Monday, October 6, 2014

An Interlude with the Footprints of Dinosaurs

Day One

It is Thursday the 2nd of October 2014 and now three-thirty in the afternoon.  We have arrived, at last, at Masoka camp on the shores of the Angwa River in the Zambesi Valley. It is tranquility personified.  There is a gentle breeze flirting through the Natal Mahogany trees bringing a relative coolness to the three of us.  We are Tony Wood, an old friend and former colleague at Tulley's back in the 1980's, Andrew Scothern from England.  Andrew lives on the south coast near Poole and he is here for a fortnight because he loves Africa.  All three of us love the true Africa.  The bush, the wild, the freedom and the raw nature

We set out from Harare just after half past eight and we have travelled some 350 kilometres past the somewhat hideous National Army Defence College built some years ago by the Chinese, down the Golden Stairs road and through the Mazowe Valley once resplendent with ploughed fields, orange orchards and agricultural plenty.  Today we see some signs of land preparation for the coming rains but not much.  Then on through Mvurwi where I lived as a 6-7 year old back in 1951.  We find Mvurwi to be an untidy, unplanned, grubby village - they call it a town.  The buildings are dilapidated.  A fairly typical African township of this century.  Back in 1951 there were just three buildings of substance.  The house where we lived, the postmaster’s house next door and the post office.  A little later came a Police Station.  We manage to find our old house.  I recognise it because of the 'porthole' windows in the passageway that led from the living room to the bedrooms.  And I also recognise the double wooden garage door where one day long ago a policeman shot a rabid dog that had found its way into our unfenced garden.  And on another day a massive Egyptian Cobra.  The paint - what's left of it on the garage door - is flaking off.  There is a broken old car that surely will never move again sitting in the driveway, a woman in the garden with a little 'picanin' who looks much the age that I was in 1951.  I was the 'picanin boss' way back in 1951, so called by Gandy, the borehole pump attendant.  Gandy used to take me wandering through the bush in 1951 looking for crickets, frogs, beetles and other equatorial bugs that thrived in the lush veld.  Somehow the veld doesn't look lush today.  The veld is dry, much of it has been recently burned by bush fires, there is rubbish everywhere in the township, on the road verges, in the vicinity of buildings. 

We drive on to Guruve - formerly Sipolilo.  Today the road is 20 foot tarmac all the way.  In 1951 it was nothing but dirt but once we pass through Guruve the road narrows and eventually the tarmac is so broken that we drive on the far left on the dirt.   We pass the farm where I learned to swim with Mrs Francis and her son Malcolm who was my first real friend.  Malcolm and his daughter were brutally murdered on the farm only six months ago.  We reach the top of the Zambesi Escarpment and stop for a cup of coffee and a pee.  Then on down the road which long ago used to be known as the 'Alpha Trail'.  Now though we are on good tarmac road.

Soon we are down at Mahuwe.  I visited Mahuwe as a Section Leader of a Police Anti-Terrorist Unit in 1973.  Then it was just a Tsetse Fly Gate where one had to stop to have the vehicle sprayed for Tsetse Fly before proceeding southwards up the escarpment.  Today it is much more.  A Police Camp, a Post Office, a school and several stores selling basic groceries and beer.

The bush seems different.  Very sparse.  I recall in 1973 one could not really see much more than 100-200 metres because the bush was so thick.  But as we move on so the bush returns to its old self.  I realise that the bush around Mahuwe has been partially denuded by human hand whereas beyond it has not yet met such fate.  I am reminded of flying in to Lubumbashi in the Congo some years ago.  Descending we were over thick tropical forest but as we neared Lubumbashi so the trees thinned out and by the time we arrived at the city airport there wasn't a tree to be seen.  Only huts with tin roofs and dirt roads. 

As we drive on to Mashumbi Pools on the banks of the Manyame River we pass through areas of virgin bush interspersed with human habitation.  In some places where there is habitation we see the remains of last winter’s cotton crop.  At one stage a 30 tonne lorry passes us heading towards Harare loaded to the gunwales with cotton bales.  Good to some agricultural activity.  Near Mashumbi we pass a road sign "Mr and Mrs J Nzou and family" pointing towards a traditional African kraal.

We have been travelling north towards the Zambesi but at some point we turn west and eventually we are heading South back towards the Escarpment.  The road is now a track.  Once again we pass the odd settlement in between miles and miles of virgin bush.  We are in Mopani and Baobab tree country.  Tony tells us that one of the unusual trees we see is an African Star Chestnut.  The baobabs are beautiful in their ugliness and massive size.  Andrew asks if the baobabs make good wood for fires.  No, says Tony, that's why they are still here.

From time to time near habitation we pass schoolchildren in their uniforms.  They all wave cheerfully at us and we wave back.  It is not only the schoolchildren - it is everyone who waves in cheerful salute.  We see a satellite dish at one school, solar panels at another.  Some form of technological advancement gets everywhere it seems.

We stop for a bite to eat and something to drink under one of the African Star Chestnut trees which is perched on top of a massive anthill.  We are attacked by Mopani bees swarming around our eyes and ears.  We have seen thousands of weaver bird’s nests but not many birds themselves.  Tony, a bird enthusiast, tells me that they are White-Browed Sparrow Weavers.  He doesn’t particularly like them because they are so plentiful.  Perhaps the birds are resting at the moment from the heat of the mid-day sun.

And then we arrive at Masoka to be met by Mac, the owner, Teach and Animal.  Tony tells us that he booked us ahead by means of an sms to Mac who now owns this little camp on the banks of the Angwa.  Mac, Teach and Animal help us with our kit to our rooms, show us the shower and the toilet and where to hang our clothes.  Then they disappear and leave us to contemplate the view with a beer in hand.  We are free for the rest of today.  Tonight we will have curry but no rice.  Jan, Tony's wife, forgot to pack the rice!  Tony suggests we could have salted chips with the curry seeing there is no rice.

Tomorrow we have Chapter 2 of this adventure ahead of us.  Andrew does not know what lies ahead. I have some idea and nearly let the cat out of the bag in the Land Cruiser but I remember and keep it to myself for now.  Tony wants to spring a surprise on his old friend from a previous life.

Day Two

It's morning.  We had a great evening.  Tony managed to buy 2 kgs of rice at the local store for $2.00.  But before we had dinner we had much excitement.  A herd of elephant came down to the river.  The river is dry with nothing but sand to be seen.  It is a hundred and fifty or more metres wide.  Under the sand there is water which it seems has attracted the elephant.  They hung around for a half hour or more before wandering back to their preferred habitat for the night.

Later it was curry and rice a la Tony Wood.  Good wholesome stuff.  Followed for me by a few whiskeys while Tony consumed several beers before it was off to bed.

This morning it is overcast.  Tony doesn't like that.  Nor do I. We both want sunshine.  After a light breakfast we head off through the bush.  We see birds of all kinds.  A Carmine Bee-Eater, a Southern Black Tit, a Western banded snake eagle, a Racquet-tailed Roller, Boehms Spinetail and several of the ubiquitous White-Browed Sparrow weaver - some from the millions of nests visible in the trees.  The nests are all facing westward on the westward side of the trees.  Could help with navigation on an overcast day.  Why do they prefer the western facing nests?  Tony doesn't know.  Neither does his Bird-App on his phone so there is something for him to find out about them.

Two hours and sixty kilometres later, and now in bright sunshine we stop first to buy a 'visa' to enter the Chewore controlled hunting area.  I ask the Game Warden about wildlife in the hunting area.  He tells me that they used to have 400 rhinoceros but when the number dwindled through poaching to just eight, they relocated the remaining to Gona-re-Zhou in the south of the country.  But the hunting area is filled with lion, kudu, impala and other game.

A half hour later we arrive at a river bed and stop on the rocks.  There to our delight and to Andrew’s complete surprise embedded in the rock are several dinosaur footprints fossilized in the stone from several million years earlier.  It is a wonder to consider how long ago it might have been that this dinosaur that made these footprints walked the earth.  How it had walked in what was then mud that later solidified and eventually fossilized under the weight of the increasing layers of silt.  Then millions of years later the river started to flow and over the eons washed away the covering soil eventually exposing the footprints to the surface.   And today we three are some of the very fortunate few to witness them in this, one of the wildest remotest places in Africa.

If my memory serves me correctly these footprints in the stone were first discovered by Mick Raath in the mid-sixties.  Mick was a student with me in Jameson House at Prince Edward School.  On leaving school he went to the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and it was while he was there that he made this incredible discovery.  What kind of adrenaline rush did he experience when he first saw them, I wonder?

We take photographs, consume some biltong, swallow a litre of more of ice cold water and/or beer and then head back stopping first at a viewpoint looking south over the forest of Mopani sprinkled with a few green Msasa trees to the faraway hills in Zambia.  Then on to Murara Hill where there is an airstrip, a safari camp and a recently dead baboon.  We have also seen Kudu earlier this morning and later we see some Impala.

From Murara we head back to Masoka stopping once more on a river bank and walking into a Mahogany forest which is clearly a favourite place for elephant and buffalo judging by the amount of dung and the flattening of the grass.

Now it is four in the afternoon. We have had an experience of a lifetime to remember forever.
Tomorrow we are heading home but tonight we look forward once again to the elephants rumbling their way down to 'our' river.

Somehow I feel enriched.  The unusual sight has been well worth the tortuous ride in Tony's Land Cruiser - conveniently fitted I might add, with a very superior fridge which operates off the car battery. Hence the earlier cold water and beer!

In the dusk evening light we consume our ‘sundowners’ and later enjoy some delicious sirloin steak and chips.  Tonight we don’t see the elephant.

Day Three

We rise early, consume some coffee and muesli and pack up our bits and pieces.  The elephants appear in the river to say good-bye.  The driver’s side rear wheel is soft and Tony produces an electric pump that operates off the car battery.  We pump it up to 2.5 bars, say good-bye to Mac, Teach and Animal and head off back to Harare.  I try to read my homework from a course I am attending on the Internet.  I have pre-printed my homework but the Land Cruiser lurches along so violently that it is almost impossible.  Eventually we reach the tarmac after a tortuous two hour ride.  We stop to pump up the tyre again with the Escarpment visible in the near-distance.   At Mahuwe we are stopped by the police for a moment, then cheerfully waved on.  On and up the Alpha Trail to the top of the escarpment, through Guruve and on to Mazowe.  I gaze at the landscape.  We see acres and acres of once ploughed land, now vacant and unutilized.  In some lands the trees, stumped out years ago are showing signs of re-growth, up to two or sometimes three metres high.  There are a resurgence of ant-hills.  From time to time we see new traditional African huts have been constructed.  There is a change though.  While the roofs are all thatched, some of the hut walls are constructed with bricks.  Only here and there some small area of land has been ploughed by hand ahead of the coming rains.  No wonder Zimbabwe cannot feed itself anymore.

At Mazowe we stop at the junction which meets the Bindura-Harare road to allow for an oncoming 4 x 4 to pass, then turn right and head towards Harare.  A hundred metres on we are stopped at a Police Road Block.  A policeman asks Tony for his driver’s licence which he promptly recovers from the side door pocket.  The policeman stares at it for a few moments, then returns it.  “You did not stop at the Stop Sign” says the policeman referring to the junction 100 metres away.  Tony and I are furious at this brazen attempt to solicit a bribe – for that is what he is after.   We both tell the policeman that he is a liar and a thief and we drive on leaving him standing in the road to attempt to fleece another driver.

Here in Mazowe there is a service station and we stop once more to pump of the tyre with the slow-puncture, then head up the hill, past the Mazowe dam and on to Harare.  Our three day sojourn into the previously unknown is over.


Back home I get on to the Internet.  I am wrong about Mick Raath.  Mick was not the discoverer of the Chewore Dinosaur footprints. Mick discovered dinosaur fossils in Nyamandlovu and elsewhere in Zimbabwe but the discoverer of the Chewore footprints was an Australian on a hunting safari – a Mr Mike Aldersey.  The footprints are said to be from a 3 metre high carnivorous dinosaur called ‘Allosaurus’.  A ‘biped’ in that it walked on two legs, not four.  The site is the ‘Ntumbe River Bed’ and here are 14 footprints to be seen. Later after clearing the bush a total of forty-five footprints were discovered.  What we saw was the original 14 prints.  The site is also said to be frequented by lions and one researcher who visited the area was attacked by lions.  According to the Internet visiting Chewore without firearms is not to be recommended.   Now they tell me!

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Great adventure! Discovery and wonder seem to happen very fast in the African bush.

    Africa is calling...