Safari

Accounts on trips done, safari preparations, sand driving, mud driving, tips and travel-related issues.

Car robbery!

I have already described our misfortune regarding our first car in Zambia (see: https://bushsnob.com/2021/04/03/bad-motoring-start/) and now comes the end of the story.

I have already mentioned that at the time we were there, Lusaka was rather insecure. The situation did not spare us.

It happened when Mabel, heavily pregnant with our son, accompanied by our daughter Flori (about one year old) were returning home after a shopping trip. As usual, on arrival to our gate she stopped the car and hooted, waiting for Lemek (the gardener) to open it. While she waited, two men approached the car and, pointing a gun at her, asked her to give them the car.

Despite her initial shock, Mabel managed to lock the doors and, showing great courage, told them to go away! Unfortunately, as expected, the robbers not only did not move but became increasingly aggressive, so she decided to give them the car as they were becoming violent and threatening to shoot her. It was at that time that Lemek opened the gate and closed it immediately, fearing that they would go inside and attempt to steal one of the cars parked inside or even to break into our house.

So, Mabel was on her own with the robbers! While agreeing to hand over the car, she unstrapped Flori from her child seat and left the car while pleading with the robbers (to no avail) to allow her to take her handbag and even her shopping!

So, the moment she opened the door she was grabbed by the arm and pulled out with the gun still aimed at her. Luckily, she was not injured physically but it took her a while to recover from the scare that she experienced.

So it was that our car that had started its life giving us problems disappeared from our lives and left us with the money of the insurance. Luckily, we managed to find a replacement very fast. It was another Land Cruiser and, despite being older, it was much more comfortable. We soon forgot the stolen car and enjoyed our “new” one with which we did most of our travel until we departed [1].

Our replacement car during a trip to Namibia in 1992.

The robbery was still fresh in our minds when a copycat one took place about ten days later. This time the victim was our colleague and friend Giuseppe. Unfortunately, he was being driven by Mr. Mutale and the latter tried to resist the attackers. He was punched on the nose by the robbers but, luckily, nothing else happened, considering that robbers were rather rough on the local people. This time it was Giuseppe that got traumatized and needed to get through the insurance claiming process and to get a replacement car.

After that spell, we tightened the security measures at the house and, fortunately, no more cars were taken! Although shocking at the time, it was a small price to pay for two armed robberies!

[1] We left Zambia for Italy, so it was with great regret that I sold the car. A young Italian bought it and also got attached to it. When he was transferred to Kenya a couple of years later, he took the car with him and enjoyed for a few more years.

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.

The Chongwe confluence

After the traumatic experience of the riots, things calmed down for a while. Mabel came back with the news that her pregnancy was going well and she was happy that we were going to have a baby girl. We decided to start exploring Zambia, starting from places relatively near Lusaka, before the pregnancy advanced and our travel got reduced.

Among the items we “inherited” from the earlier project was a mechanic to maintain the vehicles called Des. It was through bringing the cars to him in the outskirts of Lusaka that we got to know him and his wife Mary very well. We spent a few Sunday lunches together with a number of their friends, including businesspeople and hunters, among others.

Amid their close friends was Chris, a son of a Scottish father and a Zambian mother that was a very prosperous businessman, owner of the largest petrol station and spares shop in Lusaka. From the start we realized that we got on well and it did not take too long to discover that we shared the passion for fishing and we became friends.

He was a very kind man, very supportive of our efforts to enjoy Zambia and it was him that arranged for our rubber dinghy maiden voyage at the Kafue Marina and participated from the exercise with great enthusiasm.

Assembling the rubber dinghy for the first time at the Kafue Marina. The Kafue River is in the background.
Testing our new rubber dinghy.

Chris knew every fishing spot in Zambia, and he kept boats in several of them so that he did not need to tow a boat whenever he wished to go fishing! Apart from Kafue, he had boats in Kariba and lake Tanganyika, to name what I recall now. One day, he invited us to join him at a place known as the Chongwe confluence. We happily agreed to meet him there travelling by land in our now repaired Land Cruiser while he would get there from the Kafue Marina.

So, we left early on a Saturday and followed his travel instructions taking the road to Chirundu (the border with Zimbabwe) and turning left a few kilometres before to enter on a dirt road (now the RD491) towards Chiawa. We drove on and we came to the Kafue River where we waited for the pontoon to arrive as it happened to be going towards the opposite shore. We joined the other cars in the queue and had a few “mates” [1] while we waited.

When the pontoon arrived we paid our fee and boarded it, together with the other cars. The crossing was quite picturesque as the pontoon was operated by a couple of guys that would pull from a rope and move it across. Of course, the passengers were free to join in the effort to make the trip faster! Luckily, there was not much of a current and the operaton was successfully completed after about thirty minutes.

The human-powered pontoon.
Mabel pouring hot water to our mate during the crossing.

Leaving the Kafue River behind we drove through a narrow dirt road for a while until we came to the Zambezi river where the road turned left and from then on we drove along the river following its current. After a while we passed what looked like a derelict farm with a number of windmills in the water. Apart from pumping water from the river, we could not think of anty other reason for their existence but we did not stop to investigate as we were anxious to get to our destination.

After a long but beautiful drive along the river where we saw planty of game, including many elephants, we go to the confluence and found Chris. He was already fishing while two of his employees were busy cutting the very tall grass and collecting the rubbish left there by other careless campers to enable us to camp in comfort. Although we were meant to be at the Lower Zambezi National Park, its existence was still in its infancy.

We were on the Zambezi river shore at the point the Chongwe River entered it, a place renown for its good fishing. I believe that there is a luxury camp there nowadays [2]

Chris loved fish and he knew a place where Tilapia [3] were abundant. He told us that the fish congregated at a particular spot where tree branches came down to the river offering shelter to the fish that stayed there, probably feeding on the muddy bank. He explained to us that the river there formed a “gwabi”, a place where the water turned against the main current and fish liked.

He sat on a canvas chair with his rods pulling fish out. He had the system well oiled: another of his sidekicks was gutting them and dropping them in a frying pan without delay! We could see that there was already a good pile of freshly fried fish. I realized that Chris loved fishing more than I did and that he not only enjoyed the actual fishing but loved to eat his catch as well.

We left Chris to continue getting our lunch and went to a place where the grass had been cut to set up our camp. A number of large trees offered good shade in the campsite and we were the only occupants, apart from a few elephants busy pulling tree branches that largely ignored us. We joined Chris and his men for a purely Tilapia lunch that, even to me that I am not fond on fish, tasted delicious, probably because they were fried as soon as they came out.

After a good siesta we took off on his boat after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). We trolled along the banks with a couple of rods with shiny lures traying to get the attention of this carnivorous fish. Tigers are fast and ferocious predators that would attack the lures violently and eject them when jumping outside of the water. We had a few strikes that we missed but still we enjoyed the action. Luckily, by sunset I hooked one that I managed to land. It was my first tiger fish, and a reasonable one as well so I was extremely pleased and so was Chris that had skipped the boat for me to get it!

My first tiger fish.

In twilight we returned to camp, guided by the fire and our lights, had another Tilapia dinner and, as usual in Africa, we went to bed early for a well deserved rest after a long drive an a very exciting fishing day.

As it often happens, things did not work out as planned.

A couple of hours later we were woken by a leopard started calling very close from our tents and, although it was not a threat for us, it was a rather loud leopard! As the calls continued, we decided to find it. So, Chris and us got in our car and started to drive around trying to reach the place of the calls that now, as usual, stopped! We drove for a while but nothing appeared in our headlights.

We were about to turn around when we caught a glimpse of a spotted hyena running through the thicket and we followed it through the bushes until we came to an area next to the river (about a couple of hundred metres from our camp) where there were a number of racks made with sticks that had been recently used to dry meat and, before we could think what meat it was, we bumped on a large hippo head lying on the ground.

The hyena was after the meat that was left on the head and the leopard was also part of the action but we were not sure on what capacity. We knew that we would not spot it after our drive with headlamps and spotlight and we returned to our camp. Fortunately, our sleep was not interrupted again.

The following morning, we were up early for a sightseeing tour of the Zambezi. It was the first time that we had a chance to appreciate the unmatched beauty of this “mighty” river that traversed very dry country and it was its lifeline. The water was unbelievably clean (at least for our standards) and it contained bright specs that we learnt to be suspended mica particles.

Zambezi River view.

The deep parts of the river showed a dark green hue while the many sand banks were brownish and carefully avoided by our skipper. There were a number of islands between us and the opposite bank that was Zimbabwe, where no motor boats were allowed as the area was protected and it included the Mana Pools National Park, a place we would come to know in the future.

Seeing the windmills, now from the river, we express our perplexity about them to Chris. He was quite amused while hetold us that this had been the farm of someone called Winston that, in the mid 80’s, had convinced President Kaunda that he could make oil from grass! The machines -probably operated by the windmills? – were crushing grass at one end while oil was coming out of the other! The President, convinced by the project manager, had travelled by helicopter to visit the farm and even gave Mr. Winston a Zambian diplomatic passport! The latter was probably deported once it was discovered that the oil was coming from a jerrycan! [4]

We saw lots of game. While the groups of hippo were rather abundant and often loud, there was also game along the river banks where the ocassional crocodile could be seen basking. Apart from the large numbers of elephants, we also spotted many impala and buffalo as well as several troops of baboons. There were also many interesting birds in addition to the expected fish eagles that dotted the shore perched on top of their favourite trees. The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) were great fun to watch while flying a few centimetres above the water with their longer lower mandibule -extremely sensible to the touch- in the water. The moment it encountered a surface fish, its beak would snap shut and fly off to process its prey.

The morning passed very fast and it was soon time to return to camp, pack and start the return journey. Chris would stay longer for an afternoon fishing as his return by boat was much shorter and he wished to store a few more fish to take home.

We had gone through a great experience and we decided that the place was worth another visit.

[1] Mate is a traditional South American drink made by soaking dried leaves of the “yerba” plant (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and sucked through a metal straw from a container typically made from a calabash gourd.

[2] See: https://timeandtideafrica.com/time-tide-chongwe-camp/

[3] Several Tilapia species occur in the Zambezi River. For details see: https://zimninja.org/zambezi-river-fishing/

[4] See https://zambiareports.com/2015/03/26/chama-oil-if-only-it-had-become-reality/

Suicide season

The Rufous-bellied thrush (Turdus rufiventris) is a songbird that occurs in most of eastern and southeast Brazil (where it is the national bird), Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and central and northern Argentina. While in Uruguay they are known as “zorzales”, here in Salta they are called “Zorzales chalchaleros” or just “Chalchaleros”. While the English name for the species describes its distinctive reddish-orange underparts, the vernacular name in Salta reflects its preference for feeding on the fruits of a tree known as Chal-chal.

The Rufous-bellied thrush -very similar to the African Olive thrush (Turdus olivaceus)- occurs in different habitats (forests and urban treed areas) and it is common around rural houses where its song is one of the pleasures of rural living. An omnivorous bird that prefers arthropods and fruit it can eat broken maize during our dry winter season when food becomes scarce. As I mentioned earlier, one of its favourite fruits are produced by the Chal-chal (Allophylus edulis)[1].

We do have Chal-chal trees in the farm but not close to the house. However, about ten years back we planted a row of Hawthorn bushes (Crataegus spp.) to act as a wind-breaker against the predominant eastern winds that often blow in this latitude. This resulted in a rather unexpected high wall of trees that not only help to stop the wind but also yield what I estimate to be several hundred kilogrammes of red berries, towards the end of the summer months.

This plethora of fruits attracts a number of birds that include the large Dusky-legged guans (Penelope obscura), Chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis), Toco toucans (Ramphastos toco), Blue-and-yellow tanager (Rauenia bonariensis) and Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca). Although the latter are rather spectacular, the most common birds that come to feed on the hawthorn are the Rufous-bellied thrushes. We probably have a few dozens of them constantly moving to and from the red berries.

Year after year, the resulting thrush heavy and uncontrolled air traffic causes casualties announced by loud bangs coming from our only large east-facing window in the house (that also faces the row of hawthorn trees about twenty metres away). Usually, about two or three thrushes (no other species do this) either die or get stunned after heating the glass. So far we have accepted this as an unavoidable consequence of the increased number of birds brought about by the abundance of food.

The offending window showing the reflection of the surrounding garden.
A stunned thrush after crashing.
Sometimes the thrushes came at such speed that they broke through the mosquito screen as shown here by the Bolivian guiro (a musical instrument).

This year, however, the suicides (birdicides?) reached alarming levels and yesterday we had four hits (three dead and one recovered), a rather alarming number! Although the first bird that hit during early morning recovered, a second one crashed about an hour later so we decided to do something about it.

I remembered having read somewhere that if you drew lines on the glass with a highlight pen, somehow the birds eyesight would see them from far and avoid the window. I drew the lines and, satisfied with my job I called Mabel to see it. The moment we were close to the window a bird nearly hit Mabel’s head and the loud thud indicated another fatal outcome! The fluorescent lines did not work so, do not try this at home!

So, “encouraged” by Mabel I placed a rather obstrusive zig-zag of flourescent yellow tape that occupied the top of the glass, at the area the sky was reflected. We decided that it was better to interfere with our view rather than nhaving more casualties!

The yellow tapes in place.

So, proud with my work but now tired, I went for my obligatory siesta (a pleasure of these regions!) to recharge my batteries.

When one hour later I woke up, Mabel was very upset as a fourth bird had killed itself!

In desperation and after some more thinking, we remembered that we had bought some bird netting to protect our fruits. We placed the netting in front of the window in a way that resisted me throwing the Bolivian guiro that was the closest to a thrush I could find for a test!

The Bolivian guiro itself.

Below I show you the netting and a video showing how we expect it to work.

A lateral view of the netting.

We believe that the deaths will stop now but our discussion has turned now to resove the reason that compels the birds to do this.

A couple of years back we thought that the birds could see a mirror that we have in front of the window and tried to fly through. As the birds continued hitting the glass when we covered the mirror, this idea was abandoned.

However, we are convinced that the birds see the reflection of the sky in the window and try to fly through.

The presence of predators, in particular the Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) make us also believe that it could chase the thrushes and the latter, trying to escape, bump themselves against the window. In favour of this hypothesis is that we have seen the hawk catching thrushes and other smaller birds around us. However, it is unlikely that the hawk would try to kill four birds the same day when one would be sufficient for a few days.

That leaves us with the last hypothesis that had been put forward by Mabel: the ripe fruits of the hawthorn ferment in their crops and their small livers are not able to process the resulting alcohol with the result that they get drunk! The fact that the berries are ripe now and likely to ferment faster, supports this hypothesis. In addition, after “googling” the idea, I found that at least one similar event involving the hawthorn and Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorumhas) happened in the USA [2] and other instances of drunk birds also exist [3][4].

[1] I did not find an English name for this species.

[2] S. D. Fitzgerald, J. M. Sullivan and R. J. Everson (1990). Suspected Ethanol Toxicosis in Two Wild Cedar Waxwings. Avian Diseases 34, pp. 488-490.

[3 See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/04/drunk-birds-are-causing-havoc-in-a-minnesota-town-police-say-theyll-sober-up-soon/?noredirect=on or https://time.com/5415378/drunk-birds-minnesota/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071081/

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/

Bad motoring start…

We settled down in our house and gradually started to discover Lusaka and its ways. Of course, walking in the city was not advised as there was a high risk of getting mugged. In view of the situation, a car was a must and we needed it fast. Renting a car was not common those days so we relied on “borrowing” a small project vehicle to do our necessary errands.

Northmead, a small shopping centre was quite close to our house and there we did most of our shopping at first. Although safe, we learnt to be very alert of our surroundings while parking at shopping malls as we heard a lot of stories about robbers lurking about. Soon, Mabel discovered other shopping options in both Woodlands and Kabulonga that we started to frequent as well.

At first, goods supply was erratic and poor. Although amusing in retrospect, it was not so when you faced it. A supermarket would have half of its shelves full of one make of toilet paper and the other half with rice while another one will be full of salt, toothpaste and cooking fat and so on. Sugar was impossible to get and people would drive to Mazabuka (Southern Province) to buy it in bulk from the sugar factory located there and then sell it at a high price in the open market or pass it on to friends.  

Because of the situation people were organized in groups whose members placed orders and took turns to do the shopping for the various items and then they would meet at a house and distributed the shopping. A cumbersome but effective system that also worked for meat and its sub-products such as ham and bacon that were obtained at a farm in Chilanga.

Fruits and vegetables were on offer at markets where people from different farms would be offering all sorts of produce, including milk and eggs that complemented the production from the small livestock kept in the houses. These markets were mostly operating on Saturdays and they were a great source of information about what was going on in the city.

So, although with more difficulties than usual, we managed to get by and, luckily, the situation started to get more normal after a few months of being in the country.

Clearly, a car was essential. After having a Land Cruiser in Ethiopia, we decided to go for a larger version: a long-wheel base hardtop, economic and resilient as well as roomy to carry our rubber dinghy, its engine and other needed items for our planned camping and fishing. A large car was a great decision as our family would start growing that same year and we planned to take our children with us at all times, regardless of their age.

Our new car on safari. Mabel and Florencia riding on the roofrack and Annie (our nanny) inside the car while Giuseppe looks on.

Buying a car in Zambia was not as simple as you may think. There was no internet and faxes were the new thing at the time, so you did not have the present-day advantage of buying online! At the time, although there were a few places that offered cars to be delivered fast, these were either of the wrong make or very expensive, so we did not pursue these options.

As in Ethiopia, we decided to place an order through the United Nations (UN) goods procurement agency. This process had advantages and disadvantages. Drawbacks included a three-month waiting time and the limited model choice together with the rather austere specifications of the UN vehicles [1]. This did not bother us but the low price that the UN was able to negotiate was too good to be ignored.

Zambia was still not trading with South Africa, so Durban was out of bounds. The same applied to Walvis Bay as negotiations for the independence of Namibia, that finally got its independence in March 1990, were not yet completed. Mozambique was still undergoing its civil war so both Maputo and Beira were not available! So, the car would arrive in Dar es Salaam, over 1,900 km North-east, a journey of about three days. Luckily, the system for such purchases was already in place as most vehicles imported into Lusaka (both official and private) would come through there.

After the three long months had passed, I got a fax announcing the date the car was due in Dar and from that time things started to move fast. I contacted the FAO Office where I was put in contact with Mr. Victor, the Senior driver, who would be in charge of bringing our car to Lusaka. He would fly to Dar with all the necessary documents, the needed cash and a hotel booking to be able to clear the car and drive it all the way back. Of course, I was to meet all expenses.

I took Victor to the airport and we agreed that he would let me know his arrival time in Lusaka so that I could meet him at home without stopping in Lusaka. This was an added precaution in view of the recent disappearance of a number of new vehicles from various international agencies.

The vehicles were somehow placed in containers and shipped by road to South Africa through what was some organized system that the Zambian authorities of the time could not (or wish not) stop. Interestingly, periodically, the South African police would recover some vehicles and the lists would be distributed among the various international agencies based in Lusaka, but I do not remember of any vehicle listed in them ever returned!

The day of the arrival of the car I stayed home to meet Victor, excited to be getting a new car. I heard the hooting at the entrance, and I was at the gate before Mr. Lemek (the gardener) could open it! It looked like a great car, so I followed it to the house parking area where I met a tired looking Victor and saw that the windscreen was cracked!

Trying to dissimulate my disappointment, I greeted him warmly but I could see that he was very worried and immediately started to apologize. I cut him short and told him that the journey had been very long, and he could not control where the loose stones present on the road would hit the car. Despite my remarks, he still looked very worried. It was then that I heard Mr. Victor saying “Sir, it also has a knock in the engine”. “What?”, I muttered, as if hit on the head with a hammer! He explained that he heard the noise from the first time that the engine started but he did not know what caused it. Again, aware that it was not his fault, I tried to minimize the problem while helping him to collect his belongings. I took Victor home and, honestly, my mind was racing on what to do next!

As soon as I came back, I started the car but I could not hear anything, so I tried to convince myself that it was not a serious issue. However, I phoned Toyota Zambia and they told me to bring it the following morning for them to inspect it. They also warned me that it would be difficult that they would accept liability for the problem as it had happened to a car that was not purchased through them. Additionally, they stated that the issue started in another country! A guarded reply that left me quite worried!

The following day I was at Toyota Zambia before it opened! Eventually I met Phillip (Phil), the Workshop Manager to who I explained my predicament. Luckily, he was a very reasonable man, so I started to feel better. He immediately brought the car to the workshop and tested the engine confirming that there was some abnormal engine noise. More checks made him suspicious of piston damage that would require opening the engine. My mood was somber again.

He must have seen my disappointment as he was quick to add that, after repairs the engine would still be as good as new adding that that engine was among the best engines Toyota ever made. He added that, before opening it, he would report the issue to his boss, the Toyota representative, and hoped that he would agree to do the work under the guarantee. However, Phil could not give me a positive answer until then.

I left the car at the workshop and waited for news while continuing with my project activities but still worried about the car. I waited for two days before Phil called and said that he had bad and good news. The latter was that the representative had agreed to cover all needed repairs under the guarantee. The bad news were that he had already opened the engine and the repair involved replacing a piston and other parts that I did not get. He also asked me to go to the workshop when I had time.

I dropped everything and went straight there. Phil showed me and explained what had happened. Trying to simplify things, the top ring in one of the pistons was “gapped too small”. Then, the heat of the engine caused its expansion and its ends run into each other. The ring pressure became too much for the cylinder and, with more heat, cooling was not sufficient and the piston head broke! Luckily, Phil said, he could find no damage to the inside of the cylinder. It was, he said, “a clear manufacturer error”.

The needed cylinders, valves and other smaller bits and pieces were ordered that same day and, amazingly, these were in Lusaka a few days later and the car was soon repaired and it run well for as long as we had it.

The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was true in this occasion as in many others. I got to know Phil and, later on, his wife Rosemary.  Phil retired a few months after I got my car back, but we kept our friendship alive until we left Zambia in 1993.

They lived in a lovely house in Woodlands extension, a leafy suburb a few kilometres from us where we spent a couple of afternoons watching his lovely fishpond that snaked through the garden adding a touch of colour from the koi and gold fish it had, an attractive feature for humans and cats alike. Rosemary and Phil kept several cats that were the children they did not have.

Depending on the weather we would sit in the verandah or on the lawn having a cup of tea with the traditional British scones. Rosemary served the tea and then sat at the piano to play classical music in a very British setting. The only difference was the good weather of Lusaka that, for me, made all the difference.

During his spare time with Toyota and more fully after retiring Phil repaired firearms, mainly from hunter friends and he had a well-equipped workshop. While visiting it Phil proudly showed me his patented invention: an ingenious adjustable chain wrench to remove any kind of oil and diesel filters. He was pleased that these were selling well.

He had also fitted his “bakkie” (pick-up) with another of his creations, a strong metal plate that would lock over the three pedals covering them completely making driving the vehicle impossible without removing it. I found the contraption an overkill and I teased him about it but he swore by it so, still learning about security in Zambia my jokes stopped!

Their kindness to cats was such that they were delighted to accept our offer of leaving the now quite elderlyTigger with them when we we left our elderly Tigger with them when we departed from Zambia [2]. We got frequent updates of our cat’s life until it died a couple of years later.

Rosemary and Phil moved back to the UK a few years after our own departure. Sadly, Rosemary passed away soon afterwards, but Phil managed to somehow adjust to the loss and to England. We kept in touch and we had the great pleasure of hosting him a few years later while we were living in Rome when we reminisced of our time in Zambia like two members of the “Whenwe” ethnic group [3].

[1] As an example, to get an air-conditioned car you required a strong justification endorsed by your country representative!

[2] Inky, our Siamese, had died earlier of kidney failure despite my efforts to keep her alive.

[3] People often start talking saying “When we were in Africa…” so, jokingly they (us included) are referred as “Whenwes”.