Zambia

Lutale

As I already mentioned, we worked at two sites in Zambia: Lutale in Central Province where we did our long-term tick impact studies and Monze in Southern Province where we immunized cattle against East Coast fever (theileriosis). Lots of interesting things took place during that time, and I will attempt to describe some of them ones.

I was more involved with the work on ticks at Lutale as this was my field. Luckily, I needed to take care of Lutale on my own for only a few weeks as the new Associate Professional Officer (Bruno) arrived. He gradually took over the activities there leaving me time to coordinate the two components of our project. Then, I could visit both sites if necessary.

However, as it usually happens, once I managed to get things organized and going smoothly, another development emerged to complicate my life again. The FAO Representative (FAOR) suffered severe medical problems and he could not continue performing his duties. I was given this additional responsibility that added another office to manage increasing the time I spent indoors. My time for field work was regrettably reduced until the new FAOR arrived, about one year later.

Lutale was a populated rural area located in Mumbwa District, Central Province. For some reason that I ignore, the area was chosen to establish a field station devoted to the research on tsetse and trypanosomiasis years before my arrival. Later it became a regional training centre for middle-level tsetse and trypanosomiasis control. That was its situation when I arrived and our tick project had been placed there by Rupert, our predecessor, that had started the work about three years earlier.

The Lutale field station. The steps to the left of the pick-up took you to an open air office on top of a hill!

Lutale was under the authority of Chief Chibuluma that lived nearby, and our project was well integrated into the local rural setting as we employed people from the village to help with our activities. Although we sold the milk our cows produced milk in Mumbwa, the villagers had priority and got milk every day. The village also had meat when we slaughtered our surplus animals.

Chief Chibuluma at one of the parties.

The aim of the work was to determine the impact of cattle under local conditions. Fortunately, water was not a problem as there was a dam that had water all year round. Grazing was another issue as it was very poor during the dry season, particularly towards the end. The scarcity of grass, even straw, forced the cattle to eat the thatched roofs of our office buildings. Although this is amusing now, it was an issue at the time as we always feared that our animals would starve. A lesser problem was that re-thatching was needed every year!

We had a very good rapport with Chief Chibuluma and his family and we even employed a couple of his sons to work with us. The Chief had a very good rapport with Bruno and he also enjoyed my visits as I would sometimes bring some whisky that we enjoyed together sitting under the thick shade of a mango tree at his house while his family went about their business.

Unfortunately, he had some problem with his legs and could not walk very well. However, this did not stop him from moving as he had developed an inventive but also amusing way to overcome this difficulty. As the rugged terrain was not suited for a wheelchair (that would surely have ended up stuck in a culvert during the dry season or in the mud during the rains), he moved about by bicycle. However, he did not pedal but was pushed around by one of his teenage sons while he happily drove to his destination!

Bruno was a hands-on person and he built his own house at the station, close to the dam. The building progressed fast and soon he had a very good house, complete with a living area (sitting room, bedrooms, kitchen, and toilet) as well as an office/laboratory. The place had plenty of hot water virtue of a Tanganyika boiler as well.

Soon his wife Dominique arrived and, like us, they also had their children born in Zambia, the very blond Tiffany and Collette that had an African village early childhood that unfortunately they do not remember! As soon as they were able to walk, they intermingled with the local children, and it was nice to see them playing, totally oblivious of any racial hang-ups.

There was a lot of work at Lutale to keep our observations going. We were comparing three different tick control methods on cattle liveweight gain and milk production as well as keeping records of the tick burdens of each animal. Milking and weighing the animals was rather straightforward but tick counts demanded intensive work that usually lasted a whole morning or even the entire day, depending on the number of ticks present.

All cows were milked daily, and the production recorded for each cow. Further, once a month all cows were inoculated with the hormone oxytocin. This produced milk let-down and a measurement of total daily milk production was hence achieved. Milk and surplus meat and live cattle sales made a profit that we re-invested in the project (paying salaries, repairing the project facilities and other expenses).

Our main way of disposing our surplus cattle was not slaughtering them but selling them live through a yearly auction. This had gone on for a few years and it had become an event that the farmers around the area waited to happen. Apart from the Lutale people, farmers as far as Mumbwa and Namwala would come to get animals as our auctions were based on the weight of the animals sold. In addition, as none of us were auctioneers, we decided to do it through secret bidding by issuing the buyers with “bidding papers” for them to place their offers.

Auction days were busy but also fun as they allowed us to meet with the local farmers and listen to their experiences and challenges. People would arrive early, and we were kept active making sure that the cattle were displayed in order. We invited the administrator of the Ministry of Agriculture to audit the procedure and to help us handling the money and depositing it in the bank.

Once the sales were completed it was time to open the bids and call the “winning” farmers to pay so that we issued them with a receipt so that they could take the animal(s) away. As the Kwacha was rather devalued at the time, we usually ended up with an inordinate amount of paper notes that were eventually spread on a table and painstakingly (but as fast as we could) counted. The work usually ended after sunset!

Not all was tick work at Lutale, there was some medical and detective activities as well as fun. Because we had vehicles, we often functioned as improvised ambulances taken patients to the Mumbwa hospital. Although most women had their babies at home, there were difficult births that required our help, almost always late at night!

A large herd of cattle is tempting, and we had a few incidents of rustling. I recalled one where we lost six of our experimental cows, a fact that could have seriously affected the results of our study. Hoping that they had not yet been slaughtered, we launched a rather desperate search, together with the police.

We drove many kilometres around Lutale without any luck and then we decided to extend our search towards Namwala through a very bad road looking for them until we eventually spotted them in a field. As usual the culprits were not found but we did not care as we had “saved”!

As for the fun, once a year we would organize a large party for the whole village for which we would slaughter a steer (we had a few reserved for such occasions) and brought chibuku [1] for the people to “refresh” themselves. We would get the brew in Lusaka and carry several hundred litres in the back of a truck from where it would be dispensed in rather large “glasses” [2]. This usually ended up with quite a number of invitees getting drunk and falling sleep around the bush as it happens in these kinds of occasions.

Mabel and I participated in a couple of parties where, together with Chief Chibuluma, Bruno and other project staff we were the “guests of honour”. In one occasion we took our daughter Flori and she stole the show. It is well known that Africans are extremely kind to children and a white baby was a novelty and people were extremely curious about her. Before we realized they took her away from Mabel! She was then passed around so that everybody could see and touch her. She seemed to enjoy the process that lasted for quite a while!

[1] Chibuku is a beer made of sorghum with an alcohol content that when fresh is low (0.5%) but that increases as the brew ferments reaching 3-4.5%. Brownish in colour, it is not filtered and therefore it contains quite a bit of solid stuff, and it needs to be shaken before drinking.

[2] Two to five-litre containers cut across the top keeping the handles.

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.

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.

Kidnapped!

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

Tigger (in the background) and Flori.

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

Flori and Ginger while Annie keeps an eye on things.

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

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

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

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

Tigger (retired)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A son!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That completed our children project!

The completed project!

The family grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A laughing Flori.

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

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

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

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

The bushsnob learning to be a father!

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

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

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

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/