The Night They Bombed Uvira – Mamert and Africa

 Eventually a neatly groomed, slightly built man approached me and said, in perfect English “Are you Alan Mills?  I have to take you to the project office”.  I smiled gratefully at Mamert and we chatted as we went over to his Toyota in the car park.  As we drove into town, I found out that he had come to the airport, but since he did not know what I looked like, had not been able to pick me out when I came through the customs.  He had passed by me four times. Now, I know in other countries people hold up placards with your name on, or the project or company you work for or something to identify.  But apparently this was not right for Mamert.  Kelly, the project supervisor in Burundi, had told him to look at the project web site, which had my picture emblazoned with all my contact details.  But he had not got round to it.  So we were left with the infallible process of elimination – when everybody else has left the airport, the person who is left is obviously the one I am looking for.

 To be honest, this was the only mistake I ever saw from Mamert.  Both in Burundi and whenever I had to deal with him by phone, fax or email elsewhere in the world, he was nothing less than supremely efficient, resourceful and friendly.  Precisely what you wanted for a chief administrator for a regional project in a difficult African country.  Mamert had cousins at the airport, so he could get anything through customs in ten minutes, no duty to pay.  He had cousins working for travel agents, so you could get ferry or air tickets at half the price at the drop of a hat.  He knew stockists of everything that was going in Bujumbura, so you never wanted for anything.  He had cousins in government, so red tape could be cut through immediately.  But all the time, he never made you feel that you were in his debt; he was the project administrator, all these things were part of his job.  If I had had to flail around on my own while in Buj, I would have achieved nothing, probably done a lot of damage and could have ended up in prison…or dead.

 Mamert was proud of his car.  He had bought it in Djibouti, a tax free haven.  It had been shipped to Dar es Salaam and he had driven it, very carefully, across the rough Tanzanian roads before they arrived in the neatly tarmacced Burundian Roads.  Several of the main roads in Burundi , particularly in and around Buj, were the best I had ever seen in Africa; you could drive at seventy in a normal car without fear of bending an axle.  We sped along a straight highway through flat fertile fields , and then through a large industrial estate.  The Lake Tanganyika Project Office was in a compound towards the end of this estate, close to but out of sight of the lake itself.  We stopped there and I was shocked at the gleaming white paint everywhere, my sunglasses just could not cope.  I met up with Kelly who recommended that I go and freshen up, have a rest after the flights, and she would catch up with me later that day.  I was quite happy with that plan; it made a nice change from hitting the ground running.  Mamert instructed the main driver for the Burundi Office, to take me in the Land Rover up to Kelly’s house.  A medium height, young stocky-without-being-fat guy, he spoke little English, but I found out that his name was Africa, which summed him up neatly.  He was at ease with himself and took a lot of pride in being the driver of this gleaming white vehicle.

 I later found out from Kelly that he was a cousin of Mamert.  He had only just been “promoted” to driving the vehicle, because the previous driver had been caught in a dragnet operation by Mamert.  To the north east of Bujumbura, a road rises steeply up the escarpment and towards Gitega in the mountains – a route I was to take quite soon.  Mamert had become suspicious that more fuel was being used on the Land Rover than the short errands he knew of around the city.  He had a tip off that this driver had been seen coming off the escarpment during office hours, and with Mamert’s usual clinical rigour, he went in his Toyota and positioned himself at a suitable junction with the escarpment road at the edge of the city, out of sight of any traffic coming down the hill.  Sure enough, he saw the guy coming back into town….with a young woman in the passenger seat.  He had been using the project vehicle to visit his “girlfriend” up on the ridge on a regular basis.  He was so busted.  I always knew that I would never be able to pull the wool over Mamert’s eyes.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Down in to the Rift

 The flight over to Burundi was incredible.  Leaving the Athi Plains behind, we crossed the Masai Mara and out over a huge peninsula that teased out over southern Lake Victoria.  Dotted with smaller islands, boats ploughing back and forth, this huge blue splodge on the plateau between the west and east Ridge Valleys stretched off into the haze.  Then we climbed into the hills of the north western edge of Tanzania, and over the border into Burundi.  Even though it was still only 8 in the morning, the clouds were blooming over the highlands, giving us some unwelcome turbulence and obscuring the views for much of the time.  The tantalising glimpses through the gaps in the clouds showed a verdant rugged landscape, packed with fields and crops.

 Then all of a sudden the land fell away from us, and the clouds cleared.  The wide Rift Valley spread below us, and the huge wall of the Congolese side was directly in front of us.  The rift is too deep to be able to turn jets to the left in one go and land in Bujumbura….or else it was unsafe for us to fly over certain zones, so we circled steeply over the Ruzizi River, round once, round twice, lowering all the time, and finally turn south for our final approach.  I grasped glimpses of the Lake, my first sight of the lake I had been working on for two years, the city and the airport.

 The first thing I saw as we landed were a series of large guns at the edge of the runway trained on our aircraft as we braked hard.  It was what I expected, this was still very close to a war zone.  We also passed what I presume was Air Burundi’s only jet…it was in a semi-collapsed state, rusting to glory and with paint peeling off it, just to the right of the terminal building.

 At this point, my preconceptions of Burundi evaporated.  There were only about forty of us on the flight, you could see why Kenya Airways did not want more than two flights a week – it was nothing to do with security; there just wasn’t the trade.  We walked from the plane to a clump of large eggshells that formed a rather airy terminal building.  I had the proper visa for Burundi with its five shiny US Dollar stamps across the top, and was whisked through immigration and customs with unusual efficiency.  I was supposed to meet Mamert, the Administrative fix-it man for the project in Burundi.  No-one came smiling towards me.  I sat on my suitcase and waited.  Although about third through the customs table, all the other passengers passed by me, picked up by relatives, hiring taxis or setting off walking out of the airport.  Still I sat there, occasionally getting up and looking back through the customs area to see whether I had missed Mamert.  This being the only jet plane through the airport that day, most of the officials started packing up and making their way home (now about 9:30 in the morning).  No-one seemed bothered that I was stranded there.  I began to believe I might be thrown out onto the streets.  With little French and no clue as to where the project office was, I was now getting quite disturbed that my first day in Bujumbura might be an unpleasant one.

The Night They Bombed Uvira – Taking the path less travelled

A perfect setting for a war – a long valley guarded by two massive walls – escarpments three thousand feet high.  At one end a lake blocks the valley. To the north, the valley is flat with a great brown winding river flooding the plains.  In the centre a compact and neat city, only a few miles across but home to a million souls, and,  as is the way in many African cities, most of those crowded into a few small areas called the Northern and Southern Suburbs.

Amphitheatre for War

Amphitheatre for War

 I looked down on this scene from a colleague’s house, a few hundred feet up in the eastern foothills below the escarpment.  In the relative security of the garden, standing on her rooftop terrace behind a shelf full of basil (partly for cooking, partly to keep the mosquitoes off), it looked as quite and sleepy as any provincial African city.  From this position I could see the lake and the port at its right hand corner, I could see the large brown river discharging tons of sediment into the lake at its head, I could see the fertile flood plain beyond and the distinctive white domes of the International Airport.  In front was the magnificent wall of mountains, the mist and cloud swirling through its gullies, at once highlighting and obscuring its rugged features.  Even in the affluent suburbs where I was, African city noises could be heard in the peace, dogs barking, kids crying, cock’s crowing and the occasional laughter from a group of labourers.  It looked so normal.

 And yet this is one of the most war torn, civil nightmares and dangerous places on earth, Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.  It lies in the western part of the African Rift Valley, at the head of Lake Tanganyika, a water body 800km long and containing a sixth of the known unlocked freshwater in the world.  Across the valley lies the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC.  At least that is what lies across in name.  In reality it was rebel held and rebel run.  Rebels of Laurent Kabila, who himself had arisen in the east of this vast country to overthrow the dictatorship of  President  Mabuto in 1997.

 Let me go back a little way…to Nairobi International Airport.  Some might say that when you step on a plane at Heathrow or Gatwick or some other UK airport, you are moving into another world.  Other’s would say it happens on the plane, as you glide almost effortlessly over thousands of miles of geography.  But to me, who so often only used the Intercontinental journey as the first step to somewhere else, it was always at the main connecting airport that I actually felt that a trip was really beginning.  Any plane out of the UK is bound to have a ready mix of international types, British included.  So although you leave British shores only a few minutes after taking off, it is as if you take a part of the country with you.  But I would get very lonely at the other end of that flight.  The masses would tend to rush off through the customs, in a futile dash to try to be the first to retrieve their baggage.  I would head off through the transit route, often to end up with a completely different clientele.  Sometimes of course, such as in the States or in Barbados, for example, I would have to clear immigrations and/or customs first, and it was annoying when I had a connection in less than an hour and I was stuck behind four hundred holiday makers, who despite being given landing cards one hour after take off had not filled them in yet, and would stand monopolising one of the immigration counters while they asked their relatives what a Port of Embarkation was.  Whatever, at some point, I would break off from the usual flow and end up in a very quiet part of the airport.  As if in a different world.  In Nairobi this was more startling than elsewhere.  Kenyatta Airport is one of the largest in Africa, on a par with Jan Smuts in Johannesburg and Lagos in Nigeria.  Its gates are in a gentle arc, and when you arrive or depart from Europe, you usually go through gates close to, but not quite at, the northern end of the concourse.  Here are gleaming duty free shops, International Airline Kiosks and a range of cafes that would not look out of place in many first world airports.  But for the traveller who is heading off regionally or internally (via Kenya Airways usually), you have to make your way around this huge arc to the south end.  Down here there are fewer shops, some tatty cafes and hardly any information except flickering TV’s that probably once were able to show for how long your plane had been delayed.  Here you catch your flight to Mombassa, Addis, Entebbe, Dar or Bujumbura.  You still pass through the x-ray security, but you pass into a waiting room that would not look out of place in an underfunded comprehensive school, and you have to walk across miles of bright hot concrete to reach your plane.

 In fact, a couple of months before I took my trip, you could not get from Nairobi to Bujumbura; Kenya Airways had only just reinstated a twice weekly flight to Burundi.  My only other option would have been Sabena via Brussels.  Since I was on a tour around Tanzania and Zambia as well as Burundi, Nairobi turned out to be a better hub for the trip, so here I was.  Bujumbura was in the process of being rehabilitated into International travel links as well as International Politics.  After three years of instability between Hutu and Tutsi, it was on its way back to normality.  For the time being.

Busi Valley – Goodbye to the Valley

 If you want to read the first post, click here.

We had one more full day in the valley, and spent it on the northern fringes of Chirisa Safari Area.  We marked down how much more the cultivation had got close to the boundary track of the safari area than even on last year’s satellite imagery.  But even so there were large tracts of almost pristine cathedral mopane.  Towards the eastern side of the Busi Valley was a bluff of land visible from almost everywhere else, and I decided we should try and climb this to get an overview of this area.  Bob was much more healthy than he had been at the beginning of the trip and did not blanche at the suggestion.  We rose out of the mopane woodland and reached the bottom of the bluff.  The route up took us circling around this block of land, the rise becoming ever more steep.  As we reached the last hundred feet, it became sheer, and only by finding a gulch did we manage to get to the top.  The revelation at the top of the mesa was incredible.

Not only did you have extensive views all around of the thick mopane woodland followed by mile after mile of cotton fields, but the nature of the vegetation atop the mesa was totally new.  Bob found many species we had not come across, and a tufty wavy grass that covered the entire surface and was still green even late in the dry season.  At one end we disturbed a group of impala – it still amazes me to imagine how their nimble surefootedness had got them to this safe haven.  It was a wonderful secret garden.  As we prepared to descend, I noticed a gleaming white vehicle coming along out track below – still five or six miles away.  We got down just as the vehicle approached Judith.

 A typical Boer emerged from the vehicle, about 5’9” but thick set with rhinoceros skin and a bull’s neck.  He was dark brown and covered in freckles and blotches from forty years in the African sun.  His small eyes peered out from under a white wide brimmed hat, and he was followed by a beautiful girl who we later found out was his daughter.  We exchanged pleasantries; Bob was much easier at talking in these situations.  He was always curious to find out who people were related to, where they came from.  This man was a safari hunter, an example of the very people who exploited the CAMPFIRE policy to gain revenues for their safari operations.  It worked very well for him, he brought rich American and South African tourists up here, camped in the National Park, and either gave them the opportunity to shoot pictures of the animals, or, for the right price, shoot the animals themselves.  He had heard of some poaching going on in Chirisa and wanted to check it out for himself, but had seen nothing.

 It had become obvious that the residents of Busi had taken a wrong course.  The cotton industry was just not suitable for this remote valley.  They had to see that the position of the valley in the V shape between a quiet national park and a hidden safari area was perfect for CAMPFIRE operations.  Unfortunately, Busi was connected to the Gowke North Communal land which extended much further south and east, back to areas where cotton growing could be made marketable.  To allow entrepreneurs like this Boer in to run his operations, and tax him for the offtake or activity seemed a good way forward.  I never managed to work out the economics of it, but I believe the one problem against this utopian source of income was that the population of Busi was continuing to grow, and the total community could probably not continue to be supported by the CAMPFIRE initiative without damage to the sustainability to the system.  However, it was being shown that the cotton route was not satisfying more than the short term economic needs of selected inhabitants of the valley and that the damage to the remaining environment was increasing year on year.  What was the alternative for the people in this beautiful valley?

 Unfortunately our time in the valley had finished and we had to get to Victoria Falls to pick Benjamin up in two days time.  We offloaded the excess shopping on Edmore and Second, and paid them well for their services.  We then took John and drove that long road back through the park, past the salt springs, over the river, up into the mountains and finally to his camp.  We gave him a bit of extra pocket money that was probably more than a month’s salary.  It was lunchtime and instead of heading straight for the falls, we drove down a little road to the most magnificent view.

 The main part of the park, as I have said, is high on a plateau, and the route from the east rises through a series of geological faults to reach the top.  The entrance to the north is even more dramatic, as the park is part of the great Zambezi Escarpment.  Great gorges cut deeply into the escarpment to pass water down towards Lake Kariba, and the Chizarira River itself forms the most spectacular gash.  A small gazebo has been built at the best vantage point and we had out lunch up there that day, chorused by a bunch of inquisitive baboons, and with all sorts of wildlife crashing around in the vegetation below us in the gorge.

 Then we gently descended down another valley, a route I had last taken three years ago, and across a wide stretch of farmland before reaching the main gravel road that goes west to east.  We headed west and drove through some wild country before ba-bump, we were back on the tarmac just south of Binga.  We were on tarmac for the next two hundred miles, but it was here that the jungle had another laugh at us.  Bob thought my steering was getting more erratic than usual, and we realised that, even though away form the roots, thorns and stones of the bush, we had managed to get yet another burst tyre.  That fixed we rolled on to Dete Crossing and down down down to Vic Falls.

Busi Valley – Edmore tells his tales

 I was still convinced that the track between Chirisa and Chizarira was only just through the bushes.  It said so on the map and the GPS was showing me that we were getting closer.  My fear was that the track had become so overgrown that it was now no more than a tangled cut line that we would not have a hope of finding let alone driving down.  This annoyed me, as to drive back to the salt springs and round to Chirisa from the north would take three hours, which would be a huge waste of time.  So I was prepared to try to find a way through the mopane.

Out on the plain

Out on the plain

But as we got closer to where the track should be, the mopane grew into trees, and there were small kopjes barring our way.  I wanted to try and cut some of the vegetation back to get through, but Bob suggested that this was futile, and looking off into the east he said that there was no way there could be a path through there.  With everyone a little fractious in the van, I got out and stood in a slight clearing and thrust the GPS skywards to get a reading.  I came back to the van, looked at the map and announced as forcefully as I could that the track was less than fifty metres to the east.  I started trying to clear a way through, untangling branches and removing ground detritus.  Bob went off walking east, obviously trying to disprove my theory and show me up to be the young immature ass that he knew in his heart of hearts I must be.  As I bent down to clear a particularly obnoxious log out of the way, I heard some shouting, and I saw Bob standing in the middle distance looking like a scarecrow, both arms pointing straight outwards in a northeast – south west orientation.  He was shouting “It’s here” and he came running back as fast as a seventy year old can go in thick bush.  He then proceeded to stand in front of the Land Rover while Joe inched forward, steering wherever Bob’s finger pointed.  He did find a route that went over the fewest roots and meant we had to clear minimal branches from our way, and after ten minutes of driving we were on the track.  Long straight and completely clear in both directions for several miles, it was like a motorway compared to the previous route.  As we all got back into Judith, Bob took an admiring look at the GPS.  “You must get me one of those things”.

 The events of that day did more to bond us together as a team than ever before, and that night Bob was in good form as he recounted the tale and then moved on to other things.  As a white Zimbabwean who had lived through so many of the changes in the country, he had many interesting perspectives on what went on, and it was interesting to hear Edmore and John’s alternative views on recent history.  Edmore and John talked of Mugabe as the saviour and great leader of Zimbabwe, as they had always lived at a distance from Harare’s mutterings.  Bob talked of Mugabe as someone he had rubbed shoulders with very often, as they were both part of that Harare community that ran and organised the country.  In fact Bob had only crossed Mugabe a few times, but knew many of his relations and of course all the civil servants and politicians who had come into contact with his work at the Herbarium.

 Joe and I were outsiders in these conversations, as we were when they moved on to folklore.  But the stories from Zimbabwean childhood were of much more interest to us both.  Curiously, these tales crossed both the racial divide and the urban rural split.  The most famous of these stories were about the hare in the moon.  The conversation moved this way as we were close to full moon and it shone through the faidherbias at us.  In Britain the stories were about the man in the moon, and I was only ever half convinced that I could see his face in the bright reflection.  But when I heard about the hare in the moon, it was obvious.  Shining down on us you could see the two huge ears and the little face, you could even see an eye.  And behind and below the ears was the bulge of the body and a little tail at the end.  It was so clear.  I wondered why I had never noticed it in England.  When I got back I realised why, the moon appears at a different angle in the northern hemisphere than it does in the south, and you have to turn your head clockwise about 90 degrees before you see the hare in the moon.

 The stories themselves are as typical as any folklore anywhere, a bunch of animals have adventures and each animal has certain characteristics which you can find in people.  I found it slightly curious that although typically Zimbabwean animals existed such as the lion and the elephant, they tended not to play a major role.  Most of the stories surrounded the hare in the moon who outsmarted the bear at every move; sounds a bit like Brer Rabbit.  Bob had picked them up from his various trips around the region, and by people he knew in Harare who had collected and written down these stories, but Edmore in particular knew these from tales his family had told him, and he recited each one slowly and carefully as a narrator must.  It was the first time I saw him properly confident; although he had learnt how to record position using GPS, had helped Bob identify some trees and had confirmed my map reading with his local knowledge, you could sense he was always just playing a supporting role.  Now he took centre stage and relished it.  He told three or four stories in succession, slowly and carefully, and at the end of each one he would stay silent for a few seconds before starting again “…And then there was the tale of how the Bear..”.

Hare in the moon?

Hare in the moon?

Busi Valley – Working alongside the wildlife

 The trip became more and more an adventure as we headed west and up to the high plateau on which the main part of the part was situated.  We saw a few waterbuck and impala but very little else.  The vegetation changed from thick bush or mopane woodland to the miombo type, Julbernardia and Brachestygia trees, and the occasional open grassland slightly reminiscent of the great savannahs of East Africa, except these often closed up before they extended very far.

 The excitement in me rose when I recognised a road junction that had been the furthest we had travelled in to the park when we surveyed from the north in 1993.  I was back in familiar ground and we drove north past the raised peat bog and through the little vleis near the campground.  Once at the entrance we introduced ourselves to the senior camp guard and I was offered the services of John.  While Edmore and Second were hardly 20 years old, and slightly built men who stooped and cowered when out and about, John was much more solidly built.  He was probably under 40, but had the air of maturity and certainty that gave him great authority.  He was very quiet and deliberate in his movements, but you thought that was the guy you really wanted with you when confronted by lions or elephants (or poachers) and he had to use the rifle he slung over his back.  As I got to know John over the next few days, a very dry sense of humour emerged, and I know he enjoyed learning about our work, as much as we enjoyed learning his bushcraft.

 Another man who could pack in forty seconds, we were on our way fairly quickly and drove back to the hot springs.  Because of the time we were able to do some more surveying in that area, but we saved the most for the next day.

 The next day in Chizarira was yet another adventure.  We drove back towards the salt springs but instead of recrossing the river, I wanted to explore the plain to the south east.  On the satellite image it was a huge area of white, denoting bare ground, like many areas in the cultivated ground from where the vegetation had been stripped.  As we drove through some scrubby mopane trees Joe stopped the vehicle.  Ahead was a lone bull elephant, ripping a tree apart.  We watched it for some moments before it got suspicious of our actions, and like all good elephants, merged into the forest in three steps.  We edged on, aware we were not alone in this part of the forest, but the land eventually cleared and we saw a wide plain rising gently to the east away from the river.  Before tackling the plain itself, I decided to look at a hillock to the south west and we rose up into an area of very short mopane bushes, no more than three feet from the ground.  On close inspection, we realised that not only had the elephants been at them, but there were signs of cutting and burning.  John was wary that it was probably poachers in the park, but conceded that this area of the park, so far from the main gates, was very difficult to guard.  We took our survey and dropped back to the plain.

 The plain puzzled me.  Although there were some areas of grassland around this was by far the largest.  So I decided that we would take a transect and reach the track which marked the boundary between the park and Chirisa Safari Area about five miles south east of us.  At first it was easy going, the open grassland covering a hard baked white soil was easy to drive on, but then dachrostachys bushes started to appear, and we had to skirt around a few patches.  My transect was no longer straight.

 At one place we surveyed as usual; I took the topography in while Joe got some soil samples and Bob wandered around looking at the trees.  John got interested in some footprints on a path to the north east and when I was finished I joined him.  Five sets of large prints and many sets of smaller prints were heading off into the bushes away from us.  From the freshness of the prints, John deduced that a series of female lions were leading some cubs along and had passed this point not more than an hour before.  We were a little more guarded at the next three transect points not to lose sight of each other, and I kept close to John’s gun.

 I was getting disturbed that the vegetation continued to thicken as we went east.  The satellite image showed that there were some patches which were thicker than others and I had tried to choose a spit of grassland that extended further into the bush than the others, but the dachrostachys had given way to scrubby mopane, with tangled knobbled roots, ripe for bursting Land Rover tyres.  It was during this time that I persuaded Bob that a GPS is the perfect tool in these surroundings.

Busi Valley – The joys of camping and driving in the bush

 I was tired of the sadza porridge that was being served up, especially as we had brought along all these English style goodies from the supermarket in Avondale.  So I showed Second a whole load of stuff, including a large can of Heinz Baked Beans.  I asked him to serve it up.  I went off to my ablutions.

 We had a gentlemen’s agreement about washing arrangements.  We had a couple of buckets, and would fill them with water then go out of the camp to wash.  As we could also fulfil other bodily functions at the same time, we agreed that we would each take a sector.  I would go west, Joe north and Bob east, which meant the Land Rover and visitors could approach the camp from the south without fear of stepping on something.  Not that it was that simple, we took the Joe’s pick with us and dug a hole for the dung, which we then used and refilled to ensure that it would not be taken over.  We must have fertilized several parts of that farmer’s maize field in the five days we were there.  Funnily enough, our gentleman’s agreement may have completely fell apart without our knowledge as we never asked Edmore and Second what they did.

 When I got back breakfast was ready.  Along with the sadza were the Heinz Baked Beans, and I relished the idea of them.  I took my first spoonful, and almost spat it out.  They were stone cold, and I got the taste of strong tomato sauce on bullet like beans.  With the guy’s Sadza, it was one of the most disgusting combinations I had come across, but rather than ask them to be heated up (we were running late already) , I tried to swallow as many of them as possible.  I did make a mental note, though, to ensure I always gave Second explicit instructions on what I wanted cooking in future.

 We started the drive to the park camp.  After about ten miles of cultivation we turned into a little used track and human activity almost completely evaporated. Apart from the occasional cut tree and the track we were on, we were in Chizarira Park.  The scenery was thick mopane woodland for a long period.  The track was often overgrown and we had to squeeze Judith through thick scrub.  The track gave little concern to the topography, at one stage we had to drive up a 1 in 2 rock face.  At one point, the bush was so thick, it bashed against the right hand wing mirror shattering the glass.  Judith performed admirably and my training in Muzurabani a week before meant I controlled the vehicle pretty well.  Beyond there we reached the Hot springs at the top of the Busi Valley.

Salt pans in Chizarira

Salt pans in Chizarira

End of the dry season

End of the dry season

 The salt springs of Busi are an incredible moonscape in amongst the bush, where hot volcanic springs leave crusty deposits in a series of ponds and rivulets.  It is rare to see running water in northern Zimbabwe in the middle of the dry season, but this is even stranger.  A series of different coloured algae live along the salt springs, each one tolerant of both the exact temperature and salinity it finds at that point.  Animals come down to the salt spring, knowing which are the poisonous wells and from which they can gain some salts they crave.  We saw many birds on that first morning, no animals, but the well trudged ground showed that elephant and antelope regularly made their way down here.  There was also a baby elephant skull half-emergent in the fine mud around one pool.

 We did not linger but headed along the ridge of rock in which the springs were situated and then dropped through the thick green riverine woodland to the edge of the Busi River.  Still wide at this point, it was a mass of sand.  Unlike other tracks we had been on the river had cut away the old entry point, and there was a steep drop of about ten feet to the riverbed.  We could see that the track rose from the bed more gently on the other side.  I hesitated at the lip of the river but Bob, always full of helpful back seat advice, urged me to go on.  So I eased Judith over the lip and we plunged into the sand below, bouncing up onto the riverbed once the back wheels hit the floor.  The reaction stalled Judith.  She started with ease, thanks to the guys in Gokwe we did not have the old starter problem, but when I tried to move off, the wheels dug into the soft sand.  I eased her into four wheel drive (probably the only time I used the Diff Lock on the whole trip), but she still spun.  The care with which I tried to build up acceleration, ease my foot off the clutch and try not to lose traction would have made Tiff Nidel sit up and take notice, and we glided across the sand bed like an ice skater on hallucinogenics.  We struggled a little to rise onto firm ground at the far side, and when I paused to take the Diff Lock off, I wiped the sweat from my brow and saw the other three do something similar.

Busi Valley – Second and the work

We intended to get a second guide, who could cook and act as camp guard, and once the tents were up, I thought we should go find him.  Edmore clambered into the now empty Judith (things like the water butts and petrol canisters having been offloaded and safely stored.

Edmore and I travelled about a mile to the other side of the schoolyard.  In amongst the heavily chopped mopane scrub were a large number of huts, and outside one a young man, barely 20, was squatting in front of an open fire.  Edmore introduced me and I explained that I needed someone to cook.  He said “All right”, disappeared into his hut and for the second time that day, emerged with a small plastic bag and was eager to hop inside the Land Rover.  I asked what his name was.

“Second” came the reply.

So Second and Edmore came to stay with us at the camp.  After we had filled up with water and Second had cooked up a strange meal with whatever we had brought, they both went home and did pack a few more things to stay with us for the five or so days we were in town.  My relief to see how willing they were to work with us without any forewarning was huge but as Bob explained, the prospect of both earning some wages from driving around with some foreigners and to be able to lord it over their friends and relations from a white Land Rover was too much of a chance to be lost.  Who wouldn’t stop building their own house when those riches were placed in front of them.

Mistake number 2006 emerged later in the night.  We had picked the camp site in the heat of the day, and tried to find the shadiest spot in the whole forest.  That was fine when it was daylight, but at night, the air cooled drastically, and being close to the river, we had camped in a large frost pocket, where the mist rose from the dry river bed each night and freezing air surrounded us.  We huddled close to the fire to keep as warm as possible, and we ended up sleeping in all our clothes.

Busi Camp - nice in the evening sun but cold at night

Busi Camp – nice in the evening sun but cold at night

Next morning, after two days of travelling, we finally got down to the work we had come to do.  If it had been cold the night before it was bloody freezing by the morning, and with no fire to speak of to warm ourselves against, there was little incentive to raise even more than a nose from our sleeping bags.  We had a breakfast of rather sweet porridge prepared by Second, and then Bob, Joe, Edmore and myself got into the vehicle and started surveying the Busi Valley.  We had a plan to survey two days in the inhabited part of the valley and then pick up a Park Ranger to allow us to explore the Chizarira Park side of the valley.  We also wanted to go into the Chirisa Safari Area on the east side of the valley, which meant that the valley was surrounded on three sides by protected areas, potential refuge for the kinds of game that could serve as alternative income for the farmers through the CAMPFIRE project.  However, as in many other areas, there were some reservations about the conservation of elephants, as they caused problems with the crops, and the farmers thought that the more tangible cotton plantations were a safer bet.  Whereas there was a case for this in the better soils of the north, which were closer to Harare, here in a remote valley there was little prospect that the cotton could be profitable.  It was just too far from market, even if they could grow sufficient quantities in the valley.

On the satellite imagery the contrast between habitation and natural forest was very stark, and we were aware that the cotton cultivation which had taken this area by storm was forcing people to clear closer and closer to the park and safari area.  The buffer of woodland between the animal reserve and farmland was being diminished which meant more conflicts were occurring, for instance, more rogue elephants were coming into the cultivated areas.  To combat this on the western side, a large elephant fence had been put up, over four metres high with high-tension wire, supposedly electrified.  But there had been many breaches and once a break had been made, the elephants remembered where a painless crossing existed.

With all the conflicts, and the remorseless stripping of woodlands, clearing for cultivation, wood burning and building that caused some harsh erosion features in the landscape, this valley was still one of the most beautiful I had seen in the world.  Both on the Chizarira side on the west, and in Chirisa to the south east, we climbed hill slopes to look at the vegetation changes as the soil, geology , water availability and altitude changed, and the views from the top were spectacular.  Often large stretches of mopane woodland reached across the valley, broken occasionally by cultivated fields or settlements, or long straight tracks created by Surveyors from the turn of the 20th Century.  And snaking its way through the valley a wide strip of sand where in the wet season huge volumes of water cascade along, the presence of water now indicated by the great green spreads of Faidherbia and a thick understorey.

Image of Busi Valley - pink is farming, purple and greens natural vegetation

Image of Busi Valley – pink is farming, purple and greens natural vegetation

Apart from that green the colours were autumnal, rich browns, reds and oranges, in amongst grey and white soils.  But we were just on the turn of spring, and the first hints of this was at a little ridge in the south of the valley where we turned a corner and saw an Acacia nigrescens in full blossom, the whole canopy bathed in a mass of delicate yellow flowers.  As time went on we saw more trees burst into flower, more acacias, bauhinias and crotons.

Busi Valley was fairly simple to understand in terms of its vegetation, the mopane dominating the valley floor.  After a couple of days we turned our attention to Chizarira.  To explore this area, we must have a park guide.  I had managed to get approval from the National Parks Office for this, and had a letter explaining our activity which we needed to present to the Chief Park Warden in Chizarira.  Our position in the valley was many miles from the Park camp, but we had to make this drive before we could do any serious work in the park.  So the next morning, we raised ourselves early.

Busi Valley – Edmore and the Camp

 We wound our way around many communities and farms and another missing link in our organisation glared out of us – what happened if we did not find Edmore?  How could we get around, how could we get a camp guard?  What would happen?  We went to the school where the rendezvous was supposed to take place, and find Edmore we could not.  There was one man there.  I quietly asked him if he knew where Edmore Chelo would be?  He pointed back along the road we had just come.  So we headed back along the track.  When we got to the man who was building his house, we called him across.  He came over and I asked him if he knew Edmore Chelo.  He smiled sheepishly and said “I’m Edmore”.  I smiled with relief and shook his hand.  I explained who we were and that he must have had the message from Knowledge that we were coming to the area and that we wanted to set up camp and look at the vegetation here and in Chizarira for a week, and that we wanted to have a cook and camp guard as well, and we knew Alan Gardner.

 He looked at me with a glazed look.  “No, I got no message”.  The smile immediately wiped itself from my face.

 “er… but we need someone to guide us around the area,” I stuttered, “ Would you be able to come with us”.

 “All right,”



“When could you start”.

“Just wait while I get my things”.  He walked over to the hut he was building and reappeared with a small plastic bag.  He got in next to Bob in the back and said “Lets go”

“Is that it?” I asked.  I realised I hadn’t even discussed a fee.

“Yes…Let’s go.”  I drove off.  We needed to pick up Alan’s camping equipment so we headed further north to a large compound.  There were at least ten round and a number of rectangular huts.  It was the first time that I had been in a chief’s kraal, and it taught me a lot of how people live.  I assumed that there was one hut per family or household, but with wealth it was obvious that the huts were treated as rooms.  The rectangular huts were like sheds, some holding sheep, goats or pigs, others tools or cooking equipment.  One shed was the granary store and the milling equipment was in another nearby.  My simplistic notions of how these people lived were blown out forever.

 We went and introduced ourselves to the chief, and he was most complimentary about Alan Gardner, and any friend of his was a friend of mine etc. etc.  He smiled as he said pop in any time and take whatever you want.  Edmore got the key to Alan’s private shed and we opened the shiny padlock on the outside of a very rough looking door.  Inside was an Aladdin’s Cave of camping gear; water butts, camp beds, tents.  We took what we thought we needed and packed up Judith even more tightly than she already was.

 We then drove south, it was now around mid afternoon and I was worried that we needed to get the camp set up and something cooking before sun down around 7 p.m. – I was getting hungry and apart from a rather Spartan breakfast we had eaten little.  It was very hot at this time and we looked for somewhere shady to set up camp.  In the centre of the Busi Valley near the school where we were originally supposed to meet Edmore, was a water pump and on the other side of the road, the ground dropped slightly to a small flood plain where a farmer had cleared some maize crops, under a large stand of huge Faidherbia trees.  We found the farmer and asked permission to stay and then set about pitching camp.  We had three tents.  Joe and I would share one, Bob would have a small hiking tent to himself and the third would be for Edmore.  It was as we unwrapped the hiking tent, I saw my first wild scorpion, a small white ghost of a creature less than two inches long.  Unfortunately it was dead so it didn’t count.

 Edmore and I went to get some water in Judith.  Only a few hundred yards way, we still drove as the water cans were too large to carry full.  The pump was in the school yard and surrounded by wire to stop the animals destroying it in their eagerness to find water.  The pump was a simple tool, a large steel pipe acted as the handle and gave good purchase on the pump.  But even so, it was back breaking work filling the six containers.  How the women and children of the village managed to do it all day, and then carry the water back often a couple of miles was beyond me.

Pumping for water

Pumping for water

Busi Valley – Solving the Mystery of Judith

 We bedded down early that night, there being little else to do.  And I wanted an early start in the morning.  We had to get the tyre fixed, and fill the canisters with petrol.  In the morning we changed the wheel on the back of the Land Rover and drove back into town and the large garage at the main crossroads.  Already it was a hive of activity, and we had to wait a while for the canisters and the Land Rover’s tank to be filled.  So we were now a highly inflammable bomb as well as overloaded and with a dodgy engine.  While this was going on, Joe wheeled the spare tyre round the back.  We waited for a while for this to be done, watching the industry of the other garagers intently, and the comings and goings of market sellers, vehicles passing through, buses filling up in the station across the road.

 We were about to leave when Judith decide to play her usual trick, the engine refused to start at all. We were stuck in the garage.  The same guy who had repaired our wheel asked us to push it round the back so he could take a look at it.  By this stage, I was so used to waiting for things to happen that I went off for a short walk around the compound, and spent several minutes watching some geckos playing hide and seek among a bunch of barrels.  When I got back, the guy was holding up a wire and explaining something to Jo.  It turned out that the wire that connected the ignition to the started motor had no nut on it, so was loose in the engine.  He got a bolt and nut and screwed it onto the motor.  Judith started no trouble, and indeed never gave us starter trouble again.

 We were perplexed as to why no-one else had picked it up.  Then we realised, when most people looked at it, the stiff wire held the connection in place so it looked OK. And indeed Judith would start no problem.  If we parked at a certain angle, then Judith would start, but lean very slightly to the left and the wire would stick out away from the starter motor and the engine would never start in a month of Sundays.  And we had never noticed when we had been stranded.  Joe and I felt like wallies but were thankful we had finally solved the riddle.

 So it was with higher hopes we set off.  Leaving Gokwe behind we realised this would be the last town we would see for about a week, and as we drove deeper into the drying bush, we finally fully appreciated the remoteness of the valley we were about to enter.

The road off to Busi was about forty miles down the tarmac, which criss crossed the wide sandy Sasame River.  As we bumped off onto the Busi road, it was already lunch time, and we had to drive at low speed across some difficult terrain before we finally crossed the wide Sengwa river, also dry, near its confluence with the Busi river, and we were in the valley.  The countryside was familiar Zambezi Valley, mopane woodlands with thick green riverine woodland; the huge Faidherbia trees lining the edges, also thick with crotons on the banks.  Scrubby areas of dachrostachys bushes and Acacia trees were also there.  But it was now mid to late August and everywhere was so dry.  Only the river banks held green trees, and the areas of human habitation were even more parched, often stripped bare by goats, there was little vegetation of any description.  Vast areas of forest had been cleared for wood for burning or building, and the resultant landscape often turned to a moonscape, scarred by devastating gullies that sucked the remaining soil away.  And yet, in amongst these hotspots were the most beautiful stands of cathedral mopane, tall majestic trees with little understorey, and a thick carpet of orange leaves on the ground.

And in some of the villages we saw activity.  Despite the heat of the day, several children were walking with the goats and cows, we saw a man building his hut, and several women at work grinding maize, or sewing, or washing clothes in meagre waterholes next to rivers.

Denuded landscapes - deep in the dry season, soil gone, trees stripped of wood by goats and for firewood

Denuded landscapes – deep in the dry season, soil gone, trees stripped of wood by goats and for firewood