After a few days at Henk’s house gathering some R & R with his family and spending a day with my cousin at Pilanesburg National Park I came to Zimbabwe on Thursday morning.
Pilanesburg National Park in South Africa is but a 1 and 1/2 hour drive from Johannesburg and is an excellent day trip from the neighboring cities. Just next door is Sun City, a miniature version of Las Vegas and the home to the #1 ranked course in South Africa, the Gary Player course. Interesting to note during our drive through the park was sighting a rhino with the largest horn I have ever seen. The horn was straight, not curved and looked more like the lance of a horseman. It was very long and very thin. We ran into yet another congenial Afrikaner couple with whom we shared what we had seen in the park and where. At this time Aeisso also told me that another Afrikaner couple on the airplane from Nairobi to Johannesburg offered to have their son drive them and Aeisso to his B & B in Pretoria. This act was generous and yet another showcase of the friendliness of these people. The B & B owner later told Aeisso that the family went well out of their way to get him to his B & B.
I dropped off Aeisso at the airport on Wednesday and took the plane into Harare on Thursday. Customs clearance was a bit of a predictable delay but I’ll admit the airport was cleaner and the organization better than in Nairobi – not as good as Kigali, Rwanda but better than Nairobi.
I had yet to rent a car so I went through to a couple of places and received quotes. South Africa’s car hires are far less expensive. It was a good idea to not book ahead, something I was reluctant to do given the exorbitant price of about $1,000 a week for a car. I ended up getting one for $600 a week from Avis.
My friend in Plettenberg Bay, Glenn Bachelor Adams, had introduced me via email to a farming friend of his, Gary Hensman, and I was on the way to meet him and his family.
The road to near Gary’s farm took me to Chinoyi, about 90 miles NW of Harare but I needed to drive through Harare first. The city is not very big or at least did not feel challenging as can some other African urban navigations such as Nairobi. The lack of size helped compliment the lack of infrastructure and the crowded downtown streets. This country has been ravaged by a terrible president in Robert Mugabe which has resulted in an economically depressed and anxiety ridden citizenry. Violence has cropped up regularly over the last few years as Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF has increasingly used intimidation to keep them in power as well as vote rigging. ZANU-PF should have been voted from power in 2002 after a national election as the vote fraud was well documented. Since 2000 Mugabe has overseen the forced expulsion of white farmers from their farms so the properties could be given to those loyal to Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. Some evictions have been passive while others have resulted in the murder of farmer.
I encountered a couple of police roadblocks and was waived through the first one after a couple of questions but at the second one was asked to pull over. The man who came to ask me a few questions could not have been much older than 20 but was happy to question me with the authority of a CIA agent. I was asked to open my bag in the truck whereupon he then started to go through my bag. He then came across a plastic Ziplock in which I had my prescription drugs (some sleeping pills for jetlag and some pain pills in the event I was hurt somewhere and needed something versus relying on the medical system here). Once he saw the bag he began lecturing me on the new Zimbabwe drug laws. I managed to explain to him that the drugs were my prescriptions He allowed this transgression to pass and then moved on to the other Ziplock bag. Inside it were toothpaste, deodorant and a tube of over the counter Cortisone cream. He snatched up this tube quickly and asked me in a pointed manner what this was and did I know for sure it could be brought into Zimbabwe. I tried to show him that on the label it read “anti itch cream” and it could be bought in a pharmacy in Harare, as well. He did not like my answer and called over another officer and they both looked at the tube as if it were filled with heroin. The original officer then took out a notebook and wrote down the name “cortisone” in small letters and then asked me to lower the back seats so he could search for drugs. I responded that his request was no problem but the car was a rental car and I did not know how to lower the backseats. He then peered in the back and back out again, closed the door and told me it was OK to move on. The whole scene was like something from a Monty Python skit.
It took me another 15 minutes to reach Chinoyi where I stopped for a Coca-Cola (in a glass bottle, which I prefer, and very cold, at that) and then drove north 12 kilometers to reach Gary’s farm. Gary had told me to look for the irrigated, green fields on my left from his neighbor’s farm and I would then know I was near. The drive here was so noticeably void of tilled soil or planted crops in defunct farmland the sight of green fields was both pleasant and surprising to the eye. I turned right into his driveway and through the tall rusty gates and into his workshop and home. Gary was there in the driveway to meet me amidst his International Harvester combine, old farmtools, tractors, ducks, geese, dogs, peacocks, horses and peacocks. This was a real farm much resembling those in eastern NC and throughout the US. Gary’s wife, Jo, and daughters Nikki and Sherri Lynne were outside, too, along with one grandson, Daniel. The yard was that of a typical farmer – filled with chicken cages, a vegetable garden and animals in abundance. We were approaching the hour of about 4PM so Gary, Sherri Lynne and I went for a short walk where his farm unfolded in the valley below. I came here to learn more about the land invasions by blacks against the white farmers and asked Gary a few questions about his current status. He told me that there were 4,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe at one time and now there were 400. The rest had been kicked off their land during the last decade in Mugabe’s efforts to repay his supporters because he could not pay them off with hard cash. Gary had a farm of 700 hectares (about 1,600 acres growing corn, tobacco, wheat and vegetables and some cattle. Over the course of the land invasions he has lost half the acreage leaving him with 800 acres. The land was given to black farmers but only a small position (about 100 acres) is under cultivation. Some of the new owners of the land have then leased it back to Gary (something Mugabe says is against the law) and some remains in growth of nothing but weeds. This type activity over the last decade created a real food shortage because the new land owners did not know how to plant crops and manage a farm operation.
After our brief walk we retired back inside about sunset and Gary showed me around his place. His home was a 2 story brick house with separate living quarters upstairs where he and Jo lived. Sherri Lynne lived downstairs. The views from the top floor were quite pleasant with hints of rolling hills and his valley of winter wheat below. His sitting room was large and held a big fireplace which was lit for the evening. Gary came back from his shower and we all sat down to eat in the living room around the fireplace. The conversation turned to an assortment of subjects but I could not help but ask a number of questions more about his plight in keeping his farm and the days of the 70’s when Rhodesia’s white men were fighting the Communist guerillas primarily in the hills on the border of Mozambique. Gary told me that call ups to the military increased over the decade with his being called up once a year for two weeks to once every six months for two weeks to once every three months for two weeks until eventually men aged up to about 45 were in the armed forces for six months and then out for six months. These men called up were in addition to the traditional standing army. These men were simply reservists. Often men also volunteered to guard the farms and homes of those without men at home. The ordeal was strenuous, dangerous and lasted for fifteen years until 1980.
Gary’s brother, Rory, had been kicked off his farm a few years back and Gary believes his affiliation with the rival MDC hastened his demise. Rory now is in South African at Warm Baths where he runs an elephant interaction center. I plan to visit him before returning back to Atlanta.
Like most farmers, Gary and his family retired early after our meal of ox tail stew, mashed potatoes and peas. I stayed up a bit longer but was in bed myself by about 10. It is mid winter here in Zimbabwe but like most all these countries in southern and East Africa, the weather is mild. The windows in my room were open and I was happy to sleep that way with the temperature probably not getting below about 50 degrees for the evening.
I was awoken early from a sound slumber by the roosters and peacocks outside on the lawn but they served their purpose in my meeting Gary at about 6AM before his departure to Bulawayo. Gary, at aged about 65, served as the girls’ field hockey coach at the local high school. You have to give the man credit for his efforts given his responsibilities and constant stress. What American man would coach a high school sport when his children are well past the age of participation while also running a full time farming operation in a place where his daily existence is in jeopardy? Maybe one person in the US would do the same —- the American farmer.
To Gary I extended my deep appreciation and then drove off with Sherri Lynne after our breakfast. The meal was cooked and served by the family’s reliable man, Chris. He made us an oatmeal , egg, bacon and sausage breakfast worthy of being served at Tavern on the Green in New York. The oatmeal needed no sugar and the poached eggs were prepared such that two did not seem like enough. Nonetheless, we cleaned our plates and headed towards the home of Sherri Lynne’s sister, Karen, who lives on a lake created by Mazvikedei Dam. The drive took us but about 45 minutes along a road which at one point had been paved but after 30 years of government neglect was dirt but for the middle 1/4th. Sherri Lynne added that all these roads had been paved years ago but no longer.
Along the way to the lake we drove through her uncle Rory’s prior farm. The farm was now occupied by black farmers but one could drive through and see that little was under cultivation and what was under cultivation was subsistence farming and poorly maintained. The government not only gave these people the white owned farms but they also provided the new farmers with the first year needs for seed, chemicals, gasoline and tractors. But by year 2 or 3 Gary and Sherri Lynne confirmed that the new farmers were in such need of help they turned to Gary for advice. So here you have the people occupying the confiscated land of his brother asking him for advice. What do you do? Gary gave it to them but now going on 10 years the farms were still in terrible neglect.
Rory’s farmhouse was now occupied by a few families of the local police. Their farm workers were sill loyal to Gary and had told him that the house no longer had running water (the new owners would not replace or maintain the pumps at the well) and the parquet floor had been ripped up and burned, not in the fireplace, but in a fire where the cooking was done in the middle of the living room. In learning his lesson from these stories, sadly, Gary has not replaced his decaying floor in his home as he is reluctant to fix something that he fears may not be his next week.
As we entered the security gate to the lake at Mazvikedei Dam, I saw another world unfold that could have placed me along the shores of a Lake Burton in Georgia. Row after row of neatly kept, thatched roof and some large houses were built and all hugging the shoreline. To believe such a sight was possible after seeing the destruction of the property the last few miles was surprising. Sherri Lynne went on to explain that this lake is where about 50 farmers have built homes to move into should their farms have been taken. About 30 of the house are now residents to full time owners as they have lost their farms. Some of the houses were quite large and would have been acceptable even to the most self absorbed American in desire of a second home on the water. The daughters were unsure of the size of the lake but the views were long and sweeping over water which spread out in multiple directions. The lake is full of bass and bream and brings fishermen from close by to enjoy the sport in summer.
Karen met us for tea along with her one year old son, Harry. Our visit was brief because I was due to leave their farm at 3PM in order to reach Harare by 5:15 where my host was awaiting me. Thus, we started back to Gary’s farm and arrived in time for another exceptional meal served up by Chris including fresh bream caught just that morning. On this occasion we had more grandchildren in amongst us to bring the total to four of those sitting at the table under the age of 5. Chaos reigned supreme but the meal was enjoyed and finished.
Our last activity consisted of a drive up to the highest point of Gary’s property which partly faced east into the valley where Gary’s farm sits. As with so many African drives, the last view was again spectacular when we parked the truck. This hill was 1000 feet higher than Gary’s cultivated fields below and the family had built a very basis weekend retreat, complete with open lounge, modest kitchen and 3 bedrooms. I looked around and thought how much pleasure such a setup would be for a young boy intent on exploration. There was not a peak near the same height for miles and miles into the horizon. The two older children of Nikki’s, Daniel and Sarah, accompanied us up the hill and then, as d most farming families allow, drove us back down, each taking a turn in their aunt’s lap. As we descended more challenging thoughts entered my head after Sherri Lynne told me that the hills surrounding the weekend retreat served as a home to 2 habituated giraffe in the past, as well as plenty of plains game including the highly sought after sable. Where was the game now? It had all been shot out by poachers in the last 20 years. One of the giraffe had given birth and the poachers killed it as well.
Sherri Lynne dropped me off at home and I was given a warm send off by her, her mother and a number of the grandchildren.
The drive into Harare was easy and uneventful until I realized my directions were going to be hard to navigate near the conclusion of my drive. I had been told by my host to turn down 2nd Street to access his house but realized that 2nd Street must have become part of the regime’s name changing effort. I never saw a 2nd Street and after acquiring the proper directions from a local Frenchman, I did manage to arrive at #10 Downie Street and gained entry through the gate to see Mr. Peter Vanderspuy. With a name as such I assumed the man was Afrikaans but there would be a story behind the confluence of the original 3 part name.
Peter had called me the night before after he and I were introduced via email by the half owner of Goliath Safaris, Flo (and I cannot remember Flo’s last name right now). Peter was flying his own plane into Mana Pools to spend time with the other owner and on site guide, Andrew “Stretch” Ferrera. I was fortunate enough to have Peter offer me a ride as well as provide me lodging for the nights prior to and after our trip onto the Zambezi River.
Peter presented himself as an orderly but courteous man. The house matched the man in that there was not a blade of grass outside or a misplaced coaster inside. He somewhat reminded me of a man who had been lifelong military and never left the order and appearance behind. However, his conduct was exemplary and generous given he had never met me before Flo told him I was coming out at the same time.
Peter’s house sat near most of the foreign embassies and across from the Royal Harare Golf Course so the layout and accessories were on site. His open plan home stretched out on the back to a yard complete with manicured lawn, swimming pool and tennis court. Peter had invited me to accompany his personal assistant, Marina, and his girlfriend, Rachel, to hear a talk given by Patricia Glenn, a native South African who had walked from Durban to Victoria Falls in 2005 and subsequently wrote a book about her experiences.
We ate some sandwiches and soup by the outdoor fire and then pushed off for the Celebration Center where Patricia was to give her speech. The Celebration Center was a large complex of a number of buildings owned by a South African couple who were ministers spreading the gospel in Zimbabwe. I expected a simple place but was exposed to a development we would find in the US. The entrance hall was large and the auditorium could have sat 1,000 people I would assume. Tonight the room held about 300 white Zimbabweans, a gathering I did not expect to see during my time in Harare.
The event was held to raise money for an animal aid organization in Zimbabwe. I could not imagine the difficulty in raising money in this country let alone for animals but the effort was there and to be appreciated and respected. Patricia Glenn had walked the approximate 1,500 miles from Durban to Victoria Falls to trace the steps of her forefathers, 2 brothers, Richard and Robert, who had left England in the mid 1860’s after word returned of the discovery of Victoria Falls and the copious amounts of game to be seen along the way. Her talk included a slide show and some video and some humor, all of which laid claim to an entertaining presentation. She retraced their footsteps at the same schedule and on the same days where the two men traveled, commencing and ending on the same calendar days.
We all drove back to Peter’s house and after I checked email when they went to bed, I, too, went to bed at midnight, an hour too late for our 4 AM wake up call.
Peter roused us all at 4AM in order to get to the airport and depart by 6AM. We picked up Mickey Roberts along the way and Rachel, Peter, she and I lifted off at 6AM heading NW for Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi River. Peter had told me that the flight would take us 2 hours because he wanted to fly low and see a few places on interest along the way. We flew over Mazvikedei Dam and saw Gary’s lake house as well as his sister’s place and we also then flew over Gary’s form and weekend retreat. Peter made sure to fly over both and make sure he had identified each. We then continued towards the mountains which serve as the end of the escarpment of Zimbabwe until they reach the border of Zambia and the Zambezi River.
Peter is a man of interest. He grew up in Stellenbosch and went to university there where he studied Geology and Mining. Following his undergraduate degree he went to Denver where he pursued a graduate degree for the next two to three years. He was married to a South African and upon completion of his studies he took a job in the far northern reaches of Canada where he told me that daytime temperatures in winter sometimes never got above 20 degrees below zero. Hard to believe but most geological work was done in winter because once the ice thawed there was little mobility. He was a pilot then and has flown on pontoons and skis in Canada. Following his stint in North America he took a job in Australia and his work took him back to Africa for the remainder of his career. Since 2000 he has been working only as a consultant and been living full time in Harare while his ex wife is in Australia, as well as two of his 3 children. The third child is living in Switzerland.
Peter’s father was born in 1892 and became a pilot in South Africa. He flew in WWI and was imprisoned in a Russian prison camp in Siberia for 2 years after being caught aiding and abetting the enemy shortly after the Bolskevik Revolution. He returned to South Africa and married a woman about 20 years his junior and had three children raised in his hometown of Stellenbosch. He died in 1991 at the age of 99 in good mind, body and spirit. He wrote an autobiography at age 77 entitled Chasing the Wind. Peter’s mother is still living in Stellenbosch in the house in which he was raised. She turned 98 on July 21 and has published a number of books on gardening. Her house, Old Nectar, is home to the only private garden listed as a national landmark in South Africa. We touched down at about 8:30AM after taking a 5-10 minute flight directly over the Zambezi at low altitude.
It was easy to make out the elephants at the river’s edge as well as the masses of hippo and crocs in the water. Alistair drove us the 30 minutes back towards the Goliath Safari campsite where nearby we were met by Stretch and the other guests in camp at the time during their morning walk. Stretch specializes in walking safaris through Mana Pools and he has been doing this now for 26 years. He has become well known in these parts for his knowledge of the area as well as his entertainment value. He was also a member of the Rhodesian special forces unit, the Selous Scouts, and given I have read a number of books on the subject and learned plenty from our mutual friend and his fellow army mate, Glenn Bachelor-Adams in Plettenberg Bay, I was looking forward to the experience.
Accompanying Stretch were the other guess, Ruth and Mark Walkup and Deb Gundluch. All three were living in Harare but had roots in the US. Ruth’s parents were missionaries and spent most of their lives in Africa after being educated in Virginia in the early 1960’s. She and I determined that our parents could well have been in Charlottesville at the same time in the early 1960’s. Ruth works for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and heads up their Zimbabwe office in Harare. Her parents now live in Norfolk. Ruth was born in Zaire and then traveled through Africa with her parents before ending up at college in Philadelphia. Mark, her husband, went to school at the University of South Carolina and his parents now live in Columbia. His father was a minister in Raleigh for a few years. Deb was born in Portland, Oregon to a father who moved often with the military. She went to college at UVA also but then went to Africa with the Peace Corps and never returned. Her parents live in Chapel Hill now. Her boyfriend who just passed away is Dutch. The links to this group of people was uncovered over the subsequent 3 days but I have summarized them above.
Stretch was ready to get going after our introductions so we shed our long pants in favor of shorts and began the walk through the bush. The topography here along the river bank is flat and open, offering plenty of opportunity to see game from a great distance. This fact is part of the reason walking safaris are so popular. We took off single file and followed Stretch’s lead.
The feeling of taking part in a walking safari is altogether different from that of a Land Rover based safari. Seeing the game at eye level, and often below their eye level, without the safety of a vehicle is an experience that is not to be missed but hard to put onto paper. Much more analysis goes into sizing up one’s guide in these circumstances and immediately Stretch’s experience in the bush through civilian and military life was exposed. I knew about his prior experience in the army where he spent years in the mountains and bush of Mozambique fighting the guerillas and living off the land if needed. He was but in his early twenties when his time began but in the books I have read about their unit, his time was filled with overcoming an enemy of larger size and well stocked by the world.
We walked through open fields with but a few trees and then through high grass, or adrenaline grass as it is called, that sometimes was higher than our heads. After sighting a few eagles and small game along the way, Stretch came across a dusty, dry spot of earth and saw what he claimed were lion track only a few hours old. I am still surprised to see how well these guides can determine the age of the tracks and thus decide whether pursuit is worth the time. In this case, Stretch thought we should follow. With his head bowed down and taking an occasional break to show us what he was looking at, we kept in formation for the next 30 minutes or so. He realized time was against us given the sun was now getting higher in the sky and he wanted to have us on a tea break by about noon. We agreed to press forward until finally Stretch told us the animals were probably well hidden in the grasses around us and we could head towards a nearby tree for a coffee/tea break. Stretch’s assistant, a black guy name Andrew, met us and gave us our refreshments at a pool where two hippos were about 50 yards away. The hippo gave us a few calls of territorial showmanship during our approach. The call of the hippo might well be my favorite of all in Africa.
After our tea break we drove back to camp where we met the staff and manager, 19 year old Stacey. The camp was set right on the banks of the Zambezi and offered unfettered views of the water and the mountains rising high above and into Zambia on the other side. There was a comfortable firepit setting, lounge area and dining room all open air, as well as a bar. These type Swiss family Robinson settings are a favorite experience for me. After the small tour and a lunch of freshly caught bream from the river I was happy to get into the bed in my tent for an hour or so of rest before heading out in the afternoon. The tent was large enough for two beds, a dresser, a flush toilet and an open air shower which used a fire fueled boiler. If given the choice I prefer these type minimal tented camps.
Showers in these bush camps are always a more pleasurable experience than those at home inside a bathroom. At the rear of the tent there was a flush toilet, wash basin and shower. The shower was hooked up to a wood fired water heater which pumped out as much hot water as one could need. Given the water came right from the neighboring river a few yards away and the water was heated with wood, there seemed little reason to cut a shower short. The shower was open above the 6 foot point offering the canopy of a large mopane tree as a ceiling.
Stretch continues to be excited about his work and we were back on the vehicles at about 3PM for an afternoon walk into the bush. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who have lived in Harare and Zimbabwe a long time. They offered me a plenty of perspective about the Rhodesia of old and the current Zimbabwe. Mickey and Deb have been living in the country for 65 and 40 years respectively. With independence having been gained in 1980 they each had perspectives well worth hearing. Mickey was more of an old school disciple and unafraid to tell me about the benefits of the old regime. Deb was a Peace Corps American and while initially appearing reluctant to share her opinion she later showed to be an advocate of the old system of governance. Around the campfire that evening stories were recounted by both Mickey and Deb as to the difficulty in acquiring food during 2008 before the Mugabe decided to throw out the Zimbabwe dollar in lieu of the $US. Both women were experienced Africans and held the connections necessary to gain what was needed but each told me they had difficulty getting enough food. Mickey told me she benefitted greatly from the avocado trees fruit in her yard. In years prior she gave away the avocados but in 2008 she and her husband ate them all. Deb told me that when a friend found bread in a market they immediately purchased as much as possible and then resold it to friends and family. Bedtime came as a welcome retreat from the 8 hours we spent walking today.