Zimbabwe

Magical time

This Christmas we decided to spend it in Zimbabwe, camping at Masuma dam and Robins Camp in Hwange National Park.

Our camp at Masuma.

Already in the rainy season our expectations of a green Hwange were confirmed, a marked change from our usual visits that take place in September, during the dry season. We also knew that the animals would not be so dependent on the permanent water holes and that they would be scattered in more remote and unreachable areas of this very large park. Finally, there was a good chance of having daily showers. Despite these drawbacks, it was a suitable time and place for a family reunion so, we took the challenge.

We prepared well for a wet camping experience adding a large awning to our usual dry season gear and packed our rainproof jackets, just in case. As it happened, the latter precautions were only useful for the first two days when we had a couple of showers as, luckily for us (but not for the park!) the weather continued being dry over us although there were some spectacular rainstorms around us.

We counted twenty-three hippos and about half a dozen crocodiles at the dam as well as a large population of geese (both Egyptian and Spurwing) as well as a few Knob-billed ducks. The few resident Senegal thick-knees were there, busy protecting their nests against the threatening advances of the monitor lizards.

Senegal Thicknee vs. Monitor lizard. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Numerous impalas, waterbuck and greater kudu frequently visited the dam, mainly to graze on its now lush green shores as they were drinking in safer places, avoiding the dam´s crocodiles. So, we did not witness any of the crocodile ambushes to drinking herbivores that we had witnessed before (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and related posts). Below there are pictures of some of the animals we saw:

Although the elephants did not come in the we see in September, they still came, particularly during the days when fresh water was pumped into the dam, either they had a way of knowing this by the pump noise or they exhibited an amazing sense of smell! The later is more likely as the pumps are operated by solar energy and they are quiet!

Although we spent many hours at the water edge, we failed to see any predators coming for a drink or a possible kill. We did see a couple of young lions mating near Kapula Camp, and a family of two lioness with four cubs and a male on a buffalo kill, just opposite the Shumba picnic site. We heard them and hyenas almost every night at camp and Mabel heard the unmistakable rasping cough of a leopard while it walked up and down the new (rather weak) fence that now encloses the picnic area.

We had some nocturnal excitement on our first day. After midnight Flori and her boyfriend Giacomo (new at camping in Africa) were rudely awakened by very loud banging noises coming from the ablution area. The following morning a large hole was found in the fence through which an elephant had entered the enclosure, probably in search of clean water. His adventure got interrupted by the appearance of the camp attendant that stopped it from doing more damage. The elephant retreated, not through the entry hole but crashing the gate!

We needed to work hard to find large game but luckily had more luck in the bird department. We were able to watch and photograph a shaft-tailed wydah, a bird that we had not seen for years. We also watched several bee-eaters, rollers, and orioles, among other small birds. We were happy to see several groups of ground hornbills, including one feeding their young at a nest.

Finally, on Christmas day we had some of a reward for our efforts. Flori, Giacomo and I went to have a look at Little Toms, a small stream near Robins Camp. I did not have much hope to find anything special based on earlier experience. I was wrong! Perhaps two hundred metres before we got there, we caught a glimpse of many elephants in and around it. Although we approached the water very slowly, to our dismay, they started to move back to the bush.

We were disappointed but we remained very still and quiet, waiting. After a few minutes of uncertainty, a few of the larger animals turned and started to come back. Soon we had a couple of hundred back at the water.

As I am not able to do justice to what we witnessed, I present you with two videos that Flori and I took of this truly magical thirty minutes!

A general view of the elephants at Little Toms.
Amusing young elephants.

What on earth?! (7)

There is no doubt in my mind that Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe is one of the best places we have visited. Despite having the “Big five”, you are allowed to walk and animals are everywhere, including your campsite. Among several close encounters, we vividly remember the time a buffalo bull was killed by lions a few metres from the entrance to our bungalow posing some problems to our planned movements!

Despite this, we were not prepared to have an elephant welcoming comittee outside the reception!

It was also curious to see that the pachiderms in Mana Pools are exempt from the majority of the rules as can be seen below:

But, who can argue with them?

What on earth?! (5)

When living in Mozambique we drove a couple of times to Swaziland (from 2018 renamed Eswatini) to spend time in its national parks. Among these, we visited the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary where we spent some time walking as there are no dangerous animals, except crocodiles as the following sign warns.

Checking the waters edge, we did find a couple of large crocodiles and another sign that was rather confusing.

Usually wildlife has right of way but to prohibit members of the plant kingdom is baffling! I wish to believe that there is a missing line in the sign that should have said “Removal of …”

After this surprise, I Googled for a definition of the word wildlife and what I found both in the Oxford and Webster online dictionaries was very similar: “Animals, birds, insects, etc. that are wild and live in a natural environment” and “living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated” respectively! So, it seems that plants and trees are not part of wildlife!

But things do not end here! In 2020, Carly Cowell (1) of the Kew Gardens highlighted our inability to recognise plants as wildlife known as “plant blindness” and discussed the consequences of this for the conservation of the plant kingdom!

Interestingly, confusion between members of the animal kingdom also seems to exist as this sign from Hwange National Park shows:

I believe that the intention was to repace the word “mammals” for “animals” to make the message clearer to all visitors of the potential negative impact of such practice!

(1) See: https://www.kew.org/read-and-watch/plant-blindness-conservation-implications#:~:text=When%20you%20hear%20the%20word,but%20it%20also%20incorporates%20plants.

The Tuli block

For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?

The Tuli block (tip of the pencil) at the south-west corner of Zimbabwe.

Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.

Briefly, based on the history of the block from http://www.notugre.com, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.

It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.

Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.

Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.

We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see: https://tulitrails.com/?page_id=38).

So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.

We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.

Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!

My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!

We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.

We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.

We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.

The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.

It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa [1]. There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!

We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.

Our tent.

I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.

We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.

We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.

By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.

The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.

A curious female greater kudu.

It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.

A young lion watching us from the rocks where they stayed.
A hot and sleepy lioness.

During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.

First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.

The black-backed jackal feeding on the impala.

We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!

Elephants watched from a distance.

Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!

[1] A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.

What on earth?! (2)

Security is a large business worldwide and Zimbabwe is no exception. While security companies choose allusive names such as “Safeguard”, “Guard Alert”, “Securico” and others, some of them do not.

I recall a company called “Tragic Security” that was a few years ago in charge of the security at the Beitbridge border post. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of their sign as border posts are not the best places to be seen with a camera!

However, in Harare I have managed to take a couple of pictures of companies with what I find amusing names.

Clearly this company prefers to solve thieving amicably but not all are like this one as the following picture shows.

I would not like to be neither guarded nor attempt breaking into a place with such a company taking care of it.

Instinct vs. curiosity

After our time at Kennedy One and Main Camp, it was time to have some more comfort so we headed for Robins Camp, to the relief of our visitors. It was nice to be back to a very nice place with welcoming staff and to be able to relax without the chores of camping, particulalry cooking and washing-up!

Robins Camp at dusk.

The bats that inhabit the tower were there although we did not spot the dwarf mongose group that we had seen earlier. We had our compensations as we watched other interesting birds in the camp and nearby.

During our earlier visit to Hwange National Park (HNP) after the Covid pandemic (See: https://bushsnob.com/2022/04/03/zimbabwe-post-covid/) we visited a place known as the Salt pan and we were lucky to have a glimpse of a rather shy cheetah family that took off as soon as they saw us. We also “discovered” a salty water dam with several interesting water birds. Grey herons were the dominant species but there were also little grebes and the beautifully brittle stints with their very long and thin pink legs that seem to be unable to support even their very light weights. So slender the legs are that the water is almost still when they wade through.

At the time we also found a small family of hyenas and many vultures perched on the trees surrounding the dam, a sign that kills were frequent there.

So, during our present trip, the first morning at Robins Camp we started early and headed for the Salt pan.

Three of the adult spotted hyenas.

This time we did not see the cheetah but, on our way to the pan, we met with a group of spotted hyenas composed of seven adults and two youngsters, the largest group we have seen so far in HNP and Zimbabwe. As they are one of the favourite animals of our daughter Flori, we stopped to watch.

One of the hyenas was probably carrying a chunk of meat and moving away from us never to be seen again. The rest of the adults continued walking and they tolerated our presence. We have had literally hundreds of daylight encounters with spotted hyenas over the years and they have always been rather unconcerned by our presence, keeping a considerable distance from us, either on foot or inside our car.

Although one of the young hyenas continued walking with the adults, the second either did not hear the adults‘ warning or it was an “infant terrible”, so it stayed behind, rather curious of our presence. At first it stopped to watch us but, not totally satisfied, it decided to come to have a close look at our car and its occupants. It approached us while loudly sniffing the air until it stopped at about one metre from us.

It remained there watching us intensively until, perhaps following some inaudible signal from the rest of the clan, it started to move towards the adults and we thought our close encounter was over but suddenly, it retraced its steps and repeated its exploration of the car a second time. Clearly satisfied with what it found and not showing any sign of concern, it finally moved back to the adults and the group moved off leaving us with the beautiful image of a young and curious animal.

We then continued our journey to the Salt pan area and found some interesting water birds such as grey herons and stilts, among others. There were a couple of dozen grey herons at the dam and we saw at least two pairs nesting there.

All pictures by Julio A. de Castro

Spot the beast 82

Driving around Robins camp in Hwange National Park we spotted this beast, the first one we have found in Zimbabwe. If you looked carefully you may have spotted somewhere in the picture. Below I present you with a close-up where you can see that it is an African Wild cat (Felis lybica).

The following (bad) picture shows some of the characteristic markings of this kind of cat.

I will further ellaborate on this finding in my next post on Hwange National Park.

Mantis laying

Although we have seen mantis´ egg sacs (ootheca), this is the first time that we see one actually laying. It was discovered in our garden by Mabel who is also responsible for the images.

A quick search suggests it to be Miomantis caffra, the springbok mantis and the egg sac would contain up to three hundred eggs.

This species, like other mantis, exhibit post-copulatory cannibalism. But it also can devour the male before mating and she is able to lay fertile eggs even when not mated! (1)

(1) I will not publish my wife´s comment in this regard!

The two videos below show the mantis in action.

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/3Vuma7vZxa8

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/-QHnhpi3K64

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.