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

Busi Valley – KABOOM!!!!

 Anyhow, we couldn’t worry too much about that, we were on our way, we had jobs to do and we had to get moving or else we would not make Gokwe by nightfall.  It was already after four o’clock by the time we moved on.  We briefly halted in Kadoma to stock up with a couple of things we had forgotten (I seem to remember matches was one thing – see why I was worried?) and then headed on the side road through Empress Mine, one of the large Zimbabwean mining villages that runs either side of the Great Dyke.  It was dusk when we went through there, and we saw a shift change, a whole load of tired, dusty blue-overalled men wearily trudging along the road to their tin shacks, the life drained from their faces, their eyes only faintly recognising the presence of Judith as we drove past.

 We turned onto the main road to Gokwe as it really got dark.  Although the major trunk roads of Zimbabwe are wonderfully constructed and there are great segments that appear to pass through lots of nothing, at night any road is treacherous in Zimbabwe.  In 1996 it was safe in terms of the fact that we were unlikely to be hijacked or robbed (something that could not be said of the turn of the century) but there was potential for a whole multitude of objects on the road to crash into; people walking, riding bicycles, driving mules or tractors, bits of wood or lumps of concrete or startled game.  Two or three times we had to jam on the brakes as a cyclist with no lights loomed out of the dark only a few feet in front of us.  Our average speed decreased even more.  And then, at last, around 7:30 in the evening, the fires and limited electric lights of the town of Gowke appeared.  The last time I had been here was on my return from Binga in 1993, and compared to the tiny settlements it had appeared like a metropolis.  Coming down from Harare it was completely the opposite, a frontier town civilisation had bypassed.  It was at this point that another missing link in our planning became glaring.  We had no idea where the tsetse camp was.  I seemed to remember it was off the main road as you headed north out of town, but I had little idea how far.  We asked and my conception was confirmed, so we drove north.  There were no road signs, but right on the edge of town, we could discern a bunch of buildings set amongst some thorn trees.  On the right was a house with some lights on so we stopped and asked whether we had the right place.  We were correct again, and the man we were talking to was a kind of caretaker.  He invited us to drive up and he would join us with a key.  They look like a typical Public Works depot or Government office you may find in these rural areas.  We had to drive up into the compound, up a steep narrow track which was marked by several tree roots, a lot of bricks and several gullies.  I think there was a track underneath it all, but it was difficult to tell in the dark.

 We parked and relieved we jumped out and started to look at our camp for the night, a concrete rondavel.  Quietly congratulating ourselves for getting to this stage, we waited patiently for the caretaker and listened to the night sounds.  There was the usual crickets chirruping, and frogs croaking, and a strange high pitched hissing which almost sounded like a snake, till we realised Judith’s back rear tyre was as flat as a pancake.  We must have gone over a thorn or a gnarled tree root as we drove up that drive.  One step forward, two back.

 We had a look round our quarters; like so many concrete buildings which are rarely inhabited, there was a film of grey dust everywhere which penetrated even the cobwebs strewn around the rooms.  There were a couple of bedrooms and a serviceable outhouse, and a small kitchen whose centrepiece was a Calor gas stove and chimney.

 Somewhat tired and irritable, we brought our bedrolls in and the few knickknacks for the night ahead.  We paid the caretaker, took the key, offloaded some food boxes from the van and locked her up.  And we set about making some food.  Bob, an old man, bless him, rested in one corner; I started trying to be imaginative with a couple of tins of tomatoes, some carrots and a tin of pilchards.  Jo, always keen to tinker with something mechanical, tried to light the stove.  He gave us updates through the half open steel door, it was on, it went out.  He finally got it going but the flame was not very strong.  I got some water in a pan and prepared to start boiling it on the stove.  I went back for the victuals and as I made my way back to the kitchen there was a loud “WHOP”, and a shaken Joe came staggering through the door.  Bob started out of his doze.

 “What Happened”, we both shouted.

“Er…I Don’t really know.  I think there must be a leak in the stove or something.  I thought the gas was not coming out of the top very strongly.  His hair, usually slightly dishevelled, was blown upwards and backwards, and his face was red with a few black smudges, but otherwise he was unharmed.  I rushed into the kitchen and turned the stove off.

 Jo managed to use the wood stove and we did heat up some food, but it was after 9 by the time we ate.  The light salad in Chegutu seemed a million years ago, and a different world to this.  After three days we were back in the real Africa.

Looking forward to heading back to the Mopane Woodland

Looking forward to heading back to the Mopane Woodland

Busi Valley – From Harare to the bush again

Knowledge had re-assured me that the people in Busi Valley knew we were coming to do five days field work.  My plan was to drive down to Gokwe, a little town in the Midlands of Zimbabwe, stay at the Tsetse camp there and then progress on to Busi the next day, arriving by mid morning, meeting Edmore, who was to be our guide, and then set up camp and start work by afternoon.

 Bob had been at home the last few days since we returned to Harare form the north, and Jo and I had gone back to the Cresta Oasis in town, incredible luxury after three weeks in the bush, South African Cable TV, a huge firm double bed, soft lighting and new furnishings everywhere, and a superb power shower.  The wonderful buffet breakfasts in the hotel dining room, with fresh fruits, croissants and eggs any style.  We had a couple of days to clear things with Tsetse control off Borrowdale Rd. Jo and I were worried about our Land Rover, Judith, as it was still causing us problems.  We got the battery recharged at a BP station in Vainona, and we managed to acquire a spare battery from Tsetse.  We met up with Alan Gardner, a co-worker who knew the Busi Valley like the back of his foot.  He gave us some equipment and the name of the chief who stored his other camping equipment in a hut.  We would find Edmore at a school in Busi Valley and he would get the key.  Finally, we realised that we would be about seventy kilometres (three hours driving on those roads) from the nearest petrol station, so we got six canisters in which we could store fuel.  We also did another mammoth shop in Avondale as we needed enough supplies for six days to get us down there, around Busi and Chizarira and then on to Vic Falls where we were to pick up Ben Manyuchi.  I also had to make arrangements not only for this segment but also for the final week in Kariyangwe.  I was disappointed that I could not get to stay at Binga Rest Camp as I had done three years before.  They were fully booked for the Kariba regatta.  There was nowhere at that time in Kariyangwe, but I managed to get permission to stay in Lusulu tsetse camp, about thirty miles east of Kariyangwe.  So Jo and I were busy, but we kept in touch with Bob to ensure we were OK about getting him away on time.  Poor old Bob was not the best at organising himself or extracting himself from suburban Harare life.  I telephoned him several times over those few days and got a hesitant answer “Yes I shall be ready”.  As the time drew nearer I realised I should listen more to his hesitation than his words.  It was eventually about 2 in the afternoon when we got going.  We drove down the old Kirkman Rd west out of town.  The A5 was being dualled and the roadworks were leading to lots of delays so we skirted to the north.  We eventually got back on the main road and drove through some of the most incredible country in Zimbabwe, not because it looked spectacular in any way, but because it looked like the open prairies of the mid west, organised, huge rich farms.  The most amazing of these was the estate just beyond Norton which blazoned its name in white rocks on the kopje hills to the east, and the huge farm house overlooking vast green irrigated fields stretching to the horizon.  The Africanness of the area barely exist here, some names of villages have been changed, although traces of the old names still leak through.  Norton still exists, but Hartley has been replaced by Chegutu.  It was just this side of Chegutu that we stopped for a very late lunch, again at a most remarkable place.  We were just about to head off into the deepest bush, to camp in tents, get our water from pumps and cook over an open fire.  And we started by having a lovely salad lunch in a pristine café as part of a garden centre in the centre of the commercial farmlands.  It was deadly quiet, and the three of us were immersed in our own thoughts.  I was increasingly worried about how this segment of the trip was to go.  There seemed to be a whole load of missing links, and potential areas for disaster.  Despite our three weeks in the north, we still felt very inexperienced about bush work.  Bob didn’t worry but I always suspected that any field trip he had done was in a similar style to our previous three weeks, with a whole army of camp wardens, cooks and supporters.  This was different, we would be on our own with perhaps one or two local guides whom we had never met.