Insect Safari – Scorpions again

Go to the first post for Insect Safari

I was very sorry when the time came for us to leave this little corner of the world and head back for the relative civilisation of Harare.  Despite a great deal of evident poverty in the villages the people were on the surface relatively content.  If you scratched the surface a little you got the sense of frustration and the tensions between local and immigrant populations, but in general they were coping well with their circumstances and in many cases were moving forward.  The environment too, despite the pressures in some areas that had devastated the natural vegetation, still had huge tracts of untouched land, within which as wide a range of wild animals as you would find in any national park roamed.  The awesome topography of the escarpment in the south and Cabora Bassa to the north and the huge natural beauty of the lands in between never failed to fascinate me, as did the intricate detail of the insect life at every place.  I was sorry I never saw a scorpion there, it was the closest I ever felt that I would get to one, but it was not to be.

I moved to the British Virgin Islands in October 2001.  After a month, my furniture was due to arrive and I started to dismantle the Landlord’s furniture.  As I stripped one of the beds, I saw what I thought was a dead scorpion on the bed, about an inch and a half long, flat as a pancake but an ebony black.  I took a pencil and reached out to it to flick it off the sheet and it arched its sting upwards, waved its claws frantically skyward and then waddled off the edge of the bed and into a crack in the floor.

I had searched high and low for a scorpion in foreign parts for the best part of thirteen years.  I finally found it under my sleeping body.

Insect Safari – Jane and the hippos

Some evenings I finished work early and the TV was not as interesting (on either side), the shooting stars were few and far between and I had run out of reading.  Sasha was away on a short holiday and Jane was running the camp.  She had to do some field work at night, many insects in the rivers only came out at night and they needed some samples from the traps in midstream.  It took two people to do this, so I volunteered to go with her one night to Mushumbi Pools to help her out.  We drove up in the dark and across the long narrow concrete bridge in the centre of the village.  Fortunately for us the river area was not built up, the threat of flooding, the steep slopes and the use of the bottom of the valley for vegetable gardens meant there were no houses within a hundred yards of the bridge.  So we were left alone as we locked the Land Rover and dropped down a small track to the flood plain.  I had taken Sasha’s wellies with me and Jane had hers on, and we left some of our equipment next to the rushes on the bank and waded out to midstream.

The Angwa river is not deep at this time of year, but the fine silt in the river bed made our wellies go well in and we had to squelch purposefully across to the sample sites.  I had a distinct role in this procedure – to watch for hippos.  Jane hitched her long skirt into her wellies, put a torch in her mouth and proceeded to scoop the muddy content of the first trap into a glass jar.  I shone another torch on her while keeping my eyes peeled for any hippos in the banks.  Most people have the idea that crocodiles are the biggest killers in Africa, but hippopotami are far worse; not necessarily because they are malicious, although there are a few rogue ones around who turn over canoes for fun.  More it is because they can blunder into people in unexpected places.  During the heat of the day they wallow around in their muddy pools and rivers, but eat little.  At night, they waddle out onto the grassy banks and graze for several hours.  The dark river Angwa at ten o clock was one of the most dangerous places to be in Africa that night.  And the faintly comic sight of Jane with a torch in her mouth and her skirt tucked in her knickers and wellies while I scanned the river banks around like a wayward lighthouse made it seem particularly ludicrous.  Several times I heard a rustling in the rushes and my saying “What’s That” nearly made Jane jump out of her wellies.

If there were any hippos in the rushes then they never came out while we were there, but at one stage we heard the most frightful scream from the bridge “Iwe”.  Jane explained to me that it was Shona for , more or less, “Oi”.  We ignored it.  They shouted again; I think they were worried we were people stealing some vegetables from the many gardens on the river bank, but after a while they were distracted by something else.  We packed up our stuff, placed the glass jars safely in a container on the river bank and made our way back up to the Land Rover.

Insect Safari – Scud

One of the best parts of the trip was meeting people along the road side.  We were not supposed to take lifts, but it was difficult to refuse when you knew you were the only vehicle on the road for miles around and some old woman was trying to get her bag of clothes to the other side of the district.  I also needed to talk to some people to get a sense of history out of them.  It was all very well us sampling the vegetation and looking at the land use, but we were also trying to see how much the situation had changed, and get a feel for whether people were aware of and supported the idea of getting money for wildlife trophies and tourism rather than extensive farming.  So, while Joe and Bob might be looking at the vegetation and the soils, I would go and find a nearby hut and see whether anyone would talk to me.  My interviews with these people would never stand up in any critique of sociological survey technique, but I was finding some basic information that would help Ben Manyuchi who was our sociologist on the project in later months.  I did manage to glean some interesting facts about the areas we were travelling through.  What I think surprised me most was the mobility of the families and individuals in the region.  Although many people were living miles from any main road or settlement, they or other members of their family would spend much of the week or perhaps months in Harare, catching one of the multitude of buses which headed up out of the valley and across the veldt.  In the middle of fields I would come across young men who were teachers trained in England.  One was an ardent Liverpool football supporter and made sure he travelled to one of the bars in the valley every Saturday to watch the matches from the satellite TV.

I had one experience which showed my deficiencies in interview technique.  In the middle of a very sparse scrub, so many of the trees already shredded for fodder and firewood, were a bunch of small huts.  They looked almost deserted apart from one very old woman who was sitting still at her hut entrance.  I approached gently and saw her head move towards me.  She was wrinkled from head to foot, her joints stuck out and stretched her leathery skin.  She was squatting on a small wooden stool, her clothes wrapped around her slight frame and her bare limbs poking out at all angles.  A bedraggled headscarf sat precariously on frizzy white unkept hair.  It was fairly obvious that she was completely blind.  Her corneas were blued out and she turned her ear towards me rather than full face.  She knew good English and I was able to talk to her for a while.  I found out she was originally from Malawi and her family were out in the fields somewhere about.  But any line of questioning beyond that was just responded to with an affirmation or a repetition.  What unnerved me the most was the way that this lady of over 90, who had probably had much more experience of life than I, at the time 24 years, had had or perhaps ever will have, kept calling me “master”.  Whether it be a throwback to colonial times she had lived through, or an unhealthy servitude towards any form of officialdom, or just a manner of her English speech, I would never discern, but it made me realise how much I was intruding on these people and that my line of questioning was probably giving me little information – it was either reinforcing my own opinions as people were willing to give you the answers you sought, or just raising suspicion amongst a group of people who had seen researchers come and go with no discernible improvement in their lives.  After my time with that old lady, I both curtailed the enthusiasm for talking to people and changed my technique in asking the questions.

Knowledge and Jo at a tsetse trap

Knowledge and Jo at a tsetse trap

But talking to people was inevitable in the heavily populated areas close to the rivers and escarpment.  One day, when with Knowledge, he decided that the best way to talk to people was to go to a town and get in amongst them.  His conclusion came from the fact that he thought that the way I was just picking individuals at each rural location was not yielding huge opinions.  In a way he was right – it would be more useful to reach the gatekeepers as sociologists sometimes call them; the people who both yield power, know the history of the place and can communicate it effectively and objectively.  I have some suspicion of this approach as it often just gets you to the loud mouths and those who think they yield the power.  In many African communities, the women are pushed to the back of such a throng as they are not perceived as knowledgeable enough, but in fact since they do most of the farming and household chores, they would be worthy interviewees.

So we followed Knowledge’s advice and at the next settlement, where a market was in full flow, we stopped Judith and got out in amongst the throng.  I was rather nervous as there were about 100 men and several women and children in this market area.  It was the most basic of markets; a series of rugs and baskets on the floor with all manner of knickknacks being sold; food in the form of vegetables, nuts and fruit, a few pots and pans, baskets for sale, loads of little hardware items like locks and hoes, pipes, guttering, and the ubiquitous cigarettes and sweets.  The arrival of Judith generated a huge amount of interest and before I had got off her footplate, a throng of inquisitive bodies were squeezing up against the Land Rover.  Knowledge, with the patronising nature that befitted his Harare Chiefdom roots, quickly moved the people back a way so I could at least breathe.  I started talking to the nearest people about what we were trying to do, flashing some hard copy prints of the satellite images we were using.

Everyone was interested but no-one answered my questions, but then a small posse headed away from me.  I was wondering what was going when they re-emerged from a nearby store with a small man.  I could not get a close look at him until the crowd in front of me parted and this wizened man of about sixty came right up to me and stared me right in the chest.  He was wearing a Davy Crocket hat; why he needed so much fur on his head in this heat, I have no idea.  He had a small whitish beard and the complexion under his facial fur and wrinkles was lighter than many of his co-villagers.  His checked shirt was worn at the edges but was originally of a fine cut, and he stood in a dominating manner, despite his diminutive size.  He was also half cut and it was only ten thirty in the morning.  Knowledge introduced him to me as the chief.  I started to explain to Knowledge that I wanted to tell the Chief about the project and the lands.  The Chief interrupted me and in a dramatic pose said in clear English that he wanted me to speak directly to him.  So I showed him the satellite image in my hand and started to explain.  He concentrated hard on the image for about ten seconds, then stepped back impatiently and said to Knowledge for him to explain in Shona.

The conversation followed on from there without further embarrassment.  The chief nodded enthusiastically as I explained the project to him, and answered the questions on the history of land development very enthusiastically.  He told me some enlightening experiences of the CAMPFIRE programme, where wildlife were being used as an economic tool.  One of the aspects of the CAMPFIRE programme is to give farmers compensation if a wild animal damages his crops.  The most usual culprits are the elephants.  The idea is that the rogue elephant comes down from one of the wilderness areas to plunder the rich crops in the village.  The farmer can get a message to the local CAMPFIRE office which organises a shooting party.  The elephant is shot and the meat distributed amongst the locals, and a payment is made to the displaced farmer.

That is the theory, but the chief told me the practice in his village had been worse than useless.  For one thing, the damage is done before the farmer can get his message to the CAMPFIRE; the elephant sneaks down in the night and has escaped back up to the forest before any action can be taken.  Secondly, although the whole village benefits from any CAMPFIRE money raised, for the individual farmer who has lost his years of crops being trampled or eaten, there is no real recompense in any small money bag handed over.  He has no security for the following year.

I was fascinated by the Chief’s stories, although I had to stand very patiently as he rambled in his half drunken stupor and waited for most of the crowd to agree unanimously with everything he said.  At the end of half an hour in this market place, we really needed to move on, but as I started to make great thanks, the Chief shouted in pure English that “Now you buy me Scud”.  I thought it was the least I could do after all the information he had given me, and he agreed “I gave you something, now you give me something”, and he laughed, and the whole village laughed around me.  He took me by the hand and forced me through the parting crowd, leaving Bob, Joe and Knowledge standing back in a bewildered state.  We entered the shop from where I had first saw him and he led me up to a Spartan wooden bar.  He shouted “Scud” and instantly a plastic container was put on the table.

I had been told about Scud, I had seen hundreds of the small plastic barrels that it came in, on lorries, next to bars, in people’s hands.  But I had yet to taste it.  It was an intoxicating mixture of brewed maize meal (“foodanddrink” as people always would tell me when they had one in their hands), the colour of which I never found out because you drank it straight from these brown barrels with their dark blue caps.  Its real name was Chegutu, after the town where it was made, and traditionally it was drunk out of wooden gourds.  But with the inevitability of progress, plastic containers were easier to produce and transport and so these strange containers were born.  In 1991, hoards of intoxicated Zimbabweans were watching the war against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and saw that the rough missiles used by the Iraqi’s against Jerusalem and other cities, the “Scud” missiles, were very similarly shaped to these barrels, and the name Scud stuck.

It is not an unpleasant drink, rather yeasty and with occasional bits of maize sticking in your teeth.  But I was a little shocked when the Chief ordered a second Scud and expected me to drink it.  At this time in the morning and with half a day’s field work still to come, this was a bit of a shock.  I took a few mouthfuls under the inspecting gaze of Davy Crockett.  I said how good it was and he seemed satisfied that I had not breached any diplomatic rules he was setting out.  I pleased him even more when I handed over the money for both drinks, and he was ecstatic when I left three quarters of the two pint barrel for him to finish and I went out to rejoin the rest of the field crew.

Insect Safari – Camp and TV Part 2

Once the shower was over we raided the freezer for frozen tonic water, opened the gin and made our mixers.  Gin is a drink which suits the sub-tropics perfectly.  It is a thirst quencher, it is a reviver and it has a nasty little kick which reminds you that life is the same everywhere in the world.  Particularly in the tropics, life stops for sun-downers.  It is always a shock to people who haven’t visited the tropics before, how early it goes dark.  The image of night-time in Africa is one of people sitting up late to watch the sun-set and sitting around till all hours in their T-shirts and shorts.  Well they do all that, but it happens a lot earlier than you expect.  The sun sinks with alarming rapidity.  To time a sundowner just right, you have to be ready as soon as the sun shows the first signs of dropping.  If you leave it any longer then the sun is racing down before you get the top off the tonic.

Dinner would come next, and was better than anything I can get in many hotels in Zimbabwe.  And then we would settle down to write up the day’s events till ten or eleven at night.

We were able to work as we used a line of electric lights that ran from the generator, passed the loos and in the dining room. It then extended past the kitchens and labs to the outside of the guest tents.  Between the guest tents and lab, a single light marked the footpath.  Sasha and Jane, the two girls who ran the project, had set up the television set here.  They hung a large white sheet from the wire next to this bulb and weighed it down with large stones.  When the lights were turned on, every forest creature was attracted to it.  We would go and look at this thing for hours, totally peaceful apart from the little ching ching ching of thousands of insects’ feet and wings.

Moths would flock to the light itself, many were instant casualties as they burnt their wings on the 40 watt bulb.  Others circled continuously, dazzled by the light.  You could see some trying to force against their instincts and fly away, but they would be urged back by those same instincts.  Sausage flies would circle aimlessly around.  These strange insects are the short-lived adult phase of the more famous ant lion. They have no mouth parts, so only have a day or so to mate and lay their eggs, before they are consigned to the DNA scrap heap.  And they haven’t really been dealt a very fair card.  They have large sausage shaped bodies with wide wings which they don’t really get time to learn how to use.  They buzz annoyingly around in circles, bumping in to anything that gets in the way.  On the TV they would bang against the sheet hundreds of times.  How they ever get to meet a mate and reproduce, I am not certain, but they seem to thrive.

Beetles too turned up in all shapes and sizes.  My knowledge of invertebrates is so small it could be counted on the segments of my thorax.  But Sasha would identify at least a few of them.  Some she could tell were water beetles, by the paddle-shaped legs.  The nearest standing water was about fifteen miles away in one of the river valleys but we still got water beetles.  Others were large dung beetles, who would crawl around the bottom of the sheet, not really interested in anything going on there, but having stumbled across the riot on their usual travels.

Preying on the smaller insects were a host of mantis.  Some were small and would gently stalk up the sheet and then snap out with one of their powerful front legs, grab the beetle or moth and start chewing.  The mantis revolves its head around as it eats the best bite, then spits out the indigestible bits.  The bits would float down the sheet, sometimes to be picked up by a scavenger further down.

One of the mantises became a special creature who I always looked for when I went to watch TV.  He was enormous, about two-and-a-half to three inches long, and had a wide smooth wing case, which looked like the little wooden spatulas that school nurses once used.  It covered the entire back and beyond.  He had a large green head, but he had been in the wars.  Instead of the pair of front legs, he only had one, which seriously curtailed his ability to hunt.  He would still gamely try, a mantis has to eat.  But he would stalk up on a moth and lash out with the same ferocity, but the lack of a leg on the other side of his body gave a ready escape route to the quick-witted insects.  I would stand there willing him on to overcome his disability, and he would occasionally get some food before humming off into the dark bush.

One night when I was staring there, he didn’t turn up, and I thought, something has got him.  A bird has grabbed him unawares, or a lizard found him dozing on a leaf.  Or a scorpion had a fight over some food and his lack of fighting tackle was his defeat.  I found myself mourning an insect.  Then, towards the last night we were there, I was watching TV when in comes spatula man, still the same, still obviously surviving with his one good leg.  I left Dande knowing he was OK.  Still, he never writes to me anymore.

The law of the jungle was being played out in miniature on this sheet.  Prey and predator.  And most macabre of all were the scavengers.  Instead of vultures and hyenas there were ants and lizards.  Little geckos would come onto the sheet and lick up everything in reach.  It was like all their Christmas’s had come at once, and they would physically bloat from the excess of insects at their mercy.

But the ants were the worst.  The debris of the TV ended up on the bottom of the sheet; moths burnt from the light, bits of wing case from messy mantis meals, or flies which had come to the end of their natural life.  Out of the gloom a trail of tiny ants would emerge as soon as the light went on, and they would pick up anything left on the floor.  The line of ants would carry the dead carcasses back into the gloom, never to be seen again.  And worst of all, they would attack tired or half dead insects up to about a third of the way up the sheet, and I would see small beetles being dragged down by three or four ants, the last life throes being used to struggle against these tiny conquerors.  If they could scream it would have been agony for any onlooker. As it was, it was all rather cheerless.

In the morning, as I passed the sheet on the way for a wash, I would take a quick glance.  A few tell tale traces of wing, a couple of very small flies smattered across the material, but apart from that, nothing.   It had all been cleared away.

There were other ants that became part of our lives.  All sweet things in the dining room were the jurisdiction of these wonderful honey coloured ants, who could prise themselves under most gaps between jars and lids.  They moved with such grace, and their almost transparent bodies with the dark orange eyes made them look sculpted out of coloured glass.

The black ants outside were of a different nature.  On a couple of occasions, I would be heading back to my tent, and I would be stopped in my tracks by a trail of large black ants marching across the footpath.  This was frightening, again not so much for us, although I could have received a nasty nip from several of them if I had caused them irritation.  It would start with a thin continuous line, but at its height would be nearly a foot wide of black ants.  They would be clearly visible on the footpaths but then they would hide under the grass and all you knew that they were there was by the continuous drum-beat hissing, as though they were war chanting all the way to their fight.  Here and there the trail would split into two, and sentinels would be standing at these nodes to guide ants one way or another.

Out in the field, there was rarely much time to watch the wildlife, but my surveys seemed to take less long than Jo and Bob’s so I often had a few moments by the Land Rover while they tidied up.  It was here that I had my first encounter with bay sausage flies, the ant lions.  I had seen film footage of these creatures, but it never really gave me a sense of scale or location for these animals.  The ant lions liked sandy, relatively undisturbed and bare soil.  The sides of roads were ideal locations and almost everywhere you went were these perfect conical shaped pits, sometimes hundreds of them close together.  I would scout around for an unsuspecting ant and gently drop it into the pit.  The ant would look around somewhat bemused and then start to find that it couldn’t climb up the sides of the pit. The ant lions leave a slippy secretion on the sides, which keeps the prey in.  Then, like the creatures from Dune, there would be a violent flick of sand which destabilises the ant, and a pair of claws would appear out of the sand, grab the ant and pull it down below the surface.  If I was lucky I would catch a glimpse of the blobby grey body of the ant lion, but more often than not, the whole action was over before I could really take it in.

Insect Safari – Camp and TV Part 1

The place we were staying was not difficult to find, as it was at the only turn off between Mahuwe and Mushumbi Pools, the next major village along the dirt road.  However, until we got used to the corners of the road and all the little features along it, those twenty three kilometres from Mahuwe to the SEMG road was spent looking for that turn off.  We got quite good at judging the corners.  This road was enormously wide, and often had “gutters” large enough to drive a vehicle through.  Between these gutters were high mounds of rather loose pile of gritty sand and rounded pebbles which acted as the main road.  It had one or two heavily indented areas where hundreds of wheels, some very heavy had pushed there way through.  But for the most part, the road had only one of these tracks, and was used by vehicles travelling in either direction.  This is where it got hairy.  As our confidence increased, so did our speed.  We learnt to control the skids, and in fact use them to our advantage.  If you knew where to start turning the wheel as you sped down the straights at 70-80 kmh-1 you could surf around the corners without using the brakes.  In fact in many cases to use the brakes was near fatal, as it would lock wheels and lose the control completely.

On the wide bends, keeping the momentum up was easy, but you were also tempted to do it on the tighter bends, where a large baobab or rocky koppie would stick in the way of your sight to the next straight.  And here was where other judgements came in.  You couldn’t hear anything above the din of Land Rover wheels on shifting sands, but you might get a glimpse of the telltale cloud of orange smoke that said that a large vehicle was coming at you, on the same rutted tracks that you were so firmly sitting in.  If it was a lorry, they were generally travelling slowly enough to take some action yourself, but you had to split a second to get out of the way of the maniac buses – the huge mangled metal bricks that rush around the whole area. Before we had much chance of applying brakes, the bus would be upon us and quite often it was down to the grace of some god or other that we managed to breeze by without smashing into this juggernaut.

On other occasions we had more unexpected hazards.  Here would be the flock of guinea fowl, scattering faster in front of you than you ever thought possible.  One day we were surfing along on the road, came to a straight (still in bushland) and a rather straggly looking elephant came running full pelt out of the bush, up over the road and off into the bush on the other side.

Hazards on the main road from the SEMG camp to the escarpment base.

Hazards on the main road from the SEMG camp to the escarpment base.

We gradually got used to every turn in that road, although I must say I couldn’t tell much difference between the 121, 122 and 123 kilometre stretches.  Out of Mahuwe, you passed through some extensive town, and you had to watch the usual assortment of children, chickens and particularly goats as you sped through.  There were usually a couple of tractors as well, loaded up with hay, or beer bottles or people.  The road left most of the farmsteads behind and passed through wide-open fields.  Then, after a yellow sign depicting an elephant, to warn you of wild animals, you passed into the remaining scrub lands.

The SEMG camp in Dande was an amazing oasis in the centre of this scrub.  You approach the turn off along the main road and two sticks supported a barrel end with the letters SEMG painted roughly on it.

We turned down this road and travelled for a further mile.  To the right, a group of higher, dark green trees emerged among the dry bush.  A bunch of Land Rovers was parked under the trees in a row, and beyond a group of tents and grass buildings had been erected.  It was on the site of an old tsetse camp, and a borehole existed next to where the Land Rovers were parked.  The trees surrounded a waterhole.  By the time we reached there, there were only a few small muddy puddles in the centre of the oasis.  A large area of dried cracked mud surrounded these pools.  Green grass took over on the raised fringe of this and then huge tamarind trees gave significant shade for about a thirty-metre radius around.  In the shade of these trees, the camp was made.

SEMG camp car park

SEMG camp car park

The camp was set up primarily for the group of scientists monitoring the effects of pesticide on water borne invertebrate life in three of the main rivers in the region; the Angwa, the Dande and Msungezi.  Three satellite camps were set up on these rivers, but the base camp had most of the supplies, and tented laboratories for the two women who ran the camp to analyse the specimens.  For the three month spell they were there, they lived in some comfort.  Specially constructed for the period were two huts, wooden framed and lined with grass panels on three sides.  One served as a kitchen and store room, complete with gas cylinder operated freezer.  The other was the dining room come general work room.  Our project set up shop on the far end of a large slab of smoothed wood in the dining room which made a very firm table.

The dining room at SEMG camp with Sasha doing her entomology.

The dining room at SEMG camp with Sasha doing her entomology.

The dining room was partly open to the waterhole side and about twenty yards away was an open fire, used to boil water and burn rubbish.  To the left a set of grass cubicles which served as showers, and then beyond two larger grass walls which contained two dry pit loos; one smelly, the other not so smelly.  Beyond these again was a small pit which contained the electrical generator which gave us bright light at night.  Coming back towards the dining room, the tsetse control people had their tents.

Heading in the other direction was a laboratory tent and two large tents for the scientists based at SEMG.  Next came the television set.  My friend Knowledge’s and the CampLeader’s tents were beyond this. Knowledge was a field assistant who had helped Judith and I in Zimbabwe on my first visit in 1993 and it was good to meet up with him again here. The three small tents for us were laid between the TV and Knowledge’s tent and with a camp bed and plastic groundsheet were very comfortable.

SEMG camp from the other side of the waterhole

SEMG camp from the other side of the waterhole

The scene was idyllic and during the dry season the skies were almost permanently clear, the temperature was always warm, even during the night.  We would rise and wash and a large breakfast would be ready for us by about 7 a.m.  We were usually on the road before 9, to get the cooler part of the day.  If we had to get right over to Mukumbura, which was nearly 70 miles before we started surveys, we would try and set off earlier.  But it was difficult to get out of the routine of the camp.

We had usually had enough by 4 p.m., and wanted to get back  so that we had a chance to write up our results.  I was dictating into a small tape recorder as we were driving along, Jo had his soil samples to analyse and Bob always had a few leaves he had collected for those species which had eluded or confused him.

When we would reach the camp, we usually came straight into the dining room, where a large stoneware teapot, with chipped spout, would appear within minutes of our arrival.  Sometimes cake was available, but usually it was biscuits, and we would munch and slurp in the middle of the bush, like the English colonists we were always being made out to be.

While afternoon tea progressed, we would watch the daily ritual of the shower preparation.  One of the kitchen guys would emerge and offload the barrel from the fire.  He would fill three pails of water and carry them carefully over to the shower units.  He would fill more buckets which had shower heads soldered to their bases and raise these with a simple pulley system.

SEMG Camp - Showes

The SEMG Camp Showers – just after fill up time.

The water was far too hot to have a shower immediately.  We would sit for another forty minutes or so, sipping our tea, unpacking our days survey material, chatting generally.  And then it had to be timed right.  Either we were a minute or two too early and got scolded, or we left it too late and it was a lukewarm wash.  If we timed it right, we had the most wonderful invigorating shower.  The cubicles had a grass door which you pulled into position, then there was a stick soap dish.  You hung your towel over the door, which doubled as the engaged signal.  The floor was covered in large slabs of sandstone, and the shower was this head under a bucket which you simply turned on, and out it came.  There was no roof, so usually we had the pleasure of watching the sky turn a deep red as you cleaned off the layers of dust that Judith had collected for you during the day.

I did have a nasty experience once, mainly because you did share the shower with any of the forest creatures that were around.  And since the shower was one of the few sources of water, it attracted many insects and the occasional lizard.  One evening, I had hung my towel up as usual and showered down, a 3-inch layer of top soil scurried down the cracks between the stones.  I grabbed my towel off the door and started vigorously rubbing myself down.  The ant that had found its way into the towel didn’t like this, but only decided to bite when I was rubbing my crotch.  If you have never had an ant bite your scrotum before, don’t go looking for it to happen.  I yelped with pain and scrambled about looking for a culprit (thinking it might be that all elusive scorpion!).  When I saw the size of the ant, I could not believe something so small could have caused so much pain. I squeezed it between my fingers, but only the body came off, the jaws were still firmly locked into my sensitive skin.  Every night after that, I made sure that I shook my towel free before drying off.

Insect Safari – Judith Part 3

To add to our tension, we had been told that close to the border were still uncleared mines.  But we were also told that there was a fence that marked where the mines started, so we didn’t worry about this too much.

 We headed towards the border down one of these roads and came to a clear T-junction.  We turned right along the road parallel to the border.  Obviously at one time this was how the Rhodesian army patrolled the border with Mozambique, checking for rebels.  We stopped for a survey point and headed to the left, towards the border, which was still some 5 km away from this road on the MukumburaRiver.

 Next to the road were some patches of grass and we stepped carefully through these.  Grass in Zimbabwe is worse than nettles in the UK.  They scratch you, stick seeds in your sock and generally irritate you for days on end.  I’ve still got grass seeds in my walking socks I got from my trip to Zimbabwe in ‘93.  Beyond the roadside scrub were a few juvenile trees, then a wide avenue parallel to the road.  This was curious and we stepped on to reach the pristine mopane woodland on the other side.  Once in the woodland, we were away from the metal of the road, and our boots sank gently into the clay with every stride.  I set about with my survey, Bob saw a few trees and said “more or less 100% mopane”.  Joe said it was clay but he might as well get some samples, so he dug in vigorously with his pick and started turning the panned earth over.

Jo and Bob at work in the bundu

Jo and Bob at work in the bundu

 I spent a couple of minutes sizing up the area.  It was dead flat.  This area and many areas around were almost identical.  Apart from the noise of Joe digging away, there was no sound whatsoever.  That open strip of land parallel to the road still worried me.  Where had I seen similar things before.  I remembered, it was where people had cleared an area for some purpose, perhaps to get ready to lay telegraph wires. But no-one would have had telegraph wires out here.  Perhaps to build a fence.  I’d seen many fences in the bush, cattle or game fences, and the area around had been cleared for its construction. The gap could be so large that you could detect it on our satellite imagery.  So a fence.  Suddenly the horrific reality dawned.  We had strayed across the old fence that was supposed to mark where mines had been laid.  I whispered (why I don’t know) to Jo toe stop digging.  Then I calmly explained my conclusions.  I didn’t move because I supposed there might be mines anywhere.  On reflection this was probably baloney, but you wouldn’t know where they might be ,and maybe close by the road was the most obvious place.  Carefully we stepped back along the tracks we had taken into the area.  They were clearly marked by the depression of the soft clay, and its continued give scared us half to death as we wondered what we were placing our feet on.  I was never so relieved as to when we reached the road.  I stopped at the cleared line and saw on the ground, the remains of fence posts chewed away by termites and rotting in the clay.  I wondered when the last time anyone else had travelled this area.

 Knowing that the mines would only have been laid on the north side, we continued down the military road and surveyed the south.  We were now about 40 miles from the nearest hut let alone settlement.  Here Judith struck again.  We surveyed another site and got back in the van.  No response came from the ignition.  Try again. Still no response.  It was at this point that we surveyed the road.  It was dead flat in front of us for ½ a kilometre until a bend.  Behind was the same.  I was stuck with a man who was slightly less strong than I am (that is not saying much) and an old age pensioner.  40 miles from help. There was nothing for it but to try and push the vehicle along the flat road and try and build up enough speed to jump it into life.  Bob and Joe pushed from the rear, I tried to push from the side, then jumped in, tried to start; failure.  Try again. No luck, and my two other pushers were already decidedly worse for wear.  After all it was extremely hot and dry.  Ice Cold In Alex sprung to mind.

 I decided to take a look along the road to see whether there was any chance of jump-starting down a slope.  I walked the half-mile to the next corner, and saw what I already knew from looking at the map.  Three more miles of dead straight, dead flat road, and there wasn’t even a gutter here to chance an off-road jump.  We certainly weren’t going to chance the van in the potential minefield on the left.  I came back and told them the news.  There was nothing for it but to start pushing again.  We called out to each other as we started pushing.  I could hear Bob and Jo puffing behind me as the wheels started to turn.  They shouted now, and I belted the clutch out.  Judith coughed and spluttered and the ignition droned on for a few seconds as I tried to suck any juice I could into the engine.  It was all in vain and the Land Rover glided to a halt ten yards in front of Joe and Bob.  A small tick was heard as the roof expanded again in the heat, and then utter silence.  The afternoon was wearing on.  A night out here would be difficult.

 Bob and Joe caught up with me.  In desperation, I turned the ignition for one final time, and Judith roared back into life.  I looked amazed at Bob who leapt in , with Joe lurching into the back seat and on we went.

 The puzzle of Judith’s erratic start was finally solved about two weeks later on our way to an equally remote area called Busi Valley, and you can read about it there.  But although Judith had all these quirks, she was a wonderful vehicle. She got us around northern Zimbabwe.  She got us through the wilds of Mukumbura, Chizarira, and Busi Valley.  And she became a home for us for five weeks.  We were sorry to give her up when I drove her into the TTCB compound in Harare that last day.

 A small postscript to what Judith taught me.  About three weeks after I returned to the UK, I was in a car park in Rainham, Kent, with my land lady, who left her lights on while we went into a club.  When we got in, no battery.  I was a changed person.  Two months earlier I would have said ring the AA, but no, I just asked for a little push, had the car in second gear and – bump- off it went.

Insect Safari – Judith Part 2

We tried to ask whether anyone had a jack.  Then we realised that there were probably only two vehicles in the village; one a bus which was heading back from Harare, the other a van which hadn’t moved from its bricks in ten years.  This did not stop the ensemble from having a vast debate over what was going on.  Two or three of them would break away from this group occasionally, look at us and the Land Rover, and burst out laughing.  Then another guy would stagger across, and mumble something incomprehensibly on the lines of “if this had happened at Mushumbi Pools, you could ask the garage owner”.  He seemed not to realise that Mushumbi Pools was over 60 miles drive from Msungezi Mission, but never mind, he was only trying to be of help.

It emerged after about quarter of an hour that one of the drunks had a friend who had an adjustable spanner.  This was to be our saviour, I was told, although I looked at Judith, sized up her weight again and thought; I’m never leaving this place.

I went with the guy who had his adjustable friend.  We walked up from the store through some low mopane scrub, past a playing field to a set of huts on a ridge top. He went inside and emerged with another guy who came over to me, smiling happily.  I tried to explain to him in a voice that was sounding more exasperated in the burning sun that we had burst a tyre and our jack didn’t work and could he help.  He laughed.  This was not what I wanted, but you learn patience when you are in the middle of the bush.

He said, yes, he had a spanner.  He went back in his hut.  I heard a bit of shuffling and some high pitched Shona from his wife which I took as “what the hell are you doing”. There was some lower mumbling, then out he came, still smiling and held up a small, but yeah, an adjustable spanner.  I started sizing up one of the huts as a place to sleep that night.

We half ran back to the store.  Judith looked particularly forlorn as she leant over on one corner outside the store surrounded by the drunks.  A little piece of western technology that was now at the mercy of African mentality.

We did rebuild her.  Joe took the spanner and loosened the nuts.  Five of the drunks and I went one-two-three lift and up we went Judith.  The wheel came shooting off and the new one was fixed on in less than thirty seconds, and then down it went.  Then came the real ordeal.  I knew that these guys were not good Samaritans.  They wanted Scud money.  So I had to dig deep into project resources.  Zim $2

Just in case you think I have gone crazy with my Scrooge manner - $2 Zim in those days was not a bad sum - about 2 years before Hyperinflation kicked in

Just in case you think I have gone crazy with my Scrooge manner – $2 Zim in those days was not a bad sum – about 2 years before Hyperinflation kicked in

 for each of the lifters.  $5 for the guy with the adjustable spanner.  I was about to get into the vehicle and leave, when a small fight broke out.  Apparently, I had done wrong.  The one who had led me to the adjustable spanner thought he deserved the five dollars, as after all, I would never had found him if I hadn’t gone along with him.  This developed quickly into a full scale discussion.  Reluctantly, I decided that this guy should have five dollars.  This did not satisfy the adjustable spanner guy.  Surely it was the spanner that was the most important thing, and so the owner of the spanner  had to get the most.  No, said the gopher, it was him that brokered the deal between injured white guy and spanner owner.  Eventually we compromised and the gopher got another $2.

All was smiles as we drove off.  Next time we had a flat, I decided, we would make sure we fixed it ourselves.

We didn’t have too long to wait.  The following day, still with no jack but with a spare spanner they had found at the camp, we travelled down to the Hoya River, across the ford that had replaced a bombed out bridge and sssssssssssssss, we had another flat.  We were too far to limp back to any human habitation without the wheel becoming bent, so we had to think of ways to repair the vehicle ourselves.

Without a jack (the camp had radioed to Harare to ask for a new one to be sent down the next time someone came to the Valley), we had to think long and hard of how to solve our problem.  In the end we decided to prop the Land Rover up on some stones, dig around the wheel to free it and then replace the wheel and release the stones.  The first part of the plan was OK.  We searched around a nearby river bed and managed to find a whole load of stable, flat sand stone slabs which we placed under the axle. We then carefully freed the wheel from its nuts.  Then we began to dig.  This was difficult as we were actually on an old military road, which had been very well built to allow tanks access to the border with Mozambique.  In one way this was a godsend, because it gave us a firm surface to rest the stones and vehicle on.  But it was right bugger to dig down through the metalled surface.  It didn’t help that all we had to dig with was Joe’s camping pick and shovel, a sort of two piece he had picked up from a hardware store in Borrowdale, Harare.  After about twenty minutes, the wheel was spinning freely and we managed to get the wheel off carefully, trying not to disturb the rather precarious pile of stones under the axle.  Then we replaced the wheel and tightened the bolts as best as possible.  Then we had to get her onto the ground again, but most of the weight of the Land Rover was now on the stones, and they had become firmly wedged between axle and ground.

This is the moment where most people break down and sob into a Dichrostachys bush.   That is, if one is handy.  We thought staring at Judith would do the trick, but two minutes of this proved no more successful.  So we tried having two of us lift the vehicle while the third kicked the stones out.  It didn’t budge.  Finally, the only way we could do anything was pick away at the smallest of the stones with Joe’s multi purpose prospecting tool, for several moments, before the whole pile gave way and Judith came bouncing back down onto four wheels.  The wheel changing became routine.  We sent out for another jack that lasted us the rest of the trip and never came quite so close to being stranded by a burst tyre again.

Judith had one other failing which caused us worse problems.  She would take it upon herself not to start.  During our three weeks in Muzurabani and surrounds, we never really got to the bottom of it.  We would stop to survey a point, and spend twenty minutes catching our soil samples, identifying species of trees and drawing maps of the slope, cultivation and satellite interpretation.  Then we would all get in the vehicle, turn the ignition on and ….. nothing.  Not even a cough.  Try again, nothing.   So many times we had to get out, try and push the vehicle and jump start in second gear.  This wasn’t something I was well versed in, not having a car at home at the time, but I soon learnt the skills involved at having the ignition in a certain position, the clutch down, the car in 2nd and then release the whole lot at once and it would roar into life.  Or not as it sometimes proved.  The perplexing thing was that sometimes Judith would start no problem.  We suspected the battery was not well charged, so we took to hooking it up to the generator at the camp at night.  It seemed not to make any difference.

In Muzurabani it caused us no end of problems.  We took to trying to park on a slope and then start.  One place we surveyed was a narrow river valley.  I was intent on getting a characteristic riverine woodland, so we stopped at this particular small river.  The single lane track curved around the back of some lush undergrowth, dropped steeply into the gully where the river bed was then up as sharply to a lip about thirty feet above the riverbed.  Even in the best of conditions this was not the place to be riding around.  With Judith playing up all the time, we made sure we left her at the very lip of the gully.  Sure enough, when we tried to start her after finishing our surveying, there was no response.  I was priding myself on being able to time the release of the clutch perfectly with the speed from the push to get her started.  Jo and Bob rolled her off the lip, down we went, I kick started the clutch and Judith roared into life.  Bob and Jo were cheering at the top of the hill.  And I reached the bottom of the gully, where foolishly I took my foot of the throttle and she died on me.  Right at the bottom of a river valley with thirty feet of 1 in 3 on either side.  Bob, even though he was an old man, came running down.  The look on his face told me that despite being a peace loving man, I was the one person in Zimbabwe that he wanted to throttle at that moment.  I turned the ignition key.  Judith burst back into life.  I kept my foot on the floor while Bob and Jo leapt in and I roared up the other bank and out of harms way.  I giggled nervously at both of them saying how lucky we were.  They both stared at me, disbelieving our good fortune, particularly mine as I was due to be murdered by them if we hadn’t started immediately.

That was not the end of our troubles that day.  We were heading for the largest wilderness area in that part of the country.  This was this huge area of cathedral mopane in the drylands of Northern Mukumbura.  It runs along the Mozambique border, and, if people had ever lived there, it had been completely cleared during the war.  Well-maintained flat military roads had been cut through the tall mopane, often raised on 10ft embankments, and dead straight.  Even now, fifteen years after the war, although some growth had occurred in a few places, these were still some of the finest roads.  For dust tracks, we were reaching unknown speeds – 100kmh-1.  And there was nothing else around.  We’d stop at a survey point and go off into the tall mopane, our boots sinking in the soft clay that deadened the noise of our tread.  There was no human activity here, no mammals, only the occasional pigeon or eagle high in the sky above us.  It was eerie.  You looked down this long straight road for several kilometres in either direction and saw…nothing.  Nothing but road and mopane and the sporadic lizard.

And we were driving into this now with dogdy Judith.

Insect Safari – Judith Part 1

I got to know this area well because this is where we had one of the scariest times with our dodgy Land Rover.  Let me tell you about the darling vehicle that we had. We christened her Judith, after my boss who was in charge of the project, but who wasn’t coming with us into the bush.  It gave us the sense that she was still around.

We should be very grateful to Tsetse Control for giving us a vehicle to do our fieldwork. In fact in six weeks we covered over 5000 miles.  But it did cause us some problems.  First thing we noticed was that it was not very secure.  Now Harare is a wonderful city, I fell in love with it the first time I went there.  But you do not leave your vehicle unlocked there, or else it, or at least its contents, will not be around when you get back.  One of our first jobs once we got the van was to go shopping for our first three-week trek.  We went to the fashionable Avondale in the north of the city and got out at the large car park there.  The usual orange sellers were on to us in a minute.  Good oranges too.  But we were struggling to try to lock the van. We eventually discovered that the only way to secure the van was to lock the right hand side by pulling down into the plastic cover and pushing the wire lock downwards.  Then you scramble out of the passenger’s side and lock from the outside.  The back, well we didn’t discover its secrets till later.  We then went and loaded up two huge trolleys with stuff – scaring some white Zimbabweans into thinking we were panic buying to avoid another embargo that was about to hit their country.

We travelled northwards and all was fine on the wonderful tarmacced trunk roads of the high veldt.  We cruised through the Great Dyke and the relative prosperity around Guruve.  Into Bakasa, the last Communal Land before the ridge.  And even there, you started to get the feeling that you were on the edge of the world, and it was all about to give way.  The road takes a few turns, trying to keep to the high ground, then drops away sharply in a series of hair-raising hairpins.

Then you reach Mahuwe, and its tsetse gate and babump off the tarmac road, you go onto the wide dust tracks of the ZambeziValley.  And this is where we discovered the next wonderful part of the vehicle.  The seal on the back door was not exactly tight. In fact it was nearer non-existent.  Every time we went on dust roads, air was sucked in through the back door and with it half the contents of the road.  The air would drift around the back seat, and anyone sitting in the back soon got coated in a red film.  Benjamin, a Zimbabwean from Africa University, joined us later in the trip when we surveyed the Kariyangwe area, and he often sat in the back, wearing his sun hat.  He was only around thirty or so, but when he would get out of the vehicle at a survey point, it was like an old man had appeared.  Reddish white dust clung to his thin beard and eyebrows; he’d take off his hat and deposit half the contents of the last twenty miles on to the ground.  We would come back from the field every evening covered in this film of dust, and it was a great relief to get into the shower and try to clean some of it away.

Judith gave us more treats.  We were driving along one day, along the main road that runs parallel to the escarpment between Mahuwe and Muzurabani, when the brake light came on.  When we tried to stop so we could look at it, we found there was no pressure in the brakes, and we just had to skid along the surface to a halt. Fortunately, there were no killer buses around.  We had to limp along to the small village of Muzurabani, taking it steady on the bends and avoiding any oncoming vehicles as best we could. At Muzurabani, the state owned farm (called an ADA or Agricultural Development Agency farm) had a fairly well stocked garage, and we bought a large can of brake oil.  It went straight in.  We bought another and hoped to top up the reservoir on the way around.  We gave the brakes a test.  Joe put his foot down on the brakes; a squirt of the new brake oil came flying out onto the sand.  We realised this wasn’t going to last long, so we tried to avoid using the brakes for the rest of the day.  It was quite easy.  You can’t really use brakes on most of the dust roads without skidding horrendously, and when we were coming to a survey point, we just took the foot off the accelerator and gently rolled to a halt.  We were lucky to have a great camp warden at the tsetse camp who could fix these things, and he bound up the leak that night.

Judith, the Landrover, as we tried to identify the brake pipe leak at the ADA farm

Judith, the Landrover, as we tried to identify the brake pipe leak at the ADA farm

Judith was the bottom of the pile when it came to the Tsetse vehicles.  It was a 15 year old diesel Land Rover, that had been round the clock a couple of times (and for Land Rovers, they are bigger clocks than for other vehicles).  But it was a bit rich of the tsetse control people to put some lousy tyres on.  We had to fight to persuade them to give us two spare tyres, and realise that this was not a lot of use.  The one on the bonnet was old and worn, and that was the good one.  Regrettably, the ones actually on the wheels were not too good either. Having said that, apart from one rather exciting blow out on the same road from Mahuwe to Muzurabani, most of the punctures were due to extraneous objects in our way and no amount of tread would have stopped them.  Perversely, it wasn’t the Acacia thorns or stumps we were warned about, but nails dropped by careless villagers that were our downfall.  I became a dab hand at changing tyres, something I wasn’t really used to beforehand.  I would always call the AA if that situation occurred.  I couldn’t even change my bicycle tyre before this trip. Not any more.

Unfortunately, the tsetse control hadn’t really set us up very well.  They reluctantly supplied us with a Land Rover jack.  This has three parts, a flat stand, the jack itself, with an inner and outer thread.  Then there is the pump handle which fits into the thread and you waggle it up and down about a hundred times, and hey presto, the Land Rover is off the ground.  In theory.  It never really worked more than once for us in practice.  This is because the second time we tried it, we were happily pumping away at the handle, the wheel was already loose and we were going into mid air as per instructions.  Then all of a sudden there was wrench and the Land Rover dropped back to planet earth.  The jack was still in place as it was at the start, but the thread had been stripped bare by the weight of the Land Rover falling.  By the impact, the only spanner we had was also bent out of shape and useless.  There was no chance of us getting the van raised to change another wheel.  Which still left us with the problem that we had to fix this wheel.  We limped about three hundred yards up to a store in Judith, this was at Msungezi Mission in the north of the region.  The stores in this area doubled as the local bar, as it was the only place you could get Castle, or worse, Lion Beer.  Or Scud.  I’ll tell you about Scud later.  At two o’clock in the afternoon, this place was full of drunks who were drunks when they arrived and drunker when they left.  The decent hard working labourers and farmers were all out being decent and labouring or farming.  We knew this was going to be tough.

Insect Safari – Scorpions and Tsetse Part 2

Next morning, I was told it was a whip scorpion, a sort of false scorpion totally harmless to humans, but which preys on smaller animals on tree trunks.  In fact on several nights we went on insect safari around the camp and found whip scorpions hiding in the thick cracks of the bark of the tamarinds.  They would be so far down the crack that only the long antennae gave their position away.  Here they waited for the flies and bugs that perused the tamarind at night.

We went on insect safaris amongst the tamarind bark because for most of the time there was little else to do in the evenings.  Until we discovered the TV.  We did enjoy some candle lit evenings, where we turned off the generator and were left listening to the nighttime crickets and insects in the middle of the bush.  We never saw mammals here (although the camp officers had seen an elephant at our waterhole one day while we were out surveying).  However, this didn’t stop you getting the willies when you were caught short in the night.  Out of the decency of keeping the camp sanitary, you had to go some distance off into the bush, and during the moonlit evenings particularly it was difficult to discern what each of the shadows really meant.  Leopards are very common in that area, and hyena not unknown.  Even lions were known to stray in to this region occasionally.  And unlike the national parks, the camps had no electric fences or guards.  We were at the whim and mercy of the laws of the jungle.  Imagination was the worst enemy, but going to have the pee was never much problem.  You could see what was in front of you and you were fairly safe in the knowledge that where you had come from there was little danger – animals tended to keep away from the human smell in the camp.  But once the pee was done there was the terrible moment where you had to turn your back on the bush.  And that fear that you didn’t know what could be softly padding its way to make you its next meal made that moment freeze in the memory even now.  I would very slowly force myself to turn, my body seizing up with terror as I did it, and then I would almost run back to the camp and drop the flap down in the tent as soon as possible.  I would then shiver, not because of the cold outside but to shake off the images of being ripped apart.

It made one sure one emptied one’s bladder well before one retired for the night.

Another evening’s amusement would be to watch the satellites fly over as the sun went down.  There is a period of about half an hour every night when the sun had disappeared from ground level but still glinted at the low level objects in space – the polar orbiting satellites that zip overhead all day and night.  This is the only time when we really get a good sight of them, and in Zimbabwe there were quite often five to ten in the sky at any one time.  They appeared at first like ordinary stars, but moved rapidly in a near- straight trajectory across the sky, near north to south or south to north.  It’s quite a job to spot them and if you do it in a group, it is difficult to convince other people that you are able to see them.  It’s a bit like those magic picture puzzles.  “It’s a duck”.  What?

The meteor showers that happened later on in our stay were even more impressive.  Some would light up the whole sky with their flares. Again if you were doing this with others, they would often be looking in a different direction, you would go “woooooo”, they would say “what” and you had to look at them and say “that was a brilliant one”.  Unfortunately it was rare that two of you saw them, so you would look disbelievingly at the person who made the claim and carry on scouring the skies.  But deep inside the claimant would know what he or she had seen had been blissful.

Our night times were rarely different, so when a lorry came along our track at night, we were obviously very interested in it.  Although we could hear the lorries on the main road at night, nearly a mile away – far enough not to get any dust blown across from their devious driving – you never saw the lights, but here was a noise from another direction and the beam lights pierced through the bush.  The whole camp looked in the direction – we came out of the dining room and looked around the back.  The camp keepers dropped their cards and peered up.  Even the cooks stopped washing their dishes and came out to look.  We looked like a bunch of meerkats pensively watching for predators.  The lorry approached the entrance of the camp, and with a lot of light, dust and noise, roared passed and the red rear lights disappeared once more into the bush.  The lorry came from a well-digging site to the west of us, and the workers were heading home late to their digs in Mahuwe.

The pattern of land use in the region was fairly predictable in general, but had a great amount of detail that kept us busy for our entire time.  Near the escarpment were a series of large settlements and the land around was fairly worn from wood collecting, goats and feet.  Beyond were large regular fields, of the kind that have been able to exist once the tsetse fly has been cleared.  For many farmers, the ownership of cattle is less about meat –once eaten the cattle are gone.  The value of keeping cattle is in the draught power that they can wield.  A farmer and his family can only plough a small amount of land on their own, as they have to do further east and west where tsetse are still seen as a problem. But where draught power is available, far bigger fields can be ploughed.  These have stretched out further north from the escarpment over the past fifteen years, as our satellite imagery clearly showed.   Being only 100 miles from Harare, the largest city in Zimbabwe and centre of the cotton trade, cotton has become an important commodity in the region, despite the fact returns for many farmers are less than from wildlife.  A series of grants and persuasive advertising made many migrants from more populated places above the escarpment such as Masvingo or Gweru come down the escarpment and take over virgin land in the valley for cotton production.  The greatest problem was that these migrants had no respect for the local lands, no real attachment to the soil at all.  Their homelands were in the south, often already ruined by overexploitation.  They knew they could make a quick buck here then settle somewhere else when it was exhausted.

The land cannot support cotton growth for too long in many marginal areas.  The limits were already being reached when I was there.  And also there was the conflict between the land being used by the farmers and leaving it pristine for wildlife.  It is a difficult argument to make to farmers not to have some tangible evidence of their existence in the form of a cultivated field.  Particularly for a nation of farmers such as Zimbabweans it comes as a bit of a shock.  But in some areas, a programme called CAMPFIRE was ensuring that the profits from trophy hunting, safari expeditions and photographs could far exceed the proceeds from cotton growing, and if managed properly, could release the farmer from diminishing returns from cash crops, while preserving at least a part of the natural habitat of the Zambezi Valley.  At least that is the theory. In practice there is a lot of disparity between regions.  Some areas have little wildlife to sustain this enterprise, in other areas, there is still too much corruption among the overseers of the scheme to make it work. But for many it could provide a more useful income against the subsistence farming that they were undertaking.

The cotton fields are fast expanding into the open scrub bush, first closest to the large rivers which cut south to north towards the Zambezi River, then out onto more marginal land on the low hills.  However, the areas that are fast becoming cotton growing areas are also pristine lands that wildlife want to live in. There is no real jurisdiction to stop people from farming in these so-called wilderness areas.  They are not protected in the same way as National Parks, Forest or Wildlife areas.  They are, in many eyes, virgin or potential agricultural lands.  What tends to keep people away from this area is the lack of infrastructure.  We are talking of a rather rudimentary level of infrastructure here.  But everyone needs water.  Unfortunately, even here there is conflict, because animals need water as well.  There was a corner of our study area, in Northern Mukumbura that is open mopane woodland.  Mopane is a wonderful tree, gives good shade, and the tallest trees growing with little understory are often called Cathedral Mopane as its spreading branches mimic architecturally splendid flying buttresses.  In this region it spreads for mile after mile on a rather soft clay soil.  No humans have entered here to exploit the rich soil, perhaps because the clay pans in winter and causes water logging.  Not really.  Perhaps because it is close to the Mozambique border and the landmines left there during the civil war warn people off. No, the area of land mines are further north.  No, the real reason is that there is no water in the dry season.  So people do not venture into this area because they could hardly sustain their lives without travelling great distances to get this vital resource. Is this pristine area suitable for wildlife?  Not at all, because the same water is needed for most forms of life.  In fact this is one of the most lifeless places I have ever travelled through.  There is no rustling in amongst the trees, there are few birds even.  Only the occasionally lizard darts across the tracks, even in early evening.

Insect Safari – Scorpions and Tsetse Part 1


I’d never seen a scorpion alive in the wild.  I am beginning to think they are mythical creatures, like griffins or dragons.  There are certainly some animals around which match up to them in size and shape – the claws of crabs, the bodies of woodlice and the tails of countless insects.  But the only scorpions I have seen have been in zoos or stuffed in several museums. And who knows whether their owners have set me up with a flea circus.

It’s not for want of trying.  Ever since I started travelling abroad, I have tried to find these creatures.  I purposefully turn stones over with my feet.  Nothing.  I pick up long sticks and poke around in wall crevices. Nothing.  I look for quiet cool corners in buildings in hot countries. Nothing.  I’m not in the wrong place, either, because I hear countless tales from other people.  I remember one time I was with other students surveying a village in the Minho region of Portugal and we decided to climb a hill behind the village to get a clear overview of the valley.  We started walking into this scrub and two women, one old, one young, came out of their house and warned us off.  They were making all sorts of noises in Portuguese, which I never understood (I always thought it sounded more Eastern European than Iberian, but couldn’t understand more than one or two words). We realised they were distressed about us being up there, but weren’t sure why. We probably thought it was private land.  Then the elder one started hissing at us and we realised there were snakes.  Then they said Esco-something.  I remember making a strange action with my arms. I held one elbow in the cup of my hand and made curling movements with my other hand.  “Scorpions?” I said and they nodded.  I was half tempted to go back up into the scrub and find one, but my other colleagues were now in quite a hurry to get back to the safety of the set streets.

Later on on that trip we were in the Port vineyards owned by Taylor’s, and the owner, Bruce Guimaraens, was regaling us with stories of the scorpions he had seen in his villa.  One time he had splatted a male with his shovel in the front room.  He knew that it wouldn’t be long before his mate came looking and sure enough a couple of hours later there was the female hauling herself over the main steps in to the house and tap tap tapping her feet across the stone floor.  She got splatted too.  Such stories amazed me and countless scenarios would go through my mind about how that first encounter might happen.

Where this fascination for these animals stem from I am uncertain, but I have always found the Invertebrates far less spineless than their Chordata cousins.  They seem to put up with far more pain in life without complaining, they are totally under control and single minded, and incredibly more fascinating than your cuddly furry beast.

The most proliferous, and therefore the ones I have studied most, are of course the Insects, but the other orders are interesting because they don’t occur as often.  And working not directly with insects, but with people who spend half their lives looking down microscopes at them, drawing them, gluing bits of wire to their backs, dissecting, breeding and killing them, I have learnt a lot more than I might have ordinarily done.

Perhaps the most fascinating time with entomologists was a trip to the wild bush of the ZambeziValley in Zimbabwe in 1995.  My own reason for being there was to ground truth, or verify, the data we had on some satellite imagery of the region.  I was supposed to be trying to see what types of vegetation existed and how the land use had changed over the last twenty years.  This entailed running around the ZambeziValley countryside stopping off every few miles, recording the soils, vegetation types, landforms and any human activity.  There were three of us to do this; myself, Joe Rother, who was a biologist from NRI who was short of work so was dragged in to do soil analysis, and Bob Drummond, a white Zimbabwean who had run the National Herbarium many years before but now did occasional botanical consultancy in his semi-retirement.  Mentally, our job was easy once you got into it.  Physically it was shattering. Our first three weeks in Zimbabwe were to be spent at a tsetse camp.  The study area was one that had been cleared of tsetse fly over the last twenty years.  Tsetse are thought of as a serious scourge of cattle.  They carry the Trypanosomiasis bacteria and during their blood-sucking of cattle or humans, they transmit this sleeping sickness to the farmers and their livestock (it can kill cattle).  Most African countries have some sort of Tsetse Control unit, and in areas of Zimbabwe where tsetse have been or are in the process of being cleared, the Tsetse control board holds almost military power.  They ban cattle in tsetse infested areas because they attract the fly, and although the flies themselves do not migrate very far, they are also attracted to vehicle wheel arches and can be transported miles by Land Rovers and cotton lorries.

To stop people from carrying tsetse into cleared areas, it was a ritual every time we exited the tsetse controlled region at the foot of the Zambezi Escarpment to have our wheel arches sprayed.  The small town of Mahuwe; a rather disjointed group of farmsteads, a bar or two and a store, was jammed up against the side of the steep escarpment which cuts straight through the countryside.  The escarpment is particularly impressive here, an almost sheer wall which, even from a distance, dominates everywhere in the valley.  You can tell from one glance to the south how far you are from the edge and from the shape of the different hills along its course, how far to the east or west you are.  At a few select places; Muzurabani, Mahuwe, for example, there were chances to scale up into the Middle Veldt lands, the commercial farm lands of the south and the tarred roads to Harare.  In fact the tarred road started in Mahuwe just at the beginning of the incline.  And here was the tsetse gate.  I’d seen these on maps the last time I was in the country, but never seen one in operation.  I wondered how a tsetse fly would know to stop at the gate and make sure it had its papers ready for inspection.  But the guys at the gate always had a serious job to do.  As I have said, the tsetse could be attracted to the dark areas inside wheel arches, and hide in there for many miles.  They could be easily transported into the cattle areas and start re-infesting these regions.  To counteract this, every vehicle is bound to stop at one of these gates; there are armed guards and woe betide the ones who try to drive straight through.  OK, they didn’t have armed rifles, they were armed with shush guns. I kid you not; two rather dishevelled men in their ill-fitting blue overalls would come out with an old-fashioned, brass shush gun.  At first they would not speak to us.  They would look intently at the Land Rover, gun poised in case one of the little blighters decided to make a run for it.  They would cower down into the wheel arches and shush, then round the other three wheels, shush, shush, shush, and a quick shush under the radiator in case there was a crafty one there.  Then they would retreat, gun still aimed at the vehicle.  Only when they were about twenty paces off, would they suddenly lower their gun and smile at us, lift up the gate and wave us through.  After all, we were driving a tsetse vehicle loaned from their bosses in Harare.  That grin always got me.  One of the guys was particularly wiry, probably no more than his late twenties but incredibly badly kept, and the smile was grotesque, four teeth pointing in different directions, and ranging from off-white through yellow and green to black.  However, one couldn’t fault them on their dedication to this important job.  The conditions were OK during the dry season – lots of sun and heat, long periods between different vehicles.  Since the thirty or forty cotton lorries and buses which passed through every day on their way to Market had to stop, they never got the facefuls of dust which the rest of us received at other places on the roadside.  We were travelling through here every couple of days, and evidently they eventually thought that we had enough shush on us to last a life time and they would wave us straight through with a decent salute.

The tsetse camp we were staying at was a research station for another project (called SEMG but don’t ask me what that stood for) looking at the effect of tsetse insecticide on freshwater invertebrates.  Our first night in the SEMG was slightly unnerving. We had spent the last few days travelling around the middle of Zimbabwe – Harare and Mutare, staying in the usual standard of hotel.  We needed to get used to country living in the Zambezi Valley.  In tents in the middle of the bush, you could get lots of creatures turn up for a night time chat.  Even a scorpion.  I went to bed that night very tired, but with all the unusual surroundings it was quite difficult to get any rest.  I had left my suitcase on one side of the tent, and undressed and put my clothes on top of it.  I then placed my alarm clock on the ground and sat reading my novel (Mosquito Coast I think it was) from torchlight.  I soon tired of this and put both book and torch on the floor and dozed off to sleep.

About an hour later, I awoke with a bit of a start.  There was a fumbling noise at the bottom end of the tent.  Was a mouse trying to get in, or, perhaps a frog or, gulp, snake or, aha, a scorpion?  My nerve at finding out was edged by the cowardice that I might not want to find out what it was.  I heard it scramble in and then its patter as it moved across the plastic groundsheet.  It was difficult to tell in the dark how far away this creature was, so the only thing to do was to get the torch and shine it around the tent.  It was then to my horror that I remembered that I had put the torch on the ground, and the noise was rather close to where I had left it.  I didn’t want to put my hand out and receive a scorpion sting or snakebite, or even feel the warty back of some toad.  But there was nothing to be done about it.  My curiosity at finding out what was making all this noise was killing me.  I tried hard to remember where exactly I had left the torch and gently lowered my hand down out of the side of the camp bed.  I reached the plastic groundsheet but found no torch.  My heart raced.  I felt cautiously around the first spot I had touched, still nothing.  Then I felt the edge of something metal; there it was. I tried to reach round it but misjudged the angle and felt the torch roll out of my grasp under the bed.  The pattering noise of the creature was still going on somewhere in the tent.

I had to take the plunge and grab the torch.  I scrambled my fingers along the plastic groundsheet, found the torch and lifted it high against the underneath of the camp bed.  Then I fumbled it around the edge of the bed and grasped hold of it with two hands.  It is one of those torches you have to swivel the barrel to turn on.  This I did and a light shone up against the roof of the tent.  I lowered the beam to the side of my bed and stared at something I wasn’t expecting at all. It was an invertebrate, but not a scorpion or a spider, nor a cockroach.  Its body was flat and segmented and about three inches in length, but it had long legs which made it about 5 inches and two incredibly long antennae which curved backwards over its body and twitched un-nervingly when it sensed the light.  I saw two black beady eyes staring up at me, and even though it is supposedly such a low form of life, I could tell it was looking at the torch saying “Where the hell did that light come from”.  But rather than bolt back into the dark, it just stood there rooted for a couple of seconds and then continued in the same direction as it had started.  I watched it purposefully head for the edge of the tent, shuffle under the canvas and disappear out of my evening.