amazingly like Gary Kolbe’s dad. Finished day with a bowl of Pat’s curry.

Blog note: Gary Kolbe was a German boy in my class at St Georges College. I remember him mostly because he was the only one in my class to have a more pronounced monobrow than me. I vaguely remember his father as being a large man with an impressive moustache. 

Having breakfast outside our Parks chalet at Matopos NP.

Having breakfast outside our Parks chalet at Matopos NP.

DAY 2:
Lay in till 7:30 then had breakfast over at Lodge 4 (scrambled egg and cereal). Played 1 hrs tennis with Dan and Ivan, or should I say I hour of Ivan disrupting our tennis and missing all the shots. Came back down and observed some cacti by the office on which Dan barbed his hand. Natural quick thinking on my part allowed me to cut the thorns from the plant. After extracting them Pat gave Dan a packet of biltong for himself (the little pig!). Maybe I should do the same thing?

A solemn moment at Rhodes grave.

A solemn moment at Rhodes grave.

For lunch we went to Cecil Rhodes’ grave. The lunch was not spectacular but the view from the top was incredible. We came back at 3 and had (for a change) a fairly quiet afternoon followed by a good, hot bath. After the bath we had braai over at chalet 1. Played Dan scrabble and lost. (I was giving him chances, ha ha!) I then went to bed with a headache, got up, had a Disprin, went back to bed.

Blog note: a braai is a colloquial term for a barbeque, a contraction of the Afrikaans word braaivleis (literally translated as ‘roast meat’)

DAY 3:
Up early for a cup of tea then went to play tennis with mum, Ive and Dan. Beat Dan in one game fair and square so he blew a fuse (as usual!). After his tantrum we all returned for breakfast before leaving to Chipangali. Going out we crossed thirty-seven ditches and even came out intact, but the trouble was worthwhile when we saw the animals.To give a very small list of all the species might seem tedious so I’ll tell of some of the more noticeable. In fact because it was that time of day most of the animals were pretty docile, especially the hyenas and servals. Others were wild dogs, klipspringers, duiker (grey), rhino (black and white), leopards, caracals, civits, cheetahs, lion, monkeys (all types), baboon – phew! I could go on all day, not to mention the birds! After that we returned to the luscious town park and then back to the chalets. At supper I had a fairly small meal then played Dan scrabble and beat him (no chances this time). Brushed teeth, went to bed.

Posing with the folks at Maleme Dam.

Posing with the folks at Maleme Dam.

DAY 4
Got up at 7:30 and a quick plate of cereal. The family then walked down to Mileme Dam [Maleme Dam]. I felt like a rock rabbit on the descent to the dam. The water was low but provided a good look at the bird life around the campers (and two people snogging) and we also a witnessed a dustbin raid by the baboons.

Typical collection of jumbled granite rocks constituting a kopje in the Matopos.

Typical collection of jumbled granite rocks constituting a kopje in the Matopos.

We returned at 11 and set off for Mesilume Dam [Mselume Dam] to meet a friend of Pat’s who would show us some Black Eagle nests. We saw several breeding pairs and a number of vacant nests. After trekking around a bit we returned to camp for a large lunch and a fairly peaceful afternoon. To pass time I drew an interesting tree with massive roots in charcoal which turned out rather successfully for a change (charcoal drawing is no easy task).

A 'rock-splitter', a variety of fig which I sketched in charcoal.

A ‘rock-splitter’, a variety of fig which I sketched in charcoal.

The four of us (the usual) then went and had a game of tennis, which again I seemed to dominate (ha ha!) No, truthfully. Then to round off the day we took a scenic drive to the game park. For three-quarters of an hour we did pretty well seeing Eland, impala, klipspringer, sable, rhino and a giraffe. Arriving back at main gate with a minute to spare before closing time we just squeezed through. I then went and had a hot bath on arrival and for the first time in a week washed my hair (numbskull!). We then went and devoured most of the braaied food Ray had prepared and finished it off with toasted marshmallows. Went off to bed and wrote my diary.

DAY 5
Never have I seen as beautiful a rock formation than that of the Matopos and if mum hadn’t remembered that she still had her watch after we had turned back maybe we could have seen it all over again. Not long before we reached Gwai we stopped to have a lunch of salad and rolls. IMG_0011

Front of a brochure advertising the Gwaai River Hotel, a friendly 1* establishment

Front of a brochure advertising the Gwaai River Hotel, a friendly 1* establishment

The Gwai River Hotel (not much of a river) proved to be quite impressive. On arrival we unpacked, swam, bounced on the trampoline and then fished. Had bites but caught nothing.

The three of us after a swim at the Gwaai River Hotel.

The three of us after a swim at the Gwaai River Hotel.

Returned at sundown, had a bath, went for a pleasant but small supper and then played table tennis for over an hour. Dan won three and I won the last but next time I’ll walk over him just you wait and see. Tired, we turned in for the night.

DAY 6
Brought tea in bed! Got up, dressed and went for breakfast (got sick over my fritters). After that I went for a leisurable [sic] walk around the dam and swamp keeping a lookout for the local croc. Came back and knocked about with the table tennis until we decided to go on our game drive around Hwange. IMG_0017

Dan and Ivan in front of a painted information board at Nyamandhlovu Pan.

Dan and Ivan in front of a painted information board at Nyamandhlovu Pan.

To get to the main gate we travelled 30 kms and from there we went to Ndlohvu platform [Nyamandhlovu platform] for what was meant to be tea but turned out to be lunch. First came the giraffe, slowly but surely (over 20 of them!), then the impala, ostrich and the warthogs (mud hogs more conveniently when seen on the bank) and lastly the sable, who being the bravest of all went knee deep and below in the water. Fortunately for them they were attacked by a pathetic croc who only snapped his jaws at them.

Ivan acquaints himself with a hornbill.

Ivan acquaints himself with a hornbill.

We also fed the extremely tame (cheeky) starlings and hornbills on scraps of food. Also seen were an incredible amount of birds including three species of eagles. After a return tea at the Hwange Hotel we came back and had our usual bath and dinner then friendly table tennis (in the book it’s friendly). Wrote my diary and hopped into bed.

DAY 7

Raph enjoys 'a cold one' at Gwaai River

Raph enjoys ‘a cold one’ at Gwaai River

Got up to go fishing at 6:20 and didn’t even catch anything! All the worms were too small. Warmed up over breakfast then walked around the dam with mum and her folks and saw over 20 warthogs. Returned for a game of table tennis and drew with Dan in games. We all ate chips for lunch, lazed about, swam and jumped on the tramp (trampoline).

Bouncing on the 'tramp'

Bouncing on the ‘tramp’

After a while the adults went on a walk while we stayed behind and got ready to fish. We used biltong for bait, had bites but caught nothing. So the fishermen went and had a bath followed by a supper of soup, Goulash and spongy pudding (not to mention the cheese pie – a bad excuse for pig’s swine [swill?]). Supper was followed by table tennis in which Dan beat me twice and I once against him. We also played a fun game of doubles where Dan and I beat the parents – naturally. Then it was tie for sleeping and reading and all the other things done at that time of day (silently thumping younger brothers).

DAY 8

This could be Sinamatella? I seem to remember there being a great view of the scrubland below.

This could be Sinamatella? I seem to remember there being a great view of the scrubland below.

Up and packing late as usual. Went for breakfast and a last jump on the tramp before the journey. Bid farewell to Gwai and all its staff including our faithful and patient Anton. Our trip to Cinamatela [Sinamatella] was a long and dusty but worthwhile journey. From our splendid hilltop view we looked down upon impala, zebra, buffalo and giraffe. The birds were numerous upon the miles of rolling plains and it seemed a shame to leave. Maybe one day we would come to stay in a lodge.

A picture of me at Sinamatella looking out over the plains below. Behind the photo is a checklist of birds and animals.

A picture of me at Sinamatella looking out over the plains below. Behind the photo is a checklist of birds and animals.

Next: https://thesearchivedmemories.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/214/

AROUND ZIMBABWE (AUGUST 1992) PART II

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This post is a verbatim transcription of a diary I wrote during a family excursion to a number of landmarks around Zimbabwe. This, the second of two, records our trip to the southwest of the country taking in the Victoria Falls, Mlibizi and Lake Kariba. I was 13 at the time, in my first year of high school in Harare. The other individuals present on the trip were my parents, Lou and Ray; my grandparents, Mutty (pronounced Moo-tee) and Raph; my brothers Daniel (11) and Ivan (8); and a family friend, Pat.

My mother photocopied the diary (I’m not sure where the original is) and inserted the copied pages along with photographs from the trip into two albums. I have scanned and inserted most of these pictures. I have transcribed the text faithfully except to correct a few punctuation errors. Original spellings are used.

DAY 8 (CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS)

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The brothers posing by a sign of the Falls.

The brothers posing by a sign of the Falls.

When some three hours later we arrived at the Vic Falls we all readily unpacked and sat down for a cup of tea. What remained of the daylight hours was spent on a quick visit to the Falls, (the) Devil’s Cataract to be precise.

Sure enough water to full [sic] the pool back home any day. Arrived back home (Sprayview) for the longest dinner wait I had ever endured and when the food did arrive the embarrassed waiter received the biggest round of applause anyone could wish for. So that explained why the next day was spent in the Wimpy. Miraculously the day finished peacefully.

The brothers posing by a sign of the Falls.

The brothers posing by a sign of the Falls.

DAY 9

[missing text] After grub we returned to the mighty Falls for a two hour walk. Each stop gave a vantage point to some spot on the Falls, thousands of tonnes of shear water turned to a churning broth beneath the beauty of rock and plant. The water vapour clung to our garments as we crossed through the luscious rainforest and gazed from the cliff heights upon the Horseshoe Falls. But time was scarce and we had to depart from the beauty of the falls and return to Sprayview.

Just before setting off on our 'Daboola Cruise'

Just before setting off on our ‘Daboola Cruise’

After returning for a brief swim we went and prepared for our Daboola Cruise (Note: a popular tour-operated evening ‘booze cruise’). Half an hour later we were chugging out from the jetty on our colonial boat along with Tullany [Tulane] our guide. Seated comfortably in our chairs we were provided with snacks, cool drinks, wine and beer (I managed to get half a glass).

Raph silhouetted against the setting sun, Vic Falls evening cruise.

Raph silhouetted against the setting sun, Vic Falls evening cruise.

The unforgettable Tullany with the good-natured smile brought us close to hippo, elephant, crocs and many birds. Under a setting sun we saw the lovely Zambezi and all its surroundings in full splendour. On return we heard the hippos grunting us goodnight across the placid waters, a lovely ending to the day. Supper at the Wimpy was followed by a well slept night.

DAY 10

A decent trampoline was a prerequisite.

A decent trampoline was a prerequisite.

Even after my mosquito-filled night I arose fairly fresh and after a large breakfast and exercising jump on the tramp [trampoline] I was prepared for the journey. It was no shock to leave Sprayview Hotel because of our inefficient service, although the accommodation was very satisfactory. After leaving and taking a quick look around the classy yet unattractive Elephant Hills Hotel we set forth upon our journey to Mlibizi about 3.5 hours away.

IMG_0018After completing our long, hot and tiring journey on tar and after the last dirt stretch we arrived at the chalets themselves. We unpacked, had a swim, a brief fish (caught nothing, but bites!) and then supper – braaied. Supper followed by bed of course. All I can say for the Mosi’s [mozzies, short for mosquitoes] is ‘beware!’

DAY 11

Almost a full compliment (minus Dan).

Almost a full compliment (minus Dan).

Up and fishing at 7:30 along with a quick cup of tea. If I didn’t know better I would say these fish were trained in dissecting the worms from the hooks (the poor worms never benefit). Returned hungry for cereal and toast and a look at the birds attracted by the luscious feeding tray. Drew a little and then fished a while longer although it was the wrong time of day.

The land cruiser we went game-viewing in.

The land cruiser we went game-viewing in.

Lunch that avi [afternoon] consisted of rolls and cold meat followed by a great game of scrabble by the pool in which all the pieces were used. After cooling down the four boys (men) went down for the main fish of the day. Worms were frequently disappearing as usual but this tie we caught six fairly small fish. We threw back out four chessa and two Cornish Jack [types of freshwater fish native to the Zambezi] and hoped for something bigger in future. On return we had showers followed by dinner and an evening of poker. I literally thrashed the lot of ’em until on the last round I tried to be clever and wasted my chips (match sticks). Got to bed where I landed up wirting my diary. Well, was writing my diary – Good Night.

DAY 12

Ivan and the old girls.

Ivan and the old girls.

Rose up at 7:30, had tea and then went and booked our boat. After eating breakfast the three of us went to out chalet to acquire our promised 250 worms. No not 250, but near enough to be called a fairly good deal on our part. Well at 11:00 we all set off on our raft [really more of a pontoon] with our guide Sampson (all but Mutty who felt a bit ill). Well it must have been a combination of the wrong time of day, wrong time of year and wrong fishing spot because we didn’t catch a thing. On the way out though things got rather exciting passing dozens of hippos and when Dan and I entangled our lines in the propeller of the boat the hippos surfaced all around the raft. Ray thought the tangle the funniest thing during the trip but luckily the pen-knife did the trick. After a medium sized lunch we all rested and swam till late afternoon. At that time we decided to go fishing which may have been a successful event had Ivan not attempted to throw Dan the box of worms – you can guess the rest.

The disheartened fishermen returned and went through the usual process before dinner. After devouring a large meal we hung around telling ghost stories until turning in for bed.

DAY 13

Brothers posing on back of the Toyota Cressida.

Brothers posing on back of the Toyota Cressida.

The only reason I got up that morning was to switch off [on?] the kettle for tea. Then after tea we all helped pack the car before going for breakfast at Mutty and Raph’s. After eating hungrily we walked down to the awaiting ferry while Ray and Raph drove the cars down. Then, with a honk of the hooter we set forth upon the light waves of the Zambezi. Before long

the river had widened considerably into the beginning of the lake itself, Kariba. The ferry had its car compartment below, the deck in front set upon with tables and behind the lounge, sleeping and eating quarters. Most of the time was spent outside in the cool, warm air, viewing with the other passengers the elephant and buck. After a lunch of rolls and other things we all lay back until the sunset over the Zambezi Hills had faded and nigh had befell [sic] us.

After a healthy supper of fish, chicken, lasagna and salad most people turned in for an early night sleep. Pat, Dan and I all decided to sleep outside along with another ten on deck. Because of the lack of mattresses, Dan and I had to use the chair cushions, but all seemed to be comfortable enough on top of that (for the time being that is).

DAY 14

L: Disembarking from the overnight ferry, Kariba harbour. R: Raph shows off his wonky left leg. Not long he had a replacement knee inserted.

L: Disembarking from the overnight ferry, Kariba harbour. R: Raph shows off his wonky left leg. Not long he had a replacement knee inserted.

Waking up to a setting sun is different to waking up to that of a rising sun so I knew I hadn’t slept in. This surprised me though, thinking back on the night’s events. I could remember waking up at 2:30 to a howling wind that whipped up the blankets and numbed out faces. Luckily we managed to get another blanket that partly protected us for the rest of the night.

Ivan looks particularly happy. I think it's because of the top he's wearing.

Ivan looks particularly happy. I think it’s because of the top he’s wearing.

After a quick breakfast, mainly of scrambled egg we actually arrived at Kariba (the town). We then removed our car and wandered aimlessly around town for a while before finding the shops where we stocked up on milk. We then went to the Cutty Sark Hotel, had tea, played table tennis and relaxed. After tea we continued to our lodge at the Nzou Camp [Mswenzi Lodge]. We got in early and quickly investigated the three-roomed lodge with the spacious lounge adjacent to the dining room.

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Route map to Mswenzi Lodge.

Route map to Mswenzi Lodge.

It was ll very pleasant with the thatching…[?]…veranda and the ame viewing/sun-bathing platform. After settling in and having lunch Dan, Ivan, mum and I went down to the pool (Ray came later). After waiting patiently for some petty [pretty?] girls to depart from the pool we eagerly dived into the cool, refreshing waters. Mum, like all women, waited for the Barbarians (Dan and Ivan) to get out and make way for her. It didn’t turn out like that, though. As soon as she had got in the two of them bombed [her] and rapidly wet what was her unwet head. Ray then turned up and after his brief swim we all returned.

Blog note: On re-reading this I was slightly shocked at what appears to be an offhand sexist remark on how women apparently behave in swimming pools. I suppose I can only attribute it to my limited world view at that age!

That evening we all browsed [casually sat in this context] around watching the impala and waterbuck before having showers. We all gathered together again afterwards for a supper which consisted of rice and salad. Supper for me was followed by bed.

DAY 15

Ray goe out to have a word with the elephants. They agreed not to defecate on the loge walls thereafter.

Ray goe out to have a word with the elephants. They agreed not to defecate on the loge walls thereafter.

Mum woke me up just after six for a walk with Pat and her. We all got dressed and just before setting out Dan decided to come as well. After walking down to the pan where we saw zebra, impala and waterbuck we headed onto the lake bank to view most of the birds. Well the Blacksmith Plover really did set off the alarm after carrying on his call for at least 10 minutes. Then, while coming on out way back through the grass we nearly trampled four side-striped jackal in their small lair. They were quick to get away and probably returned after we had gone. After returning and having breakfast the family and I set off to Cutty Sark for our worms. After that we carried on to Caribbea Bay. At the Bay we all needed a swim so we managed to slip into the resident’s pool.

After the cool swim we walked over to the Supatube but that wasn’t free though (it was 50c er ride!). The tube was short but went at hell of a speed so it wasn’t long before all our goes were gone (16 each). When people enjoy themselves time seems to fly by like today – the time was already 1:00 [pm]. Lunch at home consisted of tuna sandwiches and salad. After lunch we didn’t do much until 4 o’clock, the usual fishing time. Well, after 1 and a half hours the result wasn’t worth telling so I won’t (it’s the fish not the fishermen). After going back at sundown and helping cook the fishless braai we all ate a hearty meal. After the meal Raph and I conquered the others in a game of scrabble (we really came second). Now, though, it’s time for bed. (Phew, my pen’s running out and my pathetic mother nicked some paper for the laundry list). Hope you don’t notice the change.

Blog note: Apologies to my late mum.

DAY 16

Our veranda at the Lodge.

Our veranda at the Lodge.

The three of us excluding Dan went for our morning walk as usual although we now decided to cut through the grass straight to the lake bank near the pans and follow it to the boat jetty at Nzou. We saw no zebra but the impala, waterbuck and birds were abundant. And as a bonus on the way back we saw three handsome bushbuck. It is amazing how one gets so hot so early in the morning but that was the way it was so we were all pretty pooped for breakfast. After breakfast the family and me went for a major fishing trip. Although (as usual) we caught nil, with our worms and mussells [sic] we had some pretty big bites and the guy next to us caught a barbel. We returned late and spent the hot afternoon lazing around sluggishly. Then at 4:30 we all went down for a final effort at the jetty until six – caught nothing (boo hoo! Better luck next time).

We got back for supper with an old friend of PAt’s who spent much of her life in the bush with her dog. Well I would have liked to hear some of her incredible stories but before long I had drifted away into the land of dreams.

DAY 17

My final day’s breakfast was forcefully put down because of the oranges that curdled the milk. Packing didn’t take long and after bidding farewell to faithful old Zuze the housekeeper we set out for home. At first we travelled far up the winding slopes of the hills but before long we were back on the even plateau on the way to Chinhoyi. The caves there were amazing except they were needing a clean, but all the same the deep, tranquil sleeping pool was an awful site [sic] [an attempt at humour?!].

DAY 18

IMG_0032After the caves we had lunch and then continued to Pat’s house in Harare to say bye to her. Pat was greeted happily by Isaac [domestic employee] and her dog Taurus and when we returned the same [welcome] from Trymore, Edmore and the dogs. What an end to a super holiday.

The brothers and out bashful Rottweiler, Tina.

The brothers and out bashful Rottweiler, Tina.

Blog note: I have a very clear recollection of Taurus, a sturdy Staffordshire Bull Terrier, leaping at me at full tilt as I stepped out the car. Fortunately it was joy not aggression that motivated him. Our domestic workers were all related and my brother Dan still employs Trymore and his wife 20 years later.