Zambezi RIver

Reinforcements arrive

I do not recall the date, but it must have been March or April 1990 when I got up very early to go to the Lusaka airport for an important mission: to meet the first of the colleagues that would join the project. He was an Associate Professional Officer (APO) [1], called Bruno, a Belgian. He was arriving from his country on a Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) flight with a morning arrival time.

The day before I had managed to borrow one of the airport’s passes from FAO to enter into the luggage handling area, before the passengers entered Zambia. I also borrowed one of the FAO arrival signs, normally used by the drivers to collect visitors. I wanted to be absolutely sure to meet him, remembering my early Kenya arrival experience [2].

I was rather anxious because I was meeting a newcomer that would be critical for the project work and I did not know how we would get on. It would also be the first time in my career that I would have someone working with me in a project. He would also be bringing news from the FAO Headquarters, always useful information to get.

I arrived at the airport about one hour before the estimated arrival time, the pass worked and I went through security and stationed myself in what I thought was the most strategic place and I was sure not to be missed and I prepared to wait. The loud noise the “Jumbo” (Boeing 747) made landing at a relatively small airport clearly announced the arrival of the flight and soon the passengers started trickling in until the place was crowded as usual with people looking tired around the conveyor belt that, after a few minutes, jolted into life.

As usual, people started to get their suitcases and bags and walking towards the customs and exit. I waited, watching the flow while trying to spot my visitor before he spotted me! I had a few candidates in mind, and I kept watching. Conveyor belts are monotonous and often frustrating. This was the situation that day until two truly fluorescent bags, one rabid pink and another lemon yellow appeared and, for a while, distracted me but soon they were collected and it was back to the usual boring suitcase parade.

After about forty minutes the crowd thinned and, a few minutes later the hall was empty, the belt stopped, and the airport luggage handlers picked up the few suitcases that remained on the belt and took them away. No Bruno!

I had a good look around before leaving and confirmed that I was alone. Rather baffled I walked out, thinking what could have happened for him not to arrive. I walked outside the terminal heading for the car when I heard a voice behind me saying “ah, FAO!” Taken by surprise, I looked and saw a tall guy with a luggage trolley with the two fluorescent bags I had seen before: Bruno had spotted my FAO arrival sign. He was there after all and I was relieved!

He was not expecting me in the luggage hall but in the arrival hall, he explained and, not finding anyone in the latter, he thought that no one was meeting him and he was looking for a taxi to get to town. I took him to his hotel while talking about the country and the work that was expected from the project and from him as he would be in charge of the tick trial in Lutale, but more about that later.

Aware of the existence of the Zambezi River (although I had not seen it) I had purchased a Zodiac rubber dinghy (a very safe boat I was told) to be able to enjoy some river exploring and fishing. Convinced already that Bruno and us would get on, I invited him to go fishing in the Kafue river, close to Lusaka, the following day that happened to be a Sunday. Although it was not a good fishing day the outing was a good way to strengthen our connection, a very useful thing.

With Mabel, testing our new rubber dinghy at the Kafue Marina.

While Bruno was overlooking the trial in Lutale and settling in, I was devoting most of my efforts to keep the immunization work going in Southern Province, working with the Government personnel. I was rather stretched and trying to “push” FAO to recruit a Protozoologist that would take care of this work so that I could supervise the whole project. A month later FAO informed me of the candidate selected for the job and I agreed. Giuseppe, an Italian I knew briefly from Ethiopia was confirmed.

I also went to the airport when he arrived. This time, as we knew each other, the welcoming was easier and my confidence on the project success was boosted! I knew that Giuseppe was hard working and practical and capable of doing the job that he would in charge of. In addition, he brought more good news: another APO was being selected to work with him on the immunization against theileriosis.

Giuseppe got himself to Monze in Southern Province after a few days and stayed at the New Monze hotel for a few days until his personal effects arrived and he was able to rent one of the few houses available there.

The last member of the project arrived about a month afterwards. It was Anders, a young Danish veterinarian that went straight to Monze to join Giuseppe. The latter hosted him until he found his own place, something easier said than done. After a few weeks, he was lucky to find a house in the outskirts of the city. There we enjoyed the rural setting and having a few domestic animals around. I recall that he missed having fresh milk in the mornings and that he would get up very early to go to the local market to get it!

Bruno started his Lutale tour of duty staying at a small Government guest house used by visiting Government officials. So, he could only stay there for a short while. It had been agreed in his FAO briefing that, with project funding, he would build his own house and, after the work was completed, the future of the building would be decided with the Government. Chief Chibuluma, our host had agreed to this rather unusual solution so he started the building work.

In record time he had built a rather comfortable thatched-roofed house close to the village’s dam. The house had two bedrooms, an office and a comfortable sitting room. Electricity was provided by a generator until 22hs and he built a “Tanganyika boiler” that supplied ample hot water. He then announced that he was ready to bring his wife Dominique.

Tanganyika, Donkey or Rhodesian boiler. Credit to Kim Hannah Pearse, downloaded from Pinterest.

Very soon with Giuseppe and Anders we negotiated with George, the Director of Veterinary Services, that the expansion of the immunization programme would take place at an area known as Hufwa. Farmers there were requesting for assistance as they almost did not have calves surviving because of the heavy mortality due to theileriosis. They welcomed our proposal with open arms and the various villages agreed to build cattle holding facilities for the project to do its work. Soon we were flooded us with cattle beyond our capacity to immunize so we needed to improve our vaccine supply to cope with the demand!

The project had two drivers, Mr. Mutale and Mr. Chewe (not their real names) from the earlier project. The former was a city driver, used to move people within Lusaka. Although not noted for his fast thinking, he was an extremely careful driver that I enjoyed being driven by. Mr. Chewe, conversely, was very sharp and a true bush driver. He would not mind sleeping in the car if necessary and was able to make common repairs naturally. Eventually he was posted to Monze to help Giuseppe and Anders while Mr. Mutale remained in Lusaka supporting the project administration with limited field work.

Unlike the drivers, the former project secretary, seeing that no one was coming to continue the work, had moved to another FAO project. We needed to recruit a Secretary and we found Euphemia. She had experience working in a sister tsetse and trypanosomiasis project as the “second” secretary and immediately got going. Apart from efficient, she was also a very kind and good-natured person that brought her cheerfulness to our activities.

To me, she became invaluable as, not being maths person, I had difficulties closing the project accounts every quarter. I always had a difference that resisted my efforts to balance them for many hours and a couple of times, fed-up of fruitlessly looking for my error, I decided to send a driver to fill the tank with (for example) Kwacha 25.45 of diesel so as to get things right, something that the accountants in FAO kindly overlooked!

Seeing me struggling with the accounts Euphemia volunteered and immediately got the hand to it and at the right time she presented me with the draft accounts that, for some miracle, matched perfectly, a great help at the time! She got herself a new line in her terms of reference!

After a while traveling to and from Lusaka to the Veterinary laboratory in Chilanga, it became clear that there was no added advantage for the project to be there as we were occupying a driver and punishing a vehicle to get to a place that was difficult to reach and to communicate with. I talked to John, the manager of our sister project working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that were also responsible for the Lutale training camp next to our project and he kindly agreed to also share his offices in town with us. This was a great move that facilitated the work and brought us close to colleagues that were also commuting to Lutale.

In the new office we had many project meetings and usually at lunch time we would order pizzas. Although these were acceptable to us, Giuseppe refused to eat them and always chose something else. The situation became untenable for him the day Euphemia ordered a “Tropical” pizza. When it came, the chunks of pinneaple were almost offensive for Giuseppe that made a great (good humoured) fuss and even moved to a different table to have his lunch! Aware of this, we sometimes ordered such a pizza just to watch his reaction! [3]

During the more than two years the project lasted, we also held periodic meetings outside Lusaka, close to the work areas of Lutale and Monze. As we had a good relationship, sometimes we chose a place at a nearby National Park at our expense to make the work more amenable by doing a bit of game viewing. During the meetings we would review progress, discuss options to solve difficulties and plan for the future activities. Our favourite places were Kafue National Park (close to Lutale) and Lochinvar National Park (close to Monze).

With Bruno (left) and Anders (right) at Lochinvar National Park.

As a neutral participant, I tried to moderate, often with little impact, the discussions between the three Europeans on European Union policies. However, the differences of approach between the Italians, Belgium and Denmark were such that it was difficult to find an agreement!

The game of French boules (Petanque) [4], promoted by Bruno, became the highlight of the meetings.The teams were the “Old” (Giuseppe and me) and the “Young” (Anders and Bruno). The game’s popularity was not because it was very exciting but because the reward for the winners of each round was a sip of a rather good Italian grappa, courtesy of Giuseppe. Of course, this was a double-edged sword as the more you won, the more you drank and the worse you played, making the game evenly matched at the end! DEspite this, the youngsters beat us at both the game and the grappa resilience!

While in Monze, we used the Monze Hotel as our base. Although it was clean, it had no water during the day and very often, no electricity. The water shortage was such that I would leave the tap open when I left in the morning and by the end of the day there was probably 15 cm of water for my daily wash! It had a restaurant that offered a choice of grilled t-bone steak or chicken and, frankly, I do not recall what dessert there was if any!

Monze Hotel. Credit John Y. Mvula. Screenshot from Google maps.

Zambia had a lager beer called Mosi and it is interesting that the manufactureer defines it as “Named after the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria Falls) Mosi Lager is the iconic Zambian beer. Brewed for over 30 years it’s Zambia’s number one thirst quencher. Mosi is a clean, crisp and refreshing lager with a characteristic pleasant bitterness, and a delicate hop aroma”. What they do not say is that in the days we were in Zambia there was a joke going round that spoke about its poor quality control. The story went like this:

A customer asked for a beer at a bar and finds a fly inside the bottle. He calls the waiter, complains, and gets another bottle. As he keeps finding flies, eventually the fly is removed and the beer drunk to avoid time wasting. One day, a flyless beer is delivered and the customer calls the waiter and asks “where is my fly?”.

This well known joke did not deter the Zambian customers at the Monze hotel that, on weekends, would sit outside and buy a whole crate of twelve bottles that they would place under their chairs and drink away the whole night! Of, course, they could not see the flies as it was dark and they drank from the bottles!

Sometimes we would dine at the New Monze, usually grilled chicken with rice or chips. As Giuseppe with the tropical pizza, Bruno would not touch the local fries, used to the amazing double-fried Belgian chips!

One of these occasions was rather memorable.

While having a forced candle lit dinner, we decided to risk the flies and ordered four Mosi, aware that they would be rather warm as fridges did not like the electricity interruptions and mostly died of a power surge. Although we were talking away, after waiting an inordinate amount of time, one of us went to the bar to remind the waiter about our drinks order.

Eventually the waiter, who was also the barman and cashier, came and brought eight beers and not the four we had ordered. We looked at each other in surprise and asked him for the reason why he had brought double the amount we had asked. Looking rather confused he said “sorry” and took the four extra away.

While eating, we noted that the waiter was really accelerated and that other customers (that we could not see but heard) were complaining about the service. As this was not unusual, we finished our meal and asked for the bill. Again we waited a very long time and, as it did not come, rather fed-up, we all got up and walked to the small table where the waiter sat calculating the bills.

When he saw us, clearly absent-minded he started to add up our consumption when we noted that the candle fell over and a stream of burning wax spread over the table. Oblivious to this, the waiter continued writing while the tablecloth caught fire and surrounded a paraffin lamp that was also on the table.

Seeing that a conflagration that could destroy the hotel was likely, we took action while the waiter still did not seem to be aware of his surroundings! As no fire extinguishers were at hand we grabbed another table cloth and tried to suffocate the fire while removing the lamp. Water was brought up from the kitchen and poured on the table. It was only when splashed by the water that the waiter oake up from his trance and reacted to join us (and other customers) in our fire control efforts.

The smoke attracted the Manager who got furious with the waiter and strongly reprimanded him. We learnt that he had indulged in the rather common practice of smoking “uluwangula”, known to us as marijuana! [5] Luckily for him, he was not sacked although after that night he behaved like a normal waiter!

[1] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/30/africa

[3] Afterwards, after eating in Italy for a few years, I understood his views fully!

[4] The idea of French boules is to throw a metal ball close to a smaller one called “cochonnet” in French and you score by the number you get closer to it. When two vs. two play you get three balls each and one member of a team throws first, then a member of the other team throws, etc. until all twelve balls are played and the round ends. Then you count how many points you scored and add to the tally of each team. The first team reaching thirteen points after as many rounds as necessary wins the game. More details: https://frenchyourway.com.au/how-to-play-petanque-rules-of-petanque

[5] Also known as “dobo”, the local weed strain is considered of very poor quality and although illegal at the time, it was very common in the local markets. Zambians preferred to smoke marijuana imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that they called “Congo poison”.

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.

Spoiled siesta!

A loud “crack” woke me up from my after lunch nap, or at least I think that that was the reason for the interruption of my daily ritual (well, I must confess that sometimes I wake up myself up with my own snoring but that is another matter…).

In any case, when I regained my faculties after a while (a slower process as you grow up), I did not hearing it again but I became aware of some loud splashing noises nearby. My son helped me to focus and informed me that -apparently- a croc had caught something and that our campers next door had seen the action.

I had already made contact with our neighbours -coming from Zambia- as soon as they arrived earlier to warn them about the viciousness of the baboons at the campsite that forced us to get a guard as described earlier. In fact, despite my cautioning, they still suffered the consequences while they were away on their first game drive, although they had taken the normal precautions that are usually enough!

So, I went to see them to find out what they had seen. Luckily they had not only witnessed the event but also taken pictures of it! They had detected the commotion in the water and heard the noise. A crocodile had caught a rather large terrapin and, after kit was trying to devour it.

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The crocodile eating the terrapin. Picture by Eloise Wells.

The event was a surprise to me as we usually see both terrapins and crocodiles sharing their water territories ignoring each other! Perhaps the terrapin was already dead when the saurian found it? We will never know.

The victim was rather large but eventually the croc had managed to break its carapace -the crack- and it was busy trying to swallow by the time I watched. Although I could not help feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim, it was an interesting event, worth mentioning.

The crocodile was busy for a few hours until it moved off and we lost it for a while. It reappeared later a few metres downriver with its mouth closed so we believe that it had already consumed its prey.

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The crocodile after the event. Picture by Julio A de Castro.

Believing that only to write about this would not have been enough, I asked our neighbours to let me have some of the photographs of the event for this post and they kindly did so. Thanks to their generous contribution I am able to share them with you as the story that, without pictures, would not have been the same.

 

On silent feet

cropped-zebra-and-trees-morning.jpg

To write these lines I needed to sit down and in so doing, I sat on a snake! Luckily any concerns you may have about my derrière are unnecessary as said snake was made of rubber. Yes, I know, I should not be playing with toys at my age but some of us are take longer to mature!

Baboons and vervet monkeys are a menace while camping in Africa, and Mana Pool’s lodges are no exception to the rule. We learnt that rubber snakes are a good deterrent so we alwayscatter a few around our area while on safari. They work well and we have had fun watching monkeys perform panicky gravity-defying summersaults while screaming in terror after spotting them! I will come back to the topic of monkeys and camping in the future, so for now I turn back to Mana Pools.

In my earlier post I mentioned that in Mana Pools you are able to go about freely on foot. Funnily enough, you often come into much closer contact with wild animals while in your lodge or campsite than when walking in the bush. The former (named by the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority) is a small house with one or two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet.

Mbuvvee? , our lodge.

Mubvee, our lodge.

Solar lamps provide lighting and there is a freezer, a gas cooker and a BBQ place. The ubiquitous Tanganyika boiler -firewood operated- provides ample hot water while the vervet monkeys and baboons come free of charge!

The lodges are well positioned, only a few metres from the river bank providing great views of the Zambezi. The sunsets over the river were spectacular as usual.

The Zambezi river from the lodge.

The Zambezi river seen from the lodge grounds.

At the time of our visit the sundowns were made even more dramatic by the bush fires raging on the mountains opposite us, across the river in Zambia. Most nights the hills were decorated with crisscrossed fire garlands that devoured the dry brush voraciously and added drama to the view.

The sunset and bushfires.

The sunset and bushfires.

 

A bad picture of the burning hills.

A view of the burning hills (apologies for the bad picture).

Usually we are at the lodge in the morning (before leaving for a walk or game drive), lunchtime (when you are not in the bush) and in the evening (always). It is during these times that you have the closest encounters with wild animals.

In the early mornings we were woken up by loud birdcalls that made going back to sleep rather difficult. The din came from the goings on of a colony of white fronted bee-eaters (Merops bullockoides) that had their burrows in the banks in front of our lodge. With them were also a large number of the much bigger southern carmine bee eaters (Merops nubicoides), adding more colour to the scene while basking under the morning sun in the treetops above our lodge (a magnificent sight).

Southern carmine bee-eaters basking in the sun.

Southern carmine bee-eaters basking in the sun (please note the smaller white-fronted bee-eaters on the right of the picture).

The white-fronted bee-eaters were very active and most likely involved in courting and nesting. A bit of reading when we returned to Harare revealed that mixed colonies of these two species are common. I also learnt later that these birds are colonial but also cooperative. The latter means that many individuals of both sexes play a role as helpers* and that they may switch from breeder to helper and back to breeder many times over a lifespan.

White fronted bee-eaters at the bank.

White fronted bee-eaters at the river bank. Their borrowed nests are below.

Every morning the carmine bee-eaters, after being sufficiently warmed by the sun, flew off for the day on unknown errands, and returned in the afternoon. Unfortunately I could not tell if these birds were also nesting in the banks but I suspect so.

The proximity of our lodge to the water’s edge provided us with a continuous parade of animals without having to move too much. These included some really huge crocodiles as well as buffaloes, hippos and elephants: they were on both sides of the channel that ran in front of the lodge. It was wonderful to see elephants wading to reach the opposite shore only to return once they ate their fill of their favorite vegetation.

Elephants crossing the channel.

Elephants crossing the channel (note the two termite nests in the background).

It was during the first lunch hour -a bit too hot to go looking for animals- that, after a light salad lunch, I prepared myself for my usual short siesta. I placed myself under the shade of an acacia tree that provided ample shade (and pods!) and prepared myself for sleep while reading my book. It was warm but there was a soft breeze, which resulted in the perfect cool spot. These were ideal conditions and I was even prepared for a monkey-attack, just in case…

The bushsnob prepared for a "monkey-proof" siesta!

The bushsnob prepared for a “monkey-proof” siesta!

It all started with my wife becoming very agitated at the exact moment that I had duly dropped my book (on my face) and entered the “drifting off” stage of my nap! Her alert call brought me back to life. Before I could proffer my -I am sure expected- complaint, I heard a soft “Don’t move and look” I knew then that I should do as I was told! My eyes were filled with an elephant!

Thankfully its attention was solely on the Acacia pods.

Thankfully, its attention was solely on the Apple ring Acacia pods.

I froze -purely out of fear rather than bushsnob wisdom- as the elephant was three metres away from me and still approaching! I immediately noticed that, although very close, it was after the pods on the floor and oblivious to its surroundings including me! With a super human effort, given my panic-driven semi paralytic state, I lifted my feet off the ground as it could have otherwise, unintentionally stepped on my bare feet (ouch…). The sight mesmerized me! Finally, it came to about a couple of metres and looked at me “Now I am history” I thought. However, it simply raised its head as if saluting me and continued with its feeding, slowly ambling past with the only heralds of its presence the crunching of pods, the rattle of those discarded and the occasional soft huffs of its trunk as it searched for more.

It was coming in my direction...

It was coming in my direction on silent feet…

The amazing thing about elephants is that despite their size, you will not hear them unless they want you to. While walking on tarmac elephant footpads make a whisper-like ‘chuff’, similar to the sound produced when one brushes a hand over the fabric of a pillow; on dusty earth they are virtually silent. At night, they silently walk through your campsite while browsing without disturbing anything. Finally, although I often trip over the tent ropes, I have never had an elephant doing so day or night!

As my knees had suddenly turned into jelly, I did not move, even after it passed and not even when my wife’s “order” was issued: “That was close! Get up quick and take a picture of it before it goes away” When I managed to collect all my wits and do a mental inventory of the condition of my various body parts, it was too late and I could only see its backside moving off. Although we have had these kind of encounters before this was a very close one and it is quite an experience to be literally “face to trunk” with a fully-grown male elephant! The siesta was abandoned, this time for a good reason!

This was not the only occasion that this happened during our stay at Mana Pools but I describe it to you so that you have an idea of our interactions with wildlife at the park. More than one tusker visited us everyday and a few family groups walked around the lodge during the day and night. They were even rude enough to try to spoil our BBQs!

The bushsnob just discovered the bomb dropped by the "terrorist" elephant and he is horrified thinking on cleaning the mess.

The bushsnob just discovered the bomb dropped by a “terrorist” elephant and he is horrified thinking on cleaning the mess (the faeces were almost pure Apple ring Acacia seeds!).

In addition to the pachyderms, a lone hippo kept us company everyday as it fed on the pods. It would arrive after sunset and we would hear it chomping while it walked about. Although it occasionally entered the circle of light provided by our lamps, it preferred to stay in the dark. This meant that every now and then, we would have to locate it as it was an additional hazard while walking around our lodge (particularly when going to the BBQ area or the water boiler) to avoid the danger of bumping into it!

My wife keeping an eye on our hippo visitor during a day visit.

My wife keeping an eye on our hippo visitor during a rarer day visit.

A least one spotted hyena also did its food-run every evening. We did not think that hyenas were around as we did not hear them but they were afoot operating silently in the darkness! The lions were, quite to the contrary, rather close and very loud. They were heard, as my wife put it, “all night long” and a lioness and two cubs passed by while the occupant of our next-door lodge was having his morning coffee!

* Birds (normally juveniles and sexually mature young birds of both sexes) that remain in association 
with their parents and help them raise subsequent broods.