Art in the Mountains

If you love Art and live in Harare you probably went to the Wild Geese Art Festival on  May 15th. Dee sold some paintings there but the real reason she went was to see the work of her own local favorites.  She was not disappointed – well over 100 artists and sculptors presented their treasures. Zimbabwe is bursting with talent.

And on the walls of Frog & Fern Cottages we are lucky enough to have the work of Dee’s mentor Martin van der Spuy. His self portrait in her studio reminders  her every day of where she is going. He was an inspiration to Dee –  he also believed in her talent, encouraging her to paint, paint, paint. Dee displays her paintings inside the cottages – so if you are planning a stay and spot something you would like just ask…

Here are a few:P1110437Wild Dogs for FBCorner 043Chitake Impala

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Remember “Solvitur ambulando” for 2016.

Walking in Chimanimani

A Black cuckoo mournfully sang “I’m soooo sad” –  competing with  the buoyant, lively trilling of a pair of Paradise Flycatchers.  A fresh breeze, scudding clouds. Sunshine, green, green Msasa and the squelch of a ripe Mzanje underfoot.  You had to be in Chimanimani to enjoy the first sunrise of 2016,  with all of these things.

Happily for us at Frog & Fern our first day of the new year was a busy one  –   13 Polish visitors and a pair of Indonesians. We have never hosted Poles before – these folk were cheerful, fit and well organized. With juice dripping down their cheeks they joyously expressed how delicious our fruit tastes and  how cheap it is!  They were tucking into locally bought mangoes, lady finger bananas and bright orange pineapples. Our Indonesian couple could only talk about how much space we all have, the wonderful waterfalls and plants. I was surprised – I thought Indonesia had these things in abundance. Not so they said, 175 million people and they live cheek by jowl and have decimated  a place which once had the highest biodiversity in the natural world. They extended their stay, swam in every waterfall they found, walked and walked – true walkaholics.

Swimming in the cool waters of Chimanimani

In the camp-site our Swiss friends had returned for the third time in three years – bringing us wonderful chocolate and generally spoiling us rotten. I took them to Corner…

"Solvitur ambulando" - Marcel discovers Corner

So today the first day of 2016 my resolution is to “WALK MORE.” One can think and walk, talk and walk, listen, look and walk – with friends and family, your dog  or even with a golf club in hand, hitting your way around the walk. Unless you believe in that saying “the best way to spoil a good walk is to play golf”.

Chimanimani Golf Course - nearby Frog & Fern Cottages

Yes we do have a golf course in Chimanimani.

Walking paradise - Chimanimani.

And then there is that familiar moment of putting on a pair of walking shoes, whilst the dogs whine in excitement – hurrying you.

Dogs know better than all of us “solvitur ambulando” – It is solved by walking….

Dino...walking in Chimanimani.

Sharing the joys of friendship and walking

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Mountains of Mood

Wishing you  Happy Christmas.  May you walk these mountains in 2016!

As the sun goes down on 2015 in Chimanimani - December clouds

2015 is all but gone. Every morning the mountains have stood beyond the village, unmoved by our trivial and transient lives.

And each day, if you took the time to look to them, you could be moved by the spectacle of quartzite mountains, mountains of mood.

I am often surprised how a mere glimpse of them has calmed my anxious mind. Slowed the trite thoughts, brought worthwhile reflection.

September - Chimanimani and Msasa time

Sometimes you see something truly special and if you walk in these mountains be prepared for  physical challenge and  spiritual renewal.

Hiking in the Chimanimani

Eland Sanctuary - Chimanimani

Moon Mountain

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November, blossoms, birds and crazy people

November sounds at Frog & Fern are dominated by a constant wind and lively trilling of a pair of Paradise Flycatchers nesting  metres from the kitchen door.  Our  flycatchers arrived on September 29th. We watched them choose their nest site, the little female inviting her male to sit upon the forking twig under  a tiny roof of fig leaves. He seemed to like it. She set about building while he chased away curious onlookers and the pair of Orioles whose chick ventured too close. It took her about ten days to build, carefully placing  the finishing touches of lichen on the outside and snuggling down, wiggling about to be sure it was all just right. They take turns sitting and the changeover is often marked with a trilling song from the incoming bird.

Male Paradise Flycatcher Sitting - Day 3

I worry for the little things since the air was still on the day they chose their nesting branch. As she neared completion of the tiny, perfect cup a fierce dry storm with gusting winds hurtled through Chimanimani.  Whilst she was away their new nest was tossed about and often turned almost completely upside down. If these windy conditions arrive after laying, any eggs or chicks could well be flicked out. But one thing is for sure the crow that stole their chicks last year will never stand on this branch…. flimsy and pliant as it is. So perhaps, weather permitting, they will succeed this year.

So, off to the other side of our garden and the wonderful sound of busy bees. One particular Acacia Sieberana is this year truly laden. It is a veritable banquet of creamy balls, fragrant with nectar.

Blossoms in November at Frog & Fern Cottages

Keeping the bird baths full really pays off at this time of year. Our Miombo Rock Thrushes, endless sunbirds, Miombo Tits and a host of bird parties containing all sorts of gorgeous busy birds queue up for a dip and a long refreshing drink.

Acacia Blossoms at Frog & Fern in November

And while we enjoy our birds, our trees and long walks over the hill we watch with concern as crazy people light fires in every direction.  Our National Parks Area Manager took every precaution to protect the Eland Sanctuary this year….she has done a brilliant job but if this little Park does not burn she deserves a medal. The destruction caused this year is unmatched in my time of living in Chimanimani.

Waiting for rain. Chimanimani.

We wait for the healing powers of rain….

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Wait for the call….

September brings the spectacle of nature known to Zimbabweans as “Msasa time”.

Msasa Time - September in Chimanimani.

For a couple of weeks those of us still lucky enough to be surrounded with Brachystegia Woodland revel in the astounding colours of  emerging leaves.

Msasa hues at Frog & Fern Cottages

And as the leaves pass through their magic hues to green we wait for a familiar cheery call,  heralding that summer has once again arrived.

Summer is here when we hear the trilling of our returning Paradise Flycatchers.

In October  2014 I wrote about a plain little bird nesting close to my morning coffee chair.  An unobtrusive pair of Dusky Flycatchers had carefully built their nest, decorating it with lichens to match the Msasa branch. Our lady  produced their precious eggs and  for 12 days,  patiently sat upon them day and night.  I was hoping to see the chicks hatching on day 14 as per “the book”. But early morning on Day 13 I was woken by alarm calls.   Throwing off the duvet I reached the balcony in time  to see a crow leaving the nest empty, torn and broken. The two clearly distraught Flycatchers fluttered over this devastation for several minutes and quietly disappeared.

I like to believe that they found a safer place to raise two new chicks. Certainly they stayed around, hawking insects, visiting the bird bath together and generally making the best of every sunny day. Their lively spirit seemed to me if anything more apparent.  These little creatures reminded me that staying optimistic, getting on with life, not looking back too frequently  – these things are handy wherever you are. When you live in Zimbabwe they can become life saving habits.

Familiar friends at Frog & Fern

On New Years’ morning of 2015 I sipped my coffee and contemplated the remnants of nesting material caught in the tree fork where that little bird had quietly incubated her eggs.  Around the tiny scene of devastation  came the sounds of  birds busying themselves with nesting, courting, feeding.  And in the days that followed, on through wet, grey days, mere glimmers of sunshine, they sang, darting here and there, ever present.  Three pairs of Paradise Flycatchers competed for food and safe nesting places – delighting our visitors with their cheerful whistles and confiding behavior.  Teaming up with the Bulbuls these dedicated parents frequently launched joint attacks repelling  the resident and dangerous Grey-headed Bush-Shrike whose own chick fledged early this year. Though the Paradise Flycatchers had quarreled among themselves when one pair tried to build their nest too close to their neighbor, they did eventually come to an arrangement and then, by flocking together  at crucial moments  succeeded in protecting their chicks from a dangerous marauder. Five  paradise flycatchers survived their first dangerous months of life and departed for Mozambique in early April. Our dusky flycatchers still flit around the garden, energetic and charming. They can only inspire us with their tenacity and practical defiance of life’s set backs. Birds are truly getting under my skin….

Familiar Chat - Year round companions.

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The patience of a scientist

Kurrichane Thrush. Busy checking under those leaves - for breakfast.

How lucky were we, at Frog & Fern this August? Hailing from Belgium and staying in Mzanje cottage for ten days with his wife and teenage daughter was marine biologist Hans Hillewaert. One could not help but appreciate this special family. Was it their love of reading quietly, the hours they spent talking and laughing together,  their attention to the  finest details of their surroundings? Or was  it  their remarkable ability to see stuff, I mean REALLY SEE stuff? From studying the variety of  lichens on our Msasa trees, or noting the special gentleness of our blind German Shepherd Dog, to finding the busiest tree in the garden and patiently photographing birds until they caught them in sharp focus,  in the daily task of surviving a lean winter.

In the garden at Frog & Fern Cottages - Miombo Rock Thrush - female. How to break open this beetle? Photograph by Hans Hillewaert.

I am going to let the photos that Hans kindly gave us, do the talking now. Enjoy!

Miombo Double Collared Sunbird

Miombo Rock Thrush - The pair visit Frog & Fern garden every day.

White bellied Sunbird helping himself to silk

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Visitors of every variety in 2015

Caught by Benji but happily released unscathed

Chimanimani in May is always something special. Our wild proteas and delicate tree orchids start to bloom, the skies are a vivid blue behind the mountains which rise in crisp definition above our village. This month is well ahead of the annual wild fires when  smoky haze will blur the outline of these magnificent mountains.  Walkers are rewarded with spectacular views wherever they tackle a slope and sit upon a high rock.

At Frog & Fern we have nurtured our precious Msasa woodland and among the  trees we have placed bird baths and left as many indigenous  shrubs, aloes and ferns as we can. This means we have plenty of hidey holes for insects, wild grasses thrive and good leaf layer on the ground.  All of this is especially for the birds who are busy building their reserves in readiness for the cold nights that lie ahead. Crisp mornings tempt one to snuggle in bed a while longer.

Benji however does not fit well into this picture of bird paradise.

Benji disturbs the bird paradise at Frog & Fern

This little hunter is watched over by a our resident Kurrichane  and Miombo Rock Thrushes and they seem to tease him as much as they can….foraging on the ground they seem like an easy meal. Far from it. We have around six individual  thrushes, canny little chaps who are well used to this cat. Benji did catch a bird with a similar name…but a very different type of bird. There was a happy ending to the story for our Kurrichane Button Quail – after overnighting in the “bird bag” in a warm cupboard he was sufficiently recovered to scuttle away into the grass a safe distance away.

A very different visitor arrived on a 1951 Harley which has done 3000 miles over African roads….Gareth Jones (yes, he is Welsh) drove in on this bike which he rebuilt himself especially for his African ride. Gareth was missing his husky from back home and topped himself up with dog tonic by walking our pack twice a day every day he stayed. Our dogs adored him and I enjoyed a couple of beers around the camp fire with this amazing traveler.

Gareth with his 1951 Harley and the dogs

Gareth prepares to hit the road again

Gareth continues his epic journey. See his FB page "PAN WITHOUT A PLAN"

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Don’t dress up Mum!

As I enjoy a morning coffee my nearest neighbour sits quietly observing me.  She tilts her head and stares at me, unblinking. We share a moment  looking at each other –  She seems unmoved.  Rather like me she appears solidly unglamorous…

Our nearest neighbour

This little Flycatcher has patiently waited out the winter before choosing the forking branch upon which she will place the future of her brood.  September  sees Msasa trees  drop masses of dead, brown leaves on the ground.  If you look very carefully under and on these leaves you will see frass from hundreds of emerging caterpillars.  Along with decaying leaves these tiny droppings fertilize the ground underneath each tree. Msasa caterpillars munch on the emerging leaf buds, effectively pruning as they go.  The timing of this event is noted by cuckoos who fly in from as far afield as Europe to feast and find a  host nest in which to deposit that all important egg.  Most Cuckoos, unlike our understated friend are stunningly dressed.

This brilliant jewel does not trouble with nest making.

Every year we await the arrival of birds from all over the world –  September 13th brought our regular two pairs of Paradise Flycatchers, three days later came the Red Chested Cuckoo, then the Emerald cuckoo.  Our Diderick and Black Cuckoos have yet to appear. Their insistent calls are unmistakable. Not everybody welcomes them…nesting birds such as our tiny Dusky friend hunker down, daring not leave their nest a moment unguarded. For these cuckoos are watching them closely.

Diderick Cuckoo calls repeatedly around Frog & Fern in November.

Along with even  daintier Sunbirds the  African Dusky Flycatcher incubates her eggs while her partner guards the territory,  trying very hard not to give away the location of his mate. He has reason to keep her secret. Danger lurks everywhere.

A predator lives at Frog & Fern. Grey Headed Bush Shrike

In 2013 our Black Sunbird pair worked themselves half to death feeding a Diderick Cuckoo chick – their frantic cries brought us out with the camera to find the huge chick, having grown too big for their nest being attacked (and then eaten) by a Grey Headed Bush Shrike.

This fat chick outgrew the host nest and drew the fatal attention of a Grey Headed Bush Shrike.

Last summer was a tough one for our  parent birds…. first  a Green Mamba moved through the tree tops for several days picking off chicks at will. A few survivors of that beautiful predator then lost their lives to a marauding White Necked Raven.  The Paradise Flycatchers fought bravely to save them but inevitably lost both their chicks to this Raven. However our  inconspicuous Dusky Flycatchers  defied the odds, successfully raising three healthy chicks. I wonder if this little girl sitting next to me in her neat new nest is one of those fortunate birds?

We know summer is here with the cheerful call of the Paradise Flycatchers

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Where will your road lead you?

Exploring the Eland Sanctuary, Chimanimani.

Visitors to Chimanimani can be described as being hugely varied but invariably interesting, as well as active people.   Now that the rains have stopped they are out exploring in 4×4’s or stepping off a mini-bus, ragged and courageous. Some drive in with diplomatic plates and energetic kids, others for a romantic weekend. Almost all have a sense of adventure.

Never walk without your camera in Chimanimani. You will miss something special if you do.

Active and independent minded people, some bring good books and their dog, some carry binoculars and bird books, some are loaded with  braai packs, beers and good friends  – almost all  have a camera and a back pack of some description.

Helene from France takes the Frog & Fern pack (including cat Benji) for walk.

And when they reach Chimanimani there is plenty to do. Hiking in the mountains is the main course but the side dishes on offer are unlimited.

Always take your camera. Winter is ALOE time in Chimanimani. This is Aloe arborescens.

Just recently we had Helene and Chris (he from Oz, she from France) who camped for a week, taking our animals walking every day. Unfazed by getting lost on day 1 – Helene flagged down a mini bus, all dogs on board while Chris sat in the bush with a very miffed little black cat. We have seen many things at Frog & Fern…but never our pack arriving in the dark by mini bus!

Benji was with Chris and Helene when they got lost - they did not abandon him though! They came home eventually by car....

Half an hour later we rescued Chris and Benji and everyone settled down to a good sleep after a walk to remember!

Many folks wish to meet some young Zimbabweans and a few days before Chris and Helene, were Kurt and Allison (from Canada). They played a round of golf with Cyclone, Tim and Bright of Matsetso Youth Club – Kurt said it was the most enjoyable 18 holes he has ever played!

Cyclone Tees off at Number 5 - Look out sheep!

And he was amazed at the quality of their golf.

Kurt tees off at Number 3 with Cyclone looking on.

Kurt played golf with three lads from Matsetso Youth Club.

Kurt and Allison then took the time to open a small window for the children to learn something of  the lives of Canadians –  showing them photos of  the snow  and the “fall leaves”, spring time,  boats at the harbour,  their family,  their home in Vancouver and so much more. It was a very special day to be in Chimanimani.

Allison and Kurt from Vancouver chatting with kids from Matsetso Youth Club, Chimanimani.

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Take a walk in May.

Chimanimani. Walk, ride or hike.

May for the Aloes.

Walking, riding or taking the dogs out for a run – There is NO place like this.

May brings the Aloes into flower

Aloes are in flower as well as the everlastings. Wherever  you go you are met with astounding beauty.

The walking you choose to do ranges from moderately strenuous strolling to extreme hiking.  Whether you are unfit or super fit, find your level and along the way just feast your eyes.

There are SAN paintings near Tessa’s Pool  which are beautifully preserved. Call in at Outward Bound for permission to visit them.

Bush man paintings on quartzite overhang in Chimanimani.

Walking your dog. Chimanimani is the place.

Old mans' beard hanging from the trees in Chimanimani.

Gorgeous lichens on quartzite rocks

Wild flowers and delighted dogs

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