Shiwa Ng’andu and Some RnR at Kapishya Hot Springs

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I did get a half-decent night’s sleep at Bayama’s Lodge but not without getting up sometime after midnight for a clandestine ‘bucket bath’ from a large barrel of water situated near the dining area. It was pretty chilly by that hour of the night but the way I saw it the cold was temporary but the relief from the layers of grime and sweat, especially around the groin and armpits, would be immeasurable. I know there might be a few hardened travellers out there having a chuckle but honestly it made all the difference when I slipped back into my sleeping bag.

I did get a half-decent night’s sleep at Bayama’s Lodge but not without getting up sometime after midnight for a clandestine ‘bucket bath’

Well, speaking truthfully it hadn’t been as straight forward as that. Needing to warm up a bit after washing I trod softly towards where the night-watchman was quietly snoring next to a brazier of glowing embers. I obviously hadn’t trodden softly enough because he awoke with a start. However, he seemed glad of the company and we talked for quite some time about various things. He was a humble man with one good eye and the other misty and obviously blind.

He told me that he used to be good friends with an Anglican clergyman before the man had emigrated back to Britain. His mind stretched back to pre-independence days (before 1964), and I thought of all the changes he had seen in Zambia during his lifetime. He regretted having no other means of supporting himself or his wife because it was not a sociable job and he had to sleep most of the daylight hours. He said prospects were better for his children. I remember brewing a cup of instant coffee in a small pot on the embers and little while later saying goodnight.

His mind stretched back to pre-independence days (before 1964), and I thought of all the changes he had seen in Zambia during his lifetime.

The following morning the night-watchman was gone and after packing my tent I headed back to the main road. Andreas had advised an early start the evening before. I strolled past the service station where the vendors were already establishing themselves – women with buckets of fried chicken, packets of boiled cassava root, dried fish, packet biscuits, soft drinks and so forth. More than one taxi driver tried to tempt me into a ride but I wasn’t budgeting for those sort of prices.

IMG_20150604_090135474Close to the place where my two companions of the day before had deposited me I found a crowd of onlookers surrounding a large haulage vehicle on its side. Was anyone injured I asked someone passing by.

He smiled and explained that everyone was fine and that it actually happened quite often. It was not apparent how considering the flatness of the road and the surrounds. Perhaps he had swerved to avoid something or someone and his load shifted position and flipped the cab? A policeman appeared and shooed people away from the front of the vehicle and proceeded to place a few leafy branches as a kind of perimeter marker.

A policeman appeared and shooed people away from the front of the vehicle and proceeded to place a few leafy branches as a kind of perimeter marker.

I continued past the upturned truck and crossed to the other side of the road. There was a row of shops here housing a number of enterprises: a hair salon, a grocers and general store amongst them. I bought a few fresh provisions and then scouted around for a lift. I was told that this was the best spot for lifts heading north on the Tanzam Highway. I needed to get some 80 km up the road to a T-junction and the road to Shiwa Ng’andu.

I approached the driver of a silver saloon and inquired about a lift. It wouldn’t be a problem. He named his price, 20 ZKM, which seemed quite reasonable and far cheaper than the taxi option. First up, however, he needed to go into town to get some fresh meat supplies. He had come all the way from Chinsali, some 300 km by road, for provisions. He told me that it was still cheaper to drive all that distance to buy these commodities in Mpika rather than Chinsali where the traders put on a hefty mark-up. Possibly he was intending to resell some of these goods himself.

He had come all the way from Chinsali, some 300 km by road, for provisions

So a short while later we drove the short distance into town to the butchery he had in mind. It was still not yet open but as we waited the number of prospective customers grew in number so that when the doors did swing open for service there was a surge of bodies into the shop. Fortunately we were at the front. I hung back as my driver friend stocked up on a variety of beef cuts and other bits and pieces. I was paying more attention to the other clientele, the businessmen and housewives all vying for the attention of the shopkeepers.

IMG_20150604_093911555On the walk across to the vehicle I noticed a vendor selling a variety of DVDs. The selection of titles ranged from popular Hollywood action flicks to Nigeria’s Nollywood toting films like ‘Adolphus the Village Hunter’ and ‘Who is the King?’ I couldn’t read many of the titles because of the way they were filed on the display stand but I could see that ‘Nigeria vs Ghana’ also featured on several of them. On the bottom row were a selection of Asian (Chinese?) films with titles like ‘Destined Heart’ and various combinations of the words ‘eternity’, ‘life’ and ‘love.’

The selection of titles ranged from popular Hollywood action flicks to Nigeria’s Nollywood toting films like ‘Adolphus the Village Hunter’ and ‘Who is the King?’

We made our way back to the main road and before long there were two other people in the backseat as we progressed north. The driver had a sense of urgency that was lacking the day before, not that I’d minded, but now the kilometres dropped away and it wasn’t long before we were at the turnoff. My luck held out as a few minutes later a rickety old land cruiser pulled up near to where I’d decamped beneath the main road sign. The driver leaned out his near side window and asked me if I was after a lift.

It was only 12 km to my destination but the driver was going all the way through to the Kasama Rd. I would need to follow that route but first I wanted to see two particular places on the way. I was told lifts were erratic but my faith in fate and good fortune had not failed me yet. Therefore, a short while later, after offering the driver 10 or 15 ZKM, he deposited me at the entrance to the famous Shiwa Ng’andu estate. I say famous because in recent years it had seen a revival in its fortunes.

I was told lifts were erratic but my faith in fate and good fortune had not failed me yet.

The estate dated back to when an Englishman, Sir Stewart Gore Brown, had established a presence in the area and built a virtual self-administered enclave miles from the nearest railway and European settlement. He’d been involved with the Anglo-Belgian Boundary commission which had established the border between Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo in the early part of the century. He had scoured the land between Ndola and Lake Tanganyika for somewhere suitable and had settled on this land near Lake Ishiba Ng’andu which in the Bemba language means lake of the royal crocodile.

(Sir Stewart Gore-Browne) had settled on this land near Lake Ishiba Ng’andu which in the Bemba language means lake of the royal crocodile.

It was pleasant countryside – open woodland with clumps of water-loving trees and palms near the water’s edge. It wasn’t difficult to understand why Gore-Brown had chosen this spot to settle. I had read an acclaimed book on the history of Shiwa Ng’andu and the eccentric aristocratic who lorded over it by the author Christina Lamb (The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream, HarperCollins, 2005). In truth I had no intention of visiting the place when I set off from Lusaka but when Mike du Plessis in Mpika had reminded me that it was well worth a visit I recalled the book and quickly factored it into my plans.

It was pleasant countryside – open woodland with clumps of water-loving trees and palms near the water’s edge.

IMG_20150604_120457169_HDRWell I won’t say too much more about Sir Stuart except to say that his dream of building a European style manor estate in the heart of the African bush was bold, ambitious and grandiose. Was it foolhardy, a little too egotistic? No doubt his legacy will divide opinion. It was certainly strange to see slate-roofed, red-brick houses with whitewashed fronts built purposefully for the local labour and staff, African kids playing nearby and chickens pecking around the bare-swept courtyards. According to Wikipedia: The estate had its own schools, hospitals, playing fields, shops, and post office. Workers lived in brick-built cottages and the estate was ruled as a benevolent autocracy [Link to article]

It seems the impression that Gore-Brown left with black Zambians was predominantly positive. It is said he embraced a racially inclusive political mindset. In any event he was granted a state funeral – the only white man to have ever had the honour – and his descendants have maintained ownership of the farm and adjacent tracts of land. My companions on the road the day before had remarked that there was no reason to grant the area of Shiwa Ng’andu its own territorial status, something almost akin to a province, except as a nod to the importance of the estate. They thought it was a bit ridiculous.

In any event he was granted a state funeral – the only white man to have ever had the honour – and his descendants have maintained ownership of the farm and adjacent tracts of land.

Back to the present I found myself wandering between various outbuildings looking for a reception or farm office which I did find half a kilometre further up the road. I’d noticed a sign near the approach to Manor House which said something about Shiwa House visiting hours being between 9 and 11 am and by appointment only. It had already gone 11 so I was obviously out of luck. A visit was also levied at US $40 which was not in my budget.

IMG_20150604_145923944_HDRBack at the farm office a busy black lady was tabling expenses with a pile of bills and invoices on the table in front of her. She helpfully dialled the mobile number of Mr Charles Harvey who presided over the farm. Apparently he was busy but she told me to keep an eye out for him. I went outside and looked around again. I noted that various farm implements and old machines lay idly on the edge of the gravel road and beneath some Jacaranda trees to one side. This included an old steam tractor and what appeared to be several steel boilers.

I noted that various farm implements and old machines lay idly on the edge of the gravel road and beneath some Jacaranda trees to one side.

I recall going over to a farm trailer, sitting down and taking off my shoes to give my blisters some relief. I noticed an elderly white couple nearby, examine a pig pen and then go across to a yard with several large farm vehicles. If they saw me they ignored me. Various black people, staff and labourers presumable, walked in either direction, but only the children seemed to take any particular interest in me.

Eventually a middle-aged white man appeared from somewhere. I approached him as unassumingly as possible and introduced myself and asked if he was Mr Harvey. He was. He asked whether I wanted to take a look at Shiwa House. I replied that I did if it was all the same to him. He told me to go right ahead. I was a little taken aback but he reassured me that it was fine. Without any further banter he excused himself and I was left to my own devices once more.

(He) asked whether I wanted to take a look at Shiwa House. I replied that I did if it was all the same to him. He told me to go right ahead.

I walked back towards the manor, stopping to admire the stately gatehouse from the roadside. It was dominated by a square-sided, brick clock-tower perhaps 10 to 12 metres high. The clock showed the wrong time and probably hadn’t functioned for years. Like the other brick structures on the estate it had a steeply inclined slate-tiled roof at two levels. To the right of the clock-tower the adjoining building was whitewashed which contrasted with the olive-green window-frames. The window panes were knocked out of the end windows. It looked a bit forlorn.

The clock showed the wrong time and probably hadn’t functioned for years.

IMG_20150604_144417110_HDROn closer inspection I discovered that the rooms were largely empty, bar a few low benches, the white paint peeling from the ceilings and walls. Definitely not in use I concluded. A sign above one of the doors declared that it had once been the Estate Office. There was also a neatly painted list of game under the title ‘Shiwa Game Animals.’ There were twenty-one species listed, mostly antelope.

I was unfamiliar with a few of the names like Sitantunga, Oribi and Puku. I had read somewhere that Mr Harvey had stocked the estate with some game and taken anti-poaching measures. Moments later, walking out from beneath the gatehouse I heard something bark to my right and looking up saw a small buck dashing through the undergrowth, a fluffy white tail poking up from its rump.

I continued down a pedestrian avenue until I reached another gate with a crude hand-painted sign which informed me that this was the entrance to Shiwa Manor House. I had come this far earlier from the other direction and decided against proceeding without permission. This time around it was granted. For the most part the approach to Shiwa House is obscured by the flanking trees but it was suddenly there, not a 100 metres ahead. The garden lawn was lush and green. I could see and here sprinklers at work a short way off.

I continued down a pedestrian avenue until I reached another gate with a crude hand-painted sign which informed me that this was the entrance to Shiwa Manor House.

The garden itself contained an abundance of exotic plants from red-flowering Poinsettias to spiny sisal, Jacaranda and Cyprus. This was not exactly surprising. Wherever European colonists have settled in Africa they’ve brought with them exotic plants, many collected from far-flung corners of the former empire. It occurred to me growing up in Harare that many Europeans, probably most, had never sought to take the many faces of the African landscape at face value.

There was such a staggering abundance of native flora that it was hard to understand why a Cyprus or Jacaranda was somehow preferable to a spreading Albizia or Brachystegia. No doubt it had something to do with the psyche of the settler and the desire to manipulate the landscape into something different, discernible from the communal or tribal lands which inevitably surrounded them, and perhaps remind them of home.

Wherever European colonists have settled in Africa they’ve brought with them exotic plants, many collected from far-flung corners of the former empire.

Recalling the Shiwa Estate I also remember avenues of bland cedrella trees, and woodlots of exotic gums and conifers. If the coniferous plantation I had seen the day before was the initiative of a local Zambian one could hardly blame him because the precedent was set by the Europeans.

I suppose I’m being a bit of an idealist. After all there are many innocuous garden plants that have travelled far and wide, the world over, without causing any harm. And where we would we be without the humble potato, tomato, citrus and maize plants that today are incorporated into the diets of many Africans? They were all imports to the African continent and elsewhere. It is a case of aesthetics to some degree, especially when it comes to landscaping. The one angle not I have not mentioned is that of ecology. Not all imports are beneficial to the habitat into which they’ve been introduced.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and get back to the present – my first impressions of Shiwa House. The entrance was flanked by two metal sculptures, one of a rhino and the other an elephant. This sort of design, welded iron plates and bars creating a composition, had become very popular in Southern Africa over the last decade or two. The lion was brilliantly portrayed with jaws open, displaying a row of rusty fangs. The rhino was stout and the various welded plates combined to convey a sense of proportion and strength.

The lion was brilliantly portrayed with jaws open, displaying a row of rusty fangs. The rhino was stout and the various welded plates combined to convey a sense of proportion and strength.

IMG_20150604_124256032_HDRThe house itself was very stately as I recalled from pictures I had seen in the book by Christina Lamb. It wasn’t as imposing as some of the English manors I’d seen such as the Luton Hoo Manor house, now a hotel, on an estate in Hertfordshire, where I had worked as a waiter for a year and a half. All he same it was impressive in size and design. The pictures speak for themselves. From an upper balcony a dog yapped furiously and unrelentingly. I tried to call to it and saw that it was only a small terrier.

From another direction a larger, tawny, short-haired dog galloped towards me. My heart missed a beat but I stood my ground. It too barked at me but by the way it backed off I knew I had the upper hand. I walked towards it with a soothing voice (or what I hoped was suitably soothing) and it grudgingly settled down. A smaller terrier appeared and was quite friendly from the outset.

IMG_20150604_124715179The dogs followed me as I made a cursory inspection of the property. The front door appeared locked but a side-door was ajar and when I opened it I realised that I was in the family chapel. There was a wooden tablet mounted on the opposite wall, topped by a coat of arms, presumably that of Gore-Browne, and inscribed in gold letters the various ancestors of Sir Stuart. At the top of the list, written in capitals, was – Sir Thomas Gore Browne, KCMG, … Regts Governor of St Helena, New Zealand, Tasmania, & Bermuda B. 1807, D. 1887.

Beneath his name was that of his wife Harriet, a reference to her parentage, and beneath their names those of their five children. The last of these, Ethel, was apparently married to Hugh Fortescue Locke King, Grandson of Peter, 7th Lord King, B. 1848, D. 1926. He Founded Shiwa. This was a bit confusing. I thought Gore-Brown had founded Shiwa? I remember reading that Sir Stewart Gore Browne had been very attached to Dame Ethel Locke King, Sir Hugh’s wife.

The chapel had a simple brick altar, the cement floor polished red and the walls inset with narrow, arched windows on two levels, letting ample light into the interior. The seating was not fixed in place – several wooden benches and chairs facing the altar. Stood in each of two alcoves on either side of the rear end of the chapel was a stylised wooden angel. The interesting thing about them was that their features were African not European.

The chapel was had a simple brick altar, the cement floor polished red and the walls inset with narrow, arched windows on two levels, letting ample light into the interior.

I had read somewhere that Sir Stewart Gore-Browne had earned the nickname chipembere or rhinoceros because of his fierce temper. I noticed another two miniature statues of the beast prominently displayed on either side of the front door which was inscribed with the date 1932 and the letters L and S on either side of the date, which I assume stood for Lorna and Stewart. Lorna had been his wife and 22 years his junior. I don’t think it had been a happy marriage and they eventually separated.

I had read somewhere that Sir Stewart Gore-Browne had earned the nickname chipembere or rhinoceros because of his fierce temper.

The front door appeared locked and no-one answered my knock. I thought about entering the house through another door which stood slightly ajar but thought better of it. Mr Harvey hadn’t said that the house was off-limits I felt uneasy venturing into another person’s house without their express consent. It would have been a different matter if it was just an abandoned relic but Harvey and his wife lived there.

I explored the garden a bit further and came across a large flame tree or Spathodea, a native of East-Central Africa. Can you recall Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika? This particular specimen was very big, it’s trunk fissured and covered in parts with earthen termite passageways. About 8 or 9 feet up was a copper plate tarnished blue with oxidation, commemorating Coronation Day, 2ND June 1953. That was over 60 years ago which explained why it was so high up on the trunk.

About 8 or 9 feet up was a copper plate tarnished blue with oxidation, commemorating Coronation Day, 2ND June 1953. That was over 60 years ago which explained why it was so high up on the trunk.

Thereafter I decided it was an opportune time to take a walk, in the midday heat, down to Lake Ishiba Ng’andu after which Gore-Browne had named the estate. The crocodiles were still present or so I was told, so I wouldn’t be taking a dip, as attractive as that seemed at the time. It was a moderate walk down to the lake, hampered slightly by the heat and my sore feet. I took in the horses and young calves grazing off to one side before crossing the road, skirting the airstrip and heading though the adjacent woodlot of exotic conifers. I saw a male bushbuck on the way down.

The crocodiles were still present I was told so I would not be taking a dip, as attractive as that seemed at the time.

After a while the conifers gave way to natural woodland and a short while later I emerged on the shore of the lake which was still some way off. There was a flock of sheep grazing near the water and a shepherd boy waved from where he was sitting on an anthill. On the shoreline itself was a viewing platform. I ambled over and slowly ascended the rickety old frame. I had to be careful because some of the decking was missing but it afforded an excellent view over the lake.

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I took out my compact binoculars and examined the shoreline on either side. If there were any crocodiles they were hidden from view. There was only one boat I could see out on the water, two fishermen paddling it slowly towards the shore. A short distance from me was a large clump of papyrus reeds and I got the impression that it was more of a shallow depression than a lake. I looked determinedly for any sign of birds or other life around the lake but could only make out the occasional heron. It was probably because of the heat that it was so quiet at this time of day.

On the walk back I saw another buck, a larger one with a handsome dark brown coat and distinctive white markings on the legs, torso and face. It was browsing through the short undergrowth on the edge of the coniferous woodland. He saw me simultaneously and with his long legs he dashed deeper into the woodland and was very quickly out of sight. I later looked at images of antelope on the internet which confirmed my suspicions – it was a male sitatunga, an amphibious antelope fairly widespread throughout central Africa. This was near the southern extent of its natural range.

On the walk back I saw another buck, a larger one with a dark brown coat and distinctive white markings on the legs, torso and face.

Back on the estate I confirmed with the lady in the state office the direction to Kapishya Hotsprings. Initially I was determined to walk there but it was 20 odd kilometres away and my feet were not in great shape as I have repeated several times. Sorry! I had a number for the hotel at the hot springs which I called. The man who answered it told me that transfers from Shiwa cost US $20. To be honest that wasn’t exorbitant, but being a determined budget traveller I still sought ways to minimise my expenses. He would make arrangements and confirm back with me. Meantime I decided to set off towards Kapishya.

Besides a truck crammed with chattering farm workers, some of whom waved and shouted greetings in my direction, not a single other vehicle appeared in either direction. I calculated I’d walked about 5 kms before a beige land cruiser came roaring down the gravel road from the other direction. The driver pulled up opposite me. He was a large European guy with a tanned face.

I calculated I’d walked about 5 kms before a beige land cruiser came roaring down the gravel road from the other direction.

“Are you the guy from Shiwa who wanted a transfer?” he asked. I replied that it was most likely me. He stared at me a few moments longer and then told me to sling my bag in the back and hop in.

“It’s $20, you know that don’t you?” he stated without any small talk.

“Considering that I didn’t know if you were coming and that I’ve already walked 5 km I think you should give me a discount,” I replied more boldly than I probably should have.

He stared at me another few seconds and then shrugged.

“Ok, we can make it $15 then.”

We drove a minute or two in silence and then he introduced himself as Tony. His accent was definitely antipodean but I was bad at placing accents from Down Under. He must’ve read my mind.

“I’m a Kiwi. I’ve live in Mozambique these days.” I felt the tension of the last few minuets lift. I can’t remember where he said he now stayed exactly but the Mozambique coastline is renowned for sunshine, sandy beaches and good food. He explained that the owners of the resort, Mark and Mel, had flown out to the UK to visit a sick relative at short notice. He had answered the SOS they sent out and had driven northwards via the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and then southwards to Kapishya through northern Zambia. It had been one hell of a journey he old me. “Never again.”

Still, if you were going to do a trip over treacherous and potholed roads land cruiser was just the vehicle you wanted. They were used throughout the safari business because of their reliability, durability and power. Only the good ol’ British land rover had a similar reputation for operating in the less accessible parts of the continent.

Still, if you were going to do a trip over treacherous and potholed roads land cruiser was just the vehicle you wanted.

After a couple of kilometres Tony turned to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of a diversion to look for some hartebeest he thought were in the vicinity. I didn’t mind in the least. We diverted off the road at a tangent along rough track through the open woodland that flanked the hills here. We soon came to a game fence and followed it still going westwards. He told me to keep an eye out for wildlife. Despite having the task of driving he was the one to spot a kudu antelope hidden in a thicket of trees on my side of the vehicle. I remarked on his sharp vision and he replied that he had spent many years in the bush. He enjoyed hunting.

The real catch was a group of at least five of the hartebeest that we had been looking for. There was a cow and calf and several other adults, probably also females. They didn’t seem unduly disturbed. Tony explained that Mark ran anti-poaching patrols and as a result the wildlife here was well protected.

The real catch was a group of at least five of the hartebeest that we had been looking for. There was a cow and calf and several other adults, probably also females.

He reached under his seat and brought out a pair of powerful binoculars with nice big apertures to let in plenty of light. I only had my much smaller 10×25 birding binoculars. He handed his to me and, looking through them, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. The image of the buck through his pair was slightly brighter but the magnification was not much different. I was suddenly very pleased with my pair which I had brought online at a discount. It occurred to me that I was becoming a bit of a guru in the budget and bargain travel department!

IMG_20150606_103352968We left the antelope in the serenity of the bush and got back onto the main road. We gathered pace and before long crossed the river that flows past Kapishya resort, village huts dotted on either side, and a few minutes later pulled up at the campsite. Tony deposited me near the entrance, telling me where I could find him and said we could sort things out later. I was the only one there so I had my pick of the place. I chose a level spot half-way to the river to pitch my little tent where the grass was a bit thicker. I was travelling without a sleeping mat after all.

We gathered pace and before long crossed the river that flows past Kapishya resort, village huts dotted on either side, and a few minutes later pulled up at the campsite.

That evening I went down to the river. It was flowing strongly but it didn’t look very deep. I could see rocks here and there and the presence of others indicated where the water frequently rippled and flowed over irregular objects beneath. I’d been warned not to swim. Mark had apparently shot a very large crocodile a short way upstream quite recently. I didn’t agree with shooting the animals even if they could predate on humans. This was their habitat after all.

IMG_20150604_171859151_HDRThe river banks were flanked by short, spreading palms with large, broad fronds reaching out over the surface. It was beautiful and peaceful. Hard to reconcile with ferocious, potential man-eating reptiles. That’s Africa in a nutshell: described with words like beauty, serenity and majesty in one breath and their antonyms ugly, chaotic and brutal in the next. Granted that these perceptions are coloured largely by man’s activities. It is enough to say that the natural world can seem very cruel and unfair at times but uplifting and untainted at times like this.

The river banks were flanked by short, spreading palms with large, broad fronds reaching out over the surface

From there I took a walk up through the rich, green, riverine vegetation to the hot springs proper. I found Tony already immersed in the shallows. The pool was 20 or 30 meters across and crystal clear. For the most part it was underlain by fine, white sand but there were also a few large, smooth rocks as well, surrounded on the one side by vegetation and on the other enclosed by a straw fence of sorts. The edge was lined by rocks and stones and it appeared that there was a weir constructed to create the shallow pool.

Tony was soaping himself at the point where water spilled over the edge of the barrier into a stream that flowed down to the river below the campsite. The owner’s black labrador was lying nearby. He followed Tony everywhere. The big man invited me in and we chatted for a while whilst the evening closed in on us. The waters were deliciously warm, a little below blood temperature I’d guess.

The waters were deliciously warm, a little below blood temperature I’d guess.

After ten minutes or so I had to expose my torso and sit on one of the rocks. It was just too hot for me. Tony didn’t seem to be suffering the same effects. I noticed how, near my feet, the sand seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy. It was if there was some sort of device beneath pumping air through in bursts. This was the source of the geothermal heat which created the hot springs in the first place.

I noticed how, near my feet, the sand seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy.

That evening I busied myself cooking a simple dish on my portable gas and meth stoves. I also washed some underwear and socks in one of the campsite basins and hung the items to dry from the guy ropes to the tent. I was hungry and also tired. It wasn’t long before I bedded down for the night.

The following day, a Friday, I woke early to a familiar sound – the melodious duet of the white-browed robin chat (formerly known as Heuglin’s robin), without doubt one of the most distinctive and melodic bird song of my childhood growing up in Harare. My cousin Dominic expressed a loathing for the avian alarm clock which would wake him up consistently at the crack of dawn he complained. Here at Kapishya I revelled in the symphony of bird call. The riverine thicket between the campsite and the hot springs was alive with their song.

The following day, a Friday, I woke early to a familiar sound – the melodious duet of the white-browed robin chat

I grabbed my binoculars and camera phone and strolled down to the water’s edge. The view was subtly different to that of the day before: a pall of pale mist now hung over the river. Not the billowing mists of the Kundalila Falls but rather delicate, white, diaphanous wisps and puffs moving gently upwards from the surface waters.

I made my way along the river’s edge towards the hot springs on one of several footpaths through the density of shrubs and trees, carefully trying not to disturb the birds in an attempt to identify some of them. It was difficult as they flicked and flitted through the undergrowth. Without a doubt there were warblers and flycatchers amongst them.

As I got closer to the resort proper I heard a bark from somewhere up in one of the cluster of Eucalyptus trees planted here. My first guess was that it was a monkey of some sort but was amazed to see that it as actually a bird, and a pretty fast-moving one at that. A flash of colour and a glimpse was enough to know that it was a turaco. It looked as though there were several of them bounding around through the trees. I had to be patient though and it took a while before I got a good enough view for a positive ID.

A flash of colour and a glimpse was enough to know that it was a turaco.

Its most distinctive feature was a corn-yellow facial ‘mask’ and thick beak beneath a bright red crest. This was Ross’s turaco, an illustration of which I had memorised from a volume of Birds of West and Central Africa, a book I had inherited from an uncle of mine and which I adored as a child. The only difference was that in that book the bird was known as Lady Ross’s turaco. Sometime during the intervening years she had lost her title. Ah well, no less exotic nor distinctive for it.

This was Ross’s turaco, an illustration of which I had memorised from a volume of Birds of West and Central Africa…

IMG_20150605_063809858_HDRI wandered past several comfortable-looking chalets, an outdoor area with a swimming pool and deck chairs before emerging near the river a bit further upstream. It was a bit wider here as it snaked in a broad bend past Kapishya. The mist hung over the water as it did by the campsite, attractively highlighted in parts by the sun as it emerged over the landscape.

I went back for some breakfast and noticed that another couple of campers had arrived in a truck. They had a mobile solar panel on the roof – it looked as though they were in for some serious overland travel. I don’t remember exactly how I spent much of the day except that it went far too quickly between enjoying some sunshine by the swimming pool, taking a few lengthy soaks in the hot springs and watching the birds. Despite the arrival of new campers there was only one other family staying at the resort.

I don’t remember exactly how I spent much of the day except that it went far too quickly…

I took the opportunity to rearrange my backpack and came to the conclusion that I was carrying too many garments, therefore I decided to get rid of two pairs of shorts and several shirts, most of which were cheap items I’d picked up in Turkey earlier in the year. I’d become acquainted with the barman, a young Zimbabwean guy, and gave him the first pick of the ‘rejects.’

I was asking for a token amount -10 or 15 ZMK (about $2). Being a typical Zimbabwean he insisted on bargaining me down further. It didn’t take long before I had one of the cooks and several other members of the establishment scuttling over to get in on the flash sale. He upshot was that I had enough for a couple of beers later on. It transpired that later on would involve more than just a few beers.

Being a typical Zimbabwean he insisted on bargaining me down further.

After taking a walk up the gravel road to one of the roadside stores to resupply on eggs, tomatoes and a few other necessities (some of which I purchased with one of the pairs of shorts) I went on an extended stroll before dusk. As I crossed behind the resort I encountered a herdsman driving several dozen head of cattle back to a kraal behind the resort buildings. It seemed Mark was doing a spot of farming like his brother Charles at the Shiwa N’gandu Estate.

That evening, as I hinted, I made my way over to the reception bar for a quiet beer. The European family were there, finishing their evening meal. I nodded a greeting to the parents. They moved off back to their chalet a little while later. I was thinking about doing the same after a couple of refreshing beers when Tony strolled in. He had been in Mpika on some shopping chores which explained his earlier absence. He sat down nearby and offered me a drink from a bottle he plonked on the counter.

They moved off back to their chalet a little while later. I was thinking about doing the same when Tony strolled in.

“Tanzanian import,” he elaborated. “I noticed them all drinking it up there so I got curious. It’s not too bad actually. A bit like gin I suppose.” He gestured for the young barman to bring us some glasses with ice. I scrutinised the label a bit closer. It had a graphic of a pair of black arms flexed above a head in profile and vested torso – some sort of muscle man apparently – beneath two inscriptions, THE PRODUCT OF TANZANIA and THE SPIRIT OF THE NATION.

CWnKO1hWcAACLTbAcross the centre of the label in large, bold type was the name of the liquor, Konyagi. There was a graphic of some forked flames depicted at the bottom of the label above the words PORTABLE SPIRIT. Didn’t they mean potable? Still, nice to know I had an alternative source of fuel for my portable meth burner. Perhaps the most important information was the bit about it being 35% Alc. Vol.

Across the centre of the label in large, bold type was the name of the liquor, Konyagi.

I have little doubt the evening had a predefined trajectory from the moment those first measures of the clear spirit were decanted. I’ve discovered a few similar accounts online of other people’s experiences with the beverage on their travels. One of these comes from a student on the blog Quench, Cardiff’s monthly student magazine. She writes:

Konyagi: It’s not vodka, it’s not gin, it’s not water and it’s barely legal outside of East Africa. As soon as that distinctive taste hits your lips, all aboard! You’re in for the long run; the Konyagi train has just departed … One minute you’re casually basking in the dry heat, having an ever so pleasant conversation with an intriguing comrade to be. Then the Konyagi takes hold … Dance moves follow, chairs are soon dispersed across the Savannah as every muscle in your body delights in this new liquid companionship. MI5 has their own unique style of truth serum, and this folks, is the key to the majority of East Africa’s police interrogations.

Link to article

I have to admit that alcohol, in moderation, is a splendid thing. It deconstructs and dissolves social inhibitions and, as the young blogger suggested, injected a serum of honesty into our discourse. I felt a tremendous feeling of bonhomie with the grizzled New Zealander who was far from the man he appeared at first glance.

I have to admit that alcohol, in moderation, is a splendid thing.

Amongst the facts I gleaned were that he had once been married once to a Japanese lady, with whom he had two girls; that he had made ‘a fortune’ from running several successful restaurants back home; that his one daughter was a budding ballerina working as an understudy at a prestigious dance school in New York; that he was in love with Africa; and that he fancied getting remarried and settling down on the coast, somewhere in Mozambique.

By the time the bottle had been equitably distributed between the two of us my head was buzzing. Tony said a hearty goodnight and staggered off to bed. I on the other hand staggered in the opposite direction and straight into the hot springs where I wallowed blissfully in the semi-darkness stripped down to my underwear for an hour or so. The leaves rustled gently in the branches above, stars twinkled through the gaps in-between and all was well with the universe… until the following morning that is.

By the time the bottle had been equitably distributed between the two of us my head was buzzing. Tony said a hearty goodnight and staggered off to bed.

My parched palette and tongue were the first reminder of the previous night’s antics but after a bowl of porridge and a final dip in the hot spring I perked up considerably. Despite whatever hit my body had taken the previous evening upon absorbing ‘The Spirit of the Nation’, on the balance of things I felt pretty well rested. I took my time packing up and it was only just after 11.00 that I settled my bill and said cheers to the bargaining barman – there was no sign of the Kiwi – that I was finally on my way again.

I suspected I was in for a bit of a hike. A signboard on the approach to Kapishya informed me that it was the length of a standard marathon to the Kasama Rd, 42 km. With a spring in my step and all the goodwill in the world I set off.

With a spring in my step and all the goodwill in the world I set off.

From the Splendid Kundalila Falls and on to Mpika

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It was now early June, well into the sub-tropical ‘winter’ at that latitude. In reality this translated to cool nights and mild days in the range 20 -22 degrees C, with few clouds in the broad blue sky. In other words, almost perfect weather for backpacking!

I hadn’t been at the roadside at Mkushi long before a local man approached me with the offer of assistance. I told him that I was wanting a lift heading northwards toward Serenje, about 100 km away to the NE. He very helpfully flagged a passing minibus and without further ado I was crammed into one of the rear seats, my backpack placed up front with some other passenger luggage. The only inconvenience was having to occasionally disembark when someone further away from the sliding door wanted to get out. I can’t remember what I paid exactly but it wasn’t more than 20 ZMK.

He very helpfully flagged a passing minibus and without further ado I was crammed into one of the rear seats

Quite unexpectedly a woman’s voice with an American accent piped up behind me. The lady in question, who I struggled to turn and talk with face to face, introduced herself as Megan. She politely enquired if I was an NGO worker or a tourist. She in turn informed me that she was in the Peace Corps. I had heard of these guys, even met a few of them back in Zimbabwe years prior (they were no longer welcome by the present regime), but was unclear as to what it was they did exactly. I would meet quite a few more later on and get a clearer picture.

Quite unexpectedly a woman’s voice with an American accent piped up behind me.

Conversation was difficult in the circumstances so we didn’t get a chance to exchange much information beyond the fact that she was working in a nearby village on a social project focusing on women and that she loved it. She had the option of staying a further year and she told me she would take it. She was off to Serenje to get some provisions I seem to recall and before we knew it we were there. Megan hopped off without so much as a backward glance and was soon lost in the throng of bystanders, hawkers and roadside merchants.

Someone advised me to remain on board a while longer as we diverted off the highway towards the main trading area. I hopped off and once again, a helpful local person introduced me to a long-haulage driver and his companion. Yes, they would be prepared to take me further up the Great North Road to where I next needed to disembark.

The driver was a Tanzanian man of few words but that was okay with me considering that the road was only a dual lane highway and that it was his job to transport several hundred tons or more of copper to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I would rather his concentration be on the road ahead than with me. I also got the impression that he had limited English. Someone previously told me that many Tanzanians are only conversant with foreigners in Swahili, a tongue spoken fairly extensively in east-central Africa.

…it was his job to transport several hundred tons or more of copper to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania

IMG_20150602_113342786His companion was a young and rather earnest Zambian who spoke basic but perfectly understandable English. He was the one who told me about their valuable cargo and the long hours involved in hauling it to the distant port. He expressed an interest in keeping in touch, as many Zambians I met would, and I imagine that I gave him either my local number or an email address.

It wasn’t long before the driver pulled up by the small roadside town of Kanona and told me that the locals here could point me in the direction of the waterfalls I wanted to see. I thanked them with a small contribution and wandered over to a nearby store.

By this time it was quite warm and the few inhabitants of the small town that I could see were relaxing in the shade provided by the buildings. A young shop-keeper pointed up the road and informed me that it was the next turnoff that I wanted. Fortunately it was within sight of the town and 15 minutes later I was at the junction, reassured by a metal signpost reading ‘Kundalila Falls’ with an arrow pointing down a dusty dirt road headed southwards.

By this time it was quite warm and the few inhabitants of the small town that I could see were relaxing in the shade provided by the buildings.

The only other distinguishing feature of the junction was a house, evidently a new build, a hundred yards or so away on the right side of the road leading to the falls. It had a broad veranda fronted by stylised, red iron railings and supported by four fluted, unpainted concrete columns in the doric style. In bold capitals, written in relief on the gable above, was the name TONGA LALA. On either side was a crude concentric pattern also in relief and the cement behind the letters was roughly stippled. The two sides of the roof inclined at a very shallow angle from the apex and appeared to be of some corrugated material.

In bold capitals, written in relief on the gable above, was the name TONGA LALA.

“Hello!” someone greeted me heartily from the verandah. He waved me over and introduced himself as the owner and architect of the said building. He was an army man from what I could gather and he had some idea that the place could become a guesthouse for wayfarers like myself. It occurred to me then and later that being someone of rank in the Zambian Army obviously brought with it some advantages. I had already met a well-respected, rugby-coaching officer in Lusaka and I would meet a few other military men involved in other ventures before my trip was done.

We chatted for some minutes while I sipped at the water-bottle he kindly allowed me to refill from his well. I told him that I intended to get to the waterfall that day and with any luck be back at the roadside by mid-afternoon. He looked a bit incredulous. “It is very far, do you know?” Obviously I didn’t. Yes I could walk but he was very doubtful whether I could get back that evening; besides which he told me that I would be able to camp out there. It would no be a problem.

I told him that I intended to get to the waterfall that day and with any luck be back at the roadside by mid-afternoon.

At that moment a beige land-cruiser honked its horn from the side of the dirt road leading past the house. The owner and the driver exchanged greetings and then had a brief conversation. “It is your lucky day” said the house-owner. “If you want a lift he can drop you off near the place you want to go”.

Without need of a second invitation I dashed across to the waiting vehicle which I noticed belonged to the Ministry of Health. Attached to the roof were several loud-speaker horns. The driver waved me to a seat at the back amongst an assortment of boxes and supplies. There were two or three other people besides the driver and I realised how fortunate I was because there really wasn’t any further room available.

… I dashed across to the waiting vehicle which I noticed belonged to the Ministry of Health. Attached to the roof were several loud-speaker horns.

We set off down the road, crossed the main railway line, and continued for some minutes until we came to the first of several villages en route. As we passed each the driver slowed the vehicle, took the loud-speaker microphone in his free hand, and bellowed something in the local language. I didn’t really stick around long enough in any one place to get a feel for the local dialects except to say that there are a number of them.

An intelligent young receptionist at the Wanderers Lodge in Lusaka had given me a fairly detailed overview of the ethnic makeup of the country and the linguistic regions. She was from Serenje and ethnically a Lala. I wish I could recall everything she told me but I can’t. Most Europeans I spoke to simply boiled the local languages down to Nyanja and Bemba but there were evidently many other groups such as the Lozi and the Lunda with their own dialects – more than 70 according to Wikipedia.

Anyway, on this occasion the proclamation of the ministry official via the amplified speakers was to inform the local people that there would soon be some sort of clinic held in the area to coincide with a global event – the Day of the Child? I imagine that UNICEF or the WHO were involved somewhere behind the scenes. It was interesting to see the villagers going about their daily routines suddenly stop and prick up their ears. What they made of the announcements I couldn’t fathom.

It was interesting to see the villagers going about their daily routines suddenly stop and prick up their ears.

There is a tendency for so-called educated Westerners to poke fun at Africa and other parts of the developing world for being ‘trapped’ by superstition and religion and not embracing modern developments. It is a fact that the line between undeveloped and developed is not a linear one and the criteria for becoming developed are not always clear. From what I saw in Zambia there were indications that they are making progress in the path of modernizing whatever values, positive or negative, you might attach to that process.

When it comes to religion, Zambians were no less in thrall to the successive waves of missionaries that have crossed its well-watered lands, from the time of David Livingstone to more recently, than any other European-colonised nation south of the Sahara through which I have travelled. If you followed my progress from Livingstone to Lusaka you would have seen the picture of the monolithic cathedral erected by the British in the 1950s, reference to a proselytising pastor and a photograph of a mosque.

When it comes to religion, Zambians were no less in thrall to the successive waves of missionaries … than any other European-colonised nation south of the Sahara through which I have travelled.

Of course the complete picture is not just one of Africans bowed at the foot of an altar or caught in the rapture of a preacher but also of Europeans and Asians expressing their own religiosity. I have written about this previously in the context of Zimbabwe and in an earlier post about the white farmers of Mkushi.

Of course the complete picture is not just one of Africans bowed at the foot of an altar or caught in the rapture of a preacher but also of Europeans and Asians expressing their own religiosity.

IMG_20150603_111206609On this occasion I noticed the relative modesty of these villages, the unassuming general stores or grocers, surrounded by assortment of traditional grass-roofed huts and occasional brick structures. Life was a lot slower here than in the cities, the people closer to the land of their forebears. It did not surprise me either to see evidence of religious affiliation although I did not expect to see quite so many signs proclaiming the presence of a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in this village or that. There were many between there and my journey to the northern extremity of the country.

The ministry official deposited me at a junction in the road after some 20 minutes or so with the instruction to continue on for a short distance after which I would see the entrance to the waterfalls. And so it proved. It seemed as though there was no one there on arrival at the carpark/campsite but whilst I delved in my pack a man approached on an old steel-framed bicycle, coming to sudden halt a few yards from me. He greeted me, introduced himself as the warden, and invited me to his office.

It was hard to tell precisely but I guessed that he was in his 50s or 60s. He had calculating eyes but a somewhat inscrutable expression. He peered at me for some moments before rustling around beneath his desk for a ticket book. I was advised that it would cost me the equivalent of 30 USD for the pleasure of the visit and another 30 USD for the use of the campsite. I was not carrying much in the way of cash but I had changed enough previously to pay for the visitation fee but not the campsite. I sought to negotiate and he fixed me with another of his inscrutable stares.

was advised that it would cost me the equivalent of 30 USD for the pleasure of the visit and another 30 USD for the use of the campsite.

I cast an eye over the ticket book and saw that he had, on average, only several foreign visitors a week. I decided to play another card, the tourist who is happy to make an alternative plan. I announced that I would find somewhere else to sleep. It wasn’t a problem. My stated intention caused a deep furrow to appear on his brow. “How much do you have?” he responded in turn.

“Only $10” I repied.

“Let us make it $15” he said with a level gaze and then broke into a broad grin, “because you and me we are friends.” I reluctantly agreed to the revised price. It seemed as though the bargaining had raised his estimation of me and with a bit more vigour he showed me around the campsite.

It seemed as though the bargaining had raised his estimation of me and with a bit more vigour he showed me around the campsite.

There wasn’t much in the way of facilities. One toilet was blocked and smelly but the other seemed functional. There was no hot water nor showers which didn’t bother me particularly. At least there was an abundant supply of fresh water from the river nearby. General waste was disposed of in a pit dug for the purpose. He lamented the village children who would come and dig around inside it. We hoisted a few cans and bits of paper strewn around the edges back into the cavity.

Of course what I really wanted to do was get on and see the falls whilst it was still light. It was still early afternoon and I had several hours of light remaining. I realised that taking my backpack along would be an unnecessary burden since I was to return later and so I asked the warden if I could leave it somewhere safe. He agreed to letting me leave it in his office. In the process of looking for something or other he opened the door to an adjacent storeroom. I peered inside to see it strewn with empty beer bottles.

In the process of looking for something or other he opened the door to an adjacent storeroom. I peered inside to see it strewn with empty beer bottles.

He escorted me along a path that skirted the summit of the waterfall a few dozen yards hence. He pointed out a barrier of green, painted metal and told me that under no circumstances was I to go further than that point. I could hear the waterfall thundering just out of view.

“There was a very terrible accident” the warden informed me. “There was a girl from Denmark. She slipped over there,” he said pointing towards the barrier. “All the way down,” he said with another gesture. “She died.”

“There was a girl from Denmark. She slipped over there,” he said pointing towards the barrier. “All the way down”…

With that tragic story in mind we parted ways. He had some business to attend to. I assured him I would be back by 4 o’clock or so. It seemed he wanted to see me before he disappeared for the day. Of course I had to take a closer peak at the spot where the Danish girl had allegedly fallen from.

IMG_20150602_133143994_HDRA short way from the barriers the layers of steeply inclined rock fell away into the void beyond but the head of he falls could be seen a short way off. For a while the falls were hidden from view as I descended further, but after 5 or 10 minutes they appeared again between the trees and a short while later I was at the base.

It really was a fantastic sight: the waterfall cascading first into a pool just out of sight, the billowing mist caught by the afternoon sun streaming down from my left. It continued to flow down in a series of cascades and rapids. I have recorded a video clip on my phone which speaks for itself. Best of all I had the place to myself. There was no-one else there. The vegetation was lush and green, some of the riverine trees towering straight up many metres up to where the gorge widened and their crowns unimpeded.

It really was a fantastic sight: the waterfall cascading first into a pool just out of sight, the billowing mist caught by the afternoon sun streaming down from my left.

I remember feeling like a little boy with his first sight of a natural wonder – seeing the ocean for the first time or a great river. A nervous energy coursed through my veins as I scampered over the rocks, following the river downstream, ducking under old branches and dead trunks. At one point I had to climb over some slippery surfaces and it wasn’t till I looked up again that I realised that the waterfall was out of sight. Here the water ebbed into quieter pools, their depths hidden in the shadows, and the atmosphere was more sombre.

I remember feeling like a little boy with his first sight of a natural wonder – seeing the ocean for the first time or a great river.

I clambered down yet further until something caught my eye – an old bag, much the shape and size of my daypack. It had obviously been there a while. It was old and rotted. I couldn’t find anything alluding to its former owner whoever he or she may have been, except a brand label which read Bjorn Borg, which sounded Scandinavian to me. Images of distant fjords came to mind and a country name – Denmark.

As morbid as this may seem there is no means of connecting this article with the deceased tourist. And even if it could be what would it achieve? It did give me pause for thought though and I wondered for a few solemn moments who this young girl had been, her life snatched away from her so cruelly in the prime of her life. It reminded me too that in my efforts to commune with nature, to see her in all her wild beauty, I needed to tread gently and modestly. I was prepared to take risks but I wasn’t a thrill seeker.

It reminded me too that in my efforts to commune with nature, to see her in all her wild beauty, I needed to tread gently and modestly.

A little while later I had reason to reflect on this as I scrambled up a rock face to get a better view of the pool beneath the waterfall. It was a sparsely-vegetated side of the gorge and if I slipped down I could sprain an ankle or worse. I reconsidered my predicament, weighing up the secret thrill of swimming in the pool versus the inherent risk of getting there and decided not to on this occasion.

Besides, there was so much to absorb and enjoy that I had no need to take undue risk. A flock of hornbills alighted in some trees nearby and made quite a cacophony. Above the mists billowing upwards a couple of black crows floated with apparent ease, masters of the breeze. Growing amongst the rocks on the edges of the ravine were various wild flowers, Gladiolii and others I knew but couldn’t put a name to.

Above the mists billowing upwards a couple of black crows floated with apparent ease, masters of the breeze.

By the time I clambered out the gorge back to where I had parted company from the warden a few hours before it was a little after 4 pm. Suddenly he appeared along the path looking furious. “Where were you?” he bellowed at me. “I have been waiting!”

I apologised and asked him what the urgency was. It was then that the sweet, fruity odour of sorghum beer wafted over towards me and I knew that the man was inebriated. With a little more placating he led me back to the campsite by which time he was back in good spirits going on about our enduring friendship and such nonsense.

It was then that the sweet, fruity odour of sorghum beer wafted over towards me and I knew that the man was inebriated.

I waved him goodnight (and muttered good riddance) before finding a spot beneath a large spreading tree to pitch my tent. The evening was drawing in so I decided to head back to the river, a bar of soap and towel in hand. The river above the falls is perhaps one of the most unspoilt and picturesque that I have had the good fortune to set eyes on.

The river above the falls is perhaps one of the most unspoilt and picturesque that I have had the good fortune to set eyes on.

IMG_20150602_165419453_HDRPart of the charm was no doubt the character of the rock – sheets of it highly folded, vertically inclined and poking out sporadically, the river waters dividing and recombining in turn. Beneath the smooth surface algae and fantastic, swirling water grass clung to the sub-structure. Red-blossomed aloes sprung from rocky alcoves on either side, alongside spiny Euphorbia plants and clumps of wispy grass. Many of the trees were draped in long wisps of green, spidery lichen, colloquially referred to as ‘old man’s beard.’

Beneath the smooth surface algae and fantastic, swirling water grass clung to the sub-structure.

IMG_20150602_171146895_HDRThe river either emanated from or flowed through a large wetland area a few hundred meters above the falls. A large clump of palm trees hugged the edge of the wetland a short distance away from where I was bathing. These wetlands are a fairly common feature of the Zambian landscape and on several occasions a most welcome source of fresh water. I am not so familiar with them in the context of the Zimbabwean landscape which is dominated by granite.

That night I cooked a pot of pasta and sauce on a fire made beneath a small, circular thatched structure, using a handful of the roofing straw as kindling, as per the instruction of the honourable warden. I had queried his method but he assured me that he didn’t mind re-thatching it periodically. A near full-moon appeared over the escarpment to the east and I felt at peace with the world. A few sounds reached me on the night air from a neighbouring village, besides which I was completely alone (bot not lonely).

A near full-moon appeared over the escarpment to the east and I felt at peace with the world.

The packed the following morning and was ready to move out before the warden had even arrived. I ambled out the gates to the campsite and started heading back up the road. This time around there was no assurance of a lift. By my reckoning I had at least 10 km to walk (actually 14 km on Google Earth) to get back to the main road. I had a one full dedicated water-bottle and several other smaller plastic bottles with either soft drink or water in them as well.

After a hundred yards or so the sprightly warden appeared on his bicycle. He seemed equally as incredulous as the army man the day before that I would dare attempt to walk unaided back to the main road. “Let me take you on my bicycle. We can negotiate a price,” he urged me. Besides the fact that the bike would struggle to accommodate my person let alone my fully-laden pack I liked the idea of the challenge. I declined his kind offer.

By my reckoning I had at least 10 km to walk (actually 14 km on Google Earth) to get back to the main road.

He walked with me for several hundred meters, past a group of excited, chattering children and a large vehicle that appeared to be loading up on soil (or perhaps off-loading, I couldn’t tell). As was his nature he stopped abruptly and told me that he would go no further, shook my hand, and left me to continue alone.

At first it was fairly easy-going but as first one hour and then another slid by I felt my thirst increase incrementally and I drained the bottles with alarming rapidity. My shirt was completely drenched in perspiration along the part covered by the straps and including my entire back. I rested every so often but tried to keep it to a minimum and focused my eyes on the road ahead. Not one vehicle passed in either direction.

At first it was fairly easy-going but as first one hour and then another slid by I felt my thirst increase incrementally and I drained the bottles with alarming rapidity.

Suddenly out of nowhere a group of school children appeared from one of the villages, both boys and girls. The boys all wore pale blue open-collared shirts with black trousers and shoes. A few of them were throwing a soft miniature rugby ball between them. I gestured to one of them to throw it to me. He obliged and very soon I was the subject of a new game.

Suddenly out of nowhere a group of school children appeared from one of the villages

IMG_20150603_120655873I tried to be as cool and unpredictable as possible pretending to throw it one way but tossing it the other. They loved it, scrambling this way wanting to be the first to gather and return the ball to me. The girls were less sure of my antics, smiling shyly and dodging the ball if it came their way.

Eventually they peeled off to the left side of the road and I was walking alone again. Not long after I saw a truck cross the open space between the trees in the far distance and I knew I was almost at my destination. By the time I got back to Tonga Lala I was, for lack of a better expression, well and truly pooped. I flopped down next to a tree for a few minutes, drank the last of my water and munched on some biscuits.

By the time I got back to Tonga Lala I was, for lack of a better expression, well and truly pooped.

I also took off my Salomon walking shoes and let my feet breath for a few minutes, observing the white puckered skin on the balls of my feet where blisters had formed and ruptured. Taking a bare-foot run on the farm in Mkushi hadn’t helped matters. I would have to keep an eye on these particular parts of my anatomy, especially considering how crucial they were to my continued expeditionary success.

Back at the roadside town of Kanona I found a welcome store from which I bought a cold-drink and some further snacks. It was already past midday and the next challenge was to hitch a ride up the main highway, the T2 or Great North Road, to the town of Mpika. I’d initially hoped to stop off at the Mutinondo Wilderness Area on the Muchinga Escarpment between Kundalila and Mpika but it was a bit off the beaten track and the prices, although hardly exorbitant, were beyond my modest budget. Another reason to go back in the future!

I’d initially hoped to stop off at the Mutinondo Wilderness Area on the Muchinga Escarpment … but it was a bit off the beaten track and the prices … beyond my modest budget. 

I recall having to stand by the roadside for quite some time before I had any joy getting out of Kanona. Most of the traffic on that stretch of the highway had no reason to stop at the little settlement and I soon gave up on standing to close to the roadside as a series of massive lorries roared past, dust and diesel fumes in their wake. Several of these were driven by Chinese men. Apparently Chinese firms had some big construction contracts in the north of the country.

Whilst awaiting a chance lift I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible perched on top my backpack, my floppy hat pulled down low and shading me from the glaring midday sun. Eventually, as seemed the tradition, a local man took pity on me and somehow flagged a passing car with two young gents inside. They seemed quite amenable to having a passenger.  As it happened they were heading to Mpika as well. As the crow flew it was about 160 km up the road.

Whilst awaiting a chance lift I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible perched on top my backpack, my floppy hat pulled down low and shading me from the glaring midday sun.

The driver and his companion were comfortably conversant in English. They had both been living in Lusaka but were heading north to investigate a business opportunity, something to do with a farm, north of Mpika.

The guy in the passenger seat I was surprised to learn was a computer scientist who had been working for one or other of the banks as an IT contractor. He was pleased to hear that I had been living in the UK and informed me that it was his dream to get work there one day, to be as he proclaimed ‘at the cutting edge.’ How serious he was about this dream I can’t say for sure. I asked him if he was on LinkedIn and he said he wasn’t. I suggested that if he wanted to get in contact with the right sort of companies that he sign up. It hasn’t landed me any jobs but I’m informed that it has done so for many others.

(he) informed me that it was his dream to get work there (the UK) one day, to be as he proclaimed ‘at the cutting edge.’

We talked about various things on our way north, the driver proceeding at a modest speed. I was informed that the tyres were not in great shape and were struggling to keep pressure whatever that meant. It sounded a bit ominous and it didn’t help to see one or two car wrecks by the roadside, one of them very recent and attended by a small crowd of onlookers.

It is quite normal to stop in such instances in Africa which we did. Apparently the accident had happened the day before. The truck, a land cruiser by the looks of it, was in the process of being righted and was due to be towed off that afternoon.

We continued on towards Mpika as the conversation turned to politics and the state of the nation’s leadership. The previous president, Mr Sata, who’d passed only some seven months prior and apparently well liked, was succeeeded by an unknown entity, Mr Edgar Lungu. One of my companions derided him as a pliable man who had a penchant for the bottle. They both laughed heartily at this statement.

We continued on towards Mpika as the conversation turned to politics and the state of the nation’s leadership.

They lamented the passing of the late president who they claimed to have been a capable and strong statesman but added, with a touch of pride, that we were in fact entering the home area of the late, great leader. I have double checked this fact and confirm that Michael Chilufya Sata was born and raised in Mpika, Northern Province, Zambia.

They lamented the passing of the late president who they claimed to have been a capable and strong statesman

There was a large hill on the approach to the town which he had somehow laid claim to. I can’t remember it’s precise significance. What I do remember off to the left (north-west) of the road was the natural woodland suddenly opening up to reveal acre upon acre of reforested land. The trees of choice were conifers, to my mind completely inappropriate for that area. I wondered whose amazing idea that had been. Was there a public consultation, a well-scrutinised EIA? I have no idea but I imagined it as a so-called ‘green desert’ in years to come. The local flora and fauna would not thrive in such a place.

IMG_20150603_172615846We entered Mpika in the early evening and stopped by a roadside hotel that my companions recommended to me. A quick perusal of the place left me unconvinced. I was lucky enough to have a bit of data on my phone and was able to do a quick accommodation search on the internet.

We entered Mpika in the early evening and stopped by a roadside hotel that my companions recommended to me.

There was one prospective place on the edge of town in the direction from which we had come and another, Bayamas, which looked promising but which was a little dear for my budget. I talked briefly over the phone to the owner, a European national of some sort, before deciding I would camp at the first place mentioned. I messaged Mr Bayama out of politeness. He messaged back asking me to reconsider. I hadn’t said I wanted to camp and campers could stay for free!

By now I was hobbling along, the outside of my right foot especially painful. I was getting some quizzical looks from some of the locals as I went in search of a cash machine, of which I was assured there were several. As luck would have it the first was inside a bank which was closed, the second was out of cash and no-one seemed to know where the third was. I found it eventually, having limped up and down that main stretch of road several times by now.

By now I was hobbling along, the outside of my right foot especially painful.

Meanwhile my companions were struggling to remove one  of the wheels from the car which was bald and chronically low on pressure. It was a miracle we had even got into Mpika considering the condition of those tyres. They had promised to look after my pack and I had promised to return with the petrol money we had agreed upon earlier.

I left them in a state of repair and walked back up the road to the main junction, near to where I would allegedly find Bayamas. It wasn’t quite as easy as that and I initially started walking in the wrong direction. What to do in such circumstances? Ask the locals, obviously.

I flagged a couple of youths who were ambling by at that moment and asked the question of them. With a certain swagger and confidence they took me by the arm and marched me the short distance back up the road to the junction, across to the other side, and a further 100 yards on we were there. I thanked them for sparing the time and told them I would be fine. Nevertheless they insisted on following me inside.

With a certain swagger and confidence they took me by the arm and marched me the short distance back up the road to the junction, across to the other side, and a further 100 yards on we were there.

IMG_20150604_083918830I found a similarly young male employee who explained that Mr Bayama wasn’t available at that moment but would I like to follow him to the campsite? I tried to ignore the restless trio of youths still waiting by the door to the dining complex as I followed the steward to a grassy patch of land beyond the back of the guesthouses. They were not deterred.

As I scouted out the land I saw the most vocal of them saying something to the young employee. He in turn turned to me with a nervous smile and informed me that they wished to be ‘rewarded’ for their helpfulness in showing me to the guesthouse. Well I couldn’t keep my anger bottled any longer. I looked him straight in the eye and told him what I thought.

“I come to your country as a stranger and this is how you treat me. If you came to mine I would be happy to show you where you wanted to go and wouldn’t expect to be paid for it either!”

The youth looked at me long and hard, his eyes narrowing and I thought, oh no, this is not going to end well for me, is it? Fortunately the old night watchman had appeared. Perhaps that tilted the balance of things back in my favour. Breaking the tension as suddenly as it had developed, the youth threw his head back and laughed in the same moment reaching out to slap my hand.

Breaking the tension as suddenly as it had developed, the youth threw his head back and laughed in the same moment reaching out to slap my hand.

“Don’t worry my man, I don’t want anything from you,” and with the same confident swagger, grinning all the while, they departed the premises. I was still concerned that they might come back so I asked the night watchman to keep an eye out for them. He assured me he would.

This was the same night watchman I mentioned in an earlier post: the one who spoke solemnly about the state of the country’s forests and the dysfunctional ministry who was supposed take custody of this natural resource and to responsibly manage it. But that conversation would happen much later in the evening.

I wanted nothing more than to get a good plate of grub and a good night’s rest. It was at that moment that the esteemed owner of the establishment, a large German gentleman introduced to me as Andreas, hove into view. He had an rounded, bald head, an unremarkable but hospitable face and a large frame. He stood a few inches taller than me and more than a few pounds to the good. He waved me over to the bar and promised to come chat once he had attended to some other business. I obliged and with some eagerness ordered a nice cold Mosi beer from the barman.

I wanted nothing more than to get a good plate of grub and a good night’s rest.

It went down very easily, perhaps too easily. I was simultaneously aware of how tired and sore my body was after my exploits earlier in the day. I was probably quite dehydrated and beer was probably not the ideal liquid to imbibe at that time. A few other patrons of the establishment wandered in – mostly black, but not exclusively so.

A white South African gent introduced himself from across the counter. I was surprised to learn that he had been just about everywhere else in south-central-east Africa except for Zimbabwe. He bought me a beer and then wandered off. He was a regular patron I learnt from Andreas. His forays to the bar were good business for him. In the meantime I ordered a plate of Nshima (a thick maize meal porridge) and chicken from the kitchen.

In the meantime I ordered a plate of Nshima (a thick maize meal porridge) and chicken from the kitchen.

Andreas returned a little while later and sat down next to me. He politely inquired as to my business and I explained that I was a free-spirited backpacker. What was he doing here I asked him in turn. He drew a breath and told me that he had come out some good 15 or 20 years earlier with the German development aid agency, DED. He was a carpenter by trade and he had been involved training up apprentices in the local community alongside other tradesman contracted for the same purpose. That sounds useful I remarked.

“Maybe for a short period of time,” he replied somewhat surprisingly. “I mean what’s the point turning out dozens of carpenters and other artisans when the local community only requires a finite number of them.” I nodded in agreement but not really sure either way.

“Anyway, after some time with the DED I decided that we achieved out purpose and were no longer of any real benefit. We had ceased to be useful. Meantime I had really come to like Zambia: the people, the climate, the lifestyle. Sure it’s not Europe but that’s what I like about it,” he continued passionately.

“To start a business in Europe requires all sorts of bureaucracy. Here in Africa you can just get on and do it. Everything you see here I have built,” he continued, gesturing across the wide interior. And if I want to add something on tomorrow I know the people to talk to and I can start as soon as I want to.”

“Zambia has been through some hard times. These young men you see here,” looking across to where several of them were chatting at the other end of the bar, “they are the orphaned generation. Most of them lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic. They grew up without fathers, perhaps only grandfathers. They were told that they were a generation without opportunity but in reality they have all the opportunity now because there was so little economic activity before they became adults. They are the future and this is where I want to be.”

“Zambia has been through some hard times. These young men you see here … they are the orphaned generation. Most of them lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic …”

I couldn’t find any point of his to contend. In fact I was quite taken by his optimism. Why had he called the place Bayamas I enquired of him. He smiled and explained that it translated loosely as ‘uncle’s place.’ He had garnered the name uncle – Yama – somewhere along the line and realised that it was worth his while to try make it stick instead of being known as a generic muzungu. I laughed at this obtuse but somewhat understandable logic.

He had garnered the name uncle – Yama – somewhere along the line and realised that it was worth his while to try make it stick instead of being known as a generic muzungu.

Eventually my food appeared. One of the waiters started setting a nearby table but Andreas gestured for him to bring the cutlery and dining mat to the bar. I could sit and eat and chat to him simultaneously. I didn’t mind. On a nearby television an episode of the popular BBC car show, Top Gear, was playing. He followed my gaze and smiled knowingly.

“One of my favourite shows,” he elaborated. “I love this black humour of you English.” I wondered if that was how the outside world viewed the British – a nation of dark sarcasm. How amusing, especially coming from a German, a nation whose reputation for clarity and precision did not suggest a predisposition to this so-called ‘black humour.’

Around that time the affable German’s wife sidled up to the bar, a smiling Zambian woman in her 40s I would hazard to guess, much the same age as Andreas. They looked like a couple at ease in each other’s company. She talked with him briefly in a low confidential voice and then moved off. He turned to me and informed me that he must be off and that I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted. I thanked him but wanted nothing more than to ‘hit the sack.’ And that’s exactly what I did a short while later.

Mkushi and the New Farmers

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I arrived in Mkushi on a Thursday evening an hour or so after dark. Fortunately for me the driver was acquainted with the Forest Inn en route to Mkushi town. I was deposited at the roadside and compelled to cross the road in the direction of a dim light emanating from behind a metal gate.

I was deposited at the roadside and compelled to cross the road in the direction of a dim light emanating from behind a metal gate.

For a second I wondered if it was the same place that Tim had in mind but upon entering I found a guard who confirmed that it was. Furthermore a restaurant and bar were on hand with a number of white and black customers. Not busy but it looked tidy enough. I made my way to the bar and promptly gulped down the ice-cold Mosi Lager placed before me by the compliant waiter.

I was soon joined by two young white South African gents who’d been out on one of the farms vaccinating several hundred head of cattle. They introduced themselves as Tim (a different one) and Casper. It was Casper’s cousin who headed up the business. Casper informed me that he was making a very tidy sum for his efforts.

I was soon joined by two young white South African gents who’d been out on one of the farms vaccinating several hundred head of cattle.

I didn’t ask the boys what they were getting paid but they seemed to be enjoying life, both being in their mid to late twenties. Tim looked as though he was fresh out of 6th form, such was his fresh-faced appearance. They lived down in Lusaka but drove all round the country.

My contact, also Tim informed me that he and his wife were at a bible study and would only be able to collect me afterwards which gave me a good hour or so. Tim and Casper gave me an overview of what they did and what they thought of Zambia (positive) in their relatively short time there (6 months). I followed my first Mosi (local lager, not bad) with a second.

The boys were drinking vodka-mixes, the last one of which they concocted into a ‘vodka slammer’

The boys were drinking vodka-mixes, the last one of which they concocted into a ‘vodka slammer’. This involved adding to the tot of vodka two fingers of soda, placing the palm of one’s hand over the tumbler and shaking it vigorously. The effervescing mix was then consumed on one go through a small vent where the thumb met the glass. Just as I was compelled to follow suit Tim the farmer walked into the bar behind me, thus saving me the trouble. On the way out he chuckled and asked me if I was being led astray! I protested but I was guilty as charged!

On the way out he chuckled and asked me if I was being led astray!

Tim and his wife Hanneker were farming on the edge of a farming block and Tim claimed there were no other commercial farmers between him and the DRC border about 10 kilometres away. Due to the unusual shape of the country the DRC makes a large incursion into Zambia between the Luapula River and the watershed boundary just north of the various Copperbelt towns.

I’d met Tim on an Ethiopian Airways flight into Lusaka end route to Harare the year before. We had only chatted briefly but he kindly extended the offer for me to stay if I ever I passed through. That day had come! They were pleasant Christian people who kindly shared their house and home.

I had until the Tuesday when their son Francoise was returning from Stellenbosch University. Also staying on the farm was another Zimbawean man, Johnny, new to the community and in the process of setting up shop nearby. His wife Moira and daughter Mia were staying with some other friends in the district whilst their house was being built.

Also staying on the farm was another Zimbawean man, Johnny, new to the community and in the process of setting up shop nearby.

I was very impressed by what the commercial farmers field done in Mkushi. Many of them have resettled from Zimbabwe but Hanneke informed me there was an older, wealthier contingent who had settled years ago from Tanzania, many of them Greeks! It seemed one of the big men in the area was a chap called Peter Michaels – an anglicised Greek name if ever there was one.

I got a cursory look at some expansive hectares of wheat under irrigation, game farms, and maize fields ready for harvest as we drove to church on Sunday morning. It was all very neat and tidy and reminiscent of what many of the Zimbabwean farming districts looked like in the 80s and 90s before that fool Mugabe set about on his program of nationalising the land. Tim explained that they were all on 99 year leases and they paid an annual rent on the land. They had indefinite leave to remain on some sort of investment permit.

I got a cursory look at some expansive hectares of wheat under irrigation, game farms, and maize fields ready for harvest …

I walked extensively on Tim’s farm taking in his relatively new fields (only 3 years in), the workers levelling the last of the termite mounds, a small acreage of tobacco, a larger area of winter wheat being irrigated by his new centre pivot, and an area of citrus trees. The only regrettable aspect of this sort of farming was the fact that all the land now under irrigation had been clear-felled of every last tree. Huge piles of hardwood trunks lay stacked up neatly in the one corner nearest to his tobacco barns.

Huge piles of hardwood trunks lay stacked up neatly in the one corner nearest to his tobacco barns.

Tim was not oblivious to the waste of fine trees. It was a great shame he told me: the price of growing food for the hundry masses. I understood the dilemma but so long as tracts of surrounding woodland were preserved and the land maximised I suppose it was a justifiable compromise.

The one area near Tim’s farm that sticks in my mind for its beauty was a few kilometres away to the north. Tim took Johnny and I there on the Friday evening, the day after I arrived. The area in question was part of a line of outcropping ridges of vertically-foliated rock running roughly in a northerly direction towards a prominent waterfall 7 or so kms away, demarkated even on my country-scale tourist map of the country.

The view over the adjacent woodlands and distant farms was superb but the rocks and vegetation thereon was equally interesting. The surrounding Miombo was broken through by the outcrops and clinging to the rocks and the gaps between them was an abundance of Euphorbias: a thorny, candelabra-shaped, cactus-like plant. There were also clumps of small purplish-blue aloes and other shrubs and climbers.

The surrounding Miombo was broken through by the outcrops and clinging to the rocks and the gaps between them was an abundance of Euphorbias: a thorny, candelabra-shaped, cactus-like plant.

The rocks were obviously very deformed but it was still possible to identify the precursors as conglomerates i.e. sandstone embedded with rounded pebbles. Tim was particularly excited to show me what he called his ‘river of quartz.’ Indeed, numerous flakes of the opaque, white mineral littered the ground. We followed the ‘river’ between the rocks to where it emenated: a large quartzitic outcrop which appeared to have been deliberately excavated.

IMG_20150530_163010413Further observation of the surrounding outcrop revealed some interesting nodules which looked very much like ore – hematite perhaps? I knew that the Copperbelt was not far to the west and suspected that these rocks may have been in continuity with that stratigraphy. It would also explain why Tim had seen Chinese men digging prospecting trenches in the vicinity.

Further observation of the surrounding outcrop revealed some interesting nodules which looked very much like ore – hematite perhaps?

It was very much business as usual for Tim and Hanneke and when I missed the chance to go to the local airshow the next day because I was out taking a run it was ‘tough takkie’ as the Zimbabwean saying goes.

Therefore I was compelled to entertain myself for the rest of the day. Taking a barefoot run on a farm is all good and well if you are 10 years old; now I’m 36. By the time I’d done 5 or 6 kms out and back I was hobbling and my right foot had a nasty gouge where I had wacked a root. The roads were for the most part sandy but I had underestimated the roots! All the same I wasn’t going to let the day go to waste so I set out again around midday with binoculars and Tim’s GPS to hand.

Taking a barefoot run on a farm is all good and well if you are 10 years old; now I’m 36.

I digressed from my original plan after missing a crucial turning and by the time I realised I had walked a mile or so in the wrong direction. Therefore I decided to take a ‘shortcut’ through the miombo using the GPS. Bad idea: 6-foot grass (and grass-seeds), spider’s webs, and mid-afternoon temperatures in the upper 20s. Eventually I came to a footpath crossing my direction of travel. I backtracked to where I’d been an hour and a half before and doggedly determined decided to carry on despite an aching outer-right foot etc. Pain is for quitters!

I decided to take a ‘shortcut’ … Bad idea: 6-foot grass (and grass-seeds), spider’s webs, and mid-afternoon temperatures in the upper 20s.

It can be a bit lonely out there in the bush but if you open your eyes and ears it will reward you. Earlier I had run with the farm dogs – Poeter, a huge Boerbul; George, a perky Jack Russell; and a happy-go-lucky labroador whose name I forget. I loved their company but it was impossible to see any wildlife when they were with me.

Now it was quiet enough that I could get in close to the birdlife and see what was there. Many of them I had seen and knew (sort of) from years past. I just needed to brush up using the old field guide that Hanneke had given to me. Others were first sightings – Livingstone’s loerie (turaco), yellow-breasted and Mashona hyliota, and red-billed helmet-shrikes among that number.

Now it was quiet enough that I could get in close to the birdlife and see what was there.

Two things threaten this environment and both derive from human activities. The first is uncontrolled tree-felling. The second is uncontrolled hunting of the wildlife therein. I am not going to apportion blame to either but solutions have to be sought for the long-term survival and viability of this magnificently diverse ecological habitat. I have heard it said that all the game larger than the smallest antelope has been hunted and eaten outside of Zambia’s game parks. Tim said he had never seen any sort of duiker or other buck whilst he had been there.

I have heard it said that all the game larger than the smallest antelope has been hunted and eaten outside of Zambia’s game parks.

I also noticed many medium to large trees in the woodlands had been felled, seemingly at random. I asked Tim about this and his answer left me gobsmacked. People were felling them for the caterpillars (fushima) that lived in the upper branches. I knew that dried Mopane caterpillars, colloquially called Mopane worms, were utilised as an important source of protein in many parts of Zimbabwe, but I had never heard of trees being felled just for the purpose of harvesting them. What about the following season? What then? It was an example of short-term gain which is so characteristic of humans the world-over.

Without going into a discussion on the hows and whys I do believe that poverty is probably the main driver of such activities. After all, it couldn’t be the easiest way to make a living selling the dried, disemboweled bodies of these unfortunate creatures by the roadside?

I spoke to a wise old man, a night-watchman at a roadside lodge in Mpika, a couple of days later. His name was Simon. We spoke at some length on these issues and others and he told me how worried he was for the forests of Zambia.

“We will be seeing deserts in the future” he said to me as he sat looking sadly into the brazier of coals that was keeping him warm through the winter evening.

Look, the situation is not as bad as all that at this moment. The Miombo is still extensive enough that it can regenerate given time. Even the wildlife would probably return with the right measures in place. Anecdotally speaking, I hear the situation is far worse in Malawi which has a far higher density of people than Zambia.

I hear the situation is far worse in Malawi which has a far higher density of people than Zambia.

There are people and organisations doing good work to try to find solutions and they need to be supported. I would encourage you to visit these places, to talk to the people and ask them about their aspirations. Much of what they say will probably surprise you.

On a more positive note I have a nice little gallery of plant and flower photographs taken with my nifty little Motorola mobile phone of the bush around the farm. I managed to ID a few of them from a nice little handbook on plants of the Miombo, also loaned to me by Hanneke. A few were familiar from the Zimbabwean bush but others were new.

I have a nice little gallery of plant and flower photographs taken with my nifty little Motorola mobile phone of the bush around the farm.

The Miombo here was of the ‘wetter’ type highlighted in the book and characterised by more epiphytes (orchids and similar plants growing on the branches and trunks of trees) and a slightly different floral assemblage. For the most part the trees were not unduly large – not as large as some I had seen in the very well-watered DRC off the NW – but there were some tall, straight specimens at the base of the outcrops which were 30 m or taller I’m guessing.

In the evenings we ate early and slept early. It is the farming way of life I think. All the same there was a bit of time to converse beforehand and chatting to Johnny I was surprised to learn that he was quite well acquainted with my family. My father had represented him regarding some legal matter sometime between 2003 when he started to fall ill (cancer) and when he passed away three years later. A few years before my cousin Michael had interviewed him and a number of other farmers for a postgraduate project he was engaged in researching for. I promised Johnny I would ask him for a copy.

My father had represented him regarding some legal matter sometime between 2003 when he started to fall ill (cancer) and when he passed away three years later.

I also asked him why he hadn’t come out to Mkushi earlier, after losing his farm to the land nationalisation and resettlement program over a decade before. He said to me that he gave it three years to see if things might change, then another three and another three again, before realising that it was a lost cause.

I worked out that he must have been in his early 50s. I admired him for giving the farming lark another go with all the attendant risks. Others had packed their bags and headed to Australia and the UK whilst others remained in Zimbabwean towns doing other things, as Johnny had done for the last decade.

I admired him for giving the farming lark another go with all the attendant risks.

I didn’t really get to speak to Tim that much but he was a pretty upbeat sort who seemed to treat his staff reasonably and enjoy his chosen vocation. I spoke more with Hanneke when I accompanied her to Mkushi town on the Monday. She’d suggested I talk to her immigration officer, Victor, about getting around the place (I was considering the train) and any other troubleshooting I might require.

I spoke more with Hanneke when I accompanied her to Mkushi town on the Monday.

En route Hanneke, who came across as quite a tough cookie as a first impression, spoke more openly of life there. It wasn’t as easy as all that she said and she missed being so far away from her kids (two at university in SA and one at school there). She told me that in the early days of their Zambian adventure things had been so tough they hadn’t even had any food to put on the table some days. They were only managing a farm then and as result had no collateral land against which to borrow. Slowly but surely they had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now they had their own farm and food on the table for which I was a grateful recipient for several days!

Slowly but surely they had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now they had their own farm…

I had to chuckle when we arrived at Victor’s office because Hanneke’s countenance changed completely. It wasn’t that she’d been unkind or severe but her businesslike attitude was put aside and she was suddenly all smiles and rather charming. You see, Victor was a rather important man around those parts for he had the power to renew work and residence permits. He responded well to the smiles and complements in his tidy little office with the picture of the new president, Mr Edgar Lungu, hanging on the facing wall.

Victor was a rather important man around those parts for he had the power to renew work and residence permits.

He was young, probably not much older than me, of average height and slim with dark skin set off against ever so white teeth, suggesting to me that he’d spent much of his youth outdoors. Whilst Hanneke sat across his desk and I sat pretending to study my map he set about calling various people in the chain of command. There was a slight snag in one of the renewals but never mind, he would sort it out he assured Hanneke, who heaped praises on the little man for his efforts.

Whilst Hanneke sat across his desk and I sat pretending to study my map he set about calling various people in the chain of command.

By this stage I’d decided that I wouldn’t take the train up to Tanzania after all but rather bus/hitch lifts up to Lake Tanganyika via a slightly different route. It would allow me to take in some sights and places that I would have bypassed on the train. Victor gave me a few suggestions and helpfully made a phone call to a contact to ask him the best way to approach Kapishya hotsprings – advice I later disgarded, but appreciated nonetheless.

On the Sunday morning I accompanied Tim and Hanneke, Johnny, Moira and Mia to church. It was about an hour’s drive away and I remarked to Moira that it was a more like a pilgrimage! She laughed and Tim also remarked that it was probably the longest trip I’d ever taken to go to church, right? It probably was.

On the Sunday morning I accompanied Tim and Hanneke, Johnny, Moira and Mia to church.

It was a tidy little place although the congregation was a little diminished after the previous day’s airshow. It was reminiscent of many of the Protestant-Christian services I’ve attended over the years in various places. There was an emphasis on song (good) with a few competent musicians leading the worship and a key speaker who just happened to be an American pastor who was out visiting another American friend who ministered in the area. The latter was also an avid hunter which struck me as a bit strange for a missionary sort but there it was.

Here was a community who needed something to rally around and for this collection of farmers and their families it was their church. The importance of their Christian faith came home to me on that same drive to Mkushi with Hanneke that I just mentioned. She told me that she wouldn’t have been able to get through the upheaval of the last 15 years if she hadn’t had her faith.

Here was a community who needed something to rally around and for this collection of farmers and their families it was their church.

“I just gave it all to the Lord,” she said. “It was too much for me to cope with.”

Many of those who had gone off to Australia and elsewhere were the ones who still bore such bitterness and enmity she went on to say. They still bore such a grudge towards Mugabe, towards black people. “They need to deal with it,” she said.

It was a fair point although I know how hard it is to forgive when we feel badly wronged.

The other thing about the European community in Zambia is how heterogeneous it is. Hanneke is of Afrikaans extract as her name might suggest, as were many members of the Mkushi community. I heard mention of Danie’s and Stefan’s and similar, and smatterings of Afrikaans I heard quite frequently. English is the language of the land though and the average black Zambian speaks it quite well, even in areas well away from the towns.

The other thing about the European community in Zambia is how heterogeneous it is.

Yet the English-speaking whites were also a varied bunch: some Zimbabwean, others American, others ex-Tanzanian and a few Brits to round it out. Of the latter I met a very personable family, the Woods, who were doing some sort of missionary work. John invited me to braai/BBQ with them later in the day. Fortunately for me they had established themselves on a corner of Tim’s farm so it was easy to get there and back.

Yet the English-speaking whites were also a varied bunch: some Zimbabwean, others American, others ex-Tanzanian and a few Brits to round it out.

John and Judith lived 6 months of the year in Wales and 6 months in Zambia. They had three boys, all well-spoken and bright, and they resided in a basic but comfortable cottage amongst the trees. We were joined by an Afrikaans couple, Karel and Hannelee, and their three children. It was a great afternoon spent chatting, playing badminton and eating some lovely, tender fillets that John had acquired from afar.

John was a typically jovial, robust Englishman, who laughed a lot and made frequent ripostes about braaing better than an Afrikaaner, in an attempt to goad Karel no doubt. Judith was a locum doctor when back in the UK but assisted John in day-to-day life and with family responsibilities in Zambia. I was impressed with how much John had travelled within Africa and some of the stories he had to tell will make good reading one day when he has the time to reminisce.

John was a typically jovial, robust Englishman, who laughed alot and made frequent ripostes about braaing better than an Afrikaaner.

The following morning I packed my things and readied myself for the next stage of the journey. Hanneke had taken me to visit the du Plessis family the day before. The three of them, father, wife and son were still living in temporary, tented accommodation. They had invested all their money in buying a farm (they could expect to get a title-deed but would still lease from the Zambian government). However, the seller had disappeared with the money and they were without the deed and in a state of limbo.

Hanneke was evidently sympathetic although there was little she or Tim could do. Not for the first time she emphasized that farming was no walk in the park.

Their son, Mike, had an adventurous spirit and had attempted to explore some of the lesser known rivers, waterfalls and valleys in the northern part of the country. He was happy to share a few stories with me including a failed attempt to reach Wonder Gorge by kayak from upstream and some others which had actually gone more or less to plan. He advised me against going to Lake Bengweulu saying it was overcrowded and over-rated.

Their son, Mike, had an adventurous spirit and had attempted to explore some of the lesser known rivers, waterfalls and valleys in the northern part of the country.

“You’ll want to see some of the waterfalls like Kundalila and Kapishya Hotsprings is a must. Then you can also see Shiwa Ngandu.”

He pointed to the Kasama Rd on my map, telling me this was my best bet in getting to Lake Tanganyika. He also put the Lake near the top of the list which gave me some reassurance that I was making the correct decision. There were a few small details which I would have to address myself but since I was hitch-hiking much would be left to fate.

I recall Hanneke telling me that she could never travel on her own. Was I sure I knew what I was doing? I just shrugged and smiled. Tim had kindly fixed a broken tent pole as best he could with epoxy and black tape. I was as ready as could be expected. They took me down to the main Mkuski town and dropped me by the roadside. Getting a taxi ride from here would be the easy part. A few minutes later I was on board a crowded minibus and heading up the Great North Rd to Serenje.

Tim had kindly fixed a broken tent pole as best he could with epoxy and black tape. I was as ready as could be expected.

 

Beit Bridge: Nothing Ever Changes…

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Waiting to purchase my ticket behind the four wise men...

Waiting to purchase my ticket behind the four wise men, actually members of the popular apostolic or Zionist Christian sect. They put much emphasis on Old Testament Biblical scriptures.

The question still begs asking: why would anyone in their right mind actually want to take a coach or bus through Beit Bridge? I asked myself that question several times during the interminable wait.

We’d made reasonable time, departing Park Station, Jo’burg at 1800 hrs, arriving at BB border post around 0200. My coach ticket reassuringly stated that we would arrive in Bulawayo at 0800 later that morning, only 6 hours away…plenty of time I imagined. In fact what would I do if we arrived early I worried? Would there be somewhere inconspicuous to sit and wait whilst I waited for my lift?

We negotiated the South African side without too much trouble, although we had to pass through an immigration counter housed in a temporary structure outside of the main offices. This had been the case for many years although it didn’t make us seem any less like second-class citizens. Standing in a snaking line outside this porta-office the black Zimbabwean man in front of me remarked “they treat us like children…but without us they would have no labour.”

He was referring to the widely acknowledged state of affairs whereby countless Zimbabweans were employed in almost every sector of the South African economy, most visibly in the restaurants, pubs and gardens of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and surrounds.

Nonetheless, we were through the SA side before too long and not more than 20 minutes later were trudging into the customs and immigration offices on the Zimbabwean side of BB. The bridge itself spans the Limpopo River, invisible in the dark at that time of the night. It had been a good four years or so since I had last negotiated ‘the Bridge’. Despite a small saving over air travel of about R600 I was curious to see what life was like for the citizens of my home nation as they negotiated the notoriously cumbersome border control point.

At immigration I was obliged to buy a visa (single-entry) for 55 USD since I now traveled on a British Passport. The official I dealt with treated me with ill-concealed disdain. I have no idea why considering I could be a first time visitor come to spend some much sought-after hard currency. I stood around for about 20 minutes whilst another official, a younger lady, disappeared with my 70 USD, presumably looking for change. From there it was over to the customs and excise side.

No matter how many times I’ve negotiated that border post I still find myself uncertain as to whether or not I should declare one or other of my electronic devices or other valuables. I asked one of the drivers who advised me not to declare the valuables but only the goods. Well that was helpful. I assumed that by ‘goods’ he meant those items intended for resale. I decided against a declaration since all I had of value was my mobile phone and the tablet I’m compiling this on.

After I emerged from immigration I was surprised and pleased to see that the Intercape bus was backing up against the customs control point where we would presumably be searched, a formality everyone went through. I stood around whilst the driver struggled to align the bus. Eventually a compromise was reached – not straight but with enough of a gap for other traffic to pass by if necessary. And when I refer to ‘other traffic’ I allude to the several hundred metres of buses and trucks backed up behind the control point.

The penny only dropped after I tried to board the bus to recover my hand luggage, only to discover a collection of passengers who looked completely unfamiliar, not to mention annoyed that I was trying to board the bus as they were attempting to disembark! In an inspired moment I thought to ask a passenger the destination of the bus to which he answered, Harare.

Trudging back a good hundred yards or so to the correct Intercape bus, which bore an uncannily similar number plate tothe Harare-bound one, it dawned on me that it would be a long evening. Almost all the other passengers were back on board and getting some more sleep. It wasn’t even 3 a.m. I put my earphones in and listened to an hour or more of music until fitful sleep overtook me.

We edged forward bit by bit and by the time dawn broke we were close. A short while later we disembarked, told to take our luggage from the trailer and to form a semi-orderly queue on the grimy tarmac which was embedded with myriad bottle tops and other miscellaneous organic and inorganic items.

An illustration of one of the delights that awaits the hapless traveller at the border post: queueing outside the bus at dawn with all ones belongings on display.

An illustration of one of the delights that awaits the hapless traveller at the border post: queueing outside the bus at dawn with all ones belongings on display.

For a while I stood there in the cool of the early morning until it occurred to me that I was the only one wearing only a T-shirt. I dug into my cabin bag and extracted a wind-cheater and then strolled to the back of the queue, trying my best to remain surreptitious. My photo of the moment speaks for itself – a desultory queue of passengers standing beside their bags, resigned to wait for however long it might take.

An hour elapsed and still no sign of our officials. After perhaps another 45 minutes two customs officials, a man and a woman, sauntered down the line of bags, poking one or two at random but looking largely disinterested. They were done in two minutes. After the protracted wait that’s all the time it took.

A typical trailer laden high with goods for resale in the Zimbabwe.

A typical trailer laden high with goods for resale in the Zimbabwe. I took this photo once we had crossed into Zimbabwe.

Alas, we weren’t permitted to get back on the bus until it had been searched. We were instructed to wait further ahead on the other side of the control point. Probably another two hours elapsed at this juncture, the sun steadily arcing upwards in tandem with the temperature.

I chatted to my neighbour on the bus, a young Ndebele lad working as a security guard in a mall near Johannesburg airport. It didn’t sound like a great job: periodic armed robberies punctuating the general monotony of the job. However, with his wages he’d managed to buy a car of which he seemed proud, though he didn’t yet have a license. “Have the police caught you yet?” I asked him, to which he replied that they had but a R50 back-hander had been enough to quash any charges.

After a while I got my phone out to take another picture of the listless passengers sitting on the perimeter kerbs. A few people standing nearby observed me intently and one man about ten yards from me sauntered across.

“What are you doing my friend? You cannot take pictures here. This is a sensitive area.”

He flicked some sort of security ID from his pocket which suggested that he was a plain clothes CIO agent, one of the countless members of the government security apparatus playing the role of Big Brother.

“I’m just a tourist,” I insisted.

“But can you tell me what you are doing? Are you Al Quaeda?”

At this I just smiled amiably and he chuckled in turn before turning serious.

“No pictures!” he reiterated once more before sauntering back to his mates. Phew, that was a bit close for comfort. At least he didn’t ask me to erase the photograph. They’d been known to destroy whole spools of film if they deemed the photographer had committed some violation or other. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise once I reached Bulawayo where I would discover that the independent press enjoyed more freedom of speech than I could remember for many years.

Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their transport to clear customs and immigration.

Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their transport to clear customs and immigration.

Eventually, around 10 am, 8 hours after our arrival at the border post, we were finally authorised to proceed. Our last inspection officer had stood by the side of the bus with his arms crossed facing away from us for the better part of those last couple of hours by which I deduced that we had not paid the relevant facilitation ‘fee’ but more on that in my next chapter.

To conclude, I am sure there are other border posts out there to rival or indeed surpass Beit Bridge in terms of tedium, bureaucracy and inefficiency but I certainly hope to avoid experiencing them in my lifetime! Beit Bridge is quite enough.

The Many Faces of South Africa

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Quite a lot’s been said about South Africa and the state of crime, poverty and inequality over the years. I don’t intend to make a critique of this issue in this blog post since there are many wonderful things to celebrate and highlight in South Africa but it would be unfair of me not to at touch on the current state of affairs before I go on with my little tour.

A selection of popular Afircan dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku.

A selection of popular African dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku. Cape Town CBD.

Certainly the Rand has weakened considerably over the last decade against the dollar and sterling. When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it’s 18.5.

That obviously works in my favour as a sterling account holder. So when a beer at a local bar costs me R25 I score; when a meal costs R40, I score; when an Uber taxi costs as little as R25, I score. It’s also revealing that most of the Zimbabwean contingent I talked to at my brother’s wedding repeatedly remarked on how ‘cheap’ everything was.

The problem for working class South Africa is touched upon in an article I found on the site News24 from August last year (referenced at end of post) and is presumably still reasonably accurate. It alleges that South Africa is …

“… a country without an adequate social security net and where at least half of the national workforce earns less than R3 100 a month. Perhaps as many as a third of men and women in work earn less than R2 000 a month.

Yet most trade unions and human rights groups estimate that a bare living wage in 2014 would be between R4 000 and R5 000 a month.”

Even considering the relative affordability of food and services for me I find it hard to imagine surviving on less than 150 quid, and perhaps even as little as 100 for many. Considering that RSA is one of the continent’s more affluent nations it’s saying a lot. It is worth scrolling down to the comments section where some other facts and figures give further food for thought.

#Utopian Indignant, claims:

Actually not. Just like government, Terry Bell uses the incorrect exchange conversion rate to compare wages with overseas. The correct rate is the Purchase Parity Conversion Rate – youa re using the speculative moneymarket rate, which is only for buying and selling money on international markets. Terry and government arrive at incorrect costs calculations on contracts and wage negotiations because of this technical error. Using the correct rate, our pay compares reasonably per skill level with overseas, but our Public Sector is significantly overpaid.

Another quotes official stats to support his claim that the black population has grown by 47% in the last 20 years whilst the white population has only seen a net increase of less than 5%.

Whatever the situation, I’ve seen a fair deal of poverty on my trip out here. It’s hard to say whether or not there are more beggars and homeless individuals than previously. Although the sight of destitute whites still shocks some I think it’s important to look beyond colour and rather at communities.

I’m aware that sectors of the scattered Afrikaans communities look out for their aged members who have fallen through the safety net. Black African communities tend to have stronger familial relationships than their European counterparts. Are they strong enough to weather the hard times notwithstanding the question of the foreign workforce and the forces of xenophobia which seem to simmer in the background?

I don’t have the answers, but like my friend Carol I agree that anyone who chooses to bury their head in the sand and ignore these issues does it to their potential detriment. Where is the charity of society when all I hear are cynical assertions that vagrants and beggars have probably ‘brought it upon themselves’, ‘are most likely criminals’ or that they make ‘obscene amounts of money begging at traffic lights.’

I don’t believe it frankly. Most of the people I’ve given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people. If this isn’t manifest in their appearance or demeanour it’s in their eyes. I’ve no doubt some of them will spend this money on alcohol or some other substance but at least a quarter of people who’ve approached me have asked for food and been grateful for it.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt. Near Parliament Gardens, Cape Town.

It doesn’t cost me anything substantial because of the nature of the exchange rate. The scriptural homily about giving in proportion to one’s means actually leaves me slightly uncomfortable in times like these. Am I giving generously enough?

At times it seems better to give nothing rather than give inadequately but one has to put one’s pride aside in such situations. There will always be beggars who will push their luck. I do try make a point of giving more generously to those who seek to help themselves. I have a soft spot for buskers and street artists.

There is much to admire in those who go out on the streets in all-weather with an old guitar, hand-drum or accordion to earn their living. Perhaps all that they have is their voice. Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I’ve been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man's trumpet was in a poor state of repair. My heart went out to him.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man’s trumpet was in a poor state of repair. Cape Town.

I chanced upon a young man in the middle of Cape Town on the edge of a market square, dressed in a glittering red and gold costume as if he had stepped out of a carnival procession that had moved off without him.

I stood back and watched as he tried with growing frustration to get his trumpet in tune. It was nothing more than a collection of parts held together by an assortment of folded, paper wedges, cigarette filter ends and goodness knows what. It looked as though most of the keys had been brazed onto the body at one point or another; many of the joins were broken. It was pretty hopeless.

I went across out of curiosity and he explained how he had been given the instrument a few years before. It really needed professional attention but of course he couldn’t afford it. I gave him R20 and took his name and phone number with the intention of making some enquiries on his behalf. I’m ashamed to say that I lost the slip with his details on it. I really should have done better.

Immortalising the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from township to work the city streets as traders, taxi-drivers and labourers.

immortalizing the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from the township to work the city streets as a traders, taxi-driver or labourer.

I’ve walked many of these city streets as a curious spectator, both of people and architecture. After spending many years ensconced in my own little world I’ve done my best to travel and make amends.

We live on a populated planet after all and cities are where we congregate and create things of beauty as well as the mundane and functional. Ever since visiting Algiers, indeed Algeria, I’ve had a particular interest in the legacy of European urban architecture in African towns and cities.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of ‘the mountain’. I caught a commuter taxi from my backpacker residence in Observatory (Obs) to town one morning and was surprised to see a number of Europeans commuting for work or studies.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

The city is probably more cosmopolitan than even Jozi (Jo’burg) far to the north. When I moved further out to Muizenburg I discovered that the Metro trains, the main urban rail provider, moved people of all hues to and from the city. Both means of transport were wonderfully cheap – between R6 and R12 per trip depending on the distance.

What concerned me on the Metro commute wasn’t so much the graffiti which adorned the carriages both within and without as the number of black and white advertisements pasted on the inside of the compartments. Many advertised ‘affordable’ abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.

Others were less controversial and even a little amusing: penis enlarging and hip-widening creams and treatments, dubious ‘doctors’ who could revive fortunes, eleviate debts and cast love charms. It reminded me that superstitions lurked barely beneath the surface of this erstwhile modern city. It was the same elsewhere in Durban, Jozi and Pretoria.

It’s tempting to call it African superstition but I can’t be sure who the practitioners and clients of these myriad treatments and charms really are. South Africa does, after all, play host to dozens of foreign nationals from all corners of the continent. The fraudsters and confidence tricksters aside it was the advertisement of illegal abortions which saddened me most. How could these people advertise their services with impunity?

Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark. I took a township tour with Henry, a deadlocked, affable Malawian who had lived in that particular one, Masi, for several years. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a township but they are never dull places. Unfortunately those photos are still on an SD card so they are not included here.

A few days earlier I decided to take a tour of Robben Island with one of my fellow hostel travelers, a young Norwegian man called Pal (the a having a little circular character above it, not available on my mini-keyboard). Never mind that it is a highly subscribed tour which departs several times a day from Cape Town harbour, it was still worthwhile.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

On the trip out we were lucky enough to see a Southern Right Whale surface a hundred yards astern of the small vessel we were on. I thought it a large seal until it surfaced properly with barnacles encrusting the exposed part of its head. As we arrived at Robben Island harbour a streak of white beneath the surface betrayed the path of a penguin, the one and only one I remember seeing on that trip.

After disembarking we hopped on one of several buses taking tourists around the small island. We weren’t allowed to disembark until we got to the old prison buildings, where we were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma. His voice was rich and sonorous, a confident orator.

What amazed me, as it evidently did an English travel blogger for the Daily Mail several years before (see reference below) was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired. I have uploaded half of the footage I took of his presentation below:

Back at the V&A Waterfront the crowds had swelled. The V&A is a real hive of activity – tourist central. A guide from a city walking tour alleged that the shopping mall and restaurants were the second-most visited ‘attraction’ on the continent ahead of Table Mountain which made him sad. I guess it has to be taken in context.

The Waterfont area has a bit of everything – musicians, good food, boat trips, museums, art galleries and pubs. One just hopes the wealth filters into the local economy. I’m told rents are exorbitant and heard from a reliable source that only 3 in 10 restaurants survive their first year in the city.

I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight. I’ve come way with some priceless anecdotes and good memories. My journeys to the other metropolitan areas mentioned have been shorter affairs but worth mentioning too.

For the first time in my life I visited central Durban where I perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.

The memorials appeared well maintained but, like all South Africa towns, the informal sector flourished on the margins. A few white vagrants were sleeping rough near one of the statues, a former governor of Natal, while young people perched at the bases chatting amicably to one another.

I walked to the Victoria Embankment which flanks the harbour. The wharfs here harboured an amassed wealth of yachts and catamarans under the auspices of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. I continued on to the end of the harbour pier beyond the boats and restaurant-cafe (closed till further notice). Right at the end was a chunky fisherman of a mixed-race ethnicity. A little further back were a group of Indian fishermen with deck chairs and a cooler box.

I asked the former how the fishing was. He shrugged and cast a critical eye across to his Indian compatriots. “If it wasn’t for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes and sh*t.”

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The real problem it seemed lay in the fact that fishing permits were not being actively enforced as neither were bait catchers. As with Cape Town the most sort-after bait were the sand prawns caught during low tide when they could be sucked out of their holes with simple hand pumps. My new acquaintance was adamant that they too were being over-harvested.

From there I walked back across town and hence to the Point area. My curiosity saw me enter one of the new ‘China Malls’ which I had previously seen on the outskirts of Pretoria. I am anecdotally informed that Chinese business has been flourishing in South Africa in recent years.

To be fair most of the shops therein were not Chinese but on the second from last floor above there was a large department store, the China star, selling all and sundry. However, the very top floor of the building spoke of different era. A derelict Art Deco styled room recalled a time when white Durbanites probably came here to socialise and be entertained. I would love to know more about the history of the place.

From Durban I headed back up to the Highveld – Jozi and Pretoria. Based in the former I took the new intra/inter-city Gautrain to the latter last week. It is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).

I have long been fascinated by the Afrikaans language and it’s people. I did a year in Pretoria to round off my bachelors degree in 2003. It was a difficult time for me personally but I long regretted not pushing up against whatever social and self-perceived barriers might have presented themselves at the time and tried to see more of the city.

I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. Please take a look at the accompanying gallery and attendant captions to get an idea of the rich history of the former capital of the Transvaal Republic, the Union of South Africa, the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa and indeed the present capital of the nation.

Referenced articles:

http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Labour/InsideLabour/Inside-Labour-Decent-wage-decent-policies-20140829

http://travelblog.dailymail.co.uk/2010/06/the-people-of-south-africa-could-teach-the-england-players-a-thing-or-two-about-humility.html

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.