Posted August 22, 2014 in Oxx Tales by Jim Markel
The Great Zimbabwe
Back in 2011 Red Oxx CEO Jim Markel and President Perry Jones joined forces and headed to Africa. This was the be Perry’s trip of a lifetime with plenty of fishing and exploration of the county’s of Namibia and Zimbabwe. In this first installment we find the two taking in the Great Zimbabwe, visiting with their friend and mentor silversmith Patrick Mavros and tackling fishing for tigerfish on lake Kariba. And yes, a bit of Hippo booty smacking for good measure. Join us as we follow along in another wild Red Oxx Adventure.
Planning a trip is fun and for those that require a game plan, it’s a must-have safety net. I, on the other hand, have little regard for the firm plan and tend to wing it. Whereas Perry likes to know what’s in the wind besides smoke from the next fire. We’d been talking about going to Africa together for quite some time. While each of us have been on safari at different times we had not yet gone together. Our adventures around the state of Montana and down to the annual trade shows had proven to be quite interesting and we travel well together as long as we have separate rooms.
One time at the Dallas Safari Clubs annual convention I awoke at 0300 to the sound of someone drilling in the hallway. Totally pissed off I sprang from my bed and opened my door ready to give some maintenance worker an earful. Peering about the empty corridor, I noticed the sounds were emanating from under a door across the hall where Mr. Jones was residing.
Sure enough in the heart of downtown Dallas amidst the city hum his snoring was sounding out like a Hyena in love.
Every year at the conventions it’s like the global old home week. Attendees from all over the continent of Africa show up to display services and catch up with their clients. One such exhibitor is my friend and mentor who hails from Zimbabwe is Patrick Mavros. Patrick is a silver sculptor of renown and his work is a direct reflection on how he views the World. From classic to downright cheeky, he has managed to express himself while building a global brand. Over the years, we have had some intense short conversations about business and life. I would call him a master of more than just silver sculpting, from allegory to leading by example, his is a life worth noting. For example, when I mentioned wanting to visit Zimbabwe, he simply answered, “Just show up and someone will be around to collect you.” From one military man to another it was all I needed to know.
After running into Ant Williams from the magazine ‘African Fisherman‘ to discuss some fishing possibilities, I had the basics of a “plan”. So all we needed to do was talk to some of our Namibian friends, and get some airline tickets and maybe rent a 4×4.
Packing up for a 30-day safari in two countries might take a little bit of planning, so while I’m not big on itineraries I still like to be ready for anything that comes my way. Experience has taught me that going with carry-on luggage is must-have. But, if you do have to check a bag be ready to wait for it at the first leg of your trip.
Our trip was going to involve a wider variety of activities and a substantial amount of camera gear, as well as humanitarian donation items. I opted to check a Big Oxx as my cargo bag and go with a prototype messenger bag known as the PT-43 as my personal item carry-on. For my primary carry-on bag, I went with the venerable C-Ruck Rucksack for maximum capacity. Toiletries were stowed in my Tri-fold Toiletry kit and topped off my gear with an essential Grasshopper medical kit from our friends at Wilderness Medical Systems.
With my bags taken care of it was time to select my camera gear. I wanted to photograph a variety of formats from still to video so I had three cameras and the requisite chargers I needed to bring along.
First off was my Nikon DSLR with assorted filters and cleaners and then two video set ups. One being a Go Pro with all the accoutrements, and the other, a sweet little Cannon HDR. All in all quite a pile of electronics once you’ve accounted for all the wires and converters needed to keep it all alive!
Sticking to the ‘rule of three’ I easily managed to get all my clothing into my Ruck but my Big Oxx was chock full of items like a Bogen tripod and our Little Dresses for Africa. My friend Dave Lundin has been doing volunteer work in Africa over the last twenty years and I’ve been popping over to help when I can. Of course, as his personal beast of burden I usually get stuck with hauling donation items like the dresses or doses of Zithromax.
This time I would be meeting up with him and my cousin in Namibia on the second half of the trip. Perry would be traveling with his trademark black & saffron all matching kit. For his carry-on, he ran with a trifecta of the C-ruck Rucksack, Tri-fold Toiletry kit and the Gator bag as a personal item. His checked luggage was a PR5.5 Safari Beano bag.
We were being joined by Jordan Blasé (aka Koombie) who had recently relocated to Billings from the Carolinas. His kit was similar to ours except being of a smaller stature he opted to run with the Roadster Mini Ruck in lieu of the larger pack. For checked luggage, he also took it down a notch with a PR5 Safari Beano. Standing in line at the counter it looked like a Red Oxx exodus from the Billings airport. From flashlights to fishing tackle, we had just about one of everything we needed and hopefully nothing we didn’t.
Arriving late in Harare after thirty hours of transit we were bedraggled and in desperate need of a shower. Not surprisingly, our checked luggage failed to make it all the way with us. No worries as we rested up at the Mavros estate for a few days. Getting off the plane we spotted Patrick’s youngest son Benjamin, holding a little placard with “Red Oxx” emblazoned on it.
Heading out of the city in the pitch dark of Africa, I could catch glimpses of the raw edge of a society in decline. Seemingly oblivious to the palpable tension Benji could’ve of cared less, all the while singing along to his favorite Neil Diamond tune and keeping us well away from any potential hazards.
Perry and his snoring scored a private room, which was thankfully to be the norm for the remainder of the trip. Come morning I could hear the discrete shuffle of feet outside the room as a tray of coffee was delivered. Talk about timing and presentation, now that we were in country I could call my friend Ant Williams and see about a trip out to Lake Kariba. While preparations were being made, we would have a chance to wait for our checked luggage and scope out the Mavros operation.
Perched high on a hilltop on the outskirts of Harare this farm and working estate is something of a closed organism. The estate is the home base of the silversmith foundry and studio where Patrick creates his art. But in many ways it’s an eddy with the jobs created by this entrepreneur in a country that has been in economic free-fall for the last thirty years. An overall sense of tidiness and steady hum of productivity are ticking along amidst a serene beauty.
Finding inspiration here is not a problem, focusing on work might be.
Doing our best to keep out of the way, Patrick gave us the grand tour; now we would see how his creations actually come to life. Using the lost wax process, each piece is meticulously hand-finished by skilled artisans and then double-checked for attention to detail. One thing I noted was just how organized and clean the workspace was. Having toured many production facilities I can generally tell how well a particular business functions based on its housekeeping.
Moving onto the gallery and surrounding grounds, I get the feeling each piece is there by the master’s design. When I asked about some grain grinding stones in the garden, I was not surprised to find out that Patrick had been collecting indigenous items since his teenage years. Not only has he created some of the most enigmatic items from his workbench, he is also is a patron of the arts.
The smell of smoke emanating from under a shady tree is just one such page in the life of Mpata Farm. Here in the soft light, a forgotten trade is practiced in much that same way as it has been for centuries. Metalworking in front of a mud forge and crucible is an aged man of indeterminate years. The soft clinking of a hammer on steel with the steady staccato of another master at work. He has been here making spears and other objects for more than two decades with each piece having been collected by just one man. Of the many things I’ve learned from Patrick through the years, I was even more moved by this one action than I can say.
Still without checked luggage, we decided to kill some time and play tourist and see something of the country. Piling into the microbus, we rolled out in the early hours in search of the Great Zimbabwe. Harare by day is quite the sight to behold. Daylight shows the frayed edges of a country that once was the envy of the continent. Now it’s being driven into a charity case. Boss Robert’s economic policies over the last thirty years have driven this once prosperous nation to the brink. All the specie has been melted down for base metals and issued 100 Billion dollar notes.
Finally, the currency collapsed and now they use a motley collection of the nastiest over-circulated U.S. currency you will ever have the displeasure of touching. Passing through tollbooths that consisted of a card table and two AK-47s you get the distinct feeling that you’re not on the turnpike anymore. White boys pay double here and you might want to keep your political opinions to yourself, unless you want to end up on the front page of the paper.
Our arrival at the Great Zimbabwe was unlike any other tourist trap I have ever been to. Not exactly a welcoming experience and we were also the only visitors. Deciding to help stimulate the local economy, we opted to go with a paid tour guide. His knowledge of the site was quite extensive and clambering up the slope to the kings overlook had us working up a nice sweat.
The simple beauty of the natural rock formations and the dry stacked stonework give the site a very organic tone. While occupied for centuries it somehow retains an almost Neolithic vibe as it flows over the land.
After a hard day of playing Rock Dassie it was time to find some comfort at Norma Jeane’s on the shores of Lake Mutirikwi. The resort is a throwback to a bye-gone era and could best be described as “quaint”. We spent the evening sitting by the fire looking through vintage tourist books of an Africa that no longer exists. Manicured parks and painted rocks show a continent that once was the model of colonialism in the middle of the 20th century. Things have certainly changed in the intervening decades. While it may be some time until some progress is made I would expect that eventually the people will throw off this rotten form of tyranny.
In the meantime Boss Robert’s thugs continue to spread joy and happiness.
We thought it would be a good idea to visit the local market to see what we could find in the way of souvenirs. Swinging into Masvingo for some fuel, I thought we would check out the local offerings and leave some hard currency behind. Working our way through the market I was checking out the proliferation of Chinese made flip flops as well as trying to get a photo or two.
Before I realized it, some shady characters had begun to converge on our group. By the time we had made it back to the other end of the market a rather nasty crowd had formed and I could certainly feel a hostile vibe. We found our way blocked and then the questions from some xenophobic individuals began flying. As a finger pointed right at me, "You CIA?" I could see that we were going to be on the receiving end of a large stone or brick if we didn’t UNass the area quick. Shouting to Perry, we shoved our way past the crowd before they had a chance to react. Heading out of town at a high rate of speed we were all feeling the post adrenaline rush of a close call.
Suddenly out of the bush popped a couple of cops in paramilitary garb. One had an AK and the other was holding a bullhorn like it was a radar gun. Pulling over quickly our driver told us not to worry and all I could think of was the penchant for understatement that abounds in this part of the World. We were informed that the "radar" had clocked us over the limit. When our driver asked to see the radar gun measurements the one guard immediately went to port arms. Then the boss man who was armed with a pistol, motioned him away from the equipment.
Things seemed to be dragging on, so Koombie decided to snap a photo of the officer with the AK. Things went from calm to nuclear as he demanded the camera and began trying to drag it out of the back window. Sitting in the front of the bus all I could think was that he better hit the delete button pronto. After a short tussle the officer managed to pry the camera out of Jordan’s hands but not before he deleted the images. Now standing by the side of the road knees knocking, Koombie was berated by the officers. With no evidence, they acquiesced and let him climb back inside the relative sanctuary of the vehicle.
Meanwhile the driver was still refusing to pay anything to these thugs. After sweating us for 45 minutes, they finally gave up and we were back on our way. When I asked our driver why he stood so firm on not paying, he said, “I will not give in to the thieves that have stolen my country.”
Arriving back in Harare we were set to rendezvous with Ant. The next leg of our excursion was taking us to Lake Kariba for a bit of tigerfish fishing. My thoughts on fishing is that it interrupts a perfectly good boat ride, on the other hand Perry and Jordan live for the bite. Of course, before departing Montana we decided to buy every fishing lure and fly that we thought would withstand the onslaught of the mighty tigers. Perry was keen to point out that most of the junk we bought was made to catch fisherman not fish. I was pretty happy with my purchases and like to think that as long as there is hope, you just might catch the big one.
Ant had arranged for us to be the very first clients at Fin’s Fishing Safaris. Traveling cross-country, Ant pointed out the now defunct farms that used to cover the landscape. I hadn’t noticed until he pointed it out and suddenly they were everywhere. Once prosperous operations that fed and employed thousands have now slid into subsistence farming. With Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe promising to finish off the last vestiges of white owned farms it appears that mass starvation will soon follow.
Two such farmers were to be our hosts at Fin’s Fishing Safaris. Loraine and Ray Finaughty had lost their farm and commercial butchery to the government and were starting over again as guides. Lakeside accommodations were top notch and we even had a pool with no crocs. Settling in we had a plan to fish from the lodge to see what everything thing was biting on. Then we would be off on a houseboat to explore further into the lake and use the smaller boats as tenders. For someone whom is not an avid angler, I have somehow found myself fishing, or more importantly, boating all over the planet. The water holds an allure to me that I sometimes find hard to satisfy living in land-locked Montana. While we have lakes and rivers, they do tend to freeze up in the winter. So given the chance to encounter some warm water I am all over it and if the fish are biting as well, then that is a nice sidebar.
Multiple species abound in the lake but we were primarily after tigerfish. Other species include Vundu or giant catfish, Cornish Jack and Chessa. Fried catfish in Africa sounds like a culinary delicacy I can relate to. Cruising out on our first day, I noticed some sort of aqua farming going on. Ray informed me that they were Kapenta pens where they raised the little baitfish for human consumption. The tigers like to cruise in proximity and have been known to tear holes in the nets or jump into the pens to get after the tasty sardine-like fish. Sounds like a great place to start fishing then!
Rigging up we got busy with trying to land the first tiger. As fate would have it the most non-fishing fool of the bunch would be the first to get a tiger in the boat. After catching the first one I have to admit they are like nothing else I have ever landed.
So with that first strike and thrilling run, I had hooked myself on tiger fishing.
Back at the lodge that evening while having grilled tigerfish, we were visited by a host of Africa’s great creatures. Flashing my Surefire light out onto the lake I could see the telltale reflection of crocodile eyes. Closer in the garden an elephant silently join us for dinner. She ghosted into the garden and helped herself to the kitchen leavings. Out on the lawn two hippopotami were noisily cropping grass. Earlier I had wondered just how the kikuyu grass had been trimmed so short.
It was at this point when Ant let it be known that to be a true Zimbo you had to smack a wild hippo on the rump. As one of the more prolific killers in Africa, I had my doubts. I thought for sure that he was having us on. When he suddenly sprang from his chair and proceeded to sprint across the yard and whack one right on the booty. Not to be outdone, Jordan I foolishly followed suit and the adrenaline rush was certainly worth the risk.
Out on the lake the next morning aboard the houseboat Taipan we were exploring vastness of Kariba. Along the shoreline ranged herds of elephants and assorted African big game in fairly decent numbers. Cutting across to deeper water well away from the crocodile infested shoreline the captain circled the boat, "Time for swim qualification." After promising the Mavros family we would not swim in Kariba "no matter what" we were about to get our swim on. I knew there was something about these white Zimbos that I liked. Even after swimming with the sharks of Cocos Island I still had plenty trepidation about this excursion. After a quick plunge, I hoisted myself up the ladder with a pounding heart.
There I was, standing on deck in the blazing African sun, happy in the moment to be alive as we chugged eastward.
Spending the next few days living aboard our floating house was like a dream come true. Each morning we headed out at sunrise in the tender boats to fish and explore the shoreline. We worked our way into narrow channels only to be chased about by a nasty hippo bull; it was dodge bubbles or be capsized. Due to a low-pressure front, fishing was pretty hard and required a fair amount of work. Still with side excursions into the bush, we had plenty to keep it exciting as some of the large cats had recently been creeping about the shoreline. As always you’re best bet is to keep your eyes and ears open for slithering things like mambas. Our time in Zimbabwe was coming to close and we had promised to be back at the Mavros homestead for a family Braai before departing for Namibia.
Arriving as the sun was just begging to wane we were surprised to find Alexander and Forbes Mavros. They had just arrived from two of the company’s locations. Alex runs the London flagship store and Forbes has a studio and gallery in Mauritius. Patrick had promised us a surprise but this was something completely unexpected. As the fires of the coals reached just the perfect temperature for a true Zimbabwean Braai, I noticed a huge platter piled high with meat.
Of course, I wasn’t the only hungry beast; out of the darkness crept one of the fiercest creatures on the farm. Jecha is a miniature dachshund or badger dog and he snatched a huge steak and retreated under the fig tree. Of course, some of the big dogs thought they were going to relieve him of his ill-gotten gain. Not so, snarling like a honey badger and showing some serious fang, he was not to be deprived. Benji informed me that he was the real dictator here and I was astounded as he consumed the whole thing.
Moving inside for dinner we were greeted by a magnificent table set in Mavros silver. Here were pieces that were obviously of a one-off nature and each one with the tendency to draw you into another place. Always the master of ceremony, Patrick was seated at the head of the table where he regaled us with a humorous tale from a recent field expedition with the family.
It’s easy to understand why Patrick cuts a wide swath in the World, from his magnificent art to his humanitarian actions, he’s certainly one-of-a-kind. We had traveled far in search of the things that many of us often look for in our worldly adventures. For me I had come away with much more than I would know at the time, but these thoughts would find me again at a later time when needed most. In the meantime, we had plane to catch and no time to rest. The Kalahari was calling…
Cheers, Jim Markel, CEO
Stay tuned for part two when Red Oxx goes deep into bushman country to supply humanitarian aid.
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