It’s All in a Day’s (or is it night’s?) Work


I have a farm in Africa.

Well, I don’t but Piet does, although to be quite correct,  he doesn’t have  a farm, he leases it – as does every farmer in this part of the world.

It is a 560Ha farm, split into two sections; one large one and one small. The larger section, which we have named Sitikela Farm (sitikela means roller – a beautiful, colourful bird which occurs in this area – in Lozi),  sits proudly on top of ancient sand dunes, blown in from the Kalahari Desert over millennia and boasts panoramic views of the mighty Zambezi River.  In some places you can even see on the horizon the mist rising high and  billowing cloud-like from the Mosi oa Tunya (or Smoke That Thunders), more commonly known as  the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

This picture was taken some years ago - now this magnificant view is marred by an ugly cellphone tower. Photo credit: Piet

This picture was taken some years ago – now this magnificent view is marred by an ugly cellphone tower.
Photo credit: Piet

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The second, smaller section is about 7km away, situated on the banks of the Zambezi River.

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Tikkie inspecting the farm boundary

Tikkie inspecting the farm boundary

During the winter months we grow wheat and seed-maize (corn).   The seed from the maize we grow is sold to other farmers and ultimately their produce is ground into ‘mealie-meal’, the staple food for the indigenous people around here. We truck the wheat off to millers about 400km away where they turn it into flour.

It so happens that also in the winter months it does not rain, the bush dries, the grass dies and the locals start burning what’s left. This leaves very little food for the many large herds of elephants (and other game in the area) to eat – and so they all come to our farm!

If you were an elephant, which would you prefer?

If you were an elephant, which would you prefer?

We employ a number of Security/Elephant Guards who work in pairs and who are armed with a stash of fire-crackers. In theory, their job is to patrol along the edges of the fields at night, listening for elephants. As soon as they hear elephants approaching they are supposed to throw a few crackers to scare them off and then radio ‘control’ who alerts Piet, either via radio or telephone, so that he can go and back them up with more fire-crackers and the added pressure of a vehicle.

In practice what they often do, unfortunately, is sleep, while the elephants take their fill.

No-one is more tired than a security guard!

No-one is more tired than a security guard!

It was very frustrating (and expensive!) for Piet to wake up after a full night’s ‘elephant-free’ sleep, only to discover half the crop eaten, and the other half trampled flat by elephants. So he devised a system for keeping everyone awake and alert – this works very well. Every 15 minutes control calls each station on the radio, asking for their sit rep (or situation report). If all is quiet they reply by saying November Tango Romeo (Nothing To Report). This standardisation of reply avoids the confusion of multiple answers, such as “Ah, it is just cool” or  “It is  just OK” or even  “ What is the football score?”. If there are elephants near the response is supposed to be ‘Echo India Lima’ – Elephants In Lands – but all protocol is usually forgotten in the excitement and one evening we were amused to hear frantic shouting over the radio:

“November tang romeo! November tango romeo! But tell the bwana to come fast! The elephants, they are many!”.

In addition to the guards we also have 20 Km of electric fencing around the borders of the lands.

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But we found that this did not really deter them. Elephants are very intelligent creatures and sometimes they push a foot against one of the poles, the fence falls flat, they step daintily between the wires and voilà! Pudding time! Other times they are not as delicate or thoughtful; Piet has witnessed teenage bulls pushing their younger and smaller siblings or cousins through the fence – those unfortunate babies squealing in anticipation of the pain, even before they reach the fence!

So another plan had to be devised. We have now connected the wires on the fence to an alarm which is activated if the circuit is broken. We at least then know there has been a breach and can scramble into action.

Last year we were visited by a man who had heard of our plight. He said he has devised a method of keeping elephants out of villagers’ crops in Kenya using  flashing strobe lights attached to poles. By all accounts this system works but only when there is a light every 10m – that would mean at least 2000 lights for us and the cash layout would just be too great for an operation our size.

Sometimes we are lucky. If the wind is blowing in the right direction all it takes is the sound of the vehicle starting up in our yard for the elephants to hurriedly leave. But other times not so lucky; many nights Piet gets his first call-out before the sun has set and only returns home after sunrise the next day. He then has to carry on his business of farming, maybe catching a few minutes sleep in the late afternoon before the next incursion. On some occasions we have had over 100 elephants on the farm. It’s almost as if it’s a planned military exercise – they split up into groups, dashing out of one field as the vehicle approaches, into the bush and then into the next field. You can imagine them laughing and thumbing their trunks at these futile attempts to keep them away from the food. At times like these  he will often call in one of the drivers to assist with a tractor. Or he will enlist the help of friends who have popped in for dinner – however we have found visitors are scarce during the Elephant Season!

Chasing elephants is an exhausting and dangerous job. But it has to be done if the bills are to be paid. And unless the villagers can be persuaded to not set fire to everything in winter, it is something that we are going to be doing forever.

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An Elephant Never Forgets – Post Script


Two days after our close encounter we were again driving home through the park when we noticed a lot of dust blowing into the road up ahead. It was late afternoon, the sun was very low in the sky and visibility was not great, so we slowed right down; if a herd of elephants was about to cross we didn’t want to run straight into them. As we drew closer and were engulfed in the dust cloud we saw that it was indeed a large herd of elephants moving through the bush on our right hand side.

We were alongside the herd when suddenly, from the opposite side, a tiny baby elephant came rushing out of the bush – directly into the path of our vehicle. Thank goodness for Piet’s quick reactions (and for ABS brakes)! We screeched to a halt not more than two metres before hitting the elephant – who was now squealing with fright, his bum tucked in, his trunk straight out, his little legs a blur as he made the final dash to his Mum and the rest of his family.

In the moments before we gathered our wits and drove off we could hear his Mum reassuring him with her low, rumbling murmurs.

Thankfully we were in a different vehicle, not the elephant-chasing one. The elephants didn’t recognise us and we were left to carry on our journey home unscathed.

An Elephant Never Forgets


Last Tuesday we were driving through the park on our way home from town when we noticed a mini-bus parked on the side of the road. This usually means there is something worth looking at, so we slowed down to see what they had stopped for and pulled up behind them.  Every head in the bus was turned to the right, necks craning as they tried to get a better look at something there in the bush. We followed the direction of their gaze, struggling at first to see what it was – and then suddenly there they were! Lumbering slowly into view came an elephant cow with her very small calf and an older sibling also in tow.

She kept her calf tucked away, mostly out of sight

Big brother

We sat watching and hoping for the opportunity for some decent photos when she suddenly lifted her head and looked directly into Piet’s eyes.  She uttered a low, rumbling sound, shook her head and started moving directly towards our truck.

Here comes trouble!

It was around about now that I became distracted and forgot to take any more pictures!

At this point Piet engaged gears and quickly pulled out into the road. By the time we had passed the mini-bus the elephant was on the road, running after us and screaming; her ears pinned back and her trunk down. She too overtook the mini-bus, its stunned occupants gaping after us, open-mouthed.  She appeared intent on catching only us and it was only after we had retreated some distance that she turned around and loped off, back into the bush to join her two children.

The elephants in our park are not normally aggressive but I have a theory about why this cow took umbrage.  I reckon that she belongs to one of the many herds that regularly raid our crops in the winter months. The vehicle we were traveling in is the same one Piet uses for his nightly chasing-the-elephants-out-of-our-crops escapades. She most likely recognised the sound of the vehicle and probably also the smell of Piet, associating those two things with being harassed and deprived of our juicy, tasty maize (corn) and wheat when there’s not much else around to eat. She remembered her frustration and here was the perfect opportunity for her to show us just how annoyed he had made her so many times in the past.

Indeed, an elephant never forgets!

Any Time Now


 

I can’t believe it’s been eight weeks since I wrote my first blog and the elephants still haven’t come.

Usually by this time of year we are walking zombies, surviving (sort of) on less than three hours sleep a night. Night after night, week after week staying up most of the night chasing elephants out of the crops.

The fires have almost been non-existent this year and I had started to hope that perhaps times were changing. That the locals had been persuaded by some clever NGO people that lighting fires was a bad thing.

Then on Sunday this:

The first fire of the season

The first fire of the season

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So I’m guessing it won’t be long now. In the mean time we’re sleeping as much as we can!

 

 

Limbikani


A Grove of Baobab Trees in Namibia

A Grove of Baobab Trees in Namibia

Some time in the mid-1970s I lived with my parents on a tobacco farm in the North East of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). The bush war was reaching its climax. Living in the area was becoming more dangerous, so Dad  decided to relocate to a sugar cane farm in the South East Lowveld, where it was considered to be (a little) safer.

One night while he was doing his rounds checking the tobacco barns one of the guards, an ancient-looking, wizened old man called Limbikani, sidled up to him and muttered out of the corner of his mouth that he had heard we were leaving.  Dad was surprised; we had only decided to move a few days before and had only discussed it among ourselves, at home. It’s amazing how the bush telegraph works!

Limbikani’s next words surprised Dad even more:

“If you don’t take me with you I will put mtagati (bad medicine) on you”.

We had already decided that we would ask Limbikani if he wanted to come with us – he was too old for gainful employment by anyone else and besides, Dad was quite fond of him – but Dad feigned fear of his threat and readily agreed. We later learned that Limbikani was a well-respected nganga (witch doctor) and people would come from miles around to have him throw bones to diagnose illnesses or to give them spells to ward off mtagati.

A few weeks later I was back at boarding school in Harare (Salisbury) and my parents called in to visit me on their way to our new home. The sight of our small, battered pick-up truck, fully loaded with our belongings, Limbikani,  Evalina the maid, two Irish Wolfhounds, one Maltese Poodle cross, Moggie the ginger cat, 15 Bantam chickens and Gertie our goat caused much amusement to my fellow students – to me it was normal.

Not long after we had moved Limbikani demonstrated his super-natural powers.  Our old truck was on it’s last legs by then and one day it stalled about 200m from our farm gate. Staff were called to help push but no amount of coaxing could get the engine running again.  Mum was about to start walking the rest of the way home when she noticed the staff had all stepped back and she heard them murmuring Limbikani’s name. She looked up to see he had materialised, almost from no-where (there had been no sign of him when the pushing was required), and was shuffling out to meet her.  He instructed her to close the bonnet – which had been up while she fiddled about in vain with spark plugs and battery terminals – and then pressed his hands on the top of the bonnet several times, muttering under his breath as he did so. After a few minutes of this trance-like behaviour he shook himself, told her he had fixed the car, and motioned for her to get back in and start it. She did so dubiously, not really believing in all this mumbo-jumbo stuff but also not wanting to offend the old man. One turn of the engine and it fired into life – she couldn’t believe it! Limbikani simply shrugged and slowly walked to the gate to open it for her. Mum was now convinced that Limbikani was indeed a nganga but Dad always said she had probably flooded the motor and that it would have started after a while anyway, once the excess fuel had evaporated.

At lunch time one Sunday Limbikani came to the house to request some extra cash; he wanted to go to a nearby beerhall to drink beer and watch a local football match. Feeling magnanimous, probably having imbibed a couple himself, Dad not only gave him the cash but also poured a very generous tot of brandy into a cup and handed it to Limbikani. Limbikani’s eyes lit up, he downed the entire tot in one gulp and immediately burst into song. By the time he reached the end of the driveway he was staggering and it is doubtful that he made it to the beerhall that day. This became a weekly ritual. After a while, the state of Limbikani’s liver being of concern, my Dad tried a different tactic. Instead of handing the cup of brandy directly to Limbikani Dad started placing it on the table, Limbikani would then gratefully take the cup home with him, to enjoy its contents at his leisure.

As Limbikani got older (to me this seemed impossible, he already looked at least 100 years old) his duties in our garden were reduced to some weeding and occasional tidying up.  These he would complete in an hour or so and he would then retreat to ‘Limbikani’s Corner’, a grassy part of our garden shaded by a baobab tree, where he could sleep, contemplate life and suck on baobab pips.

Baobab Pips. The source of cream of tartar

Baobab Pips. The source of cream of tartar

The Baobab Fruit

The Baobab Fruit

One Sunday Limbikani did not appear for his weekly tot. My parents had seen him early in the morning, pottering about as he usually did – although he did not officially work on a Sunday he always came to the garden; perhaps he was bored at home – his little tipple being an added attraction. A few times during the day Dad had stuck his head out the door to call him  and by evening when there was still no response he was a little concerned.  He strolled down to Limbikani’s Corner, thinking perhaps he had been at the beerhall the night before, was sleeping it off and hadn’t heard the calls – he was quite deaf by now. Dad did find him there, lying on the grass and apparently asleep. But he wasn’t asleep. Limbikani had quietly passed away, in the shade of the baobab tree in our garden.

A couple of days later Dad went back to Limbikani’s Corner to collect up the few belongings of his that were still there. As he bent down to pick up the brandy cup Dad noticed a small plant pushing its way up through the blades of grass and on closer inspection he discovered that it was a baobab seedling. Limbikani was constantly sucking on a baobab pip – this must have been one that he had spat out and which subsequently germinated.

Dad gently dug the seedling up, planted it in a pot and so, in 1982,  ‘Limbikani’ became Dad’s first bonsai.

In the years that followed my parents lived in many places, in Mocambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Limbikani went everywhere with them; Dad hadn’t forgotten that warning all those years ago.

Six years ago life had become unbearable for most Zimbabweans, particularly for people like my parents who were living on meager pensions. So they did the only thing they could do – they moved back to the UK. After nearly 57 years living in Africa it was a heartbreaking decision.

And it meant Limbikani’s travels with my parents had come to an end.

He now lives with me. While he was still alive Limbikani told my parents he had been born in Zambia.

He has come home.

Limbikani - 32 years old and home at last

Limbikani – 32 years old and home at last

Limbikani

Limbikani

Limbikani celebrating Christmas at home

Limbikani celebrating Christmas at home

The Cat Gets Spayed


There are a number of feral cats living around our workshop area and about two weeks ago we noticed cat footprints making their way up the road towards our house, up to the gate. We have also caught a few African Wild Cats  in the spotlight while out at night, keeping elephants out of the crops.  Kits (as she is now called) is about 6 months old, so approaching sexual maturity and probably attracting all the toms in the area. We certainly don’t want more cats (where would we re-home them?) so we took the decision to have her spayed.

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I booked the appointment for Monday, and she couldn’t believe it when we put her back in the cupboard (where I had kept her when she first arrived, to keep the dogs away from her) on Sunday night. It’s the only room in the house where she cannot escape and we had to make sure she had nothing to eat or drink after 20.00hrs.

For the trip into town I put her into Tikkie’s travelling box – the one he arrived in on the plane from Johannesburg – but her cries of protest were too distracting so a couple of kilometers down the road I pulled over to let her out. Within minutes, after a quick inspection of the entire vehicle, she curled up on my lap, purring for the rest of the journey. I dropped her off at the vet’s, having waited until he had sedated her and she was quite dozy and then went to treat myself with a mocha coffee milkshake at our town’s only café while I waited for his call to come and collect her.

When I collected her she was still completely anaesthetised, her head lolling about and her tongue hanging out. I was a little apprehensive and asked if I shouldn’t wait a bit longer for her to return to consciousness.  The vet assured me she would be fine, so off we went back home, where I laid her out on a few blankets on the floor in the cupboard. She seemed to take hours and hours to wake up and when she finally stood up and tried to walk around she appeared blind! She kept walking into the wall, my legs, anything that was in her way, and when I waved my fingers around in front of her eyes she did not blink or react at all.

I tried to call the vet to ask if this was normal but his phone was off so I turned to Google where I learned that blindness after anaesthetic is quite common in cats and that sometimes it can be permanent. Of course I was distraught and when Piet got home that evening after his day’s work on the farm he found me almost in tears. Being the calm, level-headed person that he is he managed to calm me down (a bit) and suggested we wait until the morning to see how she was then. In my Google research I had also read that cats are more sensitive to anaesthetic than dogs are and that they can take longer to recover, so I took his advice to heart and tried to settle down and wait for the morning.

We woke before dawn to the sound of plaintive mewing coming from the cupboard and when Piet opened the door Kits came bounding out, purring like a diesel engine and set about on her usual morning ritual of pouncing on Tikkie to wake him up, something he hates (he is not a morning dog). What a relief! Although she was still a little shaky and unsteady on her feet, her eyesight was back to normal and that was the end of that drama.

Kits is very hyperactive and it proved very difficult for me to check on the progress of her wound – a couple of furtive glances didn’t really show me much, so on Sunday I decided to hold her down and have a really good look, to try to see how close we were to removing the stitches. I was horrified by what I saw – a great, red, inflamed, gaping hole; all her gymnastic antics must have torn the stitches out some days ago. She had probably also pulled some out, with help from Tikkie who I had to reprimand a few times as he  had shown a lot of interest in her tummy lately. I felt dreadful that I hadn’t noticed sooner.

So first thing Monday morning we were back at the vet. This time he only sedated her and I had to stay to help, his assistant having come down with a bug and unable to work that day.

After the removing uterus and ovaries during a spaying  three layers of stitches are inserted: one layer to close up the abdominal wall, one to close the subcutaneous fat layer and one closing the skin layer. Luckily in Kits’ case the abdominal wall layer had held and healed, so there was no chance of peritonitis, which would have probably killed her. The last two layers of stitches had come out though, so these were re-done. I was impressed at the vet’s skill with the needle, inserting those tiny stitches in such a small space. Towards the end of the procedure the sedation medication had started to wear off so there was a bit of wriggling and crying as the needle went in. My poor little kitty! We bandaged her tummy and placed a cone over her head (which I had fashioned earlier out of a 2 litre Coke bottle – there being no such thing available here); the bandage to keep the wound clean and Tikkie away from it, and the cone to stop her chewing at the stitches again.

I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to walk with the bandage around her middle. Tying anything around a cat’s torso upsets their balance and they usually fall over when they try to walk. Or they just lie there doing nothing until you take it off (I tried it. Once. When I was young and didn’t know better). However, once she had fully recovered from the sedation she was soon back on her feet, albeit a little clumsily. And she has hardly reacted to the cone at all.

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Somewhat subdued on the first evening after the second operation

Not too phased by her Coke bottle cone

Not too phased by her Coke bottle cone

Catching a bit of sun in the morning

Catching a bit of sun in the morning

Receiving commiserations from the ever-concerned Tikkie

The ever-concerned Tikkie commiserating

I am keeping her in the cupboard most of the time now. Until she is fully healed I need to stop her tearing around like a mad thing, climbing trees, catching frogs and terrorising the dogs – but I let her out in the evenings when we are at home and can keep a close eye on her.  I had a good look at her wound this morning, it looks like it is healing properly this time, so it shouldn’t be long before she can get back to being a real cat again.

Fun and games last night

Fun and games last night

 

Lost in Translation


 

OK, I know that this isn’t Facebook but it is the internet (and we all know that pictures of cats are compulsory on the internet) so while we’re biding our time waiting for the elephant onslaught I thought I would share some pictures and stories of my cat (and a few of my dog too).

A few kilometers from the farm is a quirky little bar/restaurant/motel/campsite owned by a couple who originate from East Germany. No visit to that place is compete without a greeting from their friendly bar cat and just before Christmas I noticed that she was pregnant. I commented on this to the owner and then remarked toPiet how a cat would complete our family. However, we own 5 dogs and we both agreed that a cat would probably not be welcomed by them, nor could we expect her to have a very long life-span – dogs being notorious for their hatred of cats. Besides, Piet is a self-declared ‘non cat person’ – the only cat he had ever owned being a rescued serval kitten many years ago, but that is a different story . As far as we were concerned that was the end of that little dream of mine and subsequent events can be attributed a language breakdown.

Fast forward to mid-March. I was out of the country for the week when Piet received a phone call from the camp: “Your kitten is ready. Come and collect her now!” was the terse instruction. He was horrified but had the presence of mind to request a few day’s grace in which to consult with me. I had a vague recollection of the discussion about pregnant cats but none of promises to give one of the kittens a home.  To avoid upsetting our neighbours we decided we would take her and install her in the office where she would have limited contact with our dogs, rats having taken up permanent residence in my filing cabinet.

At daybreak on the day after I returned to the farm I drove to the camp to collect our new office cat. This in itself turned into quite an exercise. Any ideas I had of an adorable, cuddly bundle of fun soon evaporated when I first encountered this growling, hissing, spitting, fiendish witch. Despite being born in the bar and having had almost constant contact with people this little kitten was wild, she was terrified of humans and behaved like a feral cat.  The camp owner placed a pile of bones on the floor in the bar to entice her from behind the fridge, where she had retreated, loudly voicing her displeasure at our presence, while we removed ourselves to the other side of the counter to wait. Two hours (and three beers for the camp owner – I guess it goes with the job) later I was on my way home, somewhat battered and bloody, the cat thrashing about in her box, obviously very upset.

Sneaking her into the house past the dogs was no easy task but I managed and soon had her safely hidden in the walk-in cupboard that adjoins our bedroom – the plan being to keep her there overnight and then move her down to the office block the next day once she had settled.

Settled? Hah! Had I known how vicious and vexatious this cute looking (how deceptive appearances can be!) little ball of fur was going to be I would have taken the easy (cowards?) way out and used the relative safety of a phone call from thousands of kilometers away to tell the camp owners we would not be taking her. It took more than a week before I could even touch her without suffering serious bodily harm.

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The Face of Innocence?

After 10 days it was time to start introducing her to the rest of the family and I decided Tikkie, being the smallest, would be the least likely to cause her any harm. He was delighted. She was not. He was unaware such swear words existed.

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Such rude language!

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He couldn’t believe how nasty she was to him

However, being the charming fellow that he is it only took Tikkie a couple of days to win her over – he is far more diplomatic than I am – and they have now become firm friends. They are  inseparable and love each other dearly.

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Cuddling up on a cold evening

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Did you Have to wake us up?

We don’t have a TV but watching their antics in the evenings provides us with all the entertainment we need:

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Teaching Tikkie how to catch mice

Peek-a Boo!

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Come on! I know your food’s up there. Let’s share it

Contrary to our predictions, the other dogs have (grudgingly) accepted her into the family and after the initial swearing – on her part – and snapping – on theirs – a sort of truce has been declared, even when there is food about:

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All plans to have an office cat have gone out of the window. She has firmly wormed her way into our lives and apart from the odd trip down to the office to keep Tikkie company while I work she is now, very definitely, our house cat.

So much for being a 'Non Cat Person'!

So much for not being a ‘Cat Person’!