Zimbabwe

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.

Spot the beast 74

Checking my files I found this beast, one of my favourites. I am sure you will find as it is rather obvious.

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This “Spot” was just an excuse to show you how well this beautiful Greater Kudu male blended in the extremely dry environment of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

Spot the beast 70

To change a bit, I offer you a rather different “spot” today.

One of the main attractions of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (apart from the river, the light, the various campsites, the wild dogs, the elephants, the lions and I stop there naming just a few!) is to be able to walk through the park despite it holding the Big 4 (sadly the rhino is no longer there).

While walking is a great way to explore the park you must be careful as, often, you do not see the animals until you are too close for comfort and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. This is one of the cases that seems incredible until it happens to you.

Imagine that you are walking there now, what can you see?

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What look like tree trunks, suddenly become legs and they start moving!

You had just disturbed the siesta of a large elephant and it is coming your way!

You realized that it is a bull elephant but the most important thing at that time is to back down slowly and start taking pictures through a zoom lens!

Cannibals!

I already described hippos competing with crocodiles to eat their impala prey at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park [1] and this observation was part of a comprehensive publication on the transmission of anthrax among hippo populations [2].

5 - Hippo rescue attempt at 2 second view

Hippos trying to get an impala carcass away from the crocs.

The 2018-19 rainy season in Zimbabwe was very poor and Hwange National Park was no exception receiving much less than its 576 mm yearly average. So, during a visit in mid-September 2019 the park was very dry and several of the pans were drying or already dry.

This situation was also severely affecting some of the dams that require pumping to keep an acceptable water level. Both Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dam pumps were hardly able to cope with evaporation and elephants’ thirst despite working full time.

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Only one hippo was seen at Masuma of the usual number of about sixteen individuals that we had seen during earlier visits. We believe that the missing hippos had moved to Mandavu reservoir, a much larger water body situated 15km away.

So, we went to visit Mandavu and noted a large number of hippos still there as there was plenty of water. While observing the hippos we noted a dead one floating close to the shore opposite to the picnic site and, as expected, there were a number of crocodiles surrounding it.

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Hippos and crocodiles around the dead hippo carcass. Credit: Julio A. de Castro.

There were also a few hippos and they were feeding on their dead relative!

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Hippo feeding on the carcass. Credit: Julio J. de Castro.

Joe Dudley has mentioned to me that he believes that hippos are not able to open up a carcass and that they depend on natural fermentation or on other carnivores to do so in order for them to feed. It is likely that the crocodiles had eaten part of the carcass and the hippos were taking their share. The hippos were seen pushing the carcass and submerging to later emerge chewing and swallowing.

After about one hour the wind started blowing the carcass towards the centre of the lake and the hippos did not pursue it, staying at the opposite shore with their pod.

This is not the first report of hippo cannibalism [3] but the present observation adds the Mandavu reservoir to other areas in Africa where this phenomenon has been reported.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/

[2] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2016), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review 46 (2016): 191-203.

[3] Dorward LJ (2015) New record of cannibalism in the common hippo, Hippopotamus amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758). African Journal of Ecology 53: 385–387.

 

NOTE: This post has been adapted from the following publication: de Castro JJ, de Castro M, de Castro JA, and Ruiz Teixidor P. 2019. Hippo cannibalism. Biodiversity Observations 10.14:1-3. https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/828

 

 

 

Fighting itself!

There was a “tap-tap-tap” noise in the bedroom window and we discovered that a Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) was pecking at its own image reflected on the window.

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This male bird had, for the last few weeks, been busy building nests, trying to convince its girlfriend that they were nice but failing to do so, as usual in these cases.

As the bird pecked the window for a few hours, we decided to close the curtains to give it a break.

The following day we opened the curtains again, and very soon it returned to fighting with itself in an effort to keep its territory free of male competitors while trying to get his architectural skills improved.

 

I smell a rat…

When “Bella”, our Jack Russell bitch, spent about three hours fixed on the generator, we knew that there was trouble in that area of the house.

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We checked all around, including the firewood -my candidate- that was next to it without success. We did detect chewed bits of insulating sponge lining on the floor, though.

We decided to open up the generator and have a look.

We expected to find the damage to the sponge lining material but not what we found, a full nest that occuppied half of the free space inside the machine!

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I must confess that I saw the nest builder often walking in front of me while seating in the veranda writing but I did not think that the beast would get inside the generator so I chose to share my life with it!

It clearly abused my hospitality and it paid for it as todaya trap was set by Stephen means that there is one less rat in Harare!

Spot the beast 62

Today I needed to go to the garden and, as usual, I went for my Crocs shoes. When I tried to slip my left foot inside I found some resistance and I was surprised and amused to find a best inside. See if you can identify it…

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I know that it is not a very good picture but otherwise you would get it too fast!

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I am sure that you have guessed what it was:

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Understandably it wanted out of my shoe in a hurry! Soon it was released back to where it come from.

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I believe it was an African common toad or guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) of widespread distribution in Zimbabwe.

Luckily it was not a scorpion or worse!

Spot the beast 61

We are having a slow start of the rainy season this year but, searching among my pictures, I found this ones that show a beast of some sort from one of Nature’s kingdoms…

See if you can spot it!

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Here it is. As you have realized by now, it is not a giant fern sprouting but a chameleon digging its egg-laying hole with the rolled tail out!

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This is the culprit laying, darker after the effort.

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Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254