cats

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”.

Leopards

When on safari, finding a leopard is the cherry on the cake. These scarce predators are hard to find as they are very secretive and cunning animals. The fact that protected areas are shrinking does not help their conservation status either. Luckily, as you will see, the Kruger National Park (KNP) still remains an excellent place to spot these elusive and beautiful cats.

This year our “out of Zimbabwe” travel included South Africa and Botswana where we visited the KNP at the beginning and at the end of our trip and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park in between. Quite a journey (about seven thousand km!) but well worth it.

The first visit to the KNP included the northern section as this is the closest to Zimbabwe. We visited three camps: Sirheni Bushveld camp, Shingwedzi Rest camp and Bateleur Bushveld camp.

While we did find other interesting things in Sirheni and Shingwedzi (that I will tell you about soon), it was while arriving at Bateleur that things became really exciting. Near the “Red Rocks”, the main attraction near Bateleur, we found a dead impala under a tree. Fellow travellers informed us that a leopard had killed it and that it was a female with a cub. Scared by the vehicles they had left the kill and hid somewhere.

We decided to wait quietly and were rewarded. After about an hour we saw a movement up the tree just above the kill and, soon enough, we could see a leopard moving in the thick foliage. A few minutes later it climbed down. It was the youngster that, hungry, started to feed on the impala. The area was very bushy and photography was difficult but it was a good sight.

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After a while the cub walked in front of us and briefly joined its mother. We had a glimpse of the female that immediately hid again in the long grass while the cub returned to the impala. We waited a bit more but as we still had to check-in at our camp we decided to leave making a note of the site to return later.

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So, quite encouraged by our find we re-joined the road towards Bateleur camp. We had not travelled more than a couple of kilometres when we heard the alarm snorting of impala and found that a large number were looking in the same direction while calling in alarm! This situation can indicate the presence of a predator. I need to clarify that in the Southern Africa’s more bushy landscapes you need to take all possible signs into account to find game.

We stopped and waited and when we saw that the monkeys, guinea fowls and francolins -among others- joined the chorus, our belief that a predator was near firmed up. After a short while we spotted another leopard! It was waking in parallel to us in a direction that would take it to the river, on the other side of the road. The leopard ignored us and it never hesitated once on the direction it was traveling. We watched it walk, still followed by its mobbing retinue but completely unmoved, until it went down the river!

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Finding three leopards in a couple of hours left us rather stunned and we thought that Bateleur was “the place” to spot leopards. Well, as usual we were wrong! During the four days we spent there the leopards carefully avoided us! However, there was more to come on our return to the KNP later on.

On the second visit to the KNP about two weeks later, we entered through the Paul Kruger’s gate and headed for the Olifants Rest camp. About one kilometre from the gate a bunch of cars marked the whereabouts of a sleeping leopard! As our journey was still long, we left it and continued towards Olifants where we arrived late in the afternoon.

Olifants Rest camp is probably the most spectacular of the KNP camps as it is built on a cliff that overlooks the Olifants river, located quite a way below, offering a breathtaking view of the river and its environment. We were fortunate to have booked one of the “river view” bungalows so we could just sit in our verandah and take in the scenery opening up below us!

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The morning after our arrival, after a “breakfast with a view” we drove towards Olifants satellite camp Balule [1] and then followed the Timbavati river, an area well known because of its white lions. The latter are not albinos but a leucistic form, similar to the starling reported in this blog [2].

We knew that to find white lions was very unlikely as most of them are now in captivity or game reserves nearby but we had driven through this area earlier on another journey and found it very attractive. It did not disappoint us. Fortunately, the river had water and we found lots of water birds, including a family of saddle-bill storks fishing at a stagnant pool.

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Further on, on another stretch of the river we spotted a pair of ibis and, while trying to confirm that they were the rarer purple rather than the more common glossy, I spanned the area a couple of metres to their left and I could not believe my eyes: a large leopard was lying down next to the birds! I was very excited, as I had never experienced such an accidental find! I believe that the leopard was walking to the river to drink at the time we appeared and its reaction was to crouch not to be seen!

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We waited and watched. After a couple of minutes, it stood up and walked to a small water pool where it drank for a couple of minutes and then, as it is often the case with leopards, it disappeared in the thicket.

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We drove back really excited by the find and, before reaching our camp, we had a fleeting sighting of yet another leopard well inside the thick bush!

After a fruitless early drive looking for the leopard spotted near camp we decided to relax at our bungalow to take in the beauty of the Olifants river as we could lots of animals coming to drink and to graze there. That morning, apart from the usual hundreds of impala and dozens of waterbuck we could also see lots of greater kudu and a few bushbuck. However, our attention was focused on a couple of elephant families enjoying drinking and bathing.

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While busy watching I heard my wife saying, “the elephants are scared” and then I could hear their loud alarm calls. Immediately I heard her saying “there is a hyena walking behind the elephants towards the water” and immediately, “oh gosh, there is a leopard drinking also!” As I wanted to see it, she explained me where it was so I started looking and, after a while, I spotted it. After a while the leopard moved “it stood up” I said. “No” replied my wife, “it is still drinking”. We started to argue but then we realized that we were in fact looking at two different leopards on the river bed!

The afternoon of our last day we spent it back at the Timbavati river. It was during this time and before arriving to a pan called Ratel that, lo and behold, a leopard was looking at us from a donga and, of course, it immediately took off before we could do anything, as usual and we could not see it again!

So that was our experience in the KNP where we spotted nine leopards in a couple of weeks, a marvelous experience that we know it will not be repeated and certainly it will not be forgotten!.

 

[1] Interestingly, this was one of the few camps where people of all races were allowed during the Apartheid times!

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/odd-bird/

 

Bush cats…

While in Kenya, when a couple of friends departed, we inherited two neutered cats. They could not have been more different. One was a marmalade coloured male that went by the name of Tigger. The other one a seal-point Siamese female named Inky. While Tigger was an indoors fat and lazy youngster, Inky was an outside cat and an excellent hunter that forced us to make our bird feeder and bath cat-proof to prevent a disaster.

When our time to leave Kenya came, we were very attached to them and we decided to take them with us. After the needed health certificates and a special double box that would enable them to have eye contact through wire mesh, we were ready to go. The plane trip was not too far as we were going to Addis Ababa.

It was an easy trip and we found no difficulties on arrival at Bole airport. However, negotiating their stay at the Harambee Hotel in Addis Ababa for the days needed to prepare our long trip to Bedele in West Ethiopia was more time-consuming and it required some protracted negotiations. Eventually, permission was granted, provided that they remained inside our room!

After a few days, our travel permits were ready, we had a vehicle, petrol and petrol coupons as well as a stockpile of food to last us for a couple of weeks. We were ready to set off, at last. The journey from Addis Ababa to Bedele via Jimma was about 420 km in terms of physical distance but because of the traffic -particularly people and livestock walking on the road- it took the whole day to complete, with a bit of luck!

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On the way to Bedele.

Auspiciously, our maiden voyage went well and we eventually arrived in Bedele in late evening. We managed to get the keys of our cottage from the Administrator of the Veterinary Laboratory and moved into the house we would live in during the following two years. That night we camped in the house as we were only able to travel with the few possessions that we could carry in the pick-up. Our furniture and other household items would arrive later via an FAO lorry as, at that time, there were no moving companies operating in Ethiopia’s countryside.

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The arrival of our personal effects.

Immediately after arrival our cats got on with their job: Tigger found a place to sleep and Inky started to inspect the house and its environs while calling for attention, before settling down with us to spend the first night in the Ethiopian bush. Starting the following morning, our interaction with our Ethiopian and foreign colleagues assisted us greatly to settle in and, with the arrival of our belongings a few weeks later, we managed to make the place quite comfortable. Eventually we developed a very good vegetable garden and, while Tigger relaxed, Inky was active keeping garden enemies at bay.

Unexpectedly Tigger started to follow Inky during her sorties to the outside world, cautiously at first but eventually accompanying her on her hunting expeditions although we did not think much of his contribution!

It was during an evening that we were involved in book-reading while listening to some opera music, our favourite evening activity in Bedele, that Tigger stunned us. It all started when we heard a kind of meowing that was new to us. Fearing some cat tragedy we immediately went to investigate its origin. We did not need to go too far as we met Tigger while entering the house carrying something in his mouth, followed by Inky.

As soon as he was under the entrance lamp we could see that he was triumphantly carrying in his mouth the most humongous rat I have ever seen. While I was amazed to see this my wife was consternated as she has a problem with rodents, particularly rats and mice. It was not a Giant rat or a Cane rat but one of the grey rats that are a pest the world over. But it was a “super rat”!

I failed to calm things down by saying: “he brought the rat to us to show off…” Before I finished my sentence, I noticed that the rat was alive and, sooner than I could say anything else Tigger let the rat go inside the house! I expected that he was just playing with it as normal cats do but, to my dismay, not only Tigger but also Inky (the huntress) were looking the other way while the rat made frantic efforts to escape from the house!

The situation was a bad one and I will never know why he opened his mouth! My theory is that, as soon as he saw his catch under the house light, he got so terrified that preferred to forget the possible glory and cut his losses! Although I failed to see it at the time, today, many years later I can understand the cats’ reaction as the rat was a true monster. However, I am still to forgive them because their indifference meant that it was up to me to sort out the situation!

Mayhem followed the rat’s release! My wife climbed on a chair threatening me with going on a cooking strike if I did not kill it while the guilty cats disappeared with their tails between their legs!  I was alone with Super rat! The first thing I noted was that it had no plans to surrender peacefully. As usual, it was fast and it immediately found a crack in my defenses and it squeezed through a badly closed door and got inside the kitchen, the worst scenario as far as my wife was concerned. My situation deteriorated by the second!

I followed it but when I entered the kitchen and managed to switch the light on, the rat had vanished! Swiftly, my wife slammed the door behind my back, oblivious to the fate of her husband, and then it was Super rat and I in a duel to the death, if I could find the villain.

Although our kitchen was a small affair it was rather packed with goods for us to survive our rather isolated life in a war-thorn country and away from shops! I had a look and realized that the rat could have been anywhere and that to find it would have been a laborious and even dangerous task that could prolong well beyond midnight!

So, I procrastinated -not for the first or last time in my life- and sat there for a while before announcing the rat’s absence to the incredulity and displeasure of my wife. However, she eventually though reluctantly accepted the status quo. Swearing at the cats we went to bed and, luckily, the following morning I opened the door of the kitchen and convinced my wife that the rat had gone. It worked and I was thrilled to be unharmed.

The rat incident forgotten, our cats continued to live regal lives, enjoying the large track of land surrounding our house and stalking the various birds that visited us. Luckily, I did not see them catching any but they did repeatedly ambushed a “rescued” Egyptian goose we kept for a while until it decided to depart, and watched for hours on end a pigmy kingfisher that was brought to us by a boy from the village and eventually released. They also enjoyed playing with a young duiker that outsmarted and outran them all the time.

As they seemed to be well entertained and busy, I cannot understand why they decided to expand their circle of friends and get in touch with some wild neighbours at the back of the garden…

We learnt about the new situation when we started to hear a high pitch barking in the evenings that we attributed to foxes. Eventually we saw them at about one hundred metres from our house, near the perimeter fence of the station. After watching them for a few days we identified them as a pair of side-striped jackals (Canis adustus) not without some surprise. We decided to keep the find to ourselves for fearing of they being chased off or killed.

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My wife walking in the garden with cats and duiker. At the back is where the jackals were.

We realized that the jackals were residing under some heavy iron pieces that should have been an incinerator that was never assembled. Our sightings became more frequent and then we realized that pups had arrived so we derived good entertainment from them as we saw them often and heard them every night.

One day the cats were nowhere to be found. At first we were not alarmed, as occasionally they would temporarily disappear. However, when they did not turn-up by the afternoon, we decided to search for them before it was too dark. After fruitlessly checking around the houses, we extended our search to the compound, increasingly worried.

Eventually we saw them at the bottom of the garden, in the area where the jackals were! “Gosh”, I thought, “They are dead meat” and run towards the area to see what I could do while cursing them for their stupidity. When I got closer, however, I noticed that not only the cats were unharmed, but that they were engaged in a kind of hide and seek exercise with the wild jackals, both adults and pups!

I then realized that this was not a new development but a relationship that had existed for a while and a kind of “friendship” had developed between our lazy and well-fed cats and the wild canids. I left them alone and the cats returned to our house later unharmed. The cat-jackal interaction continued for a few weeks but they never came close to the houses and eventually, when the pups matured, the jackals moved off.

As for the giant rat, a few days after the jackals’ disappearance, while blindly searching for some cans in the kitchen, I touched a hairy and warm “entity” and realized that this was not what I expected to find. Careful removal of the surrounding cans and jars caused the rat to jump out -almost hitting my face and stopping my heart- and run off into the open, never to be seen again. I believe that Super rat had taken residence there since the time of its arrival.

Luckily my wife was not there while I removed all evidence of the presence of Super rat. It was a tough job that required that I cleaned the nest in which I could identify shreds from some of my working reports and documents that I thought I had misplaced!