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THE MC ELVAINES: walking half the 500kms each

(With a) very generous response to our sponsorship appeal for the S.P.C.A. ‘Blue Cross’ marathon ‘off-road’ walk, I am delighted to report that my wife and I again managed to complete this last week, arriving at the base of Mt. Nyangani with 39 other walkers, cyclists and horse-riders on Monday 14th August, 2017. We had all started off at different times, so it was refreshing to see that there were other people as mad as we were who had chosen to undertake this event. This is the third consecutive year we have done it, with Lyn and I comprising our entire relay team of two – last year in the midst of what had been an exceptionally challenging day, Lyn categorically and firmly stated, with no room for negotiation, that she was not ever going to take part again, but here we were…

This year did not have as many logistical challenges as last year and all went incredibly smoothly, with our Land Rover Freelander proving more than equal to the task, covering approximately 3000 km in the two and a half weeks we were on our travels.

Our first walk was an easy one after arriving at Chilo Lodge, and we diverted to see Chilo Falls. The next day dawned cloudy and cool, to our relief, and we walked until midday – Lyn made her first group of young friends (this is usual for her as she smiles as everyone that she comes across), one of whom changed his name to Daniel after learning that this is the name of our younger son. On our return to Chilo, we treated ourselves to a game drive in the magnificent Gonarezhou National Park. Great ground cover and the recently opened route that we took with our guide, Lionel Muzengi, was absolutely teeming

with game – nyala, zebra, warthog, kudu etc. etc.

and (to Dave’s delight) a very close encounter with elephant.

The evening light and silhouettes were magical, as always,

and we could have very easily stayed for the entire duration of the Blue Cross.

However, this was not the point of our trip and the next two days of walking were through the Chisumbanje and Middle Sabi cotton fields.

Evidence of the good rains this year made a nice change from previous years, although some of the roads had suffered somewhat, which led to Lyn in the vehicle having an intimate encounter with a tree stump (claiming that she hadn’t even noticed it and which damage I therefore initially blamed a passing scotch cart for) rather than the vehicle sliding into a 5-metre deep gulley.

As in previous years, we saw every mode of transport, and yet we were the ones actually choosing to walk and this led to several interesting discussions with people along the way. One of these was with Donald, who asked Dave why on earth he was doing this by choice, and after a long explanation (all of which was carefully written down in his notebook), including our desire to have a change from politicians, police and potholes, Donald gently informed Dave that he was the ZANU-PF Chairman of the district, thereafter reaching into his pocket and apologising that he only had a dollar which he could afford to give the SPCA, before puttering off on his borrowed motorbike.

Three days walk north of Chilo, we decided that we would camp with the horse-riders at Mwangazi and eventually found them set up in a field by a river. By now, it was dark but being experienced campers this was not a problem until we found that our tent, which we had previously lent to a ‘friend’, had been returned to us with no tent pegs or flysheet. Dave therefore discovered a number of rocks which would act as tent pegs, and just after he had finished this task and the tent was firmly upright, Callah (in charge of the horse-riders) brightly informed him that she had a spare bag of tent pegs, which we were welcome to use. No flysheet meant that the heavy dew soaked Lyn’s head every time she sat up on her stretcher, and the horses took it in turns to escape from their enclosure all night, so by 3 a.m. we were up and raring to walk. In the process of this earlier than planned start, and, as usual during this event, we attracted the attention of children on the way to school,

which increased in number and by the time they were walking with Lyn had grown to 50+,

even deciding to continue walking with us, rather than diverting to their school, which their teacher was not happy about.

After our camping night, the real climbing started up the Chipangara and Chikore Mission mountain ranges.

We had to stop and catch our breath many times, but in doing so discovered the existence of some magnificent cockerels and turkeys, as well as Lyn watching a Mamba gliding along the side of the road closely following the antics of vervet monkeys in the trees overhead. Speaking of this, the trees that we saw were truly magnificent, both in size and foliage – again, evidence of the good rains this season.

We also came to a primary school which, according to its entrance sign had been established in 1910 and rejoiced in the school motto of ‘Like Stars We Shine’.

After the climb flattened out a little we approached Chipinge through orchards of macadamia, avocado and guava trees, coming across people who continued to walk seemingly unbothered by distances and usually with young children and large bundles on their heads.

One such encounter was with three young women, who suggested with many giggles that Dave take longer strides and then recommending that he run, rather than walk, with them. His response was in the negative. A few kilometres down the track, when we were resting in the shade, they passed us again, still happily chattering away and suggested that we share our biscuits with them.

By now, it was Saturday 5th August, walking out of Chipinge and we had an interesting time with various kamikaze kombi drivers

and our vehicle changeover system – on one occasion, Lyn had parked the LandRover on a new dirt access road and Dave walked quite a way past it as he had chosen to take the actual route indicated on the Garmin, before realising his mistake and having to return. Later that day, Lyn inadvertently put both sets of vehicle keys into her pocket and starting walking downhill, only realising that she had done so when Dave, having climbed a very steep hill to reach the vehicle, caught up with her at least a kilometre further on – she insisted that it was his responsibility to then have to walk back (all uphill) to recover the vehicle. Explaining this to those enjoying a Saturday afternoon outside the local beerhall who had seen our antics made for an interesting time.

After a HUGE breakfast cooked by our Chipinge hosts, Alwena and Maryna, during which we were plied with gifts of home-grown produce, we were off again, and now starting to walk through agricultural projects of bananas, paw-paws and avocados.

Dave was greeted with gusto by local gold panners and then ‘Mad Mountain Mike’ who embraced him, kissed him soundly on both cheeks and presented him with a lump of granite, in which he insisted there were diamonds. By now, our blisters were really making their presence known – in previous years, we had largely escaped these somehow but this year, for some reason, our feet took serious strain and we had both developed pressure blisters on the balls of our feet, which were exceptionally painful and required many ‘blister dressing clinics’ in the middle of the dirt track.

Monday 7th August saw us climbing the infamous Tank’s Nek between Chimanimani and Cashel

– the weather, however, was kind and the day started off cool with magnificent clouds gilded by the sunrise

and, unlike previous years, lush vegetation abounded throughout.

By now, our feet were very seriously sore and Dave was fantasizing about a morphine injection or two – we both hit a ‘brick wall’ that day, fortunately at different times, but got through it with only a little grumpiness on either side. There were many schools in the area, and children had obviously been sent off early in the morning all bundled up against the cold, but were still wearing their full winter gear on their return from school and walking several kilometres, usually with a sack of grain, firewood or water on their heads. The following day was a very early start (4 a.m.) and Dave was so tired that he managed to start the day by zipping the side of one jacket he was wearing to the other side of the other, totally different jacket, without realising his mistake for at least 30 minutes and making himself look like a real circus clown. Our walk that day was almost completely deserted

although there were many smallholdings in the early part of the morning, including winter wheat being watered from buckets by hand and a man hand-ploughing a very steep and stony field with cattle who were just not obeying his increasingly frustrated shouts of instruction.

On Wednesday 9th August, we decided to take a break from the GPS track and so made up the required distance by walking to Outward Bound, which was functioning and busy with a group of accountants trying to design a raft for Tessa’s Pool. Then, it was onwards to Chimanimani National Park, where we were greeted by a very bureaucratic National Parks employee who was exceptionally focused on trying to persuade us to pay a day entrance fee for merely looking at the campsite, but who had no maps or information about the area. The Chimanimani mountains were simply superb – brooding in majestic and lofty grandeur.

After a picnic lunch by a river, presided over by Francis who was single-handedly renovating a former guest lodge, we walked to Bridal Veil Falls, to be met by another National Parks employee who was the complete opposite to her counterpart earlier in the day – dashing out of her Parks reception hut to welcome Lyn with a huge hug and many cries of ‘Mother’.

The next day saw us heading, along with many boot changes and plaster replacements towards Mutare through magnificent kopjes and new Msasa leaves.

As with every previous day, when we stopped the vehicle, we were asked on regular occasions by passers-by whether we needed any assistance with the provision of fuel, repairs etc. In fact, throughout our walk and in common with previous years, we had welcome smiles and greetings from every single person that we came across, along with some puzzlement and disbelief as to what we were actually doing. That night was spent with Lynne James (who organises the Blue Cross each year) and her husband, Brian, and Dave distinguished himself by setting off their sensor alarm late in the evening and being bitten, totally unprovoked (he says), by one of their dogs.

Friday 11th August was spent walking to the north of Mutare up to and beyond Osborne Dam,

which were probably two of the steepest climbs we had had up until then.

Naturally, Dave drew the short straw most of the time and on one occasion was walking backwards, claiming that if he walked forwards and saw the hills that he would have to climb, he would simply sit down in the dirt and cry. Sometime during that day, he met with the local village headman who told Dave that he was 70 years old, a very sociable bachelor who exterminates his enemies all over the world but was now going to have a break and take some snuff. That night, back at Lynne and Brian James’ house, Dave was bitten for the second time, but on the other leg, by the same dog, again unprovoked. This seems to be a feature of his Blue Cross walks – last year, he was attacked by a stray dog three days before commencing the walk and which required tetanus and rabies injections and he still does this walk for the welfare of the poor, mistreated animals…

On many occasions, we saw mice and mongooses dashing across the track, and were accompanied at various times by swallows and other small birds, who were intent on diving as close as they could towards our windscreen. We stopped for a breather at around 10 a.m. at a site which would have been an absolutely perfect campsite had it been much later in the day, but reluctantly decided that we should push on and after crossing yet another flowing river were offered a stick of sugarcane for lunch by a local smallholder farmer in between herding her goats.

Speaking of rivers, it was wonderful to see how much water was still running even at this time of the year, and many of these rivers were community washing and bathing points, being particularly enjoyed by young children accompanying their mothers.

Sunday 13th August – one day to go – and we started our morning by walking through the huge kopjes by Bonda Mission which were simply magnificent and again reminded us of the ageless and stunning beauty of Zimbabwe.

The agricultural landscape had changed again and we went through protea farms, gum and wattle plantations with the distinctive ‘smell’ of the Eastern Highlands. Placefell Road (just off the road past Juliasdale) was hard – many, many sharp quartz stones on the track as we approached the vista of Mt. Nyangani in the distance.

We pushed ourselves that day, reaching the Nyamziwa Falls turnoff (near Mare dam) late in the afternoon. This meant that our final day’s walk on Monday 14th August was, by comparison to the previous two weeks of walking during which we averaged between 30 and 40 kilometres per day between us, a doddle and we were encouraged by a local family who stopped their car to find out what we were doing, and on hearing about it, insisted that we accept their personal donation of $5. We reached the base of the mountain

soon after the horse-riders to be greeted by bunting, flags and cheers of congratulation by the entire Mutare SPCA team, who provided refreshments (including an egg and bacon roll) before the first group of cyclists arrived. A wonderful atmosphere and a fitting end to the day, particularly as we saw waterbuck and bushbuck on our way out.

The last day – Tuesday 15th August – was our ascent of Mt. Nyangani to the highest point above sea-level: 2590 metres from our start at the lowest point – 169 metres above sea-level in the bed of the Save River 16 days earlier. We were determined to enjoy this climb as much as possible and so started out earlier than anyone else, seeing a huge herd of wildebeest on our way to the mountain as the sun rose, and then a number of klipspringer as we neared the crest. The climb up was long but manageable and we celebrated on the top

with all the other participants complete with a drone taking photos of the finish. As we knew that we would be slow on our descent, we left before anyone else, but still managed to arrive back at the carpark with only a few people behind us, the rest having skipped past not appearing to feel the protests of their knees and other joints. Coming down was not a lot of fun for us!

The finale in the lower garden of Rhodes Hotel was a fitting celebration with much laughter. The six people who have been central to the organisation of the Blue Cross were honoured for their efforts as was the person who raised the most money – a friend of Lyn’s who cycled the distance and achieved over $6 500 in sponsorship donations. So far, the total raised by us two is again nearly $2 100 (with more coming in), thanks to your generosity and the final total raised by 41 participants (including a cycling team from South Africa) this year topped an incredible $30 000 – an increase over last year’s total of nearly $10 000 raised by 22 participants. This again affirms our faith in the generosity of Zimbabweans, despite the economically challenging circumstances that we live in, and we feel privileged to have again been able to participate. So proud of Lyn for doing this and remaining positive throughout. Next year, she is adamant that she is not ever doing it again, but time will tell…

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