Zimbabwe | The hunt for the violet tree
The plan was simple: Participate in the Mana Pools wildlife count and then drive back to Harare via the Zambezi Valley’s escarpment mountains. But, as Zimbabwean Dick Pitman explains, it quickly turned into the hunt for the elusive violet tree.
Hey, there’s one!” The radio in my Cruiser 80 GX sprang into life, not that
it had been quiet for very long. “I’m sure that’s a violet tree!”
“Probably another blue tree, or a purple tree, or a vaguely-mauve-sort-of-a-tree,” I muttered as I brought the whole nine-vehicle convoy to a halt for the umpteenth time.
Sally, my wife, favoured me with the look she reserves for naughty children, morons, and my good self.
She scrambled out of the Cruiser and went off with Patty (Nissan Patrol, about six vehicles back) on yet another trek into the woods.
The saga over the violet tree (Securidaca longipedunculata) had been going on for some days now, ever since we had met the Land Cruiser Club (LCCSA) contingent at Chinhoyi and had set off to Mana Pools National Park on the Zambian border where we were due to take part in the annual game count run by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ).
The saga had been sparked off by a huge and splendid example on the A1 (the Harare-Chirundu road), halfway down the Zambezi Escarpment.
Patty has an indigenous tree nursery at home and wanted to collect some violet tree seeds, an enterprise in which Sally, herself an avid tree planter, had joined with enthusiasm.
However, that particular example had decided to grow in a position where it is impossible to get even one vehicle safely off the road, let alone nine.
We’d swept helplessly past it – and then past the wrecks of the articulated trucks that regularly take the unplanned shortcuts to the bottom of the escarpment’s many ravines and gullies – before driving on to Mana itself in the northwest of the country on the Zambezi River. Where there wasn’t a single violet tree to be seen, but a helluva lot of elephants instead.
What’s wrong with a cool box?
We’d stayed at Mana’s main campsite at Nyamepi for four days, and thoroughly lay to rest the myth that all Zimbabwe’s wildlife has been exterminated during the past ten troubled years.
It wasn’t exactly a 4×4 challenge or even a real “wilderness experience”, because the place was packed with around 300 WEZ members.
But it certainly was a new experience for our contingent, because the game count is carried out, not from the illusory safety of a vehicle, but on foot, and therefore on rather less-than-equal terms with the elephants and lions.
During the few spare moments unoccupied by dodging elephant cows and calves in the bush and crusty old buffalo bulls in the campsite, Sally and I had the chance to drool over some of the “must-have” gear sported by the South African vehicles.
For the past ten years we’d been effectively imprisoned by the worthless Zimbuck, which made it virtually impossible for us bumpkins to source equipment from South Africa.
We’ve had to make do. For instance, we can usually make the ice in our cool box last a week but when it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s it − warm beers and tinned dinners. We eyed the ubiquitous fridges with envy.
Slowly though, I began to realise that, like small and ailing children, they occupied most of our colleagues’ waking hours. You have to keep looking in on them to make sure they are alright. You discuss them with your friends, in the hushed tones of the sickroom.
“How’s your fridge?”
“A little better, I think. Temperature’s down a bit.”
You also have to keep doing new and interesting things with them to keep them happy, preferably involving driving a fairish distance every day.
Unfortunately, the game count involved a great deal of walking and very little driving, and generators are a no-no in a place like Mana. The air thrummed to the soft note of idling engines as the shade temperature climbed past 40 °C.
“Do we really want to have all that schlep?’ I remarked to Sal. “What’s wrong with the good old cool box?”
Sal gave me That Look, already noted. “Any fool,” she quoted, unoriginally, “can be uncomfortable in the bush.”
Okay, o-kay, I know when I (and my wallet) are beat.
More importantly, after ten years of economic chaos the Zimbabwean Parks Authority is as cash-strapped as we are.
There’s little money for essentials such as fuel, which is the lifeblood of field stations like Mana.
Without fuel, it is impossible to undertake such routine tasks as the deployment of field patrols – and there have already been a number of worrying outbreaks of ivory poaching in the Zambezi Valley.
On our final night the LCCSA members presented the Mana warden with vouchers for 600 litres of diesel – twice the station’s official monthly allocation.
It’s generous gestures like this, from concerned visitors and conservationists, that are keeping Mana going.
Like Noah of old
Organised and run by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ), the Mana Pools game count has been something of a Zimbabwean institution for the past seventeen years.
As it’s impossible to cover the park’s entire 2 000 km2 in two days, the count focuses mainly on the well-known Mana floodplains (or alluvial terraces) that flank much of Mana’s Zambezi frontage. This is where much of Mana’s wildlife gather in the dry season, as water dries up elsewhere in the park.
The floodplains comprise open woodlands with only occasional patches of thicket. It’s easy and safe to walk in the woodlands, given a few commonsense precautions. And it’s also easy to see and count the animals.
The area is divided into some 50 north-south transect lines, 500 m apart. Each team of 4-6 participants walks four transects during the two days, counting and recording the wildlife they spot within 250 m of their transect line.
Starting times are stipulated so that neighbouring teams keep pace with each other, reducing the likelihood of double counting.
The count provides an extremely useful index of overall population growth trends (whether they are growing, shrinking or static) that becomes increasingly valuable over the years. However, the count neither claims to be comprehensive, nor does it reflect the total number of any species in the park.
Pg 2 | … and then we walked some more
Then we walked a good deal more
We’d arranged with the LCCSA contingent to lead them back to Harare via a 500 km route with a couple of overnight stops that Sally and I had recently reconnoitred through the Zambezi Valley’s escarpment mountains east of Mana.
This route runs through hunting and other concessions and we had to make special arrangements with the concessionaires for access and accommodation.
Before we could get into the escarpment, though, we needed to make about 100 km of easting, by way of the so-called “security road” that
runs along the foot of the escarpment to Mkanga Bridge, an eastern parks authority outpost.
This was achieved easily enough.
The gravel road was originally created by the then Rhodesian government for military reasons during the liberation war almost 40 years ago.
Though it has barely been maintained since, it is still in relatively good condition.
The only untoward event was the sighting of an overturned Land Rover in the bush beside a perfectly straight stretch of road.
This, we surmised, was probably the result of overconfidence in a Defender’s admittedly awesome capabilities and underestimation of corrugated gravel’s ability to reduce grip to near zero at high speed.
And if the Mkanga road was otherwise a tad monotonous – mostly mopanes and various kinds of mixed woodlands – the afternoon’s pantomime, staged by a cast of two parks rangers with Sally and myself in supporting roles, provided more than enough entertainment.
We’d organised the rangers to guide us to the little-known but impressive dinosaur trackway, not far from Mkanga Bridge. We picked them up, and drove 15 km or so down bush tracks of varying quality to the sandy bed of the Ntumbe River.
Here, on a large sloping rock slab, the 150-million-year-old tracks of a fair-sized dinosaur meander across the slab until they dive into the riverbed sand.
This is moderately impressive, but is known to Sally and me as the “old trackway”. The “new trackway” is something else altogether: a rock slab, buried deep in the bush and criss-crossed with the footprints of a whole group of dinosaurs and their young.
Once the photographic potential of the old trackway had been exhausted I suggested to the rangers that they take us to the new one.
The rangers set off along the Ntumbe riverbed which, being deep sand, was heavy going. Our contingent of 21 people set off behind them.
We walked. We walked past the little tributary I remembered as leading to the new trackway. Then we walked a good deal more. It was immensely scenic, with high cliffs topped by baobabs.
We plodded on through the sand until I laboured to the head of the column and confronted our stalwart rangers. “Do you actually know,” I said, slightly truculently, “where the new trackway is?”
The rangers glanced uncomfortably at each other. Once they do that, you know the answer. No problem. I knew exactly where the “new trackway” was. Or at least I would have if I’d brought my GPS with me instead of leaving it in the car.
We turned everybody round and plodded back across the sand.
Sal and I conferred. “I’ll go get the GPS,” I said.
“Don’t need it. It’s easy. I know how to get there.
Follow me, everyone.”“
Hmm, I think I’ll get it all the same.”As Sal set off up the river again I set off in the opposite direction, back to the cars, where I fired up my GPS … and found I hadn’t loaded the trackway waypoint before leaving home.
I set off after Sal, calculating the time it would take to return to Mkanga Bridge for a search party.
Back up the Ntumbe sand I went, and into the little tributary. Tracking Sal and her twenty followers was like tracking a herd of buffalo across wet cement.
I force-marched up the tributary, across rock slabs, through sand, under fallen trees, following the spoor.
Surely, I thought, I’ll come up with them in a minute or so.
I came to a four-way split in the riverbed. She’s probably taken a guess at the path, I thought, leading these guys further and further into the bush. I searched around for the spoor, and carried on.
There was far too much assorted dung lying around for my liking, most notably buffalo. Half-past four already, dark by six. I’ll give it another ten minutes, I decided, then go and get that search party.
Seconds later, puffing and panting and sweating cobs, I slogged through another patch of deep sand and came up with Sal, cool as a cucumber, photographing the group as they photographed the footprints.
“Hey, there you are!” she said. “What kept you?”
Well, so much for the tough old bushman, then, not to mention the rangers.
We ambled back to the cars, drove a few kilometres, and had a couple of sundowners on a high promontory from which the whole of the Zambezi Valley lay at our feet.
Hey, there’s one …
The next day, after a night camped beside the Mkanga River, we set off towards the Angwa River and the foothills of the Zambezi Escarpment.
Sally and I had only reconnoitred this route a month or so before the trip. Until then, the Angwa – one of the larger Zambezi tributaries – had been uncrossable because of late and heavy rains.
More exactly, we’d had to reconnoitre the route twice.
The first time, we’d picked up a local guy who’d claimed to know a way through the hills. We’d ended up by making a heart-stopping water crossing of the wrong river altogether, were overtaken by darkness, and had to free camp beside the track.
Second time around we’d sworn off local guides, trusted GoogleEarth, used my GPS, and found the route we wanted. The Angwa River crossing, happily, had been a piece of old tacky.
Now, though, the rains were approaching, and a couple of decent thunderstorms in the escarpment could make our best-laid plans gang horribly agley, as Rabbie Burns would have put it, had he ever visited the Zambezi Valley.
You don’t want to be messing around in these riverbeds when a flash flood arrives down 3 000 ft of Zambezi Escarpment.
I’d been scanning the sky anxiously for the past few days. But the cloudless, dry-season weather seemed to be holding.
There was barely a trickle in the wide, sandy riverbed.
The forgiving sands and silty soils on the Zambezi Valley floor rapidly turned into screes and occasional rocky outcrops as we entered the escarpment itself.
It’s slow going, as the tracks twist and turn and double back on themselves round hairpin bends, and dive into deep valleys and climb steeply up the other side.
And you need to keep an eye out for the washouts on the downslope side of the hairpins which – concealed in dry grass – are a serious trap for the unwary.
Pg 3 | Hey there’s one
And – inevitably, I suppose – it was as we ground through the escarpment hills and
valleys and over the stones and through the dongas that the Hunt for the Violet Tree, which had been dormant for several days, sprang back into redoubled action.
“There’s one!” Sal exclaimed. “Stop!”
I obeyed meekly, and so did nine other vehicles, perched on various parts of the escarpment.
Sal vanished with her tree book and Patty. They were gone a long time.
She finally came back, rather pensively.
“Turns out there are two kinds of violet tree,” she said. “And that was …” “… the wrong one, don’t tell me.”
We drove on. We stopped. We drove on again.
Finally – mercifully – we seemed to climb into a totally violet-tree-free zone and actually managed to make a few more kilometres.
Meanwhile, I scanned the valleys and hilltops ahead for signs of the one thing that worries me above all else in these hills: fire.
The grass was still tall, dense, and very, very dry.
I’ve almost been trapped in a vehicle once, in a raging grass fire further along the escarpment, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I searched for the tell-tale wisps and plumes of smoke that spell possible trouble, but the sky remained its serene dry-season, hazy, pale eggshell blue.
We pulled off on the only bit of flat terrain that would accommodate nine vehicles, and ate a leisurely brunch overlooking the Zambezi Valley we had left behind us.
Then onwards. The terrain flattened out gradually as we breasted the escarpment summit. And the air grew cool after the stifling heat of the valley.
A couple of deep clefts and dry, rocky riverbeds later we finally emerged into the derelict, occupied farmlands that flank the southern escarpment foothills.
We spent the night at a small privately-owned lodge, tucked away in a secluded valley, that seems to sum up the tragedy and the hope of modern-day Zimbabwe.
It survives in terms of a precarious agreement involving the handing over of a good deal of “protection money” to the so-called “war veterans” who now claim ownership of the surrounding land.
But it is still there, a symbol of a country that itself now survives in terms of a precarious agreement and a lot of hope.
Ten years ago, wearing my conservation hat, we’d been forced to close our operations in these areas: too much politics, rampaging pseudo-militias, stark anti-white racism.
Now, the villagers and school kids gave us cheery waves and open-handed salutes, the sign of a new and precarious political freedom.
Next day, we hit the tar again. And it was almost as soon as we’d reinflated our tyres and got under way that Patty called us on the radio.
“Hey, there’s one …”
Sally and Patty strode off into a scrubby little copse beside a tar road populated not by elephants and impala, but with goats, chickens and scotch carts.
And, yes, it really was the right kind of violet tree.
Stay at least:
3 nights, 4 days in Mana Pools
Plentiful game in one of Zimbabwe’s famous game reserves.
Johannesburg: ± 1 300 km; Cape Town: ± 2 700 km
The most popular of all traditional South African medicinal plants, the violet tree is used for numerous ailments from headaches to infertility. The extremely poisonous roots are used as arrow poison and as a sexual boost for men. The bark is used to make soap, fibre for fishing nets and baskets.
Pg 4 | I want to go too
Have you been here?
There’s more to Zimbabwe than Mana and the Zambezi Valley. Here are Dick’s five favourite destinations:
1. Gonarezhou National Park.
The Chilojo Cliffs and good wildlife are synonymous with this park in the southeast, and it’s easy to get to from South Africa.
2. Matusadona National Park.
The lakeshore environment, mountain backdrop, plentiful wildlife and a good chance of seeing the endangered black rhinoceros makes this park bordering Lake Kariba worth a visit. The access road is in very bad condition, but it’s worth it when you get there.
3. Chizarira National Park.
This park in the northwest offers secluded springs, spectacular gorges and several remote campsites, but it’s immensely remote, seldom visited and doesn’t have so much wildlife. It needs your custom if it is to survive.
4. Mavuradonha Wilderness Area.
This area 200 km north of Harare offers rugged mountains, waterfalls, deep river-valleys, great walking country, and you’re helping the local communities who manage the area, as well. Access is on tar, but then you’re on your own two feet as there’s no internal track network.
5. Lake Kariba. Have a look at the awesome dam wall, camp overnight in a wildlife area, then leave your vehicle in Kariba itself for a couple of days (secure parking available) and sail across the lake to tranquil bays and creeks brimful of wildlife.
I want to go too!
Can I go on my own?
Visiting Mana is easy – just book accommodation with the Zimbabwean Parks Authority (firstname.lastname@example.org) and go.
The eastern route through the Zambezi Valley’s escarpment mountains is trickier: Permission is required to use many of the roads and tracks, as they pass through hunting and other concessions.
Furthermore, no camping or other accommodation is available to the casual visitor. Zim4x4 has special arrangements with hunting concessionaires for access and accommodation.
Dick and Sally can advise on alternative routes − with public accommodation − back to Harare.
The best time to go?
Mana is open throughout the year, but many tracks are closed during the rainy season (December-March). The best game-viewing times are July-October, when wildlife is concentrated near the Zambezi River.
Much of the eastern Zambezi Valley is also accessible throughout the year, but the route described here is only passable during a limited period in the dry season as there are major river crossings.
How long should I stay?
Three or four full days at Mana will give you time to explore and get to know the place a little.
Things not to miss?
Mana: Sunrise in the misty acacia woodlands; sunset on the Zambezi at Mana Mouth; elephants swimming across the river channels; fresh bream grilled in butter and garlic (or tiger fish braaied whole); and the emerald-green carpet of new grass just after the rains begin.
Eastern Zambezi Valley: Fossil forests and dinosaur trackways, pools and waterfalls on remote and wild rivers, and some of the best fishing on the Zambezi.
4×4 or 4×2?
You can easily visit Mana in a 4×2 during the dry season (the access road is in bad condition, so sturdy bakkies are best), but you’ll need 4×4 in the rains and for most access routes other than the main Harare-Makuti-Mana route.
What must I take along?
Two spare wheels, a tyre repair kit, spare belts and other consumables, and basic tools. And remember the two emergency triangles and 60 mm x 60 mm or larger reflective tape on the bumper – two white in front, two red at the back.
Where can I refuel?
Harare, Chinhoyi, Karoi, Kariba and almost any major centre
Where can I stay?
Mana: At the main Nyamepi campsite, in five nearby lodges, or at several exclusive campsites. See www.zimparks.com for more details.
Eastern Zambezi Valley: See above.
Border posts – especially the notorious Beit Bridge – can be something of a lottery, as charges and fees seem to vary almost daily.
You’ll be charged US$10 (± R75) for insurance, US$10 for carbon tax, and yet another initial US$10 for road tolls (and another US$1 at each toll in Zimbabwe). Although importing fresh meat is prohibited, meat is readily available in Zimbabwe.
Many visitors are prepared to drive a bit further to enter Zimbabwe via Plumtree or other border posts to avoid the delays and corruption at Beit Bridge.
But is Zim safe?
Zimbabwe is no less “safe” than most other countries, and less violent than most. Fuel and provisions are widely available for US dollars or South African Rand (but don’t get skinned on the exchange rate).
I don’t want to go on my own!
In that case, contact Dick and Sally Pitman who own and operate Zim4x4
on Tel (263-4) 861 731;
Cell (263-912) 324 224
E-mail email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org