Tuesday, 7 January 2014

800 Challenge - 2013 That's a wrap!

2014 has kicked off with a bang if the traffic in uptown Johannesburg is anything to judge these things by! To close off last year's challenge one or two stats:

Southern Right Whale - in "Whale" Bay
We covered a little over 100000 km cumulatively ie: over the duration of the year, inclusive of commercial / chartered flights, ships, boats, vehicles, buses, flat-bed trucks, rickshaws, bikes, ferry, by helicopter, by horse-back & in a makoro. I have no idea how many kilometers we walked.. but if the bathroom scale is anything to go by probably fewer than we should have!

We spent 151 days in the field ie: away from home. We saw 825 species from end to end and from pillar to post within the sub-region.

Over the period we did 4 trips to Namibia; 3 trips to Botswana; 2 trips to Zimbabwe; 2 trips to Mozambique; 1 trip each to Lesotho & Swaziland (transit). Most of the cross-border trips we kept as short as possible, a function of necessity rather than by design or preference. Our longest trip (12 days) was to Namibia's northern region incl. of Kunene & the Zambezi region (Caprivi).

The Namib desert / Namibia
We flew most of the major domestic routes at least once & as many as 10 times ie: to Cape Town. Exclude PE & Bloemfontein from that list. We missed our flight to PE & who flies to Bloem..? The only 'international' flight was the flight to Windhoek (Namibia). The other cross-border trips we did by vehicle.

If pushed to pick a favourite trip I would have to say central Mozambique & for reasons unrelated to the birds. [See the 'Stranded out to sea..' blog for some insight.] Alisha, by comparison, prefers Namibia over most other spots. The most surprising cross-border trip was to Zimbabwe's Mana Pools area. This was our 1st trip to the north of Zimbabwe & to be fair, a highlight & somewhere we'll return to as soon as we can.

My bird of the year - African Pitta [inside 3 m / Coutada 12 - Moz]
Alisha's bird of the year - Spotted Creeper [party of 4 / Marondera - Zimbabwe].
Surprise of the year - 2 Grass Owls 8:30 pm, in torrential rain; Ongoye -KZN. [also happens to be Alisha's 'worst trip of the year' - see blog post 'Ongoye -Muddy bloody barbet']
Dip of the year - Pintado Petrel..! [The sparrow of the winter seas]

Species seen by Alisha or by myself but not by both of us & therefore excluded:

Eurasian Blackcap - Marondera; Zim (Alisha & 3 others)
Lesser Seedcracker - Mt. Gorongosa; Moz (Mark & 1 other)
Amsterdam Albatross (Probable) - Zest pelagic; SA (Mark et al)
Slender-billed Prion - Zest pelagic; SA (Mark et al)

Probables excluded - ID inconclusive

Gull-billed Tern - (Kgomo Kgomo; SA) Photographs inconclusive
Zambezi Indigobird - (Masoka Village; Zim) Impossible to separate from other non-br indigobirds.

Possibles (excl): -

Yellow-bellied Hyliota - Chinizuia; Mozambique

Birds heard only: -

Madagascar Cuckoo - Biyamiti; KNP
Basra Reed Warbler (probable) - near Caia, Sofala [Moz]

To conclude we added 30 (approx) new species to our regional life list and we added 60 (approx) 'photographic' lifers over the period.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Footprint in the African hourglass

Grosse Spitzkuppe - finding Herero Chat

As the dust settles on the thrills, spills, trials & tribulations that was [at the time of writing] our 800 Challenge, three, as yet, unanswered questions spring to mind - Each has an Old & a New; a past & a future, some tense, some not. In the context of our global village we consider http://www. We consider the hard to truthfully pinpoint: // Where, What & Who or even the who, what & why..

Time is fleeting; a lesson made all too clear throughout our challenge. As the old sets on the eve of something new, you might lend me your eyes for a minute.
In the context of our 800 Challenge some examples in the Std-grade category:
  1. Where has our journey taken us? or even Where has the time gone? All over the region, from corner to corner, more than once; in the blink of an eye.
  2. What inspired us? or perhaps What have we achieved? A self-motivated, time-constrained goal, within a predetermined set of rules & governed by a self-imposed code of conduct. That & more.  
  3. Who have we met along the way? Accountants, teachers, the needy, the greedy, policemen, judges & a jury of our peers.
Dune Lark - The abominable sandman..?
Will we do it again? Hard to truthfully say. 

If the old sets the standard then the higher-grade questions lie somewhere in the new. The answers are as elusive as they are pressing. Here are some examples. You'll know your own.
  1. Where have the numbers gone? or even Where will we find the courage & make the effort? 
  2. What must be done? or perhaps, more importantly, What will our children say?
  3. Who will toe the line? & Who's responsibility is it anyway?
Rooibank  -  West Coast. Namibia

Will we find the answers? Hard to truthfully say.

Our footprints, etched in time, leaves a stain. This we know for the stain lies in the old. It's the future that stands dawn-lit & at the start of something new. 
    Birds are not food & yet the plight of birds, in our ever shrinking global shanty, is food-enough for thought.

    2013 played host to an unforgettable adventure; the avian protagonists foremost in our thoughts. We hope, this year, to reciprocate a little. 
    One or two G. Flamingos : dismissively attentive.

    Ruppell's Korhaan

    Our last & final leg, in central Namibia & on her west coast, was perhaps a fitting end to what had been a fantastic year. Namibia stands first & foremost in the countries we love most. Burn't skies, open fields & singing sands call to us. 

    Our suite at the Hansa Hotel

    A half-dozen, unaccounted-for species secured our flight from South Africa's OR Tambo to Namibia's Hosea Kutako International, a large skip east of Windhoek, the country's capital. A more convenient flight would have been a few minutes further westwards to Walvis Bay. Nevertheless, the range restricted Herero Chat & the rain-seeking / desert-loving Ruppell's Korhaan necessitated an inland stop & go. We added both in quick succession, in two uneventful sessions, en route Swakopmund's Hansa Hotel, our desert home away from home. Germanic influence; a local ja, das ist gut attitude; seasonal holiday fever & an outdoors-orientated lifestyle cements this coastal town's status as Namibia's premiere holiday destination.

    Migrant waders clog the salt pans, tidal zones & nearby tundra-like vegetation

    If a free-flowing piste down the autobahn-like aisles at the local Food Lovers Market is your passion, then December is not the time of year to travel. Notwithstanding the urban crush, December is also rarities season & as the drapes fell on our year we hoped for nothing less than an encore performance. We weren't disappointed.

    Pygmy Right Whale - beached in the lagoon

    Joined most mornings [afternoons & evenings too] by local resident Mark Boorman, friend & part-time banding mentor, we were assured of something special. In fact we had a whale of a time.

    We were after three specific birds for our 800 Challenge. Wading through a sea of waders for three specific individuals takes a keen eye & some experience. Wilson's Phalarope, seen intermittently since the start of the season would, as suspected, pose a challenge. As it turned out the Wilson's stayed in the bag, unseen.

    In the interim we had recorded Red-necked Phalarope in the lagoon & Dune Lark at nearby Rooibank. One special remained. Earlier in the year we had missed this particular bird & were seemingly well on track to do the same again. Fairly regular to date, this repeat-vagrant had, for selfish reasons no doubt, made itself scarce the instant we disembarked.
    Alisha & Mark B trying to relocate a probable American G Plover

    If worms hate 1st-call then, by rights, they have good reason. Finding visiting avian guests, eager to explore the unfamiliar, usually means a wake-up call sometime before the sanity bell. Walvis Bay is no different. We'd arrived most mornings in time for morning tea which secured a vacant lot. Getting to the lagoon on time, however, proved more rewarding & on our last morning in the field we recorded our final species for our 800 Challenge, Pacific Golden Plover; a magnificent likeness of himself, in non-breeding garb & a lifer to boot. Fitting; unscripted & more than a little poetic.

    A. Penguin - in moult. Escorted, by rental, to Hotel Boorman
    As an aside, Mark introduced us to the world of long-distance avian travel. We spent a day scrutinising waders & terns for foreign-flagged / ringed / banded individuals ie: caught & marked for identification in the field. The foreign-caught, long-distance migrants are also the most intriguing. By end-of-day we had successfully identified a handful of birds. One particular tern, as it turns out, was originally processed in Scotland, some 9000 km further north, undeniable evidence that Scotland, is in fact, the very hub from which all good things emanate..! It's an amazing feat of endurance in itself & a confirmation, more importantly, of the role that Southern Africa plays in the seasonal lives of many long-distance migrants, drawn from all around the globe.

    For those who have followed our exploits what would our story be if we had no tale to tell?

    Poking the stupid stick at the gods!
    Poking the stupid-stick at the gods is something I do well, clearly. One poke is not as good as another & this time I thought I'd give it stick. At the start of our year we acquired a diesel A-class Mercedes from which we'd do most our local birding. The rationale was simple; for a simpleton that is. We'd keep our carbon footprint to a minimum... No point ruining the world chasing the ridiculous, yes? In hindsight, it's a bowl of hot air! We've traveled further than a godwit's bill & the reasoning is akin to a bag-full of sticky-pie & a diet soda.. but I digress.

    Notwithstanding the frail-nature of good intent, we ignored the rows of gas-guzzling 4x4s, vehicles for the insensitively boorish & secured, instead, the mechanical services of a rented front-wheel-drive sedan. As the manual reads - adequate on tarred surfaces or salt-hardened gravel but, like all Toyotas, somewhat skittish in the dunes..

    A trip highlight - Dune Lark nest
    Dune Lark happened to be on the morning menu. To secure the lark we'd need to travel a touch inland to nearby Rooibank, a haven for sand-experts & the closest landmark to the bird in question. To get from Rooibank to the red-sand habitat is a walk of a 1000 meters. We thought we'd drive.. Her words resonate in my left ear still! WTH soon became WTF! The adequate on tar proved inadequate in sand. Mechanically belly-beached, 4 wheels lazy in the desert breeze & less upwardly mobile than might have been expected came, at the time, as a complete surprise to me... Fortunately, as it turned out, we'd saved ourselves a measured 23 paces to the nearest dune; an Eskom-like energy-saving during a summer thunderstorm black-out. Small mercies as they say.. We walked the remaining 981 meters to the dune & found the larks, on a nest. We walked the 981 meters back to immobility & spent the next two hours digging, cursing & larking about under the chassis.

    If Namibia is nothing else then it's a country of unmatched hospitality & good people. From the nearby Rooibank hamlet two German/Afrikaans-language [preference] sand-experts approached our sand-spit & found me in full display. I was immediately addressed in well-spoken English, relieved of the car-keys & in soothing, single-syllable west coast tones encouraged to take a seat under the nearest shady tree. The sun had, no doubt, found a chink in my thinking -cap. They were taking no chances, evidently. I chewed, somewhat thoughtfully, on the cork clogging my senses, put there by my own wife, familia no less..! Is there no honour left in this cruel world?

    Damara Tern - the week's highlight

    I'm not too displeased to report the untimely demise of not one but two 'nooit-nie (can't break)' snatch-straps before the vehicle was eventually recovered a third strap & a short snooze later.

    Namibians know their sand. We live & we learn!

    Monday, 23 December 2013

    Stranded out to sea & an army escort

    Inhamitanga - near coutada 12
    Wrapped in a blanket of déjà vu, face-down & buried in leaf litter, oily-dank & a mustard-gas-like assault on the senses, I found some solace in the week's success. A nearby skittle & a whisper in a language I know not, I assume a call to arms, confirmed the impending arrival of my new-found 8-legged, 4-eyed kinsmen.

    Somewhat susceptible to bursts of imagination, the arachnid out on point & on final approach, undoubtedly stalked delectable delights somewhere on my precious. Sharp fangs snapped; hairy, hobbit-like legs rasped… All the while silent screams emanated from I know not where. Not I, surely? Truly a delightful exercise of restraint & the modus operandi we had adopted in our latest pursuit of Central Mozambique’s Os Tres Grandes (Big 3) i.e.: African Pitta, White-chested Alethe & East Coast Akalat.

    Coconut Bay - prawn fishermen boats
    The prologue to our mid-Dec, Central Mozambique tale had been written earlier in the week, on a sand-spit, out to sea, on a rising spring tide and in the black of night. Before that we’d spent a night in transit from South Africa’s JHB to Mozambique’s Inhambane in Coconut Bay, a few kilometres up-coast from Bilene, the once-grande sea-side resort.  Whilst largely uneventful, except perhaps for the single Roseate Tern we found at roost, the local folk are, in economic hardship, an indomitable beacon of hope for something more.  Natural resources from the sea & on land are relied on for sustenance which must, in eventuality, fail & therein lays the rub.

    Coconut Bay - really?
    Chiniziua 'Forest' - ceased to exist near public roads
    Formal economics is almost entirely absent, other than in Maputo, the country’s capital. The domestic reliance on an informal infrastructure for the exchange of goods necessitates a lax approach to the application of the law. This is particularly the case when it comes to the harvesting of natural resources. Chatting to a forestry post-doc student we met sometime later, the formal protection of fauna & flora is seemingly well entrenched in law. Enforcing the law is, however, not prioritised. By way of example a bag of hard-wood charcoal is approximately 15% the weight of the harvested wood. A 60kg bag, sold on the side of the road for 130 Mt or US$ 4 approx. is the product of 400kg of raw wood…  Parrots & other wild-caught passerines are freely for sale & who can blame a people largely left to fend for themselves.
    Inhambane - informal markets

    Inhambane & the nearby tidal estuary at Ponta Da Barra is, in the austral summer, a springboard for many migrant waders. The regionally-rare Crab Plover, a bird we’d yet to see this year, necessitated another visit to the Flamingo Bay Water Lodge.

    Flamingo Bay Water Lodge - low tide on the tidal estuary
    The 'Long walk to Drydom' - 50% home
    We’d be accompanied this time by the seasonal horde of SA piepie-jollers who descend on these parts for some ‘Summertime sadness’, an inspiring, eerily haunting melody & particularly spell-binding at 3 am. If Praia da Barra is infamous for its summer pap & sous then Areia Branca (White Sands) Lodge, situated at the tip of the Barra Peninsula, is equally famous, in birding circles, for roosting Crab Plover. Areia Branca is adjacent the tidal lagoon on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other & under certain conditions i.e.: when the tide’s in; becomes separated from the mainland by a sea of salt water.  During spring tides i.e.: high highs & low lows the sea-level variance around Areia Branca is impressive. The lagoon, at low tide, is dry as far as the eye can see. Misguided birders can walk half-way to India without so much as a dampened squib. Off the point & for interest I can’t recall working any harder for a single addition to our list as we did for Crab Plover. We were unsuccessful, sadly.

    Homewards James & spare them not - I stayed...
    The family had returned to Flamingo in the mid to late-afternoon after another session ‘out-to-sea', on dry land.  I elected to finish my sand castle & scope the roost for a few hours longer; some 3km ‘out-to-sea’ & well aware that high-tide would coincide with dusk. Most beaches slope up & away from the shorefront which affords sand-castlers enough time to move up & away when the tide turns. In a lagoon, when the tide turns, the dry to wet process manifests in less time than a sand-castler can shout “Mommy!’ At sunset, therefore, I inadvertently found myself marooned on an island spit of sand, 3km ‘out-to-sea’. The lodge lights twinkled merrily across the rising ocean. All around 1000s of waders discussed my impending demise. Infinitely preferring the warmth of the roost to the misery of the depths, I began the long walk back to dry-land. Using the lodge’s lights as a landmark the walk became a wade which soon became a swim. I arrived back home a touch after curfew & was shown the couch bedraggled, without supper & more than a little sad at the sure loss of my castle; an outstanding likeness of the Arc de Triomphe.

    Hermit Crab - our family 'pet' at Flamingo

    The first leg of the journey thus consigned to history our gaze turned north, far north. To get there we’d spend a night at Vilanculos, the mainland ugly sister of the Bazaruto Archipelago.

    Arriving visitors step off the plane & immediately charter out to the islands. We’d spend the night onshore unfortunately & as these things go the SA piepie-jollers did the same. ‘Summertime sadness’ looping on repeat rather than on shuffle, kept audible pace with the rising temper in the bed along-side.

    Earlier we’d been approached & subsequently warned by officials & the proprietor of the lodge that the way north was no longer viable.

    Casa Chibububo Lodge - @low tide 1000s of waders
    Conflict between RENAMO & FRELIMO, north of the Save river, barred travel for all but those prepared to accompany an armed army escort. Lying awake at 2am, whilst mulling the conundrum of challenge vs. health & safety & in time to ‘Summertime sadness’, was, in the end, simply an insult too far.  In retrospect I have no doubt that the exit-squeaks from the bar-besieged eight were expressions of holiday joy rather than from the inflammatory doubts cast on the validity of their parents’ matrimonial certificates. Additionally, one more observation if I may; it’s amazing how far an iPod can actually fly when the summer madness takes hold. Fortunately the tide was out.
    Our beach companion at Vilanculo - 'Little Yella?'

    The EN1 from Save to Maxungue is closed to all civilian traffic other than the official FRELIMO army-accompanied convoy. This 110 km conflict-road stood between us & central Mozambique.  For context RENAMO rebels had attacked the military personnel accompanying the convoy the previous morning. The intentions of the rebels thus confirmed, turning back was seemingly our only option, at least as far as I was concerned. Alisha, however, ever pragmatic, urged us north & as it turned out, correctly so.

    Save Bridge - 2 hour chaos 'behind enemy lines'
    What transpired in those 7 hours from the time we arrived at the Rio Save bridge to the finish at Maxungue will remain indelibly imprinted on my mind for as long as I live & not for reasons associated with a potential attack, but rather for the acceptance of circumstance that epitomises Africa. The acceptance of fate, however gruesome, never ceases to amaze me.

    FRELIMO army readies the convoy & escort
    Ordnance was impressive; troop discipline exemplary. The Mozambique Government is clearly taking the threat, real and or imagined, very seriously. Suffice to say we made it through, unscathed, only just. In fact, we’d come closer to the happy forest in the sky at the hands of the ensuing free-for-all, as vehicles jockeyed for position, than we might have done in any conflict with the rebels. There was, certainly as far as we were concerned, a large ladle of farce served in all their haste - FIFO would apply, surely? ie: First in, first out.. That's first into the hole, first onwards to a happy place, somewhere nice! We preferred the LILO method & in this case that's exactly what we did; lie low!

    Abandoned shells litter the 110 km stretch north (EN1)

    Pee stop - @60km & ground zero. Convoy attacked -24 hrs prev..??

    Vehicles skirt hastily filled trenches dug overnight

    The prevalence of species not found elsewhere in the sub-region, other than in Central Mozambique is, for most birders, the raison d’etre for a repeat visit. In a country perhaps not best remembered for its peaks & valleys, the Gorongosa mountain range stands sentinel & forms the hub around which we’d circumnavigate.
    Tree Frogs - a favourite

    Beautiful Gorongosa
    Our clockwise adventure would take us from Gorongosa NP, roughly in the south west, to Catapu in the north & on to Rio Savane in the east, a few kilometres north of Beira. To kick off proceedings we’d make our pilgrimage up ‘the mountain’ for the localised Green-headed Oriole. Found only in the forest canopies dotted along the Gorongosa mountain range & well supported by a large supporting cast of other avian goodies, the arduous 5-mile trek up hill & down dale, is all but forgotten. Standing cast in a post-dawn ray of sunshine, filtered through aeons of arboreal evolution, is sustenance for the soul & an intravenous shot of purest peace.

    'Vleis, pap & sous' - Gorongosa style
    At the foot of the mountain a hand-crafted boom stands guard; a small fee & a signature in the visitor’s book pays the gate-keeper.  Locals gather at the boom & exchange information; enquire about changes to security; movement of men etc. People stand their ground & smile in genuine welcome. Here RENAMO rebels hold vigil in the highlands, well-armed & quietly determined. Speaking to these men you can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding for the people of Central Mozambique. Whilst I don’t care for politics, I feel empathy for these people, bound by a sense of purpose in a conflict they might never understand.

    Cottage 25 - Mphingwe Camp: Catapu; Ant & Pat White
    Back in the leaf litter, roughly 250km north east of Gorongosa, the aerial assault had commenced. Dracula & his tsetse minions had not been repelled, impressed or fooled by the ultrasonic screams that continued unabated. Newcomers, rowdy, unwashed & clearly ravenous, were bid welcome by the 8-legged crowd already in attendance. 6-legged waiters scurried back & forth at service. Delirious from blood-loss & on the verge of a coma, from out the haze stepped an azure-tailed angel.  Trumpets sounded; harps harped & forest nymphs sang an ode of joy. Pitta… less than 3 shakes of a short leg from where I lay, wide-eyed & very much alive. Magical!

    The suburb of Chiniziua.. Not really the 'way', is it?
    Before I complete part 2 (Catapu & coutadas) of our 2nd Leg (circumnavigation of Gorongosa) I need to fast forward to part 2 & a half, of Leg 2.. Part 3 (Rio Savane) lay further to the south east, some 250 kilometers or so near coastal Beira. To get there we'd have to take the 'good gravel road' [It isn't**] from Inhaminga to Dondo. For those who like a checkered history, look no further. Bombed railroad-carriages, from the 17-year civil war, litter this road still. The amputee hospital at Muanza, midway to Dondo, is another that we tread a fine balance, nothing more. Also near Muanza is the turn-off to Chiniziua 'Forest' [It isn't a forest, at least not as we know it].

    The long winding road to Chiniziua - wonderful prelude to ..
    Whilst not afforded a full part in our circumnavigation, by rights it's worthy of a mention. Chiniziua is a victim of circumstance, lax governance & greed. 30 years of commercial logging & subsistence-felling have amputated the last living limb. The 30 km route inland, off the main road is, however, an attractive smokescreen for what lies at its death. Whilst the access road parties-on, only crows take the floor for the last turn. As other amputees might lament, it's a rather sad indictment of our indifference from which we've learn't nothing. Nothing at all. Casting north once more, to Catapu, a 25000 hectare forestry concession, the outlook is different. Here the concessionaire plants three trees for every tree felled. By rights I'd rather have the tree alive but there's at least an argument for foresight, even if the current status quo lies 300 years hence.

    Somewhere between Inhaminga & Condue; en route Dondo
    ** If Chiniziua is a triumph of greed over logic, then the main road down to Dondo is simple stupidity. The G7 donated sufficient funding to the Sofala authorities to 'fix' the road 'gud an proppa-like'. ie: once & for all. They haven't. The rainy season is but a drip away & this highway of hell (the loggers' words, not mine) becomes virtually impassable.

    Is that dust ..? Surely not. 
    The driver [inset pic - blue truck; heading north] & the first of 28 logging trucks [headed south] had narrowly missed a, one-headlight-between-em, head-on collision. The ensuing scramble for the trees rendered both Freightliners immobile. Poked fun at by Father Time & as is our custom, we called the meeting to order. 60 people [2 pax per vehicle] debated the merits of traction versus gravity, without much practical application, a state of affairs that grows tiresome after 120 minutes of pass the weed... Having taken our leave, perhaps unaccustomed to the bleating of hog-tied goats perched atop a 35 tonne vehicle, we elected to drive over the problem but not before recovering a stranded ambulance which had tried the same, a few minutes earlier. For the record I did it with a smile not because the ambulance was a Land Cruiser but because it was my civil duty to do as much.. Notwithstanding, whilst we're at it, God save the Queen & all those who build proper vehicles!

    Rio Savane - the 'ferry' ie; shank's pony
    Our third & final part of Leg 2 were the wetlands of Rio Savane, 30 km up-coast from buzzing Beira. Wetlands in mid-December they're not. Puddles next to the road maybe but that too is a stretch. Whilst crossing the Rio Savane by ferry ie: foot; to the island lodge is interesting & reminiscent of my adventure down south. It's not exactly first class & neither is the lodge.

    Locust Finch - always 'in pairs'... Really?
    The birding is, at this time of the year, a little paradoxical. Given the resident status of the specials & given that they were confined to the road's edge, views of these beauties were cheek to jowl, which is exactly how I like my birds. The Locust Finch pic [inset] my daughter captured with a 100 mm macro lens. Now that, for those of you still awake, is nothing to finch at! Blue Quail eluded us but that's how these things flush.
    Our 4 am view across the Vumba valley

    We returned home via Zimbabwe's Beitbridge but not before two nights well spent in the Eastern Highlands mopping up those which had not gone before. Cecil Kop served up both tits ie: Cinnamon-breasted & Miombo. The Vumba Botanical Gardens, which had recorded 300 mm of rain since we'd last been there a fortnight before, was a veritable Cinderella. Trees were in full blossom, as were the Bronzy Sunbirds, another prodigal returned safely to book.

    We'd left the best to last, just as originally planned. In truth conditions might not have been conducive to the perfect score but in hindsight this tail-end story caps our tale.

    Be generous of your time.

    Monday, 2 December 2013

    Zimbabwe: - an OCD-like compendium of delights.

    The streets of Zimbabwe's capital city - Harare
    If 'to blog' means to record a personal opinion then by rights an opinion is moot in every post. Even so, this post has been particularly difficult to write, not for lack of material, but because it's important & it's difficult to resist an angle without inherent bias. I've said before that I detest the '..and then we went there & then we did this report..' which births an imagination stillborn. That said, applying a spin on an angle denotes a twist.. As spin-doctor author of these tales perhaps I tell a twisted story? Either way, whilst I abhor politics in all its forms, Zimbabwe more than any begs restraint. It's easy to get neck-deep in the proverbial, sprouting the proverbial, for the sake of stirring opinion.

    First-time visitors to Zimbabwe will ponder the conundrum of an infrastructure in quiet decay, juxtaposed, in some cases, by ultra-modern buildings, almost always correctly positioned on the dragon's back.

    Streets yell out as vehicles veer around pocked reminders of yesteryear, when clean-paved infrastructure was a nation's pride. Buildings sag under a hint of painted alabaster, long lost under Africa's unrelenting sons. The nearby ICBC reflects a new dawn.

    A travesty - trees are tortured by fire until they fall
    Let's talk bias, for context, rather than as an expression of an echoed shout at the devil who has no ears.

    First off, Zimbabwe's peoples, particularly in the west and the far north, face an uncertain future. Commercial land lies fallow or is farmed by subsistence policy; an ineffective agenda by most definitions of the word hunger. The World Food Program [WFP], a UN sponsored initiative, delivers food to remote villages where villagers find it impossible to keep the wolves at bay. In the Zambezi Valley, now ear-marked for unheralded influx-settlement, marginal lands cloak the people in a perpetual coat of dust; or an unforgiving seasonal mud. In the south ranch-land lies barren. Where 50000 head of family beef once roamed alongside lion & elephant, goats currently bleat. In the East disheveled mansions, squat & roofless, are home to rats & night-crawlers. Toll-booths demand their $. Touts play havoc at the borders & foreign visitors tread in dread.

    Crake Cottage - Harare
    Paradoxically, in most cases, the rural Zimbabwean, off the beaten track, is confidingly hospitable. These gentle folk, imposed upon, often ignore the concept of self-preservation & are prone to offering fare, scratching in the beleaguered dust, for the foreign visitor's chance at rural immortality. By comparison, the commonplace facilities, on the beaten track, extract $s in a mean-spirited, gnarly sort of way, perhaps against a time of reckoning in the not too distant future.

    How long?
    As for the shelves the SA Retailers froth to earn a $ even if, arguably, at exploitative prices. The Vervaardig in Suid Afrika [Made in South Africa] stamp of approval, on most goods, lends a taste of home & makes mealtimes, pleasant.

    Variable Sunbird - a common resident at Crake

    Although Monavale Vlei is currently under local lock & key, the fate of Borrowdale isn't as benign .. South Africa's McCormick Property Developers will / are building a $100m mall on what was once a protected wetland. You have to question the foresight, logic & perhaps even feel a little bemused, if not ashamed, at the alacrity SA retailers including Pick'nPay, Spar, Game, Forchini, Mr Price & Woolworths availed themselves of the new concrete space. Lip-syncing green on the JSE & in the fashionable rags is a croak against the gods and an insult to future generations. What price a nation's soul? $100m is nothing more than an insignificant sum of money.

    Our whistle-stop tour had three distinct & aesthetically divergent legs. At face value this is why Zimbabwe ranks as one of, if not the more scenically original & biologically diverse countries in the sub-region. The first birding biome we sought out were the miombo forests in & or close-enough to Harare for a number of the miombo specials.

    Gosho Park [Peterhouse Girls School] - Marondera

    Whilst Harare is a birder's haven we prefer Marondera's Gosho Park, a touch further afield and currently under the care, control / management of Peterhouse Girls. Before I get to Gosho a few lines on Harare. Most birders visit Harare in the correct season ie: January - March when the local vleis / dambos [wetlands] are sufficiently wet to attract the migratory wetland rarities. We were clearly too early or too late depending on how you view the glass. Even so, the dry wetlands are currently home to thousands of Abdim's Stork & an unusual irruption of African Cuckoo Hawk. If nothing else we're a curious bunch & in lifting the lid of the cloche we beheld a sea of locusts, an early season hors d'oeuvre for the local residents before the guests arrive. Later that evening our Guesthouse garden was seemingly declared an impromptu hexagon for two displaying Pennant-winged Nightjar who serenaded us with their trills of competition & for most the night; a welcome distraction from the whinging & whining of the local mosquitoes. Their ladies are clearly a fussy bunch..
    Miombo special - Spotted Creeper

    Gosho Park is a must-visit. It's clean, safe & pristine. Birds appreciate these efforts too & throng to the miombo for its local offerings. Finding the birds is not as difficult as the guide-books suggest. Pay the gate-keeper, join a bird-party & as sure as I've never met Heidi Fleiss in the flesh, the birds reveal themselves. We recorded Wood & Tree Pipit, Cabanis's Bunting, Miombo Rock Thrush & most of the other locals apart from two tits; Miombo & Cinnamon-breasted. The three stand-out heroes of the day were Spotted Creeper (2 adults feeding two chicks), Collared Flycatcher (photographed) & the region's 19th Eurasian Blackcap which I missed from a long stone's throw away whilst capturing the Collared Flycatcher.

    As a side note & on the issue of photography, our long lens was damaged on Day 2 & was sent home for repairs. This particular post, therefore, has fewer bird images than might have been the case under normal conditions even though bad weather, most days, played havoc with the light. The Blackcap was particularly galling for three reasons. One, it would have been a lifer for every member of our party. As I write this it's no longer a lifer for every member of my party other than for yours truly.. Two, we can't include the bird in our 800 Challenge, both of us have to see the bird for inclusion & what an inclusion it may well have been! Three & the most galling of all, my dearest & fairest smiles serenely & almost always in my general direction, without any notable signs of remorse, whenever the question of 'leading twitcher in the Familia' is raised around the dinner table. Even the far-off probable / maybe / might have / please let it have been Amsterdam Albatross which I saw & my dearest 'sadly' missed, is no longer fair exchange. Any mention of this rather important point gives rise to howls of derision, a personal affront from which I might never recover.. Damn birds!
    Not quite the rainy season but weather proved difficult

    Screen shot - Zambezi Valley map (Crake round-table)
    The second leg involved a journey to the much drier far north but not before a round-table discussion with Crake Cottage hostess, Dorothy Wakeling. Two points of interest emerged from our discussions. The first & the most telling was the patience & almost ephemeral grace of our hostess, who like many others, had to make do with very little infrastructural support. It is to people like these to whom we, as visitors, should give credit. Yes we had no hot water & no it isn't cheap, even by 1st-world standards, but the breakfast (x2) was superb & that's usually good enough for me.

    The second interesting tit-bit from our discussions was clearly the more taxing. The road north, an inconsequential 300 km on the map, would be difficult, very difficult; 7 hours difficult. Whilst Dorothy was at pains to point out the defining features on her map, if it wasn't for the capable assistance of Louis Heyns, who provided us with waypoints prior to our departure, we would certainly, as we speak, still be suffering under the yoke of the Tsetse Fly somewhere in the Zambezi Valley.

    Community campsite - Masoka Village
    Leaf litter - Masoka [In search of African Pitta]
    As it was we hovered on the abyss & succumbed to doubt in the latter half of the 7th hour. We almost turned back. If obstinance has a persona then Alisha is its master...with respect & permission. It was, as a consequence, an angel-sung chorus of relief when we arrived at an unmarked Masoka Camp, 3 clicks west ('approx.' - love the associated confusion) of Masoka Village & to some unexpected but wholly familiar faces. Etienne Marais, leading a guest on a photographic journey through the sub-region for the specials, had beaten us to this African Pitta paradise with a day to spare. If Dorothy's the SA contact in Harare then Mackenzie Zirota is the equivalent in the far north. He is, undeniably, the pitta whisperer & even though we spent the next 48 hours on hands & knees & in the deepest crud south of the Zambezi we were, in the end, rewarded with fair to middling views of the African Pitta, a difficult bird & the reason we had come this far north. Along the way we picked up Red-throated Twinspot, Thick-billed Cuckoo & the other notable special in the area, Lillian's Lovebird.

    Bridge over the river Angwa
    Lillian's Lovebird - near Chewore
    A quick word on the community & Masoka in general. It's trite that the community does its best to live off the land. Along the way these hardy people contend with erratic weather & the nutritional demands of raiding elephant which find cultivated crops simply irresistible. However, it's the less obvious obstacles, posed by infrastructural deficiencies, that make life interesting, if not a tad tiresome. One such example are the many seasonally-dry river beds visitors / residents have to cross en route the village from Angwa Bridge, the last hurrah of infrastructural glory an hour back in time. In the dry season crossing the sandy beds is relatively simple. In the wet-season, however, crossing these flash-flood torrents is another kettle of kapenta altogether. Whilst most deep-pocket visitors engage automated mud-terrain programs & or low-range, largely relying on the engineering prowess of professionals many thousands of educated hours away, locals don't always have that luxury. Yes outsiders can communicate with local residents on Facebook, the internet or by cell-phone; another exploitative story for another time, but food, critical to the success of the community, cannot be teleported across the airwaves. Once Amazon gets it's delivery-drone program up & running this too might change but, until then, trucking the food into the area is still the only viable option open to the people.

    Here's where it gets interesting. An international bridge-building NGO roams rural Africa teaching the skills associated with medium to heavy engineering, thus opening up areas previously uninhabitable. The entire community, less school-going children, education is important in Zimbabwe, turned out at one particular ford to set right about the weather gods and started work on a new concrete bridge. As an interested rubber-necker it was fascinating to watch the chain-gang collect, mix & pour concrete in a manner almost musical. Community-project productivity is, in rural Zimbabwe at least, nothing short of impressive.

    Aberfoyle Tea-estates
    Our third & final country-within-a-country was the Eastern Highlands, an area infamous for its teas, forests, mist, winding mountain passes & birds altogether uncooperative. From Nyanga to Chimanimani, Vumba in between, this area is undeniably Zimbabwe's crown jewel. As always we needed more time, fewer roadblocks, less challenging road conditions, more suitable accommodation & better weather. Other than that we had a blast.

    Seldomseen - Vumba [Eastern Highlands]
    I do, however, have the barest of suspicions that some of the specials claimed common in this area are figments of the imagination but then, as a legal-hound, I'm suspicious by nature.. Lesser Seedcraker springs to mind but that too is a story for another hour.

    Vumba special - Swynnerton's Robin
    Vumba Botanical Gardens
    Throughout our adventure we've faced challenges which, at inception at least, were left largely unplanned. One of the more pertinent reasons we set out on this challenge was to do exactly that; challenge ourselves. That includes, in our case & most importantly, finding the time to travel the sub-region extensively enough to make good on the accounting aspects of the challenge ie: get to 800. In addition, three teen-aged, school-going children add sufficient spice to the mix to make a twitcher's eye water. Our eldest daughter, Amber, studying O-levels through the UK by correspondence, has by virtue of the associated flexibility, joined us on all our trips bar two pelagics. As a 16 year-old her list for the year is notable.. Our other two children are mainstream students, confined to the classroom & therefore largely sedentary, which makes travel rough & tough. Given these constraints our time away is usually woefully short. Birds targeted become a lottery of more is better. Return visits are whispered luxuries if not logistically impossible. Dipping on Bronze Sunbird therefore, confined largely to this area, was particularly annoying but that's how an adventure of this nature unwraps over time. Paying the equivalent of R1000 for five pieces of cake and a chosen brew each, at Tony's Coffee Shop, was equally 'amusing' & a scandalous affront to my Scottish ancestry! The Swynnerton's Robin, however & the other local specials, inclusive of Red-faced Crimsonwing, we safely stowed away.

    If pictures claim a 1000 words then the Highlands, in the east, are the merest rung or two below the promised land & if green reminds you of a peaceful time then Zimbabwe scores a 10.

    The 'Old lady' - Leopard Rock Hotel
    Even so, behind this mirage lies an equal truth. This country needs assistance. Her people cry out & her colours fade. The Vumba Botanical Gardens & the 'Old lady' close-by are jaded bastions of a time long past when love & money guarded the country's pride in tangible things. Today this once 'Globally commended, Top 100' golf course lies unseeded, uncut & sadly in a state generally unbecoming. The Botanical Gardens display hints of care but have largely become clogged with stubborn weed, undergrowth & a laissez faire attitude to investment of resource & time. It's sad. It's real & it's true. Anything else is twisted propaganda.