A mountainous 2018 in Zimbabwe!

Zimbabwe made headlines world wide in November last year.  And what exactly did the world see? Overjoyed Zimbabweans in our thousands on the streets. A united nation for the first time in 100 years. It was a very, very special time to be a Zimbabwean.

And now we get down to the business of rebuilding our nation. And have we got the material with which to do this? In spades! Endowed with the most spectacular of natural assets; the mighty Zambezi, the one and only quartzite mountain range of Chimanimani, dip down to the lowest point in Zimbabwe, Gona re Zhou with the Chilojo Cliffs, onward to  the mysterious and awe inspiring Great Zimbabwe. Matopos, Honde valley, Bvumba, Chirinda Forest,  the variety of this list means we have something amazing for everyone.

These assets will bring visitors from every corner of the world. And I have yet to mention our greatest asset…the one the world saw on their TV screens in November. The Zimbabwean people. A population which has with great patience and dignity withstood so much over so many years. To every person who watched with interest as we sang and danced in the streets, we now extend a warm Zimbabwean welcome.

Come and visit, we see you as an honored guest who comes here to be  a part of the rebuilding of our wonderful country, Zimbabwe.

Chilojo Elliestim5

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The colours that keep you coming back

September 2017 in Chimanimani.   I am looking at the sky and thinking of those people far away where the Monsoon has struck with deadly force and those on another continent as Hurricane Irma hurtles north, shattering lives. My view into this African sky of vivid blue is broken only by the unforgettable colours of new Msasa leaves.

Recovery. 6 November

No wind today, just the churring calls of the Miombo Tit and busy movement among the leaves –  a foraging Apalis, a  pair of Crombec,  and on the  Erythrina a fledgling attended by her gorgeous father. This  Miombo Double Collared Sunbird is fairly described as a flying jewel. He is vocal, he is brilliant and  he appears to be a great Dad, feeding his baby whilst vigilantly driving off other birds who venture near his progeny.

Since 1991 I have been privileged to witness the spectacle of  Msasa (Brachystegia spiciformis) adorning themselves in their new leaves. Each year the colours astound us. And in time you notice something more than just this splendid thing called colour. September of 2017 brings a huge sense of relief, relief to be where the hurricane is not, relief to be where the monsoon is not, relief to be where I am right now among these trees. I have noticed the dying leaves provide tiny insects for the bird parties which come through at Frog & Fern. And how the buds of new leaves are probed by busy beaks and tiny, furry grey caterpillars hang on silken threads, buffeting in the breeze.

But this year it is the texture of these miracle leaves, smooth, shining and delicate. For a few weeks every September they hang softly, almost limp upon the branch. Trace your finger gently over the perfect surface this morning and by night you notice the colour has changed and the leaf is firmer.  These spectacular leaves draw your eye but if you focus on the branches you will find something equally mesmerizing. Lichens of blue grey, silver and pure white. The texture of these ancient life forms vary from crinkled, crispy shards to soft velvet. Here among the lichens forage the full array of Miombo specials, Cinnamon Breasted Tit, Miombo Tit, Southern Hyliota, Miombo Rock Trushes. All year this wonderful tree, described by some as the most beautiful in the world, affords life to myriad insects and birds. Holding the soil on our precarious slopes, surviving drought, fire and cyclones this miracle tree is a precious thing and we should always remember this.DSC_0073

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A friend in the garden for 2017…

January sunrise behind the Chimanimani Mountains

January sunrise behind the Chimanimani Mountains

Here at Frog & Fern swallows soar in low cloud and our resident Bush shrike whistles “ooooooooo-up” among  splendid Msasa trees. Our rains have come.

Life giving rains at Frog & Fern Cottages, Chimanimani.

Mzanje fruit lie thick and sweet among the leaves feeding chongololos, birds, butterflies, people and horses. Paradise Flycatchers dominate the garden with delightful flight and frenzied, cheering song.

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

And today quietly stalking in lower layers of bush is my most magical creature, the Chameleon. From early childhood I loved him as much as I loved frogs. This little dinosaur who changes his tone and looks all around with swiveling eyes has to remain vigilant every moment for the Bush Shrike will make a meal of him and the Raven will scoop him up for breakfast. I heard a man yell in fright last evening…he was staring through his binoculars  when he felt a rather startling sensation on his foot! A snake? Oh no, just a gentle chameleon on the hunt. Our guest laughed in comic relief –   to  think that he  caught such a “SKRIK” from this lowly, steady little chap making quiet progress across his toes.

Creature of myth and joy.

Special feet, special tongue, special skin. A magical creature in every way.

My heart sings when I see one of these creatures – it means he has survived the terrible fire season, he has survived the drought, loss of habitat on a massive scale and endless numbers of humans who persecute him over ignorant superstition. He cannot run, he can but blend as best he can…he is the master of blending. This patient, fabulous creature of a green earth lives in my garden…how very blessed I am.

Flap Necked Chameleon spots his prey at Frog & Fern

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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 reminds  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 2017.

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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