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Climatic contrasts at Christmas

Dusty Miller

MOST of my last Zimbabwean week of 2007 — before a “sanity break” to countries where electricity, water, fuel, food and festive fare drinks are available and affordable

— was spent on the houseboat “Sheer Magic” peacefully plying a placid Lake Kariba.

Within two days of leaving the heat-hazed sultry Zambezi Valley basin, I was up to my armpits in freezing fog in the Thames Valley, followed by crunching frost-flecked fallen furze underfoot in the foothills of Scotland’s majestic Grampian mountain range.

Again I was without hold luggage, “misplaced” by Air Zim on a direct non-stop flight from Harare to Gatwick, with no other plane leaving that night. Twice I flew AirZim to London in six months; twice they lost just one piece of luggage: mine.

Eleven days later, on New Year’s Day, I’m still to be re-united with my case, containing the only warm-ish clobber I own and now belated Christmas gifts. It’s safe in rural Oxfordshire with my daughter, but that’s 800 kms south of the grim, grey, granite-built city of Aberdeen, in north-east Scotland — currently lashed by North Sea storms and slicing, slanting, sleet, in a gale howling unhindered from bleak midwinter Russian steppes — where I pen this.

Been chilled to the marrow most outdoor minutes, since I left AZ’s Boeing 767. The pilot announced it was minus three degrees Celsius and foggy in London, over a belated breakfast (take off delayed 90 minutes as plane arrived late from Nai-robbery… then had a puncture on landing!) By the time we were let into an over-subscribed Gatwick holding pattern, weather had “improved” to zero degrees (freezing point!)… and mist.

I made a pact with myself not to verbally bellyache about the weather, this trip. I chose to visit the UK at possibly the coldest time of year, so mustn’t moan….especially as I’m pulling out, anyway, for a week on the Red Sea (airport strikes permitting). Here in miserable, morose, muddy, May (after the warmest, driest April on record!) — for the first time since 1984, my fifth visit from 1969 — I felt entitled to bore my family by constantly chuntering about the chill.

But it was family I came to visit — especially my baby grand-daughter, Siena-Rose — and at Christmas-time you can’t beat the warmth of the family for fighting frost!

Zimbabwe still had food shortages, power and water cuts when I left. Additionally there was no cash! Watching TV, I shook my head as RBZ governor Gideon Gono, blamed the country’s further decline on currency speculators hoarding $200 000 bearer cheques.

To solve this, he announced, the 200k bits of paper would be spiked and replaced with $250 000, $500 000 and $750 000 “notes”.

Excuse me, Giddy! If folk find it pays to stash $200 000s, (three-to-five of them needed for a cup of tea!) why won’t they hide three-quarter million dollar bills? After all, you only need two of those to buy a small bottle of beer… in a non-profit-making club!

The unpardonably parlous position of the Zimbabwe we love was plainly portrayed en route to Kariba. At the almost obligatory comfort-and-coffee halt at Twin River Hotel, Karoi (there’s nowhere else, since so-called war vets occupied — and destroyed — nearby Spring Fever) I could hardly believe price hikes.

On the way to the international tiger fishing tournament, two months prior, tea, a hot dog and bacon-and-egg roll cost what I then thought a rip-off $1,5 million.

Immediately pre-Christmas, the tea was $600 000; hot dog $5 million, bacon-and-egg sandwich (not roll) $5 million. Thus what had been a $1,5 million snack would have meant an $11,1 million bill… had I been daft enough to pay…nine weeks later!

I didn’t shell out, because I knew a lovely lunch awaited us on the boat, hosts having gone ahead a day earlier.

Despite shortages, and as main excuse for this cruise was to celebrate Kyle Matthews’ 15th birthday in fine style, that first meal comprised apparently unlimited hot-dogs and burgers in grand warm buttered rolls with bowls of crisp, crunchy salad and pickles, chutneys and sauces.

A rare delight to me, were young, gold corn-on-the-cobs, dripping with butter and speckled in freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.

The crew baked a much- acclaimed chocolate-flavoured birthday cake with unusual but acceptable pancake-like texture.

For supper we ate crisply beer-battered, ultra-freshly caught filleted bream and golden chunky chips.

Kyle “killed” more than his share of the tilapia, and landed a Cornish jack: the only angler on board ever to have hooked this fish, which years ago made excellent fish cakes when ex-journalist Maurice Hammond and wife, Norma, ran Hwange’s Baobab Hotel.

Next day, the birthday boy landed the only Hunyani salmon I’ve ever seen caught, used—unsuccessfully — as live bait, trying to lure a fighting tiger.

Angling improved as the week progressed but, initially, the catch was top-heavy with squeakers, electric and silver barbel, usually dismissed as “useless” and thrown back, but fish from which “Oom” Johnny Rousseau — a regular guest on these voyages until recently — made terrific tangy curries.

* Comments, queries, hints: dustym@zimind.co.zw

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