Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More pictures, I hear you call!









So here they are, Legion of Fans, some snaps of animals viewed during Uncle and Aunty Blog's travels in Africa - a very enjoyable, if difficult-to-recall 10-days of drinking and driving (not always at the same time).
(NB: No animals were harmed in the making of this blog. The lioness on the road, seen here as she crossed in front of Uncle and Aunty Blog's Nissan X-Trail was actually yawning and stretching at the time. She was very relaxed, unlike Uncle and Aunty B, who got close enough to see the plaque build-up on her teeth as she sauntered past the driver's side window)

Low maintenance camp guests and high maintenance vehicles

Another big couple of days, here on the blog safari, with the safe despatch of two low maintence relatives back to Australia, and the at-times-unsafe delivery of one high maintenance little Land Rover to a surgery in the sugar cane farming town of Malelane.

Uncle and Aunty Blog are now in Perth, after 10 days of immersing themselves in National Geographic Channel country (aka the Kruger National Park) and contributing mightily to the profits of South African Breweries.

The secret to being a low maintence camp guest - and Uncle and Aunty Blog set a new benchmark in this regard - here in Africa is to have the following:

1. The ability and willingness to drink copious amounts of alcohol at odd hours of the day;
2. A vehicle with appropriate towing points, in order to assist Tonka the Land Rover on his travels;
3. The ability to cook Fettucine Boscaiola;
4. A good and sometimes bizarre sense of humour;
5. A love of Africa and her wildlife.

Some people bring these with them to Africa, others rent them (vehicles wth towing points, that is). Uncle and Aunty Blog really got into the wildlife and the gentle pace of camp life (drink, sleep, drive, drink, sleep drive).

They tell me, by email, they had a wonderful time and were pleased that they didn't read the blog entries about them until now that they're safely back in Australia.

On a less relaxing note, Tonka set a new speed record for the 2.25 litre diesel Series III Land Rover yesterday, clocking 100km per hour on the flat. This is because Mr Blog was towing him, behind a mechanic's Toyota Hi-Lux. The knuckles were a tad pale, Legion of Fans, after the 76km drive from Lower Sabie Rest Camp in Kruger to the sleepy town of Malelane.

The gentlemanly tradesman insisted that Mrs B and I drive the towing vehicle, while he would sit behind Tonka's wheel. This was very nice of him, and probably the only concession to safety throughout the whole exercise. A couple of times I looked in the rear mirror of the Hi-Lux and saw Tonka, on the end of the tow rope, drifting out into the oncoming lane. I think the mechanic may have had a bit of a late night, but a few severe gear changes produced a suitable amount of jerking on the tow line and woke him up. Perhaps better, then, that he was the tow-ee, rather than the tow-er.

Anyhow, (or anyhoo, as an alarming number of people say in emails these days), Tonka is now in hospital, awaiting fitment (lovely, mechanical word, that) of a new clutch plate and Mrs B and I are zipping about in diminutive Volkswagen 1.4 Golf 'Chico', despite Avis Rent a Car's best efforts to up-sell us a more expensive model than the one I had booked over the phone. Hmmm.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Clutchless

Bad news, Legion of Fans. I know how closely all four of you follow the ups and downs of Tonka the plucky, slightly-battered Series III Land Rover's life in Africa so it is with a heavy heart that I have to report he is now clutchless - again.

Mr Sibanda's second-hand clutch plate (which dedicated readers will recall was salvaged from a pile of chicken pooh and snakeskins in a disused brewery in Zimbabwe) has given up the ghost.

Fortunately, the latest break down occurred in the very civilised Kruger National Park and Aunty and Uncle Blog were on hand (not 50 metres in front of us) to save the day with their natty rented Nissan X-Trail.

Mr Blog will no doubt soon be appearing in one or more South African newspapers and travel magazines that feature people breaking the rules in the national park. I got out of Tonka to attach a tow strap (getting out of one's vehicles in non-designated areas is a big no-no in a park full of lions, but, what can I say LOF, I am tough) and was standing next to Uncle Blog's vehicle, briefing him on the route back to camp, when a pair of elderly self-righteous South Africans drove past and snapped my picture.

Did they stop to ask what the problem was, or to gently remind me of the park rules? No, LOF, they were members of a particularly xeonophobic group of vigilantes who delight in sending pictures of law-breakers (cursed foreigners, it is usually alleged) and their number plates to columns with nifty names such as: "Krazies in Kruger"; "Claim to Shame"; and "Shame File".

Anyway, Uncle Blog towed the hapless Tonka back to Lower Sabie and insisted on giving me several beers in quick succession.

I was, however, pretty relaxed (even before the first beer) about the whole situation. I knew the clutch plate would not last and I have come to terms, at the age of 43, that sh*t does, indeed, happen, particularly with vehicles.

I know that we will be back on the road in a few days, and there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be stuck with a broken down vehicle than on the sunny banks of the Sabie River in one of the most beautiful national parks in the world.

There is ice, beer, red wine, red meat and good woman close at hand, and a Land Rover spare parts place in Johannesburg that can deliver a clutch plate overnight via express post.

What more could a man ask for?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Car key fever

We were a machine, Legion of Fans - a well-oiled, well-trained, experienced bunch of campers, up at the crack of dawn and racing to beat the world-record for tent derection (or whatever the correct term is for pulling one down).

We were there. Ahead of scedule, at 0617 hours, 13 minutes ahead of the ambitious time we'd set to be out the gate and on the road, spotting animals in the Kruger National Park.

Aunty Blog had swept the tent; uncle blog had organised coffee; Mrs Blog had given lots of orders and Mr Blog was pleasantly sweaty and grubby after rolling 25 kilograms of tent and loading in the back of Uncle and Aunty's rental car.

"OK, head 'em up, move 'em out," I said (or something like that).

"Where are the keys, hon?" said Uncle Blog to Aunty Blog.

"Not locked in the car - I didn't think that was possible with new vehicles," said Mr Blog, whose car is a 23-year-old Land Rover which is virtually impossible to lock.

"No," said Aunty Blog. "I unlocked the car before going to bathroom - that's why it's unlocked."

"Well, I don't have the keys, hon," said Uncle Blog.

"Well, I don't have the keys, hon," said Aunty Blog.

Camping with two vehicles can be a tricky business. You end up sharing out certains items of food and kit between the Land Rover and the Nissan X-trail. It's a bummer, when you wake up before the occupants of the other vehicle and need, say, coffee, or beer.

So, we devised a clever system where the car keys would be kept in one of those handy nylon mesh pockets in the front of the tent...

Which is, of course, where the keys were.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Of hippos, hangovers and handsome leopards

There I was, just six inches from the hippo's broad, bewhiskered snout, its massive jaws close enough to crush me...




True story, so far, Legion of Fans. Mr Blog came face to face with Africa's most dangerous creature yesterday. Hippos, according to common wisdom here in Efrica, kill more people than any other animal (apart, of course, from the mosquito which, while not an animal, kills millions, through malaria).




Close enough I was, LOF, to smell the rank breath exhaling from his huge nostrils. Aunty Blog, who was there at the time, said it smelled like regurgitated hay mixed with stagnant water (how she knows what that smells like, I didn't ask).




My first glimpse of him was of his broad back, only the hump of which was above the water. I couldn't at first, tell which end was which, until he conveniently farted (long and loud), sending up a trail of tell-tail (get it?) bubbles.




The hippo was, in fact, under the floorboards in the hide (small thatched shelter) overlooking Lake Panic, near Skukuza Camp in the Kruger National Park. Actually, the hide is currently overhanging Lake Panic, as the water in the dam is very full following recent rains. In case you're wondering (and in case you've bothered to read this far), Lake Panic was named after the man who built the dam - apparently when the first rains of the season started to fill the lake he thought he may have made a boo boo and the camp would flood - hence his panic.




But all turned out well and Lake Panic is a very agreeable spot, for humans and hippos alike. The hippo in question, a HUGE specimen, has found himself a lovely spot to lie up during the day, under the hide. He rests his chin on a supporting cross-beam, which brings his nostrils (and disgusting breath) within inches of unsuspecting tourists' feet.




I wouldn't have noticed him there (like the other people in the hide who were there when we arrived, blissfully unaware there was two-tonnes of killer beast under their flip flops) if not for my very good friends at Tinga Private Game Lodge who had warned me of his presence.




Mrs B and I had very pleasant lunch and game drive with one of our friends, who is a part owner of Tinga. Tinga is, as far as I'm concerned, the last word in luxury safari destinations. It's the sort of place I'd like be' a part-owner of. All I need to do is sell about another 20 million books.




We had a very good game drive around Tinga's concession in the Kruger park, during which I learned a lot about vultures and serial killers. One of our friends' guests was a young lawyer from the UK who knew far too many of Ted Bundy's direct quotes. Another was a friend of our's, a dentist, who knows more excellent dirty jokes than anyone I've ever met. Our guide knew a lot, too, though not much about serial killers. She told us that when you see a flock of vultures in a tree that doesn't necessarily mean (as Mrs B and I had always presumed) that there is a kill nearby (the serial killer expert was disappointed). The vultures may simply be waiting for the weather to change - specifically, for a bit of sun to come out and creat the thermals they need to fly high.




By use of a clumsy weather segwe I can report that Uncle and Aunty Blog have been doing some very successful game viewing, in between drinking, thanks in part to a change in the weather. It had been cool and overcast here for the first couple of days of their visit, but the reappearance of the sun yesterday seemed to bring a spurt of activity in the animal world.




As well as seeing a gazillions of giraffe and a veritable zoo full of zebras, keen-eyed Uncle Blog managed to spot that most elusive of all the Big 5, a big, handsome male leopard (actually, it walked across the road in front of the car, but Uncle has been calling himself the 'Leopard Man' ever since, in honour of his special sighting).




We celebrated the finding of the leopard and the 15-6 drubbing of the Poms by the Springboks with one too many bottles of South Africa's finest R40 (about AUD$5.50) champagne.




As I write this, Mrs B is doing a pretty reasonable impression of the Leopard's sawing cough, snoozing and snoring on top of Tonka the Land Rover at 1.10pm in the afternoon.
(Update - two days after drafting this post - Uncle and Aunty Blog have now seen all the big five, thanks to a nice view of a lion with a zebra kill. Mrs B has returned to solid food and had her first G&T in two days).




Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tell me why, I don't like monkeys


"There's something moving around out there," I just said, noticing a creature jumping around in the bush on the other side of the fence at Pretoriuskop Camp in the Kruger National Park.


"If it's a monkey I'm going to kill it," Mrs Blog replied.


The vervet monkey, cute, adorable little primate that he is, has just made the top of the list, Legion of Fans (LOF).


Mrs B and I arrived home at the campsite today after a particularly successful game drive (elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) to find a small, monkey-shaped hole in the screen door of the Circus Tent (it's got a big top and a clown resides there, according to Mrs B).


Pirates.


Attentive, long-term fans (both of you) may recall my earlier posts about the Pirates of Pretoriuskop - a particulalry mangy, limbless and diabolical troop of monkeys.


I'm not particularly pleased to report, LOF, that the entire pirate crew - Broken Hand, Blue Balls, One-arm-one-leg, and their gaggle of wenches are very much alive and kicking. Curse them. What's worse, they have been procreating and there are several cute-as-a-button (not) little junior pirates scampering around, learning to rip open tents and raid garbage bins.


Uncle and Aunty Blog from Australia arrive today on the last leg of a round-the-world tour of sporting venues and traffic control centres (Uncle Blog's specialties - sport and traffic) and Mrs B and I had been doing some re-arranging to prepare for 10 days of international representative level drinking (Uncle and Aunty Blog's other specialty).


The big mistake Mrs B and I made (and this is a cardinal no-no in Africa) was to move the spare esky (cooler box to you African ranks of the LOF) into the circus tent, where uncle and aunty will be staying.


This was a very silly thing to do. Even though there is no food or drink in the esky (that would have been down right idiotic), we should know by now that even the site of Coleman or a Malleys is enough to drive a Pirate Monkey into a state of criminal euphoria.


They must have peeked under the fly and seen the red plastic prize there, waiting, nay asking, to be plundered.


They tore their way in, opened the esky, sorted through a crate of odds and ends and tossed my new shirt (still in its wrapping) on the floor. There was an empty beer can (a left over from last night), which had been upended, and the dregs drained.


The worrying thing is that the Pirates' usual MO is to leave a small calling card at the scene of every crime. I haven't found it yet, but the sun has yet to reach its zenith.


I do hate monkeys.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Read more...

About the adventures of Mr and Mrs Blog on their recent travels in Zimbabwe at the Getaway Magazine website, where my other blog resides.

Roger of the bushveld

Roger's a very nice fellow. He's the manager of Tsendze Rustic Bush Camp in the Kruger National Park, where we camped last night. Basically, rustic means they don't cut the grass, and there are no electric powerpoints for caravans or campervans (the migration passes it by - another reason why were there).

It's a lovely camp, with the best shower in Africa (open air, though still in the immaculately clean ablution block). Roger, an African - Shangaan I think - makes a point of visiting all the campers and introducing himself. He also has an excellent memory ("you're the man with the laptop - you stayed in site 18 last year," he said, quite correctly).

Roger's lived in the bush all his life and knows all the birds by their calls, and by their African names. A regular visitor has given him a bird book and pair of binoculars, so he's brushing up on his identification of birds by their English names.

Just on dusk, Roger took Mrs B and I for a little walk to find a White Faced Owl. Roger picked his call and led us to him. With Roger's help we eventually saw his long, whispy, pointed ears silhouetted against the darkening sky. He rotated his head and antennae-like ears and locked eyes on us. It was one of those very nice moments, being out in the bush with someone who knows his stuff and is eager to share it.

We'd erected Tonka's home-made shadecloth roof tent and I was debating wheter or not to put the tarp on top, in case it rained. Stars were appearing above us, but far off there were flashes of lightening.

"Will it rain tonight?" I asked Roger of the bushveld.

"I don't know," he replied, looking out towards the horizon. "Let me check?"

Let me check?

What was he going to do, check whether the frogs were croaking in a particular way; whether the owl was on the west side of the tree or the east; whether the rhinocerous beetle was scampering back to its beetle house?

From his pocket he took a brand new 3G mobile phone, flipped it open, and connected to Vodacom Live. Scrolling past news, sport and entertainment gossip he selected 'weather', then 'Phalaborwa', the nearest town.

"Mostly sunny, partly cloudy tomorrow. 20 to 30 degrees. No rain. You'll be fine."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The great campervan migration

(To be read in the voice of Brian Denehy, that big fat American bloke who sometimes used to play a cop in TV shows, and, perhaps when he was short of cash, narrate wildlife documentaries, eg: "Patterns in the grass")...

Dusk falls on the African savannah. The low whooping call of hyenas competes with the popping of beer can lids and the crackle of boerewors (snag) fat on the braai (barbie)...

The couple are alone under the African Sky (still available in paperback, rrp $19.95), and they have the darkening contintent all to themselves.

Then they hear it... First a low, far-off rumble, rising slowly but inexorably (right word, Bec?) to a crescendo as the earth begins to vibrate.

The head of the column appears, high and proud, leading the way. The alpha has gained the ascendency and the reward is there for his taking - all of Africa's bounty supplicant before him, the pick of the veldt - once he checks into reception, of course.

Welcome, Legion of Fans, to the Great Campervan Migration (GCM).

Second only to the great wildebeest migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem (which has kept many a between-gigs American televison personality in narration work), the GCM is becoming an annual fixture here in Kruger.

There is a company, somewhere in the Netherlands, which markets group campervan holidays. This is Africa at her most dangerous, her most raw, a holiday for those not afraid to wear socks with their sandals in public, nor pump out a chemical toilet.

You can hear them coming a long way off. The whine of tortured, underpowered motors and straining gearboxes dragging massive bodies (vehicle and human) through the unforgiving African landscape.

And do not get in their way, if you value your life or personal space.

Muriel recently blogged on Salmagundi about an episode with a caravanning family camping on top of her (so to speak) on an otherwise empty 10km stretch of beach.

This is the way of the GCM. The elderly lowlanders who take part in the GCM have that distinctly European (I'm talking about people from Europe, not white people in Africa) need for proximity to others.

Mrs Blog and I were in the charmingly deserted camping ground at Punda Maria Camp the other day, bemoaining the inefficiency of the South African National Parks booking service, which had tried to tell us there were no sites wtih electricity left, as all had been booked. We scoffed, being the only ones in the campsite, but little did we know, the GCM was just over the hill - all 20 of them.

Zis is zee organised holiday, understant? There is the co-ordinator, or guide, who arrives first and (I'm not kidding here) erects zee flag, claiming zee camp ground is now under the command of the GCM Gruppenfuhrer (I don't know why I've switched to German, as they all tend to be Dutch, though I am sure there are a few Teutons in the ranks of the GCM).

The others rally around not only the flag, but also any other camper unlucky enough to be in residence when the GCM thunders in.

And so it was for us, camping quietly in a little grove of Mopane trees, down on the fenceline.

Before we could say f@ck off, we had several couples in monstrous campervans parking around us, and asking us if the ablution block, which was closed off with red and white striped tape as it's now a building site, was open. No, of course it's not open - that's why we camped near it, just in case a huge party of 20 campervans arrived. We had hoped, forlornly as it turned out, that the GCM would laager up around the toilets and showers.

But why, LOF, do people from the continent have to invade each other's personal space (let alone countries)?

It's like those beaches in the south of France, or Greece, or Italy, where people feel compelled to sit, cheek to cellulite, on sun beds. Why? What is wrong with a bit of Liebensraum now and again?

Perhaps the GCMers assume that by camping next to us we will provide some measure of protection from the lions that occasionally saunter along the (low) fence at Punda Maria.

I can assure them, LOF, they are wrong.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nice kitty...

We return to our regular programming, Legion of Fans. No more politics as I'm back to getting my news from the BBC World Service now, instead of SABC 3 (local TV channel and mouthpiece of the ruling ANC party - sorry, had to slip that one in).

The BBC may be fiercely independent, but it is also stiflingly boring. Last night's news was all about the Pakistani elections (boring); English football (boring); and the Rugby World Cup (very boring, espeically if you're an Australian).

Far more interesting, LOF, was my shower last night, in Punda Maria rest camp, in the north of the magnificent Kruger National Park. I was just drying off when Mrs B arrived, hovering at the door of the gents. "Are you dressed? Get dressed? Come now!"

This is what happened last time we stayed in Punda Maria... my latherings were interrupted by the arrival of Panthera leo - lion - at the waterhole just outside the camp fence.

Don't panic, LOF - the fences in Kruger are electrified, though the one at Punda Maria is only about waist high. That didn't stop about 20 campers from assembling on the fencline and watching four lionesses stalking through the bushes, no more than 30 or 40 metres away.

(Astute readers will note that the lion above is pictured against a backdrop of dry Kalahari Sandveld vegetation. That pic was actually taken in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, about 15km from the Shumba Picnic Site).

Anyway, Mrs B had been preparing dinner when the first feline rose from the bush - about 20 metres from her. She sensibly put the steak in the car fridge (you know those kitty cats - turn your back for a second and they'll steal your food) and came and fetched me.

We heard them talking to each other - low, almost mournful groans - during our dinner. This morning the male was just outside the fence, waking us at dawn as he called to his wives; "wheeeeres my breakfast... wheeeeeres my breakfast?"

On top of the Land Rover, under the covers.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A little ray of difficulty amidst the disaster of Zimbabwe

Any media lawyers out there amongst your swelling ranks, Legion of Fans? Anyone know how the laws of libel apply to blogs?

Would, hypothetically speaking, it be a bad thing for me to describe, say, the leader of a sizeable European nation as a fucking idiot?

Sorry, LOF, but I'm a little angry. It was watching telly that did it.

Apropos of none of the above, the Chancellor of Germany and current head of the G8, Angela Merkel, is currently in Africa. She met with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa yesterday to discuss zee Zimbabwean zituation.

At a press conference following the meeting she said, now fully briefed, that the situation was "difficult", but not "disastrous". Zimbabwe needed, she was reported as saying, an "African solution".

Hmmmm.

Frau Merkel, who I am sure is a very nice person, could do with a little face time with the people of Zimbabwe. Asking Mr "quiet diplomacy" for his view on what's happening in Zimbabwe is a bit like asking Japan's war time prime minister, Tojo, for his views on his buddy Adolf Hitler's relations with the jews.

"He's got some issues," Tojo might have said, "but he's working through them. I'm sure he'll find a German solution."

So, Ms Merkel (if you're doing a spot of self-googling, as I myself have been known to do) what's the difference between "difficult" and "disastrous"?

Perhaps we should put you to the test, Ange. Let's drop you somewhere in the middle of Zimbabwe - Gweru, for example. A pretty little town.

Let's give you some money to help you get by. We'll be exceedingly generous and not give you the government-mandated minimum monthly wage of ZW$150,000 (about US$0.25c), enough to buy a beer or a coke. Instead we'll give you what a domestic or mine worker makes - about ZW$5 million. That's about $US9 - for the month, that is.

You'll need to eat, but here's the catch. Because of the president's decision to evict all the white farmers, there's not enough maize in the country, so that means no mealie meal, which would be your staple diet as a Zimbabwean. Oh, by the way, there's actually no other food or drink on the shop shelves at the moment because of the President's decision to introduce artificial price controls. This led to police and soldiers and the party faithful buying up entire stores, so there's nothing to buy now. Sorry.

Of course, there is the thriving black market, so go find some food there. With your five mill you could buy a bag of potatoes for about $3 million. That should see you through the month - one potato per day. The president doesn't want a war, or revolution, so he's just allowed some cattle to be slaughtered - if you're quick you can buy enough stewing steak for one meal for half a million dollars.

Not happy Angela? Difficult, isn't it. You've got $1.5 million left to last the month. Let's hope, God forbid, that you don't get sick. The Nigerian doctor (all the Zimbabweans have left) in the hospital down the road will not even admit you for a consultation unless you sling him a $2 million backhander (that's before any prescriptions or other fees - this goes into his pocket). So, basicially, if you get sick, you're stuffed. Not that there's any medicine in the hospital anyway.

Had enough, Ange?

Maybe you'll see sense and, like an estimated further 2,999 Zimbabweans per day, you'll try and cross into South Africa or Botswana to find work - legally or illegally.

Everything we're talking about so far, Angie, is basically lifted from a conversation I had the other day with a Zimbabwean guy I know, who is a gardener. As well as trying to feed himself and his wife and kids he's trying to pay school fees. ZW$600,000 a month (one US dollar) doesn't sound like a lot, but with three kids that eats away a hell of a lot of your monthly wage.

My friend the gardener told me he'd go to South Africa, about 320km distant, if he could afford to get there. He can't. He's not well enough to walk, and doesn't want to chance ending up in hospital.

"If I can find a white man with a bakkie (a pickup)," he said, "he might give me a lift to the border for free. If I asked a black man, he would charge me at least $2 million."

I won't tell you what Government troops did to his sister during quashing of the Matabele rebellion, as I know there are some kids who read this blog. It's bad enough I used the F word. But that's old news, dating back to the early 80s when the West turned a blind eye to what was happening in Zimbabwe.

But back to you, Angela. Bad luck, eh? You're stuck in Zimbabwe with a bag of potatoes, one night's meat and $1.5 million dollars. What's that? Toilet paper? Glad you asked, Frau Merkel - you can buy four rolls for that 1.5 mill.

But wait... in the time you've spent trying to work out your budget, the zim dollar has just nose-dived even further. Overnight, it's just lost another 30 per cent of its value (that's the effect of 4000 per cent inflation). That 1.5 million you've got left is now actually worth $1,000,000 and falling, and it's still 29 days until your next pay.

If you're angry at the man and the party responsible for all this, don't dare raise your voice. The elections are around the corner and people are already making plans to move away from their villages and start sleeping in the bush... because at night all the president's men come around and deliver beatings, just to remind you who to vote for.

Difficult, isn't it, living in Zimbabwe?

Disastrous?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Holiday pix

I'm alive, Legion of Fans, and so is Mrs Blog, and Mr Truck (Tonka). Mr Sibanda's chook-pooh encrusted clutch plate-i (see post below) has held out, and we have returned to the land of electricity, cold beer, air conditioning and miniature golf (we're staying at Tchipise, a resort based aorund hot springs in the north of South Africa which has all manner of tacky amusements on our doorstep).
Here are some pics we took on the potholed road in Zimbabwe.
This is me drinking black market Foster's Lager in a crocodile cage attached to the back of the good ship "Avalon", the houseboat on which we spent five luxurious days on Lake Kariba.
Avalon is the sister ship of Return to Eden, the boat on which I endured a four-day hangover on or about when I turned 40.
The purpose of the crocodile cage is not to catch reptiles, but to keep them out. As you'll see by the 30cm of freeboard it's perfectly safe. Well done to Mrs B for sourcing smuggled Foster's in strife-torn Zimbabwe (at about a third less than the price I would have spent in Australia for my brew of choice

And here she is, LOF, "Avalon". When on Lake Kariba I now choose to stay on Avalon. With her two bars, cabins with en-suites and numerous fridges and eskies (cold boxes to you Africans out there), Avalon is the last word in leisure cruising, amidst the crocs and hippos and elephants of Zimbabwe's man-made Lake Kariba.
This unknown lady is pictured here with Captain Simon, aboard Avalon's stout tender, which is used as a mobile drinking and fishing platform.



And here we have, LOF, Lake Kariba standard picture number 1A - "elephant picturesquely positioned against settng sun"
Sometimes, when I'm travelling in Zimbabwe and faced with shortages of diesel, beer and steak, and the depressing sight of supermarket shelves bare of everything bar fabric softener and firewood, I ask myself "why do I bother coming back to this country?"
The answer, of course, is "friends" and Lake Kariba standar picture number 1A.
And now, if you have absolutely nothing at all to do at work or home, you may choose to read an interview with my self at http://www.ozemag.com/

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hello, testing, testing...

This is Mr and Mrs Blog, live from the Zimbabwean border... (on the South African side, where most journos file their reports about Zimbabwe these days because they're either banned from entering Zimbabwe or too chicken to cross).
 
If you are reading this, Legion of Fans, it means we have successfully completed another tour of duty in Zimbabwe.  I'm writing this from Hwange National Park in the hope that as soon as we return to the land of mobile internet and 3G that is the Republic of South Africa, this message will wing its way into cyberspace. 
 
I've been diligently recording our travels for my very good friends at Getaway Magazine and a more detailed, sensible blog should be available very soon at www.getawaytoafrica.com
 
I said 'tour of duty' in the second paragraph because life is a mission here in Zimbabwe.  Everything from finding food and fuel, to booking accomodation, to changing money is a challenge.  For tourists like ourselves these things (such as buying toilet paper and beer on the black market) are inconveniences, and at times amusing; for ordinary people here the simple act of staying alive is a full time job.
 
There's more detail on the other blog, but just imagine having to live with one and a half days of water connected to your house, and one and a half days of electricity per week.  Add to this chronic shortages of Mr B's staple foods - red meat and beer - and you have yourselves a recipe for a nightmare.  Prior to our visit to Hwange National Park to take part in this year's annual game census (our eighth), we did what those in Zimbabweans who can afford to, do - shopped in Botswana for essentials.
 
The food and drink shortages (and a lack of many other basic goods) are all to do with Comrade President's latest genius plan to curb the rampant (read 4000 per cent) inflation that his policies have caused.  The government introduced price controls a few weeks ago which forced shops and suppliers to sell their goods at half price - below cost.  Those in the know (police, government and military people) were tipped off in advance and cleaned out entire supermarkets as soon as the new pricing regime was forced into existence.  They're the ones behind the currently thriving black market.
 
Now, shops are closing and supermarket shelves are totally bare, except for the most bizarre items. For example, it's comparatively easy, LOF, to buy fabric softener, but you can't drink it (it's the lemony scent I detest more than the consistency).
 
Prices continue to rise out of sight.  Yesterday the one-bedroom national parks chaelt we are staying in cost ZW$900,000.  Today it costs ZW$2 million.  OK, that's still only about US$5, but it means that the ZW$6 million we changed with friends the other day is now worth half. 
 
In other late breaking and potentially devastating news, the day before yesterday Tonka the venerable Series III short wheelbase Land Rover did something he'd never done to us before - come to a complete stop.
 
In the past our trusty steed had had his mechanical problems, but we'd always been able to limp into a garage.  The other day, following a series of mildly alarming clunks, Tonka stopped dead, amidst much whirring and grinding.  For a while we feared it was the gear box.  This would have been a disaster, given the amount we'd recently paid to replace said item.
 
We broke down near Nyamandlovhu, a major waterhole in Hwange which means meat of the elephant.  Mrs B and I might have been meat for the lions and vultures if not for the help of Zimbabwean businessman who is currently a resident of Cuba, and a grey-bearded academic and author of "Fishes of Rhodesia".  They towed us back to Hwange's main camp (which is, surprisingly, called Main Camp), about 10km away, and got us so drunk that we couldn't remember to be depressed.
 
Phew, LOF.  Mrs B and I had just spent the past week in the furthest reaches of this run-down, but still game-rich national park.  Had we broken down, say, at Deka Vlei on the Botswana border (which features in my latest book, SAFARI, rrp $32.95, $21.99 in K-Mart) then we might never have been found.  For several days before game count we were the only tourists in that part of the national park.  And it's lion country.  The area around Main Camp is comparatively busy (there were two other vehicles staying here last night).
 
It's not what you know in Africa, but who you know, and the man in the know in Main Camp is Mr Owen Mangwana, chief mechanic and Land Rover fundi (expert).  Funnily enough, we met Owen about four years ago when we came across him broken down, outside the park, in a Series III Land Rover not unlike ours.  We towed Mr Mangwana to camp, even though our clutch plate was slipping badly at the time.
 
So, it was with some sense of soothing Karma that Mr Mangwana (which means tomorrow) said he would help us today, even though it was Sunday.  With two apprentices in tow he diagnosed Tonka's problem as "ma-clutch-i" (the clutch).  Mangwana and Co then proceeded to dismantle the floor and remove the gear box while I stood by, repeatedly trying to phone a Mr Sibanda in the village of Dete, about 19km away, in search of a part.
 
Even using a phone is a challenge in Zimbabwe.  The land-line system is all but kaput across the country so most people carry cellphones.  The network is not, shall we say, first world, and is regularly clogged.  I kept pushing the call button for two hours before finally thrusting the phone to Mr Mangwana "it's ringing!"
 
Mr Sibanda was in church, but would meet us at his workshop in an hour, where he was sure he had ma-clutch-i plate.
 
Mr Mangwana and I then needed to find a vehicle to get to Dete.  We went to see his friends at the Lion Research project, to beg one of their Land Cruisers.
 
I should add here, Toyota-fans, that we were towed into camp by a Hi-Lux and, yes, we were on our way to fetch a part in yet another Japanese-made vehicle.  Before you all start disparaging Land Rovers, however, I should also point out that two of our friends from game `count had to abandon their hi-lux at Main Camp after blowing a head gasket, and that the Land Cruiser Mr Mangwana and I eventually borrowed had dangerously ruined tie-rod ends, was full of rust, and nearly got stuck in the sand because its four-wheel drive no longer works.
 
Anyway, the intense young murungus (whiteys) at the Lion Research project (who all affect that detached-from-the-real-world, Africa-savvy, wind-blown, copper and elephant-tail- bangle-wearing air of bush-chic) leant us a vehicle, which was very nice of them.
 
In Dete (pardon the pun, but I had no idea how I was going to pay Mr Mangwana, posessing, as I did, a scant $6 million Zimbabwean dollars - about US$12) we caught up with Mr Sibanda in his Sunday-best - grey trousers and one of those Gordon Gecko pink-and-white striped business shirts with contrasting collar (much frayed, but quite smart).
 
Mr Sibanda had taken over the local brewery - since no beer was being brewed in the country at the time of writing - and was using it as his workshop and chicken coop.  It was more like a vehicle graveyard.  In a darkened warehouse we came across the auto-version of CSI - the disected body of a Series III Land Rover.  Every nut, bolt, hose, clamp and widget had been unscrewed or disassembled and dropped on the floor beneath where it had once stood.  Quite a sight, and I wished I'd brought my camera (as much to get a pic of Mr Sibanda's shirt as the dead Land Rover).
 
Under the bonnet (being careful to check for snakes first) Mr Mangwana found it.  Here in the remotest corner of this isolated country, in the wreckage of a once-sturdy vehicle, covered in dust, feathers and chook pooh, was a ma-clutch-plate-i (only in slight need of repair).
 
This is the way of Land Rover, and the way of Africa.  Just when you think the chips couldn't get any lower or soggier you find hope, amidst the shit.