The place we were staying was not difficult to find, as it was at the only turn off between Mahuwe and Mushumbi Pools, the next major village along the dirt road. However, until we got used to the corners of the road and all the little features along it, those twenty three kilometres from Mahuwe to the SEMG road was spent looking for that turn off. We got quite good at judging the corners. This road was enormously wide, and often had “gutters” large enough to drive a vehicle through. Between these gutters were high mounds of rather loose pile of gritty sand and rounded pebbles which acted as the main road. It had one or two heavily indented areas where hundreds of wheels, some very heavy had pushed there way through. But for the most part, the road had only one of these tracks, and was used by vehicles travelling in either direction. This is where it got hairy. As our confidence increased, so did our speed. We learnt to control the skids, and in fact use them to our advantage. If you knew where to start turning the wheel as you sped down the straights at 70-80 kmh-1 you could surf around the corners without using the brakes. In fact in many cases to use the brakes was near fatal, as it would lock wheels and lose the control completely.
On the wide bends, keeping the momentum up was easy, but you were also tempted to do it on the tighter bends, where a large baobab or rocky koppie would stick in the way of your sight to the next straight. And here was where other judgements came in. You couldn’t hear anything above the din of Land Rover wheels on shifting sands, but you might get a glimpse of the telltale cloud of orange smoke that said that a large vehicle was coming at you, on the same rutted tracks that you were so firmly sitting in. If it was a lorry, they were generally travelling slowly enough to take some action yourself, but you had to split a second to get out of the way of the maniac buses – the huge mangled metal bricks that rush around the whole area. Before we had much chance of applying brakes, the bus would be upon us and quite often it was down to the grace of some god or other that we managed to breeze by without smashing into this juggernaut.
On other occasions we had more unexpected hazards. Here would be the flock of guinea fowl, scattering faster in front of you than you ever thought possible. One day we were surfing along on the road, came to a straight (still in bushland) and a rather straggly looking elephant came running full pelt out of the bush, up over the road and off into the bush on the other side.
We gradually got used to every turn in that road, although I must say I couldn’t tell much difference between the 121, 122 and 123 kilometre stretches. Out of Mahuwe, you passed through some extensive town, and you had to watch the usual assortment of children, chickens and particularly goats as you sped through. There were usually a couple of tractors as well, loaded up with hay, or beer bottles or people. The road left most of the farmsteads behind and passed through wide-open fields. Then, after a yellow sign depicting an elephant, to warn you of wild animals, you passed into the remaining scrub lands.
The SEMG camp in Dande was an amazing oasis in the centre of this scrub. You approach the turn off along the main road and two sticks supported a barrel end with the letters SEMG painted roughly on it.
We turned down this road and travelled for a further mile. To the right, a group of higher, dark green trees emerged among the dry bush. A bunch of Land Rovers was parked under the trees in a row, and beyond a group of tents and grass buildings had been erected. It was on the site of an old tsetse camp, and a borehole existed next to where the Land Rovers were parked. The trees surrounded a waterhole. By the time we reached there, there were only a few small muddy puddles in the centre of the oasis. A large area of dried cracked mud surrounded these pools. Green grass took over on the raised fringe of this and then huge tamarind trees gave significant shade for about a thirty-metre radius around. In the shade of these trees, the camp was made.
The camp was set up primarily for the group of scientists monitoring the effects of pesticide on water borne invertebrate life in three of the main rivers in the region; the Angwa, the Dande and Msungezi. Three satellite camps were set up on these rivers, but the base camp had most of the supplies, and tented laboratories for the two women who ran the camp to analyse the specimens. For the three month spell they were there, they lived in some comfort. Specially constructed for the period were two huts, wooden framed and lined with grass panels on three sides. One served as a kitchen and store room, complete with gas cylinder operated freezer. The other was the dining room come general work room. Our project set up shop on the far end of a large slab of smoothed wood in the dining room which made a very firm table.
The dining room was partly open to the waterhole side and about twenty yards away was an open fire, used to boil water and burn rubbish. To the left a set of grass cubicles which served as showers, and then beyond two larger grass walls which contained two dry pit loos; one smelly, the other not so smelly. Beyond these again was a small pit which contained the electrical generator which gave us bright light at night. Coming back towards the dining room, the tsetse control people had their tents.
Heading in the other direction was a laboratory tent and two large tents for the scientists based at SEMG. Next came the television set. My friend Knowledge’s and the CampLeader’s tents were beyond this. Knowledge was a field assistant who had helped Judith and I in Zimbabwe on my first visit in 1993 and it was good to meet up with him again here. The three small tents for us were laid between the TV and Knowledge’s tent and with a camp bed and plastic groundsheet were very comfortable.
The scene was idyllic and during the dry season the skies were almost permanently clear, the temperature was always warm, even during the night. We would rise and wash and a large breakfast would be ready for us by about 7 a.m. We were usually on the road before 9, to get the cooler part of the day. If we had to get right over to Mukumbura, which was nearly 70 miles before we started surveys, we would try and set off earlier. But it was difficult to get out of the routine of the camp.
We had usually had enough by 4 p.m., and wanted to get back so that we had a chance to write up our results. I was dictating into a small tape recorder as we were driving along, Jo had his soil samples to analyse and Bob always had a few leaves he had collected for those species which had eluded or confused him.
When we would reach the camp, we usually came straight into the dining room, where a large stoneware teapot, with chipped spout, would appear within minutes of our arrival. Sometimes cake was available, but usually it was biscuits, and we would munch and slurp in the middle of the bush, like the English colonists we were always being made out to be.
While afternoon tea progressed, we would watch the daily ritual of the shower preparation. One of the kitchen guys would emerge and offload the barrel from the fire. He would fill three pails of water and carry them carefully over to the shower units. He would fill more buckets which had shower heads soldered to their bases and raise these with a simple pulley system.
The water was far too hot to have a shower immediately. We would sit for another forty minutes or so, sipping our tea, unpacking our days survey material, chatting generally. And then it had to be timed right. Either we were a minute or two too early and got scolded, or we left it too late and it was a lukewarm wash. If we timed it right, we had the most wonderful invigorating shower. The cubicles had a grass door which you pulled into position, then there was a stick soap dish. You hung your towel over the door, which doubled as the engaged signal. The floor was covered in large slabs of sandstone, and the shower was this head under a bucket which you simply turned on, and out it came. There was no roof, so usually we had the pleasure of watching the sky turn a deep red as you cleaned off the layers of dust that Judith had collected for you during the day.
I did have a nasty experience once, mainly because you did share the shower with any of the forest creatures that were around. And since the shower was one of the few sources of water, it attracted many insects and the occasional lizard. One evening, I had hung my towel up as usual and showered down, a 3-inch layer of top soil scurried down the cracks between the stones. I grabbed my towel off the door and started vigorously rubbing myself down. The ant that had found its way into the towel didn’t like this, but only decided to bite when I was rubbing my crotch. If you have never had an ant bite your scrotum before, don’t go looking for it to happen. I yelped with pain and scrambled about looking for a culprit (thinking it might be that all elusive scorpion!). When I saw the size of the ant, I could not believe something so small could have caused so much pain. I squeezed it between my fingers, but only the body came off, the jaws were still firmly locked into my sensitive skin. Every night after that, I made sure that I shook my towel free before drying off.