Historical

Episodes of African history connected to wildlife or guides, hunters, explorers

Spotted – 3

Maasailand in general and the Transmara area beyond were a great source of new things for us in Kenya. Spotting red clad Maasai, carrying their traditional weapons, walking about everywhere took a while to get used to! In addition, there were plenty of wild animals to be seen not to mention the beautiful landscape that was all new to us at the time.

Intona Ranch was sited at the heart of the Transmara. The unfenced farm [1] of eight hundred hectares was -I believe- a gift of the Maasai to Joe Murumbi (see Joe Zazarte Murumbi in References) as a recognition for his service to Kenya (he was the son of a Maasai mother). The farm was a green park by the Migori River where riverine forest was present and where we used to go in the evenings to watch the flocks of Silvery-cheeked hornbills (Bycanistes brevis) returning to their favourite roosting perches.

The Migori River (in flood).
The fig tree that marked the entrance to Intona Ranch.

Scattered clumps of forest, many associated with very large termite mounds, with plenty of rare orchids speckled the landscape. This green oasis was maintained by rains that fell most afternoons due to the proximity of Lake Victoria. Apart from keeping the vegetation going, the evening storms produced the most striking sunsets that would turn red when the grass fires were raging around.

Part of Intona ranch.

The Transmara could be seen as an extension at a slightly higher altitude of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve and therefore the farm was inhabited by all species present in the reserve. There were also some “specials” like the Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) that also inhabited the Migori River area and the African Blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda) that was found throughout the area to name just two. At the farm there were a family of resident cheetah that we often saw as well as lion and leopard that we sometimes heard.

One of Intona’s cheetah resting.

In the Transmara, the Maasai coexisted with the wild animals, not only by herds of harmless antelope and zebra but also migrating elephants and buffalo, in addition to the large predators, including numerous hyena that were seen and heard every night.

In sum, the ranch was like a dream come true for nature lovers as it was really a game park where Joe bred a few heads of cattle. I was truly lucky to work there and enjoy his hospitality for several years!

If the above was not sufficiently stunning, the house that Joe and Sheila had built there was, to put it mildly, unexpected and it took a while to get used to its presence once you had spotted it! We were used to people building amazing houses in Kenya such as the Djinn Palace [2] in the shores of Lake Naivasha (now a hotel) or the uninhabited Italian Villa [3] neat Thika that our friend Paul discovered and we explored.

One can only imagine the work involved in building such a large place in a remote location following the very high standards that Joe and Sheila must have placed for the architects to follow. Although I came to know the house well, I never counted the number of rooms it had but thirty-five rooms are mentioned by the press [4].

The front of Murumbi’s house at Intona.

There was even a small chapel and it was only recently that, through his close friend Alan Donovan, I learnt of its origin. He wrote: “Joe and Sheila loved their dogs (I can confirm that, Ed.). One of the dogs had nearly died and Joe had vowed to build a chapel if he survived. When the dog was retrieved from death’s jaw, the chapel was duly built for the staff at the ranch. The priest was called to bless the new chapel” [5]

What I can say is that the very large and white house was built following the style found at the coast of the Indian Ocean and its outside doors had probably come from Lamu. It had all necessary items to enjoy life such as a large swimming pool, a couple of patios of different styles and verandahs strategically sited to catch the sun or shade at different times of the day. The roof was high and the rooms were very large, much more than I had seen until then!

In the seventies, Joe and Alan Donovan created African Heritage, a fine antique collecting entreprise that yielded some unique artifacts and became Africa’s first art gallery in Nairobi and pioneered the retail of art and craft [6]. Joe and Sheila had their main house in Muthaiga, an exclusive neighbourhood in Nairobi where they kept most of their art but a lot of these spilled over to the Transmara.

At the Intona house there were several works of art both, African and European. Among the latter there were several large oil paintings by some of the Dutch Masters (I was told). African art was all over, and this included Lamu chairs, different masks and an old trunk with an amazing lock. One of my favourites was what a called a Juju man [7]. This fierce-looking carving was parked in the hall until one day it disappeared. Later I learnt that my friend Alan had helped Joe to carry it to the UK where it was sold.

The sitting room.

With so much art around, the house resembled a true museum but my interest was mainly in the library composed of two adjoining rooms with roof to floor and wall to wall bookshelves that held a treasure in books I had not seen before. It was rummaging through this true treasure that I spent most of the free time I had, mainly after sunset.

The library had windows to the front of the house where a large telescope pointed to the clear night skies of the Transmara. At first glance it revealed memorabilia of Joe’s political life, including various decorations and many pictures of Joe with other political players of the time. I remember pictures of him with Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie and Julius Nyerere to mention those I can still “see” today.

Once I assimilated the memorabilia I focused on the books. These were mainly dealing with Africana, and they included most first editions of all major books published on Africa and, particularly, on Kenya, a list too long to be mentioned here and one that I now do not recall that well but many were antiques. However, having spent many hours delving through books with and without Joe, I still remember author proofs that had been sent to him for comments prior to their publication by various famous authors.

I vividly remember the evening that, despite his mobility problems [8], Joe invited me to the library “I wish to show you some special things” he said as I followed him to the library. He headed straight to one of the bookshelves located on the left wall and pulled out a large shallow drawer. It contained postal stamps! Joe became very enthusiastic and started to show me his collection.

He showed me the first stamp produced by Kenya Uganda and Tanzania in 1935 during the times of King George V. He had the complete set of Kenya stamps that included all first day issues as well as loose stamps. He then opened another drawer where he removed several Penny Black specimens, the first stamp issued in the UK in 1840 and all the ones that followed it up to the present date. He was extremely pleased with his collections!

Joe Murumbi in his library. Credit: https://www.the-star.co.ke/

Joe donated all his books and documents, numbering several thousands, to the Kenya nation. Among these are more than six thousand books published before the 1900s, and a rare original manuscript from David Livingstone. His books occupy the Joe Murumbi Gallery, a large area in the ground floor of the Kenya National Archives library. He also donated his African stamp collections, believed to be the most important in the world, after the Queen of England’s collection!

Sadly, Joe died in 1990 and Sheila in 2000. A Memorial Garden at the Nairobi City Park was established by the Murumbi Trust where, fortunately, they are both kept to be remembered as they deserve.

As for the magnificent house, before departing from Kenya I failed to convince the Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology to negotiate for it to become a training centre. Regretfully, the house started to deteriorate after Joe’s death and it is now, I believe, a subject of a legal wrangling. After severl years of neglect the house is now almost a ruin from which all movable fittings have been taken and most of it is overgrown by vegetation. A sad end to a beautiful place that I first “spotted” in 1981.

Credit of the three photos above: https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos

[1] An old plow track was all that demarcated the ranch.

[2] “During the colonial era, “The Djinn Palace” was “where things usually were very lively” for the Happy Valley set, according to Ulf Aschan.[7] It was built for Ramsay-Hill’s wife, Molly (née Edith Mildred Maude; 1893–1939), who had an affair with and later married Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll“. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oserian (Seen on 4 July 2021).

[3] What we called the “Italian Villa” was abandoned, complete with underwater illuminated pool, bath on the top of the roof from where the view of the Yatta plateau was amazing and its own cells where we were told by the caretaker that employees were locked as punishment. I read somewhere that its rich owner tried to surprise his fiancée that was driving a convertible along the Mombasa Road with a low flight past and killed her by accident. I have been searching for info on this villa and its history but, so far, fruitlessly.

[4], [5] and [8] See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/lifestyle/2001259735/vice-presidents-mansion-now-home-to-wild-animals and https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos Consulted on 28 June 2021.

[6] See: https://africanheritagehouse.info/portfolio-item/murumbi-legacy/ and https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/alan-donovan-my-journey-through-african-art-and-culture-african-heritage-house/jwLyrn0e9lfwJg?hl=en – Both consulted on 28 June 2021 for more information.

[7] We used this name meaning “magic man” as we thought it had some supernatural power. I googled and learnt that it was Nkondi, one of the mystical statuettes made by the Kongo people of the Congo region and considered aggressive. The name means hunter and they are believed to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies.

[8] Joe was recovering from a stroke that he had suffered sometime before I met him.

The Chongwe confluence revisited

Mauro, my father-in-law that went with us to Lufupa in the Kafue National Park, loved fishing so we thought it would be a good idea to take him to the Chongwe confluence, after our earlier interesting fishing trip with our friend Chris [1]. Apart from fishing, he was also keen on camping, and, after all, we had acquired a rubber dinghy and we were also eager to use it again on a fishing trip.

So, to make the outing worthwhile, I took a Friday off so that we could spend an extra day in the bush. In addition to Mauro the group included Flori (at the time six months old) and Annie. The two latter members would sleep at the back of the car, just in case.

By the time of the trip, we were familiar with the road, not only from the trip with Chris but also because we had visited the Gwabi [2] Fishing camp in the shores of the Kafue River and spent a couple of weekends fishing there. The camp allowed you to launch your boat and, after a few kilometres down the Kafue River you could reach the Zambezi River and enjoy its quiet beauty.

This time, as with Chris, we left the road leading to Gwabi and turned towards Chiawa, crossed the Kafue river in the men-operated pontoon and continued to the Chongwe, hoping to remember the way but certain that, as long as we kept the Zambezi river on our right, the Chongwe River would block our route and there would be the camping area.

The going was slow as the road after the pontoon had deteriorated and presented us with a few ditches that were challenging but that we managed to cross to the amazement of Mauro that was not used to rough riding! We got to the camp in late afternoon. The grass at the campsite was -again- very tall and, although we could hear the river, we could not see it! Conversely, we could clearly see the elephant family that was busy feeding on the trees surrounding the camping area. The latter were very tolerant of our presence, and they gradually moved away a few metres. In that way we coexisted for as long as we were there.

Once Mauro recovered from the proximity of the elephants and the grunting of the hippos nearby we cut the grass until we had a good area for camp, and set up our tents. We finished just before darkness and, as we had carried our dinner cooked from home, I told Mauro that it was now time to try some evening fishing while dinner was made ready.

Carefully, we walked to the shore through the tall grass and arrived at the river that was, conveniently, clear of grass and offered a good area to fish from. We placed some large chunks of meat on our hooks, casted close to the shore and waited for the action to start.

While fishing with Chris, I had learnt that, apart from tiger fish, the Zambian rivers also harboured other predatory fish, among them the Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis), a kind of catfish that could reach truly large sizes. The largest Vundu recorded reached 55kg [3] but there could be references of larger ones but I did not find them.

A small Vundu recently caught at Kariba, Zimbabwe.

Enthusiastic, I explained to Mauro what we were after, comparing the Vundu to fish that occur in the River Plate so that he could get the idea. He immediately shared my excitement. After a few more minutes Mabel called us for supper. Our hunger was stronger than our will to fish so, we secured the rods and put the “line out” alarms and joined the rest of the party to get some food.

We had not been at the table more than five minutes when we heard the unmistakable “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” of one of the reels that indicated that a fish was taking line fast.

We ran towards the shore, I grabbed the rod and pulled to try to hook the culprit. My effort made no difference and the “zzzzzzzzzzzzz” continued so I increased the drag but it made only small difference and still I was losing line. Soon all the line would had gone out and break. Mauro was as shocked and as impotent as I was and we were both getting ready for the final jerk that would mean a broken rod or a cut line when, suddenly, almost at the end of the line, it stopped. Relieved, I tried to reel in some line to have some in reserve in case another run would come. The line did not move. “Mauro, we have a really huge vundu. Please bring the torch to see where the line is” I said while holding the tense rod.

Light on the line revealed that it was nearly horizontal! The fish had stopped at a considerable distance from us and I suspected that the line had got caught on a submerged tree. Further manipulations, including the trick of pulling the line and suddenly releasing it failed to solve the problem. We pulled the line as much as we thought it prudent with no results and, eventually, we decided to leave it until the morning and go with the boat to try to recover the fish. We finished dinner during which the fish became the only topic of conversation.

After dinner, while sitting by the fire the speculation continued about the size of the fish and how we were going to tackle it the following day until, we were silenced by the unmistakable call of a leopard [4] very close to us! We were explaining Mauro that there was a leopard close when the hyenas added their own calls, adding theirs to the leopard’s.

Postponing our bedtime we hastily moved to the car to go and have a look. Although we saw hyenas, we failed to see the leopard and we returned to camp. While Mabel and Annie were putting Flori to sleep and Mauro aranged his tent, I opened my copy of “Fishes of Kariba” by Dale Kenmuir in pages 84-85 (I had opened the book a few times there so it always opened there!) and I re-read the description of theVundu behaviour “…powerful fighters and if not using the current to assist them will often ‘hole up’ somewhere. Hence you need a stout road and heavy breaking strain line to land one. Common baits are blue-mottled soup, liver, ox-heart, fish fillet, or bird entrails…try the Zambezi … (if not required for eating, please throw them back!)”. Convinced that we definitely have one holed up somewhere, I went to sleep trying to develop a plan to recover it.

The following morning started with the checking of the rod but the line had been cut during the night so we did not know what was at the end of it. After putting new line in the reel it was time to assemble the boat. We needed to pump its air tanks with a foot pump and install the floorboards, engine, etc. After about an hour we finally started our day of boating in the Zambezi with a full crew.

We spent the day trying to fish but sightseeing in the Zambezi was our first priority. We enjoyed cruising slowly through the river trying to avoid getting stranded on the frequent and shallow sand banks. We watched crocodiles in the water or basking in the sandy shores, their mouths opened releasing heat. We also spotted a few male buffalo enjoying the freshness of the shallows and seeking relief from the itching of the many parasites they usually carry.

The stars of the show, however, were the hippos. We came across a number of large pods engaged in their social activities and announcing their presence grunting from a distance so that we could avoid them without problems. We respected them greatly after an experience we had with a large male in lake Naivasha (Kenya). We were boating in a shallow part of the lake when a lone hippo appeared out of the blue and charged us. We had a very narrow escape pushing the boat to a deeper part before it caught up with us! We remembered this incident every time we saw hippos! However, if watched from a prudent distance, they are very entertaining.

We did not only watch animals but also attempted to fish but with not much success. We only had one good strike and, following Murphy’s Law, it happened while I was passing a cup of tea to Mauro and this interfered with the right response so the fish jumped and got away expelling the lure some distance away, luckily in the opposite direction from our boat.

We got back to camp in the afternoon, with time to start a fire and be better prepared for our second attempt at catching the -so far- elusive Vundu, a much talked about subject during the day! Again, we used sizeable chunks of beef well secured in our hooks. When we were satisfied with our preparations, I threw the first line at about 20 metres from the shore.

As soon as the meat hit the water, something stirred the water nearby and started moving. Then I saw more movement and about five greenish heads with long snouts converging towards my line! I reeled in frantically, trying to bring in the meat before the crocodiles grabbed it and run, trying to avoid a repeat of the events of the previous night! Clearly, the crocs were faster than the Vundu and the mistery of the night before was cleared: a croc had taken the meat, swam away, and stopped to eat it on one of the small islands that dotted the river nearby.

We abandoned night fishing as it would have been only good to fatten the crocs while Mauro was still shockedwith the concept of fishing with crocodiles. After a while we shared a good laugh with Mabel that, for a while, let us know that our fishing reputation had been dented.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/05/05/the-chongwe-confluence/

[2] I was informed at the camp that a “gwabi” in the local language means an area where the river gets wider and the current reverses creating a swirl where -apparently- fish like to be.

[3] See: https://www.fishbase.se/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=2319&AT=vundu Consulted on 27 June 2021.

[4] A leopard call closely resembles the sound of a hand saw cutting a log and, as the lion roar, it is unmistakable.

Kafue National Park (KNP)

With an area of 22,400 square kilometres the KNP is the largest in Zambia, 35% of all the area devoted to parks in the country and the fifth in size in the whole of Africa. It started in 1920 as a Game Reserve as an effort to protect the then dwindling wild animal population.

Map of the KNP. Credit: Nanzhila Safari Camp.

In 1950 it was declared a National Park named after the river basin where most of its land is found. It was only gazetted as such in 1972, the year that the construction of the Itezhi-tezhi dam started. In 1957 Norman Carr [1] was appointed its first Wildlife Warden, post that he will keep until 1960. His appointment coincided with the finalization of most of the eleven accommodation facilities of the park namely Ngoma, Nanzhila, Kalala, Itumbi, Chunga, Mapunga, Lufupa, Moshi, Treetops, Lushimba and Ndulumina.

The KNP hosted most of the animals found in Southern Africa [2] but it was not a place where you expected, in general, to find high densities of game because of the size of the park. To make matters worse, at the time we were in Zambia, the Angolan rebels had almost exterminated the game in the mid-eighties and carried the meat, ivory and other animal parts west from Zambia. The Park was not very popular with tourists in contrast with other options such as the South Luangwa National park and others.

We visited the KNP a few times, spending sometime in the southern part of the park, closer to Lusaka, visiting the Itezhi-tezhi area where we did some boating and stayed a couple of times, mainly when we wished to get out of Lusaka to a place relatively close to it. However, the area was popular and did not offer lots of game so we did not visited it very often.

I must clarify that we still had our Kenya memories of very large numbers of game in our minds and the KNP appeared as an empty park to us despite it being recovering from the earlier heavy pouching.

We did travel to the northern part of the park as it was not too far from our project area at Lutale in Central Province. We stayed at Ngoma lodge that, at the time offered basic facilities and catering. Luckily, its staff made up for the lack of luxury as they were very friendly and particularly kind to our children. We drove many kilometres through the bush in search of game but our reward were a few elephants that were not very approachable. On a positive note, we found the rare Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) and I even managed to get a (bad) picture of a bull!.

Our first sighting of a Roan antelope.

We were non-plussed by the KNP for about a year and we had decided to leave it and devote ourselves to explore other areas. At that time a friend recommended as to visit the Lufupa Camp, situated in the northern sector of the park.

We decided to spend a long weekend there and we were rewarded. The camp, beautifully sighted near the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue rivers, was an area rich in floodplains, broad-leaved woodland, abundant riverine vegetation and “dambos” [3]. Around Lufupa we saw more wildlife than we had spotted in the rest of the park. Plain game such as zebra, buffalo, greater kudu and impala were present as well as the Roan antelope as mentioned above.

We also saw a few elephants that did not reside there but moved through at times. In addition, bird life was also abundant around the camp with some rare species found there, namely Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher. Despite these plusses, we were happy to learn that Lufupa’s fame was built on its frequent leopard sightings particularly during the night drives organized by the camp.

A lone elephant at the KNP.

Once there and after spending our first day driving around in search of game, we booked a night game drive. We left our young daughter with Annie at camp and we joined “MAP” Patel [4] in search of the elusive leopards, a cat that we had rarely seen during our years and Kenya and never in Ethiopia. We noted that MAP talked little and he seemed to be on a mission: to find leopards. He stood next to the driver with his hunting gun while intensively watching the dark bush. We also noted that he had the ring finger of his right hand missing and I seem to recall that he told us that he had lost it to a leopard on a game drive a while before. No wonder he was so alert!

I remember that first night drive as a long and rather uneventful. We were not yet used to night drives so, we focussed intensively on the illuminated circle of the searchlight and we soon got our eyes tired. In addition, it became cold as time passed and leopards were not easy to spot that night. Luckily, towards the end of the drive and when -being unprepared- we were getting very cold, the other car that had gone out with us radioed to tell MAP of the location of a leopard. We joined them and saw our first “Zambian” leopard that we soon lost when it walked into thick bush.

We enjoyed that first experience at Lufupa and we kept planning to return. This took place during the visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, from Uruguay with who we shared a few trips around Zambia. With him, Flori (daughter) and Annie (nanny) we went to Lufupa for a second time, looking forward to sighting leopards again. We were not disappointed.

During the first day of game viewing we were returning to camp for lunch when one of the drivers stopped us and told us the location of a couple of cheetah. Without hesitation, lunch was postponed and we drove in the direction that we were told, hoping that the cheetah would still be there and that we would find them.

Luckily, Mabel saw them immediately and we had a great time watching them until they decided to disappear in the bush. That evening we booked a night drive. This time we were with a different guide but in radio contact with MAP’s car. As soon as we left the camp, we found two large male lions walking on the road and we stayed with them for a long while as they seemed to be hunting.

We followed the two large males for about five kilometres while they took advantge of the road and marked lots of bushes as it often happens. This was our first experience with lions at very close quarters in an open vehicle at night and I must confess that it was very exciting not only for my father in law but also for us!

When they decided to move out of the road and into the thicket I expected that we would continue our errand but MAP did not have it and he went straight into thick bush after them and we followed. After about half hour the pair entered into an area of thick bush that was too much, even for MAP! Somehow we -miraculously for me- soon were back on the road and again focussed on leopards. We drove for a while until we bumped on a lonely female that we watched until it was time to return to camp as it was getting late and, again, rather cold. That day remains in our memory as the one when we saw the three large cats!

On that trip, for the second night drive we joined MAP himself and he lived up to his reputation. We found six leopards in various spots during the drive. The last one was hunting and MAP decided to wait and see what happened. He stopped the car and switched the search lamp off. Gradually our eyes adjusted to darkness helped by the available moonlight. The leopard was about twenty metres from an impala when we first spotted it and it was completely still.

After waiting for half an hour, the predator had slowly crept forward and it was now at about four metres from the impala. The latter remained totally unaware of the danger and, unbelievably for us, continued grazing and looking the other way. We were getting excited and whispered to each other that the attack would happen any time.

We waited for the attack with bated breath but, amazingly, the leopard kept approaching until its nozzle was almost touching its prey! At that point, the impala either saw it or caught the leopard’s scent and it took off! While relaxing from the tension we were under, we made comments about the incredible sight we have just seen, and MAP explained that this is the way leopards often hunt and the event we witnessed was a rare one as the leopard missed!

The following video illustrates an accelerated but similar situation to what we witnessed that night except that “our” leopard failed to get its prey. Although it shows a kill, I believe that you will take it as a natural ocurrence in the normal predator-prey relationship in real life.

After that night Lufupa was included in our list of best places we ever visited. Regrettably, we did not return to it but plan to do it as soon as we can. The idea is to combine our return with a visit to the Busanga plains, a swampy area fed by the Lufupa river and also located in northern KNP. Busanga was and still is a great area for game viewing. In particular there are large numbers of puku (Kobus vardonii) and red lechwe (Kobus leche) together with many other ungulates. To make the place even more attractive, it is also one of the best areas to witness the epic confrontation between lions and buffalo. We cannot wait for the Covid 19 pandemic to go away!

[1] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Carr – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[2] See: https://www.zambiatourism.com/destinations/national-parks/kafue-national-park/ – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[3] “A dambo is a class of complex shallow wetlands in central, southern and eastern Africa, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are generally found in higher rainfall flat plateau areas and have river-like branching forms which in themselves are not very large, but combined add up to a large area. Dambos have been estimated to comprise 12.5% of the area of Zambia. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dambo (Consulted on 18 June 2021).

[4] Muhammed Ahmed Patel alias ‘MAP’ was an outstanding police officer and commander of the anti-theft squad of Lusaka with a reputation of being a tough and fair cop and a great human being. At the time of our visits to Lufupa Camp, he guided, and he had a reputation of being able to smell leopards. A hero for many, he died in 2012. See: https://www.facebook.com/InMemoryOfMapPatel/?ref=page_internal (Consulted on 17 June 2021).

Hooked! A short fishing story

Often beer and fishing go together although I am not sure that drinking had anything to do with this story that happened to a fishing friend that I will call Phil. He loved to go for tigerfish as many people in Southern Africa do.

Tigerfish are placed by many among the best freshwater game fish in the world, together with salmon, bass, trout and the South American dorado among others [1]. Being one of the top predators of the African rivers, it is always on “hunting mode”, looking for prey, mostly smaller fish although some have been seen catching swallows in flight [2] and probably will also catch swimming birds.

The bushsnob with a tigerfish caught in Zimbabwe.

It is no surprise then that their aggressivity is used to catch them by means of shiny and colourful lures that are either cast and retrieved or trolled behind the boat until they are taken by the fish. When this happens, you react by strongly pulling your rod, hoping to hook it. The latter is very difficult to achieve because the fish has a very bony jaw that resists the sharpest of hooks.

The consequence is that often the fish feels the hook, jumps outside the water, violently shakes its head and dislodges the lure that goes flying, often back to the water where sometimes it attempts to catch it again as soon as it hits the water, apparently indifferent to the hooks! Sometimes, however, it lands on the boat and, rarely it can even hit you as if the fish would aim the lure at you!

So it was that one Friday, not thinking on all of the above, Phil and friends traveled to the Chongwe confluence to spend a weekend in search of tigerfish. They stayed at the same place we were with our friend Chris and on Saturday morning, very early, they were in the water. After a while Phil had a good take and he stroke. The fish reacted jumping out of the water and, as I mentioned, shaking its head managed to dislodge the lure.

That in itself would have been frustrating for Phil but it got worse. Before he could move, the lure came flying straight at him, more precisely to his face. One of the hooks got embedded in his upper lip from where the rather large lure hanged while Phil screamed in pain as lips are very sensitive areas of our bodies.

Being brave and trying not to spoil the fishing for everybody, he held the lure up to avoid it pulling from his lip while a friend carefully cut the line and then detached the lure, leaving only the hook in his lip. A quick check revealed bad news: the hook had gone in beyond the barb. Phil, bravely, tried to pull it out but, as expected, the pain was too much. He decided to leave it in place and put up with the pain to enable his friends to continue fishing.

After a while, the pain was getting worse so they decided to return to camp to attempt to remove it on firm ground. Soon it was clear that the hook would not go back out and the movement only made matters worse. It was then that Phil decided to have a final attempt at removal by pushing it so that it would go through the lip and they could cut it. He nearly fainted with pain and all further attempts were abandone hoping that leaving it alone would decrease the discomfort to tolerable levels.

Soon it became apparent that Phil could not put up with the discomfort any longer and, unanimously, they decided to return to Lusaka to see a doctor that could remove it and end Phil’s misery. Although the journey back was rather tough, the actual removal of the hook took the doctor about ten minutes and Phil did not even end with a scar to show for his predicament!

This rather unusual and rather unpleasant event did not dent Phil’s fishing drive although I believe that he remembers it (as I do) whenever he hooks a tigerfish!

[1] See: https://igfa.org/game-fish-database/ and https://pescariasa.com.br/english/top-13-species-of-freshwater-fish-in-world-sport-fishing/

[2] G. C. O’Brien, F. Jacobs, S. W. Evans, N. J. Smit (2013). First observation of African tigerfish Hydrocynus vittatus predating on barn swallows Hirundo rustica in flight. Fish Biology 84, 263-266.

Spotted! – 2

As I mentioned before, my work in the Transmara in Kenya took me often through Narok when the weather was dry and I could drive through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, up the Oloololo escarpment and then through the wheat fields and Lolgorien to Intona Ranch.

During the rains, however, the Maasai Mara would become muddy but still passable but the road on top of the Oloololo escarpment would be deep mud first and then there was the infamous soapy red hill where the journey ended -at least for a while- for many!

Benson, Joseph and the Bushsnob resting after going through the water-logged Lolgorian road.

Those wet days I would travel through tarmac via Kericho until reaching Kilgoris and from then to Intona through a muddy but shorter route that, usually, we could negotiate, but not always without trouble.

Stuck during one of the few ocassions that I was driven to Intona (with visitors) via Kilgoris.

Narok was a classical “border” town in the sense that it was the last stop before you entered into the “wilderness” beyond. It was in Narok where you re-fueled and bought your last essential supplies for you and your workers. The latter would go for the needed vegetables (read cabbage) as well as meat to last them for the two weeks spell they would spend at the ranch.

In addition, malaria was feared but they often did not get the chloroquine to protect them from it so we needed to get them from the pharmacy in town that happened to be next door to the butchery named “Jamaica”. Although the chemist was well identified, its neon sign was “interesting”. It read “Madawa” and “Duka la dawa” which mean drugs and pharmacy in Ki-Swahili.

Clearly, there was not enough room for the sign to be placed vertically so an ingenious electrician has placed on its side! Although I never seen it in its full glory during the night, I would have loved to have seen the face of the Hoechst general manager when he/she saw it for the first time. The sign is probably no longer there after all these years neither is Hoechst that is now part of Sanofi-Aventis.

Kilgoris also offered an interesting sign that was the meeting place in the Transmara when, with my boss Matt, I met Alan for my first visit to Intona Ranch [1]. Our rendezvous was the “Kilgoris Nylon Night Club” that, I must confess, I never saw its inside although I would have stayed there in case of breaking down as there were few other offers for accommodation in the place.

Judging by the disproportionate and (to me) unfortunate increase in the number of lodges and camps in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve that went from less than ten in the 80’s to a staggering 118 today [2], this night club is probably now a resort belonging to one of the major international hotel groups. Although the name of a few possible owners come to mind, I leave it there!

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] See: https://www.booking.com – Consulted on 6 June 2021.

Spotted!

The Covid 19 outbreak has kept us at home for quite a while by now and this has severely limited our travel routine. Although we think that this will change in a few months, this forced immobility has limited the opportunities of finding new “beasts” to be spotted to keep readers engaged while I continue writing posts on our life events.

Checking for pictures for my Zambian stories I found a folder where I keep unusual sights or events that we have witnessed over the years in the various parts of the world where we have been fortunate to live and work. Despite the abundance of similar material in social media nowadays, I still believe these are worth writing about.

The observations belong to different cultures and languages so, I will attempt translation when necessary, hoping that I will not miss their meaning. A handful of them may be improper to some and I apologize for these in advance.

I encourage you to comment and, if willing and interested, to send me your “Spotted!” for me to placed them in the blog with due credit to the originator.

While I keep writing my memoirs on Zambia, I hope that these short posts, like the “Spot the beast” (that will resume when I find material) will keep you entertained.

Spotted! – 1

If you look carefully, despite the bad photograph (a picture of an old print taken by my father from a long way away), you would just be able to see a speck in the middle of the picture, well beyond the reeds. It was my Land Rover well inside the River Plate. Although I have already written about this event, I chose it to start this new series of “Spotted!” as it was a consequence of my own foolishness that was already present in the 1970’s!

The speck in the background is the semi-submerged Land Rover then there is open water and in the forefront an extensive area of water covered with bulrushes.
The speck in the background is the semi-submerged Land Rover then there is open water and in the forefront an extensive area of water covered with bulrushes.

I thought it suitable to start with a deed of my own so I feel better when I show you what others have done.

If you are interested in the story, search for https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/30/an-amphibious-land-rover/ and enjoy it in this blog.

Kidnapped!

As I mentioned earlier, our two cats, Inky the Siamese and Tigger the marmalade travelled with us to Zambia where they enjoy their last years of their lives, despite the arrival of our children that placed them in the background.

Tigger (in the background) and Flori.

Apart from our cats there were two “guard” dogs, Nero (a male) and Ginger (a female) that came with the house as guard dogs, although I did not think much of their security skills. As it was common in those days of food shortages, the house also had some small livestock in the backyard, next to the vegetable garden and fruit trees tendered by Lemek, the gardener.

Flori and Ginger while Annie keeps an eye on things.

Apart from rabbits in cages, there were a few ducks and chickens. We soon acquired six Rhode Island red hens that lived up to their reputation and produced many eggs for months on end. Later on, when Anders left Zambia to go to Rome, we inherited his pair of turkeys that he, impolitely, had named Mabel and Julio. We kept them until the following Christmas when we got rid of them and Ander’s cheekiness !

This abundance of animals meant a lot of grain spillage that attracted a large number of rats. The situation was not helped by the presence of a local market next door where hygiene was not on top of the agenda. Apart from feeding on the maize on the ground, the rats loved guavas. The house had a few guava trees and these became a rat playground. The rats were literally lining-up to get at the guavas! To make matters worse, passers by would take care of those that survived the rodents with the result that we hardly harvested any.

Our dogs were indifferent to the rats, but we expected our cats to do something! We placed them near the guava trees and, although they became aware of the rats, they insisted in looking the other way! They were obviously believed that they had earned their retirement and were happy to age in peace. So, I borrowed a pellet gun and took a few shots at the invaders but soon they became too clever for me. They became nocturnal and defeated me and continued feeding on food spillage and guavas.

Aware of the situation, even Mabel gave up and declared herself ready to share the garden with them, provided that they did not enter the house. I promised that no quarter would be given to any that attempted this and the situation slowly reached an equilibrium, tilted in favour of the rats, of course.

Tigger (retired)

In the middle of this situation, and to make matters more interesting, one day Tigger disappeared! “Maybe it was eaten by the rats” I told Mabel trying to be funny. I am afraid that I am not willing to publish her reply! She was very worried about the cat’s disappearance. She looked for it everywhere in the house and soon she had all available hands (including mine) combing the house compound in a cat search that yielded no results. Later, the quest was extended to the neighbourhood. Mabel walked the whole day around our area but came back home empty-handed. Tigger had vanished.

We had serious concerns about our cat’s fate. We have heard stories that some of our neighbours were from the Far East and that a number of dogs had gone missing for no apparent reason and people suspected that they were being eaten. We feared that our cat had met a similar end. Undeterred, Mabel continued walking around the various houses and the local market calling Tigger until, after a couple of days, she returned convinced that she had heard a faint meowing coming from the local market area that answered her calls. She was sure that Tigger was inside there somewhere.

The next day, she decided to pay a visit to the market and headed for the area where she had heard what she thought were Tigger calls. She entered one of the shops and purchased a few food items while making comments about our cat’s disappearance, stressing the fact that the cat was a completely useless hunter. Of course, the owners listened politely while denying any knowledge of the cat’s existence. However, they promised to cooperate in case they saw it.

Mabel kept visiting the market to see if she could find the cat and, in so doing she established some contacts with shopkeepers until she got some “confidential” information that “a cat” was being held at a large store where food items (vulnerable to rats) were kept but she could not get inside the place as someone else held the key.

A couple of days passed, and we resigned ourselves to our cat’s disappearance when, one afternoon, Tigger appeared at the kitchen door asking for food! Despite being rather bony, it was in good health and still conserving its appetite.

Eventually Mabel went back to the market where she was told that people thought that a large cat like Tigger would have been good at controlling the rats at the warehouse so they decided to “borrow” it from us. However, soon they realized that it was useless and that, if left there, it would have died of starvation surrounded by food! Then, they decided to place it over our perimetral wall for it to return to us.

Luckily, it did not take Tigger very long to return to its usual fat and lazy self and we never saw it catching anything until we left Zambia.

Theft

Every city has its dangerous roads, Nairobi had River Road and Lusaka’s equivalent was Cha Cha Cha Road, an interesting name for a Latin American [1]. The latter’s reputation was truly bad, and everyone would recommend you not to go there if you could avoid it. Unfortunately, I needed supplies for the project that were mostly found in shops sited in that road so I had to risk it.

The first time I went to Cha Cha Cha Road, I managed to shop for what I needed and came off unscathed. Things were different the next time I visited it…

Aware of the situation, I always went there in the smallest and oldest project car, not to call the attention of the possible robbers. As the first time, I prepared for the risky task and, together with one of the drivers, we agreed that he would stay in the car while I dashed in and out to get the supplies.

All was going well, and I was about to enter into the last shop when things happened. I got out of the car with the money safe in my pocket and left my suitcase in the car, where the driver sat looking after it as well as the shopping we already had. Suddenly, while I was walking towards the hardware shop, I heard a commotion near the car, and I saw a couple of men running away with my case while the driver tried to look after the car!

While the driver stayed with the car, I gave chase but, although I was fitter then, thieves invariably would outrun you. Despite this, shouting “thieves, thieves!” I continued my chase. The fuss attracted passers-by that join me in the run. After about two blocks away my case was thrown away and I managed to recover everything except the money, of course. The thieves disappeared in the distance and I decided that there was not much else I could do.

I was rather shaken so I aborted the shopping. Luckily the driver was still locked inside the car, rather stunned. After a while he managed to recover and explained me that, when I got out of the car, one of the thieves opened the passenger door. When he reacted to stop it another guy opened the back door and took off with my briefcase! I was lucky not to have been injured and pleased to have recovered my case with its contents I learnt a lesson and decided that Cha Cha Cha Road would be avoided in future, if at all possible.

Another common trick those days was that someone would come and tell you that you had a flat tire and, the moment you got distracted, they would snatch whatever you had inside the car!

A couple of days later, while still recovering from my experience, I got a bank statement from my bank in the UK that was really surprising! I must admit that I was not very thorough in checking my bank statements, and I concede that this is not the correct thing to do. As usual, I had a look at it but this time a figure hit me hard: there was a cheque paid from my account for a substantial amount of money that I was sure I had not issued.

I immediately sent a fax to the bank asking for clarification and leafed through my chequebook. To my relief, all cheques were there so I relaxed and thought that the bank had made a mistake. When the reply from the bank a few hour later confirming the information and attaching a copy of the cheque, I got really worried although I knew that I had not written such a cheque. However, looking at it I realized that my signature was different and it had been clearly forged but, how?

I immediately got the number of the cheque and went again to my chequebook. The cheque was not there! Both the cheque and the stub had been removed. Not well versed in the subject of forgeries it was only then that I realized that the removal aimed at me not noticing its absence until it was cashed!

After careful consideration, apart from the Mabel and I, only Mr. Phiri, our caretaker, had access to the house so our suspicions fell on him. However, I was sure that he could not have hatched the idea and that he must have been acting under orders from someone else with experience in this kind of affairs.

While letting the bank know that they had paid a forged cheque and that I was very unhappy with their lack of control on their clients’ signatures, I called the landlady that had recommended Mr. Phiri and she agreed that we could no longer have him inside our house after what had happened.

Before going to the police, I visited the FAO Administrator, an Italian called Alberto (not his real name) that was a well-known and crafty character believed to have a strong connection with Mr. Andreotti, then Prime Minister of Italy. Alberto had lived in Zambia for a long time, and he knew many people and I hoped that he also knew how to handle situations like this.

Mr. Alberto immediately understood the situation and he was happy that I had not yet involved the police as the latter was pretty ineffective anyway. He asked me to come with Mr. Phiri to ask him a few questions. I obliged and, after the canning questions asked by Alberto, Mr. Phiri confessed that he had indeed taken the cheque following instructions from an outsider that we did not know. So, we had not only the direct culprit but also the name of the “brain” of the operation, who had cashed the cheque either himself or sent it to someone in the UK to cash it for him in Bristol!

While this took place, I was on the phone with the bank. They, amazingly, refused to accept any liability for having paid an obviously forged signature, despite me sending them an enlarged picture of my signature pointing at them the four or five errors that the forgery contained.

Very upset after hearing the response of the bank I went again to see Mr. Alberto. Fortunately, he lived up to his reputation and promised me to contact the person who had cashed the cheque and he assured me that he would pay back what was mine. Somehow reasured by his confidence I went home and started organizing to close my bank account.

A couple of days later Mr. Alberto turned up in my house with a rather large bag full of Kwacha, the equivalent of the loss estimated at the parallel market! After that day we had sufficient cash to last us for almost one year!

My argument with the bank continued and, eventually, they agreed to give me a small amount of money to compensate me for the “inconvenience” I had gone through! I accepted it and immediately after that I closed my account and started to check my statements more carefully from that day on!

[1] The Cha-cha-cha is a a genre of Cuban music that developed in the 1950’s and became very popular worldwide. The Zambian Cha Cha Cha was a civil disobedience campaign that started in 1961. The campaign included strikes, arson, road blocks and other protests in Lusaka and the rest of the country and it was named after the Cuban dance meaning that it was time for Britain to ‘face the music’ of the independence of Zambia.

A son!

Mabel’s second pregnancy progressed well despite some issues regarding the foetus compressing her femoral nerve that required lots of physio and massage for her to keep going. As usual, because of the size and shape of her belly, we received lots of predictions about the sex of the future baby. All predictions came from European friends. The Africans would not talk about children not yet born, so they ignored Mabel’s condition.

The visits to the Dr. in Zimbabwe yielded normal results and we were soon ready to embark on the “final” journey that would produce a new member of the family. It was then that I made a mistake. Our car was not available so I needed to use another one for the journey and, unwisely, I chose a Toyota Hilux that in those days were work horses with very hard suspensions.

The result was that Mabel had a very unpleasant journey that, luckily, did not brought the birth forward but made her suffer the bumpy ride to the point that she has not yet forgiven me thirty years later!

After Flori’s birth, we had gone through the process of finding a nanny to care for her and our future baby. We had both been looked after by nannies in Uruguay and we were familiar with them. We were aware that whoever we selected would spend a lot of time with our children, often in close contact, so we needed to be careful. Additional care was required at the time because of the HIV-AIDS epidemic that was ravaging Zambia.

After searching through friends we selected Annie, a young girl coming from the rural area that, luckily, did not have the disease and was willing to learn. She was immediately accepted by Flori and she became part of the family. She immediately understood what was required and was a great asset bringing up the children.

Annie with Flori. The football at the back was a premature project for our son!

Flori and Annie came with us to Zimbabwe for the birth of our second child and, again I missed the birth after a waiting period at the Bronte Hotel as before and, again, our son was born while I was driving back so I repeated the same hurried journey back to Zimbabwe.

I learnt the sex of the baby when I got to the clinic and it was a very emotional moment for me, a person not easily moved. My emotion did not last too long as I realized that now I (with Annie’s help) would be in charge of Flori and her needs, at least until Mabel recovered from the birth.

Our son.

Mabel needed another night at the clinic, so we left her to rest. It was the end of the day and we needed to have dinner so I ordered the food for Annie and myself while we prepared Flori’s baby food, following the instructions given by Mabel. Flori ate very well and seemed very happy with the new arrangement so “this is a piece of cake” I thought while having some dinner.

After eating, it was time for her to go to sleep, so I handed it over to Annie for that task while I had a shower. Coming out of the shower I found Annie busy trying to persuade her to go to sleep but failing. It became clear that it was a true challenge! Annie and I tried several known tricks to no avail. We sang, rocked and walked with her but her large eyes were still open! Even placing her on Annie’s back, usually a very powerful sedative, failed to work!

Time passed and the signs of a sleepy Flori did not appear, so I decided to go for another method. I would drive her on her child seat with Annie by her side trying to comfort her as much as she could. So I drove and drove through Harare. I got to the airport and back to the hotel without looking back where things appeared quiet. However, when I checked, the situation could not have been more devastating. Annie was fast sleep and Flori’s eyes shone in the dark!

Flori’s eyes. Inky, our cat could not stay away from her.

I woke up Annie and, again, drove around Harare for another thirty minutes or so until both of them fell sleep and I could return to the hotel where, with outmost care, I woke Annie and we removed Flori from the car and finally deposited in her room with Annie while I could go to mine, hoping that she would sleep the rest of the night.

Luckily, she did although, judging by the look of Annie, I doubted that. I did sleep though!

Julio, our son, did not suffer from jaundice and we were ready to travel immediately but we still needed his travel permit. We went to the centre of town to shop for a few essentials that we would not find in Lusaka as well as getting the first Julio’s “passport” picture. The latter was a bit more complicated this time as we had two babies! As before, Mabel held Julio for the picture while Annie and I cared for Flori. Somehow, while we were waiting for the picture at the photographer’s shop, our document bag disappeared from a basket I had between my legs! Someone had taken advantage of our situation and removed it without us noticing.

There was nothing we could do apart from remembering what was in it and going to the police to report the loss. Luckily, we had deposited most of our documents at the hotel safe and only money and my credit card were in the stolen bag. We were extremely lucky not to have lost our passports as there were no Uruguayan embassies neither in Zambia nor in Zimbabwe! I was issued with a new card by the following day and we got the travel permit that enabled us to travel back home.

That completed our children project!

The completed project!

The family grows

The arrival of our daughter and of our son fourteen months later, after eleven years of marriage, changed our lives as it happens with parents all over. I will describe what happened during this period that spanned between mid 1990 and mid 1992 in two posts.

From the moment we knew they were coming, we agreed that within reason, our kids would adjust to our way of living and not the other way round as we saw many parents doing. We also decided that they would be born in African soil. Unfortunately, Zambia was out of bounds for our insurance, so we needed to go outside the country.

Many mothers to be travelled back to Europe or America to have their babies, but several were also going to Zimbabwe. We chose the latter. Harare was about five hundred kilometres away or an eight-hour journey but the facilities there were excellent and recommended by our doctor in Lusaka.

So, after her trip to the UK, Mabel, talking to mothers with young babies, got to know how to handle the situation in Harare and she got convinced to have the children there. A gynecologist called John was recommended and it was explained that the birth would take place at the Avenues Clinic. Of course, there were a few risks involved as we needed to travel to Harare for check-ups and also to go there a few days prior to the birth. The latter period we would spend at the Bronte Hotel, located a few blocks away from the clinic.

So, following the instructions of Dr. John, we travelled to Zimbabwe via Chirundu for the first time, a few months before the calculated birth date. Unlike the Zambian side of the border, the Zimbabweans appeared very strict and punctilious with the regulations. I must confess that I instantly preferred the Zambia side that even had a drink vending machine but, with time, I started to understand and to like the Zimbabweans as well.

Crossing the border included crossing the Zambezi River. At the time there was only one single lane bridge across, the Otto Beit [1] bridge and it had its history that we ignored then but that now with the internet it is easy to research.

It had been built just before WWII with funds from the Beit Trust [2] that funded also the Beit bridge over the Limpopo River linking Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as the Kafue and Luangwa bridges in Zambia. The Otto Beit bridge was very advanced for its time: the 380-metre bridge was suspended with parallel wire cables being the first one of its kind built outside the US, following the approach of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges among others.

After waiting for a while for the incoming traffic to pass, we crossed and arrived in Zimbabwe. We needed to re-fuel so we stopped at the first petrol station that we found. As we entered it, we were very surprised to find that there were more elephants than attendants! We feared for our lives and remained in the car waiting for the pachyderms to move away. They did not.

When we asked the petrol attendant about the elephants that he seemed to ignore, he explained that they were always there but that they did not bother anyone, feeding on the surrounding trees although they would cross the petrol station to move among the trees! Frankly, while our petrol tank was being filled, I expected an elephant to come and wash our windscreen!

It was the first time that we experienced such “closeness” with elephants but we soon realized that this was not uncommon in Zambia and Zimbabwe, something unthinkable in other countries we knew.

After the novel experience of “fuel with elephants” we carried on. The good road decorated with abundant elephant dung, traversed dry country but soon the hot valley ended, and we started climbing the Zambezi escarpment where we found lots of slow heavy-loaded lorries that slowed us down. Many of the trucks were carrying copper but there were lots of different goods being taken to Zimbabwe as well as to be shipped at the various ports in the East coast of Africa.

At the top of the escarpment, we stopped at the veterinary cordon fence that blocked wild animals from going beyond and into land destined for cultivation. Apart from elephants that would create havoc when raiding crops, buffalo (a foot and mouth disease reservoir) were the ones being stopped as they could pass the disease to the commercial cattle industry of Zimbabwe.

The post also checked that we were not taking tsetse flies with us. The procedure consisted of a control officer armed with a small net walking around the car catching any flies that may have been in the outside of the car. After that we were also sprayed inside to kill any flies that had decided to travel more comfortably!

After the control gate we drove through Morongora first and then Makuti. At Karoi, 86 kilometres further, we decided to stop for lunch. The Twin Rivers lodge looked nice and clean from the road and we decided to try it. It did not disappoint us. While waiting for lunch I ordered a ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink new to me. I was pleasantly surprised by its piquant taste and became a fan of this drink from then on!

Beyond Karoi, agricultural land dominated and we saw numerous irrigation systems and dams from where water was taken to transform the dry land into crops of various kinds, mainly wheat and maize. The road was excellent and there were many well sign-posted secondary roads that reached other localities inland. There were good road signs and grass-cutting tractors were working at several places to keep the grass on the side of the roads, short. Zimbabwe looked like a more developed country than Zambia.

The large silos plants were an additional proof of the grain production of the country that was considered at the time the “Granary of Africa”. We reached Chinhoyi, a busy town where lots of people were moving about, including many “white farmers”. After passing Banket we finally got to Harare, still admiring the beautiful land we were travelling through.

We had no difficulty to find the Bronte Hotel and Harare still maintained the aspect I remembered from my earlier visit in 1985. However, we realized that requirements for tourists had relaxed and we were not “inspected” before we were allowed to enter our hotel!

The memory of my 1985 experience with my Swiss friend François (a tick ecologist) still fresh in my mind. We were staying in the Monomotapa Hotel in Harare, prior to our trip to Nyanga to attend a tick meeting, when we decided to have our dinner outside the hotel only to find that we were denied entrance as we were not dressed properly!

Although we were offered ties to be allowed in, we refused to wear them and left. Walking a few more blocks we came to a North American-style restaurant that did not care about ties so we ended up enjoying a few pounds of the excellent Zimbabwean beef. Dinner over, we walked back to our hotel only to be stopped at the entrance by the conciérge, for not being dressed well!

We were still in a heated argument with the man that was very stubborn and refused to understand that we were guests in the hotel when, luckily, one of the meeting organizers happened to come and talked to the doorman that finally gave in, but he still looked down on us whenever he spotted us in the lobby!

The Bronte Hotel boasted about its garden and it was right as it was well kept and large. Although Harare was much cooler than Lusaka the rooms were comfortable although the corridors and garden were quite chilly so we did not spend much time outside as we were not prepared for the cooler weather. Dinner was simple, good and trouble-free, apart from the issue of two bills, one for the food and another one for the drinks with the consequence that you paid one and started to move off only to be interrupted by an embarrased waiter bringing you another bill!

Breakfast was included in the price, but we also had difficulties understanding the serving system. The waiters worn bands of different colours across their chests and each colour fulfilled only one function and there was no flexibility between them. I do not recall what each colour did but let’s say the green was for drinks, the red for food and the blue for paying. After a few futile attempts asking a “green” or “blue” waiter for food, etc.  I adjusted to it after a couple of days, but still found it weird and somehow irritating.

Dr. John was good and all was well with Mabel’s situation. He recommended another visit after two months. The Avenues Clinic looked very nice from the outside, so we were satisfied. The return journey was uneventful and so were the next journeys required for the various check-ups that also went well.

About a week before the estimated time of birth we travelled again to Harare and we settled down at the Bronte Hotel to wait for the first signs of birth to appear but, after a few days, although there were some false alarms, nothing happened. We decided that I would go back to Lusaka after having spent seven days waiting. Paternity leave did not exist in those days and the work needed to continue.

I believe that Murphy’s Law applies in all situations and the birth of our daughter was no exception. As soon as i got to Lusaka I phoned the hotel to talk to Mabel and they told me that she had gone to the hospital! I could not locate her so I decided to refill the car with diesel from our fuel reserve [3] during the night and return as soon as I had a few hours rest as the border would only open at 06:00hs.

Before leaving I informed Bruno, who stayed in charge of the project in my absence, that he should not worry about us and continue with his work at Lutale. “Do not phone me unless the project burns down” I told him trying to make the point! I left early and, not having had any news about Mabel, it was an anxious journey and I made an effort not to drive too fast.

I went straight to the Avenues Clinic and, fortunately, I found her in good health and very cheerful as she had gone through the birth process and our daughter Florencia (Flori) was also well. She had been “deposited” in another room, together with other babies. I looked at her through a glass and hoped that they would not swap her for another baby but then I convinced myself that it would be unlikely as she had an identification bracelet and it was clearly different from the other babies with her dark hair and eyes!. I was relieved to see them both well and immensely happy!

A laughing Flori.

The following day we moved to the hotel and settled down to wait for a day to start the journey back with our newcomer. Then, in the evening the phone rang. It was Bruno and, before he could say anything I reminded him of my parting words about not phoning me. He let me rant for a while and then said: “the project office burnt down!”. “It is a joke, right?” was my reply but he repeated the news and I believed him.

The project offices were local huts with straw roofs, and it was October, the end of the dry season and the dry straw had caught fire. We lost important records but, luckily, we had duplicates of everything, except the latest records that were lost forever and a gap can be seen in all our publication graphs that remind us of the fire and the birth of my daughter! Before he hanged up, Bruno did congratulate me about the birth! He calmed me down telling me that the burnt office was being re-built and I forgave him instantly for calling!

The following morning, we needed to take Flori to the pediatrician, a very young and nice doctor. He saw that Flori was rather yellow and told us that she was suffering from infant jaundice, a common problem that required a couple of days to improve and no treatment. The following day she turned very yellow but afterwards the problem cleared, and we got the green light to travel.

Although we had a birth certificate, we still needed a travel document to enable us to cross the border. So, after taking Flori’s photograph, we went to immigration and got the needed document that even included her thumb print with no pattern, just a black stain! Armed with this new document, we travelled back to Lusaka with our new arrival and started our new family life.

The bushsnob learning to be a father!

[1] Sir Otto John Beit, 1st Baronet, KCMG, FRS was a German-born British financier, philanthropist and art connoisseur. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Beit

[2] The Beit Trust was created with funds left in his Will by Sir Otto’s older brother Alfred for infrastructure development in the former Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Beit

[3] At the time we were going through a fuel shortage and I kept fuel at home.