Squeaky Bum Time

P1130638
I am not the only one in Mfuwe who supports Leicester City Football Club

Three games to go and LCFC needs three points or just one win to become Premiership Champions for the first time in their history. Two of these games are against top five teams (the old regime) – ManU and Chelse (this is how the Zambians say Manchester United and Chelsea). Sadly, I don’t have access to a TV at the moment, so I might have to go into a late night bar in the village to watch the match.

My Family and Other Beasts

P1130632

This is my sofa. It is a very comfortable sofa, on my verandah. I share it with a colony of ants and a family of skinks (a pretty kind of lizard with iridescent skin). I am not sure why the sofa is white, because it always looks grubby, but it certainly shows the ants. The skinks are more elusive. They hide away under the cushions. I hope I am not crushing them when I collapse in a heap on the sofa at the end of a hard day at the clinic. I don’t know if the skinks eat ants, but I suspect that they both live in harmony with each other.

The ants are a pest. They tickle my toes when they forage for food on my feet. I don’t think that my feet are that cheesy, but perhaps the ants have a better sense of smell than I do. Ant bites sting – probably caused by formic acid – and itch at the same time. I have to be scrupulous about cleaning up food and crumbs after preparing food, or I will be invaded. The worst thing is if I forget to rinse out my toothbrush, before putting it in my mouth. I When I can’t tolerate them anymore, I zap them with a spray called “Doom” with mixed results. I wish. My colleague in Swaziland, Marguerite, used to employ a paste of boric acid and sugar to keep down the ant population in her room. I will have to get the precise recipe as “Doom” should be renamed “Stay in bed for a few days until you feel better”.

Geckos are definitely my friends. They look as though they are made of soft, sticky, rubbery plastic. They hang out beside lights, waiting for flying insects to come close enough to be pounced upon and devoured. Occasionally, I will see a gecko tail which has been shed following an encounter with a predator. The tail threshes about for several minutes, keeping the attacker’s attention while the geck escapes. There is a move to spray the interior of homes with insecticide in order to combat malaria. I wonder what will happen to geckos if this goes ahead?

P1130672
Gecko droppings on the top of the drug refrigerator. They obviously like crapping in one place.

During the first week in Kapani Ruins, I shared my home with a frog. Perhaps the frog was keeping down the mosquito count as well, but I never saw him dart his tongue out at a passing fly. I usually saw him pressed up against the mosquito netting, gazing at the outside world. I felt he deserved a break, so I captured him and released him outside. Within a few days, he was back. Well, I think it was the same frog. He kept the same habits. He quite likes it when I have a shower because there is no curtain and the floor gets soaked.

P1130552

I saw a stick insect in the shower, too. Just a small one. He looked rather pathetic and marasmic, so I took him outside, too. The praying mantis on the scouring pad was much more active, clawing at the air and looking around with his huge, compound eyes. I dealt with him the same way. Neither of these two have returned, at the time of writing.

Masonry wasps look alarming, with their skinny waist, fat abdomen and black thorax. They buzz around my head, getting tangled in my hair, looking for a nook or cranny to vomit up some material to build a home. Back in UK, Aldi was selling off some fly swatters which look like a squash racquet. You activate an electric charge by pressing a button, and if the wasp touches the wires and completes the circuit, it gets a jolt of current. This works reasonably well with mosquitoes, but it doesn’t do much to mega masonry wasps. They spark and smoke a bit, but keep on flying, albeit like the “Memphis Belle” returning from a bombing raid over Germany. They don’t sting, but they might start to do so if I continue to zap them.

The previous doctor warned me that they had a scorpion in the house at one point. Luckily I haven’t seen claw or tail of him since I have been resident, but I still tap out my shoes every morning. Occasionally a huntsman spider falls out, half dazed from a mixture of trauma and the overpowering odour of my smelly feet. They look large and alarming, but also do a good job of keeping down the resident insect population.

Baboons are my constant neighbours. They sleep in a tree next door and as soon as it becomes light, they are off foraging for food along the river. Instead of trooping off along the ground, they often decide to take a short cut by jumping onto my house’s corrugated iron roof. This makes a hell of a racket at 5:30am. They squabble and fight, screeching and squealing. They defaecate everywhere. If I am up early, eating breakfast outside, I can occasionally see them tiptoe carefully over the clear plastic part of the verandah roof. Their bony fingers grip onto the edge of the roof and they peer over the rim, head upside down, inspecting what I am doing. I can see them weighing up whether it is worth the risk of trying to steal anything which just might be edible. I don’t think they like Weetabix. “Baboon appetit,” and off they go.

P1130656

I get visits from little vervet monkeys, too. Sometimes they jump onto the outside tap and from there, up onto a small tree at the side of the house. This sapling oozes sap from multiple small wounds, which the vervets have probably picked at to prevent healing. They lick the sugary sap and poke their fingers into holes to get something tasty. It is amusing to see one monkey hard at work excavating some juicy bugs from a hole, when another leaps from my roof onto the first one’s head. The second monkey then stands on the first monkey’s shoulders, licking sap. First monkey doesn’t seem to mind at all. Perhaps it is a case of,  “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Last week, I heard the distinctive cry “Joop, Jooooup” of a spotted hyena, checking out compound, looking to scavenge for food. I didn’t see it, though.

Next door, there are a pair of wildcats, who have been brought up as kittens, rescued from a bushfire in October. They are truly wild cats, as in the Scottish wild cat. Superficially, they look like a normal cat but have beautiful subtle markings and perhaps darker, more pointed ears. Their legs are longer. At six months of age, they are thin and rangy. The naughtier of the pair is called Harry. He stalks butterflies and pounces on them with four legs extended, claws unsheathed. Wildcats enjoy poaching chickens at night, which annoys the locals so much that they kill the cats. Harry has been neutered to reduce his hunting nature, and he is kept indoors after dark. He may have lost his balls but it has probably saved his life.

P1130647

There are some domestic cats, round and about, but they often fall prey to the resident leopard, who seems to thrive on pets. I have seen the leopard once while doing a home visit at night and the car’s headlights picked out this wonderful beast crossing the track, a few metres ahead. The leopard has already taken a piglet from the sty attached to a Zambian’s house about 100 metres south of my home.

Yesterday morning, I was eating breakfast outside, when a male impala bounded through the houses. I wondered if it had been escaping from a leopard’s attack. My next door neighbour told me that some years ago, just after sunset, a buffalo came roaring at full pelt across the patio and upset the barbecue. It was closely pursued by a lion. My neighbour and his partner had been sitting there, just ten minutes previously. The lion caught and brought down the squealing buffalo a few metres away from the house, but an angry elephant chased the predator away.

The buffalo died of its wounds the following day. But the Weber barbecue lived to braai another day, albeit dented and tilted at a slight angle.

P1130670
Family of elephants (two others out of shot) passing by the back of my house this morning at 7am, just 15 metres away.

Elephants have been through the area recently, too. They walk through at night, when they are less likely to come into contact with humans. They are very noisy, ripping off branches and stripping leaves. They have been known to push down houses in the locality, presumably looking for food. They produce a huge amount of dung which is spread liberally along their path. I am no expert, but I can give a reasonable guess as to how long ago the dung was deposited, according its appearance. The photograph shows dried dung about a week old. A colleague living in a house a few hundred metres along the riverbank from me told me that she had been kept awake by an elephant which was “heavy breathing” outside her bedroom window.

Hippos make a lot of noise, too. I can’t hear them during the day, but if I walk five minutes down to the riverbank, their basso profundo grunts break the silence every few minutes. In the photograph you can see the tracks of the hippos across the mud and into the stream which leads up to our houses. I have once seen one lumbering up a steep, muddy gulley to get up onto the bank. It is incredible how they can move their huge bulk up a slippery  30 degree inclined path.

Hippos often rumble along between my house and my next door neighbour’s, munching on greenery as they go. It sounds like a repeated “chomp and slap”. At first I thought it was someone limping around outside my bedroom with a stick. It was just hippos grazing. I always take a torch with me if I venture outside, because I don’t want to have an unexpected meeting with an angry hippo. Everyone tells me that they “kill more humans than…(add the appropriate dangerous animals: sharks, lions, elephants, etc)”.

Douglas, the hippo raised from infancy at Chipembele, is now a huge, lumbering beast. Well, he was a huge, lumbering beast at just a few months old, when I first saw him in 2014. He has grown and his protectors have been trying to get him reduce his contact with humans and to make new friends in the river. I hope he will be able to join a pod.

One evening earlier this week, I was on my verandah, typing away on my laptop as the sun set, when a pair of ground squirrels came to investigate. They are smaller and thinner than our red or grey squirrels. They have a thinner, bushy tail; it is slender and about as long as their bodies. When foraging, they hold their tail vertical, just like a warthog when it senses danger. They made delicate leaps around the ground below the verandah, tails erected like aerials behind them. I wonder if previous doctors have fed them in the past and they are looking for titbits. Oddly enough, they don’t live in trees. Perhaps the name “ground” squirrels gives this away.

Finally, last night, I was watching Game of Thrones, series 2 on my laptop at home when a bat started circling the electric light at high speed. The roof doesn’t have a ceiling to avoid creating a space for bats to roost and defaecate. He got in, I suppose he will find a way out. I opened the door for five minutes but that just let in a cloud of mosquitoes. I will let you know if he returns to watch the next DVD.

Rain

Everyone blames el Nino. Instead of having rainfall evenly distributed throughout the recognised rainy season in southern Africa, it has become bimodal. It rains heavily at the start and the end of the season, but not much in the middle. Of course, this is not what the farmers want. In Swaziland, there was not enough rain to plant at the right time to produce maize, the staple crop.

In Zambia, December was wet, but February and March were relatively dry, but we have already had three heavy downpours in April in the Valley. This affects me because I live in Kapani, accessible only on dirt tracks which can become skating rinks when wet. I have to search out alternative routes which run across sand rather than clay. The previous doctor enjoyed driving on a twisting side-road which had a series of big depressions. If you get the correct speed, you hit the puddles in rhythm. It is like driving on a roller coaster, great fun with muddy water splashing over the bonnet. Her colleague slid off the road twice during their stay.

The doctor’s vehicle is now a Toyota Hilux Twincab pickup. It only has two-wheel drive, unlike my previous vehicle, the Pajero which I named Phyllis, which had four-wheel drive. I can press a button on the dashboard and engage locked differential, which improves the grip, but I can only drive in second gear at 20 mph.

Fiona works for the Carnivore Project, learning about how lions, hyenas and wild dogs hunt their prey. She lives on Robin Pope Safari land at Nkwali. She invited my sister-in-law Su and I to a braai yesterday afternoon. We sat on the verandah of RoJo House, a beautiful two story mansion looking out over a lagoon. It was hot and humid. There was an outdoor swimming pool which was chlorinated, but it had recently been visited by hippos, so we didn’t have a dip to cool off.

To the south we could see dark skies and the occasional flash of lightning. Then we heard rumbles of thunder as the storm approached. The animals knew what was about to happen. A herd of impala raced across the lawn in front of the house. Troops of baboons scampered after them. Heavy raindrops started to fall and before we could move the furniture indoors, it was pelting down. Stair-rods. Feral cats and wild dogs. Visibility dropped to 100 metres. All the verdant greenery seemed to turn grey. The earth around the house became a swamp.

After half an hour the rain ceased and we decided to go home. It was 4.30pm and I certainly didn’t want to drive in the dark on the muddy tracks. Ed has a four wheel drive safari truck. I gratefully accepted his offer to escort us to the tarmac road.

Some of the tracks have deep ruts. It is best to drive with your tyres in the ruts if you have enough clearance. Attempting to drive on the peaks is a recipe for skidding out of control. I think this is what Ed was trying to do when his vehicle went broadside on down the track, spraying mud into the bush.

“This is fun!” said Su. She obviously hadn’t seen how white my knuckles were grasping the steering wheel. I get foot cramps as well, from clenching my toes involuntarily. Once we got onto the tarmac, I could relax. Yes, it was fun but only after I’d successfully negotiated it.

After the storm, there was a strange yellow glow to the sky at sunset. The following day I took this photograph of the rutted road after it had dried out a bit. It looks benign here but I assure you it was treacherous.

Today is World Malaria Day

Last week, I have mainly been seeing patients with malaria or HIV, sometimes both together.

My stay in the Valley corresponds with the malaria season, at the end of the rains and the beginning of the dry season. Heavy downpours of rain flush out the mosquito larvae breeding in standing water, but if the pools are undisturbed for a couple of weeks, the mosquito population flourishes. With the last rain a week ago, the pools are beginning to dry out. Last week we were seeing 20 patients a day with confirmed malaria. Most of these patients said they slept under nets impregnated with mosquito repellent, but unless they go to bed at 6pm, they will probably get bitten.

On Thursday, I spoke to a colleague who was working in a remote health centre in Nsefu, about an hour away from Kakumbi by motorbike, who said that every day he was seeing about 80 patients, and 50 of them are testing positive for malaria. We should count our blessings.

I expect that May will be the worst month. In May 2013, there were 450 cases of malaria; in May 2014 when I was last here, we had over 800 cases. At the moment, we have enough Coartem (for chloroquine resistant malaria) for two and a half weeks. However, we are running out of rapid diagnostic tests and will have to start staining and examining thick blood films, which is much more time consuming.

Touch wood, I have seen no cerebral malaria yet, and no one has died who has attended the clinic. Last year, I lost two children from malaria, both of whom were living with HIV. They seemed to be improving when they suddenly developed an overwhelming pneumonia. So I have resolved to give prophylactic broad spectrum antibiotics to all HIV positive children with severe malaria this season.

P1130545
This gorgeous little girl does not have malaria. She is just enjoying playing on her mother.

First Game Drive

The owners of Wildlife Camp wanted to say goodbye to my predecessor and to welcome me back to the Valley. They invited us to go on an evening game drive followed by supper. It was hot and humid by the time we reached the camp. JC had baked a lemon drizzle cake (try saying that in Afrikaans) and some Lamingtons for afternoon tea. We were being spoiled.

By the time we set out for the park, the sky had darkened and we could see rain falling in the distance from bruised clouds. As we reached the park gates, it began to rain heavily. There was a roof over the vehicle but the sides were open. We were issued with ex-army ponchos, but the foam padding of the bench seats allowed the rainwater to percolate under the ponchos, soaking our pants. We were also trying to protect our camera gear, but I had given up all hope of getting any decent photographs.

The animals didn’t seem to mind the rain. A baby elephant was having a whale of a time, rolling in a shallow lake. All the white-faced whistling ducks were enjoying the downpour. Each mother seemed to have a brood of half a dozen ducklings. Off the gravel roads, driving was treacherous. We slithered across WaMilombe, an open grassland area which the grazers appreciate as it gives them ample warning when predators approach. There seemed to be some activity over by the river so we manoeuvred into a good viewing position to watch two lionesses checking out the riverbank. One was looking upstream, the other downstream. We could see their nostrils twitching as they picked up new smells, possible their dinner.

The sunset was, quite literally, a washout. My camera was struggling to take pictures in the gloomy light, so we retraced our tracks and took up another position close to a young male. He was grooming, licking his fur, oblivious to our safari vehicle 10 metres away. Suddenly his demeanour changed. His eyes lost their dreamy look and became focussed on his sisters by the river bank. They were hungry and decided it was time to hunt. He rapidly caught up with them.

We drove back to WaMilombe, but by this time it was too dark to have a leisurely “sundowner”. We got out of the vehicle, chose a cold beverage from the icebox, munched some popcorn and chatted about how lucky we were to have seen three lions after the storm. BJ, the guide, and George, the spotter, kept sweeping their spotlights around the perimeter. We could see two other safari vehicles which had been trailing the lions. One of the vehicles turned in our direction. The driver started manically flashing his lights to warn us. George picked out the male lion about fifty metres away, coming towards us. “He obviously wants to try the popcorn,” I joked. “Get in the vehicle NOW, right NOW!” ordered BJ.

Getting into a safari vehicle which is covered in mud is not easy, especially at night. But we managed to clamber aboard in less than 15 seconds. Seeing there was no popcorn on offer, the lion changed course and joined his sisters. We watched them for a while, but the spotlights seemed to confuse them, so we left them in peace and drove towards the airstrip.

Within five minutes, George had spotted a female leopard, stalking two impala. With 12 years’ experience of spotting game at night, he was able to tell it was a leopard by the colour of the flash back from the eyes. We reversed and watched her moving stealthily through the long grass towards the impala. The impala started to move in her direction, so she ducked under a bush and waited. We waited too, but she didn’t make a move. We were getting cold and reluctantly drove off.

No one was optimistic that we would get another sighting, but George the Wonderspotter picked out a chameleon clasping a branch half way up a tree at the side of the track. Our powerful spotlight was trained on the back of the chameleon, and it turned white to match the light. Its head was still green, away from the main beam. The flap-necked chameleon was about 20cms long, nose to tail. George would not give away his secret of how he caught sight of it, but I guess it might have something to do with the skin turning from green to white in the spotlight.

Five minutes later, George did it again, but this time he kept the beam trained on the chameleon until we came to a stop. This meant it was easy for us to identify it, improving the signal to noise ratio.

We left the park and dropped George at the village. It started to rain again as we drove back to Wildlife Camp. The muddy track made driving tricky, especially when we turned a corner to find an elephant about 20 metres directly in front of us. He was munching leaves from the bushes at the side of the road. We waited for him to finish off a branch and move on, before we could make progress.

I had packed a pair of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt in my waterproof bag, so I was able to change into dry clothing for dinner. Butternut squash soup, bobotjie with banana and pickle, salad followed by cake. Great company, wonderful experience, and they even made sure I got on the right track back to my accommodation at the end of the night.

Every cloud has a silver lining

The adventure begins. Again.

When flying to Zambia with South African Airways, passengers are allowed to bring two suitcases weighing no more than 23kg each. However, the luggage allowance for the internal flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe is just 15kg with 5kg hand luggage with Proflight. The clerk weighed both my cases (one was filled mainly with school supplies for Su) and looked at me over his spectacles. “That makes 40kg, now please add your hand luggage,” he said. My hand luggage (it is wise not to pack your camera, lens, binoculars, laptop, iPad, Kindle, etc into checked in bags because of the risk of theft) weighed another 10kg. I begged and cajoled, I grovelled, I played the medical equipment card, all to no avail. “The flight is overbooked and overloaded. You will have to pay 600 Kwacha (US$60) excess baggage,” he told me. Sigh. The trick is to smile and bear it.

I was allowed to keep my hand luggage with me until the last moment, when I handed it over outside the small plane. This meant I was last to board, and I took my seat at the back of the plane. The co-pilot stepped into the cabin and said that we were tail-heavy. “Would anyone like to sit up front with us on a jump seat?” he asked. My hand went up like a shot before the other passengers could work out what was going on. He picked me out and I moved my 80kg body from the back to the front of the plane.

I had a small shelf to sit on, just behind the pilot and co-pilot. The air steward fitted a panel behind my back, separating us from the other passengers. I was surrounded on three sides by banks of instruments and switches. Being a veteran of Flight Simulator, I actually knew what half of the dials meant. In front of me there was a gauge consisting of the outside edge of a wheel. The red line had moved into the green zone, indicating that the plane was balanced enough to fly safely.

“We normally have just 400kg of luggage, but today we are carrying 530kg,” said the co-pilot. “Thanks for helping us out. We’ll be a bit busy for the next few minutes, but we can have a chat once we are at cruising height.”

Air traffic control was having a torrid time, with four planes scheduled to depart at 16:00. The Emirates plane got priority, then there were two Proflights and a private Cessna waiting behind it. At every stage of the departure process the pilots were checking and recording data. The pilot read from a laminated checklist, with the co-pilot responding.

We took our place at the end of the runway. The co-pilot grasped the throttle at the top and the pilot put his hand on the bottom and the engines responded. We reached take-off speed and gradually began to ascend. Or rotate, as the pilots would say. Once we were at cruising height (17000 ft), the co-pilot explained the main features of the dashboard.  We checked out the weather radar, but could see clearly which masses of cloud we needed to avoid.

After an hour or so, we began to descend and the co-pilot pointed out the airstrip at Mfuwe International Airport. In the distance, to the front of us was a menacing dark bank of cloud, seemingly joined to the forest by a thick vertical rainbow. The co-pilot was not distracted by this; he made a perfect landing and parked the plane next to the fuel bowser – we were too heavy to carry enough fuel for the round trip, so we needed to refuel.

After the other passengers had disembarked, the steward opened the hatch and I backed out of the cockpit. As I stepped onto the tarmac, I stopped and listened. It was too early for the cicadas. There was no sound at all. Pure silence. What a magical place South Luangwa is.

IMGA0002-2