For those of you that follow my blogs closely (amen to you), you may remember my trip to celebrate my 40th birthday two and a half years ago, when I visited Zimbabwe with two of my good mates, Saul and Lombie. You can see the posts under Trips.
You may also remember that we spent three days in Harare staying with a very good friend of ours, Leigh, whose husband, Neil, had recently passed away after a long battle with cancer.
We had felt we had imposed quite a lot, being there straight after Neil’s death, but Leigh had assured us that she really wanted us to stay and insisted we spend those nights with her. I don’t think she had quite bargained on the eccentricity of my two good mates (unfortunately not reflecting that well on me, I suppose) but somehow the quirkiness of Lombie and Saul seemed to be of some bizarre appeal.
Leigh had said to us at the time that we should really come back one day to spend some time with her in happier circumstances.
Well, that occasion arose this last weekend as we were invited to join Leigh in celebrating her marriage to Keith. When I say “we” you’ll be pleased to know that it was Jean and I as a travelling couple, rather than with Lombie and Saul.
There was a real sense of “second honeymoon bliss” as we knew it would be four days away from work, household and parenting responsibilities. I think the last time Jean and I were away together was for our 10 year anniversary, which we spent at Vic Falls.
The honeymoon bubble was well and truly burst as we tried to check in for our international flight from Jo’burg to Harare. The check-in attendant looked up from his screen, tut-tutted, and said “we have a problem here”.
Our romantic blur came sharply into focus as we wondered what the problem could possibly be.
“Your flight is booked under ‘Mike Buckham’, yet your passport says ‘Michael Buckham’. You are not allowed to fly internationally if the two do not match exactly.”
After a few seconds of disbelief, we gathered our composure and questioned the check-in guy as to what the solution to our “problem” might be.
It seemed like we had to book a new ticket under the right name and then cancel the existing ticket under the wrong name. Aside from the fact that we had to traipse across to ticket sales, it didn’t sound like too onerous a task and the romantic haze started to return.
The ticket sales counter sent us back into a spin, and reinforced the view that SAA is arguably the most inept organisation on the planet. It seemed like billions of taxpayers’ rands had not managed to design a system that could swop an existing ticket for a new one.
We were told that the Jo’burg-Harare leg could be rebooked on economy class (for a higher price) but there were no available economy class tickets for the Harare-J’burg leg so I would have to buy a business class ticket. It seemed like a otherworldly suggestion when I told our sales guy (who kept patronising me by calling me “my brother”) that I was already in possession of an economy class ticket and so there certainly was one available.
The honeymoon seemed to be well and truly over.
I was just short of lunging over the counter, when he called me “my brother” for the 12th time and told me there was nothing he could do as that was the way the system worked, when he came to his senses and suggested to Jeanie that we go find a supervisor on the floor and try our luck just getting them to overlook our mistake. I think that moment of sanity on his part may have just saved his life. In fact, I think he’d had enough of my common sense suggestions and felt that it was time someone else dealt with us.
To cut a long story short, we eventually convinced a far more reasonable person at the check-in counter to let us check-in and, other than a few nervous moments through security, the emigration counter and the boarding of the plane, we had overcome a major hurdle and we were on our way.
Our experience reminded me of a news item I heard on the radio about someone that had landed in the same predicament as us, but they had discovered their problem a few weeks before travelling. The same nonsensical additional costs were to be applied in changing their ticket so they took the “easier” option of changing their name at home affairs as it was a cheaper exercise.
It was a story that I hardly believed at the time, but standing at the airport, facing a likely R5,000 upgrade cost, I was happy to change my name to Mike Buckham. If only our home affairs weren’t as inept as SAA, it would have been a consideration.
Anyway, we arrived in Harare with no further fuss and we set about a weekend of socialising with old friends and celebrating a far happier time for Leigh, Keith and her three kids.
Harare is a very interesting place.
Bearing in mind that our weekend was spent with a substantial contingent of white Zimbabweans, our perspective was perhaps a little skewed, but it still made for a fascinating looking glass into the state of the capital city.
For anyone that thought that Mugabe had succeeded in eliminating whites from Harare, they would be mistaken. We met tens of couples of white Zimbabweans that have absolutely no intention of going anywhere. We also visited the upmarket mall in the north-east of the city called Sam Levy’s, and it was difficult to pick out a black face amongst the many whites. I do not mean to highlight race but it is hard to ignore, given the history of the country. We also were served one of the best lunches and cappuccinos that I can remember.
One mustn’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that it is a functioning city, because it is far from that.
There is literally zero drinking water supplied by the state to the residents, so water is sourced from boreholes and bought, either in the supermarkets or in bulk, through tank delivery. The sinking of hundreds (or perhaps even thousands) of boreholes has resulted in a disappearing underground water source and I spoke to someone that fears that there will be no accessible underground water in 5 years’ time.
Electricity is non-existent. In the time we were there, load shedding was on more than it was off. And I am not talking about a 55/45 ratio. I am talking about a 90/10 ratio, and the only time the electricity goes on is at 11pm at night, switching off again at six in the morning. But, it’s funny that we didn’t even notice that it was off. The guesthouse that we stayed at had an industrial generator that ran virtually non-stop, and they had an inverter that does whatever inverters are supposed to do. Every house has a generator and diesel is consumed in vast quantities, on a daily basis, as the generators are fueled to keep driving power.
For us the biggest impact of the load shedding was the continual “off” mode of the traffic lights. The intersections are nothing short of shambolic as there are absolutely no rules that govern whose right of way it is on approach. We were told that it is a “momentum thing”. If you are in a bunch of traffic that is moving through the intersection, you should just keep going, as it will be your only chance of getting through. The roads are also in a shocking state with potholes covering a greater surface area than the actual tar, and lines are also faded into nothingness.
Despite the chaos of these intersections things seemed to work okay, but we were isolated to the wider roads of the affluent northern suburbs so who knows how it works in the city proper.
We took these intersections with great care, though, as they are potential death traps. We sat next to one person at the wedding who was condemned to a wheelchair following an accident at one of those intersections and, even more chilling, there was another woman at our table whose husband died in a car accident at the self-same crossing a few years later.
The funny thing, though, is that people just get on with it amongst all the depression and hopelessness. And that seems to be across the board. The average black Zimbabwean strikes a friendly pose, despite their seriously unfortunate lot in life, and then, on the other end of the spectrum, the white population seems to have a resilience that allows them to not only survive, but to succeed, in this seemingly dead-ended economy. We met car dealers, tobacco traders, mine owners, architects, builders and entrepreneurs who have a better quality of life than many fellow South Africans we know.
They are also an incredibly friendly lot and perhaps it is their resilience, and willingness to get by, that makes them so approachable and inviting. It was a weekend full of happy moments and we meandered from one function to the next, meeting people whose sole purpose seemed to be to make us feel at home and, when we left the city at the end of the weekend, we were flooded with invitations to stay at a myriad of places all over the country on our next visit.
The wedding was the main event, but I was determined to tag on some time giving it a fair crack at some good birds. Having visited Harare two and a half years ago, at the end of summer, I was very much aware that the conditions would not be as conducive to quality birding as it was then. I had also seen most of what was on offer on the previous visits to Harare so there was a low expectation all round.
Harare is at a similar altitude to Johannesburg and it suffers the same ugliness at the end of winter as Jo’burg does. The landscape is brown and dry and the air is filled with smog. To add to the bleakness, a cold front passed through on the night we arrived and there was a chill in the air from the moment we arrived until the moment we left.
As regular followers of my blog (once again, kudos to the lot of you), you’ll also know that Miombo birding generally puts me in a foul mood, as there are long moments when you feel you need to squeeze birds out of the woodland. I have had some tough times even in great places like Gosho Park, so I was worried I would have a similar experience this time around.
On my first morning out I made a big mistake in choosing a place that didn’t seem to have much information about it. I figured it would be good to try something new, but it turned out that Haka Park on the east of the city was a very bad idea. I had asked Ian Riddell to join me again (the guide who assisted us on our last two visits to Zim) and the two of us spent three hours wandering around the woodland with virtually no birds to show for our efforts. The only sounds we heard were the volleys of machine gun fire from the rifle range next door.
Okay, maybe I exaggerate – there was the occasional Black-headed Oriole calling away and then I scrambled after a Greater Honeyguide which gave some pretty lousy photo opportunities.
The most exciting moment was hearing a jumble of different calls some distance away, which we followed with great excitement hoping it was that busy bird party that we had so hoped for, but as we got closer the unmistakable squeaking and squawking of a drongo could be heard amongst the jumble. It was nothing more than the drongo itself shouting out some of the Miombo calls to really drive us to the edge of birding sanity.
It was almost a total bust. We did pick up a few interesting birds down at the dam and the most exciting birding of the day was at the car at the exit boom, amongst the alien vegetation, but that was not the kind of birding I had hoped for.
In fact, the birding had been so poor that I almost cancelled the trip we had planned the next day up to Christon Bank, but since we had nothing planned for the morning, there was no real reason not to go and I figured bad birding was better than no birding at all.
My apprehension for the next morning was heightened as I had invited two good mates along who were also in town for the wedding. Gary and Pete are relatively incidental birders, hauling out the bins when in Kruger or whilst on holiday, but they certainly had not been exposed to the fickleness of Miombo birding ever before. I had advertised the Harare birding as being pretty special but I had cause to change my mind after the previous day’s effort. I was unfortunately committed and the show had to go on.
We arrived at Christon Bank on yet another cold, windy and overcast day and after traipsing the northern hillside for an hour and a half and only managing to eke out a Chinspot Batis and Ashy Flycatcher, it wasn’t only my companions’ energy that was flagging, but mine was as well. My atlas list was on about 12 species after that hour and a half and things were pretty bleak with the wind whipping over the ridge.
Ian made a good call to cross over to the southern slopes of the ridge, being a bit more sheltered from the wind. The southern side was the place that revitalized my interest in Miombo birding two and a half years ago, as then had also had a slow start but as soon as the Boulder Chats were under the belt the place seemed to come alive.
It felt like de ja vu this time around as we finally got onto the resident chats, creating a definite level of excitement for my two companions who were ticking a lifer at last, and then it seemed as if someone had wound up the spring of all the birds in the entire vicinity and everything was moving about. We went from deathly quiet one minute to not knowing which direction to look the next, with great fear that we would miss something good, as it all seemed to be happening at once.
The next hour and a half delivered spectacular birding with our list accelerating from 12 species to 55 and, aside from Miombo Tit and Red-faced Crombec, we seemed to find everything we had come for.
Forgive the laundry listing but it does read pretty well with birds like Black-eared Seed-eater, Miombo Rock-thrush, Boulder Chat, Mocking Cliff-chat, Striped Pipit, Southern Hyliota, African Golden Oriole, Greater and Lesser Honeyguide, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagra, Cardinal Woodpecker, Grey Penduline-tit, Southern Black Tit, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, African Yellow White-eye, Yellow-throated Petronia, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, African Grey Hornbill, Lazy Cisticola and Bar-throated Apalis.
We were even surprised to hear the sibilant whistle of a Spotted Creeper, which I will acknowledge I couldn’t place as it was pretty unexpected in this woodland. We tracked it down and managed to find it sitting motionless on a horizontal branch. This was my second ever Spotted Creeper and it once again proved to be a pretty frustrating bird to photograph. One really needs to carry a lightweight expanding ladder to get to the same height of the bird otherwise one is left with pretty lousy images like this one.
As I mentioned previously, I had come to Harare with the wedding as the main focus, and I had relatively low expectations of the birding. They had already been well surpassed with the flurry of activity we had at Christon Bank.
There were, however, two Miombo birds that I still needed in Zim. They were Green-backed Honeybird and Western Violet-backed Sunbird. I had very little hope for the sunbird as it tends to be most noticeable in the winter months when the aloes flower in the botanical gardens of the city, and aloe flowering season was mostly over. I did, however, harbour a small hope for the honeybird. Honeybirds are insignificant little birds that give rise to great excitement when they are eventually seen as their appearances are sporadic and unpredictable. They tend to pop up into the canopy unannounced and then they disappear just as quickly as they arrived.
In fact, the best way to see a Green-backed Honeybird is not to look for it at all. Ian even joked in one section of the woodland, early on in our walk, that the area we were in was the best area not to look for the bird that we should not mention.
Well, we mentioned it very little during the few hours we worked through the woodland and we were rewarded for our lack of attention to it.
We had just soaked up great views of a female Miombo Rock-thrush and were taking a break when I noticed a little bird zip into the canopy that was a little down the slope from us. It was at head height, which allowed me to immediately notice that it had a green back and not a brown one. As is usually the case with great birds that I see for the first time, I go into a slightly useless mode where my hands shake a little and I battle to see the bird through the bins and I find it even harder to take a photograph. Fortunately my companions locked onto the green back quite quickly as well and I at least managed to fire off a few rubbish photos that allowed for confirmation. Since it was such a special bird I will share the best of the bad lot here.
As was expected, it frittered around the canopy for a few brief moments, gleaning what it could, and then it flew out, uttering its weird flight call as it dipped away to another distant tree.
We shared a few manly high fives in the aftermath and committed to toast the wedding first that evening, and then shortly follow that with a toast to my lifer. And who says I have my priorities the wrong way round?
We wrapped up the morning as my incidental birding companions starting to gag for a cappuccino. I had failed to mention to them that Christon Bank did not have a Vida, and so we left with both of them in caffeine deficit. I enjoy my coffee as well, but a Green-backed Honeybird was enough of an energy boost to keep me going for quite a lot longer.
You would have thought I drank too much coffee before writing this blog as it has taken on the form of a short story, but you’ll be pleased I am nearly done.
The wedding itself was a magnificent affair, celebrated at a huge property in the northern suburbs of Harare. There were sparklers, beautiful roses, bagpipes and a suitably beautiful bride and handsome groom and we celebrated long into the night with our good friends.
As we had promised one another, we toasted the bride and groom with a glass of bubbly early on and followed that up in the wee hours of the morning with a tot or two of whisky to celebrate my Green-backed Honeybird.