May 5   Up early (03:30) for Trevor (shuttle service) to drive me to the airport for an early flight to Johannesburg (two hours) and another flight (1 & ½ hours) to Harare, where I was met by my youngest niece Lindsay and her husband Nevin, at 11:30. Several huge posters welcomed travelers to Harare, with the smiling face of a young woman, who was very lightly coloured. Why can’t Zimbabweans – and other dark skinned people – be “Proud to be Black” ?

Drove on the Mutare (Umtali) road, Nevin drawing my attention to the almost complete absence of birds. On the outskirts of Harare there used to be large vleis, which attracted thousands of seed-eating birds. But now the vleis  have been taken over by maize fields – not surprising when there is so much hunger. Still, it would be a pity if the next generation  never saw the colourful Red Bishop, and other avian seasonal visitors. The widespread use of catapults, by men and boys, also wreaks havoc among the birds. Certainly we saw hardly any bird life.

We passed Marondera (Marandellas) still a neat little town. I wondered why some small towns are shabby and in disrepair, looking very neglected, with gangs of not very friendly youths patrolling the streets, while others remain in good order.  We stopped at a wayside Café, looking for a snack. I was tempted by a ham roll, but Lindsay dissuaded me, pointing out that, with  the frequent power cuts, it was best to avoid meat.

  Birchenough Bridge

About 100 kms beyond Mutare is the graceful Birchenough Bridge, which, when built in 1935, was the third largest single-span suspension bridge in the world. The same designer later built the Sydney Harbour bridge, which is similar in construction, but half again as long. 20 kms before the bridge we passed the notorious alluvial diamond fields, discovered a few years ago, and appropriated by the government;  these are said to be among the richest diamond areas in the world. Local miners were told to clear out, but some returned, and were attacked ; impossible to be sure how many were killed, but good sources told me that at least 74 bodies were brought to the Mutare morgue, after having been shot at by soldiers in helicopters.

This is Baobab country, all the trees near the road having been ring barked up to about 2m, the women making colourful mats, which were on sale. Boys also sold baobab pods –“cream of tartar”- which are very popular eating in South Africa.

We arrived at the gate  to the SVC (Sabe - or Save - Valley Conservancy) on the Birchenough Bridge /Masvingo (Fort Victoria) road at dusk, and stopped to see Leon, L&N’s friend, where I enjoyed a beer – Phoenix, the beer of Mauritius.

The view from my cottage

From the gate to Ingwe Lodge is 38 Kms, taking about 50 minutes driving. Let me explain: SVC covers 3,250 Km2,and is divided into 23 game ranches. Five ranches were taken over by the “war vets” in the early 2000s, and are now occupied by hundreds of farmers, although this area, with poor soils and erratic and low rainfall, is not suitable for subsistence agriculture We were headed for Sango Ranch (16,000 ha.) where L & N manage Ingwe Game Lodge. The lodge consists of six main cottages, which normally cost US $600 per night ($1,400 per night for hunters, who in addition pay hunting fees ranging from  $25,000 for an elephant to $800 for an impala). SVC seems a neo-colonial anachronism: all ranches are owned by whites, and all senior management, and the clients, are whites. There are a few African “PHs” (Professional hunters) in Zimbabwe, but none, as far as I could make out, operate in SVC, Because SVC is privately owned, the Government receives no fees. The owners feel threatened; some Africans visited one ranch, saying: We have come to introduce ourselves, we are your new partners.  Apparently they were predicting that the proposed law, granting 51% control of all businesses to Zimbabweans ( presumably black Zimbabweans?) would be passed.

Ingwe lodge employs a staff of 11, who work for 48 days, then have 12 days leave. One afternoon I accompanied Nevin who drove to the gate on the main road, to collect Lovemore, who had returned from leave at his home in Kariba, 800 kms away, a two day bus journey, if the buses are operating. The staff were all pleasant and friendly, perhaps it was because jobs are scarce in Zimbabwe. In the early 2000s, the property where L & N were working, in northern Zimbabwe, was taken over, and they moved to Zambia, where they worked – through a combination of unfortunate circumstances -  at six different locations, I visited them at five of these places, (Lindsay’s father, my brother Paul, died in 1986, since when I have been informally in loco parentis for his four children). Apart from the pleasure of seeing them, each visit afforded me unforgettable days in the bundu : Nevin ,with  forty years experience of wildlife, first as a Game Ranger, then as a PH, is – as Bernard used to say – “the best African naturalist I know”. I came to recognize that it is not a contradiction for him to be both a PH and an ardent conservationist. As a PH, Nevin guides wealthy clients, does not shoot himself unless necessary, for example to protect a client.

Baobab Cottage

Sango Ranch is owned by a wealthy German, who has spared no expense to make the lodge comfortable, rather OTT for the bundu. But the wildlife is not as well served as the guest, as I saw when driving around. Water holes were often disused, when simple repairs would have worked, which caused Nevin frequently to wince, and swear. He had no authority over wildlife, despite his experience: he was simply co-manager of the lodge. The ranch owner, who visits two or three times a year, allows L & N to have their own guests when the lodge is empty, which is why I visited at this time, my window of opportunity. Although L & N could have eaten in style at the lodge, they preferred (I also) to have simple meals in their own cottage. During my stay, I had two particular pleasures at the lodge. First, I slept with the sliding doors wide open, which I dare not do in South Africa. Second, when we had our sundowners on the lawn, I could gaze up at the Southern Cross, which is not visible where I live in Fish Hoek, because of the urban lights. We usually saw at least one satellite, too.  I remembered how often Bernard and I had looked at the heavens, he patiently identifying the constellations for me.  

May 6 to May 13  On every one of these days,  Nevin took me for a game drive, usually of a few hours, including some night drives, During this period, I saw 70 spp of birds, including several new to me, and I recognised some old bird friends from Kenya in the 1970s, when Bernard and I were keen birders. I should confess that I often relied on Nevin first to spot the bird, then to identify it. I saw four of the “Big Five”, missing only leopard, More important, most of the sightings were close encounters: Nevin knew precisely how close was a safe distance. We saw: three male lions at a waterhole; several herds of elephant, one herd being uncomfortably  - and thrillingly – close; a good group of buffalo; best of all, we saw a white rhino female, with a calf, which Nevin guessed was just one week old. It was the size of a medium warthog, trotting alongside its mother. The estimated  rhino population in Sango Ranch is 80, 60 black rhino, 20 white; these are seriously threatened by poachers. A local man might receive $4000 for a 2 kg. rhino horn, a huge sum when a good monthly wage is $150. The same horn would fetch $150,000+ in China. The situation was not helped when a Vietnamese general announced that his cancer had been cured by powdered rhino horn. “Traditional poaching”, by local people from the neighbouring poor, crowded settlements,  for “bush meat”, is much less harmful. While I was in Zimbabwe, it  was announced that President Mugabe was giving two of each species of animal  in Hwange National Park to the government of North Korea, as “a gift”. Hmm! Appropriate that these two pariah states should be close.

Game Drive with Nevin

In addition, we saw a variety of antelopes, from the dainty Klipspringer to the huge Eland, including Sable, Waterbuck, Kudu, Sharpe’s Grysbok, Bushbuck, Nyala and Impala galore. Other sightings included : Giraffe, black-backed Jackal, Warthog, Bush pig, Zebra and  Wildebeest (both very common, they were culled each year), Bush baby, dwarf Mongoose,  Baboon, Vervet Monkey. For me the second highlight (after the rhino calf) was a pack of wild dogs, which I had only once seen earlier – in Zambia. A third highlight was watching two  groups of dwarf mongoose fighting over an anthill, the tiny victors busily marking their new territory with urine, and by rubbing their backsides against the shrubs on the anthill


Saturday May 8. L & N have no TV, so we drove, one hour, to Leon’s home to watch a rugby game – The Western Cape Stormers vs, the Kwa/Zulu Natal Sharks, for those of you who follow the “Super 14” rugby league (the Sharks, surprisingly, won, 20 to 14). After several beers (no highway cops on the ranch) and a braai, we drove back, our spotlight finding many animals.

The British General Election had been held two days earlier, and I was eager for TV news, but I did not persist, recognising that rugby triumphed distant politics. People who live in such places tend to have a very deep, but narrow, knowledge of the world. I am not being  patronising, I respect such depth.

 Sunday May 9 . A couple from Mutare, friends of L & N,  were visiting for the week-end, so we all drove to the Sabe River for a picnic, finding an ideal spot, with shade and good views and good birding. On the way we passed a dam which abounded in bird life, storks, ducks, geese, raptors (including an African Fish Eagle, jacana… .  It was on the return journey that we saw the wild dogs, and Nevin once again astounded me when we caught the merest blurry glimpse of a bird, in deep dusk, and Nevin said it was a fiery-necked nightjar – and nightjars are very difficult to distinguish, even when clearly seen. (I did not include this bird in my tally: I counted only those that I could identify on my own).


Friday May 14. L, N and I left early, 06:00, for the drive to Harare – for me to fly home the next day, and for them to stock up with supplies, and also to see their younger son Daryl and his family. By 07:00  we were driving along the main road, passing lines of children on their way to school, mostly primary, some to  high schools. Some of them, especially the younger ones were barefoot, but all were neatly dressed in their red, blue or green school uniforms, and seemed cheerful, waving to us – there was little traffic on the road. Of the 101 unanswered questions I had were these: “How do the (mostly poor, judging from the houses and cultivated plots) parents manage the school fees? What are the standards of the rural schools? Are the teachers regularly paid? The fact that I have no answers indicates how superficial are my observations.

Arriving in Harare after 5 & ½ hours driving, I was dropped at York Lodge, which had been recommended by friends, and which proved to be truly “ a place of cool repose”. Set in extensive and well-kept gardens, with abundant  plumbago and  bougainvillea,  the cottages were  extremely comfortable, and not at all OTT. I had arranged to meet Niki Jazdowska there for lunch, which we had on the terrace.  While having lunch, we heard the receptionist saying that men at the gate, claiming to be police, were demanding to see the guest register, A couple of years ago, foreign journalists, staying at York Lodge, had been arrested and deported. Niki, who had experienced such encounters, told the hotel staff to refuse entry unless the “police” produced a Court Warrant – which worked. Niki – and others – told me that one welcome change these days, as opposed to early 2000s, was that one could be assertive and not get thrown in jail. Another, more pleasant distraction over lunch was the visit of  Alice Chikonodanga, whose father, Gift, does for me every Tuesday, 08:00 to 10:00. Gift had asked me to take some money (South African Rands, which, with US $$$s, are the accepted currency in Zimbabwe) to Alice, who lived in a township the other side of Harare. Niki was able, using  cell phones, to guide Alice, who had to take three different buses, to York Lodge.

When Bernard and I were living in Sherborne, Dorset, and preparing to leave for Cape Town, Krysia, an elderly Polish lady, whom we knew from the Catholic church, asked us to contact her old friend Stenia Jazdowski, who spent three months each year in Cape Town. Amazingly, Stenia stayed at an apartment in Fish Hoek, three doors away from us, and through her we met her daughter, Niki a sociologist who is working with a health NGO in Harare. Niki and I talked for hours until we  tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky. Niki, a Zimbabwean citizen, has lived there for most of her life, and has a good knowledge of what is going on.

That evening I took L & N and Daryl  to dinner at The Blue Banana, a popular, excellent and inexpensive restaurant, with both  black and white customers. Back at the lodge, we had a nightcap at the “honesty bar”.

Daryl, Lindsay & Nevin

Saturday May 15.  Another early start, with a 05:00 departure for the airport. I had asked for transport, expecting to see a battered taxi arrive, but Richard, the smiling young son of the owner, drove me in their 4x4.

All my flights, and all my border crossings, were trouble free, I was back in Cape Town International Airport a 11:00. Many of the passengers, on all my flights were Chinese, speaking little English and keeping to themselves. This was a very good trip. I have told you little about “the real Zimbabwe”. If you would like to know more, do read Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly  (2010). Gappah, a lawyer, lives in Geneva.



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