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.
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.
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.