The struggle of the Tongan people in their dry plateaus away from the lake tarnished my wilderness ideals about this harshly beautiful region, and the town of Binga itself took on a role of oppressor in the whole story. The town had little soul, apart from a small market place just before the main T-junction of the town. A small supermarket run by a Boer family sat to one side of this open space, and we would drop in their first before starting the day’s work. Cans of corn beef, loaves of bread and marg could be found here at a price, but we went through the market to find our fruit, tomatoes and other salads. The market house itself was quite recent, it was a simple set of concrete pillars supporting a pitched roof. Concrete slabs were set up next to the open sides, and several women every day sat in their bright coloured wraps in the shade under the roof. People would trail up and down the outside of these slabs looking over the garden produce. The atmosphere was more like a library than a market – none of the shouting and hawking you get in West Africa or Europe. Instead, there was a shy hand extended as you passed by to point to the small pile of tomatoes or fruit that were being offered. I think the whole concept of markets was novel to the people here, and they were feeling their way into the philosophy quite well but with caution. The amounts of goods being sold were very small, the days surplus for a family from a small garden plot in one of the dry river valleys. Compared to the barrowsful of fruit you may get at an English stall, here there may be a pile of ten gourds, if you were lucky. But still money was being exchanged and people were finding some purchasing power from this. Although some of the produce was suspect, we had enough choice from these ladies to solve our needs for the day, and came away with some tasty goods for our lunches. At the mechanics workshop at the Inner Harbour, I sat and watched the repairs with interest. With his usual ponderous deliberation, Willy was looking hard at the injection pipe, a simple metal tube with a 45 degree bend about four fifths of the way along that opened out to an egg cup shaped end. It was all one piece and a hairline crack had appeared just on the bend. At first, Willy was very sceptical that we would be able to fix it. The pressure on the bend would mean that any soldering here would be blown off as soon as the engine was started again, and welding might have the effect of sealing or malforming the pipe. He was sucking through his teeth when one of the mechanics said he might have a spare fuel injection valve. I took a look at the dark workshop at the piles of metal springs, pipes, sheets, wires, nuts, bolts, wing nuts, clips, switches and preponderance of dirty rags. I never thought he would find anything in there, but after about ten minutes of crashing around, he emerged holding a fuel injection pipe identical to the one we had in all but length. Willy and the mechanic then spent a lot of time measuring up the two, deciding where to cut and then hack sawing the two pieces. If it went wrong, now the two pieces would be useless for ever more. But no, they managed to saw cleanly in the right place. They then disappeared inside the workshop again and only the occasional blast of light from an oxy-acetylene torch gave any indication of activity. Willy came out smiling with the newly created pipe and a further twenty minutes or so was spent under the hood fitting the thing. I must have already acclimatised to the African times, as I did not feel this was a morning wasted – at least we were getting the rover fixed. But Judith, the good project leader, was very much aware of how much of the day was slipping by without any field work being done. There was nothing to be done but to sweat it out, until Willy came out cautiously from beneath the bonnet and nervously stepped up into the driver’s seat. He started the vehicle, it sounded healthy enough. Judith and I got in and we drove up the big hill out of the harbour, the vehicle did not hesitate, it roared up faster than Willy would ever have contemplated. We were delighted too and fortunately we had few more problems with it. Our field work for the period was relatively simple, we were to drive along and sample the vegetation and land use in the area to verify it against what we saw on a satellite image.
The field work was a compromise between detail and having to cover the area. I think we erred to much on the side of trying to cover the ground. For three weeks we travelled every single road in the valley from Mlibizi at the lake’s end, right up to the Ume River on the borders of the Matusadona National Park. We also travelled up the escarpment to the Chizarira National Park. We had an image taken from the Landsat Satellite to verify.
It was from the previous year but was of a similar time to that which we were travelling, the middle of June when the harvesting had occurred and the trees were beginning to lose their leaves in readiness for the height of the dry season. Very quickly from looking at the imagery, we noted that the areas where people lived or were using were largely bare of any vegetation. The harvest in bare soil covered the fields. Around the huts countless people and their stock had trampled and eaten all the grass, and many trees around the villages were gone, cut up for firewood, burnt under their cooking, or made into the walls of corrals or buildings. Those that were left were often partly cut and stripped bare of any leaves by hundreds of goats. The bare soil gave a massive reflection back to the sky, almost glaringly white in places, that was picked up by the satellite. We had taken hard copy pictures of the images with us, although in full colour, they were not what the eye saw. Instead we used a combination of red and near infra red light to form these images, but the resultant picture still meant that these bare areas showed up white on our maps. We were very confident we could pick up these areas where people were very easily. The more natural vegetation in the wilder areas was more problematic. There were basically two types of vegetation complex dominating on the scene. One of these was the mopane trees of the Zambezi valley. A supremely beautiful tree, with wing shaped leaves giving delicate but much needed shade, they could grow at several different heights depending on the quality of the soil. The largest were often called cathedral mopane because of their tall stately trunks and high canopy.
Very little else would grow underneath a mopane tree which gave it the appearance of well manicured park land, or perhaps manicured parkland was meant to mimic the African bush. I remember an old geography book expounding on that theory years ago, the idea that the roots of man was from the predator-prey landscapes of Africa, and it was this which was rooted in our aesthetic psyche, but certainly the large stretches of mopane woodland triggered good thoughts in me whenever I saw it. However, the mopane woodland would go on and on, sometimes for twenty or thirty miles without any break, that made it tedious after a couple of weeks of survey, especially as we only found two or three other species underneath the trees anywhere. There was a curious feeling that although it appeared like parkland from the track side, you could not help but remember that if you ventured more than a few hundred yards into the bush on either side, there were few navigational landmarks to ensure you could get back to safety, and who knows what was lurking in the bush. One place where this was made evident was quite close to Binga itself. We had travelled a couple of miles up a small winding sand track and had stopped for a survey point. I was forced to take a leak by all the water I had been taking during the day and went behind a bush for Judith’s modesty. As I was there, Knowledge shouted hoarsely at me “Alan, come back to the van now”. Not asking any questions when spoken to this way, I zipped up and held the remaining water in my bladder and made my way calmly to the van. Nearby, Knowledge was looking down at a damp patch in the sand on the road. “It’s a lion’s spray”. Given that the dry heat of a Zimbabwean winter would have evaporated something like that in less than three minutes, we were quite sure that the lion was still close by. All thoughts of wanting to relieve myself went right out of my head.