Saturday, March 30, 2013

A very noisy house!

The other day I was at home as heavy clouds gathered, and a quiet peace prevailed. No noise of any sort - which is unusual at La Rochelle, because normally the birds at the very least can be heard. But it got me thinking of all the noisy house-guests we have - so I started adding up the total of noisy things that share our house with us. I even excluded the monkeys - and only those living things that sleep under my roof every night are included.

Incredibly - the total came to roughly 1,000!

Unbelievable? Well - here they are in all their glory. I only included the guests (all of them long-term) who make a noise - so therefore Fred the chameleon and all the spiders are excluded......

First the dogs - who shout their heads off at the slightest provocation. Three of them

Then the paper wasps, who live under the eaves of the house on the East. They generally stay out of the house, but when they come inside they have a loud buzz, and when they get trapped by a closed window they are so noisy that the only solution is to open it - regardless of what you are trying to do at the time.

The paper wasps live right above to the 'East swarm' - roughly 400 African bees. I tried to get into the roof to take their picture, but crawling through the roof timbers being stung didn't sound like such a good idea, and I chickened  out - hence this is taken from outside the house. But the gentle hum of the hive can be heard throughout the day if you are standing in the right spot.

On the other side of the house is the 'West swarm' - this a much larger, and more aggressive, swarm comprising around 600 bees that lives in the roof above our kitchen door. The ceiling boards have been torn away previously to allow us to smoke them out, but they soon return. These are the fellows that make cutting the grass such a wonderful and adrenaline-charged game of Russian roulette, as they react viciously to the smell of cut grass. The sound of bees can be heard all day just outside of our kitchen door. This photo was taken with much attention to my evacuation plan and departure route, and is slightly blurred as a result!

Then the noisiest creatures of the lot. A constant and raucous cacophony of chattering sounds raised throughout the day - causing migraines and shattered nerves. These noisy little beasts have a penchant for loud and incessant banging ("music" to some ears - I am told), and communicate at full volume. Thank goodness there are only three of them!

No wonder my hearing is starting to go!

Friday, March 29, 2013

A day of real miracles!

So - another road trip to Harare, but this time one full of miracles and wonder!

On Wednesday we woke at 04.00am and set off for Harare on two-fold mission. Our plan was very simple:

- Go to the Passport Office and collect Della's Mom's passport
- Return to Marondera in time to attend our daughter Courtney's Teacher Consultation Day at 10.15

This passport saga has been going on for some time, and only a true Zimbabwean could know the dread that the words 'Mukombe Building' generate in the hapless souls who have to attend there for any reason whatsoever. To date the passport thing has gone like this-

a) In October 2012, Onia spent 3 hours dropping off her passport for renewal.
b) In December 2012 she went to collect her new passport only to be told, after an interminable wait, that the photos were 'wrong'. They took her aside, wiped her make-up off, tied her hair back, stuck toilet paper behind her ears to make them stick out, and put a heavy, black Hell's Angels jacket on her, and told her not to smile for the photo. (She wasn't, by that stage, so a waste of an instruction, really).

The resulting mugshot bears no resemblance to her at all, and if she ever tried to get through airport security looking like she does in the photo, she would be pulled aside and scanned in about 7 different ways!

In February, Della and I drove to Harare to collect her passport on her behalf. Della left me there and I waited 3 hours outside 'Window 9' (you have to wait outside various windows to be served - and entering the building is only done at great personal risk, as the milling crowds inside are packed as tightly as humanly possible) only to be told that I could not collect as I was not in possession of her old passport, and it had not expired yet, so they could not issue the new one to me.

So we set off for the Passport Office, with heavy hearts.

The plan was for Della to drop me there, and I would try and obtain the new passport. If time was not on our side, she would return to Marondera to attend the Consultation alone, and I would follow, hitch-hiking my way as best I could. The latter was indeed more our actual plan as opposed to our 'fall-back' plan! Little did we know we were in for a day of miracles.......

Firstly, the roadside for most of the trip was lined with wild pink and white cosmos, which made for a very pleasant 4-hour journey to Harare. Self-sown, these pretty flowers are along the side of the road, and nowhere else. I think the seed gets blown along by the passing cars, but one of nature's little miracles...

Then the journey - the sky was overcast and, unbelievably - and a true miracle in itself, they have re-tarred and re-painted the road for a large part of the way! Wow! No more bumping along and missing the potholes - it was rather dull, in fact. Almost....(dare I say it?) First World travelling!

We reached Mukombe Buildings at 08.30am, and as I got out of the car - I took a very furtive snap of the over 1,000 people thronging the covered area outside the dreaded 'windows'. This was the only pic I took, because getting caught taking photographs of 'sensitive' institutions can land the poor citizen in very hot water in Zimbabwe! It does not do justice to the unhappy throng  lolling around, but you get part of the idea! What you can see is the people that didn't fit under the wide roof outside - and they are lining up to get to the various 'windows'.

And this was the multitude I set out to battle through to try and get the precious document! Eish.

Incredibly...........I was in and out of the Passport Office, clutching Onia's new passport, in 20 minutes! And this meant I could make it to marondera for Consultation day! As proof - here I am holding the sacred document in my own Hotel Reception!


Della says that this all proves the power of prayer.

I, though, secretly suspect that the power of a US$100 bill may have contributed somewhat!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Smile for the birdie?

OK - I took some serious abuse about yesterday's blog -so this is the second, and last, post in the 'hidden' series.

We are very fortunate to have at La Rochelle a colony of swallows. They arrive at the start of summer every year, and depart just before the onset of winter 8 months later - though with all the snow in Europe this year, I guess they will be here for a while longer!

These are the European Swallow, and the curious thing is that they have a bird in Europe which looks pretty much identical - but it is a different bird called the African Swallow. Really strange.

They return to their nests of previous years - and we have a huge one under the eaves of the lounge roof. Folk who have stayed here may have heard the soft twittering that goes on well into the night. And mostly they stay in their nest, but every once in a while, due to fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field or something, they get lost.

When Charlie Moore and his group stayed here, we had one flying about in the dining room - and it is hard to describe the state of terror that two of the group were reduced to as the poor little thing fluttered about the ceiling. Absolute gibbering wrecks! Because of a SWALLOW? Yeah right - Americans really are weird about the stuff that gets them trembling - like snakes, beetles and ummmmm...... deadly swallows! No wonder the goings-on in North Korea have got them all buying bottled water and dug-out shelters!

And this was the case with one little fellow who was fluttering against the window of my office one night a few days ago. So........I took a few pics.

Below are 4 photos of the foliage outside of the window, and the question is this...... in how many of the photos is the bird visible? It may be all of them, some of them, or none of them. I will give you the correct numerical answer once you have looked at all four pics. Ready? Ok - here we go - just keep a tally as you page down....

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

So? How many pics did you see the bird in? OK - here' s the thing. It is in EVERY SINGLE photo! If you failed to spot it in the last 3 - look at the very green leaves - it managed to worm its way to snuggle into one of them - and just the white on his throat gives him away. Once again, hiding in plain view!

How cool is that?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hiding in plain view!

After posting the pics of the Vine Snake hiding in the tree - I had a couple of messages from Blog Readers accusing me of publishing a pic without a snake in it at all! Ha! Wounded to the quick to be accused of subterfuge.

However - it got me thinking, and so this morning I took the camera and managed to get a few pics of things 'hiding in plain view', so to speak.

So - here's the challenge. Study each picture very carefully and see if you can spot something alive - each one difficult to see unless it actually moves. We'll get progressively harder as we go along, but all these pics were taken this morning, and apologies if the clarity is not too good - but I think you should see through the camouflage. This test should separate the 'hunters' from the 'tourists'

After each pic I will tell you what was in the pic, but don't page down until you have either spotted and identified the sneaky living, breathing, thing hiding in plain view. Or have had a jolly good try at seeing it.

The first is not really visible, but his house is - simply because of the dew this morning....

Quite easy, really - a spider and his web. This was a tough pic to take because I had to be looking into the sun to see the web at all - and ten minutes later it was completely invisible from more than three paces away once the dew had evaporated. It was suspended above the road with no obvious means of support.

So the next thing then - slightly harder, but not too tough...

Slightly harder - but obvious to regular blog readers even though I managed to make it slightly fuzzy - because of the cage. This is Fred my pet chameleon - top right and looking back at the camera.

So now we get a little more difficult.....

So - harder, but a monkey - which I am sure you all spotted. (If you didn't, he is just to the left of the patch of blue sky - sitting at the base of the conifer - looking at me with his right hand reaching out to hold on to the branches).

Now the last, and possibly hardest, thing hiding in plain view. And I was really lucky to spot it this morning, as I almost walked straight past it without even seeing it - even though it was not more than a couple of paces away. No cheating on this one.

This is what we in Africa call........"a bush".

A bush is a collection of sticks and leaves which grows out of the ground, and even though this bush has hidden itself by growing different colored leaves in what the military folk call 'dazzle camouflage' - I really am surprised you couldn't see it!

Look again and it should be obvious.

This bush is called a 'handkerchief bush' - and gets its name from the fact that someone appears to have hung a load of handkerchiefs on it to dry.

Thanks for trying, anyways!

Have a great day.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

S'nuther snake, I'm afraid.

It is funny how it happens, but shortly after releasing the vine snake, we came across another fellow in the La Rochelle car park - this time dead. It is possible that it had been run over by a vehicle, but from the state of him, I rather think he had been spotted and dispatched by one of the gardeners - all of whom live by the axiom that 'the only good snake is a dead snake'.


(As an interesting aside - one of the folk who stays in a cabin by the horses down the road saw a spitting cobra grabbing a rat in his room a couple of nights ago. Because it was dark he could not see it properly, so he went to bed and woke at first light, successfully locating and killing the snake! How many folk out there would have been happy to curl up in a one-roomed house and doze off, knowing that a very large cobra is lurking somewhere - even a well fed one? I am not afraid of snakes - but I would have been sleeping up a tree in that instance!)

So - this fellow. Our first identification of him was 'herald snake' - purely because of the stubby tail, and his coloration. However, on reflection, I have changed my mind and now think that it was a southern stiletto snake; I am open to correction on this one.

The southern stiletto snake goes by many names - 'burrowing adder', 'burrowing asp' (ah - did you say....Cleopatra?) 'mole viper' and 'side-stabbing-viper'. Not to be confused with mole snake - which is very different.

These snakes have one feature that is unique, and that is that their fangs lie horizontally. They are therefore impossible to pick up, because they can strike both sideways and backwards, and most bites from these snakes are on the fingers. The venom is nasty stuff (again, no anti-venom, as with the vine snake), and a bite is extremely painful and can lead to necrosis - which means that your flesh just melts away, leaving sinew and bone only.


My dogs, as always an integral part of daily proceedings, inspected the snake. Honey showed great caution in first of all sniffing the blunt end, and checking for signs of life..

Before attending to the business end!

Several blog readers remarked on the size of the vine snake featured a couple of days ago - and it was indeed large - for a vine snake. However tiny compared to some of the snakes we get here. The largest venomous snake, in theory, being the forest cobra, of which I don't have a picture. However - this is a photograph of Africa's most feared snake - a black mamba. And he WAS a big fellow, as you shall see.

A standard-issue mamba is a lethal thing - 10-15 mg of venom is enough to kill a human, and they have 400 mg of venom sloshing around in their mouths. So, not good to be bitten by one. And how much this chap was carrying - I have no idea.

We all know that the mamba is called 'black' because that is the color of the inside of his mouth. However they are shy snakes, and will avoid a confrontation if at all possible - despite the conviction of most folk here that mambas are 'aggressive'. If they are cornered and confronted, though, they rear up, and hiss. If still threatened, they strike repeatedly. Not something to keep as a pet, even though there is, in this case, an anti-venom that works, provided you last for the average 20 minutes that you have left, and further provided you actually have some anti-venom in your cupboard.

Lastly - I must point out that this pic was NOT taken at La Rochelle. Nor did I take it. As you can see from the cane fields in the background, it was snapped in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe - right next to the Triangle golf course, I think. The warm climate, plentiful water, and abundance of cane rates have all converged to create the perfect environment for a mamba to grow nice and big.

Here, then, a really, really big snake!

Add to that the fact that these snakes are able to raise one third of their body off the ground if they feel threatened, and then try and picture such a snake in front of you! Would block out the sun, I think?

Have a nice day!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A day in the life of La Rochelle

I have had a message from a regular blog reader in the USA saying that he has read the book, reads the blogs, and has absolutely no idea what La Rochelle looks like! Obvious really. So today will be a double posting, and this blog is simply comprised of photos of La Rochelle. Home to goblins, a myriad of snakes, and some really slow-moving staff (unless they have just stepped on a snake, of course). But home all the same.

The photos today are courtesy of Sue Mcann - who was asking inane questions during Superbowl - as long-time readers will remember. I have used her pics because a) her camera is better than mine, and b) she took them over the course of a short stay here - so this is effectively 'a day in the life of La Rochelle'.

Thanks Sue.

The first two pics are of la Rochelle - the prominent feature of which is obviously the tower.

Because of the variety of plants - there is always something in flower in the garden, and because Sue, though very competent, is a girl, she took lots of flower pics! In the background is the hotel veranda - where many of the worlds problems have been solved over a beer. And more than a few problems created, I would imagine!

The next pic is looking down at the hotel from below my house - you can just see the brass bell on the corner of the building which tells the gardeners when to break for lunch etc. Most of them don't have watches (though they all have a cellular phone these days!) and the bell can be heard all over the property.

This is looking back at the hotel - and the reason I included this pic is because it shows some of the palms. There are 8 varieties of palm here, and over 165 different trees - many of them 'exotics' - having been brought here from other countries by the Courtaulds, whose home this once was.

This is looking from the hotel down towards the maze. La Rochelle had what must have been the only decent maze in Zim - a sneaky affair which required you to turn outwards at one point in order to get to the center. Over time, unfortunately, the conifers grew to the point that the foliage at the base was perpetually in shadow, the lower branches died, and the maze was lost. You can see the pointy tops in the background.

This is the 'Bridal Bridge' - located in the gardens. This is where we hold all our wedding ceremonies, and the Bride makes her way across the bridge and is married on the other side of the river. (The 'river' is approximately 2 feet across, and home to loads of pythons that we have released in the Dell over the years - but we never tell the brides that, and so far - no problems!). And in the trees above - is that, could that possibly be, maybe.....a  vine snake? Nah! It's just a snaky vine!

So - there you go. La Rochelle

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Goblins, goblins everywhere.

Those of you who have read my book will know that an entire chapter is devoted to the spirit world that swirls around those of us who live on the African content - and much is made of the chipokos, mermaids and goblins that bother us on a daily basis.

In fact, the cover page of the book features a picture of the time I scared the living beetle-juice out of my staff by pretending to be a goblin with the help of a very goblin-like mask, and suddenly appearing in the linen room.

Yesterday, then, we were in town and chanced upon an advertising billboard of the 'Manica Post' our local paper, and a devoted proponent of that well-know marketing adage that... 'goblins sell papers'.

(The story being advertised by 'The Herald' in the background was no less interesting - about a woman who discovered her husbands name only after being married to him for 3 years! But that is not the topic of today's blog).

Of course, the paper had to be bought, and though the story is not at all remarkable - what was somewhat attention-getting is the fact that the price this fellow charges for goblins is very, very reasonable! He charges $25 - or around £16. Believe me - that is cheap!

And - you don't have to feed his goblins the blood of your closest relatives, as is usually the case. Instead of your sister or father, these goblins will be quite satisfied with the blood of your cattle and chickens. So! A real bargain all round - though I would suggest that the legal precept of 'caveat emptor' would apply here, and if these basement bargains don't perform as well as the standard-issue goblin, then I doubt you would get a refund!

The adjacent story is no less riveting. While I have made mention of chipokos and tokoloshes in my book - I failed to mention 'ngozis'. This is part of Shona culture which deals with murder - and an ngozi is the spirit of someone who has been murdered - this spirit returning and taking up residence in a relative or wife of the murderer - and being a right nuisance until the dead fellow is avenged, and justice done. I guess in Western society we would call this 'demonic possession' - but it deals specifically with the spirit of the murdered one - so to speak.

The pic is also interesting because it depicts a 'traditional court' in session in amongst a grove of trees. While Zimbabwe has a Supreme Court, a High Court, and Provincial Courts, there are certain legal concerns which simply have not been covered by Roman Dutch Law - because the fellows in Potters Bar never considered making laws about them. Ngozis, goblins, mermaids and the like are therefore dealt with under 'customary law' - wielded and presided over by the local chiefs. And Nyanga - where both of these stories hail from, is a hotbed of traditional beliefs, so much so that the local word for a 'traditional healer' (medicine man?) is 'nganga'.

Anyone interested in a subscription to what some may call this 'squalid little rag' should contact me, and I will buy and forward copies on a weekly basis for your sole entertainment. Let me know.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Biffs and bangs...

So - back to my Harare trip of several days ago.

And lots of hard hitting.

Though because most of the pics involved rapid motion, the pics today are not as clear as usual, even though my little point-and-click Kodak did its best!

Walking through the center of Harare, there was a sudden hue and cry, and a surge of people running along to opposite pavement, with loud shouts of "Mbavha, mbavha". This is the Shona word for 'thief'. Apparently one of the local population had been caught stealing, and as is the case in Zim, justice was dispensed fairly instantly, and by people wholly unconnected with the alleged crime. This is the sudden surge of people along the street...

Once they had him surrounded, he was given several lusty blows, until the police arrived and rescued him by taking him to jail and placing him, to his relief, in a dank and fetid cell. The robber is in the middle somewhere!

The bumping and banging is not restricted to people though, and along the way we saw several vehicles involved in accidents............with themselves. Here is a great example - though somewhat grainy as we were travelling at speed as I took the pic. This truck was all alone, on a stretch of straight road, with no obvious impediments, and flat ground on either side of the road. He just kind of fell over......

Another roadside challenge that prevails, quite aside from the erratic driving, are the swarms of 'vendors' trying to sell their wares to hungry and thirsty travelers. They spill out onto the road, and engulf every vehicle that stops.  The need to stop suddenly can cause other vehicles to drive up your tail pipe, and I was mightily impressed by one driver who had though of a way of minimizing the inevitable damage that results from being rear-ended....

A solution so simple that it should have global marketability!

Interesting to note that in the brief moment captured on film as we sped past, the items for sale comprised of crisps, orange juice, tomatoes, apples and boiled eggs. Plus - I think, a bottle of brandy pictured beneath the egg trays. Don't tell ME we can't do in-flight meals in Zim!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Heard on the grape. Vine!

Three days of meetings and stress. Bleuch! Local Council, Tax Department and Ministry of Education. And nothing resolved with all of them, but progress made - and no meetings today.


So - back to the comings and goings at La Rochelle. Today we had a Vine Snake - or Twig Snake, as they are also known.

Funnily enough, most continents have a snake called a vine snake - and the African Vine Snake looks like........uuuum - a vine? Or a twig.


The one we found creeping along the gutter outside the hotel was a fairly large specimen.

The Vine Snake looks exactly as you would expect - just like a vine or twig, and they have three features which can give them away. The first is a vivid green triangle on the top of their heads, the second is a vibrant orange tongue, and the third is an instinctive puffing up of the throat whenever they feel threatened, which reveals the stark coloration normally hidden under the scales.

The Vine Snake is highly venomous - and there is no, repeat NO, anti-venom available. I don't know why, (possibly because the venom is hemotoxic?) but this is a fact. Obviously this was too good a chance to pass up, and so I called Thomas the waiter to come and pose with the snake - the intention being to reduce our staff numbers slightly. Unfortunately, while the vine snake is lethal, it is also back-fanged, and needs to chew on you before it injects enough venom. So you have to be really close to the snake, or really careless.

Regrettably, Thomas was neither, and despite my assurances, kept well away from the business end of the snake. He did stick his fingers out towards the snake as instructed, but he was just way too far from it to get bitten. More's the pity!

Sooooo - having failed to reduce the Wage bill, even slightly, the only solution was to find a stick (Jalapeno on a steeeek, Senor?) and very, very carefully transport the little fellow away from the hotel and back to the bush from whence he came.

When I first put him into the tree he was fairly easy to spot - because his puffed-out throat gave him away.

But once his throat subsided, he became nearly impossible to spot. So - here he is again, this time with his throat collapsed, and looking, for all the world, like a ..... yes, you guessed it, vine! Or twig!

Have a nice day!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Good sign?

I'm back!

Since my last posting, I have been to Harare - twice, been embroiled in a Tax Audit, and co-ordinating a meeting with our local Council, who have increased our Annual Levy from $200 to $2,000 - or so they think!

Soooo - the Harare trips. Both occasions were fairly fruitless - the first trip to go and stand in the queues at the passport office (well, actually, what you do is stand in a crush of people at "window number 6")  trying to get Della's mother's passport. This was the third trip to Harare we have made to try and achieve this, and needless to say, we failed. Come back after the 25th March!

Ok, will do.


So - anyway, some pics from my travels for today and tomorrow, and today is all about "signs". Because if there is one thing we Zimbos know - it is signs!

The first is a sign taken from the Noticeboard at Peterhouse - where my children go to boarding school. And where, if the truth be told, the girls all paint their hair when no-one is looking..........

Then there are the cars. Most cars have signs of some sort on the back of them - such as "Toyota", "Ford" and so on. This is, of course, in addition to the other 'signs' that are on the back of the car - such as brake lights (to show you are slowing down), indicator lights (to show you are turning), and of course a number plate (which can be written down every time you break the law).

Most of which are considered superfluous to requirements on Zimbabwe's highways!

Then there is the sign that advertises potatoes - right here! The guy started writing his sign, and then realized he didn't want to walk a kilometer down to road just to erect it. And he didn't want to tell a lie either.

So on the way to Harare there is this rather unusual sign...........

More tomorrow - have have a great week-end!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Joseph - a tribute

For those of you who have been regularly following this blog, there is one fellow who has featured more than any other - Joseph the gardener. This despite the fact that Joseph was employed by the National Trust, and not by me.

And the only reason he has been featured more than any other was because he just seemed to always be doing the stupidest things - as part of his normal working day!

Joseph has been pictured weeding the concrete in the car-park (because he found a shady spot), recoiling in horror from a snake, dancing a jig at being given a free mango, standing in amazement at the tree that split in two, and, most memorably, wearing a balloon and a plastic bag as a hat in rainy weather.

Yesterday - Joseph died.

He had been unwell for some time, and though he had gone to the local Clinic, he found the tablets they gave him "bitter", and so he had resolved to follow his own medication regimen - which basically consisted of drinking Fanta. A few days ago when he came to re-fill his medicine cabinet, I took a snap of him leaving - I guess I had a premonition that all would not end well, and yesterday we heard he had passed away.

Here, then a small tribute to Joseph - the silly old fart who brought many wry grins to my face.....

His main job was cleaning dustbins....... which he did every day.

The time the tree split in half and fell over, - it was Joseph who was on hand to lend some scale to the pics....

And weeding. His moment of supreme glory was the day he spent 5 hours weeding concrete - about 4 square yards of it, in a patch of shade!

Then there was the time he was given a free mango - and danced all around the car-park with delight..

The enduring memory I shall keep of Joseph is the day he wore a balloon as a hat! A guest had given him the balloon and he wore it, with a plastic bag,  for about 5 days - until it simply deflated.

He loved his balloon hat.

Joseph collecting his Fanta......

Here, then, the last photo taken of Joseph as he resolutely set out to self-medicate......

May he Rest In Peace