a social event

20 April 2012

Alone in the bush, with no social life and nowhere to go? Definitely not. This place, like everywhere else, has special events where you get to mix with the who’s who of the ‘hood.

The Parque Nacional do Limpopo where I live is open around its perimeter, except on its western boundary where it borders onto SA’s Kruger National Park. That fence is open in a number of places too, preliminary to dropping it altogether when the two parks will ultimately combine to form the massive Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. But before that can happen the eastern side has to be fenced. This process has now finally kicked off and a contractor has moved in to clear a strip through the bush and erect the first 56km of heavy, elephant-proof game fence.

Before anything can be put in the ground however, there is a specific custom that must be adhered to: There has to be a ceremony to honour and appease the ancestors and to get their blessing . This important event is happening today.

I’m up early and get ready to be picked up by the limo. After a short wait I hear its engines and watch as it comes into view and banks towards my little bush strip. Just then a waterbuck bull steps out on to the runway (from where I have just chased a herd of impala). With one eye on the plane I race the Nissan down the strip again, shoo the buck away, and park at Drop off ‘n Go at the end. Steph pulls up, cuts a motor, and I hop aboard. He has a problem with the flaps but we manage to get out of the tight strip nonetheless and head for the town of Massingir.

Camp Gazari - my abode - lies under the trees in the centre of the pic

Flying over the Massingir dam on the Olifants river.

At Massingir two boys and a dog flee the crumbling, overgrown runway as we touch down. There’s a vehicle waiting, as well as guards for the plane. Forty-five minutes later, after a bumpy, branch-ducking ride along a bush track on the back of a bakkie, we arrive at the event.

The venue is a designated jackalberry tree on the edge of a cornfield shamba. The assembled guests consist of a few officials, the contractors, a TV crew and the folks of the local Mahlahule community. Like most do’s it’s a bit of a stiff affair initially. When things get underway a few speeches are made, a goat and a chicken are killed, a bit of snuff is rubbed on the tree, wine is sprinkled on the ground and some chants are repeated. There’s also an indaba to clear up any misunderstandings about which tree is inside the coming line and which is out, and then it’s time for the party. A few of the folks do a shuffle in the long grass but it’s really the wine and the pap and the cooked meat of the goat that it’s all about. A good time is soon had by all under the jackalberry.

Different to the social events I’m used to? Nay – same thing. A few formalities and customary procedures, and then everyone gets on with being happy. The only difference is that here no-one has to clean the hall afterwards.

Chef Andres Mahlahule sprinkling wine as part of the ceremony

Simao Mucar, peacekeeping officer of the community, starts dishing up

normality a myth

19 April 2012

Some things I never thought I’d be doing when I came here:

  • Pick through my muesli to separate the mouse turds from the raisins.
  • Try to make Fissan paste from mealiemeal, margerine and salt.
  • Arrange curses and swearwords so they rhyme.
  • Talk about the weather to a lizard with a blue tail.
  • Fire-strip yellow fungus to get to the bread underneath.
  • See a highly pregnant woman push a plough at 4.30 a.m.
  • Drain muddy water from the headlights of a vehicle.
  • Fry brinjals on the blade of a machete.
  • Use four languages in the same sentence.
  • Cybertrack the path of a cyclone.
  • Take a picture of a giraffe’s dick.

relics of war

16 April 2012

Beautiful and inspiring as the African landscape is, it is all too often also a silent backdrop to the quarrels of man. Mozambique is no exception. The shots of three different wars rang through this country over the last four decades and this area, although remote, wasn’t spared.

Less than a kilometre from my camp, on high ground overlooking rivers on two sides, a Frelimo camp stood during the eighties, when the Frelimo/Renamo civil war still raged. The tents and battlements are gone now and the parade ground is overgrown, but some relics remain and the hole that was once the underground magazine can still be seen.







Further east, along the Limpopo, a fierce assault was launched on Mapai by Rhodesian special forces during the Rhodesian war. They lost an Alouette helicopter and a DC3 there, whilst on the Mozambican side there were many casualties. When news of this attack got out, reinforcements were rushed to the scene from Massingir, further south. They approached through this area but they weren’t unexpected. Not far from here one of their Soviet GAZ trucks hit a landmine and was blown to bits. Thirty-three years later some rusty pieces and scattered debris still litter the ground.

At Mangonzo, an old farmstead that I use as a base when exploring the Kruger Park buffer zone south of Massingir, bullet-scarred and graffiti-covered walls tell of the time when the place was a Frelimo outpost. Renamo, with the opportunism so characteristic of a guerilla war, didn’t miss the fact that the base was served by only a single bush track. One of their landmines blew up the inbound Frelimo supply truck and killed all on board.

That something tumultuous once happened there is clear when one drives over the spot today. There is an area of blackened, scorched sand and debris, but it’s really only when you see the mangled and rusty cab, thrown some ten metres beyond, that you find proof that the fine litter of glass shards, molten metal, flattened food tins, buckles, bolts and bits of spring and tubing could once have been a fully loaded truck.

War is indeed a messy business.







10 April 2012

It’s been a dry summer. The river came down only once whilst it should flow about three times during an average season. The lack of water has helped to keep the mozzies down but it spells hardship for the locals, most of whom are subsistence farmers. Their annual summer crop of mealies, planted by hand after preparing the fields with ox-drawn ploughs, is what has to fill their cooking pots for a whole year.

Along the Limpopo the crop has failed entirely, I’m told. Locally, in the handful of villages in the Shingwedzi river basin, things look a little better. The harvest is coming in. Although it’s not a big one, after so little rain and some destructive raids by elephant, it’s still a busy time for the bush folk. The cobs have to be picked and gathered, hauled in with wooden sleds pulled by oxen, and then stored on high platforms out of reach of pesky rodents. The women then draw corn from this larder as it is needed and mill it by pounding it with wooden pestles. Only after all this effort can they finally bring the pots to the boil to feed their waiting families.

No wonder I haven’t seen a single overweight person around these parts!

A worn 'sleigh-run' is a sign of a good harvest.

Rich man..

poor man








interesting critters

3 April 2012

These are not discarded electronic parts or rusty washers; it's the dung midden of a civet, a cat-like nocturnal creature that likes to eat shongololo's. (Few critters do; the shongololo, a large segmented millipede, secretes a terrible corrosive tasting substance, as I once found out when I happened to lick my fingers after handling one.)

Orb spiders are everywhere. They string their webs between trees and you have to duck every now and then when you're out walking to avoid wrecking their carefully constructed means of trapping food.

happy hour

30 March 2012

There may not be a sushi bar or a pub in this precinct, but the bush around here is not without its treats.

I missed out on the mopane worms over Christmas (just as well), but for the locals it was a time of plenty. They collect the colourful, rubbery caterpillars by the bagful as a much appreciated form of protein. The worms are stripped of their gut content by using the fingers as a squeegee and are then boiled in salt water. Afterwards they are either fried in a little fat and eaten as a welcome garnish over mealiemeal vuswa, or dried for later use.

On a quiet day one can hear the rustle of caterpillars chewing mopane leaves

Eggs, from which the caterpillars hatch.

A few weeks later, from January until about March, the marula trees drop their fruit for all sorts of creatures to feast on. Elephant love it (although the popular belief that they get drunk on it is largely urban legend), antelope and primates nibble on it, and thirsty folk ferment it to make a drink that has somewhat more substance than the litres and litres of water one has to drink here to keep your perspiration well from running dry.

Children playing under a marula tree

Brewing marula beer is supposed to be a simple process: Peel the 3cm yellowgreen fruit, add a little water, pulp the lot and then go and laze in the shade somewhere while nature takes its course. It starts frothing after a few hours in the tropical heat and after a day the clearer part is ready to drink. Leave it a few days longer though, and you start getting the whiff of alcohol. Which of course is why I was looking forward to marula season so much. But when I went wandering in search of fruit, clutching a large sack and visions of drums of heeby-jeeby jungle juice, I found I hadn’t bargained on the elephants. All I could find was a measly bowlful. Still, I got a little home-brew going and tasted it after one day. It was hardly sweet, in fact it tasted rather ascorbic, but it had that fermented fizzy quality that we all loved when grandma used to make wheat- or ginger beer. So far so good, I thought, and spent the next three days rubbing my palms.Sadly, while the resultant brew was certainly fruitful, it failed to make merry. Somehow the alcohol had gone AWOL from my concoction. I have since learned that I’d left it too long, given the heat around here, and that I should also have removed the stones and scooped off some the froth.

The four litres of marula beer that I bought under a tree near Bushbuckridge in SA turned out to be of a markedly better brew. Once chilled it made a refreshing drink that clearly had all its demons present. In fact, some of them were still haunting me even after the beer was finished.

exploring east

27 March 2011

My camp lies in the western part of the Limpopo Parque Nacional, a wilderness area of more than a million hectares that is bordered in the north and east by the Limpopo river, in the south by the Olifants river, and in the west by SA’s Kruger National Park. Here, less than 3km from this border, I find myself in the Lebombo mountains, a range of hills that stretches south from the Limpopo all the way past Swaziland and on into northern KZN. It’s a rocky place, quite different to most of the rest of the park which is sandy.

On Sunday I got a chance to explore the sandveld region in the east when I joined two park personnel on a trip to escort technicians to a remote radio mast. We drove through virgin bush along a winding track and saw animals, but not a single human soul. The area is flat and dry with no surface water other than what the many shallow seasonal pans can hold for a while.

We camped for the night on the edge of Banga Pan, a pristine place where you feel you are truly out in the wilds and away from it all. When I crawled under my mozzie shelter and lay there looking up at a star-spattered sky, the ululating calls of jackals and hyena sounded like they were enticing me to lalaland. And so they soon did. Although I woke up a few times to offer my other hip to the hard ground, the night was a peaceful and enchanting one.

 Yesterday, after seeing the tech guys off, we went on a recce of another important pan, a remote one known as Marombeni. After bush-bashing with the Cruiser for as far as we could go and then following a dusty elephant path on foot for another 2.5km, we finally arrived at a lush clearing in the bush where water sparkled, a few lilies bloomed and nimble birds scooped insects off the surface of the pool. I sat there in the shade of a tambotie tree worn smooth by itchy elephant and once again I felt as if the whole world was at peace and such a thing as time didn’t exist.

Why, I couldn’t help wondering, does this magic have to be lost where man establishes himself?

We met this guy in the road on the way back but he took less notice of us than we did of him.


instead of miXit

23 March 2011

The river is a source of life for all around here. Some kids came to fish near my camp yesterday (a one and a half hour walk from their village) to help feed their families. Althought the fish in the pools are small, a bowlful of them adds welcome protein to a standard fare of cornmeal porridge.

The boys use hooks baited with green crickets but the girls wade right in, using government-supplied mosquito nets to corner and scoop their catch. The fish are subsequently cleaned (the little ones merely squeezed to pop out the gut contents) and then boiled with salt.




Fishing can be a thorny issue


back under my tree

20 March 2012

After a month on the road, first to Botswana and then south to the Western Cape to tend to matters at home, I finally arrived back under the fever trees last night.

No serious rain had fallen while I was away and the Nissan Patrol, now with her tail up like a lustful lioness after having the rear suspension replaced, danced and dipped merrily over a mud-free road. Dried cornleaves littered the three villages I passed through, a sign that the harvest was coming in and that the cooking pots would be full again.

Man Friday was there to welcome me in camp and seemed quite eager to redeem himself after his sins over Christmas had led to him spending a spell in the trenches elsewhere. He even unloaded the heavy generator all by himself!

After all the supplies I’d brought were packed away safe from baboons, monkeys, rats, mice and ants, I was looking forward to a refreshing cold shower but there was none to be had. The pump that is used to pump water from the river had also been in for repairs along with the generator, and the tank had long since run dry. I settled for a splash from my precious drinking water supply, opened the flaps of my tent to let the breeze through, and stretched out on my bed.

My feet, I soon smelled, had a rather sour presence. Then, when I’d cooled down a bit and crawled under the sheets, I discovered that a mouse had taken over my bed while I was away. Besides the strong smell of mouse pee, it had left its droppings and gnawed holes in my bedding. I took it as a welcoming sign: What a joy to be back amongst living things, to hear the sounds of the bush again and to sleep unfettered by barriers and alarms!

This morning, when birdsong and the chatter of baboons woke me, it was time to get things up and running again. An inspection showed that Friday’s good intentions hadn’t quite stretched as far as action, so I mapped out the tasks for the days ahead. The grass around camp stands tall and drying and has to be slashed to prevent it becoming a fire hazard when winter approaches; the landing strip, helipad and road all have be cleared again; there’s firewood to be brought in; a thirsty wild garden to water; electricity and comms to get going, plus all the other things one has to do when you’re your own municipality and utility company.

Good news is that there seems to be more animal movement close to the river now that water isn’t available everywhere. An elephant bull had left its melon-size dumps right in camp and I’m told that while I was away a group of lions had a raucous mating session on the river bank one night. The snarls and roars apparently went on for hours, much to the consternation of the baboons who only left their trees late the next day after a sleepless night.

Under a different tree

22 February 2012

My camp lies about 60km from the Limpopo river on the left bank of one of its tributaries, the Shingwedzi. In arid southern Africa the 1750km long Limpopo is an important watercourse. Its arc marks South Africa’s northern borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and it sustains all who live along its banks, from the parched Kalahari in the west to the floodplains on the east coast.

I have stood by the clear pool amongst the reeds where its tail, the Marico, springs from the earth on the highveld above Groot Marico in South Africa, and I have watched the long brown serpent spew its waters into the Indian ocean near XaiXai in Mozambique. Today I’m sitting under a giant old nyala berry tree on a high bank above the river’s full belly in Botswana. To get here, I crossed from South Africa at Pontdrift border post where you can drive through the sandy river bed in the dry season, but get hauled over the water in a cable car when the river is high.

Compared to the lush green and rampant growth of the area around my camp in Mozambique, things are hard here in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. A concentrated overpopulation of elephant has stripped the bush of most of its trees, leaving only mangled mopane, and the rains have not arrived to send grass sprouting from the bare, dusty soil. But despite these harsh conditions there is an abundance of game and wild things here, most of them easy to spot in the sparse cover. The elephants that were so numerous last time I was here seem to have moved elsewhere for the moment, though. It’s a relief, but the damage is done. Such devastation takes decades, if not centuries, to heal.

Most spectacular is the backdrop to all this: The rugged, convoluted rock of the valley. Doloryte dykes and great bodies of sandstone, shaped by aeons of floods and weathering, create a landscape that is almost fantastical in form. In places elephant have worn paths in the rock sheets over the centuries, elsewhere there are caves where animals find shelter, cliffs to which wild fig trees cling with sinuous fingers, and sculpted piles of jumbled, weathered rock that could well be home to fairies, dinosaurs or Indiana Jones. 

In the wooded Lebombo hills near my camp in Mozambique, rhyolite rocks and boulders are a curse in the roads. Here, some 300km away, the sandstone of the more open Limpopo valley enchants me. In fact, I get the feeling that even if there wasn’t a single tree left here, this would still be a spectacularly beautiful place. Such is the magic of nature: It casts its spell in so many guises!











Rainbow skink, one of the many creatures at home in the crevices













Massive old mashatu (nyala berry) trees line the banks of the Limpopo and provide shelter for all.