Next morning, I was told it was a whip scorpion, a sort of false scorpion totally harmless to humans, but which preys on smaller animals on tree trunks. In fact on several nights we went on insect safari around the camp and found whip scorpions hiding in the thick cracks of the bark of the tamarinds. They would be so far down the crack that only the long antennae gave their position away. Here they waited for the flies and bugs that perused the tamarind at night.
We went on insect safaris amongst the tamarind bark because for most of the time there was little else to do in the evenings. Until we discovered the TV. We did enjoy some candle lit evenings, where we turned off the generator and were left listening to the nighttime crickets and insects in the middle of the bush. We never saw mammals here (although the camp officers had seen an elephant at our waterhole one day while we were out surveying). However, this didn’t stop you getting the willies when you were caught short in the night. Out of the decency of keeping the camp sanitary, you had to go some distance off into the bush, and during the moonlit evenings particularly it was difficult to discern what each of the shadows really meant. Leopards are very common in that area, and hyena not unknown. Even lions were known to stray in to this region occasionally. And unlike the national parks, the camps had no electric fences or guards. We were at the whim and mercy of the laws of the jungle. Imagination was the worst enemy, but going to have the pee was never much problem. You could see what was in front of you and you were fairly safe in the knowledge that where you had come from there was little danger – animals tended to keep away from the human smell in the camp. But once the pee was done there was the terrible moment where you had to turn your back on the bush. And that fear that you didn’t know what could be softly padding its way to make you its next meal made that moment freeze in the memory even now. I would very slowly force myself to turn, my body seizing up with terror as I did it, and then I would almost run back to the camp and drop the flap down in the tent as soon as possible. I would then shiver, not because of the cold outside but to shake off the images of being ripped apart.
It made one sure one emptied one’s bladder well before one retired for the night.
Another evening’s amusement would be to watch the satellites fly over as the sun went down. There is a period of about half an hour every night when the sun had disappeared from ground level but still glinted at the low level objects in space – the polar orbiting satellites that zip overhead all day and night. This is the only time when we really get a good sight of them, and in Zimbabwe there were quite often five to ten in the sky at any one time. They appeared at first like ordinary stars, but moved rapidly in a near- straight trajectory across the sky, near north to south or south to north. It’s quite a job to spot them and if you do it in a group, it is difficult to convince other people that you are able to see them. It’s a bit like those magic picture puzzles. “It’s a duck”. What?
The meteor showers that happened later on in our stay were even more impressive. Some would light up the whole sky with their flares. Again if you were doing this with others, they would often be looking in a different direction, you would go “woooooo”, they would say “what” and you had to look at them and say “that was a brilliant one”. Unfortunately it was rare that two of you saw them, so you would look disbelievingly at the person who made the claim and carry on scouring the skies. But deep inside the claimant would know what he or she had seen had been blissful.
Our night times were rarely different, so when a lorry came along our track at night, we were obviously very interested in it. Although we could hear the lorries on the main road at night, nearly a mile away – far enough not to get any dust blown across from their devious driving – you never saw the lights, but here was a noise from another direction and the beam lights pierced through the bush. The whole camp looked in the direction – we came out of the dining room and looked around the back. The camp keepers dropped their cards and peered up. Even the cooks stopped washing their dishes and came out to look. We looked like a bunch of meerkats pensively watching for predators. The lorry approached the entrance of the camp, and with a lot of light, dust and noise, roared passed and the red rear lights disappeared once more into the bush. The lorry came from a well-digging site to the west of us, and the workers were heading home late to their digs in Mahuwe.
The pattern of land use in the region was fairly predictable in general, but had a great amount of detail that kept us busy for our entire time. Near the escarpment were a series of large settlements and the land around was fairly worn from wood collecting, goats and feet. Beyond were large regular fields, of the kind that have been able to exist once the tsetse fly has been cleared. For many farmers, the ownership of cattle is less about meat –once eaten the cattle are gone. The value of keeping cattle is in the draught power that they can wield. A farmer and his family can only plough a small amount of land on their own, as they have to do further east and west where tsetse are still seen as a problem. But where draught power is available, far bigger fields can be ploughed. These have stretched out further north from the escarpment over the past fifteen years, as our satellite imagery clearly showed. Being only 100 miles from Harare, the largest city in Zimbabwe and centre of the cotton trade, cotton has become an important commodity in the region, despite the fact returns for many farmers are less than from wildlife. A series of grants and persuasive advertising made many migrants from more populated places above the escarpment such as Masvingo or Gweru come down the escarpment and take over virgin land in the valley for cotton production. The greatest problem was that these migrants had no respect for the local lands, no real attachment to the soil at all. Their homelands were in the south, often already ruined by overexploitation. They knew they could make a quick buck here then settle somewhere else when it was exhausted.
The land cannot support cotton growth for too long in many marginal areas. The limits were already being reached when I was there. And also there was the conflict between the land being used by the farmers and leaving it pristine for wildlife. It is a difficult argument to make to farmers not to have some tangible evidence of their existence in the form of a cultivated field. Particularly for a nation of farmers such as Zimbabweans it comes as a bit of a shock. But in some areas, a programme called CAMPFIRE was ensuring that the profits from trophy hunting, safari expeditions and photographs could far exceed the proceeds from cotton growing, and if managed properly, could release the farmer from diminishing returns from cash crops, while preserving at least a part of the natural habitat of the Zambezi Valley. At least that is the theory. In practice there is a lot of disparity between regions. Some areas have little wildlife to sustain this enterprise, in other areas, there is still too much corruption among the overseers of the scheme to make it work. But for many it could provide a more useful income against the subsistence farming that they were undertaking.
The cotton fields are fast expanding into the open scrub bush, first closest to the large rivers which cut south to north towards the Zambezi River, then out onto more marginal land on the low hills. However, the areas that are fast becoming cotton growing areas are also pristine lands that wildlife want to live in. There is no real jurisdiction to stop people from farming in these so-called wilderness areas. They are not protected in the same way as National Parks, Forest or Wildlife areas. They are, in many eyes, virgin or potential agricultural lands. What tends to keep people away from this area is the lack of infrastructure. We are talking of a rather rudimentary level of infrastructure here. But everyone needs water. Unfortunately, even here there is conflict, because animals need water as well. There was a corner of our study area, in Northern Mukumbura that is open mopane woodland. Mopane is a wonderful tree, gives good shade, and the tallest trees growing with little understory are often called Cathedral Mopane as its spreading branches mimic architecturally splendid flying buttresses. In this region it spreads for mile after mile on a rather soft clay soil. No humans have entered here to exploit the rich soil, perhaps because the clay pans in winter and causes water logging. Not really. Perhaps because it is close to the Mozambique border and the landmines left there during the civil war warn people off. No, the area of land mines are further north. No, the real reason is that there is no water in the dry season. So people do not venture into this area because they could hardly sustain their lives without travelling great distances to get this vital resource. Is this pristine area suitable for wildlife? Not at all, because the same water is needed for most forms of life. In fact this is one of the most lifeless places I have ever travelled through. There is no rustling in amongst the trees, there are few birds even. Only the occasionally lizard darts across the tracks, even in early evening.